Case Number 05298: Small Claims Court


First Look Pictures // 2002 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // October 4th, 2004

The Charge

"I took his life. She took mine."

The Case

Watching Mehdi Norowzian's Leo gave me a deeper appreciation of my position here at DVD Verdict, and for the ready availability of film criticism in general -- a great deal of which comes courtesy of internet sites like this one. Many of us (myself included) may scan movie reviews to see if the writer affirms the opinion we've already formed about the film in question, or, if it's a DVD review, to find out if the technical aspects or extras are of any value. Look at the case of the Star Wars trilogy, out on DVD last week: love them or hate them, we've all got our minds made up about the films. Instead, we search out the reviews for information about potential audio problems or critiques of George Lucas's audio commentary. As a movie reviewer, Star Wars doesn't need me.

But Leo does. Seeing a film like this, as I said, makes me thankful for the opportunity to write for DVD Verdict -- to spread the good word about a film that's been wrongly overlooked. It's not often that one gets to turn readers on to a hidden gem, much less one that, for all purposes, should have received a theatrical release. In a cinematic climate that celebrates A Beautiful Mind or Mona Lisa Smile as acceptable -- even exemplary -- drama, there can be no satisfactory explanation as to why Leo was not allowed to co-exist. Those other films are drama for people who don't know what drama is; Leo is the real deal.

This is the kind of film that falls too easily through the cracks -- it's not terribly commercial, nor is its story easily described in sound bytes. It doesn't have any big stars, it's got actors, and a rather impressive group at that: Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff), Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet), and Deborah Kara Unger (Crash) are among the film's first-rate cast. That a small film like this captured the attention of such an A-list cast is a testament to both the quality of the script and the vision of first-time director Mehdi Norowzian; it's a first-class piece of filmmaking.

There's little that can be said about Leo's plot without giving away its many secrets, which I wouldn't dream of doing. The narrative is structured in such a way that it unfolds like a novel, skipping around chronologically while slowly revealing layers of the story. All that can be said is that it involves a man marked by tragedy, played by Joseph Fiennes, who's been recently released from prison, and an alcoholic woman, played by Elisabeth Shue, whose son has a deep connection to Fiennes' character. Dennis Hopper and Deborah Kara Unger are on hand to play the kinds of roles they've perfected by now -- the sociopath and the damaged woman, respectively -- but, hey, when you want to score the three-pointer, you bring in John Paxson, right?

Note: Should you choose to seek out Leo on DVD -- and I strongly recommend that you do -- be sure that youdo not read the plot synopsis on the jacket cover. In addition to getting several facts of the story wrong, it gives away too many major plot points that a viewer should be allowed to discover on his or her own.

Few films -- especially those coming out of the Hollywood system -- are able to achieve the kind of poetry that director Mehdi Norowzian achieves with Leo. It's not afraid of bold literary gestures, and it manages to avoid veering into Tennessee Williams-inspired melodrama despite the presence of both Southerners and bottles of liquor. Most importantly, though, it establishes a visual universe, using every camera trick and technique at the director's disposal to create a heightened reality -- it doesn't shy away from being cinema.

Leo comes to DVD courtesy of First Look after inexplicably sitting on the shelf for two years -- proof that regardless of a film's pedigree and quality, commercial viability reigns supreme in today's market. I have no doubt that Alien vs. Predator or the Olsen twins' New York Minute had no problems getting distribution, but here is a film that's quietly beautiful and deliberately paced -- not to mention actually made for men and women over the age of fifteen -- and it winds up buried in the home video market. The film deserves better, and discerning audiences owe it to themselves to seek it out.

The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. From a photographic and compositional standpoint, the movie is gorgeous -- first-time director Mehdi Norowzian shows a masterful control over the film's visual style, and it's well represented by the disc. The color palette has been almost entirely drained, often leaving the image so monochromatic it looks like black and white; though at times it begins to feel a bit numbingly over-stylized, the look of the film does its poetically somber tone justice. The only issue with the transfer is its representation of black levels; occasionally when the screen fades to total darkness (as it sometimes does), blacks do not hold -- they shift around to various shades of grey. The Dolby 2.0 Surround track is manageable but a tad quiet, a minor flaw that's exacerbated by Joseph Fiennes' tendency to deliver his dialogue in a hushed whisper. That's why God invented subtitles. There are only a couple of extras included in the package: some home-video-style "behind the scenes" footage, as well as several cast and crew interviews (the most charming of which comes courtesy of Norowzian, who openly confesses to his nervousness as a novice working with such accomplished actors).

It's possible that I've championed Leo a bit too much, but then one tends to do that when trying to persuade the masses to embrace something they might typically resist (or, as is likely the case here, not even know about). It's by no means a perfect film, but it is a good one -- very good -- and seeing as how I'm able to say that about so few films these days, Leo deserves your attention.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile
Studio: First Look Pictures
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)

* Spanish

Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Cast and Crew Interviews
* Behind the Scenes
* Bonus Trailers

* IMDb