Touchstone Pictures // 1999 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 15th, 2000
A Small Town on the Outskirts of Greatness.
Mystery, Alaska is a happy little film about a small town in Alaska that lives for the sport of hockey. Their children practically get raised up on ice skates, and the town lives for its weekly hockey game where their team divides up to play against itself. The town council decides who gets to play on the team, with a big league's eye to who is on the way up and who is on the way out. When a former resident writes an article for Sports Illustrated magazine about the team, the NHL decides to bring in the New York Rangers for an exhibition game. The town's reaction, the interplay of the townspeople, and of course the big game itself is what comprises the story. I found it a refreshing mix of things you might have seen elsewhere but not put together like this. Disney comes through with a fine anamorphic transfer and soundtrack, and even an extra or two. It seems like the Mouse House is learning.
As I said, the film is more than the sum of its parts. Unlike sports movies where the game is presented as a metaphor, or ones made for kids, this is a meat and potatoes kind of down home film. Written in part and produced by David E. Kelley, the lord of prime time television drama ("LA Law," "Ally McBeal," "The Practice"), this movie is a bit of a personal project. Kelley was once the captain of Princeton's hockey team, and his love of the sport and his own personal knowledge come through in the screenplay. This is more of a departure for director Jay Roach, who is most famous for the two Austin Powers films.
The anchor and center for the movie is Sheriff John Biebe, played by Russell Crowe. He is making quite a name for himself these days after an Oscar nomination for The Insider and his new starring role in Gladiator. His character is well developed and provides a great deal of the emotion in the story. Every time I see him I gain more respect for him as an actor; especially in his ability to play diverse roles convincingly, right down to losing that New Zealand accent on demand. Biebe has been in the "Saturday Game" for 13 years, and the town fathers feel he is getting too old, and besides, there is this new high school kid who shows star potential. The timing couldn't be worse for him, as his wife's old high school flame has returned to town as a television producer offering to set up the exhibition game with the New York Rangers.
The story moves on to the phase of determining if Mystery will agree to the game. Of course we know they ultimately will, but this is perhaps the best part of the film in determining the character of the town. Certainly the game would be a financial boon, but what if the Rangers humiliate their team, which is their pride and joy? Ultimately, honor and dignity demand they at least try.
In the end of course is the game. Mike Myers, who of course starred in the Austin Powers films by Jay Roach, puts in a nice little cameo as the color man announcing the game. I thought the hockey scenes were well done, and combined humor, determination, and believability. I thought the funniest moment in the movie was when the town mayor (played by "Star Trek" veteran Colm Meaney) gets Little Richard to sing the national anthem very slowly so the visiting Rangers can really feel the -10° temperatures. Just that little edge might help.
In between is a whole host of little background scenes about the townspeople and the players, who all get their little moments. This is the least effective part of the film, which I'll talk about below. But ultimately I really enjoyed this picture without trying to overanalyze it.
Disney produces what I think is probably the best anamorphic transfer they've done to date. Both exteriors, with overwhelming amounts of white, and interiors were solid in detail. There are no hints of digital overenhancement or artifacts. Only a little bit of grain that appears rarely could count as a flaw from the source print, which was very clean. No annoying bits of dirt or scratches to mar the picture. Colors are accurate, including fleshtones and blacks. Nighttime scenes keep their shadow detail and even the long shots show accurate detail in the distance. I'm very happy to report this level of quality from a Disney disc, especially that the transfer is also anamorphic.
The soundtrack was very nice as well. This is a first rate DD 5.1 track. Even though this is a film that you might expect the sound to stay center driven, I was impressed with the degree that it uses all the channels and seamlessly merges them, including the spaces between the front and rears. Dialogue is nicely spaced across the whole front soundstage as position of the talker provides the direction. The surrounds get mostly used for the fine musical score and for the game sequences, but provide ambient sound cues as well.
As I alluded to above, the film is not without flaw. In some ways this plays more like a television production, not surprisingly given the strong presence of David E. Kelley. Many have compared this to a long episode of "Northern Exposure" and they certainly have a point. I don't feel that by itself is a bad thing. What aren't so great are the tons of little subplots that force you to shift attention back and forth without enough development on them. It also mixes genres somewhat as we get two courtroom scenes, a funeral, and a teenage sex scene done for humor. The very beginning of the film I should also note has a very small child using the "F" word, which was there for a laugh but was woefully inappropriate. The movie gets much better laughs when it doesn't try so hard. This all results in a slump in the movie in the middle act. I don't think it was that bad, and the film redeemed itself nicely later.
On to the disc. I have two complaints, and I'm not sure which is worse. The first thing you notice is again we get the "bonus trailers" at the beginning of the movie which you must skip through to get to the menu. DVD is not VHS, and Disney and woefully Universal are the only ones who don't get this part. A trailer is an extra when you have a choice of when and how to see it. Putting it up before you can get to the menu turns it into more of an annoyance. This ties into my other complaint, which is the lightness of the extras. You get the "bonus trailers" of The Sixth Sense and Happy, Texas along with the theatrical trailer. At least you do get a featurette, supposedly a "making of" piece that lasts a whole four minutes and is basically another marketing fluff piece. Come on Disney, if you want these featurettes, and your buyers do want them, give a little more and make them at least like Universal's "Spotlight on Location" features that last 20 minutes or so.
Ultimately, despite its flaws, I found Mystery, Alaska an enjoyable experience. Reading through other reviews I found that mainly big city reviewers did not like it. Sometimes I think these people get so caught up in the Cannes festival type fare that they can't just enjoy a little movie that tries to let you feel good and have a little fun. Those types are probably still saying "ooh" and "ah" over The Myth of Fingerprints while not liking this film. Speaking for myself, I prefer this type of movie any day. If the movie sounds good to you, give it a rental or if you don't mind a lack of meaty extras give it a purchase. The picture and sound quality, along with the movie itself is worthy of recommendation.
I find all involved with the film not guilty, though I caution David E. Kelley to concentrate on fewer subplots to keep the pacing more even in the future. I'm still a big fan of his television work and I think he just needs to work a bit on the transition to feature film. Disney is also acquitted for their fine transfer and soundtrack, but cautioned against this practice of force-feeding trailers on us at the very beginning. Annoying your viewers before the movie even starts is not a good idea.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R