Have you ever seen a waterfall out-act a human being? Neither had Judge Dan Mancini until he saw this flick.
Inspired by a true story.
Writer-director Christopher Münch's Colors of a Brisk and Leaping Day tells the story of John Lee, a third-generation Chinese-American living in the 1940s. Lee is a train aficionado whose dreams of revitalizing the dying Yosemite Valley Railroad come true when the end of World War II produces a need for more shipping lines. After securing loans to buy the railroad, Lee works with two of its employees, Robinson (Henry Gibson, Nashville) and Skeeter (Michael Stipe of R.E.M.), to make it a profitable business. Lee knows that if they can't succeed in a year, creditors will kill his dream. During that year he meets and falls in love with Nancy, a Native American park ranger. He experiences the pangs of leaving his parents and sister, and breaks off a long engagement with his childhood sweetheart in order to make his own way in the world.
Münch's coming-of-age script is too smart for its own good. Sexual tension permeates Lee's relationships with his Chinese-American girlfriend, the park ranger, his overly physical sister, and with Skeeter. When the characters aren't talking about trains or the real-world practicalities of running a railroad, the dialogue is largely elliptical and loaded with subtext, mostly of the sexual variety. What the characters are talking about is never what they're really talking about, which would be fine (though more literary than dramatic) except that handling such subtleties is way beyond the capabilities of his mostly novice actors. Only Henry Gibson, whose body of character work stretches back four decades, delivers a solid, believable performance. The rest of the actors are wooden, unable to give their scenes the required emotional resonance. They mumble and stumble through their dialogue, delivering no nuance, and the resulting movie is void of drama and emotionally flat. Take, for example, a scene on a trolley in which Lee's fiancée is berated for being Asian by a drunken sailor returned from the war. Lee's cowardice is believable yet disquieting, and it marks the end of his engagement, a turning-point in his burgeoning adult life. The actors maneuver through the scene like robots, so it has none of the emotional or dramatic weight it should. Similarly, the homoerotic tension between Lee and Skeeter is both ham-handed and under-realized because Michael Stipe doesn't have the experience to craft a delicate performance; his only tool is to pout like a petulant child in any scene in which Lee is in the vicinity of a woman. Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is so loaded with moments of awkward, insufficient acting it often feels like a parody of arthouse pretensions. Its examination of Lee's life comes off as clinical rather than emotionally authentic, which stands in sharp, uncomfortable contrast to the film's raw and gorgeous Yosemite Valley setting.
It's no wonder that Colors of a Brisk and Leaping Day won a cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The picture's true star is Yosemite National Park. Its beauty—on display in sumptuous, Ansel Adams-like black-and-white—dominates all other aspects of the film, blowing the actors right off the screen. Münch's lingering on the mountains, waterfalls, and trees gives the film a languid pace, but these long moments in which we're allowed to bask in nature's beauty are a welcome respite from the actors' painful fumblings. Ironically, the technical precision of Münch's nature photography provides the only moments in which the film rises to the level of art. The human actors and their stories are only a jarring distraction from the landscape's soulful, profound beauty. New Video's DVD presents the movie in a clean, well-balanced, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer. It's a feast of black-and-white photography.
The disc also includes Yosemite Valley Railroad Revisited, a 13-minute short film about Jack Burgess, who has spent decades meticulously constructing a model of the long defunct Yosemite line. His obsession with getting every detail right is both impressive and a little frightening. Other supplements include 5 minutes of scenic outtakes, which offer more of the beauty of Yosemite but add nothing to the film's plot; a theatrical trailer; and a brief biography of Christopher Münch.
Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is so beautiful to look at I'm ready to book a vacation to Yosemite. Its visual splendor can't compensate for its poorly-realized drama, though, and doesn't a warrant recommendation. Unless you've got a thing for national parks, steer clear of this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• Yosemite Valley Railroad Revisited Short Film
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