Christopher Munch's Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is a delight to look at, with its gorgeous black-and-white photography of the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley. Combined with its gentle focus on the unfortunate fate of the legendary Yosemite Valley Railroad, the film promises a visually arresting, heartwarming, and nostalgic experience, but it really only gets the first part right. The tale atop the imagery—and, worse, the characters—never quite do the setting justice.
First, the good stuff: The black-and-white cinematography of Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is absolutely Ansel Adams scrumptious, capturing your imagination and really casting you back into the time period with which the film is concerned—World War 2-era California. Yosemite's natural wonders marry spectacularly with the monochrome treatment, and the serene movement of the camera across these vistas captures a very particular mood, setting you up for a moving narrative—which unfortunately never takes hold. The look of the film becomes a great missed opportunity.
Early on, we're introduced to John Lee (Peter Alexander, in an unfortunately wooden performance), a young Asian man obsessed with trains—in particular, the aforementioned Yosemite Valley Railroad, which is on the brink of extinction. The railroad is a fixture of the valley, part of its history, and Lee becomes quickly obsessed with saving it from doom. John still lives with his family—including a strong-willed, anger-prone father—and a weird, under-developed subplot finds John in the midst of a vaguely incestuous relationship with his sister. As John devotes his youthful energies into rescuing the train from oblivion, he also finds himself immediately struggling with the realities of the world outside his family. A friendship with a fellow railroad man named Skeeter (Michael Stipe) has homosexual undertones, and a burgeoning love affair with a park ranger named Nancy (Jeri Arredondo) seems doomed from the start, possibly because of John's lingering attachment to his sister.
There's the germ of a good idea in there somewhere, but Munch's execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. This is a film about people, but not even the main character exudes any sense of depth. He's a cipher, and it's not only the fault of the direction: His performance is understated, yes, but so much so that he comes across as bland and uninteresting. None of the characters, save perhaps for John's little sister Wendy (Diana Larkin), proves compelling—even though they're obviously all yearning for some kind of emotional heft. In the end, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day reaches high—right down to its pretentious title, as well as its even more pretentious subtitle ("A Fateful Year in the Life of John Lee, Railroad Man")—but it crashes hard, leaving only the specter of its cinematography to leave any impression on you.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
New Video NYC presents Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day in a merely good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Immediately, you're confronted with a heavy blanket of grain, and a fair amount of debris, over the black-and-white imagery. Those problems ease up, however, but the image never astounds—as it should, considering the gorgeous cinematography. I can forgive a lot from a low-budget effort, but I wanted this image to offer more depth. The picture is also a bit too dark, and shadow detail is vague. I also noticed a fair amount of digital artifacting, particularly in long scenic shots, lending the image a certain flatness.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, at first, seems slightly out of sync, and that's a recurring, minor problem throughout. Dialog isn't always crystal clear and is often too soft. The film's sound seems to have been recorded as an afterthought. Apparently, it was more concerned with imagery.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The 13-minute Yosemite Valley Railroad Revisited discusses the history of the railroad, offering interviews with historians obsessed with the train. We get a tour of the area to see what's left of the actual railroad, and we see an incredibly elaborate model recreation of it.
We get 5 minutes of Scenic Outtakes, which is exactly what you'd think it is—more slow, nostalgic shots capturing the beauty of Yosemite.
The film's Original Theatrical Trailer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Finally, you get 2 pages of About the Filmmaker text.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day has some good eye candy, but the rest of the film is frustrating in its lack of compelling characters and, well, plot. The DVD offers okay image and sound quality, and a collection of modest extras. Worth a rental at most—perhaps more if you're obsessed with Yosemite and its long-defunct railroad.