The Baltimore Trilogy [DVDs], directed by Barry Levinson

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Barry Levinson is one of Hollywood's great but probably underrated directors. His efforts include "Rain Man" and "Wag the Dog," and film buffs and his peers love him -- but he's not exactly a household name like a Spielberg or Lucas.

"The Baltimore Trilogy" refers to three loosely connected movies set in Levinson's hometown: "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon."

"Diner" takes place in the 1950s and revolves around, yes, a diner where a group of high-school friends hang out, eat and talk about their lives -- which aren't exactly neat and orderly. The cast includes Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Tim Daly and Daniel Stern, all of whom would go on to have very successful careers in film and television.

"Tin Men" stars Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as rival aluminum-siding salesman in the early 1960s. They meet in a fender-bender; each thinks the car accident is the other's fault. They begin harassing each other, at first to comic effect, but as the movie unfolds, the proceedings become fairly grim -- until their personal vendetta is upended by bigger issues.

"Avalon" begins in the early 1900s and stands as a magnificent chronicle of one immigrant family's fortunes and misfortunes in America. Beautifully shot and scored, the movie is more downbeat than its predecessors but no less enjoyable. Film junkies: Look for a very young Elijah Wood as one of two boys whose recklessness affects the entire clan.

I've watched each of these films more than once and I'm always impressed by Levinson's care and craftsmanship. He's not the flashiest filmmaker out there, but he knows how to tell a story.

If we look at the three films in Shakespearean terms, we'd be hard-pressed to categorize them; each movie has elements of mirth and melancholy. If I had to be pinned down, though, I'd call "Avalon" a tragedy, "Tin Men" a comedy and "Diner" a romance.

All three films are in Johnson County Library's collection. Check them out if you have a three-day weekend, and enjoy.

Written by John Mark E.