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Talking Out of Frame

35 Shots, Stagecoach, and Crazy Heart

Talking Out of Frame:

Art House Cinema on DVD

Vol. 8: May 2010 Edition
compiled by Jamie S. Rich

New at the Art House Cinema
(Click on the links to read the full review.)

One of my favorite facets of the "art house" is the revival of old films, classics given a new life and a new reverence. I type this the day before seeing a new print of The Red Shoes that is currently touring the country in anticipation of the Criterion DVD coming in July. There are a ton of reissues coming out for home viewing right now, some famous films and some films that maybe aren't as well known. Also, genre films. A movie that might have once been considered a B-picture because of its genre status can be recontextualized with the distance of years. Consider a Western like John Ford's 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach. At the time of its initial theatrical run, the cowboy movie was considered dead and its star, John Wayne, was a second-tier player. Yet, all that changed with Stagecoach.

Written by Dudley Nichols from an original story by Ernest Haycox, Stagecoach is a movie ostensibly about getting from one place to another, from a small town to the big city farther West. Metaphorically, this is not entirely an upward climb. The path to modernity is fraught with peril, and death awaits at least one character at their destination. Though 70 years later the fact that this doomed figure is the iconic misunderstood cowboy as personified by John Wayne may seem like no coincidence, it actually kind of is. As I said, John Wayne wasn't quite the Duke yet, but the Ringo Kid would put him well on his way. The Kid is the start of the cinematic cowboy as a towering symbol of American freedom.

The rest of the riding group represents a cross-sampling of society. There is the soldier's wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), and the banker named Gatewood (Berton Churchill) on one side; there is the disgraced woman of ill repute Dallas (Claire Trevor, who gets top billing) and the drunk Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) on the other. Ford assembles his cast and creates a drama both personal and political. Much of what the characters are going through is reflective of the time the movie was made. The moneyman Gatewood is a thieving banker whose disingenuous defense of his own profession didn't likely endear him to audiences that had just lived through the Great Depression (and were still coming out of it). The director's awkward close-ups of the guilty man are jarring, like he is shining an accusatory spotlight on Gatewood--or maybe posing him for a mugshot. As dastardly as he is, even Gatewood is running from something; he fears the same ladies guild whose clucking tongues are responsible for sending Dallas packing. These women are reminiscent of the self-satisfied moralists that caused Prohibition and would eventually get movies censored, as well. The fine society types, including the gambler, turn their noses up at the drunk, the whore, and the outlaw, but Ford does not. His sympathies are clearly with them. For all their bad deeds, at least they are true to themselves and kind to all.

Yet, even with all the period references and themes, it seems to me that the reason Stagecoach still feels so alive after all these years is because even though it looks and feels like every Western we've already seen, that it invented every cliché that would follow, right down to its score of American folk music, Stagecoach is really nothing like any of the movies that have followed. Sure, they all borrowed from Ford, but they never really get a handle on everything that works here. Maybe why it worked, but not exactly how. And so for all of John Wayne's ambling around and for the stock character types and even the somewhat predictable stunts (man falls under the horses just at the right spot to have the coach pass over him, Wayne has to jump down and grab the reins at top speed), Stagecoach doesn't actually show the wear of its imitators. The copycat moths could not chew away its wardrobe because it's really cast-iron armor, and it's going to take more than the sincerest form of flattery to tarnish it.

Less well-known than Stagecoach is the Sidney Lumet/Tennessee Williams collaboration The Fugitive Kind. Adapted from Williams's play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind reunited the playwright and Marlon Brando, who had changed acting forever as Stanley Kowalski in Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, first igniting the boards in the original stage version, then recapturing the flame in Elia Kazan's movie version.

This time around, Brando plays Valentine Xavier, also known as "Snakeskin," named so for his snakeskin jacket. Val is a performer in love with his guitar, which he carries everywhere yet really only plays once (accompanied by an unconvincing overdub). When we meet Val, he's standing before a New Orleans court, having caused a ruckus at an illicit party the night before. His guitar is in hock, he was hired to go to the party for his other talents. Snakeskin is a stud. He oozes sexuality. Just about everything out of his mouth sounds like a come-on. Val is just about to turn 30, and he's sick of the festive lifestyle, so he retrieves his guitar and gets out of the Big Easy. He drives until his car won't drive anymore, settling into a small town. The sheriff's wife (Maureen Stapleton) takes pity on him--a bad habit of hers, and the next day takes Val to the local all-purpose store. The owner of the store, Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory), has been in the hospital and is coming home that afternoon. Since Jabe is still bedridden, his wife, Lady Torrance (the great Anna Magnani), is going to need some help keeping things running, as her time will be divided between caregiving and clerking. Val's job interview is delayed by the arrival of the town wild girl, Carol (Joanne Woodward), who remembers Snakeskin from a New Year's shindig in New Orleans (indeed, he wears her cousin's watch, stolen during their last encounter). She takes him out for a drunken night in highway roadhouses, but it only reminds Val that he's done with that kind of foolishness. He returns to the store and engages in a late-night mental joust with Lady. There is something between them, something neither wants to name, and Lady gives him the job as long as he agrees to pretend that something isn't there.

The movie is full of references to heat, and indeed, it even looks hot and sweaty. This is meant to be Hell, after all, and the fires will burn as they will. The Fugitive Kind builds to an incendiary climax, one befitting the story's classic origins. It's also one that befits the tumultuous politics of the times. Small-minded morality and the brutality that comes with it was on its way out, and though they may have seemed crazy, it's the ones who saw the sea change coming that also kept moving forward. Not sure if that's by choice, Williams seems to say they are unmoored. If it's a sea change, they are stuck beating against the tide. The Fugitive Kind seems more cynical about social progress than hopeful. In the final scenes, it's suggested that there is no changing who people are. The skin we wear, the very nature of our beings, cannot be shed, only transmuted. The sellers and the sold may be condemned to stagnation, but those who would be free are condemned to forever be separate, to always wander, and never be blessed with the growth their stubbornness may inspire.

Both of these reissues were put out by Criterion, and the company has also put together a new edition of Nicolas Roeg's cult favorite Walkabout. Writer Casey Burchby expertly tackles this difficult film: " "Walkabout adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. A road picture, a clash of cultures, a coming-of-age story - throwing these easy sub-genres around doesn't even begin to get at what the film is really about. From Sydney, Australia, an Englishman takes his two children on a picnic in the bush. As they lay out the spread, he shoots at them with a pistol before setting the car on fire and turning the gun on himself. Physically unharmed, the children escape into the outback, where the two meet an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil), who joins them and, although ignorant of English, teaches them a few things about survival in the wild. The trio's time together becomes a leisurely idyll, but as they draw closer to 'civilized' parts of the country, their collective experience begins to fragment. Although the English boy and the Aboriginal boy develop a rude form of communication using hand signals, the group's interaction is usually silent, and they suffer from an inability to delve into more complicated matters.

"Although the story is simple, it's not exactly straightforward. A few key 'unexplained' features of the plot raise some interesting associations, principally the Englishman's suicide, which sets the main body of the film in motion. Beyond the main plot strand, there is a lot to consider. Walkabout's impressionistic style is jam-packed with all manner of storytelling signals. Roeg's use of cross-cutting alone (as when the Aborigine preparing to roast a kangaroo haunch is juxtaposed with a butcher hacking apart chops in an antiseptic suburban shop) merits a closer look; this technique, which can be overbearingly flashy in the hands of a less judicious filmmaker, reinforces the relative alien-ness of differing ways of life. The aural experience of Walkabout is equally striking, with frothy amalgams of street sounds and animal screams sonically illustrating the dueling horrors of city life and the nature's arbitrary judgments.

"Intuitive performances have been coaxed from the three juvenile leads; rarely has a film about children seemed so mature, complex, and, well, adult. Nudity abounds, in a way that is in harmony with the characters' increased comfort with their natural environment. Agutter and the younger Roeg behave like real siblings, relying on and supporting each other with small words and actions that reveal a deeper familial love. As the Aborigine, David Gulpilil acts his role in the local language, and even without the aid of subtitles, the performance has an assured beauty about it.

"As it comes to an end, there is a tingling sense of poetic completion; instead of giving us expository information, this film somehow re-shapes its entirety through a few deceptively simple images. Throughout the film, and especially at the ending, there's something powerfully understated about the way Walkabout decisively portrays Western society's intense dependence upon fantasy as a coping mechanism."

Equally challenging is the 1960s Czech film The Valley of the Bees, out now as a UK import. Thomas Spurlin writes: "Discussing the extent of the plot's developments is difficult, as very little actually happens in The Valley of the Bees -- even less so than in Vláčil more widely-known work, Marketa Lazarová. A young boy named Ondrej is hauled off to train with the monastic order after his father swears his life to religious service, following a violent incident at the father's wedding involving his young bride, a bowlful of flowers, several bats and a kid's tweaked idea of an innocent gesture. We move forward many years to the point where he (Petr Cepek) is now a weathered man attempting to stomach the rigid, pious ways of the Teutonic Order, all while honing his body through rigorous training and fasting. What's expected of him is a form of euphoric surrender to God's service, aided by the stalwart mentorship offered from model mason Armin (Jan Kacer), but his thwarting of the order to return home to his father's keep causes a stir.

"Whether the content appeals to one's curiosity or not, it's hard not to acknowledge the precision in Vláčil's reconstruction of the 13th Century European setting from a historical standpoint. Captured in 1968, the authenticity generated in the landscapes, interior shots, and through the knights' coats of armor is stunningly realized and could pass for modern grayscale photography. In conjunction with cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich's eye, his composition adds volumes to the film's weight as an existential piece of work -- capturing penitent statues carved into walls, rows of fish sitting before the knights at a dinner table, and a few striking images of both Ondrej and Armin clad with chainmail and cross-suggestive long swords. He also asks us to look upon gorgeous archways in courtyards and through windowsills in a way that transplants us to the time period, while also speaking to high-art with dense, earthy textures and expansive horizons with the period's buildings in their clutches.

"Vláčil's eye for the period and focus on fundamentalist imagery don't stop The Valley of the Bees from being a premeditated and demanding narrative, told with light story exposition and heavy existential contemplation. As a work of art, while just absorbing the aesthetics, it's satisfying on its own accord; however, they're dressings for an accurate and profound portrait of a man enduring a clash of faith predicated on his desire to return to his homeland -- and the rift his 'human' whims causes with the Teutonic Order. Allegories are drawn between training the knights and orchestrating a pack of hungry dogs to hunt down their pray, tying in to the somewhat empty lack of reward generated by obeying the volatile orders of a higher master. The Valley of the Bees engrossingly batches all this together amid its hour-and-a-half pace with its audience, proving that Vláčil's talent with existential thought and integrity breathes with the same essence as his influences. His performers are universally spectacular, natural but carrying a dramatic disposition in their eyes and facial mannerisms, all of which showcase emotional and mental turmoil that stretch beyond what they're allowing to the surface."

Naturally, not everything on the artier side of life is old. We've got some new movies this month, too. Jeremy Mathews, for instance, tells us about La France. "It says something about the confidence Serge Bozon has in his vision when, 25 minutes into his dreamy World War I film La France, his band of misfit soldiers...well...becomes a band of misfit soldiers, pulls out some instruments and launches into a musical number. On first viewing, I wondered if it was a bit late, arriving a quarter of the way into a film that made no previous announcement of its musical intentions. But as I went deeper into the film's journey of haunting memories and shocking realities, everything felt poetically perfect--the muted mood, the elliptical dialogue and yes, those unforgettable tunes.

"The first song comes shortly after the film's heroine, Camille (Sylvie Testud), has finally secured a place traveling with a platoon, using the disguise of a 17-year-old boy. She left her village to find her husband after he sent her a letter telling her to stop writing and that she'd never see him again. Traveling alone as a woman wouldn't do, so she had to cut her hair and disguise herself. The soldiers tell this 17-year-old kid he's too young to join the army, but 'he' just won't let the lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) and his men get rid of him. Around this setup, Bozon weaves an atmosphere of horrifying reality and graceful poetry that never feels at odds with itself. With cinematographer Céline Bozon, he captures both the beauty and the naturalism of his landscapes. The reserved-but-precise editing enforces the authenticity of the experiences, however eerie and otherworldly they may seem at times...La France most likely isn't for everyone, but fans of one-of-a-kind, audacious and hard-to-forget cinema will find the film, like its songs, hard to get out of their heads."

Casey Burchby looks at a quieter side of French life in the modern family film Summer Hours. "Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (L'Heure d'ete) is a patient, beautifully-made film about a family dealing with a major, bittersweet transition. The influence of Eric Rohmer (another director who loved the summer) is unmistakable, but Summer Hours is very much its own film, one that looks at personal and familial legacies and how they are maintained - or not - by successive generations. Free of cinematic contrivance, this elegant movie challenges us gently, but firmly, to examine the proportions in which we value the past, present, and future.

"The long opening sequence takes place at the rural family home of the Marlys, where they are celebrating the 75th birthday of their matriarch, Hélène (Edith Scob). Hélène is joined by her three children, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and their families. Hélène's work for the past several decades has been the preservation of her uncle's legacy; Paul Berthier was a major painter and she has served as executor of his estate, guardian of his papers, and promoter of his work. At the party, Hélène takes Frederic, the only one of her three children who still lives in France, on a guided tour of her final wishes as to the disposition of her belongings, which include two paintings by Corot, several pieces of rare furniture, decorative panels by Odilon Redon, and fine glassware. Frederic, of course, doesn't wish to entertain thoughts of his mother's demise. But, when Hélène dies several months later, the three children gather again to decide what to do with the house and manage the rest of her estate. Representatives of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris wind up taking a large portion of Hélène's belongings into the museum's permanent collection, and the house is prepared for sale, much to Frédéric's chagrin.

"Summer Hours is an immensely pleasant film to watch. Assayas has assembled a fine cast, all of whom work together as a credible family unit. The three Marly siblings actually feel related, unlike other 'family' films, where a collection of A-list actors can easily come off as a contrived concentration of ego instead of a group of blood relations. The photography is both skillful from a narrative point of view, as well as beautiful to look at. The house is shot so lovingly that by the end of the picture we feel as though we have lived there ourselves."

Over in England and more than a century prior, The Young Victoria explores an entirely different life change: largely, the transformation of a child into a monarch. The Young Victoria has a lot of things going on, it's a movie about political intrigue and one girl's growth into womanhood under extraordinary circumstances, but at the center of it, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fall in love. That director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) and writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) allow that subplot to be the heart and soul of their movie without letting this historical drama turn into a full-blown romance picture is in and of itself a feat. The fact that all of The Young Victoria is as good as this one component makes it all the more impressive. Emily Blunt leads the film as Queen Victoria, who was barely of age when she took the throne of England. She would eventually be the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and she would prove to be extremely influential on the fashions and social mores of the 19th century. The Young Victoria concerns itself with her early career, from the teenage years where various forces vied to either depower her or secure an alliance with her, the early fumblings of her regal career, and finally, stabilizing her kingdom in tandem with stabilizing her marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Cheri).

The various players in this drama regularly refer to their political lives as, "the game," and indeed, they do move around the Queen as if they were on a chessboard, circling to see who can grab her first. Seriously, it's like an episode of The Wire. Everybody's in the game, they're just playing the game, the game is the game, man. It's also really fascinating, and Vallée and Fellowes are smart not to let Victoria get lost in it. It's her story after all, and there is very little behind-closed-doors intrigue. Rather, the script keeps its attention on how it affects her, how she reacts to it and how she sometimes falters. Emily Blunt has yet to do any wrong, she's always good, but her turn as Victoria is a step up, even for her. She is the Queen from start to finish, equally as comfortable as an impetuous schoolgirl as she is a woman wrestling with tough decisions. It's a fascinating performance of a fascinating character, one who can lead the way and also follow all in the same scene. For instance, there is a wonderful bit of silent business midway through. Victoria sits on a bench with her aunt (Harriet Walters), and as a serious discussion wanes, the Queen relaxes and sits back. The aunt follows suit, but Victoria watches her out of the corner of her eye, and when she sees the older woman begin to bask in the sun, she does so, too. First she does as she pleases, then she opens her eyes to learn.

There is also the matter of the private moments between Victoria and Albert, the stolen whispers and the hidden conversations where the guard drops. Blunt makes Victoria sweet and girlish in these moments, and Rupert Friend portrays Albert as a dashing leading man held back by the restraints of proper courtly etiquette. As a result, it's the little things that make the romance sparkle, such as his secretly learning to dance or the way the two daydream about one another. Vallée doesn't settle for the staid aesthetics of your average costume drama, either, he works to bring these youthful passions and the strangeness of their surroundings to life. The way he stages their waltz, the blur of booze-filled glasses, and various other sequences give The Young Victoria an added kick you don't usually find in more serious-minded period pieces. It's a beautiful film, lovingly shot by Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others), that manages to put a spotlight on the wonderful period detailing without fetishizing it or allowing the costumes and sets to upstage the actors.

A more modern romance affects Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal in Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth. There is an ache at the heart of Mammoth, but it's a cagey malady, one that dodges simple diagnosis. For his English-language debut, the Swedish filmmaker has either bitten off more than he could chew, or he's effectively slapped the hell out of Western malaise and the vagaries of upper-class guilt. It's kind of up to you to decide.

Mammoth opens on a happy scene: a family at play. A father, mother, and daughter chase each other around their upscale New York apartment, the very picture of joy. Cut to the morning when the father, Leo (Bernal,Y tu mama tambien), has to leave for a business trip in Thailand. Things have changed drastically. Not only is daddy going away, but mommy (Williams, last seen in Shutter Island) can't get out of bed, and Ellen's efforts to coax Leo into getting under the covers with her fail. Meanwhile, their Filipino immigrant nanny, the exultantly named Gloria (Marife Necesito), is going to take their first-grader daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) to the planetarium, where they will talk about the Big Bang and God. But Moodysson is not content to stay in New York or with his central family. In several cross-cuts, he gives us mirror actions in the Philippines, showing us Gloria's boys struggling with life without their mother. In some ways, he leads us by the nose here, having the two sides of the world trading dialogue, making sure we get that for all the distance, some of their experiences are the same (even if ironically so). Midway, he also introduces a Thai prostitute who calls herself Cookie (Run Srinikornchot), who will add further dimension to the story. She will be Leo's temptation, and his treatment of her will be the counterpart to what happens to Gloria's ten-year-old child, Salvador (Jan David G. Nicdao).

On paper, Mammoth sounds like another Babel-esque "everything is connected" world traveler: a butterfly flaps its wings in Thailand and the wind knocks over a little a boy in New York. Or, in this case, an elephant flaps its trunk. Moodysson loads up his film with literal elephantine portents. The title refers to a pen that Leo's business partner (character actor Thomas McCarthy) gives him. It's a fountain pen with inlays made from prehistoric mammoth tusk. Leo will encounter more pachyderm references throughout the movie. I think we're supposed to gather that he's the elephant in the room, the symptom of a larger problem the Western world just doesn't want to face. Funny that Gael García Bernal has gone from playing one of Babel's would-be immigrants to basically being the Brad Pitt character from that movie.

The difference between Mammoth and Babel, however, is that Moodysson has no interest in hammering the gas pedal to the floor to speed us to his destination. He'd rather just lay the pieces down and see if we're interested in picking them up. So much so, in fact, that you might spend the first forty-five minutes or so trying to figure out where exactly everyone is and even what Leo does for a living. We are explorers dropped into Moodysson's narrative, and we're just going to have to figure it out.

Music takes center stage in our next two reviews, a pair from writer Casey Burchby. The first up is last year's critical fave, Crazy Heart, a film that won Jeff Bridges the Best Actor Oscar. Take it away, Casey! "Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57-year-old country music singer-songwriter. Blake tours desolate sections of the southwest, playing bowling alleys and saloons. Dissatisfied with the direction his life has taken, Blake spends most days wafting in and out of a drunken haze, barely appreciative of the many committed fans who consider him a legend. In Santa Fe, Blake agrees to an interview with a local newspaper reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Jean is a lost soul, in a way, too, and she and Blake connect almost immediately. While struggling to build a relationship with Jean from the road, Blake contends with the success of his protégée Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who is now a country superstar playing arenas and traveling with a fleet of tour buses. Sweet wants to help Blake through this low point in his career, but Blake is resistant to such 'charity.' Eventually, Blake agrees to write songs for Sweet - a sure source of income. Blake's relationship with Jean develops happily, but his drinking becomes an issue - particularly as it concerns his growing presence around her four-year-old son, Buddy. Although Blake confronts his alcoholism, not everything turns out as he had hoped.

"Bridges' Bad Blake is a wonderful character, simultaneously flawed, self-hating, and likable. He has a good heart, but is afraid to use it. We know from the outset, even before we hear of Blake's background, that he has seen his share of heartache and personal disaster. Like a lot of great country songs, the script follows Blake in an arc that extends from the gutter to paradise, and back again (well, not quite). Bridges carries the entire film, appearing in every scene, dragging his raggedy bloated carcass around like dead weight. Bridges has always been a physical actor, and his body is on display here in a way that illustrates the sense of careless disregard Blake has for his own well-being. He slouches around, sweaty and unkempt in stained clothing, with his gut hanging out, unashamed, exhausted, and often drunk.

"Although the story is not particularly fresh, there is something about the film that is. First-time writer-director Scott Cooper has crafted a tight script that maintains a strict focus on Blake, which in turn allows Bridges to hone a full, rounded performance. Building from that script and working with cinematographer Barry Markowitz, Cooper has shot a visually-cohesive picture that utilizes minimal, elegant camera setups and eschews unnecessary cutting. The visuals constantly remind us that this movie is purely about character and setting. It's an effective, focused approach that gives the actors a lot of freedom while avoiding narrative and visual distraction. Despite a handful of conceptual clichés, Crazy Heart is a well-crafted, immensely enjoyable film."

Suburbia is an older film, and one Casey is not as impressed with. "With its roots planted firmly in the exploitation films of the 1970s, Penelope Spheeris' Suburbia is a gutsy, arresting movie that nevertheless can't escape the limitations of its small budget. Spheeris applied the exploitation formula to new subject matter, and a new setting, making Suburbia seem slightly more novel than it actually is. I would contend that Spheeris undercut her obvious passion for the plight of these characters by forcing them into a script filled with genre clichés."

"After a wonderfully shocking opening sequence in which an infant is thrashed to death by a Doberman, we enter the world of the T.R. gang, a group of angry, dispossessed teenagers who - through one set of circumstances or another - have wound up homeless...these kids are pure punk. Characters like Jack Diddley and Joe Schmo sport ragged leather jackets adorned with their own embellishment and scrawled handwriting, outrageous hairstyles, and contempt for conventional wisdom in all its forms. The film's publicity materials make much of the fact that the movie contains 'live' performances by D.I., The Vandals, and TSOL. The music is important, but what's more important is the 'fuck you' attitude embodied by the characters in the movie, and their reasons for holding it. As an outgrowth of a decline in middle-class values - mainly the crumbling of the enormously attractive social façade first built in the 1950s and the fraudulent politics of the 1960s and 1970s - these characters represent a broad range of young people who came of age between 1975 and 1985. Self-mutilation, a lack of hygiene, music that expressed pure rage, and personal style that intended to offend were a few of their weapons. Writer-director Penelope Spheeris, who first covered the punk scene in her excellent documentary series, The Decline of Western Civilization, captures this attitude exceedingly well, and in that sense Suburbia is an interesting document of an era.

"However, it doesn't have much else to recommend it. Spheeris chose to cast mostly non-actors, and that makes sense in theory, especially given her involvement in and knowledge of the LA punk scene. However, she may have taken this good idea too far; the actors don't appear to have been coached at all, delivering flat, perfunctory line readings. They often seem more like kids antsy to get the job done and go home than disaffected youth."

When punk was being born in some parts of the world, others were caught up in political turmoil. The Baader Meinhof Complex looks at how some disaffection in the 1970s took a more violent turn. Tyler Foster explains that this is the story of "...the Red Army Faction, or RAF, which rose to prominence in the years between the fall of the Third Reich and the politically charged Munich Olympics (not to mention amidst the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and an attempt on German student Rudi Dutschke's life). Director Uli Edel paints a compelling portrait of an ideological impasse, a point at which it may have been impossible to reconcile one side's views with the other without any genuine conflict or bloodshed. The question is: can we prevent something like it from happening again?

"The film follows a group of German youths who are fighting against what they feel is a fascist government. Their leaders are Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who catch the attention of the police when they bomb a department store. While in prison, Ensslin is introduced to Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a German journalist who has plenty to say about the increasingly oppressive attitude of the government from behind a typewriter, but isn't ready, at first, to leave her children behind in the name of political upheaval. The two become friends, and when Andreas is arrested after he and Gudrun attempt to flee when the jury declares them guilty of the bombing, Ulrike is convinced to help participate in his escape. Instead of staying behind as a supposedly innocent bystander, she decides to escape with them, and eventually starts writing the various manifestos sent out by the group, officially calling themselves the RAF

"The Baader-Meinhof Complex is, first and foremost, a technically astonishing film. If direction alone made a movie, it'd probably rank as the best movie I saw in all of 2009. At all times, the film is visually alive, with beautiful, kinetic cinematography by Rainer Klausmann depicting the various atrocities committed by the RAF with the same kind of brutal, take-no-prisoners panache as Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds displayed with similar material. This is a startlingly violent and realistic movie, never for an instant shying away from the fallout from the group's actions (not to mention the liberated attitude of the characters and setting; I think there's more full-frontal nudity in this movie than I've seen in the past 3 years of American films). The bombing of the newspaper offices that eventually haunts Ulrike is one of the film's most stunning moments, as is the brutal kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Bernd Stegemann).

"The only flaw -- the relevance of which is left up to the viewer -- is that Edel and his co-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger avoid offering a real opinion on the events, choosing to let their depiction of the time speak for itself. Obviously, being a film, it's hard to judge how accurate it really is, but it seems to be a straight take on the things that really happened, and at a certain point, that doesn't feel like enough. The Baader Meinhof Complex is an incredibly compelling piece of filmmaking, one of the best of the year, but it's not a quite satisfying as a movie, offering a vision of a time, and nothing further. If the film had something else to latch onto, some other element to bring it all together, it would probably rank as an all-time classic. As it is, it is a blistering historical recreation and a technical masterpiece, and often as emotionless and coldly objective as some of the people it showcases."

Oh, angry youth! Have you been around forever? There seems to be some evidence to suggest so. Take Ang Lee's Civil War drama Ride With the Devil, recently released by Criterion as an expanded director's cut. Casey Burchby writes, "German-born Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is a Missouri youth shocked into defense of the South when his neighbor Jack Bull Chiles' (Skeet Ulrich) farm is burned and father killed by a band of jayhawkers - militant irregular pro-Union guerrillas. Jake and Jack Bull join a band of bushwhackers - the pro-Confederacy counterparts to the jayhawkers. They join in league with George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Clyde's best friend, a freed slave named Holt (Jeffrey Wright). After a series of raids under the command of Black John Ambrose (James Caviezel), the smaller group retreats to a rural dugout to wait out the winter.

"There, Jack Bull romances their local sponsor's widowed daughter-in-law, Sue Lee (Jewel Kilcher). But the relationship is short-lived; after Jack Bull dies, Roedel and Holt team up again with Ambrose's bushwhackers for increasingly vicious attacks. After a murderous raid at Lawrence, Kansas, Roedel and Holt are both wounded, and from there they escape to a safe farm where Sue Lee has been living since Jack Bull's death. At the farm, Roedel and Holt recover from their wounds and make momentous decisions about the future direction of their lives.

"No plot summary, however, can do justice to the film's finely-woven themes. German-born Roedel and former slave Holt come to understand each other thanks to similar experiences with prejudice - and, even more importantly, their muddled sense of identity. Roedel's family, as German immigrants, are fully aligned with the Union - yet Roedel himself becomes a bushwhacker out of loyalty to Jack Bull and because he has considered himself, naturally, a Missourian. Later, he learns that his father has been murdered by another band of bushwhackers, throwing his already precarious sense of identity and political position into chaos.

"The intertwined stories of Roedel and Holt elegantly transcend issues of race, just as the characters themselves grow to understand that there are vastly more fundamental questions of the human condition than the color of one's skin. At the same time, the film hardly pretends that race isn't a key issue in American life - the struggles of the past are explicitly related to problems that still exist in our country. All of this is expressed by screenwriter James Schamus and director Ang Lee with a far finer sensibility than I am able to convey through words alone here. Such deep conveyance of a complex and insidious social issue is rare in film. It's not just the way Ride With the Devil 'addresses' race; it's the way the story portrays the deeper consequences of racial division upon individual human beings. "

Revenge is an ongoing concern in Ride With the Devil, and it's the main concern at the heart of Five Minutes of Heaven--though with far less successful results. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, who murdered a Catholic worker in 1975. The killer was 17, the victim was 19, and the younger brother of the victim, who witnessed the whole thing, was only 11. That young boy, Joe Griffin (played by Bloody Sunday's James Nesbitt) grew up being blamed by his mother for not stopping the murder, and as his family slowly fell apart, Joe's anger at the real killer grew. Flash forward to now, and following a short twelve years in prison, Alistair has made a life for himself touring the world and speaking out against violence. The two men have not seen each other since, though both are haunted by their encounter on the street that day. A television program about reconciliation is bringing them back together, staging a reunion where the pair can confront what happened. The goal is to bring closure, but Joe will only be satisfied if he takes Alistair's life. The five minutes it would take to exact vengeance would be his five minutes in heaven.

It's a promising concept, but Five Minutes of Heaven doesn't build a satisfying dramatic arc out of it. The film is written by Guy Hibbert (Omagh) and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who attempts to bring some of the docudrama technique from his acclaimed "last days of Hitler" biopic Downfall to this heated story. The result is middling, at best. The faux-documentary style creates a distance between the viewer and the story, one that the authors clumsily attempt to traverse via overdone voiceovers. While the conceit of Downfall was that Hirschbiegel would only tell us what could be seen, he would extrapolate no further than what could logically be known (a noble idea that, arguably, he failed at), in Five Minutes of Heaven, he tries to take us inside the head of his two protagonists, and it doesn't work.

Downfall comes to mind again in considering Alexander Sokurov's The Sun, an unconventional biopic of Emperor Hirohito, the ruling monarch of Japan during WWII. Played by actor Issei Ogata (Yi Yi), we see the leader in the final days of the conflict, exiled to the only structure of his palace left standing after U.S. bombs leveled the county. Full invasion is imminent, as is disgrace. The Japanese believed their emperors to be living embodiments of gods gracing our imperfect world. The Sun asks what happens to a god in defeat, and how does the divine cope with being exposed as all-too human.

The Sun is directed by Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark, Alexandra), and it's his third portrait of a tyrannical leader in decline. I haven't seen his biographies of Hitler (Moloch) or Lenin (Taurus), but The Sun has me intrigued. In concept it is like Downfall in that both films attempt a dispassionate approach to portraying controversial, despised leaders in their final days. (Compare also the docudrama style of The Baader Meinhof Complex.) By opening The Sun with such banal activities, Sokurov and his writers, Yuri Arabov and Jeremy Noble, have found a quick way to show how detached from the war Hirohito really was, and also how detached from normal life. He is surrounded by servants who dote on his every move. Hirohito already senses that change is coming (his breath smells and tastes funny to him, something a god would never experience), and he is breaking traditions, trying to behave normally, to be human. He indulges in nostalgia by looking at old photos, and even dreams of more down-to-earth stars, studying the faces of Hollywood actors. Things change when the Americans come and put the emperor under house arrest. He dresses as a Westerner (the soldiers say he looks like Charlie Chaplin) and poses for photographs. He also has meetings with General MacArthur (Robert Dawson), and the two begin to lay the groundwork for the transition of power and making the emperor seem sympathetic to outsiders.

The Sun ends without much impact. Hirohito embraces the changes that have come to him, but there are no histrionics, no crescendos, that lead him into his final transition. Instead, the closing scenes are permeated with a sallow resignation. Sokurov is taking a reductionist approach to history, making the emperor no more profound than the rather cliché haiku he struggles to write throughout the picture. Don't be surprised if the movie leaves you with one big "Huh?" It's art that takes a little pondering, the impact settles over the viewer rather than hitting all at once. That is by Sokurov's design, that in this case true historical change didn't come in a bomb blast, but through slow, sad capitulation and acceptance.

Unlike the last two selection, some films seek peace and find it. First is the documentary Mine, an alternately enraging and uplifting piece of journalism about the pets left behind in Hurricane Katrina. Geralyn Pezanowski's moving film looks at the rescue operations to save the pets stuck in the flooding and the complicated and often heartbreaking journey to reunite dogs and cats with their families. And I do mean families, as pets are so often true family members. When Malvin Cavalier, a man in his 80s, was told he had to go and he could not bring his best friend Bandit with him, they might as well have cut a limb off the old man and left it in the water. Another elderly woman tells the tale of how she informed the National Guard that they would have to physically restrain her if they were going to separate her from her Labrador. The Guardsman took her one way, the dog the other.

Mine is an emotionally devastating movie, one you'll want to watch with your own pet close to you and give him or her a hug or two while it's running. It's hard not to put yourself in the shoes of the disaster victims who have lost everything, and you'll marvel at the wonderful people who rushed to New Orleans to get the pets out as the water subsided. We're talking thousands of animals left behind. It quickly became overwhelming, and shelters all over the country accepted the lost creatures. Individual families also took the pets into their care, sometimes as foster pets, sometimes thinking they were fully adopting them.

Which is where the story gets complicated. You'd think it would be a simple case of the displaced returning home, looking through the databases, and finding their pet. Unfortunately, given the amount of animals and the time it took for people to get back to New Orleans, locating missing pets took Herculean-level detective work. How quickly attitudes changed following the disaster, with some people adopting the position that people like Malvin didn't deserve to get their dogs back. Some of the stories in Mine end happily, some don't. I got all weepy more than once during the film. Geralyn Pezanowski poses a lot of questions and pushes the audience to think about what they might do in similar situations and also questions whether evacuation methods should be altered to include family pets. What Mine really shows us is not just the profound nature of a human/animal relationship, but how these little guys inspire us to be better people. The rescuers who went in to get them, the people who aided in finding them again, and even the lawyers who interceded on behalf of the stranded--these people got involved and took action in order to ease the pain of their fellow man. As the result of these lost dogs, new and lasting human relationships were formed.

Equally powerful even without the pets is the Claire Denis family drama 35 Shots of Rum, which trains its lens on the tenants of a French apartment building. At the center of the interpersonal drama is the old subway engineer Lionel (Alex Descas, Coffee and Cigarettes), who lives alone with his daughter Jo (Mati Diop) and who has an occasional affair with the upstairs neighbor, a taxi driver named Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué). Gabrielle pines for Lionel, but he is distant and untouchable, in charge of his own space and his emotions. It runs in the family. Another upstairs neighbor, Noé (Grégoire Colin, Nénette et Boni) has a thing for Jo, but she maybe sees a little too much of her dad in him. Ironically, the young drifter would settle down if maybe the girl would just give him the nod.

Of such simple stuff are great dramas often made, and 35 Shots of Rum observes these regular lives with an elegance and insight that ensures every small act assumes great importance. A chance encounter can alter everything, even if just for a day. A thoughtless action can break a heart, a minor gesture can invoke jealousy. The film is regularly compared to Ozu in the way it shows modern living and the schism between young and old, and that comparison couldn't be more justified. At the same time, Denis makes the genre (is Ozu a genre now?) her own by updating it. Her eye is a tad more cynical, and her character situation reversed. Rather than the older generation failing to understand the changes of the newer generation, it's Jo and Noé who are mourning lost values. Lionel may talk about stability, but outside of his homebase, he's a wanderer, tied to no one. For all his freedom, he is trapped. Denis spent her early career working alongside Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and her films have a similar poetic laziness that draws more out of what is not said than what is. If character is action, then behavior is all that is needed to drive the plot. The way Gabrielle hangs around, nervously knocking at the door even after she has said her good-bye, or the way Lionel stares at another women across the room--these are profound moments, and in the case of the quiet man who forms the film's axis, silence is his greatest tool. As an audience, we are as compelled to watch Alex Descas as the people onscreen are compelled to watch Lionel. Some actors can draw the camera's attention just by their mere presence. Descas owns whatever space he inhabits. He doesn't have to claim it, it's just his. Yet, his most poignant moments come when he is vulnerable, playing the father realizing he could lose his daughter to another man.

Naturally, the actor is aided by the environment Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard (Golden Door) create for them. The action is staged in real locations, and the pair shoot from within the space provided. The look of 35 Shots of Rum is intimate and authentic, lending the same credibility to the performers and the story.

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Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the forthcoming hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His most recent release is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

Special thanks to Casey Burchby, Tyler Foster, Jeremy Mathews, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.


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