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Talking Out of Frame

Talking Out of Frame: Art House Cinema on DVD

Talking Out of Frame: Art House Cinema on DVD
September/October 2009 Inaugural Edition
compiled by Jamie S. Rich

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the debut installment of our new column, Talking Out of Frame, a round-up of all-things art house here on DVD Talk.

You may be asking yourself, "What does that mean, exactly? What is art house cinema?" It's a fair query, and one with a much broader answer than you might first imagine. While, yes, there is a snooty definition of the term, one that can be dogmatically applied to only feature subtitled foreign museum pieces, we're hoping to avoid such limited approaches. While yes, there will be plenty of foreign films here, there will also be classic movies, modern indies, documentaries, and generally anything that we feel strays off the beaten path enough to warrant a second look. These are movies that generally don't receive the same kind of attention as blockbusters like The Hangover or Star Trek, and while I am a cinephile and love movies of all kinds (I reviewed both of those favorably), this column is intended to shed the spotlight on films with different ambitions.

Here in our first installment, for instance, we have a crime drama from David Mamet, a relationship comedy directed by Sam Mendes, a baseball movie, a historical drama, tales of children, a Holocaust picture, documentaries about writers and actresses, and a three-part, nine-and-a-half-hour Chinese epic. It's a diverse crowd, to be sure!

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

1991's Homicide was playright David Mamet's third feature as a writer/director, following his acclaimed con-man debut, House of Games, and the lighter departure, Things Change. His lead swindler from Games, Joe Mantegna, returns this time as Bobby Gold, a Chicago police detective known for his gift of gab. He's the guy they call in for negotiations, the one who can talk any skel into giving up information. As an example of these skills, over the course of Homicide, he convinces a brother-in-law and a mother to give up their family member and a dog to give up his meal. Bobby has a way of talking to you that makes even the most nonsensical decision make sense. With a plot that begins with a fugitive on the run and the murder of an old woman and ends with a vast conspiracy involving a shadow war between a Jewish cabal and underground Nazis, Homicide takes the police procedural and turns it into one man's personal journey through religion, race, and identity. Mamet creates a bizarre, dream-like world and builds a compelling mystery that never fails to surprise. The Homicide - Criterion Collection DVD sports a fantastic new transfer and a few well-chosen extras to make an all-around great package.

Sam Mendes' Away We Go (Blu-Ray reviewed by Jason Bailey) details a journey of a different kind--one that begins as a literal cross-country trip and ends with more personal discovery. Away We Go is, as Jason calls it, "a loose, free-wheeling, intimate seriocomic drama penned by novelist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his wife Vendela Vida. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a cohabitating but unmarried couple who are forced to reevaluate their lives when Verona gets pregnant (the opening scene, in which they discover this bit of information, has one of the great hard-cuts to title that I've ever seen). They live comfortably enough in Colorado to be close to Burt's parents, but when that pair announces they're moving to Belgium for two years (a month before their granddaughter's birth, no less), Burt and Verona suddenly find themselves untethered. They decide to search for a new place to plant their flag, and work up a quick list of places where they might find solace with friends and relatives... Mendes' touch is nimble here, less stylized than in any of his previous work--though that's not to say that it isn't beautifully shot by the skilled cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a frequent collaborator of Michel Gondry and Spike Lee). But it doesn't feel as artfully pre-arranged as Revolutionary Road or (for all of my admiration of it) American Beauty. It kind of shambles along agreeably until it arrives at its closing scenes, which are, in their own tranquil way, sheer perfection. Away We Go is an uneven film, but a lovely one nonetheless."

Personally, I loved Revolutionary Road, and was a little disappointed when I reviewed Away We Go as a theatrical release. Clearly, these are two films whose merits are up to debate.

Jason Bailey also took a look at the Blu-Ray for one of this year's most acclaimed dramas, Sugar, the latest from writer/director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also made 2006's Half Nelson. "Sugar shares that film's low-key, lived-in feel, as well as its ability to rethink and work out from what sounds, in both cases, like a terrible, formulaic storyline. Miguel 'Sugar' Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) hails from the Dominican Republic, where major league baseball teams run training camps, hoping to find the next Sammy Sosa. Sugar is a pitcher, and his knuckle curve captures the eye of a visiting scout for Kansas City, who sends him to the States for spring training. From there, he is assigned to the franchise's single-A team in Iowa; he lives with a couple of team boosters, develops a crush on their granddaughter, and becomes something of a local celebrity, until... well, I'll just leave it at that. Even in its more conventional segments, the screenplay never plays it too easy; there's no obvious exposition, no amped-up conflict. The picture isn't rushed or pushy--it rolling along with grace and ease, and when it comes to a pat sequence (like Sugar's first big game), it underplays the tension with no-nonsense, hard-cut editing. 'Remember,' Sugar is told, 'life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one.' What is most remarkable about Sugar is that it is a film about life, not baseball--there is no 'big game' and no 'moment of truth,' none of the hackneyed sequences that we've come to dread from sports stories. It's a film about the myriad of opportunities, not just the one."

While there is no baseball in Treeless Mountain, there are several scenes of children at play, sequences that director So Yong Kim stages as the most private moments of two girls left alone by their mother and forced to find ways to take care of themselves. I really enjoyed Kim's first film, 2006's In Between Days, and since then, I've been eagerly awaiting Kim's second movie, and I'm happy to say that Treeless Mountain doesn't disappoint. Bucking the usual sophomore mistake of growing up and going all out, Kim pulls back, tacking younger characters and making the story even smaller and more direct. With both of her movies, this new and exciting filmmaker makes the viewer feel like he or she is privy to a way of life that would otherwise be hidden away. Sitting on a bus bench with the girls, Bin and Jin, watching for their mother, walking with them and tasting their shame as they hungrily rely on a neighbor's kindness for a snack, we get to see their desperation, love, and ingenuity first hand. Everything is shown, nothing is told, we are left to intuit and feel, and the experience becomes immersive. We hunger and yearn just like Bin and Jin. To get such honest emotional responses from such young girls is truly amazing. I assume hardly anyone in this cast is a professional actor, and so it's all the more impressive that Kim manages to pull these performances out of them. The girls never come off as anything less than real, Treeless Mountain could practically be passed off as documentary. Cinematographer Anne Misawa deserves plenty of credit for this, too, as I imagine shooting a film like Treeless Mountain requires staying out of the performance space while still having to move in close to get the shot. You can't disrupt the flow, but yet you have to somehow capture it. Her style is simple and off the cuff. There is no added lighting (or, at least, no obvious use of such), just as there are no editing tricks, no musical score, nothing that would bust the neorealist illusion.

Before Treeless Mountain is over, the girls will be forced to go through one more change. When their mother writes to tell them that she won't be coming back soon, Big Aunt must send the sisters to their grandparents' farm. It's in this rural setting that the children will finally receive some reward for taking care of each other, and they will find some compassion in the world at long last. Careful to avoid being contrived, Kim allows some cute, childish moments. Despite the selfishness that has exiled them, Bin and Jin are still capable of being generous when generosity is bestowed upon them. It's a very sweet scene, and I applaud So Yong Kim for not feeling that she needed to be unrelentingly downbeat in order to make a meaningful film. Treeless Mountain shows you can tug at the heartstrings without being condescending.

Realism is far from the goal in another new Criterion release, Alexander Korda's 1941 romantic drama That Hamilton Woman. The movie stars Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and That Hamilton Woman was tailor-made for this scandalous pair. What better for the film world's most notorious adulterous couple than a movie about one of history's most famous versions of the same? Set at the close of the 18th century, That Hamilton Woman stars Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson, the naval hero who pursued Napoleon's fleets around the world, staving off the French conqueror's expansion of his empire. Leigh is Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray).

Given the year of production, there is a none-too-obvious double meaning in Nelson's campaign against Napoleon. The film had Winston Churchill's full support, and the terms with which Nelson speaks of the French madman and his will to power, as well as the pride and praise lavished on England, were meant to stir up patriotic pride in the moviegoing public. I suppose we could read even further into Walter Reisch and R.G. Sherriff's screenplay and discern that the portrayal of Emma's efforts on behalf of her country and its fighting men is meant to remind modern ladies how they can contribute to the battles on the home front. Of course, this also can require great sacrifice, and the biggest one in That Hamilton Woman comes about 2/3 into the film when the lovers agree to return to their spouses for the good of England. Every citizen must do the right thing for their country, even if it means never-ending unhappiness. As far as propaganda is concerned, it's actually handled more deftly than my description makes it sound. Then again, That Hamilton Woman isn't about passions realized, but about denial and separation and the price of hidden love. War, gossip, prior commitments--these are the things that push lovers apart, but also the source of their determination to be together. Once their love has been confessed, most of their scenes begin with distant smoldering and end in painful separation. The few embraces they share are impulsive explosions, made all the more eruptive by the denial that has held them apart.

Also from Criterion this month is a WWII epic of a decidedly less pro-battle slant: Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition, a series of films released in the late 1950s. While I couldn't recommend this movie more highly, I'll let Thomas Spurlin take the floor. "Though a strong admirer of director Masaki Kobayashi's body of work, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, and Japanese cinema as a whole, Criterion's presentation of The Human Condition marks the first time that this remarkable cinematic achievement has fallen in front of these film-loving eyes. Soldiering on for nearly ten hours (approximately 579 minutes), it's not a simple undertaking to soak in the entirety of its message-driven girth; however, Kobayashi's incredible talent behind the camera transforms this near endless anti-war piece into an evocative marriage between pacing and dramatic zeal. Don't let the runtime spook you, as the experience in soaking in Masaki Kobayashi's epic-scaled drama is, without question, one worth enduring -- and easily one of the greatest overall accomplishments in cinema. Yes, it's a ten-hour piece of filmmaking, and yeah, it's an $80 set from Criterion. However, every ounce of time and money invested in The Human Condition will offer a cinematic return ten-fold. Boasting one of the most resonant, deeply moving anti-war narratives paced in a fashion that never runs out of steam over its massive length, Masaki Kobayashi's humanist trilogy offers deeply-rooted analyses on the complex nature of war-torn humanity. It addresses timeless themes regarding the futility of fighting unjust wars, as well as the harrowing effects of misguided nationalism. Moreover, Kobayashi does it all in a way that's phenomenally performed and gorgeously shot, all while never letting the rhythm step close to being dry or dull."

World War II continues to be a concern for modern filmmakers, as well. The irascible Paul Schrader returns to the screen, directing Jeff Goldblum in the bizarre sounding Adam Resurrected. Brian Orndorf describes the film: "A haunting, yet decidedly off-putting odyssey of psychological meltdown and crippling grief, Resurrected is built on a foundation of shocking dehumanization, yet doesn't have the sense to pull back and let the images sink in organically. Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) is a clownish nightclub performer in Berlin during the 1930s, working the crowds with his routines of magic and comedy with the help of his growing family. When Nazi rule was declared throughout the land, Adam is sent to a work camp under the strict control of Commander Klein (Willem Dafoe), who turns Adam into a literal lapdog, forcing the performer to scrape across the floor as his pet. Years later, Adam is returned to an Israeli mental hospital to work on his severe psychological issues, mingling with other Holocaust survivors of fractured mental hold, meeting Davey (Tudor Rapiteanu), a feral boy who he takes under his wing." Unfortunately, Brian doesn't feel the movie works entirely. "As Adam Resurrected steams toward a conclusion, matters simply squirm out of focus, with Schrader taking a few emotional shortcuts to find an end to this claustrophobic film. Adam Resurrected definitely has moments of horror that stick out as remarkable, yet the conclusion of the film conveys a sense of moderate relief over life-altering transformation, shortchanging the miracle Goldblum is working overtime to achieve."

Jeremy Mathews is much more impressed with the Russian film The Thief, which ponders the lives of children after a war. Jeremy writes, "Sanya, the six-year-old hero of Russian writer/director Pavel Chukhraj's The Thief (Vor), wants an authoritative male to put his faith in, and so he gives it to the only one around. Misha Filipchuk plays the boy, whose father, a World War II soldier, died before he was born. His routine life with his mother (Ekaterina Rednikova) vanishes when they meet a soldier named Toylan (Vladimir Mashkov) on the train, and mom immediately falls for him. They rent a room in a communal apartment, but it's clear that something is off. Toylan isn't what you'd call the ideal replacement for an unknown father. He spends much of his time trying to get Sanya out of the way so he can have sex, is prone to cruel behavior, and doesn't seem to have his army papers in order. And that's just the first act. But The Thief, which earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in 1998, also shows us how its characters become seduced." Unlike Schrader, the filmmaker appears to keep all of his balls in the air and doesn't go for an easy outs. "Chukhraj shoots the film with a sense of wonder, mixing nostalgic warmth and movement with a cold, muted atmosphere. His direction captures the excited gaze of youth while letting us in on the realities of 1950s Russia. This film is an incredible character study."

A horse of a different color, and one far less satisfying, is Menage, a film that, according to reviewer Casey Burchby, tackles subjects it's not equipped to handle. "Bertrand Blier's 1986 comedy Menage is a strange, contrived, uncomfortable film that raises interesting questions about gender roles and sexuality, but does so in a tasteless, unfunny way. A charismatic burglar named Bob (Gerard Depardieu) takes the penniless Antoine (Michel Blanc) and Monique (Miou-Miou) under his wing, training them to rob the extremely rich. Along the way, things become complicated. Bob turns out to be homosexual, and falls in love with Antoine, who has no interest. Finally, thinking that it will please Monique, who has an anarchic streak, Antoine gives into Bob's advances, only to lose his wife completely as she becomes dominated by the misogynistic Bob. The jokes in the film can be seen coming from a mile away, and most of them arrive with the delicacy of a ton of bricks. Complicating the failure of the jokes is the discomfiting subject matter, which is handled crassly and without any introspection. Blier's characters are stand-ins for abstract concepts about sexuality and gender. They have no backgrounds, no likes or dislikes, no goals, and no personalities. They are ciphers for Blier's jaundiced outlook on sex roles, and we care nothing for them. By creating characters for the simple purpose of watching them debase themselves and each other, Blier shows that he has no faith--or any real interest--in human beings."

Jeremy Mathews also looks at a German film this month, The State I Am In. He sums up the film thusly, "A family with a 15-year-old daughter goes through enough strife and tension under normal circumstances. The one portrayed in The State I Am In not only has to contend with a moody girl who's suffering her first love, but with the constant fear that the law will one day find them. Yes, many of us may have thought our childhoods were lousy, but few can top being the offspring of wanted terrorists...While it has political subtext, The State I Am In is not a political film, but one about people in a difficult situation, struggling to survive and be together. German writer/director Christian Petzold proves himself an astute observer of both the mind and feelings of a teenager and the fears faced while on the run from the law. We see the way Jeanne's yearnings to be a normal girl conflict with her love for her family."

Sounds like Petzold struck the right balance in his picture, whereas Casey Burchby finds that when the political outweighs everything else, it can actually harm a film that has so much more to offer. As he tells us, "In Trumbo, directed by Peter Askin from Christopher Trumbo's play of the same name, screen time is divided between typical documentary-style interviews and archival footage, and dramatic readings of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo's letters by the likes of Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, and Joan Allen. The juxtaposition of these two elements doesn't really gel, and results in a less-than-complete view of this fascinating man's life and work. The focus on the blacklist and lengthy letter-readings crowd out other elements of his life. For example, we learning nothing of what drove him as a writer, nothing of his process, or how he approached novels versus screenplays. The man was, after all, a writer, and I presume he would prefer to be remembered as one. The film's treatment of Trumbo primarily as a victim of political persecution seems unfair--the man won an Oscar and a National Book Award. Johnny Got His Gun remains a high school reading list mainstay. Although the approach is muddled, Trumbo is still an interesting film. The man himself was a towering figure as an artist, and as an American who stood up for his rights and did his part to hold fascism at bay when it was a very real threat in this country."

Since we're on the subject of movies and documentaries about moviemakers, we'll also let Casey round out this month's column with a documentary about one of cinema's greatest sirens. "No matter what the scenario or setting, when Marlene Dietrich shows up there's no mistaking her for your mother, sister, or aunt - she's like no woman you're ever likely to know. Maximilian Schell, who co-starred with Dietrich in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), understands her allure and her unique place in film history. His documentary, Marlene (1984), is assembled like one giant montage, and Dietrich lent only her voice - and not her face--to his effort, through interviews. Dietrich's recollections, opinions, contrary attitude, and scrappy verbal tussles with Schell are the heart of the picture. These remarks--alternatively laser-sharp and rambling - are overlaid with movie clips, songs from her theatrical performances, still photos, and bits of what appear to be semi-staged behind-the-scenes footage of Schell and crew trying to grapple with their difficult subject. In the end, this film is more about the filmmaking process as well as a thematic exploration of certain kinds of desire - the erotic desire often embodied by Dietrich herself, the desire of admirers to know' a celebrity, and the desire of a documentarian to break through an unwilling subject's defenses. Complex and uncompromising, Marlene Dietrich's stubborn, willful romanticism--and obvious contradictions--are the fertile ground upon which Schell constructs an involving, meditative film study."

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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 Joëlle 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 next project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Jeremy Mathews, Brian Orndorf, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.


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