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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Beyond the Ocean
Beyond the Ocean
Other // Unrated // September 12, 2006
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted September 22, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Tony Pemberton's "Beyond the Ocean" is haunting, beautiful, and all too frustrating. Here is a movie swimming with gorgeous visuals, striking ambient sounds, exquisite performances, and a tone that gets under the skin, and yet the story is at times intentionally inaccessible, consciously shrugging off convention, but to a fault. This is a lovely cinematic experience and a wholly unsatisfactory tale.

The story goes that Pemberton, a bright young filmmaker working in more experimental fare, grew an interest in making his own foreign film, despite just being a guy who grew up in Toledo, Ohio. And so he moved to Russia and began work on what would eventually become "Beyond the Ocean," a film that spends half its time in the old country and half amid the bustle of New York City.

The story, such as it is, involves Pitsee (Dasha Volga), a stunningly beautiful young woman who moves to New York to reunite with her boyfriend (Rik Nagel); she's pregnant and hopes the move will mean a bold new start for her. But the boyfriend isn't too keen on the idea, and he pawns her off to room with his pal (Sage Galesi), a trip-hop DJ who spends his hours spouting pot-fueled nonsense about life and energy and music.

Throughout this, we flash back to Russia, where a younger Pitsee (played at age four by Rita Kamina and in her teens by Tatyana Kamina) is viewed as little more than a burden to her mother (Yelena Antimova), who sees her as the sad remnant of a failed marriage. She later finds herself gaining unwanted attention from an uncle (Donovan Barton). Life here is chaotic, lonely, and depressing as hell.

Pemberton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alexis Brunner, treats his project as two separate movies: the Russian scenes are filmed in a harsh black-and-white, copying the cold, bleak classic cinema of Eastern Europe; the New York scenes are in color but grainy in a way that reflects the American independent circuit of the 1990s. In both, mood trumps all, with a terrific, hypnotic electronic musical score from Christian Fennesz dousing everything in a dreary soundscape. The result is a work that is deliberate in its thoughtfulness, a meditative piece on isolation and lost souls that washes its pain over us.

What's frustrating, then, is that Pemberton keeps playing games with his story, stepping back whenever we're about to get too close to the characters and their situation. It's a bit of pretension that fails the movie; we could have had an incredibly moving tale of a troubled young woman (Volga's performance is mesmerizing), yet instead we have a picture that stays at too much a distance to allow us to fully connect. The movie's non-ending seems especially designed to aggravate, which tells us that Pemberton was more concerned with art house cleverness than with the substance of a story well told.

And yet, it may not be a story well told, but it is a movie well made. This is an amazing work of film as a purely visual art form. The widescreen vistas are a treat for the eyes, and Pemberton makes each moment stand out as the sign of true potential for an up-and-coming artist. It is for this reason that the movie succeeds despite itself - the story may disappoint, but the workings of the film captivate, staying with you well beyond the closing credits.

"Beyond the Ocean" earned plenty of notice during its debut at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, causing Variety to list him as one of "Ten Directors To Watch." And yet the film saw only a tiny theatrical release (two years after its Sundance glory), while Pemberton has yet to make another film, instead having gone into teaching.

The DVD

Video


The film, made on a miniscule budget, is supposed to look this grainy and washed out, but, you know, in a good way. As a transfer, the DVD captures all of this without any digital problems added in, and for what it is, the thing looks darn good. Unfortunately, this lush widescreen (2.35:1) image gets no anamorphic enhancement. This is the sort of visual experiment that begs to be seen in full clarity, which we don't get. (The DVD packaging, meanwhile, may be seen as misleading: while the transfer is listed as "letterbox," the film elements are described as "35mm anamorphic," which describes the original film print and not the transfer. Considering the wording and its importance to the DVD buyer, you'd think somebody would've noticed the potential for confusion.)

Audio

While also not as powerful as it could have been (considering all the ambient sounds the film provides), the stereo soundtrack is clean and workable. The film is in both English and Russian, with English subtitles burned in to the transfer during the Russian dialogue. (Which means they'll disappear if you try to cheat the anamorphic issue by zooming.) A Russian dub is also provided (in stereo), although it's literally nothing more than two people sitting at a desk and talking over the English scenes when necessary. Yikes.

Extras

The only supplement here is Pemberton's 23-minute 1994 short film "Description of a Struggle," memorable only for its casting of a very young Parker Posey in a major role. It's an obnoxious bit of experimental film student fare, with Pemberton and Posey constantly breaking character to talk about the acting and directing in the very short film you're watching. Lots of jump cuts and pseudo-avant-garde posing abound. Taken from a 16mm source, it's presented in its original 1.33:1 format, with plenty of scratches and a soundtrack that's pretty garbled (although this seems to be intentional).

Final Thoughts

"Beyond the Ocean" is quite problematic and endlessly exasperating, but it's also quite lovely and beguiling when it wants to be. Recommended, but only to those of you who thrill to out-of-the-ordinary cinematic encounters.
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