Tuesday, August 21, 2007

DVD Review - House of Games (****)

David Mamet's 1987 directorial debut House of Games arrives on a fabulous new DVD courtesy of Criterion today, providing this influential crime-noir the treatment is so richly deserves. When discussing Mamet, one tends to focus on his words, as the Pulitzer Prize winning scribe has continually proven himself as one of the best writers - both for the stage and on screen - of the past quarter century. Taking House of Games as a stand alone piece however, it's not at all hard to see that the man has as great a flair for the visual as for the written word. House of Games is a labyrinth con-man thriller in the vein of Blood Simple or more recent fare such as Hard Eight or Matchstick Men, although it happens to be head and shoulders above all those films. This new digital transfer from Criterion cleans up the film considerably, accentuating the deep shadows and smoky bar scenes, which were carefully mapped out and filmed by cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia.

And then of course there is that script (you can't avoid it), which still stands as one of the best of its kind and one of the most original of the entire 1980s. It's twisting plot and trap door structure has been endlessly pillaged by less talented filmmakers for the going on 2 decades now - there is absolutely no point during the entire course of film where the audience is allowed to know more than any of the characters, making it nearly impossible to guess where the plot is headed at any one moment. It's one of those film's like the Usual Suspects where you will forever cherish the first viewing, as that initial shock will never be forgotten. This seemingly endless oneupmanship on the part of the characters makes the film impossible to summarize, and I won't try, as to not give away the film's treasure chest of secrets and well earned revelations. However, this is not to say that a single viewing is enough to unravel the intricacies of Mamet's morality play. Let's just say that the cat and mouse game between Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantenga is engrossing enough to warrant multiple viewings. And that's to say nothing of the supporting performances from J.T. Walsh, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy and Lilia Skala, who all turn in strong work in brief but important roles. House of Games was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, as well as picking up the Best Film and Best Screenplay awards from both the Venice Film Festival and the London Film Critics Circle. It also made film critic Roger Ebert's list of the 10 Best Films of the 1980s.

This new DVD is a typically fantatsic job well done for the folks at Criterion who, as I said before, have remastered both the sound and the picture, while preserving the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. As for the special features, there are brand new interviews with both Crouse and Mantenga in addition to original on-set footage with Mamet. The highlight of the disc though is the informative audio commentary from Mamet and Rick Jay, who lend insight and shed light on the film's interesting genesis. There is also a large booklet with an essay on the film by critic Kent Jones as well as a lengthy excerpt from Mamet's original introduction to the screenplay. This is one of the year's most pleasant surprises in terms of DVD releases, providing the perfect opportunity to either revisit or discover for the first time this oft-forgotten classic.

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