Japanese Story (2003). Toni Colette is the "main reason" to see this one, argues AO Scott in the New York Times, but certainly not the only reason. Colette finally has a role that allows her to exercise her range as Sandy, a geologist mistaken for a driver by a Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima). Getting off on the wrong foot eventually leads to the right one, of course, that is, romance. Scott: "Thanks to [director Sue] Brooks's quiet, austere style (and to Ian Baker's beautiful cinematography), this two-person drama acquires a third character: the outback itself. While Japanese Story is part of a miniwave of English-language films exploring (and exploiting) the mysteries of Japanese culture, it also follows in the footsteps of movies like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock in imparting to the vast emptiness of the Australian interior a mystical, almost malevolent force." [Rent]
The Fog of War (2003). Subtitled "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," Errol Morris's first doc to win an Oscar became one of the most talked about films of last year. Some were disappointed, even angry that Morris spends 90 minutes with one of the major architects of the war in Vietnam and doesn't wring a sobbing confession from him. But in the eyes and ears of others - the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Susan Gerhard, for example - the real making of Morris's film went on long after the interviews. It's all in the context Morris constructs around the Q&A, the sights - "images of chemical warfare, missiles dropping, nations destroyed" - and sounds, specifically Philip Glass's "assertive" soundtrack: "Which may be why Morris gives [McNamara] so much room to speak, even when he's evading; it's Glass who gives us the real interpretation. Glass's take comes through loud and clear in wind and strings: be afraid, be very afraid." Be sure to read our interview with Morris as well. [Rent]
In America (2002). Critics seemed embarrassed to fall for this out-n-out tearjerker from director Jim Sheridan about all the troubles than can befall a family of Irish immigrants struggling to make a go of it in the Land of Opportunity. Some fessed right up to loving it, such as Roger Ebert, who gave it four out of four stars. Others, like Peter Burnette in indieWIRE, admitted that while Sheridan pulls at the heartstrings, "the tears, somehow, feel well-earned... In America is a weepie, sure... But it's so freshly told and so effervescently realized that even hard-bitten critics won't resent their tears." Oscar noms: Best Actress for the always phenomenal Samantha Morton, Best Supporting Actor for Djimon Housou and Best Screenplay for Sheridan and his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten. [Rent]
Scary Movie 3 (2003). Story? What story? The point, of course, is to line up as many gags and references to scary (and some not so scary) movies as possible and just keep the damn thing rolling along. And David Zucker's been doing just that for over 20 years. This time (again) with Charlie Sheen and a slew of second and third-tier stars. [Rent]
Kedma (2003). May 1948, just days before the creation of the State of Israel. As immigrants poured in from all over Europe, British troops were waiting for them on beaches. "First I wanted to gather the stories and the words of the people who survived at that time," says director Amos Gitai. "I wanted to understand their dreams and their disillusions, I wanted to hear their voices... Most of my movies deal with exile. It can be inner exile, or the exile of displaced persons, displaced in space and in time. Here, many exiles cross, in a tragic way, on this very same land: exile of the Jews, exile of the Palestinians." The result, writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times, is the "furthest thing from a glorious celebration of the birth of a nation... a pointed rebuke to a tub-thumping nationalistic epic like Exodus." [Rent]
A Short Film About Killing (1988) [Rent] and A Short Film About Love (1988) [Rent]. These are expanded theatrical versions of the fifth and sixth episodes from Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, the critically acclaimed series of shorts, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not kill" lays the foundation of Killing, of course, and as future Salon editor Gary Kamiya wrote in the San Francisco Examiner all those years ago, "If the supporters of the death penalty were in the habit of going to art houses, this almost sadistically unflinching film would no doubt provoke furious debate." Kamiya found Love "happily, closer to the emotional simplicity of [Kieslowski's] Blue than the narrative meanderings of Red. In fact, beneath its elegant and sophisticated surface - and despite its theme of 'perversion' - it is ultimately a sentimental tale.... Kieslowski has crafted a compelling portrait of love, that weed that forces its strange way through life's hardest cement."
Safe Conduct (2002). While Bertolucci's The Dreamers has revived interest in the most celebrated chapter in the history of French cinema, the New Wave, Bertrand Tavernier focuses on a period most French cinephiles would most likely wish to forget: the frothy flicks turned out by the Continental Film studios under strict supervision of the German occupiers. "At once intimate drama and stirring historical epic, the film is loaded with suspense, for its central figure, an assistant director named Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), displays the same unflappability on the set as in his Resistance activities," writes Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. [Rent]
The Girl of your Dreams (1998). This one might make an interesting double feature with Safe Conduct, actually. But this one takes a bit more a of comic angle on the premise, based to a limited extent on historical fact, that a team of Spanish filmmakers did indeed go to Berlin in 1938 to shoot a few movies for Joseph Goebbels. Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) directs Penélope Cruz. [Rent]
Circle of Deceit (1981). Bruno Ganz won raves for his portrayal of a German reporter covering the war in Lebanon. "What makes [director Volker] Schlöndorff's film so gripping is that he chose to film on location while the war was going on around him, giving his film an immediacy rarely seen in fiction," comments the UK's Channel 4. The film also serves as a reminder of two things: War in the Middle East has been a constant for over half a century; and Schlöndorff has no illusions about the press (he also directed The Lost Honor of Katrina Blum). This one also features Hanna Schygulla. [Rent]
La Mentale: The Code (2002). In the Village Voice, David Ng calls this new French thriller steeped in its 50s-era heritage "an unmistakably Melvillian exercise - a meticulous study in urban tribalism and criminal predestination." With Samuel Le Bihan and Samy Naceri. [Rent]
God is Great, I'm Not (2002). A minor French film featuring a major, major French star, Audrey Tautou. [Rent]
Sister My Sister (1995). Based on a true story - the Le Mans case of 1933 - that also served as the foundation for Jean Genet's play The Maids, "[t]his is an emotional Gothic," writes Caryn James in the New York Times, "a psychological horror story that focuses on the sisters' increasingly tortured relationship in the claustrophobic house. It is a small film, but a chillingly effective one." [Rent]
Pigalle (1994). Quirky characters act out a gaudy melodrama while drenched in reflected neon, all set in Paris's red-light district. [Rent]
And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself (2003). Screenwriter Larry Gelbart: "There was a call from HBO asking me if I was interested in doing a movie based on these not-so arcane facts about Pancho Villa and his brush with the early movie industry. And after I'd heard the description of what had happened, the idea just became irresistible." Indeed. Bruce Beresford directs and Antonio Banderas heads a strong cast that also includes Alan Arkin and Jim Broadbent. [Rent]
I Could Go On Singing (1963). Judy Garland last movie, while fictional, also holds several autobiographical elements. She's a singer in London for a set of concerts and meets up with her former lover, played by Dirk Bogarde, and fields her son's angry diatribes - which, in turn, depress her so much she turns to the bottle. But somehow, the show does go on. Also with Jack Klugman. [Rent]
Night of the Following Day (1968). A odd caper starring Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno. Channel 4: "It takes a rare talent to invest such a brutal story with a veneer of arty sophistication, but [director Hubert] Cornfield manages to conjure up a dreamlike atmosphere in the most squalid of settings." [Rent]
The Border (1981). As Charlie, a cop deep down in Texas, Jack Nicholson "gives the least heralded major performance of his career," writes Charles Taylor in Salon, but that's the least of the surprises. The rest of the cast, for example - Valerie Perrine, as Charlie's wife, who's prodded him to take the job "in a note-perfect caricature of cheerful, mindless consumerism," Harvey Keitel, a corrupt businessman who's basically running a slave trade, and Warren Oates "as the embodiment of malignant authority" - but there's also the director, Englishman Tony Richardson, who displays an amazing grasp of Rio Grande territory foreign even to many Americans. Even better, writes Taylor, though "The Border takes dead aim at the senselessness of U.S. immigration policy, the hypocrisy of a country that has long preened as the haven of immigrants while deriving much of its prosperity from cheap, illegal labor," Richardson and the screenwriters "never get preachy or grandiose. The Border is a tight, brutal action melodrama." [Rent]
Billie (1965). Patty Duke stars in a teen comedy about, oh, you know, growing up, budding sexuality, girls being good as boys at things like track and stuff but, in a predictably pre-feminist sort of way, also happy to give it all up and be a girl again in the end. "A guaranteed hoot every 15 seconds," snorts Movieline. [Rent]
Rustler's Rhapsody (1985). Tom Berenger stars in this spoof of 40s westerns. [Rent]
Curse of the Erotic Tiki (2001). More spoofing, but of what, exactly... Regardless, it looks like silly, stylish fun. [Rent]
Force of Evil (1948). This dark and brooding yet furiously paced and complex noir features one of the most lauded performances from John Garfield and was the directorial debut of Abraham Polonsky, whose career would later become one of the most tragic victims of McCarthyism. In a piece for the Guardian on the influence of painter Edward Hopper, Philip French writes of this one, "After three days shooting on New York locations, Polonsky took one of Hollywood's great cinematographers, George Barnes, to an exhibition of Hopper paintings and said: 'That's what I want this picture to look like', and indeed it did." [Rent]
Julius Caesar (1970). Probably not until Kenneth Branagh directed Much Ado About Nothing did such a disparate cast tackle Shakespeare: Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, John Gielgud, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain and Diana Rigg. [Rent]
Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). Sidney Lumet directs Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell in Eugene O'Neill's classic. Raves all around and another Oscar nomination for Kate. [Rent]
Man of La Mancha (1972). "Critics hated the movie and audiences stayed away," admits Film Threat's Phil Hall, immediately adding, "To which I can ask - why? Man of La Mancha is, admittedly, a flawed film. But for anyone seeking genuine entertainment... it more than compensates with excellent performances, a soaring score which survives some wobbly attempts at singing, and a genuinely sincere message that will ennoble anyone who has the patience to hear it." With Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren. [Rent]
Down To Earth (1947). Rita Hayworth plays a Greek muse who descends to Earth to tweak the depiction of her and her eight other teammates in a Broadway musical. [Rent]
Distant Drums (1951). Raoul Walsh sends Gary Cooper to battle Seminole Indians in the Florida swamp. [Rent]
Bells of Coronado (1950). "One of those William Witney-directed Roy Rogers flicks that Tarantino loves so much," notes Sisyphus. [Rent]
The Tin Star (1957). An underrated Anthony Mann western with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. [Rent]
Posse (1975). Kirk Douglas directs himself and Bruce Dern [Rent]
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003). As social history crossed with film class and lathered to a froth with gossip, Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood is one of the great, fun reads in any movie-lover's library. There is no way a documentary, no matter how long, could ever be as rich as Biskind's soap-operatic tale of how a bunch of free-thinking hedonists wrestled control of the American film industry from the studio heads, made a dozen or so truly great films for the ages, and then, in short order, pretty much blew it. But there is something the doc can do that the book can't: We see the faces and hear the voices, then and now, as these filmmakers and tag-alongs look back on what was surely the time of their lives; we see behind-the-scenes clips, shot when that sort of thing was still a rarity and there was no Entertainment Tonight, much less a DVD extra; and we see clips from what really counts, what it was all about in the first place, the movies themselves. The editing here is a bit frantic, a bit MTV, but William H Macy's narration anchors all the goings-on nicely and director Kenneth Bowser knows well enough to let his interviewees spin their tales to the end before he rushes off to the next one. Best of all, nearly all those tales aren't in the book. Discs 1 [Rent] and 2 [Rent].
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