Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The best films you've never seen

The Los Angeles Times film critic was in an L.A.-area bookstore and
stopped by the DVD section. There, prominently featured, was a display
devoted to the films in his new book, "Never Coming to a Theater Near

"It was like they'd made a movie out of my book," he says, still in
wonderment, in a phone interview from his southern California home.

Turan doesn't expect bookstores and video stores to routinely build
shrines to his recommendations. He does hope, however, that "Never
Coming to a Theater Near You" serves as a handbook for curious film
lovers who, in looking for a good film, need a way to tunnel through
heaps of dreck in order to find worthy films that just didn't get much
attention the first time around.

"I envision this book to be a guide for the perplexed -- to be like a
video store in your mind," he says. "People are so hungry for the kind
of films this book represents, entertaining works that don't talk down
to them."

The 150-plus movies Turan writes about in "Never Coming" -- an edited
collection of his reviews of the past decade or so -- are ones he
describes as "indelible ... I would see any of these again in a moment."

The book is organized for easy browsing at a video store, divided into
sections on English-language films, foreign-language films,
documentaries, classics and retrospectives.

Turan isn't necessarily biased against studio films, or in favor of
obscure independent works, complex foreign-language films or
good-for-you documentaries.

Indeed, many of the films he highlights had top-notch casts and earned
good reviews at the time. However, for whatever reason, they simply
slipped through the cracks at the multiplex -- and,even when they
emerged at the video store six months later, were buried under a sea of
blockbuster effluvia.

Among the better-known films reviewed in the book are "Ronin," a
crackling thriller starring Robert De Niro and directed by John
Frankenheimer (with some "impressive car chases," Turan writes with
understatement); "High Fidelity," the John Cusack film based on the Nick
Hornby novel about music and relationships; "Spirited Away," the
already-classic work of Japanese animation; "Theremin: An Electronic
Odyssey," a documentary about the inventor of the strange
electronic instrument; and "The Third Man," director Carol Reed's
classic work, from a script by Graham Greene, set -- and filmed -- in
the bombed-out rubble of postwar Vienna (&featuring Orson Welles' great
"cuckoo clock" speech).

Turan also singles out lesser-known works such as "Pipe Dream" (with
Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker), the French film "Dry Cleaning"
and the documentary "East Side Story" -- the
latter a particular favorite.

"It sounds like parody," says Turan of this film, which is about the
socialist musicals of the USSR and Iron Curtain countries: films with
titles such as "Tractor Drivers" and "No Cheating Darling," made under
the supervision of allegedly humorless apparatchiks. Stalin was actually
a fan of the musicals.

"There is stuff at which your jaw just drops, and yet they were hugely
popular," says Turan. "It's an interesting corner of film history."

Though the book doesn't have any particular theme, one striking thread
is the names that seem to appear over and over, such as writer and
director David Mamet, or now-famous people who were unknown at the
time they made these small films, such as "Lord of the Rings" director
Peter Jackson (represented by "Heavenly Creatures") and Oscar winner
Russell Crowe (who was in the 1992 Australian film "Proof").

"It's great to see talented people have success," says Turan. Moreover,
their films are accessible even to people who don't live near a
well-stocked video store, thanks to Netflix, and other
Web-based services, he says.

Turan, who's been the L.A. Times film critic for more than a decade,
knows his picks are subjective. ("God doesn't talk to me," he says.) If
ticket buyers want to enjoy car-exploding
action films, that's their prerogative.

"I never try to change anyone's mind," he says. "It can't be done. Even
critics don't want to
acknowledge how personal their taste is."

But he can't help being frustrated at most of the fare he's had to watch
over the years. Yes, he gets paid to do it, but the work can be soul
deadening after awhile.

"It's not just that we see bad films, but bad films of a type we've seen
so many times before," says Turan.

The films in "Never Coming to a Theater Near You," he says, make his
profession worthwhile.

"These movies fulfill what films can do," he says. "The films in the
book are ones that saved my life."

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