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Mean Streets

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After Martin Scorsese went to Hollywood in 1972 to direct the low-budget Boxcar Bertha for B-movie mogul Roger Corman, the young director showed the film to maverick director John Cassavetes and got an instant earful of urgent advice. "It's crap," said Cassavetes in no uncertain terms, "now go out and make something that comes from your heart." Scorsese took the advice and focused his energy on Mean Streets, a riveting contemporary film about low-life gangsters in New York's Little Italy that critic Pauline Kael would later call "a true original, and a triumph of personal filmmaking." Starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in roles that announced their talent to the world, it set the stage for Scorsese's emergence as one of the greatest American filmmakers. Introducing themes and character types that Scorsese would return to in Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Casino, and other films, the loosely structured story is drawn directly from Scorsese's background in the Italian neighborhoods of New York, and it seethes with the raw vitality of a filmmaker who has found his creative groove. As the irresponsible and reckless Johnny Boy, De Niro offers striking contrast to Keitel's Charlie, who struggles to reconcile gang life with Catholic guilt. More of an episodic portrait than a plot-driven crime story, Mean Streets remains one of Scorsese's most direct and fascinating films--a masterful calling card for a director whose greatness was clearly apparent from that point forward. --Jeff Shannon



The Last Waltz

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Martin Scorsese's 1978 capsule history of the Band is mixed with footage of the group's allegedly last performance (certainly their last performance as a quintet) in this particularly stylish concert film. Scorsese shoots the players and their sundry guests with the same flair and enthusiasm one can see in the later The Color of Money or Goodfellas. He also proves a good interviewer with Band members, particularly Robbie Robertson, whose sleepy-sexy good looks make a star-caliber impression in close-up. But the film's real hook is the stage show, which features a rotation of rock legends (Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, and so on) playing with the Band before a wildly appreciative audience. --Tom Keogh



Carny

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Part coming-of-age chronicle, part road movie, Carny is memorable for Jodie Foster's sexy, intelligent heroine and the pivotal influence of costar, cowriter, and producer Robbie Robertson. As principal songwriter and guitarist in The Band, Robertson had already been accorded the stature of rock auteur by some critics; when director Martin Scorsese captured the musician's laconic sex appeal and deep, mesmerizing speaking voice on celluloid for The Last Waltz, the seed was planted for the Canadian rocker to graduate from documentary to dramatic feature.

The lurid, colorful carnival milieu also dovetails with Robertson's Band legacy as songwriter, and his penchant for crafting picaresque story lines with a vivid sense of place. Robertson is Patch, a carny veteran whose de facto partner is the leering, cruel Frankie (Gary Busey), an abusive clown, and the film lingers on the tawdry and menacing world behind the carny's garish public spaces. When the young, self-confident Donna (Foster) shows up and joins the troupe, the bonds between Patch and Frankie are strained. Donna's walk on the wild side brings her in intimate, sometimes dangerous proximity to the freaks and lowlifes that populate this world, which the writers and director Robert Kaylor savor for its atmosphere of outsider surrealism.

Foster acquits herself wonderfully, making this a revealing step between the prematurely hardened nymphet of Taxi Driver and the actress's first truly adult roles, soon to follow. Busey and Robertson fare less well, their work long on mannerism but ultimately cryptic to a fault. Like the movie itself, they transmit a cynicism that seems hollow without more real insight into how they came to inhabit this netherworld, and why they can't escape it. --Sam Sutherland



Under Fire

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Under Fire is a savvy political thriller of journalists in war-torn Nicaragua circa 1979. Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton's (Bull Durham) script follows ace photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte, in a key marquee performance) from the jungles of Africa to the Central American boiling point. Along with the usual band of fellow journalists, Price finds himself involved in a love triangle with Claire (Joanna Cassidy in her best role) and Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman, perfect again), who believes he's one career-making story from a lofty news anchor position. In Nicaragua, Price finds his own deadly mission: to photograph an unknown rebel leader.

Although the setup is traditional, Roger Spottiswoode's film feels as alive and vital as the best of the genre. Showing his ambiguity for the lives he shoots, Price is just as friendly with the impoverished in Africa as with an icy mercenary, Oates (Ed Harris in a role the polar opposite of his breakthrough performance in The Right Stuff the same year). On one level, Oates and Price are simply Americans doing their jobs in a foreign land. But soon Price has a change of heart. Blessed by a splendid final-act action sequence that is unforced and emotionally charged, the film is stuffed with color and energy, a good dose of which is supplied by Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score. --Doug Thomas


Until The End Of The World

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Shot on location in numerous countries, this ambitious Wim Wenders fantasy takes Sam Neill, Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, and a ragtag group in pursuit around the world and back again. Though set in 1999 under the shadow of impending disaster as a wobbly nuclear satellite threatens to Chernobyl the planet, the leisurely gait of their worldwide escapades has a distinctly '40s-era decadence. The ultimate object of their quest is a machine that records visual information from one person and reconstructs it in the brains of others--granting the miraculous power of sight to the blind for one thing, but even more mystically, enabling a person's dreams to be recorded. When the film seeks resolutions on the most intimate questions of the human soul which dovetail with the possibility of a destroyed world, the film is hampered by the VHS running time, which subtracts several hours from the laser disc version. But numerous joys, not least among them Jeanne Moreau and Max von Sydow as Hurt's parents, inhabit this thought-provoking film. --Alan E. Rapp


To Die For

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If anyone ever doubts whether Nicole Kidman is a good actress, they should immediately be required to watch this outrageously wicked comedy from 1995, for which Kidman deservedly won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Leading Role. While director Gus Van Sant handles the fact-based satire with razor-sharp precision, Kidman delivers a deliciously devious performance as Suzanne Stone, a small-town New Hampshire housewife who fancies herself the next Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, and Maria Shriver all rolled up into one meticulously coiffed package. So determined is she to have a successful career on TV that she'll stop at nothing--even the calculated murder of her husband (Matt Dillon)--to get the attention she feels entitled to. To carry out her scheme she recruits some unwitting local teenagers including one boy (Joaquin Phoenix, matching Kidman's excellence) whose infatuation with Suzanne leads to sexual escapades and predictably troublesome consequences. It's a satirical comedy in Van Sant's capable hands, but it's so close to tabloid reality that the film never seems implausible--which only gives it a funnier, more blood-chilling quality of humor. Featuring Illeanna Douglas, George Segal, and Seinfeld alumnus Wayne Knight in memorable supporting roles, this is one of the best comedies of the '90s--especially if you prefer comedies with a decidedly darker edge. --Jeff Shannon


The Prize, The Epic Quest for Oil

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This exciting and entertaining eight-part series, based on Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, captures the panoramic history of the biggest industry in the world. Shot on location in Azerbaijan, Egypt, England, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Russia, Scotland, Turkey, and the United States, the series features fascinating characters, archival footage, and interviews with the people who shaped the oil industry. Yergin appears on camera throughout the series to discuss oil's impact on politics, economics, and the environment.


Cadillac Desert

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Boxed Set

Mulholland's Dream

The Mercy of Nature

An American Nile

Last Oasis

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How did we turn thousands of square miles of the American Southwest into fertile farmland and thriving cities? How do we intend to sustain the life now dependent on our engineering? These and many other thoughtful questions are raised by the Cadillac Desert series, based on the book by Marc Reisner and on Last Oasis by Sandra Postel. Extensive interviews with the authors, dam builders, environmentalists, and those directly effected (for better and worse) by the water works are enlightening, sometimes funny, and sometimes maddening. The photography is brilliant, contrasting the natural beauty of the wetlands and deserts with the artificial beauty of the dams, waterways, and agricultural lands. Absorbing, engaging, and entertaining, Cadillac Desert is an excellent introduction to the recent history of our "invisible resource." This set also includes the Jack Nicholson movie Chinatown, which illuminates many of the issues brought to light in this series--Rob Lightner


Native Americans

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Boxed Set
Tribes of the Southeast
Tribal People of the Northwest
The Nations of Northeast
People of the Great Plains - Part 1
People of the Great Plains - Part 2
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