Never Coming to a Theater Near You

A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie


By Kenneth Turan

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It is in the nature of today’s movie business that while Hollywood blockbusters invade every megaplex, smaller, quality films often don’t get screen time. Fans of finer films have to count on catching up with them on video and DVD, but even the most hard-core devotees have trouble remembering what sounded good when a film was originally released. Never Coming to a Theater Near You will remedy that situation.

This selection of renowned film critic Kenneth Turan’s absorbing and illuminating reviews, now revised and updated to factor in the tests of time, point viewers toward the films they can’t quite remember, but should not miss.

Moviegoers know they can trust Turan’s impeccable taste. His eclectic selection represents the kind of sophisticated, adult, and entertaining films intelligent viewers are hungry for. More importantly, Turan shows readers what makes these unusual films so great, revealing how talented filmmakers and actors have managed to create the wonderful highs we experience in front of the silver screen.


To those who watch and dream, and to B, always

ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of being a critic is that when you speak out for what you believe, you're doing it not only for yourself, but for other moviegoers—to let them know they are not alone. Some of the most heartfelt letters I've received have been from viewers, drowning in the tens of millions of publicity dollars spent per film, who feared they stood alone in their beliefs until they read what I'd written. The creation of a community of shared values is very much worth participating in: the pioneers of the Internet knew that, and film critics, if they're in the mood to count their blessings, know it as well.
This especially came home to me during the appearances I made in support of the hardcover edition of Never Coming to a Theater Near You. Potential buyers inevitably approached the book warily, looking down the table of contents to see if there was anything they recognized. Invariably, there were a few entries—different with every reader—that caused faces to light up and people to say, "I loved that film!" This sense of a coalition of like-minded moviegoers may be something we take for granted, but it definitely exists, and one of the best parts of writing this book was welcoming new members to it.
I always knew, even before the book, that being a film critic can be like having a career in the legendary sewers of Paris. This has little to do with working conditions or even the quality of the product to be dealt with, though at moments of weakness I'm tempted to think it does. Rather, it's that with either occupation, civilians invariably have a line of questions about exactly what the job is like.
A key part of these conversations, whether they're with friends or strangers, is the quest for recommendations about what's worth seeing. Unless you're a teenager, a night at the movies is a not inconsiderable investment of time, money, and psychic energy, and no one wants to waste any of that on motion picture territory best left unexplored.
Over the dozen years I've been a critic at the Los Angeles Times, I've noticed an increasing disconnect between the films I recommend person-to-person because they've meant the most to me and the ones most people have managed to see. The pressures to experience the blockbusters of the moment are too great and the time that smaller films remain on screens is so finite (the good really do die young in this business) that most people, even with the best intentions, find that the production they really meant to see is no longer in theaters by the time they carve out the leisure to see it.
In theory, the wide reach of videos and DVDs makes it possible for viewers to catch up on the films they missed, but in practical terms, faced with an intimidating vastness of rental choices, most people blank out on the names of features they've been meaning to see and reach for whatever's handiest. Which is where this book is meant to come in.
Just as every working critic took a different path to their job, every critic has a different reason for wanting to do it. For me, helping viewers to duplicate the great and wonderful highs I've experienced in front of a screen and avoid the excruciating lows—being, so to speak, a guide for the perplexed—has always been a key motivation. Just as the apostles wanted to spread the gospel, literally the "good news" about Jesus, I want to spread the gospel about the films that have meant the most to me.
As its title indicates, I've envisioned this book as a way to first read up on and then catch up on the great but less visible films you've always intended to see but never got around to and now can't remember. So, though I've valued major Hollywood films from L.A. Confidential to Lord of the Rings, those reviews aren't here because most people don't need to be reminded of their existence.
Since God doesn't tell me (or likely anyone else) what a good film is, this selection is a reflection of my taste, of what I've found especially satisfying over the past decade and more. I hope and believe it represents the kind of sophisticated, adult, always entertaining films people tell me they are hungering for and really value.
This knowledge has not been easy to come by. The 150 or so reviews included here represent something like 5 percent of my viewing life over that period of time, and anyone who thinks that only the studios make bad films has not endured the wave after wave of woebegone independent and foreign language productions it is a critic's lot to experience and pass judgment on.
Yet despite all that unsatisfactory time and effort, I have to say that the opportunity to see the films in this book has made my professional life richly rewarding and well worthwhile. These are motion pictures I likely would not have experienced—and possibly not even have heard of—if reviewing wasn't my job, and there isn't one of them I wouldn't rush to see again in a New York minute. For a critic, that's saying a lot.
Fortunately, though quality films continue to be rare, they show no sign of going away. I don't know what's been more gratifying in the past year, noting new directors like Germany's Fateh Akin—and his Head-On—that I'd want to include in future editions, or seeing that filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki and Jacques Audiard, already included in the book, continue to do spectacular work with films like Howl's Moving Castle and The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
Finally, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, if there were more films like these, the world would be a better place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in. Individually and en masse, these are the films that enriched my life beyond measure. With any kind of luck, they will enrich yours as well.

Kenneth Turan has been film critic at the Los Angeles Times for more than ten years. He can also be heard every Friday morning as film critic for National Public Radio's Morning Edition. The director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, he lives in Los Angeles.

part one

It may not be immediately visible, but the benign shadow of the American independent film movement looms over this section like the cinematic version of Caspar the Friendly Ghost.
That's not apparent at first because close to half of these films are not from the United States at all. More than twenty come from either Great Britain or Ireland, another bunch began in Australia and New Zealand, and there is even one motion picture, the singular Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, that managed to make it in from Canada.
More than that, unexpected though it may be from a book on films that got away, more than a few of these motion pictures were originally released by a Hollywood studio, albeit a studio that had no idea how to sell what it found on its hands. That's why the most powerful marketing force in the world was no help when it came to iconoclastic works such as Devil in a Blue Dress, Election, The Iron Giant, Out of Sight, and Wonder Boys.
Even the independent films I've chosen don't necessarily fit into preconceived categories. There are familiar directors in unfamiliar guises (John Sayles as children's filmmaker with The Secret of Roan Inish) and celebrated actors in unexpected roles (Nicole Kidman as a Russian mail-order bride in Birthday Girl). There are films everyone liked (Whale Rider, You Can Count on Me) and films that seemed to work only for me (Next Stop Wonderland, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries).
Most poignant of all is that the relevance of some films has only increased since they were released. What Last Resort said about refugees, My Son the Fanatic about Islamic fundamentalism, Safe about environmental dangers, and Wag the Dog about war conducted for political reasons seems almost frighteningly to the point today.
Yet no matter where they came from or who released them, all of the films in this section are imbued with the spirit of the American independent movement, made in the belief that being smart, thoughtful, and adult isn't necessarily a barrier to reaching an audience.
Although film journalists and critics like to periodically moan that the independent world isn't all it could be, that having companies such as Miramax and New Line owned by major studios (in this case, Disney and Time Warner, respectively) has fatally compromised the kinds of films out there, the reality is that this is a glass much more half full than half empty.
Absent a thriving independent film movement, many of the exceptional films presented in this section, whether British, Canadian, Australian, or American in origin, would not have been made, or, if made, may not have found a way into distribution. Yes, things could no doubt be better, but they could also be a great deal worse. And a world without these marvelous films is not one any of us wants to contemplate. Least of all me.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
"Drag is the Drug," the posters at Cannes promoting The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert announced, not without reason. The comic pizzazz and bawdy dazzle of this film's vision of gaudy drag performers trekking across the Australian outback certainly has a boisterous, addictive way about it.
But like any self-respecting drug, Priscilla comes with its own built-in hangover. Sharing screen space with the film's raunchy humor and outrageous musical numbers is a strain of conventional sentimentality that would not be inappropriate on the Disney Channel. It doesn't ruin the fun, but it certainly takes the edge off it.
One of the reasons writer-director Stephan Elliott has given for making Priscilla was a desire to bring back the vintage Hollywood musical, and, like the old MGM classics, this film is definitely at its best when its trio of actors are performing with a lip-synced song in their hearts.
Whether it's Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) opening the movie with a torchy rendition of "I've Been to Paradise but I've Never Been to Me" or Felicia (Guy Pearce) belting out a Verdi aria in a silver lamé gown on top of a moving bus, or the two of them plus Bernadette (Terence Stamp) launching into synchronized versions of "I Will Survive," "Shake Your Groove Thing," or almost anything by ABBA, all in outfits that beggar description, the musical numbers are surefire and irresistible.
While Mitzi and Felicia are more conventional (if that is the right word) drag queens who also answer to the names Tick and Adam, respectively, Bernadette is a hormone-ingesting transsexual who goes ballistic whenever her former given name, Ralph, crosses anyone's lips.
Despite having made a career out of being what Elliott calls "a heterosexual icon," Stamp is the movie's major surprise, gracefully convincing as Bernadette, a woman no longer trapped in a man's body. Elegant and dignified with enough hauteur for an entire royal family, the resilient Bernadette is a creature of haunted and exquisite gestures, and Stamp doesn't allow you to feel that even the smallest of them is false.
Though this performance is Priscilla's most fully realized, the other two leads are also expertly done, partly because Elliott has written them with a well-adjusted liveliness and specificity that gives the actors a good deal to work with.
Tick is the most solid and stable of the three, an established performer and the catalyst for the trip as well. (Weaving, incidentally, was memorable in a completely different role as the angry blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof.)
Unknown to his pals, Tick was married before he became a fixture of Sydney's gay scene, and unexpectedly he gets a phone call from his ex, who manages a resort in middle-of-nowhere Alice Springs and is desperate for entertainers. Can he make the trip, and, more important, dare he tell his friends who asked him to perform?
Bernadette, grieving for a recently dead husband, is persuaded to come along for a change of scene. Adam, an amusingly malicious party animal, is always up for something new and even produces the money for the group's bus, christened Priscilla. Besides, he confesses, he's always wanted to travel to the outback and "climb Kings Canyon as a queen," decked out in a Gautier gown, heels, and a tiara.
The trio's alcohol-drenched trip through the desert (which caused French critics to call the film Florence d'Arabie) takes up most of Priscilla. The best part of that is the ribald interaction among the three performers, all of whom, especially "cesspool mouth" Adam, have rude and dangerous tongues that can flay the flesh off the unwary.
Less unsettling, in fact regrettably predictable, are most of the adventures that these three run into on their pilgrimage. Not surprisingly, their appearance completely flummoxes the uncomprehending and often angry straight people at each of their stops, and the homophobic scrapes that result have a tendency to feel contrived.
And with the exception of auto mechanic Bob (veteran all-purpose Australian actor Bill Hunter), those met on the road who are not hostile, such as Tick's wife, are as unconvincingly cheerful and saccharine as Adam is blistering. Their glibness and compassion make an odd contrast with the bitchy talk on the bus, but, to its credit, whenever things get too treacly, Priscilla knows enough to break out those frocks and get the show in gear. That is entertainment for sure.
Both Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix trilogy) may have gone on to bigger budget films, but they've never been more fun on screen than they are here.

Bhaji on the Beach
Bhaji on the Beach is one of those small but remarkable pictures that smiles at the supposed difficulties of moviemaking. Warm and charming while sacrificing neither its integrity nor its point of view, it covers considerable personal and political territory without overreaching or condescending. And it never forgets to have fun.
The debut film of director and co–story writer Gurinder Chadha, apparently the first Indian woman living in Britain to direct a film in that country, Bhaji is further evidence that Britain's supposedly moribund film industry is turning into cinema's most celebrated invalid. Though economic difficulties have seriously curtailed output, those British films that do get made are invariably models of strength and compassion.
The seriocomic story of a day trip to the seaside resort of Blackpool by several generations of women, Bhaji has points in common with work by other socially conscious British directors, particularly the pioneering Ken Loach, whom Chadha views as a mentor, and Mike Leigh, from whom she has borrowed ideas on using extensive rehearsals to define character.
Yet as indicated by the bhaji of the title, an only-in-England snack derived from a traditional Indian dish, this is very much its own film, flavored by the distinctive sensibility of the Indian community that it depicts.
Although Bhaji's key protagonists may sound just like the English they live among, they are separated from them not only by skin color but also by the difficulties of being a transitional generation, with one foot in the clannish, fearful society of their immigrant parents and the other in the modern Western world in which their futures will take place.
Bhaji begins in Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands, and its almost too-rapid introduction of characters gives audiences a sense of the crowded, hectic conditions of the Indian community there. Married children still live with their parents, and the whole business is overseen by a network of vaguely related, invariably censorious older women known collectively (as they were in the similarly themed The Joy Luck Club) as "aunties."
But by the time a bus holding a cross-section of women sets out for a day of "female fun" at Blackpool under the tutelage of the feminist Simi (Shaheen Khan), two of the passengers, each with her own romantic catastrophe, have come into focus as the film's parallel protagonists.
Ginder (Kim Vithana) has precipitated a crisis in the close-knit community by leaving her husband, Ranjit (Jimmi Harkishin), and moving into a women's shelter with her young son. And Hashida (Sarita Khajuria), a college graduate about to enter medical school, knows she will cause even more of a sensation if word gets out that (a) she is pregnant though unmarried and (b) the father, Oliver, is a young black man of Caribbean descent (Mo Sesay).
When the bus arrives at Blackpool, the city itself, with its gaudy, Coney Islandish air of down-at-the-heels frivolity, takes its place as a character in the film. A setting like this by definition encourages a loosening of bonds, allowing everyone from teenage sisters Ladhu and Madhu to decorous Auntie Asha (Lalita Ahmed) to engage in amusing flirtations. And with both Ranjit and Oliver headed toward Blackpool to try to resolve their difficulties, more serious events are likely to occur as well.
It is this ability to move with grace and ease between comedy and drama that is Bhaji's particular accomplishment. For though Meera Syal's script deals with provocative issues, from racism to the place of women in society and the often injurious power of custom and tradition, both she and director Chadha employ a fluid touch that allows points to be made with welcome subtlety.
Critical to this accomplishment is the fondness and empathy for its characters that marks the film's every scene. The chance to put situations close to their own experience onto the screen must have meant a great deal to everyone involved, and the sense of vivid life that results has made Bhaji on the Beach into a film that manages to be as pleasant as it is pointed.
Nearly a decade later, filmmaker Chadha returned to the same Anglo-Indian milieu and turned Bend It Like Beckham into a major international success.

Birthday Girl
Birthday Girl is something rather different, both for star Nicole Kidman and for us. It's an adventurous, unsettling, heedlessly implausible film, equal parts comedy, romance, excitement, and raw emotion. In a fierce black farce, Birthday Girl's remixing of traditional genre elements tells you from frame one that a distinctive film sensibility is at work.
That sensibility belongs to British director Jez Butterworth, who wrote the film with brother Tom and recruited brother Steve to work as producer. Jez also wrote his directing debut, Mojo (1997), which won numerous British theater awards as a play, and he is nothing if not fearless in his casting. For Nadia, a Vampirella-in-spiked-boots Russian mail-order bride, Butterworth went with Australian Kidman. And he picked two young stalwarts of the French film industry, actor Vincent Cassel and actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, for the film's other pair of Russian characters. It's a tribute to how intriguing all three performers found the project that everyone learned to speak the language convincingly enough to get their parts.
Despite this international flavor, Birthday Girl is set in the very English Hertfordshire town of St. Albans, where young John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin of The Truth about Cats and Dogs) works long and tedious hours as a bank teller. A sad-eyed, timid soul whose biggest problem is an ant infestation in his tidy home, John despairs of finding a mate in the neighborhood. So, in an act he considers "quite brave," he sends a video off to the endless steppes of Russia in search of a mail-order bride. "Someone you can really talk to" is what he's looking for. After all, "communication is the key."
When dark-haired Nadia shows up at the local airport, she is definitely not what John bargained for. Resembling a man-eating spider-woman and not speaking a word of English, Nadia dresses a bit like a hooker and considers the Russian-English dictionary John helpfully provides as useful only for squashing those wayward ants.
Terrified of what he's gotten into, John tries to return Nadia like an unsatisfactory Fortnum & Mason's fruitcake. That proves tricky, especially after Nadia discovers and caters to his kinky sexual preferences. Alternately frightened, bewildered, and delighted, John can't decide if he's fallen in love or just found a flesh-and-blood sex toy. And that's just the start of his confusion.
When a besotted John plans a birthday party for Nadia, who should show up—and ask to stay a while—but her long-lost cousin Yuri (Kassovitz) and Yuri's obstreperous new friend Alexei (Cassel). John, who doesn't want to share Nadia with anyone, is aghast at the invasion of two feckless louts whose motto is "Plans are for architects." "Boisterous" is a mild word for this pair's shenanigans, but the moment John finally feels he's had enough is the point at which Birthday Girl's plot really begins.
For, complex though it may sound, the above is merely a prelude to Birthday Girl's main action. That surprising series of constantly changing events moves so fast—and so enjoyably—that it's hard to notice or really care that it doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense.
Keeping us involved are the uniformly fine performances of this polyglot cast, starting with the convincingly Slavic and always entertaining Kidman, who has considerable fun as the strong-minded, intrepid woman no man can resist.
As for the men, Chaplin is adept as the buttoned-down, follow-the-rules functionary who's gotten himself into something wild, while Kassovitz and Cassel, friends in real life, add a believable touch of bizarre comradeship to their portrayal of stereotypical Russians on the make.
Though Birthday Girl is probably too unnerving and at times savage a relationship comedy to be a universal taste, its success on its own terms says a lot for the gifts of director-writer Butterworth. He guides us through the world of chaos and romantic confusion he's created as if it's the most natural place in the world. After a while, we actually believe it is.

Bloody Sunday
Bloody Sunday was, as a character says, a moment of truth and a moment of shame. It was a savage blow delivered decades ago that the Northern Irish city of Derry has yet to put behind it. It caused a national furor so long-lived that the British government was recently forced to reopen its investigation into the event. And it has inspired first a classic song by U2 and now an exceptional film, a compelling, gut-clutching piece of advocacy cinema that carries you along in a torrent of emotion as it explores the awful complications of one terrifying day.
Bloody Sunday, which shared the Golden Bear award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, shows the power of real events dramatically conveyed. Made by writer-director Paul Greengrass out of a sense of communal outrage that has not gone away, this film never wavers, never loses its focus or its conviction. It takes us from dawn to dusk on January 30, 1972, a day in which British troops opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers. Twenty-seven people were hit, at least five shot in the back; fourteen died.
Though he's made some dramatic features, Greengrass is best known for his ten years of doing documentaries for a top British TV series. Starting from the painstaking book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, by Don Mullan, which led to the reopening of the case, and taking Gillo Pontecorvo's landmark Battle of Algiers as a model, Greengrass and his team (production designer John Paul Kelly, editor Clare Douglas, and director of photography Ivan Stasburg) have re-created the events of that day with such potency you feel you are there with the marchers, personally experiencing the awful inevitability of history gone terribly wrong.
Cinematographer Stasburg deserves special mention for the way his expressive, jittery, hand-held cinema verité camera work, lurking around corners and eavesdropping on conversations, creates the immediacy of newsreel footage. Bloody Sunday plays like it's the work of a documentary crew with great instincts and total access. It manages the difficult trick of conveying chaos while allowing us to recognize the patterns in the madness. It's both spontaneous enough to resemble reality captured on the fly and focused enough to be intensely dramatic.
Bloody Sunday's narrative device retains its potency throughout the film: Everything is structured around cutting back and forth between two of Northern Ireland's perennial antagonists, the beleaguered British Army and the province's restive Catholic minority.
The Catholics, ironically led by their Protestant member of Parliament Ivan Cooper (an outstanding James Nesbitt), are holding a press conference restating their determination, as believers in peaceful protest in the Martin Luther King Jr. tradition, to march the next day for civil rights and against the British practice of internment without trial.
At the same time, the British Army, personified by the ultra-confident Major General Robert Ford (the impeccable Tim Piggott-Smith), is holding a press conference of its own, reiterating that marches are banned and that people "organizing such events are liable to immediate arrest. Any responsibility for violence must rest on their shoulders."


On Sale
Nov 1, 2005
Page Count
352 pages

Kenneth Turan

About the Author

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times‘ book review editor. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he is the co-author of Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke.

Turan teaches film reviewing and non-fiction writing at USC and is on the board of directors of the National Yiddish Book Center. His most recent books include Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told and Never Coming To A Theater Near You. Turan lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @KennethTuran.

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