Three very different movies that never made it to Richmond are now yours for the renting. 

For Your Consideration

As the summer movie season heads into its second month of high-concept, high-profile releases, perhaps you find yourself wishing for just a tad more substance to your cinema fare. If that's indeed the case, here's a trio of titles now available on video that should satisfy your cravings. One's a cutting-edge documentary about making a movie. The second's a black comedy that wowed 'em at last year's Cannes Film Fest. The third is Barry Levinson's fourth tribute to growing up in Baltimore. And none of the three ever opened in Richmond.

If you love offbeat movies about moviemaking, then you'll find director Chris Smith's "American Movie" a hoot. Really more about not making a movie, this wacky yet uplifting film introduces us to 32-year-old Mark Borchardt. Incredibly, Borchardt has been dreaming about making a legitimate feature film since he was a Milwaukee teen shooting his own Super-8 shorts with titles like "The More the Scarier III." Smith's film chronicles two years in Borchardt's life, beginning with the wannabe auteur's realization that he doesn't have either his life or his bank account together enough to pull off making his masterpiece. Less than 15 minutes into the documentary, the long-haired, pot-smoking, self-described failure abandons "Northwestern," his story of petty criminals in the Milwaukee neighborhood of his youth. Shelving his dream, he goes back to "Coven," a half-finished, 35mm, black-and-white supernatural tale Borchardt hopes to sell himself at $14.95 per video, in order to finance his dream.

While most of Borchardt's obstacles are self-imposed or self-inflicted, there's something to this doggone underdog that makes you root for him. And under Smith's affectionate and never condescending lens, Borchardt isn't just another hopeless slacker with a dream. A Sundance Grand Jury prizewinner, "American Movie" is very funny and often very sad, but always entertaining.

First-time director Jasmin Dizdar accomplishes a rare cinematic feat with "Beautiful People" — taking a serious subject and actually crafting it into a comedy that works. Overflowing with genuine characters and true laughs, this Cannes prizewinner shatters the comfy isolationist myth that troubles in foreign lands are not our concern. "Beautiful People" illustrates how the Bosnian conflict reaches into the streets and homes of London's modern melting pot.

Many citizens of the former Yugoslavia have emigrated to England, Dizdar among them, and "Beautiful People" captures their fish-out-of-water status as they interact with the homegrown populace who can't quite figure out these new neighbors. Dizdar ambitiously attempts to tell six separate stories that occasionally intersect, merge and veer off. Each of the stories has at least one connection to the people or events of war-torn Bosnia. Instead of dwelling on the inherent tragedy of what's transpired there, Dizdar focuses on the absurdities and ironies of that civil war and how some people find the strength and courage to live a better life.

Dizdar's approach has one downside: It takes a full 30 minutes to get all of his characters and their relationships and situations into place before the movie takes off. But if you're willing to let Dizdar work at his own pace, you'll reap the rewards. "Beautiful People" is one of the most thought-provoking comedies I've ever encountered.

Finally, director Barry Levinson returns to his Bal'more roots for the heartfelt "Liberty Heights." Set in the mid-'50s of his youth, this charming tale explores what it's like to grow up realizing one's different.

In this case, Levinson tells the story of two brothers — high-schooler Ben and college student Val. The Jewish community in which the two are raised is isolated within and without by its own traditions and others' prejudices. But their family is far from a stereotype. Mom and grandmother keep custom alive while their father steps beyond his fading burlesque business and into illegal gambling, a racket that's also undergoing its own cultural identity crisis during the '50s.

As the boys concern themselves with growing up and finding love beyond that of family, that family remains their unshakeable core when these two young men encounter pain and cruelty from the world outside their safe community. Joe Mantegna and BeBe Neuwirth are the parents, but they're never as compelling as Adrien Brody and Ben Foster, who play their sons. While "Liberty Heights" is best when it's being humorous, there's a graceful eloquence to its handling of more serious issues such as race, class and religion. Underscoring it all, however, is a wonderful soundtrack of early rock 'n' roll mixed with original songs by Tom Waits.


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