Culture To Go

Accompanying the photos are chillingly dispassionate narratives written by their subjects, who, in recounting their daily lives, are stripped of their protective veneer of rebellion. Echo ran to escape years of molestation by her stepfather; Tweeky Dave left because his father shot him (he's got a 10-inch scar as a reminder). Of the numerous kids whose lives are touched on in this book, many are dead, with others likely to follow. In his years on the street, Goldberg fell hard for Tweeky Dave and others, developing close relationships and helping as best he could. But it became too difficult, and ultimately he had to climb back out. He looked back long enough to break his heart and, by the time we've finished the book, ours too. (Ryan Peck)

VIDEO

Exotica

Miramax

The first line of dialogue in Atom Egoyan's sapphire-hued mystery comes from a Canadian customs officer looking through a two-way mirror at a stream of travelers. "You have to ask yourself," he muses, almost tenderly, "what brought the person to this point." Exotica's literal smuggler is soon exposed; the messier secrets borne by the rest of the characters take a bit longer to unpack. Following Egoyan's elegantly telescoping revelations, the viewer discovers herself as the hidden observer on the other side of the mirror, in a film preoccupied as much with cinema as it is with psychic motivation.

After leading with the exotic-egg smuggler, Thomas (Don McKeller), Egoyan introduces three comparably formulaic characters, all denizens of an exotic-dancing establishment: the sleazy DJ providing microphone sex (Elias Koteas); the customer obsessed with one particular dancer (Bruce Greenwood, queasily driven); the cool bisexual "showgirl" with a line in school-girl fantasies (a mercurial Mia Kirshner). The film spies through more two-way mirrors with the DJ and then--through the metaphorical mirror of Thomas--into the trio's mixed-up memories, a blue tangle of loss, violence, and desire. On the trail of the past's intrusions into the present, Exotica confuses, intrigues, and finally cauterizes--almost too easily. As the strip bar's madam tells Greenwood's Francis, "We're here to entertain, not to heal." But Francis knows better, and so does Egoyan. The mystery of good cinema is that it must try to do both. (Terri Sutton)

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

Manga Entertainment

No, it's not a pornographic fantasy about the Barnum midget. It's a new take on the classic folktale, a stop-motion animated feature that has won a chestful of festival awards since its 1993 theatrical release. Produced by a group of British animators called the bolexbrothers, this Tom Thumb unfolds in a nightmare city resembling Kafka's Prague, only dingier. Tom himself is a distinctly fetal micro-child with wide blue eyes, born in squalor to bestial but loving parents. His troubles begin when respirator-snouted scientists kidnap him for research purposes; he escapes, joins up with a band of neolithic lilliputians, and the rest of the story concerns his ill-fated attempts to return home.

The story, however, counts for far less than the manner of its telling. There's hardly any dialogue, just grunts and a few grunted words, plus Tom's nonverbal squeakings, while synthesizers, industrial noise, and accordions dominate the soundtrack. The screen crawls with life: metal insects, a monster with an electrical-cable tail, a plate of squirming food; and the "real" life--the live actors who play regular humans--is also rendered herky-jerky by the stop-motion technique. Tom Thumb is a movie of exquisite textures, a powerful blend of pathos and the bizarre. As I watched, my perspective shifted, so that Tom no longer seemed abnormally small; instead, the big people appeared as giants, the oafish, greedy, cruel creatures of legend. I can't say that I saw myself in them--but I do think I recognized you. (Steve Schroer)

The Water Engine: An American Fable

Turner Home Entertainment

You've already significantly lightened your wallet in duly taking the whole family to see Jumanji and Toy Story; now's your chance to give them a real surprise by reserving a copy of The Water Engine. Written by that prince of terse darkness, David Mamet, and directed by first-timer Steven Schacter--who gets many kudos for softening Mamet's frequently too-stylized dialogue--this video has something for everyone: Super-fast pacing and virtually no violence for the kids, snappy dialogue and Joe Mantegna with a silly accent for the cinéastes, and an ambivalent ending that can either be deeply pessimistic or fantastically optimistic, and will provoke spirited discussions among everyone.

William Macy (seen in Homicide, House of Games, and other Mamet movies) plays Charles Lang, a Depression-era Chicago drill press operator. Taking his plans for an engine that runs on water to a seedy patent attorney, he runs up against the evil Lawrence Oberman (Mantegna), who is determined to destroy Lang's life's work. Set against the backdrop of the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition and containing vignettes of communist speeches, the film raises issues of whether technology and capitalism will ruin or save us. It is nicely framed by a narrator, Martin Sheen, reading a fatalistic chain letter that circulates to all the major and minor characters, (of which there are many). The letter raises lots of pithy questions, like: Does good fortune come through hard work or luck? Is a sense of accomplishment enough, without material reward? While huddled in the glow of the TV set, you and your loved ones can decide. (Dara Moskowitz)

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