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Mudbound

The film invites us to observe its characters, to hear their inner voices, to see what they see and to challenge our own preconceived notions…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly. He also contributed to VideoHound's Cult Flicks & Trash Pics and Sci-Fi Experience; Your Quantum Guide to the Video Universe, and The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses.

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When Comedy Went to School

(2013)

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Still Mine

(2013)

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Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner

(2013)

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Kon-Tiki

(2013)

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Hava Nagila: The Movie

(2012)

Mariachi High: Viva Zapata, Texas!

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"Mariachi High" premieres on PBS on Friday, June 29 at 9 p. m.ET (check your local listings). A DVD can be pre-ordered at www.pbs.org for August 14 release. It will also be available digitally in August via iTunes and Amazon.

by Donald Liebenson

Having had the good fortune to attend a high school with a vital arts program, I am a sucker for documentaries about the transformative power of arts and humanities education. "Mariachi High" hits all the right notes: An underdog school district, a dedicated teacher, fiercely talented and determined students, and character-defining setbacks that raise the stakes for those "exhilarating, off the charts" moments of truth.

"Mariachi High" chronicles a school year in the life of Zapata High School's championship varsity-level ensemble, Mariachi Halcon. Zapata, a small Texas border town (pop: 5,089 in 2010 when co-directors Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell began filming), is somehow "a big talent gene pool for Mariachi," observes the ensemble's director Adrian Padilla.

To say the school of 900 does not enjoy the advantages of big city schools is an understatement. One Zapata student recalls comparing eighth grade school trips with a friend. Her friend's school traveled to Washington, D.C. The Zapata kids visited an aquarium.

But Mariachi is where they make their mark.

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Something's Gonna Live: Classic movies by design

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"Something's Gonna Live" (78 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant, and DVD.

Architecture's loss was the movies' immeasurable gain. Robert Boyle, Albert Nozaki and Henry Bumstead, classmates at the University of Southern California in the 1930s could not find jobs in their studied profession. They wound up at Paramount Studios, where, as production designers and art directors, they set the stage for some of the movies' most indelible images.

Boyle designed Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur," "Shadow of a Doubt," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," and "Marnie." And those are the just the Hitchcock credits. Bumstead earned Academy Awards for his contributions to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Sting." He received nominations for his work on "Vertigo" and "Unforgiven." Tokyo-born Nozaki was the art director on "The War of the Worlds" and "The Ten Commandments," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

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The Magic of Belle Isle: Press the Easy Button

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"The Magic of Belle Isle" (109 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon, Comcast, DirecTV, VUDU and other outlets. A limited theatrical release begins July 1.

Rob Reiner's "The Magic of Belle Isle" is an Easy Button of a film, as generic and conventional as its title. If you ever wondered what a Hallmark Channel original movie would be like if you threw some A-list talent at it -- namely Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen instead of, say, Jeffrey Nordling and Kristy Swanson -- here's your answer.

Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, an alcoholic in a wheelchair and "writer (of westerns) nobody reads." His books, once popular, are now out of print. Monte's nephew (Keenan Thompson) deposits him in the idyllic lakeside town of Belle Isle to housesit. Nephew's ulterior motive, of course, is that he will be inspired to stop drinking and start writing again, but the embittered Monte is a hard case. "Toss it in the garbage," he says of his typewriter. "She's a black-hearted whore, and I'm done with her."

So what will it take to turn this curmudgeon into a softie? Guy Thomas' simplistic script leaves nothing to chance. How about saddling Monte with a lazy old dog named Ringo (yes, Ringo) that has a penchant for licking itself? No? Well then, how about introducing a single mother (Madsen) who is going through a divorce with three -- count 'em -- daughters: one adorable, one precocious, and one sullen? Still not enough? Well then how about adding to the mix a mentally challenged boy who hops around the neighborhood and whom Monte takes under his wing as his "sidekick?"

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Norman Mailer: His life in public

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"Norman Mailer: The American" is available on Amazon Instant video. It is also available on DVD. Criterion has announced a two-disc Eclipse Series DVD set of Norman Mailer-directed features for release August 28, 2012: "Maidstone" (1970), "Wild 90" (1967) and "Beyond the Law" (1968).

Watching "Norman Mailer: The American," I was struck by the similarities between Mailer and Charles Foster Kane. And it's not just that director Joseph Mantegna (not the actor) at one point employs the title card for "Citizen Kane's" faux newsreel "News on the March" to setup some archival footage. Or the fact that "American" was originally the proposed title for Orson Welles' masterpiece.

Both films grapple with taking the full measure of a man who had significant influences on his times (Kane is fictional, but he was legendarily based in part on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst). As Mailer's life unfolds in all its glory, controversy and infamy, dialogue from "Kane" ran like a crawl through my brain. "Few private lives were more public... and he himself was always news." And: "Here's a man who was as loved and hated and talked about as any man in our time." But finally: "It's not enough to tell us what the man did, you've got to tell us who he was."

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Get the Gringo: Mad Mel demolishes Mexico

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"Get the Gringo" is available on DirecTV. A wider VOD release, along with DVD and Blu-ray releases, will follow later this year.

"Inmates with guns, that's kinda new," Mel Gibson's Yanqui with No Name (or fingerprints) growls in "Get the Gringo." "I've got a lot to learn about this place." And there is a lot to learn about El Pueblito, a Mexican prison that makes Shawshank look like Otis Campbell's quaint little cell on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Never mind how he got there, it's how he's going to get out that gives "Get the Gringo," formerly titled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," its Peckinpah-flavored juice. It's potent stuff: gritty and grungy, but not without hard-boiled humor. With a nod to the late Dick Clark: It's got good beatings and you can dance to it, depending on your taste for mariachi music. I rate it a 7.

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Corman's World: Monsters, mayhem & breast nudity!

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"Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" is available March 27 on online outlets via iTunes, Vudu, CinemaNow and Amazon. Also on DVD and Blu-ray.

For B-movie buffs, exploitation film aficionados, and midnight movie cultists, the grand finale of "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," will be every bit as exhilarating as that montage of forbidden kisses at the end of "Cinema Paradiso." Taking its cue from the liberating, rebellious high point of the Roger Corman-produced "Rock and Roll High School," in which P. J. Soles and the Ramones rock the hallways of Vince Lombardi High, it offers up dizzying bursts of quintessential Corman: cheesy monsters, fiery car explosions, Vincent Price, blaxploitation kickass, marauding piranhas and Mary Woronov with a gun.

Alex Stapleton's "Corman's World" celebrates the singular cinematic legacy of the "King of the Bs," who has improbably and regretfully fallen into obscurity. Observes director Penelope Spheeris ("The Boys Next Door," "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years," "Wayne's World"): "If you ask a 20-25-year-old film buff, they won't know who he is."

This despite a career that spans almost 60 years and more than 400 films that Corman either directed or produced. But while his own name may be unfamiliar, many of the once-fledgling actors and filmmakers whom he nurtured/exploited are not: Martin Scorsese ("Boxcar Bertha"), Ron Howard ("Grand Theft Auto"), Peter Bogdanovich ("Targets"), Jonathan Demme ("Caged Heat"), Joe Dante ("Piranha"), Robert DeNiro ("Bloody Mama"), Pam Grier ("The Big Doll House"), screenwriter John Sayles ("The Lady in Red") -- all these and many more appear in "Corman's World" in new and archival interviews.

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