Imagine a package traveling across the globe, from shipping container to ship, from truck to train. An animated red line marks its progress, moving through country after country - as if it were tracing the route of a birthday present on the Web site of some overnight shipper.
Now imagine that package is two men, smuggling themselves across continents and oceans.
Imagine this and you get the general gist of British director Michael Winterbottom's In This World (Sundance, $26.99), just released on DVD, and one of the more unforgettable films from 2003 to receive almost negligible distribution in this country. (It played film festivals and a few art houses on a Sundance Channel promotional tour, then disappeared before word got out.)
You've heard news stories like this: People balling themselves into wooden crates, with only an oxygen tank to keep them alive; or even stowing away in the wheel wells of commercial airliners and hanging on for dear life. Winterbottom and writer Tony Grisoni researched the illegal routes that easterners take to reach London. Then they set out for a refugee camp on the border of Pakistan. They plucked their two actors from the crowd, a teenager and a man in his early 20s, and together constructed a movie that resembles a documentary, something familiar and straight off Frontline - but plays like a white-knuckle thriller.
"Every year, over one million people in the world put their lives in the hands of people smugglers," a voiceover tells us.
We're not given much more political context than that, only two faces to put to a problem. We watch Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and his older cousin, Enayat (Enayatullah), stuff themselves into cargo containers and hug the bottoms of trucks; they ride in farm trucks and take buses and outtalk armed guards. In one harrowing scene, they cross the mountains into Turkey on foot, and in a snowstorm, and you only see traces of gunfire and hear the shouts of border patrolmen.
Though the movie tells a fictional tale, we're never quite sure if what we're watching is real, staged, or, more likely, a combination. If there's a wild seat-of-your-pants rhythm to the scenes, it's with good reason: Winterbottom and just a two-man crew shot in Pakistan and Iran by saying they were making a documentary about ancient silk trading routes. Turkey tuned down their request.
And they shot it all anyway, turning unwitting crowds into extras, catching a shot here or there with the help of a producer who would station herself in a location a day or two early, arrange a few actors, then move on. The result is genuine guerrilla filmmaking, told by a professional, with a story that goes forward a few steps, then heartbreakingly goes back 10 - entirely based on interviews with real people who have made the trek to London.
Winterbottom, one of the best of a new wave of young British directors, is maddeningly difficult to predict. Two films ago, he made 24 Hour Party People, a cheeky history of the roots of the English rave scene that's destined to be a cult legend; later this year he has Code 46, a touching futuristic romance with Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton that sticks more to the sci-fi of ideas than ray guns. He's made literary adaptations with Kate Winslet (Jude) and political dramas (Welcome to Sarajevo). In This World is more vital, a movie completely of its moment, ripped from the headlines, by a filmmaker of dogged curiosity.
PLAYING PICKUP: Someday that craggy-souled legend Samuel Fuller will also become a household name. For now he'll remain a cinephile's open secret: Pickup on South Street (Criterion, $29.95) is maybe his best known two-fisted tale, a 1953 crime classic about a con artist (Richard Widmark) who inadvertently pickpockets government secrets. Fuller, who didn't make his first film until he had fought in World War II and spent a career as a newspaper reporter, died in 1997. Criterion's fantastic supplementary section, though, begs to be expanded into a more thorough box set: included is a French television profile and a terrific interview Time magazine critic Richard Schickel did with Fuller just before the filmmaker died.
"The director's job," Fuller tells him, twirling a cigar, "is to see that the finished story is what excited him in the first place."
A FEW SNAPSHOTS: It's been said Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 landmark Blow-Up (Warner, $19.98), on DVD for the first time, is a series of pictures about a series of pictures. David Hemmings, who died last year, plays a very swinging London fashion photographer (yes, Austin Powers took some cues here) who may have accidentally photographed a murder. At the time, its mix of sex and free spirit had the same impact on its generation that Pulp Fiction had on Gen Xers. Its ellipses haven't lost their mystery; but now you're even more likely to see it as an ever-relevant study of how the camera can lie (and a direct influence on movies like The Conversation and Blow Out). The wide-screen compositions remain fresh and exciting, and the commentary track from critic Peter Brunette is sharp.
Since we're talking Italians: Luchino Visconti's embalmed 1971 adaptation of Death in Venice (Warner, $19.98) is also new on DVD. Time hasn't been kind. Thomas Mann's gloomy classic feels suffocated in good taste. The accompanying studio promotion film, though, Visconti in Venice, is a period gem.
Way, waaay too heavy?
Without a doubt, the one old movie people tell me they love the most is Gaslight (Warner, $19.98), recently released as an impressive special-edition disc, with a very neat bonus: In addition to the Ingrid Bergman chiller, you get the entire 1940 British version, which is a bit tamer than the George Cukor classic that might be considered the template for our modern psychological Ashley Judd thriller.
Far more stupid, but almost as much fun, is Just One of the Guys (Columbia, $24.96). It's basically Tootsie in reverse: high school reporter sets out to prove sex discrimination by passing as a guy. The only recognizable face is Sherilyn Fenn, who feeds goldfish while topless. As for the disc itself, there's no bonus material.
BORN IN THE U.S.A.: A trio of underrated documentaries about things being tough all over, newly released on DVD. If you've ever been involved in a labor dispute that got ugly, chances are you should be thankful it never got as ugly as it gets in the great American Dream (Buena Vista, $19.99), Barbara Kopple's harrowing, Oscar-winning 1990 account of a devastating strike at a Minnesota meat-packing plant. There's never any question where Kopple stands (on the side of labor). But she doesn't sanitize the infighting or turn the film into propaganda. You watch resolve crumble slowly, and bitterly, and you can't look away.
Adapted from a counterculture favorite of the Vietnam War era, Wisconsin Death Trip (Home Vision, $29.95) is part documentary, part recreation of a town's bad luck - so awful I don't know whether it's chilling or darkly hilarious. In the 1890s, Black River Falls, Wis., went through small pox, rashes of murder and suicide, and the destruction of its local economy. Its black-and-white images of desolation and ravaged Midwest faces will haunt you.
Steve Earle: Just an American Boy (Artemis, $19.98) is not the definitive story of a pop rebel far to the left of Nashville. A semi-country artist, his history of jail time, drug addiction, and social justice demands a bio-flick more artful and insightful. But for now, it gets by on message alone: The most important thing to remember, Earle drives home, is that it is never, ever un-American to raise questions in a democracy.
DOES NOT APPLY SELF: There are movies that are huge wastes of talent. Then there are admirable failures like Mona Lisa Smile (Columbia, $28.95, available Tuesday). The cast is a who's who of smart contemporary actresses - Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst - the period detail (1953, Wellesley College) is loving, and the message is beaten home (learn to think for yourself). The trouble is, a movie as thoughtful as Mike Newell's inspirational drama intends to be would not stoop to being so sanctimonious and unwilling to allow the audience to think for itself.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: Richard Linklater's School of Rock (Paramount, $29.99) is as surprising and entertaining a movie about the creative urge as has ever been made. Maybe the best comparison would be Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and its idea that you do what you love, whether you're talented or not, and the reward will be there.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Warner, $27.95) has its supporters, too. I'm not one of them: It smacks of too many humans and not enough Toons. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore go all rubbery themselves in Duplex (Buena Vista, $29.99), as a couple who go to extreme lengths in the name of rent control. Stiller needs a rest. As for the best movie about a boy and his talking dog from another planet, your safest bet is Good Boy! (MGM, $26.98). And for the record: Cats are from Venus.