By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
The Phantom of LibertyDirected by Luis Buñuel (November 8 through 14, at Film Forum) "I'm sick of symmetry," declares a character early in Luis Buñuel's penultimate feature, and though the director was never much a stickler for it either, The Phantom of Liberty is his own La Rondeor his own Monty Python installment. Middle-class convention gets tweaked, deflated, and exploded via a pungent daisy chain of absurdist commedia dell'arte, stocked with blasphemous Napoleonic soldiers, tipsy monks, ostriches in the boudoir, and a kitten with a whip. An anthology of Buñuelian themesthe tyranny of decorum, the arbitrariness of conventionthe film also adds an anteroom to his pantheon of dinner-table insurrections; suffice to say it revises the axiom "Don't shit where you eat." Buñuel's bourgies, with ostrichy obstinacy, refuse to see what is plainly in front of them, be it dirty pictures, a "missing" child, or a lover's body. Albeit scattershot, Phantom does cohere as a satire of keeping up appearances in which everything is as it appears. Jessica Winter
I SpyDirected by Betty Thomas (Columbia) Or Eye Spy: The slickest invention in Betty Thomas's stultifying multiplex exercise is a contact-lens camera that lets a remote viewer share the wearer's sight line. Thus trash-talking pugilist turned turncoat Eddie Murphy can watch his capable but insecure partner Owen Wilson court a longtime crush (Famke Janssen), while feeding him Marvin Gaye lyrics (via earpiece) to aid the seduction. The split-screen escapade suffices as boudoir farce; why the rest of the film should be seen is far less clear. An update of Bill Cosby's '60s TV series, I Spyavoids nostalgia and logic alike, settling for sub-Bondian intrigue and tepid jokery. All biracial-buddy movies are de facto glosses on the color line, even if they take place in Budapest and no matter how many cars explode; but though ample time is spent mingling Murphy's jabberjaw locutions and Wilson's curveball spaciness, the film leaves only the bitter reek of a botched chemistry experiment. Ed Park
Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera BalletDirected by Nils Tavernier (First Run, opens November 8, at Cinema Village) A terrific example of the "inside story" genre, in which a filmmaker cozies up to ballerinas and danseurs (off-duty and onstage) with his Steadicam, Etoiles is a voyeur's dream. Director Nils Tavernier (who narrates and poses quiet questions from behind the camera) lingers on the beauty of full-blown stars as well as novices, interviews teachers and managers, and loiters backstage, in dressing rooms, and in class. It's like a nature study, only the subjects are bipeds who fall easily into Degas postures. Among the many pleasures are the lively intelligence of the artists and their perceptiveness about their own situations. "Dance is something that devours you, stronger than love," says one; another observes that the company "is a machine that crushes the weak." Elizabeth Zimmer
God Is Great, I'm NotDirected by Pascale Bailly (Empire, opens November 8, at the Paris)Bracketed by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee tunes, Pascale Bailly's rom-com provides Amélie's Audrey Tautou with another fabuleux destini.e., a banal spiritual quest. Michèle (Tautou), a nominally Catholic 20-year-old model, first dabbles in Buddhism. Then, after falling for secular Jew François (Edouard Baer), she studies Hebrew and puts up a mezuzah. A grating cycle of squabbles, sloppy kissing, and rapprochements follows, with scenes from the unhappy union of Michèle's mother (Catherine Jacob) and stepfather (Philippe Laudenbach) interspersed as cautionary tale. "Stop acting cute every time I say something," François barks at Michèle, but to no avail: Tautou's repertoire of pouts, impish grins, and saucer-eyed gazes is endless. Respite arrives when Michèle watches To Be or Not to Befor a few blissful moments, we're treated to Carole Lombard, a luminous archetype whose presence only highlights her Gallic emulator's shortcomings. Melissa Anderson
The Rising PlaceDirected by Tom Rice (Flatland/Zenpix, opens November 8)It's always difficult to compete in a genre where the benchmark film is Fried Green Tomatoes.Tom Rice's debut is yet another weepy Southern bore-athon, this time concerning a middle-aged woman whose life is imbued with purpose when she discovers WWII-era letters detailing her aunt's troubled small-town existence. Introduced through a series of flashbacks, the young Emily Hodge (Laurel Holloman), a strong-willed belle, is scorned for her close friendship with a spirited young black woman (Elise Neal). She's further alienated from the community when she gets pregnant out of wedlock, and confronts a racist and sexist society intent on cooking her goose. Broadway dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday's musical interludes occasionally relieve this mélange of recycled social morality lessons. Nat Johnson
Justifiable HomicideDirected by Jon Osman and Jonathan Stack (through November 12, at Anthology)In January 1995, Anthony Rosario took 14 bullets to the back and arms while lying face-down on a Bronx apartment floor during a police shootout that killed the teenager and his cousin, 21-year-old Hilton Vega. The NYPD needed just a week to shut the case and provide Jon Osman and Jonathan Stack's documentary with its title, but Justifiable Homicide meticulously uncovers a trail of outrageous force and craven concealment. It also chronicles the rebirth of Giuliani voter Margarita Rosario, mother to Anthony, as a formidable police-brutality activistwho nonetheless can only attain an audience with the mayor by calling in to his radio show. True to form, Rudy berates the grieving mom, tells three discrete lies to his listeners over her protestations, and then disconnects her. J.W.
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