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Wednesday, April 25, 2001

VIDEORAMA: A GOLDEN RENTAL GUIDE

Hidden Gems


By PHILIP BRASOR and GIOVANNI FAZIO

'Straight-to-video" is a term that carries a stigma, and deservedly so. So much of what emerges without theatrical release is either slasher, sleaze or sly made-for-TV imitations of a bigger-budgeted film (e.g., "Asteroid," released just prior to "Armageddon"). But here in Japan there is a surprisingly large number of decent films that never make it onto the theatrical circuit for a variety of reasons -- lack of easily bankable star-power and overbooked screens being the two most common.

The Wonder Boys

Then there are movies that are rushed into release so quickly that they sink away a mere week or two later (mismarketed as a teen comedy, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" disappeared without a trace).

In these days when "opening weekend box office" is the industry's mantra and flicks are booted off the screen to make way for more product, it's almost impossible for a film to develop by word of mouth. Video, though, is another matter. Tell 20 friends about these:

Drop Dead Gorgeous

Shot in documentary style, it took me 15 minutes (when I recognized Kirsten Dunst) to realize that this wasn't for real; the satire is that good. The film's onscreen director intends to poke fun at small-town beauty pageants, and while this may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, the satire here broadens to become a damning indictment of snotty bourgeois American values. Stars Denise Richards as the princess set to win the contest, Kirstie Alley as her win-at-all-costs mom and Nora Dunn as a catty contest judge.

The Last Days of Disco

Director Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan," "Barcelona"), bemused chronicler of the East Coast elite, turns his gaze to Manhattan in the early '80s. Set around a disco that's too preppie to be cool, Stillman's film plays as the flip-side to other recent odes to excess, such as "54" and "Boogie Nights"; the irony of conservative yuppies shaking their booty to "Le Freak" is sublime. Chloe Sevigny plays a naive young woman who crashes into the tail-end of the sexual revolution, while Kate Beckinsale is hilarious as her smarmy WASP friend. Worth seeing for the scene in which they debate the "moral message" of "Lady and the Tramp."

Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane

Here's one for Tarantino fans: a tightly paced guy flick that follows two high-strung used-car salesmen who try to save their failing business by cutting a very dodgy deal to stash a hot car on their lot. What's in the trunk? You'll find out, and it ain't pretty. What director Dan Carnahan lacks in budget, he makes up for in sheer motor-mouthed attitude. Best viewed after several pints of lager.

The Opposite of Sex

Christina Ricci plays Deedee, a Lolita from hell whose moral code is "screw them while they're still screwing you." She moves in with her gullible half brother Bill (Martin Donovan) and then seduces his gay lover Matt (Ivan Sergei), much to the chagrin of Bill's tightly wound friend Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), whose moralistic sermons only produce glazed disdain in Deedee. The sexual politics here are all over the map. Best line: "It's like Rule One about sex: If you don't breathe in, a person can do anything for 10 minutes." The straight-to-video release here may have been due to the translator's inability to catch the sharp wordplay and sly jokes.

Drowning Mona

This is one of those Hollywood flicks where, from the studio's point of view, something "went wrong." A small-town whodunit with Neve Campbell, Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis and Casey Affleck, this should have been genre fodder, but it starts off strange and never settles into any predictable pattern. While the film's nominally concerned with who whacked Mona (Midler) -- a shrew with a mouth like a flame thrower -- the characters here are all a bunch of oddballs, and the flick finds any number of amusing tangents to wander off on. Not exactly David Lynch, but good for a few laughs.

Gods and Monsters

Ian McKellen is James Whale, the British director who made "Frankenstein" and then faded away in his Hollywood home, prey to sexual longings he couldn't satisfy and a too-honest assessment of his own worth as a human being. Brendan Fraser plays the object of his desire, a simple handyman who hangs around just to hear the great man talk, even after he understands why he wants him there. A haunting, beautiful, wickedly funny film that got a Japanese theatrical release a full year after being unceremoniously dumped on the video shelves.

Election

One of the cruelest American comedies of recent memory, Alexander Payne's unblinking look at an election for student-council president in a Midwestern high school is not only a potent satire of the political process (any political process), but a hilarious character assassination of teen-movie stereotypes. Matthew Broderick is totally pathetic as the sex-starved teacher who means to prevent the proto-fascist golden girl Reese Witherspoon from winning the election. He loses more than just his soul in the process.

Wonder Boys

The studio that made this comedy blew it twice. When it was first released in February 2000, they didn't know how to promote Michael Douglas as a pot-smoking college professor who still hasn't finished the followup to his Zeitgeist-defining first novel. Despite good reviews, the movie died. But after critics started mentioning Douglas as an Oscar contender, it was rereleased with a bigger promotional budget. It died again, but don't let that fool you. It's Douglas' best performance in a decade; and Tobey Maguire as a budding literary genius, Robert Downey Jr. as a randy book editor and Frances McDormand as the all-too-sane woman who means to make an honest man out of Douglas provide stellar support. Note: It died in Japan, too.

Bowfinger

If you think Steve Martin's turn as Oscar host was darker and funnier than anything Billy Crystal could ever pull off, you'll probably enjoy this cantankerous insider's view of Hollywood. Martin, who wrote the script, plays the eponymous independent movie director, who uses hidden cameras to catch a high-rent action star (Eddie Murphy) in candid situations and then incorporates the footage into the plot of his cheapo feature. Murphy's dual role (he also plays the oblivious action star's hapless stand-in) was too weird for Japanese distributors, who passed on a theatrical release.

Limbo

John Sayles, who has made his reputation with difficult movies, outdoes himself with his latest work about an ex-fisherman (David Straithairn) and a country singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who embark on a romantic relationship against the background of an Alaskan coastal town that's being reconstructed as a tourist trap. As with most of Sayles' work, the surprising plot developments seem to be intended as an allegory, but the movie succeeds as human drama, too.



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