Feature: "Buried Treasures of 1997"
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Buried Treasures of 1997

By D. Scott Apel

While Independence Day might have been the big flick of 1996, 1997 proved to be "Independent's Day," with many of the best films coming from small, often unknown, directors and sources. Unfortunately, these films are often so overshadowed by big budget blockbusters that they are overlooked in the avalanche of taped entertainment released every year.

The shrewd and discerning movie viewer, however, knows that video is tailor made for seeking treats like these low-profile films. Below, a few fine films released on tape last year which you might have missed, or never even heard about ... but which definitely bear discovering.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997; Buena Vista; rated R; 1:46 mins.). John Cusack -- one of the most underrated actors working today -- soars as Martin Blank, a professional hitman experiencing a (somewhat premature) midlife crisis. To reconnect with his roots, he decides, albeit reluctantly, to attend his 10-year high school reunion, look in on "the girl he left behind" (Minnie Driver) ... and perform a local whack job. Black comedy is alternated with rabid slapstick and romance blooms among the bullets in this hip, hilarious and incredibly intelligent entry. Cusack also co-produced and co-wrote, indicating his deep interest in the film -- an interest which translates on screen to his most nicely nuanced performance ever, as the deeply glib and energetically uncertain killer with a conscience. If this isn't enough, Dan Aykroyd proves that he is indeed still capable of being funny, playing his staccato-spieling psycho killer as Sgt. Friday on PCP. Entertainment Weekly gave this an "A-" grade, and listed it among its choices for the Top Ten Films of '97.

Manny & Lo (1996; Columbia TriStar; R; 1:29). Two homeless, orphaned sisters -- surly 16-year-old Lo and thoughtful adolescent Manny -- are forced to stop their vagabond lifestyle when they discover Lo is pregnant. They take refuge in a vacant vacation cabin deep in the woods, then kidnap a clerk from a local baby goods store to act as a midwife ... but it quickly becomes clear that Elaine (Mary Kay Place), while outwardly prim, is tougher, smarter and more compassionate than the vulnerable girls ever bargained for. Director Lisa Krueger's feature film debut is filled with beautiful photography and exceptional performances, and her script is a rare gem, both character-driven and original.

Walkabout (1971; Home Vision; unrated; 1:33). Director Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece -- one of the films most requested for video release -- was finally made available on tape last year. A lovely young Jenny Agutter stars in this mystical, lyrical coming-of-age story about an English girl and her younger brother, lost in the Australian outback, who are saved by an Aborigine boy enduring his "walkabout," or ritual initiation into manhood. The film's release is reason enough to celebrate, but Home Vision has provided videophiles with extras such as letterboxing, a promotional trailer, and five additional minutes of footage in this "Director's Cut" edition.

Bound (1996; Republic; R; 1:47). Gina Gershon is Corky, a tough, streetwise ex-con trying to go straight...but straight is not the word for the relationship her captivating neighbor Violet (Jennifer Tilly) has in mind. Tired of being a trophy wife for two-bit hood Caesar (Joe Pantoliano, doing a delightful Joe Pesci imitation), Violet seduces Corky into helping her steal $2 million in laundered mob money from her hapless hubby, and the ladies find love along the wayward path. This strong, suspenseful and stylish modern noir with a timely twist -- the feature debut of writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski -- earned an average score of 8.3 out of a high of 10 from over 1,200 voters on the Internet Movie Database.

Waiting for Guffman (1997; Warner; R; 1:24 mins.). Christopher Guest -- another of Hollywoodland's most underrated talents -- wrote, directed and stars in this wacky mockumentary concerning a small Missouri town's attempt to stage a musical tribute for its 150th anniversary. It doesn't help the stage show that the town has a completely undistinguished history, or that the play's amateur cast (including Guest as director "Corky St. Clair") is 100% talent-free. It takes a special talent to portray talentlessness amusingly, and Guest excels at the task -- as does his supporting cast, which includes Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Parker Posey. Not a belly-laugh flick, but a chuckle a second.

So many sleepers; so little time! The short list above is just the tip of the indie iceberg; the titles chosen only for their wide appeal and high critical marks. Other low-profile titles from 1997 that could easily be recommended -- depending only on one's interest in the subjects, stars or directors -- include: Traveller, The Van, Rough Magic, A Chef in Love, The Whole Wide World, Bliss, Cosi, Chasing Amy, subUrbia, Hard Eight, Big Night, Citizen Ruth, Albino Alligator, Flirt, Mother Night, Hotel De Love, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Blood and Wine, Swingers, Lone Star, Heavy, Looking For Richard, When Night Is Falling, Daytrippers, Young Poisoner's Handbook, Ed's Next Move, Trees Lounge and The Big Squeeze.

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and close encounters with 13 other videos featuring benign extra-terrestrials.
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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January 12, 1998