Poor Little Films! Always, always, were they overlooked by video renters, who had a nasty habit of heading straight for their bigger brothers, the Big-Budget Flicks, and their showy sisters, the New Releases.
"Oh, woe are we!" cry the Little Films, standing alone on the shelves, unrented, unwatched and unknown. "Some of us are just as talented and entertaining as our brothers and sisters, yet they get all the attention! Whut up wit dat?" (The Little Films were just as modern as the rest of their family, too.)
Cry no more, Little Films! You are all my children, and now is your time to shine! We'll show the world that even ignored, low profile and, yes, even critically lambasted minor movies can prove to be undiscovered classics. We'll sing the praises slighted cinema that is well worth watching ... if the description is interesting, or when the rest of your flashy family has been taken home for a one-night stand. And we'll be sure to mention that all five of these flicks have been released on video and DVD this year.
The Winslow Boy (1999; Columbia TriStar; rated G). England, 1912. When young Ronnie Winslow is accused of petty theft and summarily expelled from the prestigious Navel College, his humiliated family rushes to defend the lad -- and upper-crust Family Honour -- risking everything in the process, including fortune, health and domestic tranquility.
Yawn, right? Not so fast. In the hands of director David Mamet (who adapted Terence Rattigan's play), this period piece becomes a vehicle for lush imagery, nuanced performances, and a subtle, intelligent examination of true family values -- as well as of a world rapidly evolving from Victorian moral certitude to 20th century relativistic uncertainty and doubt. The highlight of the piece, however, lies in the brilliant performance of Jeremy Northam as the complicated barrister handling the case, and in his complicated relationship with the headstrong Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is forced by these trials and tribulations to mature into a Suffragette -- another emerging 20th century trend. A first-rate drama, engrossing, intelligent and mature.
Happy, Texas (1999; Miramax; rated PG-13). While great praise is due Jeremy Northam for his performance in The Winslow Boy, here his talent takes a back seat to an ensemble cast in an entirely different kind of film: a slight, airy, modern comedy. In Happy, Texas, Northam and Steve Zahn play a pair of small-time jailbirds who escape prison, then steal a Winnebago and assume the identities of the owners. Tough luck for them: the owners are a couple of small-time beauty pageant directors who trek from one backwater burg to another plying their stage trade among the small-fry daughters of the grateful, hopeful locals. When the impostors hit the tiniest town of all (from whence the title), they discover the awful truth of their situation and desperately attempt to fulfill roles they find personally odious, all the while becoming slowly assimilated into these identities and the social circles of the quirky burg.
Director Mark Illsely populates the Happy landscape with gently eccentric characters played by first-rate second bananas like William H. Macy, Illeana Douglas, Mo Gaffney and Paul Dooley, and co-writers Illsely and Ed Stone sprinkle the script with enough subplots (including a planned bank robbery, the sidebar story of the original pageant pros, and a romantic roundelay among the various genders, confused genders and gender pretenders) that the languid pace is simply deceiving. Nothing earth shattering here; like the similar, zanier Waiting for Guffman, this is a pleasant, unpretentious comedy virtually guaranteed to leave viewers ... well, happy.
The 13th Warrior (1999; R). At some vague, dim time in European history, circa 1000 AD, an Arab poet (Antonio Banderas) is banished from his homeland to serve as an "ambassador" to the barbarian "Northlands"; during his exile, he chances across a party of Vikings on an exploratory tour of the lands to their south, and is reluctantly drafted into their mission to protect a farming village from an unspeakable evil.
Oh, this action/adventure epic has its problems, to be sure -- many of them in the direction, which is at best sporadic, and often annoyingly amateur. Rumor has it that many of director John McTiernan's (Die Hard) scenes were reshot, post-production, by dissatisfied executive producer (and author of the source novel, Eaters of the Dead) Michael Crichton. Yet the engrossing aspects of this fantasy adventure outweigh its occasional lapses. First among them are the superb production values, often illustrating the landscape (and even the recurring carnage) with breathtaking cinematography. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the culture clash that forms the heart of the film: the saga of disparate civilizations slowly learning to understand, appreciate and eventually even celebrate their differences. Ultimately, despite its flaws and beyond its troubled production history, this rousing action epic brilliantly fulfills one of the primary mandates of movies: to take us, convincingly, to a place we've never been, seen or even imagined.
Gun Shy (2000; Hollywood Pictures; R). Stories about gangsters in therapy have become almost a cottage industry in the past couple of years: think Analyze This, HBO's The Sopranos, or Underworld (one of my buried treasures of last year). At least this time around it's a cop in therapy. Liam Neeson plays Charlie, a burned-out DEA agent stuck far too deeply in an undercover role to extricate himself, despite a murdered partner and an anxiety-induced case of spastic colon. His solutions: for anxiety, group therapy; for his embarrassing bowels, a visit to the "Enema Queen" (Sandra Bullock), whose liberated lifestyle and growing affection for Charlie could help solve his emotional difficulties. But before he can relax into a relationship, Charlie's got to see his undercover mission though to completion ... even though he suspects that the depressed wiseguy he's been ordered to buddy-up to (Oliver Platt) might be playing straighter than his own federal agent co-workers.
Neeson's quiet anxiety is neatly counterbalanced by Bullock's (who also executive produced) ditzy dizziness in writer/director Eric Blakeney's quirky crime caper comedy. Although critically lambasted as a clumsy combination of crime drama parody and toilet humor, these elements have been exaggerated out of proportion and take a back seat to the movie's originality, intelligence (orchestrating four warring groups of characters into a logical and satisfying conclusion), it compassion for its characters, and above all, the engaging unpredictability of its plot, relationships, characters and humor.
Escape from New York (1981; New Line; R). Are you ready for a blast from the past? Although this title has been available on video for many years, its recent release on DVD is reason enough to mention it again. In 1997, the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. When Air Force One crashes within its walled borders, war hero turned anti-social anti-hero Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell) is sprung from jail and drafted to find the president and free him from his crazed captors. And to ensure he does his job, he's injected with an explosive device on a timer.
If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to swallow the improbable premise, it's easy to enjoy this high camp parody of post-apocalyptic action flicks like The Road Warrior and Blade Runner. While its comic book style and over-the-top action are offbeat, intriguing and excellently directed, the movie's best qualities are its rabidly anti-authoritarian attitude, its black humor (often revolving around its ensemble of twisted characters, including character actors Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton) and Russell's squint-eyed imitation of Clint Eastwood. Maybe if we're lucky in 2001, some studio will treat us to writer/director John Carpenter's equally entertaining team-up with Russell: not the disappointing sequel, Escape from L.A., but their other masterpiece of comic book action comedy, Big Trouble in Little China.
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.
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December 15, 2000