Feature: "1998's Buried Treasures"
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Buried Treasures of 1998

By D. Scott Apel

So many films! So little time!

That seems to be a widely-held sentiment and a general lament, whether one is a professional videologist like myself or simply a weekend watcher.

In either case, the real problem lies even deeper, to wit: How do we make the most of our limited video viewing hours? We can always head for the New Releases shelves and -- on the off chance that there is anything actually left to rent -- pick up the titles we dimly remember from TV commercial bombardment and magazine hype six months earlier. The problem with that approach is that high visibility has little correlation with high quality. Last year's blockbuster -- a word which, appropriately or ironically, once defined a type of bomb -- Godzilla, proved once and for all (we hope) that size doesn't matter where quality is concerned. But who has the time to sniff out and find the fine little films that get buried in the avalanche of annual releases?

Well...I do. And I'd like to share a few of them with you now.

Call them "sleepers," call them "buried treasures," call them "killer" B movies ... However you label them, they are fabulous features which never found their proper audience; wonderful films one feels compelled to tell friends about; second-run, but not second-rate, movies which deserve a second chance -- and get it on video.

A couple of quick notes: First, just as you probably wouldn't want to sit through every movie playing at the multiplex, keep in mind that not all of these titles are suitable for all tastes. But chances are if you missed, or never heard of, or didn't want to take a chance on, one of these flicks, but find that it sounds appealing ... it will probably prove worth your time to seek it out and rent it.

Second, I can hardly claim this is an exhaustive list of first-rate, second-tier flicks released on tape during 1998 (even though some of the films played in theaters in '97). As mentioned above, who has time to see them all? But these nine titles constitute a solid start for discussing last year's buried treasures.

Finally, if you've seen any of these movies and agree that they are indeed gems, you might want to check out last year's list, or sample some similar, more detailed reviews from my book-length collection of buried treasures on tape, Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen, available on-line on the Impermanent Press web site: http://www.impermanentpress.com

In alphabetical order, my choice of 1998's buried treasures on video includes:

  • The Big One (1998; PG-13). Big One photo It would be easy to dismiss this flick as Roger and Me Lite; if you've seen writer-director-corporate whistle-blower Michael Moore's earlier documentary, The Big One seems more like a sequel than a brand-new film. But even a sequel is welcome when it's as funny, sad and insightful as this one. When Moore's book tour was cancelled (under suspicious circumstances), he embarked on his own cross-country tour, visiting blue-collar whistle-stops where other authors might fear to tread. And in every town he visited, he uncovered corporate greed feeding on the soul of America. Sometimes Moore's film concentrates on the fates of the people thrown out of jobs by "down-sizing" or plant closures; often it shows him fighting back, using quixotic, ironic gestures to shame the corporate villains (he presents a company moving its manufacturing operations offshore with a check for 37 cents, for instance -- payment for the first hour of labor at the foreign plant). Outrage defused with humor from America's master crap-buster.

    Dissenting Opinion: VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1999 edition, gives this film "2 bones" out of a possible high of four bones.

    Credentials: Entertainment Weekly magazine rates this film "B+".

  • An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997; R). No modern screenwriter has been paid so much for churning out so much pandering crap as Joe Esterhaz, the sleazeball responsible for such mindless trash as Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Sliver. But he almost redeems himself with this wicked little mockumentary. When a British film director named Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) becomes fed up with studio interference with his film, he discovers that the Directors Guild of America will allow him to remove his name from the production ... but that the Guild's regulations demand his name be replaced with its single approved pseudonym: Alan Smithee. Poor Alan goes a bit whack then, kidnapping the only existing print of his movie ... which the studio promptly spins into a publicity stunt. (In a lovely example of art imitating life, director Arthur Hiller, who grew fed up with Esterhaz' interference during the production of this film, eventually requested that his name be removed and replaced by the Directors Guild's approved pseudonym, Alan Smithee. Or was this, too, just a publicity stunt, designed to illustrate the mind-boggling capabilities of the Hollywood Dream Machine?) While the theme of this film has been done before, and better -- see The Player, for example, or Blake Edwards' very similar 1981 black comedy, S.O.B. -- Hollywood certainly deserves all the skewering it gets. Industry greed and insanity are mocked unmercifully in this funny little flick, which features cameos by Jackie Chan, Sly Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg and numerous industry insiders.

    Dissenting Opinion: VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1999 edition, gives this film "1.5 bones."

  • Dark City (1998; R). Imagine, if you will, a cinematic hybrid of Blade Runner and City of Lost Children, and you might intuit a touch of the imagery which fills this fascinating feast for the eyes. A veritable buffet of film noir, science fiction, German Expressionism, Clive Barker-influenced horror, surrealistic imagery reminiscent of Magritte and jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art special effects are all integrated with cold precision in the masterful hands of director (and co-writer) Alex Proyas. Unfortunately, any plot summary would reveal too many plot twists, which should remain as surprises -- but suffice it to say that the nightmarish murder mystery which begins the film serves as simply the surface of a sinister experiment which slowly unfolds through the course of the movie through to its entirely satisfying ending. Atmospheric, gothic, mysterious and visually striking, Dark City is a perfect example of the ability of film to transport us to realms that can only -- and barely -- be imagined, and to make them as real and as affecting as a dark fever dream.

    Dissenting Opinion: VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1999 edition, gives this film "2 bones."

    Credentials: Roger Ebert named Dark City as his "Best Film of 1998."

  • Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997; PG). Fast photo A lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mechanical engineer who designs robot insects, a man who studies mole rats ... What could this quartet of disparate misfits possibly have in common? In the hands of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, the answer is "Plenty." Interviews indicate that, on the surface, at least, they are all obsessed men. But Morris' skillful intercutting among their four stories -- often overlapping dialog from one man with film from the work of another -- also serves as a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer, quietly inspiring some uncomfortable questions. Are we all, in some way, obsessed with controlling Nature; with shaping Her in our image? And aren't we all, in some way, doomed to failure when pitting our pitiful little wits against the Grand Forces of Nature? Like Morris' previous masterpiece, Gates of Heaven -- in which he illustrates that the soul of humanity is reflected in our treatment of the death of our pets -- this understated little gem strikes right to the very heart of what it means to be Human, while remaining a fascinating, engaging and non-didactic film.

    Credentials: Won numerous "Best Documentary" awards, including one form the National Society of Film Critics.

  • Gattaca (1997; PG-13). Gattaca photo Cloning is no longer science fiction. And if complex mammals such as sheep can be cloned, and the human gene-map will completed within a decade, the ethical considerations of cloning and related issues of genetic manipulation must be addressed, and very soon. One result of failing to establish humane guidelines in this realm is illustrated by this cautionary tale of a near future society built on genetic diagnosis, analysis and manipulation -- which is also perhaps the smartest and most chilling film to be released on video in 1998. Call it a dystopian vision, or an intellectual techno-thriller, or even a primer on the abuses of over-reliance on sterile science at the expense of individual potential; by whatever name, it is a fascinating look at how the understanding of genetics can easily turn one's body into a prison when one's physical makeup is the sole determinant of society status and opportunity. While Gattaca is a cold, slick vision of this virtually soulless world, beneath its cool surface is a spirit that is quietly uplifting, emotionally ennobling, and ultimately transcendent. This is provocative, thought-provoking science fiction for adults, in which explosions, flashy technology and planet-killing comets are replaced by the sobering exposition of important ideas and an illustration of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

  • The Last Days of Disco (1998; R). Disco photo Writer-director Whit Stillman is rapidly establishing a reputation as the premiere chronicler of contemporary young urban professionals, and Disco shares numerous details with his previous brilliant films, Metropolitan and Barcelona. Primary among these details is the finely-drawn characters, all overly intelligent, overly ironic, and overly aware of their own ironic intelligence. This latest "episode" in the lives of these characters takes place in the early '80s, and documents the rapid change of fortunes, lifestyles and relationships among a loose group of Ivy League college grads working and partying in Manhattan during that pivotal moment when disco decadence gave way to (or gave birth to) the Yuppie; when the Me Decade degenerated into the Greed Decade. The hilarious, intelligent dialog is delivered by an ensemble cast of fresh, engaging actors, and the overall tone is one of sympathetic irony and affection for their (often self-imposed) suffering.

  • The Opposite of Sex (1998; R). Opposite photo This unusual black comedy was the recipient of more media attention and critical acclaim last year than any other film on this list. And deservedly so. It's one part The Last Seduction, one part Fargo and one part Lolita -- a meandering, cynical, outrageous, caustic roundelay of relationships and the problems of finding and maintaining one in the Nasty Nineties. Christina Ricci plays a troubled young troublemaker with an incisive gimlet eye, out for revenge against the world for its shabby treatment of her, whose avowed intention is to wreak havoc on everyone whose path she crosses. Her complicated nature is allergic to complacency and hypocrisy (except her own), and we become passengers on the bumpy ride she forces the other characters to take. Does it turn out all sweetness and light in the end? Well ... not exactly. But it will leave you with a head-shaking grin and some indelible memories. Some movies catch your attention by thumbing their noses at conventional morality; this one gives it the finger and dares you to deny it deserves the treatment. By all means, try to keep up with this quirky comedy; if nothing else, you'll be rewarded with some pitch-perfect performances, a load of nasty laughs, and a unique perspective on human nature at its best, its worst and its most confused.

  • The Real Blonde (1997; R). Real Blonde photo Relationship comedies abound, but few are as true-to-life as this little tale of a young urban New Yorker struggling to create a career as a writer and actor while stuck in a comfortable but mundane pairing. His dream of finding a peroxide-free female is symptomatic of a search for some real values, real meaning and real reality in a world where image is everything. Writer-director Tom DiCillo -- whose earlier film, Living in Oblivion, beautifully skewered the insanity of the world of low-budget film production -- here mixes a heady brew: relationship "dramedy" up; movie biz satire back. The latter subplot features cameos by Kathleen Turner, Christopher Lloyd, Denis Leary and Buck Henry (to name just a few of the familiar faces); however, it's in the scenes between the unsatisfied couple where the real heart of the movie lies (or, more precisely, where it "truths"). Finally, a flick with the intelligence and fortitude to imply that a decent relationship -- like meaning itself -- is not something one finds, but something one creates. DiCillo manages to illustrate this point in a manner both tender and funny.

  • The Zero Effect (1997; R). One of the latest trends in movies seems to be the character study disguised as a detective story -- think Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Twilight, for example. Zero Effect is another in this line -- a study of a man who is truly a character. Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is a contemporary incarnation of Sherlock Holmes by way of Seinfeld's Kramer: eccentric to the point of insanity, but a genius at what he does best. What he does best is solve seemingly unsolvable mysteries with the help of his skeptical Watson, an unappreciated and resentful assistant (played by Ben Stiller). In this case, Zero goes undercover to unravel a case of blackmail, uncovering murder, infidelity, revenge -- and love -- along the way. Writer-director Jake Kasdan, in his film debut, might not have the panache his father, Lawrence Kasdan, exhibited in his first film, Body Heat, but Kasdan fils has created an engagingly offbeat hero, and Pullman finally expresses the talent that has lain dormant in his low-key style throughout his career. Zero Effect is a brilliant, funny and poignant film, far deeper than it seems on the surface, and an oddity well worth repeated viewings.

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:
Lackluster Blockbusters: 1998's Turkeys
Bewitched, Bothered and Bedeviled
Happy Trails: Goodbye Roy and Shari
Albert Brooks: The Funniest Man in Film?
Mother's Day: Sons and Mothers
Will We Remember Them? Oscar Winners From the Past
Oscar's Cinema Lineage
Love Makes the World Go 'Round
Buried Treasures of 1997
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and other benign close encounters.
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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February 9, 1999