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'Little Voice,' 'Monsters' good video picks

LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes a film deserves a look despite its failings. "Little Voice," out on video this week, is one such film. Michael Caine and Brenda Blethyn drew most of the critical attention from the film, with Caine picking up a Golden Globe as best supporting actor, though he was snubbed for an Oscar nomination while Blethyn was nominated as best supporting actress by the foreign press and the motion-picture academy.

The real reason to watch "Little Voice" is for the performance of the title character. Jane Horrocks is absolutely sensational as Laura or Little Voice ("L.V.") as she is known.The shy daughter of boozy, man-hungry Mari (Blethyn), L.V. has been damaged by the death of her beloved father, and she escapes into his beloved record collection, endlessly listening to female vocalists like Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, L.V. has done more than listen; she has practically channeled their performances so she can do note-for-note perfect imitations. Garland and the others have become her voice.

When a slimy theatrical agent, Ray (Caine), spots her talent while on a romp with Mari, he sees dollars signs and a way out of the small English coastal town he has been trapped in. "Little Voice's" plot quickly becomes overwrought as Ray coaxes L.V. out of her room to perform while Mari grows jealous. But whenever Horrocks is on screen, you can overlook the sudsiness.

And when she does sing, it's a revelation. For those of you who haven't heard, those fabulous impressions are not a cinematic trick but are by Horrocks, who first developed the character on stage in Jim Cartwright's play, "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice."

When L.V. eventually has her big night at a local club, and you see Horrocks unleash her talent, you wish she really did have her own stage show so you could buy tickets.

It's too bad that "Little Voice," directed by Mark Herman ("Brassed Off"), blunders so often that it undercuts Horrocks' performance. He also underutilizes Ewan McGregor, who plays a telephone repairman who falls for L.V. There is little in the role for McGregor to do, but even here he brings enough nuance to his acting to show he is consistently one of the most interesting young actors around.

Caine fares better, but, as with Horrocks, the subtlety of his performance is lost in the film's excesses.

-- OSCAR WINNER -- A film that succeeds on all fronts and shouldn't be overlooked is "Gods and Monsters." Though it did only moderate business at the box office, it was one of the most acclaimed films of last year, winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for its screen-writer/director Bill Condon.

Taken from Christopher Brams' novel, "Father of Frankenstein," the film tells of the final days of director James Whale (1889-1957), who directed the horror classic "Frankenstein" as well as some 20 other films.

Whale (Ian McKellen) was openly gay in the Hollywood of the 1930s and '40s, when such an admission was tantamount to professional suicide. As the retired Whale, McKellen proves why he is perhaps the greatest actor of the day (he certainly should have won the Oscar).

The action slides between Whale's memories of fighting in World War I, his heady days in Hollywood and love affairs and his cloistered present-day world, where he sketches his gardener (Brendan Fraser, who shows he's more than a pretty face), and is taken care of by his longtime housekeeper, played by Lynn Redgrave, who also deserved the Oscar. A rich, intelligent film about memory, loss and passion.

Other new video releases

Unless otherwise indicated, reviews below are by Peter M. Nichols of The New York Times.

-- "Patch Adams" -- Treated badly during his own mental illness, Patch Adams (Robin Williams) becomes part doctor and part circus clown and goes to look for the bright side of grim medical situations. Soon he is amusing a ward full of child cancer patients and keeping the rest of the hospital in an uproar with his antics. While that annoys the medical establishment, one can appreciate Patch's approach, at least until he goes maudlin and preachy. (1998. Universal. $107.37. 116 minutes. Closed captioned. PG-13. Release date: June 22).

-- "A Simple Plan" -- When Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) come across a light plane that has crashed with $4.4 million on board, Hank decides to hide the money for a while to see if anyone comes looking for it. But then his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), persuades him to put $500,000 back, which leads to terrible consequences and makes the plan anything but simple. As complications mount, Sam Raimi's film "'becomes ever more enveloping as a well-honed morality tale" (1998. Paramount. $102.99. 121 minutes. Closed captioned. R. Release date: June 22) -- Janet Maslin, NYT

-- "Hurlyburly" -- Adapted from David Rabe's play, Anthony Drazen's war between men and women in '80s Hollywood chooses macho camaraderie, sexual exploitation and drug abuse as its weapons. Eddie (Sean Penn), a strident motor-mouth, and Mickey (Kevin Spacey) share a mirror-lined condominium and start a day of cocaine ingestion with runny noses and a row over Eddie's sometime girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn). In evoking casual cruelty, the film "is a misanthropic triumph" (1998. New Line. $105.77. 122 minutes. Closed captioned. R. Release date: June 22.) -- Stephen Holden, NYT

Other new titles of interest, some of which may have had a theater release at one time, appeared on television or been on videocassette in earlier editions.

-- "Five Against the Odds" -- Steve James of "Hoop Dreams" fame directs a fictional drama, a TNT movie about a black basketball team at a Roman Catholic high school in New Orleans that is less about the game than it is about bigotry. The film draws deeply from two often-visited wells: the inspirational sports movie about a group of underdogs and the Jim Crowe race movie. The year is 1965, the inevitable big game is against a white team, and, William McDonald wrote in The New York Times, "the story is a powerful one, even if it's easily recognizable." 1999. Warner. $72.99. 94 minutes. Closed captioned. No rating.

-- "The Life of Birds" -- To cover the characteristics and peculiarities of 9,000 species, Sir David Attenborough used 48 camera people who, over three years, shot 200 miles of film in 42 countries on 7 continents. Make way for the Providence Petrel. 1999. BBC Video, distributed by Fox. $89.98, five cassettes. 600 minutes. Release date: June 22.

-- "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" -- Jackson Frost's film documents 70 paintings on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and examines three major phases of the artist's career: the early work in the Netherlands, the influence of the French Impressionists in Paris and the period of peak production in the south of France. 1999. Home Vision. $29.95. 60 minutes. Release date: June 22.