Saturday, June 26, 2010
Saturday Night At The Movies
Goin’ mobile: Top 10 Road Movies
By Dennis Hartley
There’s something about summer and the wanderlust for road trips (well, if you can afford the gas these days). Tonight I thought I would celebrate the fact that we are one week into the season (although you wouldn’t know it from the schizoid weather here as of late in the Pacific Northwest) by sharing my picks for the Top 10 road movies. As per usual, I present my list in alphabetical (not ranked) order. So fill ‘er up and check the oil!
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert -“That’s just what this country needs…a cock, on a rock, in a frock.” Terence Stamp heads an exemplary cast as an aging transsexual who leads a pair of young drag performers (Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving) on a Road Tour from Hell through the Australian outback as they head for an engagement at a rundown casino. A wicked delight from start to finish, with enough theatrical bathos, pathos and gaudy costumes to hold you for decades. I daresay writer-director Stephan Elliott’s salty dialog outdoes Red Dwarf for inspired and creative putdowns (well…nearly-that’s a pretty high bar to surpass). It also gets my vote for the most hilarious punch line for a fight scene since the “guns or knives” set-to in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid . And I’ll leave you with this thought: “No.More.Fucking.ABBA!”
Five Easy Pieces-“You see THIS sign?!” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an outstanding, iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains (along with Vanishing Point) one of the defining road movies of the 1970s. Nicholson was born to play the protagonist in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family, working at soulless blue-collar jobs and teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black gives one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes good use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. Oh-and remember where to hold the chicken salad.
Genevieve-A truly marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle and good-natured 1953 film centers around the mild travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip together from London to Brighton as part of an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100 pound wager to be awarded to whoever is the first to reach and cross Westminster Bridge. Colorful, drolly amusing and thoroughly engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s fabulous screen chemistry, which I would rank on a par with William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Norah. Oh, in case you were wondering-“Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera , the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.
Get On the Bus-Fortified by a talented ensemble of actors and a sharply perceptive screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood that keeps the prosthelytzing to a minimum (for a change) and delivers characters who actually talk to (as opposed to at) each other, this uncharacteristically restrained Spike Lee joint from 1996 is one of the iconoclastic (and more often than not, bombastic) director’s most underappreciated efforts. Set against the backdrop of the Million Man March in Washington D.C. in 1995, the episodic narrative follows a group of African-American men (from all stages of life and social strata) who take a cross-country bus trip to participate. As you might glean, considering that most of the action takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the bus, it is a talkfest; and at times you may feel you are stuck in the middle of a 2-hour men’s encounter group session, but the heartfelt performances win the day. This was a truly independent film; it was privately funded by 15 African-American men (including well-known actors who were not in the cast). Consequently, Lee’s film takes a brutally honest look at the types of issues that send Hollywood green-lighters fleeing: racism, misogyny, homophobia, self-worth, parental responsibility, and (most notably) social and political apathy. Get on!
Lost in America-Perhaps arguably, this 1985 gem, released at the height of Reaganomics, can now be viewed in hindsight as the definitive satirical smackdown of the then burgeoning Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who decide to quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and go the Kerouac route in order to “find themselves”; they’ll “touch Indians” (with a “nest egg” of $145,000 at their disposal). Actually, Brooks’ character fancies their new elective lifestyle choice to be closer in spirit to the protagonists in Easy Rider (except that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper didn’t hit the road in an RV that featured a microwave with a built-in browning element for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and they now find themselves on the receiving end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like all of Brooks’ best movies, it is at once painfully funny and so very, very painful to watch.
Motorama-If David Lynch had directed The Wizard of Oz, it might resemble this twisty, blackly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey that nearly defies description. It’s the story of a rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) who flees his feuding parents to hit the road in search of his version of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”. As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults seem to question why a 10 year old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock - The Movie.
Pow Wow Highway-A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddah. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.
Road to Utopia-Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour made seven entertaining films together in “The Road to…” series, but this one has always been my favorite (Road to Morocco runs a close second). Bob and Bing play a pair of vaudevillians who accidently stumble onto a coveted map that pinpoints the location of a hidden gold mine, and end up “on the road” to Alaska (via boat and dogsled, actually). As they make their way from Skagway to Dawson City, they are hounded by a variety of pursuers who want to get their mittens on the map. Much hilarity, song and dance ensues. The film has a bit of a slow start, but once it gets going, it is pound for pound the funniest of the series. There are so many great gags and one-liners; the scene where Hope cozies up to a (real) bear (thinking that it’s Lamour) and whispers sweet nothings into its ear is priceless, and I still cackle at the sight of Bob and Bing pulling a big lazy dog around on a dogsled. The filmmakers up the ante on the usual barrage of “fourth wall” breaches by throwing in “pop-up” appearances in the corner of the screen by Robert Benchley, who makes wry commentaries on the film (the prototype for Mystery Science Theater 3000?).
Sideways -Not unlike the fine wines coveted by one of its main protagonists, this 2004 dramedy from director/co-writer Alexander Payne (Election , About Schmidt) is destined to become richer and more fully appreciated over time (and repeated viewings, as I have discovered). Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church really shine as a divorced, unpublished writer and a soon-to-be-married, middling TV actor (respectively), two middle-aged pals who embark on a road trip through California’s wine country. For the writer, it’s to be a leisurely cruise through the lovely environs, teaching his friend how to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of the grape, and its subtle variances from vineyard to vineyard. For his less refined pal, it’s one last shot at a boning and grogging fest before he ties the knot. When the two hook up with Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, things get interesting (cue the midlife meltdowns). Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor picked up a deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (based on Rex Pickett’s novel). One scene in particular, where Giamatti and Madsen essentially bare their souls to one another, thinly veiled in metaphorical descriptions of how each character defines the chief attributes of their favorite wines, should be held up in every screenwriting class as an example of resonant dialogue that approaches poetry. BTW-there was a 2009 Japanese remake (!)
Vanishing Point-I don’t know if anyone has ever done a graph to see if there was a sudden spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since every car nut I have ever encountered who likes to throw around phrases like “cherry” or “big block” usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Best described as an existential car chase movie, it’s the type of totally blown antihero odyssey that could only have been made in the wake of Easy Rider, which is an obvious influence. Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers him that he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement types-and the chase is on. Not much of a plot, but curiously riveting nonetheless (it’s also curious that 3 people worked on such a minimal screenplay). Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a chopper a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who becomes Kowalski’s guardian angel and provides a sort of Greek Chorus. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.
Dennis Hartley 6/26/2010 05:30:00 PM