There was a time a few years ago when just about the only skill I still possessed was that of sitting down with my eyes open. Films became my life, and I saw well over a thousand of them on video in the space of two years. I like a wide range of films, but I can't tolerate a movie with a bad script, so I have a natural leaning towards films in which good lines of dialogue outnumber explosions, and the actors are more talented than the stuntmen. As a result, a lot of my favourite movies are low budget independent productions, or little known box office flops. So rather than becoming the millionth person on the internet to extol the virtues of Star Wars, I'm going to wallow in the more obscure end of the market...
This was written by Joseph Minion, who wrote the Martin Scorsese film 'After Hours'. It's a similarly surreal movie, and in my opinion a far better one, but without a big name director it went by virtually unnoticed. The story concerns Gus, a 10 year old boy, as he travels alone across the country in a red Mustang, collecting gas station cards along the way, in an attempt to win the 'Motorama' contest with a prize of 500 million dollars. I've seen a couple of reviews which see no further than that, and seem to think it's a simple road movie about a runaway boy. Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. This is the most imaginatively surreal film I've ever seen. Watching it is a game in itself, trying to spot the 'unreal' elements, and connecting seemingly unrelated events. For a start, no one who meets Gus in the film seem to realise he's just a boy. No one uses real money. None of the states he drives through actually exist. After a car crash, Gus's hair turns grey, and towards the end of the film, he appears to be growing stubble. This is a movie firmly rooted in an alternate reality, and half the fun is trying to understand it. But it's not surreal just for the sake of it. You get the feeling that everything you see has meaning, and with repeated viewings you gradually piece together more of the puzzle. It's also interesting in that Jordan Christopher Michael is the only star. Other actors, including Drew Barrymore, Meatloaf, Flea, John Diehl and Martha Quinn, have little more than cameos. Motorama is right up there at the top of the list of films I wish I'd written, not so much because it contains scintillating dialogue or witty one-liners, but simply because it came out of the kind of brilliantly original imagination I'd love to have.
Motorama isn't really a movie of favourite lines, it's a movie of favourite moments - a category in which I could place just about every scene of the film. Lines of dialogue don't really work outside the context of the movie, but for what it's worth, here are a few.
Motel Owner: I forgot to tell you... if you catch any squirrels, give 'em to me.
Daryl: The trespasser crosses across the grass and little machine guns come out of the dalmatian statues, and they hone in on the intruder with radar.
Wife: That's ingenious. Are you getting a raise?
Daryl: Of course. As soon as I've finished the blueprint. Thank God, according to the gun laws, we can use real bullets.
Wife: Thank God.
Gus: Are you alive?
Dying Man: All I need is the R. If I die, put it on my gravestone that all he needed was the R. Ralphie, Roddick, Rosemary, Reggie - I named all my kids with R names, hoping God would answer my prayers. You got any kids? It don't work to give 'em R names.
Gus: But I got all the letters. I got all the letters!
Miss Lawton: Well that's something isn't it? Good boy! Now you should be very proud of that. Why don't you think about it that way.
Gus: Good boy? Are you kidding me? You think I came all this way for "Good Boy"??
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1995)
Directed by Jim Mallon
Written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, Bridget Jones
Starring: Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon
- Oh yeah, this was when science didn't have to have any specific purpose.
Cal: Lowering the cylinder...
- Inserting the breakfast pastry...
- Increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around.
Joe: Here's something my wife could use in the house.
- A man?
Joe: An interrossiter incorporating an electron sorter.
Cal: Oh she'd probably gain twenty pounds while they fit all the work for it.
- Cal, you bitch!
Joe: You know what my kids would say?
- You're not our real father!
- Now let's slip away under cover of afternoon in the biggest car in the county.
Exeter: To a planet named Metaluna...
- Well, I never met a luna I didn't like.
Exeter: Place your hands above the rails - they're magnetised.
- And if your hands were metal, that would mean something.
- It looks like Dr Seuss designed their planet.
Exeter: The temperature must be thousands of degrees by now.
- Cooler by the lake.
Exeter: A lifeless planet. And yet -
- Rents are reasonable.
This is such a stupidly simple idea for a movie, but one which works brilliantly. Put simply, the film makers show the 1950s sci-fi movie 'This Island Earth', while three characters sit and make amusing and sarcastic comments about what's happening on screen. That's it. It's the movie equivalent of sitting in a cinema behind a group of people who talk constantly, but the difference here is that it's genuinely funny. There's an attempt to fill out the movie by having a 'story' in which the characters are on a spaceship, being shown old b-movies in an attempt to break their spirit, but ultimately that's just window-dressing. The real film exists purely in the movie theatre scenes. It may not be the most sophisticated comedy in the world, but in terms of sheer laughs, it's one of my favourites. My only frustration is that it wasn't a hit, because, with the almost limitless supply of material for sequels, we could by now have an entire library of Mystery Science Theater movies out there. It's an idea which deserved more than one outing.
Max: I've never met a freak I didn't like.
Max: Don't know what you're doing and you'll appreciate more if you get anything out of it.
Young Adolf: Father, I cannot tell a lie. The Jews did it.
Max: It had a message, but I don't believe in message movies too much. I believe give 'em what they want - a lot of filth.
Dad: Listen kids, that's what this country's all about - the freedom of choice. If the jew boys want to stick up for the niggers, that's their right under our constitution.
Son: Jeepers Pop, you always know the right things to say. What a guy.
Mom: That's because Father knows beaver.
That's Adequate (1990)
Written & directed by Harry Hurwitz
Starring: James Coco, Tony Randall, Jerry Stiller
This is a wonderfully tasteless mock documentary charting sixty years in the life of Adequate Pictures, a fictional Hollywood film studio, which churns out movies with titles such as 'Slut of the South', 'Throbbing Sands', 'Singing in the Synagogue' and 'Blood and Guts', plus failed TV pilots like the domestic drama 'Father Knows Beaver'. It's perhaps too offensive for mainstream audiences, choosing to cover such subjects as death, cannibalism, racism, pornography and Nazi propaganda (I dread to think what visitors I'm going to get from search engines after writing a sentence like that). But for me, its lack of taste is one of its major assets. I don't go for offensive humour per se, and certainly not humour whose only purpose is to shock, but I like comedy with a bit of bite, and which isn't afraid to push the boundaries a little. 'That's Adequate' is somewhat tasteless at times, but I don't find it offensive in the least, for one reason - it's consistently funny and has genuine wit. It also features a number of cameos, most notably Bruce Willis discussing his role as a Shetland pony, Robert Downey Jr as Einstein on the Bounty, Robert Vaughn as Hitler, and the screenwriter Marshall Brickman, who has some wonderful lines as himself. Harry Hurwitz sadly died five years after making this film. He directed one more movie before his death, but tragically 'That's Adequate' was the last film he ever wrote. At least he went out on a high.
The Immortals (1995)
Directed by Brian Grant
Written by Kevin Bernhardt
Starring: Eric Roberts, Tia Carrere, Tony Curtis,
Joe Pantoliano, Chris Rock
In the wake of Quentin Tarantino's sudden success of the early 90s, there were numerous copycat films made, each featuring cool criminals in suits, and plenty of violence. What the vast majority of these failed to realise was that the thing which made Tarantino great wasn't guns, it was dialogue. The Immortals is rare in that stylish direction and cool characters are matched every step of the way by a script full of genuine wit, verve and humour. The story concerns a collection of individuals brought together to commit a daring robbery, but it's not so much the premise which is the winner here, it's the execution. The direction is superb, particularly in the opening reel, where the scene rapidly cuts back and forth between the present and the near future, and in scenes like the Mexican stand-off in the kitchen, which manages to combine outrageous humour with real tension. Kevin Bernhardt not only wrote the script, but also plays the part of Billy with great enthusiasm, and I must admit I've always been surprised that he hasn't gone on to become a major star as either writer or actor. His script here is consistently sharp, fast paced, and funny. Of all the films of this genre, The Immortals is easily my favourite, and in terms of all round entertainment value, there are very few movies to beat it. It's faultless in every department.
George: Since I've never done this before, I decided to check it out, so I went to the library, and it turns out that Pinocchio was a liar.
Billy: Yeah, that's why his nose grew.
George: You went too?
Billy: No, I've just spent a lot of time in a library, George.
George: Really, which one? 'Cause I've been on day trips to just about every one.
Billy: Harvard School of Law.
George: Really? Is that downtown?
Tim: Well you know, in another room, where everyone else was a little bit more like me, you might be the funny one.
George: I feel kinda funny in every room.
Gina: Don't tell me you brought your mother to a robbery??
Deke: Sshh, you're gonna wake her up. It was bingo night and I forgot to take her. I didn't want to be late coming here. What was I supposed to do?
George: I don't think you should be drinking and driving.
Billy: No, you're right George. On top of the ten years I could get for armed robbery, the year I could get for felony evading, the two years I could get for assault with a deadly weapon - that's if it's knocked down from attempted murder - that extra thirty days for driving under the fucking influence is really gonna fucking kill me.
Directed by Jefery Levy
Written by: Danny Rubin & Jefery Levy
(From the novel by Andrew Wellman)
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Reese Witherspoon
If you're wondering, S.F.W. stands for 'So Fucking What'. Perhaps the film-makers felt they might not be granted a cinema release if they used the full title. To use a cliche, 'S.F.W' was a film ahead of its time. It's a cynical satire on the way reality TV makes celebrities of ordinary people, destroying them in the process, yet it was made in 1994 before the arrival of shows like Big Brother and Survivor. It follows Cliff Spab, who is one of only two survivors of a 36 day hostage siege at a convenience store. Little does he know that his every move is being broadcast live on network TV, and he emerges from the ordeal a national celebrity. The focus of the film isn't the hostage crisis, it's the aftermath. The scenes in the convenience store may hold the most powerful and tense moments, but it's the slow burning dark satire of the media which is ultimately more unsettling. The feeding frenzy of the TV networks is shocking precisely because we know it's real, and despite being funny, scenes such as the one where Spab's parents tell him off by warning him not to ruin their chance of a TV movie, are genuinely disturbing. Ten years ago this film might have seemed a little far fetched. Today, I think it's all too real. It's not all doom and gloom though - there are some wonderfully funny moments, such as a trailer for a TV special entitled 'So Damn What', starring Gary Coleman of Diff'rent Strokes as Cliff Spab. The ending too is a brilliant piece of black comedy. One other minor point of interest: Danny Rubin, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote the 1993 movie 'Groundhog Day'. It's an intriguing change of direction.
The Music of Chance (1993)
Directed by Philip Haas
Written by: Philip Haas & Belinda Haas
(From the novel by Paul Auster)
Starring: James Spader, Mandy Patinkin,
M. Emmet Walsh, Charles Durning
Bill: If you look at the prison, you'll see that all of the prisoners are working happily at various tasks, and that all of them have smiles on their faces. That's because they're glad they're being punished for their crimes, and they're learning to recover the goodness within them through hard work.
Bill: We were in the west of Ireland, and one day as we were motoring around the countryside, we came upon this fifteenth century castle. And I decided to buy it and have it shipped back to the US.
Willy: We're going to build a wall. A monument really. A monument in the shape of a wall.
Jim: I don't care what you call it - God, or luck, or harmony - it all comes down to the same bullshit. It's a way of avoiding the facts, of refusing to look at how things really work.
This is the kind of off-beat quirky movie I love. It's the story of a guy called Jim who is travelling across America when he picks up Jack - a poker playing drifter who subtly persuades him to put up $10,000 for a poker game with two eccentric millionaires. Jack loses, and he and Jim end up working off their debt by spending a couple of months building a wall. There's a constant air of mystery around the film. We never discover the full extent of Jim's background - why he left his family to travel across the country, why he claims to need the money so badly. And once into their bricklaying task, the web becomes even more entangled and menacing. Little happens on screen, but much is suggested. It's a very intriguing piece, marked by some fine acting, and brilliantly quirky dialogue. Charles Durning in particular has some great speeches before the poker game. I find the relationship between Jim and Jack fascinating too. There's a huge contrast between them - Jim cool, calm, rational, Jack the opposite in every respect. They frequently behave like father and son. Paul Auster, who wrote the original novel, turns up in the final scene, which is something I like to see. So often novels are ruined by film makers, so it's nice to see a novelist giving his implicit approval to a film by making a cameo appearance. Auster went on to write the movie 'Smoke', and its companion piece 'Blue in the Face', both favourites of mine. I'd love to see him do more screenwriting.
I could never confidently select one film as my favourite above all others, but whenever I'm forced into an opinion, I tend to name this one. It's a beautifully written comedy about a group of friends who have just graduated from university, paying particular attention to Grover, whose girlfriend Jane unexpectedly announces at the beginning that she's leaving for Prague. The opening scene at the graduation party contains more great exchanges of dialogue than most films can muster in 90 minutes, and despite the fact that one of the protagonists is offscreen for most of the movie, we get more of an understanding of the relationship between Grover and Jane through the occasional flashback, and through Grover's aimlessness, than if she'd been there constantly. Never has a short answerphone message been used to such achingly brilliant effect. The final scene at the airport makes me cry for so many reasons. After his impassioned speech, Grover's response to the check-in girl's statement that "You can always go tomorrow" is an object lesson in speaking volumes without saying a word. We know he won't go tomorrow, or ever. And that gets me every time. I've never made it to the closing credits without a tear in my eye. It really is a beautifully written piece. Ok, I'm starting to sound lame now, I'll stop.
Jane: I'm going to Prague...
Grover: So how will that work if you're living with me in Brooklyn?
Jane: Well, it'll be the same. Except I'll be in Prague.
Otis: And now I'm antsy. I'm a little guy.
Max: What are you talking about? You're enormous.
Otis: But you know what I mean, I'm little.
Max: You're like a monster, you're huge.
Otis: But inside I'm little. I'm small maybe, I'm small. As a little guy I can't do all the things that all the bigger guys do.
Max: You're out of your mind.
Jane: You've never even been to Prague.
Grover: Oh I've BEEN to Prague. Well... I haven't 'been to Prague' been to Prague, but I know that thing.
Grover: You know, I caught myself writing 'go to bed' and 'wake up' in my date book, as though they were two different events.
Chet: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.
Grover: Dad, I'm not really ready to accept you as a human being yet.
Kicking & Screaming (1995)
Written & directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring: Josh Hamilton, Olivia d'Abo, Eric Stoltz
Josh: But you see, I killed a man. I never thought I'd be able to do that. I mean, when you've done something unimaginable, when you've done it before you ever even thought about it, when you see how easy it is, well then everything is put into this new perspective. Suddenly things you thought were the most important things in the world have no more significance than anything else, because you've done the unimaginable. You've done what you thought was impossible. And then you see, well, you see you can do anything.
Mike: Hey, you ain't a homo are you?
Pearl: He seems like a nice man.
Audry: You think so? I mean, after he's killed your sister and your father?
Pearl: Things happen. People make mistakes.
Audry: I can see how your sister was a mistake, but he threw your father down a flight of stairs.
Pearl: I think he seems like a nice man. And you like him, right?
Audry: He doesn't seem like a killer.
Pearl: Maybe he isn't.
Audry: I mean, he hasn't killed anyone recently has he?
Pearl: I don't think so.
Audry: I knew he had a history.
Audry: But Dad, history is coming to an end.
Dad: What's she talking about?
Mum: The end of the world. By the way Vic, the washing machine is busted.
I had to put one Hal Hartley film on here, it was just a question of which. 'The Unbelievable Truth' just got the nod over 'Trust'. It's the story of Josh, who returns to his home town after being released from prison, and meets Audry, a quirky girl with an interest in books and the end of the world. There's a lot I like about this movie, and about Hal Hartley films in general. I'm sure his style irritates some people, but I love the deadpan, almost monotone delivery of his characters, the quirky dialogue, surreal moments, uneven pacing, bits of philosophy followed by inane banalities - in fact pretty much everything about a Hal Hartley film. It's a refreshing style of comedy. 'The Unbelievable Truth' also has an added element of intrigue, as Josh's past is unclear, and no one really knows the true facts about him. He's such a quiet, intelligent, even tempered, self-effacing guy that we know he can't quite be the mass murderer he's made out to be. The truth as presented by the townsfolk is indeed unbelievable. It's only as the movie goes on that we gradually learn what really happened. On a personal note, I feel a bit of an empathy with Josh - a guy who's missed out on his 20s, and is now trying to rebuild his life in a quietly determined way. He's a character I can identify with.