Vanishing Point (1971) Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a former race car driver charged with transporting a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time. From this simple premise sprouts a kinetic, introspective film that uncovers more layers as facets of his checkered past are revealed. Kowalski blazes across the desert highway, narrowly missing the cops at every turn. Cleavon Little co-stars as DJ Super Soul, a radio personality who regards the driver as some sort of people’s hero, taking on the establishment.
Amidst the hot pursuit, Kowalski encounters strange little surprises along the way (including a clothing-impaired woman on a motorcycle). Although the film rarely stops to take a breath, the relative quiet moments remind us about the power of being in the moment. Vanishing Point is very much a product of its time, with its hippie/counter-culture undercurrent, but it reminds us how thumbing your nose at authority never goes out of fashion. Depending on how you look at it, the sobering conclusion could be construed as a rejection or confirmation of those hippie ideals.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) What is it about 1971 and road movies? The same year that ushered in Vanishing Point and Duel also saw this fine Monte Hellman-directed character study. Singer/musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (in his only film role) star as a driver/mechanic team who roam from town to town in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, living off winnings from street racing. Their life takes a novel detour when they challenge a fast-talking drifter (Warren Oates) in a Pontiac GTO to a winner-take-all race to Washington D.C. for the pink slips of their respective vehicles. Laurie Bird is excellent as a young woman who vies for the men’s affections, and Harry Dean Stanton appears in a small, but memorable role as a lonely hitchhiker. It’s no coincidence that none of the characters have names (the characters are simply known as The Driver, G.T.O, The Girl, etc…). Each, in his or her way, is a sad archetype, living an aimless existence, wandering the highways, but never finding home.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Sightseers (2012) Director Ben Wheatley’s pitch black comedy is full of unexpected turns and surprises. Just when you think the film is going one way, it shifts into a completely different direction. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also co-wrote the screenplay) play 30-somethings Tina and Chris, who embark on a blood-soaked caravan holiday in the English countryside. Calling their relationship an unconventional romance is a gross understatement. Tina takes co-dependency to new lengths, while Chris lives by his own dysfunctional code. Sightseers is a unique creation with a twisted sense of humor that will make you laugh and squirm in equal measures.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) If you want to get technical, this road chase movie should have been called Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Laconic Deke, but I suppose that doesn’t have much of a ring to it. Peter Fonda, Susan George and Adam Roarke star as Larry, Mary and Deke, respectively, who pull off a heist at a grocery store (with an uncredited Roddy McDowall as the manager) and hit the road to parts unknown. Kenneth Tobey and Vic Morrow play a feuding sheriff and police captain determined to bring them to justice. It’s all fun and games for most of the film’s running time, typified by exciting car chases and insane stunts, until the abrupt, senseless ending. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry vainly attempts to copy Vanishing Point’s conclusion, but without the emotional resonance; as if the writers, much like the characters, had nowhere else to go.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) Here’s a real oddity – a Finnish road trip comedy, shot documentary style on the highways and byways of America. The Leningrad Cowboys, sporting huge pointed pompadours and pointy shoes, are a less than competent Russian band seeking fame and fortune. They hit the road, crammed into an old Cadillac, with their dead mate in a coffin on the roof. They play their weird mix of Russian folk, ‘50s rock and country to unenthused crowds, while their unscrupulous manager skims their meager earnings at every turn. Considering the material’s potential, Leningrad Cowboys wasn’t as laugh out loud funny as I expected (the gags are hit and miss). Even though the dialogue is mostly English, I suspect something was missed in translation. On the other hand, the film is hard to dislike, thanks to its amiable charm and skewed characters. In the end, I was glad to have come along for the ride.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD (as part of a 3-disc Criterion Eclipse set)