Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seven Small Wonders of the Cinematic World

Plain and simple, these are seven indies, small-budget flicks, and B-movies that I love.

House of Games (1987)
Renowned playwright David Mamet made his directorial debut with this twisty psychological game of a film. Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist drawn into and fascinated by the world of con artists, guided by Joe Mantegna. We're drawn in too, by the shady underworld, and the clever, ruthless men who populate it. Mamet's blunt and brilliant dialogue is never sharper than in this movie. Bonus points for casting magician, sleight-of-hand and con expert Ricky Jay.

Metropolitan (1990)
Whit Stillman's debut film depicts sensible young socialist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) attending parties with wealthy ex-prep school classmates who now spend their weekends attending Manhattan debutante balls and defending their privileged lives. Perennial outsider Tom finds himself becoming one of the upper-crust gang, being pursued by one woman while pining for another. The friends revel in drinking, smoking, and witty banter, especially in the character of Nick, played by Chris Eigeman. Favorite Nick quotes include, "It's a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate," and "I've always planned to be a failure anyway, that's why I plan to marry an extremely wealthy woman." The comedy is extremely intelligent but always funny, finding truth and humor in this lot of blossoming yuppies that we initially sneer at, much like Tom does.

The Chocolate War (1988)
Adapted from Robert Cormier's classic young adult novel, the Chocolate War begins when a new student at a Catholic school (Ilan-Mitchell Smith) refuses to participate in the annual fund-raising candy sale. The shadow government of the school, a secret club of boys who hand out mostly arbitrary "assignments" to keep students under their thumb, are enlisted by the manipulative headmaster (John Glover) to pressure the new boy to conform. The movie ending is somewhat different than the book's, but I think the new version of the final battle is more complex and does convey the same message about resisting conformity, but in a more cinematic way. With either ending, the story is unusually dark and brutally honest for a tale aimed at teens. That's why I love it.

Polish Vampire in Burbank (1985)
My friend discovered Polish Vampire in Burbank in a video store when we were in high school. It was a copy, not the original VHS tape, and was encased in a plain black cover. Not a very promising introduction to the movie, but as it turns out, it's the perfect intro to the best/worst B-movie you'll ever see. Actually, 'B-movie' might be too high of a ranking. The movie was made for $2500, and it looks like it. It's the story of fanged loser Dupah (Mark Pirro), who comes from a family of vampires but hasn't yet made his first kill. His dad kicks him out, ordering him to finally step up and get his own blood instead of drinking leftovers out of a baggie. His sister helps him meet a sweet girl named Delores (Lori Sutton), who falls for him. Will they live happily ever after? You'll see, and laugh your ass off the whole while.

Saved! (2004)
Faith in God is skewered, examined, lost, and reclaimed in this hilarious and warm movie about a Christian-school senior (Jena Malone) who gets pregnant after trying to de-gay her boyfriend. Preggo Mary is ostracised by the Christian Jewels club, and befriends a wild Jewish classmate (Eva Amurri) and a cynical wheelchair-bound boy played by Macaulay Culkin. The movie's filled with strong performances, including Mary Louise Parker as Mary's religious-but-cool mom, Martin Donovan as the school's conflicted principal, and Mandy Moore as a psycho Jesus freak with a gun. Chock full of memorable scenes and lines like this one from Hilary Faye (Moore) at the shooting range- "Sure Jesus could restore my physical and spiritual virginity, especially if I lost it to some rapist, but who wants that? I'm saving myself for marriage, and I'll use force if necessary."

Frailty (2001)
I am not a fan of Bill Paxton as a rule, but this is the exception. Paxton directed and starred in this very well done psychological thriller, the story of a father who has a vision that he's been singled out by God to kill "demons" disguised as humans. His two young sons, Fenton (Matt O'Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), witness their father's destructive acts. Adam believes in his father's mad ramblings about being God's Hands, while the older boy Fenton tries to stop the killings. To say more would spoil the plot details of this unpredictable film. In fact, I'm not including the imdb link to Frailty, because it has a major plot spoiler right on the main details page. Go rent or buy the movie yourself. This is a damn good film, made for around $11 million which is chump change by studio standards. It wasn't a hit, and it should have been.

Gas Food Lodging (1992)
Shade (Fairuza Balk) is a lushly romantic soul, while her older sister Trudi (Ione Skye) is world-weary of men before she's out of her teens. Their mother (Brooke Adams) struggles to raise her daughters in a trailer in New Mexico, while waitressing and hooking up with a sweet-talking cable guy. This is not a cutesy rom-com, by any means. Shade embarassingly pursues a male friend, in between dreaming at the Mexican cinema and fighting with her family. Bitter Trudi begins to hope for something more than life in the dusty desert town, and wants to believe she's wrong about men after she meets a wandering rock-hunter who shows her the world in a new light. The plot isn't substantial, but director Allison Anders creates a wonderful, sensual mood, as the women's desire for love guides their way through the story. There is sadness, and beauty, and exhilaration in the turns of their paths.


  1. I loved Frailty, can't say I've seen the other films on this list to be honest.

    1 out of 10... ugh, grades like that bring back bad memories of Physics.

  2. 1 out of 7...bad memories of math, too? ;)

  3. haha yeah I realized that after I hit enter, unfortunately there's not edit button :P. The sad thing is I'm a Computer Science major and a Math minor and failed at both right there :(