A Movie A Day #81: The Great White Hype (1996, directed by Reginald Hudlin)


The Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) has a problem.  He is the richest and the best known fight promoter in America but the current (and undefeated) heavyweight champion is just too good.  No one is paying to watch James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) fight because Roper always wins.  Sultan has a plan, though.  Before Roper turned professional, he lost a fight to Terry Conklin (Peter Berg).  Conklin has long since retired from boxing and is now a heavy metal, progressive musician.  Sultan convinces Conklin to come out of retirement and face Roper in a rematch.  Since Conklin is white and Roper is black, Sultan stands to make a killing as white boxing fans get swept up in all the hype about Conklin being the latest “great white hope.”

In the days leading up to the fight, crusading journalist Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to expose the crooked Sultan before getting seduced into his inner circle.  Meanwhile, boxer Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) and his manager, Hassan El Rukk’n (Jamie Foxx), unsuccessfully pursue a match with Roper.  Conklin gets back into shape while Roper eats ice cream and watches Dolemite.

In its attempt to satirize boxing, The Great White Hype runs into a huge problem.  The fight game is already so shady that it is beyond satire.  This was especially true in the 90s, when the The Great White Hype was first released.  (Even more than the famous Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney title fight, The Great White Hype’s obvious inspiration was the heavily promoted, two-minute fight between Mike Tyson and Peter McNeeley.)  The Great White Hype is a very busy film but nothing in it can match Oliver McCall’s mental breakdown in the middle of his fight with Lennox Lewis, Andrew Golota twice fighting Riddick Bowe and twice getting disqualified for low blows, or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

The Great White Hype has an only in the 90s supporting cast, featuring everyone from Jon Lovitz to Cheech Marin to, for some reason, Corbin Bernsen.  Damon Wayans is the least convincing heavyweight champion since Tommy Morrison essentially played himself in Rocky V.  The Rev. Sultan was meant to be a take on Don King and Samuel L. Jackson was a good pick for the role but the real Don King is so openly corrupt and flamboyant that he’s almost immune to parody.

When it comes to trying to take down Don King, I think Duke puts it best.

A Movie A Day #80: The Palermo Connection (1990, directed by Francesco Rosi)


Carmine Bonavia (James Belushi) is an idealistic New York City councilman who wants to be mayor.  Despite an easily understood slogan — “Make A Difference!” — his reform campaign is running behind in the polls.  Having nothing to lose, Carmine announces that he supports the legalization of drugs.  By taking out the profit motive, the Sicilian Mafia will no longer have any incentive to sell drugs in the inner city.  Carmine shoots to top of the polls.  Now leading by 11%, Carmine marries his campaign manager (Mimi Rogers) and returns to his ancestral home of Sicily for a combination honeymoon and fact-finding tour.  The Mafia, realizing that Carmine is serious about legalizing drugs, conspires to frame him for the murder of a flower boy.  If that doesn’t work, they are willing to resort to other, more permanent, methods to prevent Carmine from ever becoming mayor.

The Palermo Connection is an unfairly overlooked film from Francesco Rosi, an Italian director who specialized in political controversy.  Though The Palermo Connection was sold as a thriller, Rosi was more interested in showing how organized crime, big business, government corruption, the war on drugs, and the poverty of the inner cities are all intricately connected.  When Carmine arrives in Palermo, Rosi contrasts the outer beauty of Sicily with the desperate lives of the junkies living there.  The pace may be too slow for action movie fans but Rosi gives the audience much to think about.  This is probably the last film you would ever expect to star James Belushi but he gives a strong and committed performance as Carmine.

The Palermo Connection, which was co-written by Gore Vidal, is a good film that predates The Wire in its examination of how greed, drugs, poverty, and racism all come together to victimize the most marginalized members of society.

A Movie A Day #79: Blindman (1971, directed by Ferdinando Baldi)


In the old west, a professional gunman (played by Tony Anthony) has been hired to escort 50 women to a Texas mining town.  The gunman is known as Blindman, precisely because he is a blind man.  He is also a fast and deadly with a gun and has an apparent psychic connection with his horse.  Unfortunately, for Blindman, it turns out that his partners double crossed him and sold the 50 women to a Mexican bandit.  Blindman must go to Mexico to rescue the women from the ruthless Domingo (Lloyd Battista) and his crazy younger brother, Candy (Ringo Starr).

You read that correctly.  This is not only a Spaghetti western about a blind gunslinger who owns a seeing-eye horse.  It’s also a Spaghetti western that co-stars the man who replaced Pete Best.  Of the four Beatles, Ringo was always the best actor and he is surprisingly convincing as a psychotic Mexican bandit.  As for the rest of Blindman, it can not compare to the best Spaghetti westerns but there’s enough novelty in the idea of a blind gunman that it is still interesting to watch.  Tony Anthony may have been one of the lesser known Spaghetti western stars but he probably gave the best performance of his career as Blindman.  Along with being a violent, bloody, and nudity-filled western, Blindman is also a comedy.  Most of the jokes are delivered by Tony Anthony, who spends a lot of time talking to himself and who, despite being blind, stares straight at the camera while doing so.  (Most of the jokes were also written by Tony Anthony.  He’s one of the credited screenwriters.)

Why does Blindman do what he does?  As he puts it in the movie, “To be blind, with no money, now that’s a bitch!”

 

A Movie A Day #78: Future War (1997, directed by Anthony Doublin)


“Four days ago, a fire fell from the sky.”

So says Sister Ann (Travis Brooks Stewart), the former prostitute junkie turned nun who narrates Future War.  She says it at least three times.

But what was in that fire?

Was it The Runaway (Daniel Bernhardt), the Swiss kickboxer who was kidnapped by intergalactic slave traders shortly after the writing of the King James’s Bible and who, when he finally escapes, somehow finds himself in 20th Century Los Angeles?

Was it the dinosaurs that were sent down to purse him?

Was it the Cyborg Master (played by Maniac Cop himself, Robert Z’Dar)?

Or was the fire from the sky any hope that Future War would feature consistent continuity and narrative logic crashing down to the Earth and burning up in the atmosphere?

Future War is one of the worst films ever made, which is the main reason to watch it.

Watch as The Runaway points up at the sky and proves incapable of speaking until it is convenient for him to do so!

Thrill to countless fights that take place in warehouses that appear to be full of empty boxes!

Listen as multiple plot holes and inconsistencies are explained away by Sister Ann’s voice over!

Gasp at the sight of The Runaway and The Cyborg Master having a showdown in a church, John Woo-style!

Scream as dinosaur puppets are held really close to the camera in an effort to make them look bigger!

Laugh as the late Forrest J Ackerman makes a cameo, reading Famous Monsters of Filmland before getting eaten!

Wonder why The Runaway’s chest is bloody and injured in one shot but not the next!

Future War has it all!

A Movie A Day #77: On Any Sunday (1971, directed by Bruce Brown)


Why pay money to see CHiPs in the theaters when you can watch On Any Sunday, the greatest motorcycle movie of all time, on YouTube for free?

Directed and narrated by Bruce Brown (of Endless Summer fame), On Any Sunday is a documentary about motorcycle racing.  Brown profiles several professional racers and takes a look at the different types of racing, everything from desert racing to street racing to ice racing.  In On Any Sunday, Brown makes riding a motorcycle look just as exciting as he made surfing look in Endless Summer.  Brown’s racing footage is often amazing and left me wondering how he got some of his shots.

Throughout the documentary, Brown emphasizes both the dedication and the humanity of the racers.  The racers are seen obsessively working on their motorcycles but Brown also points out that, in order to be successful, the racers have to trust each other.  They have to know that, if they crash during the race, the other racers will be alert and quick enough to avoid running them down.

Why, Brown asks, do they do it?  Brown says that most of the racers can’t tell you why they race.  They just enjoy it.  But, with the footage Brown shows us, we can guess why they do it.  Through the use of helmet cams, Brown puts us right on the motorcycle, tearing down a track at over 100 mph and allows us to get as close as we can to feeling the thrill of the race without actually being in the race ourselves.  Brown also makes good use of slow motion to show the skill necessary to avoid crashing and he shows us enough crashes that we understand the risk that comes with racing.  Brown emphasizes that every racer crashes and that the best of them can just brush it off.

On Any Sunday was co-produced by actor and racing enthusiast Steve McQueen.  Towards the end of the documentary, McQueen is interviewed about why he races.  McQueen, a man of few words, says that he enjoys being on the track with the other racers.  They lift him up when he’s feeling down.

On Any Sunday is 46 years old but it will still make you want to get on a motorcycle and ride like a champion.

A Movie A Day #76: Harry Tracy, Desperado (1982, directed by William A. Graham)


The year is 1902.  The old west is coming to an end.  Almost all of the famous outlaws are either dead or imprisoned.  Only a few, like Harry Tracy (Bruce Dern), continue to make a living by robbing banks and trains.  Though he is often captured and even sentenced to death a few times, Harry is always able to escape.  His latest escape, from a prison in Washington, has led to the largest manhunt in American history.  Harry is being pursued by a trigger-happy army, led by U.S. Marshal Morrie Nathan (played by singer Gordon Lightfoot).  Harry has been in this situation before but this time, things are different.  Harry is traveling with Catherine Tuttle (Helen Shaver), the daughter of a local judge.  Harry and Catherine are in love but that does not matter to the men with the guns.

Harry Tracy is a sadly overlooked and elegiac western from Canada.  It is based on a true story.  Outlaw Harry Tracy really did escape from several prisons and he eventually was the target of the largest manhunt in U.S. history.  (His relationship with Catherine was apparently created for the film.)  In real life, Harry was reportedly considered to be more ruthless than Jesse James and he killed not only members of law enforcement but also members of his own gang.  The movie’s Harry is a much more gentle character.  In the film, Harry only kills in self-defense and he robs banks not because he’s greedy but because it’s the only life that he has ever known.  Harry is a relic of a time that it coming to a close.  In one scene, he is shocked to come across a man driving a car.  For an outlaw who usually makes his escape on horseback, the new century does not hold much promise.

In the tradition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Harry Tracy mixes comedy with tragedy.  The film’s defining image is Harry fleeing from his latest robbery and dropping most of the money in the process.  Harry often seems to be bewildered by all the fuss that people are making over him.  Bruce Dern and Helen Shaver are great as Harry and Catherine.  Even the casting of Gordon Lightfoot works.  (Lightfoot also wrote the movie’s theme song.)

Harry Tracy is an overlooked classic about the end of the old west and the beginning of the modern era.

A Movie A Day #75: Wanted: The Sundance Woman (1976, directed by Lee Philips)


This made-for-TV sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens several years after the death of Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.  Etta Pace (Katharine Ross, reprising her role from the original film) is now a wanted woman.  Hiding out in Arizona, she does her best to keep a low profile.  But when Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo (Steve Forrest) comes to town and one of Etta’s friends (Michael Constantine) is arrested, Etta knows that she’s going to need help to survive.  Crossing the border into Mexico, she teams up with revolutionary Pancho Vila (Hector Elizondo).  In return for helping him get his hands on a shipment of guns, Vila agrees to protect Etta.

Wanted: The Sundance Woman was ABC’s second pilot for a possible television series about Etta Pace’s adventures at the turn of the century.  The first pilot starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Etta and directly dealt with Etta’s attempts to come to terms with the death of Butch and Sundance.  While Katharine Ross returned to the role for the second pilot, Wanted: The Sundance Woman does not actually have much of a connection to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  Katharine Ross could have just as easily been playing Etta Smith as Etta Pace.

Wanted: The Sundance Woman is held back by its origins as a TV movie and a rather silly romance between Etta and Pancho Vila.  Hector Elizondo is hardly convincing as a fiery revolutionary and Steve Forrest is reliably dull as Siringo.  It is not really surprising that this pilot didn’t lead to a weekly series.  On the positive side, the film does feature an exciting train robbery and Katharine Ross is just as good in this sequel as she was in the original.  Even though she was talented, beautiful, and had important roles in two of the most successful films of the 60s (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Hollywood never seemed to know what do with Katharine Ross.  While she did have a starring role in The Stepford Wives, Katharine Ross spent most of the 70s appearing in stuff like The Swarm, They Only Kill Their Masters, and The Betsy.  It’s unfortunate that Hollywood apparently did not want Katharine Ross as much Pancho Vila wanted the Sundance Woman.