Flat Broke In The ’70s: Americathon (1979, directed by Neal Israel)


The year is 1998 and America is flat broke.  Paper currency is now worthless and, to the joy of Ron Paul supporters everywhere, all transactions are done in gold.  After the country ran out of oil, people started using skateboards and bicycles for transportation and many turned their cars into homes.  While the citizenry spends their time consuming a steady diet of sitcoms and reality television, the government tries to figure out how to pay back the loan that it took from Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), a Native American who made billions after buying Nike.  Birdwater wants his money back and he is prepared to foreclose on the entire country.

Newly elected President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is not helping.  A combination of Jack Tripper and Jerry Brown (who was gearing up to challenge Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries when Americathon was first released), Chet Roosevelt is a spaced-out former governor of California who speaks in 70s self-help slogans and who is more interested in getting laid than leading the country.  Roosevelt governs out of The Western White House, a condo in California.  When an ad exec named Eric McMerkin (Peter Reigert) suggests a month-long telethon to raise the money to pay off the loan, Roosevelt leaps at the chance.

Hosted by Harvey Korman, the telethon (which is called, naturally, the Americathon) features a wide variety of acts.  There’s a ventriloquist.  Jay Leno boxes his grandmother.  Meat Loaf destroys a car.  Even Elvis Costello and Eddie Money make brief appearances.  While Chet falls in love with one of the performers, his chief-of-staff (Fred Willard) plots, with the leaders of a new Middle Eastern superstate, to sabotage the telethon.

Based on a play by the Firesign Theater, Americathon has a big, talented cast that is let down by Neal Israel’s uncertain direction and a script that is only rarely funny.  The idea of America hosting a tacky telethon to pay its debts sounds like a good SNL skit (especially if Bill Murray played the host) but the premise is too thin for a feature film.  Like Airplane! or The Naked Gun films, Americathon is a movie that tosses every joke it can against the wall to see what will stick.  If the jokes are good, like in Airplane!, that formula can lead to a comedy classic.  If the jokes are bad, not even John Ritter, Harvey Korman, and Fred Willard can make them funny.

Today, if Americathon is remembered, it’s because it supposedly predicted several future events.  Americathon does take place in a future where China is an economic superpower, Nike is a huge conglomerate, and reality game shows are very popular.  But, even with those correct predictions, Americathon is a such a film of its time that it was probably dated from the minute that it was released.  Just the sight of John Ritter in a condo permanently marks Americathon as a film of and about the ’70s.

George Carlin does score a few laughs as the narrator and Elvis Costello performs both Crawlin’ To The USA and (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.  Eagle-eyed viewers might want to keep an eye out for the tragic Playboy playmate, Dorothy Stratten, who has a brief non-speaking role.  Otherwise, Americathon is as hopeless as the country it’s trying to save.

A Movie A Day #338: Raid on Entebbe (1977, directed by Irvin Kershner)


On June 27th, 1976, four terrorists hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda.  With the blessing of dictator Idi Amin and with the help of a deployment of Ugandan soldiers, the terrorists held all of the Israeli passengers hostage while allowing the non-Jewish passengers to leave.  The terrorists issued the usual set of demands.  The Israelis responded with Operation Thunderbolt, a daring July 4th raid on the airport that led to death of all the terrorists and the rescue of the hostages.  Three hostages were killed in the firefight and a fourth — Dora Bloch — was subsequently murdered in a Ugandan hospital by Idi Amin’s secret police.  Only one commando — Yonatan Netanyahu — was lost during the raid.  His younger brother, Benjamin, would later become Prime Minister of Israel.

Raid on Entebbe, a docudrama about the operation, was originally produced for NBC though it subsequently received an overseas theatrical release as well.  It’s an exciting tribute to the bravery of both the hostages and the commandos who rescued them.  Director Irvin Kershner directs in a documentary fashion and gets good performances from a cast full of familiar faces.  Charles Bronson, James Woods, Peter Finch, Martin Balsam, Stephen Macht, Horst Buchholz, Sylvia Sidney, Allan Arbus, Jack Warden, John Saxon, and Robert Loggia show up as politicians, commandos, terrorists, and hostages and all of them bring a sense of reality and humanity to their roles.

The film’s best performance comes from Yaphet Kotto, who plays Idi Amin as a strutting buffoon, quick to smile but always watching out for himself.  In the film, Amin often pays unannounced visits to the airport, where he lies and tells the hostages that he is doing his best to broker an agreement between the terrorists and Israel.  The hostages are forced to applaud Amin’s empty promises and Amin soaks it all up with a huge grin on his face.  Forest Whitaker may have won the Oscar for Last King of Scotland but, for me, Yaphet Kotto will always be the definitive Idi Amin.

A Movie A Day #251: Cisco Pike (1972, directed by Bill L. Norton)


Yesterday, the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91.   Cisco Pike is not one of Stanton’s best films but it is a film that highlight why Stanton was such a compelling actor and why his unique presence will be missed.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a musician who has fallen on hard time.  After having been busted several times for dealing drugs, Cisco now just wants to spend time with his “old lady” (Karen Black) and plot his comeback as a musician.  However, a corrupt narcotics detective, Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), approaches Cisco with an offer that he cannot refuse.  Holland has come into possession of 100 kilos of marijuana.  He wants Cisco to sell it for him and then Leo plans to take the money and retire.  Cisco has the weekend to sell all of the weed.  If he doesn’t, Holland will arrest him for dealing and sent him back to prison,

About halfway through this loose and improvisational look at dealers, hippies, and squares in 1970s Los Angeles, Harry Dean Stanton shows up in the role of Jesse Dupree, an old friend and former bandmate of Cisco’s.  Jesse is a free-living wanderer, too old to be a hippie but too unconventional to be a member of the establishment.  Unfortunately, Jesse also has a nasty heroin habit.  Jesse Dupree is a prototypical Harry Dean Stanton role.  Like many of Stanton’s best roles, Jesse may be sad and full of regrets but he is not going to let that keep him from enjoying life.  Stanton may not appear in much of the film but he still takes over every scene in which he appears.

Stanton is, by far, the best thing about Cisco Pike.  As always, Gene Hackman is entertaining, playing the inverse of The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and Karen Black is her usual mix of sexy and weird.  The weakest part of the movie is Kris Kristofferson, who was still a few years away from becoming a good actor when he starred in Cisco Pike.  It is interesting to consider how different Cisco Pike would have been if Stanton and Kristofferson had switched roles.  Stanton may not have had Kristofferon’s movie star looks but, unlike Kristofferson, he feels real in everything that he does.  With his air of resignation and his non-Hollywood persona, Stanton brought authenticity to not only Cisco Pike but to every film in which he appeared.

Along with Stanton, several other familiar faces appear in Cisco Pike.  Keep an eye out for Roscoe Lee Browne, Howard Hesseman, Viva, Allan Arbus, and everyone’s favorite spaced-out hippie chick, the one and only Joy Bang.

Insomnia File No. 8: From the Hip (dir by Bob Clark)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you discovered that you couldn’t get any sleep around two in the morning, you could have turned to Showtime and watched the 1987 film, From The Hip.

In From the Hip, Judd Nelson plays a character named Robin Weathers.  Of course, his nickname is Stormy.  Robin has just graduated from law school and is working at a prestigious law firm.  He’s ambitious, he’s outspoken, and he’s totally frustrated.  As his co-workers (played, quite well, by David Alan Grier and Dan Monahan) continually remind him, nobody gets to try a case during their first year out of law school.  They advise him to be patient and to wait his turn.

However, a man who is capable of being patient would not be nicknamed Stormy.  It just wouldn’t make any sense.  So, Stormy Weathers schemes his way into the courtroom.  One morning, he intentionally withholds information from the senior partners, going out of his way to keep them from realizing that a trial is scheduled to begin that afternoon.  When senior partner Craig Duncan (Darren McGavin) discovers what Stormy has done, he fires him and makes sure that he never get hired at another law firm … oh wait.  No, he doesn’t because that would make too much sense.  Instead, he allows Stormy to try the case because, at this point, Stormy is the only one who knows anything about it.

The case is a simple assault case that involves two bankers and should be resolved easily but Stormy manages to drag it out for several days and his flamboyant style catches the attention of the media.  The other partners in the law firm — who are all old and boring — want to fire Stormy but Stormy’s client says that, if Stormy is fired, he’ll take his business and his money elsewhere.  Stormy becomes a minor celebrity but — in a rather clever little twist — it turns out that he and the prosecuting attorney are old friends from law school and they conspired to make each other look good.

Anyway, Stormy is now so famous that he gets assigned to defend a college professor, named Benoit (John Hurt), who has been accused of murder.  When it quickly becomes obvious that Benoit is not only guilty but will probably murder again, Stormy is forced to choose between ambition and morality…

When my friend Evelyn and I first started to watch From the Hip last night, I really thought I was going to hate it.  The hot pink neon credits screamed, “Bad 80s movie!” and, because I happen to know quite a few lawyers, I tend to be a 100 times more critical of movies about lawyers than I am when it comes to movies about, say, homicidal fishermen.

And, honestly, From The Hip is a heavily flawed film.  Judd Nelson is miscast and the scenes with his politically conscious girlfriend (Elizabeth Perkins) are painfully shallow and reek of limousine liberalism.  But, if you can get through the weak opening, the film itself is watchable and enjoyable in a dumb sort of way.  John Hurt does a great job as a sociopath and, miscast as he may be, it’s still fun to watch Nelson go insane in court.

From The Hip is not a great film but, in its way, it’s an enjoyable little time capsule.  Believe it or not, there was a time when Judd Nelson starred in a movies that were actually released in theaters.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game

 

Horror Film Review: Damien: Omen II (dir by Don Taylor)


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The first sequel to The Omen was 1978’s Damien: Omen II.  Damien: Omen II is an odd film, one that is not very good but yet remains very watchable.

Damien: Omen II takes place 7 years after the end of the original Omen.  Antichrist Damien Thorn (now played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is now 12 years old.  He lives with his uncle Richard (William Holden) and Richard’s 2nd wife, Ann (Lee Grant).  His best friend is his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat).  In fact, the only problem that Damien has is that his great-aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) can’t stand him and views him as a bad influence.  Fortunately, as usually seems to happen whenever someone puts an obstacle in Damien’s life, there’s always either a black dog or a black crow around to help out.

Damien and Mark are cadets at a local military academy where Damien deals with a bully by glaring at him until he falls to the ground, grabbing at his head.  In history class, Damien shocks his teacher by revealing that he knows the date of every battle ever fought.  Damien’s new commander, Sgt. Neff (Lance Henriksen), pulls Damien to the side and tells him to stop showing off and to quietly bide his time.

Meanwhile, Richard is busy running Thorn Industries.  One of his executives, Paul Buhler (Robert Foxworth), wants to expand Thorn’s operations into agriculture but his plans are opposed by Richard’s executive vice president, Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres), who considers Paul to be unethical.  However, during an ice hockey game, Bill falls through the ice and, despite the efforts of everyone to break through the ice and save him, ends up floating away.  Paul is promoted and pursues his plans to make money off of world famine.  In between all of this, Paul finds the time to speak to Damien and tell him that he has a great future ahead of him.

Along with Thorn Industries, Richard also owns the Thorn Museum in Chicago.  The museum’s curator is Dr. Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor) who was a friend of the archeologist Karl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern) who, in the first film, revealed that not only was Damien the antichrist but that the only way to kill him was by stabbing him with the Seven Daggers of Meggido.  Dr. Warren is also friends with Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), a reporter who both knows the truth behind Bugenhagen’s death and who has also seen an ancient cave painting that reveals that the Antichrist looks exactly like a 12 year-old Damien Thorn.

Much as in the first film, just about everyone who comes into contact with Damien ends up getting killed in some odd and grotesque way.  Crows peck out eyes.  Trucks run over heads.  One unfortunate victim is crushed between two trains.  Another is chopped in half by an elevator cable.  At times, Damien: Omen II feels less like a sequel to The Omen and more like a forerunner to Final Destination.

Damien: Omen II is one of those films that I like despite myself.  It’s bad but it’s bad in a way that only a film from the 1970s could be and, as such, it has some definite historical value.  The script is full of red herrings, the acting is inconsistent, and the film can never seem to make up its mind whether Damien is pure evil or if he’s conflicted about his role as Antichrist.  As I watched the film, I wondered why the devil could so easily kill some people but not others.

And yet, Damien: Omen II is so ludicrous and silly that it’s undeniably watchable.  If the first film was distinguished by Gregory Peck’s defiant underplaying, the second film is distinguished by the way that William Holden delivers every line through manfully clenched teeth.  Everyone else in the cast follows Holden’s lead and everyone goes so far over-the-top that even the most mundane of scenes become oddly fascinating.

For me, the film is defined by poor Lew Ayres floating underneath that sheet of ice while everyone else tries to rescue him.  On the one hand, it’s absolutely horrific to watch.  I’m terrified of drowning and, whenever the camera focused on Ayres desperately pounding on the ice above him, I could barely bring myself to look at the screen.  But, at the same time, we also had William Holden screaming, “OH GOD!” and Nicholas Pryror enthusiastically chopping at the ice with a big axe and dozens of extras awkwardly skating across the ice.  Somehow, the scene ended up being both horrifying and humorous.  It should not have worked but somehow, it did.

And that’s pretty much the perfect description of Damien: Omen II.  It shouldn’t work but, in its own way, it does.