The Gumball Rally (1976, directed by Chuck Bail)


When he gets bored in a business meeting, Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) calls his old friend, Prof. Samuel Graves (Nicholas Pryor) and says only one word: “Gumball.”  Inspired by that one word, dozens of racers assemble in New York, all planning on taking part in the Gumball Rally.

What is the Gumball Rally?  It’s a highly illegal race in which teams of two compete to see which team can drive from New York to the other side of the country in the least amount of time.  Bannon and Graves currently hold the record for completing the Gumball Rally in the quickest amount of time and all of the racers are determined to try to claim that record for their own.  Meanwhile, one cop named Roscoe (Norman Burton) is determined to break this race up.  Has there ever been a good cop named Roscoe?  Rosco P. Coltrane probably had more of a chance of stopping them Duke Boys than Roscoe does stopping the Gumball Rally.

If The Gumball Rally sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically a less star-filled version of The Cannonball Run.  Instead of Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, The Gumball Rally has Michael Sarrazin, Nicholas Pryor, Tim McIntire, and Norman Burton.  Instead of Jackie Chan making his American debut, The Gumball Rally has early performances from Raul Julia and Gary Busey.  Instead of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., The Gumball Rally has Steven Keats and Wally Taylor.  You get the idea.  However, the lack of big stars in the cast works to The Gumball Rally‘s advantage.  Whereas you watch The Cannonball Run with the knowledge that there’s no way Burt Reynolds isn’t going to at least come in second, it seems like anyone of the eccentric teams in The Gumball Rally could win the race.

Make no mistake about it, The Gumball Rally is a car chase film, one that was released at the height of that underrated genre’s popularity.  The actors are all likable and almost all of the characters get at least one funny, personality-defining moment but the real stars of The Gumball Rally are the cars and the stunts. That’s not surprising as this film was directed by legendary stuntman Chuck Bail.  This film is full of spectacular crashes and near misses.  (The race’s lone motorcyclist is especially accident-prone.)  Again, the lack of stars in the cast (and the fact that the cast reportedly did most of their own driving) bring an added element of suspense to the stunts.  You watch The Cannonball Run and Smoky and the Bandit secure in the knowledge that Burt Reynolds is never going to crash his vehicle because he’s Burt Ryenolds.  You don’t have that same automatic security when the car is being driven by Michael Sarrazine or Tim McIntire.

It may not be as well known as some of the films that it inspired but, if you like a good car chase (or a good car crash) film, The Gumball Rally is for you.

An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)


The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

18 Days of Paranoia #4: The Falcon and the Snowman (dir by John Schlesinger)


The 1985 film, The Falcon and the Snowman, tells the story of two friends.  They’re both wealthy.  They’re both a little bit lost, with one of them dropping out the seminary and the other becoming a drug dealer who is successful enough to have a lot of money but inept enough to still be treated like a joke by all of other dealers.

Chris Boyce (Timothy Hutton) is the son of a former FBI agent (Pat Hingle).  He has a tense relationship with his father.  It’s obvious that the two have never really been sure how to talk to each other.  While his father is sure of both himself and his country, Chris is far more sensitive and quick to question.  While his father plays golf and attends outdoor barbecues, Chris becomes an expert in the sport of falconry and spends a lot of time obsessing about the state of the the world.  While his father defends Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation, Chris sees it as evidence that America is a sick and corrupt country.  Because his father doesn’t want Chris sitting around the house all day, he pulls some strings to get Chris a job working at the “Black Vault,” where Chris will basically have the ability to learn about all sorts of classified stuff.

Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) was Chris’s best friend in school.  Daulton’s entire life revolves around cocaine.  He both sells and uses it.  He’s managed to make a lot of money but his addiction has also left him an erratic mess.  Daulton’s father wants to kick him out of the house.  Daulton’s mother continually babies him.  Chris and Daulton may seem like an odd pair of friends but they’re both wealthy, directionless, and have a difficult time relating to their fathers.  It somehow seems inevitable that these two would end up as partners.

Chris Boyce and Daulton Lee, together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, they end up betraying their country.  (Boooo!  Hiss!  This guy’s a commie, traitor to our nation!)  After Chris discovers that the CIA has been interfering in the elections of America’s allies (in this case, Australia), he decides to give information to the Russians.  Since Daulton already has experience smuggling drugs over the southern border, Boyce asks Lee to contact the KGB the next time that he’s in Mexico.  Despite being a neurotic and paranoid mess, Lee manages to do just that.

Of course, as Chris soon comes to discover, betraying your country while working with a greedy drug addict is not as easy as it seems.  While Chris wants to eventually get out of the treason game, marry his girlfriend (Lori Singer), and finish up college, Daulton wants to be James Bond.  The Russians, meanwhile, soon grow tired of having to deal with Lee and start pressuring Chris to deal with them directly….

And it all goes even further downhill from there.

Based on a true story, The Falcon and the Snowman tells the story of how two seemingly very different young men managed to basically ruin their lives.  Boyce’s naive idealism and Lee’s drug-fueled greed briefly makes them a powerful duo but they both quickly discover that betraying your country isn’t as a simple as they assumed.  For one thing, once you’ve done it once, it’s impossible to go back to your normal life.  As played by Hutton and Penn, Chris and Daulton are two very interesting characters.  Boyce is full of righteous indignation and sees himself as being a hero but the film hints that he’s mostly just pissed off at his Dad for never understanding him or caring that much about falconry.  Daulton, meanwhile, is a lunatic but he seems to be aware that he’s a lunatic and that makes his oddly likable.  At times, it seems like even he can’t believe that Chris was stupid enough to depend on him.  The film provides a convincing portrait of two men who, because of several impulsive decisions, find themselves in over their heads with no possibility of escape.

The Falcon and the Snowman is an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking time capsule of a different age.  If the film took place in 2020, Daulton would be hanging out with the Kardashians and Chris would probably be too busy working for the Warren campaign to spy for America’s enemies.  If only the two of them had been born a few decades later, all of this could have been of avoided.

Previous Entries In The 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Privates Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

Shattered Politics #61: Murder at 1600 (dir by Dwight H. Little)


Murder_at_sixteen_hundred_ver2Wow.

I have to admit that, seeing as how I was only 11 going on 12 back in 1997, I really wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on in the world at the time.  But, whatever it was, it must have been something big and scary and it must have left people feeling deeply suspicious of the government.  How else do you explain the fact that 1997 not only saw the release of Absolute Power, a film in which the President is a murderer, but Murder at 1600 as well.

Murder at 1600 opens with a White House maid finding the dead body of Carla Town (Mary Moore), an intern whose sole goal in life was apparently to have sex in every single room in the Executive Mansion.  (And, before you judge, that happens to be my goal in life as well.  So there.)  Streetwise homicide detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) is on the case!

And he’s certainly got a lot of suspects.  Could it be the Vice President (Chris Gillett)?  Or maybe Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda), the National Security Advisor?  Or how about Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali), the bald-bef0re-bald-was-cool head of the Secret Service?  Or maybe it the President’s son (Tate Donavon)?  Or maybe even the President (Ronny Cox) himself!?

Fortunately, Regis is assigned a partner, Secret Service agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane).  When Regis first meets her, he’s all, “Oh my God, you’re a woman!”  And then Nina’s all, “I also won an Olympic medal for sharp shooting!”  And then Regis is like, “I bet that will be a relevant plot point before the film ends!”

Of course, Regis already has a regular partner, as well.  His name is Detective Stengel and he’s played by Dennis Miller, which just seems strange.  Stengel basically looks like Dennis Miller, sounds like Dennis Miller, and acts exactly like Dennis Miller, except for the fact that he’s a cop.  His jarringly out-of-place presence in this film just adds to Murder at 1600‘s general air of weirdness.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the North Koreans are up to no good and the President is being pressured to take military action.  However, he’s being distracted by this whole criminal investigation thing.  Will the country survive or did its future die at 1600?

(And why doesn’t the President just send in Team America to take care of the situation?  Or maybe James Franco and Seth Rogen.  There are way to deal with the North Koreans….)

(By the way, have you noticed how brave everyone online is when it comes to being snarky about the one country in the world that doesn’t have internet access?  If Kim Jong Whatevuh ever gets a twitter account, I bet everyone will start following him and asking him for retweets.)

Murder at 1600 is an enjoyably ludicrous thriller.  It’s one of those films that you’ll enjoy as long as you don’t take it seriously.  Take it seriously and you’ll end up asking question like why the FBI isn’t involved in the investigation and whether or not the solution to the film’s mystery is a bit too convoluted to make any logical sense.  However, if you simply decide to enjoy Murder at 1600 for what it is, an extremely pulpy thriller that’s full of nonstop melodrama, overwritten dialogue, and a healthy distrust of the government*, then you’ll find this to be an entertaining thriller.

At the very least, a White House full of potential murderers is probably a lot more realistic than anything that you might see in The American President.  

—–

* Oh, everyone knows the government sucks…

 

 

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


DamienomenII

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.

Back to School #28: Risky Business (dir by Paul Brickman)


Risky Business

“It was great the way her mind worked. No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialities. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate gratification. What a capitalist.” — Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in Risky Business (1983)

So, this is the film where Tom Cruise — playing a high school senior named Joel, who has been left at home on his own while his wealthy parents go on vacation — ends up dancing around his living room in his underwear.  It’s a scene that has shown up in countless awards show montages and which has been parodied, imitated, and recreated to such an extent that even people who have never seen the movie know the scene.

Risky Business is about a lot of different things.  It’s a coming-of-age film.  It’s both a celebration and a satire of material excess and greed.  It’s a time capsule of the 80s.  It’s a comedy.  It’s a drama.  It’s a somewhat twisted romance.  It features good performances, clever dialogue, and an excellent soundtrack.  It’s a film that does for “Sometimes you just go to say, ‘What the fuck?'” what Dead Poets Society did for “Carpe Diem.”

But ultimately, for a lot of people, Risky Business is always just going to be about Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.

And why not?  It’s a great scene, one that deserves its fame.  I’m not just saying that just because I happen to love dance scenes in general.  When Joel celebrates having the house to himself by dancing, he’s also celebrating his independence.  He’s celebrating the fact that he can do whatever he wants.  He’s celebrating freedom.  It’s true that sometime you just got to say, “What the fuck?”  But some other times, you just have to dance.

And you can’t deny that Tom Cruise is at his most appealing and spontaneous in this scene.  Actually, he’s at his most appealing and spontaneous throughout the entire film.  Up until I watched Risky Business, my main impression of Tom Cruise was that he was the creepy guy who forced Katie Holmes to abandon Catholicism for Scientology and chop off her hair.   I knew he was an okay actor but his greater appeal was lost on me.  I think that if I had gotten to know the Tom Cruise in Risky Business before I got to know the Tom Cruise who jumped up and down on that couch and who is rumored to be the secret leader of Scientology, I might have a different opinion of him as an actor.

Anyway, with all that said, here’s that famous scene:

As I said, as famous as that scene may be, there’s actually a lot more to Risky Business than just Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.  In fact, you could remove that entire scene and Risky Business would remain one of the defining films of the 80s.  It tells the story of Joel Goodson who lives up to his name in almost every way.  He’s a very good son.  He gets good grades in high school.  He’s a member of the Future Enterprisers of America.  His father has decided that Joel is going to go to Princeton and Joel isn’t one to argue.  When his parents leave him alone at the house, they also leave him with a long list of rules and they have every reason to believe that Joel will follow every one of them.

But then Joel meets a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and he makes an enemy out of Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano) and then his father’s car ends up rolling into a river and, next thing you know, Joel is partnering up with Lana to turn his house into a brothel and they’re making $8,000 in one night.

And really, as good as Tom Cruise is, Rebecca De Mornay is even better because she has a tougher role to play.  As written, Lana is essentially a male fantasy figure.  (And there’s still a part of me that suspect the entire film was meant to be Joel’s daydream.)  But, as played by De Mornay, Lana actually becomes a real human being and someone who definitely has something important to say.  If Cruise gives the film its energy and its heart, De Mornay gives the film a brain. It’s no coincidence that Joel is the one who dances in the living room while Lana is the one who sets up business deals.  With her no-nonsense approach to life and her love of money, she comes to symbolize the film’s own conflicted views of wealth and success.  It’s not by chance that the American flag appears on TV while Joel and Lana are fucking in the living room.  Together, Joel and Lana are the perfect American success story.

Joel Goodson, Super Pimp