Saturday, June 30, 2007

Do the Right Thing

This is another movie that starts incredibly strong. You've got your Public Enemy doing "Fight the Power" and Rosie Perez doing this really angry dancing, and it's just so high energy that you wonder if the movie can possibly keep up.

Well, it doesn't quite maintain that pace, but it's always lurking in the background. And when the climax comes, it feels both explosively unexpected and like it was completely inevitable. Obviously a fantastic movie.

According to the Academy Awards, Do the Right Thing was not the best film of 1989. Apparently, the correct answer is Driving Miss Daisy. And people wonder why Spike Lee is angry.

Witness for the Prosecution

Agatha Christie was one of the greatest plotters ever. We agree on that, right? (If the answer is "No", then go read a bunch of Golden Age mysteries and come back; then we can have an intelligent, high-toned discussion where the names "Ellery Queen", "Ngaio Marsh", and "Carter Dickson" get thrown around. I'm looking forward to it!) So the underpinnings of this movie are rock-solid. The twist at the end is both surprising and justified. From a whodunit point of view, the movie is impeccable, as is to be expected.

What always comes as a surprise to me is how much fun the acting is. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester are terrific and appear to be enjoying themselves greatly. The courtroom scenes cause me to roar with laughter at the same time that practically every line of dialogue is essential to the plot. Man, I like this movie.

Quintet

I've never seen a Robert Altman movie I didn't like! Well, now I have, I guess. What I like about Altman movies is all the overlapping dialogue and meandering plots with clever dialogue. But this has hardly any dialogue and moves directly from point A to point B. It does this extremely slowly, because the floors were all iced over and no one could walk very quickly.

It's possible I was impatient because I could tell it was a postapocalyptic Ice Age within the first ten seconds of the movie, but it took fifteen minutes for the exposition to catch up. Likewise with the "twist" that the game in the movie (which was sort of a "death-boardgame of the future") is responsible for the mysterious deaths; I think I'm just too used to the science fiction tropes to be surprised by them.

Rollerball (the original)

Actually, I didn't much like the original either. I was really sleepy and wasn't able to pay much attention, so I wasn't paying enough attention to really care that James Caan was in danger. I liked the sport a bit more than in the remake, but I still thought the guys on motorcycles could have been going a bit faster.

Rollerball (the lousy remake)

This was a lousy remake. I say if you're going to make a movie about a death sport of the future and make half the scenes involve people zooming around and getting injured, you should try to make the sport sort of make sense. But I guess if you can't make your movie make sense, creating a coherent deathsport is probably beyond you.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Champion

This is a 2005 documentary about awesome character actor Danny Trejo. It's actually not so much a documentary as it is an extremely long interview, because the entire thing is narrated by Trejo himself answering questions.

It's quite interesting, because Trejo's led an interesting life. For the most part, the movie staysout of the way of its subject, which is something I wish more documentaries would do.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity

Not a good movie. It's never good when Brinke Stevens is the best actor, really.

It's interesting to watch a sleazy flick from before breast augmentation, though. The stars would look much less realistic these days.

How to Get the Man's Foot out of Your Ass

I tend to call this movie "Baadasssss!" on the theory that that's what's on the poster. Plus it's shorter. And more fun to say.

It's basically the story of an obsessed man (Mario Van Peebles IS Melvin Van Peebles!) doing anything he can to get his movie made. My problem is that I've been reading books by Robert Rodriguez and Roger Corman, so I keep noticing corners that could have been cut. Multiple takes? Live sound? Paying for a soundtrack? Man, even if it is Earth, Wind, and Fire, you've got to keep expenses down!

Anyway, quibbles aside, I enjoyed it. It was a trifle artistic at times, but as a portrait of an obsessed artist, it has elements that differentiate it interestingly. Like, you hardly ever see a movie where the Black Panthers ride to the rescue.

Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls

After Cthulhu, I had another World Premiere to watch at the Seattle Internationl Film Festival. And it was in the same theater, which was convenient.

This movie was a documentary about the Rat City Rollergirls, the Seattle Flat Track Roller Derby league. Now, I have to confess to a bit of bias here, because I'm a Rat City fan. Also I'm a scorekeeper for the league. And even if I weren't affiliated, the showing was absolutely packed with skaters and refs and practically the entire league. So you can imagine how enthusiastically the movie was received. Almost every single shot was greeted with cheers.

So it's hard for me to fairly judge the movie. I saw a preview of Kevin Smith's Mallrats at the San Diego Comic Con in 1995, and it was pandemonium. It's hard not to enjoy yourself when you're watching a movie with a lot of comic book references when the whole audience is full of comic book nerds and Stan Freaking Lee is in the row in front of you. Apparently, we received that audience so enthusiastically that the studio people started to get very unrealistic expectations about how well Mallrats would do.

Anyway, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Although there are a few scenes where I got distracted because I kept watching the audience so I could see myself.

Cthulhu

One advantage of the Seattle International Film Festival is that we get the occasional world premiere of a movie. Classy! In this case, it's Cthulhu, which has been the subject of some controversy. I mean, not so much controversy that most people have heard of the movie, but still, some people are all atwitter.

Some people are bothered by the fact that this Lovecraft adaptation has a gay love story in it. They feel that this represents an unacceptable variation from the original text. Personally, I am not that much of a strict constructionist. Frankly, Lovecraft stories rarely work as a straightforward adaptation. They're pretty talky.

Another set of people are ticked off that although it's called "Cthulhu", it's actually an adaptation of "Shadows over Innsmouth". They feel that the movie is trading on the popularity of the Lovecraft Mythos without taking it seriously enough. I can sort of see their point, but it's not that hard to shoehorn the name "Cthulhu" into the Innsmouth plot.

Me, I didn't like it because I disliked the lighting. Almost every scene was shot with whatever light sources were actually there. And that translates to an extremely dark movie. I was watching it on a large movie screen and I sometimes had trouble seeing what was going on. So I think it's going to be extremely difficult to watch this movie on a TV screen, which is where it's mostly going to be seen. This movie might make a round of the art-house theaters, but if it's going to get an audience, it'll be on DVD.

It's so dark that the protagonist is in silhouette more than half the time. I could pretend that it was an artistic decision, designed to show how the character had no inner life or something, but I'm pretty sure it's just because they didn't know what they were doing.

So I didn't like it. I'm told that worse movies sometimes play at the Lovecraft Festival in Portland, but that seems like fairly faint praise.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Q

Apparently the title is just Q, not Q: The Winged Serpent, which is what everyone calls it. Huh.

I like the idea of a police procedural where it turns out that Quetzlcoatl is living in the Chrysler building, but I'm not sure this movie ahered rigorously to actual procedures. I also started to have my doubts about the cops when the medical examiner claimed one victims heart had been surgically removed when the guy's ribcage had clearly been ripped open by the jaws of life or something. Comr to think of it, the religious aspects were a little sketchy as well. I think they were using a Time-Life book for reference.

I do not hold the movie's poor special effects against it. It's a low-budget movie; whaddya gonna do?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lone Wolf McQuade

More David Carradine, this time as the bad guy. However, I am reliably informed by Dave's Long Box that it's awesome. As an aside, what I love about Dave's Long Box is that it's mostly about things he likes. I mean, I dig the entertainment value of bad reviews as much as anyone (check out the Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension review of Deathsport!), but I also like that there are some websites around that seem to get some enjoyment out of life.

Anyway. In this movie, Chuck Norris plays a Texas Ranger. It will come as no surprise that he is incredibly convincing as a badass. As he walks towards a bad guy in the opening sequence, dropping his weapons, he just looks more and more menacing. Even before he's done anything, he is obviously a killing machine. It quickly gets to the point where you just don't understand the thinking of these people. Just stop shooting at him! He's obviously going to destroy you.

Unfortunately, he's too tough for the Texas Rangers. He's a lone wolf, and the captain will not stand for it. Here's your new rookie partnet, McQuade! Unbelieveably, he'll actually survive the movie! Anyway, he gets put on probation halfway through the movie just like you expect, but surprisingly it's not because he's killed like thirty people already. It's just because the case is now a federal one and everyone thinks that an angry Chuck Norris on the job would cause problems. David Carradine doesn't know that when he kills Chuck's dog, after which... it is on.

David Carradine had three requests before he signed on to this movie: He didn't want his character to die, he didn't want to shoot the girl in cold blood, and he wasn't crazy about losing to Chuck Norris in hand-to-hand combat. By this point, Carradine sort of thought of himself as the godfather of all karate and kung fu movies, since Kung Fu had kicked off the western interest in martial arts.

Well, Chuck Norris pretty clearly wins the fight, although Carradine gets a few good shots in. And he shoots the girl by accident, because she jumps in the way. And you can't really tell if he dies, because he might have survived that incredibly huge explosion. So I guess Carradine got what he wanted.

There's a lot of fun stuff in this movie. Chuck rides on a truck's hood in a way that I believe is referred to as "The Captain's Mast", unless Tarantino was making that up. He beats up entire gangs single-handed, except for the times his rookie partner gets to take out one or two token guys. He drives his truck up out of the trench where he and the truck were buried alive. It's got Sam Elliott (as a wise old cowboy but with a smaller moustache than usual) torturing William Sanderson (as a shrieking hippie). If you thought Sanderson did some good cringing in Deadwood, you should see him grovel here.

It also features a slow-motion hose fight where Chuck ends up making love in a mud puddle, but I think it's okay to overlook that.

Deathsport

In his autobiography (Endless Highway), David Carradine describes Deathsport as a sequel to Death Race 2000, but set in the farther future. The DVD case has a reference to the year 3000, so I expect they were planning on calling it "Death Sport 3000" at some point.

It's terrible. It's so bad that Roger Corman strongly advised Carradine not to do it, but Carradine felt bad about having gone off to do Circle of Iron (which he always calls "The Silent Flute") so he did it anyway. And then Deathsport bombed. Horribly. It practically ruined David Carradine's career, although he bounced back a couple of years later with The Long Riders. His autobiography is full of movies almost ruining his career and other movies making him a big star again.

Anyway, this is a movie about motorcycles zooming around the desert while futuristic sound effects distract me from the action. I'm not one of those people that writes angry letters about how "the sound effects were clearly a four-stroke engine but that model of Honda only comes in a two-stroke and also the carburetor sounded wrong blah blah blah", but these don't sound anything like motorcycles. And yet, in spite of the "futuristic" things welded to the bikes, they're obviously regular motorcycles.

The swords they use are also obviously plexiglass. Carradine mentioned in his book that if they ever touched each other, they'd shatter, so they needed to come up with a whole new kind of fight choreography involving extreme closeups and extreme longshots. It's not very convincing (and it's sort of reminiscent of Star Wars, which came out the previous year), but it's better than the rest of the fights, where people get disintegrated to save the effort of using making them look wounded. Most of the special effects are computer generated, but they had to use the computers available in 1978, so it looks incredibly cheesy. Corman appears to have been shooting on video already, so that he could just flip a switch and make the screen blue. Blue means electrocution, I think.

To be fair, I should admit that there are some explosions and people on fire, so it's not like they were completely afraid to spend money. This was balanced out by the time-honored technique of just using the video control panels as sets for your high-tech scenes. For a good example of this, I direct you back to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, where the planet-destroying beam is turned on by a guy who's obviously dissolving from Camera 1 to Camera 2.

I might as well mention at this point that the "Deathsport" in question involves "Death Machines", which are the aforementioned "motorcycles with jet sound effects". They drive around each other on a motocross course for awhile until one rider shoots the other with a disintegrator, which makes him vanish instantly. Futuristic!

Incidentally, you know that mountain in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey that the robot Bill and Ted bring the real Bill and Ted to? The one that's in Star Trek and a million terrible science fiction movies? This is one of those terrible science fiction movies.

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip

We have a late entry to the "race across the country" marathon!

Things start as though we're in a Jules Verne novel. Or maybe P.G. Wodehouse: a bet in an oak-panelled gentleman's club. Horatio Nelson Jackson wagered fifty dollars he could drive a horseless carriage all the way across the continent, from San Francisco to New York, in less than three months. This was in 1903, and Horatio Nelson Jackson would be the first person to drive a car coast to coast. And in 2003, Ken Burns made a documentary about it.

This is a great documentary about a great subject. Even before Horatio sets out, there's great stuff, owing to Burns's tendency to show fascinating pictures while a narrator explains the context. The really early horseless carriages looked great, and everyone's wearing driving goggles and capes.

Early cars were a full-time hobby, as I learned from the recent reprinting of early Walt and Skeezix. As an aside, it turns out that "Gasoline Alley" used to be a lot more interesting. And gasoline-related. Anyway, if you wanted to drive around, you needed puncture repair kits, spark plug regappers, and any number of other things to keep the car going. Even when you weren't driving, you spent a great deal of time tinkering.

So Jackson faced two basic challenges: first, the reliability of the car. Second, the reliability of the roads. Not only was this before interstate highways, it was before most of America had paved roads. And what paved roads existed were only inside city limits. And there certainly weren't road maps. Also, he didn't own a car and had no real experience driving.

But four days after making the bet, he had a car, supplies, and a Kodak camera. This makes him ideal for Ken Burns, because he took a lot of pictures, which look great on the screen while Tom Hanks reads Horatio's letters home.

If I say any more, I'll just end up narrating the whole documentary. It's awesome and people should see it, because "Is it even possible?" is a much more interesting challenge than "How quickly can it be done?". Also, there should be more oak-panelled gentleman's clubs where people make outrageous wagers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ladies They Talk About

This is a women-in-prison movie -- from 1933! Starring a young Barbara Stanwyck! And did I mention it's . . . pre-Code? Well, the Hays Office existed by then, but they weren't cracking down yet. So there are bare shoulders, stockings, and an actual cigar-smoking lesbian or two. For the 1930s, it's really quite racy.

Monday, June 11, 2007

When Comedy Was King

This is a 1960 movie that consists almost entirely of classic silent film comedy. I say "almost" because although the visuals are all Chaplin, Arbuckle, etc., the soundtrack has a great deal of a narrator telling us how great silent comedy was. He doesn't have the courage of his convictions, though, because in between the raptures on the joys of silent comedy, he's just narrating the action. Why, it's almost as though he doesn't trust the pure pathos of Fatty Arbuckle's predicament to communicate itself to the audience without somebody telling us what's going on!

The music is pretty good, but I found it almost too relevant to the action onscreen. I don't think you need slide whistles to demonstrate every time someone falls down. Especially because Keystone comedies tended to have a lot of people falling down.

I also kind of take issue with the choice of the "three geniuses of silent film": Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and . . . Harry Langdon. Really? Not Harold Lloyd?

I did greatly enjoy the clips of Teddy at the Throttle, which features a young Wallace Beery actually chaining a young Gloria Swanson to the train tracks because she won't marry him. I shall let you imagine precisely what kind of moustache Beery has.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

I would like to emphasize that I don't enjoy bad movies in an "ironic" way. It might just be that I've seen them too many times, but I honestly enjoy the weird stilted dialogue, the unconvincing special effects, and the cheat sets. When I watch Robot Monster, I'm not chuckling about how bad it is. I mean, I am, but I'm also enjoying the movie on its own merits.

See, I think that creativity, in and of itself, is interesting. And when you've got an Ed Wood following his dream and making a movie that's not like anything else, it's interesting even if it's also totally incompetent. And incompetence can also be interesting, since sometimes you see a movie that gets things wrong that you wouldn't think anyone could screw up.

So anyway, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a tribute to the terrible black and white science fiction movies of the 1950s. And it's always dangerous to make a movie like this, because you can't do camp on purpose. But this one works. The weird stilted dialogue is exaggerated just enough to be funny (to me anyway) without overdoing it. And Animala is worth watching the movie just by herself. She's both sexy and hilarious. "Rowr" and "Always agree" are great catchphrases.

I think Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is mostly based on Robot Monster, since it's got that shot of a monster in a silly costume carrying an unconscious woman. The cave of Cadavra is, I think, the same one as in Robot Monster. And so on. Obviously, there's also some Plan 9 in there, as well as a touch of This Island Earth and possibly even some things that aren't even references to anything.

Incidentally, the interior of the spaceship is supposed to look cheap by using pegboard as one of the walls. I am obliged to point out that if you go watch the pilot movie of the modern Battlestar Galactica, you'll see the same kind of wall used as the wall of Starbuck's cell.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Death Race 2000

If you're going to do a movie in a narrow genre like "a group of colorful characters in a cross-country road race," I recommend you introduce some interesting element. But not a lame one like that mob angle in Speed Zone. For example, Death Race 2000 awards points for killing pedestrians. And the cars are extremely silly-looking, with tusks and fangs and giant jackknives and things, because it's set in the far-off future. All the way in the year 2000! The future will look pretty cheap.

This is one of the more fun cross-country race movies. Somebody's apparently working on a remake, which I'm confident will be terrible. I hope they find a way to squeeze in Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine for cameos.

Incidentally, they don't even run over that many pedestrians. It's probably only around ten, and that's counting the hospital scene.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Cannonball Run II

This was even more terrible than I remembered.

This time, the race is supposed to be from Redondo Beach to Connecticut, but unless there are cactus fields in unexpected parts of the country, they never get out of the southwest. And since the big finale is in Las Vegas, I have to assume that they did all that racing (at least 24 hours, since there's a night scene) and barely got out of the first state.

They probably could have gotten farther if they had started the race earlier in the movie. For some reason, they decided to put in a lot of motivation and backstory and other irrelevant plot-related nonsense, so it's 45 minutes before the race starts. And even then, nobody seems all that interested in racing. Instead, we get a lot of scenes where incompetent gangsters steal bits from Wile E. Coyote. Blah.

Plus the cars are boring. Too many station wagons.

Movies like this are why the "Race across the country" genre never really took off.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Two-Lane Blacktop

Two-Lane Blacktop

Okay, now we're talking. This is one of those existential driving movies from the days of Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, where the mere fact of driving is elevated to some kind of mythic level. This takes it so far that the characters don't even have names, just roles. The cars aren't here to do crazy stunts, really, they're just here to be here. It's an aesthetic that's very unlike modern movies, or for that matter most of the movies made at the same time, so I think it's interesting to see what's basically an entirely different take on what movies could be like if you took out the characters, plot, and most of the dialogue. The girl enters the movie for no reason and then leaves it an hour later. There's no explanation given, and I get the feeling even the character doesn't know why she leaves. She just does.

This movie was one of the inspirations for the actual Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea etc., and it does feature a race from "wherever they are in the Southwest" to Washington, D.C., even if the race kind of peters out and they never get there. So it's sort of a godfather of the coast-to-coast race movie, even if its general nihilism gets in the way.

I'm not really a car guy, so I don't know what to make of conversations like "396?" "454." "No shit." I have conversations that are almost as incomprehensible, but they're about what's inside my friends' computers.

In its way, Two-Lane Blacktop is even more stripped down than Vanishing Point. The main characters are just as stoic, and here there isn't even police to fight against. It's not clear if the Driver and the Mechanic are just directionless slobs or have rejected society or what. They just drive around from city to city and get in drag races. They've got that total zen acceptance that you get after about twelve hours solid driving. Their lives are nothing but the car, and occasionally racing people to make money to get parts.

The Driver, Mechanic, and Girl make an interesting contrast to the GTO. He's angry, talkative, and defensive. He hit the road because his life fell apart, or possibly because he was scouting for film locations, or maybe because he used to be a test pilot. The people in the Chevy don't talk about their motivations, because they've cut away all the fat from their lives. As well as their car.

Speaking of nihilism and existentialism. I was impressed when Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry ended by having their main characters suddenly slam into something and explode. This movie goes even farther, ending the movie with the film melting and breaking. That is hard core right there.

Speed Zone!

I don't think I've ever seen Speed Zone before. It just seems so incredibly unnecessary to make a second sequel to Cannonball Run, especially if it's not even called "Cannonball Run 3". Hey, speaking of "unnecessary", did you know there was a TV pilot made for a Cannonball Run spinoff television show that would star Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis? It was called "The Stockers" according to IMDB. What an odd idea.

It's a little strange that I don't like this movie better. The "star-studded cast" is studded with people I actually like: John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Peter Boyle, Matt Frewer, Eugene Levy, and the Smothers Brothers are all people I actively enjoy. Unfortunately, I do not enjoy them in this movie, which believes shouting and unpleasantness is funny. The weird thing is, normally I agree with this. But they found a way to make Joe Flaherty trying to kill Matt Frewer unamusing. That's not easy.

It's interesting the number of ways Speed Zone! finds to be worse than Cannonball Run. The first movie is obviously sexist, but this one somehow makes it worse by being so leering about it. Like, I'm not sure Cannonball Run understood what it was doing, but Speed Zone! takes a positive delight in making its female characters the subjects of leering jokes by all the other characters. I think the first movie mostly assumed that once you have Farrah Fawcett and Adrienne Barbeau, the audience can take care of the leering. I guess Jack Elam did some leering, but the that joke was about how creepy Elam was, not about how funny it is to speculate about whether women are wearing bras.

Movies like this tend to have cars doing enormously unlikely jumps, which are edited together to make it look like the car lands safely. The one in this one, where Flaherty and Frewer jump over a lake, has one of the worst jumps I've ever seen, because they left in way too much of the actual jump. The car they flung over the lake clearly lands on its back bumper with the rest of the car straight up in the air. It's great. You'd think a movie like this could at least get the crash scenes right.

This movie marks a high point in the field of "police wildly overreacting to speeders" when Peter Boyle shuts down every highway in the country to funnel everyone onto I-70 so he can set up a roadblock at Baker, CA. Personally, I think he'll have trouble with that, what with all the road scenes clearly taking place in Canada. It would have helped to maybe cover up the signs saying how many kilometres away things were. And making sure all the visible road signs were in English would have been a nice touch, too.

One of the things that makes Vanishing Point so good is that it was actually shot where the action was supposed to be taking place. You don't really get the feel of "driving cross-country" when you're just watching two hours of people driving around the plains just outside of Quebec.

Special note: Both this and Cannonball! feature a team using an airplane to cheat. If you're thinking of operating a coast-to-coast race, I recommend checking the odometers.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Revenge of the Nerds

Ten Good Things About Revenge of the Nerds

1) Anthony Edwards and Timothy Busfield in their first real movie roles!

2) Curtis "Booger" Armstrong in the role that pretty much defined him for the rest of his career!

3) Robert Carradine, who I forgot to mention as being in Cannonball! Also more or less a career-defining performance if you don't count all those movies he did where you don't recognize him because he's not playing a nerd!

4) Larry B. Scott, who plays the gay black guy, went on to be Tasty Taste in Fear of a Black Hat. which is a great movie.

5) Ted McGinley, looking and acting like he always does!

6) John Goodman as the coach of the jocks!

7) Extremely dated racist and sexist jokes! Wait -- that's not so good. Oh well, you can't win them all.

8) Did you know that Brian Tochi, who played Toshiro (source of much of the aforementioned racist jokes) was also the voice of Leonardo in the 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies?

9) Lewis's father is briefly played by "Jamie Cromwell". James Cromwell! Awesome!

10) "WEEE ARRE THE CHAAMMPIONNNNS . . ."

Cannonball!

Cannonball! With an exclamation mark! Distributed by Roger Corman and produced, apparently, by the Shaw Brothers! That can't be right, can it?

Just like Gumball Rally, this came out in 1976 and is about an underground coast-to-coast race. But this one goes from Santa Monica to New York, not New York to Long Beach. It's a whole different movie!

I think of Gumball Rally as the spiritual prequel to Cannonball Run, like how Speed Zone isn't "really" Cannonball Run 3 but we all know it is. But Cannonball! also has a claim, what with the name and all. Also apparently the novelization of this movie and of Cannonball Run were by the same guy, so somebody, at some point, thought of them as fairly similar. Apparently, that means there's a novelization of Cannonball Run. I bet it's awful.

You know how there's sometimes someone in movies like this who flies ahead so they can be at multiple race locations before the race gets there? Like in Gumball Rally, where Roscoe the Cop sets up four or five different roadblocks? That sseems challenging to me. The whole race takes less than 35 hours and these guys manage to watch the cars pass them in Albuquerque, then rush to the airport, jump on a plane, and fly directly to Houston in time to see the cars pass them, then get to Kansas City? There must have been an awful lot of flights available at convenient times.

The best scene is the big car crash toward the end. You know the scene in Blues Brothers where a ridiculous number of police cars slam into each other and you start wondering why they didn't stop first? This is like that, with about half the cars but ten times the silliness. Because these are the kind of car crashes where the cars immediately explode into big ridiculous fireballs with giant plumes of black smoke. And the cars hit the pileup much slower, so eventually it's been several minutes since the pileup started and there's a blaze that could be seen from the next state and people are still driving into it at full speed and dying horribly.

The horrible deaths, incidentally, are why I think of Gumball Rally as the closer sibling to Cannonball Run -- this movie feels more like one of the nihilistic early-seventies driving movies where people die suddenly at the end, whereas Gumball Rally is more cheerful and fun-loving. It could be argued that the Cannonball Run movies took that too far.

Awesome trivia: this is the only movie where Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese have ever worked together. They both have tiny roles (and a scene where they're acting together with Paul Bartel, who directed the movie), but I don't think it counts as a cameo if it happens before anyone knows who you are. Stallone's no surprise because he was in Bartel's previous movie, which also involves a cross-country race. With lots of killing. Man, Death Race 2000 is fun. More fun than this one, anyway. Apparently, Paul Bartel directed Death Race 2000 for the comedy but then got kind of pigeonholed in the "car" genre. And then he broke out of it by doing Eating Raoul. He had kind of an unusual career.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Cannonball Run

I freely admit that Cannonball Run is a terrible movie. You don't need to tell me that, okay? We'll just take it as given. Unfortunately for all of us, it was also one of the only movies that HBO carried back in my formative years. We're just lucky I didn't imprint on Under the Rainbow.

So I know this movie really well. I don't know how many times I've seen it, but it's sunk deep into my DNA. I know it so well, I can cheerfully quote either the theatrical version or that censored version they show on networks. Right now, I'm actively wondering if the soundtrack is available somewhere. I even liked the USA reality show from 2001, and I think I'm the only person who even knows that show happened.

My point is that I'm not reliable in this matter. When Dom Deluise says "Been a cop long?" I'm on the floor. I actually worry about what happens to the motorcycle that Bert Convy rides out of the airplane. I say "Hold onto your lunchpail. This may get a little weird" all the time. Well, in my head.

The crazy thing is that this is actually one of the more accurate movies about racing coast-to-coast. The screenplay was written by Brock Yates, who created the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in the first place. In fact, you know that ambulance that Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise drive? It's the same ambulance that Yates drove in the 1979 version of the race. The script was apparently goofied up a good deal, but it's got more authenticity than you think it does. Hey! Why don't you read Yates's book Cannonball!: World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race? It's prety entertaining. He's in the movie, too; he's the guy who gives the introductory speech before the race begins.

Anyway, the movie. I find it odd that all these secretive underground races have big, splashy finish lines. The hotel even welcomes them on their marquee, so I assume they have some sort of package deal.

The record in this movie is 32:51, by the way. I like the idea that the record from the previous movie got broken. Another record broken: toal alcohol consumed. The Gumball Rally doesn't make a big deal out of it, but a lot of people are throwing back beers while they're driving, and toward the end, there's some amp-popping. You know, to keep going. Cannonball Run ups the ante a bit, largely by adding Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. This is Dino's last film role and by this time, I don't think he knew how to act sober.

Okay! Things I like about this movie: almost everything, especially the things that are silly or irrelevant. Like Burt saying "Pumps one and two. Hit 'em!" on the theory that he has two gas tanks and it doesn't matter if one of the pumps is unleaded and one premium because "She goes both ways!" That's almost as random a line as "He's got the franchise!" from Kill and Kill Again. I also like Jackie Chan kicking Peter Fonda in the face. For that matter, I like almost all of the fight scene, because it shows that the racers can bond together. I even like the idea that Captain Chaos can make the ambulance go faster, and that doesn't even make sense!

It does kind of bug me that the girls in the Lamborghini left before everyone else, so Burt Reynolds could easily have run up there and punched his ticket for a shorter race time. That's right: I'm concerned about possible plot holes in Cannonball Run. Fear me.

One last note: isn't it nice of A.J. Foyt to bring the arrested racers to the finish line in a taxi? A lot of obsessed authority figures wouldn't do that.

The Gumball Rally

I love the way The Gumball Rally starts. No messing around with plot or characters; just a rich guy sending out the word, and then it's on. We don't have time for your fancy "exposition" or "characterization" here! If you don't understand why people would want to race across the country, then that's just too bad. You can figure out who's who on the ride. Let's go!

I'm assuming that the real cause of movies like this was the 1974 creation of the 55mph speed limit. There were driving movies before then (like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, which were supposedly the inspiration for the actual race that inspired this set of movies), but after the national speed limit, you get this, Convoy, Smokey and the Bandit, and generally Hal Needham's whole directorial career.

I do think some people take their car movies a little too seriously. For example, I present this quote from Wikipedia: "A good deal of effort went into reproducing accurate sounds from the now classic cars participating in the race. Few movies of the era managed this, and some find the opportunity to hear the V12 Ferrari and 427 Cobra at full song is alone worth the time spent viewing this film." Really? Hearing the sound effect of an engine is a good enough reason to see a whole movie? Man, that's weird.

Structurally, this is the same movie as Cannonball Run: a straight-up race from New York to Los Angeles. It even ends in the parking lot of the Queen Mary. But Gumball Rally plays it straight for the most part. There's only one team in a disguise; everyone else is in a sports car. Well, there's the team in a van, but I don't think they're trying to trick the cops. It's interesting to see which elements the movies have in common. Apparently, "hiding a car on a truck" is one of the basic elements of a movie like this.

Incidentally, this is the movie that answers the question "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

I also wanted to make a note that at the beginning of the movie, the alleged record time was 34:11 and at the end, it's 33:57. There's a record mentioned in Cannonball Run that I want to compare that against.

The Great Race

For no particularly good reason, I have decided to watch a bunch of "driving coast-to-coast" movies. You know, Cannonball Run is part of a grand tradition of movies, many of which do not feature Jamie Farr.

First up: The Great Race! Okay, so it's actually a New York-to-Paris auto race and not just coast-to-coast, but I think it's close enough.

This is a big-budget Blake Edwards extravaganza. I never know quite what to make of movies with Overtures. I always feel like I'm cheating if I skip ahead to the movie. But DVDs must have the "skip scene" button for a reason, right? Anyway, by the time I got to the Intermission and the Entr'acte (...seriously), I was keenly interested in skipping ahead. This movie was the inspiration for The Wacky Races. Okay, now try to imagine a 160-minute episode of The Wacky Races. Now take out the "Race" and put in lots of tiring "Wacky".

I did not like the movie. I didn't realize just how much like The Wacky Races it would be, nor did I really consider the effect of watching it for two straight hours. Man. Jack Lemmon's Professor Fate had me longing for the subtle acting of Dick Dastardly. Everything is paced very slowly so the actors have to mug it up just to keep things going. I guess it's possible that the endless reaction shots are actually the point of the movie; it is Blake Edwards, after all.

In 1965, a movie like this was an excuse for a series of set pieces. Two minutes of racing, then everyone's in a wild west saloon watching the can-can waiting for the fight to break out. Eventually they're on their way, but the racing is stopped for an ice floe or a European Principality power struggle or something. Almost all of the movie was shot on backlots, so you never get more than a couple blocks of driving at a time.

In the 1970s, they'd come up with an interesting twist on race movies: they actually focus on the driving and not on elaborately-choreographed dance sequences. Plural. And the big, stupid pie fight. I do approve of the fact that they appear to have used actual fruit and cream pies instead of the usual shaving cream, but that doesn't make up for the total pointlessness of the scene. The swordfight was pretty good, but I would have preferred to see it in a movie about swordfighting.

I did enjoy a couple of things, like the way Tony Curtis's excessively stiff delivery meant that he kept saying "auto-mobile". Professor Fate's car and submarine were very pleasing to my eye. That's about it.

Anyway, I think this movie clearly demonstrates that just because Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were funny together in Some Like It Hot, that doesn't mean it'll always work. It might have helped to give them some scenes together. And maybe a whole new script.