Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Gumball Rally + The Allnighter

(PG, Warner Bros., 105 mins., theatrical release date: July 28, 1976)

"Carsploitation" is in no way associated with Gary Numan, but is instead a handy, catchall term for the type of movie designed to show off chromium enhancements and monochromatic riders. The post-Easy Rider models usually crashed against the brick wall of existentialism, while the two-wheel designs were less heady and built expressly for hedonistic speed, with a catchall term of its own. With the release of both Gone in 60 Seconds and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in 1974, the era of solemnly-fueled chase pictures like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop was supplanted by undemanding, goofier action flicks which emphasized zany characters and projected demolition derby set pieces onto screens. Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, made under Roger Corman's aegis, is the gonzo masterpiece of this particular lot, in which its annual Transcontinental Road Race is a dystopian blend of bread-and-circus and hit-and-run; Race with the Devil, also from 1975 and starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, is as bizarre as a Larry Miller Toyota salesman pitching you a hearse.

1976 was the year when Death Race writer Charles B. Griffith induced Ron Howard to pop the clutch and tell the world Eat My Dust! Another New World title, Moving Violation, recycled the familiar theme of lovers (Stephen McHattie, Kay Lenz) on the run from corrupt authority. And Bartel reluctantly followed up Death Race 2000 with a movie based unofficially on Brock Yates' well-publicized Cannonball Baker Memorial Dashes, only this time facing big studio competition when Warner Bros. rolled out The Gumball Rally in the same summer.

Directed by Charles Bail (Black Samson), The Gumball Rally acts as a PG-rated alternative to the saucier fare Corman marshaled. There's no nudity, the violence is strictly auto-destructive and the dialogue doesn't get any racier than the notion of sniffing butts. It confirms the sea change in carsploitation by repurposing not Easy Rider, but It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Norman Burton takes the Spencer Tracy role of the fanatical policeman who blows his top trying to trap the speed demons, and there's even a throwaway gag involving the incineration of a mass of fireworks. Alas, Stanley Kramer's ambitious slapstick, which built up to delirious chaotic juxtapositions, remains out of Bail's reach.

That's because the stakes in The Gumball Rally are comparatively lower, promising only a fleeting sensation of glory as opposed to the cash prize buried under that giant W. And the characters are less colorful not simply because of the lack of seasoned muggers, but primarily due to Leon Capetanos' dry-witted script. Michael Sarrazin, filling in for Peter Fonda, plays rally organizer and champion Michael Bannon, who starts the movie looking bored at a conference call and picks up little charisma during the race. At least Burt Reynolds, in the better of his Hal Needham collaborations, seemed liberated and sociable behind the wheel. That boardroom ennui extends to the ensemble, as very few of the characters appear truly joyful to be on the road, often times squabbling and screaming and enduring dopey setbacks which should've played a lot funnier than they come across. Broad comedy is handled either way too stoically or far too stridently for The Gumball Rally to ever reach the red line of hilarity.

The varied drivers Bannon puts out the call for include Barney (J. Pat O'Malley) and Andy (Vaughn Taylor, in his last role), elderly Englishmen who ride slow and steady in a classy Mercedes; Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters) and Susan Flannery (The Towering Inferno) as Jane & Alice, Beaver Falls housewives who take to a souped-up Porsche Targa; stock car daredevil Ace "Mr. Guts" Preston (Gary Busey) and his mechanic Gibson (John Durren), who drive each other crazy in their Camaro; Steven Keats and Wally Taylor as the LAPD officers comprising the Dodge team; and Bannon's longtime competitor Smitty (Tim McIntire), who brings in a ringer named Franco (Raul Julia) and whose Ferrari stands the closest chance of catching up with Bannon and Professor Graves (Nicholas Pryor) in their Cobra. A lone Hungarian on a Kawasaki (Harvey Jason as Lapchik) is the primary source of pratfalls, basically a human Wile E. Coyote on an Acme motorbike. A gofer (Lazaro Perez as Jose) answers a classified ad to commandeer a Rolls Royce and sweet-talks his buxom Queens girlfriend (Tricia O'Neil as Angie) into tagging along for the trek.

Having listed the makes of the vehicles as well as their pilots, The Gumball Rally is obviously far more interested in the former. Schlock cinematographer Richard Glouner frames the cross-country marathon in 'Scope, with ample shots of the automobiles bulleting down tunnels, bridges and wide open highways spanning Times Square to Tulsa to Long Beach. Every once in a while, the action pauses so that Lt. Roscoe (Burton) can be humiliated in some way, from getting robbed of his pants by Lou David (Cropsy from The Burning) or overlooking a cargo truck which carries Smitty and Franco past a checkpoint. Less amusing are the tangents involving the rally's participants, which tend to lack payoffs (the cops, who use state-specific decals to evade capture, are stopped by an expecting father in a traffic jam) or are just dully derivative (Jose and Angie being harassed by a noxious chopper gang).

Gary Busey is fittingly insufferable as the death-defying yokel who's a feeb outside of the stadium, but he'd need another decade to ripen into a real showboat. The only character here who is as sleek and magnificent as his/her ride is Franco, a lustful Italian whose hot-blooded confrontations usually end with him firing a squirt gun at his foes. He snaps the rearview mirror off his Porsche in accordance with the central rule of Italian driving: "What's-a behind me is not important!" In the middle of the contest, Franco leaves Smitty hanging so he can go to bed with Colleen Camp and then catches up with him the next morning, leaving Camp his scarf as a token of their one-night stand. Raul Julia, the Puerto Rican dynamo of stage and screen up until his untimely passing in 1994, is zestfully entertaining in his early showcase, even if Julia never gets to flash a mischievous smile to the viewer. The rest of the cast fail to rise above this affliction, but what can they do since Bail & Capetanos are themselves stuck in the mud? The Gumball Rally, true to its confectionary code name, is a chalky thing which gradually loses its flavor the longer you eat it up.

(PG-13, Universal Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: May 1, 1987)

Issue another citation for pulling up lame to The Allnighter, which would've been the perfect title for a superior version of The Gumball Rally. It refers here to a sundown fiesta held by the imminent graduates of Pacifica College, a USC which looks like it only doles out GEDs. The valedictorian is a demure beach bunny named Molly who, just like Bo Derek before her, is a minor in Love. Her roommate is a totally bitchin' surfer boy (C.J., dude) who hangs a tubular ten but is, like, wow, a wipe out with the babes. Her best friends are Val, a bombshell blonde engaged to an emasculated preppie, and Gina, an oddball redhead preserving their eternal bond on VHS, a surrogate mother kissing her babies goodbye as well as the female equivalent of Mark Cohen from Rent.

And Gina is played by Joan Cusack! Like, reality bites, bud.

Cusack is perhaps the only good aspect of The Allnighter, in hindsight. Towing her camcorder, Gina catches the pre-hangover waves of the Latin-themed blowout, delivering cautionary commentary straight out of a B-horror film. Joan's got Boy George's fashion sense and Brother John's wry faculty with dialogue, a built-in mega-weapon defending her from the inanities of this script. And Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle Jr., plays Val appealingly enough to merit a silent slow clap when she stands up for herself and her friends. Sadly, try as they can, this is neither Cusack nor Pfeiffer's film. The Allnighter is tailored specifically to The Bangles' pin-up attraction Susanna Hoffs, with her mother Tamar Simon H. co-writing, producing and directing. The result is All Over the Place, Everything for no one and too dismal to view in a Different Light nowadays.

Early in her career, Susanna was a beauty of Audrey Hepburn proportions who, along with the Peterson sisters and ex-Runaway Michael Steele, toughened paisley-tinted harmonies/guitars with lyrics that were from the unflinching eyes of women, not idealized "September Gurls." The glossy makeover which heralded their pop superstardom in 1986 caused mixed feelings, and Susanna's elevation to leading lady only worsened the suspicion. Instead of encouraging the starlet to honor Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine, The Allnighter taps from the drained keg of the '60s beach romp, which had been grossly modernized ad nauseum during The Bangles' inaugural prime. To wit: Where the Boys Are was remade badly in the same year their debut LP premiered.

Susanna is hung out to dry as just another naïve sex kitten, when she could've benefited from demonstrating a smidge of the photogenic grit she and her mates showed musically. The nonstarter of a plot involves the anxious Molly, who is staggeringly invisible to surfin' bohunk C.J. (John Terlesky), hoping for a whirlwind romance courtesy of elder Pacifica alumnus and has-been pop icon Mickey Leroi (Michael Ontkean), who isn't as eager and willing as she. Left stranded on the terrace of his luxury suite at the Playa Del Rey, Molly calls her girlfriends for help, but they get wrongfully imprisoned for solicitation (the hotel detectives, played by Mannequin's Meshach Taylor and The Wizard's Will Seltzer, assume they're hookers). Meanwhile, C.J. and Killer (James Anthony Shanta) trade secondhand Spicoli musings ("A babe in the kitchen is worth two on the beach") in between shooting the curl, or at least until a tidal wave washes C.J. up to some moot degree of common sense.

It's phenomenally bogus, all gleaming-teeth amateurism and suntanned stupidity. The coed camaraderie would've been a noble focal point for T.S. Hoffs to build upon (the three leads show some chemistry), but The Allnighter is more concerned with soft-core scenarios for its insipid main character. That poster art of passive Susanna Hoffs in a bikini IS how Molly is conceived. Molly is supposed to be a bright young woman, holding out for a Sam Shepard-style paramour, but the male population surrounding her is staggeringly ridiculous, from the imbecilic surfer dudes to Val's anal-retentive fiancé Brad to the worthless Mickey, who dismisses her as a groupie. She has to lower her standards to the shallow environment in a bid for affection, which makes the concluding sex scene a hollow bore. Val and Gina possess the spunky intelligence denied to the one-dimensional ingénue Susanna is stuck playing.

It should also come as no surprise that T.S. Hoffs arranges scenes with promo video redundancy, not just with her nubile daughter (she gives herself a lascivious makeover to the tune of Aretha Franklin's "Respect") but the characters of the surfer dudes, their ocean escapades serving as interminable relief(?) from the girls' rote dramedy. Timbuk 3's satirically chipper "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" plays over one of the longer surf digressions, cementing its sad legacy as declawed montage music for dopey comedies (right, Tommy Boy?). The big doll house blues which greets Val and Gina, replete with Pam Grier as the icy sergeant, is also a comedic/narrative dead zone, robbing Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack and even Ms. Grier of their tested charms. And aside from the two songs I mentioned, even the soundtrack is negligible. When we hear Mickey's band, The Rhinos (which the grads keeps confusing for The Hippos in one of many strained attempts at comedy), it's clear that The Bangles sounded more convincingly like '60s relics. Speaking of, Susanna Hoffs doesn't sing a note in this movie, not even in front of the mirror. Why?!

The tedium is framed by Gina's earnest documentary ambition: both the starting and ending credits catalog her most extreme close-ups. She ends up showing more directorial finesse than T.S. Hoffs, although they both could do well to have Martha Coolidge as their cinematic guidance counselor. "And I hope, like, if you see this maybe in 20 years at a film festival or…maybe in a theatre," Gina warns at the onset, "you'll remember us this way." Her project is untitled, but The Allnighter serendipitously provides one for her: "Heroine Takes a Fall." And I'm feeling bad all over for writing that. Gee, didn't Frankie & Annette reunite in 1987, too?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Real Genius

(PG, Tri-Star Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: August 7, 1985)

When Amy Heckerling directed Cameron Crowe's script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, she demonstrated a rare sense of objectivity in an era of gross objectification. Since a lot of these teen exploitation movies were either transparently calculated or stiffly personal, what redeemed Fast Times wasn't just the savvy in casting the roles, from Sean Penn's dominating doper to the Martin Twins who stormed out of Captain Hook Fish & Chips, but Heckerling's finesse in handling the many tones of the film. It was as situational as a Porky's, but not as sensational. Her outsider's perspective (as well as Crowe's) didn't force the amiability or leaden either the melodrama or the madcap tangents. What resulted was a hang-out movie worthy of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, as well as a more perceptive and less shallow depiction of the worn rites-of-passage tropes.

Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl arrived next year to confirm the welcome difference in hiring untested female formalists of collegiate breeding as opposed to utter schlock merchants. Though staler than Fast Times, given a subplot that deliberately quoted The Graduate as well as the star-crossed romance which was its crux, Valley Girl took a social idiosyncrasy which was the stuff of Zappa-worthy disdain and made a genuine effort to invest us in the fashion plate heroine and her vulgar but charismatic love interest. Deborah Foreman established her perky cult credentials (it's a real shame she never got the Kim Cattrall breakout she deserved) and Nicolas Cage's rise started out in captivating earnest. Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp weren't bad nor badly-written as the parental units, and the soundtrack actually corralled both The Plimsouls and Josie Cotton to perform on camera. Like Fast Times, Valley Girl seemed like a more authentic scene than most chintzy movie campuses.

As the '80s teen movie finally stopped getting lucrative on its basic/base fascination with puberty, Heckerling and Coolidge's careers differentiated quite starkly. Amy Heckerling branched out to mainstream comedy quite unevenly with Johnny Dangerously and National Lampoon's European Vacation before getting associated with the decent Look Who's Talking! and its abysmal sequels. She waited until the 1980s were well over before going back to the teen mill, starting all over with 1995's own trend-defining Clueless. Martha Coolidge, meanwhile, stayed in the youthful groove as Paramount's hired gun for their overdue adaptation of The Joy of Sex. Alas, pressure from the studio to conform to the lowest common denominator, echoing her previous struggle with Valley Girl, resulted in her considering the fabled Alan Smithee credit, which she later regretted declining. In 1985, Coolidge returned to form with Real Genius.

At first glance, Real Genius looked as unpromising as The Joy of Sex for Ms. Coolidge. It's all in the presence of hack scriptwriters Neal Israel (Amy Heckerling's former husband) & Pat Proft, creators of the runaway smash Police Academy as well as Bachelor Party and Moving Violations. The comedic trend these men were cashing in on is better associated with producer Ivan Reitman and his slob comedy touchstones Caddyshack, Meatballs and Stripes. Reitman's films, which harkened back to the anarchic culture clash scenarios of the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges, launched Saturday Night Live's sardonic Bill Murray as movie star (their shared peak being Ghostbusters), the 1980s heir to inveterate wisenheimer Groucho Marx. And it was Murray's shadow in which Tom Hanks, Steve Guttenberg and Bill's own sibling John were cloaked. Just as John Belushi set the gold standard for chunky party animals (and by my estimation, that includes Rodney Dangerfield as much as Joe Rubbo), Bill Murray epitomized the slacker's swagger through playing the kind of puckish schmoe it pays not to underestimate.

For Real Genius, Israel & Proft provided yet another Bill Murray replica in the form of Chris Knight, the senior stud at Pacific Tech who came to an epiphany after observing the mental breakdown of a fellow whiz kid and now applies his own advanced intellect to less introverted pursuits. No longer shackled to white shirts and hush puppies, Chris embraces mock-sloganeering tees ("Surf Nicaragua") and penguin slippers. His thermos of frozen nitrogen can be carved into coins to outsmart the rec room's vending machines. And in lieu of brain-frying study work, Chris preoccupies himself with such extracurricular amenities as mutant hamster races, Madame Currie look-alike contests (there was one contestant, and he was later disqualified) and crashing the tanning invitational held by the Wanda Trussler School of Beauty. If he's going to embrace being a smarty-pants, Chris figures he's going to work on the smart-ass which best fits.

Had Neal Israel directed this himself, the actor playing Chris would no doubt look like another Bill Murray doppelganger, too. Retooled by Martha Coolidge, who coaxed a convincingly lovesick but playful Nicolas Cage in his first leading role, she notched another victory by landing Val Kilmer, fresh off the ZAZ trio's Top Secret! After a heated career in which, during its height, he played Jim Morrison, Bruce Wayne and Doc Holliday, it took a Gay Perry to remind us what a find Kilmer was in the mid-1980s. Whether acting an Elvis send-up whose hits included "Skeet Surfin'" and "Straighten the Rug" or as the sassy foil to Robert Downey Jr., Kilmer had both impeccable taste in comedy projects and the mischievous, self-effacing charisma to match. Kilmer gets an exquisitely snappy, high-energy showcase here not unlike Cage's Randy from Valley Girl, as well as a fully-rounded character.

But despite the promotional materials, Val Kilmer wasn't all that Real Genius had to offer. 14-year-old newcomer Gabriel Jarret (we'll discount his brief appearance in Going Ape!) is also appealing as Mitch Taylor, the freshman prodigy who is plucked from the Western Regional science fair by celebrity brainiac Dr. Jerome Hathaway (William "Wally Wick" Atherton, officious as ever) to join Chris Knight in his research development team. The kids' mission is to unwittingly invent a new five-megawatt laser capable of vaporizing an object from space, thus Real Genius offers a tantalizing take-down of the "Star Wars" initiative of the Reagan presidency. This death ray, the Crossbow as named by its CIA backers, is even introduced like a toy following a credits sequence pitting diagrams of various tools of destruction against the jazz standard "You Took Advantage of Me."

Mitch, a guppy with advanced theories in florescent compound physics, is the kind of idealist Chris was in his first three years as the smartest person in the room. There's also a third young man with the same jaded trajectory as Chris, Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Jonathan (TerrorVision) Gries. Hollyfeld, who is smarter than Mitch and Chris combined, used to slave over his own scientific breakthroughs before being told that was he designing was potentially lethal. This rendered him a gentle hermit with a mysterious ability to walk into Mitch's closet and vanish into thin air. Pacific Tech has the kind of atmosphere where it's sink or swim, some students managing to thrive under pressure and others cracking. Since Mitch is still a child, he seems poised for an early breakdown, especially thanks to ruthless sycophant Kent (Robert Prescott), who's angling for team leadership in between substitute teaching gigs and dry cleaner errands for Dr. Hathaway.

Certain plot elements in Real Genius cater to Israel & Proft's puerile flavor of humor, especially the character of PR executive Sherry Nugil (Patti D'Arbanville), a "genius groupie" who tries to seduce Mitch in a surprise visit. That it doesn't devolve into another Private Lessons comes down to Martha Coolidge and co-writer P.J. Torokvei's decision to introduce a female Pacific Tech student who is more compatible for Mitch in both intelligence and innocence. Enter the director's good luck charm: Michelle Meyrink (also from Revenge of the Nerds as well as Coolidge's previous comedies) as the tirelessly inventive Jordan Cochran, which can charitably be called the Joan Cusack role. Assertive in her own spaced-out way as Chris and Dr. Hathaway, Jordan lacks the filter preventing all of her idle thoughts from verbal expression. She holds her own compared to her rambunctious male counterparts and, with her bobbed hair and spontaneous work ethic, struck a blow for female representation in the campus comedy. The character of Gadget Hackenwrench from Disney's Chip 'N' Dale Rescue Rangers was directly inspired by Jordan.

With a bevy of likeable characters and adroit performers (Atherton imbues his flagrant villain with OCD hang-ups and a few colicky outbursts), Real Genius does achieve a sort of delirious chemical bond. There are wittier lines and gags in Coolidge's film alone than any five sons of Animal House fused together. A student nicknamed Ick (Mark Kamiyama) transforms dry ice fog into solid matter suitable for indoor skating and sledding. Pressed by Chris to reveal his secret, Ick retorts: "Oh, sure. I tell you, then you tell somebody else, and the next thing you know, we're in the middle of another ice age." Hollyfeld, who has finally acquired "certain materialistic needs," breaks a Frito-Lay sweepstakes like it was the bell curve. And Mitch's initial impression of campus life is thrown into a loop by a math class which grows increasingly remote; the absent students set up boom boxes and tape recorders to record, resulting in a hilarious pay-off.

Ed Lauter (the principal shadow man), Stacy "Dogtown" Peralta, Louis Giambalvo, Severn Darden ("I think the young people enjoy it when I 'get down' verbally, don't you?"), Sandy Martin, Paul Tulley & Joanne Baron (Mitch's dim parents), and Deborah Foreman (kissing off Chris like his name was Tommy) do well peripherally. Among the outstanding tech credits, which include a fine batch of production/set designers doubling Caltech, are Risky Business editor Richard Chew and the esteemed Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. To my memory, this is one of the rare '80s teen movies shot in 2.35:1 Panavision, which accommodates the sleek design of the Crossbow as well as the irresistible way it is recalibrated to get revenge on the unethical Dr. Hathaway. The use of Tears for Fears at the end clinches the deal, with the soundtrack also boasting Tonio K., Don Henley, Bryan Adams, The Call, The System, and The Comsat Angels.

Alas, for as many quality teen movies which came out in the overcrowded year of our Lord 1985 ("This is Jesus, Kent, and you've been a very naughty boy!"), the trend as a whole seemed to be disappearing quicker than Lazlo Hollyfeld. With the exceptions tied to Steven Spielberg (Back to the Future no doubt gave a push to Teen Wolf at the summer's end) and John Hughes, youthful comedies weren't topping the box-office surveys or sticking around long enough to earn anything beyond breakeven sums. The Sure Thing and Porky's Revenge each finished around the $20 million mark, and not even Top 10 singles by Madonna (the chart-topping ballad "Crazy for You," which she performed in the actual movie), Journey ("Only the Young") and Pat Benatar helped Vision Quest ($13 million) and The Legend of Billie Jean (stalling at $3.1 million during the summer of '85, Benatar's theme song "Invincible" peaked months after the movie flopped). All these underachieving teen movies released that year became strictly cult classics, be they Real Genius or Better Off Dead or Girls Just Want to Have Fun or Just One of the Guys (another surprise teen romp from a female filmmaker) or both of Kelly Preston's star turns.

But if there is has to be some kind of honor roll, even if it's a "moral imperative" that you grade on a curve (maybe do that for Better Off Dead and Just One of the Guys), Real Genius is a definite shoo-in for the very best teen comedies not just of 1985, but the entire decade. It's as fluffy as the nougat in a Three Musketeers bar, to be honest, but Martha Coolidge took what could've been another formula comedy and teased out honest-to-goodness belly laughs, a veneer of pacifistic satire within the subterfuge and a really solid string of performances. You could spend hours trying to determine who were the real geniuses of this genre of comedy, but Coolidge was undeniably a true savant.