Ho Chi Minh Doesn’t Skateboard: Gleaming the Cube

The 1980s were riddled with an abundance of ridiculously cheesy teen-targeted sport themed movies. Movies like Thrashin’ (1986), Under the Boardwalk (1989) and Rad (1986) used textbook slang, template storytelling, and stereotypical characters that made obvious commercial filmmaker and producer’s attempts to effortlessly cash in on the industries that, by the middle part of the decade, lived long enough to prosper. It would also influence the future of voice-overs in Asian film (see BioZombie).

Gleaming the Cube (1989) is one of the better skateboarding adventures, abandoning the single-minded tale of the dubious underdog who must prove his worth in some ridiculous, climactic contest. As a Cold War-themed skateboard movie, it fuses the cheesy teen sports movie with another staple of 80s movies: over-the-top action films who’s heroes were usually oiled, muscular good guys single-handedly avenging foreign-born warlords seethed in compensatory patriotism and political propaganda. The result of this marriage of strange bedfellows? Irreverent teenage skaters become defenders of American colonialism pride.

Like a Goofus & Gallant comic, bleach blond skate-punk Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is the exact opposite of his straight-laced adopted brother, Vinh (Art Chudabala). Brian and his friends are bribing jet pilots and getting arrested for trespassing in a rich, loud homeowner’s swimming pool while Vinh is helping with his girlfriend’s father’s post-Vietnam War relief program. After Vinh brings to the boss’s attention possible errors in inventory shipping, he is curiously fired and is later found hanged to death in a hotel room. When there doesn’t appear to be conclusive evidence of foul play according to the young, hard-edged detective (Steve Bauer), his death is officially written off as a suicide. But Brian is certain that his brother wasn’t the type to check into a hotel and kill himself, and so he embarks on his own investigation which leads him on the trail of weapons smugglers and their ninja-like henchmen. Soon, he realizes the potential crime-fighting advantages of skateboarding.

Director Graeme Clifford and writer Michael Tonkin’s Gleaming the Cube (or, A Brother’s Justice as it was called in its TV release) does undoubtedly have the trappings of typical 80s teen movie corniness. Brian brazenly suggests to the hard-edged detective that if he had a dog who resembled said detective that he would shave it’s ass and tech it to walk backwards (gasp!). There’s the panicked goon who drives around in his cool black vintage convertible listening to Vietnamese covers of Motown. And who can forget the theme song, “Gleaming the Cube,” by Michael James Jackson? It was just as inspirational as Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” from the Karate Kid (1984). Although most of the cheesiness can be chalked up to Christian Slater’s hammy acting technique (especially the part where he’s informed of Vinh’s death). And, even though there are plenty of genre clichés to pack into the 100 minutes running time (which means a big chase finale), it’s all on a tolerable level and keeps it from crossing that line into it’s so bad it’s bad, though it might rightly be considered so bad it’s good.

The film’s unique quality is the not-so subtle political text for which a movie about skaters seem like an odd forum. Sure, it is not a novelty to inject it into a teen movie, and especially an action movie which undoubtedly helps to quickly create a villain as it were in Red Dawn (1984) and Toy Soldiers (1990). Yet, the intermittent cursing of the Vietcong at least doesn’t consume the entire movie.

More unusually and the thing probably keeping this movie at the forefront of pop culture memories of young 80s nostalgics (when not listing the obvious in favorites from the decade) is behind-the-scenes trivia. Documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta, a former pro-skater for the legendary Dogtown team and Powell-Peralta skateboard company co-founder worked on this movie as second unit director, shooting the skate sequences, while another legendary team of skateboarders, The Bones Brigade, were brought on to perform stunts and training. As Christian Slater’s stunt double, Rodney Mullen, the Freestyle King, can be seen in the warehouse montage and Mike McGill performed ramp and pool tricks (although he was replaced by Jozsef Attila towards the end of filming when McGill got food poisoning).

Meanwhile, Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerro (who also taught Slater how to skateboard noting that he didn’t seem too enthused to learn much beyond the basics) have minor roles as members of Brian Kelly’s skateboard posse. Probably the most endearing moment was young Tony Hawk in his Pizza Hut delivery truck barreling down a highway with a satisfying grin on his face as the sure victor in a game of chicken against some of the goons. Co-star Max Perlich was a veteran skater too, which means that Slater was probably cast primarily because he was the burgeoning teen celebrity (although he was 20 at the time of the film’s release) the same way that Leif Garrett was cast in Skateboard: The Movie (1978). Tony Hawk, in his autobiography Occupation: Skateboarder wrote about some of the movies that he worked on as a stunt consultant, including Thrashin’ (1986) and the timeless classic, (yes that’s sarcasm!) Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987). The funnier insider information there, however, being that Perlich nearly got his ass kicked by an irate guy who showed up to the set. He owned the car that Perlich did an acid drop off of one night while skating with the Bones Brigade.

A review of Gleaming the Cube on The Chucks Connection (because some of the actors wear Chuck Taylors in the movie) probably says it best: there’s plenty of cornball elements in this movie (bad acting by Slater, convoluted plot, etc.), but there’s enough to keep the not-too-serious viewer entertained.



White Line Fever: Motorama

Behold, Motorama! The bizarre black comedy you may have never heard of! Or maybe watched by accident, thinking you just found an undiscovered 80’s teen romance co-starring teenage Drew Barrymore! Oh boy, were you wrong!

See the kid standing in that picture standing on the Mustang? That’s 10 year-old Gus, and he basically represents the all-American kid’s fantasy: he’s a supervised minor with a car. Now you’re probably thinking that’s a guaranteed recipe for comedy hijinks later downplayed by a saccharine, but important moral lesson at the end. Maybe, but that wouldn’t really be all that bizarre, now would it?

Actually, Gus isn’t so much unsupervised as he is newly emancipated from his abusive parents. But rather than going through the cumbersome legal channels to sever ties, a stolen Mustang and some cinderblocks to reach the pedals provide the quickest and surest path to independence. Screenwriter Joseph Minion, the man behind the Scorsese comedy (yes, Martin Scorsese directed comedy) After Hours and the creepy 1989 movie Vampire’s Kiss, penned this rather unique interpretation of “coming-of-age” fiction. Gus is a kid in childhood limbo, in a sense. He’s far more intelligent and a hardened cynic for his age, but he seems like he’s searching for the traditional notion of “childhood.”

At first, escaping his parents seemed to be just about Gus’s only goal. His subsequent journey on winding, generic highways seem like an aimless one and Gus is now a 10 year-old with all the time in the world. Luckily, the road is paved with a host of unusual characters who keep things entertaining. Upon stopping at gas stations along his impromptu route, Gus rather haphazardly starts collecting game cards that contain one of the letters in the word M-O-T-O-R-A-M-A. Players who find all 8 letters can claim a $500 million dollar prize from the Chimera Gas Company. As soon a Gus has a few successes, he begins to obsess over finding the remaining cards. In the process, Gus gradually transitions from  and understandably cynical 10-year old runaway explaining the relative innocence of his actions to the “enlightened” gas station attendant named Phil, to a deceptive gambler who happily hustles overconfident competitors. Somehow a brief adolescent daydream fills Gus’s head; the dream girl of course, played by young Barrymore. But by the end of the film, the 10-year appears noticeably aged and run down–after dodging an explosion his hair appears to have grayed. He wears an eye patch to conceal injuries received when getting caught trying to siphon gas from a seedy couple (which includes Mary Woronov). And strangely, he is eventually trying to rescue an older version of himself before future tense Gus drives off the road while, in a panic, trying to find that one last letter to claim his award money, loses control of his car.

Although this kind of tale might be off-putting or just simply confusing to the viewer not typically accustomed to movies like these, the narrative construction is the interesting element — the circular storytelling of character reflection. That is uses a 10-year old as its central character is perhaps its most distinctive draw. Unfortunately, while making the transition to DVD faster than probably more well-known cult films (The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps come to mind), it is a film that remains woefully absent in background information of any kind (considered bonus materials for the DVD, all that is included is a trailer of Motorama and a mismatched companion trailer for the idiotic David Spade comedy, Joe Dirt.

Desperately Seeking Bibliophiles: 84 Charing Cross Road

Businessman on plane: Your first trip to London?
Helene Hanff: Yes.
Businessman on plane: You want a word of advice? Don’t trust the cab drivers; they’ll take you five miles to go three blocks… and, uh, don’t waste your time looking at a street map. Nobody can find their way around London – not even Londoners.
Helene Hanff: Maybe I should go to Baltimore instead.
Businessman on plane: No; you’ll enjoy it. London’s a great place. What kind of trip is it – business or pleasure?
Helene Hanff: Unfinished business.

– opening lines to 84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

The 1970s memoirs of New York writer Helen Hanff84 Charing Cross Road (and partly, The Douchess of Bloomsbury Street in 1973) — became the basis for the 1987 film directed by David Hugh Jones. Mel Brooks, husband of late actress Anne Bancroft, who has the starring role of Hanff, purchased the rights to the book as birthday gift to Bancroft.

Hanff is at heart, a bibliophile, and it is her literary voraciousness that serves as the impetus of this story. Unable to find obscure classics and forgotten British literature in New York City (“Doesn’t anyone read in New York anymore?” she rhetorically asks surprised customers of a bookstore upon leaving), she sees an advertisement for Marks & Co., a bookstore in England that specializes in used, rare titles. And what begins in the 1940s as an overseas customer desperately searching for out-of-print books evolves into more than a thirty-year friendship between Hanff and the staff of the bookstore (especially Chief Buyer, Frank Doel who is played by the (later) uncharacteristically charismatic Anthony Hopkins).

Hanff’s short memoirs are a collection of the letters primarily exchanged between she and Doel, all used verbatim in the film. And on the one hand, the film reveals distinctions between pre- and post-war United States and Great Britain, though its focus is more of the cultural rather than political affairs of each, differences which are particularly learned through correspondence in the days long before instant access to seemingly trivial information. Hanff orders a gift basket of food for the bookstore employees at Christmas–relatively simple things like canned ham and fruit preserves. One of the gracious employees writes to thank Hanff, explaining that most of the items received were either things that could only be located on the black market, or, like meats, limited by ration stamps.

The interaction between the characters in the two countries is almost entirely through correspondence, which, if remade today, would probably lose that novelty. But, because most of the interaction is through characters, the filmmakers in time abandon the cumbersome display of one character writing or reading the letters while its author or recipient reads what is written. This is a film, after all, that is translated from a series of letters and demands creativity as such. Once the relationship of Hanff and the employees of the Marks & Co. bookstore becomes more than mere transactions between a store and its customer, the characters–especially Hanff and Doel–began to speak the words of their letters directly to the camera, cutting back and forth with each other’s responses. But there is certain discomfort in a friendship existing entirely through letters, and thus, the major question becomes–will Hanff ever meet her British friends and especially the cordial Frank Doel?

It is a very simple, pleasant film and one who’s cinematography suggests a British public television quality to it, which may not be of any surprise, considering prior adaptations as BBC teleplays and radio plays, in addition to stage performances. Screenwriter Hugh Whitemore, who adapted the BBC teleplay in 1975 as part of the Play for Today series, holds the screenwriter credits for this 1987 film adaptation of Hanff’s memoirs, expanding the characters to “include Hanff’s Manhattan friends [which includes actress Mercedes Rhuel], the bookshop staff, and Doel’s wife Nora, played by Judi Dench. Bancroft won a BAFTA Award as Best Actress; Whitemore and Dench were [respectively] nominated for direction and supporting performance.” 1

It has been suggested that Hanff’s memoirs are not entirely based on actual events. “Although claimed to be a true story, at least one source implies that there was a bit of artistic license. Leo Marks, later a screenwriter, was the son of the bookstore’s owner, and the head of codes and communication for Britain’s special operatives and the underground during WWII, despite being barely old enough for college. In his book “Between Silk and Cyanide” he says of his father: ‘He never read the gentle little myth by Helene Hanff; Long before it was published he’d become one himself.'” But others still seem content to maintain a sense of that history–especially of the Marks & Co. bookstore while the film at least maintains that wonderful romanticism.