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.

Gangster Goes Arthouse: Revolver

Writer and director Guy Ritchie has gained considerable notoriety for his British cult films of ganster follies Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and its sequel, Snatch. Like American films and television shows centering on New York mafia, Ritchie’s films, too, spawned numerous British gangster cast regulars. His films also offer a refreshing humor that is rarely, if ever, present in the American gangster genre. But most importantly, the gem of these movies is the writing, and some would follow this model of both humorous and tragic ironies, such as the slick drama, Layer Cake (2004). But writer/director Ritchie, teaming up with French director Luc Besson (he holds writing credits here), might surprise audiences expecting their latest work, Revolver, to be something similar to either Ritchie or Besson’s previous films. Instead, much of this film appears to be an experimental effort that might aptly be labeled Gangster Arthouse.

Granted, the movie begins as one loyal to the British gangster genre might already expect. Jason Statham, a leading regular in Ritchie’s movies, is Jake Green. Now with a full beard and head of scraggly long hair, Statham looks rugged, though dressed in crisply tailored suits, his appearance might be considered somewhat biblical at times. As is typical of Stratham’s leading character, or what might be better compared to Daniel Craig’s unnamed character in Layer Cake considering the similarly serious tone, he is reluctantly forced into a situation that is likely to end badly, narrating to audiences all expectations and consequences, whether direct or analogous, as someone well versed in the criminal activities with which he is involved. It is always a game of strategy.

Green is an impeccable card player and for him, gambling is really a hustle and one that’s made him quite wealthy over the years. When challenged to play Dorothy Macha (a well-tanned and droopy-faced Ray Liotta who walks through most of the movie in spandex briefs) who is a horrible poker player that people forfeit their games to out of fear of retaliation, cocky Jake Green not only beats Macha, but insults him relentlessly. As expected, Macha orders a hit on Green and while Green allies himself with two unlikely brothers–Avi (Andre Benjamin of Outkast) and Zach (Vinnie Pastore who is probably most recognizable known for his role in The Sopranos), they are not offering protection out of sheer generosity. Rather, Green is forced to turn over to them all of his money so the trio can become loansharks and most importantly, bring down Macha. And though Macha’s power is contingent on sustaining a feared presence, he has one of his own to worry about: the elusive Mr. Gold, rumors of whom make him sound as relentlessly vicious as Anton Chigur, the villain of No Country for Old Men (2007). “Mr. Gold doesn’t accept excuses and he doesn’t give second chances.”

The leading characters of modern British gangster films have always been dependent on strategy and considering all possible outcomes, whether of their allies or enemies. But, In order to become the strategic mastermind of all the interconnected foes in this film, it will require more than the usual criminal expertise that guided the troubled “good guys” of Lock Stock and Snatch, for example. Now the rules critical to Green’s survival, which means learning an entirely new arena and successfully conning his opponent, derives from one of the oldest games of strategy: chess. He proves to be an expert in the game, but the applying in the real world the rules he frequently uses to defeat even the most masterful opponents will require abandoning a rather large ego, the thing that got him in trouble in the first place. But soon, the game becomes perplexing for Green and things begin to turn into a personal nightmare. Unfortunately, his explanations of the expert deconstruction he taught himself while serving a lengthy sentence of solitary confinement, tend to become lengthy and meld into exhaustive and confusing jargon when presented as fleeting words rather than hard text. A word to the wise: this is not a movie to start from anywhere but the beginning.

While the story follows some of the usual plot arrangements including plenty of slick, mob-styled revenge, both visuals and the narrative encompass avant garde (or, characteristically arthouse) elements. The transition of subtitles present in some of the film might not be considered much of a novelty after what had been done in the remake of Man on Fire. During major action sequences in the middle of the film, live action mixes with a sudden transition to comic book styled animation similar to the Aeon Flux cartoons. When Stratham’s character undergoes self-actualization, the intensity is interrupted with one sentence quotes from the pages of “The Road to Suicide,” something which might fool audiences to expect the credits to roll and accept a frustratingly uncertain conclusion. Much of the cinematography, too, appears rather uncharacteristic for this context. Several scenes are drenched in solid colors of red or blue. And dialog between characters in a car or talking over a game of chess are shot from very low angles. Moreover, as the credits roll (unusually including credit for prop apprentices and metal workers, among others), one might expect that Ritchie or Besson intended the film as an educational effort; an insight into paranoia and schizophrenia as various academics discuss the function of the ego.

But despite some of the experimentation, this, combined with other elements, seems to have angered critics searching for some value in what looks to really be a convoluted and obvious attempt at a psychological thriller, something film critic Roger Ebert might have expressed best in the introduction to his Chicago-Sun Times review:

Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver” is a frothing mad film that thrashes against its very sprocket holes in an attempt to bash its brains out against the projector. It seems designed to punish the audience for buying tickets. It is a “thriller” without thrills, constructed in a meaningless jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards and subtitles and mottos and messages and scenes that are deconstructed, reconstructed and self-destructed. I wanted to signal the projectionist to put a gun to it.”

Another review defended the movie (sorry, lost the link… but will post if found) comparing the genius of the film to having read a book for the first time that would be considered brilliant, but who’s understanding is lost on the first read. Which, in turns sounds like the statement that if you make a movie people don’t understand, they are willing to accept that lack of understanding as a mark of genius. If what is being said can truly be considered something intelligent, if not remarkable, then why must it be done to the point of being exceedingly perplexing where the meaning is lost even on second and third reflection?

Bang, bang.

Johnny, Get Yer Gun: No Country For Old Men

Twenty-three years after their collaborative film debut, Blood Simple, and seven years from the last break of comedy productions with The Man Who Wasn’t There, writing-directing brother team, Joel and Ethan Coen, return to the noir genre with an unflinching adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men. The story unfolds on the parched terrain of isolated, southwestern towns so typical to these stories of greed and consequence. These are the borders of hell. The place where righteous humanity is scarce.

“The Old-Timers never even used to carry guns…” begins the melancholic narration of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as he recounts how town sheriffs in small towns once conducted business. Bell is a helpless character in the wake of what he considers to be an emerging, uncontrollable taint of Man that has ruled obsolete the methodologies of the Old Timers. A taint that has ruined the moral certainties that guide the law: the clear difference between right and wrong. Good and bad. Though, even Bell, who is nearing retirement, is reminded that the taint is no novelty of the human condition. “This world is hard on people,” his old friend, another ex-Sheriff gruffly tells him.

While hunting antelopes in the mountains, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the failures of Mexican heroine deal and explores the dismal remains of something like a circled wagon train. The ground is covered with bullet casings and shotgun shells. Bodies lay in pools of blood drawing flies. Dust covered trucks are covered in bullet holes and shattered glass, some of the drivers laying slumped over the wheel. And amidst the carnage, remains an unclaimed satchel full of money that Moss quietly collects.

Moss is not the typical noir protagonist. Nothing in his character suggests much previous innocence, nor even real moral judiciousness towards the choices that set events in motion. He does not hesitate over his claim, has such a matter-of-fact approach to his gamble. But, one’s own greed will always pose a threat to his survival.

And Moss’s chances for survival are particularly slim against the likes of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardeem), the black-hearted personal reaper who wants his money back. He’s a guy who would fit the line Donald Pleasance once used to refer to young Michael Meyers in the first Halloween: “He had the blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes.” As Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the federal drug agent tracking Chigurh, explains to Moss who is hospitalized after his first face-to-face confrontation the predator, this is not a man to be reasoned with. “He won’t care if you return the money. He’ll kill you just for inconveniencing him.”

The story of the greedy man turned drug dealer’s prey has been told countless times before and yet, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced a film of such immediate applause (already achieving a top 40 spot in the IMDb top 250 movies list as of this writing). Of course, part of the draw has to do with the reputation the Coen brothers have made for themselves. A long resume of solid films with a great cast. This particular film draws on the the common love affair for retro atmospheres that directors like Quentin Tarantino have made a trademark, and the only real reference calling audiences back to this century is the comical mention of an ATM. But this nostalgia appears to offer a more primitive playing field for the characters. The fancy digital packages that worked for the young characters in chase during movies like Disturbia, for example, are of no use in this dusty arena. Hell, they’re not even an option.

But perhaps the most effective device in this film are characters cut from a more convincing reality. Llewellyn Moss is an intelligent man who suspects early on that someone, whether dealer or the law, will come for his claim and he is quite adept in protecting himself. Perhaps his only idealism is that he is convinced he can killed Chigurh, though this may just be something he tells himself rather than sincerely believes. Chigurh, on the other hand, is of an unfathomable mold; the man without conscience. And worse, he seems indestructible in ways that suggest nothing will end as we expect, much to the chagrin of audiences expecting easily manageable explanations and showdowns as the final marker in this narrative spectrum. Some have called it anticlimactic. But that is not to say that we are really left with any overwhelming complexities and uncertainties, save interpreting Bell’s final monologue. But, the audience will have to do some of their own work to understand how this tale ends and it almost requires abandonment of typical frames of moral logic.