Pulp

Sunset

1988

TriStar Pictures

Directed by Blake Edwards

Produced by Tony Adams

Screenplay by Blake Edwards

Story by Rod Amateau

Some movies I can just never figure out why they become major hits at the box office while a movie like SUNSET goes virtually ignored. It’s a movie that deserves more of an audience than it’s enjoyed, especially now that there’s such an interest in pulp adventure because that’s exactly what SUNSET is. Pure pulp from start to finish and starring two of the most likable actors in Hollywood history and they know how to play this material the way Liberace knew how to play the piano.

It’s Hollywood, 1929 and the movie industry is making the transition from silent to sound films. Movie producer and studio boss Alfie Alperin  (Malcolm McDowell) wants to make a big epic about legendary United States Marshall Wyatt Earp. Alperin pressures the equally legendary western actor Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) to star in the movie and mostly as a publicity stunt hires Wyatt Earp himself (James Garner) as technical advisor. Now, I’m pretty sure you know something about Wyatt Earp but I don’t know how much you know about Tom Mix. In short, let’s just say that he pretty much defined the image of the Western Hero in movies during the 20th Century. He’s a guy worth doing your homework on as he’s had such an influence on pop culture he’s been featured in novels written by Philip Jose Farmer, mentioned in an episode of “Doctor Who” and has been a supporting character in the DC Elseworlds one-shot “Batman/Houdini: The Devil’s Worskhop.”

Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix actually get along quite well together and that comes in handy because they’ve hardly started working on the movie before they have to start working on a case of murder involving an old girlfriend of Earp’s who’s now married to Alfie Alperin. The case leads them to a high-class brothel owned by Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway) who makes it clear to Earp right from the start that she’s got a thing for older men. Nudge nudge wink wink. Mix has got his hands full with his own girlfriend Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan) who, like any good girlfriend in a movie of this sort knows a little too much than she should and gets captured one to many times but that’s okay because then we get to see Our Heroes rescue her.

I have a hunch why SUNSET wasn’t a hit in theaters. Given that Bruce Willis was mostly known for his hit TV show “Moonlighting” at the time and James Garner is regarded mostly as a light comedic actor, audiences were probably expecting a comedy romp. SUNSET does have its humorous moments but it’s a straight-up murder mystery that I think Raymond Chandler would be proud of to have written. And it’s as complicated as a Chandler mystery as well. Earp and Mix have to navigate their way through crooked cops and the even more crooked studio executives who pay them off. It’s a pretty dark depiction of Hollywood and a story you have to pay attention to between the fistfights and wisecracks.

Both James Garner and Bruce Willis are plain, flat-out fun to watch. This is the second time James Garner has played Wyatt Earp and he’s great. His Earp is a guy who’s been around and he knows how things work. Especially in a town as corrupt as Hollywood. People see James Garner as mostly a light comedic actor but he can play just as tough as he demonstrates several times in this movie. Bruce Willis as Tom Mix holds his own with his far more experienced co-star and I think it’s because Willis as Mix probably did the same thing Willis in real-life did: he didn’t try to bullshit his co-star. Willis as Mix knows he’s a movie cowboy and doesn’t try to pretend he’s anything other than that. But during the course of their adventure he more than earns the respect of Garner as Earp and I strongly suspect he did so in real life as they worked on this movie.

Only thing I didn’t like about this movie? Malcolm McDowell plays a character that’s blatantly based on Charlie Chaplin and given the horrendously monstrous nature of Alfie Alperin the performance leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But he does make for a terrific bad guy, along with E. Emmet Walsh as a crooked studio cop, Richard Bradford as a corrupt police captain and Joe Dallesandro as a mobster.

What else did I like about SUNSET? It’s got two of my favorite and most beautiful actresses of the 1980’s: Mariel Hemingway and Kathleen Quinlan. ‘Nuff said. And there’s terrific music provided by Henry Mancini. Bruce Willis wears this all black outfit with roses that I wish I could wear. But I think he and I are equal in doing the tango. The comradeship of Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix as two genuinely tough guys having an adventure and enjoying it while they build a friendship. The scene of them riding to rescue Nancy. Their gunfight with a bunch of thugs that causes Wyatt Earp to have flashbacks to the O.K. Corral.

So should you see SUNSET? Absolutely. If you’re a fan of pulp adventure then I’d put this on your must see of movies along with “The Phantom” “Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow” The Indiana Jones Movies and “The Rocketeer.” The period flavor is perfect, the performances are marvelous and yes, the story takes liberties with historical fact but who gives a damn? As far as you’re concerned, it’s all true.

Give or take a lie or two.

102 minutes

Rated R

The Shadow

1994

Universal Pictures

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Produced by Michael Bregman

Written by David Koepp

Created in 1930 to be the mysterious narrator of a radio anthology program, it wasn’t long before listeners demanded stories about this mysterious narrator. And so 1931 saw the debut of “The Shadow Magazine” a pulp series primarily written by the prolific Walter Gibson who also was a professional magician. It was Walter Gibson who considerably fleshed out the background of The Shadow, writing 282 out of 325 Shadow novels. The Shadow remains one of the best pulp heroes created and even today his popularity is extraordinary. His tagline: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is known by people who have never read a Shadow novel or have little or no knowledge of the character whatsoever. His radio show is notable for its longevity as well as Orson Wells starring as The Shadow/Lamont Cranston in the early episodes. He’s also been featured in comic books, two television series and seven movies, including the 1994 big budget THE SHADOW starring Alec Baldwin as the slouch hatted crime-fighter.

Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is living in Asia when we first meet him. Operating as the ruthless opium warlord Ying Ko he is a cold blooded killer who has totally given over his soul to evil and corruption. He’s kidnapped by The Tulku, a holy man who tells Cranston that he could be a tremendous force for good if he could learn to harness the shadow of his own evil. Cranston is humbled by The Tulku who has some pretty formidable powers including telekinetic mastery over The Phurba, a living knife. Cranston becomes the Tulku’s disciple and is taught secrets of the mind, including the ability to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him. Cranston then returns to New York City to take up the life he had before, that of a rich, spoiled playboy. But secretly he wages war against crime as The Shadow, using a network of agents to assist him. He’s unknowingly helped out by his uncle, Police Commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters) who tends to talk a little too freely around his nephew about police business as Barth has no idea Cranston is The Shadow.

It’s a secret that Cranston can’t keep from Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who has psychic powers of her own as well as a serious problem. Her scientist father Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Sir Ian McKellan) has been kidnapped by Shiwan Khan (John Lone) the last descendant of Genghis Khan who is determined to do what his ancestor couldn’t: rule the world. And he’s going to start by blowing up New York with an atomic bomb created by Dr. Lane and his slightly daffy assistant (Tim Curry) It’s up to The Shadow to stop Shiwan Khan but it’s not going to be easy. Not only does Shiwan Khan have an army of Mongol warriors who have no problem with killing whoever stands in their master’s way but Khan has mental powers that easily equal and may even surpass that of The Shadow himself.

Somewhere inside THE SHADOW there’s a really good movie trying it’s best to be seen. There’s a whole lot about this movie to like. The production values are wonderful and there’s rarely been a movie based on a pulp character that has looked this good. The 1930’s New York City of THE SHADOW is a pulp version of New York City and looks it. Alec Baldwin is obviously having a lot of fun playing the character and he does it very well. I really love how he looks as The Shadow. He looks exactly like a Michael Kaluta illustration come to life in every scene. Even though I think Jeff Goldblum or Adrian Brody are both more similar in appearance to the traditional description of Lamont Cranston, Alec Baldwin is perfectly acceptable. He’s a lot better than Penelope Ann Miller who is a great sucking black hole that saps every scene she’s in of its energy. Oh, she looks terrific in her costumes and she looks right at home in the 1930’s time period but she simply doesn’t generate very much excitement on screen.

John Lone tries his best but Shiwan Khan comes off more as a spoiled brat than a world conquering villain. Khan and Cranston have a couple of confrontations that are really strange in that they seem more like stand-up comics trying out their material on each other rather than the deadliest of enemies. And you don’t put the wildly talented Tim Curry in a movie without giving him more to do than simply roll his eyes and flash his trademark goofy grin. Peter Boyle also appears to be having a good time playing cab driver/chauffeur Moe Shrevnitz. He comes off better than Jonathan Winters since his Police Commissioner Barth appears to spend all his time eating steak in the Cobalt Club instead of doing his job. No wonder Mongol warriors in full armor and carrying swords can run around Manhattan kidnapping scientists and hacking innocent bystanders into baloney slices. Ian McKellan displays none of the bombastic energy he displayed in the “X-Men” or “Lord Of The Rings” trilogies. But then he isn’t asked to do much as he spends most of the movie being mind-controlled by Khan.

But for me the main problem is that the movie tries to merge the two incarnations of The Shadow into one. He’s both the radio version who has psychic powers and could cloud men’s mind so that they cannot see him and he’s also the pulp version who has no issues with whipping out a pair of .45 automatics and dealing out hot lead justice. I can see Baldwin’s Shadow using his mind-clouding powers when he’s up against half a dozen Mongol warriors in Dr. Lane’s lab but does he really need to use it against a single man with a machine gun? I could almost sympathize with Tim Curry when he screams; “why don’t you come out and fight like a man?”

So should you see THE SHADOW? I think so because at the core of it, The Shadow as a character is fascinating because here’s a hero who operates and acts more like a villain than even the actual villains he fights. The idea of a man harnessing his own evil nature and using it to fight evil is wonderful and I think it’s part of The Shadow’s secret of longevity. Even though it’s an ultimately disappointing effort, I like this movie for what it gets right and I forgive it for what it gets wrong as it’s obvious the director and the actors respect the characters and the material. I would have preferred a darker approach with a bad guy who does more than worry about where to buy a nice suit like Lamont Cranston’s but this movie’s a satisfactory way to introduce those unfamiliar with the character to the world of The Shadow. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth one viewing at least.

PG-13

108 minutes

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

 

2008

Universal

Directed by Rob Cohen

Produced by Sean Daniel, Bob Ducsay, James Jacks and Stephen Sommer

Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar

Since I’m a major fan of pulp action adventure there’s very little chance of you getting a bad review of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR outta me.  I think it’s only fair to tell you that up front.  Even though I did miss the direction of Stephen Sommers and Maria Bello is no substitute for Rachel Weisz.  And yes, the climatic battle between the two undead armies did go on about five minutes longer than it should have and it’s true that Brendan Fraser didn’t have to yell: “I hate mummies!” every ten minutes.  But I was willing to overlook all that and just allow myself to enjoy what is essentially a B-movie with an A-budget.  It’s not the best of ‘The Mummy’ movies but it does exactly what it’s designed to do and really, that’s all I ask from any movie.

Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) live in a splendid English country mansion big enough to have its own zip code.  They’ve retired from their life of wild adventuring and while Rick attempts to become a proper country squire, Evelyn has become a best-selling writer, using the adventures she’s had with Rick as the basis for her books.  The adventuring is handled now by their son, Alex (Luke Ford) who is something of a maverick like his dad and has quit college to join an expedition to discover and excavate the tomb of Han, The Dragon Emperor (Jet Li)

 

Alex soon learns that he’s in way over his head as there are two factions fighting over the mummy of Emperor Han.  It turns out that Han was cursed by the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) more than two thousand years ago to remain encased in living rock but he can be revived if one knows how.  One faction knows how and it involves a giant diamond, The Eye Of Shangri-La while the other faction mostly consists of Zi Juan’s daughter Lin (Isabella Leong) and Zi herself (didn’t I mention both mother and daughter are immortal?  I didn’t?  Sorry, my bad) Rick and Evelyn are soon heading to Shanghai to help out their son, picking up Evelyn’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and a half-drunk pilot, Mad Dog Maguire as backup.

It’s a race against time to find the mystical city ofShangri-La and stop Han from reclaiming his humanity and his awesome mystic powers to control the five elements (earth, air, fire, water and metal) which he needs to resurrect his army of warriors and resume his ambition of ruling the world.  Considering that he’s now in the year 1946 and his men are armed with spears and swords while modern armies have bombs, machine guns and tanks, I must say that admire Han’s confidence.  Me, I don’t think that the modern world would have sweated Han too much, even with his magic powers but then we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we?

How much you want to see this movie depends on how much you like pulp adventure, Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh or the previous ‘Mummy’ movies I would guess.  The ‘Mummy’ movies have been looked upon as ‘Indiana Jones Lite’ but I think that’s unfair.  There’s more enough room for two globe-hopping adventurers in the movies today and indeed, back in the 30’s and 40’s where these movies are set you could go to your local theater or newsstand and there were literally dozens of movies and magazines featuring two-fisted men of action that were the grandfathers of both Rick O’Connell and Indiana Jones.

What sets the ‘Mummy’ movies apart and especially TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is the interaction between this family of adventurers.  Alex has grown up into his own man and his style of adventuring is different from his mom and his dad’s.  But even though father and son have their differences they can still bond over mutual interests such as what’s the best machine gun to use against a rebel Chinese army trying to kill you or exactly how much dynamite it takes to blow up a golden shrine.  Evelyn is trying hard to be a lady and a respectable mom but she’d much rather be raiding tombs and destroying evil mummies trying to take over the world.  Jonathan has become a successful nightclub owner but he drops it all to help out his brother-in-law, sister and nephew save the world.  Of course the fact that Rick and Evelyn have The Eye Of Shangri-La has nothing to do with it.

By now Brendan Fraser can do a ‘Mummy’ movie without thinking about it.  He turns in a dependable, solid performance and here he’s not just a rough-and-tumble mercenary with a quick quip for every occasion.  He’s now a husband and father and he takes a little more time to think about what he’s doing and how it affects the people he loves.  Luke Ford does an okay job but I liked the relationship between Rick and Alex better in the previous ‘Mummy’ movie.  Here Alex has an attitude toward his father for much of the movie and I never quite understood why.  I like Maria Bello as an actress but for some reason she didn’t do anything for me here.  She did have a cute little scene during a book reading where she’s asked if the character in the book is anything like her.  Her answer kinda reminded me of George Lazenby’s classic: “This never happened to the other fellow” line from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

Michelle Yeoh walks away with the acting honors in this one.  Her character has a fascinating back story and the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie relates that in such a way that you almost wish the entire movie would continue that story.  She’s never anything less than convincing and of course any time you get to see two such masters such as her and Jet Li fight on screen that’s a definite bonus.  Don’t look for a lot martial arts from Jet Li in this one.   He does have some nice fight scenes but nothing spectacular.  And I’m always delighted to see Russell Wong in anything as I was a major fan of ‘Vanishing Son’ and he has a small but pivotal role in this movie.

 

So should you see THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR?  I would say yes.  It’s a totally undemanding movie and asks nothing more than you sit back, relax and have fun.  It’s got hidden tombs with lethal death traps, undead armies, Abominable Snowmen, Shangri-La, plenty of chases, fights and last minutes escapes from fates worse than death.  And it’s done with style, good humor, top notch stunts and special effects.  It’s one of the most enjoyable Saturday Afternoon Movies I’ve seen in quite a while.

112 minutes

Rated PG-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

1982

Universal Pictures

Directed by John Milius

Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Raffaella De Laurentiis

Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone

Based on the character/stories created and written by Robert E. Howard

I knew that director John Milius and his screenplay co-writer Oliver Stone got the character of Conan five minutes into the movie.  During the opening credits we see Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a mighty sword.  He then takes the young Conan (Jorge Sanz) to the top of a mountain.  He explains how The Riddle of Steel was stolen from Crom, the god of Cimmeria and that Conan must learn The Riddle of Steel for himself because as his dad succinctly sums up: “For no one in the world can you trust.  Not men, not women, not beasts.  But this-“ and he holds up the gleaming sword.  “-this you can trust.”

It’s not long after this that Conan’s parents, along with all the other adults in his village are slaughtered by the servants of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) a powerful sorcerer who is also the leader of a cult that worships the snake god Set.  Conan, along with other children are taken as slaves and chained to The Wheel of Pain, a gigantic mill which they push night and day, through weather fair and foul.  It’s torturous work but it has its benefits.  The young Conan grows up into Arnold Schwarzenegger as pushing that damn thing has built up muscles of Herculean proportions.  He’s bought by The Hyborian Age’s version of a fight promoter and wins fame as a gladiator.  He’s freed by his master and after meeting up with the master thief and archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez) takes up a career as a thief himself.

It’s during their attempt to infiltrate The Tower of The Serpent and steal The Eye of The Serpent that Conan meets swordswoman and thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) who will become the great love of his life.  It’s their successful and daring theft that brings them to the attention of King Osric (Max von Sydow) who hires the trio to rescue his daughter from The Cult of Set.  While Valeria and Subotai see this as a chance for a really big payday, Conan has his sights on taking the head of Thulsa Doom.

Now, you can say whatever you want about CONAN THE BARBARIAN but it won’t faze me because if nothing else, John Milius and Oliver Stone respected Robert E. Howard’s enough that they obviously not only read his stories but incorporated elements of some of those stories into the movie including what is probably the most famous scene in any Conan story; his crucifixion and his killing of a vulture pecking at his flesh with nothing but his bare teeth.

This movie, along with “The Terminator” launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and it’s easy to see why.  Schwarzenegger at that time looked like he was designed by Frank Frazetta and he inhabits the role as well as Sean Connery did with James Bond or Michael Keaton did with Batman.  For those who claim that Schwarzenegger can’t act, I point out a terrific scene where Conan, Valeria and Subotai plan their assault on Doom’s stronghold.  While Bergman and Lopez have all the dialog, Schwarzenegger says far more than they do in the way he’s sharpening his sword.  And even though Schwarzenegger gets a lot of mocking for his dialog and accent in this movie, I like it.  I mean, the guy does sound like a barbarian from pre-history.   In fact, I like it that 90% of the characters have accents in this movie as they do sound as if they come from another age rather than modern day Californians playing dress up.

The supporting cast is outstanding.  James Earl Jones infuses Thulsa Doom with enormous presence and a true sense of not being entirely human.  His henchmen, played by Sven-Ole Thorson and Ben Davison are suitably impressive.  Bergman and Lopez back up Schwarzenegger well and create their own characters in some really wonderful intimate moments such as the one where Subotai tells the wizard Akiro (Mako) that since Conan, as a Cimmerian will not cry to show grief, Subotai must do it for him.  Mako contributes comedy relief without being buffoonish or degrading his own character.  But that’s to be expected because Mako is epic in everything he does.

And speaking of epic, the musical score by Basil Poledouris has become respected as one of the finest musical scores ever and rightly so.  A large part of the enjoyment of watching CONAN THE BARBARIAN comes from the sheer power of the score.  Poledouris also has done the scores for “Quigley Down Under” and “Lonesome Dove” that are easily as epic as the one for this movie.

So should you see CONAN THE BARBARIAN? No doubt you already have.  It’s one of those movies that everybody and their mother has seen, it seems.  Even chicks who normally shun this type of movie like it was the Ebola virus have seen CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  It’s violent, it’s raw, it’s sexy, and it’s fun.   There’s an excellent reason why CONAN THE BARBARIAN is rightly regarded as a classic.  It truly is inspired by the spirit of Robert E. Howard in a way that the recent remake never even comes close to.  If you’ve seen it, what the hell…watch it again.  And if you haven’t, I envy you discovering it for the first time.  Enjoy.

129 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/RkYoIU-uRy0

King Kong (2005)

2005

Universal Pictures

Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson

Directed by Peter Jackson

Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

Friends of mine will often ask me how I feel about remakes of movies.  They’re actually surprised when I say that I honestly don’t mind when movies are remade.  Broadway does remakes all the time.  Except they call them revivals and they’re usually greeted with open arms and much love. They expose a whole new generation of theatergoers to the experience of seeing classic musicals performed live on stage.  So why not do new versions of classic movies?  Either people will go see it or they won’t.  And if the writers, producers, actors and crew treat the source material with respect and stay true to the spirit of the original, that will be apparent to those fans of the original and even though they love the original to death, they will embrace the remake for what it is.

What I do object to however are lousy remakes that do a disservice to the original film or remakes of movies that actually don’t need to be remade.  The classic 1933 “King Kong” is a perfect example of a movie that was done a disservice when it was remade in 1976.  It took Jessica Lange’s career five years to recover from that bomb (she wouldn’t get a decent break until she co-starred with Jack Nicholson in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and poor Jeff Bridges fared even worse.  The next five movies in a row he did flopped miserably (including Michael Cimino’s horribly underrated  “Heaven’s Gate”) and he really didn’t bounce back until 1982’s “Tron” As for the director of 1976’s “King Kong”…well, you tell me…when was the last time you went to a movie that was directed by John Guillermin?

However, when it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to direct a new version of “King Kong” just about everybody who is a fan of the original sat back and sighed in relief.  Like Ray Harryhausen, George Lucas, George Romero, and Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson had proven he was able to employ the medium of film in such a way that he created an entire universe on screen and for the running time of his films, he transported us to a completely other reality and made us believe it existed.   And that’s exactly what he does to me with his version of KING KONG.

It’s 1933 and the country is in the grip of The Great Depression.  But even though breadlines are plentiful and work is scarce, people still crave their entertainment.  Either through vaudeville or the movies.  Which is what brings together struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and maverick director Carl Denham (Jack Black) Denham needs an actress quick for his new movie which he’s shooting on location.  Ann’s not too sure as Denham is sorta reluctant to specify where they’re going but he promises riches, adventures and a chance for Ann to work with the writer Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody) who she idolizes.

It isn’t until Ann and Jack are aboard the tramp steamer Venture, captained by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschemann) and crewed by a rag-tag gang of sailor/mercenaries that everybody realizes they’ve been conned by Denham into this expedition to an island that may not exist.  Denham insists he has a map.  And the map does lead them to an island.  And what an island it is.   A time-lost island on which a towering stone wall is decorated by skeletons and guarded by a vicious, savage tribe that worships a god they call…Kong.  Ann is kidnapped by these savages and offered up as a sacrifice to Kong who is a 25-foot gorilla.  He takes Ann into the jungle where he is pursued by Jack, a camera-toting Denham, square–jawed leading man and movie idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and the sailors of the Venture, determined to save her from her fate worse than death.  I give them guys credit.  What they go through on Skull Island would have Indiana Jones pissing in his pants.  Skull Island is a Lost World That Time Forgot of prehistoric creatures that shouldn’t exist.  There are Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Brontosaurus, insects that can eat a case of Raid for dinner and have your head for dessert.  Leeches the size of Buicks.  Vampire bats big enough to bring down fighter jets.  And that’s just the beginning.

Our hardy band of adventurers manages to survive the island’s many dangers, rescue Ann and is barely able to subdue and capture Kong.  They take him back to New York where Carl Denham puts him on exhibition in a Times Square theatre.  You know the rest of the story.

KING KONG is really a superior example of what can be done with such fantastic material when it’s treated with respect for its own reality.  Peter Jackson had the good sense to set the movie in period (1933 was the actual year the original “King Kong” was made) since it’s a lot easier to believe that there could be a Skull Island in 1933. The 1930’s was such a rich period of high adventure that when you see hard-bitten guys stalking through a dinosaur infested jungle with cigars in their clenched teeth, flasks of whiskey in the hip pockets and toting Chicago Typewriters, you just buy it with no reservation.

The performances are stellar.  I’ve never been much of a Jack Black fan but I really enjoyed him in this movie.  He has nowhere near the energy of the original Carl Denham, (the late great Robert Armstrong) but he has a strange look in his eye that I think develops into full-blown madness during the movie’s most frightening scene where Denham, Jack Driscoll and several crewmen are at the bottom of a deep crevice and have to desperately battle for their lives against giant insects.  The choice of Jack Black and Adrian Brody as the movie’s leading men is a good one since both of them look like….well, like regular guys.  They’re not impossibly handsome or pretty (I’m looking at you, Orlando Bloom) and that goes a long way with me to lending realism to their characters.   As Ann Darrow, Naomi Watts has to carry a lot of the movie on her shoulders since she interacts with Kong more than any other character in the movie and she pulls it off superbly.  There’s a terrific scene where she goes into her vaudeville act to amuse Kong and amazingly, the big ape enjoys the show.  And for me the most spectacular action sequence in the movie is the ultimate giant monster smack down where Kong proves exactly why he’s King when he takes on not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurus Rexes in a truly epic showdown of colossal proportions.

Chances are most of you reading this have already seen KING KONG so I don’t have to sell you on it.  But if by chance you haven’t yet seen it, by all means put this one on your Netflix list or spring for the Blu-Ray.  KING KONG is a rare animal: a remake that is more than worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original.   It’s totally everything that I love about the movies.  Enjoy.

187 minutes

Rated PG-13

Silverado

1985

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by
Lawrence and Mark Kasdan
Written by Lawrence and Mark Kasdan

I absolutely love Westerns. Much as I love most genres of movies, if you gave me a choice between say, a Science Fiction and a Western or a 1940’s Murder Mystery and a Western or a Woody Allen comedy and a Western, 9 times out of ten I’ll take the Western. It’s a genre I grew up watching mainly because my parents were also in love with Westerns and one of my favorite childhood memories is when my father took me out to dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant and then we went to see “The Wild Bunch” And my personal list of My Favorite Ten Movies Of All Time includes not only “The Wild Bunch” but also “Once Upon A Time In The West” which I think is the greatest Western ever made.

By 1985, the Western was a dead genre as far as major theatrical films were concerned. Only Clint Eastwood has the necessary clout to get a Western made back then and nobody even wanted to take a try at one except for an ambitious writer/director named Lawrence Kasdan who was riding a wave of good fortune due to his screenplays for “Raiders of The Lost Ark” “The Empire Strikes Back” “The Return of The Jedi” and a couple of box office smash hits he wrote and directed: “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill”

Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark were major Western fans since they were kids and really wanted to make one.   Lawrence used every bit of clout he had to get the film approved and I’m glad he did because SILVERADO is a magnificently huge Super Western that looks, feels and sounds as if it had been made back in the great heyday of Westerns when guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks were doing their thing. The story is one that I’m pretty sure has every convention and set piece you can think of in a western: gunslingers, barroom brawls, homesteaders being run off their land, sneaky gamblers with derringers up their sleeves, crooked sheriffs, saloons, cattle stampedes, wagon trains, pretty widow ladies, outlaw hideouts, evil cattle barons, gunfights on Main Street at high noon.  The only thing lacking in SILVERADO is an Indian uprising but I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Kasdan could have found a way, he’d have had that in there as well.

Emmett (Scott Glenn) is making his way home after spending five years in prison for killing a man in self-defense. After successfully fighting off an ambush by four desperados trying to kill him, he meets up with Paden (Kevin Kline) who was robbed of his horse, ivory-handled guns, stylish all-black outfit complete with beloved silver banded hat and left to die in the desert. The two men hook up and after making a pit stop at an Army fort where Paden gets back his horse and runs into a pair of old buddies, Cobb (Brian Dennehy) and the psychotic Tyree (Jeff Fahey).  From there they go onto the town of Turley where Emmett’s goofy kid brother Jake (Kevin Costner) is going to be hanged come the morning. They take time to help keep Mal (Danny Glover) out of Sheriff Langston’s (John Cleese) jail and after Emmett and Paden bust Jake out of jail Mal returns the favor by using his sharpshooting skills with a Henry rifle to chase Sheriff Langston back to town.

The four heroes then proceed to have a wild series of adventures that include rescuing a wagon train of homesteaders stranded in the wilderness and taking on a band of thieves who have stolen the life savings of the wagon train. Mind you, all this happens before we’ve even gotten to the town of Silverado, which is being controlled by the ruthless cattle baron Ethan MacKendrick (Ray Baker) who has hired Paden’s old pal Cobb to be Silverado’s Sheriff. Cobb is harassing the homesteaders to leave and if they don’t they’re burned out and killed, like Mal’s parents. It isn’t long before the four friends are pulled apart by their own separate conflicts and loyalties but soon come to realize that if there is to be any justice in Silverado, they are the ones who will have to join back together and make it.

Now that’s the bare bones of the story but there’s a helluva lot of subplots going on because this is a mollyfoggin’ huge cast Kasdan is working with and each of his four leads are just that. They’re all leading men and Kasdan treats them that way.  Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are all treated as equals in terms of skill, courage and respect. And each of the four leads have more than enough screen time to explore their motivations for having a stake in the future of Silverado.

Emmett and Jake have a sister; brother-in-law and a nephew who thinks his gunslinging uncles are just the coolest. Mal’s parents were homesteaders who were run off their land and murdered while his sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has willingly become a prostitute in town, hooked up with the local gambler, Slick Calvin Stanhope (Jeff Goldblum). Paden is torn between his loyalties toward his old friend Cobb and the wild life he used to lead and his new friends who are men of honor and respect.  His growing friendship for Stella The Midnight Star (Linda Hunt), Cobb’s partner in the town’s largest saloon and prostitution emporium is also a large factor in his eventual decision.

And both Paden and Emmett have a stake in what happens to the homesteaders as they’re both attracted to the extremely pretty and recently widowed Hannah (Roseanne Arquette) who likes the both of them a whole lot and is grateful to them but makes it perfectly clear that men who tell her she’s pretty come along every day. She’s looking for a man willing to help her work the land, make things grow and build a stable life.

Like I said, you would think that with this many subplots, characters and settings that SILVERADO would be a confused mess but nothing could be further from the truth.  The first half of the movie is a road trip in which we’re introduced to most of the characters so that by the time the wagon train, along with Emmett, Jake, Paden and Mal arrives in Silverado, we already feel as if we’ve been on the trail with these guys and feel comfortable with what’s going on. And once they reach the town itself, the rest of the characters are integrated smoothly into what we already know. It’s a remarkable job of writing and directing that shows that you can have a large cast and multiple storylines and not have the movie feel crowded or rushed.

The acting in this movie is top-notch. I don’t think I can remember right now a movie with this large a cast who were all so good. Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline are at the top of the list with performances that I believe they based on Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn, both of who made more than their share of notable westerns. Kevin Costner’s Jake is a goofy daredevil who is the best horseman and gunman out the four but who tends to get into trouble for kissing the wrong girls. Danny Glover’s Mal is not portrayed here as a sidekick to his three white co-stars but is a hero in his own right and I really liked his scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jake and in those few scenes they had a real rapport together that made me wish they had a few more together.

Now you all know how I love movies that have bad guys who love being bad and this movie is chock fulla them, led by Brian Dennehy’s Cobb who goes through the whole movie grinning from ear to ear behind a bristling white beard. The secret to any good bad guy is this: he doesn’t think he’s the bad guy and Brian Dennehy must understand that because Cobb is extremely likeable. Sure he burns out innocent families and kidnaps kids and murders without a second thought but he’s just such a damn nice guy while he’s doing it.

Jeff Goldblum is a real surprise. As the gambler Slick he is dashingly elegant and even though he has only a few scenes he makes ‘em work. Linda Hunt as Stella absolutely steals every scene she’s in and the relationship between her character and Kevin Kline’s is really sweet and feels genuine.  Who else is good? Joe Seneca. Earl Hindman. Pepe Serna. Brion James. James Gammon. And that beautiful musical score by Bruce Broughton is just perfect.

If you’ve seen SILVERADO then you’re probably a fan of it and if you aren’t, I urge you to go back and see it again in a new light. It’s the Western I recommend to people who claim they don’t like Westerns and after they see it most of ‘em come back to me and say that, yeah, they liked it a whole lot. Know why? Because at it’s heart SILVERADO is about four gun-slinging, hard-ridin’, two-fisted heroes riding from town to town having adventures and bringing justice to The Old West and if you can’t find it in your heart to like that then I’m sorry, amigo, you just ain’t got no heart.

127 min
Rated PG13

National Treasure

2004

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Jon Turtletaub
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Written by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv & Charles Segar (story)
Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley (screenplay)

I had heard a lot about NATIONAL TREASURE before I saw it. Friends of mine told me to see it because it reminded them of something that I might write. Roger Ebert just about called it an out-and-out rip off of “The DaVinci Code.”  Other people said it was boring, stupid, trite, a rip-off of this or that movie or character, mostly Indiana Jones or Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt

I saw it for myself and you know what was the most surprising thing to me about the movie was? That this was a Jerry Bruckheimer/Nicolas Cage collaboration that didn’t have any of the qualities that were evident in their other films together such as “Con Air” or “The Rock.” This is an action movie, yes. But when you compare it to what we call action movies today, it’s very modest. There is only one explosion, one car chase, one shootout and only one death and even that is due to the poor dumb bastard who gets killed making a wrong step. NATIONAL TREASURE is a movie that plays as if Cage and Bruckheimer had sat down and said: “let’s do an action movie that’s totally different from the action movies we’ve done before.” and in doing so, they’ve given today’s audience what amounts to an updated version of my beloved pulp adventure serials from the 1930’s/1940’s.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) has spent his entire life looking for a treasure that has passed from Emperors to Kings to Pharaohs and finally to The Founding Fathers of The American Government. The treasure has grown to such enormous wealth that supposedly it’s “too large for any one man or nation to own” and The Knights Templars protected it in Europe for hundreds of years until it was moved to America along with The Knights Templar who became The Freemasons. The Freemasons counted among their members such notable Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin who left clues scattered among the various works they left behind as to where this fabulously immense treasure could be found.

Gates has discovered that the map to where the National Treasure is located is on the back of The Declaration of Independence. What is unfortunate is that he can’t get anybody to believe him, especially The FBI or Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who is a curator at The National Archives. When Gates tells her about the invisible map that is on the back of The Declaration of Independence and has been there for hundreds of years undetected she asks him quite seriously: “Who wrote it there? Bigfoot?”

Gates doesn’t have much time to try and change the minds of the FBI or Dr. Chase since his former partner Ian Howe has double-crossed him and intends to steal The Declaration and find the treasure. Gates decides that the only thing to do is steal The Declaration of Independence himself with the help of his brilliant tech-savvy sidekick Riley Poole and find the treasure before Ian does.

NATIONAL TREASURE has a lot going for it in the way it handles the characters and the motivations behind what they’re doing. Gates is not a treasure seeker in the conventional sense and indeed, he keeps telling people that he’s a ‘treasure protector’. He’s looking for the National Treasure to vindicate his family name since The Gates Family are looked upon as crackpots by the historical/archeological community for believing that the treasure is real. And he’s got a diverse and interesting background as shown by a scene where the FBI Agent assigned to catch Gates (played by Harvey Keitel) reads Gates’ file. Gates has degrees in a whole bunch of eclectic, eccentric academic fields, which leads Keitel to muse; “I wonder just what this guy wanted to be when he grew up.”  In fact, just seeing Harvey Keitel in a Walt Disney movie is reason enough to watch NATIONAL TREASURE.

And the relationship between Gates and his rival Ian is interesting as well. For once, the bad guy in a movie isn’t a bloodthirsty maniac out to kill everybody in his way. In fact, Ian tries to go out of his way not to kill anybody because as he sensibly explains to one of his gun happy henchmen: “The authorities tend to want to find out why dead bodies have bullets in them and who put them there.” As a matter of fact, NATIONAL TREASURE is one of the few action/adventure movies I’ve seen where the bad guy actually has good reasons for why he doesn’t kill the hero when he has a chance to, especially in a scene near the end where Ian leaves Gates and his sidekicks alive in a secret tomb underneath New York’s Wall Street. It surprised me and that’s not easy for movies nowadays to do.

I liked a lot of the performances here. Nicholas Cage looks more at home playing Benjamin Franklin Gates than any of the other characters in his other action movies he’s done with Bruckheimer and maybe that’s because Gates isn’t an Indiana Jones, despite what you may have read or heard. Gates isn’t a super martial artist or expert gunman or daredevil adventurer. He’s an historian searching for vindication of his family’s dream and he plays it that way. When he’s confronted with bad guys brandishing automatic weapons he runs like his ass is on fire and he only stops to fight when he has no other way out. What makes him dangerous is his brainpower: he sees connections and can make them faster than anybody else and he’s smart enough to know that about himself and use it to his advantage.

Sean Bean is absolutely great as Cage’s rival in the race for the treasure and you get the sense that a lot of the reasons why he doesn’t kill Gates is that he really admires and respects Gates’ knowledge and resourcefulness. Jon Voigt has a lot more to do here as Patrick Henry Gates, the father of Cage’s character than he had to do as Lara Croft’s father in “Tomb Raider” and the relationship they have here in this movie will remind you of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.” Justin Bartha as Riley Poole is one of the best sidekicks I’ve seen in recent moves and he has a wonderful scene where he gets to show that he knows more than Gates that proves just how much that a sidekick can enhance the hero’s character.

Now if you watch NATIONAL TREASURE, don’t expect to see an Indiana Jones type of cliffhanging-thrill a minute-claw-your-date’s-arm-type of movie. It’s more in the nature of a scavenger hunt and the fun comes from seeing Cage’s character and his sidekicks find the clues and piece them together.

Having said all that let me say that I recommend NATIONAL TREASURE wholeheartedly. I had an excellent time with the story and characters and I don’t even think you’ll miss the usual mayhem expected from a Bruckheimer/Cage action movie. Are there holes in the plot holes and flaws? Sure there are. Cage and his crew find a ship that has supposedly been buried in the Arctic ice for hundreds of years far too easily. And would gunpowder burn after being buried under the ice for that long a time? And there’s another scene later on where Cage and his crew just happen to be standing in the exact spot in the tower where The Liberty Bell is kept so that the shadow of the sun is cast at just the right moment so they can find another clue to the treasure. But by that time I had been so captivated by the performances and the sheer audacity of the story’s premise I was just watching and saying to the movie; “what the hell, let’s go.” And I suppose that’s the best way I can tell you to take your viewing of NATIONAL TREASURE: sit back in your seat with your soda, popcorn, candy and say: “what the hell, let’s go!.” We don’t have Saturday Morning Serials anymore but we do have movies like NATIONAL TREASURE to remind us of what they once were.

131 Minutes
Rated PG