Pulp

Avatar

2009

20th Century Fox/Lightstorm Entertainment

Written and Directed by James Cameron

Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau

I have to be honest and confess that I’m biased when it comes to James Cameron because he hasn’t yet made a movie I haven’t liked.  Which compared to a lot of other filmmakers isn’t a lot.  I mean, counting AVATAR he’s directed eight movies in thirty years.  We’ve got directors who have made thirty movies in eight years.  But James Cameron’s movies are all ‘event’ movies and he’s such a meticulous director/writer that he’s in no rush to make a movie just to make a movie.  He makes movies that are entire worlds that draw us in and engage us totally and completely into what is happening on the screen.  Twenty minutes into AVATAR I completely forgot I was looking at SFX and CGI characters and digital sets.  That’s how immersed into the story and characters I was.  And I attribute that to the genius of James Cameron.  Unlike directors like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich he knows how to spend half a billion bucks on a movie that makes me feel like I haven’t wasted my money or more importantly, my time.

The planet Pandora is extraordinarily hostile to human beings.  Even the air is toxic and it seems like every animal on the planet is out to eat every other animal.  Pandora also is rich with the mineral unobtanium which is being mined by a corporation that is never named but I’d be willing to bet my ‘Alien’ DVD it’s Weyland-Yutani. The use of unobtanium made me laugh as that fictional element has a very long history in science fiction.  Since seeing this movie I’ve heard from so-called science fiction fans complaining about how corny the name unobtanium is and that a name that sounded more realistic should have been used.  Which immediately told me that these ‘fans’ weren’t as knowledgeable about sci-fi as they thought they were.   The corporation has recruited an army of mercenaries as security to protect the workers from the many dangerous life-forms. Pandora is also inhabited by the Na’vi.  An azure-skinned, humanoid race, nine feet tall that live in a quasi-symbiotic relationship with the animals and the land.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has helped develop the Avatar Program. Avatars are Na’vi/Human clones bio-engineered to enable humans to interact with the Na’vi.  Humans are linked to their specific Avatars and control them while their human body sleeps.  This is particularly appealing to paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).  Jake is invited to join The Avatar Program due to his twin brother’s untimely death.  Since his DNA is identical to his brother’s, Jake can link with his Avatar.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Augustine but it works out just fine for Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who sees this as an opportunity to get valuable intelligence on the Na’vi.  Quaritch dangles the promise of surgery that will restore the full use of his legs to Jake.  And naturally Jake accepts the deal

Jake’s first time out in the bush in his Avatar ends up with him lost in the jungle which he is woefully unsuited to survive in, despite his Marine training.  Luckily for him he’s rescued by a Na’vi warrior woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who takes him back to her clan.  There are a couple of her clansmen who aren’t happy with this.  Her father Eytucan (Wes Studi) the leader of the clan and his heir, the clan’s best warrior Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonso) who’d cheerfully cut Jake’s throat if it wasn’t for the clan’s queen and spiritual leader Mo’at (CCH Pounder) who persuades her husband to let Jake stay and learn their ways while they learn more about him.  Neytiri is charged with teaching the outsider how to be a true Na’vi.  And she does a good job of it.  A really good job.  Maybe too good as it turns out.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front. You’ve probably heard that AVATAR is a big budget remake of “Dances With Wolves” in sci-fi drag and to an extent, it’s correct.  But I’ve seen plenty of other westerns about a white man going ‘native’ and adopting another culture.  There’s elements of “Lord Jim” and “The Last Samurai” and “The Mission” in here as well along with half a dozen other movies.

But AVATAR is told so well and the special effects are so magnificent that all that becomes unimportant.  James Cameron spends a considerable amount of time on the Na’vi way of life as seen through the eyes of Jake and we, along with him soon have a respect and fascination for their world and their relationship.  Sam Worthington really sells the movie, along with Sigourney Weaver; whose Avatar is so realistic and looks so much like her it’s almost creepy.

And any director who can make me like Michelle Rodriguez is okay in my book.  For once she’s not playing the perpetually pissed-off Latina and does some real acting here.  Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang aren’t served as well as the other actors by the screenplay.  Their characters are so one dimensional that right from their first scenes they’re gnashing their teeth, yelling “Crush!  Kill!  Destroy!”and planning to wipe out the Na’vi.  And that’s just about the same note they play through the whole movie.

And AVATAR makes the same mistake “Star Trek: Insurrection” made.  Remember how in that movie Starfleet wanted to remove a relatively small group of natives off their own world in order to exploit the anti-aging properties of the planet?  Now the big flaw in that thinking was this: why couldn’t everybody share the planet?  I mean, it’s a pretty big planet.  Lots of room for all, I should think.   In AVATAR, whenever Giovanni Ribisi started in about there being such a rich deposit of unobtanium under the sacred Hometree I asked myself why couldn’t the corporation find another deposit somewhere on the planet and spare everyone a lot of needless bloodshed and violence.  But James Cameron works so hard at making us hate the corporation and the mercenaries that angle is never explored.  And Cameron pounds the pro-environmental angle into our foreheads at every single opportunity in a not very subtle fashion.

Having said all that is AVATAR worth your time?  Sure it is.  It’s a James Cameron movie and once again he’s presented us a movie full of life, meticulous detail, astounding action sequences and exceptional acting.  Sure the story is pure 50’s science fiction pulp adventure but its 50’s science fiction pulp that makes us care about what we’re watching and that makes all the difference.

162 minutes

PG-13

Quigley Down Under

MGM
1990

Directed by Simon Wincer

Produced by Stanley O’Toole and Alexandra Rose

Written by John Hill

Original Music by Basil Poledouris

I think it’s really a damn shame that Tom Selleck never became as big a movie star as I think he solidly deserved to be. He got jerked out of playing Indiana Jones and despite whatever you may have heard from that friend of yours who knows all about movies or that other friend who claims he knows the “real story” Tom Selleck was the first choice of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones.

Tom Selleck has had a solid movie career, though and he did some really good stuff that I liked a lot. He got to do a couple of 1930’s adventure films such as “Lassiter” with Jane Seymour in which he played a cat burglar operating in London just before WWII and “High Road To China” where he played a boozy barnstorming pilot helping Bess Armstrong find her father who’s been kidnapped by a Chinese warlord. He also did more than his share of westerns and if your cable/satellite provider carries TNT then you know what I’m talking about. During the 90’s it seemed like every other week there was a new western starring Tom Selleck featured on that station. But he did one major feature western that has gone seriously unnoticed: QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER.

Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) is a cowboy/sharpshooter from America who travels to Australia with his trusty weapon: a modified 1847 Sharps Buffalo Rifle with which he can hit a man from 1200 yards away. That may not sound impressive but as a way of reference let’s put it this way: the modern football field is 100 yards long. You do the math. Quigley’s been hired by a wealthy and powerful landowner, Elliot Marston (Alan Rickman) for a job. He doesn’t say what the job is but he’ll pay Quigley 50 dollars in gold just to make the three-month trip to his ranch just to hear him out. Quigley finds Marston to be a refined gentleman obsessed with The American West. He even has a matched pair of Navy Colts that he’s become expert at using. Marston is also a sadistic racist who wants Quigley to use his sharpshooting skills to help in cutting down the Outback aborigines. Quigley’s response to this job offer is to kick Marston’s ass.

He would have been much better off just saying no and going on back home. He’s beaten half to death, taken out to the unforgiving Australia desert and dumped along with Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) a woman Quigley has befriended. For some reason Crazy Cora thinks that Quigley is her husband Roy and part of the fun of the movie is that we’re never sure exactly how crazy Crazy Cora really is as even Quigley says to her at one point: “The scary thing is that from time to time you actually make sense.” Quigley and Cora are rescued by aborigines and that sets up the second half of the movie as Quigley goes after Marston and in the process becomes a legend among the aborigines known as ‘The Spirit Warrior’. He also learns the tragic history of Crazy Cora and why she became crazy.

QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER is rarely mentioned when even western fans get together and I don’t know why. It’s got Tom Selleck who is one of the few modern actors who actually looks as if he belongs in The Old West. He’s a worthy successor to Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both of who would have slid into this role like you slide into your favorite jeans. He’s tough when he has to be in his scenes with Alan Rickman and tender in his scenes with Laura San Giacomo. Selleck has studied his westerns and he knows that in a role like this less is more. He says only what he has to say and no more. It’s a great old school performance.

Laura San Giacomo is totally terrific. She has to carry the load of being the only comic relief in the movie and she does it by creating a character that has us constantly wondering: “is she really crazy or just playing crazy?” Even covered in dirt she’s mad sexy and she has two really great scenes: one where she softly tells Quigley what happened to make her crazy and the other is where she spends a horrifying night defending an aborigine baby from a pack of dingos.

Alan Rickman is wonderful as Elliot Marston and if you expect to see him playing Hans Gruber In A Western, think again. Rickman’s too damn good for that. Marston’s a separate bad guy and he and Quigley make for wonderfully matched opponents. It helps that Rickman and Selleck look as if they’re having just as much fun going up against each other as Rickman and Willis did.

What else can I mention? Oh, yes…the simply magnificent score by Basil Poledouris. If you don’t know the work of this master then shame on you. And for QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER he composed one the most heroic, rousing scores I’ve ever heard for a movie. The location work is beautiful and really gives you a sense of how big Australia is. There’s a scene where Quigley has been already traveling four days to get to Marston’s and asks one of Marston’s men when will they get to his ranch and the man responds: “You’ve been on it for two days.” The look on Quigley’s face says it all. I would have liked to see more of the aborigine way of life but hey, the small bits we do see where they teach Quigley how to find water in the desert and how he teaches them how to lasso are fun and even charming.

So should you see QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER? I give thee a resounding “YES”. If you’re a fan of Tom Selleck in particular or westerns in general then you really ought to do yourself a favor and see this one. It’s got a solid story, some terrific action sequences and strong acting. QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER is a movie that belongs in the library of every movie fan.

PG-13
119 minutes

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

1985

Orion Pictures

Directed by Guy Hamilton

Produced by Larry Spiegel and Dick Clark

Screenplay by Christopher Wood

Based on “The Destroyer” created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

In the 1970’s there was a tremendous revival of pulp adventure heroes of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  And as a result the paperback racks in bookstores were stuffed with novels reprinting the adventures of such classic characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow, Conan The Barbarian, G-8 And His Battle Aces and The Spider.  They were helped along by breathtakingly beautiful covers done by legends of the art world such as James Bama, Jim Steranko and Frank Frazetta. And they sold like crack.  And it was like crack to the imagination of a high school student named Derrick Ferguson who spent his entire allowance on buying them and who spent his weekends devouring them voraciously and it was these pulps that shaped my writing ambitions and my style.

Publishers who saw this trend for pulp adventure jumped on the bandwagon and soon there was a whole army of modern day characters inspired by the pulps with their own series fighting for space on the racks with their forefathers.  Some of them were pretty poor, to be honest.  Some like Mack Bolan, The Executioner still survive to this day.  One of my favorites was The Inquisitor,  a hitman that worked for The Vatican.  He had to fast three days for every man he killed while on assignment and his confession was only heard by The Pope himself.  But the guy who really stood out and gained a rabid fan following that exists to this day is Remo Williams, The Master Of Sinanju who is the hero of “The Destroyer” series of novels which still enjoys life in paperbacks and was featured in the movie REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS which in the opinion of your humble reviewer is one of the unsung classics of pulp adventure movies.

A New York cop (Fred Ward) is catching a coffee break under The Brooklyn Bridge when he stumbles on what appears to be a random mugging.  He takes out the three muggers all by himself and while he’s calling for backup in his patrol car, it’s shoved into the East River and he’s presumed killed.  He wakes up in a hospital where he’s told by the sharply dressed Conn MacCleary (J.A. Preston) that he’s been handpicked to be the enforcement arm of a secret organization called CURE.  “Why CURE?” The cop asks.  Cleary answers; “because this country has a disease and we’re the cure.  You’re going to be the Thirteenth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Away With It.” Which I think should be the motto of just about every pulp hero.

MacCleary gives him his new name: Remo Williams and takes him to meet the head of the organization, one Harold Smith, who works in a dark sub-basement of The World Bank.  Smith tells him that CURE has only four members: MacCleary, Smith, Remo and the man who will train Remo: Chiun (Joel Grey) The current Master Of Sinanju, an ancient Korean who will teach Remo the art of Sinanju, which is the martial art from which all other martial arts such as karate, kung fu and ninjitsu was derived. CURE is an organization that is only known to The President of the United States and answers only to him.

Chiun is takes Remo under his wing as his student and informs him that The House of Sinanju has a long history of ‘perfect assassinations’.  As Chiun tells Remo in a scene that is hysterical to watch and listen to courtesy of Joel Grey’s utter seriousness and Fred Ward’s increasing disbelief, assassination is the highest form of public service.  The House of Sinanju is responsible for the deaths of such notable historical figures as Alexander The Great, Napoleon and Robin Hood.  All perfect assassinations carried out with such skill and grace that they appeared to be accidents or natural deaths.  Chiun begins training Remo for his job while Smith lines up his first job: an industrialist named George Grove (Charles Cioffi) who has been bilking the United States Army out of billions with a weapons systems called The Harp that doesn’t work.  Grove’s theft has come to attention of Major Rayner Fleming (Kate Mulgrew) who is making trouble for Grove and she’s targeted to be killed.  Smith assigns Remo Williams to protect Major Fleming and expose Grove’s evildoing.

REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES isn’t a movie that comes up very often when people discuss superhero or pulp inspired movies but it’s a movie that I highly recommend you seek out and watch.  Mainly for the performances of the always likeable and watchable Fred Ward (who would have been the perfect Rocky Davis if a ‘Challengers Of The Unknown’ movie had ever been made) and Joel Grey as Chiun.  Their relationship in the movie is what really sells this movie as it progresses from one of active hatred to respect and love to the point where Chiun calls Remo his son and Remo calls Chiun ‘Little Father” The training scenes are a lot of fun, especially the one where Chiun seeks to conquer Remo’s fear of heights by having him stand on the top of a moving car of Coney Island’s world famous Wonder Wheel while dodging the other moving cars.  The scene is helped tremendously by the fact that it’s obviously Fred Ward doing his stunts and it’s nail-bitingly suspenseful as well as hilarious, once again courtesy of Joel Grey’s comments.

In fact, Joel Grey effortlessly steals the movie as Chiun.  He creates a wonderfully eccentric character that is as wise and as badass as Master Yoda.  But a whole lot funnier.  Chiun is capable of taking out an army of fully armed men barehanded but he’s also addicted to soap operas which he considers to be the highest artistic achievement of American culture.  One of the best scenes in the movie is when he is forced to tell Remo that if Remo fails in his assignment to take out Grove that Chiun will have to kill Remo.  The scene is done with a degree of feeling and sheer acting power that lifts it out of what could have been a run of the mill action movie and approaches real heart.  It’s a terrific scene.  It’s also helped by the music which is done by Craig Safan and it is absolutely one the best music soundtracks ever done for a movie.  The theme music is guaranteed to get your heart pumping.

The only let down of the movie is the bad guy.  Charles Cioffi’s George Grove really isn’t much of a villain and he’s not much of a threat.  The fact that he’s stealing billions of money from the US Government reduces Remo to not much more than a high level collection agent and Grove’s crew of henchmen aren’t on the level of James Bond style enforcers such as Oddjob or Jaws which is what the movie really needs to give Remo a real threat.  But the performances are what really sell this movie, especially those of a pre ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Kate Mulgrew, Fred Ward and Joel Grey.  Joel Grey won two awards for his role in this movie:  One from The Golden Globes and one from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films and he deserved them both.

So should you see REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS?  You get an enthusiastic Hell Yes from me.  It’s a lost classic that needs to be seen by lovers of the pulps.  It’s modern day pulp all the way and it’s done with style, class and a love of the genre.  It should be seen just for the terrific performances of Fred Ward and Joel Grey is nothing else.  It’s a great Saturday afternoon movie.  Enjoy with my blessings.

121 minutes

Rated PG-13

Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow

2004
Paramount

Produced by Jon Avnet
Written And Directed by Kerry Conran

In doing my research prior to writing this review I discovered that Kerry Conran originally wanted to do this movie with unknown actors and break it up into ‘chapters’ and present it as if it were a lost serial from the 1930’s that had recently been discovered. I would really have liked to see that version of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW since I think he could have pulled it off. As anybody who’s read my work knows, I’m a full out geek when it comes to the blood and thunder pulps of the 1930’s and 1940’s and Saturday morning serials and 90% of my work is written in the tradition of the pulps. As I watched SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW I realized that I had a spiritual brother in Kerry Conran. I don’t often recommend that people see a movie just for the way it looks but SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is one of those movies. It’s an out-of-body experience that truly takes you into another world and despite what I think are some flaws that prevent it from being quite as good as such great pulp inspired films such as The Indiana Jones movies “The Rocketeer” “The Phantom” and “Buckaroo Banzai” it’s an astounding adventure movie that proves what I’ve been saying for years: pulp action adventure is alive and well and if presented in the right way, people will eat it up.

The look of the movie is achieved through the means of almost total CGI. Except for the actors, their costumes and some of the sets, nearly everything else is a digital creation and the results are simply astounding in evoking a 1939 that only existed in the pages of pulp magazines and serials and could only be realized now. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the best way to visualize a world of the past is by means of a futuristic technology but it works. Boy, does it ever work.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW takes place in an alternate Earth where the Second World War has obviously never happened. We can tell that right from the beautiful opening sequence where The Hindenburg III docks at The Empire State Building. That huge tower on the top was designed exactly for that purpose in our reality but after it was built it was discovered that the high winds would make dirigibles move around too much and make it impossible for passengers to disembark. But in this world they’ve obviously overcome that problem. Aboard The Hindenburg is Dr. Vargas (Julian Curry) who is on the run from sinister forces who have been kidnapping the world’s leading scientists and he’s next on the list.

He’s come to New York to warn his colleague, Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) who in turn contacts the crack reporter of The New York Chronicle, the wonderfully named Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and informs her that he was once a member of a mysterious group known as Unit 11 who worked for a Doctor Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Oliver in archival footage) on projects that were “too horrible to speak of” It’s during their meeting that New York is attacked by an army of giant flying robots that proceed to steal the city’s generators. There’s only one chance for the city to survive and the call goes out for Joe Sullivan aka Sky Captain (Jude Law) to come and save the day in his customized, pimped-out P-40 Warhawk which he does in a breathtaking sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Turns out that Sky Captain is the only hope to find out where these giant robots are coming from and why they’re attacking cities all over the entire world for their generators. Sky Captain is ably backed up by his own private army and his faithful sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) who judging from his speech patterns and technological genius must be an ancestor of Stark Trek’s Mr. Spock. Polly insists on going along the adventure and it turns out that she and Sky Captain had a wild romance in the past that resulted in her sabotaging his beloved plane.   That led to him being held in a prison for six months so there’s a certain amount of friction there that leads to some entertaining banter between the two as they go off on a world-wide quest for Tontenkopf’s secret base to stop his mad schemes. They’re followed by The Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) who is Totenkopf’s enforcer and seeks to stop them. Along the way Sky Captain and Polly get the help of Franky (Angelina Jolie) the eye patch wearing commander of a fleet of aerial aircraft carriers and they assault Dr. Totenkopf’s island fortress in a last ditch effort to save the world.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is a great movie for those of us who love the pulps and those of us who have no idea of what the pulps were and want to know. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie do an absolutely bang-up job in their roles and considering they were working on sets where they had to imagine what they were seeing, they do a great job. I really liked Angelina Jolie’s work in this movie and I bet if you ask her she’d admit that she’s a fan of Jim Steranko’s “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” since her role is practically a 1930’s female version of that character. There’s a fantastic scene where she and her squadron of ace pilots dive into the ocean and we see that their planes can also become submarine fighters that had me jumping up and hollaring like a maniac. And I won’t even tell you the scene that happens after that when she has to take out a giant robotic crab monster protecting Totenkopf’s island.

But SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW does have some major flaws. First is that even though Sky Captain is the hero he never has a real enemy to face off with. Dr. Totenkopf is played by Sir Laurence Oliver who died before the movie was made and so only appears either in footage that has been CGI’ed. And The Mysterious Woman looks as if she might be a formidable enemy but she and Sky Captain never have a real emotional or physical conflict. Near the end of the movie, The Mysterious Woman and Sky Captain square off in a battle that looks as if we’re going to get some real ass-kicking action but it doesn’t happen. It’s resolved in a manner that had me saying; “That’s IT?!”

Another thing that had me puzzling over is that early in the movie it’s said that the nations of the world have to rely on Sky Captain and his private army to find Totenkopf since their armies are engaged in other conflicts. Well, if in this world there’s no World War II then what conflict is going on that would prevent the world powers from sending their armies after Totenkopf? And I also didn’t like how near the end where Sky Captain and Polly have been busting their asses to save Dex for nearly 30 minutes of the movie’s running time Dex shows up to save them and he explains how he escaped in an unconvincing offhanded manner.

And the movie doesn’t have the headlong adrenaline rush of the Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom”. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong but I have the feeling that the director is more in love with getting the look and feel of the movie right more than the action elements.  But when we do get action, it’s worth the wait. You just can’t beat the scene in New York with Sky Captain fighting the robots and that simply incredible underwater scene with the amphibious planes. Stuff like that is what a pulp fan like me lives for and I certainly got it. But there’s a curious lack of headlong action that doesn’t carry you along in a rush that I attribute to the director. Kerry Conran is good, yeah, but he’s not a major action direction who could have torn up the screen with material like this.

The performances in the movie are also worth mentioning. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW was part of the Jude Law Film Festival of 2004 where it seemed as if every other movie that hit the screens that year starred Jude Law. He’s really good in this one as he plays it absolutely straight. His daredevil pilot Joe Sullivan would have been right at home in a Howard Hawkes movie like “Only Angels Have Wings” and I loved how during the underwater fight scene Angelina Jolie grins like a kid on Christmas while wearing a helmet I’m positive was inspired by Wally Wood.

So should you see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW? Without a doubt. It’s an excellent movie simply on a technical level in that it brings to life a world of pure pulp adventure. I would advise you to see The Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom” if you want to know what the action and energy of the pulps and Saturday Morning serials felt like but see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW if you want to know what the pulps and Saturday morning serials looked like.

106 minutes
Rated PG

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

2001

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Produced by Don Hahn
Associate Producer: Kendra Holland
Written by Tab Murphy, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Kirk Wise, Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel

I remember reading a bunch of articles in various movie magazines such as Cinescape and Cinefantasque a couple of months before ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE hit movie theatres.  Most of the articles were gushing on and on about the producers hiring the same linguist who created the Klingon language for Star Trek to create an Atlantean language for the movie. Now, you have to wonder why the producers went to all that trouble since the Atlantean language is heard on screen for maybe 30 seconds and written Atlantean is hardly seen.  And in any case, the main character translates it for the rest of the characters (and thereby for us, the audience as well), so what’s the point of going to all the trouble to invent a new language? After seeing ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, I figured it out: the producers had to do something to justify the incredibly thin and tired story. After spending all that money on a brand new language and the animation, they probably didn’t have much left over to pay one good writer. Which may explain why there are six credited writers: my guess is that they were so bored with trying to write this story that they just passed the script around in a sort of round robin: whenever someone got tired of writing, they just passed it on to the next poor sucker in line.

Milo Thatch is the grandson of the great archeologist Thaddeus Thatch and the old man has passed down his dream of finding Atlantis to Milo. However, Milo is stuck working as a janitor, frustrated beyond words because he can’t get anyone to believe his theory and finance an expedition. Maybe the fact that he has absolutely no evidence that Atlantis exists has something to do with it. And one day, outta nowhere, with no forewarning or setup, this crazy old millionaire shows up and drops into Milo’s lap a book that shows him where Atlantis is and has even built a submarine and hired a crew to help Milo find the Lost Empire. Now there are so many things wrong here that I audibly groaned when I saw this scene. But I digress….let’s just simply go on ahead with the rest of the story, okay?

Milo meets Commander Rourke and his second-in-command, the beautiful and calculating Helga and a colorful assortment of multi-national specialists in various fields (doctor, communications expert, demolitionist, etc) that made me sit up and pay attention for a while since I thought that they were going to be a crew of goofy, eccentric but supremely skilled and capable sidekicks like Doc Savage’s Amazing Five or Buckaroo Banzai’s Hong Kong Cavaliers. No such luck. They’re on board mostly for comic relief, except for the black doctor and Latina teenage mechanic who actually have interesting back-stories.

They get on board this way cool submarine that looks like a 19th Century prototype of The Seaview from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and find Atlantis in record time, losing most of the crew and the way cool sub and from there the movie continues on a limp and predictable path as Milo finds that Commander Rourke and his crew are really out to steal the magnificent giant crystal that powers Atlantis. And I’m not giving anything away here because almost right from the first time we meet Rourke he’s whispering in ominous asides to Helga and we’re shown mysterious crates full of oversized guns being loaded on board the sub. And so Milo has to appeal to the better nature of the mercenaries to get them to change sides and help him save Atlantis from Rourke.

The animation is absolutely spectacular, especially the opening sequences where we see Atlantis sink and the ending, which is a terrific action sequence, but that’s all I can recommend in  ATLANTIS:THE LOST EMPIRE. At 95 minutes, it zips by in a bewildering daze. Atlantis is found in the first half-hour of the movie and there is absolutely no time to get to know the secondary characters and/or their motivations. In a desperate attempt to give the characters some dimension, the filmmakers stick in a scene where the characters sit around a campfire and actually tell Milo their back-stories. But by then, it’s too late. I wasn’t interested in what happened to any of these characters and was only in it for the eye candy of the outstanding animation work.

And it’s a shame because the voice work is also quite good. There’s a real problem when the bad guy of a movie is more charismatic and appealing than the good guy, but that’s what happens here. James Garner does such a good job as Rourke that I found myself hoping he’d pitch Milo off a cliff and actually get away with stealing the crystal. Michael J. Fox is his usual energetic self as Milo. Leonard Nimoy voices The Atlantean King and there’s other familiar voices such as Cree Summer, Phil Morris, John Mahoney, Claudia Christian, Jim Varney and Don Novello all of who no doubt jumped at the chance to collect a nice voiceover check while waiting for a live action movie or TV show guest spot.

It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE and I realize that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I have a hard time believing that even kids would find this material exciting or thrilling.  And let’s face it…you don’t blow up a way cool sub like that in the first 30 minutes of your movie…any kid will tell you that.  And there’s just too much metaphysical New Age mumbo-jumbo involving crystals and mysterious life-force energies and all kinds of mystical double-talk that does nothing but try to make you think that there’s something going on here. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE could have been a smashing Edgar Rice Burroughs/Jules Verne type of adventure and all the right elements are there. My advice to the producers is: next time, forget about creating new languages and tell a good adventure story.  My advice is to go Netflix George Pal’s “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” if you want to see a really good movie about Atlantis.

95 minutes
Rated PG and that’s a stretch. I’d have given it an outright G.

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea

1961

20th Century Fox

Directed and Produced by Irwin Allen

Written by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett

 

Not too long ago I was in a discussion with some friends who asked me if I had a chance to remake any movie with today’s special effects, which one would I do.  My answer with no hesitation was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.

Don’t ask me why this movie holds such a place in my movie going heart but every single time it’s shown on Turner Classic Movies, I stop what I’m doing and watch it.  What’s even stranger is that I really didn’t care for the TV show that was based on the movie and rarely watched it but the movie…I guess it’s because I first watched it when I was a kid and I can still get in touch with that 12 year old who saw the movie for the first time and who sat there totally hypnotized by the story, characters and action.

After we get past the theme song sung by then teenage idol Frankie Avalon (the 60’s version of Clay Aiken) we see our first view of the magnificent futuristic supersub Seaview as it leaps out of the water like a dolphin.  Next to Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, The Seaview is probably the most famous fictional submarine you know.  It’s sleek as a rocket with a unique transparent nose that is part of the observation deck where you can see the marvels of undersea life.  The Seaview is the brainchild of Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) a brilliant, eccentric and arrogant (is there really any other kind in the movies?) scientist who is the founder of The Nelson Institute of Oceanographic Research and he’s taken The Seaview on a test run in the Arctic.  Among those aboard The Seaview is the sub’s captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) The Admiral’s personal assistant Lt. Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden), Nelson’s longtime friend Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) Captain Crane’s right hand man Lt. Danny Romano (Frankie Avalon) as well as Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine) who is observing the effects of long term undersea stress on the crew.  Nelson’s sub has been considered a folly but the Arctic tests have proven the sub’s capabilities.: It’s not only the fastest sub ever built but it can dive deeper than any other sub.  It carries more destructive capabilities than all the explosive power used during World War II and it has enough laboratories on board to qualify as a mobile research facility.

Nelson is deliriously happy with the results of the tests and is relishing in his sub having proven its worth.  But then, during some underwater tests, icebergs batter The Seaview and the sub surfaces to find the entire sky is on fire. In a spookily surrealistic scene, Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane see massive icebergs smoking due to their melting from the intensive heat.  Nelson contacts Washington and finds out that the Van Allen Belt of radiation surrounding the earth has been ignited by a rogue comet and the temperature of the Earth is rising.   He’s ordered to The United Nations where the world’s leading scientists are meeting to try and find a solution.  The Seaview makes it from the Arctic to New York in two days (told you it was a fast sub) and Nelson presents his solution:  he thinks that if The Seaview can fire a nuclear missile from The Marianas Trench at just the right angle at just the right time on just the right day, the nuclear explosion will blow the Van Allen Belt out into space and kill the fire.  Nelson is violently opposed as the other scientists think the fire will burn itself out once it reaches a certain temperature.  The problem with this plan is that if Nelson doesn’t get to fire his missile and if his colleagues are wrong, there will no chance for another try and the temperature will keep rising and burn the Earth to a cinder.

Nelson and his crew have to fight their way out of The United Nations and back to The Seaview where Nelson orders Crane to head for The Marianas Trench.   His intention is to get in touch with The President of The United States to get authorization.  The radiation thrown off by the Van Allen belt makes this impossible and so Nelson decides to go ahead with his plan.  The problem is this: The Seaview has been declared rogue and every submarine in the world has orders to blow it out of the water.  So the intrepid crew of The Seaview not only have to make their deadline but they have to do it while dodging enemy submarines trying to stop them, a secret saboteur onboard, a giant squid, a lethal minefield and Nelson’s own arrogant stubbornness which leads his crew to near mutiny.  And what if Nelson is wrong?  Will his plan doom the Earth to certain destruction?

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA is plain good old-fashioned non-stop pulp adventure from start to finish.  There’s an amazing amount of good characterization provided by the actors, especially Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden and Joan Fontaine. The actors play it absolutely straight and even though the science in the movie is totally goofy, they sell it.   Michael Ansara is also aboard the sub as a man who The Seaview picks up on the Arctic ice and who believes that The Seaview should be stopped in it’s mission as he believes it’s God’s will that if the world should come to an end, Nelson shouldn’t prevent it.  They have a really good scene where Pigeon argues with Ansara that if God believes that that world should come to an end then why did God give man the intelligence and capabilities to try and prevent that end?  It’s a really tense scene that lifts the movie out of what could have been a cheesy standard sci-fi underwater adventure and gives it a little thought and philosophical substance.

The movie also has great suspense as even Lee Crane begins to doubt Admiral Nelson, who he looks on as a father and he’s torn between his love and respect for the Admiral and his concern for his men.  And to make things even worse there are signs that even the iron-willed Admiral Nelson might be cracking under the strain of trying to save the world.  And who is sabotaging The Seaview?  Is it Dr. Hiller who thinks that Nelson is suffering from stress?  Or is it the religious fanatic Alvarez (Michael Ansara)?  Or could it just be one of the crew who has begun to doubt Nelson?

The special effects are what you would expect from the 1960’s but they’re awfully effective, especially the attack by the giant squid but the truly terrifying scene where The Seaview has to navigate a mine field gets my vote as the real nail biter.  And the last fifteen minutes of the movie where Alvarez holds the control room of The Seaview hostage with a bomb and time is running out to fire the missile is just as good.

So should you see VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA?  Hell, yes.  Even though it was made back in the 60’s I really don’t think it’s dated as all in terms of story and acting.  It’s a terrifically entertaining Saturday Afternoon movie that wants nothing more than for you to sit back and be thrilled by the adventure on the screen.  It’s got action, suspense, one of the coolest submarines ever put on film and terrific performances by an old school cast that knows they’re making a B-movie and they’re gonna make a damn good one.  See it and I dare you to tell me VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA doesn’t deserve a “King Kong”style big-budget remake.

105 minutes

The Wrath of God

1972
MGM

Produced by William S. Gilmore
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Screenplay by Ralph Nelson and James Graham
Based on a novel by James Graham

Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a sub-genre of the western that had these elements: a group of American outlaws/mercenaries/rogues would find themselves in Mexico or South America at the turn of the century and get involved in what amounted to a suicide mission that circumstances forced them to accept. There’s usually a huge amount of money waiting for them at the end of the mission but during the course of the adventure the outlaws would find their long buried sense of justice and honor awakened and they would abandon the money to take up the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed peasantry. This is pretty much the plot of movies such as “The Wild Bunch” “The Professionals” “Duck, You Sucker” and “Vera Cruz” but I’ve never seen this plot worked in such a goofy and flat out off the wall manner as we see in THE WRATH OF GOD.

Emmett Keogh (Ken Hutchinson) is a wildass Irishman stuck in South America during the 1920’s. He’s blackmailed into driving a truck north by Jennings (Victor Buono) who tells him it’s a load of whiskey that will fetch a helluva price in the United States that is suffering under Prohibition. Since Jennings was the guy who arraigned for his passport to be stolen, Emmett has no choice to agree. Along the way he meets Father Oliver Van Horn (Robert Mitchum) who is one of the strangest priests that Emmett has ever met since Father Van Horn drinks liquor like it’s lemonade, swears like a Kansas City pimp and totes a huge black valise carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun. It’s a weapon that Father Van Horn knows as well as a monkey knows his coconuts which he demonstrates when Emmett and Father Van Horn have to rescue an Indian girl named Chela (Paula Pritchett) from being gang raped by the soldiers of Colonel Santilla (John Colicos) The two men are forced to go on the run with the girl in tow but they’re caught by Colonel Santilla’s troops and Emmett discovers that the truck actually carries guns meant for the rebels. Jennings has also been captured by Santilla and the three men are made an offer they can’t refuse: in return for their lives they have to agree to kill De La Plata (Frank Langella) a local rebel warlord who is causing Santilla a great deal of trouble.

Posing as mining engineers, Jennings and Emmett infiltrate De La Plata’s fortress-like hacienda while Van Horn takes up residence in the village church, which has been desecrated. It turns out that De Le Plata hates priests and personally killed the last one himself. Del La Plata’s mother (Rita Hayworth) begs her son not to kill this priest and De La Plata agrees not to since Van Horn saves his mother’s life when the local mine caves in. You see, the mine is filled with gold and De La Plata has terrorized the villagers into digging it out for him. But the mine is horribly unsafe and he needs the expertise of mining engineers to get it out. Of course, the three outlaws have to kill De La Plata before he figures out that Jennings and Emmett know as much about mining as I do about Chinese arithmetic. The situation is complicated by Emmett’s relationship with Chela who has fallen in love with him and Van Horn’s increasing desire to live up to the trust the villagers have in him as a priest. And while the outlaws have no loyalty to Santilla, they also see that living under De La Plata’s rule isn’t any day at the beach either. So they make a decision. And that’s when the story really takes off as Father Van Horn begins to conscript the villagers to stand up for themselves against De La Plata, Chela marries Emmett and Jennings makes plans to break outta Dodge and save his own ass.

You see? I told you it was goofy. What makes THE WRATH OF GOD so much fun to watch is that you never know where this damn movie is going to take you or what’s going to happen next. There’s a plot twist every five minutes and just when you think you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t. There are a lot of really funny one-liners thrown back and forth between the three leading men and from the amount of humor in the story you might think halfway through it that it’s a spoof of the genre. I mean, this is a movie that has Victor Buono as an action hero, for cryin’ out loud. We’re talking about a guy who’s best known role was probably as the King Tut villain on the “Batman” 1960′s TV show. In this movie he has a great scene where he drives a car like a battering ram into the barricaded gates of De La Plata’s fortress while firing a Thompson sub-machine and then he jumps out to take on the chief henchman with his sword cane. And he’s totally convincing during his fight scenes of which he has several. And he has a bunch of great one liners, such as “We’re going to get along famously” which is used in this movie the same way “I have a bad feeling about this” was used in “Star Wars”

I’ve never seen Ken Hutchinson in a movie before and have no idea who he is but he’s immensely likeable as the wily Emmett who seems to tumble in and out of adventures as easily as you or I eat fried chicken. A lot of the humor in the movie comes from him as he’s constantly thrown into situations where he’s clearly way in over his head but he manages to come through with luck and sheer dogged determination that even Dirk Pitt might admire. And as for Robert Mitchum…well, he’s flat out terrific in this. For much of the movie we’re never sure what the deal with Father Van Horn is.  Not only does he carry an arsenal of machine guns and grenades in that big black valise of his but he also has $50,000 dollars that he hints he got by robbing banks. He has a great scene where he tells the villagers that he’s going to hold an all night service in the church where he performs weddings, baptizes babies and hears confessions where it made clear that he knows the rituals of The Catholic Church inside and out but he also indulges in decidedly un-priestly activities like sleeping with whores, drinking whiskey like water and cussing like crazy. He also carries a Bible that has a concealed gun inside and his cross hides a six-inch blade. Nobody in the movie really knows if this guy is actually one really badass priest or a really eccentric badass who likes to pretend he’s a priest until he spills the beans near the end of the movie.

Robert Mitchum is one of those old type movie stars I love because he looks like a man who actually looks like he’s tough enough to kick your ass with just a look, unlike a lot of the current crop of movie stars who are just too damn pretty to look like they’re as tough as the characters they’re portraying on screen. Robert Mitchum comes from the crop of actors I like to call ‘Old School Tough’. I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Steve McQueen. You know what I’m talking about. Whenever he’s on screen in this movie you just can’t take your eyes off him, as you want to know just like the other characters what the real deal with him is.

There are a lot of great action sequences in this movie, especially when the three outlaws finally take on De La Plata’s army in a ferocious shootout in front of the church and the final showdown at the fortress. In between we’ve got a whole series of double-crosses, fistfights, staredowns and showdowns that will make your head giddy. Trust me, this isn’t a boring movie. In fact, despite having been made back in 1972, THE WRATH OF GOD seemed to me a lot more of how current action/adventure are made with it’s healthy mix of violent action, comedy and eccentric characters which is why I think it makes enjoyable watching today.

So should you see THE WRATH OF GOD? Hell yes. If you’re a big Robert Mitchum fan it’s worth seeing just for him alone as obviously he’s having a great time with his role and the material. Victor Buono and Ken Hutchinson also turn in great performances as well. Frank Langella has a wonderful time with his role as a bad guy and his scene in the church where he confronts Robert Mitchum and tells him why he hates priests and God is an example of just plain good solid acting from both of them that goes a long way to establishing both of their characters and sets up the conflict between them nicely. THE WRATH OF GOD works as a really good cinematic pulp adventure that should be enjoyed for what it is: a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the snacks and beverages of your choice. If you get Turner Classic Movies on your satellite/cable provider you can wait for it to show up there but if you’re a dedicated pulp or Robert Mitchum fan, spring for the rental fee and give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.

Rated: PG
111 Minutes