King Solomon’s Mines (1985, directed by J. Lee Thompson)

After her archaeologist father disappears while searching for the fabled mines of King Solomon, Jesse Houston (Sharon Stone) hires famed explorer Allan Quartermain (Richard Chamberlain) to help her find him.  After walking around in the jungle and exploring a nearby village, Allan and Jesse discover that her father has been kidnapped by a German military expedition who want to use King Solomon’s treasure to fund their war effort.  Working with the Germans is Allan’s old enemy, Dogati (John Rhys-Davies).  Allan and Jesse find themselves in a race against time to find the mines before the Germans.  Along the way, they steal an airplane, fight German soldiers on a train, and nearly get cooked alive in a giant cauldron.

Because this is a Cannon film and it was made at the height of Indiana Jones’s popularity and it stars John Rhys-Davies and it has a score that sounds like it was written by someone trying too hard to be John Williams, you might be tempted to think that King Solomon’s Mines is a rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  However, there are some crucial differences between Raiders and King Solomon’s Mines.  For instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark took place during World War II.  King Solomon’s Mines takes place during World War I.  Raiders of the Lost Ark had angels that melted a man’s face.  King Solomon’s Mines has a lava pit that makes you explode if you fall into it.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a big fight in an airfield while King Solomon’s Mines has a big fight at an airfield …. well, wait, I guess they do have a few things in common.

Probably the biggest difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and King Solomon’s Mines is that Raiders had Harrison Ford and Karen Allen while King Solomon’s Mines has to make due with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone.  (If the imdb trivia section is to be believed, Sharon Stone was cast because Menahem Golan mistook her for Kathleen Turner.)  Along with generating zero romantic sparks, neither Chamberlain nor Stone come across as if they’ve ever even seen a jungle, much less explored one.  The only time that the two of them are credible as anything other than actors slumming on Cannon’s dime is when they’re yelling at each other.  There’s also a scene where they’re trying to steal an airplane and Chamberlain tells Stone to “reach between your legs and grab it.”  That was funny, I guess.

Along with trying to be an adventure, King Solomon’s Mines also tries to be a comedy.  As a general rule, Cannon films are great when they’re unintentionally funny but not so much when they actually try to be funny.  The film’s idea of comedy is Richard Chamberlain having to do an impromptu jig while someone shoots at his feet.  Add in a healthy dose of casual racism as Allan and Jesse run into a tribe in Africa who want to cook them in a giant stew pot and you’ve got a film so bad that you’ll hardly believe it could have been produced by the same people who gave us Delta Force, which is, of course, the greatest film ever made.

Golan and Globus had enough confidence in King Solomon’s Mines that they shot a sequel before the first film was even released.  Tomorrow, I will force myself to watch and review Allan Quartermain and The Lost City of Gold.  And, after that, I’ll probably go sit in a corner and think about what I’ve done.

The International Lens: Stalker (dir by Andrei Tarkovsky)

The 1979 Russian film, Stalker, takes place in a world that might be our own.

In the middle of a wilderness that we assume, just because of the language that’s spoken in the film, to be in Russia, there is an area known as the Zone.  The Zone is a place where the normal laws of physics don’t seem to apply.  It’s not an easy place to enter and it’s almost impossible to exit but it’s rumored that there’s a very special room located in one of the Zone’s deserted buildings.  If you can find the Room, you’re innermost desires will be granted.  It’s said, for instance, that a semi-legendary man known as Porcupine found the Room and became wealthy as a result.  Of course, Porcupine also hung himself just a few days later.

Legally, no one is allowed to enter the Zone.  Soldiers patrol the perimeter and the gate that leads into the Zone is only opened to allow a train to make it’s way through.  However, there are outlaws who specialize in leading expeditions through the Zone.  They can get people in and, as long as everyone does as instructed, they can hopefully lead people out.  One of these outlaws is known as The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky).  The Stalker, a former student of Porcupine, lives in a drab village where everything is filmed in Sepia.  (By contrast, the Zone is filmed in color.)  The Stalker is married to a woman (Alisa Freindlich) who continually begs him to stop leading expeditions into the Zone but who also says that she married the Stalker because his illegal activities bring a little bit of life to an otherwise drab existence.  They have a daughter (Natasha Abramova) who is described as being a “child of the zone.”  She may have a physical disability, though we’re never quite sure what the exact details of it may be.  The final enigmatic shot of the film belongs to her and it’s a shot that makes us wonder about everything that we’ve just previously seen.

The Stalker’s latest clients are the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko).  Both the Writer and the Professor have their own reasons for wanting to see the Zone.  The Writer is an alcoholic who has lost his inspiration and hopes to find it again.  The Professor says that he’s interest in the Zone is a scientific one, though it turns out that his actual intentions are a bit more complex.  The Stalker leads them into the Zone but it’s not an easy journey.  The Stalker grows annoyed as he comes to realize that the Writer does not share his nearly spiritual reverence for the powers and the mysteries of the Zone.  Meanwhile, the Professor obsesses over his backpack, even when the Stalker tells him to leave it behind.  There’s something in that backpack that the Professor definitely doesn’t want to lose.

Stalker is a science fiction film but it’s one that has no elaborate special effects.  There are hints that the Zone may have been visited by extraterrestrials but the film deliberately leave ambiguous the true origin of the Zone.  Director Andrei Tarkovsky instead emphasizes the barren landscape and the discussions between the three men, each one of whom is desperate in his own way.  Though the Zone may be filmed in vibrant color while the village is filmed in Sepia tones, both locations are equally desolate.

Watching this film today, it’s impossible not to compare the film’s Zone to the real-life forbidden zone surrounding Chernobyl.  However, Stalker was made 7 years before the disaster at Chernobyl.  The film’s Zone probably has more in common with the 1908 Tunguska event, which was when something (an asteroid, a comet, or maybe something else depending on how conspiracy-minded one is willing to be) either crashed into or exploded above Siberia.  The explosion was the equivalent of 30 megatons of TNT and, needless to say, you can find all sorts of fanciful stories about strange things happening in the area in the years after the explosion.  That said, it’s definitely not a coincidence that the modern-day guides who lead unauthorized tours of the Chernobyl area have taken to calling themselves stalkers.

The film itself is a fascinating one, though definitely not one for everyone.  As a director, Tarkovsky’s trademark was the long take and the camera often lingers over each scene, inviting the viewer to look for a deeper meaning that may or may not be there.  It’s a film that invites the viewer to think and to wonder who is right and who is wrong about the Zone.  It’s a film that asks a lot of questions but never claims to have all the answers.  The true meaning of it all is left the individual viewer to determine.  It really is a film that probably could have only been made by an artist trying to subtly rebel against a totalitarian society.  The Writer has lost his inspiration because society has become so drab and corrupt.  The intellectual Professor is forced to be deceptive about his true intentions.  And the Stalker looks for a deeper meaning that goes beyond what the State has to offer.  For that, he’s willing to risk everything.

Tragically, it’s possible that filming Stalker may have contributed to Tarkovsky’s death in 1986.  (Interestingly, he died just a few months after the Chernobyl disaster.)  Much of Stalker was filmed near a chemical plant and it’s felt that filming in such a toxic condition may have eventually led to the illnesses that not only killed Tarkovsky but several other members of the film’s cast and crew.  By the time of his death, Tarkovsky had escaped from Russia and was living in Paris.  Today, incidentally, is his birthday.  He would have been 88 years old.

The International Lens: Drunken Angel (dir by Akira Kurosawa)

The 1948 Japanese film, Drunken Angel, tells the story of two seemingly different men living in a burned-out neighborhood in postwar Tokyo.

Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an aging and world-weary doctor.  Though he may drink too much and he is occasionally too quick to snap at his patients, he truly cares about the people who live near his clinic.  He worries about the spread of tuberculosis, which was a very real concern in postwar Japan and which remains a concern to this day.  He continually tells his patients that they need to stop drinking and take better care of themselves, even though he does not seem to be capable of taking his own advice.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a young Japanese gangster, a member of the yakuza.  Matsunaga does everything with a swagger, one that he appears to have largely adapted from Hollywood gangster movies.  He not only dresses like an idealized version of an American gangster but he also smokes his cigarettes like one.  Everything about Matsunaga gives the impression that he’s desperate to prove that he’s something more than just a small-time hood living in a bombed-out neighborhood that’s centered around a poisonous bog.

One night, Matsunaga shows up at Sanada’s clinic.  He’s got a bloody hole in his hand.  Mastunaga claims that he walked into a door.  When Sanada responds with skepticism, Matsunaga adds that the door had a nail sticking out of it.  Sanada may not believe Matsunaga but he’s a doctor so he treats Matsunaga’s wound.  Sanada also diagnosis Matsunaga as suffering from tuberculosis and tells him that he has to stop drinking and womanizing.  Needless to say, Matsunaga is not pleased with this diagnosis.

Though they start out as antagonists, a weary friendship grows between the doctor and the gangster.  Matsunaga even starts to follow the doctor’s advice or, at least, he does until his boss, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), is released from prison.  Under Okada’s influence, Matsunaga falls back into his own habits, drinking and going to nightclubs where the musicians perform Americanized music.  Okada is also the ex-boyfriend of Sanada’s nurse and, when he threatens to murder Sanada unless the doctor lead him to her, Matsunaga is finally forced to decide which of his two potential mentors will have his loyalty.

Taken on its own, Drunken Angel is an entertaining gangster film that features two memorable lead performances.  Takashi Shimura is likable as Sanada while Toshiro Mifune is dangerously charismatic as Matsunaga.  Director Akira Kurosawa originally planned for the film to focus solely on Sanada, with Matsunaga only playing a minor role.  Mifune, however, so impressed him that he ended up expanding Matsunaga’s role until Mifune was eventually the film’s co-lead.  (Following Drunken Angel, Kurosawa would go on to make 15 other films with Mifune.)  Kurosawa keeps the action moving at an exciting pace and he frames the story with haunting images of the dilapidated neighborhood that the two men call home.

However, Drunken Angel is even more fascinated with one consider that it was made at a time when Japan, having been defeated in World War II and still traumatized by the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was still occupied by American forces.  The film was made at a time when it was still very much an open question as to what role Japan would play in a postwar world.  Would Japan become dominated by American culture (which, in this film, is represented by gangsters like Okada) or would it remain true to itself?  When Sanada warns Matsunaga that he is surrounded by toxic germs that are making him ill and threatening his future, he could very well have been talking about what Kurosawa perceived as being the threat of Americans transforming Japan into a westernized playground.

In the end, it’s a film that works on many levels, as a gangster film, as a portrait of a friendship, and as a metaphor for a people and a culture trying to find their place in a new and imperfect world.  If you haven’t seen it yet, now is the perfect time to do so.

Cinemax Friday: Stranger By Night (1994, directed by Gregory Brown a.k.a. Gregory Hippolyte a.k.a. Gregory Dark)

Detective Bobby Corcoran (Steven Bauer!) is a cop with an anger problem.  Whenever he and his parter, Troy Rooney (William Katt!!), catch a criminal, Bobby just loses control.  Since, for some reason, they seem to catch a lot of criminals on rooftops, this often leads to Bobby threatening to throw someone over the edge.  Even when his boss, Detective Larson (Michael Parks!!!) tells Bobby to stop trying to kill all of the suspects, Bobby still struggles to control his rage.  He’s seeing a Dr. Anne Richmond (Jennifer Rubin!!!!), a psychiatrist, about his anger issues but since their sessions usually get interrupted by bouts of soft-core, saxophone-scored sex, it is debatable how much time they actually spend digging into the roots of Bobby’s problems.

Bobby also suffers from frequent blackouts.  While he’s unconscious, he’s haunted by black-and-white memories of his abusive father (J.J. Johnston) beating up his mother.  When he wakes up, he’s often in a different room from where he blacked out.  Anne says that Bobby must be sleep-walking.  Bobby says that he’s not sleep walking because he’s stubborn and doesn’t feel safe letting anyone into his mind.  Lately, whenever Bobby passes out, a prostitute ends up dead.  An unknown killer is stalking them and chopping off their ears.  Bobby, with his anger issues and his dislike of prostitutes, is an obvious suspect.  Is Bobby the killer or is he being framed?

Stranger By Night‘s credited director is Gregory Brown, who is better known as Gregory Dark.  Dark is one of the best-known of the directors who specialized in erotic thrillers in the 90s.  Dark was responsible for some of the classics of the genre but, unfortunately, Stranger By Night is not one of his better efforts.  The action frequently drags and, with the exception of Bobby’s black-and-white flashbacks, Stranger By Night has none of Dark’s usual visual style.  The film looks and feels flat and the plot is never feels as involving as it should.  The discovery of the killer’s identity inspires not shock but an indifferent shrug.

On the positive side, it’s got a cast of skilled genre vets and all of them do what they can to elevate the material.  William Katt is jittery and frequently funny while Jennifer Rubin, who deserved to have a much bigger career, is as sultry as ever.  (Rubin brought both intelligence and sex appeal to almost every role that she played and it made her one of the best genre actresses around.)  Steven Bauer, another actor who probably deserves a bigger career than he’s had, does a good job in the lead role.  Bobby isn’t always a likable character and Bauer doesn’t try to make him one.  On the other hand, it’s frustrating that Michael Parks does not get to do much, other than frown.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a film that doesn’t take full advantage of the casting of Michael Parks.

Stranger By Night does seem to have a serious subtext.  It tries to deal seriously with how Bobby’s abusive childhood has scarred him and there’s a lengthy scene where Bobby finally talks to his aged father.  The scene is played straight and it’s not the sort of thing that you’d normally expect to see in a direct-to-video erotic thriller.  (It’s a good example of what set Gregory Dark apart from some of the other directors churning out these type of films in the 90s.)  For the most part, though, Stranger By Night is a forgettable trip to the world of late night Cinemax.

Ministry of Vengeance (1989, directed by Peter Maris)

David Miller (John Schneider) is a former soldier who served in the Vietnam War.  Though David managed to survive the war, the majority of his platoon did not and he is still haunted by the day when he was forced to blow up a kid who was working for the VC.  After getting out of the army, David renounces violence and war and he becomes an Episcopal priest.  (His denomination is never really made clear but he wears a collar and he’s got a family so I assume he’s Episcopal.)  He marries Gail (Meg Register) and they have a daughter named Kim (Joey Peters).  Eventually, the Millers find themselves in Rome, where David works with a kindly minister named Hughes (George Kennedy) and preaches the word of the God and the gospel of nonviolence.

Unfortunately, the Millers just happen to be in an airport when it’s attacked by a group of terrorists led by Ali Aboud (Robert Miano).  As David watches, Aboud personally executes his wife and daughter.  Though David survives the attack because Aboud says, “Leave the priest alive!,” his faith is shaken and he goes from renouncing violence to renouncing peace.  After the local CIA agent (Yaphet Kott) refuses to tell David the name or the location of the terrorist who killed his family, David just happens to open up a magazine and finds himself staring at a picture of Ali Aboud.  Ministry of Vengeance may claim to be about faith but it’s mostly about coincidence.

After David discovers that Aboud is in Lebanon, he decides it’s time for him to fly over and dispense some “eye for an eye” justice.  First, David has to get trained by his old drill instructor (James Tolkan).  Once he’s back in fighting shape, David heads off to Lebanon, little aware that Aboud is actually a CIA informant and that the agency is prepared to kill to protect its assets.

Ministry of Vengeance is one of those direct-to-video films where the majority of the budget was spent on getting a handful of “name” actors to make a brief appearance and give the entire production the feel of being a legitimate movie.  So, along with George Kennedy and Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty shows up as a quirky minister in Lebanon while Prince’s former protegee, Apollonia Kotero, plays Beatty’s daughter.  None of them get to do as much as you might like.  It’s always good to see Kotto, even if he’s appearing in a bad film, but his role here is mostly just a glorified cameo.  Most of the film is about John Schneider, trying to balance his faith with his desire for vengeance.  That’s a potentially interesting angle to bring to the story but the movie’s handling of the issue is shallow.  David has doubts about his mission but only when it’s convenient for the film’s narrative.

There are a few good action scenes.  James Tolkan is a blast in the R. Lee Ermey roll of the hardass drill sergeant.  Otherwise, Ministry of Vengeance is as forgettable as a guest sermon.

The International Lens: Polytechnique (dir by Denis Villeneuve)

On a snowy day in Montreal, a nameless young man (Maxim Gaudette) wanders about a cramped apartment.  He loads a rifle.  He drives to his mother’s house and leaves a note in her mailbox.  He goes to École Polytechnique, the engineering school where he’s a student.  Leaving the rifle in his car, he walks around the school.  He stares at the students in the cafeteria, observing them with a hatred that they might not notice but which we’ll never forget.  He goes back outside.  He sits in his car while the snow continues to fall.

As we watch him, we hear him reading the suicide note that he’s written  for the authorities.  He talks about his belief that the world has been destroyed by feminists.  He writes that he’s offended that he is expected to compete with women and that women have an unfair advantage in both the academic and the professional world.  He brags about the good grades that he gets, despite the fact that he rarely attends school.  He says that he’s never fit in with the world and that woman are to blame.  He complains about women competing at the Olympics, showing that he views everything through the filter of his own misogyny.  At one point, he apologizes for not being as eloquent as he believes he could be.  He explains that he only had 15 minutes to put down his thoughts.

Inside the school, another engineering student, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau ) struggles to complete an assignment before his next class begin.  He sits in the cafeteria with open books scattered across the table in front of him.  Later, we’ll see Jean-Francois running through the hallways of the school, trying to warn the other students that something terrible is happening.  He’ll run to a security officer and ask him to call the police, just to be given a somewhat confused look in response.  Later still, we’ll see Jean-Francois outside of the school, visiting his family and haunted by guilt.

One of Jean-Francois’s classmates, Valerie (Karine Vanasse), goes to a job interview where the older male interviewer states that he’s shocked that Valerie wants to go into engineering after graduation.  Most women, he says, don’t do that.  It’s a profession that requires a lot of hard work and it’s not ideal for someone who wants to start a family.  Stunned, Valerie lies and says that she doesn’t have any desire to start a family.  Throughout the film, we watch as Valerie stop several times at her locker so that she can switch shoes.  When she has to deal with stuff like her job interview, she puts on high heels that are obviously very uncomfortable for her.  When she just wants to go to class, she has to stop and switch to shoes that she can actually walk in and, at that moment, I knew exactly what she was feeling.  Every woman watching will instantly know what she’s going through.  Later, she complains to her friend and roommate, Stephanie (Evelyn Brouchu), about how condescending the interview was.  Stephanie tells her not to obsess on it.

Outside, the snow continues to fall in the night, creating a bleakly cold landscape and making Montreal look like a barren and bombed-out wasteland.

Later, we’ll see Jean-Francois arriving late for a class.  Valerie and Stephanie are already in the class, listening to the lecture.  Not long after Jean-Francois claims his seat, the unnamed man steps into the room, carrying his rifle.  He orders the males to gather on one side of the room and the women on the other….

These are the moments and images that stick with you, long after the 2009 Canadian film, Polytechnique, concludes it’s brief 77-minute run time.  It’s a haunting film, definitely not one to watch if you’re already feeling depressed.  What makes it especially disturbing is that it’s based on a true story.  On December 8, 1989, an Algerian-Canadian student opened fire at École Polytechnique in Montreal.  (The film does not name the killer and I won’t either, because to name him without naming his victims does a disservice to their memory.  Those who really want to know his name are free to look it up on Wikipedia.)  As seen in the film, the gunman specifically targeted women and even ordered all of the males in the classroom to leave before he opened fire.  Also, as seen in the movie, the men did just that, with not a single one trying to stop the gunman or warn others until they were already out of the classroom.  The character of Jean-Francois stands in for all of the men who were haunted by their decision to leave.  As I watched the film, I had mixed feelings about the men who left that classroom.  Yes, the gunman was armed but there were enough men in that classroom that it’s hard to justify the fact that not a single one attempted to intervene.

Before shooting himself in the head, the gunman killed 14 women and wounded 10 women and 4 men.  It remains the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history.  When the police found his body, they also found a suicide note in his pocket, the same note that we hear read at the beginning of this film.  In memory of the lives lost, the anniversary of the massacre has been commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Poltytechnique, which is dedicated to those who died, was directed by Denis Villeneuve, long before he would come to America and make a name for himself with films like Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049.  Polytechnique is filmed in harsh black-and-white and Villeneuve skips around in time, often showing us the consequences of the killer’s actions before showing us the actions themselves.  It’s an approach that reminds us that the Montreal Massacre and all other acts of violence are events that will forever haunt us.  The past will always cast a shadow over both the present and the future.

As I said, it’s not a happy film but perhaps not every film needs to happy.  With Polytechnique, Villeneuve mourns for the lives lost on that day in 1989 and he encourages us all to try to create a better world for the future.

Peeper (1975, directed by Peter Hyams)

Peeper gets off to a good start, with a Humphrey Bogart look alike standing on a dark street corner and reading the opening credits in a reasonable approximation of Bogart’s unmistakable voice.  It all goes down hill from there.

Peeper stars Michael Caine as Leslie C. Tucker, a cockney private detective who is working in Los Angeles in the late 40s.  Tucker is hired by a shady businessman named Anglich (Michael Constantine).  Anglich explains that he knows that he has a daughter but he doesn’t know who or where she is.  He wants Tucker to track her down.  It doesn’t take much time for Tucker to conclude that Anglich’s daughter might be a member of the wealthy and quirky Pendergrast family.  In fact, Tucker thinks that Anglich’s daughter might be Ellen Pendergrast (Natalie Wood, who seems to be bored with the role).  It should be a simple enough case to solve but there are numerous complications along with two thugs (played by Timothy Carey and Don Calfa) who, for some reason, are out to get Anglich and Tucker.

It’s hard to know what to make of Peeper.  It’s meant to be an homage to the detective films of the 40s but it also tries to parody the genre.  Unfortunately, Peter Hyams has never been a director known for his light touch and, in this film, his idea of comedy is to have everyone shout their lines.  (Michael Constantine is the worst offender.)  Michael Caine is also miscast in the lead.  The film tries to get some comedic mileage out of Caine delivering Bogart-style dialogue in his cockney accent but it’s a joke that’s never as funny as the film seems to think.

Peeper was a critical and box office failure but fortunately, there were better things in store for both Michael Caine and Peter Hyams.  Hyams went on to direct Capricorn One while Michael Caine established himself as one of the most durable character actors around.