Monday, December 15, 2014

Film Review: KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 2.5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Adventure of a Lifetime"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Richard Chamberlain (SHOGUN, THE MUSIC LOVERS), Sharon Stone (BASIC INSTINCT, SLIVER), John Rhys-Davies (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING), Herbert Lom (THE DEAD ZONE, SPARTACUS).  Written by Gene Quintano (POLICE ACADEMY 3, POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL) and James R. Silke (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION).  Music by Jerry Goldsmith (THE OMEN, GREMLINS, ALIEN).  Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  Directed by J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN).
Best One-liner:  "I'll take that rug!"

KING SOLOMON'S MINES is an unabashed, unrepentant rip-off of the Indiana Jones series, sloppily orchestrated by everybody's favorite 1980s production company, Cannon Films.  The utter shamelessness of the effort is staggering... and brilliant... and absurd. 

First, a little background.  Cannon Films wanted to celebrate the centennial of Henry Rider Haggard's famed adventure novel, KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and make a few dollars along the way by ridin' the Indiana Jones gravy train.  They shot two movies (this and ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD) simultaneously to maximize the profit (as was the case with 1970s classics like THE THREE MUSKETEERS/FOUR MUSKETEERS and SUPERMAN/SUPERMAN II, among others).  Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct, but instead used his Cannon Connections to do LIFEFORCE the same year.  In his absence, resident director and Charles Bronson-wrangler J. Lee Thompson took over.  Apparently the shoot proved to be so cursed that he (possibly apocryphally) hired a witch doctor (!) to make sure things didn't get any worse.  
As our Indiana Jones– er, I mean, Allan Quatermain– they hired Richard Chamberlain who so brilliantly portrayed Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS, but Cannon was probably excited he'd made some recent success in the TV miniseries department (SHOGUN, THE THORN BIRDS).  
Chamberlain and Stone encounter the natives in KING SOLOMON'S MINES.

Ford and Capshaw encounter the natives in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

Sharon Stone is our female lead, and any similarity to TEMPLE OF DOOM's Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is surely coincidental.  
Sharon Stone as  Jesse Huston.

Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott.

When I saw Golan speak a few years back he said (with utter charm) "Sharon Stone is our discovery.  She was a nobody before us."  And I think this exact quote from the IMDb trivia page says it all:  "Sharon Stone was hired by mistake Golan had wanted another actress instead of her."  That's perfect.

But back to the movie.  This thing is awful.  But it is also spectacular.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it.  It often plays like goofball parody, but it's got that sincere Cannon moxie, too, mixed with plenty of non-sequiturs. I suppose the major question here is this:  Is Cannon Films taking the piss?  Is this an elaborate joke on the audience?  I genuinely can't tell. On the one hand, it's directed by stiff-lipped Englishman J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE), who managed to make a scene where Bronson assaults a man with a dildo feel earnestly grim.  On the other, it's co-written by the guy who did POLICE ACADEMY 3 &4.  Hmm.  

Let's look at the opening scene as a case study.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-alumnus John Rhys-Davies (who is a fan of paychecks) is trying to force some poor sap into translating the writing on a mystical artifact. 
The poor sap translator's buddy makes a run for the door, whereupon he triggers a deadly trap that skewers him against the doorway with what is essentially a giant meat tenderizer.
It's sort of gruesome, and is not played for a laugh.  Then John Rhys-Davies' crony, who apparently owns the building they use for intimidating potential artifact translators, pops up and exclaims, "MY DOOR!"
like how Charles Bronson says, "It's MY car!" in DEATH WISH 3.  Why is he so concerned?  If he owns the building, he already knows that he had a giant meat tenderizer hanging from the ceiling, ready to destroy his door if someone tried to escape.  Is it supposed to be funny?  Like, "wow, he is overly concerned about the property damage right now."  Or is it supposed to be harsh character-building, like "gee, these guys are tough customers– they just murdered somebody and only care about the holes in the door."  Or is it supposedly to be morbidly and cretinously 'funny' in a BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD vein, like "Hah ha!  That guy got skewered!"  It's difficult to assess.

Most of this film is difficult to assess.  It's packed with racist, imperialist attitudes (replicated from the original 1885 novel) but they're handled with the bizarro Cannon approach, the same one that brought us colorblind gang violence in DEATH WISH 3 and the "It's A Small World" of rap videos in RAPPIN'.  This movie is racially problematic to the point where you begin to wonder if it possesses a spoofy-self awareness, applying a post-modern lens to Nineteenth Century attitudes.  But in the end,  you can't approve of a movie where every person of color is either a buffoon, a cannibal, or someone who desires to feed you to crocodiles for sport.
This movie came out in 1985.

So let's pretend that KING SOLOMON'S MINES is a spoof of classic adventure novels, cultural appropriation, racist caricatures, etc., etc...  so then why is it trying so hard at times to be an Indiana Jones film?  In this regard, I mean that it drops the jokey façade and attempts to recreate, nearly shot for shot, several setpieces from the first two Indy movies.  [Of course this is all rather like an ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail), because the Indy movies are inspired by the Republic serials that were inspired by the original Quatermain novels, but no matter.]

There's the "Basket Game" scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, whereupon Indiana Jones tries to save Marion from the Nazis in Cairo after she's whisked away in a basket by Egyptian goons on the German payroll.  The same thing happens in KING SOLOMON'S MINES, except they throw Sharon Stone in a carpet roll instead of a basket.

 Indy shoves his way through the crowd in RAIDERS.

 Quatermain shoves his way through the crowd in MINES.

The basket's getting away in RAIDERS.

The carpet's getting away in MINES.

Then, take the famous "Ark Truck Chase" scene from RAIDERS.  Indy is flung through the windshield, over the hood, under the truck, and dragged from behind while clinging to his whip.

In MINES, the exact same thing happens– except it's on a train, not a truck, so it's totally different.

My final example (I could go on) is from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  Indy and Short Round find themselves trapped in a chamber where spikes descend from the ceiling after a large stone lever is pressed.

The exact scenario arises in MINES, except the budget's lower, so we get papier-maché stalactites instead of the aforementioned fearsome iron spikes.

So that would seem to close the book on that– it's not parodying Indiana Jones– it wants to be Indiana Jones.  Though we cannot neglect the major point here:  this is a Cannon Film.  It can't be Indiana Jones, no matter how hard it tries.  It's not going to be competent enough to do so.  But in trying, you would assume that it could stumble upon some unintentional movie magic.  And, on a few occasions, it does:

SEE!  A giant, rabid spider eat a poor extra wearing a fez:

It comes with the Cannon guarantee that you've seen better special effects on your neighbor's lawn last Halloween.

BEHOLD!  An evil sorcerer thrown down a pit like the Emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI and exploding in flower of matted-in flames!

GAZE UPON!  A Nessie-style dinosaur chomping on a man while Sharon Stone looks on in terrorized disbelief!

Sharon Stone, Oscar-nominated (...for CASINO).

In the end, as I said, I'm not sure what to do with this.  It comes nowhere near the heights of the Cannon classics (like BLOODSPORT or THE APPLE or REVENGE OF THE NINJA), and is probably most comparable to FIREWALKER, another J. Lee Thompson-directed Cannon rip-off of Indiana Jones.  But, being part freak show and part train wreck, I sorta can't believe this thing exists, and for that I must award it about two and a half (extremely awkward) stars.

–Sean Gill

Monday, December 8, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... THE BAND WAGON

Only now does it occur to me... that Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse/Vincente Minnelli vehicle THE BAND WAGON– one of the last great Technicolor musicals from Hollywood's golden era– could easily be refashioned as an expressionist horror film.

For instance, the number "Triplets"– which recasts full-grown adults as monstrous baby-children–

captures an uncanny sense of proportion and movement that probably belongs in a CHILD'S PLAY movie.

Later, the show-stopping "Girl Hunt Ballet" depicts a crime-laden labyrinth of candy-colored terror

 with ominous shadows at every turn,

creepy silk quasi-surgical masks,
rooms packed with nearly as many mannequin heads as TOURIST TRAP,

 I need a closer look at that...

 My God, WHY?!

 Real heads, too?  And what's with the terrifying papier-maché Freddy Krueger head beside him?!  I'll be seeing that rictus grin in my nightmares!

and violence meted out at every turn by hordes of identical noir villains, whose choreographed uniformity and overwhelming force of numbers feel like a more existential threat, like something out of a Kafka story.  Hell, they probably work for the same government that's depicted in THE TRIAL.

I mean, look at the effect all this has on Astaire.
That's not a man in a musical comedy– that's a man gazing deeply into a Lovecraftian abyss.  And I really appreciate that.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... PARADISE ALLEY

Only now does it occur to me... that OVER THE TOP was not Stallone's first run-in with the glamorous world of arm-wrestling.

In PARADISE ALLEY, his directorial debut (it's a post-WWII, poverty-row, Hell's Kitchen, bootstrap-pullin', wrasslin' tale), Stallone acts as a manager for his brother Vic (Lee Canalito) and arranges an arm-wrestling match where the prize is a gangster's monkey.

This monkey.

His brother delivers (taking it over the top, so to speak)

and Stallone finally fulfills his lifelong dream of owning a dancing monkey.

The monkey is last seen on the street with Stallone, seriously underperforming:
Yo– look at the dancin' monkey!

Also of note:  for a movie that actually has Tom Waits in it, 

 As "Mumbles"

it's Sylvester Stallone who sings the title song, and his brother Frank who plays "Lounge Singer."

 Everybody loves Frank Stallone.

Though to be fair, the soundtrack does feature the same number (two) of Waits songs as Frank Stallone songs, with "(Meet Me In) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town," and conjures the proper atmosphere of whiskey-fueled despondency!