I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. Keep checking back to see more recommendations for your holiday shopping. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. With conditions as they are, shopping won’t be easy this season. The nice thing about discs is that they’re so easy to get from places like Amazon that you can give a great gift and stay perfectly safe while you do it. Paramount has released some great 4K films this year:
Pulp Fiction Steelbook
by Brent Lorentson
In 1994 a movie came out that quite literally changed my life. I had always loved movies,. Like so many others, just the experience of going to the movies and watching a film on the big screen and stuffing my face with popcorn was simply pure bliss. I was 14, and typically my parents had no issue with me seeing R-rated films. I had seen the Lethal Weapon films, Die Hard, Robocop, and so on and so on, but for some reason my parents objected to ne seeing Pulp Fiction because it had (clutch your pearls) sex in it. I spent many nights arguing my point to my parents, and the more they resisted me seeing this film, the more badly I had to see this film. Then one night I get a call from one of my best friends, and he asks if I want to go to the midnight showing, and I say yes. My parents are out having a date night. I figure I’d be gone before they got back. and if I got in trouble, I’d take the punishment later. We get to the theater, and it’s playing at the dollar theater, down in south Tampa. We’re talking one of the sketchiest places in Tampa where you find needles and bottles in the parking lot and where routinely the cops are called out for gang activity. But I don’t care; I’m finally getting to see this movie that for months had eluded me. And from the moment that Miramax logo popped up to the closing credits, it was like a religious experience for me. There’s a reason why 25 years later it remains a classic. There isn’t a movie that has been made since then that has made as much of a pop culture impact nor has been as groundbreaking to cinema. Pulp Fiction created so many imitators and influenced so many that if Tarantino never made another movie, he still would have been an icon. So if you haven’t seen the film or want to know more about what I think, well, sit back and get comfortable.
The film opens up innocently enough with Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) sitting in a diner enjoying their breakfast and discussing the places they’ve robbed, and before you know it they are sticking up the place, and cut to the opening credits with Misirlou by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones comes on. In retrospect this sequence is similar to the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are chatting with one another before getting ready for their jewel heist.Though I think many would agree the one thing Reservoir Dogs does better than Pulp Fiction is that epic slo-mo shot for the opening credits, even if it is a shot borrowed from the film Suburbia, but that’s cool because that’s what Tarantino does better than anyone else in the business, borrowing shots or sequences and putting his own twist on them.
When the film starts back up, we meet Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a pair of guys in suits having a trivial conversation about cheeseburgers in France before stopping to retrieve guns from the trunk of their car. It’s this way of humanizing criminals that Tarantino had such a gift for. There had been attempts at making criminals “fun” before, but Hollywood hadn’t quite cracked how to make them likeable and dangerous at the same time, Elmore Leonard had been doing it in his books for years, and it’s obvious that’s where Tarantino got some of his influence from, to the point that’d he’d adapt the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch and turn it into Jackie Brown a few years later.
The film is essentially set up in three parts, not exactly an anthology, but three separate stories that all tie together to create one nonlinear story. This was something that at the time seemed like such a foreign concept to audiences that I remember people complaining that it was edited wrong and out of order.
The first story is about Vincent and him having to take the boss’s wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) out for a good time. This is the storyline that delivers two of the most memorable moments from the 90’s, the Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest, and then the needle sequence. For those who don’t know, oh man do I envy you. To see these sequences again for the first time without knowing what was going to occur is something special. Personally the sequence at Jack Rabbit Slims is such an iconic moment. The set design alone is something to gawk at visually, but then the dialog of the characters and the performances between Travolta and Thurman is cinematic perfection, and that’s before they even get to the dance floor. The closest Tarantino has come to topping this sequence might be his introduction of The House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill, but for me it just doesn’t match in the charm and energy.
As for the needle scene … going back to that first experience of seeing it at the theater. That was a wild and rowdy crowd. I’m pretty sure most of the audience was high or drunk, but when it came time for that needle scene, that crowd was so quiet. It’s one of the few times the phrase “The audience was on the edge of their seats” genuinely felt like what was happening in that auditorium. If they movie had ended simply with the end of this sequence, I could easily walk out satisfied, but there are still two more parts to go, and looking back this is a dangerous move on Tarantino’s part, because seriously, where do you go from there? How do you outdo these moments that have stuck with me 25 years later?
Side note: pay attention to every time Vincent has to go to the restroom. Seriously, it’s like a red herring that something bad is going to happen.
The second story follows Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer who was supposed to take a dive in a boxing match but instead ends up killing his opponent in the ring and this results in the mob coming after him. He and his girlfriend could get away clean, except his girlfriend forgot to pack Butch’s gold watch, and, well, let’s just say the tale of how Butch came into possession of that gold watch is a pretty epic moment in the film, and it sets up why it is so important that Butch has to go back to his apartment to retrieve his watch. The setup for this story is simple, but the curve ball this story takes is one of the funniest and most bizarre twists I’ve seen on the screen. This is easily one of the best performances Bruce Willis has given in his career.
The third story takes us back to Vincent and Jules, and their job goes awry and causes Jules to question what he should do with his career. Again, Tarantino does a great job at subverting the audience’s expectations of what is going to happen, and by the time the film ends, it still leaves an impression.
The writing is what makes this film work so well; the dialog is almost lyrical. It’s not just a couple characters who have great lines; it’s every single character, and every role in this film has a moment or a sequence to shine. Then it’s the unique twists we see these characters take. There is a very non-traditional approach with these storylines that back in the mid-90s just wasn’t a thing you saw in film. This is the movie that taught me what a screenplay was and how important the script is to the film.
On a technical level, the cinematography seems a bit simple, but it’s definitely serving a purpose for the kind of crime film he wanted to show us. There is definitely a 50’s noir vibe and 60’s Euro-crime style that is going on. By keeping it simple and the locations in low-income and medium-income areas, it brings this element into the real world for the audience rather than the flashy settings we were used to seeing in films like Goodfellas and Scarface. Then there is the amazing soundtrack. Personally this is one of my all-time favorite soundtracks from the 90’s, right up there with The Crow. Music plays such a big part of this film. Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon is a song that immediately evokes a response from me where I’m thinking about Mia Wallace.
It’s a shame that somehow Forrest Gump won Best Picture when in the same year it was against Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. As much as I love Shawshank, when you look back these past 25 years and see how much influence the films had on the industry, Pulp Fiction was the true game changer. I have my bias when it comes too Tarantino. Pulp Fiction was the movie that got me to want to write my own stories, and years later when I had the chance to meet Tarantino at a film festival in Austin, the guy couldn’t have been any nicer, and it’s an experience that will stick with me. They say don’t meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in my experience. For me when I look at how Tarantino/s career and legacy has grown since Pulp Fiction, I hope he changes his mind and doesn’t stop doing films after 10, Sure, I feel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his masterpiece, but I understand why some would disagree. But to call Pulp Fiction anything but perfect would be an understatement.
“Like a river flows, Surely to the sea, Darling, so it goes, Some things are meant to be …”
Elvis Presley is often referred to as the King of Rock and Roll, at least to his fans. There’s no denying the impact that he had on the music scene. He was the first rock and roll star, to be sure. Colonel Tom Parker, his long-time manager and partner, created many of the marketing traditions that are commonplace in the industry today. He knew the value of his star, not only as a performer, but as a brand. For the first time, a musician’s image and name started to appear on everything from bath towels to women’s underwear. Fans are often split on their feelings for the self-styled Colonel, but Elvis would not have become the name brand he still is today without him.
One of those brand expansions tapped into Elvis’s own boyhood fantasy. Elvis had worked as an usher at a local movie theater as a teen. He’s often related that he would linger in the auditoriums, watching those movies and fantasizing that he was James Dean or Marlon Brando, two of his idols. With the help of Colonel Parker, Elvis would get to see that dream become a reality. The King was to expand his realm to include the movie business and Hollywood. No experience? No problem. After all, if Elvis could go from failing music in high school to becoming the highest paid musician on the planet, he could certainly tackle the world of acting. And he did just that.
Elvis went into the army in March of 1958 where he spent most of his deployment in Germany. He was discharged in March of 1960 but remained a member of the reserves until 1964. When he returned to his career, Tom Parker had some new ideas for his meal ticket. The next stop would be Hollywood, and with a few mediocre films along came the one that would remain his most successful box office hit and would set the elements in place that would become staples in the Elvis movies that followed. That film was Blue Hawaii.
Elvis plays Chad Gates, who is returning home to Hawaii after serving in the Army just as Elvis did. He meets his girl Maile (Blackman), and they drive not to his home but to a little shack on the ocean where Chad hopes to escape his family and their expected obligations and find a life of his own. His father owns a huge pineapple organization on the island, and Chad is expected to go into the family business. His father (Winters) is more sympathetic to his son’s desires, but his mother, played by Angela Lansbury, is more concerned with things like social status and appearances. She’s the one trying to pressure Chad into doing “the right thing”. Instead Chad chooses to try his hand as a tour guide and gets the job of escorting a school teacher and her teen girl charges to the hot spots on the island. Among the girls is troublemaker Ellie, who tries to flirt with Chad and ends up trying to kill herself. In an ironic twist of fate, the actress who played Ellie, Jenny Maxwell, led a pretty tragic life of her own, getting shot and killed with her husband in their car when she was only 39 years old.
The film features quite a few hi-jinx and plenty of chances for Elvis to pick up a guitar and give everyone a song or two.
Several of these elements would be repeated in many future films. Many would take Elvis to exotic locations to serve as background for his adventures. Future films took him to Belgium, Mexico, the Middle East, and a return or two to Hawaii where he would broadcast his international concert. That was a compromise from Parker, who unbeknownst to Elvis had no passport, and so Elvis never left the US to perform. The future films would also turn up more and more tunes. This was the first movie with so many songs. Elvis would also continue to capitalize on his own Army service by often playing GI’s who are returning from service. It’s called play what you know, and in the 60’s two things Elvis knew well was music and returning from the service.
Joan Blackman would return just a year later to play Elvis’ s love interest again in Kid Galahad. Elvis’s father was played by Roland Winters, who got his start in an uncredited role in Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane. He also appeared in West Side Story, and on television he visited pretty much every comedy from The Lucy Show to Green Acres. His part here is really pretty small, and he’s mostly overshadowed by Lansbury, who has the meatier part. Of course, Lansbury passed recently and was a hit both in films and the stage as well as having a popular television series that mirrored Agatha Christie in Murder She Wrote.
At the cabin the film plays a little homage to From Here To Eternity, a film that launched the movie career of another huge singer. But let’s face it, Elvis is no Frank Sinatra, and there aren’t going to be any Oscar awards on his mantle. All in all, Elvis does a pretty good job as an actor here, and he was quite an underrated actor at times.
War Of The Worlds (1953)
“No one would have believed in the middle of the 20th century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely joined their plans against us. Mars is more than 140 million miles from the sun, and for centuries has been in the last status of exhaustion. At night, temperatures drop far below zero even at its equator. Inhabitants of this dying planet looked across space with instruments and intelligences that which we have scarcely dreamed, searching for another world to which they could migrate.”
War Of The Worlds is perhaps one of the most iconic and often infamous science fiction works in literature history. The book by H.G. Wells was published in 1889 but would not see a feature film version for quite some time. Cecil B. DeMille worked with Paramount to obtain the rights from Wells in the mid 1920’s. He appeared to appeal to Wells himself, who was a fan of DeMille’s work, and the rights were purchased. But the film fell on hard times. On Halloween in 1938 Orson Welles, no relation, produced his famous radio drama of the story. While there were stories of people killing themselves because they believed it was a real radio broadcast of a Martian invasion, most of those stories are myth. It did cause panic, but only because folks ignored the many times the show announced that it was a radio drama. But interest spiked to do the long-dormant film. DeMille approached Welles to do the film, believing that the hysterics from the radio broadcast would make him a natural for the film. When Welles refused, he turned to Alfred Hitchcock, who also turned down the property. Finally George Pal agreed to do the film in the 1950’s but soon ran into trouble. You see, the rights were obtained so long ago that they were exclusively for a silent film. The estate of the author was so pleased with Pal as the choice to produce that they fixed the details, and the film was finally released in 1953. It has become a classic in the decades that followed.
When a strange “meteor” strikes the wilderness near a small California town, it brings out curiosity seekers for miles around. One of those seekers is Professor Clayton Forrester, played by Gene Berry. His thoughts are that it isn’t a meteor at all. He happened to be fishing nearby when he saw it come down. The object is both radioactive and hot, and the Professor decides to stick around until it cools, believing it warrants further investigation. He doesn’t really get the chance. Later that night a part of the object begins to unscrew like the top of a jar. A serpentine object peeks out with a small head. When the locals assigned to stand watch attempt to approach it with a white flag, they are incinerated by the blast of a horrible death ray. Before long these ships are falling all over the world, and flying machines shaped like a batwing with the serpent neck and heads using these weapons as they march through their assigned territories. It’s an invasion from Mars, and Forrester is looking for a way to stop them. Unfortunately, panic rides the streets, and his truck with the instruments and materials he might need are hijacked and he’s abandoned to a deserted city where the few remaining souls gather in a church to pray. Suddenly, in the midst of the destruction, their prayers are answered, and the machines begin to crash all over the world, destroyed not by human weapons, but by the planet’s smallest of organisms.
While George Pal brought many of his trademark elements to the film, there is plenty of evidence that DeMille had his hands in the pie. It was DeMille who recommended the use of Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the film’s authorities narrator. George Pal actually wanted DeMille to do the narration, but he DeMille offered Hardwicke ,who was about to star in his biblical epic The 10 Commandments. You can see some foreshadowing of that epic in several exodus scenes in the path of the Martian machines. There are many such wonderfully atmospheric moments in the film. One of my favorites was a dog scavenging in the wake of the panic. How much of this was George Pal and how much was DeMille or the film’s director Byran Haskin is hard to know. Haskin is always overshadowed by his iconic producers but has a pretty solid resume of his own that includes Robinson Crusoe On Mars, Treasure Island, and From The Earth To The Moon. The contributions have melded together, but the result is a film that holds up today and is a far superior work to the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise effort.
The impact of the film is as huge as the crater caused by the crashing Martian ships. The sound effects were groundbreaking and are still used in the industry today. One of the weapons would go on to be used as photon torpedoes on Star Trek, and the snake-like electronic rattle shows up in tons of films and television shows. Ann Robinson plays Forrester’s love interest, Sylvia Van Buren. Robinson is still with us today as the only surviving cast member. She has appeared in reprisal of the role in a couple of films and in the 1980’s television series War Of The Worlds, which was a sequel to this particular film. She was the connecting thread and appeared in several episodes as Dr. Sylvia Van Buren. MST3000 fans will like to know that the show’s frequent villain Dr. Forrester is taken from the film.
As a kind of extra you also get another George Pal film: When Worlds Collide. This film is not offered in 4K and can be found on a bonus Blu-ray of that particular film.
Indiana Jones Collection
Harrison Ford was once the top selling actor in Hollywood. He owes this distinction in no small part to a couple of trilogies he did early in his career. While Star Wars might have been a chance for Ford to break out, Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels defined his abilities. Indiana Jones is the perfect hero. He’s strong, intelligent, and above all, moral. Unlike the stereotypical hero, Jones is also vulnerable, and at times flawed. Credit Steven Spielberg for the iconic stature Indy occupies today. Left to his own devices, George Lucas would have given us Tom Selleck as the cigarette-smoking, morally bankrupt Indiana Smith.
Raiders of the Lost Ark brought back the cinematic tradition of the 2-reel serials. These shorts would combine with a newsreel, a cartoon, and a feature film to provide a splendid moviegoing event in the early days of talkies. To those of us too young to remember them, the Indiana Jones saga is a time machine to a much simpler day of good guys and bad guys. While even Spielberg himself admits that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was inferior to the rest of the trilogy, even this weaker film provided a historic filmmaking moment. Because of its dark nature and gore elements, the film did not fit neatly into the PG rating. The filmmakers did not want this “family” adventure labeled with R, so the ensuing conflict brought us PG-13, now the most widely used rating on films. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade dared to show us a much more vulnerable hero with the addition of his father. The relationship is a complicated one, but a relationship every father and son can instantly recognize and relate to. Right, Dad?
George Lucas has a problem, and there doesn’t seem to be a support group for it. He simply can’t let well enough alone. His special editions of Star Wars have become comedic fodder. South Park did an episode where the boys steal the master print of Raiders to protect it from Lucas’s attempt to “redo” it. For the most part Raiders is the same, but Lucas simply couldn’t help himself. A few f/x shots were tinkered with to fix flaws noticeable on the original print. The most notable change was the glass reflections from the pane that separated Ford from the real king cobra in the Well of Souls. These corrections are minimal and don’t change the film, thankfully. I am disappointed that the first film was renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to make it conform to the rest of the set. Does the term classic mean anything anymore?
Raiders Of The Lost Ark:
I simply refuse to refer to this film as Indiana Jones and the Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Dr. Jones is fresh home from his most recent adventure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very successful. His fellow archaeologist and nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, has taken an impressive idol from him. As he returns to his teaching gig, he attempts to parlay what trinkets he did bring back into a ticket to retrieve the idol. Unfortunately, the feds have other plans. It seems the Nazis are looking for the Ark of the Covenant and are seeking a vital clue from Indy’s old mentor, Dr. Ravenwood. Ravenwood is dead, but his daughter is very much alive, running a bar in Nepal. She has the necessary piece, but Indy’s not the only suitor. Together they go in search of the Ark, attempting to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and their expert, none other than Belloq. It’s a race all over the world, and finally a close encounter with the divine, and perhaps God isn’t too happy with the Nazis. Indy proves a dynamic character, globetrotting and raiding tombs long before Laura Croft got into the picture. OK, she looks a little better. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the mold from which a genre sprang.
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom:
by William O’Donnell
This film is a bit of an odd paradox for viewers. There are some moments that are cringe-inducing (largely circling around the embarrassingly bratty character of Willie), and others that are so iconic that they’ve been regularly referenced since the film’s debut (the heart-ripping sacrifice being the one that stands out strongest in my mind). This film feels much more dumbed down from Raiders in its humor and exposition, and yet it is considerably darker, having earned a PG-13 rating in the US instead of the standard PG rating the rest of the series gained (save for Raiders, which was not exactly all sunshine and lollipops … lest we forget the face melting, or the Nazi blended by a propeller).
One subject I must get out of the way first is the performance of Kate Capshaw. I know I’m not the first to be critical of this, and I’ll avoid the usual practice of blaming her inclusion on Spielberg’s crush on her … but it is just a shame that she continuously interrupts the fun with her unconvincing, scenery-munching performance. Beyond my opinion of her acting ability (or lack thereof), her character’s relationship with Indy doesn’t make sense. Willie is thrust into his world rather randomly and does nothing but cause annoyance and get him into further trouble. The audience has no reason to believe their romance and therefore cannot completely buy him risking his life so many times to save her.
To compensate for any doubts we have about Indy’s motivation for saving Willie, we have, by contrast, a strong, believable connection between Indy and his young pal Short Round. There is a bond and trust that goes through a much more mature arc than what happens between Willie and Indy. It is established that they are great friends, have saved each other in the past, and continue to do so in this adventure, and have to overcome a potentially lethal betrayal when Indy is possessed by the Thuggee cult.
The best part of Indy and Short Round’s relationship is the fact that it is always integrated into the adventure, and never distracts from the pacing of the film. Perhaps this is the best way for me to explain my disdain for Willie versus my appreciation of Short Round. At every turn Willie is simply tacked onto the action, whereas Short Round is mixed in. When the group is escaping a fight in Shanghai, Willie is screaming, while Short Round is their getaway driver. When the group is trying to escape the Temple, Willie is going to be a sacrifice for the sake of a sacrifice to Kali, while Short Round is amongst the enslaved children and defeats the guards in order to free them all. And when it comes to breaking the curse that has possessed Indy while Willie is in trouble, it is Short Round who finds the way to break the spell over Indy, and others, who are under Thuggee control.
Outside of Indy’s companions, the adventure is a still a wild and entertaining one. If you can look past the gore and the screeching of Willie, you can have a fun time with this ride.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
by William O’Donnell
Who could have fathered Indiana Jones? Who gave him that voracious curiosity and sense of adventure? Sean Connery gives us a wonderfully charming performance as Dr. Henry Jones Sr. (yes, the evidence of Indy’s true name is revealed in this film) to answer these questions and help set them all on a quest for the Holy Grail. Henry is not an adventurer like his son, which only adds to the comic effect when he sees his boy in action for the first time. This pair along with the return of Indy’s pals Marcus Brody (played by late Denholm Elliot) and Sallah (played by John-Rhys Davies) make for one of the most delightfully unlikely band of adventurers in cinema.
Next to Raiders, Crusade has the richest mixture of witty humor and playful action spliced into the desperate situations and immensity of the villain’s evil. This film hits all of the right notes and feels like the pure Indiana Jones sequel that fans both craved and deserve. There are even times where the fun factor surpasses that of Raiders (which almost feels blasphemous to type).
The Nazis are the villains once again, which only helps to link this film closer to Raiders than Temple, and their evil presence is amplified by stationing them in a haunted-looking castle and showing examples of their book burnings. I know that there is a historical significance to using the Nazis as villains, but there is also a sense of ease since they are such a natural choice for villains. For some reason, my long term memory recalls the Indiana Jones series as being rather family-friendly, and yet there are some absolutely horrifying deaths in all of the films (particularity the first three). Is there some sort of sordid comfort we take since some of these horrible things happen to Nazis? As if they have it coming and it can never be too gruesome for them? I suppose the answer lies with each viewer and how much blood they recall. Food for thought.
The way this film evokes feelings of Raiders, the arc we see of Indy as a young man to building an amazing new bond with his father, even the way our heroes ride off into the sunset … this really felt like the curtain call for Indiana’s adventures. As we know now, that was not the case …
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Not too long after we thought we had seen the last of Indiana Jones following his Last Crusade, George Lucas had an idea. Like The Grinch, it was a wonderful, awful idea. Hard at work in his lair deep inside the Evil Empire, Lucas pounded away at the script that could please only himself. The result was something called Indiana Jones And The Saucermen From Mars. Exuberant over his own misguided genius, he showed it to his fellow Indy masterminds. Predictably to anyone not named Lucas, neither Ford nor Spielberg thought very much of the idea. So then and there, it seemed that both Indy and the Saucermen had died. Decades would pass, and it appeared there was still very much a market for the exploits of Dr. Jones. Talks began as much as 15 years ago. Various scriptwriters took a pass at Lucas and his Saucermen. It wasn’t until all parties agreed to do a fourth Indy, provided they could all agree on a script, that serious work was begun on a new script. The result would become known as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It’s that classic dilemma of good news and bad news. The good news is obvious. Everyone was signed on board, and Harrison Ford was going to play Indy yet again. There was the excruciating wait until everyone’s schedule cleared to do the film. Finally it happened, and the saga that began with Raiders of the Lost Ark was about to continue, with a brand new script. The bad news is that, although this was a new story, the Lucas Saucermen just wouldn’t stay dead. Fortunately they play a very small part of the story, serving as part of the climax. In case you’re one of the six or seven folks who haven’t yet seen the film, I won’t go into detail on how the Saucermen work into the story.
The story itself is good rollercoaster Indiana Jones fun. Indy has been captured by the Commies. They’ve taken him to Area 51, where they seek his cooperation with an artifact kept there. The ensuing action has our hero narrowly escaping the bad guys and also gives us a quick glimpse of an old artifact we’re somewhat familiar with. After a rather silly additional escape, Indy is being questioned by the Feds. It’s deep in Red Scare days, and Indy is under suspicion. He is let go at the university. Just when our hero might already have too much on his mind, a young greaser named Mutt (LaBeouf) shows up, asking for Indy’s help. It seems his mom and a mutual friend, Professor Oxley (Hurt) have been kidnapped in regards to Oxley’s discovery of a mystical crystal skull. The journey takes them to Peru, where the same Commies are after the skull and have Oxley and Mutt’s mother, Marian (Allen). Indy’s also joined by an old army buddy, Mac (Winstone), who changes sides more times than a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Once the skull is found, it must be taken to a sacred place, where all of the world’s knowledge can be found. Of course, everyone knows the answer is 42. There’s a typical Indy f/x ending after several typical Indy chases.
The cast was a good one. Of course, I don’t need to tell you how important Harrison Ford is to the franchise. He is Indiana Jones, and I really can’t see anyone else in the role. During the television Young Indy shows I never really thought of that character as Indy. I really can’t say how much I hate Shia LaBeouf. Fortunately Spielberg kept him in check. He’s obnoxious and totally out of place in the story. There was speculation that they were passing the baton to the young punk actor, but if you’ve seen the film’s ending, they made it pretty clear that wasn’t what this film was about. John Hurt was wonderful as the often-addlebrained Oxley. I had some reservations about Cate Blanchett as the villain, but she pretty much won me over right away. She underplays it at times, while going over the top at others. She wasn’t really a good enough nemesis for Indy, but that wasn’t Blanchett’s fault at all. Ray Winstone was pretty much the comic relief.
Finally, I was quite impressed with the homage to the past. Very touching moments are given to the Marcus Brody character, a fitting tribute to the late Denholm Elliott. There is a passing reference to Dad Jones, who has also passed on even though Sean Connery is still with us. Connery apparently considered coming out of retirement to play a small part but decided against it. He gave the required “if I was going to come out of retirement it would have been for these guys”. Still, he turned the part down, and the story was rewritten. There is even an homage to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as Indy tells Mutt the story of being kidnapped by and then riding with Poncho Villa. It was particularly nice to see Karen Allen back as Marian. She was arguably the best of the Indy girls. None of these moments take away from the current story and provide a much needed connection for the rest of us. Well done, indeed.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
“Let me speak to you directly and from the heart.”
My first exposure to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance wasn’t the film at all. It was the song (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was a 1962 hit song by Gene Pitney and was written to be included in the film. I wouldn’t really be taken with the song until James Taylor would cover it and have his own hit with the song in 1985 with his album That’s Why I’m Here. By then I’d seen the film but only on late-night television broadcasts which offered bad transfers and plenty of commercials that caused the film to be chopped by over 26 minutes. The funny thing about the song is that while it was written to be included in the film, it actually never appears. Director John Ford thought it sounded too modern and suggested it would only weaken the film and insisted it not be used. It’s almost unfortunate that at the time the song actually received more commercial success than the film did. Now you have a much better opportunity to check out this often overlooked classic, because Paramount has remastered the film and released on UHD Blu-ray and in glorious 4K.
Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, is a United States senator who has returned to his hometown of Shinbone to attend the funeral of an old friend. Stoddard is quite old now, and it’s a bit of a mystery why this accomplished man would take the long journey to attend the funeral of a man who wasn’t well known at all. He’s bombarded by the local newspaper editor for the story, and when confronted with the press’s right to tell the story, he reluctantly agrees, and most of the film is that story.
Many years ago Stoddard was a lawyer taking the stagecoach through Shinbone. The stage is ambushed, and when Stoddard stands up to the thieves he is mercilessly beaten by the infamous leader of the outlaws, Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. He’s left for dead by the bad guys and found by local tough guy Tom Doniphan, played by John Wayne. Stoddard is left at the local restaurant to be cared for by the owner Hallie, played by Vera Miles. He is nursed back to health and feels he owes a debt to Hallie and starts to help out in the kitchen and serving patrons. But he’s frustrated by this frontier idea of justice. He wants to bring a kind of law and order to this part of the country and is mocked by Doniphon for his naiveté. While Tom tries to teach him the gun skills he feels Stoddard really needs, it is becoming clear that both men are rivals for the attentions of Hallie. But that’s not where the trouble is going to come from.
Liberty Valance and his gang make a scene at the restaurant, and it even further inflames the sensibilities of Stoddard, who eventually decides to take a stand against the villain even if it means he’ll be killed. But he’s not killed. By some kind of a miracle that gets paid off at the film’s conclusion, it is Stoddard who survives and gains popularity for ridding the town of the bully. Eventually movement for statehood comes to the territory, and it’s Stoddard who is elected to represent his town in Washington. That’s when he learns the truth behind his encounter with Valance.
This film was kind of a swansong for many of the participants, while it was a beginning for Lee Marvin. It was his first feature role, and it brought him the kind of attention that made him a star going forward. But this was getting toward the end of the line for the likes of John Wayne and James Stewart. Both would reunite the very next year with John Ford for How The West Was Won, but this would be John Ford’s final important film. Both Stewart and Wayne would still have some hits in front of them, but their roles would change to the elder characters from this point forward. John Ford’s age and constant fights with studios would doom him to smaller pictures until his retirement four years later in 1966 and his death in 1973. He only directed a segment of How The West Was Won.
This film is often overlooked because it doesn’t quite fit the mold of the participants. John Ford was known for his expansive vistas. He truly invented the wide open spaces of the western, but this film is far more compact. It’s shot mostly in exteriors and studio lots with very little exterior shooting. The choice to use black & white has often been chalked up to his small budget, but Ford himself has said countless times that the choice was intentional. He believed that the studio backlot locations didn’t hold up as well in color. He thought that with his use of shadows and by using black & white he got more authenticity. He was also concerned with the makeup on both Stewart and Wayne. Stewart was made up to look very old in the framing sequences, and both were made to appear much younger for most of the narrative. He didn’t think that would hold up in color and believed that would distract from appreciation of the film. It turns out he may have been correct. Look at The Irishman if you want to see how bad aging can look on a film with such iconic actors, and make no mistake; James Stewart and John Wayne were as big in their time as Robert DeNiro is today or at any time in his career. Trust me, this was not a budget consideration, and anyone familiar with Ford’s caustic ways knows he would not have accepted such a budget decision if he thought it would mess with the integrity of a film.
Enough can’t be said about how well the actors were cast in this film. Even at the end of his career, James Stewart had that ability to sell sincerity no matter how ignorant it might be. You want to believe everything the man says. While this wasn’t one of John Wayne’s most famous roles, it’s the one noted most by impersonations of the Hollywood giant. This is where the word “pilgrim” shows up 20 to 30 times when he references Stoddard. Not to be overlooked is Vera Miles as the leading lady here. Miles has a presence here that accomplishes no small task. She has to stand out when all of her scenes are with Steward or Wayne and often both. She isn’t given the greatest dialog here, and her part isn’t as defined as it might have been, but she gives it gravitas even when it wasn’t on the page. Woody Strode is another standout as Pompey, the servant and companion to Doniphan. James Stewart complained that he thought the actor was made up as a racist Uncle Remus character and was publicly ridiculed on set by John Ford for the opinion. The role was tainted by the condition of these kinds of roles at the time, but Strode adds dignity and strength to the character throughout. Look for supporting roles from Spaghetti Western veteran Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle.
The unexpected — for the time — performance came from Lee Marvin, who inhabited this iconic bad guy role and went toe-to-toe with both Stewart and Wayne. His career shot up from here, and it’s really no mystery where he made that name for himself. It was here as Liberty Valance that Lee Marvin launched a well-deserved and long-lived career.
It breaks my heart when I hear even modern film critics complain about having to watch an older film, particularly if it’s in black & white. I worry that the concept that it doesn’t matter will influence these studios and keep classics like this from getting the treatment Paramount gives here. If you are a regular here, I hope that doesn’t really apply to you at all and that you have an appreciation for film history. It’s important that as technology moves so far away from our past that the past isn’t left behind. There are so many lessons to be learned by modern filmmakers. Elements like atmosphere, shadows … “Oh well. You know all about that.”