John Rhys-Davies

Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987, Ron Satlof)

I’m going to say something I never expected to say. Ron Satlof does a good job directing Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam. He’s a regular director on the series and he’s never directed one as well as this one. The showdown between Raymond Burr and guilty party is fantastic. Satlof does well, editors Carter DeHaven and David Solomon do well, composer Dick DeBenedictis does well. Satlof’s got some awkward moments throughout, but between the finale and some of the thriller sequences, Murdered Madam is perfectly acceptable. Often effective.

Occasionally the cast helps with the effective, occasionally not. Ann Jillian’s okay; she does great in the thriller stuff, so Satlof basically just has to showcase her and he does. Barbara Hale gets a little more to do this time. She’s good. James Noble’s a good suspect. Richard Portnow’s a good vile criminal. Jason Bernard’s all right. Doesn’t get enough to do, but he keeps things together as the police detective. And Daphne Ashbrook’s a fine female sidekick for William Katt.

I just said all the nice things because now it’s time for the not nice things. Vincent Baggetta gives a really strange and bad performance as Burr’s client. There’s a real disconnect between how he portrays the character and how the character’s supposed to connect with the viewer. It’s Perry Mason, we’re supposed to like the defendant because they’re innocent. Baggetta’s clearly innocent but it doesn’t matter. He’s kind of a tool. And Bill Macy’s weak as another suspect. He’s annoying in such a way it breaks the flow of the movie as much as the commercial breaks.

Finally, at least as the acting goes, David Ogden Stiers is getting way real bored. He doesn’t even seem to be trying anymore. He’s opposing council and just comes off as a stooge. It’s because he doesn’t get enough material.

Other than not evening out material correctly, Patricia Green’s script is okay. It’s a little too cute at times, but the actors often can pull it off–especially when it’s Hale and Burr–and there’s a strange lack of tension throughout. Maybe because Baggetta’s such a tool; he’s got nothing to do with his own case. Burr and company aren’t so much defending him as uncovering multiple conspiracies.

What Murdered Madam lacks in specific amusements, it makes up for with its adequateness. I’m sort of more impressed now than when I finished watching it; even if his direction isn’t great, I’m impressed with what Satlof did here. It’s kind of messy and he does succeed in giving it flow.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Satlof; teleplay by Patricia Green, based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Arch Bryant; edited by Carter DeHaven and David Solomon; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Peter Katz; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Vincent Baggetta (Tony Domenico), Ann Jillian (Suzanne), Daphne Ashbrook (Miranda Bonner), Jason Bernard (Sergeant Koslow), Anthony Geary (Steve Reynolds), Bill Macy (Richard Wilson), James Noble (Leonard Weeks), John Rhys-Davies (Edward Tremaine) and David Ogden Stiers (D.A. Michael Reston).


Concrete Blondes (2012, Nicholas Kalikow)

A more appropriate title for Concrete Blondes might be Bad Lesbian Hip Crime Thriller Written by Three Men. The sexuality of the protagonists sadly has a lot to do with it because writers Kalikow, Rob Warren Thomas and Chris Wyatt create a love triangle between Carly Pope and Samaire Armstrong and their Valley Girl roommate Diora Baird.

Pope’s the straightedge lead, Armstrong’s her devil may care girlfriend (who she supports financially) and Baird’s the third wheel. On the other hand, Baird’s got the boyfriend–Brian Smith in a Will Ferrell impression of sorts; he’s the best performance in the movie. Second best goes to John Rhys-Davies, just because he knows how to chew scenery and not look embarrassed.

Pope and Baird are terrible. Pope’s unlikable in the lead, though given her character’s living situation it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend any time around her. Baird would probably be okay playing the mean girl idiot, but the script’s terrible. Even with a good script, Pope would still be bad.

Armstrong is appealing, but her character’s too poorly written for her to be anything more.

Kalikow’s direction is a little better than his writing, but the production values are weak. It’s obviously DV and Mark Irwin doesn’t do anything with the photography to make it look better than a camcorder. He’s still leagues ahead–maybe because of the camera’s default settings–than editor James Renfroe, who’s atrocious.

Except for Sallah completists, Blondes should be avoided at all costs. It’s hideous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Kalikow; written by Kalikow, Rob Warren Thomas and Chris Wyatt; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by James Renfroe; music by Wayne Kramer; production designer, Tink; produced by Sean Covel.

Starring Carly Pope (Kris Connifer), Samaire Armstrong (Tara Petrie), Diora Baird (Sammi Lovett), Brian Smith (Karl), Jerry Rector (Felipe), Zak Santiago (Lars) and John Rhys-Davies (Kostas Jakobatos).


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Steven Spielberg)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows off Steven Spielberg’s comedic skills. Not just in his direction of the scenes between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, but also in the film’s overall tone. At the beginning, as River Phoenix is running from the bad guys on the train, Spielberg homages Buster Keaton (and rather well). The lighter, playful tone–I mean, they make a big Hitler joke–leads to Last Crusade being Spielberg’s finest Panavision work since his first three films. Given he barely uses Panavision, that statement might not be too bold… but I certainly wasn’t expecting Last Crusade to be so much better directed than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The comedic tone also does well due to John Williams score. Though his “Grail Theme” is poor, most of the score is energetic and fun (Williams borrows a lot from his Jaws 2 score here).

Jeffrey Boam’s script might be the film’s biggest boon, given how fast the story moves. The film runs over two hours, but when it near the last twenty minutes, I couldn’t believe it was almost over. Boam knows how to pace things–the flashback, the opening action scene, the brief but content-full scenes in the United States, then Venice, then Austria–by the time Connery shows up, it’s probably at least thirty-five minutes in the film, but it doesn’t feel like it at all.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sean Connery so willing to let himself be laughed at like he does in this film and it’s one of his best performances. It doesn’t hurt he and Ford work beautifully together, but–almost against the odds for a big blockbuster with five or ten action set pieces–the film actually gives him a story arc, gives one to Ford too (another first for an Indiana Jones movie). While they’re not momentous story arcs, they have definite volume.

The supporting cast–Denholm Elliott has some great scenes here, even if he is a walking punch line–is generally strong. John Rhys-Davies, while amusing, seems to be in the film to differentiate it from the second in the series. Julian Glover’s a good villain and Phoenix is fantastic as the young Indiana Jones. Alison Doody seems like she could have had some good scenes, but instead they got cut.

The film’s very polished–the Indiana Jones series sort of serves as examples of the change in 1980s action movies–and Spielberg’s very comfortable with his action scenes here. I love how he gets Hitchcock into a chase with the Nazis.

I knew this one had to be better than the second, but it’s an excellent diversion.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Robert Watts; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Sean Connery (Professor Henry Jones), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alison Doody (Dr. Elsa Schneider), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Julian Glover (Walter Donovan), River Phoenix (Young Indy), Michael Byrne (Vogel) and Kevork Malikyan (Kazim).


Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

Don Siegel had an anecdote about the length of titles. He showed them to his boss, who kept asking for them to be longer, then showed them to the boss again, telling him each time he’d made the changes. In fact, he had not–his boss was simply familiar with the titles and couldn’t gauge the experience fresh after the first viewing.

The last time I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I gave it three and a half. A first for the Stop Button, a post about a previously viewed film. Before starting the film, I figured I’d only write it up again if the star rating changed. Much to my surprise–as Raiders goes through many two and a half (and maybe even two) star lulls at times–I realized, this viewing, definitely a four star one. The last time, I think, I hadn’t seen the film in quite a long time and was waiting for scenes and sequences, my memory of the film interfering with my viewing of the film itself.

It’s still a problematic four. The ending, where the film needs a boost, works only because of the John Williams score. There’s the end music, closing the story, then the bump to the iconic theme music. Maybe it’s as simple as I didn’t watch it long enough last time, to let the music envelope me. Because, more than any other Williams score (Raiders being at the high point of his career, both in terms of quality and cinematic importance), this one carries a lot of weight for the film. It does a lot of the heavy lifting.

It doesn’t do all the heavy lifting–Harrison Ford, from the first grin, has most of it. That grin, as he’s falling into the pit in the opening sequence, establishes the character. Everything else–from his interactions with Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, even Karen Allen–is just gravy. Spielberg’s direction is good, but–as the ending (compared to Close Encounters) illustrates–is far from extraordinary.

The supporting cast–particularly Allen, Rhys-Davies and Paul Freeman (even if his French accent is a little iffy)–are all great. There’s not a weak performance in the film and a lot of the smaller ones are singular (I’m thinking of Don Fellows).

The problems are plot ones. There are lulls due to the (requisite) epical storytelling, but it goes further. Even when the events aren’t perturbing the plot, some of Spielberg’s action sequences get a little long. Others, like the truck sequence, are perfect.

I was trying to guess how many times I’ve seen Raiders. I’m thinking it’s got to be around fifteen. Maybe the last viewing, I tried to find something new in it. I don’t think there is (except some in jokes, I’m sure) and, instead of examining it, I should have just been enjoying it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (Dr. Rene Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alfred Molina (Satipo), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Gobler), Vic Tablian (Barranca), Don Fellows (Col. Musgrove) and William Hootkins (Major Eaton).


The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen)

John Glen does a litany of disservices to The Living Daylights, mostly due to his inability to direct actors–Timothy Dalton specifically–but also on a number of technical levels. Glen relies far too much on rear screen projection for banal driving shots. Some of the other technical aspects–the bland sets and terrible lighting of them–aren’t necessarily Glen’s fault, though they are his responsibility. His inability to direct Dalton hurts the film most of all. Dalton can’t deliver the Bond one liners and he has real problems with the Lothario aspects of the part, but when he’s doing different things, he’s fine. Towards the end, once the film centers on he and Maryam d’Abo, he gets really good.

D’Abo’s another particular part of Living Daylights. She’s not so much good–though she’s very appealing after a while–as she is perfect in the part of a naïve cellist. Part of her appeal might be the short end she gets from the Living Daylights plot. While I realize it’s a James Bond movie and deceiving the audience every three minutes, whether it’s a character’s allegiances or an action set piece (cliffhangers only work when you’ve got some time in between crisis and resolution, a week, four months, not five or six seconds). But. So d’Abo is more appealing because she’s getting run through the duplicity ringer, but she’s getting run through it by Dalton, who’s James Bond and isn’t James Bond supposed to be smart? The audience knows more than he does and it doesn’t help Dalton at all, since he’s already saddled with bad lines and bad direction. It’s like the filmmakers already gave him a vote of no confidence or something, though he’s far more personable and likable than first choice Pierce Brosnan ever was, which might have more to do with the Brosnan Bond movies but whatever. They shouldn’t have jinxed him.

The stunts are cool, especially having seen all CG-composite Bond movies. The locations are nice, but cutting from a crappy set to a good location–it almost looks like all the sets were the same sound stage used over and over, since Glen uses the same composition for all of them. John Barry’s score is good. The supporting cast ranges. Art Malik and Joe Don Baker are good. Jeroen Krabbé, who I was expecting to be great, was not.

At the end, Glen (or the second unit director) does a fantastic, explosion-heavy shootout at a Russian airbase and he does a good job of it. Compounded by the recent dramatic developments and Dalton and d’Abo’s chemistry, The Living Daylights really turns around at the end, which very few films do. And it has a silly ending, which rewards the involved audience member–maybe it should have been more concerned with immediate rewards throughout, but still. It’s nice to see films used to make that consideration, since so few do so anymore.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Glen; screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, based on a story by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Alec Mills; edited by John Grover and Peter Davies; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Lamont; produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Wilson; released by United Artists.

Starring Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Maryam d’Abo (Kara Milovy), Jeroen Krabbé (Gen. Georgi Koskov), Joe Don Baker (Brad Whitaker), John Rhys-Davies (Gen. Leonid Pushkin), Art Malik (Kamran Shah), Andreas Wisniewski (Necros), Thomas Wheatley (Saunders), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Robert Brown (M) and Caroline Bliss (Miss Moneypenny).


Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

Maybe it was the viewing atmosphere… I also was obsessing about something I’d read from either Spielberg or Lucas claiming credit for “MTV-style” editing with Raiders. Once the film was edited, the two went through and snipped a few frames at each edit point to hurry the film along. As I watched Raiders tonight, it all did feel very hurried.

The film is excellent–exciting, well-written, beautifully directed–but nothing sat, nothing resonated. I expected a transcendent experience (similar to the one Star Wars produces), but found myself very aware of the film. Not obsessively–I wasn’t watching the clock to see how long each sequence went and I didn’t time how long Indiana Jones and the audience were deceived about Marion’s death, but I did notice all the work being done in the film. Primarily, John Williams’ score. From the first sequence–when Indy’s running in South America to the plane–Williams’ score does more work than anything else in the film. It’s not bad–it’s a great score–but I just couldn’t separate my observation from the experience. The film just didn’t force me to do it.

Similarly, lots of little moments in the script do a lot of work in the shortest time possible–the rapid-fire humanization of Indiana Jones, his comedic accidents, the establishing of Indy and Sallah’s kids–it’s all fast and it’s all precise, and maybe it’s too fast and too precise for this presentation. The Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD is the cleanest DVD presentation I have ever seen. It doesn’t look like a movie, it looks like a Pixar digitalization. There are no DVD artifacts, which is fine, but there is no film grain either, which is bad. Raiders plays like one of those shows recorded on video back in the 1980s and 1990s, when everything just looked a little off. And Raiders shouldn’t look off.

I haven’t seen the film in eight or nine years and then it was in optimal settings–without looking for the Spielberg/Lucas editing innovation–on LaserDisc. I’ll have to watch Raiders again in similar conditions, but it was a rather unsentimental experience, which I wasn’t expecting from a film I’ve probably seen twenty times.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (Dr. Rene Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alfred Molina (Satipo), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Gobler), Vic Tablian (Barranca), Don Fellows (Col. Musgrove) and William Hootkins (Major Eaton).


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