A Town Called Hell (1971) Review

Directors: Robert Parrish and Irving Lerner

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

A Town Called Hell, which was titled “A Town Called Bastard” in some places (no, that’s not a joke), largely lives up to its reputation of being a piece of crap. The plot is about a wandering widow named Alvira (Stella Stevens) searching for the person who murdered her husband, offering a gold reward to anybody who will point her in the right direction. Done in a spaghetti western style, this incoherent movie offers little in the way of actual entertainment.

Okay, before we get started I should point out that the version of A Town Called Hell that I watched was the one on Amazon Prime…and it was sub-optimal to put it kindly. It was a rubbish-quality print of the film with poor audio and presented in fullscreen, without any panning or scanning. It was also several minutes short of the standard runtime of 95 minutes, I believe. A Blu Ray has been released of this picture, and maybe that is of superior quality, but I’m certainly in no hurry to go buy it.

How could a western with such a badass title go so wrong? I feel like I know less about the flick now that I’ve watched it than before. It’s a confusing and, more importantly, boring mess with just enough gunplay to prevent audience members from nodding off. Why are these people shooting at each other? I couldn’t tell you, but at least it’s better than people talking to each other with almost inaudible dialogue. Also, where’s Telly Savalas? The guy gets top-billing, yet is barely in the movie at all.

Armed with what I think is a flashback that goes on forever, this is a film that seems barely concerned with actual storytelling. Of course, the trashiness of the feature may have been amplified by the crumby version of the picture that I viewed. Rather than watching A Town Called Hell/A Town Called Bastard, I’d recommend coming up alternate titles for it, like “A Town Called Shit” or “A Town Called Sumbitch.” Yeah, that’s more amusing than just about anything in this movie. I’ve seen worse, but this is still pretty bad.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

White Heat (1949) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

When I think of the greatest acting performances I’ve seen in my life, James Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat is one of the first to spring to mind. In this truly great gangster classic, Jarrett confronts threats against his life from both inside and outside his crew of criminals. You see, he just robbed a train and the federal government wants him dead or behind bars, so they send an agent by the name of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to infiltrate Jarrett’s ranks. James Cagney’s made some good movies, but this is the best of the lot (well, at least of the ones I’ve seen).

Of course, it is Cagney’s beyond-superb performance as a psychotically-violent mobster who’s losing his grip on reality that stands out most when thinking about White Heat. It’s a shame that it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. However, this picture’s secret weapon is its taut script. The storytelling here is remarkably tight…remove one scene from the finished product and the whole thing would make no sense. It should probably be shown in filmmaking schools for this reason.

Between the tough-talking dialogue and the moments of action (which come rather frequently for a non-action film), you’ve got tons of iconic moments. Rewatching White Heat will have any viewer saying “oh, I love this scene” many times over. The various supporting characters are reasonably easy to keep track of and the Max Steiner musical score shines on a few occasions.

White Heat is frequently considered a film-noir, but I think of it more as a straight gangster flick, similar to those Cagney was making in the 1930s. Anyway, this thriller is a must-watch for fans of organized crime media. It has it all: an astounding central performance, a screenplay that never goes off on tangents, cold-blooded killings, an explosive finale, and more. Its appeal is not limited to Cagney aficionados.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978) Review

Director: Guy Hamilton

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War

Runtime: 118 minutes (standard version), 126 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Seventeen years after the release of the World War II action-adventure masterwork The Guns of Navarone (1961), a sequel to it was sent to theaters. Don’t get your hopes up too much, though, as it’s nothing to write home about. Shortly after the special forces mission in the first film, Mallory (Robert Shaw, played by Gregory Peck in the original) and Miller (Edward Fox, played by David Niven in the original) are assigned to a new Allied commando team to go on a raid into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. It’s not terrible, but should it have been made in the first place?

Let’s start with the positives, shall we? The musical score by Ron Goodwin is pretty good, and the cast is pretty starry. I mean, in addition to the aforementioned Robert Shaw and Edward Fox, we’ve got Harrison Ford (as Barnsby), Carl Weathers (as Weaver), Franco Nero (as Lescovar), Barbara Bach (as Maritza), Richard Kiel (as Drazak), and Michael Byrne (as Schroeder). There’s plenty of action scenes, although none of them rise to the level of outstanding.

The mission that the commandos are sent on here is a bit less clear for a notable portion of the movie than it is in The Guns of Navarone. In that picture, the objective was simple to describe: blow up the Nazi cannons. Here, I feel like I can’t really go into detail without delving into spoiler territory. Also, the initial special forces team seems a bit large, with some of them not even being given names (the end credits have four dudes listed simply as “Force Ten Team”). This is a far cry from the original, where all the heroes were given ample screentime to flesh out their characters. Force 10 from Navarone also sheds much of the moral complexity of the original in favor of standard war flick “thrills.”

It’s not a trainwreck, but this sequel can’t live up to the original. The truth is that it’s just not that exciting or dramatically involving. It had some potential (just think of the cast listed above in one movie together!), but, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty typical entry into the men-on-a-mission subgenre. It’s watchable as a stand-alone action-thriller…just don’t compare it to the immortal The Guns of Navarone.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Guns of Navarone sets out to add a new legend to the long list of myths set in Greece. However, this one isn’t set in ancient times…it takes places during World War II. During that conflict, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist in real life) to sabotage two massive Nazi cannons there. A convoy of British warships is planning on sailing past Navarone to rescue some Allied soldiers about to be blitzkrieged by the German war machine, and the two guns at Navarone put them in severe danger.

Along with the previous year’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), this is one of those crucial action-adventure pictures that laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the genre. Now-common elements of those types of movies that can be found in The Guns of Navarone include: the impossible mission with a ticking clock, the hastily assembled team of quarreling professionals, bromance, bad guys being mowed down with relative ease, the stealing and wearing of enemy uniforms to blend in, girls with guns, reliance on special effects, the impenetrable fortress, the badass theme music, the traitor in the ranks, etc. This film was among the first to combine tropes like these all under one, impeccably-made roof.

So, this is a landmark feature…does it still hold up as superb entertainment today? I’d enthusiastically say “yes.” The aforementioned musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin is brilliant, the characters – played by a macho, all-star cast – are incredibly well-drawn (I’d pay good money to see a movie about them sitting down at dinner, talking over their respective days), and the action sequences are excellent (although the very best one is the one that takes place earliest in the runtime). The impressive screenplay provides several moral dilemmas for the characters to face, greatly deepening the picture.

The Guns of Navarone is a war/action-adventure flick with brains and balls. It helped write the rulebook for derring-do-flavored films (in fact, two of its actors – David Niven [who plays John Miller here] and Stanley Baker [who plays “Butcher” Brown] – were initially considered for the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery), and still holds up as one of the all-time great movies. Despite all of the gunfire and explosions, it’s best to think of it as a character-oriented piece to get maximum mileage out of it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It isn’t often that you hear about states within the United States banning movies. However, this picture, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, was initially outlawed in Ohio thanks to its violence (extremely tame by today’s standards) and its fairly detailed depictions of potentially imitable crimes. The plot follows gangster Ralph Cotter’s (James Cagney) escape from the chain gang and his life of crime afterwards, which includes bringing in two crooked cops, Charles Weber (Ward Bond) and John Reece (Barton MacLane), onto his payroll. It’s not one of James Cagney’s very best, but it’s a nice change of pace.

Ol’ Cagney here plays one of his career’s most psychopathic characters. He doesn’t even have a mother character to show affection towards, like he does in The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949). He’s a mean cuss who’ll pistol-whip you into submission if he suspects resistance. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye also probably has enough noirish touches for it to be considered a proper film-noir. The cinematography isn’t quite moody enough to look like a stereotypical noir, but it still might fit the bill for 1940s-1950s crime-thriller aficionados.

Unfortunately, this feature almost hits a brick wall at times, due to a romantic subplot between Cagney’s character and Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter). It sometimes feels like something out of a completely different film. I’m not sure this subplot could’ve been completely removed from the final cut without leaving plot holes in the story, but it definitely should’ve been written out of the screenplay. There’s also bookend scenes in a courtroom that may spoil who lives and who dies throughout the course of the flick.

Yeah, it’s somewhat talky at times, but Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is worth recommending because of the Cagney factor. He’s one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood history, even when playing a cold-blooded killer. If you can find a copy, I’d say “watch it.” Also, what’s up with the hat that Vic Mason (Rhys Williams) wears? I thought only cartoon characters wore whoopee caps.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) Review

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

There are video games that are more accurate and realistic than this World War II-based action-adventure picture. I really don’t think that’s a hyperbolic statement. Here, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Nazi-occupied Alps to rescue Carnaby (Robert Beatty), an American officer who knows of the Normandy invasion plans and has been captured by the Germans. He’s being held in an impenetrable castle and our heroes, particularly Smith (Richard Burton) and Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), have to storm it. People who have a hard time suspending their disbelief should avoid this movie like the plague.

I, on the other hand, love this crazy stuff, and find Where Eagles Dare to be a real treat. Once things start to pick up, this film is almost non-stop gunfire, explosions, scuffles, and escapes. The legendary Yakima Canutt is the second unit director here, and his action sequences are dynamite. They’re video-gamey as all get-out, but I don’t have a problem with this. Ron Goodwin provides a pulse-pounding musical score.

Listen, this is one unrealistic movie, with bad guys being knocked down like bowling pins, Nazis speaking English instead of German (except when they don’t, of course), and hand grenades tossed at our protagonists taking approximately ten hours to explode. It’s totally preposterous, and the plot quickly becomes insanely convoluted. Good luck trying to wrap your head around it. The beginning is quite slow-moving, and most people in the feature get next-to-no characterization.

I’m not going to lie. The first time I saw Where Eagles Dare, I hated it immensely. How could one movie make Medal of Honor: Allied Assault look like documentary footage and have such a ludicrously over-complicated story? Also, what’s up with the lethargic pacing? However, I’ve definitely reevaluated it, and now I think that it’s the bomb. Most of my complaints still stand, but I’ve learned not to care. Also, don’t forget to listen to the Iron Maiden song “Where Eagles Dare” afterwards!

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Only God Forgives (2013) Review

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Genre(s): Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Gangster thriller Only God Forgives desperately wants to be cherished as a work of art. Its ponderous nature borders on self-parody. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, criminal Julian (Ryan Gosling) finds that he’s expected to seek vengeance for the recent killing of his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). However, is his brother’s death worth being avenged? I suppose it’s an interesting question, but this movie’s mind is mostly elsewhere.

Only God Forgives is one of those arthouse films where people stare off into the distance in silence for long periods of time. Man, they still make movies like that? I thought that style of filmmaking had been ridiculed to death? Most things in the picture happen slowly, I suppose because it makes the flick appear more important and artsier. Being only ninety minutes long, it’s not exactly boring, but it is self-indulgent. However, don’t get me started on that trollish ending.

There’s some good stuff about this feature, though. The musical score by Cliff Martinez has its moments, and the use of color and lighting stands out. There are a couple of notable performances, including Vithaya Pansringarm’s as Chang, a creepy, sadistic police officer. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a memorable performance as Crystal, Ryan Gosling’s character’s vile mother. As mentioned above, it’s not a mind-numbing movie, managing to maintain my interest for most scenes.

Some have stated that this ultra-violent crime-thriller is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but I largely come down in the middle on it. It’s more concerned with appearing dreamlike than just about anything else, even if real-world dreams are typically much faster-paced than this. Only God Forgives has its commendable aspects, but, in the end, it’s just too concerned with being viewed as high art to remember that there’s an audience watching.

My rating is 5 outta 10.