Vera Cruz (1954) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

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

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the Franco-Mexican War, American gunslingers Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) are hired by the French-dominated Mexican government to escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) across rebel-held territory in Mexico. One of the better movies that either Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster appeared in, this action-adventure-western is not just highly engaging, it was also very influential on the western genre. Wikipedia currently claims that The Magnificent Seven (1960), the westerns directed by Sergio Leone, The Professionals (1966), and The Wild Bunch (1969) all owe a little something to Vera Cruz.

This war-time western has a mean, tough demeanor that would help inspire the tones of various western works to come. Its casual violence, amoral personalities, and stylized gunplay would all be noted by upcoming filmmakers. Vera Cruz feels ahead-of-its-time, more like a 1964 flick, than a 1954 one. The cast is also stacked, featuring the aforementioned Cooper and Lancaster, as well as Cesar Romero (as Marquis Henri de Labordere), Charles Bronson (playing Pittsburgh), Ernest Borgnine (showing up as Donnegan), and Jack Elam (as Tex).

This heightened war/western feature has tremendous action…and lots of it. The big, final battle is a highlight. Gary Cooper really gets the opportunity to show off his inner John Rambo. The runtime is only a little over an hour-and-a-half, so Vera Cruz crams plenty of action scenes and an innumerable quantity of double-crosses into its package. This is nothing if not entertaining.

Vera Cruz is essential viewing for fans of the cast and the genres. The only element that really ages the work is some “Lost Cause”-style reminiscing about the American South (due to the fact that Cooper’s character was a plantation owner). However, this is offset somewhat by the presence of the badass Ballard (played by Archie Savage), a Black gunman who used to serve in the Union military during the American Civil War.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney solidified his position as one of the greatest actors of the silent era with the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, France, an ugly-looking hunchback living in Notre Dame cathedral named Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) finds himself wrapped up in a plot to start a revolt by the French underclass. This silent film was directed by Wallace Worsley, who also helmed the exceptional The Penalty (1920), the gangster drama that was Lon Chaney’s breakout motion picture.

This big-budget historical epic has production values that still impress. The sets made for the flick are absolutely incredible. There are a few I-wonder-how-they-did-that moments, such as when Quasimodo is clambering all around the exterior of Notre Dame. Chaney’s performance is mesmerizing. He was forty when The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released, but he has the physicality of someone half that age here. He truly was the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Chaney’s a sight to see, but the film around him isn’t always doing him favors. There are a lot of characters to keep track of here, and the hunchback of Notre Dame almost becomes a supporting character in his own movie. The plot of the flick is pretty typical silent-era melodrama. Remove Chaney and the sets, and nobody would remember this picture. Fortunately, those two things are present, making it a rather good production overall.

Okay, the story in the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t its strong suit. Acting and spectacle are what it does best. Seeing Chaney fight a mob by dousing them in boiling lead is worth watching the film for. The movie’s politics are certainly undercooked (is it saying that battling against royalist oppression is a bad thing?), but Chaney is one of the all-time greats, so I’d say “watch it.”

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

James Cagney returned to the role of gangster in 1938 with the popular crime-drama Angels with Dirty Faces. Here, a group of inner-city kids find themselves torn between the influences of tough mobster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and virtuous priest Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien). Who will they follow in the footsteps of? Who will survive to the ending? Is James Cagney the best basketball referee of all time? Humphrey Bogart also shows up as corrupt lawyer James Frazier.

Cagney gives one of the strongest performances of his career here (he was given an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). The acting is terrific across the board, and the use of light and shadow is excellent. Overall, this movie is not as nitty-gritty as The Public Enemy (1931), action-packed as ‘G’ Men (1935), or ferocious as White Heat (1949), but Angels with Dirty Faces has a clear identity of its own.

This is a very well-paced gangster film, with it moving from scene to scene with amazing grace. On the action front, things are pretty solid. The big action moment, the final shootout, has got to be one of the very best gunfights in cinema up to that point in history. Cagney apparently had actual bullets fired in his general area during filming. Director Michael Curtiz (who would later helm Casablanca [1942]) is no stranger when it comes to exciting action.

It’s not quite up there with the aforementioned White Heat or The Public Enemy, but Angels with Dirty Faces is still one of Cagney’s best flicks. The picture’s ambiguous ending has been debated by fans for decades, and the acting still holds up. This one is certainly recommended. In Home Alone (1990), a movie titled Angels with Filthy Souls is watched on television, and, in its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), a film named Angels with Even Filthier Souls makes an appearance.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Dune (1984) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Adventure, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1984 version of Dune could be seen as director David Lynch’s attempt to break into the mainstream following the success of his The Elephant Man (1980). He was, of course, not exactly successful, and Dune became a notorious box office bomb. The complicated plot of the surreal sci-fi movie in question is not easy to sum up, but I’ll give it a shot. In the distant future, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) leads a revolt against the galactic forces of tyranny on the desert world of Arrakis. This synopsis only scratches the surface of the intricacies of the story.

David Lynch loves the bizarre and the grotesque, and Dune has these in spades. It would be a mistake to go into this flick expecting Eraserhead: In Space!, but it does feature Lynch’s trademark sense of the surreal and the uneasy. However, it can be difficult to tell what is dream logic and what is convoluted storytelling. There’s a big exposition dump at the beginning of the picture that’s reasonably easy to understand, but the lore of Dune‘s universe gets deeper from there. For a movie that frequently has voice-overs giving the inner thoughts of characters, this sure can be an impenetrable work.

This cold science-fiction-adventure production has some visuals that make you feel like you’re having a damned stroke. The special effects are impressive, as is the set of talent assembled. I mean, rock band Toto and Brian Eno did the music. That’s just nuts. There are some familiar faces in the cast, such as rock star Sting (playing villainous henchman Feyd-Rautha) and Patrick Stewart (as soldier Gurney Halleck).

So, is Dune worth watching? David Lynch completists obviously need to check it out, but most others will be turned off by the complex plot and lore and the general weirdness. It does feel a little awkwardly structured at times, but I found it to be mildly entertaining once it found its groove. It does feel a little torn over whether it wants to be a grand sci-fi epic or a Lynchian freakshow. I’d say “approach with caution.” Fun fact: before settling on Dune, Lynch was offered the role of director on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

I Walk the Line (1970) Review

Director: John Frankenheimer

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Gregory Peck stars in a rural crime-drama with a soundtrack consisting of tracks from Johnny Cash? Yes, this film exists…and it’s not too bad either. In small-town Tennessee, Sheriff Tawes (Gregory Peck) falls in love and has an affair with Alma McCain (Tuesday Weld), the daughter of local illegal moonshiner Carl McCain (Ralph Meeker). Blood will be shed before this story is over.

Of course, the most famous element of this picture is its Johnny Cash soundtrack (“I Walk the Line” is unsurprisingly present). It’s not enough to make the movie worth watching by itself, but it does improve the scenes that it appears in. There isn’t much action here, but there is suspenseful excitement at the very end. This is far from Gregory Peck’s best role, but he’s fine in I Walk the Line.

Even though I Walk the Line is about the main character’s personal dilemma, it isn’t a particularly inspiring (for the lack of a better word) one. How about not having an affair, especially with a moonshiner’s kid? How about that, Mr. Peck? Think! Gregory’s character’s wife, Ellen Haney (Estelle Parsons), and his deputy, Hunnicutt (Charles Durning), probably end up suffering the most from his affair, even if both of their roles are pretty forgettable.

According to the IMDb Trivia section for this work, it is “[c]onsidered by many to be Peck’s worst film.” Ouch. Okay, I don’t think that it’s that terrible (haven’t these viewers seen Marooned [1969]?), but it doesn’t give you very many compelling reasons to set aside some time for it. I Walk the Line is watchable, despite being neither-here-nor-there in the recommendability department. Normally I’d say “Gregory Peck fans might enjoy it,” but, considering its reputation, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Straight Story (1999) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Old Iowan man Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who can’t drive regular automobiles, sets out on his riding lawnmower to visit his ill brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who lives in Wisconsin. In a filmography largely consisting of bizarre, uneasy-feeling surrealist flicks, this just might be director David Lynch’s strangest movie. I mean, David Lynch actually made a motion picture that was released by Disney and given a G rating by the MPAA (despite some mild swearing and a dead deer)?

One of the most stereotypically Midwestern movies ever made, the acting performances here are all completely convincing. The actors and actresses in The Straight Story are really good. It’s probably one of the best-acted productions I’ve ever seen. It really draws you in and it ends just as soon as the main character’s lawnmower-riding shtick starts to get old for the audience.

Rejoice David Lynch fans, for his trademark weird sense of humor is still alive and well (although this is a drama first and foremost). The Straight Story might have a gentle exterior, but is it just me, or does this flick deal with some heavy topics? The scene depicting veterans discussing their war-time experiences springs to mind as one of the movie’s weightier moments.

This Midwestern odyssey is worth watching…but for who? Yes, it’s rated G by the MPAA, but would a child enjoy it? It’s probably a bit too slow, contemplative, and lacking in fireworks for the younger demographics, but I’m sure many adults will get a kick out of it. It’s more than just a movie about an old-timer driving around on a lawnmower, it’s an existentially-minded drama with some moving elements. Oh yeah, it’s also based on a true story. Who would’ve known?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Man from Del Rio (1956) Review

Director: Harry Horner

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Set during the Wild West period, drifter Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) is made the sheriff of a small town after dealing with some of the local riff-raff. Man from Del Rio is a pretty typical typical western movie for its time period. There’s not much that sets it apart from the rest of the various other 1950s westerns, other than the fact that it stars Anthony Quinn, one of Hollywood’s hardest hard men.

Yes, there is some padding in Man from Del Rio, despite its runtime of only 82 minutes. It should also be noted that there are a few – er – similarities with that other ’50s western, High Noon (1952). One thing that they have in common is Katy Jurado (playing Estella here). Anthony Quinn and her look like they were made for each other in this picture. However, the High Noon-esque finale in the film that this review is about falls a bit on the anti-climactic side.

One should not go into Man from Del Rio expecting wall-to-wall action, but it is blessed with one Hell of a barroom brawl. Filmed in fairly long takes with lots of breakable parts of the set, it ranks among the best one-on-one fights in western movie history. It’s superb (although the Goofs section of this flick’s IMDb profile alleges that the stunt doubles are “very obvious”). Other than that punch-up, there’s some gunplay, but it pales in comparison to that saloon smashing.

This is not one of my favorite western movies, even if Anthony Quinn is one of my favorite actors. The plot has a few interesting beats, but it can’t escape from the shadow of High Noon. If it wasn’t for the Anthony Quinn Factor and the barroom fist fight, this film wouldn’t really be worth watching at all. However, as it stands now, it’s an acceptable way to waste some time, although they really should’ve worked on that ending a bit more.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Touch of Evil (1958) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes (original theatrical cut), 111 minutes (restored cut)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Touch of Evil, released in 1958, was one of the last films noirs from the golden age of that style in the 1940s and 1950s…and it’s one of the best. The story’s about American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Mexican police officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) investigating a fatal car-bombing along the border between their two countries. The most critically-acclaimed movie from director Orson Welles may be Citizen Kane (1941), but, to be honest, I’d rather watch Touch of Evil, which he helmed and starred in.

In addition to the talented cast, the cinematography is a major star of the show. The long, one-shot opening sequence, depicting the car-bombing that sets off the plot, is a doozy and is rightfully famous. Shadows and interesting camera angles are used incessantly. The flick has a seedy, sleazy, nocturnal atmosphere that works wonders (although a few too many scenes take place during daytime).

This boundary-pushing classic is no action picture, but those moments where the shit hits the fan warrant a chef’s kiss. One murder scene is just as intense and ferocious as anything you’d see nowadays. It’s an edge-of-your-seat part of a fantastic film, with another one of those staggering sequences being the one with the hopped-up hoodlums at a remote motel. Some have raised issue with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican character, but it’s handled very tastefully for that sort of thing (no cheesy accent here).

If I must find any fault with Touch of Evil (other than the aforementioned complaint about too much sunlight at times), it’s that the plot can feel a bit vague in the opening scenes (even if the first thing the audience sees in the entire picture is a bomb). While films noirs generally aren’t my thing, this one is harsh, in-your-face, reasonably easy to follow, not overly talky, and satisfying. This is a movie that any self-respecting cinephile needs to check out.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Where East Is East (1929) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Where East Is East is the last of the ten films that Lon Chaney starred in that were directed by Tod Browning. It is also Lon Chaney’s second-to-last silent movie (the final one being the now-mostly-lost Thunder [1929]). Set in Southeast Asia, Where East Is East is about animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney) reluctantly giving away the hand of his daughter – Toyo (Lupe Velez) – for marriage, but finding out that her fiancĂ© – Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes) – may not be as faithful as he appears to be.

A silent melodrama through and through, I don’t think that this film does enough to separate itself from the rest of the bizarre lost triangle flicks Chaney did during his career. Sure, it has an exotic setting, but it doesn’t really have too many memorable set-pieces. Chaney does use a chair to handle a loose tiger in one scene, which is pretty cool, but, other than that, don’t go into this one expecting much action.

Chaney’s character’s relationship with his daughter is sort of creepy, perhaps intentionally so. They’re always hugging and kissing each other. I kind of doubt that people in the 1920s were constantly doing that, so it may have been a touch added by director Tod Browning to add some perversity to the mix. Also of note is an ape played by Charles Gemora. I mean, just look at this man’s filmography on IMDb! He must’ve been Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing gorillas on the Silver Screen. The dude even showed up in Island of Lost Souls (1932) as “Gorilla on Pier.”

Overall, this is an aggressively average outing for Lon Chaney. There are a few good moments (like the hunt in the opening scene), but it pales in comparison to the likes of The Penalty (1920) and West of Zanzibar (1928). It doesn’t have much to say (other than “don’t mess with Lon Chaney”…but you already knew that, right?), so I can’t really recommend it. There are worse movies out there, but a Chaney flick where he plays a vengeful animal trapper in Southeast Asia should’ve been so much better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Wild at Heart (1990) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wild at Heart is a crime-thriller from director David Lynch about two lovers – “Sailor” Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) – who find themselves on a road trip to Hell while trying to escape the latter’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). This is David Lynch we’re talking about here, so this is a deliberately weird work that won’t appeal to viewers looking for something – well – coherent. However, I love surrealism, so will Wild at Heart do the trick for me?

First of all, those expecting this to be Eraserhead: Road Trip! will be sorely disappointed. Yes, there are scenes in this flick with an oneiric feel to them, but I don’t think that the movie went far enough off the deep-end to be truly memorable. There’s this strange sense of unease throughout many sequences, but there isn’t a whole lot of dream logic. Some may be thrown off by the film’s odd sentimental streak and dark humor.

With allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Elvis Presley, this picture’s approach can feel scattershot. Try something surreal, and, if that doesn’t work, try another surreal trick. Nicolas Cage’s hammy performance is amusing at first, but it’s not enough to sustain the two-hour runtime. Willem Dafoe (as killer Bobby Peru) is a highlight. Just look at that bastard’s moldy-mouthed grin beneath the bank-robbing stocking he’s wearing over his face! Terrifying, isn’t it?

There were times where I think I understood what David Lynch was going for here, but I just didn’t care enough to appreciate it. I totally dig movies that make you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s dream, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength as this one. It’s a little repetitive and not quite surreal enough. Some plot threads don’t really go anywhere. I like the idea of this movie more than its actual execution.

My rating is 5 outta 10.