The Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) Review

Director: Mack V. Wright

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 b-movie The Riders of the Whistling Skull is an early cinematic entry into the “Weird West” subgenre. That phrase refers to western genre media with fantasy/supernatural, horror, or science-fiction elements. This flick is about three cowboys – Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) – who go on a quest to find a lost city out West that’s been overrun by Native American cultists. Oh, yeah, they also bring a ventriloquist dummy with them.

This is a very low-budget affair, but that’s part of its charm. The Riders of the Whistling Skull is cheaply-made, yet it manages to keep the audience’s attention. It’s the fourth entry into the The Three Mesquiteers series, a franchise of Poverty Row westerns that featured a trio of Wild West gunslingers. John Wayne actually appeared as the Stony Brooke character in several of the pictures in the prolific series, but this isn’t one of them.

The action sequences here are fair-enough, but nothing that special, as the heroes battle against a small army of Native American cultists. Speaking of indigenous peoples, the movie’s depiction of them is somewhat racist, but what do you expect from a micro-budget 1930s b-western? If you’ve come here looking for an enlightened look at racial minorities in such a picture, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

As of right now, Wikipedia and IMDb refer to this feature as “Riders of the Whistling Skull,” without the “The” at the beginning of the title (I’m pretty sure that I saw a “The” at the beginning of the title during the movie’s opening credits sequence). Anyway, this is a pretty solid action-adventure film all things considered. It’s less than an hour in length, so it’s a painless viewing. This western is good, corny fun with a unique plot

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Last Laugh (1924) Review

Director: F.W. Murnau

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1924 German silent film The Last Laugh (originally titled “Der Ietzte Mann” in German) is all about the power of visual storytelling. While most silent movies relied on intertitles for dialogue or to tell the audience what’s going on, this motion picture has almost none. The plot here is about a proud, yet aging, doorman (Emil Jannings) at a high-class hotel who’s position is threatened by his increasing frailty. He just can’t lift those suitcases like he used to.

A lot in this feature rides on its virtuoso cinematography. Pioneering the “unchained camera technique,” the camera moves around more than it does in your typical silent movie. It’s a visually splendorous work, and that opening shot with the camera in a descending elevator overlooking the hotel lobby is unforgettable. However, the best scene in the flick is a drunken dream sequence that I won’t spoil the details of here.

For all of its glory, The Last Laugh is hampered a bit by its ending. It feels like one of those studio-mandated conclusions ordered to make the finished product more commercial. As the movie stands now, the ending’s not horrible by any means, but it does feel a tad out-of-place. It should also probably be noted that there are a couple of slightly slow segments.

Minor gripes aside, this is a memorable work of German Expressionism. The cinematography, drama, and special effects (yes, there are special effects here) work together marvelously to tell a story that’s a lot more interesting than it might sound on paper. Some may scoff at the ending, but The Last Laugh still holds up as entertainment. Did I mention that I really love that dream scene?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tenet (2020) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre(s): Action, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 150 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner Tenet was supposed to be one of those films to bail out the struggling movie theater industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The picture follows a secret agent, simply referred to as “the Protagonist” (John David Washington), who must stop a group of terrorists from using time-inversion technology to threaten the planet. It’s a long, puzzling ride…is it worth the trip?

The admirably ambitious Tenet is, unfortunately, a confusing feature. With characters traveling forward in time and others backwards in time at the same time, it’s hard to keep abreast of. The complicated-for-the-sake-of-complicated nature of the film doesn’t really make me want to watch it over and over again, it just sparks apathy. Perhaps the time-inversion stuff would’ve worked better in smaller doses.

There is some nice action here, though. The opening sequence is the highlight, but numerous chases, fights, and moments of miscellaneous mayhem are littered throughout the (overlong) runtime. There’s certainly an I-haven’t-seen-that-before factor in play here, but the movie’s wildly intricate plot largely means that these scenes must be enjoyed in isolation from any compelling story.

I suppose that Tenet will appeal to those who like ambiguous mysteries in their cinema and try to watch the same flicks repeatedly in order to dissect every last detail. This movie is a lot less easy to follow than Christopher Nolan’s own Inception (2010), and it suffers from that. Although it occasionally dabbles in James Bond-style antics, this work feels like it’s intentionally trying to “lose” the audience in its complex storytelling.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943) Review

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Genre(s): Adventure

Runtime: 74 minutes (2004 National Film Museum Incorporated cut), 82 minutes (copyright length)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Perhaps the best thing about Isle of Forgotten Sins is its attention-getting, lurid title. Hell, in a way, they even screwed up the name of the picture at one point, by renaming it “Monsoon” for its reissue. Maybe the studio thought they could make audiences watch it again, thinking that they hadn’t seen it before. Anyway, this South Seas adventure film is about two deep-sea divers – Mike Clancy (John Carradine) and Jack Burke (Frank Fenton) – who set off to find $3 million in sunken gold before a monsoon can strike.

The first thing anybody should know about this flick is that it’s a pulpy, low-budget b-movie. It has some elements in it that make it seem like it’s trying to appeal to as many cinema-goers as possible, with a few musical numbers and a couple of surprisingly well-executed fist fights. Despite not having a lot of cash to work with, the production does an adequate job of not making a film that feels too much like a Poverty Row work.

With the exception of the aforementioned fisticuffs, Isle of Forgotten Sins doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of action thrills. The feature does contain a couple of boring, lengthy diving sequences, though. If your idea of excitement is seeing a deep-sea diving suit meander around an underwater wreck for what seems like forever, this could be your movie. The climax is also a tad underwhelming and borderline unintentionally comic.

This flick’s pretty mediocre, although it does benefit from some South Seas pulpiness. I wouldn’t describe it as boring, but it doesn’t really build up to anything worth remembering. Director Edgar G. Ulmer has done better (see the horror film The Black Cat [1934]), and the title only reminds one of Island of Lost Souls (1932), an infinitely superior work.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Bloodsport (1988) Review

Director: Newt Arnold

Genre(s): Action, Sport

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1988 action film Bloodsport was one of the star-making movies for Jean-Claude Van Damme. It still stands as one of the Muscles from Brussels’ more entertaining outings. Based on the, er, “unverified” (i.e. fake) story of American martial artist Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) entering an underground Hong Kong fighting tournament called “the Kumite,” this work of kitsch was supposedly a major inspiration on the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Okay, let’s not dance around the elephant in the room. This movie is seriously cheesy. The acting is questionable, the dialogue is unintentionally humorous, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his trademark splits approximately three thousand times, and the source material is a made-up story passed off as fact. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy this silly actioner. The good guys are likeable and the villain, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), is a nasty piece of work. People bond in a macho manner over video games, and the theme song, “Fight to Survive” by Stan Bush, is killer.

The action choreography isn’t really up to par with that from similar movies being made by the likes of Jackie Chan at about the same time as this one. Nonetheless, the fights are still some of the highlights, and the staging of them probably isn’t as bad as I’m leading on. That being said, there is some potentially offensive content involving a Black fighter who beats up his opponents while running around on all fours. Normally, I’d say that that hasn’t aged well, but I’m pretty sure that that was never acceptable.

Bloodsport has rightfully become a cult classic since its release, due to its colorfully corny nature and cheesily earnest storytelling. It works because it has just enough of an emotional hook to get the audience invested. It’s certainly one of the better martial arts tournament flicks out there, so watch it and keep an eye out for a young Forest Whitaker as FBI agent Rawlins and a not-young Roy Chiao (better known as gangster Lao Che from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]) as Tanaka, Van Damme’s character’s mentor.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Review

Director: Anthony Mann

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winchester ’73 is a fabulous fusion of the psychological western and the action-adventure-western, combining the brains of the former and the brawn of the latter. This movie helped reinvent actor James Stewart’s career, allowing Hollywood’s iconic Mr. Nice Guy to be cast in somewhat tougher roles. The plot here is about cowboy Lin McAdam (James Stewart) hunting down a Winchester rifle across the Wild West that was stolen from him after he won it in a sharp-sho0ting competition.

Action-packed by the standards of its original release, this western packs a surprising amount of content into its ninety-two-minute runtime. From the contest for the titular rifle at the beginning to the bullet-ricocheting finale, this is a constantly engaging movie. James Stewart is violently obsessed with tracking down his gun, which is a notable departure from the sort of roles he enjoyed before 1950.

This firearm-filled film even has some slight war picture elements, thanks to a battle that erupts between American government troops and some Native Americans. The depiction of said Native Americans is a mixed bag for sure. On one hand, the leader of the indigenous rebels, Young Bull, is played by, uh, Rock Hudson. On the other, he does get a brief opportunity to mention the atrocities committed against his people by the White man, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

This acclaimed western movie is a treat for fans of the genre. It makes a few references to the famous events and people of the Wild West era while also creating its own legends. Jimmy Stewart plays a very slightly darker character than usual, but the psychological aspects of the picture never get in the way of the rousing action. Winchester ’73 is a flick worth cherishing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The body count continues to rise in the third entry in the John Wick franchise…but is there any reason to care? Henchmen will be mowed down by the dozens and “gallons” of computer-generated blood will be spilled, yet it all feels more impersonal than ever. Here, killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself on the run, as the entire underground world of hitpeople turn on him.

There’s near-constant action in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, some of it quite inventive. We see Keanu Reeves take on some motorcyclists while on horseback, and, in another scene, crotch-destroying attack dogs are employed. However, it’s all rather video-gamey, and the film feels more like a series of action choreography demonstrations, rather than like, you know, an actual film.

Who’s killing who? Does it even matter anymore? The characters in the fight scenes sometimes don’t even hate each other. They’re often just professionals doing a job. Why should I care? Where’s the fire and the passion? This picture makes the John Rambo sequels look like high drama. Those movies take a ton of shit, but at least they had villains we wanted to see die and a hero we wanted to see succeed against the odds.

Seeing hundreds of faceless goons being blasted in the face repeatedly has rarely been less thrilling. There are surely some creative moments of action choreography, but the drama’s just not there. The ludicrous worldbuilding isn’t helping at this point either. If you want to watch a real hitman action movie, I’d highly recommend the John Woo-directed masterpiece The Killer (1989).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2017, John Wick returned to the big screen once again to continue shooting dozens of people in the face. If this premise excites you, you may want to check this sequel out. However, if you’re expecting something – anything – more than that, think twice. This time, super-assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself once again performing the duties of a hitman when he’s forced to kill a target in Italy due to a blood debt.

The John Wick franchise is starting to have a why-should-I-care? problem at this point. The events in the first film (that I won’t spoil here) lit a fire under the main character that propelled him on his quest for revenge. In the opening scenes of this picture, on the other hand, he’s savagely killing henchmen over a car. Okay, it’s a little more than just any car, but the reasons for the mass slaughter just keep getting more and more impersonal as the movie goes on.

The action sequences are elaborately staged, but feel oddly sterile. The blood is all almost entirely computer-generated (and obviously fake), the choreography (which can get a bit repetitive) heavily favors the titular character, innocent bystanders never seem to be harmed by the chaos going on around them, and there’s virtually no emotional punch. John Wick: Chapter 2 basically just limps from one excuse for action to another until its two hours are up.

This entry into the series is also where the worldbuilding goes from intriguing to preposterous. The universe that these shadowy killers live in is hopelessly convoluted. Ultimately, even the silliest of action movies need a solid emotional hook to grab the audience and keep their attention. John Wick: Chapter 2 largely lacks that, making the big-body-count madness feel meaningless.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick (2014) Review

Directors: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 101 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2014, the first entry in the highly successful franchise John Wick was sent to theaters. Action movie fans were particularly thrilled with the choreography of the scenes of violence and the fact that the main character is shown reloading his firearms (the last one seems like an awfully low bar to clear, doesn’t it?). In this film, a group of goons pull a home invasion on ex-hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), forcing him out of retirement, because they simply have no idea with who they’re messing with.

This picture sometimes feels like one of those Steven Seagal flicks where characters are constantly talking about how badass and unstoppable the Seagal character is. Indeed, Reeves is damn near invincible here. Sure, he gets hurt here and there, but the action bits often feel too easy for him. The carefully choreographed action sequences (which are orgies of headshots) have little sense of danger as Reeves barrels through them like a bull in a china shop.

John Wick does have some interesting worldbuilding, as the feature dives into an underworld society of hitpeople and the rules that dictate their behavior. The entire movie is clearly governed by the “Rule of Cool,” where whatever looks awesome goes. Unfortunately, the film feels poorly structured, not really knowing when to call it quits. The best and most memorable action scenes are in the first two acts, after all.

The first flick in the John Wick series is a pretty good piece of red meat for action aficionados. Yes, Reeves’ character barely breaks a sweat (by action hero standards) in the fights, but the crime that justifies his rampage gives the movie just enough fuel to keep going. It is a shame, though, that the third act struggles to top the mayhem that came prior to it in the runtime.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Total Recall (1990) Review

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Genre(s): Action, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Three years after his RoboCop (1987), another sci-fi-action film directed by Paul Verhoeven hit the big screen: the Arnold Schwarzenegger action-thriller Total Recall. This imaginative what-is-real-and-what-is-not? motion picture lives up to its reputation as an excellent mind-bender. Set in the distant future, construction worker Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decides to have memories of a vacation to Mars he’s apparently never taken implanted into his brain…and things go wrong from there…or do they?

Total Recall benefits from a musical score from Jerry Goldsmith that’s simultaneously classy, muscular, and urgent-sounding. It’s a darkly comedic (even satirical, at times) ride, and pacing is never really an issue. A big shout-out goes to the film’s wild, glorious (and often grotesque) special effects. They really make it seem like anything is possible with practical effects (and a big enough budget).

This movie has no shortage of action, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag here. The orchestration of the action scenes is pretty average by Arnie standards (with the notable exception of their generously-pouring blood squibs), but the characters do look mighty cool when jumping through glass in slow-motion. The non-stop chasing also means the flick loses some “weight” when it needs it. Okay, the action isn’t as immaculately choreographed as it is in Commando (1985), but does it need to be?

Total Recall might surprise Schwarzenegger skeptics with its wit and clever plotting. It may not be high art, but this action flick’s got brains. The Austrian Oak’s made some great science-fiction movies over the years, and this is one of them. It’s a wildly over-the-top film, but it knows it, winking at the audience occasionally, but not enough for it to be a genuine comedy.

My rating is 8 outta 10.