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.

A Night at the Opera (1935) Review

Directors: Sam Wood and Edmund Goulding

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film released after they found themselves under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (previously, they made movies for Paramount Pictures). This is also the first flick starring the brothers to not feature Zeppo Marx, who quit the acting business after Duck Soup (1933). The story’s about Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), Fiorello (Chico Marx), and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) trying to set up two star-crossed opera singer lovers, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones), for success.

Much has been made of the Marxes move over to MGM. This transition, along with Hollywood Production Code starting to be enforced, is often said to have had a negative impact on the group’s comedy. The flick is a bit slower and more sentimental than previous outings from the brothers, but this is still a solid movie. While many of the Marx Brothers’ post-Paramount works are criticized, A Night at the Opera is generally singled out as the best of the Marx features from this time period.

While the musical numbers do greatly reduce the speed of the pacing, the humor here is still laugh-worthy. The movie really comes alive during the opera sequence in the third act when things really start to get out-of-hand. One aspect of A Night at the Opera that I found interesting was the long segment on the ocean-liner crossing the Atlantic. The Marx Brothers already did a film almost entirely set aboard one of these ships (Monkey Business [1931]), so I found it odd that they would revisit this setting so quickly.

If you think that you’re going to miss Zeppo, don’t worry too much. Allan Jones plays the ultimate Zeppo-wannabe here. Anyway, the jokes here may not be quite as – er – anarchic (a word you’re required to use by federal law when describing the Marxes’ sense of humor) as they were in previous movies starring the brothers, but they still hold up well, especially the contract scenes. It’s no Duck Soup, but A Night at the Opera is still a must-see for Marx Brothers fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Iron Mistress (1952) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A movie where Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie may sound like a home-run, but the 1952 bore The Iron Mistress proves this not to be the case. Ending before the outbreak of the Texan War of Independence, this film concerns itself with the early life of legendary American knife-fighter Jim Bowie (Alan Ladd) as he duels his way across the American South. It barely counts as a western, considering its geographic location, but I’ll let it slide and categorize it as one anyway.

The Iron Mistress (named after Bowie’s iconic Rambo knife) is dismally low on action. There is one sword-versus-knife duel illuminated only by lightning that’s fairly interesting, but there’s little other excitement. As I stated earlier, this flick ends before the Texan War of Independence, so don’t expect a depiction of the Battle of the Alamo.

The second act here is almost guaranteed to put you to sleep, and the first and third parts aren’t anything to write home about either. Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie as just another Alan Ladd character. The runtime is too long, and the whole thing is about as memorable as a day spent entirely inside the confines of your own home. The way slavery is shown here is problematic, but, being a picture released in 1952, you already knew that, right?

Even Ladd aficionados will find this one a trudge. It’s hard to think of positive things to say about a flick that you almost dozed off while watching. I guess the budget seemed reasonable, giving it respectable production values. Is that a compliment? I don’t even know anymore. Well, there’s not much left to say, other than “avoid the The Iron Mistress.”

My rating is 4 outta 10.

The McConnell Story (1955) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being released only two years after the end of the Korean War, The McConnell Story lacks the immediacy that it should have. The based-on-a-true-story plot is about American airman Joseph C. McConnell (Alan Ladd), who, after serving in World War II, becomes a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. It’s a promising idea for a movie, but it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.

This film has the squeaky-clean, white-bread aesthetics of your stereotypical 1950s Hollywood production. I wish I was joking about how the picture spends more time on the various abodes that McConnell and his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell (June Allyson), venture through than on aerial warfare, but I’m not. Speaking of June Allyson, the already-married Alan Ladd reportedly fell in love with her during the filming of this work.

I would not recommend this flick if you’re just in it for the action. The World War II scene is reliant on stock footage, although the dogfights in the skies above Korea fare better. They’re extremely limited in number, but they don’t appear to use much, if any, pre-existing footage. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that actual aircraft were used for these sequences, which helps with the authenticity.

The McConnell Story isn’t bad when it’s airborne, but it spends so much time grounded that I can’t say “watch it.” It turns out to be just another one of those generic ’50s war films that do little to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, this one will become melded with The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) in my memory.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Black Knight (1954) Review

Director: Tay Garnett

Genre(s): Action, Adventure

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Alan Ladd is about to go medieval on your ass in this 1954 action-adventure not-quite-a-classic. In the Middle Ages, blacksmith John (Alan Ladd) fights to prevent a group of villains from overthrowing King Arthur (Anthony Bushell), the ruler of England. It’s an okay change-of-pace for fans of Ladd, but it’s my guess that nobody else will end up amused.

This is one of those old movies set in the medieval era where all the castles have well-manicured lawns, as if somebody actually lawn-mowed all that shit. This gives the film a fake-looking quality, and those silly-looking helmets worn by all the mounted soldiers and knights certainly don’t help things. Was this one of the pictures that Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) was spoofing?

According to the current words of Wikipedia, one critic, Jeffrey Richards, said that Alan Ladd was “playing the part like a tired American businessman prevailed upon to take the lead in a revival of Merrie England.” Ouch. I don’t think he was that bad in the lead role, but it is sort of jolting to see a guy who typically stars in westerns and film noir doing such a character. Well, if you don’t like Ladd, you can always follow Peter Cushing, who plays Sir Palamides here. Yes, Grand Moff “Grandma” Tarkin is in this flick.

Okay, it may sound like I hate this movie, but I really don’t. The action scenes are satisfactory (there’s even one at Stonehenge, because why the Hell not?) and Alan Ladd is always fun to watch. The runtime’s short and I see the kitschiness of it all as a plus, not a minus. There are worse ways out there to spend eighty-five minutes.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Duel of Champions (1961) Review

Directors: Ferdinando Baldi and Terence Young

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Duel of Champions is one of those 1960s Italian action movies that features an American movie star (in this case, Alan Ladd) for box office appeal. Set in ancient times, the warring cities of Rome and Alba decide to have the conflict between them settled by a three-on-three warrior duel. As you might expect, Ladd is one of the soldiers chosen to square off in the high-stakes fight. Do not expect greatness, and you might get through the coming motion picture.

This is definitely not your typical Alan Ladd film, and he looks uncomfortable in ancient Roman attire. Seeing an actor who specializes in westerns and film noir in such a setting is sort of surreal, and may or may not add to one’s enjoyment of the picture. Yes, Ladd is a convincing tough guy, but seeing him running around pre-Christian Rome is almost odd enough to inspire laughter. The English-language cut of the flick was directed by Terence Young, who would later direct three of the Sean Connery James Bond features.

Fortunately, Duel of Champions has lots of action to make up for some of its faults. Some of it is clunky, but it’s competent at other times. Hell, some of the bigger battles don’t even look like something filmed specifically for this movie. They could be footage from a different production centered around Ancient Rome for all I know. Alan Ladd goes into action hero mode towards the end of the picture, which will please fans of his.

Curiously, the plot synopsis of the cut of the movie available on Amazon Prime currently claims that the flick contains a parallel subplot involving two friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the American Civil War (!). Almost needless to say, this is not in the version watchable on that site, if it exists in any form. Anyway, Duel of Champions is a little goofy, but it’s not terrible. Ladd fanatics probably won’t regret watching it, but, be warned, this is not a typical role for him. It’s alright.

My rating is 6 outta 10.