The Ten Commandments (1956) Review

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 220 minutes (standard cut), 231 minutes (roadshow cut)

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

All the way back in Biblical times, Moses (Charlton Heston), a Hebrew raised in the royal family of Egypt, sets out to free the Jewish people from their status as slaves in Egypt, putting him on a collision course with the dictatorial pharaoh, Rameses II (Yul Brynner). This is one of those spare-no-expenses epics from the Golden Age of Hollywood that throws everything imaginable at the audience in an effort to compete with the rising medium of television. It certainly is one of the biggest movies of all time, but is it one of the best?

Make no mistake, this is one very long picture, running nearly four hours in its roadshow form. However, it has a more purposeful gait than many of the other films in this style. It may have a leave-nothing-on-the-cutting-room-floor approach, but the story it tells largely justifies its marathonic runtime. Sure, some scenes probably could’ve been left out, but The Ten Commandments doesn’t exactly trudge along like a Biblical soap opera. It could easily be seen as a Cold War-era piece of propaganda…a sort of “take that!” to the godless commies.

Perhaps the best aspect of the work is Elmer Bernstein’s majestic musical score. It’s powerful and full of blood and thunder. The special effects and massive scope of the feature are hard to criticize. The heightened, theatrical performances border on high camp, but they work. Charlton Heston’s Moses, who balances stateliness with a Billy Badass attitude, holds the flick together. Some of the casting decisions are – er – interesting, such as Edward G. Robinson as Hebrew collaborator Dathan and Vincent Price as Egyptian slavedriver Baka.

The Ten Commandments, and that other ancient-era epic, Spartacus (1960), stand out from the rest of the sword-and-sandal crowd because of their compelling stories, and because their narratives don’t just sit around, letting spectacle do all of the talking. Pacing is slow, but generally steady. This movie, with its colossal runtime, may be intimidating, but I find it relatively easy to recommend. Whether you believe that the events in the film took place or not, this is a flick that deserves to be watched.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Platoon (1986) Review

Director: Oliver Stone

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Before he became one of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots, director Oliver Stone was a talented filmmaker, and the Vietnam War combat picture Platoon was often cited as his magnum opus. Stone was himself a veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, and he brought a sense of realism to the movie that had seldom been seen previously in the war genre. The feature is about fresh American soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) being assigned to a platoon in the Vietnam War that’s divided between followers of the benevolent Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and disciples of the cruel Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The all-star cast went through a sort of Hell to make this picture, as they endured a boot-camp-style training course in the jungles of the Philippines (where the flick was filmed) to put them inside the heads of soldiers who might have served in that vicious war. The desperation, exhaustion, and fear on the actors’ faces is mostly real. Platoon may not make ideal viewing for, say, Veterans Day, because it does graphically deal with atrocities committed by U.S. troop in South Vietnam. Some Americans come off looking better than others, but innocence is undoubtedly shattered.

The intense battle sequences in Platoon are stirring and tend to avoid John Rambo-style heroics. The violence here is unforgiving, yet never gratuitous (this is no splatterfest, despite how grisly things get). The outdoor elements are just as brutal to deal with as bullets fired by the communists. Despite the hair-raising nature of the movie, I do feel like the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” necessary to push it into masterpiece territory. It’s not that the film is episodic, it just needed to be a bit more propulsive at times.

While not one of the very best war pictures that I’ve seen, Platoon‘s lofty reputation still makes it a must-watch for fans of the genre. It played a role in upping the levels of realism in combat films, and it seems to be some sort of therapeutic exercise for director Oliver Stone, as he brings his traumatic experiences in Indochina to the big screen. While Full Metal Jacket (1987), released one year later, is currently my favorite Vietnam War flick, this one still gives the viewer plenty to think over.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Blue Velvet (1986) Review

Director: David Lynch

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

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

One day, resident of American suburbia Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a decomposing, severed human ear in a field, setting him off on an investigation to find out whose it is. It’s a set-up to a wildly popular mystery-thriller, but this one failed to get under my skin the way it has for countless other viewers. I appreciate director David Lynch’s style, but Blue Velvet is one of his more forgettable feature films in my experience.

This semi-surreal thriller is set in a weird version of suburbia that seems uncanny. Something’s “off.” There’s an undercurrent of melancholy. Blue Velvet is all about the sinister mysteries that could be lurking under the clean veneer of your hometown, just waiting to be discovered if you only wanted to find them. This film dares to explore the dark corners of its community, and the results are somewhat disappointing. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not terribly memorable.

The best part of this work is Dennis Hopper’s unpredictable, foul-mouthed, gas-huffing villain, Frank Booth. However, the motion picture could have benefited from some more surrealism, in my opinion. For a David Lynch flick, it almost feels too “normal” at times. Sure, there’s that classic Lynchian sense of unease, but I think I might’ve preferred the movie if it was Eraserhead Moves to the Suburbs. Many, perhaps most, will disagree with this take, but I’ll stand by it for now.

I like the ideas that went into Blue Velvet, but the execution didn’t thrill me. It does have all the right elements of a crackerjack thriller. It’s a respectable neo-noir as it stands now, but I just don’t enjoy it as much as most people seem to. This picture is frequently hailed as a masterpiece, and I can sort of see why, yet I can’t really agree with the consensus. It’s too odd to be a conventional mystery feature, yet not crazy enough to be a full-on David Lynch “freak-show” extravaganza.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Drum Beat (1954) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

Genre(s): War, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Alan Ladd and Charles Bronson in a war-western together? What could possibly go wrong? During the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, an experienced fighter of Native Americans named Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) is dispatched to the Wild West to bring peace between White settlers and Modoc Native Americans led by “Captain Jack” (Charles Bronson). This movie may have helped Bronson establish himself as an actor, but it’s still rubbish.

When film historians talk about old western flicks that were racist against Native Americans, Drum Beat is probably one of the pictures that they’re referring to. According to this production, “good” natives went to their shitty reservations with big smiles on their faces, while the “bad” natives challenged the Whites’ attempts to steal their lands. The work’s prejudice is pretty blatant, some of the worst I’ve seen in the genre.

To add insult to injury, Drum Beat is just plain boring. The action scenes aren’t terrible (there is a big battle or two), but Alan Ladd doesn’t find himself in the middle of the mayhem as much as he should. The movie seems to have had a respectable budget, but it’s all wasted. The picture should’ve run only about ninety minutes, but, in an effort to make it more epic, it drags on for a little over 110 minutes. President Ulysses S. Grant (played by Hayden Rorke) appears on a couple of occasions, but nothing memorable comes from this.

So, that’s two major strikes against Drum Beat: racism and tedium. Normally, I’d try to come up with a third strike to complete the baseball analogy, but this movie isn’t worth the time. You’re out! The film is more likely to make you want to go to sleep than it is to excite you. Nope, this one is not recommended. If you need a flick to watch that touches on the Indian Wars, check out something like Winchester ’73 (1950) or Ulzana’s Raid (1972), instead of this turkey.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Thunder in the East (1952) Review

Director: Charles Vidor

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Here’s an adventure-drama that tries to cash in on the violence that took place on the Indian subcontinent following its independence from Great Britain. Shortly after India gains its freedom, American arms dealer Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) tries to sell some weapons to the maharajah (Charles Lung) of a remote Indian state, but gets involved in local intrigue involving a warlord, Newah Khan (Philip Bourneuf), who may be plotting an attack on the maharajah’s palace. Boy, did Alan Ladd corner the market on these mercenary-who-secretly-has-a-heart-of-gold roles or what?

Thunder in the East has a great idea for a story, but the slow-burn execution doesn’t do it any favors. Instead of ratcheting up the tension related to the warlord who wants the maharajah dead, the film spends a great deal of time juggling a romantic triangle. Alan Ladd is the star of the show, but Charles Boyer gets the opportunity to play an interesting supporting character: Prime Minister Singh. He’s the real power behind the local leader and is a very strict pacifist, doing his best to keep weapons off of his property. Yes, it’s a White guy playing an Indian, but it’s nice to see a strong Indian character with a real moral backbone.

The action’s fairly limited in Thunder in the East, despite its pulpy, sensationalistic title. A punch is thrown here, a pot-shot is taken at the maharajah’s palace there. It really isn’t until the last few seconds of the runtime that we get some carnage with a respectable body count. I won’t give away the details for spoiler reasons, but let’s just say that this finale is somewhat preposterous, but still satisfying and it ties everything up with a nice bow.

This movie is a little disappointing, but that doesn’t make it bad. Alan Ladd’s very much in his wheelhouse here and the ending’s memorable. It’s a fair-enough take on the last-stand war picture, so if you like flicks like The Alamo (1960), 55 Days at Peking (1963), Zulu (1964), and Khartoum (1966), you should consider looking into Thunder in the East. Of course, it’s not as good as those films, but it’s still a watchable, relatively low-budget alternative.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Ride, Vaquero! (1953) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Ride, Vaquero! is a pretty typical western for the time period. It’s in color and it looks like it had a reasonable budget, but it doesn’t really add up to anything particularly memorable. The story’s about rancher King Cameron (Howard Keel) who decides to stand up to bandit warlord José Esqueda (Anthony Quinn) and his enforcer Rio (Robert Taylor). I don’t think that I have to tell you that a violent confrontation between Cameron and Esqueda is inevitable.

The best thing about Ride, Vaquero! is its talented cast. Anthony Quinn may not get top billing, but this is definitely his show. His performance is just so much more animated that those of his co-stars. Robert Taylor’s pretty stoic, but he’s a bit of a bad guy here, which is different from your typical role for him. Ava Gardner, as Cordelia Cameron, isn’t given anything to do. Jack Elam shows up as henchman Barton, but his role doesn’t really come into play until towards the end of the runtime.

This western is one of those films that promises big action, but doesn’t deliver. Did the budget run out or something? There’s a reasonable shootout at a ranch with one party attacking on horseback and the other defending, but that’s just about as good as it gets. The grand finale could be considered a damp squib on the action front. It does have a scene where a villain tortures another character by shooting him a few times in non-fatal regions of his body, which was unexpected, but, by that point, does anybody care?

There’s not much else to report about Ride, Vaquero!. I’ve seen more forgettable westerns, but don’t take that as a compliment. Anyway, it’s acceptable entertainment for fans of Anthony Quinn and Robert Taylor, but those interested in Ava Gardner and Jack Elam’s roles will be left empty-handed. Those looking for intense action will be less than thrilled. The audience for this one is elderly people who want squeaky-clean, old-timey westerns with no swearing, nudity, or graphic violence.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Battle Royale (2000) Review

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes (standard cut), 122 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 2000 Japanese action-thriller Battle Royale (originally titled “Batoru Rowaiaru” in Japanese) could be seen as an important precursor to the Hunger Games franchise. Set in a dystopian future, a class of Japanese middle-schoolers are transported to a remote island where they must fight to the death, with only one survivor, as part of a new disciplinary program. This style-over-substance bloodbath has been a lightning rod for controversy since its release. Despite provoking strong reactions from many people, both negative and positive, my take on the flick is more muted.

Playing out like a live-action anime, I think Battle Royale stumbles a bit because of its apparent failure to give more depth to its characters. There isn’t a significant build-up to the deathmatch, so we don’t get much of a chance to understand the forgettable characters. It does make the work fast-paced, but I had a hard time becoming attached to any of the inhabitants of the movie’s universe. The easiest way to tell who was who was by looking at what weapon they were given (since every “contestant” was a handed a different one).

The bright spot in all of this is Takeshi Kitano, playing Kitano, the villainous, vengeful teacher. He’s definitely the most memorable aspect of the film, bringing some surrealism and dark humor to the proceedings. Believe it or not, Takeshi Kitano actually hosted the game show Takeshi’s Castle, which was brought to the United States with hysterically-funny alternate dubbing and called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. In this last-man-standing TV show, Kitano’s character was renamed “Vic Romano.” Good to know!

Ultimately, I find Battle Royale to be somewhat confusing. Who exactly are these characters? Who is the target demographic for this production? What is this picture even trying to say? I mean, we all know that totalitarian governments are bad already. Takeshi Kitano’s presence makes it watchable, but why should I settle for “watchable?” Creative idea for a plot aside, I can only get so much enjoyment out of a video-gamey movie about junior high school students battling to the death on an island.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) Review

Director: F.W. Murnau

Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the greatest of all German Expressionist films, the silent vampire movie Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (also known by its original German tile: Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens) still has the power to induce nightmares. It may not be scary in a close-your-eyes-from-the-unrelenting-terror sort of way, but this timeless Gothic classic is creepy in ways that most productions can only dream of. An unauthorized adaptation of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, this chiller tells the tale of vampire Count Orlok (Max Schreck) deciding to purchase a house next to real estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder).

Of course, the big highlight of the flick is the vampire himself, masterfully played by Max Schreck. He looks like nothing from this world. He doesn’t look like a guy in make-up, but like an actual monster. This movie is chockful of iconic imagery, but the most famous shot is that of Orlok’s shadow ascending the wall near a staircase during the finale. It’s one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema history. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror may have a couple of slow-moving passages, but it can also fire on all cylinders when it needs to.

Sometimes feeling like a fairy tale from Hell, this film has an eerie, sinister, silent energy. It’s pretty oneiric, sometimes having a wonderful sense of dream logic (I guess vampires can teleport through closed doors now). The morbid, unnerving atmosphere is amplified by the decision to use decrepit and crumbling locations to film on. It gives the work a “lived in” feeling. The special effects are primitive, but this only works in the motion picture’s favor.

This movie was remade as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), but this silent version is vastly superior. A lot of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror rides on its villain, and it excels here. He looks like a walking, talking incarnation of Death. While not my favorite silent film (that would be Metropolis [1927]), this one also makes a good introduction to the world of silent cinema for those unaccustomed to that style. This is mandatory viewing for film buffs.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) Review

Director: Henri Verneuil

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Anthony Quinn goes full “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western movie) in this 1968 film. Hell, it even has a musical score from Ennio Morricone! Things don’t stop there, though, with Charles Bronson showing up as Teclo, a village Hellraiser. Set in the 1740s, this flick is about Mexican bandit Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) being mistaken for a priest by a remote town and helping them fight off a raid by the Yaqui Native Americans.

Yes, the plot of Guns for San Sebastian does sound vaguely similar to that found in The Magnificent Seven (1960), which Charles Bronson also starred in. Even the Mexican village set in this film looks very similar to the one from that 1960 release. Was it actually filmed at the same location? I don’t know for sure, but, despite being a European co-production, it was shot in Mexico, just like The Magnificent Seven. Anyway, the outsider(s)-defending-a-helpless-community formula makes this a watchable action-adventure flick.

While not overflowing with physical combat, Guns for San Sebastian does feature some bracing action scenes. Anthony Quinn gets a chance to pile the corpses high, and the overall body count is astronomical for a western movie. There is a great deal of explosions and people falling off of horses. Seeing Quinn and Charles Bronson in the same production is fun, even if the pacing lags a little. The narrative probably could’ve been tightened up a tiny bit.

To be honest, Guns for San Sebastian probably isn’t quite as badass as I’m hyping it up to be. The cast and action may be incredible, but the movie can be on the somewhat slow-moving side. That’s largely forgiven when the movie concludes, but it’s still a criticism that should be made. It’s worth recommending. A bit of trivia about the work is that it was originally conceived as a project for Quinn’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) co-star Gregory Peck in 1964.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) Review

Director: Joseph Pevney

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

In 1957, a film was released where James Cagney played Lon Chaney. I repeat: James Cagney played Lon Chaney. One of the greatest actors in history playing another one of the greatest actors in history? This is not a drill! How could you not be amped for this picture? The movie in question is a biopic of film actor Lon Chaney (James Cagney, as I’ve said twice before), documenting his journey from Hollywood extra to seemingly shape-shifting mega-star.

Okay, this flick really isn’t as good as it sounds. Many of Lon Chaney’s more interesting screen roles are basically glossed over in order to give the audience some drama. Man of a Thousand Faces never misses an opportunity to wring out as much melodrama from the proceedings as humanly possible. The sequence where Chaney’s wife, Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone), reacts histrionically to meeting her husband’s parents (played by Celia Lovsky and Nolan Leary) is almost unbearable.

On the bright side, this production does a interesting job of foreshadowing some of the roles Lon Chaney would have throughout his career. For examples, there’s a legless man (reminding one of The Penalty [1920]), a Chinese man (Mr. Wu [1927]), Chaney in drag as an old lady (The Unholy Three [1925] and The Unholy Three [1930]), and Chaney as a clown (He Who Gets Slapped [1924] and Laugh, Clown, Laugh [1928]). There are also some cool glimpses behind-the-scenes at early Hollywood filmmaking.

Oh yeah, Jim Backus also shows up as Clarence Locan, Lon Chaney’s agent. That’s right, Mr. Howell is in this flick! Overall, Man of a Thousand Faces is pretty disappointing most of the time, focusing more on Chaney’s personal life than his onscreen antics. Fans of James Cagney and/or Lon Chaney may find some value in watching it once (or even twice), but if you’re not in either of those actors’ fan clubs, you should probably choose something else for movie night.

My rating is 6 outta 10.