Dark of the Sun (1968) Review

Director: Jack Cardiff

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Congolese Civil War of the 1960s (referred to as the “Congo Crisis” on Wikipedia) had just ended when this mercenary action-adventure picture was released. During that war, a team of soldiers-of-fortune led by Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor) and Ruffo (Jim Brown) are sent on a deadly mission to rescue a trapped town of civilians (and their diamonds) before Simba rebels can close in. It’s a fictional story, but this film has all the intensity of a chainsaw on full-blast.

Dark of the Sun showcases several very good action scenes, as the characters battle their way in and out of the heart of the Congo. Supposedly, a great deal of content was deleted from the movie before and after being sent to censors, but the sequences where stuff may have been removed don’t feel particularly choppy. Quentin Tarantino was apparently so pleased with this movie’s musical score, done by Jacques Loussier, that he included several snippets of it in his flick Inglourious Basterds (2009).

The characters here are occasionally colorful, with those played Rod Taylor and Jim Brown being appropriately badass, but different enough to be distinguishable from each other. To complicate the expedition that our heroes (or anti-heroes) are on, the doctor, Wreid (Kenneth More), is an alcoholic and the man providing the local Congolese troops, Henlein (Peter Carsten), is a former member of the Nazi war machine. There is a fairly prominent female character, Claire (Yvette Mimieux), but there isn’t a substantial romantic subplot. This is a guy movie, through and through.

Dark of the Sun is up there with Walker (1987) and The Wild Geese (1978) as one of the best mercenary-oriented war flicks of all time. It’s not quite as bloody as those movies, possibly thanks to some cut footage (which I hope isn’t lost forever). It’s probably not the easiest action-adventure feature to hunt down, but it’s more-than-worth a watch if you can find it. It’s tough as nails.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Director: Paul Leni

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the primary inspirations for Batman’s main foe, the Joker, was the titular character of the 1928 silent epic The Man Who Laughs. Set in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a man whose face was mutilated as a child to make it appear like he’s always showing a toothy grin named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) becomes a carnival freak and gets tangled up in royal intrigue at the highest level. Considered one of the best movies of the silent era, this film largely lives up to its acclaim.

One of the first things you should know about this picture is that it’s not really a horror flick, as its reputation would suggest. There’s some horror-style imagery towards the beginning, but, for the most part, this is a gothic-style melodrama with heavy romance elements. Believe it or not, there is also some action-adventure-type stuff near the end of the runtime. Even if it’s not truly a horror film, the movie features a sea of grotesque faces to gander at, more than just the one on Gwynplaine.

It’s interesting to note that the title role was initially going to go to Lon Chaney, before it was decided that Conrad Veidt should get it. Here, Veidt gives one of the very best performances of the silent era. He has a permanent smile etched on his face, but he is a tormented man, as can be seen in his pathos-ridden eyes. He’s clearly the hero of the story, even if he inspired the villainous Joker. The rest of the characters in the feature are generally pretty well-defined.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes in The Man Who Laughs that border on slow, but this is relatively late silent movie, so things mostly move along satisfactorily. It has appealing visuals and the plot, which some may find soapy, keeps things together. It’s an American production, but wouldn’t feel out of place among the German Expressionist pictures of the time period. Silent film lovers will almost certainly find enough here for me to recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

Director: Jonathan Demme

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

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Intense from the get-go, The Silence of the Lambs is an instant classic that won an Oscar for Best Picture, the only horror movie to win that award so far. The plot follows aspiring FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must use the help of imprisoned cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a woman-murdering serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). Does it deserve its reputation as one of the finest psychological thrillers of all time? I’d say so.

It just might be the perfect performances that keep The Silence of the Lambs on track. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterclass acting job as cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, effortlessly getting under the skin of the viewers. The mind games he plays are enough to warrant giving the feature a thumbs-up. His role won him an Oscar and Dr. Lecter was named the number-one villain in American cinema history as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. It would be a mistake to forget about Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar for her part. Her character was named the sixth greatest American screen hero in the celebration mentioned above.

Dark, serious, and macabre, The Silence of the Lambs earns its R rating, but doesn’t go overboard with the gore, probably making it watchable for most adult audiences. It’s very fast-paced and efficient, making the minutes fly by when experiencing it. If I had to find a fault with it, it would be that the ending feels less conclusive and a bit more sequel-baity than desirable, but that’s a minor flaw.

This bone-chilling horror-thriller flick is nothing short of gripping. Even the critics generally loved it, even if they seem to avoid calling it a “horror movie,” favoring the term “thriller.” Perhaps they were too embarrassed to admit that they liked an entry into the horror genre? Also, just how big is “Buffal0 Bill’s” basement supposed to be anyway?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the last, if not the last, of the major gangster pictures of the 1930s, The Roaring Twenties ends a chapter in mob movie history on a decent note. The story here is about World War I veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who gets mixed up with bootleggers during Prohibition and rises up among their ranks. It feels more epic-scale than many other films in this subgenre, but some intimacy is lost in translation.

The Roaring Twenties tries to juggle many elements: action, romance, music, historical background, etc., trying to please every type of moviegoer. The main plot of the flick is often overcome by a love triangle, and there’s just as much singing as there is shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff. The truth is, it feels more nostalgic than hard-boiled, lacking a certain meanness necessary for this sort of crime feature to work properly.

That being said, the action sequences are pretty good when they arrive (the movie definitely ends on a high note). There are some engaging montages to express the passage of time, although the narration for these sequences (done by John Deering) feels a bit dated nowadays. Raoul Walsh’s direction is solid, but the clean-feeling script doesn’t always help him.

The Roaring Twenties is just too romantic for its own good, both in the sense of the lovey-dovey stuff and in terms of rose-tinted nostalgia. It feels like one of James Cagney’s “bigger” films, but it’s certainly not among his best, in my book. It just doesn’t have the ultra-gritty intimacy of The Public Enemy (1931), the heroic badassery of ‘G’ Men (1935), or the lurid sadism of White Heat (1949). I’m not saying “don’t watch it,” just keep your expectations in check.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Made in the middle of World War II, ‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders is a rough-and-tumble war actioner designed to raise the spirits of the American populace and remind them what they’re fighting for. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an elite team of American Marines is assembled for a secret mission during World War II. Their objective: raid the Japanese-occupied outpost of Makin Island, killing all enemy soldiers and leveling the place. Based on a true story, this a swell piece of propaganda.

Humorous at times, Gung Ho! does an able job of the building up to the final action sequences on Makin Island. The training scenes are cool and the part where the raiders are packed into submarines like sardines elicits a greater sense of claustrophobia than anything in Das Boot (1981). The battle scenes in the third act are very good, packed with gunfire, stabbings, and big explosions.

What holds Gung Ho! back from being one of the greats is that many of its characters are, more or less, interchangeable. Just about the only folks in the picture to make an impression are Colonel Thorwald (Randolph Scott) and “Pig-Iron” (Robert Mitchum), and that’s because they’re played by famous actors. There’s also some minor romance towards the beginning of the runtime that doesn’t have a significant payoff. Gung Ho! is sometimes derided as it’s a piece of war-time propaganda partially made to whip up hatred of the Japanese. I don’t really hold this against the film, though.

Gung Ho! is, in my opinion, one of the better combat movies to be released during World War II. As bloodthirsty as it occasionally is, its heart is in the right place. It’s not as slick as some of the other flicks from this time period and many of its characters get lost in the shuffle, but this is still a piece of cinema that begs to be watched by war film addicts.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Halloween (2018) Review

Director: David Gordon Green

Genre(s): Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

2018’s Halloween doesn’t exactly have the freshest-sounding plot in cinema history. Exactly forty years after his murderous rampage through Haddonfield, Illinois, silent killer Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle) escapes from a mental hospital bus to resume his attacks on the local population. This entry into the series ignores all other installments in the franchise except for Halloween (1978). Even if it retcons the history of the Halloween films, this is still an excellent horror picture.

This, right here, is the real deal among slasher flicks. Okay, it’s not as terrific as the 1978 original, but it comes close enough to make it a worthy feature. Michael Myers is the pure-evil force of nature that he should be, delivering quite the body count. While there is gore and a “jump scare” or two, 2018’s Halloween does not overly rely on them to bring the scares. The filmmakers prove that they can make a scene intense with or without bloodshed.

The woman who faced off against Myers in the first movie, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), returns here, as a traumatized, gun-toting, agoraphobic paranoiac. It’s more sad than “badass,” but I think that’s the intention. Halloween also has a few bits of humor spread around in the mix, which is welcome, as it would’ve been difficult sitting on the edge of one’s chair the entire time.

With the exception of one contrived, yet forgivable, twist (if you’ve seen the film, you know the one I’m talking about), Halloween is an outstanding work of horror. It reworks the formula just enough for modern audiences, while retaining elements that made the 1978 movie soar. It may seem like a lot of work watching all the other members of the Halloween series to get to this one, but, since this one only considers the first movie canon, you don’t really have to.

My rating is 8 outta 10.