Metropolis (1927) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 153 minutes (“Complete” cut), 80 minutes (Giorgio Moroder cut)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the all-time great masterpieces of cinema, 1927’s silent science-fiction epic Metropolis was the first movie to be named to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It may be silent, but thanks to its bombastic visuals and genius, impossibly vigorous musical score from Gottfried Huppertz, it’s loud as Hell. The story concerns itself with the city of the future, where tensions between the working and upper classes are reaching their breaking point…can some sort of mediator prevent a war between these two castes?

Yes, Metropolis has ahead-of-its-time special effects that will floor you, but there is more here than just that. The performances, while remarkably over-the-top, are stunning, and the whole motion picture is melodramatic in the very best way possible. Everything’s heightened (it is a work of German Expressionism, after all), but it’s no bloated soap opera. It even becomes an action-adventure film in the last third (or so), piling on massive, tour-de-force set-pieces.

The politics of Metropolis are often seen as naïve, simplistic, or half-baked. The feature’s director, Fritz Lang, essentially disowned it for this reason. It certainly does contain an odd mish-mash of symbols, ideas, and metaphors that may not make sense if analyzed too closely. Still, this is a brilliant, king-sized flick that paints in very broad strokes, so, if you can get behind that, you’ll have your mind blown.

This masterclass of filmmaking is available in both a black-and-white, “Complete” cut running about two-and-a-half hours (with a reconstruction of the original Gottfried Huppertz score) and an eighty-minute, color-tinted version from 1984 with a rock and pop soundtrack arranged by Giorgio Moroder. While I prefer the “Complete” edition, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the Moroder cut, which features some rousing music from Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, Cycle V, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Billy Squier, Adam Ant, and Moroder himself. One of the most ambitious pictures ever released, Metropolis is still thrilling and fast-paced, making it the perfect introduction to the world of silent cinema. Few movies released since have managed to top it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

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

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “Giù la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Schindler’s List (1993) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 195 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg released two very different films in 1993: the dinosaur-oriented action-adventure Jurassic Park (1993) and the genocide drama Schindler’s List. Set during World War II, German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) works to save Jews from the worst of the Holocaust by having them work in his factory. This epic, chilling masterpiece (based on a true story) is in the running for the greatest motion picture in cinema history.

This meticulously crafted movie benefits from impeccable (mostly black-and-white) cinematography and effortless-looking performances. It’s interesting to note that the character development here is not obvious or in-your-face. The Oskar Schindler character’s transformation from indifferent, greedy businessman to savior of hundreds of people is subtle and takes time. This change does not occur in a single episode. The picture raises issues with the duality of man. Why are some humans so heroic, while others are so evil?

John Williams’ melancholy, aching musical score is one of the best aspects of the movie. While the film deals with both the plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe and Oskar Schindler’s efforts to rescue them, the end result never feels like two separate movies joined at the hip. Violence here is brutal and graphic, but it never crosses the line into becoming gratuitous. While most of the feature is appropriately downbeat, there are a few moments of tasteful humor.

Watching Schindler’s List, with its recurring motif of paperwork, may seem like a daunting task, considering it’s a three-plus-hour film about the Holocaust. However, Steven Spielberg is a careful and prudent guide to this world, making sure that the finished product is watchable (if still heartbreaking), balancing horror and Hell with hope and heroism. This picture should be shown in high schools and comes very, very highly recommended.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Casablanca (1942) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Made while World War II was still raging and its outcome was still uncertain, 1942’s Casablanca was an essential piece of wartime spirit-raising that went down in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures. Set in Vichy French-occupied Morocco during the war, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) faces a moral dilemma when he has to choose between escaping from the region with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life, or helping smuggle Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) back into the battle against the Nazis. Buckle up, you’re in for a treat.

This timeless masterpiece is typically marketed as a romance film, but it is so much more than that. More important than the lovey, dovey stuff is the story of awakening your inner hero to fight against tyranny. It may not have any battle scenes, but this is actually a badass war flick, through and through. A tale of idealism, heroism, and sacrifice, it reflects the Wilsonian outlook on foreign policy that was crucial to the Allies in the Second World War and its aftermath. Isolationism is treated like the folly that it is.

The cosmopolitan classic Casablanca benefits from one of the snappiest screenplays ever written. It’s just one iconic line after another. The feature also has a stellar musical score from Max Steiner that’s largely built around the 1931 tune “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is classy and dazzling, and the nightclub at the center of the movie sometimes resembles a real-world version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

This accessible and big-hearted piece of cinema is an important allegory for the United States’ role in World War II. It has a hopeful message that international cooperation and selfless heroism can overcome evil and oppression. Powerful stuff. It’s a wonderful gift to the people of the Free World and a reminder that their work in combating the forces of darkness are not over.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Review

Director: John Sturges

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

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The original The Magnificent Seven is a truly heroic film that, along with the following year’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), helped define the modern action-adventure movie. This western is about a team of seven gunslingers who travel to Mexico to protect a defenseless village there from a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). This is a motion picture in the running for the best western flick of all time.

1960’s The Magnificent Seven features what just might be the best action scenes ever committed to film at the time of its original release. They really upped the ante for the action-adventure genre. The thunderous, iconic musical score by Elmer Bernstein is pure energy, and the all-star, tough guy cast is perfect. The script is funny, without defusing any of the tension or sense of danger.

Released between the end of World War II and the height of the Vietnam War, the feature reflects a can-do spirit and a Wilsonian worldview, where the strong are obligated to help fight for the human rights, liberty, and human dignity of the oppressed, regardless of where said oppressed are located on a map. The opening sequences are marked by an odd existential feel, with aimless, bored men searching for something – anything – to bring meaning to their lives. The movie’s lived-in universe is one that the audience does not mind getting lost in.

An important stepping stone between the traditional western and the revisionist western, The Magnificent Seven holds an important place in the history of its genre. Above all else, this is an incredibly inspiring and empowering piece of cinema. Its message of selfless heroism and fighting the good fight has not dimmed with time. This film gets as high a recommendation as I can give.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Killer (1989) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 111 minutes (standard version), 104 minutes (American version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director John Woo’s The Killer, originally known as “Dip Huet Seung Hung,” is a film that fires on all cylinders on both the action and drama fronts. Virtuous Hong Kong hitman Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) must go on one last mission to pay for eye surgery for Jenny (Sally Yeh), a woman he accidentally blinded. A key entry into the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre, this is a stylish and melodramatic crime-actioner that’s mandatory viewing for action fanatics.

The action scenes here, mainly in the form of shootouts, are spellbinding, and easily some of the best ever. Don’t expect realism from The Killer, as it features heroes with bottomless magazines jumping, leaping, and dodging all over the place to avoid being shot. Appropriately, the greatest action sequence in the movie is the grand finale, but just about any of the gunfights contained in it could’ve topped off a lesser action film.

The Killer definitely takes a heart-on-its-sleeve approach to its subject matter, which may come across as embarrassingly emotional for audiences unaccustomed to Asian filmmaking. Even if this picture’s bloodbath soap opera styling isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to feel the wallop packed by its punch. It has a big heart…and an even bigger body count.

Sure, there’s quite a bit of on-the-nose dialogue (at least on the subtitled version of the flick I own on home video), but The Killer just feels so right. Its blend of heartrending drama and relentless, two-fisted gunplay comes across as effortless. Of all of the John Woo movies I’ve seen, this is clearly the best, and I’m comfortable calling it his masterpiece.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and King Vidor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: G (2D version), PG (3D version)

IMDb Page

The hype exists for a reason. There’s little I can say about this endlessly iconic 1939 feature that hasn’t been said before. The charming story is about a Kansan farmgirl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto (Terry), being whisked away to the magical Land of Oz during a tornado. Even if you feel like you’re too old to be watching a family film like The Wizard of Oz, I highly recommend it anyway.

How was this made all the way back in 1939? The songs are still as catchy as ever, the special effects just as stupendous, the characters just as lovable, the flying monkeys just as frightening, the visuals just as splendorous, the action just as exciting, the drama just as moving, the humor just as amusing, and the pacing just as swift as ever. Those who say films were merely “proto-movies” prior to Citizen Kane (1941) can take a hike!

Holding this timeless masterpiece together is the message of there being no place like home. Sepia-colored Kansas may not be a roller coaster ride of excitement, but that’s where the heart is. To find their way back to the heartland, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends must put their inner courage, compassion, and smarts to the test and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Who couldn’t love a story like that?

The Wizard of Oz is just about as close to perfection as motion pictures can get. What? Are you actually going to criticize the painted backgrounds for not looking realistic enough? Anyway, this is a true classic that hasn’t aged with time. From the yearning for a better tomorrow displayed in the opening to the crazily imaginative adventures in Oz to the tear-jerking finale, this is the real deal.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

White Heat (1949) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

When I think of the greatest acting performances I’ve seen in my life, James Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat is one of the first to spring to mind. In this truly great gangster classic, Jarrett confronts threats against his life from both inside and outside his crew of criminals. You see, he just robbed a train and the federal government wants him dead or behind bars, so they send an agent by the name of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to infiltrate Jarrett’s ranks. James Cagney’s made some good movies, but this is the best of the lot (well, at least of the ones I’ve seen).

Of course, it is Cagney’s beyond-superb performance as a psychotically-violent mobster who’s losing his grip on reality that stands out most when thinking about White Heat. It’s a shame that it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. However, this picture’s secret weapon is its taut script. The storytelling here is remarkably tight…remove one scene from the finished product and the whole thing would make no sense. It should probably be shown in filmmaking schools for this reason.

Between the tough-talking dialogue and the moments of action (which come rather frequently for a non-action film), you’ve got tons of iconic moments. Rewatching White Heat will have any viewer saying “oh, I love this scene” many times over. The various supporting characters are reasonably easy to keep track of and the Max Steiner musical score shines on a few occasions.

White Heat is frequently considered a film-noir, but I think of it more as a straight gangster flick, similar to those Cagney was making in the 1930s. Anyway, this thriller is a must-watch for fans of organized crime media. It has it all: an astounding central performance, a screenplay that never goes off on tangents, cold-blooded killings, an explosive finale, and more. Its appeal is not limited to Cagney aficionados.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

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

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Guns of Navarone sets out to add a new legend to the long list of myths set in Greece. However, this one isn’t set in ancient times…it takes places during World War II. During that conflict, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist in real life) to sabotage two massive Nazi cannons there. A convoy of British warships is planning on sailing past Navarone to rescue some Allied soldiers about to be blitzkrieged by the German war machine, and the two guns at Navarone put them in severe danger.

Along with the previous year’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), this is one of those crucial action-adventure pictures that laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the genre. Now-common elements of those types of movies that can be found in The Guns of Navarone include: the impossible mission with a ticking clock, the hastily assembled team of quarreling professionals, bromance, bad guys being mowed down with relative ease, the stealing and wearing of enemy uniforms to blend in, girls with guns, reliance on special effects, the impenetrable fortress, the badass theme music, the traitor in the ranks, etc. This film was among the first to combine tropes like these all under one, impeccably-made roof.

So, this is a landmark feature…does it still hold up as superb entertainment today? I’d enthusiastically say “yes.” The aforementioned musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin is brilliant, the characters – played by a macho, all-star cast – are incredibly well-drawn (I’d pay good money to see a movie about them sitting down at dinner, talking over their respective days), and the action sequences are excellent (although the very best one is the one that takes place earliest in the runtime). The impressive screenplay provides several moral dilemmas for the characters to face, greatly deepening the picture.

The Guns of Navarone is a war/action-adventure flick with brains and balls. It helped write the rulebook for derring-do-flavored films (in fact, two of its actors – David Niven [who plays John Miller here] and Stanley Baker [who plays “Butcher” Brown] – were initially considered for the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery), and still holds up as one of the all-time great movies. Despite all of the gunfire and explosions, it’s best to think of it as a character-oriented piece to get maximum mileage out of it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

High Noon (1952) Review

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In 2008, the American Film Institute named High Noon the second greatest American western movie of all time as part of their AFI’s 10 Top 10 retrospective (The Searchers [1956] was named number-one). This is actually my second favorite western of all time at the moment, after The Magnificent Seven (1960) (I do like it a lot more than The Searchers). This film lives up to the hype. The story is about Wild West marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) on his last day as a lawman before retirement and his first day as a married man (his wife being Amy Fowler Kane [Grace Kelly], a pacifist Quaker). However, he must soon organize a posse to help him confront a gang of outlaws planning on killing him at noon.

This is one of cinema’s most famous tales of courage and cowardice. It’s all about integrity, heroism, and standing one’s ground against the forces of darkness and apathy. Gary Cooper’s towering performance (which he won an Oscar for) is what keeps the picture together. He’s greatly aided by Dimitri Tiomkin’s exemplary musical score, which also took home an Academy Award. The feature has two action scenes, a livery stable fist fight and the final shootout, both of which are more realistic than sensationalized. Every bullet fired and punch thrown matters.

If I had to find a fault with this psychological western, it would be the subplot involving Cooper’s character’s ex-lover, Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), which distracts from the flick’s otherwise laser focus. These scenes don’t add much to the experience, and, in my opinion, probably should’ve been written out of the movie. Sometimes it seems like they were included to pad the film’s (admittedly short) runtime in order to further the picture’s taking-place-in-real-time shtick. I could be wrong, of course.

High Noon is rightfully lauded as a classic, thanks to its performances, thought-provoking subject matter, music, cinematography, action, and generally taut pacing. This is a landmark film because it showed a western hero who was vulnerable and sometimes even scared and because it focused more on drama and escalating tension than on the shoot-’em-up antics and hyper-macho posturing that were common in the genre. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Lee Van Cleef as Jack Colby, a member of the villainous gang, and Jack Elam as Charlie, the jailed town drunk.

My rating is 10 outta 10.