His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Producers (1967) Review

Director: Mel Brooks

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1967 version of The Producers was the directorial debut of popular comedy director Mel Brooks. It’s received a ton of praise over the years, which isn’t bad for his first film, but I’m less ecstatic about it. The plot is about Broadway musical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempting to put on the world’s worst, most offensive play as part of a money-making scam.

The ideas in this movie are hilarious on paper. The script that the main characters settle on for their intentionally horrible production is insane, and should’ve resulted in more laughs. Instead of laser-focused satire, the flick resorts to ultra-broad humor, typically oriented around people falling down, making silly faces at the camera, or screaming their dialogue. I adore senseless comedies like Airplane! (1980) and the The Naked Gun trilogy, but the high-jinks found in The Producers were frequently too easy and obvious, even for my preferences.

There are some decent jabs at the dark side of the American Dream here, but it’s not enough. The subject matter of the picture was once considered audacious, but, after decades of increasingly edgy and groundbreaking satire, it doesn’t quite have the same power that it did back in 1967. Some of the aghast faces of the audience members during the play’s first performance are still pretty funny, though.

This work only runs eighty-eight minutes, and it still feels too long. If you and I sat down and you explained this film’s premise to me, I’d probably think that it would be an out-of-the-parker for me. However, the execution just isn’t there. I’ll give The Producers some figurative points for its bizarre ideas, but it just can’t overcome the fact that too many of its sequences are about as funny as a funeral.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Espionage Agent (1939) Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

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

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Espionage Agent was among the first American movies to warn the U.S. populace of the dangers posed by the Nazi regime in Germany. In fact, it was released in September 1939, the same month that World War II broke out. The plot’s about an American diplomat in Morocco – Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) – who falls in love with a Nazi spy – Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) – in the days leading up to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement. The most engaging part of the feature is the presumably somewhat fictionalized opening montage of foreign sabotage in the United States prior to that nation’s entry into World War I (the 1916 Black Tom explosion is mentioned). Yup, the best sequence is the one at the beginning of the flick. After that, we get a car wreck and a pistol-whipping, but the action is severely lacking.

Espionage Agent was made to brace the United States against the wave of infiltration of the country by agents of totalitarian governments (like the Nazi and Soviet ones) that was going to take place. It’s an intriguingly political movie, even if it avoids pointing fingers too blatantly (the swastikas on the Nazi troops’ armbands are covered up). Its warnings seem to come from a place of encouraging isolationism, rather than international cooperation, though.

Sometimes this picture feels like a recruitment ad for the U.S. State Department, but that’s okay. The real problems here are its anticlimactic ending and leisurely pacing. It means well, but the budget just isn’t there. It would be interesting to see a remake related to the information war being waged on free nations by the dictatorships of the world currently being waged.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Mr. Wu (1927) Review

Director: William Nigh

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” being famous for the remarkably different-looking characters he played over the course of his career. One of his more notable visual transformations took place in the 1927 silent melodrama Mr. Wu, where he plays not one, but two, Chinese characters (the titular figure and that person’s aging grandfather). The story of the film is concerned with authoritarian Chinese parent Wu (Lon Chaney) who discovers that his only child, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée), is secretly dating a White man, Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes).

Part of Mr. Wu deals with the culture clash between the collectivistic East and the individualistic West. Being an American movie from the 1920s, the West, which prides itself on its lack of arranged marriages, comes across looking more sympathetic. The picture also involves Lon Chaney playing two roles in what is now referred to as “yellowface,” which is certainly not “politically correct” by today’s standards.

Even if one can get past the flick’s racial insensitivities, they’ll find a pretty slow-moving film. Yes, there are some nice sets, but the first two acts here can be relatively difficult to get through. There may have been some content that deserved to remain on the cutting room floor. Mercifully, things speed up for the final third, which can actually be a bit suspenseful for reasons that I won’t spoil here.

It’s cool to see a feature where Chaney plays a double role, but, unfortunately, the one of Wu’s grandfather is pretty superfluous. Mr. Wu is mostly your typical tale of lovers from two separate cultures, with the occasional act of violence thrown into the mix to keep the audience’s attention. There are certainly better Lon Chaney movies out there to spend some time with.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Monster (1925) Review

Director: Roland West

Genre(s): Comedy, Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite getting top billing, Lon Chaney doesn’t appear in The Monster until about half-of-an-hour into the runtime. The plot here is about mad scientist Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney) luring victims into a remote sanitarium, until one night where three guests – amateur detective Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), town dandy Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley), and damsel-in-distress Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead) – threaten his party. This silent movie proves that they were making horror-comedies all the way back in the 1920s.

The Monster has some interesting ideas (it was possibly the first mad scientist film to depict the doctor having various deranged henchmen, for example), but it’s just too slowly paced for its own good. Some early scenes, showing small-town life, seem to move at a lethargic speed, but the sequences in the haunted asylum don’t fare any better. It may be a very early “dark, old house” flick, but the pacing here is slow by the standards of any cinematic time period.

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about this feature is that the horror and comedy elements don’t overshadow each other. While there are some cheap “scares” (an unexplained skeleton in a closet?) and cheap “laughs” (a teetotaler getting drunk off his ass?), this picture knows to not let the scary and humorous stuff negate one another. The finale is at least sort of chilling, with Lon Chaney’s character threatening to conduct a bizarre experiment.

One of the first words that springs to mind to describe The Monster is “slow.” Ouch. The characters aren’t too memorable and Chaney should’ve been in it more. It does hold a somewhat interesting place in the history of horror movies, but is that enough to recommend it? I’m going to say “no,” but you certainly could do a lot worse.

My rating is 5 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.

Mine (2016) Review

Directors: Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The film Mine from 2016 is a mediocre attempt at one of those psychological thrillers with a potentially unreliable narrator where the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. After an assassination assignment in modern-day North Africa goes wrong, two American servicemen – Michael Stevens (Armie Hammer) and Tommy Madison (Tom Cullen) find themselves passing through an old desert minefield. It may be a war movie, but this flick is more about confronting one’s inner demons than enemy soldiers on a battlefield.

Mine often lets abstract sequences get in the way of the more interesting survival thriller elements. I love surrealism, but I question its extensive use here. Sometimes it was difficult to care about what was going on, since it might just be a mirage or a hallucination. The flick becomes a bit tiring after a while, and the project might have fared better as a short film.

Now, let’s move on to the stuff that went right. Armie Hammer gives a solid performance with what he’s given to work with, and the cinematography’s pretty. The opening scenes involving the assassination attempt on a terrorist leader are appropriately tense. Despite all of the craziness throughout the picture, I will say that it mostly manages to stick the landing.

I used the word “abstract” earlier in this review, and I feel that that word sums up a significant portion of the feature, which might make it a bit unlikable or inaccessible to many people expecting something a bit more straightforward. It’s not your typical combat movie by a long shot, it has pretensions of being something more cerebral and personal. If you enjoy this film, then more power to you, but I found it to be an average (at best) what-is-real-and-what-is-not?-style thriller. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it…

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Big Sleep (1946) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.

Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.

Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.

Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Only God Forgives (2013) Review

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Genre(s): Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Gangster thriller Only God Forgives desperately wants to be cherished as a work of art. Its ponderous nature borders on self-parody. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, criminal Julian (Ryan Gosling) finds that he’s expected to seek vengeance for the recent killing of his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). However, is his brother’s death worth being avenged? I suppose it’s an interesting question, but this movie’s mind is mostly elsewhere.

Only God Forgives is one of those arthouse films where people stare off into the distance in silence for long periods of time. Man, they still make movies like that? I thought that style of filmmaking had been ridiculed to death? Most things in the picture happen slowly, I suppose because it makes the flick appear more important and artsier. Being only ninety minutes long, it’s not exactly boring, but it is self-indulgent. However, don’t get me started on that trollish ending.

There’s some good stuff about this feature, though. The musical score by Cliff Martinez has its moments, and the use of color and lighting stands out. There are a couple of notable performances, including Vithaya Pansringarm’s as Chang, a creepy, sadistic police officer. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a memorable performance as Crystal, Ryan Gosling’s character’s vile mother. As mentioned above, it’s not a mind-numbing movie, managing to maintain my interest for most scenes.

Some have stated that this ultra-violent crime-thriller is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but I largely come down in the middle on it. It’s more concerned with appearing dreamlike than just about anything else, even if real-world dreams are typically much faster-paced than this. Only God Forgives has its commendable aspects, but, in the end, it’s just too concerned with being viewed as high art to remember that there’s an audience watching.

My rating is 5 outta 10.