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.

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.

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.

Mulholland Drive (2001) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 147 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The story here is about aspiring Hollywood actress Betty (Naomi Watts) trying to help amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) uncover her true identity. Look, I love surrealism…I truly do, but there’s a time and place for it, and I think that its use in Mulholland Drive is out-of-place and hinders the flick. I wish that I could’ve liked this one more than I did.

Sometimes feeling like it should’ve been titled “David Lynch’s Greatest Hits,” this is a psychological thriller that starts out weird-but-not-too-weird before jumping off the surrealist deep-end in the second half. The blurb for James Berardinelli’s review on Rotten Tomatoes sums it up better than I could: “Lynch is playing a big practical joke on us. He takes characters we have come to care about and obscures their fates in gibberish.” Ouch. The impenetrable second half of the movie offers no real, accessible answers to the puzzles of the first part, only bizarre and random episodes.

To be sure, there’s some good stuff here. Some of the “sketches” in the film, like the one involving the world’s most incompetent hitman or the one with a man recalling a dream he keeps having in a diner are choice. A mysterious character simply known as “The Cowboy” (Monty Montgomery) steals every scene he’s in. There are a couple of sequences that suggest that this could’ve been an excellent showbiz-drama-from-Hell picture. A lot of the redeeming value is drowned out by the craziness of the second half.

I enjoy movies like Un Chien Andalou (1929), Castle Keep (1969), and director David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a dream. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, starts off as a compelling mystery story that you want to see satisfactorily resolved, before throwing all of that out the window in favor of oneiric madness. I wish it would’ve chosen one or the other, because this work had a lot of potential. Many people love this one, and I’m disappointed that I couldn’t be one of them.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Dune (1984) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Adventure, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1984 version of Dune could be seen as director David Lynch’s attempt to break into the mainstream following the success of his The Elephant Man (1980). He was, of course, not exactly successful, and Dune became a notorious box office bomb. The complicated plot of the surreal sci-fi movie in question is not easy to sum up, but I’ll give it a shot. In the distant future, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) leads a revolt against the galactic forces of tyranny on the desert world of Arrakis. This synopsis only scratches the surface of the intricacies of the story.

David Lynch loves the bizarre and the grotesque, and Dune has these in spades. It would be a mistake to go into this flick expecting Eraserhead: In Space!, but it does feature Lynch’s trademark sense of the surreal and the uneasy. However, it can be difficult to tell what is dream logic and what is convoluted storytelling. There’s a big exposition dump at the beginning of the picture that’s reasonably easy to understand, but the lore of Dune‘s universe gets deeper from there. For a movie that frequently has voice-overs giving the inner thoughts of characters, this sure can be an impenetrable work.

This cold science-fiction-adventure production has some visuals that make you feel like you’re having a damned stroke. The special effects are impressive, as is the set of talent assembled. I mean, rock band Toto and Brian Eno did the music. That’s just nuts. There are some familiar faces in the cast, such as rock star Sting (playing villainous henchman Feyd-Rautha) and Patrick Stewart (as soldier Gurney Halleck).

So, is Dune worth watching? David Lynch completists obviously need to check it out, but most others will be turned off by the complex plot and lore and the general weirdness. It does feel a little awkwardly structured at times, but I found it to be mildly entertaining once it found its groove. It does feel a little torn over whether it wants to be a grand sci-fi epic or a Lynchian freakshow. I’d say “approach with caution.” Fun fact: before settling on Dune, Lynch was offered the role of director on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

I Walk the Line (1970) Review

Director: John Frankenheimer

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Gregory Peck stars in a rural crime-drama with a soundtrack consisting of tracks from Johnny Cash? Yes, this film exists…and it’s not too bad either. In small-town Tennessee, Sheriff Tawes (Gregory Peck) falls in love and has an affair with Alma McCain (Tuesday Weld), the daughter of local illegal moonshiner Carl McCain (Ralph Meeker). Blood will be shed before this story is over.

Of course, the most famous element of this picture is its Johnny Cash soundtrack (“I Walk the Line” is unsurprisingly present). It’s not enough to make the movie worth watching by itself, but it does improve the scenes that it appears in. There isn’t much action here, but there is suspenseful excitement at the very end. This is far from Gregory Peck’s best role, but he’s fine in I Walk the Line.

Even though I Walk the Line is about the main character’s personal dilemma, it isn’t a particularly inspiring (for the lack of a better word) one. How about not having an affair, especially with a moonshiner’s kid? How about that, Mr. Peck? Think! Gregory’s character’s wife, Ellen Haney (Estelle Parsons), and his deputy, Hunnicutt (Charles Durning), probably end up suffering the most from his affair, even if both of their roles are pretty forgettable.

According to the IMDb Trivia section for this work, it is “[c]onsidered by many to be Peck’s worst film.” Ouch. Okay, I don’t think that it’s that terrible (haven’t these viewers seen Marooned [1969]?), but it doesn’t give you very many compelling reasons to set aside some time for it. I Walk the Line is watchable, despite being neither-here-nor-there in the recommendability department. Normally I’d say “Gregory Peck fans might enjoy it,” but, considering its reputation, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

My rating is 6 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.

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.