Two Years Before the Mast (1946) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The high-seas adventure-drama Two Years Before the Mast was just one of six movies that actor Alan Ladd made with director John Farrow. Here, Charles Stewart (Alan Ladd) is shanghaied to serve on a sea-faring ship under the thumb of a sadistic, rigid captain, Francis A. Thompson (Howard Da Silva), in the mid-1800s. Soon, threats of mutiny are in the air, as the crew struggles to survive under their tyrannical commander.

The beginning scenes of Two Years Before the Mast are actually pretty boring, but, once the Alan Ladd character is impressed to serve as a sailor, things pick up considerably. The film does a good job showing the cramped conditions aboard the Pilgrim (the boat that Ladd’s on), and the viewer really sympathizes with the crew’s predicament. The Howard Da Silva character is one mean bastard, but he’s a believable one, making him more intimidating. The feature contains a romantic subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere.

What this picture brings to the table is an interesting discussion of when revolt against authority is justified. When is it acceptable to raise a gun against the legal powers that be? Two Years Before the Mast comes to an optimistic conclusion on the matter. This flick sort of reminded me of Souls at Sea (1937), another adventure-drama that deals with moral dilemmas on the high seas. Supposedly, Alan Ladd had an uncredited role in that movie, and seascapes from it were used in the film currently being reviewed.

This motion picture doesn’t have much action, unfortunately, but it’s still watchable. Its direction is impressive, and those interested in the morality of humankind’s unending struggle for human rights and human dignity might get a kick out of it. I’m not ecstatic about it, yet I know it will have its fans. Two Years Before the Mast might be worth checking out for certain audiences.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Man Without a Star (1955) Review

Director: King Vidor

Genre(s): Western

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Man Without a Star is just about as generic as westerns get. Take note that I didn’t say “bad,” just “generic.” The story’s about drifter Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) who settles down to become a ranch-hand and, you guessed it, gets involved in a range war. This picture was directed by King Vidor, who, according to IMDb, was the uncredited director of the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

This is a pure, unadulterated western flick with few frills. It greatly benefits from the presence of Kirk Douglas, a real movie star, who makes the whole thing a lot livelier than it would’ve been with a lesser actor. His character’s obsession with indoor bathrooms and aversion to barbed wire are nice touches. Kirk is so charismatic that the filmmakers felt the desire to give him a semi-musical number. It’s not much, but he does sing a ditty in a saloon.

Man Without a Star isn’t an action-packed tale, but there are just enough moments of that sort of stuff to keep the audience in their seats. Don’t expect much and you’ll end up having a reasonable time. The film climaxes with an impressive stampede sequence and a tough fist fight between Douglas and the villain, Steve Miles (Richard Boone).

Keep your peepers peeled for the unmistakable Jack Elam in a small, uncredited role at the beginning. This feature also has one of the most melodramatic scar reveal scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s a highlight. Man Without a Star is pretty standard-issue stuff, but the Kirk Douglas Factor prevents it from ever becoming boring. For what it’s worth, it’s a Hell of a lot better than director King Vidor’s next project, the dire War and Peace (1956).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Looper (2012) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Half of a decade before he was trolling Star Wars fans with Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), director Rian Johnson unleashed the sci-fi-thriller Looper on the world. The movie concerns itself with mob hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who kills people sent back in time from the future via time travel. However, what’s he supposed to do when an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) is sent back to his time for him to execute?

The performances in Looper are often singled out for praise, and rightfully so. Wearing facial prosthetics to help him resemble Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best impression of that movie star. The real M.V.P. of the flick has got to be Willis, though. He has a reputation for looking bored in many of his more recent roles, but writer/director Rian Johnson actually manages to coax a committed performance out of him here. Jeff Daniels, playing gangland boss Abe, also deserves a shout-out.

This movie has plenty of ideas, but there may be too many for one film. Take the issue of telekinesis in this picture, for example. It’s introduced relatively early in the runtime, but largely forgotten about until the third act or so. To the feature’s credit, it doesn’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty science of time travel. I couldn’t tell you if Looper‘s version of that fictional science holds up to scrutiny, but it makes it believable without wasting too much time on exposition.

This flick, which was partially inspired by The Terminator (1984), has some pretty average action scenes and some pandering to China. I did enjoy the abrupt ending, though. It felt reasonably ballsy. Overall, Looper is one of those movies that exists in the Twilight Zone between being recommended to watch and being recommended to pass over. I suppose audiences looking for solid performances in a sci-fi-action picture will find much to write home about, but the story may be a bit too formless for others.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Review

Director: Richard Thorpe

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the few light comedies that actor Steve McQueen did during his relatively short career was The Honeymoon Machine. According to Wikipedia, Cary Grant was actually the first choice for the McQueen role, but he turned it down. In this film, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson “Fergie” Howard (Steve McQueen), leads an attempt to use a top-secret supercomputer to make a financial killing at a roulette table in a Venetian casino.

This movie is pretty quaint nowadays. It’s somewhat amusing to see the characters obsessed with a massive, clunky, primitive-looking computer that they can’t even bring ashore (they communicate with it via signal lamp). Now, we have gadgets that could out-think that behemoth of a device that can fit in our pockets. Technology marches on. Overall, the picture sort of resembles an actionless version of Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with American military personnel trying to make a quick buck under the noses of their superiors.

The Honeymoon Machine is based on the 1959 play The Golden Fleecing. This is not hard to believe, considering the confined nature of the flick. There’s a few scenes at the beginning set aboard the naval ship that McQueen’s character is assigned to, but most of the runtime is spent in a couple of hotel rooms and the casino floor. Fortunately, these are pretty luxurious hotel rooms, so it gives the audience some eye candy. To complicate the plot, the main character falls in love with Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), his commanding officer.

This rom-com is a hard one to have strong feelings about. It’s short (at 87 minutes long), so it doesn’t exactly waste your time, but it’s so lightweight that it doesn’t really offer anything new (well, other than fancy computers for 1961 audiences). The humor isn’t particularly appealing. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this picture, Steve McQueen left the first public screening of it early and swore to never again work for MGM.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible II (2000) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Back in 2000, a film directed by Hong Kong action expert John Woo and written by Robert Towne (you know, the guy who wrote Chinatown [1974]) was unleashed on the public. Its title: “Mission: Impossible II.” No, I’m not joking about Robert Towne (who also wrote the first entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise) penning this thing. The plot’s about super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting to prevent a gang of goons from making a financial killing off of a deadly virus called “Chimera.”

This, being the weakest of the series to be released at the time of the publishing of this review, is easy to mock. It certainly was sent to theaters around the turn of the twentieth-first century, as made apparent by its now-absurd-looking editing flourishes and alt-metallic soundtrack. This movie tries desperately to look cool, but it feels trapped in the year 2000.

The saving grace of Mission: Impossible II, as you might expect (considering it is directed by John Woo after all), is the action. This just might be the first picture to spring to mind when I hear the phrase “high-octane action.” Everything explodes here, and Tom Cruise has rarely looked more badass than when he, clad in sunglasses, drives through said explosions on a motorcycle. These aren’t Woo’s best scenes of physicality, but they still get a thumbs-up from me.

Mission: Impossible II has a few lulls that slow down the pacing a bit too much, but it’s nothing worth getting too bent out of shape over. John Woo may be an action master, but I’m not sure if he was the right choice to helm this project. The flick feels a little different from the rest of the series. It’s a watchable actioner, but it’s also the black sheep of the Mission: Impossible franchise.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Pulp Fiction (1994) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 154 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Quentin Tarantino, using his trademark blood-soaked-hipster aesthetic, brought about a filmmaking revolution with Pulp Fiction. With its nonlinear storytelling and ruthlessly hip nature, this beloved movie spawned countless imitators. The plot’s pretty loose, but revolves around the stories of two chatty hitmen – Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) – and boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who’s ordered to take a dive in the ring by mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Pulp Fiction, despite its popularity, is a misnamed movie, being more of a darkly comedic neo-noir than a work of cinematic pulp. Pulp is something more along the lines of the Indiana Jones series, anything Tintin, King Kong (1933), the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise, The Untouchables (1987), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Dillinger (1973), etc. Pedantry aside, there is some very good location work here, and some sequences, like the apartment interrogation involving Samuel L. Jackson’s character and the pick-your-weapon scene are truly genius.

The truth is: I’m not much of a fan of this flick. This eye-rollingly talky and self-conscious pop-culture-apalooza features characters that I often wish would just shut up. Nothing’s as simple as “yes,” “no,” or “okay” in this picture’s universe. With its look-how-cool-I-am attitude, Pulp Fiction verges on the emotionless. There’s surprisingly little human drama to sustain the feature, although some parts are admirably suspenseful. Ultimately, it leaves the audience feeling little.

This film, which helped put director Quentin Tarantino on the map, is highly irreverent, yet also oddly self-important. It broke new ground and all the rules, but at what cost? I understand that droves of film enthusiasts hold this one in high regard, but, a few flashes of brilliance aside, I feel like I’m on the outside of its universe, rather than immersed in the experience. I’m not calling it overrated, but it doesn’t have much resonance with me.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Souls at Sea (1937) Review

Director: Henry Hathaway

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 adventure-drama Souls at Sea teams up Gary Cooper and George Raft, two of the biggest tough guy actors of the time period. The story’s hard to describe without going into spoilers, but I’ll give it my best shot. In the 1840s, two sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean – Michael “Nuggin” Taylor (Gary Cooper) and Powdah (George Raft) – find themselves wrapped up in a plot involving slave smuggling out of Africa.

Souls at Sea promises an exciting movie, but it easily gets sidetracked by two romantic subplots. These love scenes don’t offer much different from what was typical at the time. The love-dovey stuff threatens to consume the entire picture, so much so that the action finale seems to come out of nowhere when it arrives. However, the climax does offer some entertainment value.

The grand finale rescues the film, although the special effects are a mixed bag. Some of the destruction looks so real that you don’t stop and think about it as visual effects, while those transparent silhouettes of people running in front of fire and explosions aren’t exactly convincing. The ending also gives Gary Cooper a chance to show off a surprisingly dark side of him that we usually don’t see.

This feature has some interesting ideas, but its execution is only so-so. For much of the runtime, it has routine romance on its mind, when it should be focused on high-seas thrills. It’s an okay movie, despite a few slow spots. It should be mentioned that this flick’s attitude towards African slavery has aged better than some of the other films from around the same time – like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Santa Fe Trail (1940).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) Review

Director: Frank Tuttle

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

After former San Francisco cop Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he seeks out those who framed him, putting him on a collision course with mob boss Victor Amato (Edward G. Robinson). This is one of the few films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s to be in color. So, this is a colorful movie in the literal sense, but is it a colorful flick in the figurative sense?

Hell on Frisco Bay is a pretty typical gangster-oriented noir. There are a few moments of cool action, but the picture is ultimately a bit too safe in its conformity to the Production Code that dictated content in Hollywood works of the time. It’s a fairly clean film that doesn’t take any risks. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. I’ve seen much worse.

This production has a lot of characters to keep track of…perhaps too many for what should’ve been a straightforward revenge saga. I wouldn’t use the word “convoluted” to describe it, but it may have been overwritten at times. Alan Ladd plays the stoic-to-the-point-of-stiff hero, while Edward G. Robinson does a role he probably could’ve performed in his sleep by now. There is not much atmosphere for this type of feature.

Hell on Frisco Bay doesn’t quite live up to its explosive title, but it’s a watchable romp into dockside gangland. There’s always the novelty of seeing Ladd and Robinson square off against each other. It has the common courtesy to end on a high note and it’s not boring. You shouldn’t line up around the block to see this one, but, hey, if you see it on T.V., that’d be fine.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Gunsight Ridge (1957) Review

Director: Francis D. Lyon

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you like your western movies short, simple, and action-oriented, Gunsight Ridge might be worth looking into. During the Wild West period, lawman Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) investigates a series of stagecoach robberies orchestrated by bandit Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens). This film is best thought of as a piece of cinematic comfort food…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Gunsight Ridge benefits from a notable amount of action. It’s not the most hectic western ever made, but it has enough shots fired and fists thrown to keep viewers from nodding off. The highlights are a horse stable punch-up and the final, mano-a-mano shootout at the geographical formation in the flick’s title. The body count’s small and the carnage is all bloodless, making it relatively family friendly by the standards of the genre.

This feature definitely fits the “traditional western” mold. There’s no moral ambiguity here, with the white-hat-black-hat tropes largely being in place (well, except for the fact that Joel McCrea’s good guy wears a black hat and the villain wears a white one). Gunsight Ridge is undemanding entertainment, and that’s okay.

All aspects of this picture are adequate. It doesn’t really go above and beyond the call of duty, but it does give off those cozy, lazy-Saturday-afternoon vibes that some audiences are looking for. Joel McCrea’s a solid action hero and the moments of physicality prevent the pace from lagging. Gunsight Ridge is no Earth-shaker, but I don’t regret viewing it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.