The Unknown (1927) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes (original version), 49 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent drama-thriller The Unknown was one of ten movies that actor Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning. Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is a shady circus knife-thrower with no arms (he tosses the blades with his feet) who’s willing to do anything to win the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford). First, Chaney had no legs in The Penalty (1920) and now he’s performing without any arms! What a trooper!

Lon Chaney is in top form here. He appears to be a top-notch contortionist, performing activities with his feet that one would normally do with their hands. A trip to the Trivia page on IMDb for The Unknown reveals that he occasionally had a double in this picture, the actually armless Paul Desmuke, for scenes that required that extra bit of talent, like those involving playing a musical instrument with the feet. This is incorporated seamlessly into the finished film.

This is a somewhat twisted movie, but, with a current running time of only 49 minutes, it does feel a little undercooked at times. A longer version existed at one time. That being said, the climax is appropriately tense and the overall picture certainly isn’t boring. As with many Lon Chaney flicks, this one revolves around a romantic triangle where he plays the grotesque figure.

The Unknown is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as some of the other features starring Lon Chaney. Maybe the long-lost footage would improve the finished product. It’s a macabre treat (though not a horror film, as some have suggested), but I think it needs those missing sequences to soar. That being said, I’d still recommend it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1925) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent, 1925 version of The Unholy Three could be seen as director Tod Browning’s warm-up for Freaks (1932). Here, four (yes, four) criminals – cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) – join forces to commit a series of robberies out of a pet shop. Now, how do you like that for a plot?!?

As one might expect after reading that synopsis, this flick can get pretty absurd at times. I mean, this quartet of outlaws even own a killer ape. It’s not quite a comedy, but this crime-drama doesn’t demand that you take it too seriously. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its silly premise. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Harry Earles’ character, dressed as a baby, chomping a cigar.

The major downside of the silent version of The Unholy Three is that it ends with a courtroom finale. I’m generally not a fan of those sorts of conclusions, and this is no exception. It wasn’t exactly a fast-paced picture to begin with, and now we have to endure a bunch of people talking before a judge? Oh well, it doesn’t hurt the overall film too much.

It’s not perfect, but this oddity might be worth watching for fans of Lon Chaney or those looking for the weirder side of silent cinema. Does the idea of this movie appeal to you, but you’re apprehensive about viewing a film without sound? Don’t fret! Five years after it was made, a sound remake of the same title (also starring Chaney) was sent to theaters.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mockery (1927) Review

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1927 drama Mockery isn’t actor Lon Chaney’s best film, but it is a fairly watchable one. Set during the Russian Civil War, a slow-witted peasant named Sergei (Lon Chaney) must escort a woman – Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) – across the Siberian wastelands to safety, with a love triangle just waiting to break out. This is a silent movie, but it’s told well enough that the lack of sound isn’t an issue.

This picture is mostly concerned with the class relations between the workers/peasants of Russia and the aristocracy desperately clinging to power in the face of revolution. Unfortunately, while the contrasts between the two sides take up a notable amount of screentime, the feature, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter. This is a melodrama, first and foremost, so displays of naked emotion are valued more than political/economic analysis.

The middle act of Mockery is perhaps the weakest part, but things get back on the rails for the finale. There is some action here, with plenty of soldiers running through the streets and Lon Chaney’s character – Sergei – duking it out with some goons. On the down side, Sergei does a thing or two to cause him to lose the sympathies of the audience during the third act.

As usual, Chaney’s performance cannot be faulted here. It’s just that the film surrounding him isn’t really that compelling. It’s only seventy-five minutes long, so it is manageable, but not that memorable. However, I don’t think that there’s been many easy-to-access flicks made about the Russian Civil War, despite that conflict’s horrendous bloodiness, so Mockery might scratch an itch in that regard.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Tenet (2020) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

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

Runtime: 150 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner Tenet was supposed to be one of those films to bail out the struggling movie theater industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The picture follows a secret agent, simply referred to as “the Protagonist” (John David Washington), who must stop a group of terrorists from using time-inversion technology to threaten the planet. It’s a long, puzzling ride…is it worth the trip?

The admirably ambitious Tenet is, unfortunately, a confusing feature. With characters traveling forward in time and others backwards in time at the same time, it’s hard to keep abreast of. The complicated-for-the-sake-of-complicated nature of the film doesn’t really make me want to watch it over and over again, it just sparks apathy. Perhaps the time-inversion stuff would’ve worked better in smaller doses.

There is some nice action here, though. The opening sequence is the highlight, but numerous chases, fights, and moments of miscellaneous mayhem are littered throughout the (overlong) runtime. There’s certainly an I-haven’t-seen-that-before factor in play here, but the movie’s wildly intricate plot largely means that these scenes must be enjoyed in isolation from any compelling story.

I suppose that Tenet will appeal to those who like ambiguous mysteries in their cinema and try to watch the same flicks repeatedly in order to dissect every last detail. This movie is a lot less easy to follow than Christopher Nolan’s own Inception (2010), and it suffers from that. Although it occasionally dabbles in James Bond-style antics, this work feels like it’s intentionally trying to “lose” the audience in its complex storytelling.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The body count continues to rise in the third entry in the John Wick franchise…but is there any reason to care? Henchmen will be mowed down by the dozens and “gallons” of computer-generated blood will be spilled, yet it all feels more impersonal than ever. Here, killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself on the run, as the entire underground world of hitpeople turn on him.

There’s near-constant action in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, some of it quite inventive. We see Keanu Reeves take on some motorcyclists while on horseback, and, in another scene, crotch-destroying attack dogs are employed. However, it’s all rather video-gamey, and the film feels more like a series of action choreography demonstrations, rather than like, you know, an actual film.

Who’s killing who? Does it even matter anymore? The characters in the fight scenes sometimes don’t even hate each other. They’re often just professionals doing a job. Why should I care? Where’s the fire and the passion? This picture makes the John Rambo sequels look like high drama. Those movies take a ton of shit, but at least they had villains we wanted to see die and a hero we wanted to see succeed against the odds.

Seeing hundreds of faceless goons being blasted in the face repeatedly has rarely been less thrilling. There are surely some creative moments of action choreography, but the drama’s just not there. The ludicrous worldbuilding isn’t helping at this point either. If you want to watch a real hitman action movie, I’d highly recommend the John Woo-directed masterpiece The Killer (1989).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2017, John Wick returned to the big screen once again to continue shooting dozens of people in the face. If this premise excites you, you may want to check this sequel out. However, if you’re expecting something – anything – more than that, think twice. This time, super-assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself once again performing the duties of a hitman when he’s forced to kill a target in Italy due to a blood debt.

The John Wick franchise is starting to have a why-should-I-care? problem at this point. The events in the first film (that I won’t spoil here) lit a fire under the main character that propelled him on his quest for revenge. In the opening scenes of this picture, on the other hand, he’s savagely killing henchmen over a car. Okay, it’s a little more than just any car, but the reasons for the mass slaughter just keep getting more and more impersonal as the movie goes on.

The action sequences are elaborately staged, but feel oddly sterile. The blood is all almost entirely computer-generated (and obviously fake), the choreography (which can get a bit repetitive) heavily favors the titular character, innocent bystanders never seem to be harmed by the chaos going on around them, and there’s virtually no emotional punch. John Wick: Chapter 2 basically just limps from one excuse for action to another until its two hours are up.

This entry into the series is also where the worldbuilding goes from intriguing to preposterous. The universe that these shadowy killers live in is hopelessly convoluted. Ultimately, even the silliest of action movies need a solid emotional hook to grab the audience and keep their attention. John Wick: Chapter 2 largely lacks that, making the big-body-count madness feel meaningless.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

City Streets (1931) Review

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The great Gary Cooper is probably best known for his roles in western and war movies, but did you know that he once played a big-city gangster? Yes, that’s right, and the film was City Streets from 1931. A man simply known as “The Kid” (Gary Cooper), who runs a shooting gallery at the circus, is recruited by the mob after his girlfriend, Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney), is sent to prison for assisting in a murder.

The most striking aspect of City Streets is its ahead-of-its-time cinematography. It probably won’t wow most modern viewers, but, if you’re accustomed to the often creaky production values of early 1930s cinema, it’s nice to see. Gary Cooper is a delight here, as expected. He looks like a pro slinging around those shooting gallery pistols.

Even though it was named one of the ten best films of 1931 by the National Board of Review, I don’t think that this is one of the stronger mobster movies out there. The Public Enemy (1931), starring grapefruit-swinging James Cagney, was released the same year, and, even though it didn’t make the National Board of Review’s list, it is certainly the more entertaining picture. The problem with City Streets is its anti-climactic ending, which I won’t spoil the details of here.

Sent to theaters during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this flick doesn’t really have very many “goodies” associated with the time period for modern audiences. Overall, it’s a passable crime-drama, but why settle for “passable?” The only real draw for it nowadays is seeing Cooper play a member of organized crime.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Seven Samurai (1954) Review

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 207 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Let’s get controversial for a second…and I’m talking very controversial. I’m really not that big of a fan of Seven Samurai (its original Japanese title being “Shichinin No Samurai“), the landmark 1954 picture about a team of, well, seven samurai being hired to protect a defenseless village from roaming bandits in the 1500s. This film may have laid the groundwork for the modern action-adventure movie, but I find its American western remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) far more compelling.

Compared to Seven Samurai, its 1960 remake boasts a more riveting musical score (by Elmer Bernstein), that’s pure blood-and-thunder (although Fumio Hayasaka’s score for the 1954 flick is no slouch). The Magnificent Seven also has more interesting characters, a more iconic cast, swifter pacing, and more thrilling action set-pieces. While Seven Samurai is largely about class relations between the samurai and the peasants, the 1960 picture has an intriguing Wilsonian element to it, thanks to its international settings.

The 1954 movie we’re talking about right now does feel surprisingly modern at times, though. It makes frequent use of wipe transitions and even has a couple of brief uses of slow-motion. I find the middle act, in all honesty, to be a bit on the boring side, but the first and third parts are fine. The last act is one action sequence after another, but these scenes are often more confusing than they are exciting. It should also be noted that this feature is about three-and-a-half hours long, so save it for an open afternoon.

I saw The Magnificent Seven long before viewing Seven Samurai, so that’s bound to influence how I see this work. Yes, the latter movie has inspired countless filmmakers over the years and left just about as big a mark on cinema (especially the action-adventure genre) as you can leave, but it’s just not for me. The samurai picture is certainly more influential than the western one, but I’ll take The Magnificent Seven just about any day of the week. It just speaks to me more.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Passage to Marseille (1944) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The plot of Passage to Marseille is about a Free French liaison officer named Freycinet (Claude Reins) recalling the story of how a group of French airmen fighting against the Nazis in World War II came into existence. This motion picture reunites many of the cast and crew of the iconic masterpiece Casablanca (1942), including actors Humphrey Bogart (as Jean Matrac), the aforementioned Claude Reins, Sydney Greenstreet (playing Duval), and Peter Lorre (as Marius), director Michael Curtiz, and musical composer Max Steiner. Can it recapture the magic of that movie?

Well, to be frank, it doesn’t. Perhaps the biggest problem with Passage to Marseille is its structure. This film has a flashback inside of a flashback inside of a flashback. No, I’m not kidding. Okay, the non-linear storytelling isn’t nearly as hard to follow as it sounds, but it still feels like a detriment to the finished product. Overall, the flick feels a bit on the aimless side and a lot on the formless side thanks to this.

The picture in question is blessed with some magnificent cinematography, as well as some exciting action, as one should probably expect from an adventure film directed by Michael Curtiz. The mayhem mainly kicks in in the third act, and it’s worth the wait to see Humphrey Bogart wield a Lewis machine gun. He actually gets to be pretty ruthless with it.

If you want to go into this one as spoiler-free as possible, I’d avoid reading the plot synopsis on IMDb. It sort of gives one of the movie’s more predictable twists away. With a similar cast and crew and comparable World War II-era francophilia, Passage to Marseille is sometimes called a spiritual sequel to Casablanca on the Internet. It’s certainly not the all-time classic that that feature is, but the 1944 work we’re talking about right now still might be worth watching for fans of Bogie.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Across the Pacific (1942) Review

Directors: John Huston and Vincent Sherman

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite a somewhat deceptive title, Across the Pacific from 1942 is a satisfactory war-time thriller. Set just before the United States’ entry into World War II, disgraced American serviceman Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart) is forced out of the military for a scandal and decides to take a cruise on a Japanese ship through the Panama Canal to Asia. The boat he’s on is full of shadowy figures (himself included) and blood is bound to be spilled by the time his adventure is finished.

Across the Pacific has a fascinating plot, but it is a slow-moving picture. It’s pulpy and noirish, sure, but it feels a tad longer than its 97-minute runtime. Some modern viewers may also be turned off by the feature’s war-time depiction of Japanese people. Fortunately, the film is blessed with one huge asset: Humphrey Bogart. That guy makes everything look effortlessly cool, and his performance in this movie is no exception.

Speaking of Bogie, it’s fun to see him in full-on action hero mode here. The action doesn’t really kick in until the third act, but, when it does, it redeems the flick. The actual scenes of physical mayhem are adequately staged, but they’re extra-amusing considering that they are found in a movie released in 1942. Bogart very briefly unleashing his inner John Rambo is hard to pass up on.

Most of Across the Pacific is a romance-heavy thriller, but the last third makes a natural-feeling transition to more adventure-oriented fare. It’s far from being a great movie, but Bogart fans won’t want to miss it. It’s interesting to note that his character in this picture is called “Rick,” the same name as his role in Casablanca (1942), which was released the same year.

My rating is 6 outta 10.