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.

Duel of Champions (1961) Review

Directors: Ferdinando Baldi and Terence Young

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Duel of Champions is one of those 1960s Italian action movies that features an American movie star (in this case, Alan Ladd) for box office appeal. Set in ancient times, the warring cities of Rome and Alba decide to have the conflict between them settled by a three-on-three warrior duel. As you might expect, Ladd is one of the soldiers chosen to square off in the high-stakes fight. Do not expect greatness, and you might get through the coming motion picture.

This is definitely not your typical Alan Ladd film, and he looks uncomfortable in ancient Roman attire. Seeing an actor who specializes in westerns and film noir in such a setting is sort of surreal, and may or may not add to one’s enjoyment of the picture. Yes, Ladd is a convincing tough guy, but seeing him running around pre-Christian Rome is almost odd enough to inspire laughter. The English-language cut of the flick was directed by Terence Young, who would later direct three of the Sean Connery James Bond features.

Fortunately, Duel of Champions has lots of action to make up for some of its faults. Some of it is clunky, but it’s competent at other times. Hell, some of the bigger battles don’t even look like something filmed specifically for this movie. They could be footage from a different production centered around Ancient Rome for all I know. Alan Ladd goes into action hero mode towards the end of the picture, which will please fans of his.

Curiously, the plot synopsis of the cut of the movie available on Amazon Prime currently claims that the flick contains a parallel subplot involving two friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the American Civil War (!). Almost needless to say, this is not in the version watchable on that site, if it exists in any form. Anyway, Duel of Champions is a little goofy, but it’s not terrible. Ladd fanatics probably won’t regret watching it, but, be warned, this is not a typical role for him. It’s alright.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

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.