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.

Raging Bull (1980) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Raging Bull may be a boxing movie, but it sure isn’t Rocky (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese, this film is about the rise of violently psychopathic boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Is this critically acclaimed movie a masterpiece or just a bunch of raging bullshit? I think that the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes.

This sports biopic is occasionally criticized for revolving around a person with no redeeming value outside of the boxing ring. Robert De Niro’s dedication to the role is admirable (he gained around sixty pounds for parts of filming), but the character he plays is simply a low-life, abusive brute with no control. He can’t really be considered a tough guy, due to his out-of-control paranoia and thin skin. A good motion picture doesn’t need to be centered around a good guy, but Raging Bull‘s characters are so despicable that it really hurts the feature.

The saving grace of this flick are its more sports-oriented scenes. It really comes alive in the boxing ring. These sequences are filmed amazingly well, being simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It seems like Scorsese is trying almost every trick in the book to make the audience feel immersed in the brutal sport. It’s a shame the rest of the film has to deal with Jake LaMotta viciously lashing out against everybody in his life.

In addition, Raging Bull feels a little episodic, never building up to a proper climax. Just about the only emotion inspired by the work is revulsion. As part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1oth Anniversary Edition) retrospective in 2007 it was named the fourth-best American movie of all time. Really? It’s not a bad movie, but the fourth-greatest American film of all time? This is higher than the likes of Schindler’s List (1993), The Wizard of Oz (1939), the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), etc.? I don’t think so.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Soldier in the Rain (1963) Review

Director: Ralph Nelson

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Great Escape (1963) is, by far, the most famous Steve McQueen movie of 1963, but he released two other flicks – Soldier in the Rain and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) – that same year. The former of those two is a military service comedy about two American soldiers – Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason) and Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) – wheeling and dealing, falling in love, and having each other’s backs in fights. This is a light comedy “from a simpler time,” I suppose.

The humor in Soldier in the Rain is generally gentle and fairly old-fashioned. Steve McQueen, generally known for his tough guy roles, is much lighter than usual here. The scenes on the military base successfully evoke a certain atmosphere of rigid army life meeting Jackie Gleason and McQueen’s characters’ loose, opportunity-hunting style. This feature barely has any plot at all, mostly just moving from one scenario to the next.

However, it’s not all just fun and games in Soldier in the Rain. The picture does introduce some more serious drama elements towards the end, and there is a prominent romantic subplot. This is certainly not an action movie, but it does contain an exceptional barroom brawl. This fist fight contains some striking choreography, and gives McQueen a chance to show off his inner action hero.

The friendship between the characters played by Gleason and McQueen is the centerpiece of this film. Other notable features of this comedy include its jazzy musical score from Henry Mancini, an early appearance from (pre-Batman) Adam West as “Inspecting Captain,” and an agreeable eighty-eight-minute runtime. Overall, this is a serviceable movie that provides a few laughs and some excitement from a bare-knuckle fight sequence.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Reivers (1969) Review

Director: Mark Rydell

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1969 dramedy The Reivers is one of Steve McQueen’s more notable non-action-adventure roles. Based on a William Faulkner novel, this movie’s about three friends in early-1900s Mississippi – Boon (Steve McQueen), Ned (Rupert Crosse), and Lucius (Mitch Vogel) – who set out on a road trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in a 1905 Winton Flyer car. In case you were wondering, the word “reiver” means “thief.”

This is a film with a nostalgic tone that almost feels somewhat similar to To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), since they’re both coming-of-age stories set in the American South in the first half of the twentieth century that touch on the issue of racism. It needs to be mentioned that a young John Williams provided the musical score, and it’s pretty good. A couple of horse races towards the end manage to elicit some suspense.

I felt that there were a few problems with The Reivers, though. There were times when I wondered just who the target audience for the picture was, being a flick largely being told through the eyes of a child, yet dealing with some racy subject matter. A note or two (or three) in the feature are on the misogynistic side, and it goes on for a little too long.

In all honesty, I’d rather watch one of McQueen’s more action-oriented movies, but this one isn’t bad. It has its moments. I guess that that’s how I remember it at least, as a series of moments, rather than a coherent whole. A fun fact about the production of this work is that McQueen sometimes brought Bruce Lee to the set (according to the IMDb Trivia page for this movie).

My rating is 6 outta 10.