Gun Crazy (1950) Review

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

I’m generally not the biggest fan of film noir, but once in a while I’ll see one that really tickles my fancy. Gun Crazy is one of those movies. The story is about two firearms-obsessed crack-shots – Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) – who fall in love and go on a crime spree. Does this sound like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to you? It’s certainly an important precursor to that landmark picture.

Gun Crazy is an interesting dive into the United States’ fascination with firearms. It’s a fine character study, too, being a b-movie that looks like an a-movie, thanks to its production values. The budget was low, but the strong cinematography and acting do a great deal to elevate the proceedings. The runtime is only eighty-seven minutes, so it trucks along at a good pace.

This feature has more action than your average film noir, which is probably a key reason why I enjoyed it more than most examples of that style. The body count remains relatively low, but many scenes still involve somebody taking out a pistol. One of the best sequences in the film is a one-shot robbery scene that must’ve been pretty ambitious considering the low budget.

No, I don’t love this one more than the aforementioned masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s still a very entertaining, stylish little flick. This thriller even has a non-criminal character named “Clyde” – Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis). It lives up to its lurid title and its sensationalistic tagline (“Thrill Crazy…Kill Crazy…Gun Crazy“). Even if you’re not a noir person, this one still might be worth tracking down.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) Review

Director: Herbert Brenon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney played an unnerving clown before, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and, in 1928, another silent film with him playing a neurotic member of that profession was released, titled “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” Here, increasingly depressed Italian clown Tito (Lon Chaney) adopts an abandoned orphan, Simonetta (Loretta Young), only to develop romantic feelings for her over the years, and vie for her love with Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther). Ew. Not cool, Lon Chaney, not cool.

The relationship between Chaney’s character and his adoptive daughter is deliberately creepy, and not viewed as something typical for the 1920s or whatever. He knows his feelings are wrong, and it’s tearing him apart. Chaney, as you would expect, does an ace job playing a performer who hides his pain while entertaining countless people while on stage.

The romantic triangle is a bit too back-and-forth-y, despite being in a movie with a runtime of only seventy-three minutes. Still, pacing is not much of an issue. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this movie, the surviving prints of it are missing a reel, but this isn’t noticeable. Another notable thing about this picture is a stunt or two performed by acrobat Alfred Adeline that I won’t spoil the details of here.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh probably needed a bit more of a sinister conclusion than what it ended up with, but, as it stands now, it’s a very good flick. The Trivia page on IMDb insists that Lon Chaney considered this his favorite role, but, then again, the Trivia page for Tell It to the Marines (1926), says that that military drama contained his favorite performance. Which page is to be believed? Regardless of which role “The Man of a Thousand Faces” preferred, both films should be watched by his fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Ace of Hearts (1921) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent 1921 drama-thriller The Ace of Hearts may have been an attempt to recapture some of the magic from The Penalty (1920), another crime film that also starred Lon Chaney, was directed by Wallace Worsley, and was based on a work by pulp novelist Gouverneur Morris. There may be a reason why this movie isn’t as fondly remembered as The Penalty, but it’s still worth a watch. The story is about a secret society, of which Farallone (Lon Chaney) is a member, that is plotting the killing of a wealthy individual, and the assassin being chosen by the random dealing of cards (ace of hearts gets to carry out the mission).

The Ace of Hearts‘ biggest strength is its atmospheric nature, with many scenes having a strong nocturnal energy. The image of Lon Chaney waiting outside of your apartment window in a nighttime rainstorm is powerful. The picture feels pretty padded-out, even with a running time of only seventy-five minutes, but the feature does build up to a successful climax, even if it has some unsure footing along the way.

This film does have a prominent romantic triangle in it that feels a little silly, but it’s largely forgiven by the time the flick ends. You see, the backroom secret society has one female member – Lilith (Leatrice Joy) – and two of the potential assassins – Farallone and Forrest (John Bowers) – are madly in love her, both wanting a chance to be the hitman in order to show their devotion to “the Cause.” Farallone – Lon Chaney’s character – mostly just stands around looking glum in a ridiculous hairdo.

The Ace of Hearts may not hold up that well when compared to a couple of Lon Chaney’s other movies, like West of Zanzibar (1928) or the aforementioned The Penalty, but, despite an occasionally slow pace, it should have enough merits to make it worth tracking down for fans of “The Man with a Thousand Faces.” It has an interesting story with a nice payoff. Check out the audacious main title sequence, which simply shows the ace of hearts playing card (instead of text) when the title should be shown.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Timecop (1994) Review

Director: Peter Hyams

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is tasked with preventing the abuse of time travel, when he finds himself fighting against corrupt American politician Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who’s been using that technology to accumulate funds for a Presidential campaign. As of the writing of this review, Wikipedia says that this is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s highest grossing movie where he played the lead role. Does it live up to that title?

When it comes to action, Timecop is definitely not the be-all-end-all Van Damme picture. The fights are actually pretty good, but the most elaborately choreographed ones are not saved for last. The ending confrontation feels forgettable in comparison to some of the set-pieces that preceded it. This feature’s finale focuses more on the emotional stakes than the physical ones, though that’s not to say that there’s no death and destruction during the third act.

The script gives the Muscles from Brussels one or two solid one-liners, but most of the comic relief is handled by Bruce McGill, who plays Eugene Matuzak, one of the higher-ups at the time travel agency. I mainly know this actor as “that one guy” from FDR: American Badass! (2012), but his attempts at providing levity are successful here. Does all of the time travel science and whatnot make sense in Timecop? Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I can’t wrap my brain around all of this complicated, scientific stuff, so I just ride with it. It’s fine in a turn-off-your-brain-and-watch-stuff-explode sort of way. It takes a high-concept idea and follows through with a fairly run-of-the-mill execution.

One can think of Timecop as a fusion of the time travel elements from the Terminator series and the sci-fi law enforcement parts of RoboCop (1987). Unfortunately, it can’t reach the high peaks of its apparent inspirations. As far as Van Damme films go, this one’s pretty average, but this average is higher than the normal score a movie starring, say, Steven Seagal would get. There are certainly better JCVD flicks out there – like The Expendables 2 (2012), Double Impact (1991), Legionnaire (1998), and Hard Target (1993) to name just a few – but this one will do in a jam.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) Review

Director: Stanley Kramer

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy

Runtime: 154 minutes (edited version), 174 minutes (restored video version), 205 minutes (roadshow version)

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

It seems to me that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was attempting to be to adventure-comedies what The Longest Day (1962) was to war movies. This behemoth of a film has been released in various runtimes over the years, but it’s always retained its epic scale. This flick is about a group of strangers who encounter a dying man – “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) – after a car wreck, who reveals to them the cryptic location of a stash of cash. Naturally, a race begins with the various witnesses setting out to try to reach the money first.

With its all-star cast, this comedy largely relies on obvious humor. Cameos come and cameos go (Jim Backus, as Tyler Fitzgerald, is perhaps the most consistently funny one), but the laughs largely come from absurdly unsubtle jokes. To the film’s credit, it does an excellent job juggling all of the characters it has to work with. Alliances shift, but it’s always pretty clear as to what’s going on. The characters are drawn both broadly and colorfully.

The truth is that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works better for its adventure spectacle than its comedy. The moments of action and destruction here can be stupendous. The prize for “Best Action Sequence” goes to the meticulous, intricate gas station punch-up. The slapstick stuntwork deserves a special mention. It often looks quite dangerous, and it sort of reminds me of the stunts that Hong Kong performers would later excel at.

Could this be considered the comedy version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)? Hmmm…perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the western version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, considering that the latter came first. While the humor in the 1963 picture in question sometimes falters, the pacing and action-adventure-type aspects make it worth watching for the curious. Few movies expose the greedy side of mankind in such a jolly manner.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1930) Review

Director: Jack Conway

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 72 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Gather ’round, ladies and gentlemen, and hear Lon Chaney in his only role in a talking motion picture! Yes, Chaney made only one sound movie before tragically passing away from throat cancer at forty-seven. This is a remake of the 1925 film of the same title, so the plot may sound familiar: cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Ivan Linow), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Lila Lee) team up to plan some heists out of a pet shop.

This one is several minutes shorter than the silent original, so it chugs along at a slightly faster pace. The physical action is perhaps a tad more dynamic here, and, while it still has a courtroom finale, this one’s a hair more interesting. That being said, it’s very similar to the 1925 feature, so contrasting the two films isn’t easy.

The most notable flaw with this version of the story is that Harry Earles’ dialogue is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe silent movie-style intertitles were needed? Nah, I’m just kidding about that. The pacing probably could’ve been better, but, as it stands now, it’s an improvement over the original. It’s a preposterous, little movie, but it knows that it’s a little crazy.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the enforcement of the Production Code, this nifty, slightly twisted crime-thriller is recommended for Lon Chaney fanatics…and not just because it was his last feature. It feels more streamlined than the 1925 silent film that it’s a remake of and the ludicrous premise is enough to keep it afloat. So, check out The Unholy Three if you ever get the chance.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Review

Director: Victor Sjöström

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 95 minutes (Blu Ray version), 71 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With star Lon Chaney showing up as a hideous-looking clown, it would be easy to mistake He Who Gets Slapped for a horror film. However, this silent movie is actually a grotesque drama (similar to other silents like The Man Who Laughs [1928] or West of Zanzibar [1928], the latter of which also stars Chaney) with strong romance elements. The story is about scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) who joins the circus as a masochistic clown after his discoveries and his wife, Marie (Ruth King), are stolen from him.

This well-made feature is not held back by the cinematic limitations of the time. It’s still an engaging and poetic picture that intrigues the audience. He Who Gets Slapped has an easily digestible runtime that varies depending on what speed the silent movie is played at. It may not be horror, but it still has an odd, creepy vibe to it. I mean, it does feature dozens of synchronized-dancing clowns, after all.

The second act of this flick does feel a little distracted at first glance. During this segment, the focus is largely shifted away from Chaney’s character and settles on the romance between circus horse-riders Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and Bezano (John Gilbert). It feels “off” at first, but by the time the work’s remarkable climax rolls around, it makes sense.

As far as silent, 1920s melodramas go, this one is very solid. With the occasional abstract touch, it is a film that fans of the silents should try to seek out. Some say that Bela Lugosi can be seen here in a small uncredited role or two. It is supposedly the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) movie to have that company’s animal mascot, Leo the Lion, appear before the feature starts. It’s certainly not the only time a lion appears in this movie!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

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

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel that tops the original (Ant-Man [2015]) in every way. The comedy, action set-pieces, and emotional hooks are all more effective here, not that they were bad by any means in the first installment. The plot of this picture is about superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with his special suit that shrinks the wearer to ant-size, trying to help Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) rescue Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, while battling those who want to steal the size-altering technology he uses.

While this is obviously a superhero movie, the physical action often takes a backseat to the humor and characterizations. This might be detrimental to the success of any other actioner, but Ant-Man and the Wasp might be better off for it. This relatively family-friendly flick certainly is a crowd-pleaser with its well-integrated special effects and creative action.

While the jokes come fast, frequent, and funny, I didn’t get the feeling that they were undercutting the gravity of the situations onscreen quite like they did with the first film. This action-comedy is no drama, but the sympathies of audience members are pretty easily gained by this more earnest take. Even one of the villains of the story, Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), isn’t really such a bad person, and this feeds into the somewhat kiddie-friendly nature of the production.

The dramatic hooks give Ant-Man and the Wasp more weight than its predecessor. It still sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel formula, but it is probably one of the better features to employ it. I suppose that each subseries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers something slightly different for viewers, and these Ant-Man flicks specialize in movies where the physical stakes aren’t particularly high (by superhero media standards), but the films still manage to thrill anyway.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ant-Man (2015) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man is a superhero film that sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel movie formula. Fortunately, this formula works quite well, even if the feature sometimes feels like a product from an assembly line. The basic plot here is about a thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who steals a high-tech suit that can shrink the wearer to ant-size, and must use it for the greater good of humanity. It’s more of a heist picture than your typical Marvel flick, but it still has the usual save-the-world stakes.

The likable cast and inventive set-pieces involving the shrinking Ant-Man suit are the real reasons to watch. The characters are very well-defined, and the production makes you care about ants, of all things. The lengthy action climax will satisfy those looking for superhero-related chaos. Ant-Man is also pretty funny, being one of the more comedic entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

On the down side, this movie feels the need to follow up several moments of action and/or drama with quippy humor. This can sort of undercut the gravity of the scenes, and almost feels like a coldly calculated way of “keeping matters light.” It’s already a fairly light-weight piece, so does it really need that sort of thing? It almost appears that the film is too scared to commit to sincerity at times.

While Ant-Man would be topped by the next installment in its subseries – Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – this flick can still be viewed as effective entertainment. Despite what I stated in the above paragraph, this work still has a solid emotional hook and it benefits from characters that the audience gives a hoot about. Cynics may look at it as just another cog in Marvel’s money-making machine, but I think it works reasonably well as a solo feature.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Review

Director: Byron Haskin

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

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Decades before director Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), there was a similarly-titled sci-fi picture that covered the same ground. Martians have invaded Earth, and humanity finds itself waging a seemingly losing battle against the extraterrestrial invaders. Largely set in the 1950s United States, this one feels like a bunch of aliens crashed into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Elements of this science-fiction-horror feature may seem hokey by today’s standards, but I think that it’s got it where it counts. The lead character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), may not be the kind of hero you’d expect from a 1950s film, but it totally works in the context of the movie. There’s a fair amount of action once things get rolling, and the flick is bleaker and darker than one might anticipate from an American production of this time period (although it’s certainly not as moody as it could’ve been).

The most notable hit-or-miss aspects of The War of the Worlds are the special effects. They won an Oscar, with some of the destruction looking quite impressive for a 1953 movie. However, not every effect is flawless, and some of the visuals have definitely dated…if they ever looked good at all (during the scene where human artillery is firing at the Martian war machines, it looks like someone tossing fire-crackers at miniatures). The aliens themselves also present a problem, since they look more cute than terrifying.

This sci-fi-thriller, which may reflect the Cold War paranoia of the time, runs a brisk eighty-five minutes, so time is rarely wasted. Modern audiences will find some parts of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds to be cheesy or quaint, but I think that the picture’s desperate tone and focus on physical mayhem save it from being a useless 1950s relic. To be honest, I prefer the 2005 film directed by Spielberg, but this one is still worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.