Touch of Evil (1958) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes (original theatrical cut), 111 minutes (restored cut)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Touch of Evil, released in 1958, was one of the last films noirs from the golden age of that style in the 1940s and 1950s…and it’s one of the best. The story’s about American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Mexican police officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) investigating a fatal car-bombing along the border between their two countries. The most critically-acclaimed movie from director Orson Welles may be Citizen Kane (1941), but, to be honest, I’d rather watch Touch of Evil, which he helmed and starred in.

In addition to the talented cast, the cinematography is a major star of the show. The long, one-shot opening sequence, depicting the car-bombing that sets off the plot, is a doozy and is rightfully famous. Shadows and interesting camera angles are used incessantly. The flick has a seedy, sleazy, nocturnal atmosphere that works wonders (although a few too many scenes take place during daytime).

This boundary-pushing classic is no action picture, but those moments where the shit hits the fan warrant a chef’s kiss. One murder scene is just as intense and ferocious as anything you’d see nowadays. It’s an edge-of-your-seat part of a fantastic film, with another one of those staggering sequences being the one with the hopped-up hoodlums at a remote motel. Some have raised issue with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican character, but it’s handled very tastefully for that sort of thing (no cheesy accent here).

If I must find any fault with Touch of Evil (other than the aforementioned complaint about too much sunlight at times), it’s that the plot can feel a bit vague in the opening scenes (even if the first thing the audience sees in the entire picture is a bomb). While films noirs generally aren’t my thing, this one is harsh, in-your-face, reasonably easy to follow, not overly talky, and satisfying. This is a movie that any self-respecting cinephile needs to check out.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Wild at Heart (1990) Review

Director: David Lynch

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

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wild at Heart is a crime-thriller from director David Lynch about two lovers – “Sailor” Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) – who find themselves on a road trip to Hell while trying to escape the latter’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). This is David Lynch we’re talking about here, so this is a deliberately weird work that won’t appeal to viewers looking for something – well – coherent. However, I love surrealism, so will Wild at Heart do the trick for me?

First of all, those expecting this to be Eraserhead: Road Trip! will be sorely disappointed. Yes, there are scenes in this flick with an oneiric feel to them, but I don’t think that the movie went far enough off the deep-end to be truly memorable. There’s this strange sense of unease throughout many sequences, but there isn’t a whole lot of dream logic. Some may be thrown off by the film’s odd sentimental streak and dark humor.

With allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Elvis Presley, this picture’s approach can feel scattershot. Try something surreal, and, if that doesn’t work, try another surreal trick. Nicolas Cage’s hammy performance is amusing at first, but it’s not enough to sustain the two-hour runtime. Willem Dafoe (as killer Bobby Peru) is a highlight. Just look at that bastard’s moldy-mouthed grin beneath the bank-robbing stocking he’s wearing over his face! Terrifying, isn’t it?

There were times where I think I understood what David Lynch was going for here, but I just didn’t care enough to appreciate it. I totally dig movies that make you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s dream, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength as this one. It’s a little repetitive and not quite surreal enough. Some plot threads don’t really go anywhere. I like the idea of this movie more than its actual execution.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

This Gun for Hire (1942) Review

Director: Frank Tuttle

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

Runtime: 81 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire was the breakout movie for tough guy actor Alan Ladd. Here, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a moody, cat-loving American hitman, becomes caught up in a scheme to sell national secrets to the Axis Powers during World War II. This is a surprisingly good flick, which is high praise coming from me, since I usually don’t fancy straight film noir.

The first of four pictures to feature both Alan Ladd and actress Veronica Lake, this crime-thriller greatly benefits from a relatively short runtime (eighty-one minutes) and a decent amount of action. Despite being in black-and-white, it’s rather colorful, and it also has a plot just about anybody could follow. The pacing slows down a tad as the Alan Ladd character finds himself hunted down in an industrial park, but that’s only a very minor complaint.

It’s interesting to note that this film noir could also be considered something of a war movie, since its villains intend on dealing with the Axis Powers of World War II. This level of intrigue makes the work more fun to watch. This Gun for Hire also feels somewhat daring for a flick released during the days of the Production Code. I mean, how many other American motion pictures from this time period have a hitman as their hero?

A focused crime-drama, this movie is an enjoyable watch. Alan Ladd really sells it in the role that made him a star. Even if you’re not typically a fan of noir, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Now it’s time for some trivia. Footage from this picture was edited into the Steve Martin noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and it was later remade as the mediocre Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film ever directed by iconic actor James Cagney.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Monkey Business (1931) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Musical

Runtime: 77 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With this movie, you can really feel the Marx Brothers starting to hit their stride. Here, the four Marxes play stowaways on an ocean liner who raise Hell on the ship and get caught up in a brewing gang war. Being based on an original screenplay, rather than one of their Broadway shows (like The Cocoanuts [1929] and Animal Crackers [1930]), this film feels significantly less physically-constrained than its predecessors.

With the Marx Brothers constantly harassing the rich folks on a transatlantic cruise (probably to please Great Depression-era audiences), one can easily see why critics incessantly refer to their style of humor as “anarchic.” The slapstick comedy here is timeless and the verbal stuff isn’t bad either. As with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, it’s Harpo Marx (playing a character imaginatively named “Harpo”) who has the best gag – this time it’s a zany puppet show.

Monkey Business could actually be one of the more underrated gangster flicks of the Pre-Code era (the time period before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced). Okay, it’s a goofy, anything-goes comedy first and foremost and there’s no shootouts, but organized crime still plays an important role in what could be described as the picture’s plot. One of the best parts of the feature isn’t really even that funny. It’s the somewhat-played-straight fist fight that Zeppo Marx (playing a character named – you guessed it – “Zeppo”) gets into with mobster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods) at the end.

Monkey Business was the best Marx Brothers movie (in my opinion) at the time of its original release. It has an appropriate runtime and ends on a climatic note. This serves the humor well. It feels less like a stage play adopted into a film and more like…well, a true film. This flick is quite a bit of fun, and is recommended for fans of comedies – especially older ones.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

12 Angry Men (1957) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

12 Angry Men, director Sidney Lumet’s first feature-length movie, may not have the most exciting-sounding premise in the world. Trapped in the piping-hot jury deliberation room, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) works to convince the rest of the twelve-man jury that a seemingly open-and-shut murder case isn’t what it looks like. There’s no explosions, no car chases, and no shootouts. It’s set almost entirely in one room and nearly in real-time, but the execution of this picture is nothing short of superb, making it feel like more than just a stage play somebody decided to film.

This movie is a gripping lesson in economical storytelling. Barely a second is wasted. The characters’ distinct personalities are mostly made obvious within the first half, even if we don’t actually know a single one of their names until the very end. 12 Angry Men does a much better job of fleshing out its characters than, say, The Dirty Dozen (1967). That being said, I felt that Juror 6 (Edward Binns) could’ve been given a bit more to say and do. The film really shows how different people react differently to the civics-related challenges around them.

12 Angry Men is terrifically made, with just the right sense of claustrophobia. The cameras start out above the eye level of the actors, but they slowly lower and look up at the people onscreen as the flick progresses to help escalate tension. The musical score (by Kenyon Hopkins) is kept to a near-absolute minimum. The performances are convincing all across the board. According to the Goofs section for this work on IMDb, not everything that happens in the deliberation room is legally sound, but I don’t think that it holds the finished product back much.

This picture is a powerful lesson on good citizenship, but it never feels like a lecture. It near-perfectly balances entertainment value with inspiring educational value. Not every question that the audience has is answered when the end credits roll, but I suppose that some are beyond the scope of the feature. Overall, 12 Angry Men is definitely recommended, being more than just another talky courtroom drama. It is not related to the similarly-titled Seven Angry Men (1955), from two years earlier, which is a biopic of John Brown.

My rating is 8 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.

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.

The Fanatic (2019) Review

Director: Fred Durst

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Fanatic, directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, was one of the most talked about movies of 2019 for all the wrong reasons. The film’s story is about Moose (John Travolta), a Los Angeles street performer “with severe autism” (in the current words of Wikipedia) who stalks his favorite movie star, Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). It’s a hard flick to make heads or tails of, but I suppose that that’s part of its appeal.

This feature is notorious for being an unintentional laugh riot, but was it unintentional? It’s hard to tell when the comedy comes from filmmaking ineptitude and when it comes from co-writer/director Fred Durst’s presumably twisted sense of humor. Were lines like “I can’t talk too long. I gotta poo” meant to split the sides of the audience? Regardless, this picture has received many complaints about meanspiritedness, especially when it comes to people on the autistic spectrum.

For what it’s worth, John Travolta’s performance is clearly committed and this makes the flick, uh, watchable. Even if it is exploitative, this drama-thriller does make the viewer wonder what’s coming around the next corner. It’s not boring, like a truly bad movie should be. There’s also some intriguing commentary on the United States’ love/hate relationship with celebrities. You know what? This film isn’t as bad as its reputation.

The ending doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but The Fanatic is still an interesting work. Yes, the dialogue is often, er, terrible, but it sometimes seems like this was the intention. I’ll give this one a passing grade, because I’m drawn to hopelessly bizarre movies that make you laugh, and then wonder if that reaction was what the director was hoping for. On the “Parents Guide” for this flick on IMDb, under the “Frightening & Intense Scenes” section, it currently reads “In a distressing scene, a character forces a child to listen to Limp Bizkit[,] turning up the radio while driving down a street.” I’m sure that bit will be taken down soon, but it made me chuckle. Yes, the director did put his own band’s music in the finished product.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Wrath of Man (2021) Review

Director: Guy Ritchie

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wrath of Man is not your typical Guy Ritchie film. A lot of the movies that he directs have frequent comedic touches, but there’s nothing cheeky about this rampaging, bloody Jason Statham actioner. Patrick “H” Hill (Jason Statham) is a new armored truck guard with a mysterious past (of course) who may have an ulterior motive for getting the job. This is actually a remake of the French picture Cash Truck (2004).

This is surely a very intense flick, full of seat-squirming moments and loud-as-Hell action scenes. There are a few violent episodes scattered throughout the runtime, but most of the ammunition is saved for the ferocious finale…a heist on Black Friday. You may need to take cover under your seat. As fierce as everything gets, it should be noted that there are obvious computer-generated blood effects that detract from the grittiness.

Jason Statham is just as grim and serious as the movie around him. It’s probably not a challenging role for him, but it’s the Statham we love to see. Notable supporting roles are played by Scott Eastwood (as Jan) and – wait – is that Post Malone (credited as “Austin Post” here, playing “Robber #6”)?!? The story borders on becoming convoluted a time or two, but the feature feels shorter than its two-hour runtime.

If there’s a problem with Wrath of Man, it’s that it has too many bad guys and not enough heroes. Anyway, this flick is worth watching for viewers who like their action films hard-boiled and borderline-humorless. Some may find it overly straight-faced, but, in a day-and-age of self-referential superhero comic book movies, it’s nice to see a work committed to a more serious approach.

My rating is 7 outta 10.