Underworld (1927) Review

Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Arthur Rosson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Underworld was one of the first feature-length gangster films, and possibly the first of its kind to be told from the criminals’ point-of-view. This silent movie is about mob boss “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) troubles when his alcoholic lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) starts to fall for his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Yeah, I know that the plot description makes this one sound like an uninteresting romance picture, but, trust me, this crime-drama is worth watching.

Aided by a swift 80-minute runtime, Underworld features pulpy dialogue that helped it win an Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story) at the first ever Academy Awards. Also of note is its proto-noirish cinematography that emphasizes shadows. The number of characters in the flick is kept relatively small, so it’s not exactly hard to keep track of everybody.

Physical action in this feature, while dynamic, is fairly limited until the finale. The climatic shootout is a real surprise, being more exciting than the final gunfights of many sound-era mobster movies of the following decade – the 1930s. I’m not exaggerating. It brings both the drama and action elements of the film together on a strong note.

While Underworld doesn’t quite rank up there with my all-time favorite gangster pictures, thanks to romance occasionally running away with the plot, it’s still a startlingly good entry into the organized crime subgenre, especially when its age is taken into account. It begins and ends with a bang, and has some of the best directing that I’ve seen from the silent era. Fans of early mob cinema need to watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Inception (2010) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

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

Runtime: 148 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Inception is a wildly intricate and imaginative film, but, as entertaining as it is, I can’t help but dwell on its lost potential in some regards. The story follows a team of mercenaries, led by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who have the ability to infiltrate people’s dreams to steal or implant ideas. For what it is, I think this is an exceptionally engaging motion picture, but I think it could’ve been something more.

In Inception, dreams are easily interpreted or explained away, almost to the point that the characters in the movie find them somewhat predictable. The scenes in the subconscious aren’t particularly surreal and there’s a noticeable lack of dream logic. This runs in the face of the dreams (or nightmares) people have in the real world, which are bizarre, unpredictable, scary, and unnerving. Maybe I’m asking for too much by wishing this was Un Chien Andalou: The Action Movie, but I think the filmmakers should’ve gone for something weirder, darker, and more unexpected.

Despite that flaw, this is still classy movie-making. The special effects are a sight to see, and the cast is all-star. A flick like this could’ve easily become hard to follow, but I think the script did a good job of communicating the complexities of dream heists and whatnot (even though I don’t think I caught every last detail). The feature has enough human drama to keep the audience’s attention in between big set pieces. Speaking of that, there are several action sequences and they’re mostly okay. They feel a little low-impact at times, but that hallway fist fight is a real knockout.

Blending sci-fi actioner with psychological thriller, Inception isn’t perfect, but it’s still a fun time at the movies. I do sort of wish it went off in a slightly different direction than what it did, but I try not to hold that against the picture too much. If you do choose to watch it, be prepared to pay close attention to its details, though.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Jaws (1975) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 124 minutes (standard version), 130 minutes (extended edition)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those films that reminds you of why you fell in loves with movies in the first place. A trio of men – police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), seasoned shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) – set out to hunt down a large shark that’s been terrorizing a coastal town. This summer blockbuster has held up beautifully over the years, still pleasing its audience.

This horror-thriller’s most iconic aspect is, of course, its vigorous musical score, which put its composer, John Williams, on the map. It should be mentioned that Jaws actually has a strong dramatic core to it, thanks to vividly-drawn characters that the viewer becomes attached to. Of course, the stuff with the shark is still cool, but this picture provides a reason to care about the man-versus-beast confrontation.

Jaws sometimes resembles a seaside slasher flick with a literal animal instead of a figurative one. While the special effects for the central fish are often derided as fake-looking, I think that they’re sublime. The filmmakers wisely kept the shark offscreen for as much of the runtime as possible, only really showing off the monster extensively during the grand finale. The feature also does an impressive job of capturing the atmosphere of a small town effectively under siege by a fiendish foe.

Likely to make anybody too frightened to go into the ocean, Jaws is superb entertainment. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that it became the highest grossing movie of all time upon its release (although it was soon outdone by Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope [1977]). Amazingly, Spielberg has managed to top the film several times so far during his career as a director.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Director: Paul Leni

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the primary inspirations for Batman’s main foe, the Joker, was the titular character of the 1928 silent epic The Man Who Laughs. Set in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a man whose face was mutilated as a child to make it appear like he’s always showing a toothy grin named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) becomes a carnival freak and gets tangled up in royal intrigue at the highest level. Considered one of the best movies of the silent era, this film largely lives up to its acclaim.

One of the first things you should know about this picture is that it’s not really a horror flick, as its reputation would suggest. There’s some horror-style imagery towards the beginning, but, for the most part, this is a gothic-style melodrama with heavy romance elements. Believe it or not, there is also some action-adventure-type stuff near the end of the runtime. Even if it’s not truly a horror film, the movie features a sea of grotesque faces to gander at, more than just the one on Gwynplaine.

It’s interesting to note that the title role was initially going to go to Lon Chaney, before it was decided that Conrad Veidt should get it. Here, Veidt gives one of the very best performances of the silent era. He has a permanent smile etched on his face, but he is a tormented man, as can be seen in his pathos-ridden eyes. He’s clearly the hero of the story, even if he inspired the villainous Joker. The rest of the characters in the feature are generally pretty well-defined.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes in The Man Who Laughs that border on slow, but this is relatively late silent movie, so things mostly move along satisfactorily. It has appealing visuals and the plot, which some may find soapy, keeps things together. It’s an American production, but wouldn’t feel out of place among the German Expressionist pictures of the time period. Silent film lovers will almost certainly find enough here for me to recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

Director: Jonathan Demme

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

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Intense from the get-go, The Silence of the Lambs is an instant classic that won an Oscar for Best Picture, the only horror movie to win that award so far. The plot follows aspiring FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must use the help of imprisoned cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a woman-murdering serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). Does it deserve its reputation as one of the finest psychological thrillers of all time? I’d say so.

It just might be the perfect performances that keep The Silence of the Lambs on track. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterclass acting job as cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, effortlessly getting under the skin of the viewers. The mind games he plays are enough to warrant giving the feature a thumbs-up. His role won him an Oscar and Dr. Lecter was named the number-one villain in American cinema history as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. It would be a mistake to forget about Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar for her part. Her character was named the sixth greatest American screen hero in the celebration mentioned above.

Dark, serious, and macabre, The Silence of the Lambs earns its R rating, but doesn’t go overboard with the gore, probably making it watchable for most adult audiences. It’s very fast-paced and efficient, making the minutes fly by when experiencing it. If I had to find a fault with it, it would be that the ending feels less conclusive and a bit more sequel-baity than desirable, but that’s a minor flaw.

This bone-chilling horror-thriller flick is nothing short of gripping. Even the critics generally loved it, even if they seem to avoid calling it a “horror movie,” favoring the term “thriller.” Perhaps they were too embarrassed to admit that they liked an entry into the horror genre? Also, just how big is “Buffal0 Bill’s” basement supposed to be anyway?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the last, if not the last, of the major gangster pictures of the 1930s, The Roaring Twenties ends a chapter in mob movie history on a decent note. The story here is about World War I veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who gets mixed up with bootleggers during Prohibition and rises up among their ranks. It feels more epic-scale than many other films in this subgenre, but some intimacy is lost in translation.

The Roaring Twenties tries to juggle many elements: action, romance, music, historical background, etc., trying to please every type of moviegoer. The main plot of the flick is often overcome by a love triangle, and there’s just as much singing as there is shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff. The truth is, it feels more nostalgic than hard-boiled, lacking a certain meanness necessary for this sort of crime feature to work properly.

That being said, the action sequences are pretty good when they arrive (the movie definitely ends on a high note). There are some engaging montages to express the passage of time, although the narration for these sequences (done by John Deering) feels a bit dated nowadays. Raoul Walsh’s direction is solid, but the clean-feeling script doesn’t always help him.

The Roaring Twenties is just too romantic for its own good, both in the sense of the lovey-dovey stuff and in terms of rose-tinted nostalgia. It feels like one of James Cagney’s “bigger” films, but it’s certainly not among his best, in my book. It just doesn’t have the ultra-gritty intimacy of The Public Enemy (1931), the heroic badassery of ‘G’ Men (1935), or the lurid sadism of White Heat (1949). I’m not saying “don’t watch it,” just keep your expectations in check.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.