King of the Underworld (1939) Review

Director: Lewis Seiler

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 67 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

King of the Underworld was the first movie where Humphrey Bogart got his name placed over the title in the opening credits. This drama is about how husband-wife doctor duo Niles Nelson (John Eldredge) and Carole Nelson (Kay Francis) and failed writer Bill Stevens (James Stephenson) find themselves ensnared in the world of crime by gangster Joe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart). It’s not remembered among Bogie’s best work, but it’s still a competent, little film.

According to the Trivia section of this picture’s IMDb page, director Lewis Seiler’s heart wasn’t really in this one, which might explain a slightly sloppy moment or two. Still, the results are quite good, with the cinematography occasionally having a shadowy, proto-noirish look. It should also be mentioned that the feature is actually kind of funny at times. It’s a charming flick.

On the action front, there’s not too much to write home about. There are a couple of instances when characters let a Thompson submachine gun rip, but this is far more subdued than, say, Scarface (1932) or ‘G’ Men (1935). An action film, this is not. That being said, the ending puts a pretty interesting and surprisingly satisfying twist on the usual gangland shootout finale trope.

Running a minuscule sixty-seven minutes, King of the Underworld is a film that’s difficult to regret watching. The succinct plot is always in motion and Bogart’s fine performance anchors the finished product. I really enjoy watching retro mobster movies, and this feature will scratch any itch for other aficionados of those types of works.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

American Hustle (2013) Review

Director: David O. Russell

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 con artist dramedy American Hustle is frequently compared and contrasted with the works of director Martin Scorsese. I mean, the plot does sound like it belongs to a project that he might helm. In the 1970s, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and conwoman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are recruited by federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help take down some crooked politicians.

The film is equally concerned with its vibrant characters and its tricky plot, making it a well-balanced production. It’s not a riotously funny, laugh-a-second flick, but the humor that is here works better than I expected. The movie doesn’t always have the gravity it needs, although the murderous mob is eventually introduced into the picture to add some weight to the proceedings.

American Hustle tackles the 1970s with relish. The snappy soundtrack is full of recognizable songs from the time period that greatly elevate the feature. Of course, it would be hard to review this movie without mentioning the oft-outrageous hairdos worn by the star-studded cast. They’re just reminders in case anybody missed the memo that this is the seventies.

This isn’t the most substantive film ever made, but it’s quite entertaining once you get into its groove. Despite how loose everything is played, the plot might be a tad too complicated at times. Just a tad. It’s very good and never boring, but, if I had to take my pick from the con artist fiction litter, I think I’d go with the television series Sneaky Pete.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) Review

Director: Sam Liu

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The animated film Batman: The Killing Joke was the first Batman movie to be released with an R rating in the United States. Based on a popular graphic novel of the same title, the picture follows clown criminal Joker’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to destroy the Gordon family, with superhero Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) trying to save the day. Thanks to more adult content than your typical superhero flick, this one’s for the grown-ups only.

One of the best aspects of this feature is the voice talent. In some ways, this is a continuation of the revered Batman: The Animated Series, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. The voice-acting is top-notch and, along with the stirring animation, carries the movie. The pacing also garners a thumbs-up from me, with tons of material being crammed into the seventy-six demented minutes of runtime.

Batman: The Killing Joke was met with a lukewarm, at best, reception, partially thanks to the handling of Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong), better known as “Batgirl.” The film doesn’t really know what to do with her and the alarming accusations of sexism might hold water. The Joker-less first act of the motion picture is also only tangentially related to the rest, which is also something that holds the product back from true greatness.

Very dark, macabre, intense, and sinister, The Killing Joke just might have the best depiction of the Joker yet seen on film. Unfortunately, some questionable narrative decisions almost derail this train. It’s an impossible flick to turn away from, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel “right.” The work may have also been better served by a less ambiguous ending, but maybe that’s just me.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hard Times (1975) Review

Director: Walter Hill

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Macho filmmaker Walter Hill’s directorial debut was the excellent 1975 action-drama Hard Times. During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) makes a living as a bare-knuckle boxer in the New Orleans region with the help of his shit-talking manager, Speed (James Coburn). It’s an unusual type of sports movie, being about the underground world of street-fighting, but Hill pulls it off remarkably well.

Appropriately for a film set during this time period, Hard Times has a gently melancholy tone. Some of the best things about this picture are the seedy and atmospheric New Orleans-area locations that it explores. It seems like no dank backroom in the city is left behind by the filmmakers. Charles Bronson is more taciturn than usual here and is supported by his then-wife Jill Ireland, who plays Lucy Simpson, the love interest.

This may seem like an odd comparison at first, but I think that this feature is somewhat similar to Rocky (1976), which was released one year later. Both flicks have plenty of punching and fighting, but are really about the relationships that develop outside the “ring.” Speaking of “punching and fighting,” the action scenes in Hard Times are pretty well choreographed, never lacking in impact or feeling too over-the-top.

This gritty gem is a movie that fans of tough guy cinema will want to track down. Often understated, yet always heroic, this bare-knuckle boxing saga is simultaneously sensitive and tough-as-nails. That’s a balance that’s highly satisfying when pulled off by the right filmmaker. To top things off, this motion picture features a cute cat in a supporting role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mr. Majestyk (1974) Review

Director: Richard Fleischer

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Mr. Majestyk is the 1974 film where Charles Bronson literally plays a badass melon-farmer. The movie’s straightforward plot concerns Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson), the owner of a watermelon farm who finds himself on the run from the law with vile mob hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) by his side. Yes, people will die, cars will be chased, and watermelons will be shot to shit.

How’s the action? Well, it’s not outstanding, but it’s ably-done. Perhaps the best action set-piece in the entire flick comes in the first act (it’s the one where Charles Bronson and Al Lettieri’s characters are forced to set off together after escaping from the police). It should be noted that there are some stretches with no action that might test the patience of some viewers.

Bronson is clearly the star of the show. As you might expect, he plays yet another one of his classic, silent tough guys here. However, it would be a crime to not at least mention Lettieri’s performance as a hot-headed murderer. The rest of the characters are fine. They’re pretty easy to tell apart from one another, so the filmmakers got that right.

Okay, this one has a kitsch moment or two, but it’s really a thrill to see ol’ Bronson portraying a macho, melon-farming son-of-a-bitch. Fans of the actor will find this an enjoyable ride. The shotgun-blasting Mr. Majestyk was actually released the same year as the more-famous Bronson crime-drama Death Wish (1974), which would prove to be a landmark in the actor’s career.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Casablanca (1942) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Made while World War II was still raging and its outcome was still uncertain, 1942’s Casablanca was an essential piece of wartime spirit-raising that went down in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures. Set in Vichy French-occupied Morocco during the war, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) faces a moral dilemma when he has to choose between escaping from the region with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life, or helping smuggle Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) back into the battle against the Nazis. Buckle up, you’re in for a treat.

This timeless masterpiece is typically marketed as a romance film, but it is so much more than that. More important than the lovey, dovey stuff is the story of awakening your inner hero to fight against tyranny. It may not have any battle scenes, but this is actually a badass war flick, through and through. A tale of idealism, heroism, and sacrifice, it reflects the Wilsonian outlook on foreign policy that was crucial to the Allies in the Second World War and its aftermath. Isolationism is treated like the folly that it is.

The cosmopolitan classic Casablanca benefits from one of the snappiest screenplays ever written. It’s just one iconic line after another. The feature also has a stellar musical score from Max Steiner that’s largely built around the 1931 tune “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is classy and dazzling, and the nightclub at the center of the movie sometimes resembles a real-world version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

This accessible and big-hearted piece of cinema is an important allegory for the United States’ role in World War II. It has a hopeful message that international cooperation and selfless heroism can overcome evil and oppression. Powerful stuff. It’s a wonderful gift to the people of the Free World and a reminder that their work in combating the forces of darkness are not over.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1967 gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde feels just as alive, fresh, zesty, and vital now as it did during its original theatrical run. As you probably know, the plot concerns bandit duo and lovers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), who tear through the Central-Southern United States on a crime spree in the 1930s. One of the best of its kind, this film took the sensibilities of the French New Wave and applied them to these American folk figures.

Bonnie and Clyde remains dazzling partially because of its expert juggling of action, drama, romance, comedy, suspense, and historical context. Unless you abhor pictures that glamorize murderous criminals (which this one has a tendency to do), there’s something here for just about everybody. The feature starts off adventurous and relatively light, but, by the time of the third act, it feels like a road trip to Hell.

It’s generally a fast-paced piece of work, with some very, very good action sequences (the violence that they contain was considered shocking back in 1967). A special shout-out has to go to the cast, who all play their distinctive characters with aplomb. The Great Depression-era United States is convincingly recreated here, and the flick is surprisingly funny at times.

Bonnie and Clyde is sometimes credited with playing a critical role in tearing down the old Hollywood Production Code, which dictated what content could and couldn’t be in American movies. The film’s graphic violence, sexual undercurrents, and glorification of ruthless criminals made the Code impotent. It was soon to be replaced by the MPAA rating system (you know, like G, R, etc.). Talk about a movie that left an impact! However, this motion picture is still highly recommended, regardless of its influence and significance in cinema history.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Highwaymen (2019) Review

Director: John Lee Hancock

Genre(s): Biography, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) famously showed the Barrow Gang’s 1930s crime spree from the criminals’ points-of-view, while 2019’s The Highwaymen flips the script and reenacts it from the perspectives of the lawmen who hunted them down. It’s the Great Depression-era United States, and gangsters Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) are rampaging through the Central-Southern part of the country, with former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) hot on their tracks. It’s a respectable change of pace.

No, this movie isn’t nearly as good as 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, but that doesn’t make it unnecessary. The two leads – Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson – have good chemistry and keep the leisurely-paced flick chugging along. The rural United States in the time of the Great Depression is brought to life surprisingly well, showing the breeding ground for criminals in desire of a better life. However, this film certainly does not glamorize the two crooks that the main characters are tracking down.

As I mentioned above, the pace of this picture can be, uh, leisurely. This is fine at first, but the feature does a questionable job of kicking it into high-gear when the climax approaches. Some moments of action feel sort of cheaply-made. The movie also underutilizes Kathy Bates’ character, “Ma” Ferguson, the Governor 0f Texas, who has to have Bonnie and Clyde killed or captured before they can make her look like too much of a fool.

Bonnie and Clyde are ruthless murderers here, largely kept offscreen like the beasts of a monster movie. Fortunately for the audience, the two lawmen on their trail are rendered colorfully here to make up for the lack of screentime that the two gangsters get. Overall, this film is a decent-enough diversion, but it needed a bit more pep in its step at times.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 180 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This depiction of the life and times of American financial criminal Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) is a work of pure, unrestrained id. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, gleefully obnoxious and hedonistic-to-the-power-of-x stock-broker Belfort claws his way up to the top. At three hours, it’s a long one for sure, but director Martin Scorsese ensures that this comedic biopic is never remotely boring.

The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a circus or a party (not the kind I would want to go to, though), with its orgies, oversized yachts, mountains of cocaine, and literal hundreds of “f-words.” It’s all excess, all the time. The movie is so full of amplified depraved behavior that it starts to feel like a twisted sort of experimental film after a while. Despite (perhaps because of) the incessant debauchery, this is one hilarious flick, with a style that goes for maximum impact.

As funny as all of this is, one flaw with the picture is that it doesn’t really show the consequences of the main character’s crimes on the people he swindled. It barely feels like a crime film at all for that reason. Yes, there is an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), on Jordan Belfort’s case, but this feature comes dangerously close to glorifying the law-breaking of the work-hard-play-harder man in the center of the narrative.

For a three-hour movie about wealthy thugs doing wealthy thug activities, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s story, acting, and script hold up well. The whole thing’s outrageous, but it’s handled by a master filmmaker (Scorsese) who prevents it from becoming pure schlock. This one’s not for the prudish, but, if you want to take a peak into the lives of the Rich and Sociopathic, this picture comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

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

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.

Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.

With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.

This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou [1929] levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.

My rating is 8 outta 10.