Movie Reviews

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Zorro Rides Again (1937)

 Back during the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was an unique form of the cinematic experience that came to an end during the 1950's. This was the movie serial. Serials differed from regular movies in that they were shown at the rate of a chapter every week as opposed to all at once which is what most folks expect from movies. These chapters were generally in the 10-20 minute range with most serials being in the form of 15 minute chapters. There were usually 12 chapters to a serial with every chapter except for the final one ending in a cliffhanger. The serial chapters were usually shown as part of a matinee bill that included film shorts and cartoons as well as a feature that usually about an hour long, give or take 5-10 minutes.


One good example of a movie serial is the 1937 Republic Pictures effort, Zorro Rides Again starring John Carroll as the masked man in black. However, this Zorro is not the Zorro that many of you grew up with. This Zorro is a direct descendant of the Zorro who defended the peasantry of Southern California against the evil overlords (the Capitan and Sergeant Garcia) in the 1820's. As such, this was a Zorro who lived in the Great Depression where there was Six-Guns, airplanes, machine guns, railroads, automobiles, radios and other forms of weaponry and gadgetry that the original Zorro could only dream about. Another difference is that James Vega aka Zorro is the main investor in the California-Yucatan Railroad that the evil "financial pirate" Marsden is attempting to take over by hook or by crook. Yet another difference is that the mask worn by this Zorro covers his entire face.


Zorro Rides Again takes you back to the days of fun-filled shoot them ups and buckaroo cowboys. This movie also features the stunt work for which Republic productions were famous for including the incredible work of veteran stunt man Yakima Canutt. This movie was an unusually well written serial with the first 11 eleven chapters all ending in thrilling cliffhangers, many of which were pretty innovative. John Carroll makes a great modern day Zorro. There is also great location photography and a good cast of supporting actors. One of these, Duncan Renaldo, is a great co-star in this movie in a role that is highly similar to the Cisco Kid character that he played on TV in the 1950's. This movie is a rousing action movie on par with many of the best action flicks of today.


The only real drawback to Zorro Rides Again is the fact that Marsden (Noah Beery, Sr.) is not a particularly effective villain. Marsden is basically a mild mannered sort who keeps to his office and only appears in the scenes where he transmits instructions to his chief lieutenant in the field, El Lobo (Richard Alexander). It is unclear why Marsden goes to the lengths that he does to sabotage the California-Yucatan Railroad when it would be much cheaper to buy it from its investors. Considering the fact that he has some two dozen or so men in the field, it must have been quite a financial burden on Marsden to try to sabotage a railroad being built in the middle of the Depression.

Still, despite this drawback, Zorro Rides Again is a good movie well worth your time. 

Gone With the Wind (1939)

 Some time back, the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 best American films of all time. Not surprisingly, Gone with the Wind placed in the Top 10 finishing at #4. This was a well-earned showing giving the sheer quality of this magnificent major motion picture.


Gone with the Wind was very closely based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling 1936 book, that has enjoyed vast popularity among the book buying public ever since its original publication. The huge popularity of the original novel, combined with the producer's decision to keep the movie faithful to the novel ensured its everlasting poplarity with the audience. 


The heroine Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) secretly loves Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is about to marry the very nice Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland). When Scarlett tells Ashley that she loves him, Ashley admits that he loves her to, but believes that Melanie will make a much better wife. Soon after this meeting, Scarlett meets the irrepressible Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the hero who eventually falls in love with her. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara are two similar characters who simultaneously repel and attract one another. For instance, when Scarlett remarks, "You, Sir, are no gentleman," Rhett's smiling, easy response is, "And you're no lady."


While most Hollywood romantic films are about love triangles, Gone with the Wind goes them one better by being about a romantic quadrangle for most of the movie's length. Scarlett loves Ashley whiel Melanie loves both Ashley and Scarlett. Melanie is so blind to the reality of the relationship between Ashley and Scarlett, that she becomes Scarlett's best friend. Rhett loves Scarlett and she loves him yet she does not realize just how much she really is in love with him.


At its core Gone with the Wind is an exercise in nostalgia for the mythical Old South. The film's opening title states: "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind." 


The surprising thing about Gone with the Wind is just how effective it is over 75 years after its initial release. This is a movie that looks much better than many movies that were made recently. THe dialogue, particularly the exchanges between Scarlett and Rhett is often brilliant. 


Both Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were perfectly cast in their roles. Leigh was just starting out in show biz while Gable had been a big time star for years. 


There were a number ot noteworthy supporting roles with memorable acting performances to go with them. The most significant are Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes and Olivia De Havilland aa Melanie hamilton. Both of them play their roles just right in that they both make a strong impression without stealing the show.


Gone with the Wind was the personal project of legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Selznick was the persson who recruited all the talent in this movie, both before and behind the camera. Selznick's passion and drive proved decisive in creating Gone with the Wind and making it the masterpiece that it is.


No movie has ever sold anywhere near as many tickets as Gone with the Wind. Given the current lack of originality that reigns in Hollywood today, its doubtful if any movie will ever break its record. 

300 (2007)

 300 is based on a "graphic novel" aka pretentious and over priced comic book that was done by Frank Miller. Miller is an old hack in comic books who has managed to screw up practically every project that he has ever handled. During the 1980's, he did a graphic novel of Batman calling him "The Dark Knight." Miller's Batman more resembled the kind of person that Adolf Hitler would have had in the Gestapo than the classic comic book character. Miller was also responsible for a series of Daredevil stories that basically trashed one of the more venerable comic book super heroes. Needless to say, whenever Frank Miller is involved in a comic book project, the results are certain to be disappointing to all those who appreciate great comic books.


Such was the case with the original 1999 hardcover comic book aka graphic novel version of 300 . Not only was it poorly drawn and colored, it was extremely vulgar in a homosexual way. Real life Spartan soldiers wore full armor as opposed to running around half naked like they did in Miller's creation. If the Spartans really went about warfare with as little clothing and armor on, as Miller would have you believe, then they would have been slaughtered like cattle. Instead of being synonymous with bravery, the word Spartan would instead be synonymous with stupidity.


300 is equally abysmal in its presentation of the Persian enemy. The Persian Empire was the largest country of all antiquity. Slavery was abolished under Cyrus the Great several decades before Persia attempted to conquer Greece. Meanwhile, for all the talk of "freedom" in 300 , in Greece it was perfectly lawful to own people in bondage. Also, Persian warriors were not the freaks depicted in the movie, nor did their "King of Kings" Xerxes go around with numerous body piercings like some grotesque freak.


The movie version of 300 was made in much the same way that movies such as "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "Sin City" were made. The flick was filmed at indoor movie studios and in front of green screens. Once the acting was finished, the special effects technicians took over and they inserted the film footage of the actors into a digitally created world. The end result looks just like a Computer Graphics Interface (CGI) movie. In other words, it looks more like a glorified cartoon than a real movie with real actors.


Another problem is that 300 seems like it was planned to have a video game spin off. The battles depicted in this movie are the kind of battles that fit right in on a video game format. The elephants, rhinoceroses and the chained giant look more like video game characters than movie characters. The members of the Persian Army all look like clones of one another.


When you consider that one of the characters is a deformed hunchback ogre who has arms that look like lobster claws, it is impossible to take this grotesque flick as being anything better than a piece of garbage. 300 is truly an ugly movie and is about as involving as watching a video game demo. 300 is a movie to avoid like the plague. 

Damsel (2018)

 There exists a movement that is called "independent cinema" that consists of ultra low budget movies that are mostly released on DVD. Many of these films are supported by grants from foundations that were originally founded to support the arts. All too often, these foundation grants are basically wasted on showy, pretentious projects. Typically these flicks are released movie theaters so that they can avoid getting the "direct to video" label placed on them by reviewers. However, for all practical purposes, they are no different from movies that proudly wear the Direct to Video label. Its all just a matter of marketing. One such flick is the 2018 Western Damsel.


All too often independent Westerns have generally been poorly made affairs that are generally uninteresting. So, what the producers of Damsel did was to promote their movie as being a "Weird Western." Typically, these movies are weird movies that are set in the Old West. Only problem is that there is hardly anything weird going on in Damsel. If anything what you have is sheer boredom.


Damsel is the story of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a wealthy Easterner who travels westwards to marry a lady named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) who had gone westwards long before him. This was an interesting beginning since in real life, it was common for men to go westwards to become successful and then later on either engage in correspondence with females back East who wanted to come westwards to just simply get a mail order bride. Or the whole family would travel together, It was practically unheard of for females to go first. 


For all their endeavors to make Damsel interesting, what its filmmakers have actually done is create a really boring movie. To be sure, there is a plus side to this movie in the form of both its beautiful cinematography and evocative score. However, the characters in this flick are all poorly drawn and as a result, you just simply do not care about them. The screenplay was written at the middle school level and the direction is simply lacking.


Damsel is part of a pattern in independent Westerns that have been produced during the past several years. There have been a number of grant-supported Westerns that seemed to be in a race for the title of Most Boring Western. Basically, Damsel is an example what might be called a "Twitter Western" that was made solely to get praised on social media by people who have absolutely no idea what a genuinely good Western would actually be like. 


Damsel is a movie that mixes in great cinematography and music with a boring script to create a pretentious motion picture that is boring to behold. As such it cannot be recommended here. 

Kansas Pacific (1953)

 Back during the Golden Age of Hollywood (1933-1965), Westerns were the perennial favorite genre. Hundreds of Westerns were made each and every
year. Under these conditions, a well made Western could very easily get
lost amongst the flocks of Westerns being released and fail to achieve
the critical acclaim and/or box office success that it deserved. One
such Western was the 1953 Allied Artists production, Kansas Pacific.

That Kansas Pacific should have failed to make a splash was a surprise given the facts that Clayton Moore aka TV's Lone Ranger & Reed Hadley aka Captain
Braddock of the then running Racket Squad TV show was in this movie.
Additionally, the lead actor in this production was Sterling Hayden who
was one of the better-known actors in Hollywood. A key role in this movie was accrued to up and coming character actor Douglas Fowley.

Kansas Pacific was set in Kansas at the onset of the Civil War. The state was
widely known as "Bloody Kansas" due to the factional violence over the 'slavery issue.  The sectional divide in the country was replicated in Kansas with the northern part of the state mainly consisting of pro-Union settlers and in the southern part of Kansas was mainly
settled by pro-Confederate types.

One project that was of prime importance to both groups was the creation of the Kansas Pacific
Railroad. The pro-North element favored its completion while the pro-South faction wanted its construction
stopped. This film is about the struggle by the pro-North element to overcome the violence of the pro-South faction that aimed to prevent the railroad from being completed.

There are some problems with Kansas Pacific. For instance, dynamite is used even though it was not even invented until after the Civil War was over. The railroad trains used air brakes even though those were not invented until later and on top of that, one of the women characters wears pants, something that no self-respecting female in those days would have been caught doing. In fact, pants wearing by the female population did not become common until the 1970's.  You can also spot tire treads on some of the roads.

Kansas Pacific is a good example of a kind of movie that you don't see coming out of Hollywood much lately. This is the story of the building of a railroad. it has some great footage of vintage trains. There is also a convincing scene in which the pro-Confederate faction succeed in blowing up an entire train.

Kansas Pacific is a great railroad action movie set on the frontier during the outbreak of the Civil War. It realistically pictures the efforts of Confederate agents to sabotage Northern railroading
endeavors. It is a movie that is full of action and suspense. As such, its well worth at least a rental.  

Hercules Unchained (1959)

 Back in the day, there was only one Hercules in the hearts of movie fans and his name was Steve Reeves. While there were others who played the role, none of them brought the same combination of acting ability and charisma to the role. While the Hercules movies of times past do not compare well with the special effects-laden blockbusters of today, back in those days, they were the best action flicks around. Watching Steve Reeves' movies today makes one feel both nostalgic but also wondering just what would have happened if Reeves had run for governor of California.

Following the success of the 1959 movie Ben-Hur, a great many filmmakers decided to make movies about big burly men and their chariots.  Since Steve Reeves was the foremost exponent of bodybuilding at the time, it was only natural that a filmmaker would sign him up. Reeves had been trying to break into Hollywood for some time, but with but few exceptions such as the 1954 Ed Wood film Jail Bait, he failed to make it
in show business. So when some Italian movie producers showed up and offered him the lead role in a movie about the legendary strongman Hercules, Reeves was perfectly willing to take a shot at it.

Following the success of the original Hercules in 1958, it was only natural that there would be a sequel. Since they made movies quicker back in those days than they do now, the sequel came just one year later. Unlike the movie series of today, such as the Transformers, a good deal of thought was put into the screenplay and it shows.

At the start of this movie, Hercules along with his pretty wife Iole ( Sylva Koscina) and their young friend Ulysses (Gabriel Antonini) continuing their quest for the Golden Fleece that was originally begun in the first Hercules movie. On their way, Hercules engages in a series of adventures that lands him in trouble. Hercules winds up under the spell of Omphale (Sylvia Lopez), the redheaded Queen of Lydia. Ulysses tags along pretending to be Hercules's deaf-mute servant. Ulysses realizes that he needs to free Hercules from the evil queen's spell before she tires of him and has him killed.

What the evil queen does with the men who she had under her spell and then got tired of them is that they wind up as Hercules becomes amnesiac after drinking from the waters of Lethe. For years, the beautiful queen Omphale has been abducting warriors who become amnesiacs off to her exotic paradise island where they give themselves up to sexual pleasures until the day she tires of them. When that happens, they die and end up as statues in her garden of conquests. He also has to get the original trio back to Thebes before the Lydians reach the  city and burn it to the ground.

Most importantly, Ulysses needs to find a way to restore Hercules's memory. Only by restoring Hercules to his full effectiveness can Ulysses hope to
defeat the evil queen and her Lydian forces and save Greece from foreign conquest. Meanwhile, Iole has her own problems with the Lydians attempting
to rape and molest her.

One interesting aspect of this flick is the scenes involving muscular men having their way with giggling servant girls. There is quite a bit of action involving both Hercules and Ulysses pursuing servant girls who are running away from them. There are also some interesting fights against tigers.

Following the box office of both this movie and its predecessor, Reeves decided that he no longer wanted to play Hercules. He left that role to try his hand at other roles in movies that had much bigger budgets than his Hercules movies did. Those movies turned out to be as successful as his Hercules flicks and they have enjoyed lasting success
ever since. Reeves's departure did not deter filmmakers from making a whole slew of Hercules movies as well as a long running original syndicated TV show in the years since starring the likes of Lou Ferrigno, Mark Forrest, Ed Fury, Richard Harrison, Dwayne Johnson, Reg Park, Gordon Scott, Kevin Sorbo among many others. However, none of these worthies came close to matching Reeves's popularity among movie fans in that role.

Basically, Hercules Unchained is a lot of fun and as such is recommended. 

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Badlands (1973)

 The 1973 movie Badlands is a flick that is allegedly based on true events, yet is done in such a way that it makes you wonder just how accurate that it is. The real life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his female accomplice/girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate is depicted in a flat, unexciting fashion. Even worse. its ending was anticlimactic and the movie was a failure. It was also historically inaccurate. For instance, Starkweather's name was changed to "Kit" and Fugate's name was changed to "Holly. " Even worse, although both Fugate and Starkweather were teenagers in real life, the actor playing Kit was Martin Sheen who was 33 when the movie was made while the actress playing Holly was the 24 year old Sissy Spacek. Even worse, both Kit and Holly are referred to as being teenagers by the other characters even though you can look right at both of them and tell quite easily that neither of them were anywhere near being teenagers. What's really strange is that while both Starkweather and Fugate were from Nebraska, the movie portrays them as being from South Dakota. What's the point of changing the sate that they we both from as well as the state where most of the murders took place?

The real life killer duo of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate traversed the states of Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming during the two-month period of December 1958-January 1959. The killed at least eleven people all told in both Nebraska and Wyoming. That the region was thrown into an uproar is shown by the fact that part of the Nebraska National Guard was called out and at least one county in that state was subjected to a house by house search. It would be an understatement to say that the region was thrown into a panic. And yet this movie attempts to make the killers sympathetic characters instead of the remorseless monsters that they actually were. In this movie, the father of the female killer is made out out to be a horrible person even to the point of killing her dog for no good reason. Basically, what this movie does is turn victims into villains and villains into victims.

Badlands falls into the same category as the 1967 flick Bonnie & Clyde. At first glance, it seems like a decent movie, particularly in terms of the acting and cinematography, then when you learn about what really happened, you realize that it was actually pretty bad. The crimes perpetrated by Starkweather and Fugate were done in real life for the sheer thrill of it all. This movie tries to make out that their motivations were based on watching movies and TV and then acting out those celluloid scenarios in real life. The problem is that there just simply is no evidence backing up any of those assertions.

Due to the predictable plot, Badlands is a dull movie. It can be difficult to stay awake while watching it. There are only a few action scenes and they are all poorly executed and unexciting. Most of this movie consists of the lead actor and the lead actress staring at each other with but little in the line of conversation or even emotion between them. There is much unintentional humor in the poorly written dialogue between Kit and Holly. Badlands is a poor movie and as such it cannot be recommended.
 

Kung Fu Hustle (2005)

 Back during the first decade of the 21st Century, there were a number of martial arts movies.  These flicks were a mixed lot. One typical example of these films was the 2005 production Kung Fu Hustle. Like the other martial arts flicks, this was a cartoonish movie that dabbled into marshmallow oriental mysticism and came across as being goofy.

This is a movie that is set during the days when mainland China was not a Communist country. It appears to have been done as part of an effort to denigrate the pre-Communist past and by so doing, glorify the present day Communist dictatorship.

It takes a while for you to figure out just what this movie is about. If that does not tell you just how bad the screenplay is, then nothing will.  It appears to be about Brother Sum, the leader of the Axes gang. One of Sum's biggest allies is the evil landlady who we all know is evil since she is constantly smoking.

There is a rival to Brother Sum for power inn the Chinese-American Underworld. This is Brother Sing. His power base is the decrepit neighborhood called Pigsty Alley. Brother Sing has a thing for throwing firecrackers into the air as he repeatedly does throughout this movie. It was after Brother Sing threw one
firecracker too many into the air, that the action really begins. From this point on, one kung fu master after another shows up and the movie just simply becomes one gigantic brawl. It is totally confusing and you get to the point where you just simply do not care who wins or who loses. This is a movie that is completely lacking in any sort of character development. You have no idea just who or what these kung fu masters are fighting for or if it makes any difference other than who gets the loot at the end of the movie.

As you can see, by the standards of conventional movies, this is a dreadful flick. However, by the standards of martial arts flicks in general, this is actually pretty decent.  As with other movies of this sort, there is a great deal of cartoonishness. All of the fight scenes in this movie were well executed. One way to fully characterize this movie would be to describe it as being perfect fighting fluff. 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

 

Back in 1971, there was a big budget movie about Mary Queen of Scots starring Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave.  That movie was historically inaccurate but fun to watch.  The same thing could also be said about all of the numerous other movies and TV programs made about the title character.  To date, there has yet to be a historically accurate film production about her.  The new movie starring the obscure actress Saoirse Ronan in the lead role is both wildly inaccurate and boring to watch.  For instance, Ronan has an Irish accent whereas the real-life Mary spent ages 3 to 15 in France and had a French accent after leaving that country for the rest of her life.  The fact that she had a distinctly French accent was one of the factors that lead to her Scottish subjects overthrowing her.  In addition, there are numerous black and Asian characters even though there were neither blacks or Asians living in 16th Century Scotland.  If you want to know more about Mary, read a book or watch an educational video instead of this boring pretentious flick.  


     We are used to movies that are ostensibly based on books even though the only resemblance between them is the title, even if that much.  This movie went beyond that in that it claimed to be based on a nonfiction book by the historian John Guy and on top of that, Guy is supposed to be a co-author of the screenplay.  If true, this is most disheartening since this movie commits all the historical errors of the previous films and adds some new ones as well.  For instance, in this production, Mary has no problem with homosexuality and on top of that has no problem with her lover also engaging in a homosexual relationship right in front of her.  This was right in the middle of Puritanical times when homosexuals were subject to a possible death penalty.  In real life, Mary was married to her first cousin Henry Stuart who was also known as Lord Darnley.  In this movie, there is a character who is in love with Mary who looks just like the real-life Lord Darnley, but who has a completely made up name.  In addition, practically every male character in this movie wears either black or dark blue outfits despite the fact that the 16th Century was known for the colorful clothing that men wore.  Back in those days, the only reason why men wore black outfits was when they were in mourning.   It is no exaggeration to say that this production was in terms of historical inaccuracy second only to the wretched Robin Hood movie of being the worst historical movie of the year. 


     And just kind of person was the real Mary Queen of Scots?  For that we turn to Charles Fair who in his historical masterpiece From the Jaws of Victory:  A History of the Character, Causes and Consequences of Military Stupidity, from Crassus to Johnson and Westmoreland  for a concise discussion of Mary's ill-starred career:   "[King] Philip [II of Spain] for his part felt that he had found the instrument he needed in the person of Mary Queen of Scots, a woman for whom the world has since developed a mysterious affection.  In countless histories and romantic novels she has come down to us as beautiful (which she probably was), romantic, courageous, and tragically abused.  She was, in fact, something of a monster, and apparently stupid and headlong into the bargain.  Having come to Scotland from Catherine de Medici's court, she so mismanaged her affairs that she was driven by her own subjects into protective custody in England."


     Later on, Fair added this about Mary:  "It was entirely in character that Philip should have chosen as his agent for subversion a woman so incapable.  Her heart was clearly not in politics, it was in bed.  At least during her earlier years, her ferocity seems to have expended itself less upon enemies of the Church than upon lovers she had grown tired of, it being this peculiarity which had aroused public wrath against her and caused her to be expelled from Scotland."


     This is one of those movies in which even though you did not arrive late to the show, you can't help but feel that you've started watching the movie about half an hour after it started.  This is because this movie is so incredibly bad in telling you who these characters are and in introducing you to them.  For instance, there is this man who bears a striking resemblance to Leonardo Da Vinci who rants and raves every ten minutes or so in various churches using the phrase, "monstrous lust" every time we see him.  Who is this guy and who or what is he yammering about?  Another problem is that we constantly see Mary either riding horses or riding in a carriage, but we have no clue where she is going or why she is out and about in the first place.  The movie even shows Mary leading an army in battle against another army consisting of troops who are dressed almost exactly the same as Mary's army, which is improbable to say the least.  The real-life Mary would never have been anywhere near a battlefield and if armies dressed just like each other, then how would the troops know who to kill and who to avoid striking?


     Another problem with this movie is its depiction of the English Queen Elizabeth II (Margot Robbie).  Robbie has shown herself in other movies to be a skilled actress.  However, her presence in this movie is wasted by a script that minimizes Elizabeth's real-life role in the tragic career of Queen Mary of Scotland.  


The bottom line is that the 2018 rendition of "Mary Queen of Scots" is basically the same sort of thing as an Ed Wood movie only with a vastly bigger budget.  

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