Film Review: Walk the Line (2005)

Release Date: September 4th, 2005 (Telluride Film Festival)
Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Gill Dennis, James Mangold
Based on: Man In Black: His Own Story In His Own Words and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash
Music by: T Bone Burnett
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts

Fox 2000 Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 136 Minutes (theatrical cut), 153 Minutes (extended cut)

Review:

“You wear black ’cause you can’t find anything else to wear? You found your sound ’cause you can’t play no better? You just tried to kiss me because “it just happened?” You should try take credit for something every once in a while, John.” – June Carter

I’ve been a big fan of Johnny Cash since the age I first sprouted ears. That being said, I hadn’t seen this film until recently. Reason being, there were a ton of musical legend biopics popping up in the early 2000s and whether they were critical successes or not, I was pretty burnt out on them.

To be honest, I’m kind of glad that I waited, as I saw this at the right time, when I needed to. Plus, being a good distance away from the slew of other biopics that were in abundance back then, allowed me to appreciate this better than I would have in 2005. Also, my knowledge on old country and rockabilly is richer than it was in 2005, so I was really drawn in to all the other famous characters worked into this picture’s narrative.

Besides just being a really good movie, Walk the Line really gave me an understanding of who June Carter was and why Johnny loved her. The film gave me an appreciation and a respect for her that I didn’t have before. I have to give a lot of the credit for that to Reese Witherspoon, who won an Academy Award for her performance here and deservedly so. She also held her own musically and her performance of “Juke Box Blues” was energetic and awesome. Her duets with Joaquin Phoenix were quite amazing, as well.

Speaking of which, Phoenix truly knocks it out of the park with his performance as Johnny Cash. He had the voice, the mannerisms and exuded the presence of Cash. His covers of Cash’s songs were also well done and more than convincing. One thing that really worked extraordinarily well in this movie were the live performances. Everyone involved in this picture created musical magic.

The film was directed by James Mangold, who most recently directed Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine, the stupendous Logan. From his work on this film, I can see why Mangold was given the reins to helm two Wolverine films, both of which were really good.

Walk the Line isn’t a perfect movie but it is a solid biopic that is only enhanced by the talent of its stars, its director and its stellar musical performances.

Film Review: Executioners From Shaolin (1977)

Also known as: Hong Xi Guan (original Mandarin title), The Executioners of Death (original US dubbed version), Shaolin Executioners (worldwide English video title)
Release Date: February 16th, 1977 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Lau Kar-leung
Written by: Kuang Ni
Music by: Yung-yu Chen
Cast: Chen Kuan-tai, Li-Li Li, Wong Yue, Lo Lieh, Gordon Liu

Shaw Brothers Studio, 98 Minutes

Review:

“Tiger style!” – Pai Mei

For fans of the Kill Bill films, this is a picture that has some relevance to those movies. First of all, it features Pai Mei as the story’s main villain. He was the old Chinese kung fu master that trained the Bride in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Also, Quentin Tarantino used one of the main actors from this film in his Kill Bill films: Gordon Liu. Liu actually plays Pai Mei in Kill Bill: Volume 2 and he also played Johnny Mo in Kill Bill: Volume 1.

This film was also very influential on the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, as they sampled Pai Mei’s line “Tiger style!” on their records and used a lot of the concepts and ideas from this film in their lyrics and their style.

Apart from the film’s pop culture influence, it is a pretty stellar kung fu epic. It is a historical drama with comedy elements sprinkled in to keep things mostly pretty light, even if we do get to witness some serious violence from time to time.

Directed by Lau Kar-leung, a guy who made several great pictures, Executioners From Shaolin has a great look with solid performances and enjoyable fight choreography. Pai Mei’s killer combo move is pretty cool and terrifying, after seeing what it can do in the incredibly stylized intro to the film during the credits sequence.

Kar-leung had a unique style that set him apart from other Hong Kong action directors. His intro scene was done in a style that became a signature of the director. I’ve actually posted that below, as opposed to a trailer like I usually do.

This film also stars Lo Lieh in one of my favorite roles he’s played. He was one of Hong Kong’s busiest actors and anything with him in it always makes a picture feel more legitimate than something similar that he’s not a part of.

A lot of kung fu movies all sort of just blend together but this is one that really has its own identity and stands tall. I love this movie and always have. When I rented it as a kid, it became one of those films I’d have to rent again and again, almost monthly.

The copies of this film that exist now are really good too. It is streaming for free for Prime members on Amazon Video and I have never seen this movie look so clean, clear and pristine.

Executioners From Shaolin is a hell of a lot of fun. If you are a fan of old school kung fu cinema, you really need to check this one out if you haven’t yet. It is one of many Pai Mei movies but I love the iconic character in this, probably above the other films.

Top 100 Classic Film-Noir Pictures of All-Time

Over the past month, I have celebrated Noirvember here at Cinespiria. While film-noir is a style that I have always enjoyed and many of the classics have been favorites of mine for decades, I have never delved as deep into it as I have over the past month. I have found new favorites and discovered classics that slipped under my radar. In some way, I wanted a big send off so I thought that a power ranking would be a good way to do that.

Granted, this is just my opinion and there are some things that others might question as being true noir. I have included some of those Val Lewton horror pictures because at their core, the ones listed are very much film-noir.

There are no movies after the 1950s listed because I wanted to make this exclusive to classic noir that came out during the two decade span of the style’s height in popularity. I have, however, included Frtiz Lang’s 1931 film M because even though it predates film-noir by a decade, after seeing it, I can’t not consider it noir.

Anyway, these are my top one hundred film-noir motion pictures of the classic era.

1. M
2. Gun Crazy
3. The Third Man
4. Sunset Boulevard
5. In A Lonely Place
6. He Walked by Night
7. Raw Deal
8. Double Indemnity
9. The Killing
10. Touch of Evil
11. The Maltese Falcon
12. The Big Heat
13. Criss Cross
14. The Stranger
15. Scarlet Street
16. The Asphalt Jungle
17. Laura
18. Cat People
19. The Big Sleep
20. The Window
21. Detour
22. Strangers On a Train
23. Sweet Smell of Success
24. Nightmare Alley
25. D.O.A.
26. Out of the Past
27. Side Street
28. White Heat
29. The Set-Up
30. The Prowler
31. Murder, My Sweet
32. Night and the City
33. The Lady From Shanghai
34. The Killers
35. Stranger On the Third Floor
36. Key Largo
37. Leave Her to Heaven
38. The Woman In the Window
39. Kansas City Confidential
40. Brute Force
41. Ace In the Hole
42. Dark Passage
43. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
44. On Dangerous Ground
45. Notorious
46. The Big Clock
47. Mildred Pierce
48. Shadow of a Doubt
49. Possessed
50. Lured
51. Thieves’ Highway
52. Act of Violence
53. 711 Ocean Drive
54. Black Angel
55. The Naked City
56. Dead Reckoning
57. Kiss Me Deadly
58. Gilda
59. They Live by Night
60. The Seventh Victim
61. Champion
62. Moonrise
63. Lady In the Lake
64. Pickup On South Street
65. Rope
66. Phantom Lady
67. Odds Against Tomorrow
68. T-Men
69. Born to Kill
70. The Blue Dahlia
71. The Spiral Staircase
72. Crossfire
73. The Leopard Man
74. Scandal Sheet
75. Border Incident
76. Shield For Murder
77. Force of Evil
78. The Postman Always Rings Twice
79. Fallen Angel
80. Deadline at Dawn
81. Journey Into Fear
82. 99 River Street
83. The Big Combo
84. Framed
85. Shockproof
86. Smash-Up – The Story of a Woman
87. Where Danger Lives
88. Tension
89. The Breaking Point
90. They Won’t Believe Me
91. Tomorrow Is Another Day
92. The Blue Gardenia
93. Pushover
94. The Threat
95. City That Never Sleeps
96. This Gun For Hire
97. Pitfall
98. Fear In the Night
99. The Glass Key
100. The Brasher Doubloon

Film Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

Also known as: Deadly Is the Female (UK)
Release Date: January 20th, 1950
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, MacKinlay Kantor
Based on: Saturday Evening Post story Gun Crazy by MacKinlay Kantor
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Russ Tamblyn

King Brothers Productions, United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“We go together, Annie. I don’t know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.” – Bart

As I have been looking at older noir and crime pictures, I have come across a few films that are sort of prototypes to Bonnie and Clyde. This may be the best example of a proto-B&C movie though. In fact, I like it more than Bonnie and Clyde.

To put it bluntly, this film is absolutely amazing! While it doesn’t top out on most critics’ top film-noir lists, this is one of the best movies I have seen in the style and I actually watched it twice over the course of a night, once with friends having a noir marathon and again, by myself, to give it my full attention. This may actually be the coolest film-noir that I have seen but then again, I’ve always had a sweet spot for a good Bonnie and Clyde type story.

The thing that really makes this work for me is the utter realism of everything that is happening on the screen. Instead of posting a trailer, I had to post a sequence of the film at the bottom of this review. Reason being, I wanted to showcase how great the action and the cinematography is. There are great long takes that are captured in real time, adding a level of gritty authenticity to the major heist in the picture, as well as some other key scenes.

Gun Crazy is a sexy movie in a time when sexiness on celluloid was something very different. Peggy Cummins was not a typical femme fatale, she was a femme fatale that was a gun toting badass of the highest caliber. Sure, she murdered people because fear was a trigger that made her shoot but she was just damn good at it and truly felt unstable and dangerous in the hottest way. The way she gets out of the car and handles the cop during the big heist is great. Plus, she wears pants because doing dirt and robbing a meat packing plant’s payroll isn’t as easy to do in a dress. Nowadays, women wearing pants to work is normal but the movie made a point to have her boss make a stink about it in the film.

The unique thing about this picture, is that the male lead, John Dall’s Bart, is an amazing marksman but he’s a pacifist that abhors violence and killing. He just has an obsession with guns because it is the only thing that makes him feel whole. Shooting is his talent and when he meets Peggy Cummins’ Annie Laurie Starr, a carnival sharpshooter, he can’t help but fall head over heels in love with her. It’s hard for the male audience of this film to not be pulled in by her majestic allure and badass style.

With the title of the film and with the opening sequence, which follows adolescent Bart breaking into a hardware store to steal a pistol, you’d probably assume that this was an anti-gun movie. It really isn’t. Back in the 1940s, people weren’t so freaked out by firearms and it was an accepted part of American culture. It is more about the unhealthiness of mania and obsession. Bart obsesses over guns, not to hurt people or to commit crimes but because they make him comfortable. It is that mania and obsession that leads him down a bad path and not the gun itself. Granted, you could also direct blame at the femme fatale and her trigger happy ways.

This film has uncanny cinematography and not just in the long take sequences but in the attention to small detail with lighting and shadow. The closing shot of the film is pretty breathtaking, as is the opening sequence of young Bart staring into the storefront window, eyeing a pistol while the rain pours down between the window and the dark buildings in the background.

Maybe the extra gravitas that this film has is due to it being written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the most accomplished writers of his day, who was unfortunately blacklisted in Hollywood due to the insanity of McCarthyism and the unconstitutional witch hunts it birthed.

Gun Crazy is exceptional; it is a masterpiece of the highest caliber. It is a perfect storm of everything going right in front of and behind the camera. I didn’t expect to be blown away by it but I was hooked from the film’s opening scene to that tragic ending that one would expect from a true noir.

Film Review: Hollywoodland (2006)

Release Date: August 31st, 2006 (Venice International Film Festival)
Directed by: Allen Coulter
Written by: Paul Bernbaum
Music by: Marcelo Zarvos
Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Kathleen Robertson, Lois Smith, Molly Parker, Jeffrey DeMunn, Brad William Henke

Focus Features, Miramax Films, Back Lot Pictures, Universal Studios, Buena Vista International, 127 Minutes

Review:

“[about the bullet holes in George Reeves’ floor] Since when do suicides miss twice and start over?” – Louis Simo

This film really grabbed me immediately with the opening theme, which set the tone perfectly for this film-noir styled biopic about the death of George Reeves, the actor who was most famous for playing television’s Superman in the 1950s.

Ben Affleck plays the legendary George Reeves but he is not the main character. Adrien Brody gets the big spotlight in this one, as he plays a private investigator hired to uncover the truth surrounding George Reeves apparent suicide.

This is a very layered film, in the same vein as a classic film-noir, and it features a large cast of characters.

Brody commands your attention as Louis Simo. He exudes charisma and weaves his way through this tapestry with ease and a real air of confidence missing by most actors these days. Brody, as well as Affleck, almost feel overpowered though by the performance of veteran Bob Hoskins, who enters each scene with an aura of intimidation like a massive storm cloud ready to strike out with booming thunder.

Diane Lane puts in a solid performance as well, as do most of the ladies here. It was cool seeing Molly Parker banter with Brody. Robin Tunney and Kathleen Robertson both brought their A-game performances, as well. I wish we got to see more of Robertson, as she’s never quite broken out as a leading lady. Here, she shows that she has got more to offer than just being one of Ian Ziering’s girlfriends from the original Beverly Hills, 90210.

While this wasn’t an exceptional film, it did paint an intimate portrait and it handled the George Reeves situation with care and grace. There were a lot of shady things that happened in his life but the film felt honest and respected the man, even while displaying those flaws. Superman isn’t real and the man was just as human as all of us.

The film feels like it is missing something though. Maybe it’s the fact that it built up towards a resolution but we never really got there. Not in a proper narrative sense, anyway. By the time the credits roll, you’ve been taken on a ride but it just feels like a collection of scenes that don’t reach a solid conclusion.

I like Hollywoodland despite its flaws, in the same way I appreciate George Reeves despite his. It doesn’t fully hit the mark but it does connect with you emotionally and then lingers long after the final scene. In that sense, it is an effective movie.

Film Review: The Two Jakes (1990)

Release Date: August 10th, 1990
Directed by: Jack Nicholson
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Van Dyke Parks
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, James Hong, Faye Dunaway (voice)

88 Productions, Paramount Pictures, 138 Minutes

Review:

“I’m used to seein’ the intimate details of people’s lives, but lookin’ at a guy’s x-rays is as intimate as it gets. It’s the kind of thing most guys don’t even tell their wives about.” – Jake Gittes

I have never seen The Two Jakes until recently. I feel like I was psychologically deterred for decades because I remember people bashing it ever since it came out. It is this film’s existence that pointed me towards Chinatown, the film it is a sequel too. Sure, I would’ve eventually discovered Chinatown but I saw trailers for The Two Jakes on the big screen when I was just eleven years-old, so I wasn’t quite up on my knowledge of neo-noir or 1970s crime dramas. I was big on Jack Nicholson, however, as he wowed me a year earlier as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

The Two Jakes has been treated unfairly, though. Is it as stellar as Chinatown? Not really but those are massive shoes to fill. However, it is one of the best, if not… the best, neo-noir film of the 1990s. Jack Nicholson directed this sequel and while he isn’t Roman Polanski behind the camera, he still had a great eye and knew what the hell he was doing, putting this second chapter of Jake Gittes life to celluloid.

The cast in this film really makes this thing work. I loved seeing Nicholson play opposite of greats like Harvey Keitel and Eli Wallach. It was cool seeing James Hong come back too. While Faye Dunaway was obviously missing from the film, despite lending her voice to a scene, Madeleine Stowe and Meg Tilly were really good as the two top ladies in the picture. Stowe was a hot drunken maniac in the best way and Tilly was a soft yet strong women with a good presence. David Keith, a guy I have always liked, shows up a few times and gets a real moment to shine alongside Nicholson and Wallach. Rubén Blades steals the show in his scenes and after really loving that guy on Fear the Walking Dead, it was neat seeing him so young, full of vigor and not so dissimilar from his character on that AMC zombie show.

Vilmos Zsigmond handled the cinematography. He was not the cinematographer on the original Chinatown but he had a lot of experience, his most notable credit at the time being Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His management of the film’s visual allure is worth some serious props, as he and Nicholson created a very authentic and lived in 1940s Los Angeles.

I feel that this film actually does rival its predecessor in its cinematography and overall ambiance. The tone isn’t as brooding and sinister as Chinatown but that’s film’s narrative went to some places that brought out that underlying darkness. The Two Jakes isn’t a cold and bleak tale wrapped in beauty and opulence like Chinatown was, but it is a perfect visual and narrative extension of what was established in the first film without copying it. I kind of respect The Two Jakes for being its own thing and not trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice… or at least, in the same way.

Robert Towne, who wrote both of these Jake Gittes pictures and won an Academy Award for Chinatown, had plans for a trilogy. Unfortunately, this film was not the success that Paramount Pictures had hoped for. The third film was cancelled, which is a shame. It was going to bring the story of Jake Gittes to a proper close, as it was to be focused on him later in life.

If you love Chinatown and have never seen The Two Jakes, you probably should. It isn’t as bad as some people have said and its lack of success upon its release was probably more of a reflection of the time and not the overall quality of the film itself.

Film Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Also known as: Build My Gallows High (UK)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring
Based on: Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

RKO Radio Pictures, 97 Minutes

Review:

“My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” – Whit

Up until now, I had never seen Out of the Past. It was one of those film-noir thrillers I was really excited to check out though, as I always heard about how good it was and it starred Robert Mitchum. It also gives us Kirk Douglas in only his second film role, following his success in his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Add in noir beauty Jane Greer, in probably her most memorable role, and you’ve got a pretty solid recipe.

Also, this is directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose work was always pretty stellar in the horror genre. In fact, his horror-noir hybrid pictures under Val Lewton at RKO were superb. As was 1957’s Night of the Demon and the two films he did with Vincent Price in the 1960s.

Out of the Past is a solid picture and definitely at the high end of the spectrum that is Tourneur’s oeuvre. I prefer his horror-noir movies that came out a few years before this: Cat PeopleI Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man but this is still quite a good film. It is top notch as a straight up film-noir tale.

Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas command the screen when they are present but both are slightly overshadowed by Jane Greer, a true femme fatale and arguably one of the all-time best. I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from Mitchum or Douglas; both men bring an intense bravado and gravitas to this picture. Greer just has an enchanting quality that permeates and makes her transcend the celluloid that has captured her.

The cinematography is handled by Nicholas Musuraca, a veteran that worked on several noir-esque pictures before. He worked with Tourneur on Cat People and continued on at RKO with the fabulous The Seventh Victim, as well as The Curse of the Cat PeopleBedlamThe Spiral Staircase and the psychological horror film The Ghost Ship. Musuracsa was a favorite of Val Lewton and was a key contributor to the look of the highly respected Lewton produced films for RKO.

Out of the Past has a very layered story that is difficult to describe without getting too detailed. In a nutshell, it showcases a man who has a hidden past. He opens up and tells his story to his girlfriend, as he drives to meet with an old rival. His story involves a femme fatale, his time as a private eye and the events that lead to him seeking out a new life, far away from his old one.

I really liked Out of the Past. It is a real testament to how skilled Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca were. I don’t quite consider it to be their magnum opus but it makes a strong case. The film also helped to propel Mitchum, Greer and Douglas to legendary Hollywood status.