CinemaSerf

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Reviews

Dakota Lil
(1950)

Surely forging banknotes isn't quite this easy?
This is quite an enjoyable western crime drama - not least because the leading character is the rather feisty "Dakota Lil" (Marie Windsor). Ostensibly a travelling entertainer - with just the one song, from what I saw - she is also a cunning counterfeiter and is being sought by the authorities. Meantime George Montgomery ("Tom") is on the trail of some train robbers who have pinches $100,000 worth of unsigned bonds, and soon the fate of the two are inextricably linked! Rod Cameron (whom i think looked a lot like Randolph Scott here) turns up in a really nasty guise, playing just about everyone against each other and proving he could deal brutally with those who got in his way, and we have an appearance from the legendary "Hole in the Wall" gang to keep it moving along well, too. It's maybe just a little too long, there isn't enough action to sustain it - indeed the first fifteen minutes could have been condensed easily, but it's still a decent watch with a little more substantial characterisation and a modicum of on screen chemistry between "Lil" and "Tom"

The Star Packer
(1934)

Routine B-feature vehicle for the star.
John Wayne is "Travers" who arrives in a remote town with his pal "Yak" (yep - Yakima Canutt, who even gets a line or two) just a the local sheriff is gunned down by a member of the "Shadow" gang. Determined to stamp to this lawlessness, he takes on the mantle of the dead man and is soon hot on the trail of the elusive ringleader. It features plenty of action, a fake room, "Gabby" Hayes adds some chirpy value and a rather wooden Verna Hillie provides the glamour as Duke closes in... Nothing much new here, the production is hasty and neither the story nor script are particularly remarkable with the identity of the baddie pretty much as plain as the nose on his face.

Dragon Day
(2013)

"You have to reboot the system..."
The problem with this apocalypse-style film is that there is a real country blamed for the chaos that ensues when the USA is hit by a penetrating and effective cyber attack - and I think that's just reckless jingoism that could convince many people that not only is the plausible, but also that there is a tangible nation responsible... That said, otherwise it's a low-band documentary-style drama that depicts just what might happen in a real rural community when the power goes out and lawlessness (even amongst the law officers) sets in. It's pretty cheaply produced with a cast of C-listers going through the motions of a storyline we have seen a thousand times before without a great deal of skill, especially as the scenario worsens and their inability to convincingly convey any of the emotional torment they are facing becomes really evident. The ending is pretty sloppily put together for dramatic purposes, and gives everyone an opportunity to wallow in some self-sacrificial tear-jerking before a preposterous conclusion in a pretty much as expected fashion. I watched it because it was raining outside - I cannot say I could recommend anyone else do the same.

Hellraiser
(1987)

Still sordid and sexy...
OK, so time has not been at all kind to the visual effects - the leaps and bounds in that aspect of film making have reduced many great horror stories to little more than glorified comedies where the plasticine and tomato ketchup create risibility where before they would have created a sense of fear. The element that enables this film to fair a bit better is the story. It's good. An on form Clare Higgins ("Julia") has a fling with "Frank" (Sean Chapman) - who happens to be the brother of her husband "Larry" (Andrew Robinson). Many years later the couple return to the same house in England where she soon discovers that her randy brother-in-law has found himself a box - a key to another dimension, and got a little out of his depth with some pretty evil looking characters (the "Cenobites") who appears to have read, if not devised, every S&M book going. In order to help him recover from his seriously emaciated state, she must procure dinner for him - preferably male and alive and.... Matters take a turn for the worse when his niece stumbles upon the same key to their nether/leather-world and it looks like her goose is about to be cooked too. It's interesting to watch a film that draws very clear lines between sex and death - just how powerful a libido can be at motivating people to do things, and suffer things! Don't be put off by the dated look of the film, or at least remember latex was real in 1987 rather than computer generated - and you ought still to get some pleasure from this. It isn't especially scary, but it is still quite gripping.

21
(2008)

The look on Jack Gilpin's face at the end....
Jim Sturgess is quite personable in this story of a group of aspiring MIT students who are groomed by their lecturer (Kevin Spacey) into becoming expert in the practice of "counting cards" in casinos, thereby mitigating risk and - well, fleecing the joints! He is recruited to join this team, and after some initial scepticism but facing a looming debt to service his $300k Harvard Medical school tuition bill, he joins in and... It's based on a true story and is actually quite fascinating. Is it fraud? Seemed to me like skill, but that's not a view shared by a rather off-form Laurence Fishburne whose rather analogue security business is being rapidly replaced by bio-algorithms. Sturgess portrays his "Ben" character well, managing his transition from reluctance to addiction whilst squeezing in a smidge of romance with "Jill" (Kate Bosworth) before an ending that did rather bring a smile to my face... I'd never heard of the underlying story, but given the brash, in-your-face, success of these casinos, I couldn't help but cheer them on... No harm, no foul?

Wake of the Red Witch
(1948)

One of Wayne's best films...
John Wayne is veteran skipper "Capt. Ralls" who discovers that his employer has pinched his girlfriend - "Angelique" (Gail Russell) so with revenge in mind, he runs his ship - laden with $5m in gold bullion - aground at a secret location and is soon on the run from his erstwhile boss who knows the scuttling was deliberate and who wants his loot back! What ensues now are series of entertaining escapades as Duke wrestles all sorts of giant sea monsters; tries out pearl fishing; saves his best pal and tries to get his gal back - all as well as salvaging his plunder and staying one step ahead of the scheming "Sidneye" (Luther Adler). It's a well constructed, fairly action-packed film this - and it gives the star much more chance to demonstrate a little more depth to his character, with a script and pace that gives the story quite a compelling nature. Adler is great as the sleazy magnate, and the direction creatively uses the sweaty and moist environment to good effect - you almost expect Orson Welles to appear somewhere. It doesn't always work - there are some flatter moments especially in the third quarter of the film, but it all picks up well and Russell is on really good form engendering some charming and lively chemistry with both of her gentleman friends. I was a little underwhelmed by the conclusion, but all told this is certainly at the top end of any of their work - and it is well worth a watch.

Way of a Gaucho
(1952)

"Go with God" amigo.
Rory Calhoun is "Martin Penalosa" a man found guilty of murder who is sentenced to serve his time in the army. It doesn't take him long to realise that this isn't the life for him, and so he absconds and joins a band of banditos where, alongside his now pregnant girlfriend (a smouldering and sultry Gene Tierney), he tries to start a whole new - and eventful - life for himself as freedom fighter "Val Verde". Richard Boone always excelled as the nasty piece of work in these kind of films, and here - as the pursuing "Salinas" - who was his commanding officer before he deserted - he is on good form as a newly appointed police chief whose whole mission in life is now to nail Calhoun's slats to the mast! It does run a bit to language - and pretty clunky language at that, but there is enough action to keep this moving along well, some decent chemistry on the romance front before quite a fitting conclusion. This could have been better with a bigger star - Calhoun was always just a bit wooden, but it is still well worth watching - if only for Boone, Tierney and some lovely Argentinean cinematography.

Three Texas Steers
(1939)

A western tale of circus, sabotage and swindling....
"The Three Mesquiteers" are quietly going about their business when struggling circus owner "Nancy" (Carol Landis) shows up at their ranch thinking it is her's (she's gone and got the address wrong!). In correcting this error, the boys discover that her partners and a local bigwig are trying to swindle her out of her inheritance by offering a pittance for her late grandfather's ranch! Why do they want to so badly? Might there be gold in them thar' hills (or oil under them)? It's quite a rollicking ride, this film - plenty of chemistry on screen between John Wayne and Landis, and the story has a few fun plot twists that draw his partners in crime Max Terhune ("Lullaby") and Ray Corrigan ("Tuscon") as her disaster almost becomes their's' too! We've even got a gorilla as well - guess who? All good fun.

Chaos Walking
(2021)

Harmless escapism that could have been better..
First question - seeing as this all takes place on an unknown planet, why does Tom Holland have to speak with an American accent? Neither co-stars Daisy Ridley nor Mads Mikkelsen bother. Anyway, the fact that that bothered me at all might indicate that I was less than impressed with this big budget sci-fi story. Mayor "Prentiss" (Mikkelsen) runs his town with a rod of iron, aided by his son "Davy" (Nick Jonas). When a ship crashes and young "Todd" (Holland) discovers a survivor "Viola" (Ridley) - the only female he (or just about everyone else) has ever seen, the two embark on a series of escapades - hotly pursued by mad Mads - to find her spaceship. What's quirky about the plot is that everyone can see and hear everyone else's thoughts ("The Noise") - they swirl around outside of a person's head like lots of little halos, and frequently form actual images that can betray even the most intimate or deeply held secrets. Power is exercised by those who can best manage that "Noise" and exploit it of others. Money has undoubtedly been spent here - the credit roller indicates a cast of thousands involved in what is a very high end production, and both Holland (and his bum - albeit very very briefly), Ridley and Mikkelsen do try hard and engagingly, to be fair, to help to rescue the film from the doldrums of plot mediocrity, but sadly the story needed much more substance. The idea is sound, and the cast could certainly have done more had the writing just given them a little more to work with and had the visual effects taken slightly more of a back seat. It does have moments of excitement - a trip down some rapids on an upturned boat - but these are, frankly, few and far between. It's fine - and on a big screen might look better (I am not certain it got a cinema release anywhere?) but as it is, it's a film that nobody, including those acting in it, are likely to remember in six months.

A Gruta
(2020)

A grotto with the blues...
First things first, the interiors of the cathedral in which much of this set are stunning. That's the good bit out of the way, for sadly - the rest of it is dross. A survivor of a subterranean murder spree that killed his wife, his friends and their guide refuses to talk to police about what happened. He will only talk to a nun "Helena" (Carolina Ferraz) as he seems to be suggesting some evil force possessed one or all of them, and is responsible for the carnage. The vast majority of this is shot in the grotto, is appallingly lit and the dubbing - in the usual hysterical mid-Atlantic screeching drawl - adds nothing whatsoever to the weak and dreary storyline that plods along with the grace of an elephant in a field of treacle. Not to put too fine a point on it - this is just dull, pure and simple. It's only a hour and forty minutes, but it feels way, way longer... One to avoid, sorry...!

Wyoming Outlaw
(1939)

Mesquiteer western with a political sting in the tail.
Interestingly for this routine B-feature, the usual "Three Mesquiteer" characters are not really at the centre of the plot. The story belongs more to 'Red' Barry ("Parker") whose father has been deceived by a crooked politician and so his son ends up having to steal to feed himself and his family. It's when he pinches a cow from Messrs. Wayne, Corrigan and Hatton that the story starts to hot up a bit and, of course, they try to redress the balance for him and his sister "Irene" (Pamela Blake). It's takes a while to get going, this one - but once the scenario has been defined, it moves along nicely with a little more chemistry between Wayne and his female co-star than we are used to. "Ming" himself, Charles Middleton appears sparingly as the hard-done-by father, and LeRoy Mason is adequate - though nothing more - as "Balsinger" - the devious villain of the piece. The film aims squarely at some of the "New Deal" policies of post WWI US governments where opportunists frequently ended up with the whip hand over those who had worked hard during the war feeding the troops, but whose services were now surplus to requirements and they were left very vulnerable to pretty ruthless exploitation.

King of the Pecos
(1936)

John Wayne brings the law to Texas...
John Wayne reprises many a role from his past as the man whom, as young boy, witnessed the murder of his parents. This time, it's the cattle baron "Stiles" (Cy Kendall) on whom he is fixated for revenge. He is now, though, a lawyer and so has decided to legitimately dismantle the extensive empire of his nemesis who would rather own the law than adhere to it. Initially dismissive of the young man's efforts, it's soon clear that In so doing he is risking life and limb, as well as those of the gal "Belle" (Muriel Evans). Nothing at all new here, just another 60 minute B-feature, but the Duke is on good firm and Kendall makes for quite an effective, odious baddie. Joseph Kane keeps the pace hot, and there are plenty of brawls and galloping chases to keep it interesting, if hardly, challenging.

The Cruise of the Jasper B
(1926)

Good fun!
This is quite an enjoyable romantic comedy romance from James Horne that sees Rod La Rocque (that'd surely be a porn name nowadays) as the eighth generation of the "Cleggett" family, descended from pirates who made their fortune a-robbing and plundering on the high seas. The family's continued success is dependent on the eldest son getting married on his 25th birthday upon the decks of their ship - the now concreted-in "Jasper B". By the time we get to this latest inheritor, we have a handsome young lad who wakes up that fateful day without so much as a girlfriend! The race is on to find true love and stop him being turfed out, penniless... Luckily, he has the services of his wily, long suffering valet "Wiggins" (Jack Ackroyd) at his side - though it is not always quite clear what his agenda is! Anyway, meantime, heiress "Agatha Fairhaven" (the pretty, but otherwise rather bland, Mildred Harris) might just be the woman for him. Can it all be arranged in time? La Rocque is a charismatic, handsome man who shies not from showing off his finely honed torso nor from smiling charmingly at his co-stars and the camera; and there is plenty of slapstick-lite style of comedy complemented by some really quite wittily written inter-titles to keep this entertaining.

Stone Fruit
(2020)

A final toast...
If nothing else, the premiss of the film is quite interesting. "Russ" (Rob Warner) and "Manny" (Matt Palazzolo) decide to go on a wine tasting trip, during which they will hook up along the way with their friend "Byron" (Thomas Hobson). So what? Well, it seems that this is their reverse honeymoon - they are taking one last trip together before they get divorced. Now you might well wonder the sense in making a booze cruise the final leg of a seven year marriage - in vino veritas and all that, but to be fair to director/writer Brandon Krajewski, he manages by way of some complicated - frequently innuendo ridden, but rarely course - dialogue, to keep the film quite well focussed on what is essentially a reasonably affable parting of the ways. Therein lies the problem. Though frequently quite clever, neither man engenders much sympathy - they had their chance and now they want to do different things. Indeed they are often so introspective and thoughtless as to be unforgivably rude to those around them who are just doing their jobs. The upshot - I didn't really care. Their conversations half-heartedly attempt to raise awareness of sexist/racist stereotypes, but somehow it's all just a bit shallow. This has clearly been done on a shoestring budget, with ample adverting for the many vineyards that they visit, and as a tourist board video it works quite well. As a story, it's neither here nor there and though I suppose I was sad to think their relationship was ending, there was something of the "put it out of it's misery" to it too.

West of the Divide
(1934)

Solid western B-adventure
I have recently seen a colourised version of this Lone Star effort, and it's quite an enjoyable outing for the duo of John Wayne ("Tom") and his lively, dependable sidekick "Gabby" Hayes, Sure, the story is a variation on a well-known theme - Duke's father is killed when he is young and years later he encounters the killer when he infiltrates his gang. This time "Gentry" (Lloyd Whitlock) is trying to force old man "Winters" (Lafe McKee) from his ranch, but luckily for the latter both the Duke is on hand to thwart this evil plan, and he has a beautiful young daughter "Fay" (Virginia Faire) who has caught the star's eye too. There is plenty of action packed into just under an hour before and ending that, though I thought really rather poor, still just about holds up. One of many, this one, but still fun for JW fans.

The Wreck of the Hesperus
(1948)

"On the reef of Norman's Woe"...
Willard Parker is a little bit wooden here as former sea captain "John Macready", who runs a salvage business with his partner "George Lockhart" (Edgar Buchanan) in a coastal Maine town. One night, after a particularly violent Atlantic storm, he becomes aware that a recently wrecked ship might have been done so deliberately - and that his partner might be implicated. The challenge is, how can he prove this without looking equally guilty himself, and get the Governor (Boyd Davis) to get the State to erect a lighthouse to warn other ships of the dangers? Director John Hoffman has made quite a decent fist of this "Jamaica Inn" style version of Longfellow's famous poem, with good sound and storm effects to complement the adequate performances on screen and he keeps the story jogging along nicely until a, sadly, rather rushed ending. Still, it's a decent action feature that highlights some of the true dangers of 19th century seafaring that is well worth 75 minutes on a weekend afternoon...

The Miami Story
(1954)

Might be a US government information film...
Luther Adler is "Tony Brill", a gangster working with his Cuban friends to hold Miami to ransom - until, that is, the city fathers decide to fight fire with fire and recruit his former henchman - "Flagg" (Barry Sullivan), long since gone straight - to come back and help destroy his criminal empire. What ensues is a rather dry depiction of the struggle, with a few glamorous molls and the rather hapless "Ted" (John Baer) getting played by both sides. It's short and sweet, but there is just not enough going on until the last fifteen minutes or so, when we have some enjoyable waterborne fisticuffs. The film's title doesn't exactly imbue it with excitement, and neither the script nor the acting contradict that dullness - this is an oft told story that is easily forgettable.

Murder by Contract
(1958)

Could have done with more time and money...
I can't help but think this could have been so much better if only someone had taken a razor blade to the soundtrack. It's repetitive nature really annoyed me after about ten minutes. The story, though, is quite quirky and really centres around just three characters. "Claude" (Vince Edwards) is a contract killer - and an extremely efficient one - and his two minders who are supposed to liaise with their "chief" and sort out the logistics. All is going well until the latest target - a woman, a witness in an huge crime case - unsettles our otherwise meticulous and unshakable killer. Regrettably, this has been made on a shoestring with a tight turnaround, so we get little - if any - time to play any mind games with our assassin; what is it about killing a woman that troubles him? She's a relatively easy mark - even if she is guarded by the police 24 hours. The end of the film, therefore, feels just a bit rushed and thought there is a clear conclusion, it could have been much better developed and complete. Still, for what it is, it takes quite an innovative approach to a standard plot line and Edwards makes the whole thing certainly worth a watch.

The Range Feud
(1931)

A decent early western whodunit....
I quite enjoyed this entertaining outing for the Duke. Here he ("Clint") is accused of murdering the father of his girlfriend "Judy" (Susan Fleming) after he is rather publicly barred from their ranch. Arrested by his sheriff pal - and the top billed - Buck Jones ("Buck" - indeed, why complicate matters?) both must work to track down the true culprit before our fresh faced cowboy goes for a long drop with a short rope... Of course we know what's going to happen, but so what? It's still a quickly paced episode that features plenty of action and the small cast keep the story tight and focused. Not the best of the star's B features, but still a watchable adventure for an hour.

Westward Ho
(1935)

It's not about a guesthouse in Tampa!
This short feature sees John Wayne as the troubled "Wyatt" - a man who, as a young boy, watched his parents gunned down and is brother "Jim" (Frank McGlynn Jnr.) kidnapped. Spool on fifteen years or so and the two brothers encounter each other on a wagon train. It seem the brother has joined up with the dirty varmints who killed their folks and is now eyeing up the valuables! Sheila Bromley provides the love interest for both men, so a little gun totin' love triangle ensues as this film follows a rather formulaic trail... The one thing that does differentiate it is ... singing... Yep, Wayne's gang are quite happy to sit by the side of the road and burst into song just before, or after, they engage in their good deeds. Luckily, we don't get this too often - not because it is so very bad, but because it really slows the pace down as surely as an ad break would. Plenty of fun fisticuffs but essentially just one for fans of the Duke, otherwise instantly forgettable fayre.

Rainbow Valley
(1935)

Cheap and cheerfully fun western adventure.
This was probably made in a matter of days with a minimal budget and given that, it does better than ok for just under an hour. The Duke, as usual partnered with "Gabby" Hayes is this time embroiled in a dodgy plan to sabotage a new road being built through the Rainbow Valley. His pal - ostensibly, at any rate - "Butch" (Jay Wilsey) is the schemer but will the aptly named "John" be able to thwart this destructive plan? Wayne looks every inch the star here, even in a rather over-sized, but fetching striped prison uniform, and as ever Hayes comes along at just the right moments to ensure a minimum amount of jeopardy with the plot - of which there are a few twists here. It doesn't hang around, there is plenty of action and some quite well choreographed fist fights before a suitably explosive finale.

In Old Oklahoma
(1943)

Good fun and characterful efforts all round...
This is certainly one of the more distinctive efforts from John Wayne, as he portrays "Dan Somers", a cowboy at the turn of the 20th century who decides that he can make some money prospecting for oil. His plan is to work with the local Indians in Oklahoma to develop their lands, but he faces stiff competition from local oilman "Jim Gardner" (Albert Dekker) who has designs on the lands himself - only on much less preferential terms to the owners... Thanks to a little bit of luck, and a friend in high places, "Dan" gets the chance - but can he discover the oil and get it to market in time? It's an engaging performance from the Duke, this - he has a bit more character than in many of his earlier roles - the dialogue a little more personable and his undoubted charisma is given more of a chance to shine through. I always think Wayne and Errol Flynn had one thing in common - both thrived when supported by a stalwart cast whom they worked with regularly. Here, the always enthusiastic contribution of "Gabby" Hayes helps keep the film rollicking along nicely, and though Martha Scott's "Cathy" offers little by way of substance, she still manages to add a little extra to this oily version of David and Goliath - especially as both men are keen on her. I'd certainly put this in his top ten...

Call Northside 777
(1948)

Top notch crime noir...
James Stewart and Lee J. Cobb are both on top form in this crime thriller. The latter, the boss who sends the former, one of his better reporters, to investigate the case of convicted murderer "Frank Wiecek" (Richard Conte) after his mother puts an ad in a newspaper offering $5000 for information that might cast doubt on the voracity of the verdict. Initially sceptical, "McNeal", soon begins to suspect that perhaps the conviction - based solely on the testament of a long lost witness "Wanda Skutnik" - might be flawed. Now, he has to deal with understandable hostility from the Chicago PD as well as manage the hopeful optimism of the man's mother as his search involves some risk to himself, the gut instinct innate to a good journalist and the innovative use of state of the art technology (for the 1940s) to try and get the evidence to enable a pardon board to reverse the sentence. Aside from a slightly over-bearing narrator, Henry Hathaway manages to build the tension and keep it going well for a strong last hour of the picture with a lovely, grittily jazzy score from Alfred Newman. Not seen very often nowadays, but if you get a chance - it's well worth two hours of anyone's time.

Cinderella
(2021)

There is far more than one pumpkin in this film.
I tried, I really did! I hoped that the fairly decent, experienced, ensemble cast coupled with state of the art visual effects and a collection of modern-day pop lyrics would breathe new life into this timeless story. Well, sadly, that was all just a triumph for optimism over, well, just about anything... It's terrible. Good looking, well produced, but terrible. Am I the only person left alive who is fed up being shouted at by Edina Menzel? Pierce Brosnan demonstrated in "Mamma Mia" (2008) that he is happy to play parts with his tongue in his cheek, but here I fear he must have cringed when he saw; likewise Minnie Driver and a whole host of British comedians led by the ubiquitously un-talented James Corden. Billy Porter tries a different take on the fairy godmother character but features all to sparingly to make much impact on an otherwise extremely pedestrian interpretation that reached it's nadir with the cute but totally wooden pairing of Nicholas Galitzine (Freddie Mercury would spin in his grave) and Camila Cabello. Sorry, maybe if I were 6 years old and had nothing to compare this with, I'd not be so harsh - but I'm not and this is poor, really poor...

Z for Zachariah
(2015)

Two's a couple, three's a crowd!
Based on Robert C. O'Brien's posthumously published 1974 post-apocalypse story, this film adaptation puts Margot Robbie in the role of the isolated "Ann". By sheer good fortune, she has managed to survive an existential event and must make do with just her dog for company, living in a rustic bubble surround by radioactive toxicity. Now fully expectant of living the rest of her life this way, she is surprised one day to discover "John" (Chiwitel Ejiofor) bathing in a still toxic pool. What ensues is a gently bubbling story as the pair gradually begin to rely on each other and to work together to improve each other's lives. Their relationship is thriving until the arrival of another surviver - the younger, attractive "Caleb" (Chris Pine) who upsets the delicate balance and soon there is a thinly veiled rivalry between the two men - like rutting stags... The film is well made, and the casting works quite well too - but the pace of the thing is terribly, terribly slow. The book tells us not to expect answers from the ending - and to that extent, this holds true to the book; but the rest of it is all just a bit too soporific. The mischief maker in me wondered if it might have been more interesting if the two boys had decided to hook up and leave her driving the tractor, but no such innovation. If you want something to compare it with - try the BBC version produced in 1994 starring Anthony Andrews...

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