Glory (1989) Review

Director: Edward Zwick

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Stories told from the Southern point-of-view tended to dominate movies made about the American Civil War for a long time. Think The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939). However, in 1989, the record was set straight by this unforgettable motion picture. Shortly after the Battle of Antietam, White Union officer Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is tasked with organizing a regiment of African-American soldiers to fight the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This story is rooted in truth, and sticks pretty close to the facts.

Structured like a World War II squad movie, Glory is a powerful film that doesn’t waste a second (it doesn’t feel like two hours). No romantic subplots here, only military matters are covered, making this one a real treat for war movie lovers. In addition to being highly educational, this efficient flick features some moments of heroism that are basically guaranteed to send chills down your spine. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed and are nothing short of hair-raising.

If there’s a weak link here, it’s Matthew Broderick as the lead. He’s not terrible, but it can be hard to take the guy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as a tough military man. Fortunately, James Horner’s terrific musical score steps in in any questionable moments to do some dramatic heavy-lifting. Some viewers have accused Glory of having a “White savior narrative,” where African-Americans have to be led to everlasting glory by White dudes. I suppose some of these concerns have legitimacy, but, considering that the movie is based on historical fact, I don’t think that they bog down the picture.

Union officer James Montgomery (played by Cliff De Young here) sort of gets the short end of the stick in this production. In real life, he was a sincere, badass abolitionist who even considered launching a raid to rescue John Brown from prison, but, in Glory, he’s an opportunistic bigot. Well, a movie can’t be perfect. Anyway, this American Civil War epic is a must-watch. Characters are very clear, the titanic battles are thunderous, the music is rousing, and it tells an important and true story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Review

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Genre(s): Action, Drama

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Released a few decades after the original Top Gun (1986), its sequel probably didn’t need to be as excellent as it is. A sequel sent to theaters thirty-six years after the first one being far superior to the original? Get out of town! Well, Top Gun: Maverick accomplishes that mission. Here, aging American test pilot Peter “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) must train the next generation of fighter pilots for the dangerous task of bombing a rogue state’s uranium enrichment plant.

While watching this flick, it’s delightfully difficult to tell what is special effects and what was actually filmed in-camera. The cast were flying in actual fighter jets for the making of the movie, giving the production an almost unprecedented realism (I say “almost,” because the World War I aviation classic Wings [1927] also had the actors in actual aircraft). The action scenes, both those involving training and actual combat, are impossible to turn away from.

While the first picture in the Top Gun franchise was largely a bunch of scenes of pilots learning to be the best of the best, this sequel greatly benefits from having an overarching mission for most of the runtime. Tom Cruise has got to teach these young punks how to bomb their hostile target and get out alive. All of the characters are distinct (a huge plus), and the pacing never falters. Yes, “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins makes a cameo appearance.

Top Gun: Maverick is nostalgic, but this never gets in the way of it moving forward. It pays its respects to the 1986 original and leaves it in its dust. It’s an edge-of-your-seat crowd-pleaser that rewards fans of the first one instead of trolling them. It appeals to just about all demographics and cements Tom Cruise’s status as one of the best action stars in cinema history. You bet your ass that it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Top Gun (1986) Review

Director: Tony Scott

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A military melodrama for men, Top Gun became emblematic of 1980s pop culture. Sure, just about everyone agrees that its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (2022), is vastly superior, but the original is worth checking out for the Hell of it. The story here concerns Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, who, along with his backseat Radar Intercept Officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), is sent to hone his skills at the country’s “Top Gun” school.

Often ridiculed as military hardware porn or as a recruitment ad, Top Gun features a searing AOR/melodic rock-oriented soundtrack complete with two Kenny Loggins songs (“Danger Zone” and “Playing with the Boys”). Depending on who you ask, this could be one of the coolest flicks ever released or one of the lamest. I suppose some enjoy it as kitsch. One’s thoughts on the famous volleyball scene will probably determine how they feel about the picture as a whole.

If you’ve got the need for speed, this action-drama serves up several high-octane flying sequences. Most of these moments are training exercises, but we do get some combat with hostile aircraft at the end. To be honest, some of the flight scenes are dizzyingly edited, requiring concentration to follow the action onscreen. Still, you’d have to be dead for that final dogfight to not get your pulse quickening just a tiny bit.

This piece of Cold War-era macho posturing can be summed up as a male-oriented soap opera. This work is a “button-pusher,” meaning that it presses the viewers’ various emotional buttons in an obvious, yet effective, way. Some audiences won’t like being manipulated like that, especially by a film that glamorizes military service, but – hey – films were meant to be manipulative. As it stands now, it’s a good movie, but, in the future, it may be best remembered as the motion picture that predated Top Gun: Maverick.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 161 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This love letter to 1960s pop culture was directed by Quentin Tarantino, so you know what you’re going to get right away. We’re talking pop culture references out the ass, a relatively long runtime, lots of talking, a meta, ironic storytelling style, “cool” characters, and some ultra-violence at the end. I should rephrase the opening sentence. It’s a love letter to the ’60s as well as one Tarantino wrote to himself. Anyway, the story he works with here, set in 1969, is about fading Hollywood action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to prove that he’s still got it, while his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), runs afoul of the Manson cult.

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have much to prove at this point in his career, so this movie largely consists of people driving around in hip cars listening to badass music. There are a few stylized looks behind the scenes at 1960s moviemaking, but don’t expect any great revelations. There is some carnage in the last few minutes, but it’s pretty typical Tarantino. It’s not particularly cathartic, it’s just shoehorned in there so Tarantino can talk about how violent the film is.

The depiction of martial artist Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh here) generated some controversy, as he’s portrayed as an up-his-own-ass narcissist. Actor Steve McQueen (played by Damian Lewis) doesn’t fare much better, as this laconic, real-life tough guy becomes just another post-modern meat-puppet made to recite Tarantino’s elaborate, knowing dialogue. Overall, this flick isn’t quite as dialogue-driven as some of Quentin’s other works, but a stronger story would’ve been nice.

‘Member this 1960s movie? ‘Member this 1960s celebrity? ‘Member this 1960s song? ‘Member when everybody used to smoke like a chimney in the 1960s? Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood doesn’t get significantly deeper than that. This is a nostalgic, senseless exercise in style that looks to the past, rather than to the future. This dramedy proves that Tarantino needs to rein in his impulses and just make a succinct, efficient, plot-driven, earnest movie instead of more wacky pastiches.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Inland Empire (2006) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 180 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Inland Empire just might be director David Lynch at his Lynchiest. Take note that I didn’t say “at his best.” This surreal, three-hour endurance test starts off well enough before letting its stream-of-conscious storytelling get the better of it. The plot, if there is one, is about married actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) getting a leading role in a Hollywood romance film (which may have a cursed production) and possibly developing feelings for her leading man, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux).

It’s not really about the story, though, as this is largely a mood piece. It soon becomes a dreamlike mish-mash of random scenes that test the patience. For a surrealist feature of this length, I think David Lynch dropped the ball by mostly focusing on vignettes of people walking through doorways or talking to each other. Yes, there’s a good scare or two, but the movie is largely forgettable due to its occasionally boring set-pieces. Compare and contrast this with the oneiric masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929), which packed more haunting imagery into sixteen minutes than this one did into three hours.

Dream logic is strong with this one, and the mood radiates marital anxiety and insecurity. Don’t develop those romantic feelings for your co-leading actor, or you’ll just end up another “bad girl!” The iconic image of Inland Empire is perhaps that of the eerie sitcom featuring people in rabbit costumes, complete with laugh-track. These scenes are some of the best in the picture, but they appear too few and far between to have much of an impact on one’s viewing experience.

I like the idea behind Inland Empire: three hours of Lynch experimenting with surrealist, elliptical storytelling. The problem is that it’s too talky to be effective. Dreams are fast-paced things, not drawn-out conversations between several people. The imagery should’ve been more striking than just a guy standing next to a house with a lightbulb in his mouth. I can’t recommend this, even to fans of quirky, dreamlike cinema. There are better movies of that style out there.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

The Car (1977) Review

Director: Elliot Silverstein

Genre(s): Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Smash together the two Steven Spielberg-directed classics Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975) and you end up with something resembling 1977’s The Car. This is one of those cozy, drive-in-movie-style horror pictures that’s become a bit of a cult classic over the years. The story’s about a mysterious car that keeps killing people in a remote Western American town. Pretty soon, residents are coming up with supernatural explanations for the series of murders.

The Car works, in my opinion, because of its mixture of kitschy silliness and earnest charm. It’s about a roaming, killer automobile, but – golly gee-whiz – the cast and crew put enough effort and sincerity into the production to make it fun. It can get pretty cheesy, but you root for the movie’s success nonetheless. It’s one of those horror flicks that you can watch with just about anybody who’s old enough to handle that genre.

This flick contains some satisfactory kills and scares. Some are better than others, but the body count is just the right size. It’s not so low that you feel cheated, but it’s not so high that the production becomes mean-spiritedly apocalyptic. The special effects are about what you’d expect from a work of this film’s stature, but there is a four-for-one killing that will bowl you over. I’m not sure if it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen or the dumbest. You get that vibe a lot during The Car.

Okay, this isn’t the film you’re looking for if you just want a cheap horror film to laugh at and mock (check out Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] or Halloween: Resurrection [2002] if an itch of that nature needs to be scratched). It’s competent enough to not be a laugh riot, but it’s still too preposterous to take completely seriously. Many movies would wilt if they found themselves in such a predicament, yet The Car still manages to entertain an audience. Apparently, a sequel – The Car: Road to Revenge (2019) – was made a few decades after the original.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tropic Thunder (2008) Review

Director: Ben Stiller

Genre(s): Action, Comedy

Runtime: 107 minutes (standard cut), 121 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Tropic Thunder surely must be one of the most raucous, daring, boundary-pushing, and hilarious comedies of its time period. Method acting, Hollywood egotism, and Vietnam War movies are all skillfully skewered by its sharp satire. The plot concerns a group of prima donna actors – washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), blackface-clad method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and straight man Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) – who find themselves trapped in the jungles of Southeast Asia while filming a Vietnam War motion picture.

Bound to offend, Tropic Thunder‘s foul-mouthed screenplay deals with the issues of race and ability in ways that some viewers may be uncomfortable with or even outraged by. Still, there can be little doubt that this is a laugh-out-loud funny comedy. Moments of suspense are handled with surprising skill and the explosive action beats are up to par. The soundtrack also has some well-selected musical tracks, including “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After and “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf.

The entire star-studded cast gives committed performances that only make the humor more uproarious. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as a White actor trying to disappear into his role as an African-American soldier with surgically-applied blackface is so outrageous that it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight [2008]). Tom Cruise has never been scarier as tyrannical film producer Les Grossman.

Tropic Thunder is a maniacal, disrespectful, raunchy party of a movie. Despite all of the ableism and blackface, this appears to be a carefully constructed work designed for maximum impact. Ben Stiller starred in, directed, and co-wrote this flick, and he knocked it out of the park. I could go on and on about how hysterical this picture is, but it would probably be best if you just watched it for yourself. Well, maybe you can skip it if you think the film’s edgier content could be too offensive or enraging.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hamburger Hill (1987) Review

Director: John Irvin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Released one year after Platoon (1986) and the same year as Full Metal Jacket (1987), this could be seen as the muddier, bloodier sibling to those Vietnam War films. Set in 1969, a squad of American soldiers fights to survive the torturous Battle of Hamburger Hill (an actual engagement in real life) during the Vietnam War, which involves them trying to take a communist-occupied hill in South Vietnam. It’s not as masterful as Full Metal Jacket, but I’d put this one on roughly equal footing with Platoon.

A significant chunk of this movie is a series of slices-of-life from U.S. troops serving in South Vietnam. They bond, train, occasionally find themselves in combat situations, interact with the locals, and brace themselves for the next big piece of action. The characterizations that the inhabitants of this movie’s universe receive are mixed. Some are well-fleshed-out, but others fall victim to who-is-this-guy-again? syndrome. We get to adequately know the characters before all Hell breaks loose.

The Battle of Hamburger Hill is when the flick really comes into its own. Watching the battlefield transform before our eyes from a dense jungle to a barren, smoky wasteland is the reason to view this picture. The fighting is grueling and gruesome, with one of the more notable assaults on the titular hill taking place in pouring rain, with American soldiers slipping and sliding down the heights as they struggle to climb up them. Not all of the characters are going to make it out of this one alive.

Hamburger Hill isn’t quite one of the very best war pictures of all time – its first half is a bit too typical for the genre for that – but it’s still solid. Its representation of the United States’ fighting men in the Vietnam War is respectful, perhaps even a tad reverent, while just about all American civilians are media vultures, dirty hippies, backstabbing politicians, or people who simply don’t understand the plight of the U.S. military. Being one of the better Vietnam War combat flicks, I recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Ten Commandments (1956) Review

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 220 minutes (standard cut), 231 minutes (roadshow cut)

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

All the way back in Biblical times, Moses (Charlton Heston), a Hebrew raised in the royal family of Egypt, sets out to free the Jewish people from their status as slaves in Egypt, putting him on a collision course with the dictatorial pharaoh, Rameses II (Yul Brynner). This is one of those spare-no-expenses epics from the Golden Age of Hollywood that throws everything imaginable at the audience in an effort to compete with the rising medium of television. It certainly is one of the biggest movies of all time, but is it one of the best?

Make no mistake, this is one very long picture, running nearly four hours in its roadshow form. However, it has a more purposeful gait than many of the other films in this style. It may have a leave-nothing-on-the-cutting-room-floor approach, but the story it tells largely justifies its marathonic runtime. Sure, some scenes probably could’ve been left out, but The Ten Commandments doesn’t exactly trudge along like a Biblical soap opera. It could easily be seen as a Cold War-era piece of propaganda…a sort of “take that!” to the godless commies.

Perhaps the best aspect of the work is Elmer Bernstein’s majestic musical score. It’s powerful and full of blood and thunder. The special effects and massive scope of the feature are hard to criticize. The heightened, theatrical performances border on high camp, but they work. Charlton Heston’s Moses, who balances stateliness with a Billy Badass attitude, holds the flick together. Some of the casting decisions are – er – interesting, such as Edward G. Robinson as Hebrew collaborator Dathan and Vincent Price as Egyptian slavedriver Baka.

The Ten Commandments, and that other ancient-era epic, Spartacus (1960), stand out from the rest of the sword-and-sandal crowd because of their compelling stories, and because their narratives don’t just sit around, letting spectacle do all of the talking. Pacing is slow, but generally steady. This movie, with its colossal runtime, may be intimidating, but I find it relatively easy to recommend. Whether you believe that the events in the film took place or not, this is a flick that deserves to be watched.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Platoon (1986) Review

Director: Oliver Stone

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Before he became one of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots, director Oliver Stone was a talented filmmaker, and the Vietnam War combat picture Platoon was often cited as his magnum opus. Stone was himself a veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, and he brought a sense of realism to the movie that had seldom been seen previously in the war genre. The feature is about fresh American soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) being assigned to a platoon in the Vietnam War that’s divided between followers of the benevolent Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and disciples of the cruel Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The all-star cast went through a sort of Hell to make this picture, as they endured a boot-camp-style training course in the jungles of the Philippines (where the flick was filmed) to put them inside the heads of soldiers who might have served in that vicious war. The desperation, exhaustion, and fear on the actors’ faces is mostly real. Platoon may not make ideal viewing for, say, Veterans Day, because it does graphically deal with atrocities committed by U.S. troop in South Vietnam. Some Americans come off looking better than others, but innocence is undoubtedly shattered.

The intense battle sequences in Platoon are stirring and tend to avoid John Rambo-style heroics. The violence here is unforgiving, yet never gratuitous (this is no splatterfest, despite how grisly things get). The outdoor elements are just as brutal to deal with as bullets fired by the communists. Despite the hair-raising nature of the movie, I do feel like the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” necessary to push it into masterpiece territory. It’s not that the film is episodic, it just needed to be a bit more propulsive at times.

While not one of the very best war pictures that I’ve seen, Platoon‘s lofty reputation still makes it a must-watch for fans of the genre. It played a role in upping the levels of realism in combat films, and it seems to be some sort of therapeutic exercise for director Oliver Stone, as he brings his traumatic experiences in Indochina to the big screen. While Full Metal Jacket (1987), released one year later, is currently my favorite Vietnam War flick, this one still gives the viewer plenty to think over.

My rating is 7 outta 10.