To Have and Have Not (1944) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The World War II drama To Have and Have Not is perhaps best remembered for being the first movie that future-couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would do together. Set on the Vichy French-occupied Caribbean island of Martinique during the Second World War, American boatman-for-hire Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself increasingly drawn into the conflict, while falling in love with Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall). This was the first of four flicks that the two would make.

To put it bluntly, To Have and Have Not is a Casablanca (1942)-wannabe. Both are romantic dramas set in Vichy French colonies during World War II starring Bogart as an isolationist character who tries to stay out of the fray, while falling in and out of love and being coaxed into the fighting by a non-American freedom fighter and his wife, while being menaced by Axis authority figures. The similarities are striking and consume one’s thought process while watching the 1944 film.

To Have and Have Not is certainly not as tight a movie as Casablanca, and its plot is not as propulsive. The tropical Caribbean setting doesn’t seem to be fully exploited, and the ending felt abrupt and unsatisfying to me (contrast it with the iconic finale of the 1942 picture that it bears a heavy overall resemblance to). The dialogue between Bogie and Bacall is celebrated, but can a film survive on witty banter alone?

In my opinion, To Have and Have Not is just okay. It’s not boring, but it’s no thrill ride either. It lacks the fiery, inspiring spirit of Casablanca and rips off of it too much. I suppose that it’s a perfectly acceptable war-time drama, but why settle for “perfectly acceptable” when you can settle for Casablanca? Maybe you should just play that one again.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Big Sleep (1946) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.

Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.

Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.

Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Dark Passage (1947) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

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

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The third (of four) movies that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together was a film-noir with some interesting ideas called Dark Passage. After escaping from prison (where he was locked up for allegedly murdering his wife), Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is taken in by artist Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) to help him clear his name. The finished product really isn’t as good as it should be, but it’s still watchable.

One of the most notable aspects of Dark Passage is the heavy use of first-person point-of-view cinematography in the first half. It’s not always seamless, but it adds a cool, almost ahead-of-its-time flavor to this crime-thriller. This, and the intriguing plot built up around a man on the run with no one he can trust (well, with the possible exception of Lauren Bacall’s character), ropes in the viewer. Not every character is going to survive to the end.

Unfortunately, the first act is the best part of the movie. Not everything after that is bad by any means, but, as the picture shifts away from the first-person gimmick, it loses something. It gets significantly talkier in several sequences and the ending is quite anti-climatic. It almost feels like the filmmakers were running out of time or didn’t exactly know how to end the picture on a pleasing note and rushed the conclusion.

In retrospective, professional critics have been rather kind to this one, partially thanks to the fact that it’s just Bogie and Bacall doing what they do best (although the supporting cast also gets singled out for praise). I am less enthusiastic about it, due to its not-entirely-satisfying ending and some of its dialogue-heavy tendencies. There are certainly many films I’d recommend this over, but can I really give a thumbs-up to a flick that peaks in its first third?

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Key Largo (1948) Review

Director: John Huston

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The crime-thriller Key Largo would be the fourth and final onscreen collaboration between husband-wife acting duo Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Set in Key Largo, Florida, a small group of gangsters led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) hold the visitors to an ocean-side hotel, including World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), hostage in the middle of a hurricane. Another captive is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), who was made a widow by the 1939-1945 war and who sets her eyes on McCloud.

Key Largo is based on a 1939 play with the same name, and sometimes it shows. Most of the action takes place in the Hotel Largo and this sometimes causes the movie to verge on talkiness. Still, the film is blessed with a sweaty atmosphere and the script is pretty good, too. It never really feels claustrophobic in a bad sort of way, and the final shootout gives the flick a chance to breathe.

This feature is usually classified as a film-noir, and it has a mercifully straightforward plot for a motion picture done in that style. I’m frequently turned off by the twisty-turny stories that noirs often employ, but Key Largo is refreshingly simple. Plus, it’s just fun to see two of the greatest icons of black-and-white gangster movies, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, square off against each other in such a well-made flick.

Key Largo is a likeable mobster-noir drama with several swell performances. It’s not an action picture (though the final moments of gunplay do satisfy), but it still manages to keep the audience engaged. In a way, it feels like a reverse version of The Petrified Forest (1936). In that film, Bogie plays a criminal who holds a Western American diner hostage, and in this movie, Bogart is a prisoner to a gangster takeover of a building orchestrated by a different actor.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Eraserhead (1977) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Horror, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Eraserhead‘s tagline is “A dream of dark and troubling things.” Yep, that’s sounds about right. In director David Lynch’s debut feature film, wimpy Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), gives birth to a mutant, alien-looking baby (that sort of resembles one of the Mon Calamari from the Star Wars franchise). Set against the backdrop of an industrial, dystopian Hellhole, this black-and-white surrealist horror classic has been mesmerizing audiences since 1977.

Several years in the making, this anxiety-ridden and deeply neurotic movie feels like a twisted nightmare set to film. In this regard, it could be considered the United States’ answer to Un Chien Andalou (1929). With its bizarre dream logic, it’s more about making you feel things, rather than provoking coherent thoughts. Well, it does appear to be about the fears of parenthood (being borderline antinatalistic) and spousal abandonment, but it often lets the surrealism do the talking.

No review of Eraserhead would be complete without mentioning its demented, droning sound design. The hum of Henry Spencer’s industrialized world is pervasive and unnerving. The special effects are equally astounding, and the picture’s oneiric feel has rarely been matched. Like dreams an actual human being might have, Eraserhead is mostly terrifying, but it also has occasional moments of offbeat humor.

Yes, this feature is undeniably a bit on the “artsy-fartsy” side, but it still manages to be insanely effective at what it does. It’s a strange, for-adults-only sci-fi-horror package that will surely leave no one feeling cold or indifferent. It’s a movie that demands a strong reaction of some sort. If you know what you’re getting into, you might fall under its spell.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Despicable Me (2010) Review

Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

One of the selling points of Despicable Me is that it’s an animated kids’ movie largely told from the perspective of a bad guy. Well, don’t worry, parents, he’s really not that bad of a dude. You see, high-tech supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is plotting on stealing the Moon, but the affection of three orphans, Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher), threatens to derail his plans.

While this is certainly a funny film (with a couple of good jabs at Ugly-Americanism), it’s probably the more heartwarming moments that steal the show. The picture strikes a commendable balance between silly humor, loopy action, and human drama, making it run like a well-oiled machine. Okay, “machine” makes the whole thing sound a bit more, uh, mechanical than it actually is, but this is still lightweight stuff.

Steve Carell, who voices the central character, is in top form here. His Gru has an appealing blend of sinister and benevolent traits. Of course, no review of Despicable Me would be complete without a mention of the yellow Minions (the faces that launched a thousand “normie memes”). They’re actually pretty cute and funny, without becoming overbearing.

This feature is painless viewing for grown-ups, so it’s one of those flicks that both parents and their children can both watch and enjoy. Hmmm…maybe I’m underselling it by calling it “painless.” Let’s try this: Despicable Me is a charming, effortlessly engaging piece of cinema that will probably entertain filmgoers of all ages. Ah, yes, that sounds better.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Texican (1966) Review

Director: Lesley Selander

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Audie Murphy does a Euro-Western? Whaaaaa?!? Technically, it’s not a “spaghetti western,” as Italy apparently wasn’t involved in its production (IMDb says it was a co-production between Spain and the United States), but it sure looks and sounds like one. Filmed in Spain, this western is about gunslinger Jess Carlin (American World War II war hero Audie Murphy) seeking revenge on town boss Luke Starr (Broderick Crawford), who’s responsible for the murder of his newspaperman brother, Roy Carlin (Victor Vilanova).

The Texican definitely feels like a “spaghetti western,” or Italian-made western, thanks to its distinctive sound effects, Ennio Morricone-wannabe musical score (from Nico Fidenco), and the obvious dubbing done for some of the non-English-speaking cast. It’s a bit strange seeing Audie Murphy in such a movie, but I suppose that that’s part of the novelty. Being one of the last films that Murphy made, it appears that he was trying to jump on the Clint Eastwood Train by invigorating his career with a Euro-Western.

This picture has a reasonably tight story, which helps it enormously. Action comes along fairly frequently, which is another plus. The low budget doesn’t really hinder the production much, only adding to the sense of atmosphere (those lonely, remote way-stations are characters of their own). Murphy is pretty much his typical white-knight hero, while Broderick Crawford makes a satisfactory villain.

As far as obscure action-westerns go, this one is pretty darn good. The plot’s easy to follow and it’s fun seeing Murphy out for vengeance. It’s not exactly high art, but not every motion picture has to be Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes you just want to watch one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War play cowboy and beat up people in scenes where punches sound like gunshots.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Schindler’s List (1993) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 195 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg released two very different films in 1993: the dinosaur-oriented action-adventure Jurassic Park (1993) and the genocide drama Schindler’s List. Set during World War II, German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) works to save Jews from the worst of the Holocaust by having them work in his factory. This epic, chilling masterpiece (based on a true story) is in the running for the greatest motion picture in cinema history.

This meticulously crafted movie benefits from impeccable (mostly black-and-white) cinematography and effortless-looking performances. It’s interesting to note that the character development here is not obvious or in-your-face. The Oskar Schindler character’s transformation from indifferent, greedy businessman to savior of hundreds of people is subtle and takes time. This change does not occur in a single episode. The picture raises issues with the duality of man. Why are some humans so heroic, while others are so evil?

John Williams’ melancholy, aching musical score is one of the best aspects of the movie. While the film deals with both the plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe and Oskar Schindler’s efforts to rescue them, the end result never feels like two separate movies joined at the hip. Violence here is brutal and graphic, but it never crosses the line into becoming gratuitous. While most of the feature is appropriately downbeat, there are a few moments of tasteful humor.

Watching Schindler’s List, with its recurring motif of paperwork, may seem like a daunting task, considering it’s a three-plus-hour film about the Holocaust. However, Steven Spielberg is a careful and prudent guide to this world, making sure that the finished product is watchable (if still heartbreaking), balancing horror and Hell with hope and heroism. This picture should be shown in high schools and comes very, very highly recommended.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Step Brothers (2008) Review

Director: Adam McKay

Genre(s): Comedy

Runtime: 98 minutes (theatrical version), 106 minutes (unrated version), 105 minutes (extended home video version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Step Brothers is about Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly), two man-children still living with their parents who find themselves becoming step brothers. This, right here, is a movie that you watch simply for the laughs. Plot, character depth, and enlightening messages on the nature of life are almost nowhere in sight. Yes, it’s hilarious, but it’s also so lightweight that it might blow away in a gentle wind.

The humor found in this film is decidedly low-brow and immature. We’re talking gags dealing with slapstick, poop, farting, swearing, sleepwalking, and nudity. It’s all very silly and raunchy, but it knows what it is. Some critics have pointed out that this could’ve been a swell satire on the increasing “kidifying” and dumbing-down of society. Nope, this is not that movie. Enjoy your dog poop jokes, critics.

The characters in Step Brothers are not Shakespearean, but they get the job done. There are a few cameos from big names. Pacing is joltingly quick at times. Surprisingly, the flick approaches what could be described as “poignancy” in the third act, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of thing. Who needs memorable human drama when you have “the f-bomb” being used (over and over)?

So, this is a dumb movie, but it knows it. It’s a breezy, easy-to-watch adult-oriented comedy that has a lot of solid belly laughs if you don’t take yourself too seriously. It doesn’t quite stand up with the best of the best in the comedy genre, being a bit too inconsequential and, to use a phrase employed earlier in the review, light-weight. Still, this is one that fans of the stars will not want to miss. The Steven Seagal film that the dynamic duo watch and get a kick out of is Above the Law (1988).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004) Review

Director: Bernie Denk

Genre(s): Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

This children’s computer-animated film plays out like a Halloween version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Based on the book The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano, this movie follows a cube-shaped pumpkin (voiced by Sonja Ball) who is made fun of by the rest of the normal-shaped inhabitants of the pumpkin patch. Okay, this one might be easy to dog-pile on, but I’ll be merciful.

The first thing one notices about this picture is the dated animation quality. It’s not horrible, but time hasn’t been kind to this particular aspect. With all of the talking vegetables and moralizing, it feels like an early episode of VeggieTales (except with more bullying). The message of the movie is, of course, to not judge someone by their appearance.

To an adult, Spookley the Square Pumpkin could seem a bit slow and padded (even at forty-seven minutes), with some less-than-stellar jokes. The musical numbers are fine and the characters are easy to keep track of. The target audience (kids, obviously) will be far more forgiving and will hopefully take away the film’s message of tolerance with them. It’s rightfully rated G by the MPAA, featuring no swearing or real violence (although there is some peril).

This isn’t the most famous feature of all time, with, at the time of this review, IMDb listing its release date as 2005. However, this is apparently only for its Dutch-language release in Belgium. Wikipedia (never wrong, never wrong) says it came out in 2004. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a sequel, called Spookley and the Christmas Kittens (2019), but it’s so obscure that it doesn’t even have an IMDb page at the time of this review.

My rating is 6 outta 10.