Sergeant York (1941) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 134 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Sergeant York is one of the greatest pieces of Americana to ever grace the silver screen. Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) is a Tennessean hillbilly with a pacifistic interpretation of the Bible who is hesitant to be drafted into the American military during World War I. This is a true story, and, according to legend, the real York insisted that Gary Cooper be cast as him, although I couldn’t tell you if this aspect of the production is factual or not.

Despite being a famous war picture, it should be noted that this film is not all battlefield antics. The first half (or so) is actually a peek inside the life of the rural, backwoods United States in the early 1900s. Be prepared for lots of hick accents. However, the sequences on the front line of the Western Front in Europe are spellbinding. With the exception of some arched-back deaths, the combat is realistic and intense. The action scenes, like a bar fistfight at the Tennessee-Kentucky border and a depiction of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, are excellently rendered.

Gary Cooper rightfully won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, one of the best in cinema history. The struggles his character faces are relatable, as he wrestles with his conscience, sense of patriotism, and interpretation of his holy book over how to best serve his country. To be honest, the morals of the movie are pretty simple, but it’s important to remember that this is a piece of propaganda intended to brace Americans for their seemingly inevitable entry into World War II. Sergeant York was sent to theaters in the United States several months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Aided by a good musical score from Max Steiner, this flick is dripping in sentimentality, which, along with its hillbilly accents, might turn off some modern viewers. I do admit that it’s a little corny, but it’s still one of the most engaging motion pictures to ever be released. Not only is it one of the very best features about the First World War, it’s one of the very best war films of all time. Regardless of your religious or political persuasions, you’re bound to enjoy Sergeant York.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Emperor (2020) Review

Director: Mark Amin

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2020 biopic Emperor fumbles with the historical facts, but still manages to be an entertaining work about an often-overlooked period of U.S. history. In 1859, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, escaped slave Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), nicknamed “Emperor,” joins militant abolitionist John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the goal of inciting a slave revolt. As historically inaccurate as it may be, I still found myself engaged to the events taking place on the screen.

Emperor takes an action-movie-ish approach to the life of Shields Green. I mean, this picture even has a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-esque wagon chase, for Heaven’s sake! The action is almost laughably explosive at times, but I suppose that that’s just the price of making a historical film that gets seen by the masses. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s all part of the fun.

This movie shouldn’t be looked to as an accurate representation of the events of 1859. The horrors of human slavery are kept safely in the bounds of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. The Harpers Ferry raid looks like a full-scale battle (complete with a cannon or two!), and the fate of Shields Green is completely fictionalized. It may be a little awkward for history buffs to sit through for these reasons, but these alterations to historical fact make the finished product more commercial.

It may play fast and loose with the truth, but Emperor is still a film that I enjoy. John Brown is my hero, so it’s cool seeing him in cinematic form (even if the flick isn’t as good as Seven Angry Men [1955]). The critical reception of this feature was mixed, but I can largely forgive its crimes against history because of how easily one can become emotionally invested in it. Just make sure to quickly look over Shield Green’s Wikipedia page after viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Tomorrow War (2021) Review

Director: Chris McKay

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The sci-fi-actioner The Tomorrow War was released direct-to-streaming, but it’s the kind of movie I would have liked to see on the big screen. The film is about present-day dad Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) being sent to the not-too-distant future via time travel to help fight a vicious alien invasion that’s destroyed most of mankind. One or two story beats may be somewhat predictable, but, if you can stay in the moment, you might find yourself having fun.

Okay, maybe “having fun” isn’t the best way of putting it, because this flick presents some surprisingly dire and dark scenarios. The almost unstoppable extra-terrestrials are savage beasts that give this thriller some horror movie vibes. Moments of action are intense enough to get a thumbs-up from me, and the emotional scenes are more effective than not. For a direct-to-streaming work, the budget appears to be quite large, and the spectacle is occasionally overwhelming.

There are some missteps along the way. The first and third acts of the feature have a tendency to rely on Marvel-style comic relief that inappropriately defuse moments of tension. Marvel products are just about the biggest thing in the world at the time of its release, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked that this picture tried to ape their formula a tad. There’s also the matter of the third act feeling like it takes place after the main climax of the film. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s “unnecessary,” but The Tomorrow War might be overstaying its welcome.

This movie’s blend of silly comedy and serious, seemingly apocalyptic situations isn’t its strength. To enjoy the motion picture, it’s best to focus on the palpable sense of dread and desperation, along with its gooey action and violence. Yeah, The Tomorrow War is a flawed work, but my impression of the big picture is rather positive. The second act is especially hard-hitting, easily being the best part.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Opinions vary on the Steve McQueen drama Baby the Rain Must Fall, but you can put me down in the “hated it” category. The plot of this sleep-inducing film is about impulsive, down-on-his-luck rockabilly singer Henry Thomas (Steve McQueen) getting out of prison to meet his wife, Georgette Thomas (Lee Remick), and his daughter, Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), in rural Texas. I suppose that this flick is supposed to be an existential “mood piece,” but it didn’t make me feel anything other than the minutes ticking away.

The thing about Baby the Rain Must Fall is just that it’s so boring. Some reviewers have pointed out that it’s depressing, too, but I have no problems with a downer of a movie if it engages the emotions. This one doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the picture’s performances, but the end product meanders around aimlessly. Eventually, the feature decides to call it quits and ends.

The film in question was based on the 1954 play The Traveling Lady, and, to its credit, it doesn’t feel like it was based off of something as confining as a work of theater. Also, we need to talk about Steve McQueen’s lip-syncing during the musical numbers. It’s pretty atrocious, and probably would’ve been laughable in a less dour movie. The song with the same title as the movie, written by Elmer Bernstein and sung by Glenn Yarbrough, was a commercial success, though, reaching number twelve on the Billboard Top 100 and number two on the easy listening charts.

Baby the Rain Must Fall is tedious and uneventful more than anything else. Obviously, this is not one for fans of McQueen’s most action-oriented side (although there is a brief fight involving his character). Instead, it will probably only appeal to those looking for an ultra-low-key slice-of-rural-life drama. There’s an audience for this sort of thing, but it certainly isn’t me.

My rating is 3 outta 10.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Review

Director: Richard Thorpe

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the few light comedies that actor Steve McQueen did during his relatively short career was The Honeymoon Machine. According to Wikipedia, Cary Grant was actually the first choice for the McQueen role, but he turned it down. In this film, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson “Fergie” Howard (Steve McQueen), leads an attempt to use a top-secret supercomputer to make a financial killing at a roulette table in a Venetian casino.

This movie is pretty quaint nowadays. It’s somewhat amusing to see the characters obsessed with a massive, clunky, primitive-looking computer that they can’t even bring ashore (they communicate with it via signal lamp). Now, we have gadgets that could out-think that behemoth of a device that can fit in our pockets. Technology marches on. Overall, the picture sort of resembles an actionless version of Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with American military personnel trying to make a quick buck under the noses of their superiors.

The Honeymoon Machine is based on the 1959 play The Golden Fleecing. This is not hard to believe, considering the confined nature of the flick. There’s a few scenes at the beginning set aboard the naval ship that McQueen’s character is assigned to, but most of the runtime is spent in a couple of hotel rooms and the casino floor. Fortunately, these are pretty luxurious hotel rooms, so it gives the audience some eye candy. To complicate the plot, the main character falls in love with Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), his commanding officer.

This rom-com is a hard one to have strong feelings about. It’s short (at 87 minutes long), so it doesn’t exactly waste your time, but it’s so lightweight that it doesn’t really offer anything new (well, other than fancy computers for 1961 audiences). The humor isn’t particularly appealing. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this picture, Steve McQueen left the first public screening of it early and swore to never again work for MGM.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Network (1976) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Did the 1976 dramedy Network predict how sensationalistic, trashy, and cynical (in the sense of trying to make a fast buck) television, especially the news, would become in the twenty-first century? This biting satire feels awfully damn prescient these days, even if it probably felt ridiculous to those watching it in the 1970s. At the T.V. network UBS, suicidal anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) becomes a ratings sensation when the powers behind the scenes allow him to go on insane rants on air.

For a film released in 1976, this movie feels shockingly relevant. It’s a powerful indictment of demagoguery that doesn’t forget to be funny, too. In some ways, it almost feels like a comedic version of All the King’s Men (1949) set in the world of news media. Network shows just how easy it is to manipulate a crowd (or mob) that’s unsatisfied with the status quo. In case you’re out of the loop, this is the flick where the quote “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” came from.

This picture is often chaotic in nature, with people talking over each other or multiple goings-on vying for the viewers’ attention. It makes the feature feel even more modern. If I have a quibble with Network, it must be the b-story, revolving around an affair between Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). It does flesh out these characters, but I find it to be far less interesting than the antics of Peter Finch’s character and the behind-the-scenes wranglings over whether to keep him on the air or not.

Network builds up to a bold and surprising finale that definitely leaves an impression on the audience. With the exception of some of the scenes dealing with Holden’s character’s affair, this movie is still immediate and fresh, wryly predicting the future of trash television. This classic was nominated for many awards (including Best Picture at the Oscars), including being nominated for Best Science Fiction Film at the Saturn Awards. Wait…what?!?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 147 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the first film in the series with the same director as the previous entry (the man in the director’s chair being Christopher McQuarrie). Can he keep the franchise on its hot streak? After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fights to recover weapons-grade plutonium from a group of fanatics Hellbent on stirring up as much suffering as possible. The clock is ticking.

This movie, as expected, is filled to the brim with magnificent action set-pieces and life-endangering stuntwork. We’ve got a parachute jump through a thunderstorm, a bathroom slugfest, vehicular chases (on the ground and in the air), and more. It’s quite possible that they’ve gone overboard, but, considering the ecstatic reception the feature got, maybe not.

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, this flick may contain too much of a good thing. It’s the longest Mission: Impossible picture yet, and one can tell. Yes, it’s very exciting, but how many close-calls can you cram into one film? Also not helping is the somewhat familiar plot. Nuclear weapons in the hands of evildoers again? There is a bit of a been-there-done-that quality to this work of cinema.

Many viewers feel that Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the best installment of the franchise at the time of the publication of this review. It certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck. The action sequences are stunning, but the story that they rely upon is merely pretty good. So, do I recommend this movie? Yeah, but I don’t find that it quite reaches the highs of the previous two Mission: Impossible films.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 131 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

In the fifth Mission: Impossible movie – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes rogue (is that even a pun?) to try to take down an organization of renegade ex-secret agents known as “the Syndicate.” The stakes don’t feel quite as high as the will-there-be-a-nuclear-holocaust? tension of the previous entry into the series (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011]), but this installment really plays to the franchise’s strengths. Excellent action, insane stunts, and lots of badass teamwork are center-stage.

The Mission: Impossible flicks at this point feel like modern-day Indiana Jones features without the archaeology. This picture has plenty of cliffhanger high-jinks and heroic globetrotting. The action scenes are appropriately high-impact, with some how-did-they-do-that? stuntwork to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. On the down side, I think that they might’ve “saved” the best major stunt for first (it’s, of course, the one with Tom Cruise and an airplane taking off).

This fast-paced action-adventure film, like the rest of the movies in the series, benefits from the team dynamics on display. You see, Cruise couldn’t do this all by himself, so he backs himself up with one of the best damn squads of agents possible. There’s Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who provides the comic relief, and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the tough tech expert. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) handles the political wranglings over the Impossible Mission Force’s future. A newcomer is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiance is questionable.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation wisely doesn’t try to immediately top the end-of-the-world stakes of its predecessor, but it still lays a lot on the line. The stakes, if anything, feel a bit more personal this time around, as evidenced by the finale, which is relatively small in scale, yet still huge in intensity. The fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible features are definitely a formidable one-two punch.

My rating is 8 outta 10.