Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Review

Director: Irvin Kershner

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 124 minutes (original cut), 127 minutes (Special Edition)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The second installment in the Star Wars series, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, goes above and beyond the call of duty for movie sequels. This is no retread of the story found in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). The heroic Rebel Alliance is thrown into disarray after their secret base on the snow planet of Hoth is discovered by the tyrannical Galactic Empire. This is a film that expands and deepens the lore of its franchise.

For many fans, The Empire Strikes Back is the gold standard that all other Star Wars pictures are measured against. This may be a shocker, but it may actually be my least favorite of the original Star Wars trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Hell out of it, but, in terms of storytelling, it’s the middle child of the first three. It doesn’t really do anything wrong, it’s just not the immersive introduction or the cathartic conclusion. It is perhaps the one most reliant on the other two for its story. All of this being said, I readily admit that it’s the most well-made of the series.

The Empire Strikes Back is perhaps most famous for having a moodier tone than the other two films in the original trilogy. Its sense of danger is more palpable than the other entries. The musical score by John Williams is, of course, mind-meltingly effective here, being known for introducing “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” to Earth. The special effects and action sequences will floor you, but it’s the characters that keep the flick together. Also, who could forget about that twist ending, the very best of its kind?

It does have some very minor faults (like the mighty convenient location of Yoda [Frank Oz] on the swamp planet of Dagobah and the fact that it’s unclear how much time passes in the second act), but The Empire Strikes Back is still one of my very favorite motion pictures. It’s no lazy cash-grab made to piggyback on the success of the original. It’s the real deal. If you want to watch it, make sure to view the unaltered, original cut of the movie, instead of the Special Edition.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) Review

Director: George Lucas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 121 minutes (original cut), 125 minutes (Special Edition)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, originally just titled “Star Wars” when unleashed in theaters (despite the “Episode IV” in the title, this is the first Star Wars flick), is perhaps the most famous movie of all time. A moisture farmer on the desert planet of Tatooine named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is recruited by a wizard-like Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to help him aid Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in her rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire. Yes, this is one of the best motion pictures ever released, and the best in the Star Wars series.

This flick was dismissed by many critics back in the day who simply believed that audiences had fallen under the spell of its action and special effects. However, there is so much more to the appeal of the first Star Wars film than just its mind-blowing visuals and thunderous action sequences. It has countless lovable characters that have become fan favorites, insanely well-done sound effects, and what just might be the best musical score for any movie ever (done by John Williams, of course). Its story is timeless, playing out like a pulpy fairy tale. An unlikely hero is called upon to rescue a princess from an evil king’s castle. In other words, it has the same plot as your typical Mario video game.

This refreshingly sincere and ridiculously fast-paced motion picture also taps into the universal desire to break free from one’s boring world and escape on an adventure of great consequence. Look at the scene of Mark Hamill’s character, Luke Skywalker, gazing off at the two setting suns of his homeworld as he thirsts for something more. It’s only a matter of time before he’s “taken [his] first step into a larger world,” to quote Alec Guinness’ character, Obi-Wan Kenobi…and what a world! The imagination behind the world-building in this movie (look at the Mos Eisley Cantina scene for example) is overwhelming.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, or just “Star Wars,” is still a pleasure to watch after all these decades. It works perfectly well as either a standalone treat or as a member of a larger franchise. This is just about as good as movies get, and is my favorite non-Indiana Jones picture of all time. You definitely should watch this one, and make sure you watch the original 1977 cut of the film, rather than one of the various Special Editions that tinker with the special effects/visuals and add new, unnecessary sequences.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019) Review

Director: David Leitch

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw has its own identity, but still pays homage to the tropes that made The Fast and the Furious franchise popular. The film’s plot is as typical as it gets: a superterrorist named Brixton (Idris Elba) has stolen a potentially-world-destroying virus, and two squabbling heroes, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham), are recruited to retrieve it before it’s unleashed on Earth. Yeah, you may think “I’ve seen this movie before,” but it’s the execution that makes this picture special.

Like the rest of the installments in the series since Fast Five (2011), Hobbs & Shaw is primarily concerned with ludicrous action. “Just how over-the-top can we be, and still get away with it?” seems to be a thought that ran through the head of at least one filmmaker. If the viewer suspends their sense of disbelief, they will be riveted to their seat by a series of increasingly preposterous set-pieces that push the boundaries of what an action movie is tastefully capable of. This rowdy bro film is proudly lunkheaded, so don’t expect any commentary on the human condition. However, do expect the flick to give equal opportunity to its two stars to win over the audience.

It’s a great piece of popcorn-munching entertainment, but I do think that the two main characters, a pair of bickering badasses, are a bit too similar in terms of personality. There are some distinctions between the titular duo, but I think that, in many scenes, their roles could’ve been used interchangeably. This is an action-comedy, but the physical stuff clearly works better than the humorous material. That’s not to say that it’s not funny (there are definitely some chuckles here), it’s just that the fighting is several notches above the jokes.

Hobbs & Shaw is one of the better motion pictures in The Fast and the Furious series so far. It’s a dumb movie, but I don’t think the filmmakers intended it to be a smart one. It’s aimed at fans of cinematic blockbusters, so your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you’re in that demographic or not. If the idea of massive explosions, hulking tough guys, and intricate fights excites you, you’ll want to check it out.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Scarface (1932) Review

Directors: Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Although it’s less famous than its remake, Scarface (1983), I actually find the 1932 original to be the more entertaining movie. It’s a shorter and tighter film, even if it doesn’t have the high highs that the 1983 version has. Anyway, the story’s about ambitious mob enforcer Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) murdering his way up the gangland food chain during Prohibition. This is one of the very best gangster flick of the 1930s.

Paul Muni is the real star of the show, playing his character as a charismatic psychopath. He’s almost as captivating as James Cagney is in one of his typical performances. The movie also benefits from shadowy, proto-noirish cinematography and a relatively zippy pace. Scarface plays out like a perverted American Dream story, with its outsider protagonist diligently working his way to the top…with murderous hot lead.

This picture was quite controversial back in the day for its quantity of violence. It also blended comedy and carnage in a way that was unheard of at the time. It’s interesting to note that many of the killings in the film are accompanied by a brilliant visual motif that will have audiences guessing where it will show up next. It really has just about as much action as was possible to cram into a 1932 movie, although the final standoff isn’t quite as good as some of the action sequences that preceded it. That’s not a major complaint, though.

Scarface was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the Production Code was enforced, and it shows. People are gunned down with little consequence, police authority is casually scoffed at, and the picture contains what just might be the first two “f-words” in the history of cinema (once when the “secretary” Angelo [Vince Barnett] gets angry at the telephone and once when a gun-wielding man is stopped after firing a few shots at a nightclub). This film is up there with the best mobster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, like The Public Enemy (1931), ‘G’ Men (1935), and White Heat (1949). If you like the 1983 version of the tale, but haven’t seen the 1932 rendition, you’re missing out.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Public Enemy (1931) Review

Director: William A. Wellman

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Public Enemy would prove to be the breakout film for James Cagney, one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. The movie follows criminal Tom Powers (James Cagney) from his youth as a petty crook to his adulthood as a mob enforcer in the early days of Prohibition. While most gangster flicks follow around the head honchos, this realistic picture is about the common “foot soldier” in the crime wars of the 1920s.

This movie’s greatest asset is its sense of authenticity and immediacy. You can almost feel the grit and dirt under your fingernails as the characters navigate the city. I take that back. While that’s amazing and all, Cagney is the film’s powerhouse element. He acts circles around most of the other cast members, instantly cementing himself as one of the best actors of the generation. The Public Enemy might as well have been called “The James Cagney Show.” It’s interesting to note that Cagney was originally cast to play the sidekick, Matt Doyle (who ended up being played by Edward Woods, who was set to play Tom Powers, the main character), but director William A. Wellman quickly realized James’ talent, and switched the actors’ roles.

This film benefits from its quickly-paced, few-frills storytelling. It has several great scenes that offer “slices-of-life” from the life of a Prohibition-era outlaw. Perhaps the movie’s most iconic sequence is the grapefruit breakfast, which lives up to the hype. The motion picture’s focus isn’t on the action (although there are several deaths), but there is one scene where it appears an actual automatic weapon was used to shred the corner of a building (yes, with what simply had to be live ammunition). Remember, this is before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Public Enemy was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the Production Code was enforced), and it has a similar charm as many of the other flicks released during this time period. It’s more-than-worth watching if you want a nitty-gritty look at the life of the common gangster in the first half of the twentieth century, with more emphasis on the impact of criminality of one’s family and friends than on guns a-blazing.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) Review

Director: Luis Buñuel

Genre(s): Fantasy

Runtime: 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Un Chien Andalou” translates from French into English as “An Andalusian Dog.” This movie has nothing to do with Andalusia or dogs, which should tell you something about the motion picture you’re about to watch. This is my favorite short film, being nothing more than sixteen minutes of pure surrealism. Watching Un Chien Andalou is like stepping into someone’s dream…or nightmare.

This flick has no real plot, it’s just an incendiary piece of nonsensical storytelling. It single-handedly destroys the laws of time and space with its alluring dream logic. Consider yourself warned, though, as it starts off with an eye-opening act of graphic violence that has become one of the most famous scenes in silent cinema. In some ways it feels like the original “deep-fried meme,” with its grainy, washed-out look and lack of logic.

Although silent, Un Chien Andalou features a catchy soundtrack added in 1960 that really enhances the visuals. One aspect of this movie that sometimes gets overlooked is its special effects. I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s say that this stunningly weird picture has a few sequences that just wouldn’t be the same without its primitive effects. The fast pacing should also be mentioned. All too often, films try to be dreamlike by slowing down the tempo. This is totally inaccurate, as dreams are often manically paced.

This is an oneiric masterpiece that has become a cult classic over the decades. Literal-minded viewers will despise it, but, if you just think of it as a trip inside the world of dreams, you just might love it. It’s not really symbolism, just random, oft-humorous images meant to confuse and startle those who have no clue of what they’re in for.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

‘G’ Men (1935) Review

Director: William Keighley

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Hollywood gangster films had proven mighty profitable in the early 1930s, but there was an increasing backlash against them, especially when the Production Code started being enforced. The solution: make a mob movie from the perspective of lawmen, with the criminals as the unquestionable bad guys. That is precisely was ‘G’ Men is. Smart alecky lawyer James “Brick” Davis (James Cagney) joins the FBI to avenge the murder of his good friend, Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), arriving in the Bureau just in time to take on a major Midwestern crime spree. This, right here, is one of the best of the 1930s organized crime flicks.

The cut of ‘G’ Men now available starts with an interesting prologue added in 1949 that shows the film being shown to new government agent recruits. This movie is, more or less, FBI propaganda, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the picture for this. The star of the show is, of course, James Cagney, who’s amazing, as expected. He may be on the side of the law now, but he’s still the gun-toting, tough-talking wise-ass we all love.

The movie benefits from some ripped-from-the-headlines moments that serve as the major set-pieces. There is a scene obviously inspired by the 1933 Kansas City Massacre, and there’s a very good shootout sequence that is lifted from the 1934 Little Bohemia Lodge gunfight. It’s remarkably action-packed by 1935 standards, although the final action scene isn’t quite as thrilling as the nighttime hunting lodge firefight that preceded it (though it’s still cool).

When it’s all said and done, ‘G’ Men is an excellent crime-actioner that fans of retro tough guy cinema will adore. Yes, there is some light romance in it, but Cagney makes it watchable. If you can get past the occasionally somewhat speechy join-or-support-the-FBI stuff, it’s a generally fast-paced romp through gangland.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Castle Keep (1969) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Although it’s directed by Sydney Pollack, I like to describe Castle Keep as what a collaboration between John Milius and Luis Buñuel might look like it. During World War II, a squad of American soldiers have to hole themselves up in a medieval Belgian castle to stave off a Nazi offensive. This film is a rare animal, an arthouse picture with balls and badassery.

Castle Keep is a highly surreal and dreamlike movie that could’ve easily been titled “Un Chien Andalou Goes to War.” The dialogue is deliberate, yet full of non-sequiturs, and would come across as ludicrously pretentious if the flick wasn’t so bizarre and oneiric. It’s perhaps not an outright comedy, but it’s often oddly funny, just as good surrealism often is. This psychedelic film defies interpretation and is best enjoyed as a surprising piece of nonsense.

Contrasting with the dream logic are the movie’s joltingly realistic combat sequences. With the exception of the dialogue during these scenes, they feel like something out of a wannabe-authentic docudrama. The impressive pyrotechnics are worthy of note. The star of the show, Burt Lancaster as Major Abraham Falconer, keeps everything together in perfectly macho fashion, blasting away at Nazis with a fifty-caliber machine gun from atop the titular castle.

If I had to find any faults with Castle Keep, I might say that some of the supporting characters aren’t distinct enough and that the scene in the rosebushes goes on for a tad too long. Despite how otherworldly the whole thing feels, the conflicts in it feel strangely immediate. It’s definitely not for all tastes…it’s just too damn weird for that. However, if you like your surrealism fast-paced, comical, and tough-as-nails, this is one motion picture you won’t want to miss.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Shane (1953) Review

Director: George Stevens

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

At first glance (especially to modern eyes), Shane may look like just another western. However, it is perhaps the quintessential example of the “lone gunman” subgenre. The story revolves around an ex-gunslinger, Shane (Alan Ladd), who decides to side with a group of peaceful homesteaders in their range war with a ruthless band of cattlemen. When it comes to the western genre, it is perhaps only outdone by the films of The Magnificent Seven series and Seven Angry Men (1955) in the how-heroic-can-the-main-character(s)-be? department.

Shane, more or less, sets out to be the final word on the lone western gunfighter of popular culture. It has a lot to say on heroism, justified and unjustified violence, selflessness, and American gun culture, a lot of it shown as how it’s viewed through the eyes of children. These themes are ably supported by the movie’s cinematography and performances, especially Jack Palance’s as Jack Wilson, a sociopathic gunman hired by the cattlemen to deal with the stubborn homesteaders.

It certainly isn’t an action movie, but the way violence is portrayed here deserves a mention. It’s far from graphic, but guns sound like cannons, people recoil with the help of stunt wires when shot, and combatants end up battered and bruised after fist fights. Okay, maybe the semi-realism of the action doesn’t mesh completely with the somewhat idealized portrayal of pioneer life (with its frolicking deer and home-cooked pies), but this is only a very minor flaw.

In 2008, Shane was named by the American Film Institute as the third greatest American western motion picture of all time (after The Searchers [1956] and High Noon [1952]) as part of their AFI’s 10 Top 10 celebration. It’s pretty easy to see why it’s held in such a high regard. While I don’t love it as much as the critics do, it’s still a flick that is impossible not to respect. It’s an entertaining examination of what true heroism is and when extralegal violence is necessary according to the American psyche.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Christopher Robin (2018) Review

Director: Marc Forster

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 104 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

I’M NOT CRYING, YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S CRYING! I expected to cry watching Christopher Robin, but not nearly as much as I did. Here, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), friend to all things in the Hundred Acre Wood, grows up, but finds that he can’t escape Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and the rest of the gang. Generally speaking, films in the “kids & family” genre aren’t my cup of tea, but this picture really grabbed me.

While I can’t say for sure, Christopher Robin should readily appeal to both children and adults. For kids, it’s got the whole troop of animals from the Hundred Acre Wood, brought to life with top-notch special effects, and, for the grown-ups, it has a very nostalgic story about the passage of time. All of this being said, older audiences will probably appreciate the flick more, as it appeals more to their emotional palette and Pooh and Company may not be onscreen enough in the first half or so for many kids.

Hyper-adorable and highly sentimental, this movie easily forces the viewer to reflect on their pathetic, miserable lives, while dazzling them with a whimsical story of friendship and childhood’s end (it works better as a drama than as a comedy, but it still has some swell comic relief). I’m not really sure that the solutions to the horrors of human existence presented here are realistic, but, hey, it’s just a Winnie the Pooh film, not a philosophical tract.

I had high hopes for Christopher Robin, and they were definitely exceeded. The waterworks were basically constant for me, and the whole thing was appropriately cute. I hesitate to call it a “tearjerker,” because of how effortlessly it made me cry. Most of the time, I prefer movies where people run around and kill each other, but this was a more-than-welcome change of pace.

My rating is 10 outta 10.