They Drive by Night (1940) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

They Drive by Night may not be an action, adventure, gangster, war, or western movie, but it often has the macho swagger of one. It doesn’t always live up to its promises, but this working-class drama features a cast at the top of their game. The story concerns a couple of two-fisted, tough-guy truckers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart), who’re brothers, and must survive their perilous occupation during the Great Depression.

This film works best when it’s showing slices-of-life from the blue-collar badasses that inhabit its world. Seeing Humphrey Bogart and George Raft play siblings alone will make it worth the price for some classic cinema buffs. They’re joined by an impressive cast, consisting of Ann Sheridan (as Cassie Hartley, a waitress at a roadside diner), Alan Hale (as Ed Carlsen, a former trucker who’s now the owner of a business in that line of work), Ida Lupino (as Lana Carlsen, Ed’s scheming wife), and George Tobias (playing George Rondolos, one of the vendors buying the brothers’ goods).

Unfortunately, They Drive by Night feels like it has two separate plots joined at the hip. Most of the first half is about the gritty trucking adventures of Bogart, Raft, and their kind, while the second half transforms the motion picture into a crime-melodrama. There’s even a courtroom climax that seems like a far cry from the open road antics from earlier in the runtime. I wouldn’t read the plot synopsis on IMDb unless you want some of the details of the latter half revealed to you.

Even if it feels vaguely plotless, the first half of this feature is the stronger part. The second half (oriented around a certain crime) has a few cheesy moments and is less street-tough. So, do I recommend They Drive by Night? That’s a tough question to answer, although I’m sure classic movie fans will get a kick out of the cast. If you’re looking for a consistent, well-articulated story, then there’s probably better choices out there.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) Review

Director: Dave Filoni

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

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

This animated Star Wars movie was the first look fans would get at the style of animation that would be employed in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, which was also launched in 2008. Set in between the events of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by Matt Lanter) are tasked with rescuing gangster Jabba the Hutt’s (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) son, Rotta (voiced by David Acord), as the Clone Wars rage on across the galaxy. This one’s strictly for followers of the franchise only.

The film in question is actually four episodes of the aforementioned T.V. show stitched together (think of it as the series pilot). This means that the structure of the picture is on the awkward side, with several climaxes. Okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it definitely feels like a small part of a larger whole, as characters come and go from the narrative. Yeah, sending this movie to theaters was clearly a cash-grab move.

This film caters to Star Wars fans who prefer the action set-pieces to the chit-chat (wait…are there any Star Wars fans who watch these flicks for the dialogue?). The action scenes are almost incessant here, with plenty of familiar-looking vehicles, weapons, droids, and gadgets thrown into the mix. They’re more over-the-top than anything viewers had seen in a Star Wars film up to the time of its original release, but I suppose that’s to be expected, as it is an animated film.

Speaking of animation, it’s certainly a mixed bag, to be sure. It often looks too mechanical, but it does look pretty at other moments. Anyway, Star Wars: The Clone Wars sticks quite close to the spirit of the franchise. Audience members who aren’t already interested in Star Wars will get lost awfully quick, but fans will find enough here to make it through the runtime. This feature took a thrashing from critics, yet people already in love with that galaxy far, far away will be far more forgiving.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During World War II, American scientist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head to Europe to spy on Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. Cloak and Dagger was directed by Fritz Lang, who had previously helmed the science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and the serial killer thriller M (1931) and would later direct the excellent film noir The Big Heat (1953), and starred cinema icon Gary Cooper. Sounds like a dream team collaboration. How does it stack up?

This film is at its best in moments of action and suspense. The surprisingly hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat scenes are the highlight, featuring a Liam Neeson-esque throat punch or two. The final shootout doesn’t fare quite as well. In comparison, it feels lazily shot at times and lacks a distinct culmination. There are also some impressive espionage-related sequences that don’t deal with violence directly.

What keeps Cloak and Dagger back from greatness is its romantic subplot. The movie really hits a brick wall here. The scenes between Gary Cooper’s character and Italian resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) don’t add much to the final product, although some have commented that they put a human face on the toll of partisan warfare and fascist occupation. The pace would be much tighter if these scenes were written out of the screenplay.

At the end of the day, Cloak and Dagger is something less than the sum of its parts. When focused on the details of Gary Cooper’s mission, this war-time adventure-thriller is pretty memorable. It’s the romance that threatens to sabotage the end result. Still, it’s a watchable enough war picture for fans of Cooper or Fritz Lang.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020) Review

Director: Ken Cunningham

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

Runtime: 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It’s probably a daring move to put the words “Holiday” and “Special” together into a Star Wars movie title after the disastrous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is considered such an abomination that it’s never been given an official home video release. However, in 2020, Lego put out its own Christmas-themed Star Wars film, meeting greater acclaim than the 1978 flop. Set after the events in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the good guys of that picture set out to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, while Rey (voiced by Helen Sadler) tries to uncover some lost Jedi knowledge, causing her to discover a gem that enables time travel.

This animated film is clearly aimed at people who are already fans of the Star Wars saga, especially the kids. It breaks no new ground, but it provides a fun nostalgia trip for viewers accustomed to that beloved galaxy far, far away. A few actors from the live-action movies even return to voice their respective characters. Anthony Daniels voices C-3PO, Billy Dee Williams does Lando Calrissian, and Kelly Marie Tran brings life to Rose Tico.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is a lightweight pleasure, but it knows that it belongs to a franchise that’s seen plenty of controversy, and it gently ribs a few of the more divisive elements of the series. Its story revolves around time travel, but doesn’t really try much new with the concept, other than using it to show off a bunch of already-iconic characters and situations. Despite being set in a Lego universe, this aspect of the picture seems underused, with little toy-building in sight.

This is an inoffensive comedy that some have compared to an overlong toy commercial. If it is an advertisement, it certainly is an entertaining one, made by people who know the lore of the Star Wars galaxy. The young ones will get the most mileage out of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, but those who’ve followed the franchise for a while will be rewarded with an in-joke or two. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s not something you’ll regret watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Diplomaniacs (1933) Review

Director: William A. Seiter

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 61 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Often compared to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) of the same year, Diplomaniacs is a wild, anti-war satire with a few musical numbers thrown into the mix, because – well- why the Hell not? The story concerns itself with Willy Nilly (Bert Wheeler) and Hercules Grub (Robert Woolsey), two barbers on a Native American reservation who are assigned by the local natives to negotiate an end to all war at a peace conference in Geneva. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and, yes, there will be blackface. Oh, so much blackface.

The first thing that must be discussed when talking about Diplomaniacs is its dated racial humor. Just about every race gets mocked here (and they’re all played by Whites, as far as I could tell), but there is a blackface musical number that has stirred up some controversy in recent times. This makes the film in question difficult to recommend to everybody, but those with strong stomachs when it comes to racial insensitivity will find much to enjoy (other than the song that I was just talking about).

Diplomaniacs is a very funny movie, being one of those pictures that tries to make almost every single line a joke of some kind. It only lasts an hour, so there is a high gag density here. Of course, not every comedic beat lands, but the flick is so likeably silly and audacious in how stupid it will go for a laugh that it still puts a smile on my face. There is definitely some satire in Diplomaniacs, but much of its humor is straightforward goofiness.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this irreverent movie reflects a cynical, Great Depression-era view of international diplomacy. To the filmmakers, it seems like all that politicians and business-people want is war, and everybody else is just too dumb to stop them. There are a lot of laughs to be found, as it never gets too dark, but the blackface sequence means that this one isn’t for everyone.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Baby Face (1933) Review

Director: Alfred E. Green

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 71 minutes, 76 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Baby Face is one of the most (in)famous films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period of American sound movies before the enforcement of the Production Code). Here, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, an unsentimental speakeasy barmaid who’s tired of being pimped out by her father, Nick (Robert Barrat), and decides to travel to New York City to sleep her way to the top of the hierarchy of a big bank there. Who plays one of her early conquests? Well, it’s wholesome he-man John Wayne, himself, playing Jimmy McCoy, Jr.

With its Great Depression-era grit, Baby Face is mostly a tough movie, showing an unscrupulous woman taking advantage of men at every turn. Its depiction of the bedroom (and bathroom) stuff is mighty coy by today’s standards, but it was considered controversial back in 1933. Pictures like these caused the moral guardians to bring the hammer down in mid-1934 by starting to enforce the Production Code, dictating what content could and couldn’t be in American films.

Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face is a sleazy, gold-digging, black-hearted vamp, turning the tables on men in general, but that’s the way the character is supposed to be. The true weak link in this flick is the third act. Here, the movie becomes more of a conventional romance feature, a jarring change of pace that doesn’t do the overall product any favors.

Baby Face is interesting to watch for its place in cinema history, but with a runtime of only 76 minutes, it’s also entertaining in its own right. Seeing the up-and-coming John Wayne (in a rare non-tough-guy performance) being conned by a floozy is quite a sight. Okay, his role is pretty small, but it’s still one of the picture’s more notable elements. Still, I can’t help but feel that this one’s last third holds it back from the big leagues.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mirage (1965) Review

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Genre(s): Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1965 film Mirage was directed by Edward Dmytryk, but it wouldn’t feel at all out-of-place in the canon of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a hard movie to discuss the story of without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a try. Set in New York City, the power goes out in an office building and somebody just jumped from the twenty-seventh story, with accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) about to be caught up in a mysterious murder plot. I’d advise against reading any synopses of this picture first (even the IMDb one), just watch it.

As I just stated, this is one of those just-trust-me-and-watch-it kind of suspense movies. Unlike some thrillers, Mirage has an easy-to-follow plot that doesn’t try to lose the audience in its efforts to put the them on the edge of their seat. In some ways, this feature resembles the style of films that Liam Neeson started doing post-Taken (2008), although it has less action (Mirage does have some physical altercation, to be sure).

The screenplay to Mirage was written by Peter Stone, who also penned the script to the somewhat similar Charade (1963). This one isn’t as overtly comedic as Charade, but the writing still feels sharp and witty. Gregory Peck is terrific, as expected, playing his usual combination of every-man, tough guy, and dauntless-man-of-integrity. A special mention must be given to George Kennedy, who plays Willard with a Terminator-esque ruthlessness.

Mirage is a taut, sophisticated thriller that is one of the hidden gems of the genre. Okay, not every single explanation related to the mystery at the heart of the movie is one-hundred-percent satisfying, but the way it builds confounding situation upon confounding situation is mighty impressive. The film even name-drops James Bond at one point, but this picture, in my opinion, is more entertaining than any 007 flicks released up to the date of this review.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Mummy Returns (2001) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The Mummy Returns is a sequel to The Mummy (1999) that continues on in the pulpy, over-the-top, Indiana Jones-ish style. To be frank, it’s really just a whole lot more of the same. Set mostly in the 1930s, a mummy brought to London comes to life and threatens to bring on an apocalypse with its curses and all that spooky stuff.

“Overkill” is the word of the day here. This film takes what made the first one good and amplifies it. More action, more curses, more special effects, more artifacts, more villains, more locations and lost cities, more humor, more combatants in the battle scenes, and more mummies are the name of the game. More! More! More! Sometimes this approach works for sequels, but I felt that it came close to being tiring in the case of The Mummy Returns.

The movie in question feels like a product of its time. It’s a good-natured action-adventure blockbuster with some special effects that have aged poorly (if they ever looked good at all). The action scenes are of a reasonably high quality, but there is the CGI (computer-generated imagery) overkill factor. Personally, there was also a bit too much fantasy mumbo-jumbo for my tastes. It gets a bit on the complicated side.

I’m usually a big fan of this sort of motion picture. You know, unpretentious, pulpy, action-packed, and fun. However, despite its likeable heroes, a cool musical score from Alan Silvestri, and entertaining action sequences, The Mummy Returns may throw a bit too much at the audience. This feature certainly has its fans, and that’s okay, but I think that I’ll largely stick with the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises for my action-adventure thrills.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Freaks (1932) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 64 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” goes the lurid tagline to this 1932 circus drama directed by Tod Browning, who had previously helmed films like West of Zanzibar (1928) and Dracula (1931). In the world of sideshow “freaks,” trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) messes with the wrong troupe of malformed outcasts when she tries to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) for his immense fortune. Silly and grotesque, this one’s influence is not to underestimated.

The carnival “freaks” here are played by the real deal. There’s actual “pinheads,” little people, conjoined twins, a bearded woman, and even a limbless man. It’s not really a horror film for most of its runtime, being more of a behind-the-scenes showbiz melodrama for a considerable amount of the time. That being said, horror elements really do kick in in the last ten or so minutes that must’ve made 1932 viewers shit bricks. Unfortunately, it proved a bit too nightmarish for test audiences and some footage had to be deleted…and is now presumably lost forever. Still, the stuff left in the final cut is still impressive.

In all honesty, this isn’t the most well-made movie I’ve ever seen. The acting is mostly pretty dubious and the dialogue is often difficult to understand. The plot takes a while to get going (despite a runtime of only 64 minutes), and the direction sometimes feels a bit uninteresting during the non-horror stuff. However, Freaks is less about its artistic quality and more about raw shock value. It succeeds.

Made during the almost-anything-goes Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the Production Code was enforced), this is one of the emblematic pictures of that time period. If you’re not expecting a full-on horror film, you’ll enjoy it. Also, why on Earth does Hans bother humiliating himself as a sideshow “freak” when he has a fortune? Did I miss something?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Matilda (1996) Review

Director: Danny DeVito

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

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

While some liberties are taken to make it more cinematic, the 1996 film Matilda sticks close to the spirit of the 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name. In both, a kid genius named Matilda (Mara Wilson) must put up with neglectful, materialistic parents and psychopathic, tyrannical school headmistress Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). The movie reflects the nature of the novel, where the courageous, compassionate, and intelligent inhabit a dark, menacing world and must work together to protect themselves and other innocents.

Matilda was directed by now-Internet-icon Danny DeVito, who also plays the father (Mr. Wormwood) and the narrator. He gets some of the better moments in the picture, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an ego trip. However, the standout performance here is from Pam Ferris as the vicious, child-hating principal. Often filmed in grotesque close-ups, she’ll intimidate even the adults watching. The acting from the adults may be a bit too broad for some, but I certainly didn’t mind it.

The film’s good-versus-evil struggle shows that even children can be empowered to see justice done on out-of-line adults. There are some fantasy elements here (like in the novel), but I won’t spoil the detail of them here. The special effects related to the supernatural aspects hold up pretty well, which is fairly important considering the feature goes more over-the-top with them than the book.

Matilda is a solid family film, sometimes being funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes suspenseful. It shows that people who use their “powers” for good can triumph over those who abuse theirs. Also, yes, in case you were wondering, that is Paul Reubens playing one of the FBI agents monitoring the activities of the title character’s shady father.

My rating is 7 outta 10.