Farewell to the King (1989) Review

Director: John Milius

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

One of John Milius’ more underappreciated directorial efforts is the 1989 war-time action-adventure flick Farewell to the King. During World War II, an American soldier named Learoyd (Nick Nolte) goes A.W.O.L. to become the leader of a tribe of natives deep in the jungles of Borneo. This macho, yet sensitive, war-drama is a real treat if you can get your hands on it.

Farewell to the King, of course, has very good action sequences, but the real reason to watch this obscure movie is for its human drama. Several moments, including the tearjerker ending, are bound to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. The impact of these scenes is heightened by Basil Poledouris’ musical score, which simply has to be one of the best in cinema history. There is also some grand cinematography to be found here, as the camera captures great jungle landscapes and skies.

Yeah, this motion picture might overly romanticize “underdeveloped” societies, but, hey, it’s just a movie. Being a heroic depiction of a king that doesn’t appear to have any constitutional restraints is a tad troubling, making it feel like it has monarchist sympathies. The feature also veers from bloodthirstiness to pacifism with little predictability, but, well, it’s a John Milius movie. You get what you pay for.

Farewell to the King is an underrated action-adventure gem waiting to be discovered. It works if you’re looking for high adventure with World War II as its backdrop or if you’re looking for a character-centered drama with an epic musical score to prop it up. I can’t say it’s a realistic, or even plausible, film, but it’s just too damn entertaining to miss.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Superman II (1980) Review

Directors: Richard Lester and Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 127 minutes (standard version), 116 minutes (Richard Donner Cut)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

As promised at the end of Superman (1978), the superhero would return in a sequel that would pick off where the first left off. Here, Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) must prevent the three Kryptonian criminals from the opening of the previous film – Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) – from taking over Earth. It’s a pretty similar experience to the 1978 picture, but some people prefer this one.

Superman II greatly benefits from having more intimidating baddies than the first movie in the franchise. The menace of Zod, Ursa, and Non, while offering a few comedic moments, is mostly played straight. They have the same superhuman abilities as Superman and put up quite a fight against the titular character. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) returns here, but he’s out of the picture for too much of the runtime to make that much of an impression.

The special effects are fine, sometimes looking quite quaint. The action scenes are an improvement over the ones in 1978’s Superman. The White House assault and the big battle in downtown Metropolis between the title character and the three major villains stand out most. The mass destruction caused by the latter sequence is highly impressive considering its release date.

John Williams doesn’t do the music for Superman II (the score is composed by Ken Thorne), but his amazing themes return. Anyway, this one is only marginally less-good than the first in the series. It doesn’t feel as tight as it potentially could’ve been, but the wholesome heroics are back, and this one does manage to top Superman in some regards. If you liked the 1978 flick, you’ll probably have similar feelings about the first sequel.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Superman (1978) Review

Director: Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 143 minutes (standard version), 151 minutes (2000 restoration), 188 minutes (Extended Version)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Before Iron Man (2008), before Batman (1989), there was 1978’s Superman. Yes, this is, more or less, the grandpappy of the modern superhero picture…so, how does it hold up? The story concerns itself with Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), a human-like being sent from another world to Earth as a child. His extraordinary powers, like super-speed and super-strength, convince him to take up the role of a superhero to protect the people of his adoptive planet. Of course, he also has to fall in love (with fellow reporter Lois Lane [Margot Kidder]) and foil the plot of a mad genius.

Superman has a bit of a reputation for being a boring character, but I think that the 1978 film does a swell job of humanizing him. He may be able to snatch a speeding bullet out of midair, but he has the emotions of any typical human, and the dramatic challenges he confronts (like the decision to leave the farm he was raised on or not) make for some of the more memorable moments of the movie. However, arguably the best aspect of the picture is its titanic John Williams musical score that you’ll probably be humming long after the feature is over.

The special effects here are a mixed bag. Some hold up nicely, but most are pretty dated. The tone is sort of weird, veering from serious to hokey. The threat posed by the villain, madman Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), varies by scene. His nefarious plot arrives a bit too late in the runtime and many of his scenes are marred by silly comedy that undermine his potential menace. The climatic resolution to Superman’s problems may also leave some audience members scratching their collective heads.

Despite being the first major comic book superhero flick, Superman has a couple of touches that could be considered fairly meta for their time (like a brief, humorous bit when Clark Kent decides not to put on his Superman costume in an exposed telephone booth surrounded by people gawking at the disaster he’s trying to dampen the impact of and find a more reclusive spot to don his suit). All in all, this is a good, but not great, entry into the action-adventure genre. It’s got the heart and the music of a wonderful movie, but some elements just weren’t willing to play ball.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Review

Directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was the first major film released by Warner Bros. to use the new three-strip Technicolor process to generate realistic colors on the big screen. It was a wise choice for that distinction. Set in medieval England, renegade Saxon lord Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) launches an insurrection against the vile Prince John (Claude Rains), who has taken over the throne of the country while the true king, Richard (Ian Hunter, not the one of Mott the Hoople fame), is off fighting in the Crusades. This is one of the best action-adventure flicks of the 1930s.

The movie benefits from an abundance of skillfully-made and very rousing action sequences (Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood even beats up a couple of goons with a dead deer at one point). This must’ve been one of the most action-packed motion pictures yet made back in 1938. Amplifying the thrills is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful musical score. It’s a remarkably merry actioner, with characters constantly bursting out laughing at the slightest comic relief.

If there’s one fault to be had with The Adventures of Robin Hood, it’s that the film seems to endorse the foreign policy isolationism that was all the rage in the United States at the time of its release. Robin Hood chides King Richard at one point for his foreign adventurism, a sentiment that would look mighty dated one year later when World War II broke out (this is not to say that the medieval Crusades were justified, of course). Robin Hood’s traditional steal-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor narrative also seems a bit muddled by the fact that he’s largely fighting for the sake of restoring a monarch to his throne here.

This is a lively and, dare I say it?, colorful quasi-historical action-adventure feature with a dash of romance (between Robin Hood and Maid Marian [Olivia de Havilland], of course). The characters are well-defined and Errol Flynn is perfectly cast as the titular hero. The action scenes and the musical score also hit the bull’s-eye, so watch it if you haven’t seen it already.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems like one of those books that just about everybody has to read in school, and the 1962 film of the same title is a great companion piece to it. Set in the Great Depression-era South, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) must defend in court a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox Paxton), while his children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), try to learn more about a shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). Yes, this is a terrific tale of childhood innocence and ignorance that has become a classic in the decades following its release.

The two heavy hitters of the movie are Gregory Peck’s central performance and Elmer Bernstein’s top-notch musical score. Peck’s serious-minded, conscientious character, Atticus, radiates integrity, self-control, and quiet dignity, so much so that the American Film Institute named him the number one hero of American cinema as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. The rest of the performances are terrific as well. On the musical front, Bernstein knocks ’em dead with one of the best scores of his prolific career (which is certainly saying something).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a moving motion picture, but I can’t say that it is without faults. It definitely feels like it was based on a novel, like there are (minor) parts of the story being left out to condense the story into about two hours. Speaking of the plot, the two major story threads (the court case and the kids investigating Boo Radley) don’t really come together until the end of the film.

What To Kill a Mockingbird lacks in physical action (although there is a sequence where the children sneak up on Boo’s house and it’s handled like a war movie scene involving soldiers stealthily crossing a battlefield strewn with mines and barbed wire) it makes up for with heart. The characters in the flick certainly have their ups and downs, but, in the end, it’s a feel-good feature. It’s easy to recommend this one.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Orson Welles famously said that Make Way for Tomorrow “would make a stone cry.” I didn’t quite have the same reaction to the film as Welles, but I can still safely say that this is a very good movie. The plot concerns itself with an elderly couple, Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), who, upon losing their home to the bank, have to spend their time split up from each other at the homes of their grown children. A happy flick it ain’t, but this is still considered one of the semi-forgotten classics of 1930s American cinema.

One of the things that one notices first is how ahead-of-its-time Make Way for Tomorrow sometimes feels. It’s not just the production values, but also the nuance of the story it tells. There are no clear heroes or villains here, just humans trying to live their lives. The grown-up offspring may not want a whole lot to do with their parents, but the elderly characters are awkward, grumpy, intrusive, naive, and/or inept.

This motion picture really hits its stride in the last act (some obvious rear-projection aside). Parts of the film prior to this occasionally felt a bit stagey, but once the couple goes out and gets to enjoy the city for a few precious hours, the movie really blossoms. The excellent performances are just the icing on the cake. The ending is no cop-out.

While I certainly like Make Way for Tomorrow, I can’t really say I enjoy it as much as, say, Orson Welles. I’m not really sure why…maybe I needed a hero or two to root for and/or a villain or two to hiss at. Still, this is a moving look at aging, generation gaps, and people acting like people. It’s only about 91 minutes long and pretty modern-feeling, so, even if you’re not a fan of straight dramas, there isn’t much of an excuse to not watch this one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Super 8 (2011) Review

Director: J.J. Abrams

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

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

After watching the television series Stranger Things and going back to the 2011 motion picture Super 8, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between the two. The film mentioned above feels like a condensed two-hour story that would’ve been stretched out to an entire season in Stranger Things. Anyway, Super 8 is about a group of kids in 1979 small-town Ohio who witness a mysterious train crash while filming their own zombie movie. The flick borrows heavily from the works of Steven Spielberg (who produced it), but I think it’s highly watchable, thanks to it having an identity of its own and the Stranger Things connections.

For all the big explosions and whatnot found in this movie, it’s the human element that keeps it grounded. The coming-of-age drama involving the well-drawn characters is delightful to watch, only making the action scenes have more impact when they kick in. Most of the film focuses on child actors, which could’ve been a disaster, but the kids here know what they’re doing. The adults in the feature are just as colorful and the struggles that they face interconnect with the ones facing the children.

If you’ve read anything about this picture before, you probably already have a good grasp of what the twists and turns will deliver, but I’m going to be as spoiler-free as possible and just say that the ending, which may sound unsatisfying on paper, really delivers the goods, both in terms of emotion and thrills. It’s hard not to use words like “nostalgic” and “Spielbergian” when describing Super 8, although those phrases have become almost cliché when being used to articulate how one feels about the flick.

There might be some confusion over Super 8‘s target audience (it follows around a group of kids, yet contains brief strong violence and swearing), but this is still a terrific summer blockbuster. Yes, this review has been fairly vague to avoid revealing certain details of the film, but just trust me on this one. I can’t say that it’s one-hundred-percent original (something that gets held against the movie quite a bit), yet audiences who want to see where Stranger Things may have got some of its ideas should watch Super 8 and some of the other features that inspired the latter.

My rating is 8 outta 10.