The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and King Vidor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: G (2D version), PG (3D version)

IMDb Page

The hype exists for a reason. There’s little I can say about this endlessly iconic 1939 feature that hasn’t been said before. The charming story is about a Kansan farmgirl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto (Terry), being whisked away to the magical Land of Oz during a tornado. Even if you feel like you’re too old to be watching a family film like The Wizard of Oz, I highly recommend it anyway.

How was this made all the way back in 1939? The songs are still as catchy as ever, the special effects just as stupendous, the characters just as lovable, the flying monkeys just as frightening, the visuals just as splendorous, the action just as exciting, the drama just as moving, the humor just as amusing, and the pacing just as swift as ever. Those who say films were merely “proto-movies” prior to Citizen Kane (1941) can take a hike!

Holding this timeless masterpiece together is the message of there being no place like home. Sepia-colored Kansas may not be a roller coaster ride of excitement, but that’s where the heart is. To find their way back to the heartland, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends must put their inner courage, compassion, and smarts to the test and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Who couldn’t love a story like that?

The Wizard of Oz is just about as close to perfection as motion pictures can get. What? Are you actually going to criticize the painted backgrounds for not looking realistic enough? Anyway, this is a true classic that hasn’t aged with time. From the yearning for a better tomorrow displayed in the opening to the crazily imaginative adventures in Oz to the tear-jerking finale, this is the real deal.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

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

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Guns of Navarone sets out to add a new legend to the long list of myths set in Greece. However, this one isn’t set in ancient times…it takes places during World War II. During that conflict, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist in real life) to sabotage two massive Nazi cannons there. A convoy of British warships is planning on sailing past Navarone to rescue some Allied soldiers about to be blitzkrieged by the German war machine, and the two guns at Navarone put them in severe danger.

Along with the previous year’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), this is one of those crucial action-adventure pictures that laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the genre. Now-common elements of those types of movies that can be found in The Guns of Navarone include: the impossible mission with a ticking clock, the hastily assembled team of quarreling professionals, bromance, bad guys being mowed down with relative ease, the stealing and wearing of enemy uniforms to blend in, girls with guns, reliance on special effects, the impenetrable fortress, the badass theme music, the traitor in the ranks, etc. This film was among the first to combine tropes like these all under one, impeccably-made roof.

So, this is a landmark feature…does it still hold up as superb entertainment today? I’d enthusiastically say “yes.” The aforementioned musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin is brilliant, the characters – played by a macho, all-star cast – are incredibly well-drawn (I’d pay good money to see a movie about them sitting down at dinner, talking over their respective days), and the action sequences are excellent (although the very best one is the one that takes place earliest in the runtime). The impressive screenplay provides several moral dilemmas for the characters to face, greatly deepening the picture.

The Guns of Navarone is a war/action-adventure flick with brains and balls. It helped write the rulebook for derring-do-flavored films (in fact, two of its actors – David Niven [who plays John Miller here] and Stanley Baker [who plays “Butcher” Brown] – were initially considered for the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery), and still holds up as one of the all-time great movies. Despite all of the gunfire and explosions, it’s best to think of it as a character-oriented piece to get maximum mileage out of it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Review

Director: Ron Howard

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

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Solo: A Star Wars Story is unnecessary and nobody asked for it. That being said, it’s still quite a lot of fun and, with the exception of a certain cameo, doesn’t do any real damage to Star Wars lore. Set in between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), this is the backstory of everybody’s favorite smuggler duo, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). It, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, thanks to backlash from Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), lack of excitement over Han Solo (originally played by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy) being recast, and news of behind-the-scenes drama. The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired and replaced by Ron Howard…so, yes, Opie from The Andy Griffith Show did helm a Star Wars movie.

With the occasional western and gangster film elements, Solo is a delight to watch. The action sequences, including everything from a “car chase” to a train robbery to a slave revolt (slave revolts are always fun), are exemplary, and the musical score by John Powell (with a little help from John Williams) is energetic. The stakes of the picture aren’t save-the-galaxy high, but it works well enough, and Chewbacca is a real scene-stealer.

The film’s cinematography is a bit too dark and murky for such a light-hearted movie. Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s going on in the background. There’s also the matter a certain cameo from a character that should be dead towards the end of the runtime. It’s not a big deal, but it sort of throws me off. Solo is also perhaps a tad too long for its own good, with some of the scenes near the end not being quite as thrilling as those that preceded them.

So, a lot of Star Wars fans missed out on Solo in theaters thanks to things like the bad taste left in their mouth from The Last Jedi and the fact that nobody really requested it. They really missed out on a glorious, inoffensive treat. Many found the picture somewhat predictable, but, after the derailment caused by The Last Jedi, maybe something nice and safe was just what the franchise needed.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

Director: Gareth Edwards

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

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first Star Wars spinoff film of the Disney era. In a story that takes place moments before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the Rebel Alliance discovers that the Galactic Empire is secretly building a space station, known as the Death Star, capable of destroying a planet. Can our intrepid band of freedom fighters find a weakness in the new weapon of mass destruction before it’s too late? Upon its release, many a reviewer said that this movie “put the ‘Wars’ in ‘Star Wars.'” They were certainly right.

Rogue One feels closer to being a war picture than any of the previous flicks in the franchise. The grade-A action sequences are simultaneously spectacular and gritty, with lots of vehicles, weapons, and uniforms from everybody’s favorite galaxy far, far away being on display. Some have decried the amount of “fan service” found in the military hardware found here, but, considering that it takes place minutes before the original trilogy, I don’t think it’s an issue. The highlight of the various engagements shown in the film is the extended action finale, which might actually serve up too much combat for viewers who aren’t action-adventure buffs.

Largely reliant on new characters, the movie succeeds here by offering many compelling ones. The special effects are impressive and the musical score by Michael Giacchino has that classic John Williams-style bombast. My first impression of the music was that it seemed a bit restrained, but I’ve warmed up to it since then. Visually, the motion picture is fairly dour at times, but this is appropriate, given the tone. It’s a vivid portrait of life in the Star Wars galaxy when the Galactic Empire was at its strongest.

Rogue One is a stellar Star Wars picture with high stakes and a ballsy ending. Yes, the opening act or so throws a lot at the audience (perhaps too much for people who aren’t fans of the series already), but it really feels like it was crafted by filmmakers who understand Star Wars. It may be set in a galaxy far, far away, but this story of heroic, war-time sacrifice still has plenty of resonance.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) Review

Director: J.J. Abrams

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

Runtime: 136 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, the seventh entry into the series, do damage to the venerable science-fiction/fantasy franchise, or is it a rollicking, good time at the movies? The answer is both. The last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has disappeared, and both the heroic Resistance and the villainous First Order are battling over a map leading to his location. This is the first Star Wars picture to be made by Disney, and it largely plays it safe, trying to reintroduce Earth to the series without offending too many viewers.

The Force Awakens looks and sounds great. Visually, the decision to have actual costumes for the Stormtroopers (as opposed to the computer-generated Clone Troopers of the prequels) is Heaven-sent, and, sonically, John Williams’ musical score gets a thumbs-up. It also has plenty of successful comic relief. The action’s fabulous, and, generally speaking, the whole thing feels mighty energetic (the sequence revolving around Poe Dameron [Oscar Isaac] giving Finn [John Boyega] his name has more lifeblood to it than just about anything in the somewhat stuffy prequel trilogy). New characters are introduced, and they’re terrific. Old ones reappear and, for the most part, they’re given justice (although I can’t agree with every decision the filmmakers made). This could be the start of an exceptional, new trilogy…

The biggest downside of The Force Awakens is how it undoes the ending of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). This is enough to make it non-canon in my book. The unoriginal plot is basically a rehash of the one in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), although there are a few new elements (like a morally-conflicted Stormtrooper). I also have some criticisms of the movie that are more nit-picky in nature, like the relatively murky political situation the Star Wars galaxy finds itself in at the beginning of the film and general lack of alien species seen in the previous two trilogies.

At the end of the day, The Force Awakens is just fan fiction…but what fan fiction it is! Disregard it as canon and you might have a swell time. The undoing of the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is understandably a sore spot for many fans, but I think that it’s possible to enjoy a film for what it is and not let it affect one’s perception of a superior, related flick.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) Review

Director: George Lucas

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

Runtime: 140 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

One’s opinion of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith will largely depend on how they viewed the previous two Star Wars prequels. It suffers from many of the same problems, but also has many of the same upsides. Here, in the sixth installment into the franchise, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) increasingly finds himself tempted by the Dark Side of the Force as the Clone Wars wind down. Like the rest of the Star Wars films to come along since the end of the original trilogy, it’s not essential viewing, but it’s still miles from boring.

The salient fault of Revenge of the Sith is that the arc of Hayden Christensen’s irredeemable character, Anakin, is badly bungled. I won’t go into spoilers here, but let’s just say that what’s supposed to be tragic instead comes across as just desserts. There’s some cringey romance left over from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Padmé (Natalie Portman), a once-strong character, is now a weeping wreck.

On the upside, this picture is an action extravaganza, serving up tons of battles and fights to keep the mind from wandering. John Williams returns to do the musical score, and he hits it out of the park, as one has come to expect. The unafraid world-building is exquisite and it appears that Ian McDiarmid, as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, is having a blast. Pacing is generally fast, and the dark tone is appropriate and welcome.

This epic-scale melodrama is, in my opinion, the best of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, though I can’t really consider it canon in my “headcanon.” It just doesn’t mesh with the original trilogy. Still, don’t think about it too hard, and just let the incessant action and spectacle work their magic. It’s a highly entertaining, big-budget blockbuster. Also, check out the high billing in the end credits that Oliver Ford Davies gets for playing Sio Bibble.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) Review

Director: Richard Marquand

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

Runtime: 131 minutes (original cut), 134 minutes (Special Edition)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It’s surprisingly hard for me to choose whether Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is my favorite of the two. The Empire Strikes Back is the better-made and tighter of the duo, but Return of the Jedi serves as the conclusion to the cinematic trilogy, tying up all of the loose ends. For those living under a rock, Return of the Jedi‘s plot is about the Rebel Alliance preparing for one final battle with the vile Galactic Empire over the Forest Moon of Endor. It’s not a perfect motion picture, but, when things are going right, things are going very, very right.

Return of the Jedi is on solid ground when focusing on the depraved, slimy, sleazy Jabba the Hutt’s (voiced by Larry Ward) Palace and, later, the titanic, three-way battle of wills among Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), and Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The latter scenes are the true source of the film’s greatness. These emotionally-charged sequences are some of the best of the series and might give this movie the edge over The Empire Strikes Back. The most controversial aspect of Return of the Jedi has always been the cuddly, teddy-bear-like Ewoks fighting a pitched battle with the elite troops of the Empire. Of course, kids love this part and it sold many a toy, but I’m more concerned with the flick’s pacing and plot structure issues (the recycled destroy-the-Death-Star aspect of the story and Hamill’s character’s, Luke’s, plan to save Han Solo [Harrison Ford] being unclear are also minor flaws).

As one has come to expect, John Williams really delivers the goods in this one when it comes to the musical score. Yes, he’s still cranking out great new themes, while still playing the classics from 1977 and 1980. The special effects are nothing short of phenomenal and there’s a wondrous display of costumes and puppets. The explosive, swashbuckling action scenes are fantastic, too. The characters inhabiting the Star Wars galaxy are also as charming as they’ve ever been.

Return of the Jedi may have more problems than The Empire Strikes Back, but its high points may be higher. It’s the spine-tingling grand finale to the trilogy that largely does justice to the movies that preceded it. It ended the saga on a near-perfect note, in my opinion, while continuing to expand the lore of the universe that it’s set in. If you’re in the mood to view it, make sure to watch the original 1983 cut, and not the Special Edition.

My rating is 10 outta 10.