Reservoir Dogs (1992) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino made quite the splash in the moviemaking world with his stylish, meta crime-thriller Reservoir Dogs in 1992. It’s a low-budget film, but, thanks to the talent involved, it doesn’t feel like one. The picture’s about a group of criminals trying to determine what went wrong after a jewelry heist of theirs goes South. Is there an undercover cop in their midst?

Along with Pulp Fiction (1994), also directed by Quentin Tarantino, this feature helped introduce the world to a new style of crime-thriller, one that was pop culture-savvy, self-aware, sadistically violent, and cool. The dialogue is foul-mouthed (the Trivia section on this film’s IMDb entry reports two hundred seventy-two uses of “the f-word”) and the carnage is cruel and bloody. The storytelling is non-linear, with numerous flashbacks being effectively used to explain how the characters found themselves in their current predicament.

Tarantino is a writer/director who clearly loves the sound of actors reciting his hip dialogue. This is one of the movie’s biggest strengths and one of its biggest drawbacks. The writing clearly has character, but the end result sometimes feels self-indulgent and talky. Fortunately, Reservoir Dogs has a manageable runtime, so it never becomes truly boring.

Inspired by Hong Kong actioners, this flick sometimes resembles a “heroic bloodshed” film, with all of its two-fisted gunplay and its “Mexican standoffs.” Well, that is, if we cut out the “heroic” part and reduce the amount of action. This influential thriller has distinct characters and satisfactory pacing. I certainly like it, but its meta talkiness sometimes comes across as a tad tacky.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Outpost (2019) Review

Director: Rod Lurie

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The war film The Outpost (which premiered in 2019, but saw its main release in 2020) does the world a great favor by shedding some light on a ferocious, yet little-known battle of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan. In 2009, at the Battle of Kamdesh, a small base of American (and a couple of Latvian) troops located at the bottom of a mountainous valley is besieged by hordes of Taliban insurgents. Think of it as the twenty-first century’s version of Zulu (1964).

Some of the most memorable parts of this film are the vicious combat scenes. They feel mighty realistic, with little room for over-the-top, John Rambo-esque antics. The sound effects seal the deal. There’s a spontaneity to the action, with firefights having the potential to break out at any second. It’s surprising how close the combatants get to each other on one or two occasions. Every American casualty makes the viewer cringe.

If The Outpost has any downside, it’s that most of the characters don’t feel properly fleshed-out by the time the centerpiece battle sequence comes around. Yes, the movie is rightfully reverent and there are plenty of humorous moments, but very few of the characters stuck with me after the end credits rolled. This is a real shame, considering the superhuman heroism of the U.S. (and Latvian) soldiers in the actual events.

The Outpost shows some interesting glimpses of life in the armed forces, and some of the best non-action scenes have to do with military-civilian relations. Dealing with the local Afghan population must be a stressful tightrope walk, as the coalition forces in the country have to win over their “hearts and minds,” while avoiding pushing them in the direction of the Taliban. So, this picture pays tribute to some real-life heroes quite admirably, but I do wish the screenplay did a better job giving them the onscreen personalities they deserve.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Uncut Gems (2019) Review

Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2019, Adam Sandler generated a lot of Oscar buzz for himself for his performance in the drama-thriller Uncut Gems. It’s a bit different from the typical Sandler role, and, although he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, he still made quite an impression. In this crime film, New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) desperately finds himself trying to pay off his gambling debts in order to stay afloat.

Uncut Gems is famous for its reputation of being an assaultive panic attack in cinematic form. The movie’s style is relentlessly suspenseful, constantly having its main character being in some sort of trouble, as he moves from one bad decision to the next. Personally, I didn’t find it as anxiety-inducing as many have suggested, but that didn’t stop me from being entertained from beginning to end.

For a picture about people incessantly screaming, swearing, and talking at the same time, this is a surprisingly easy feature to follow. In terms of comprehending what was going on onscreen, I felt like I was treading water the same way that Sandler’s character was with his financial dealings. Speaking of Sandler, his performance here is rightfully celebrated. He simply disappears into the role of a fast-talking bullshitter who’s in over his head with no one to blame but himself.

For some viewers, Uncut Gems is a bit too much. Yes, it relies heavily on uncomfortable and nervous-energy-provoking scenes and there are no likable characters, but there’s never a dull moment and the comedy that is in it is effective. I especially liked the way it built up to its climax. If you know that you’re in for a film that’s not entertaining in the conventional sense of the term, you might walk away smiling.

My rating is 7 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.

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.

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.

1944 (2015) Review

Director: Elmo NĂ¼ganen

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Estonia – like the other two Baltic states (Latvia and Lithuania) – was caught in a very difficult position during World War II. Invaded and brutally subjugated by the Soviet Union in 1940, tens of thousands of Estonians joined the Nazi military when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet empire in 1941. The Estonian film 1944 is a rare cinematic glance into the Second World War from that national point-of-view, being largely about Estonians fighting on the Eastern Front of that conflict during the titular year.

The movie 1944 benefits from some excellent combat scenes that feel fairly realistic. The explosions, antique firearms, and sound effects deserve special mention. This 2015 flick does feature some electric guitar in the musical score (during battle sequences), which seems a little…”off.” Listen, I love rock music as much as the next guy, but that sort of stuff feels out-of-place in a World War II picture. The cut of the feature available on Amazon also contains English dubbing that could be considered somewhat subpar.

Banned in Russia, 1944 tries pretty desperately to show that, even though they wear the uniform of the Nazi war machine, the Estonians serving the Third Reich were not all Nazis. I’m not entirely convinced by this, but it does put a human face on the combatants. Characters in the film are, unfortunately, a bit difficult to keep track of, and there’s a clumsy-feeling perspective shift halfway through the runtime (that I won’t spoil the details of) that introduces a whole new set of people to keep abreast of.

This movie isn’t a runaway success (although it was a box office smash in Estonia), but the novelty of seeing World War II through Estonian eyes is enough to make me recommend it. The people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were truly caught between a rock and a hard place during the Second World War, and 1944 shows some of that madness. Some clunky storytelling aside, this motion picture shows off one of the most interesting parts of the 1939-1945 war: the fates of those trapped in between the fascist and communist empires on the Eastern Front.

My rating is 7 outta 10.