First to Fight (1967) Review

Director: Christian Nyby

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Loosely based on the real-life story of American Marine John Basilone, who became a U.S. war hero, First to Fight is a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, entry into the war genre. World War II is raging, and U.S. trooper Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is sent back to the United States to drum up support for buying war bonds after becoming a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater. There are some similarities with other war flicks that have been made throughout the decades, but it still manages to be watchable.

The grenade-chucking battle scenes stick out in memory. The opening, nighttime firefight is especially fearsome. The battles have some careful choreography and are fairly violent for a 1960s movie. A few blood squibs are briefly visible during the hectic action sequences. The war zone takes up a great deal of the runtime in the first and third acts, with an okay romantic subplot occupying the middle act.

When the main character is on the home front, he spends most of his time romancing Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin). These scenes are not intolerable, but I think that most viewers would rather see what’s going on on the front lines. The movie masterpiece Casablanca (1942) ends up getting referenced quite a bit during this section of the picture. Hell, the characters even watch it in the theater. However, all of this just makes you want to view that film instead.

All in all, First to Fight is reasonable entertainment. I’m actually a bit surprised that it’s not remembered more fondly. The action scenes alone should’ve prevented this one from being almost completely forgotten. There’s one element to the work that I haven’t commented on yet, and that’s the presence of Gene Hackman as Tweed in one of his earliest roles. This flick was released the same year as his breakout film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and it shows his potential to be a great movie star.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney solidified his position as one of the greatest actors of the silent era with the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, France, an ugly-looking hunchback living in Notre Dame cathedral named Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) finds himself wrapped up in a plot to start a revolt by the French underclass. This silent film was directed by Wallace Worsley, who also helmed the exceptional The Penalty (1920), the gangster drama that was Lon Chaney’s breakout motion picture.

This big-budget historical epic has production values that still impress. The sets made for the flick are absolutely incredible. There are a few I-wonder-how-they-did-that moments, such as when Quasimodo is clambering all around the exterior of Notre Dame. Chaney’s performance is mesmerizing. He was forty when The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released, but he has the physicality of someone half that age here. He truly was the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Chaney’s a sight to see, but the film around him isn’t always doing him favors. There are a lot of characters to keep track of here, and the hunchback of Notre Dame almost becomes a supporting character in his own movie. The plot of the flick is pretty typical silent-era melodrama. Remove Chaney and the sets, and nobody would remember this picture. Fortunately, those two things are present, making it a rather good production overall.

Okay, the story in the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t its strong suit. Acting and spectacle are what it does best. Seeing Chaney fight a mob by dousing them in boiling lead is worth watching the film for. The movie’s politics are certainly undercooked (is it saying that battling against royalist oppression is a bad thing?), but Chaney is one of the all-time greats, so I’d say “watch it.”

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Straight Story (1999) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Old Iowan man Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who can’t drive regular automobiles, sets out on his riding lawnmower to visit his ill brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who lives in Wisconsin. In a filmography largely consisting of bizarre, uneasy-feeling surrealist flicks, this just might be director David Lynch’s strangest movie. I mean, David Lynch actually made a motion picture that was released by Disney and given a G rating by the MPAA (despite some mild swearing and a dead deer)?

One of the most stereotypically Midwestern movies ever made, the acting performances here are all completely convincing. The actors and actresses in The Straight Story are really good. It’s probably one of the best-acted productions I’ve ever seen. It really draws you in and it ends just as soon as the main character’s lawnmower-riding shtick starts to get old for the audience.

Rejoice David Lynch fans, for his trademark weird sense of humor is still alive and well (although this is a drama first and foremost). The Straight Story might have a gentle exterior, but is it just me, or does this flick deal with some heavy topics? The scene depicting veterans discussing their war-time experiences springs to mind as one of the movie’s weightier moments.

This Midwestern odyssey is worth watching…but for who? Yes, it’s rated G by the MPAA, but would a child enjoy it? It’s probably a bit too slow, contemplative, and lacking in fireworks for the younger demographics, but I’m sure many adults will get a kick out of it. It’s more than just a movie about an old-timer driving around on a lawnmower, it’s an existentially-minded drama with some moving elements. Oh yeah, it’s also based on a true story. Who would’ve known?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

A Night at the Opera (1935) Review

Directors: Sam Wood and Edmund Goulding

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film released after they found themselves under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (previously, they made movies for Paramount Pictures). This is also the first flick starring the brothers to not feature Zeppo Marx, who quit the acting business after Duck Soup (1933). The story’s about Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), Fiorello (Chico Marx), and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) trying to set up two star-crossed opera singer lovers, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones), for success.

Much has been made of the Marxes move over to MGM. This transition, along with Hollywood Production Code starting to be enforced, is often said to have had a negative impact on the group’s comedy. The flick is a bit slower and more sentimental than previous outings from the brothers, but this is still a solid movie. While many of the Marx Brothers’ post-Paramount works are criticized, A Night at the Opera is generally singled out as the best of the Marx features from this time period.

While the musical numbers do greatly reduce the speed of the pacing, the humor here is still laugh-worthy. The movie really comes alive during the opera sequence in the third act when things really start to get out-of-hand. One aspect of A Night at the Opera that I found interesting was the long segment on the ocean-liner crossing the Atlantic. The Marx Brothers already did a film almost entirely set aboard one of these ships (Monkey Business [1931]), so I found it odd that they would revisit this setting so quickly.

If you think that you’re going to miss Zeppo, don’t worry too much. Allan Jones plays the ultimate Zeppo-wannabe here. Anyway, the jokes here may not be quite as – er – anarchic (a word you’re required to use by federal law when describing the Marxes’ sense of humor) as they were in previous movies starring the brothers, but they still hold up well, especially the contract scenes. It’s no Duck Soup, but A Night at the Opera is still a must-see for Marx Brothers fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tootsie (1982) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A down-on-his-luck actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) decides to dress up as a woman to get a role on a television soap opera. This may be a silly cross-dressing comedy, but it has attracted a lot of attention from critics over the years. Not only was it nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, the American Film Institute named it the sixty-ninth greatest American-made movie of all time in 2007 as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition retrospective.

Tootsie has proven immensely popular with actors over the years. In fact, the website TimeOut reported that this was actors’ favorite flick ever as part of a top one hundred countdown they did, where performers choose their most beloved motion pictures. It’s not hard at all to see why actors have latched onto this rom-com. It delves into the world of struggling stage and screen performers and sympathizes with their day-to-day “battles” to get roles. Dustin Hoffman also delivers an incredible performance here, completely disappearing into both Michael Dorsey and his female alter-ego Dorothy Michaels.

This is actually a very funny movie, as it tries to wring out every possible humorous situation a cross-dresser could find themselves in. It does feel a little long, in terms of runtime, for a comedy, though. Other very minor drawbacks include some stuck-in-the -1980s aesthetics (which really aren’t much of a big deal at all) and an ending that I wasn’t the biggest fan of.

Tootsie is an odd, yet important, lesson in empathy that feels just as relevant as ever. Okay, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as the critical establishment does, but it still makes me laugh frequently. Is this the definitive gender-bender comedy? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but this work is clearly in the running for such a title. Bill Murray (as Jeff) does show up in this flick, but he wanted his name omitted from the opening credits to prevent the audience from thinking that this would be a Caddyshack (1980)-style movie.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

This Gun for Hire (1942) Review

Director: Frank Tuttle

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 81 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire was the breakout movie for tough guy actor Alan Ladd. Here, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a moody, cat-loving American hitman, becomes caught up in a scheme to sell national secrets to the Axis Powers during World War II. This is a surprisingly good flick, which is high praise coming from me, since I usually don’t fancy straight film noir.

The first of four pictures to feature both Alan Ladd and actress Veronica Lake, this crime-thriller greatly benefits from a relatively short runtime (eighty-one minutes) and a decent amount of action. Despite being in black-and-white, it’s rather colorful, and it also has a plot just about anybody could follow. The pacing slows down a tad as the Alan Ladd character finds himself hunted down in an industrial park, but that’s only a very minor complaint.

It’s interesting to note that this film noir could also be considered something of a war movie, since its villains intend on dealing with the Axis Powers of World War II. This level of intrigue makes the work more fun to watch. This Gun for Hire also feels somewhat daring for a flick released during the days of the Production Code. I mean, how many other American motion pictures from this time period have a hitman as their hero?

A focused crime-drama, this movie is an enjoyable watch. Alan Ladd really sells it in the role that made him a star. Even if you’re not typically a fan of noir, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Now it’s time for some trivia. Footage from this picture was edited into the Steve Martin noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and it was later remade as the mediocre Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film ever directed by iconic actor James Cagney.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Double Man (1967) Review

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Double Man may not be as famous, action-oriented, or spectacular as the James Bond films of the 1960s, but I think that it can hold its own against them. Like the 007 movies, this is an adventure-thriller about a badass government agent trying to stop the baddies while in an exotic location. Here, CIA operative Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) travels to the Austrian Alps after learning that his son has died in a mysterious skiing accident there (the current plot synopsis on IMDb contains what could be considered spoilers, so avoid reading it if you want to go into this one blind).

I wouldn’t consider The Double Man to be an action flick, but there is some decent action in it once things start escalating. That being said, there’s a lot more footage of people running around, chasing each other, than actually fighting one another. Despite not having a lot of exciting physicality for most of the runtime, I find this to be an engaging motion picture that sticks the landing.

A big part of this feature’s charm comes from its intense leading man, Yul Brynner. You could think of him as a more stoic and less hedonistic version of the aforementioned James Bond. He’s dead-set on finding out what happened to his son and spends the entire movie giving people icy stares that could kill you if you make eye-contact with them. He does sort of engage in some stalker-ish behavior in one scene (not cool, Yul!).

The Double Man is not a wild thrill ride of an action-adventure film like the 007 flicks from around the same period, but I think it holds up just as well. It’s more focused and the main character has a more personal stake in the plot (something that the Bond flicks sometimes struggled with). If you’re a fan of Brynner (and why wouldn’t you be?), check this one out. Yul be glad that you did (pun!).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Citizen Kane (1941) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In both the 1998 and 2007 editions of the American Film Institute’s lists of the greatest American movies of all time, Citizen Kane came in at number one. Can this motion picture possibly live up to the ecstatic levels of praise that’s heaped upon it? The plot of the flick in question is about reporters struggling to figure out the meaning of “Rosebud,” the last word spoken by dying newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles).

Citizen Kane is an interesting feature to review because of the near-universal acclaim it has received. It’s an unquestionably ostentatious and pretentious movie, but perhaps rightfully so. It’s surprisingly modern-feeling and undated by time, with various elements competing for the audience’s attention in some scenes. While the flick was intended to be a take-that aimed at William Randolph Hearst, it does sometimes feel like a brilliant tech demo searching for a compelling story. The film is a parade of one terrific use of cinematic technique after another, making the viewer wonder what trick the filmmakers are going to pull next. The story takes a backseat to all of this experimentation.

Citizen Kane is sometimes compared and contrasted with one of its rival movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood: Casablanca (1942). I have a hypothesis that moviegoers can largely be divided into two groups: Citizen Kane People (who adore certain films for the impact they have on the art of cinema as a whole) and Casablanca People (who love certain pictures for the impact that these works have on them as a person). Count me in as a Casablanca Person through and through.

Some modern viewers of Citizen Kane are left with the impression that it’s “dated.” I disagree. This feature probably never appealed to the normal filmgoer in the first place, even back in 1941 (it’s easy to appreciate, but nearly impossible to love). It’s mostly for hard-core cinephiles. We also need to put to rest the false notion that films were “proto-movies” prior to the release of Citizen Kane. One viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) will put that idea in its grave. Anyway, I’m going to give Kane a positive, but not euphoric score, as I enjoy it, but, as far as pictures I’d bring with me on a desert island go, this one’s not very high on the list. Hey, I’m a Casablanca Person. What do you expect?

My rating is 7 outta 10.