Vampyr (1932) Review

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Vampyr was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film as a director, but it often feels closer to being a silent movie than a talkie. The plot is about a man named Allan Grey (Julian West) who checks into a remote inn and finds a nearby mansion where there is some vampire business afoot. However, this not your typical vampire picture, as it places greater emphasis on dream logic and oneiric atmosphere than on the usual thrills.

Like the best of surreal movies, Vampyr makes it feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s dream. The pacing is slower here than in, say, Un Chien Andalou (1929), but, considering its relatively short runtime (85 minutes), this is forgivable. Despite being a horror film, it’s not really scary, just eerie, haunting, and moody.

This dream-like flick has some impressive special effects involving shadows, and some of its imagery, even when not related to said shadows, is very memorable. The film’s characters are reasonably well-defined and its somewhat blurry cinematography adds to the otherwordly feel (supposedly, thin gauze was put over the camera to achieve this). Sound is used fairly sparingly, making it feel semi-silent.

So, will Vampyr appeal to you? It’s not an in-your-face gorefest, like some horror movies, but, instead, it’s a mood piece. That being said, it’s an engaging one, despite its arthouse pedigree. If you like the more surreal side of cinema, you don’t have much to lose (considering its runtime), so I’d recommend giving it a shot. It’s certainly creepy.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Big Wednesday (1978) Review

Director: John Milius

Genre(s): Drama, Sport

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The surfing drama Big Wednesday is the only feature-length non-action film that John Milius directed. However, he still has his fingerprints all over it. Three best friends, Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey), find themselves immersed in West Coast surfing culture in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a sweeping, nostalgic treat that even people who’ve never surfed before, like myself, can enjoy.

This motion picture perhaps works best as a passage-of-time drama. It’s very emotionally engaging to see these characters move in and out of each other’s lives, through the highs and the lows. Gary Busey, as crazy as ever, is a standout here, playing a proudly masochistic madman. Unusually for a John Milius movie, the supporting characters are frequently pretty weakly-drawn, but the main ones make an impression.

The cinematography during the surfing scenes is exquisite. There are a few how-did-they-do-that? moments. Speaking of physical action, there are also a couple of well-choreographed fist fights on land (I mean, what would a Milius film be without a brawl or two?). Perhaps the most remarkable component of Big Wednesday is its phenomenal musical score from Basil Poledouris. It really amplifies the experience.

This flick has become a bit of a cult classic among surfers, but you don’t have to be a rider of the waves to see the magic in it. Yes, the behavior of the characters is often too rowdy and irresponsible for my tastes, but this is still a largely forgotten classic. It works very well both on land and on the water. Check it out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) Review

Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola

Genre(s): Documentary

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Making a movie, especially one as epic in scale as Apocalypse Now (1979), can’t be easy, and this documentary sheds some light on a time when it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. Yes, this is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the famous behind-the-scenes look at the aforementioned 1979 Vietnam War film. Featuring interviews, making-of footage, and recordings of Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola that were originally intended to be private, this is a must-see picture for fans of the feature it covers (well, if you can handle some animal-related violence, that is).

Coppola actually prevented this documentary’s release on DVD for a while thanks to what he considered to be a less-than-flattering depiction of himself. He doesn’t come across as a monster here, but I can see why he didn’t want this side of him to be seen more widely. He was really stressed-out and probably in over his head during the long, chaotic, and arduous shooting of the movie.

The thesis of Hearts of Darkness seems to be that the filming of Apocalypse Now mirrors the experiences of the characters in the motion picture and of the United States in the Vietnam War. It was a desperate undertaking that felt like a slip into insanity. In the end, the Hellish shoot paid off for Coppola and the filmmakers, but the same cannot be said for the Americans and their allies in the war. Apocalypse Now was a case of directorial hubris gone horribly…right.

I think I actually enjoyed watching Hearts of Darkness more than the picture that it’s centered around (though the 1979 flick is still good). Watching it, it’s hard to believe that the final movie turned out as a well as it did (though I won’t spoil the tribulations faced by the cast and crew, in case you’re out of the loop). This is probably one of the better feature-length behind-the-scenes film documentaries out there.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hell or High Water (2016) Review

Director: David Mackenzie

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

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hell or High Water is a very good modern-day western that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Set around the time of the Great Recession, this film taps into the populist sentiment that was all the rage at the time of its release. The plot follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), and the pursuit of them by lawmen Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Generally well-paced (thanks to the lack of a substantial romantic subplot), this one has smart, colorful dialogue and well-drawn characters, thanks to its screenplay, written by Taylor Sheridan (who shows up as a cowboy here), who also penned other quasi-westerns, like Sicario (2015) and Wind River (2017). Hell or High Water, while mostly serious, has more comedic touches than those pictures, making it lighter viewing. It’s an interesting dive into Texan culture.

I would not describe this movie as an actioner, but it does have some crisp action scenes that largely kick in during the third act. The body count is quite low, but the amount of gunfire and speeding cars that the flick has feels appropriate and satisfying. The violence isn’t too graphic, being just bloody enough to cross the line into R-rated territory.

Hell or High Water isn’t my favorite modern-day western movie…that would be Extreme Prejudice (1987) (I’m not including Westworld [1973] here, as that’s more futuristic than anything else). However, it will definitely scratch that itch for viewers who want to see tough guys in the American Southwest performing or trying to prevent criminal activities in a time period that’s familiar to them. If you’re getting tired of watching westerns set in the 1800s or early 1900s, this is a welcome change of pace.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Apocalypse Now (1979) Review

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 147 minutes (theatrical cut), 183 minutes (Final Cut), 196 minutes (Redux)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This is a review of the 147-minute theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now, the famous, dark, and psychedelic war film that is sometimes regarded as the best of its genre. In the midst of the Vietnam War, an American serviceman, Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), is assigned to travel by patrol boat to Cambodia to assassinate U.S. officer Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who’s reportedly gone rogue…and insane. This is a spectacularly well-made movie, but I can’t help but feel that the third act is the weakest component of the feature. To me, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

More abstract than, say, Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now is about descent into madness, as just about any film critic will tell you. It’s a slightly surreal journey, accompanied by dark comedy (especially in the first half) and impressive, large-scale visuals. The choices for music are dynamite. It’s not an action flick, but the helicopter attack sequence has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. It lives up to the hype, being one of the best battle scenes to grace movie theater screens.

Apocalypse Now borders on the episodic, but, for the most part, it manages to keep things together. Unfortunately, the film comes close to hitting a brick wall when it arrives at Marlon Brando’s character’s compound. These scenes look amazing, but what seems like almost endless monologues from Brando hurt the picture’s momentum. The somewhat meandering third act is a problem. Also, this one probably won’t be played on television for Veterans Day any time soon, as most Americans in it, including both members of the military and civilians, are characterized as spaced-out, excessively rowdy, nutty about surfing, or psychotically violent. There’s also a scene of violence against a water buffalo, so animal lovers may want to sit this one out.

Crazy, eccentric, and colorful, this psychological war epic is too “artsy-fartsy” for many viewers, but, with its atmosphere of insanity, it’s still worth watching. Be warned that the final moments are slower than the scenes that preceded them. Still, it’s ambitious as Hell and is often a feast for the senses. All of this being said, when it comes to surreal, dream-like war movies, I actually prefer Castle Keep (1969) and Walker (1987).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Review

Director: John Huston

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This dirty, sweaty western picture is notable not only for starring Humphrey Bogart, but also for featuring Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father. This makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre perhaps the most famous film to have a father/son tag-team in movie history. In 1925 Mexico, two down-on-their-luck American drifters, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), recruit an old, experienced prospector, Howard (Walter Huston), to aid them on a gold-digging expedition deep in the wilderness. This film starts strong, but suffers from a less energetic third act.

One of the first things the audience notices about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is its thick atmosphere of desperation. The main characters start out as little more than beggars, constantly on the prowl for money for their next meal. The movie maintains this sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure as the trio move into the hills of Mexico to search for gold. Max Steiner provides a good musical score and the whole thing is mercifully devoid of romantic subplots. Humphrey Bogart’s paranoid performance could’ve easily veered off into hamminess, but this is largely avoided.

Unfortunately, the third act is noticeably weaker and slower than the first two. Bogart’s character spends too much time worriedly talking to himself and the subject matter isn’t as exciting as the content seen in the first two-thirds. The final act isn’t a total flop, but I missed the urban drifting, dive bars, shootouts with bandits, gold-mining, etc. from earlier on in the motion picture. Also, Walter Huston’s character’s prospector dance about midway through hasn’t aged well.

I can’t say that I enjoyed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as much as the critics did (it currently holds an 100% approval rate among professional reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes). Sure, it’s still a highly watchable flick, but the third act just isn’t as entertaining as what came before. The film’s message that greed is bad is, of course, true, but it strikes me as an obvious statement to make. I’ll recommend it, even though I don’t find it close to perfect.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Review

Director: J.A. Bayona

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

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Jurassic World (2015) brought new life to the series, but, by 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it feels like the franchise is, once again, treading water. Fallen Kingdom is fine as cinematic junk food, but, if you’ve been expecting more than that, you might be disappointed. The plot is about a rescue effort to save cloned dinosaurs from the remains of the Jurassic World amusement park before a volcano on the island can go off. This is a flick that has me saying “It’s good, but…”

Okay, this is a pretty ridiculous movie, but, hey, it’s a summer blockbuster. What do you expect? The high-stakes action scenes are flashy, as we’ve come to expect, and there seems to be a bit more human-versus-human combat than in previous installments. Physical mayhem and special effects are the film’s specialties, and the attempts at infusing emotion into the story are generally effective.

This is not a simple retread of the events shown in Jurassic Park (1993) and Jurassic World. The plot has some similarities with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), but I’d say that this one has its own identity (although there’s still a moment of déjà vu or two). Returning from previous pictures in the series are Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm, but his appearance is little more than a cameo, and the musical theme from John Williams (although the score is done by Michael Giacchino), which is used quite sparingly here.

Fallen Kingdom has a couple of thought-provoking scenes, but it feels like the Jurassic Park franchise is out of gas, at least for the moment. This film is entertaining to watch, with its likeable characters and bad-guy-chomping dinosaurs, yet it doesn’t offer a whole lot more than that. I suppose that that’s okay (it’s just a movie, after all), so I’ll give it a passing score. Don’t expect greatness and you just might like it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

Genre(s): Adventure, War, Western

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Ulzana’s Raid is an interesting hybrid of the war and western genres that takes a long, hard look at guerrilla warfare. It’s not exactly a pretty movie, but it’s tough and thoughtful, earning a reputation as an underrated member of the two genres listed earlier. A crafty, sadistic Apache named Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has escaped from his reservation and, with a small war party, is bearing down on white settlers in the area. A troop of American government cavalry led by the naive Lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and aided by the seasoned tracker McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) is deployed to stop the renegade Native Americans.

This is not a horror film, but it gives off some of the same vibes as one. Instead of a knife-wielding Michael Myers, we have a band of ruthless, seemingly unstoppable Apaches stalking victims in the Arizona desert. The random acts of violence committed by the rebels, which are quite graphic for a 1972 picture (and they still retain some shock value today), result in what is not exactly the most flattering depiction of Native Americans to hit the big screen. They definitely aren’t “proto-hippies” here!

The action scenes here are adequate, although it should be noted that they contain what appear to be trip-wire-driven horse-falls, so horse lovers might want to skip this one. The whole cat-and-mouse game isn’t always as clearly set up as I wish it was, and the flick is occasionally on the talky side. The build-up to the final battle isn’t as exciting as it could’ve been, but the payoff is satisfactory.

It’s not quite one of my favorites, but Ulzana’s Raid is still a movie that fans of the war and western genres should seek out. Many people have come to the conclusion that the film is a bit of an allegory for the Vietnam War still taking place at the time of its release. If so, it’s a relatively subtle one. Overall, it’s probably one of the better cavalry-versus-“Indians” pictures out there, thanks to its suspense and thought-provoking handling of the conflict between the Native Americans and white Americans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Jurassic World (2015) Review

Director: Colin Trevorrow

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

Runtime: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

In 2015, a “soft reboot” of the Jurassic Park series was released, titled Jurassic World. Does it recapture the magic of the first one? Well, not quite, but it comes commendably close at times. The plot may sound familiar. On the ruins of the original dinosaur habitat from Jurassic Park (1993) a new amusement park is created, also built around cloned prehistoric creatures. However, trouble starts to brew when the scientists behind the wizardry create a brand-new, custom-built hybrid dinosaur called the indominus rex. Very few figurative points will be awarded for originality here, but the end result is still an engaging action-adventure picture.

In case you can’t tell from the plot description, this one is basically a souped-up remake of 1993’s Jurassic Park. It doesn’t have the timeless charm of that flick, but it does try to up the ante at every corner. In the end, it’s one big orgy of dinosaur-related violence that occasionally borders on the mean-spirited. Jurassic World is, at times, preposterous and not exactly unpredictable, yet it’s a slick, fast-paced corporate product that held my attention with ease.

I suppose the secret ingredient is the human element, which this film retains from the previous three movies in the franchise. Many have commented on the characters here being rather thin, but I found them satisfactorily fleshed out. Dinosaur carnage is always more involving when there are relatable human beings thrown into the mix. Also, more than any installment since the first, Jurassic World highlights mankind’s hubris, as he tries to control nature and play God. Michael Giacchino’s musical score frequently “quotes” the John Williams-written themes that have become famous.

There are a couple of new things here (I love the petting zoo with the baby herbivore dinos), but, overall, Jurassic World is just trying to top the first movie at its own game. More dinosaurs, more action, more characters, more special effects, etc. Still, it’s a swell popcorn-muncher, if that’s what you’re looking for. It has enough hard-hitting chaos and human drama to make it worth watching for fans of this sort of picture. I had a good time.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Jurassic Park III (2001) Review

Director: Joe Johnston

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Here we go again. In 2001, a third installment in the Jurassic Park series was released, but it feels like little more than a cash-grab. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t feel necessary either. This time, one of the characters from the amazing original, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), is recruited by a wealthy couple, Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Téa Leoni), to serve as a tour guide for them on their less-than-legal journey to a dinosaur-inhabited island off the coast of Costa Rica. They’re really starting to milk this franchise dry, aren’t they?

This far-fetched sequel brings just enough new ideas to the table to justify its existence. There are a few new creatures the audience hasn’t seen before and, with them, comes new ideas for action scenes. In fact, Jurassic Park III isn’t a whole lot more than a series of reasonably engaging set-pieces, one after another. There’s less drama this time around, but, if all you’re looking for is dino-action, you might have a good time.

John Williams does not return as composer here, with Don Davis filling his shoes. Don’t worry, though, the great musical themes from the first two entries in the series make bombastic appearances. The special effects may be a bit of a step up from the previous two pictures, but does it really matter that much? The characters are generally pretty well defined, which is a plus. It’s also the shortest Jurassic Park flick so far.

Okay, I felt some déjà vu watching this movie. It doesn’t quite do enough to separate it from the first two installments. That being said, I’m going to give it a passing grade, as it’s an agreeable watch. Jurassic Park III‘s not boring and it’s nice to see Sam Neill’s character return to the series, which feels exhausted at this point. Still, I can honestly say that I’ve seen much, much worse, so a lack of originality isn’t enough to sink the entire picture.

My rating is 7 outta 10.