Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

12 Angry Men (1957) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

12 Angry Men, director Sidney Lumet’s first feature-length movie, may not have the most exciting-sounding premise in the world. Trapped in the piping-hot jury deliberation room, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) works to convince the rest of the twelve-man jury that a seemingly open-and-shut murder case isn’t what it looks like. There’s no explosions, no car chases, and no shootouts. It’s set almost entirely in one room and nearly in real-time, but the execution of this picture is nothing short of superb, making it feel like more than just a stage play somebody decided to film.

This movie is a gripping lesson in economical storytelling. Barely a second is wasted. The characters’ distinct personalities are mostly made obvious within the first half, even if we don’t actually know a single one of their names until the very end. 12 Angry Men does a much better job of fleshing out its characters than, say, The Dirty Dozen (1967). That being said, I felt that Juror 6 (Edward Binns) could’ve been given a bit more to say and do. The film really shows how different people react differently to the civics-related challenges around them.

12 Angry Men is terrifically made, with just the right sense of claustrophobia. The cameras start out above the eye level of the actors, but they slowly lower and look up at the people onscreen as the flick progresses to help escalate tension. The musical score (by Kenyon Hopkins) is kept to a near-absolute minimum. The performances are convincing all across the board. According to the Goofs section for this work on IMDb, not everything that happens in the deliberation room is legally sound, but I don’t think that it holds the finished product back much.

This picture is a powerful lesson on good citizenship, but it never feels like a lecture. It near-perfectly balances entertainment value with inspiring educational value. Not every question that the audience has is answered when the end credits roll, but I suppose that some are beyond the scope of the feature. Overall, 12 Angry Men is definitely recommended, being more than just another talky courtroom drama. It is not related to the similarly-titled Seven Angry Men (1955), from two years earlier, which is a biopic of John Brown.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Network (1976) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Did the 1976 dramedy Network predict how sensationalistic, trashy, and cynical (in the sense of trying to make a fast buck) television, especially the news, would become in the twenty-first century? This biting satire feels awfully damn prescient these days, even if it probably felt ridiculous to those watching it in the 1970s. At the T.V. network UBS, suicidal anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) becomes a ratings sensation when the powers behind the scenes allow him to go on insane rants on air.

For a film released in 1976, this movie feels shockingly relevant. It’s a powerful indictment of demagoguery that doesn’t forget to be funny, too. In some ways, it almost feels like a comedic version of All the King’s Men (1949) set in the world of news media. Network shows just how easy it is to manipulate a crowd (or mob) that’s unsatisfied with the status quo. In case you’re out of the loop, this is the flick where the quote “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” came from.

This picture is often chaotic in nature, with people talking over each other or multiple goings-on vying for the viewers’ attention. It makes the feature feel even more modern. If I have a quibble with Network, it must be the b-story, revolving around an affair between Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). It does flesh out these characters, but I find it to be far less interesting than the antics of Peter Finch’s character and the behind-the-scenes wranglings over whether to keep him on the air or not.

Network builds up to a bold and surprising finale that definitely leaves an impression on the audience. With the exception of some of the scenes dealing with Holden’s character’s affair, this movie is still immediate and fresh, wryly predicting the future of trash television. This classic was nominated for many awards (including Best Picture at the Oscars), including being nominated for Best Science Fiction Film at the Saturn Awards. Wait…what?!?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 131 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

In the fifth Mission: Impossible movie – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes rogue (is that even a pun?) to try to take down an organization of renegade ex-secret agents known as “the Syndicate.” The stakes don’t feel quite as high as the will-there-be-a-nuclear-holocaust? tension of the previous entry into the series (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011]), but this installment really plays to the franchise’s strengths. Excellent action, insane stunts, and lots of badass teamwork are center-stage.

The Mission: Impossible flicks at this point feel like modern-day Indiana Jones features without the archaeology. This picture has plenty of cliffhanger high-jinks and heroic globetrotting. The action scenes are appropriately high-impact, with some how-did-they-do-that? stuntwork to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. On the down side, I think that they might’ve “saved” the best major stunt for first (it’s, of course, the one with Tom Cruise and an airplane taking off).

This fast-paced action-adventure film, like the rest of the movies in the series, benefits from the team dynamics on display. You see, Cruise couldn’t do this all by himself, so he backs himself up with one of the best damn squads of agents possible. There’s Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who provides the comic relief, and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the tough tech expert. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) handles the political wranglings over the Impossible Mission Force’s future. A newcomer is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiance is questionable.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation wisely doesn’t try to immediately top the end-of-the-world stakes of its predecessor, but it still lays a lot on the line. The stakes, if anything, feel a bit more personal this time around, as evidenced by the finale, which is relatively small in scale, yet still huge in intensity. The fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible features are definitely a formidable one-two punch.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Review

Director: Brad Bird

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol definitely upped the ante for the series upon its release in theaters in 2011. It still might be the most purely fun entry into the franchise at the time of the publication of this review. The story’s about secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting to prevent a nuclear war and clear his name after being blamed for a massive terrorist attack.

Some of the scene-stealers here are the gadgets. The endless, inventive pieces of imaginative technology on display in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol really put the James Bond series to shame. Hell, this could be seen as the movie where this series really began to surpass the 007 franchise in excellence. The wonderfully-crafted, nail-biting energy of this feature makes any Bond adventure look lethargic in comparison.

Another aspect of Ghost Protocol that grabs the viewer by his or her lapels is the stuntwork. This action-packed flick is home to the now-iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper sequence, where Tom Cruise, with the help of some digitally-erased cables, climbed around the outside of that huge superstructure. It’s an amazing set-piece that’s probably one of the very best action scenes of the 2010s. The movie’s go-big-or-go-home attitude really pays off.

In addition to being pretty violent for a film rated PG-13 by the MPAA, Ghost Protocol is probably one of the better action-adventure pictures out there. Okay, maybe it’s a hair too long, but the individual scenes making up the film are terrific. Will future installments into the Mission: Impossible series manage to recapture the magic here?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Gandhi (1982) Review

Director: Richard Attenborough

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 191 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Gandhi was one of those movies that was met with a rapturous response upon its initial release (it won eight Oscars – including Best Picture), but has largely fallen by the wayside when the greatest motion pictures of all time are listed. Well, the British Film Institute did name it the thirty-fourth greatest British movie of the twentieth century in 1999, so it still gets some recognition. As you’ve probably guessed, this film is a biopic of Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), the Indian independence activist who insisted that his followers use non-violent methods to throw off British rule.

This Lawrence of Arabia (1962)-esque flick feels like one of the last of the old-school historical epics. According to Wikipedia, the feature’s budget was $22 million, which feels like a tiny amount when you look at the massive spectacle that the movie has to offer. One scene used over 300,000 extras, which is a world record, according to the folks at Guinness World Records. It makes it seem like Gandhi‘s budget was endless.

The sequences with big crowds (like the funeral, the Amritsar Massacre, and the Salt March) are the reason to watch (well, those and Ben Kingsley’s masterful performance), and the scenes of indoor political intrigue just don’t capture the same feeling. As excellent as this picture is, it does largely ignore some of Gandhi’s flaws. His alleged initial racism against Blacks and his insistence that Jews commit suicide rather than violently resist the Nazis are not covered here.

Do they still make movies like Gandhi? Not really. This supersized, three-hour film is one of the best historical epics to not directly revolve around a war. Ben Kingsley disappears into the title role and the production values are exquisite. Also, how could we forget that it gave the world the Gandhi II scene from the “Weird Al” Yankovic comedy UHF (1989)? Overall, this feature is quite watchable, considering its length and scope.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Big Fish (2003) Review

Director: Tim Burton

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Big Fish doesn’t really look like your stereotypical Tim Burton film for the most part, but, if you look close enough, you can find his fingerprints. The story is about a dying old man, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, and played by Ewan McGregor in the flashbacks), who recalls the events of his life in the form of fantastical tall tales. This creates conflict with his son, Will (Billy Crudup), who just wants to know what actually happened for once in his life.

This Southern Gothic-tinted movie is about people who choose to believe comforting lies over sober truths. The flick itself seems to come down on the side that the power of good storytelling should trump cold reality, something I can’t really get behind, but the feature is just so wonderful that I can’t hold this against it too much. Albert Finney’s character resembles a pathological liar, yet this is a motion picture you can’t turn away from.

I may not agree with the moral of the story, but Big Fish is beautifully-done and oh-so colorful. Between all of the memorable characters and whimsical locations is a film that consistently engages the viewer and tugs on the heartstrings. The finale is a real tearjerker. The inclusion of a Pearl Jam song (“Man of the Hour”) over the ending credits feels like a minor misstep, though. Maybe Danny Elfman’s Oscar-nominated musical score should’ve played over the end instead?

This feature defies the odds by having a somewhat episodic plot, but managing to never lose focus. It’s pretty Spielbergian in nature, so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the project was originally going to be helmed by Steven Spielberg before Tim Burton was put in the director’s chair. Overall, this fantasy-dramedy is excellent and highly moving, even if its message doesn’t resonate with me.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Blowing Wild (1953) Review

Director: Hugo Fregonese

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Could Blowing Wild be considered a western movie? It’s set in South America around the time of its release date (1953), but it still involves tough guys wearing cowboy hats wielding six-shooters in confrontations with outlaws on the fringes of civilization. I’d say it has enough western film tropes to qualify as one. The plot of this flick is about a group of oilmen – Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper), Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn), and Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) – fighting for survival in bandit-infested territory in Latin America.

Blowing Wild features two of the greatest tough customers to ever grace the silver screen: Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn. They’re in top form, as you would expect, and they’re backed up by an exquisite sense of atmosphere. At times it feels like an oil-oriented (rather than gold-oriented) version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Backing up all of this is a surprisingly good theme song: “Blowing Wild (The Ballad of Black Gold)” sung by Frankie Laine, with music by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

This is an excellent look at adventurous, hardy men trying to make a living on the edge of human advancement. There’s lots of action (by 1950s cinema standards) to keep you on the edge of your seat. We’ve got gunfire, punches, explosions, and speeding vehicles. Blowing Wild also has a bit of a romantic triangle, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved with a little violence.

This is one of the best action-adventure movies of the 1950s. It has a unique plot and setting, with quite a bit of physicality and excitement. It takes the western genre and sets it in mid-twentieth-century South America, which succeeds like gangbusters. I find it shocking that this picture isn’t more popular. It does contains a brief moment of unintentional humor, though. When the opening credits end, a title proclaims that “All events, places and persons depicted in this film are fictional,” which is immediately followed by another title saying that this story is set in “SOUTH AMERICA.” I didn’t know that that continent was fictional.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) Review

Director: Ron Howard

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

While A Beautiful Mind is not my favorite movie of 2001 (that would be A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001]), it was still a very worthy choice for Best Picture at the Oscars held for films released that year. The feature being reviewed here has a wide appeal and still holds up very well. It’s a biopic of genius mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), who finds himself increasingly wrapped up in the Cold War intrigue of the late-1940s and early-1950s.

A picture like this easily could’ve become just another dry recitation of the events in the subject’s life, but, under the guidance of director Ron Howard, it becomes something far more than that. A Beautiful Mind turns out to be an engrossing psychological thriller that rewards multiple viewings. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the third act isn’t as eye-popping as some of the content that came before it.

Russell Crowe was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work on A Beautiful Mind. His performance here could not be any more different than his performance in the previous year’s Gladiator (2000) if he tried. They’re worlds apart, with him playing a badass action hero in the 2000 movie and an awkward, self-absorbed intellectual in the 2001 one. However, the entire cast of A Beautiful Mind deserves a shout-out, because they all did a phenomenal job.

As far as flicks that won the Oscar for Best Picture go, this one is certainly more on the crowd-pleasing side, rather than the it-only-appeals-to-film-snobs side. On paper, a film about a mathematician who doesn’t kick anybody’s ass may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Ron Howard pulls it off. It really is a stirring and thought-provoking drama, with some great performances thrown into the mix.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hard Target (1993) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 97 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target was the first film that director John Woo made in the United States. It’s not Woo’s best movie, but I think it holds up very well. In this frenetic action-thriller, unemployed Cajun tough guy Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) crashes the party of a group of wealthy goons who hunt the homeless for sport in New Orleans. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, as it’s revealed in the opening sequence.

The snake-punching action scenes are the reason to watch, almost needless to say. Realism makes no cameo appearances, with the combat being as over-the-top as possible (are all the guns firing high-explosive rounds?). The squibby carnage is choreographed with John Woo’s usual panache, and it’s a delight to watch Van Damme make mincemeat out of over a couple dozen baddies. Most of the violence comes from firearms, but the Muscles from Brussels gets the opportunity to show off his hand-to-hand fighting moves on occasion.

Yes, it’s a shoot-’em-up flick (and a mighty stylish one at that), but the rest of the motion picture’s moving parts work effectively enough. The simple story is immediate and gripping, while the heroic characters are engaging. Wilford Brimley shows up as swamp-dweller Douvee, and his scenes really light up the screen. The villains, including Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), are slimy and easy to hate.

The rating description for Hard Target by the MPAA says that it is rated R “for a great amount of strong violence, and for language [italics mine].” Don’t threaten me with a good time, MPAA! An unrated cut also exists. Anyway, this terrific action movie is one of Woo’s better Hollywood works, even if it is unsubtle as Hell. Of course it ends with “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival playing on the soundtrack! It’s just that sort of film.

My rating is 8 outta 10.