Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

Director: Mel Gibson

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

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2016 war film Hacksaw Ridge may be the Sergeant York (1941) of its generation. Both pictures are based on true stories about American conscientious objectors during a world war. Here, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) signs up to join the American military during World War II, and he finds himself fighting for his right to serve as a non-firearm-carrying medic and seeing combat in the Battle of Okinawa. This is one of the great follow-your-conscience movies.

The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is largely dedicated to setting up Doss as a character and showing the audience his struggle to avoid having to wield a gun during basic training. Many of the supporting characters in Doss’ unit feel somewhat interchangeable, reducing the impact of the battle sequences when they do arrive, but this is a minor fault. There’s plenty of religious content throughout the feature, which may turn off some viewers, but, considering that the plot is grounded in historical events, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The second half is where Doss and his fellow soldiers see the horrific face of war on Okinawa. The ultra-violent battles do have some glaring computer-generated blood and gore, and sometimes the choreography of the combat strays into straight action movie territory. The action scenes are highly, highly exciting, but should they be? Is excitement appropriate for a war film with pretensions of realism?

Hacksaw Ridge is an inspiring, moving, and grueling watch. Desmond Doss’ struggle to do what he feels is right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is easy to relate to and captivates the audience. Yes, allegations that the battle scenes are occasionally “war porn” are largely true, but they’re still pretty messy and gripping. It’s one of the stronger war flicks that I’ve seen, and it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mirage (1965) Review

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Genre(s): Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1965 film Mirage was directed by Edward Dmytryk, but it wouldn’t feel at all out-of-place in the canon of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a hard movie to discuss the story of without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a try. Set in New York City, the power goes out in an office building and somebody just jumped from the twenty-seventh story, with accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) about to be caught up in a mysterious murder plot. I’d advise against reading any synopses of this picture first (even the IMDb one), just watch it.

As I just stated, this is one of those just-trust-me-and-watch-it kind of suspense movies. Unlike some thrillers, Mirage has an easy-to-follow plot that doesn’t try to lose the audience in its efforts to put the them on the edge of their seat. In some ways, this feature resembles the style of films that Liam Neeson started doing post-Taken (2008), although it has less action (Mirage does have some physical altercation, to be sure).

The screenplay to Mirage was written by Peter Stone, who also penned the script to the somewhat similar Charade (1963). This one isn’t as overtly comedic as Charade, but the writing still feels sharp and witty. Gregory Peck is terrific, as expected, playing his usual combination of every-man, tough guy, and dauntless-man-of-integrity. A special mention must be given to George Kennedy, who plays Willard with a Terminator-esque ruthlessness.

Mirage is a taut, sophisticated thriller that is one of the hidden gems of the genre. Okay, not every single explanation related to the mystery at the heart of the movie is one-hundred-percent satisfying, but the way it builds confounding situation upon confounding situation is mighty impressive. The film even name-drops James Bond at one point, but this picture, in my opinion, is more entertaining than any 007 flicks released up to the date of this review.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Singing Revolution (2006) Review

Directors: James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty

Genre(s): Documentary, Music

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the landmark chapters in the fascinating histories of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) was the Singing Revolution in the late-1980s and early-1990s, whereby the people of those three Soviet-occupied lands campaigned for independence through the power of folk-singing. This documentary covers the struggle for freedom in Estonia, which was peaceful (there would be some bloodshed in Latvia and Lithuania, which is briefly touched on). This is an intriguing and powerful movie that sheds light on a subject that should be better known in, say, the United States.

The thorough The Singing Revolution, narrated by Linda Hunt, provides an interesting overview of Estonian history from World War II on. During that war, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states first (in agreement with the Nazi regime), followed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and then the conflict concluded with the region once again in Soviet hands. As a way of keeping national identity alive, the Estonian people turned to folk songs and festivals.

That being said, this documentary is about more than just singing. It almost feels like a political thriller at times, as it delves into the world of the Estonian independence movement and the Soviet government’s response to it. There’s a tense standoff at a Tallinn (the Estonian capital) broadcasting tower that’s one of the highlights of the movie. The sight of thousands of Estonians singing tunes while waving their country’s flag in the middle of a totalitarian occupation is also inspiring.

Actually, there’s not as much singing as I thought there would be in The Singing Revolution. Still, it’s a must-watch documentary with lots of clips of interviews from the people who lived through those trying times (an Estonian Forest Brother – one of the guerrillas in the Baltic states who violently resisted Soviet occupation during the Second World War and the years following it – even gets his say). You don’t really have the whole picture of what went down during World War II and during the finale of the Cold War until you are familiar with the Baltic states’ roles in those events.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Eraserhead (1977) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Horror, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Eraserhead‘s tagline is “A dream of dark and troubling things.” Yep, that’s sounds about right. In director David Lynch’s debut feature film, wimpy Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), gives birth to a mutant, alien-looking baby (that sort of resembles one of the Mon Calamari from the Star Wars franchise). Set against the backdrop of an industrial, dystopian Hellhole, this black-and-white surrealist horror classic has been mesmerizing audiences since 1977.

Several years in the making, this anxiety-ridden and deeply neurotic movie feels like a twisted nightmare set to film. In this regard, it could be considered the United States’ answer to Un Chien Andalou (1929). With its bizarre dream logic, it’s more about making you feel things, rather than provoking coherent thoughts. Well, it does appear to be about the fears of parenthood (being borderline antinatalistic) and spousal abandonment, but it often lets the surrealism do the talking.

No review of Eraserhead would be complete without mentioning its demented, droning sound design. The hum of Henry Spencer’s industrialized world is pervasive and unnerving. The special effects are equally astounding, and the picture’s oneiric feel has rarely been matched. Like dreams an actual human being might have, Eraserhead is mostly terrifying, but it also has occasional moments of offbeat humor.

Yes, this feature is undeniably a bit on the “artsy-fartsy” side, but it still manages to be insanely effective at what it does. It’s a strange, for-adults-only sci-fi-horror package that will surely leave no one feeling cold or indifferent. It’s a movie that demands a strong reaction of some sort. If you know what you’re getting into, you might fall under its spell.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Step Brothers (2008) Review

Director: Adam McKay

Genre(s): Comedy

Runtime: 98 minutes (theatrical version), 106 minutes (unrated version), 105 minutes (extended home video version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Step Brothers is about Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly), two man-children still living with their parents who find themselves becoming step brothers. This, right here, is a movie that you watch simply for the laughs. Plot, character depth, and enlightening messages on the nature of life are almost nowhere in sight. Yes, it’s hilarious, but it’s also so lightweight that it might blow away in a gentle wind.

The humor found in this film is decidedly low-brow and immature. We’re talking gags dealing with slapstick, poop, farting, swearing, sleepwalking, and nudity. It’s all very silly and raunchy, but it knows what it is. Some critics have pointed out that this could’ve been a swell satire on the increasing “kidifying” and dumbing-down of society. Nope, this is not that movie. Enjoy your dog poop jokes, critics.

The characters in Step Brothers are not Shakespearean, but they get the job done. There are a few cameos from big names. Pacing is joltingly quick at times. Surprisingly, the flick approaches what could be described as “poignancy” in the third act, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of thing. Who needs memorable human drama when you have “the f-bomb” being used (over and over)?

So, this is a dumb movie, but it knows it. It’s a breezy, easy-to-watch adult-oriented comedy that has a lot of solid belly laughs if you don’t take yourself too seriously. It doesn’t quite stand up with the best of the best in the comedy genre, being a bit too inconsequential and, to use a phrase employed earlier in the review, light-weight. Still, this is one that fans of the stars will not want to miss. The Steven Seagal film that the dynamic duo watch and get a kick out of is Above the Law (1988).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Wonder (2017) Review

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Genre(s): Drama, Kids & Family

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Middle school isn’t the easiest time to be alive, and it’s harder for those who stand out in a crowd. Wonder tells the story of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a child with a facial deformity (and who is a fan of all things Star Wars and Minecraft) who’s quitting home-schooling to go to junior high. Described by some as the kid-friendly version of The Elephant Man (1980), this film’s proud motto is “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Wonder is an excellent, moving movie, but even many of the critics who praise it will still admit that it’s a pretty manipulative picture. I don’t really have much of a problem with this, as, in my opinion, films are supposed to shrewdly manipulate the emotions of the audience to some extent. Wonder is a fairly saccharine movie, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

In addition to its alleged mawkishness, there was an extremely minor controversy over the production not casting an actor that actually had the condition that the main character, Auggie, has (well, at least, according to Wikipedia, there was). I don’t have much to say about this, but I think the results are satisfying enough to just file it under “Things to Keep in Mind for Future Casting Decisions.” Apparently, the make-up that Jacob Tremblay wore for the role took an hour-and-a-half to apply.

The bottom line is that Wonder is a marvelous family drama (with some comedic elements) that desperately wants to tug on your heartstrings. It doesn’t break much new ground, but it doesn’t need to. Keep your eyes open for some Star Wars-related product-placement (character-placement?). Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts show up as Nate and Isabel, respectively, Auggie’s parents.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Call of the Wild (2020) Review

Director: Chris Sanders

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

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Even though I’m really more of a cat person, I still enjoy a piece of media about a cute dog or two. There’s no felines in sight, but The Call of the Wild still manages to work for me. The story’s about a dog named Buck who’s kidnapped (dognapped?) from his California home and brought to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s to serve as a sled dog. Along the way, he’ll meet up with adventurer John Thornton (Harrison Ford), and the two will develop a close friendship.

The Call of the Wild is a film about people going on adventures because, well, that’s what true adventurers do. The movie really captures that spirit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journey to the ends of the Earth. The emotional moments really put a lump in your throat, so it succeeds as both an adventure picture and as a drama. Harrison Ford is perfectly cast here as a grumpy, semi-hermitic character on the run from his tragic past.

The animals in this feature, including Buck, are computer-generated, which is fine. This disappoints many, but I suppose that that’s just the way cinema is made these days (plus, it’s better than putting actual animals at risk). The Call of the Wild occasionally goes heavy on the special effects, giving it a video-gamey feel, but there’s always some heart to the story that prevents it from becoming a soulless tech demo.

Perhaps because it’s based off of a (famous) novel (by Jack London), this film verges on becoming episodic at times. However, it keeps things together and crosses the finish line a winner. Overall, I think that this is an excellent family-oriented adventure movie. It’s certainly better than the forgettable The Call of the Wild (1972), which has Charlton Heston in the John Thornton role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) Review

Director: Rob Reiner

Genre(s): Comedy, Music

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

According to legend, rock star Ozzy Osbourne thought that This Is Spinal Tap was an actual documentary when he first saw it in theaters. Yes, this rockumentary mockumentary about fictional hard rock band Spinal Tap going on a tour of the United States to save their career managed to fool the Prince of Darkness himself. The film has since then gone down as one of the all-time great cult classic movies.

I suppose one of the reasons (other than drugs, of course) that Ozzy thought This Is Spinal Tap was the real deal was because of how, well, grounded it feels. Yes, it’s a laugh-out-loud-funny comedy, but most of the picture feels eerily plausible. There are one or two moments of unrealistic fantasy, but, for the most part, rockers have found this feature easy to relate to. It really nailed the zeitgeist of 1980s-era rock ‘n’ roll.

The music that Spinal Tap plays is frequently described as “heavy metal,” but I think that the term “hard rock” is more fitting. Speaking of the music, it’s all made-up, but the songs played by the titular band are shockingly good. I mean, they’re completely over-the-top, but don’t be surprised if you feel the urge to listen to the flick’s soundtrack when the runtime is through. To keep things spoiler-free, I’m not going to give away any of the titles of the songs.

This Is Spinal Tap is a searing, yet good-natured, and hilarious satire of clueless rock stars with out-of-control egos. The niche subgenre of the mockumentary would never be the same and many rock bands found a film that both poked fun at and empathized with them. Don’t miss the killer cameo from Fred Willard, who plays a colonel at a military base that Spinal Tap performs at.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Eddie Macon’s Run (1983) Review

Director: Jeff Kanew

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Here’s one for all the Kirk Douglas fans out there. It’s not among his most famous flicks, but Eddie Macon’s Run is one to watch. The Eddie Macon (John Schneider) of the title is an average Joe locked away in prison away from his loving family who breaks out and makes a run for the Mexican border to freedom…all while having a relentless cop – Carl “Buster” Marzack (Kirk Douglas) – on his trail.

This underrated movie is part-The Fugitive (1993) and part-The Getaway (1972). It’s a simple, yet engaging, treat, with an easy-to-root-for protagonist. Thrown in the slammer for beating up an uncaring boss who dismissed his seriously ill son (well, that and some less-relatable drinking-and-driving), Eddie Macon just wants to be with his wife and son. In case you forget, you’ll be reminded of that by the near-constant country songs spelling out the plot to you that play over the soundtrack.

Eddie Macon’s Run is a relatively small film, and to be frank, it’s not always that memorable. However, it’s got it where it counts, with a short runtime, entertaining scenarios, and a fantastic role for Kirk Douglas. It doesn’t go too heavy on the physical action, reserving most of it for a car chase at the end that’s accompanied by music that sounds like something out of a 1970s pornographic vehicle pursuit.

This feature is a straightforward crowd-pleaser that moves along at a reasonable pace. The movie’s tone seems pretty well balanced. It’s not about big, extravagant set-pieces, but instead focuses its efforts on crafting likeable characters. I’d recommend it to Kirk Douglas fans and those looking for a simple, inspiring story told well.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Uncle Buck (1989) Review

Director: John Hughes

Genre(s): Comedy

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Uncle Buck was the last film directed by John Hughes to be released in the 1980s, and his second-to-last movie as a director (the final one being Curly Sue [1991]). It has a charming story, being about a slob 0f a bachelor named Buck Russell (John Candy) who’s called in by his brother, Bob (Garrett M. Brown), to babysit his three kids while he and his wife, Cindy (Elaine Bromka), are out-of-town. Will he turn out to be a good role model for the children or will things spiral out of control?

Much of Uncle Buck rides on the charisma of its sincere star, John Candy. In this regard, the picture succeeds remarkably well. While the whole cast does a fine job, this is clearly Candy’s show, and most of the more memorable moments revolve around the character Buck. Another shout-out must go to pre-Home Alone (1990) Macaulay Culkin, who plays Miles, one of the kids the titular character has to put up with.

The humor here only rarely relies on semi-surreal touches, preferring funny dialogue and even the occasional slapstick. Most audiences will find something to chuckle at, even if the comedy is fairly broad at times. Despite a PG rating from the MPAA, some of the jokes may be a little too adult for the young ones. I’d recommend watching it alone first before showing it to kids. There are a few serious moments here, but they largely don’t feel out-of-place.

Uncle Buck is a heartwarming comedy that delivers plenty of laughs, and is never dull, despite a somewhat loose and straightforward plot. It works so well partially because the central character is so compelling. He’s such an interesting dude that two – count ’em – two television series were made based around him (John Candy didn’t star in either, though). The first ran from 1990 to 1991 and the second in 2016. So, if you’re in the mood for a satisfying, inspiring, relatively wholesome flick, pop this bad boy into your home video player today.

My rating is 8 outta 10.