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.

Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

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

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sacking of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Gangster Squad (2013) Review

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Genre(s): Action, Crime

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 actioner Gangster Squad was widely panned by critics upon its release, with many professional film reviewers commenting on how it looked unfavorable when held up against The Untouchables (1987). The stories of the two pictures are almost identical, with Gangster Squad being about a team of Los Angeles police officers on an off-the-books mission to drive mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of the city in the years following World War II. Overall, this movie isn’t as masterful as the 1987 flick that it bears many similarities to, but I still think it’s worth watching.

The first word that springs to mind when describing this feature is “pulpy.” It doesn’t pretend to be realistic, preferring to be heightened, unsubtle, stylized, semi-cartoony, and exaggerated. It’s a “print the legend” kind of work. I think all of this threw some critics expecting something more down-to-Earth for a loop. Despite its borderline-campy nature, the film’s plot about vigilante cops is bound to make some viewers squeamish.

The plentiful sequences of action and violence are handled smoothly, with the exception of a nighttime car chase that’s probably a bit harder to follow than it needed to be. The characters are easy to distinguish from one another, thanks to an all-star cast. A special mention should go to Sean Penn, who plays the vile villain with aplomb. The narrative is straightforward and satisfying.

Fans of the pulpier side of gangster fiction (like myself) will definitely want to watch this one. Sure, it’s not as good as The Untouchables, but how many pictures are? A piece of trivia about Gangster Squad is that a shootout scene in a movie theater that was originally going to be in the flick was cut due to the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hard Times (1975) Review

Director: Walter Hill

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Macho filmmaker Walter Hill’s directorial debut was the excellent 1975 action-drama Hard Times. During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) makes a living as a bare-knuckle boxer in the New Orleans region with the help of his shit-talking manager, Speed (James Coburn). It’s an unusual type of sports movie, being about the underground world of street-fighting, but Hill pulls it off remarkably well.

Appropriately for a film set during this time period, Hard Times has a gently melancholy tone. Some of the best things about this picture are the seedy and atmospheric New Orleans-area locations that it explores. It seems like no dank backroom in the city is left behind by the filmmakers. Charles Bronson is more taciturn than usual here and is supported by his then-wife Jill Ireland, who plays Lucy Simpson, the love interest.

This may seem like an odd comparison at first, but I think that this feature is somewhat similar to Rocky (1976), which was released one year later. Both flicks have plenty of punching and fighting, but are really about the relationships that develop outside the “ring.” Speaking of “punching and fighting,” the action scenes in Hard Times are pretty well choreographed, never lacking in impact or feeling too over-the-top.

This gritty gem is a movie that fans of tough guy cinema will want to track down. Often understated, yet always heroic, this bare-knuckle boxing saga is simultaneously sensitive and tough-as-nails. That’s a balance that’s highly satisfying when pulled off by the right filmmaker. To top things off, this motion picture features a cute cat in a supporting role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 180 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This depiction of the life and times of American financial criminal Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) is a work of pure, unrestrained id. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, gleefully obnoxious and hedonistic-to-the-power-of-x stock-broker Belfort claws his way up to the top. At three hours, it’s a long one for sure, but director Martin Scorsese ensures that this comedic biopic is never remotely boring.

The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a circus or a party (not the kind I would want to go to, though), with its orgies, oversized yachts, mountains of cocaine, and literal hundreds of “f-words.” It’s all excess, all the time. The movie is so full of amplified depraved behavior that it starts to feel like a twisted sort of experimental film after a while. Despite (perhaps because of) the incessant debauchery, this is one hilarious flick, with a style that goes for maximum impact.

As funny as all of this is, one flaw with the picture is that it doesn’t really show the consequences of the main character’s crimes on the people he swindled. It barely feels like a crime film at all for that reason. Yes, there is an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), on Jordan Belfort’s case, but this feature comes dangerously close to glorifying the law-breaking of the work-hard-play-harder man in the center of the narrative.

For a three-hour movie about wealthy thugs doing wealthy thug activities, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s story, acting, and script hold up well. The whole thing’s outrageous, but it’s handled by a master filmmaker (Scorsese) who prevents it from becoming pure schlock. This one’s not for the prudish, but, if you want to take a peak into the lives of the Rich and Sociopathic, this picture comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.

Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.

With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.

This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou [1929] levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) Review

Director: Marielle Heller

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

I can still remember what it was like when it was announced that Tom Hanks was cast as Fred Rogers in a movie. Everyone on the Internet seemed to agree that this was the casting decision of the century. The film itself is about cynical reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who’s assigned to interview children’s television show host Mr. Rogers (the aforementioned Tom Hanks). Although I have deemed this a “Biography” picture for categorization purposes, this is not a rote biopic of the legendary nice guy.

Some may be surprised to find out that Mr. Rogers is a bit of a supporting character in his own movie. It probably shouldn’t be too much of a shock, since film thrives on conflict, and how are you supposed to make an audience feel uncomfortable if the entire flick is about calm Mr. Rogers running a T.V. program? The primary focus here is on Matthew Rhys’ journalist character, who has some serious father issues to work out.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood avoids the trap of being too cutesy by focusing on some heavy themes. Well, yes, there is some adorable content here, like Mr. Rogers’ puppets, but this is also a picture about death, forgiveness, misanthropy, fear, and anger. It’s not exactly your typical family film, but it will surely resonate with the older members of the audience.

Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers might be a hair quirkier than the real person, but it’s still a splendid performance. It’s a fantastic feature, overall, never once losing me, despite I being the type of moviegoer who prefers shootouts, explosions, and car chases. I’m definitely not the first person to say this, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of those rare movies that comes along that makes you want to be a better person.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Blinded by the Light (2019) Review

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Musical

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Blinded by the Light is a film about the music of Bruce Springsteen, but this is no rock star biopic. Instead, it follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), the son of Pakistani immigrants living in Great Britain in the 1980s, who discovers the music of “the Boss” to help him cope with his chaotic life. Based on a true story, this is a euphoric movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.

This dramedy covers more than just classic rock, of course. It’s a coming-of-age story that tackles the issues of intergenerational conflict, prejudice, hero worship, and the role of family. It’s refreshingly earnest and some are bound to find it cheesy in its emotional directness and lack of subtlety. I, however, found the flick’s child-like enthusiasm infectious and charming.

Almost needless to say, there’s plenty of Bruce Springseen music in this feature to rock out to. Most of the biggies are here, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Prove It All Night,” and, obviously, “Blinded by the Light.” I was surprised to hear “Because the Night,” a song originally written by Bruce for the Patti Smith Group (it’s the Springsteen version that plays here). Even if you’re not familiar with the works of the New Jersey rocker at its center, you’ll still probably enjoy the picture.

Blinded by the Light is the kind of positive movie that’s not reliant on sex or violence that many people lament aren’t being made anymore. It’s a feel-good flick for sure, but it still shows a few glimpses of the darker side of humanity that must be overcome by our unassuming hero. It’s a focused work of cinema that succeeds without leaning too much on the Springsteen music that inspired it. It’s just a good story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.