Jurassic Park (1993) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

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

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

When the original film in the Jurassic Park series was released in 1993, it floored audiences with its state-of-the-art special effects that seemingly brought dinosaurs to life. However, there’s more to this movie than just fancy computer-generated imagery. The compelling story is about an amusement park inhabited by cloned dinosaurs being given a trial run by several experts and the grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards) of the park owner, Hammond (Richard Attenborough). Rightfully regarded as a modern classic, Jurassic Park still manages to leave viewers on the edge of their seats.

This picture is famous for ushering in the modern era of computer-generated special effects. However, one of this flick’s secret weapons is how it balances the digital stuff with extensive practical effects. The two styles are blended almost seamlessly, resulting in dinosaurs that the audience doesn’t really question the realism of. The action scenes are ferocious and surprisingly well-staged.

Of course, Jurassic Park isn’t just a bunch of dinosaur scenes stringed together. It has human characters that we actually get to learn and care about. The cast is just the right size for this kind of flick. It’s large enough to make its world feel populated, yet intimate enough for the audience to not lose track of who’s who. There’s a great sense of wonder, awe, and discovery that permeates the movie. The masterful musical score from John Williams amplifies these feelings.

Jurassic Park is not just your average action-adventure blockbuster. Director Steven Spielberg carefully crafted an excellent sci-fi yarn. With moments of action, drama, suspense, horror, and even comedy, it has something to appeal to most filmgoers. Like many (most?) of the director’s works, it has a quality that makes it still feel fresh and immediate after the passage of many years. Even if you’re not a dinosaur fanatic, this one deserves to be watched.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Onion Movie (2008) Review

Directors: Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire

Genre(s): Comedy

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Onion Movie was filmed in 2003, but wasn’t released until 2008 (direct to video). That’s not a good sign, but how does the film hold up? Loosely based around the story of an upright television news anchor, Norm Archer (Len Cariou), who’s facing pressure to include more corporate tie-ins in his broadcast, The Onion Movie is actually more of a collection of oft-hilarious sketches that show off the Onion franchise’s razor-sharp sense of humor. This picture’s reception was mixed (at best), but I find it to be consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

The humor here is frequently intentionally low-brow, reveling in the cultural idiocracy that we live in. Stupidity sells, I suppose, and The Onion Movie is happy to oblige. The satire in this movie is savage (and occasionally “politically incorrect”), putting the pedal to the metal as it mocks humanity. All people want is a ridiculous, violent action film or two, some money, etc. Integrity be damned.

It would be a mistake to say that every sketch in the film hits the bullseye. While almost every one is good for a chuckle or two, a minority overstay their welcome or are just duds. This isn’t really unexpected in a comedy of this nature, so the movie is generally quick to throw another scene at the audience if the one they’re currently watching isn’t working. The Onion Movie was shelved for five years, so some of the jokes in it were a bit stale or dated by the time of actual release. I’m kind of surprised they didn’t do a sketch on prescription drug side-effects or something.

So, will you find The Onion Movie funny? Its raunchy, tasteless, hyperbolic style isn’t for everybody, and some will scoff at its loose, sketch-oriented structure, but, if you’re a fan of the Onion franchise in general or subversively low-brow humor, there’s a good chance that its off-the-wall charm will resonate with you. Personally, I think it’s a laugh riot. Make sure you view it on home video, so you can watch the deleted scenes and outtakes.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 152 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi will probably be best remembered as being the film that took the wind out of the sails of the Star Wars series. In this cinematic nut-tap, it feels like writer/director Rian Johnson is telling viewers to not care about Star Wars, to not speculate on its future, and to not emotionally invest yourself in the franchise. I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay, the plot is about the starfleet of the virtuous Resistance finding itself in a high-stakes space chase with the ships of the evil First Order. A movie like Avengers: Endgame (2019) feels like a love letter to the longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while The Last Jedi sometimes feels like a big, ol’ middle finger.

The largest flaw with this flick is, of course, the character assassination against Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), something that actor Hamill was vocally opposed to. I’m not going to go into spoilers, but this is not the Luke of the original trilogy. This is a postmodern deconstruction and demythologization of a beloved series, and the critics disgracefully ate it up. The Last Jedi takes a bulldozer to the mythos of Star Wars, and professional film-viewers applauded every second of it.

Virtually all of the “mystery boxes” set up by Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) are demolished or given intentionally unsatisfying answers. This is a picture that trolls, rather than challenges. “Subverting expectations” is the new “jumping the shark.” It just doesn’t line up with any of the other Star Wars films, not even its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. It’s too busy bending and breaking the rules of the universe it’s set in. This movie also feels problematically small in scale. Perhaps “Star Skirmishes” would be a more appropriate title (no, I didn’t come up with that one)? The humor here is often out-of-place and the dead-end ending deflates the trilogy that it’s the middle installment of. The idea of Star Wars going arthouse is exciting for a while, but it leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

The Last Jedi isn’t all bad, though. The action scenes are superb, John Williams’ musical score is very, very good, the midnight ride of the Fathiers is moving, and the visuals, while occasionally unStar-Warsian, are interesting. As a standalone movie, with no connection to the rest of the franchise, it’s actually very non-boring, albeit clumsy, incoherent in its messages, and overly long. It’s a Star Wars film for people who hate Star Wars films. I will give it a high score, simply because it’s easily watchable and entertaining if you divorce it from the rest of the saga.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) Review

Director: George Lucas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 142 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

While Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was basically The George Lucas Show, things get reined in just a tad for its sequel, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. This one’s about Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) investigating assassination attempts on the life of Padmé (Natalie Portman), which could lead to galaxy-wide war. This is the weakest entry into the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but it’s not so bad when viewed as a standalone movie.

The primary flaws with Attack of the Clones, as everybody will tell you, are its atrocious, chemistry-free romance scenes. You might just find yourself having to avert your eyes from the screen due to how awkward and bizarre they are. Many of the characters who first appeared in the original trilogy are damaged here. What the filmmakers did to Yoda (Frank Oz) was a disgrace, and the mystique of bounty hunter Boba Fett (Daniel Logan here) was ruined (if you consider the film an actual part of Star Wars canon, that is). Of course, Anakin Skywalker gets the worst of it, being turned into a creepy, bratty, whiny, literally genocidal maniac who is far from being a “good friend” of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The best aspect of Attack of the Clones is John Williams’ musical score. It does most of the heavy lifting in the picture and the majestic love theme, “Across the Stars,” shouldn’t have been wasted on such a dismal onscreen couple. The flick excels at world-building, breathing life into all of the unique worlds the characters encounter. The high-octane action scenes (while reliant on oft-dated computer-generated effects) are eye-popping, and the extended, battle-heavy climax makes up for all of the embarrassing romance scenes that preceded it.

Like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones has to be viewed as non-canon to get much out of it. The entire prequel trilogy detracts from the original trilogy, but, when considered a completely different franchise, they make for satisfying, yet quirky, entertainment. Well, if you can survive the love story, that is.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) Review

Director: George Lucas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 136 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (the fourth flick in the series) is one of the most famous examples of directorial-hubris-gone-wrong in cinema history. Perhaps surrounded by too many yes-men, director George Lucas created one of the most, uh, interesting and revealing films ever made. The somewhat unfocused storytelling revolves two Jedi dispatched to negotiate an end to a blockade of the peaceful planet of Naboo by the Trade Federation. The Phantom Menace obviously can’t reach the heights of the original Star Wars trilogy, but how does it hold up as a standalone movie?

The problems with this picture are numerous, and have probably been better articulated elsewhere. The dialogue and acting are stuffy (Liam Neeson, who plays Qui-Gon Jinn, is visibly embarrassed and practically comatose), the special effects that were computer-generated haven’t held up too well over time, and there are several racially-insensitive characters, including the notorious Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who ends up stepping in shit, getting kicked in the nuts, and getting farted on. One of the most infuriating additions to the Star Wars universe was the explanation that one’s ability to use to Force is dictated by their “midichlorian” count, reducing the mystical energy field of the original trilogy to something that can literally be measured in a blood test. Are you kidding me? Interestingly, the beloved characters from the first three motion pictures that make appearances here perhaps emerge better off than they do in the other two movies of the prequel trilogy, although the decision to turn Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) into “Space Jesus” is a regrettable one.

It’s not all doom and gloom here, though. The imaginative world-building is adventurous and commendable, giving the viewer plenty of eye candy to gawk at. This is especially appreciated after the generally play-it-safe world-building of the sequel trilogy. John Williams is clearly going above and beyond the call of duty here with the musical score. The action scenes, like the Podrace and the lightsaber duels with Darth Maul (Ray Park), are exciting, and the movie, despite occasionally straying too far into the politics of the Star Wars galaxy, is never boring (and that counts for a lot).

As an entry into the Star Wars franchise, this one drops the ball a bit. However, I think it fairs pretty well as a standalone space opera (which is how it will be rated). It’s eccentric to be sure, but, divorced from the series that it belongs to, it’s an engaging watch. This is probably just the childhood nostalgia talking, but it doesn’t bore me like it does some people. In fact, it’s kind of charming in a weird sort of way. If you’re going to introduce somebody to the Star Wars series, don’t start here…go with the original trilogy first.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019) Review

Director: David Leitch

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw has its own identity, but still pays homage to the tropes that made The Fast and the Furious franchise popular. The film’s plot is as typical as it gets: a superterrorist named Brixton (Idris Elba) has stolen a potentially-world-destroying virus, and two squabbling heroes, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham), are recruited to retrieve it before it’s unleashed on Earth. Yeah, you may think “I’ve seen this movie before,” but it’s the execution that makes this picture special.

Like the rest of the installments in the series since Fast Five (2011), Hobbs & Shaw is primarily concerned with ludicrous action. “Just how over-the-top can we be, and still get away with it?” seems to be a thought that ran through the head of at least one filmmaker. If the viewer suspends their sense of disbelief, they will be riveted to their seat by a series of increasingly preposterous set-pieces that push the boundaries of what an action movie is tastefully capable of. This rowdy bro film is proudly lunkheaded, so don’t expect any commentary on the human condition. However, do expect the flick to give equal opportunity to its two stars to win over the audience.

It’s a great piece of popcorn-munching entertainment, but I do think that the two main characters, a pair of bickering badasses, are a bit too similar in terms of personality. There are some distinctions between the titular duo, but I think that, in many scenes, their roles could’ve been used interchangeably. This is an action-comedy, but the physical stuff clearly works better than the humorous material. That’s not to say that it’s not funny (there are definitely some chuckles here), it’s just that the fighting is several notches above the jokes.

Hobbs & Shaw is one of the better motion pictures in The Fast and the Furious series so far. It’s a dumb movie, but I don’t think the filmmakers intended it to be a smart one. It’s aimed at fans of cinematic blockbusters, so your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you’re in that demographic or not. If the idea of massive explosions, hulking tough guys, and intricate fights excites you, you’ll want to check it out.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

‘G’ Men (1935) Review

Director: William Keighley

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Hollywood gangster films had proven mighty profitable in the early 1930s, but there was an increasing backlash against them, especially when the Production Code started being enforced. The solution: make a mob movie from the perspective of lawmen, with the criminals as the unquestionable bad guys. That is precisely was ‘G’ Men is. Smart alecky lawyer James “Brick” Davis (James Cagney) joins the FBI to avenge the murder of his good friend, Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), arriving in the Bureau just in time to take on a major Midwestern crime spree. This, right here, is one of the best of the 1930s organized crime flicks.

The cut of ‘G’ Men now available starts with an interesting prologue added in 1949 that shows the film being shown to new government agent recruits. This movie is, more or less, FBI propaganda, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the picture for this. The star of the show is, of course, James Cagney, who’s amazing, as expected. He may be on the side of the law now, but he’s still the gun-toting, tough-talking wise-ass we all love.

The movie benefits from some ripped-from-the-headlines moments that serve as the major set-pieces. There is a scene obviously inspired by the 1933 Kansas City Massacre, and there’s a very good shootout sequence that is lifted from the 1934 Little Bohemia Lodge gunfight. It’s remarkably action-packed by 1935 standards, although the final action scene isn’t quite as thrilling as the nighttime hunting lodge firefight that preceded it (though it’s still cool).

When it’s all said and done, ‘G’ Men is an excellent crime-actioner that fans of retro tough guy cinema will adore. Yes, there is some light romance in it, but Cagney makes it watchable. If you can get past the occasionally somewhat speechy join-or-support-the-FBI stuff, it’s a generally fast-paced romp through gangland.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Castle Keep (1969) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Although it’s directed by Sydney Pollack, I like to describe Castle Keep as what a collaboration between John Milius and Luis Buñuel might look like it. During World War II, a squad of American soldiers have to hole themselves up in a medieval Belgian castle to stave off a Nazi offensive. This film is a rare animal, an arthouse picture with balls and badassery.

Castle Keep is a highly surreal and dreamlike movie that could’ve easily been titled “Un Chien Andalou Goes to War.” The dialogue is deliberate, yet full of non-sequiturs, and would come across as ludicrously pretentious if the flick wasn’t so bizarre and oneiric. It’s perhaps not an outright comedy, but it’s often oddly funny, just as good surrealism often is. This psychedelic film defies interpretation and is best enjoyed as a surprising piece of nonsense.

Contrasting with the dream logic are the movie’s joltingly realistic combat sequences. With the exception of the dialogue during these scenes, they feel like something out of a wannabe-authentic docudrama. The impressive pyrotechnics are worthy of note. The star of the show, Burt Lancaster as Major Abraham Falconer, keeps everything together in perfectly macho fashion, blasting away at Nazis with a fifty-caliber machine gun from atop the titular castle.

If I had to find any faults with Castle Keep, I might say that some of the supporting characters aren’t distinct enough and that the scene in the rosebushes goes on for a tad too long. Despite how otherworldly the whole thing feels, the conflicts in it feel strangely immediate. It’s definitely not for all tastes…it’s just too damn weird for that. However, if you like your surrealism fast-paced, comical, and tough-as-nails, this is one motion picture you won’t want to miss.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Verdun: Looking at History (1928) Review

Director: Léon Poirier

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 151 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the most underrated silent films ever made, Verdun: Looking at History (its original title in French being “Verdun, Visions d’Histoire“) is a powerful look at World War I’s critical Battle of Verdun, one of the greatest (and longest) battles ever fought. Told from both the French and German perspectives, this is the story of the 1916 German offensive that intended to capture the fortified French city of Verdun and crush French morale to continue the fight.

Often difficult to take your eyes off of, this cinematic epic usually looks realistic enough to be actual war footage. In fact, it’s often hard to tell what’s stock footage and what was filmed specifically for the movie. Very detailed and authentic-feeling, Verdun: Looking at History transports the viewer to the lunar landscapes outside of Verdun to witness the titanic struggle that lasted most of 1916. There’s plenty of combat, and the explosions are jarringly well-executed, frequently looking like they’re putting the cast in danger. Being silent, there’s numerous stylized touches to make the storytelling more visual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its docudrama-like style, the weakest part of the motion picture is its characters. To give the movie a universal quality, the fictional ones aren’t even given names, simply their description. Most of them are soon lost in the shuffle, sometimes making it difficult to tell who’s who. However, that’s not really the focus of the flick, so it’s not a crippling concern. The film’s very brief celebration of Henri Philippe Pétain, one of the major French officers during the Battle of Verdun, hasn’t aged well, considering that he would later become leader of the Vichy France (the French puppet government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) during World War II. Of course, no one could’ve known that in 1928 (the year of this movie’s release), but it still leaves an odd taste in the audience’s mouth.

Verdun: Looking at History deserves to be remembered with the best of the silent films. Few movies have managed to bring the Western Front of World War I to theaters as believably and vividly as here. Human, educational, and idealistic, this is a true docudrama, combining documentary and fictional elements in roughly equal parts. If you’re interested in the First World War, I’d highly recommend this picture, as well as an actual visit to the Verdun battlefield in France (I’ve been there, it’s unforgettable).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 169 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Rewriting the rules on how battle scenes are filmed, this reverent World War II movie follows a squad of American soldiers, led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who are deployed to enemy-infested territory after the D-Day landings at Normandy in order to find and safely return a fellow U.S. trooper, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers were all recently killed in action. Free of romantic subplots and equipped with a moving musical score from John Williams, Saving Private Ryan is easily one of the most important entries into the war genre.

This picture is at its best when the bullets are flying. The two major, lengthy, gory combat sequences, one at the beginning (the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day) and the one at the end, are so intense they make you want to take cover under your couch…well, if one could take their eyes off them, that is. The sound effects are ferocious and the special effects couldn’t have been better integrated. These action scenes (which have some nice, little touches) are expertly directed, although the realism of the first one is significantly greater than that of the final one. The camerawork here revolves around handheld stuff, but the cinematography never devolves into what-am-I-even-looking-at? shaky-cam.

Unfortunately, Saving Private Ryan isn’t quite as stunning when people aren’t under fire. Most of the characters are ill-defined, which is unacceptable for a men-on-a-mission movie that lasts nearly three hours. Even on repeated viewings it can be impossible to tell who’s who for some of the members of the squad. The sometimes-questionable script (written by Robert Rodat…who also wrote The Patriot [2000]) occasionally has the film wobbling just a tiny bit during the character-driven moments. Still, it manages to pack a punch in the drama department.

In the end, this is an emotionally exhausting war epic with impeccable directing from Steven Spielberg. The supporting characters often aren’t fleshed out enough, but the whole thing is viciously on-point during the battle sequences. Despite its grisly realism, it’s a mistake to expect an anti-war screed from it. Instead, it’s a respectful ode to the Greatest Generation. If you’re going to watch it, watch it for that.

My rating is 8 outta 10.