Sergeant York (1941) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 134 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Sergeant York is one of the greatest pieces of Americana to ever grace the silver screen. Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) is a Tennessean hillbilly with a pacifistic interpretation of the Bible who is hesitant to be drafted into the American military during World War I. This is a true story, and, according to legend, the real York insisted that Gary Cooper be cast as him, although I couldn’t tell you if this aspect of the production is factual or not.

Despite being a famous war picture, it should be noted that this film is not all battlefield antics. The first half (or so) is actually a peek inside the life of the rural, backwoods United States in the early 1900s. Be prepared for lots of hick accents. However, the sequences on the front line of the Western Front in Europe are spellbinding. With the exception of some arched-back deaths, the combat is realistic and intense. The action scenes, like a bar fistfight at the Tennessee-Kentucky border and a depiction of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, are excellently rendered.

Gary Cooper rightfully won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, one of the best in cinema history. The struggles his character faces are relatable, as he wrestles with his conscience, sense of patriotism, and interpretation of his holy book over how to best serve his country. To be honest, the morals of the movie are pretty simple, but it’s important to remember that this is a piece of propaganda intended to brace Americans for their seemingly inevitable entry into World War II. Sergeant York was sent to theaters in the United States several months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Aided by a good musical score from Max Steiner, this flick is dripping in sentimentality, which, along with its hillbilly accents, might turn off some modern viewers. I do admit that it’s a little corny, but it’s still one of the most engaging motion pictures to ever be released. Not only is it one of the very best features about the First World War, it’s one of the very best war films of all time. Regardless of your religious or political persuasions, you’re bound to enjoy Sergeant York.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

RoboCop (1987) Review

Director: Paul Verhoeven

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

Runtime: 102 minutes (R-rated version), 103 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: R (rated version), Not Rated (unrated version)

IMDb Page

The 1987 version of RoboCop may have a somewhat kitschy title, but this actioner proves a movie can have both brains and brawn. You see, this film is in on the joke and serves as a biting satire of American consumerism. Anyway, RoboCop is about viciously murdered Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who’s brought back to life as a cyborg crime-fighting machine.

This sci-fi-crime flick is a no-nonsense joy that intelligently handles its subject matter. However, even if all you want to see is a bunch of people get killed, you’ve come to the right place. The action scenes, while certainly quite good, aren’t top-notch, but they’re handled with so much enthusiasm that you can’t help but find yourself entertained. The gory carnage here feels like director Paul Verhoeven playing with (and brutally destroying) action figures in a sandbox.

Under Verhoeven’s wily direction, every character makes an impression, although thanks to a game cast willing to jump into the fray and try out some weird stuff is also due. The humorous screenplay has proven itself endlessly quotable, and it keeps the pacing from ever lagging. Perhaps the feature’s secret weapon is Basil Poledouris’ amazing and heroic musical score that guarantees that fists will be intermittently pumped in the air.

RoboCop is seriously graphic in the violence department, but the tongue-in-cheek nature of many scenes prevents the slaughter from becoming overbearing. Despite its satirical attitude, the picture works on the sincere level of the audience actively rooting for the titular character and hoping for his success. I suppose you couldn’t ask for a whole lot more. A franchise would follow in the wake of this film, but the 1987 original is in a league of its own.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) Review

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is, as of right now, my favorite documentary of all time. Filmed by folks who were actually there, this film takes an inside look at the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013-2014, which began when the Ukrainian government, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, sought closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian people objected, wanting more integration with the rest of Europe (including eventual European Union membership), and took to the streets. This inspiring documentary shows how far some people will go to fight for the liberty of future generations.

The first thing about Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom that must be commented on is its incredible footage. The protests start small enough, but, by the end of the movie, Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital) resembles a war zone. The feature shows how fast things can go from zero to one hundred, as civil disobedience turns to horrific violence, as government forces start beating and, eventually, shooting protestors and revolutionaries. The bravery of the Ukrainian people is impossible to not fall in love with.

This picture is an inspiration to all inhabitants of the Free World, showing the ongoing struggle for freedom and human dignity that still affects many parts of the globe. Ukraine wanted its slice of the European Dream, and opposition to an increasingly-tyrannical regime became the only option. This riveting documentary reveals the frightfully high cost of democracy and human rights, while giving the viewer some hope for a better tomorrow.

Winter on Fire is fueled by passion, so don’t expect a lot of in-depth analysis. The film also contains graphic, bloody violence, so the squeamish are exempted from watching it. However, for everyone else, this is mandatory viewing to arm oneself with knowledge in the ongoing information war with the despots of the Slave World. It’s important and impossible to turn away from.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) Review

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Perhaps director Stanley Kubrick’s most accessible film, Full Metal Jacket is a masterpiece of a war movie that’s become iconic over the years. Recruits in the United States Marine Corps must survive boot camp so that they can serve in the battle to retake the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. This is not a slow, esoteric art film from Kubrick, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but rather the kind of motion picture that common audiences will find engaging.

One of the most memorable things about Full Metal Jacket is its deft black comedy. Yes, this is one of those flicks that makes you laugh as it disturbs you at the exact same time. A great deal of the dark humor comes from R. Lee Ermey, who plays Hartman, the menacing drill sergeant. He’s an unrelenting force of nature here, and he should’ve received an Academy Award nomination for his aggressive, foul-mouthed, take-no-prisoners performance. All of the actors disappear into their roles, though.

A very common complaint about Full Metal Jacket is that the first part of the movie, set in boot camp, is superior to the rest of the flick, set in South Vietnam. I agree that the training sequences are better than the scenes set in the war zone, but the latter parts are certainly no slouches. The gripping intensity of the first act or so only partially transfers over to the scenes related to the Tet Offensive, but the combat segments are still impossible to turn away from.

So, in my opinion, Full Metal Jacket is not quite the tale of two films that some make it out to be. The war-related scenes, which generally put an emphasis on sweeping, meticulous, Kubrickian cinematography over the choreography of actors and stuntpeople, are phenomenal, even if the best stuff has already passed in the runtime. This is one of those war movies that is required viewing for all fans of the genre, thanks to its skillful combination of humor and horror.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) Review

Director: Peter Segal

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

“Aggressively stupid” is a good way to describe the sense of humor found in the third film of The Naked Gun trilogy (Hell, the whole trio could be explained with that phrase). The zany antics of police officer Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) continue, with the incompetent cop being called upon to infiltrate a gang of terrorists to uncover their next bombing target. Expect a fair amount of groin-related jokes.

As rip-snortingly funny as Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult is, it probably has the loosest plot of the series. Hilarious gags definitely take precedence over tight storytelling here. That being said, the film gets its act together for the last third, which is a very strong sequence, with Leslie Nielsen’s character making a total ass of himself at the bad guys’ bombing target.

This movie is, well, spooftacular, parodying various pieces of popular culture left and right. Yep, the goofy, “politically incorrect” comedy of the first two installments in the franchise is back, and just as ferociously funny as ever. Somehow, lightning has been caught in a bottle for a third time in a row. Cameo appearances are everywhere.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult is actually my second favorite feature in the trilogy. It feels a tad more memorable than The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991). Fans of dumb-as-dirt humor that’s heavily reliant on slapstick and that sort of thing will want to check this comedy out. It’s non-stop laughs. It’s interesting to note that director Peter Segal’s next movie would be Tommy Boy (1995).

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) Review

Director: David Zucker

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Inept police officer Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is back in action and ready to deliver more laughs in this sequel to the 1988 masterpiece The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. This time, pro-green-energy scientist Dr. Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths) has been kidnapped by fossil fuel tycoons…and it’s up to Drebin to rescue him. Featuring the same absurd, slapstick-oriented humor of the original, this flick is a real winner.

The series’ style of comedy is still stupid as Hell, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. For all of its proud dumbness, the filmmakers definitely seem to know that they’re crafting low-brow gags. I love the franchise’s brand of humor, and I know that I was guffawing constantly throughout the picture’s relatively short runtime. It’s all deeply silly and juvenile.

Okay, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear is the least-best of the trilogy (I will not use the word “worst” here). It’s the least memorable of the series and perhaps the least joke-heavy, but it’s still a serious hoot. There are a few moments of physical action, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they’re “exciting.” That’s okay, this is a comedy, not an action film.

Do you like the sound of a comedy movie featuring endless crotch jokes and other audaciously stupid gags? Well, then I probably don’t need to tell you that The Naked Gun 2½ is your ticket to Belly Laugh City (geez, what a lame-sounding recommendation that is!). It may not be the best of its trilogy, yet its did-they-really-just-go-there? sense of humor will unquestionably please fans of lowest-common-denominator merriment. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) Review

Director: David Zucker

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

For audiences who couldn’t get enough of the style of comedy found in the masterpiece Airplane! (1980), the trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker returned to bring them The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! in 1988. However, instead of spoofing 1970s disaster movies, this picture would focus on police films. The plot is about an apparently globe-trotting Los Angeles cop named Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) who must foil an assassination attempt against Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles) while she visits L.A.

If you aren’t familiar with Airplane!, this flick follows the same formula of throwing as many how-stupid-can-we-be-and-get-away-with-it? jokes at the audience as possible. There’s nothing sophisticated about the slapstick-heavy, hyperbolic humor in The Naked Gun. Sometimes the gags are even predictable, but, to be honest, it doesn’t make them any less side-splitting. Few crime or action movie clichés make it out of the feature alive.

The first installment of The Naked Gun cinematic franchise (which is based off of a short-lived television show called Police Squad!) greatly benefits from Leslie Nielsen’s committed performance as the lead character. The supporting cast includes George Kennedy (as Ed Hocken), Ricardo Montalban (as Vincent Ludwig), and O.J. Simpson (as Nordberg). This was, of course, before he was a murderer.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! is a real laugh riot, lasting only 85 minutes, so it surely doesn’t outstay its welcome. The flick is so crammed with comedy that if ten seconds go by without a joke of some kind, something seems off. The film is profoundly silly, so those looking for high-brow humor will leave disappointed. That being said, I love the low-brow stuff, so this picture really does the trick for me.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Marked for Death (1990) Review

Director: Dwight H. Little

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Marked for Death is one of those movies that will readily appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd, and very few else. Former DEA agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) goes to war with some drug-pushing Jamaican-American gangsters after his family is targeted for extermination by them. Is this Steven Seagal’s best film? I couldn’t tell you that, but, of all of the ones I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few), it is definitely the most entertaining.

The pony-tailed Seagal is largely a charisma black hole here (no one can say the line “Serious fun” with less joy than him), but this only adds to the enjoyable absurdity of the whole production. Fortunately, he’s blessed with one of the best sidekicks in action picture history: Max (Keith David). The primary baddie of the flick is Jamaican mob boss Screwface (Basil Wallace), who provides some of the most delicious villain ham-acting this side of Bennett from Commando (1985).

Marked for Death is essentially devoid of romance, allowing the carnage to do the talking…and what carnage it is! The action scenes are ace, highlighting Seagal’s trademark brand of bone-snapping super-sadism. There’s some enthusiastic overkill towards the end, when one character gets killed approximately four hundred times. Of course, the violence is accompanied by a fair amount of one-liners, some of which are pure non-sequiturs.

This over-the-top action film has a cool musical score from James Newton Howard and a relatively early appearance from Danny Trejo (playing Hector). The whole thing’s very lean and very mean, making it a ton of “serious fun” for fans of trash cinema (it really knows when to end). This bundle of unintentionally funny, kitschy joy also illustrates the days when, in regards to international travel, they’d let anything through customs.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1967 gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde feels just as alive, fresh, zesty, and vital now as it did during its original theatrical run. As you probably know, the plot concerns bandit duo and lovers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), who tear through the Central-Southern United States on a crime spree in the 1930s. One of the best of its kind, this film took the sensibilities of the French New Wave and applied them to these American folk figures.

Bonnie and Clyde remains dazzling partially because of its expert juggling of action, drama, romance, comedy, suspense, and historical context. Unless you abhor pictures that glamorize murderous criminals (which this one has a tendency to do), there’s something here for just about everybody. The feature starts off adventurous and relatively light, but, by the time of the third act, it feels like a road trip to Hell.

It’s generally a fast-paced piece of work, with some very, very good action sequences (the violence that they contain was considered shocking back in 1967). A special shout-out has to go to the cast, who all play their distinctive characters with aplomb. The Great Depression-era United States is convincingly recreated here, and the flick is surprisingly funny at times.

Bonnie and Clyde is sometimes credited with playing a critical role in tearing down the old Hollywood Production Code, which dictated what content could and couldn’t be in American movies. The film’s graphic violence, sexual undercurrents, and glorification of ruthless criminals made the Code impotent. It was soon to be replaced by the MPAA rating system (you know, like G, R, etc.). Talk about a movie that left an impact! However, this motion picture is still highly recommended, regardless of its influence and significance in cinema history.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Fugitive (1993) Review

Director: Andrew Davis

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

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

We all have some movies that take us to our “Happy Place.” For me, one of those elite-class films is 1993’s The Fugitive. Just in case you don’t know, the plot’s about a Chicago doctor named Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) who’s falsely accused of murdering his wife, Helen (Sela Ward), and has to escape from police custody to find the true killer. All along the way, he’ll be pursued by Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), a relentless U.S. Marshal.

One of the best things about this classic is the cat-and-mouse game played by Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters. They’re both professionals and they, like the movie itself, never miss a beat. Ford’s an easy guy to root for and Jones, despite being an antagonist, is not demonized. Action and suspense scenes come and go, but it’s the characters that make the deepest impression.

Speaking of action sequences, there are a few stunners here that I won’t spoil. The big set-pieces are pulse-pounding, and the film captures a great sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. The pacing is exquisite, moving from one fight, evasion, escape, standoff, chase, or close-call to the next, with just enough dialogue to make sure the thing is comprehensible.

The Fugitive is a classy, airtight action-thriller that makes great use of its Chicago-area locations. It manages to feel somewhat plausible on one hand, but, on the other, it doesn’t feel tied down by concerns for excessive realism. The tone’s just right, being serious enough to draw the audience in without being oppressive. I would consider it essential viewing.

My rating is 9 outta 10.