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.

Emperor (2020) Review

Director: Mark Amin

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2020 biopic Emperor fumbles with the historical facts, but still manages to be an entertaining work about an often-overlooked period of U.S. history. In 1859, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, escaped slave Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), nicknamed “Emperor,” joins militant abolitionist John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the goal of inciting a slave revolt. As historically inaccurate as it may be, I still found myself engaged to the events taking place on the screen.

Emperor takes an action-movie-ish approach to the life of Shields Green. I mean, this picture even has a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-esque wagon chase, for Heaven’s sake! The action is almost laughably explosive at times, but I suppose that that’s just the price of making a historical film that gets seen by the masses. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s all part of the fun.

This movie shouldn’t be looked to as an accurate representation of the events of 1859. The horrors of human slavery are kept safely in the bounds of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. The Harpers Ferry raid looks like a full-scale battle (complete with a cannon or two!), and the fate of Shields Green is completely fictionalized. It may be a little awkward for history buffs to sit through for these reasons, but these alterations to historical fact make the finished product more commercial.

It may play fast and loose with the truth, but Emperor is still a film that I enjoy. John Brown is my hero, so it’s cool seeing him in cinematic form (even if the flick isn’t as good as Seven Angry Men [1955]). The critical reception of this feature was mixed, but I can largely forgive its crimes against history because of how easily one can become emotionally invested in it. Just make sure to quickly look over Shield Green’s Wikipedia page after viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Tomorrow War (2021) Review

Director: Chris McKay

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

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The sci-fi-actioner The Tomorrow War was released direct-to-streaming, but it’s the kind of movie I would have liked to see on the big screen. The film is about present-day dad Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) being sent to the not-too-distant future via time travel to help fight a vicious alien invasion that’s destroyed most of mankind. One or two story beats may be somewhat predictable, but, if you can stay in the moment, you might find yourself having fun.

Okay, maybe “having fun” isn’t the best way of putting it, because this flick presents some surprisingly dire and dark scenarios. The almost unstoppable extra-terrestrials are savage beasts that give this thriller some horror movie vibes. Moments of action are intense enough to get a thumbs-up from me, and the emotional scenes are more effective than not. For a direct-to-streaming work, the budget appears to be quite large, and the spectacle is occasionally overwhelming.

There are some missteps along the way. The first and third acts of the feature have a tendency to rely on Marvel-style comic relief that inappropriately defuse moments of tension. Marvel products are just about the biggest thing in the world at the time of its release, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked that this picture tried to ape their formula a tad. There’s also the matter of the third act feeling like it takes place after the main climax of the film. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s “unnecessary,” but The Tomorrow War might be overstaying its welcome.

This movie’s blend of silly comedy and serious, seemingly apocalyptic situations isn’t its strength. To enjoy the motion picture, it’s best to focus on the palpable sense of dread and desperation, along with its gooey action and violence. Yeah, The Tomorrow War is a flawed work, but my impression of the big picture is rather positive. The second act is especially hard-hitting, easily being the best part.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Opinions vary on the Steve McQueen drama Baby the Rain Must Fall, but you can put me down in the “hated it” category. The plot of this sleep-inducing film is about impulsive, down-on-his-luck rockabilly singer Henry Thomas (Steve McQueen) getting out of prison to meet his wife, Georgette Thomas (Lee Remick), and his daughter, Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), in rural Texas. I suppose that this flick is supposed to be an existential “mood piece,” but it didn’t make me feel anything other than the minutes ticking away.

The thing about Baby the Rain Must Fall is just that it’s so boring. Some reviewers have pointed out that it’s depressing, too, but I have no problems with a downer of a movie if it engages the emotions. This one doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the picture’s performances, but the end product meanders around aimlessly. Eventually, the feature decides to call it quits and ends.

The film in question was based on the 1954 play The Traveling Lady, and, to its credit, it doesn’t feel like it was based off of something as confining as a work of theater. Also, we need to talk about Steve McQueen’s lip-syncing during the musical numbers. It’s pretty atrocious, and probably would’ve been laughable in a less dour movie. The song with the same title as the movie, written by Elmer Bernstein and sung by Glenn Yarbrough, was a commercial success, though, reaching number twelve on the Billboard Top 100 and number two on the easy listening charts.

Baby the Rain Must Fall is tedious and uneventful more than anything else. Obviously, this is not one for fans of McQueen’s most action-oriented side (although there is a brief fight involving his character). Instead, it will probably only appeal to those looking for an ultra-low-key slice-of-rural-life drama. There’s an audience for this sort of thing, but it certainly isn’t me.

My rating is 3 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.

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.

The Fanatic (2019) Review

Director: Fred Durst

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Fanatic, directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, was one of the most talked about movies of 2019 for all the wrong reasons. The film’s story is about Moose (John Travolta), a Los Angeles street performer “with severe autism” (in the current words of Wikipedia) who stalks his favorite movie star, Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). It’s a hard flick to make heads or tails of, but I suppose that that’s part of its appeal.

This feature is notorious for being an unintentional laugh riot, but was it unintentional? It’s hard to tell when the comedy comes from filmmaking ineptitude and when it comes from co-writer/director Fred Durst’s presumably twisted sense of humor. Were lines like “I can’t talk too long. I gotta poo” meant to split the sides of the audience? Regardless, this picture has received many complaints about meanspiritedness, especially when it comes to people on the autistic spectrum.

For what it’s worth, John Travolta’s performance is clearly committed and this makes the flick, uh, watchable. Even if it is exploitative, this drama-thriller does make the viewer wonder what’s coming around the next corner. It’s not boring, like a truly bad movie should be. There’s also some intriguing commentary on the United States’ love/hate relationship with celebrities. You know what? This film isn’t as bad as its reputation.

The ending doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but The Fanatic is still an interesting work. Yes, the dialogue is often, er, terrible, but it sometimes seems like this was the intention. I’ll give this one a passing grade, because I’m drawn to hopelessly bizarre movies that make you laugh, and then wonder if that reaction was what the director was hoping for. On the “Parents Guide” for this flick on IMDb, under the “Frightening & Intense Scenes” section, it currently reads “In a distressing scene, a character forces a child to listen to Limp Bizkit[,] turning up the radio while driving down a street.” I’m sure that bit will be taken down soon, but it made me chuckle. Yes, the director did put his own band’s music in the finished product.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Espionage Agent (1939) Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Espionage Agent was among the first American movies to warn the U.S. populace of the dangers posed by the Nazi regime in Germany. In fact, it was released in September 1939, the same month that World War II broke out. The plot’s about an American diplomat in Morocco – Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) – who falls in love with a Nazi spy – Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) – in the days leading up to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement. The most engaging part of the feature is the presumably somewhat fictionalized opening montage of foreign sabotage in the United States prior to that nation’s entry into World War I (the 1916 Black Tom explosion is mentioned). Yup, the best sequence is the one at the beginning of the flick. After that, we get a car wreck and a pistol-whipping, but the action is severely lacking.

Espionage Agent was made to brace the United States against the wave of infiltration of the country by agents of totalitarian governments (like the Nazi and Soviet ones) that was going to take place. It’s an intriguingly political movie, even if it avoids pointing fingers too blatantly (the swastikas on the Nazi troops’ armbands are covered up). Its warnings seem to come from a place of encouraging isolationism, rather than international cooperation, though.

Sometimes this picture feels like a recruitment ad for the U.S. State Department, but that’s okay. The real problems here are its anticlimactic ending and leisurely pacing. It means well, but the budget just isn’t there. It would be interesting to see a remake related to the information war being waged on free nations by the dictatorships of the world currently being waged.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Souls at Sea (1937) Review

Director: Henry Hathaway

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 adventure-drama Souls at Sea teams up Gary Cooper and George Raft, two of the biggest tough guy actors of the time period. The story’s hard to describe without going into spoilers, but I’ll give it my best shot. In the 1840s, two sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean – Michael “Nuggin” Taylor (Gary Cooper) and Powdah (George Raft) – find themselves wrapped up in a plot involving slave smuggling out of Africa.

Souls at Sea promises an exciting movie, but it easily gets sidetracked by two romantic subplots. These love scenes don’t offer much different from what was typical at the time. The love-dovey stuff threatens to consume the entire picture, so much so that the action finale seems to come out of nowhere when it arrives. However, the climax does offer some entertainment value.

The grand finale rescues the film, although the special effects are a mixed bag. Some of the destruction looks so real that you don’t stop and think about it as visual effects, while those transparent silhouettes of people running in front of fire and explosions aren’t exactly convincing. The ending also gives Gary Cooper a chance to show off a surprisingly dark side of him that we usually don’t see.

This feature has some interesting ideas, but its execution is only so-so. For much of the runtime, it has routine romance on its mind, when it should be focused on high-seas thrills. It’s an okay movie, despite a few slow spots. It should be mentioned that this flick’s attitude towards African slavery has aged better than some of the other films from around the same time – like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Santa Fe Trail (1940).

My rating is 6 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.