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.

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.

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.

King of the Underworld (1939) Review

Director: Lewis Seiler

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 67 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

King of the Underworld was the first movie where Humphrey Bogart got his name placed over the title in the opening credits. This drama is about how husband-wife doctor duo Niles Nelson (John Eldredge) and Carole Nelson (Kay Francis) and failed writer Bill Stevens (James Stephenson) find themselves ensnared in the world of crime by gangster Joe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart). It’s not remembered among Bogie’s best work, but it’s still a competent, little film.

According to the Trivia section of this picture’s IMDb page, director Lewis Seiler’s heart wasn’t really in this one, which might explain a slightly sloppy moment or two. Still, the results are quite good, with the cinematography occasionally having a shadowy, proto-noirish look. It should also be mentioned that the feature is actually kind of funny at times. It’s a charming flick.

On the action front, there’s not too much to write home about. There are a couple of instances when characters let a Thompson submachine gun rip, but this is far more subdued than, say, Scarface (1932) or ‘G’ Men (1935). An action film, this is not. That being said, the ending puts a pretty interesting and surprisingly satisfying twist on the usual gangland shootout finale trope.

Running a minuscule sixty-seven minutes, King of the Underworld is a film that’s difficult to regret watching. The succinct plot is always in motion and Bogart’s fine performance anchors the finished product. I really enjoy watching retro mobster movies, and this feature will scratch any itch for other aficionados of those types of works.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

American Hustle (2013) Review

Director: David O. Russell

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 con artist dramedy American Hustle is frequently compared and contrasted with the works of director Martin Scorsese. I mean, the plot does sound like it belongs to a project that he might helm. In the 1970s, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and conwoman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are recruited by federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help take down some crooked politicians.

The film is equally concerned with its vibrant characters and its tricky plot, making it a well-balanced production. It’s not a riotously funny, laugh-a-second flick, but the humor that is here works better than I expected. The movie doesn’t always have the gravity it needs, although the murderous mob is eventually introduced into the picture to add some weight to the proceedings.

American Hustle tackles the 1970s with relish. The snappy soundtrack is full of recognizable songs from the time period that greatly elevate the feature. Of course, it would be hard to review this movie without mentioning the oft-outrageous hairdos worn by the star-studded cast. They’re just reminders in case anybody missed the memo that this is the seventies.

This isn’t the most substantive film ever made, but it’s quite entertaining once you get into its groove. Despite how loose everything is played, the plot might be a tad too complicated at times. Just a tad. It’s very good and never boring, but, if I had to take my pick from the con artist fiction litter, I think I’d go with the television series Sneaky Pete.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) Review

Director: Sam Liu

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The animated film Batman: The Killing Joke was the first Batman movie to be released with an R rating in the United States. Based on a popular graphic novel of the same title, the picture follows clown criminal Joker’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to destroy the Gordon family, with superhero Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) trying to save the day. Thanks to more adult content than your typical superhero flick, this one’s for the grown-ups only.

One of the best aspects of this feature is the voice talent. In some ways, this is a continuation of the revered Batman: The Animated Series, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. The voice-acting is top-notch and, along with the stirring animation, carries the movie. The pacing also garners a thumbs-up from me, with tons of material being crammed into the seventy-six demented minutes of runtime.

Batman: The Killing Joke was met with a lukewarm, at best, reception, partially thanks to the handling of Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong), better known as “Batgirl.” The film doesn’t really know what to do with her and the alarming accusations of sexism might hold water. The Joker-less first act of the motion picture is also only tangentially related to the rest, which is also something that holds the product back from true greatness.

Very dark, macabre, intense, and sinister, The Killing Joke just might have the best depiction of the Joker yet seen on film. Unfortunately, some questionable narrative decisions almost derail this train. It’s an impossible flick to turn away from, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel “right.” The work may have also been better served by a less ambiguous ending, but maybe that’s just me.

My rating is 7 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.

Mr. Majestyk (1974) Review

Director: Richard Fleischer

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Mr. Majestyk is the 1974 film where Charles Bronson literally plays a badass melon-farmer. The movie’s straightforward plot concerns Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson), the owner of a watermelon farm who finds himself on the run from the law with vile mob hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) by his side. Yes, people will die, cars will be chased, and watermelons will be shot to shit.

How’s the action? Well, it’s not outstanding, but it’s ably-done. Perhaps the best action set-piece in the entire flick comes in the first act (it’s the one where Charles Bronson and Al Lettieri’s characters are forced to set off together after escaping from the police). It should be noted that there are some stretches with no action that might test the patience of some viewers.

Bronson is clearly the star of the show. As you might expect, he plays yet another one of his classic, silent tough guys here. However, it would be a crime to not at least mention Lettieri’s performance as a hot-headed murderer. The rest of the characters are fine. They’re pretty easy to tell apart from one another, so the filmmakers got that right.

Okay, this one has a kitsch moment or two, but it’s really a thrill to see ol’ Bronson portraying a macho, melon-farming son-of-a-bitch. Fans of the actor will find this an enjoyable ride. The shotgun-blasting Mr. Majestyk was actually released the same year as the more-famous Bronson crime-drama Death Wish (1974), which would prove to be a landmark in the actor’s career.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Casablanca (1942) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Made while World War II was still raging and its outcome was still uncertain, 1942’s Casablanca was an essential piece of wartime spirit-raising that went down in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures. Set in Vichy French-occupied Morocco during the war, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) faces a moral dilemma when he has to choose between escaping from the region with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life, or helping smuggle Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) back into the battle against the Nazis. Buckle up, you’re in for a treat.

This timeless masterpiece is typically marketed as a romance film, but it is so much more than that. More important than the lovey, dovey stuff is the story of awakening your inner hero to fight against tyranny. It may not have any battle scenes, but this is actually a badass war flick, through and through. A tale of idealism, heroism, and sacrifice, it reflects the Wilsonian outlook on foreign policy that was crucial to the Allies in the Second World War and its aftermath. Isolationism is treated like the folly that it is.

The cosmopolitan classic Casablanca benefits from one of the snappiest screenplays ever written. It’s just one iconic line after another. The feature also has a stellar musical score from Max Steiner that’s largely built around the 1931 tune “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is classy and dazzling, and the nightclub at the center of the movie sometimes resembles a real-world version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

This accessible and big-hearted piece of cinema is an important allegory for the United States’ role in World War II. It has a hopeful message that international cooperation and selfless heroism can overcome evil and oppression. Powerful stuff. It’s a wonderful gift to the people of the Free World and a reminder that their work in combating the forces of darkness are not over.

My rating is 10 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.