Wings (1927) Review

Directors: William A. Wellman and Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

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

Runtime: 144 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1927 war-time aviation epic Wings was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (then called “Outstanding Picture”). It’s not my favorite film of 1927 (that would be Metropolis [1927]), but this is unquestionably a solid choice for that honor. During World War I, two American pilots – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – are in love with the same woman, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), and have to put aside their differences to be effective servicemen. The resulting feature is one of the best of the silent era.

Extraordinarily, two of the leads, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, had to learn how to fly aircraft so that it would be the actual actors in the cockpits of the fighter planes during the flying sequences. The film’s credited director, William A. Wellman, flew an airplane for the French Foreign Legion during World War I (scoring three confirmed “kills”), so this guy knows what he’s doing (IMDb also claims that Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast was an uncredited co-director for the project). The action scenes, both on the ground and in the air, are astounding. They’re huge in scale and feature insane stuntwork.

The flaws with Wings are few. There is a fairly lengthy scene dealing with Rogers’ character’s adventures in Paris while he’s drunk off his ass that slow the movie down. The flick also goes on for a tad too long after the war ends. However, these are just about the only things that I can think that go wrong with this action-filled picture.

This is a truly massive production with an energetic musical score by J.S. Zamecnik. It may be silent, but some of its heart-pounding spectacle still hasn’t been topped in the age of computer-generated imagery. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a very early appearance by Gary Cooper (as Cadet White) as a pilot who greets the main characters at flight training. He even has a Hershey’s chocolate bar, in an early piece of product placement. Don’t miss this one!

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Chef (2014) Review

Director: Jon Favreau

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

You don’t have to be a “foodie” to enjoy this dramedy that was written by, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau. This feature’s plot’s about chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) who leaves the restaurant he works at after losing creative control of the cooking process and exploding at a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who gave him a negative review. Despite the detailed food preparation scenes, this is a movie just as much about people as it is about stuff you can eat.

Chef has a star-studded cast and succeeds on both the comedy and drama fronts. No, it’s nothing groundbreaking (the film’s detractors compare it to the comfort food that the main character dislikes having to make), but that’s okay. Sometimes it’s acceptable to just get a familiar story that’s told well. Characters are well-defined and the pacing never lags.

Chef tries to connect to the zeitgeist of its time, and this is most noticeable in its way of handling social media. References are made to staples of modern life, like Twitter and memes, but it doesn’t really feel like the film is trying to be hip-and-with-it. The character who knows the most about all of this technology is the main character’s son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and the titular figure must bond with his kid to learn the ropes of social media.

When it wraps up, Chef is an enjoyable father/son flick that delivers more than just cooking sequences. While I generally prefer watching pictures with lots of explosions and gunfire, this is a welcome change of pace. It’s a fine dramedy with personal stakes, rather than existential ones. However, why don’t the characters wear seat-belts more often?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Review

Director: Charles Laughton

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Charles Laughton only directed one film in his career (well, IMDb does have him listed as an uncredited co-director for The Man on the Eiffel Tower [1949]), and that picture is the masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Set during the Great Depression, serial-killing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) stalks two children – John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce) – who’re hiding a small fortune that their late father – Ben Harper (Peter Graves) – stole for them. Often considered a film-noir, I feel that this horror-thriller classic is better classified as some sort of dark fairy tale.

Influenced by German Expressionism, this movie’s shadowy cinematography is some of the very best of all time. Robert Mitchum’s fanatical, murderous holy man is one of the greatest villains to ever grace the silver screen. There are several intentionally uncomfortable moments involving his character that’ll have you squirming in your chair. He’s a vicious, greedy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing that the audience will love to hate.

The third act of The Night of the Hunter is decidedly less intense than the first two-thirds. It’s certainly not bad…far from it. It just lacks some of the menace that the opening and middle sequences had. There are also some touches towards the end that feel like they were mandated by the Production Code of the time. However, not even a saccharine ending can sink this ship.

The Night of the Hunter is a must-watch for people wanting to learn more about the art of cinema. It’s artistically distinguished, but can also be easily enjoyed by any type of viewer. This highly relevant story is full of suspense and drama, with a gripping, superb visual style. It has an easy-to-manage runtime of 92 minutes and one of the best baddies in the medium, so why not watch it today?

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Farewell to the King (1989) Review

Director: John Milius

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

One of John Milius’ more underappreciated directorial efforts is the 1989 war-time action-adventure flick Farewell to the King. During World War II, an American soldier named Learoyd (Nick Nolte) goes A.W.O.L. to become the leader of a tribe of natives deep in the jungles of Borneo. This macho, yet sensitive, war-drama is a real treat if you can get your hands on it.

Farewell to the King, of course, has very good action sequences, but the real reason to watch this obscure movie is for its human drama. Several moments, including the tearjerker ending, are bound to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. The impact of these scenes is heightened by Basil Poledouris’ musical score, which simply has to be one of the best in cinema history. There is also some grand cinematography to be found here, as the camera captures great jungle landscapes and skies.

Yeah, this motion picture might overly romanticize “underdeveloped” societies, but, hey, it’s just a movie. Being a heroic depiction of a king that doesn’t appear to have any constitutional restraints is a tad troubling, making it feel like it has monarchist sympathies. The feature also veers from bloodthirstiness to pacifism with little predictability, but, well, it’s a John Milius movie. You get what you pay for.

Farewell to the King is an underrated action-adventure gem waiting to be discovered. It works if you’re looking for high adventure with World War II as its backdrop or if you’re looking for a character-centered drama with an epic musical score to prop it up. I can’t say it’s a realistic, or even plausible, film, but it’s just too damn entertaining to miss.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Superman II (1980) Review

Directors: Richard Lester and Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 127 minutes (standard version), 116 minutes (Richard Donner Cut)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

As promised at the end of Superman (1978), the superhero would return in a sequel that would pick off where the first left off. Here, Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) must prevent the three Kryptonian criminals from the opening of the previous film – Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) – from taking over Earth. It’s a pretty similar experience to the 1978 picture, but some people prefer this one.

Superman II greatly benefits from having more intimidating baddies than the first movie in the franchise. The menace of Zod, Ursa, and Non, while offering a few comedic moments, is mostly played straight. They have the same superhuman abilities as Superman and put up quite a fight against the titular character. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) returns here, but he’s out of the picture for too much of the runtime to make that much of an impression.

The special effects are fine, sometimes looking quite quaint. The action scenes are an improvement over the ones in 1978’s Superman. The White House assault and the big battle in downtown Metropolis between the title character and the three major villains stand out most. The mass destruction caused by the latter sequence is highly impressive considering its release date.

John Williams doesn’t do the music for Superman II (the score is composed by Ken Thorne), but his amazing themes return. Anyway, this one is only marginally less-good than the first in the series. It doesn’t feel as tight as it potentially could’ve been, but the wholesome heroics are back, and this one does manage to top Superman in some regards. If you liked the 1978 flick, you’ll probably have similar feelings about the first sequel.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Superman (1978) Review

Director: Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 143 minutes (standard version), 151 minutes (2000 restoration), 188 minutes (Extended Version)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Before Iron Man (2008), before Batman (1989), there was 1978’s Superman. Yes, this is, more or less, the grandpappy of the modern superhero picture…so, how does it hold up? The story concerns itself with Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), a human-like being sent from another world to Earth as a child. His extraordinary powers, like super-speed and super-strength, convince him to take up the role of a superhero to protect the people of his adoptive planet. Of course, he also has to fall in love (with fellow reporter Lois Lane [Margot Kidder]) and foil the plot of a mad genius.

Superman has a bit of a reputation for being a boring character, but I think that the 1978 film does a swell job of humanizing him. He may be able to snatch a speeding bullet out of midair, but he has the emotions of any typical human, and the dramatic challenges he confronts (like the decision to leave the farm he was raised on or not) make for some of the more memorable moments of the movie. However, arguably the best aspect of the picture is its titanic John Williams musical score that you’ll probably be humming long after the feature is over.

The special effects here are a mixed bag. Some hold up nicely, but most are pretty dated. The tone is sort of weird, veering from serious to hokey. The threat posed by the villain, madman Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), varies by scene. His nefarious plot arrives a bit too late in the runtime and many of his scenes are marred by silly comedy that undermine his potential menace. The climatic resolution to Superman’s problems may also leave some audience members scratching their collective heads.

Despite being the first major comic book superhero flick, Superman has a couple of touches that could be considered fairly meta for their time (like a brief, humorous bit when Clark Kent decides not to put on his Superman costume in an exposed telephone booth surrounded by people gawking at the disaster he’s trying to dampen the impact of and find a more reclusive spot to don his suit). All in all, this is a good, but not great, entry into the action-adventure genre. It’s got the heart and the music of a wonderful movie, but some elements just weren’t willing to play ball.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems like one of those books that just about everybody has to read in school, and the 1962 film of the same title is a great companion piece to it. Set in the Great Depression-era South, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) must defend in court a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox Paxton), while his children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), try to learn more about a shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). Yes, this is a terrific tale of childhood innocence and ignorance that has become a classic in the decades following its release.

The two heavy hitters of the movie are Gregory Peck’s central performance and Elmer Bernstein’s top-notch musical score. Peck’s serious-minded, conscientious character, Atticus, radiates integrity, self-control, and quiet dignity, so much so that the American Film Institute named him the number one hero of American cinema as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. The rest of the performances are terrific as well. On the musical front, Bernstein knocks ’em dead with one of the best scores of his prolific career (which is certainly saying something).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a moving motion picture, but I can’t say that it is without faults. It definitely feels like it was based on a novel, like there are (minor) parts of the story being left out to condense the story into about two hours. Speaking of the plot, the two major story threads (the court case and the kids investigating Boo Radley) don’t really come together until the end of the film.

What To Kill a Mockingbird lacks in physical action (although there is a sequence where the children sneak up on Boo’s house and it’s handled like a war movie scene involving soldiers stealthily crossing a battlefield strewn with mines and barbed wire) it makes up for with heart. The characters in the flick certainly have their ups and downs, but, in the end, it’s a feel-good feature. It’s easy to recommend this one.

My rating is 8 outta 10.