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.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) Review

Director: Rob Cohen

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The third film in The Mummy franchise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, generally received negative reviews from critics, but I think it holds up a notch better than the first sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), as this one doesn’t recycle the Ancient Egyptian motif. It’s not a great movie, but it’s watchable fare. The plot, set in the 1940s, concerns the globetrotting O’Connell family fighting to prevent the reanimated corpse of an Ancient Chinese emperor (Jet Li) from taking over the world. I think that you know the drill.

This is an action-adventure picture, obviously, so there’s lots and lots of danger, fighting, heroics, and physical mayhem. I admit that it’s a pretty juvenile work (you won’t believe the surprise in store for the audience during the action scene at the Himalayan monastery!), but it has a certain appeal. The action sequences are generally competently pulled off, although the camera is occasionally too close to the goings-on.

It’s important to note that Rachel Weisz, who played Evelyn in the previous two flicks in the series, does not return here, and is instead replaced by Maria Bello. Brendan Fraser does, however, come back as Rick O’Connell, continuing to be a surprisingly charismatic action star. The movie also benefits from the inclusion of the Chinese actors Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh (who plays Zi Yuan). Liam Cunningham makes a positive impression as “Mad Dog” Maguire, a reckless pilot.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a prestigious motion picture (although Roger Ebert did give it three out of four stars), but it’s pretty cool in an I’m-thirteen-and-this-is-badass sort of way. I wasn’t actually a teenager when I first saw it, unfortunately, but it does a satisfactory job of bringing out the inner kid in the viewer. Its blend of action, humor, horror, and characters we’ve come to enjoy seeing on the big screen make it passable entertainment.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) Review

Director: Dave Filoni

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

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

This animated Star Wars movie was the first look fans would get at the style of animation that would be employed in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, which was also launched in 2008. Set in between the events of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by Matt Lanter) are tasked with rescuing gangster Jabba the Hutt’s (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) son, Rotta (voiced by David Acord), as the Clone Wars rage on across the galaxy. This one’s strictly for followers of the franchise only.

The film in question is actually four episodes of the aforementioned T.V. show stitched together (think of it as the series pilot). This means that the structure of the picture is on the awkward side, with several climaxes. Okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it definitely feels like a small part of a larger whole, as characters come and go from the narrative. Yeah, sending this movie to theaters was clearly a cash-grab move.

This film caters to Star Wars fans who prefer the action set-pieces to the chit-chat (wait…are there any Star Wars fans who watch these flicks for the dialogue?). The action scenes are almost incessant here, with plenty of familiar-looking vehicles, weapons, droids, and gadgets thrown into the mix. They’re more over-the-top than anything viewers had seen in a Star Wars film up to the time of its original release, but I suppose that’s to be expected, as it is an animated film.

Speaking of animation, it’s certainly a mixed bag, to be sure. It often looks too mechanical, but it does look pretty at other moments. Anyway, Star Wars: The Clone Wars sticks quite close to the spirit of the franchise. Audience members who aren’t already interested in Star Wars will get lost awfully quick, but fans will find enough here to make it through the runtime. This feature took a thrashing from critics, yet people already in love with that galaxy far, far away will be far more forgiving.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020) Review

Director: Ken Cunningham

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It’s probably a daring move to put the words “Holiday” and “Special” together into a Star Wars movie title after the disastrous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is considered such an abomination that it’s never been given an official home video release. However, in 2020, Lego put out its own Christmas-themed Star Wars film, meeting greater acclaim than the 1978 flop. Set after the events in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the good guys of that picture set out to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, while Rey (voiced by Helen Sadler) tries to uncover some lost Jedi knowledge, causing her to discover a gem that enables time travel.

This animated film is clearly aimed at people who are already fans of the Star Wars saga, especially the kids. It breaks no new ground, but it provides a fun nostalgia trip for viewers accustomed to that beloved galaxy far, far away. A few actors from the live-action movies even return to voice their respective characters. Anthony Daniels voices C-3PO, Billy Dee Williams does Lando Calrissian, and Kelly Marie Tran brings life to Rose Tico.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is a lightweight pleasure, but it knows that it belongs to a franchise that’s seen plenty of controversy, and it gently ribs a few of the more divisive elements of the series. Its story revolves around time travel, but doesn’t really try much new with the concept, other than using it to show off a bunch of already-iconic characters and situations. Despite being set in a Lego universe, this aspect of the picture seems underused, with little toy-building in sight.

This is an inoffensive comedy that some have compared to an overlong toy commercial. If it is an advertisement, it certainly is an entertaining one, made by people who know the lore of the Star Wars galaxy. The young ones will get the most mileage out of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, but those who’ve followed the franchise for a while will be rewarded with an in-joke or two. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s not something you’ll regret watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mummy Returns (2001) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The Mummy Returns is a sequel to The Mummy (1999) that continues on in the pulpy, over-the-top, Indiana Jones-ish style. To be frank, it’s really just a whole lot more of the same. Set mostly in the 1930s, a mummy brought to London comes to life and threatens to bring on an apocalypse with its curses and all that spooky stuff.

“Overkill” is the word of the day here. This film takes what made the first one good and amplifies it. More action, more curses, more special effects, more artifacts, more villains, more locations and lost cities, more humor, more combatants in the battle scenes, and more mummies are the name of the game. More! More! More! Sometimes this approach works for sequels, but I felt that it came close to being tiring in the case of The Mummy Returns.

The movie in question feels like a product of its time. It’s a good-natured action-adventure blockbuster with some special effects that have aged poorly (if they ever looked good at all). The action scenes are of a reasonably high quality, but there is the CGI (computer-generated imagery) overkill factor. Personally, there was also a bit too much fantasy mumbo-jumbo for my tastes. It gets a bit on the complicated side.

I’m usually a big fan of this sort of motion picture. You know, unpretentious, pulpy, action-packed, and fun. However, despite its likeable heroes, a cool musical score from Alan Silvestri, and entertaining action sequences, The Mummy Returns may throw a bit too much at the audience. This feature certainly has its fans, and that’s okay, but I think that I’ll largely stick with the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises for my action-adventure thrills.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Matilda (1996) Review

Director: Danny DeVito

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

While some liberties are taken to make it more cinematic, the 1996 film Matilda sticks close to the spirit of the 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name. In both, a kid genius named Matilda (Mara Wilson) must put up with neglectful, materialistic parents and psychopathic, tyrannical school headmistress Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). The movie reflects the nature of the novel, where the courageous, compassionate, and intelligent inhabit a dark, menacing world and must work together to protect themselves and other innocents.

Matilda was directed by now-Internet-icon Danny DeVito, who also plays the father (Mr. Wormwood) and the narrator. He gets some of the better moments in the picture, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an ego trip. However, the standout performance here is from Pam Ferris as the vicious, child-hating principal. Often filmed in grotesque close-ups, she’ll intimidate even the adults watching. The acting from the adults may be a bit too broad for some, but I certainly didn’t mind it.

The film’s good-versus-evil struggle shows that even children can be empowered to see justice done on out-of-line adults. There are some fantasy elements here (like in the novel), but I won’t spoil the detail of them here. The special effects related to the supernatural aspects hold up pretty well, which is fairly important considering the feature goes more over-the-top with them than the book.

Matilda is a solid family film, sometimes being funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes suspenseful. It shows that people who use their “powers” for good can triumph over those who abuse theirs. Also, yes, in case you were wondering, that is Paul Reubens playing one of the FBI agents monitoring the activities of the title character’s shady father.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Despicable Me (2010) Review

Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

One of the selling points of Despicable Me is that it’s an animated kids’ movie largely told from the perspective of a bad guy. Well, don’t worry, parents, he’s really not that bad of a dude. You see, high-tech supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is plotting on stealing the Moon, but the affection of three orphans, Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher), threatens to derail his plans.

While this is certainly a funny film (with a couple of good jabs at Ugly-Americanism), it’s probably the more heartwarming moments that steal the show. The picture strikes a commendable balance between silly humor, loopy action, and human drama, making it run like a well-oiled machine. Okay, “machine” makes the whole thing sound a bit more, uh, mechanical than it actually is, but this is still lightweight stuff.

Steve Carell, who voices the central character, is in top form here. His Gru has an appealing blend of sinister and benevolent traits. Of course, no review of Despicable Me would be complete without a mention of the yellow Minions (the faces that launched a thousand “normie memes”). They’re actually pretty cute and funny, without becoming overbearing.

This feature is painless viewing for grown-ups, so it’s one of those flicks that both parents and their children can both watch and enjoy. Hmmm…maybe I’m underselling it by calling it “painless.” Let’s try this: Despicable Me is a charming, effortlessly engaging piece of cinema that will probably entertain filmgoers of all ages. Ah, yes, that sounds better.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mummy (1999) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1999 film The Mummy feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. The movie is about a group of adventurers who unleash an ancient Egyptian curse while searching for a lost city. On IMDb’s “Connections” page for this picture, it is considered a version of the The Mummy (1932), but this flick is far more action-adventure-oriented than that oldie.

I can’t say that this feature completely succeeds in its aping of the Indiana Jones series, but it’s still a worthy piece of cinema. There are some lively, rousing action scenes (especially in the first half), and the interwar setting is pulpy and exciting. While he’s no Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser (as Rick O’Connell) is a surprisingly able action hero. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score makes its presence known (in a good sort of way).

Perhaps the biggest downside to The Mummy is that it goes a bit too heavy on the fantasy elements early on. The aforementioned Indiana Jones films generally slowly built up to supernatural happenings, while this movie frequently tosses that sort of stuff at the audience throughout the runtime. This means that there’s notably less mystery and awe in the picture.

The first half of The Mummy is probably superior to the back half, but I’d still recommend this flick to people looking for a pulp fiction fix. The action-adventure content is the star of the show here, but there’s also a sizeable quantity of light horror to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. I’m not as enchanted with it as some viewers are, but I still enjoy the ride.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

There It Is (1928) Review

Directors: Harold L. Muller and Charles R. Bowers

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy

Runtime: 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Charles R. Bowers is sometimes considered one of the forgotten comedic actors of the silent era of cinema, and 1928’s There It Is is probably one of his more famous works. In this short, silent surrealist comedy, Scotland Yard detective Charley MacNeesha (Charles R. Bowers) is called upon to investigate a mansion in the United States that’s apparently haunted by the Fuzz-Faced Phantom (Buster Brodie). Think of it as a more overtly-humorous version of Un Chien Andalou (1929) with an actual plot and you’ll have a great time.

The laughs in There It Is are mostly derived from the slapstick nature of the proceedings. Like any surrealist motion picture, it’s certainly random and bizarre, but it’s hard to beat something like somebody getting hit by another person wielding a table. Being so old, it’s hard to tell what was meant to be intentionally surreal and what was just the style of silly comedy at the time of its release.

The impressive special effects are inventive and top-of-the-line for 1928. One of the scene-stealers is the main character’s partner, a tiny, stop-motion, Greedo-looking, insect-like, kilt-wearing Scotland Yard detective named MacGregor (who lives in a matchbox, of course). No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s a cute touch that adds to the insanity of the flick and contributes to its adorable ending.

Running only nineteen minutes, there’s no reason not to watch There It Is if you enjoy crazy silent movies like the aforementioned Un Chien Andalou. It’s not as off-the-wall bonkers as that Luis Buñuel-directed masterpiece, but it’s still an odd trip. There It Is is not the most dream-like/oneiric film I’ve ever seen but I still love it anyway.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and King Vidor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: G (2D version), PG (3D version)

IMDb Page

The hype exists for a reason. There’s little I can say about this endlessly iconic 1939 feature that hasn’t been said before. The charming story is about a Kansan farmgirl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto (Terry), being whisked away to the magical Land of Oz during a tornado. Even if you feel like you’re too old to be watching a family film like The Wizard of Oz, I highly recommend it anyway.

How was this made all the way back in 1939? The songs are still as catchy as ever, the special effects just as stupendous, the characters just as lovable, the flying monkeys just as frightening, the visuals just as splendorous, the action just as exciting, the drama just as moving, the humor just as amusing, and the pacing just as swift as ever. Those who say films were merely “proto-movies” prior to Citizen Kane (1941) can take a hike!

Holding this timeless masterpiece together is the message of there being no place like home. Sepia-colored Kansas may not be a roller coaster ride of excitement, but that’s where the heart is. To find their way back to the heartland, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends must put their inner courage, compassion, and smarts to the test and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Who couldn’t love a story like that?

The Wizard of Oz is just about as close to perfection as motion pictures can get. What? Are you actually going to criticize the painted backgrounds for not looking realistic enough? Anyway, this is a true classic that hasn’t aged with time. From the yearning for a better tomorrow displayed in the opening to the crazily imaginative adventures in Oz to the tear-jerking finale, this is the real deal.

My rating is 10 outta 10.