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.

Doctor Strange (2016) Review

Director: Scott Derrickson

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

Runtime: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Does 2016’s Doctor Strange do enough to set it apart from the rest of its superhero film peers? Well, it’s not the best of its kind, but it has an identity of its own, which makes it feel like more than just another product off the Marvel assembly line. Okay, that was a low blow, but Doctor Strange is certainly more enjoyable than not. After an egotistical and ambitious surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is wounded in a car accident, he travels to Nepal for healing, only to learn the mind-bending superpowers of a group of warriors protecting Earth from interdimensional threats.

Of course, the primary reason to watch this flick is for its oft-trippy visuals. The big set-pieces are filled with positively psychedelic special effects that occasionally resemble something out of Inception (2010) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on steroids. It’s a feast for the eyes, even if the action scenes still often boil down to people punching each other repeatedly.

Despite all of the spectacle, Doctor Strange is still a commercial product. It follows the traditional superhero origin story formula fairly closely and, although the main character is a bit of an asshole at first, he’s not that much of an asshole. Moments of comedy and drama (which are admittedly effective) seem to be added to the mix with cold calculation. The stakes of the action sequences are also sometimes a bit on the murky side.

One’s enjoyment of the highly efficient action-adventure film Doctor Strange will come down to what they want to get out of the picture. If you want action scenes driven by great special effects that haven’t been fully seen before on the screen or if you want to see an arrogant man of science get in touch with his spiritual side, you’ll probably like this picture. As a whole, I can’t say that it goes above and beyond the call of duty, but it’s still a fun superhero movie. It’s not as mind-melting or surreal as something along the lines of Un Chien Andalou (1929), but I still have to give some props to a big-budget blockbuster for attempting something similar.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Review

Director: J.J. Abrams

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

Runtime: 141 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The finale of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) will always be my preferred ending to the Star Wars saga. Everything that came after 1983 is basically non-canon in my book. Entertaining, imagination-capturing, and fun to discuss? Definitely…but not canon. The movie concluding the “sequel trilogy” or “Disney trilogy” of the Star Wars franchise is Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, and your opinion of it will probably depend on if you accept it into your “headcanon” or not. Anyway, the plot’s about a certain villain from the series mysteriously returning and orchestrating a plot to turn Rey (Daisy Ridley) to the Dark Side of the Force, while conquering the galaxy in the process. You know the deal.

Doing lots of damage control as a result of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), this feature crams a ton of content into its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Fortunately, it’s the characters that come through to save the picture’s neck. Whether they be new or old, cute or badass, the characters mostly nail it. This is The Rise of Skywalker‘s biggest strength, even if the events that take place in the film don’t always make sense. Watching so many fan-favorites or to-be-fan-favorites working together to keep the movie afloat left me feeling ecstatic at times. The action is exciting (if ludicrously over-the-top at times…but I suppose that’s just part of the fun) and John Williams’ musical score is right on the bull’s-eye.

As I mentioned in the above paragraph, not every narrative choice pays off (how exactly does the primary villain of the picture, who we’ve seen before, return to the stage?). Due to this trilogy’s filmmakers not having an overarching plan, the flick sometimes feels rushed or sloppy. The primary reason I don’t accept these new films into my “headcanon” is the undoing of the ending of the aforementioned Return of the Jedi. This is a sore spot for many Star Wars fans, and I can’t blame them for being “salty” over it. Still, if you consider this trilogy to be some sort of alternate timeline or “what-if?” story taking place after the conclusion of the original three movies, it’s quite rousing.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that The Rise of Skywalker is just about as good a finale for the sequel trilogy as was possible after The Last Jedi largely tore apart the “mystery boxes” established in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) (and after the passing of Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia). It also works very well as a standalone sci-fi/action-adventure tale. However, how is it as an ending of the entire Star Wars saga, as was started all the way back in 1977? Let’s just say that Return of the Jedi will always be my official conclusion of the story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Shazam! (2019) Review

Director: David F. Sandberg

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Fantasy

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Shazam! is more than just a highly competent action-comedy; it’s one of the better superhero origin story movies out there. The plot follows foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who achieves the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) after saying the word “shazam.” As many a critic has pointed out, this film remembers that comic book flicks are all about wish-fulfillment fantasies.

One of the reasons Shazam! works so well is because it focuses on superheroes doing, well, superhero stuff like rescuing endangered civilians. Sure, sure, there’s plenty of punching monsters in the face here, but this feature, with its propulsive pacing, shows off the full range of what comic book good guys are capable of doing. In addition to the plentiful mayhem (the action climax goes on for quite a while), this picture provides lots of laughs, as a high schooler runs amok in an adult’s body. There’s also a durable emotional center to it that keeps the audience constantly engaged.

While Shazam! works remarkably well as a four-quadrant movie, at times I couldn’t help but wonder who the target audience of the film was. It could’ve been a swell family feature, but then there’s the scene with a ghoul (bloodlessly) biting a guy’s head off and the main character goes to a strip joint at one point (although the camera remains outside of said club). It’s sort of a shame this slightly-grown-up content had to be included, because little kids would’ve eaten this flick up. Oh, well, I guess it’s rated PG-13 for a reason.

Shazam! is a great superhero movie because it delivers all the humor, heart, heroics, and hair-raising action that you could ask for. I’m generally not the biggest fan of comic book films (well, at least of ones set outside of Gotham City), but this one really won me over. Shazam! is worth watching for more than just the pyrotechnics.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Review

Directors: Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch

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

Runtime: 66 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What’s the world’s oldest surviving feature-length animated movie? Something by Disney? Nope, that honor goes to a silent German film by the name of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (originally titled “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed“) from 1926. The story is about young, fearless Prince Achmed setting out to restore order to the land after a devious magician crashes his father’s birthday bash. This picture uses silhouette animation (think stop-motion shadow puppets) to transport viewers to far away worlds. Home video releases are color-tinted.

This fairly short (only 66 minutes long) classic has visuals that are nothing short of entrancing. It’s certainly nothing like any other movie from…well, any time period. The silhouettes are surprisingly detailed, and almost every character, despite being little more than a shadow puppet, has a distinctive look. In addition to its astounding appearance, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is greatly aided by an energetic musical score by Wolfgang Zeller.

Based on old Arabian fairy tales, this feature has a timeless quality to it that keeps it fresh after all these decades. There is some swashbuckling action and some special effects that made me wonder “how did they do that?” The only time the pacing threatens to lag is when Aladdin shows up (yes, Aladdin and his magic lamp are here) and explains his backstory. It certainly doesn’t kill the film, but these flashbacks slow things down just a tad. Just a tad.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is definitely no musty museum piece. It’s amazing from its character introductions at the beginning to its hair-raising finale. I’m not sure how much kids will enjoy it, considering it’s silent and all (despite bombastic music), but people who’re accustomed to pictures with no spoken dialogue will be floored. This one comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Vampyr (1932) Review

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Vampyr was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film as a director, but it often feels closer to being a silent movie than a talkie. The plot is about a man named Allan Grey (Julian West) who checks into a remote inn and finds a nearby mansion where there is some vampire business afoot. However, this not your typical vampire picture, as it places greater emphasis on dream logic and oneiric atmosphere than on the usual thrills.

Like the best of surreal movies, Vampyr makes it feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s dream. The pacing is slower here than in, say, Un Chien Andalou (1929), but, considering its relatively short runtime (85 minutes), this is forgivable. Despite being a horror film, it’s not really scary, just eerie, haunting, and moody.

This dream-like flick has some impressive special effects involving shadows, and some of its imagery, even when not related to said shadows, is very memorable. The film’s characters are reasonably well-defined and its somewhat blurry cinematography adds to the otherwordly feel (supposedly, thin gauze was put over the camera to achieve this). Sound is used fairly sparingly, making it feel semi-silent.

So, will Vampyr appeal to you? It’s not an in-your-face gorefest, like some horror movies, but, instead, it’s a mood piece. That being said, it’s an engaging one, despite its arthouse pedigree. If you like the more surreal side of cinema, you don’t have much to lose (considering its runtime), so I’d recommend giving it a shot. It’s certainly creepy.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Review

Director: Gregory La Cava

Genre(s): Drama, Fantasy

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The depths of the Great Depression were desperate times, and many looked to political radicalism for salvation. This sentiment is reflected in the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, which tells the tale of a hack politician named Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) who becomes President of the United States. After an automobile accident, he becomes possessed by an angel and transforms into a dictator to solve the country’s problems. The movie is cheering for him every step of the way. Yes, this is a motion picture that actually exists.

This is a flick that celebrates strongman tactics, yet I hesitate to call it “fascist” like many reviewers do. The film’s ideology lacks the violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, Social Darwinistic, xenophobic palingenetic ultra-nationalism that real fascism revolves around. I don’t agree with Gabriel Over the White House‘s politics, but its beliefs seem to be closer to general authoritarianism than the fascistic or communistic strains of totalitarianism that were threatening to take over the planet at the time of its release (not that that makes it okay). It really goes nuts when the United States decides to get foreign governments to repay their debts.

This piece of propaganda is described as a “must-see curio” by the DVD case, and I agree. Released the same month that Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the President of the United States, American faith in democracy was perhaps at its nadir due to the devastation caused by the Great Depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt would restore the nation’s faith in its institutions without resorting to dictatorial methods, proving that the regime envisioned by Gabriel Over the White House was unnecessary.

This political drama, released during the Pre-Code era in the early 1930s before the enforcement of the Production Code, is a doozie. Sure, its ideas are wrong, but it’s very entertaining, with lofty dialogue and the occasional moment of action. It needs to be seen by more people to show just how close many of the countries of the Free World came to succumbing to dictatorship during the 1930s. This is an important historical document.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Review

Director: Ron Howard

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

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Solo: A Star Wars Story is unnecessary and nobody asked for it. That being said, it’s still quite a lot of fun and, with the exception of a certain cameo, doesn’t do any real damage to Star Wars lore. Set in between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), this is the backstory of everybody’s favorite smuggler duo, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). It, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, thanks to backlash from Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), lack of excitement over Han Solo (originally played by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy) being recast, and news of behind-the-scenes drama. The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired and replaced by Ron Howard…so, yes, Opie from The Andy Griffith Show did helm a Star Wars movie.

With the occasional western and gangster film elements, Solo is a delight to watch. The action sequences, including everything from a “car chase” to a train robbery to a slave revolt (slave revolts are always fun), are exemplary, and the musical score by John Powell (with a little help from John Williams) is energetic. The stakes of the picture aren’t save-the-galaxy high, but it works well enough, and Chewbacca is a real scene-stealer.

The film’s cinematography is a bit too dark and murky for such a light-hearted movie. Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s going on in the background. There’s also the matter a certain cameo from a character that should be dead towards the end of the runtime. It’s not a big deal, but it sort of throws me off. Solo is also perhaps a tad too long for its own good, with some of the scenes near the end not being quite as thrilling as those that preceded them.

So, a lot of Star Wars fans missed out on Solo in theaters thanks to things like the bad taste left in their mouth from The Last Jedi and the fact that nobody really requested it. They really missed out on a glorious, inoffensive treat. Many found the picture somewhat predictable, but, after the derailment caused by The Last Jedi, maybe something nice and safe was just what the franchise needed.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

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

Runtime: 152 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi will probably be best remembered as being the film that took the wind out of the sails of the Star Wars series. In this cinematic nut-tap, it feels like writer/director Rian Johnson is telling viewers to not care about Star Wars, to not speculate on its future, and to not emotionally invest yourself in the franchise. I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay, the plot is about the starfleet of the virtuous Resistance finding itself in a high-stakes space chase with the ships of the evil First Order. A movie like Avengers: Endgame (2019) feels like a love letter to the longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while The Last Jedi sometimes feels like a big, ol’ middle finger.

The largest flaw with this flick is, of course, the character assassination against Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), something that actor Hamill was vocally opposed to. I’m not going to go into spoilers, but this is not the Luke of the original trilogy. This is a postmodern deconstruction and demythologization of a beloved series, and the critics disgracefully ate it up. The Last Jedi takes a bulldozer to the mythos of Star Wars, and professional film-viewers applauded every second of it.

Virtually all of the “mystery boxes” set up by Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) are demolished or given intentionally unsatisfying answers. This is a picture that trolls, rather than challenges. “Subverting expectations” is the new “jumping the shark.” It just doesn’t line up with any of the other Star Wars films, not even its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. It’s too busy bending and breaking the rules of the universe it’s set in. This movie also feels problematically small in scale. Perhaps “Star Skirmishes” would be a more appropriate title (no, I didn’t come up with that one)? The humor here is often out-of-place and the dead-end ending deflates the trilogy that it’s the middle installment of. The idea of Star Wars going arthouse is exciting for a while, but it leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

The Last Jedi isn’t all bad, though. The action scenes are superb, John Williams’ musical score is very, very good, the midnight ride of the Fathiers is moving, and the visuals, while occasionally unStar-Warsian, are interesting. As a standalone movie, with no connection to the rest of the franchise, it’s actually very non-boring, albeit clumsy, incoherent in its messages, and overly long. It’s a Star Wars film for people who hate Star Wars films. I will give it a high score, simply because it’s easily watchable and entertaining if you divorce it from the rest of the saga.

My rating is 8 outta 10.