Grease (1978) Review

Director: Randal Kleiser

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1978 musical Grease is a nostalgic look back on teenage life in the 1950s as seen through the lens of the 1970s. You see, high school cool cat Danny (John Travolta) had a summer fling with an Australian girl, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and now doesn’t know that they’re attending the same school together. This one follows the standard rom-com formula pretty closely, so no points will be awarded for guessing how it ends.

The biggest draws of this film are its iconic musical numbers. Even people who’ve never seen the movie before can probably hum along with one or two of the songs featured here. My favorite ditty is “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli, which plays over the animated main title sequence. It’s a disco tune, but doesn’t feel particularly out-of-place in the fifties setting.

The detractors of this picture point out things like that the high schoolers here look like forty-year-olds (perhaps it was all that underage smoking and drinking?). Another common criticism is the flick’s dubious sense of morality, where surrendering to peer pressure, unprotected sex, reckless driving, and chain-smoking are seen are ultimate cools. I can’t subscribe to what Grease says about right and wrong, but, if you’re getting your moral direction from this feature, you have deeper issues.

The film only has just enough conflict in it to sustain itself. Sure, the characters of Danny and Sandy go back and forth with each other, but most of the work is about teens partying, singing, and dancing. The story’s simple, but the lively music, heavy on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop, makes Grease worth watching. Joan Blondell shows up as Vi, a waitress at a diner frequented by the main characters.

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.

The Sea Hawk (1940) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1940 anglophile swashbuckler The Sea Hawk serves as an interesting allegory for World War II, made by Hollywood prior to the United States’ entrance into that conflict. Set in the 1500s, Spain (a stand-in for the Axis Powers) is Hellbent on conquering the planet, and daring English privateer (a pirate who works for a government) Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) and his crew are the only ones who stop it. It works pretty well as a wartime spirit-raiser, but less so as a thrill-a-minute adventure piece.

The Sea Hawk is, unfortunately, slowly paced, all too often getting bogged down in romance or geopolitical scheming. The love story between Errol Flynn’s character and Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall) largely feels shoehorned in and the plot may have needed some streamlining. Another flaw is that the villains of the picture feel underdeveloped.

On the action front, this movie delivers its best set-piece far too early into its runtime. In fact, the very first action sequence in the film, a thrilling sea battle, is the best one. Nothing after that in the feature can top that for excitement. Yes, there are some other above-average bits of mayhem spread into the mix, like a cool one-versus-four sword duel, but why start a flick with your best action scene?

If there’s one thing that keeps The Sea Hawk being propelled forward, that is its Erich Wolfgang Korngold musical score. It’s a rousing piece of work that elevates the material. That being said, this film largely exists in the realm between “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down.” It has some great action, but, if you’re in the mood for an Errol Flynn movie, you’re better off with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). That’s the real deal.

My rating is 6 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.

Superman Returns (2006) Review

Director: Bryan Singer

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

Runtime: 154 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

2006’s Superman Returns picks up just about where the original Superman series of the 1970s and 1980s left off. Yes, we have a different actor playing the Man of Steel this time around (Brandon Routh, instead of Christopher Reeve), but it seems to follow the same continuity of the old franchise. In this adventure, Superman returns to Earth after spending five years looking for the remains of his homeworld of Krypton, only to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has found a new boyfriend – Richard White (James Marsden) – and that Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back to plotting his evil schemes. It’s a bit on the bloated side, but I can still say that I like it.

Superman Returns is in its groove when dealing with the big action set-pieces. Advances in special effects since the 1980s and that sort of thing mean the disaster and rescue sequences are more spectacular than before, with one of the more memorable ones involving an out-of-control airplane that Superman must prevent from crashing into a baseball stadium. Backing up the titular superhero throughout the movie is the returning John Williams musical theme from the ’70s and ’80s, though the main composer for the picture is John Ottman.

The biggest problem facing this action-adventure is its overlong runtime (a little over two-and-a-half hours). The climax goes on for a while, and there’s numerous scenes that the movie still has to show us after the grand finale, which might test your patience. Another minor fault of the flick is that Superman sometimes exhibits some stalker-ish behavior. I mean, the guy can see and hear through walls.

Superman Returns is a better movie than Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), and roughly on par with Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980). A couple of parts go on and on, yet it’d be a mistake to entirely dismiss the feature for this. Unless you’re a Christopher Reeve purist, Superman fans will probably experience enough moments of delight to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hell’s Angels (1930) Review

Directors: Howard Hughes, Edmund Goulding, and James Whale

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Director Howard Hughes tried to top Wings (1927) with 1930’s Hell’s Angels. Both are fairly similar World War I aviation pictures with plenty of romance, so which one would be victorious in a dogfight? Hell’s Angels deals with British brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) who’re romancing the same woman, Helen (Jean Harlow), and later join the military to serve as pilots after the First World War breaks out. Even though this one has sound, I think it pales in comparison to the silent Wings.

The action scenes are the clear audience draw for Hell’s Angels. The aerial warfare sequences are magnificent, although there’s very little ground combat. This flick has quite the body count…literally. Three stunt pilots were killed filming the large-scale dogfights. Howard Hughes even got in on the action and suffered a skull fracture doing some flying for the picture.

It’s the somewhat uninteresting plot that keeps Hell’s Angels from true greatness. The brothers’ troubles over Jean Harlow’s character don’t add up to much when everything’s said and done. As I said earlier, it’s really the war-related stuff that people want to see and remember. The romantic aspects of the movie are just filler.

Hell’s Angels was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code, and has a few mild swear words as a result, something that was pretty rare at the time (even for a Pre-Code film). While primarily black-and-white, there is a color sequence during a ball and some scenes are tinted. Overall, Hell’s Angels can’t out-shoot Wings, but it still manages to be a watchable war feature.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

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.

Superman III (1983) Review

Director: Richard Lester

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

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

I think most people who’ve seen the Superman series would agree that Superman III is a step down from the first two. It’s not bad, but parts of it are a bit of a chore by superhero movie standards. Evil businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) is obsessed with cornering the market for certain commodities, so he decides to eliminate Superman (Christopher Reeve) with some artificial kryptonite to prevent the Man of Steel from interfering with his plans. There’s an interesting idea or two to be found here, but, overall, it feels routine.

Superman III is a lot more comedic than Superman (1978) or Superman II (1980), not that those films didn’t have plenty of comic relief. Much of the humor is provided by the character Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), a down-on-his-luck dude who turns out to be a whiz with computers. Speaking of computers, they’re all over the place here, in all their bulky, 1980s-looking glory. The technology is mighty dated, as is the picture’s campy aesthetic, but it serves as a cautionary tale about the powers of new-fangled gadgetry.

On the action front, things are…adequate. There’s a nice punch-up involving Superman in a junkyard that I won’t spoil the details of, but the finale feels fairly lethargic at times for the conclusion of an action-adventure flick. The special effects are actually on the impressive side, but what good are they when the story is undercooked? It’s cool and all seeing Superman constantly saving the day, but he needs a tighter plot to back him up.

Although the musical score is done by Ken Thorne, John Williams’ classic themes make a return. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) does too, but the main romantic subplot here is between the titular character and his hometown high school sweetheart, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Okay, this one isn’t essential viewing, but it’s not torture. It has a few enjoyable moments, but it sort of takes a while for the actual plot to kick in.

My rating is 6 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.