Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Raging Bull (1980) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Raging Bull may be a boxing movie, but it sure isn’t Rocky (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese, this film is about the rise of violently psychopathic boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Is this critically acclaimed movie a masterpiece or just a bunch of raging bullshit? I think that the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes.

This sports biopic is occasionally criticized for revolving around a person with no redeeming value outside of the boxing ring. Robert De Niro’s dedication to the role is admirable (he gained around sixty pounds for parts of filming), but the character he plays is simply a low-life, abusive brute with no control. He can’t really be considered a tough guy, due to his out-of-control paranoia and thin skin. A good motion picture doesn’t need to be centered around a good guy, but Raging Bull‘s characters are so despicable that it really hurts the feature.

The saving grace of this flick are its more sports-oriented scenes. It really comes alive in the boxing ring. These sequences are filmed amazingly well, being simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It seems like Scorsese is trying almost every trick in the book to make the audience feel immersed in the brutal sport. It’s a shame the rest of the film has to deal with Jake LaMotta viciously lashing out against everybody in his life.

In addition, Raging Bull feels a little episodic, never building up to a proper climax. Just about the only emotion inspired by the work is revulsion. As part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1oth Anniversary Edition) retrospective in 2007 it was named the fourth-best American movie of all time. Really? It’s not a bad movie, but the fourth-greatest American film of all time? This is higher than the likes of Schindler’s List (1993), The Wizard of Oz (1939), the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), etc.? I don’t think so.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Crowd Roars (1932) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

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

Runtime: 85 minutes (original version), 70 minutes (TCM version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1932 auto racing drama The Crowd Roars was one of the few films James Cagney did that could be considered an action picture. As motor racer Joe Greer (James Cagney) returns to his hometown, he devotes his time to keeping his brother Eddie (Eric Linden) out of the dangerous sport, while mostly ignoring his girl, Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak). The surviving prints of this movie are only seventy minutes long, so it makes for reasonably taut entertainment.

Of course, the primary draws for this flick are the racing sequences. Not only are they perilous in the context of the story, they look pretty hazardous for those filming them. The automobiles during the races have open-air cockpits, so dirt flying all over the place easily hinders vision. There are some dated special effects during the action, but it doesn’t really detract from the experience.

However, this feature isn’t only about the need for speed. It has a sizeable romantic subplot that takes up just as much time as the auto racing. It’s rather important to the overall story, so excising it from the picture would be near-impossible. Toss in some Great Depression-era desperation, and you’ve got a winning sports drama with a well-rounded plot.

The Crowd Roars was made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. It’s directed by the legendary Howard Hawks (whose far-better Scarface [1932] hit theaters the same year), but I’m not sure if I’d describe it as an all-time American classic. Still, it’s very watchable and greatly benefits from the Cagney Factor. A remake, Indianapolis Speedway (1939), was later released, with Frank McHugh playing the same role as he did in the original.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Bloodsport (1988) Review

Director: Newt Arnold

Genre(s): Action, Sport

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1988 action film Bloodsport was one of the star-making movies for Jean-Claude Van Damme. It still stands as one of the Muscles from Brussels’ more entertaining outings. Based on the, er, “unverified” (i.e. fake) story of American martial artist Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) entering an underground Hong Kong fighting tournament called “the Kumite,” this work of kitsch was supposedly a major inspiration on the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Okay, let’s not dance around the elephant in the room. This movie is seriously cheesy. The acting is questionable, the dialogue is unintentionally humorous, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his trademark splits approximately three thousand times, and the source material is a made-up story passed off as fact. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy this silly actioner. The good guys are likeable and the villain, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), is a nasty piece of work. People bond in a macho manner over video games, and the theme song, “Fight to Survive” by Stan Bush, is killer.

The action choreography isn’t really up to par with that from similar movies being made by the likes of Jackie Chan at about the same time as this one. Nonetheless, the fights are still some of the highlights, and the staging of them probably isn’t as bad as I’m leading on. That being said, there is some potentially offensive content involving a Black fighter who beats up his opponents while running around on all fours. Normally, I’d say that that hasn’t aged well, but I’m pretty sure that that was never acceptable.

Bloodsport has rightfully become a cult classic since its release, due to its colorfully corny nature and cheesily earnest storytelling. It works because it has just enough of an emotional hook to get the audience invested. It’s certainly one of the better martial arts tournament flicks out there, so watch it and keep an eye out for a young Forest Whitaker as FBI agent Rawlins and a not-young Roy Chiao (better known as gangster Lao Che from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]) as Tanaka, Van Damme’s character’s mentor.

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.

Big Wednesday (1978) Review

Director: John Milius

Genre(s): Drama, Sport

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The surfing drama Big Wednesday is the only feature-length non-action film that John Milius directed. However, he still has his fingerprints all over it. Three best friends, Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey), find themselves immersed in West Coast surfing culture in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a sweeping, nostalgic treat that even people who’ve never surfed before, like myself, can enjoy.

This motion picture perhaps works best as a passage-of-time drama. It’s very emotionally engaging to see these characters move in and out of each other’s lives, through the highs and the lows. Gary Busey, as crazy as ever, is a standout here, playing a proudly masochistic madman. Unusually for a John Milius movie, the supporting characters are frequently pretty weakly-drawn, but the main ones make an impression.

The cinematography during the surfing scenes is exquisite. There are a few how-did-they-do-that? moments. Speaking of physical action, there are also a couple of well-choreographed fist fights on land (I mean, what would a Milius film be without a brawl or two?). Perhaps the most remarkable component of Big Wednesday is its phenomenal musical score from Basil Poledouris. It really amplifies the experience.

This flick has become a bit of a cult classic among surfers, but you don’t have to be a rider of the waves to see the magic in it. Yes, the behavior of the characters is often too rowdy and irresponsible for my tastes, but this is still a largely forgotten classic. It works very well both on land and on the water. Check it out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.