Only God Forgives (2013) Review

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Genre(s): Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Gangster thriller Only God Forgives desperately wants to be cherished as a work of art. Its ponderous nature borders on self-parody. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, criminal Julian (Ryan Gosling) finds that he’s expected to seek vengeance for the recent killing of his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). However, is his brother’s death worth being avenged? I suppose it’s an interesting question, but this movie’s mind is mostly elsewhere.

Only God Forgives is one of those arthouse films where people stare off into the distance in silence for long periods of time. Man, they still make movies like that? I thought that style of filmmaking had been ridiculed to death? Most things in the picture happen slowly, I suppose because it makes the flick appear more important and artsier. Being only ninety minutes long, it’s not exactly boring, but it is self-indulgent. However, don’t get me started on that trollish ending.

There’s some good stuff about this feature, though. The musical score by Cliff Martinez has its moments, and the use of color and lighting stands out. There are a couple of notable performances, including Vithaya Pansringarm’s as Chang, a creepy, sadistic police officer. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a memorable performance as Crystal, Ryan Gosling’s character’s vile mother. As mentioned above, it’s not a mind-numbing movie, managing to maintain my interest for most scenes.

Some have stated that this ultra-violent crime-thriller is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but I largely come down in the middle on it. It’s more concerned with appearing dreamlike than just about anything else, even if real-world dreams are typically much faster-paced than this. Only God Forgives has its commendable aspects, but, in the end, it’s just too concerned with being viewed as high art to remember that there’s an audience watching.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Springfield Rifle (1952) Review

Director: André De Toth

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War, Western

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Two years after the popular Winchester ’73 (1950) was released, another rifle-themed western was put in theaters, this one starring Gary Cooper and titled Springfield Rifle. The plot follows Alex “Lex” Kearney (Gary Cooper), an officer in the Union military during the American Civil War who is branded a coward after surrendering a herd of horses to Confederate raiders out West without a fight. The story can be somewhat complicated at times, but I’ll just leave it at that to avoid spoilers (it should be mentioned that the plot description on its IMDb page gives quite a bit away).

Springfield Rifle isn’t the most straightforward film of all time, featuring enough twists and turns to justify its existence. Gary Cooper is at the center of all of this, and the guy’s a real badass. This is perhaps one of his most memorable action and/or adventure movies. The picture contains some material related to Cooper’s character’s relationship with his wife, Erin Kearney (Phyllis Thaxter), but it’s well-integrated into the rest of the flick, not feeling like it was shoehorned in by studio executives. Max Steiner’s musical score is fine.

Fortunately for the film, it’s blessed with some above-average action scenes, whether they be oriented around people punching each other or riding around, shooting at moving targets. There’s a couple of instances of “yowza” stuntwork and an early use of the “Wilhelm scream.” The “smoke-’em-out” action finale would not be approved of by Smokey Bear.

Even if its name is “Springfield Rifle,” Cooper never lets the titular firearm outshine him (although the gun is still pretty cool). Thanks to things like the leading actor’s presence, the beautiful scenery, the thumbs-up-worthy action sequences, and an interesting plot, this war/western/action-adventure movie deserves to be watched. It’s sort of a shame that this feature is largely forgotten about today (maybe because it was sent to theaters the same year as High Noon [1952], another Cooper western that’s even better), because it still satisfies.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) Review

Director: Peter Jackson

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

They Shall Not Grow Old is, as of right now, my favorite documentary of all time. It takes a micro-scale look at World War I from the perspectives of British veterans of said conflict, with their testimonies, recorded decades after the conflagration, serving as the only narration. This is not an overview of the entire war from all points-of-view, instead it focuses on the experiences of those serving Great Britain on the Western Front.

The amount of effort that was put into this documentary puts the word “meticulous” to shame. Not only was footage from the 1914-1918 time period colorized (something that could’ve been quite controversial), but sound was added. We’re not just talking sound effects for artillery and boots in the mud here, we’re talking professional lip-readers being brought in to try to figure out what the soldiers are saying in the silent film pieces. The restored footage with the voices of the servicemen who survived the nightmare is a powerful combination.

They Shall Not Grow Old details several aspects of the life of a typical British soldier in World War I, including training, the killing of lice, downtime, and the difficulties with finding employment after the conflict ended. However, the most notable moments come from the descriptions of front-line combat. The centerpiece “battle scene,” which is supposedly a collection of anecdotes from several different engagements, is just as ferocious-feeling as anything found in a narrative movie. Sure, there wasn’t much up-close-and-personal camerawork related to close-quarters combat from this historical event, since the bulky, hand-cranked cameras of the time couldn’t easily enter the war zone, but the first-hand accounts of the horror make things quite clear.

Tightly focused, there is never a dull moment here. It’s an absorbing work of filmmaking that should be seen by as many people as possible. It is rated R, though, thanks to some photographs of the dead and of “trench foot,” which may limit its ability to be played in schools, but this documentary is a must-see to remind people of the heroism of the Lost Generation. If there’s anything wrong with They Shall Not Grow Old, it’s that it’s simply not longer.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Underworld (1927) Review

Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Arthur Rosson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Underworld was one of the first feature-length gangster films, and possibly the first of its kind to be told from the criminals’ point-of-view. This silent movie is about mob boss “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) troubles when his alcoholic lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) starts to fall for his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Yeah, I know that the plot description makes this one sound like an uninteresting romance picture, but, trust me, this crime-drama is worth watching.

Aided by a swift 80-minute runtime, Underworld features pulpy dialogue that helped it win an Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story) at the first ever Academy Awards. Also of note is its proto-noirish cinematography that emphasizes shadows. The number of characters in the flick is kept relatively small, so it’s not exactly hard to keep track of everybody.

Physical action in this feature, while dynamic, is fairly limited until the finale. The climatic shootout is a real surprise, being more exciting than the final gunfights of many sound-era mobster movies of the following decade – the 1930s. I’m not exaggerating. It brings both the drama and action elements of the film together on a strong note.

While Underworld doesn’t quite rank up there with my all-time favorite gangster pictures, thanks to romance occasionally running away with the plot, it’s still a startlingly good entry into the organized crime subgenre, especially when its age is taken into account. It begins and ends with a bang, and has some of the best directing that I’ve seen from the silent era. Fans of early mob cinema need to watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Inception (2010) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 148 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Inception is a wildly intricate and imaginative film, but, as entertaining as it is, I can’t help but dwell on its lost potential in some regards. The story follows a team of mercenaries, led by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who have the ability to infiltrate people’s dreams to steal or implant ideas. For what it is, I think this is an exceptionally engaging motion picture, but I think it could’ve been something more.

In Inception, dreams are easily interpreted or explained away, almost to the point that the characters in the movie find them somewhat predictable. The scenes in the subconscious aren’t particularly surreal and there’s a noticeable lack of dream logic. This runs in the face of the dreams (or nightmares) people have in the real world, which are bizarre, unpredictable, scary, and unnerving. Maybe I’m asking for too much by wishing this was Un Chien Andalou: The Action Movie, but I think the filmmakers should’ve gone for something weirder, darker, and more unexpected.

Despite that flaw, this is still classy movie-making. The special effects are a sight to see, and the cast is all-star. A flick like this could’ve easily become hard to follow, but I think the script did a good job of communicating the complexities of dream heists and whatnot (even though I don’t think I caught every last detail). The feature has enough human drama to keep the audience’s attention in between big set pieces. Speaking of that, there are several action sequences and they’re mostly okay. They feel a little low-impact at times, but that hallway fist fight is a real knockout.

Blending sci-fi actioner with psychological thriller, Inception isn’t perfect, but it’s still a fun time at the movies. I do sort of wish it went off in a slightly different direction than what it did, but I try not to hold that against the picture too much. If you do choose to watch it, be prepared to pay close attention to its details, though.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Jaws (1975) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

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

Runtime: 124 minutes (standard version), 130 minutes (extended edition)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those films that reminds you of why you fell in loves with movies in the first place. A trio of men – police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), seasoned shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) – set out to hunt down a large shark that’s been terrorizing a coastal town. This summer blockbuster has held up beautifully over the years, still pleasing its audience.

This horror-thriller’s most iconic aspect is, of course, its vigorous musical score, which put its composer, John Williams, on the map. It should be mentioned that Jaws actually has a strong dramatic core to it, thanks to vividly-drawn characters that the viewer becomes attached to. Of course, the stuff with the shark is still cool, but this picture provides a reason to care about the man-versus-beast confrontation.

Jaws sometimes resembles a seaside slasher flick with a literal animal instead of a figurative one. While the special effects for the central fish are often derided as fake-looking, I think that they’re sublime. The filmmakers wisely kept the shark offscreen for as much of the runtime as possible, only really showing off the monster extensively during the grand finale. The feature also does an impressive job of capturing the atmosphere of a small town effectively under siege by a fiendish foe.

Likely to make anybody too frightened to go into the ocean, Jaws is superb entertainment. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that it became the highest grossing movie of all time upon its release (although it was soon outdone by Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope [1977]). Amazingly, Spielberg has managed to top the film several times so far during his career as a director.

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.