Black Legion (1937) Review

Directors: Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Black Legion has one of the most intriguing plots for a film of its time period. After factory-worker Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion that’s awarded to an Eastern European immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), the former decides to join an underground terrorist organization that resembles the Ku Klux Klan. This very good movie has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to it, as there actually did exist a xenophobic Black Legion in the American Midwest in the 1930s.

It’s a fascinating (and relevant) story, told well with minimal fat (it is only 83 minutes long, after all). It carefully sets out everything you need to know and escalates tension and action from there. Perhaps the highlight of the picture is the scene where Bogart’s character takes his oath to join the Black Legion. Now there’s a creepy sequence for you! The main character clearly makes some very poor decisions over the course of the runtime, and it’s hard not to agonize over his choices.

Black Legion isn’t a subtle movie, which may turn off some viewers. The bad guys are very clearly evil and the forces of righteousness get a speech or two to explain the sins of lawless and prejudiced behavior. The courtroom finale doesn’t really feel like the most explosive way to conclude the story, and it goes on for a while (considering the runtime). Oh, well, it’s still a swell, little flick.

This motion picture features a nice message and efficient storytelling. It has a few interesting touches, like a behind-the-scenes look at a live news broadcast over the radio. Fans of Humphrey Bogart and anti-fascist cinema will want to rent a copy. Also, check out that whoopee cap that Bogie wears in the factory scenes! My, how fashion has changed!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Review

Director: James Gunn

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

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

When the sci-fi film Guardians of the Galaxy was released and became a hit, it seemed like Marvel could make a movie about any superhero or group of superheroes and it would end up a huge success. Had anybody outside of the comic book world actually heard of the heroes in this flick prior to its production? A talking raccoon? A walking tree? How could Marvel pull this off? Anyway, the plot of this picture is about a group of space criminals who find themselves in possession of an Infinity Stone and pursued by a murderous warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace) who desires the powers given by the rock.

Guardians of the Galaxy could’ve easily been a confusing mess, but it’s executed with skill and enthusiasm. Despite all of the fancy special effects and massive action scenes, it’s easy to see why these sorts of movies really appeal to so many people: the characters. The people inhabiting the galaxy of this feature are easily distinguished from one another and all have colorful and vibrant personalities. One actually cares about the struggles that they face.

Other important aspects of this movie’s appeal are its action, music, and world-building. The action scenes aren’t mind-blowing, but their choreography is clear and there’s a reasonable excitement value. The soundtrack is largely made up of classic pop and rock tunes, and has become one of the standout elements of the flick. The world-building here could’ve potentially been overwhelming, with lots thrown at the audience, but it’s handled gracefully.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy does feel a little…Marvel-y at times. The action, dramatic, and comedic beats are carefully placed into the film in a calculated manner to maximize audience engagement. Make of that what you will. Still, this is a charming and funny movie with no slow spots. There have certainly been superhero pictures worse than this.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Taken 3 (2014) Review

Director: Olivier Megaton

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes (standard version), 114 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (standard version), Not Rated (unrated version)

IMDb Page

It’s hard to go wrong with thrillers starring Liam Neeson, but Taken 3 comes fairly close. This entry is very much the weakest of the action film trilogy, but it’s still better than many flicks I’ve had to put up with. In a The Fugitive (1993)-esque fashion, former government agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is framed for the murder of a family member and has to find the true killer while dodging the law. You could say the Taken franchise is starting to run out of steam.

Taken 3 is, of course, an action movie, so how does the physical chaos stand up? Well, it’s a mixed bag for sure in this department. Some of the action scenes are edited in a way that makes them almost incomprehensible. Good luck trying to follow the car chase. There’s also the, uh, iconic fence-climbing scene, where Neeson scrambling over a chain-link fence is shown from approximately two thousand different angles in a few seconds (do a YouTube search for “Taken 3” and “Taken 3 fence” will pop up as one of the first suggestions). Fortunately, the action does get more coherent (in terms of editing and cinematography) as the picture progresses.

While the plot does borrow from the aforementioned masterpiece The Fugitive, I think that this one is competent enough in terms of story. Sure, nobody really gets taken (despite the title), but I like a picture about an innocent man being hunted for crimes he didn’t commit. Yeah, the action sequences are all over the place, but the storytelling is satisfactorily engaging.

I’ll be honest: Liam Neeson is just about the only thing that makes Taken 3 worth watching. Without him, it would feel like a forgettable direct-to-video movie or something. Despite a handful of ridiculous moments and some hard-to-follow action, I’ll give this flick a passing grade. I’ve seen much worse, and seeing Neeson beat up people is too hard to pass up. Still, if you’re on the pickier side when it comes to your actioners, you’d probably be better off watching the original Taken (2008) again.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

In Pursuit of Honor (1995) Review

Director: Ken Olin

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Would you have the courage to defy an order from a superior that you considered immoral? That is the dilemma presented in the 1995 made-for-HBO adventure-drama In Pursuit of Honor. During the 1930s, the American cavalry is phasing out horses in favor of vehicles, and several American servicemen run off with horses targeted for mass-extermination by the higher-ups. This is an inspiring story of men of conscience fighting against the odds to do what they believe is right.

When describing In Pursuit of Honor, it’s probably best to just say that it’s a good story that’s told well. It’s not an action extravaganza, but there are a few nice moments of that sort of stuff. Characters (mainly the “good guys”) aren’t always as clearly defined as I would’ve hoped, but it certainly doesn’t sink the picture. Douglas MacArthur (played by James Sikking) is, more or less, the villain of the piece, giving the order to massacre the horses. However, even his portrayal here is not entirely unsympathetic, as he articulates his desire to see the United States prepared for war with the rising fascist states of the time.

There is a minor controversy over whether the events depicted in the film are a true story. The opening insists they are, but, with the exception of the suppression of the Bonus Army (a large group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression to demand benefits they were promised) at the very beginning, the story appears to be completely made up. I don’t hold this against the movie, since flicks are based on fictional stories all the time. However, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, pass this one by.

Fictional or not, In Pursuit of Honor shows that fighting for what’s right isn’t always as easy as following somebody’s orders. It’s a well-paced drama (with western elements) that animal lovers should want to check out. Okay, there’s some scenes that show simulated fatal violence against horses, but, if you can stand that, this one is recommended. Its message of standing up to immoral authority is still relevant.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Braven (2018) Review

Director: Lin Oeding

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

People don’t always watch movies for surprises and twists. Sometimes they just watch films for some predictable catharsis. Braven is one of those pictures that fits that bill. In the Canadian wilderness, some guy named Joe Braven (Jason Momoa) has to protect his family from a gang of drug runners who stashed their illegal narcotics in his vacation cabin. It’s fairly predictable, but, for those who don’t mind, it’s painless viewing.

Braven is a lean and competent actioner. Its emotional hooks, like the main character’s father, Linden (Stephen Lang), suffering from dementia and whatnot, are solid enough to get the audience invested in the carnage. The flick takes itself relatively seriously, with no postmodern winks at the viewer, which is a welcome change from many of today’s blockbusters. Jason Momoa is a better-than-serviceable action star, looking like a less vicious version of Steven Seagal.

The action and violence here are pretty much what you’d expect from a comparatively low-budget feature of this genre. There’s nothing too sustained or spectacular, but some of the kills are fairly tasty. Thanks to its limited locations, one could make the argument that this should’ve been titled “Die Hard in a Canadian Cabin” or something.

Speaking of the title, why is it called Braven? I know that that’s the main character’s last name, but were the filmmakers optimistically expecting this to be the beginning of a franchise? Well, I wouldn’t mind that, to be honest. Sure, this movie didn’t reinvent the wheel and is a little ridiculous at times, but action fans most likely won’t be bored. Hell, they’ll probably like it. Let’s see where Momoa’s career goes from here.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Docks of New York (1928) Review

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The era of silent cinema was nearing its end in 1928, but there were still several good movies left to be released without sound. One of them was The Docks of New York, directed by Josef von Sternberg. In this silent melodrama, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker for a barge docked in New York City, rescues a suicidal woman, Mae (Betty Compson), who jumped off a pier into the harbor. The blurb on Rotten Tomatoes from critic Matthew Lucas says that this picture is about “the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.” I think that that sums up the feature pretty well.

The most striking aspect of The Docks of New York is its visual style. The proto-noirish cinematography is the highlight of the movie, being some of the very best of the silent era. The film dives into the grimy world of coal-shoveling onboard a seafaring barge on two occasions, and these sequences are pretty memorable. It should also noted that this flick is only 76 minutes long, so that’s a plus.

The romantic story at the core of The Docks of New York isn’t really that special, but it’s engaging enough to work. After watching, it may seem like a fairly thin premise for a motion picture, but, as I stated earlier, the whole thing’s under an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Most of the characters are well-defined, but, considering how small the cast list is, that’s something they shouldn’t mess up.

The camerawork and seedy, gritty atmosphere of this flick are its big assets. The plot is simple and straightforward, but that’s not an issue. Fans of silent romance movies will love the Hell out of it, but I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to see what silent films were doing when they were about to be phased out by talkies. It really shows how far the art form had come since, say, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Irishman (2019) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 209 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Irishman has a lineup that you can’t argue with. It stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (and Ray Romano) and is directed by Martin Scorsese. Did I mention that it’s three-and-a-half hours long? In this gangster film, which desperately tries to the mob-movie-to-end-all-mob-movies, World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) works his way into the local mob, controlled by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), becoming a hitman and befriending corrupt union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Is it worth investing those three-and-a-half hours into?

One of the most noteworthy of the behind-the-scenes tricks featured in The Irishman was the computer-generated de-aging done to make the actors look different ages at different points in their lives. I think this was successfully pulled off, and was probably necessary given the huge timeline this feature has to cover. Yes, this is one of the most epic-scale gangster pictures ever released, with the characters experiencing several major historical events that I won’t give away here. Despite this, some of the most entertaining moments in this flick are the comparatively smaller scenes that give the audience a slice of criminal life.

The Irishman is stuffed to the brim with content…perhaps too much. While most of the movie focuses on the three big leads, countless supporting characters come and go. Many (but not all) of the killings lack a certain gravity for this reason. It’s just another job to do. Maybe the story would’ve been served better in a mini-series format? Maybe not, I’m just throwing ideas out there.

It may have highly casual pacing, but I think The Irishman is worth checking out. It’s definitely a drama, but there are some funny scenes sprinkled in. The performances can’t be criticized, and the massive scope of the motion picture is impressive. It does border on the episodic, but many biopics do, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. The bottom line is that fans of the stars and the director will almost certainly end up satisfied. I can’t say I was as enthused with it as the critics were, but it still a gets a thumbs-up from me.

My rating is 7 outta 10.