The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 180 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This depiction of the life and times of American financial criminal Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) is a work of pure, unrestrained id. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, gleefully obnoxious and hedonistic-to-the-power-of-x stock-broker Belfort claws his way up to the top. At three hours, it’s a long one for sure, but director Martin Scorsese ensures that this comedic biopic is never remotely boring.

The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a circus or a party (not the kind I would want to go to, though), with its orgies, oversized yachts, mountains of cocaine, and literal hundreds of “f-words.” It’s all excess, all the time. The movie is so full of amplified depraved behavior that it starts to feel like a twisted sort of experimental film after a while. Despite (perhaps because of) the incessant debauchery, this is one hilarious flick, with a style that goes for maximum impact.

As funny as all of this is, one flaw with the picture is that it doesn’t really show the consequences of the main character’s crimes on the people he swindled. It barely feels like a crime film at all for that reason. Yes, there is an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), on Jordan Belfort’s case, but this feature comes dangerously close to glorifying the law-breaking of the work-hard-play-harder man in the center of the narrative.

For a three-hour movie about wealthy thugs doing wealthy thug activities, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s story, acting, and script hold up well. The whole thing’s outrageous, but it’s handled by a master filmmaker (Scorsese) who prevents it from becoming pure schlock. This one’s not for the prudish, but, if you want to take a peak into the lives of the Rich and Sociopathic, this picture comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

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

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.

Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.

With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.

This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou [1929] levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) Review

Director: Marielle Heller

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

I can still remember what it was like when it was announced that Tom Hanks was cast as Fred Rogers in a movie. Everyone on the Internet seemed to agree that this was the casting decision of the century. The film itself is about cynical reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who’s assigned to interview children’s television show host Mr. Rogers (the aforementioned Tom Hanks). Although I have deemed this a “Biography” picture for categorization purposes, this is not a rote biopic of the legendary nice guy.

Some may be surprised to find out that Mr. Rogers is a bit of a supporting character in his own movie. It probably shouldn’t be too much of a shock, since film thrives on conflict, and how are you supposed to make an audience feel uncomfortable if the entire flick is about calm Mr. Rogers running a T.V. program? The primary focus here is on Matthew Rhys’ journalist character, who has some serious father issues to work out.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood avoids the trap of being too cutesy by focusing on some heavy themes. Well, yes, there is some adorable content here, like Mr. Rogers’ puppets, but this is also a picture about death, forgiveness, misanthropy, fear, and anger. It’s not exactly your typical family film, but it will surely resonate with the older members of the audience.

Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers might be a hair quirkier than the real person, but it’s still a splendid performance. It’s a fantastic feature, overall, never once losing me, despite I being the type of moviegoer who prefers shootouts, explosions, and car chases. I’m definitely not the first person to say this, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of those rare movies that comes along that makes you want to be a better person.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Blinded by the Light (2019) Review

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Musical

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Blinded by the Light is a film about the music of Bruce Springsteen, but this is no rock star biopic. Instead, it follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), the son of Pakistani immigrants living in Great Britain in the 1980s, who discovers the music of “the Boss” to help him cope with his chaotic life. Based on a true story, this is a euphoric movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.

This dramedy covers more than just classic rock, of course. It’s a coming-of-age story that tackles the issues of intergenerational conflict, prejudice, hero worship, and the role of family. It’s refreshingly earnest and some are bound to find it cheesy in its emotional directness and lack of subtlety. I, however, found the flick’s child-like enthusiasm infectious and charming.

Almost needless to say, there’s plenty of Bruce Springseen music in this feature to rock out to. Most of the biggies are here, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Prove It All Night,” and, obviously, “Blinded by the Light.” I was surprised to hear “Because the Night,” a song originally written by Bruce for the Patti Smith Group (it’s the Springsteen version that plays here). Even if you’re not familiar with the works of the New Jersey rocker at its center, you’ll still probably enjoy the picture.

Blinded by the Light is the kind of positive movie that’s not reliant on sex or violence that many people lament aren’t being made anymore. It’s a feel-good flick for sure, but it still shows a few glimpses of the darker side of humanity that must be overcome by our unassuming hero. It’s a focused work of cinema that succeeds without leaning too much on the Springsteen music that inspired it. It’s just a good story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Django (1966) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

1966’s Django just might be the most famous “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western) that wasn’t directed by Sergio Leone. A mysterious, coffin-dragging gunslinger named Django (Franco Nero) finds himself in the middle of a range war between Mexican revolutionaries and ex-Confederate, Ku Klux Klan-style renegades. It may live in the shadows of the works by the aforementioned Leone, but this flick has a personality of its own.

One of the first things one is probably going to notice about this movie is just how action-packed it is. Guns are going off almost constantly and the body count just keeps rising. Keep in mind that this is a pulpy and over-the-top film that has no time for realism. The violence was considered extreme for its time, and still has a jarring moment or two.

Franco Nero’s cool-as-a-cucumber titular character is obviously based on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I figure he’s just different enough to avoid claims of blatant plagiarism. This feature is rawer and looser than Leone’s pictures, so don’t expect something quite as tight or elegant as those movies. One of the best parts of Django is its theme song, sung by Rocky Roberts. Some may find it lacking in subtlety, but, hey, that certainly fits the film.

Overall, Django is a pretty undemanding piece of shoot-’em-up filmmaking. It verges on the schlocky, but this muddy and bloody classic revels in its carnage in a way that’s hard not to admire. The action’s mostly exemplary, so this makes up for any problems that the rest of the flick may have. It’s worth noting that over thirty movies have used the Django character since introduced here.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven can’t top the 1960 original, but it doesn’t go down without one Hell of a fight. In this action-packed western, seven gunmen are hired to help protect a small mining town from robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue’s (Peter Sarsgaard) private army. What this film lacks in originality, it makes up for with fireworks.

2016’s The Magnificent Seven is set domestically in the United States, so it largely lacks the internationalist, Wilsonian edge of the 1960 flick. Still, the seven gunslingers are a diverse bunch, so one could argue that it’s still about people of different backgrounds coming together to fight tyranny. One of the main characters has an unnecessary motivation for his actions (that I won’t spoil here) that sort of ruins the angle that the heroes are doing this from the purity of their hearts, though.

If all you want is Wild West action, this feature delivers that by the wagonload. The final shootout (more of an all-out battle) is a lengthy affair, going through several different stages. This film’s body count is nothing short of ludicrous. In comparison to the 1960 original, there’s a lot more shoot-’em-up, but, in terms of quality, they’re roughly on par with one another.

So, I just prefer The Magnificent Seven (1960), but I can put aside my love of that picture to say that this one is still worth a ride or two (or three). The 1960 film has a more impressive cast and a more riveting musical score by Elmer Bernstein (the 2016 version’s score, by Simon Franglen and James Horner, is downright restrained in comparison). Yeah, it’s hard to beat a classic, but this movie is still worth watching…especially for action-adventure fanatics.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Extreme Prejudice (1987) Review

Director: Walter Hill

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice is an action movie in western film clothing. The story’s about two childhood friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the law and the border…one, Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte), is now a Texas Ranger, and the other, Cash Bailey (Powers Boothe), is a drug lord in Mexico. This is one of the best modern-day westerns and one of my favorite westerns, period.

This a macho man actioner, but the plot isn’t as tight as I wished it was. A huge chunk of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to a team of American commandos who are “officially dead” and working to help take down the drug cartels. Their story does intersect with that of Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe’s characters, but it almost feels like they could’ve been written out of the picture completely. Their stuff sure isn’t boring (Hell, it might be more interesting than the A-story), but these two parallel threads should’ve been better integrated.

The action scenes in Extreme Prejudice are outstanding. The best of the whole lot of them is the final hacienda shootout that was almost certainly inspired by The Wild Bunch (1969). Overall, the action isn’t as phenomenal as it is in that classic movie, but, to tell the truth, I’d rather watch Extreme Prejudice. The starry cast is worth bringing up and they all play well-defined characters.

This underseen action-western doesn’t quite live up to its potential, due to the fact that it seems to be telling two almost-separate stories. The script may have needed a bit more polishing. It doesn’t feel completely focused the way it is now. Still, I can sit back and watch the squibby action and the badass cast and have a great time.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Planet of the Apes (1968) Review

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

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

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes boasts one of the best endings in cinema history, but it’d be a mistake to overlook the rest of the picture. Four human astronauts – George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley) – land on a mysterious planet ruled by intelligent, talking apes. This compelling story spawned a multi-film franchise and remains the best of the series.

It’s pretty easy to dismiss this movie as a kitschy, cheesy science-fiction relic, with its elaborate ape costumes and wonderfully-hammy acting from Charlton Heston, yet this flick is much more than that. This is a sly, satirical piece of filmmaking, with more of a sense of humor than might be expected. It also benefits from a palpable sense of menace and danger (Planet of the Apes was rated G by the MPAA, but this was clearly before the organization had any clue as to what they were doing).

Jerry Goldsmith’s jolting, avant-garde musical score is a highlight, as are the excellent action scenes. The scenery and sets are top-notch, and the arc for Charlton Heston’s character, a cynical misanthrope, is one of the most memorable of its kind. The special effects haven’t aged as poorly as one might think, and the cinematography is grand.

It’s the movie’s somewhat talky third act that keeps Planet of the Apes from the big leagues, as far as ratings and rankings are concerned. Yes, this part of the picture is necessary for the plot and contains the stunning ending, but most of it is less thrilling than the material that came before it. Overall, this is an intelligent, if occasionally heavy-handed, sci-fi-adventure that needs to be watched before popular culture spoils the final scene for you.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

22 Jump Street (2014) Review

Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

22 Jump Street carefully follows the blueprints of its predecessor, 21 Jump Street (2012), and doesn’t pretend like it’s doing anything but that. The duo of undercover cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back, this time posing as college kids to, you guessed it, take down the dealers of a new drug on campus. It’s more of the same, but, in this case, “the same” is euphorically entertaining.

This foul-mouthed action-comedy repeats damn near all of the notes from the first picture, down to the sequence where the heroes find themselves taking the narcotic they’ve dedicated themselves to taking off the streets. Like 21 Jump Street, most of the action is stuffed into the third act. There’s some car chases, some gunplay, some explosions, and some hand-to-hand combat. The violence is notably a bit less graphic than it was in its predecessor.

22 Jump Street parodies the idea of being a derivative blockbuster sequel almost to the point of making the audience throw their hands up in the air and say “we get the picture!” It doesn’t break any new ground, although it does heighten the faux-homoerotic tension between the two leads. It’s interesting to note that this feature takes just as much from the rom-com handbook as it does from the action-comedy one.

So, does 22 Jump Street deserve a low score for its lack of originality or a high one for doing what is does so well? I’m going to go with the latter…this movie is a laugh riot. Make sure to stick around for the end credits! Also, take note of the Devo poster on a dorm room wall, because the frontman of that band, Mark Mothersbaugh, did the musical score for both 21 and 22 Jump Street.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hard Boiled (1992) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director John Woo’s Hard Boiled, originally titled “Lat Sau San Taam,” is known almost solely for one thing: its gratuitous quantity of action. There’s so much shoot-’em-up that the plot about Hong Kong police officer “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) taking on an army of bloodthirsty gun-runners barely even registers. This is a film of little substance…it’s almost entirely style…but what style!

The action sequences in Hard Boiled are nothing short of breathtaking, being some of the finest I’ve ever seen. It’s a true ballet of bullets, with elaborate “gun-fu” scenes breaking out every few minutes. The body count of the picture is astronomical, and it looks like the actors and stuntpeople are in real danger most of the time, with squibs constantly going off and debris, vehicles, flames, and people flying all over the screen.

What holds back Hard Boiled from masterpiece status is its story. It’s nothing more than a thin, clich├ęd excuse for relentless physical mayhem. You’ve seen its elements before in countless gangster and cop films, so you’re not always as emotionally invested in the carnage as you’d like. Fortunately, there’s so much gunplay that firearms do the talking far more often than mouths do.

Hard Boiled is in the running for the honor of the most action-packed flick in cinema history. This hyper-violent crime-thriller (which has a good musical score by Michael Gibbs) is so chockful of fighting that it will really only appeal to the most hard-core of fans of the action genre. Many audience members will be turned off by the lack of a strong central plot and the wildly unrealistic and acrobatic combat. Sure, The Killer (1989) may be better, but this one still works wonders for those who know what they’re in for.

My rating is 8 outta 10.