1917 (2019) Review

Director: Sam Mendes

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hollywood doesn’t seem to make too many World War I films these days, but, once in a while, they crank out one that gets a thumbs-up from me. My favorite movie on the First World War so far is 2019’s 1917. During that horrendous conflict, two British soldiers on the Western Front, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with delivering a message across no-man’s-land to cancel a planned attack on the German lines that’s doomed to fail. It turns out that Blake’s brother, Joseph (Richard Madden), is one of the troopers who’s going to participate in the offensive, adding even more urgency to the proceedings.

1917 was shot in a way that makes it look like one, continuous take. It wasn’t actually one, big shot, but that doesn’t take away how meticul0us and detailed it all feels. So, does the one-take cinematography distract from the storytelling at all? I would say “not really,” even though such a “gimmick” could’ve easily made itself the focus of the picture. To the feature’s credit, the action moves along quite fluidly and the camerawork does not feel limiting. On a related note, the sets the filmmakers dealt with must’ve been absolutely massive.

Characterization here isn’t particularly detailed, but it’s enough to get the job done. It’s not hard to invest yourself emotionally with the situations that the main characters find themselves in on their journey across the wastelands of the Western Front (the only real flaw with 1917 is that landscape isn’t always as Hellish as it should be…there’s often too much grass). This is a film about war-time heroism that generally shies away from over-the-top displays of machismo. Of course, it’s not one-hundred-percent realistic, but it’s grounded enough to work properly.

While there certainly are action scenes and ferocious thrills to be found here, this isn’t quite the combat-heavy Saving Private Ryan (1998)-style treatment of the Great War that many expected. Still, I actually enjoyed it a tad more than that excellent motion picture, as I found 1917 to be tighter and more successful in its dealings with side characters. War movies as great as 1917 don’t come along often, so I highly recommend it. It’s more than just a director showing off his immense talent, it’s a dramatically satisfying and hair-raisingly intense experience. 1917 is simply outstanding.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

White Heat (1949) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

When I think of the greatest acting performances I’ve seen in my life, James Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat is one of the first to spring to mind. In this truly great gangster classic, Jarrett confronts threats against his life from both inside and outside his crew of criminals. You see, he just robbed a train and the federal government wants him dead or behind bars, so they send an agent by the name of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to infiltrate Jarrett’s ranks. James Cagney’s made some good movies, but this is the best of the lot (well, at least of the ones I’ve seen).

Of course, it is Cagney’s beyond-superb performance as a psychotically-violent mobster who’s losing his grip on reality that stands out most when thinking about White Heat. It’s a shame that it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. However, this picture’s secret weapon is its taut script. The storytelling here is remarkably tight…remove one scene from the finished product and the whole thing would make no sense. It should probably be shown in filmmaking schools for this reason.

Between the tough-talking dialogue and the moments of action (which come rather frequently for a non-action film), you’ve got tons of iconic moments. Rewatching White Heat will have any viewer saying “oh, I love this scene” many times over. The various supporting characters are reasonably easy to keep track of and the Max Steiner musical score shines on a few occasions.

White Heat is frequently considered a film-noir, but I think of it more as a straight gangster flick, similar to those Cagney was making in the 1930s. Anyway, this thriller is a must-watch for fans of organized crime media. It has it all: an astounding central performance, a screenplay that never goes off on tangents, cold-blooded killings, an explosive finale, and more. Its appeal is not limited to Cagney aficionados.

My rating is 9 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.

Joker (2019) Review

Director: Todd Phillips

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Joker is not your typical comic book movie. Instead of people in capes flying around, we get a dark psychological drama about a broken man and the society that may be responsible for creating him. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a deeply mentally-ill clown-for-hire and aspiring comedian who finds himself on the road to becoming a psychotic killer. This backstory to Batman’s greatest foe is one that you may not be able to tear your eyes off of the screen for.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the titular character is overwhelming. This is a different Joker than what we’ve seen in previous films. Other Jokers were demented criminal masterminds, but the guy we have here couldn’t run a lemonade stand. This is a disturbingly real character…one that we could see existing in our world with frightening ease. He’s probably my favorite version of the Joker that audiences have seen yet, although, as I mentioned earlier, he bares little resemblance to other incarnations.

This is not an action movie. There are some scenes of chaos towards the end, but, for the most part, it’s the central, grotesque performance that keeps viewers in rapt attention. Tension and pacing are ace here. Many critics have taken issue with Joker‘s lack of subtlety, but I don’t go into a picture about a murderous clown who will eventually fight a guy dressed up as a bat expecting understated filmmaking.

“Intense” is a good word to use to describe Joker. It’s simply riveting from beginning to end. Provocative and taut, viewers who don’t expect an action scene-oriented explosionfest will probably be left reeling. I’d recommend watching this thriller for Phoenix’s performance alone, but the rest of the movie around him is just as compelling.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) Review

Director: Luis Buñuel

Genre(s): Fantasy

Runtime: 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Un Chien Andalou” translates from French into English as “An Andalusian Dog.” This movie has nothing to do with Andalusia or dogs, which should tell you something about the motion picture you’re about to watch. This is my favorite short film, being nothing more than sixteen minutes of pure surrealism. Watching Un Chien Andalou is like stepping into someone’s dream…or nightmare.

This flick has no real plot, it’s just an incendiary piece of nonsensical storytelling. It single-handedly destroys the laws of time and space with its alluring dream logic. Consider yourself warned, though, as it starts off with an eye-opening act of graphic violence that has become one of the most famous scenes in silent cinema. In some ways it feels like the original “deep-fried meme,” with its grainy, washed-out look and lack of logic.

Although silent, Un Chien Andalou features a catchy soundtrack added in 1960 that really enhances the visuals. One aspect of this movie that sometimes gets overlooked is its special effects. I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s say that this stunningly weird picture has a few sequences that just wouldn’t be the same without its primitive effects. The fast pacing should also be mentioned. All too often, films try to be dreamlike by slowing down the tempo. This is totally inaccurate, as dreams are often manically paced.

This is an oneiric masterpiece that has become a cult classic over the decades. Literal-minded viewers will despise it, but, if you just think of it as a trip inside the world of dreams, you just might love it. It’s not really symbolism, just random, oft-humorous images meant to confuse and startle those who have no clue of what they’re in for.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo (2008) Review

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 92 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (extended version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

After taking twenty years off, the Rambo series returned with a vengeance in 2008. Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is living the peaceful life in Thailand when he’s called upon by a group of American missionaries to escort them into civil war-torn Myanmar (Burma). The results are ultra-gory, with people being liquefied and shredded by fifty-caliber ammo and genocidal atrocities being commonplace.

As one would expect for a movie in the Rambo franchise, the action scenes are astounding, as well as more ferocious than ever, thanks to the upped level of violence. The pure-evil baddies give the audience plenty of people to hiss at and John Rambo is just as heroic as he’s ever been. This is the first Rambo picture where the musical score wasn’t done by Jerry Goldsmith. Instead, Brian Tyler steps up to the plate and delivers music that references the past, as well as forging its own path.

Rambo is initially a reluctant hero, but this is a bleeding heart shoot-’em-up, so he comes around to the idea of mass-killing people eventually. The film represents a militant style of Wilsonianism, where human rights grow out of the barrel of a fifty-caliber machine gun. It’s pretty similar to Rambo III (1988) in this regard, where underdog freedom fighters struggle against the forces of unrestrained totalitarianism.

As serious as Rambo is, there are some kitschier moments that may provoke an unintended chuckle or two. Overall, the flick isn’t quite as good as the original trilogy, but it’s still a riotously over-the-top actioner that will satisfy most fans of the genre. It stays true to the Rambo style and, regarding its politics, it has its heart in the right place. If you can handle the gruesome carnage, it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo III (1988) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Despite being almost universally considered the worst film in the Rambo series, Rambo III is actually my favorite of the franchise. Packed to the brim with incessant action, this one has Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) traveling to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to rescue his former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was captured by the communists there. As edge-of-your-seat thrilling as the whole original Rambo trilogy is, this romance-free installment takes the cake.

Rambo III‘s action sequences are beyond incredible, tossing countless explosions, fired blanks, blood squibs, collapsing extras, and totaled vehicles at the viewer. The choreography and editing is exquisite. It’s all completely over-the-top, yet just barely (I repeat: barely) plausible enough for the audience to accept. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is a scene-stealer that greatly heightens the action.

This picture sees Rambo assume the role of Wilsonian action hero, fighting for human rights in a far-off land. It’s a welcome twist for the Rambo character that gives the flick some unrecognized depth. Sylvester Stallone’s role is a bit different here from the rest of the series, being less internally-tortured and more of a one-liner machine, but I think the transformation is okay. Many people claim Rambo III‘s politics have aged poorly, with the Soviet-Afghan War-era Mujaheddin being shown in a positive light, with some viewers saying that Rambo helped found the Taliban. This is a bit of an exaggeration, as the anti-Soviet fighter Masoud (Spyros Fokas) in the film is actually based on Ahmad Shah Massoud, an actual person who fought against both the Soviet Union and the Taliban (as a leader of the Northern Alliance when battling against the latter).

Yes, this is probably the kitschiest of the Rambo franchise, but that doesn’t bother me at all. It has the best (and perhaps most) action of the series, and its story is an inspiration to freedom fighters across the globe. A lot of people can’t handle kitsch, but, if you can and you love action, Rambo III is a must-watch. It’s got the massive explosions, the heart, the pacing, and the heroism that makes for great cinema.

My rating is 9 outta 10.