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.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Review

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

As masterful as First Blood (1982) is, it wasn’t really until its sequel that the Rambo that most people recognize appeared on movie theater screens. In this film, Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is sent back to Vietnam by the American government to investigate the possibility of U.S. P.O.W.s left behind after the end of the war. Yes, this is the one where the iconic main character really starts to go to town on his enemies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II wastes no time getting started, and almost constantly bludgeons the audience over the head with awesome action scenes. The high point just may be a helicopter rampage sequence that’s truly one for the ages. Another highlight is Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. The pacing is generally speedy, and the whole picture has a palpable sense of righteous rage. It’s kitschier than the first one, but this has an appeal of its own.

On the down side, there is some pointless romance involving Rambo that probably could’ve been written out of the screenplay. As much as I love this flick, it’s probably my least favorite of the original Rambo trilogy. It seems a bit torn between the angsty, tormented world of First Blood and the wild, shoot-’em-up-heavy universe of Rambo III (1988). Those two films come close to perfection in doing their own things, while Rambo: First Blood Part II feels like a stepping stone from one to the other.

While John Rambo was largely a tragic figure in First Blood (and he still is to an extent throughout the entire series), the first sequel transforms him into a sweaty, shirtless, M60-slinging Captain America who makes Uncle Sam cry tears of pride. Still, there’s enough pathos to the main character to make the flick still feel like it’s from the same franchise as First Blood. The bottom line is that this is a tremendous action film full of explosions and dead bodies. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you’ll want to check it out.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

First Blood (1982) Review

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Genre(s): Action, Drama

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

First Blood is the first entry into the Rambo series, and, if you’re not a fan of run-and-gun movies, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Why am I even reading this review?” Well, First Blood isn’t your typical Rambo film, and, even if you don’t think you’d enjoy the other flicks in the franchise, this one might be worth checking out. Compared to the other members of the series, this one’s plot is somewhat low-key, being about Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) being harassed by small-town cops in the American Pacific Northwest and having to take to the neighboring, forested hills to survive.

One thing that sets First Blood apart from the rest of the 1980s shoot-’em-up pack is its microscopic body count. Rambo isn’t piling up the corpses like he does in the sequels. Despite this, the violence feels more graphic and painful than it does in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). The action scenes are fantastic, despite generally being devoid of lethal carnage. This picture is far more realistic than its sequels, and it makes more grounded acts of physicality outrageously exciting. Something as simple as a guy jumping on top of a moving truck is a blast to watch here.

Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is excellent (the film wouldn’t be the same without it), and the theme song, “It’s a Long Road,” sung by Dan Hill, is mighty effective. It’s a morally complex movie, with few clear heroes and villains (Rambo here sometimes resembles a more anti-heroic version of a slasher film bad guy). Sylvester Stallone is the picture’s backbone, providing an able performance that keeps it from straying into kitsch territory. His character, Rambo, is ridden with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), giving him a lot more depth than he’s often given credit for.

Like Death Wish (1974), First Blood is actually a remarkably well-crafted drama that sometimes gets dismissed due to its connection to its Crazy Town sequels. It works best as a rugged action-drama that moves the audience as it excites them with violent fireworks. It’s not as fist-pumpingly heroic as the other installments in the series, but it’s certainly a wild ride.

My rating is 9 outta 10.