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.

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.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

Director: Jonathan Demme

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

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Intense from the get-go, The Silence of the Lambs is an instant classic that won an Oscar for Best Picture, the only horror movie to win that award so far. The plot follows aspiring FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must use the help of imprisoned cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a woman-murdering serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). Does it deserve its reputation as one of the finest psychological thrillers of all time? I’d say so.

It just might be the perfect performances that keep The Silence of the Lambs on track. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterclass acting job as cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, effortlessly getting under the skin of the viewers. The mind games he plays are enough to warrant giving the feature a thumbs-up. His role won him an Oscar and Dr. Lecter was named the number-one villain in American cinema history as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. It would be a mistake to forget about Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar for her part. Her character was named the sixth greatest American screen hero in the celebration mentioned above.

Dark, serious, and macabre, The Silence of the Lambs earns its R rating, but doesn’t go overboard with the gore, probably making it watchable for most adult audiences. It’s very fast-paced and efficient, making the minutes fly by when experiencing it. If I had to find a fault with it, it would be that the ending feels less conclusive and a bit more sequel-baity than desirable, but that’s a minor flaw.

This bone-chilling horror-thriller flick is nothing short of gripping. Even the critics generally loved it, even if they seem to avoid calling it a “horror movie,” favoring the term “thriller.” Perhaps they were too embarrassed to admit that they liked an entry into the horror genre? Also, just how big is “Buffal0 Bill’s” basement supposed to be anyway?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the last, if not the last, of the major gangster pictures of the 1930s, The Roaring Twenties ends a chapter in mob movie history on a decent note. The story here is about World War I veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who gets mixed up with bootleggers during Prohibition and rises up among their ranks. It feels more epic-scale than many other films in this subgenre, but some intimacy is lost in translation.

The Roaring Twenties tries to juggle many elements: action, romance, music, historical background, etc., trying to please every type of moviegoer. The main plot of the flick is often overcome by a love triangle, and there’s just as much singing as there is shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff. The truth is, it feels more nostalgic than hard-boiled, lacking a certain meanness necessary for this sort of crime feature to work properly.

That being said, the action sequences are pretty good when they arrive (the movie definitely ends on a high note). There are some engaging montages to express the passage of time, although the narration for these sequences (done by John Deering) feels a bit dated nowadays. Raoul Walsh’s direction is solid, but the clean-feeling script doesn’t always help him.

The Roaring Twenties is just too romantic for its own good, both in the sense of the lovey-dovey stuff and in terms of rose-tinted nostalgia. It feels like one of James Cagney’s “bigger” films, but it’s certainly not among his best, in my book. It just doesn’t have the ultra-gritty intimacy of The Public Enemy (1931), the heroic badassery of ‘G’ Men (1935), or the lurid sadism of White Heat (1949). I’m not saying “don’t watch it,” just keep your expectations in check.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Little Caesar (1931) Review

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Little Caesar is famous for being one of the first major gangster movies of the sound era. It may be a bit creaky by today’s eye, but it holds up pretty well. The plot, which may sound familiar, is about small-time hoodlum Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) joining the mob to make a name for himself. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this picture raised concerns that it was celebrating the outlaw lifestyle.

The standout element of Little Caesar is Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the titular character. He’s really a natural, making most of the rest of the cast look like they’re made out of wood. Check out the flophouse scene for some of Robinson’s best acting in the feature. While we’re on the subject of acting, take a gander at Thomas E. Jackson’s turn as police officer Sergeant Flaherty. I can’t tell if it’s the most brilliant performance I’ve ever seen…or the worst. Not every character registers, but enough do to make it coherent.

Little Caesar has fair-enough pacing. Sometimes things move pretty quickly (the first shot of the movie, after the opening credits, is a stickup, after all), and sometimes there’s just a hair too much talking. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, because it’s never boring and the runtime is only 79 minutes. The whole flick is a little primitive-feeling at times, but that’s pretty much expected for a 1931 release.

It’s Robinson that breathes life into this entertaining crime-drama (it’s the role that made him a star). It’s not an action movie, so don’t expect a bunch of explosions and you might have a good time. There are better Pre-Code gangster films out there – namely Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931) – but this one beat them all to the punch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Raid 2 (2014) Review

Director: Gareth Evans

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 150 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Raid: Redemption (2011) was a lean, mean action machine. So, how does its sequel stack up? This ambitious, Indonesian-language picture (originally titled “Serbuan Maut 2: Berandal“) follows Rama (Iko Uwais), the hero of the first one, as he goes undercover in the mob to expose crooked cops and gangsters. It can’t top the original, but The Raid 2 certainly gives it its all trying to do so.

While the first movie was a simple story of a S.W.A.T. team trapped in an apartment building of criminals, the second film tries to be an epic-scale crime saga…with lots of martial arts thrown into the mix. I don’t really think The Raid 2 pulls it off. It lacks the effective “hook” of the The Raid: Redemption and goes on for way too long (it’s two-and-a-half-hours long, for Heaven’s sake!). It also wallows in ineffective melodrama on an occasion or two.

Of course, the action scenes are the real reason to watch, and they are just as impeccably choreographed as you’ve hoped. Unfortunately, some of them just made me wonder “why should I even care about what’s going on?” Also, for a mob movie set in modern times, there seems to be a noticeable lack of guns. I guess these guys (and gal) just prefer to beat the shit out of each other with fists, feet, and melee weapons. Who am I to judge?

This violent-to-the-point-of-self-parody action film is a disappointment after the magnificent first flick in the series. When people aren’t getting pummeled, it can be a bit of a clock-watcher. The drama just doesn’t quite work and the runtime is a monster for a martial arts movie. I suppose it might be worth a watch for hard-core action fanatics, but I wouldn’t expect much outside of the insane fights.

My rating is 6 outta 10.