The Outpost (2019) Review

Director: Rod Lurie

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The war film The Outpost (which premiered in 2019, but saw its main release in 2020) does the world a great favor by shedding some light on a ferocious, yet little-known battle of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan. In 2009, at the Battle of Kamdesh, a small base of American (and a couple of Latvian) troops located at the bottom of a mountainous valley is besieged by hordes of Taliban insurgents. Think of it as the twenty-first century’s version of Zulu (1964).

Some of the most memorable parts of this film are the vicious combat scenes. They feel mighty realistic, with little room for over-the-top, John Rambo-esque antics. The sound effects seal the deal. There’s a spontaneity to the action, with firefights having the potential to break out at any second. It’s surprising how close the combatants get to each other on one or two occasions. Every American casualty makes the viewer cringe.

If The Outpost has any downside, it’s that most of the characters don’t feel properly fleshed-out by the time the centerpiece battle sequence comes around. Yes, the movie is rightfully reverent and there are plenty of humorous moments, but very few of the characters stuck with me after the end credits rolled. This is a real shame, considering the superhuman heroism of the U.S. (and Latvian) soldiers in the actual events.

The Outpost shows some interesting glimpses of life in the armed forces, and some of the best non-action scenes have to do with military-civilian relations. Dealing with the local Afghan population must be a stressful tightrope walk, as the coalition forces in the country have to win over their “hearts and minds,” while avoiding pushing them in the direction of the Taliban. So, this picture pays tribute to some real-life heroes quite admirably, but I do wish the screenplay did a better job giving them the onscreen personalities they deserve.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

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

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “GiĆ¹ la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

Director: Mel Gibson

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2016 war film Hacksaw Ridge may be the Sergeant York (1941) of its generation. Both pictures are based on true stories about American conscientious objectors during a world war. Here, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) signs up to join the American military during World War II, and he finds himself fighting for his right to serve as a non-firearm-carrying medic and seeing combat in the Battle of Okinawa. This is one of the great follow-your-conscience movies.

The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is largely dedicated to setting up Doss as a character and showing the audience his struggle to avoid having to wield a gun during basic training. Many of the supporting characters in Doss’ unit feel somewhat interchangeable, reducing the impact of the battle sequences when they do arrive, but this is a minor fault. There’s plenty of religious content throughout the feature, which may turn off some viewers, but, considering that the plot is grounded in historical events, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The second half is where Doss and his fellow soldiers see the horrific face of war on Okinawa. The ultra-violent battles do have some glaring computer-generated blood and gore, and sometimes the choreography of the combat strays into straight action movie territory. The action scenes are highly, highly exciting, but should they be? Is excitement appropriate for a war film with pretensions of realism?

Hacksaw Ridge is an inspiring, moving, and grueling watch. Desmond Doss’ struggle to do what he feels is right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is easy to relate to and captivates the audience. Yes, allegations that the battle scenes are occasionally “war porn” are largely true, but they’re still pretty messy and gripping. It’s one of the stronger war flicks that I’ve seen, and it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Uncut Gems (2019) Review

Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2019, Adam Sandler generated a lot of Oscar buzz for himself for his performance in the drama-thriller Uncut Gems. It’s a bit different from the typical Sandler role, and, although he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, he still made quite an impression. In this crime film, New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) desperately finds himself trying to pay off his gambling debts in order to stay afloat.

Uncut Gems is famous for its reputation of being an assaultive panic attack in cinematic form. The movie’s style is relentlessly suspenseful, constantly having its main character being in some sort of trouble, as he moves from one bad decision to the next. Personally, I didn’t find it as anxiety-inducing as many have suggested, but that didn’t stop me from being entertained from beginning to end.

For a picture about people incessantly screaming, swearing, and talking at the same time, this is a surprisingly easy feature to follow. In terms of comprehending what was going on onscreen, I felt like I was treading water the same way that Sandler’s character was with his financial dealings. Speaking of Sandler, his performance here is rightfully celebrated. He simply disappears into the role of a fast-talking bullshitter who’s in over his head with no one to blame but himself.

For some viewers, Uncut Gems is a bit too much. Yes, it relies heavily on uncomfortable and nervous-energy-provoking scenes and there are no likable characters, but there’s never a dull moment and the comedy that is in it is effective. I especially liked the way it built up to its climax. If you know that you’re in for a film that’s not entertaining in the conventional sense of the term, you might walk away smiling.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Passage to Marseille (1944) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The plot of Passage to Marseille is about a Free French liaison officer named Freycinet (Claude Reins) recalling the story of how a group of French airmen fighting against the Nazis in World War II came into existence. This motion picture reunites many of the cast and crew of the iconic masterpiece Casablanca (1942), including actors Humphrey Bogart (as Jean Matrac), the aforementioned Claude Reins, Sydney Greenstreet (playing Duval), and Peter Lorre (as Marius), director Michael Curtiz, and musical composer Max Steiner. Can it recapture the magic of that movie?

Well, to be frank, it doesn’t. Perhaps the biggest problem with Passage to Marseille is its structure. This film has a flashback inside of a flashback inside of a flashback. No, I’m not kidding. Okay, the non-linear storytelling isn’t nearly as hard to follow as it sounds, but it still feels like a detriment to the finished product. Overall, the flick feels a bit on the aimless side and a lot on the formless side thanks to this.

The picture in question is blessed with some magnificent cinematography, as well as some exciting action, as one should probably expect from an adventure film directed by Michael Curtiz. The mayhem mainly kicks in in the third act, and it’s worth the wait to see Humphrey Bogart wield a Lewis machine gun. He actually gets to be pretty ruthless with it.

If you want to go into this one as spoiler-free as possible, I’d avoid reading the plot synopsis on IMDb. It sort of gives one of the movie’s more predictable twists away. With a similar cast and crew and comparable World War II-era francophilia, Passage to Marseille is sometimes called a spiritual sequel to Casablanca on the Internet. It’s certainly not the all-time classic that that feature is, but the 1944 work we’re talking about right now still might be worth watching for fans of Bogie.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mine (2016) Review

Directors: Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The film Mine from 2016 is a mediocre attempt at one of those psychological thrillers with a potentially unreliable narrator where the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. After an assassination assignment in modern-day North Africa goes wrong, two American servicemen – Michael Stevens (Armie Hammer) and Tommy Madison (Tom Cullen) find themselves passing through an old desert minefield. It may be a war movie, but this flick is more about confronting one’s inner demons than enemy soldiers on a battlefield.

Mine often lets abstract sequences get in the way of the more interesting survival thriller elements. I love surrealism, but I question its extensive use here. Sometimes it was difficult to care about what was going on, since it might just be a mirage or a hallucination. The flick becomes a bit tiring after a while, and the project might have fared better as a short film.

Now, let’s move on to the stuff that went right. Armie Hammer gives a solid performance with what he’s given to work with, and the cinematography’s pretty. The opening scenes involving the assassination attempt on a terrorist leader are appropriately tense. Despite all of the craziness throughout the picture, I will say that it mostly manages to stick the landing.

I used the word “abstract” earlier in this review, and I feel that that word sums up a significant portion of the feature, which might make it a bit unlikable or inaccessible to many people expecting something a bit more straightforward. It’s not your typical combat movie by a long shot, it has pretensions of being something more cerebral and personal. If you enjoy this film, then more power to you, but I found it to be an average (at best) what-is-real-and-what-is-not?-style thriller. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it…

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Action in the North Atlantic (1943) Review

Directors: Lloyd Bacon and Byron Haskin

Genre(s): Drama, War

Runtime: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During World War II, Hollywood cranked out various films (that could easily be described as propaganda, though not of a malicious sort) that promoted the different services and branches of the armed forces. The U.S. Merchant Machine got Action in the North Atlantic as their recruitment ad. Who wouldn’t want to join the organization that Humphrey Bogart was apparently in? The story of the movie is about a crew of mariners, including Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart), who are on a dangerous journey to deliver supplies to the European theater of the Second World War.

Action in the North Atlantic may be a propaganda piece, but it’s for just about as good a cause as one could ask for. It emphasizes the international cooperation needed to overcome the vile Axis Powers, even if the totalitarian Soviet Union gets a fairly rosy portrait of itself drawn.The picture was so effective as a recruiting device that future-actor Carroll O’Connor joined the Merchant Marine after viewing it (according to the feature’s IMDb trivia page). It’s a war-time morale-booster that audiences probably needed.

This flick contains some of the best naval combat I’ve ever seen. The feature’s first action scene might actually be too good, since its fiery ferocity isn’t quite topped in the remainder of the runtime. The battles contain lots of camera-shaking explosions, impressive destruction, and special effects that still hold up. It can be difficult to tell what’s stock footage, what’s miniatures, and what (if anything) is full-scale.

In the end, Action in the North Atlantic might be a bit too long, and it might show off its best set-piece too early. The scenes on land generally aren’t anything worth writing home about (although the scene with Bogart and the loose-lipped bar patron is fun), and it’s a bit too kind to the Soviets. Despite these flaws, it’s still a watchable war film. I’m generally not a fan of war flicks set at sea (for whatever reason), but this one has more positives than negatives.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

They Drive by Night (1940) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

They Drive by Night may not be an action, adventure, gangster, war, or western movie, but it often has the macho swagger of one. It doesn’t always live up to its promises, but this working-class drama features a cast at the top of their game. The story concerns a couple of two-fisted, tough-guy truckers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart), who’re brothers, and must survive their perilous occupation during the Great Depression.

This film works best when it’s showing slices-of-life from the blue-collar badasses that inhabit its world. Seeing Humphrey Bogart and George Raft play siblings alone will make it worth the price for some classic cinema buffs. They’re joined by an impressive cast, consisting of Ann Sheridan (as Cassie Hartley, a waitress at a roadside diner), Alan Hale (as Ed Carlsen, a former trucker who’s now the owner of a business in that line of work), Ida Lupino (as Lana Carlsen, Ed’s scheming wife), and George Tobias (playing George Rondolos, one of the vendors buying the brothers’ goods).

Unfortunately, They Drive by Night feels like it has two separate plots joined at the hip. Most of the first half is about the gritty trucking adventures of Bogart, Raft, and their kind, while the second half transforms the motion picture into a crime-melodrama. There’s even a courtroom climax that seems like a far cry from the open road antics from earlier in the runtime. I wouldn’t read the plot synopsis on IMDb unless you want some of the details of the latter half revealed to you.

Even if it feels vaguely plotless, the first half of this feature is the stronger part. The second half (oriented around a certain crime) has a few cheesy moments and is less street-tough. So, do I recommend They Drive by Night? That’s a tough question to answer, although I’m sure classic movie fans will get a kick out of the cast. If you’re looking for a consistent, well-articulated story, then there’s probably better choices out there.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Baby Face (1933) Review

Director: Alfred E. Green

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 71 minutes, 76 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Baby Face is one of the most (in)famous films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period of American sound movies before the enforcement of the Production Code). Here, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, an unsentimental speakeasy barmaid who’s tired of being pimped out by her father, Nick (Robert Barrat), and decides to travel to New York City to sleep her way to the top of the hierarchy of a big bank there. Who plays one of her early conquests? Well, it’s wholesome he-man John Wayne, himself, playing Jimmy McCoy, Jr.

With its Great Depression-era grit, Baby Face is mostly a tough movie, showing an unscrupulous woman taking advantage of men at every turn. Its depiction of the bedroom (and bathroom) stuff is mighty coy by today’s standards, but it was considered controversial back in 1933. Pictures like these caused the moral guardians to bring the hammer down in mid-1934 by starting to enforce the Production Code, dictating what content could and couldn’t be in American films.

Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face is a sleazy, gold-digging, black-hearted vamp, turning the tables on men in general, but that’s the way the character is supposed to be. The true weak link in this flick is the third act. Here, the movie becomes more of a conventional romance feature, a jarring change of pace that doesn’t do the overall product any favors.

Baby Face is interesting to watch for its place in cinema history, but with a runtime of only 76 minutes, it’s also entertaining in its own right. Seeing the up-and-coming John Wayne (in a rare non-tough-guy performance) being conned by a floozy is quite a sight. Okay, his role is pretty small, but it’s still one of the picture’s more notable elements. Still, I can’t help but feel that this one’s last third holds it back from the big leagues.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Freaks (1932) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 64 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” goes the lurid tagline to this 1932 circus drama directed by Tod Browning, who had previously helmed films like West of Zanzibar (1928) and Dracula (1931). In the world of sideshow “freaks,” trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) messes with the wrong troupe of malformed outcasts when she tries to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) for his immense fortune. Silly and grotesque, this one’s influence is not to underestimated.

The carnival “freaks” here are played by the real deal. There’s actual “pinheads,” little people, conjoined twins, a bearded woman, and even a limbless man. It’s not really a horror film for most of its runtime, being more of a behind-the-scenes showbiz melodrama for a considerable amount of the time. That being said, horror elements really do kick in in the last ten or so minutes that must’ve made 1932 viewers shit bricks. Unfortunately, it proved a bit too nightmarish for test audiences and some footage had to be deleted…and is now presumably lost forever. Still, the stuff left in the final cut is still impressive.

In all honesty, this isn’t the most well-made movie I’ve ever seen. The acting is mostly pretty dubious and the dialogue is often difficult to understand. The plot takes a while to get going (despite a runtime of only 64 minutes), and the direction sometimes feels a bit uninteresting during the non-horror stuff. However, Freaks is less about its artistic quality and more about raw shock value. It succeeds.

Made during the almost-anything-goes Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the Production Code was enforced), this is one of the emblematic pictures of that time period. If you’re not expecting a full-on horror film, you’ll enjoy it. Also, why on Earth does Hans bother humiliating himself as a sideshow “freak” when he has a fortune? Did I miss something?

My rating is 7 outta 10.