Dallas Buyers Club (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) Directed Jean-Marc Vallée. With Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn and Jennifer Garner.

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I’ve read and heard it said of Jean-Marc Vallée Dallas Buyers Club, that it is a film defined by its performances, above than anything else. In my opinion, that’s doing a great disservice to what is a film that is visually, beautifully crafted, but that also boasts a perfectly fleshed-out screenplay by Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack.

Set in 1985, the film tells the ‘inspired by true events’ story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) a charismatic, but casually belligerent man, who upon being diagnosed with the HIV virus, enters a world previously unknown to him, which sets about an unexpected transformation.

First of all, in the central role, McConaughey is every bit as mesmerising as you’d expect an actor in an Academy Award winning performance to be. His commitment to the role, in losing reportedly 40lb in weight, is at at first visually striking, but it is his ability to become Ron, beyond the surface which really sets him apart. Indeed, it’s one of those truly great turns, that no matter how many superlatives you throw at it, they’ll all stick. But like any great film, this isn’t a film of just one towering performance, for supporting McConaughey is Jared Leto in an equally eye-catching, yet utterly convincing portrayal of trans woman, Rayon. Thrown together through circumstance, and a mutual need for each other’s various life skills, the pair make for an at once hilarious, yet touching screen duo.

How much, fact for fact, is translated truthfully into the narrative is unclear, but what is crystal clear is the message that the film conveys,  yet never in an overly sentimental way, about the importance of treating human beings with respect and care first, and recognising sexuality as mere dressing for who someone really is. In a sense, Dallas Buyers Club feels like an important film. Despite the grim situations the characters find themselves in, the film makes positive, life affirming statements, in amongst the grief. 5/5 

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Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) Directed by Steve Pink. With John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Sebastian Stan.

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Directed by Steve Pink, Hot Tub Time Machine is a riotous comedy that is every inch as ridiculous as you might hope/fear. A bit like The Hangover meets Back to the Future, the title says it all. Four guys on a ski resort vacation together, get in a hot tub, which, unbeknownst to them, is a time machine. You won’t need much of your brain capacity for this one.

Of course, time travel affords so many possibilities in terms of story, humour, character and especially nostalgia. Given that the ’80’s is a decade looked back on through rose-tinted specs by many (mostly because of its music, movies, fashion and technology) setting the film in ’86 allows the film-makers to cram in as many colourful reminders of the era as they can.

Aside from the fun of revisiting a certain point in time, the four central actors all seem to enjoy themselves, albeit slightly more than us, at times. Of the four, which includes John Cusack, no less, Rob Corddry’s ‘Lou’ shouts loudest and sometimes most annoyingly, for attention. What’s surprising, given that the film’s premise gives it the opportunity to explore so much, is how unrelentingly crude it is. That’s not always a bad thing, but here, it often seems to tilt the film off-balance and smacks of reverting to raw tones in order to gain cheap laughs.

This isn’t a film that I was itching to tell my friends about afterwards. It’s mildly amusing, occasionally, but it there’s no real rhythm to it. The casting of Crispin Glover is a nice tribute to Back to the Future, but like so many comedies that fade in and out of view, it’s the little nods like this that stick, as opposed to anything significant about the greater whole. 2.5/5

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The Way Way Back (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Way Way Back (2013) Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. With Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Allison Janney.

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Writer/directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s debut film, The Way Way Back, is a good hearted comedy/drama about Duncan (Liam James) a young boy on summer vacation with his Mum (Toni Collette) and her high-handed boyfriend (Steve Carell). Essentially, it’s a story about a young boy searching for an example of a father figure.

There’s something distinctly unassuming about the piece. Not only is Liam James a likeable, unshowy young performer, in his central role, he’s also supported by a fine cast giving colourful performances which enrich the story no end. Steve Carell dials back his usual comedy shtick, in a surprising, but refreshingly boo-hissy performance. It’s clever casting to put someone who we’re used to laughing and feeling at ease with, in the role of someone so selfish and mean spirited.

Bringing ying to Carell’s yang, is Sam Rockwell, the laid-back manager of ‘Water Wizz’, a run-down, but lively water park that acts as a haven of escapism and self discovery for a young boy so desperately seeking it. The antithesis of Carell’s bully, Rockwell is a pure joy in his role and offers huge relief, not only for the boy, for us the audience too.

Despite its good intentions and lively performances, it’d be a stretch to get too excited about anything landmark going on here. That said, it’s the sort of US indie film that functions perfectly, within its parameters, and part of its cosy charm is that it’s not vying for award season attention, by snatching out cheaply for our attention. Before the credits roll, The Way Way Back manages to be both touching and reassuring. 3/5

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This Is 40 (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

This Is 40 (2012) Directed by Judd Apatow. With Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maud Apatow, Iris Apatow, Jason Segel and Megan Fox.

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Billed as a ‘sort of sequel to Knocked Up’, writer/director Judd Apatow takes an intriguing left turn in his career to shift focus on the characters played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in his 2007 hit pregnancy comedy. The thrust of the idea is to do comedy/drama around what happens to a conventionally attractive married couple, as they approach the big 4-0.

Paul and Debbie have lives that many of us only ever see in the movies. Beautiful home, exciting business lives with A-list contacts, but somehow, they’ve lived beyond their dreams. Their two demanding kids hate each other, while their intimate times are increasingly fewer and farther between. When they do get privacy, the everyday demands of being a parent often puncture the mystery of any romance.

Sadly, This is 40 is little more than chewing gum for the eyes and ears. It’s one of those perky Hollywood comedies that never gets into its stride, relying on bright cameos and the occasional gag, above anything else. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann do their best in their central roles, and fleetingly, they are borderline likeable, but all too often, they (and their children) are equally frustrating to be around.

So, although I like the idea of focusing on peripheral characters from another film, there isn’t enough going on here to make a serious recommendation. It’s well shot and acted and might play well as a rainy afternoon, falling in-and-out of sleep on the couch film, but little more. If this is your life, well, there’s not that much to complain about. 2.5/5

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Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Directed by Nicholas Rey. With James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

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The things that kids will do under the weight of peer pressure and the resulting ill effects of becoming a social outcast, are both topics under observation in Nicholas Rey’s seminal teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause. Starring James Dean, the film has perhaps become more iconic as a vision of laconic, cool individualism, than it has for the message it attempts to convey.

Dean plays Jim Stark, a bright but confused young man, struggling to fit into a new college. Not only that, Jim suffers at home as his domineering mother treats his father like a badly performing employee, much to Jim’s utter frustration. He finds himself befriended by a troubled child called Plato (Sal Mineo) and the girl who catches his eye (Natalie Wood) seems more interested in the safety of hanging around with the ‘cool kids’, a group led by resident bully, Buzz (Corey Allen).

For a film released in 1955, it remains as potent today as it ever was. James Dean’s ‘Jim’ is an individual. Someone who refuses to adhere and conform to the wishes and bullying tactics of the herd. For starters, Dean is magnificent in the central role. His presence as an actor, as well as his iconic face, seems to elevate the film to a level above its level. Sure, this a film about young people’s problems, but much of it can be applied to adult life. The fear of not fitting in to a new town or a new job, we’ve all that familiar tug in our gut about how we’re perceived.

As well as being a film about peer pressure, it has much to say about the subtle impacts and sensitivities of children, to the behaviours of their parents. A parental situation where the mother and father no longer see eye-to-eye, even though they both care for and love the child, can have far-reaching, damaging effects.

Filled with sadness, as much as it is about teen angst, Rebel Without a Cause is a cautionary tale. But it’s also about being an individual and standing up for who you are. James Dean’s performance is one to cherish. Of course, the film’s underlying sadness is further highlighted by the fact that this talented young actor’s life was abruptly ended the same year this memorable film was released. 4/5

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Nebraska (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Nebraska (2013) Directed by Alexander Payne. With Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach.

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Stripped down and presented in black and white, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska explores themes around growing old, getting in touch with your past and family bonding. Sounds like a cosy watch, and to an extent, it is, while simultaneously being an acerbic satire on the aforementioned. Of course, with Sideways, Payne has proven himself adept at fusing heartbreaking with heart-warming, and once again, he gets great performances from a cast playing characters that are as endearing as they are frustrating.

The film revolves around Bruce Dern’s character, Woody, a cantankerous old man, convinced he’s won $1million dollars, thanks to junk mail letter purporting such. To appease him, his son (Will Forte) agrees to drive his Dad to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his supposed winnings.

Like most road movies, this is about the characters rediscovering something new about themselves and each other, amid new circumstances. Of course, it’s nothing new to most audiences but thanks to fine performances, that doesn’t make it any less resonant or engaging. Despite its monochrome presentation, Nebraska is alive with colourful portrayals, none more so than a scene-stealing June Squibb, playing Woody’s disapproving wife with biting hilarity. Indeed, and like much of Payne’s work, the film flits effortlessly between the funny side and the sadness in life, to reassuring effect.

Nebraska isn’t glamorous, and it might not be something that will leap off the shelf for most, but Dern is magnificent in the central role, working from a beautiful script by Bob Nelson, which develops into something funnier and far more uplifting than you might expect.  4/5

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Blue Ruin (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Blue Ruin (2013) Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. With Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack and Eve Plumb.

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Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s tale of revenge set in the meh-west, tells the haunting, yet suspenseful story Dwight (Macon Blair), a homeless drifter, who upon learning that the man responsible for his parents death is to be released from prison, sets out to exact his vengeance. Now, revenge films aren’t anything new, but done well, they can still feel fresh and engrossing, which to his great credit, Saulnier achieves with flying colours.

In the central role, Macon Blair plays a mix of perpetual shock and emotional detachment. This is a grief stricken man, complicated by a potent blend of anger and fear. It’s a fascinating portrayal of someone who has lost the will to live for himself, motivated only to protect his remaining estranged family (his sister and her children).

Amid the traditional violence that makes up any revenge flick worth its weight in blood, Saulnier manages to touch on something deeper and far more resonant than your average Charles Bronson caper. There’s a dark poetry to much of the imagery and none of it has the feel of glorification that can often seep into these pieces. Ultimately, it’s a film about a family line being torn apart, through infidelity and then through violence.

This doesn’t have the lightness of say, Kill Bill, there’s no ‘cool’ moments or zeitgeisty goings-on that’ll permeate throughout movie history, it’s just very solidly told with unforgiving characters that feel real enough to heighten the suspense to tell a brutal but involving story. 4/5

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