Dark Angel (1990) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Dark Angel (1990)


Directed by Craig R. Baxley • Written by Jonathan Tydor and David Koepp.


With Dolph Ludgren, Brian Benben, Betsy Brantley, Matthias Hues and Sherman Howard.


It might surprise many to discover that Dark Angel is a well-directed sci-fi-action flick emboldened by a sense of pace and an easy flow. Released in the United States under the shaky title of I Come In Peace, the movie is a lively recycling of better films, complete with a fun buddy-cop pairing and an early James Cameron swagger.

Dolph Ludgren plays Jack Caine, a Houston detective on the trail of a 7-foot alien with a glam-rock haircut. Complete with 3 inches of platform shoes, said alien (Matthias Hues) is indiscriminately killing people by first administering a lethal dose of heroin before voilently collecting the endorphin juice from their brains, which is to be used or sold as a rare drug on his own world. If you’re seated with low expectations and the hope of a junky time, the idea is bare-faced enough to lend a little low-rent character.

After his partner gets a bullet by some local mobsters, Lundgren is buddied-up with Brian Benben, best known for his role on TV’s Dream On. A dopey-sounding Lundgren is well-supported by Benben, who appears to embrace the daft script and goes along with it. So too does Betsy Brantley in a small role as Lundgren’s disgruntled girlfriend.

Craig R. Baxley directs well, imbuing a sense of purpose alongside the preposterousness, with some clever camera moves that allow the film to occasionally punch above its weight. Ludgren’s acting isn’t convincing, but he’s mostly excusable, given the overall tone and willing support around him.

Dark Angel boasts an array of magnificent fireworks, car chases, space guns and multiple deaths by compact disc. It’s also colourful and self-aware enough to get away with the loose abandon with which it embraces genre cliché. Dumb fun. 3/5

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Up in the Air (2009) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Up In the Air (2009)


Directed by Jason Reitman • Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner.


With George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman.


Based on a book by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air is a drama-comedy starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham – a man with more air miles to his name than Pan Am. Well, not quite, but he has a “number in mind”. Bingham is a solitary soul, flying from state-to-state, firing people from their jobs for a living, only, is he really living? What to most of us sounds like an empty life suits Ryan down to the ground, that is, until young upstart Anna Kendrick arrives with new ideas to revolutionise the company, much to Ryan’s dismay.

As the titles roll, we begin with a short collection of impressive aerial shots, emphasising the beauty of Earth from above – Bingham’s home away from home. The film explores a philosophy centering on the idea of being alone, living a life without the daily complications brought about by relationships or possessions. Aside from his day job, Ryan Bingham sidelines as a motivational speaker at conventions, giving his well-rehearsed- ‘What’s in your backpack?‘ talk between flights.

A film of smiles above outright laughs, Clooney’s collected demeanour seems, to some degree, a semi-projection of his off-screen persona. Bingham’s experience at check-in desks has taught him valuable time-saving ways to beat the queues. He asserts – “Never get behind people travelling with infants. I’ve never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes.” It’s this kind of wry humor that gives the film its stride, in the absence of a distinguishable plot.

On his travels, Bingham is joined by Natalie (Kendrick), who gets on his nerves before they begin to see the human side of each other as Natalie loses her frosty veneer and publicly breaks down in Bingham’s embarrassed arms. Their warring father-daughter simulation is sparky and although Kendrick is occasionally irritating…she’s supposed to be.

It’s only when Bingham meets a female version of himself in Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goran, that his conviction in his own theory of carrying life luggage is brought to question. Farmiga and Clooney make a sophisticated duo, sipping whiskey in airport lounge rooms while pattering like a pair of golden age movie stars. Clooney’s performance is straight out the Nespresso commercial – that dapper, oozing-confidence swagger that’s smoother than coffee and satin.

With the help of co-writer Sheldon Turner, Reitman’s film is an agreeably subtle study of self-induced loneliness. 4/5 

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Sing Street (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Sing Street (2016)


Directed by John Carney • Written by John Carney.

With Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor and Aidan Gillen


Dublin, 1985. Conor is a bright 15-year-old boy with a turbulent family life, who starts a band to capture the attention of an enigmatic girl he likes. To add conflict to his raging hormones, he’s bullied at his new school by fellow pupils and tutors. Luckily for him, his impassioned older brother is on hand to guide him through the world of pop music, as he sets his sights on becoming the new Simon Le Bon.

Written and directed by John Carney, Sing Street is a musical-comedy-drama dedicated to “brothers everywhere”,that speaks powerfully about being young and in love, but also about the importance of friendship, originality and the semi-parental responsibility of being an older sibling. Of Carney’s most notable films to date, the other two being Once and Begin Again, this a welcome return to familiar ground as together with the central character, we witness the songwriting evolution of music overlapping with the core central narrative. With Carney’s films, we get an album and a film at the same time.

Making his screen debut in the central role of Conor is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, whose quiet intelligence could easily be mistaken for shyness. Despite being humiliated in public by the school bully, repeatedly threatened and physically abused by the head of the school, Conor is an inquisitive, good-hearted soul who isn’t afraid to take a plunge. His forward-thinking attitude sets him apart from his peers, and, it also allows him to meet Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a Desperately Seeking Susan type (she even looks like Madonna on the poster) who becomes his muse.

Walsh-Peelo is excellent, playing the aspirational, yet unseasoned teen with a keen understanding. As Raphina, Lucy Boynton encapsulates the embodiment of a beautiful, tortured soul in need of a new path. Conor’s fascination with her gives way to romantic moments that bring sparkle to the sedate surroundings. In the spirit of the classic romantic fairytale, theirs is a relationship we want desperately to succeed.

As Conor’s older brother and mentor, Jack Reynor brings a range of humour, warmth and a touch of that indiscernible essence of ‘happy-sad‘. It’s a big performance, sat in the middle of the film – Conor’s lifeline for doing the right thing between his band and Raphina. In one scene, he reassures Conor by saying – “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.”

As we know from his previous work, Carney writes the original songs for his films. With Sing Street, his songs are cleverly adapted to show Conor’s influences; Hall & Oates, The Cure and Duran Duran, to name just a few. It’s all of utterly charming, inspired and  funny, especially when the band decide to turn their first song, The Riddle of the Model, into a music video complete with thrown-together wardrobe overhaul, heavy make-up and borrowed New Romantic stylings.

By the end, don’t be surprised to find yourself chasing down people in the street to recommend Sing Street to. It is an utter delight, poured out entirely from the heart and sprinkled with magic. It’ll make you want to laugh, cry and sing-along at the same time. 5/5

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The Nice Guys (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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The Nice Guys (2016) Directed by Shane Black. With Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David and Kim Basinger. 


Directed and co-penned by Predator actor, Lethal Weapon writer and Iron Man 3 helmer, Shane Black, The Nice Guys is a slapstick action-comedy-cum-buddy-movie awash with some gloriously tacky nostalgia, blended with a 1970’s neo-noir thriller. Los Angeles. Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, a tough-guy enforcer hired to beat on blokes for pestering/having innaproriate dialliances with young girls. One smoggy day, his path crosses with impecunious private eye, Holland March (Gosling), which begins one of the most organically funny screen pairings in recent years.

After initially bumping heads (actually, Crowe’s fist into Gosling’s head) – along with the help of Holland’s overly enlightened young daughter, Jackson and Holland pursue the missing case of Amelia (Margaret Qualley) a mysterious teenage runaway mixed up in bad business connected to the porn industry.

From start to finish, Crowe and Gosling are an absolute blast, tearing into each other and themsleves with aplomb as they relish sharing the screen. Gosling plays as disaster of guy; irresponsible father, con-man and bordeline alcoholic – struggling to make ends meet for his neglected daughter. Amid these character failings, he appears the most ill-prepared man to complete the job, yet it is his hapless nature that fuels much of the knockabout comedy and interplay.

There’s a The Waltons gag tied to a pivotal character which is indicative of the film’s aim to straddle demographic appeal. The fashions, music, scenery and interiors all combine to create a thick sense of character – a visual feast the like of which you might expect of Quentin Tarantino. Between the groovy sounds of Kool & the Gang and The Bee Gees, a goateed Gosling is rarely seen without a cigarette, alongside the short-tempered Crowe, looking heavyset and garbed in an oversized leather coat. In no small way, as we pass a roadside billboard advertising Jaws 2, it’s more 1970’s than the 1970’s.

While The Nice Guys might be too frivolous for some, going along with its carefree nature is key to understanding, and, more importantly, enjoying its overlying attributes. It sows a few sequel seeds towards the end, which, on the evidence of Crowe, Gosling and Shane Black’s deft grasp of the material, would be very welcome indeed…“and stuff”. 4/5

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Speed (1994) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Speed (1994) Directed by Jan de Bont. With Keanu Reeves, Jeff Daniels, Sandra Bullock, Joe Morton and Dennis Hopper. 


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?” – Therein lies the dilemma for LAPD officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) in this splendidly ridiculous slice of 1990’s Hollywood hokum.

Directed with great energy by Jan de Bont, Speed is remembered as one of the standout action films of the 1990’s. While it is a close cousin of the Die Hard series, it has enough of its own identity to be enjoyed on its own merit, even with Keanu Reeves sounding like he’s reading the script from a teleprompter.

Los Angeles. Reeves and his buddy-cop partner, an affable Jeff Daniels, are on the trail of a madman (Hopper) – an off-the-reservation explosives expert threatening to blow shit up unless the government pays him $3m. Fate leads Reeves to a bus full of commuters…and Sandra Bullock.

Despite a borderline ignorant amount of plot holes, there’s an irresistible exuberance to proceedings. This being de Bont’s directing debut (he was cinematographer on Die Hard), the film is imbued with a sense of pace that compliments its own title. Designed to add tension to the drama, the movie is lumbered with a cheap-sounding, repetitive music score – which is a shame, considering the overall buoyancy of the action set-pieces.

Though not managing to fully shed the air-headed delivery of ‘Ted’ Theodore Logan, Keanu Reeves musters enough gallantry to scrape by, even if he forces us to wince through much of his dialogue. Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, provides a welcome air of accessibility, between Keanu and a bus full of  cut-out stereotypes.

After committing a brutal screwdriver-to-neck murder in the opening moments, the tone of Dennis Hopper’s villainous performance lands him somewhere in the middle of cartoon-baddie and deranged psychopath. In truth, despite a brief explanation that revolves around a hand injury and his time on the bomb squad, we’re never properly convinced about why he’s so upset. But then, once you start picking holes in the plot, you might not know where to stop.

Speed is intermittently stupid and often seems hell-bent on steering through all the genre clichés, but, if you’re in the right mood and can embrace many of the things that make it laughable, you might enjoy the ride. 3.5/5

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Into the Forest (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Into the Forest (2015) Directed by Patricia Rozema. With Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood and Callum Keith Rennie. 


How do you make an effective drama-thriller about a power cut? You hire writer-director Patricia Rozema, that’s how. Into the Forest is also blessed with the joint presence of Evan Rachel Wood (hot right now thanks to HBO’s Westworld) and Ellen Page, the latter still presenting like a moody teenager, despite her 28-years. As ‘Eva’ and ‘Nell’, respectively (see what they did there?), they live in the semi-seclusion of a modern-natural home out in the sticks with their caring father, Callum Keith Rennie. Before long, they’re scrabbling around the house for candles and books, as the mild irritation of no internet connection becomes something more serious.

Essentially, the film is a survival drama about the unbreakable bond between two sisters. In terms of tone, there are touches of The Walking Dead meets Winter’s Bone, as what initially seems like a random power outage becomes a problem with widespread implications as standards in society fail and lawlessness creates an impending air of threat.

Wood and Page are excellent, as is Patricia Rozema, who builds a very tangible feeling of danger as the film slowly develops. It’s one of those high-alert experiences that doesn’t need to resort to jump-scares, but all the while, has our eyes on stalks monitoring the background with hawk-like intensity for the slightest sign of any lurking predators, animal or human.

It’s always interesting to see the thin veil of security and order, brought crumbling down as resources run low and technology becomes useless, but moreover – how people so attached to modern ways adapt to discover their own survival instincts.

With an ending that leaves questions dangling – there are many things that make Into the Forest a tough, albeit worthwhile experience. By the end of the second act, it becomes clear the story intends to remain within its own borders – focusing solely on its characters to convey a sense of hope against apparent hopelessness. 3.5/5

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Black Mass (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Black Mass (2015) Directed by Scott Cooper. With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson. 


Is it possible to make a gritty 70’s/80’s gangster picture without feeling the overriding influence of Martin Scorsese? If so, the Boston-set Black Mass doesn’t achieve it. But then, is that such a bad thing!? As cinematic influences go, you can’t aim much higher. Directed by Scott Cooper, this true story of Irish mob kingpin, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, is home to a compelling central performance by Johnny Depp.

Throughout his career, Johnny Depp is known for playing larger than life roles – often ones that require a large degree of physical transformation. In some cases, his characters have outshone the actual films. As the reprehensible Jimmy Bulger, Depp is the furthest he’s been from his long-perceived sex-symbol status. With crazy contact lenses, a few dead front teeth and a receded hairline exposed by greasy, slicked back hair, he fits comfortably into the role a violent psychopath fed by ego and power.

The title ‘Black Mass’ refers to an inversion of the religious practice of the Roman Catholic church, in which the devil is worshipped. It is a good fit to describe the contradiction of the God-conscious gangster, who excuses himself as a homicidal maniac by adoring his mother and attending church. Like so many, Jimmy Bulger fits this bill. He is a man of wily inconsistency, bending his own code of loyalty to suit. Depp’s performance fully captures the foul stench of a rotten soul, a destructive force in the life of anyone unlucky, desperate or stupid enough to associate with him.

Based on literary source and adapted for the screen by co-writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the film boasts a rich array of acting talent. The complicit nature of Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent, John Connolly, makes for a fascinatingly torn-between-two-worlds character. As the stakes raise, John Connolly’s childhood bond with Jimmy makes his professional and private life increasingly difficult. Edgerton is superb, playing the escalation of fear and masked denial with great disquiet.

This is one of those true stories you couldn’t make up. Perhaps that’s best explained by the fact that Jimmy Bulger’s brother (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was the US senator for Boston. High political office and brutal criminality is an uncomfotable juxtaposition, as Cumberbatch’s William Bulger is depicted to adopt a look-the-other-way stance on his brother’s crimes. It’s another fascinating side to the story – a man on the FBI’s most wanted list enjoying direct relationships with men in powerful societal roles.

While Black Mass can’t be considered a high watermark in the long history of memorable gangster movies – under Scott Cooper’s fine direction, it still manages to be largely riveting. The ‘funny how?‘ scene from Goodfellas is replicated (though I did fall for it), and it sometimes skirts so close to Scorsese to render itself incidental by comparison. But, little of that seems to matter thanks partly to several fine performances dotted around Johnny Depp’s monstrous illustration of pending violence and threat. 4/5

 

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