’71 (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

’71 (2014) Directed by Yann Demange. With Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid and Sean Harris. 

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71′ tells the story of Gary Hook,  a young British soldier who finds himself abandoned on the hostile streets of Belfast during a time of intense sectarian conflict in 1971. Directed by Yann Demange and starring Jack O’Connell, the film is not only an effective thriller, it is also a stark portrait of a frightening time in the recent history of Northern Ireland.

After his fearsome performance in the prison drama Starred Up and now this, Jack O’Connell has quickly established himself as one of Britain’s most exciting young actors. In ’71, his performance once again feels honest and undiluted, showing measures of toughness and vulnerability as he fights for survival across a deadly suburban landscape, hunted by members of the IRA.

The film pulls no punches in its frank depictions of violence and suffering, with cinematography by Tat Radcliffe helping to emphasise a gritty, nightmarish world where order ceases to exist and the people live in a state of repression and fear. There is balance in the representation of the Catholics and Protestants, with innocents and good Samaritans on both sides. It is the moments Gary shares with these characters that ’71 finds its heartbeat, fleetingly helping restore our faith in humanity amid a mire of hate.

Given the real-world conflict the film sets itself within, the events are charged above that of your average action-thriller. The sense of distrust between people is heightened by depictions of corruption and betrayal within the British Army – demonstrating that in any conflict, there are degrees of wrongdoing on both sides.

With some heart-pounding moments of suspense and a threatening atmosphere throughout, ‘71 is an impressive piece of work that captures the chaos and unrest of the period, while remaining resolute in its core ambition as an uncompromising action-thriller. 4/5 

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Girl Most Likely (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Girl Most Likely (2012) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. With Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss.

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Co-directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Girl Most Likely is a New York/New Jersey-set comedy-drama about Imogene (Wiig), a woman facing the crisis of moving back home with her mother (Bening) after losing her job and boyfriend.

Such is my admiration of Kristen Wiig, that I’ll literally watch anything with her name attached…even a Ghostbusters reboot (seriously, I’m brainlessly optimistic about that). It feels like acid in my mouth to say it, but she’s in the wrong film here. Her performance is fine (her usual on-the-brink-of-crazy shtick), and she’s responsible for keeping the film semi-afloat, but the script and story aren’t good enough to serve her talent, leaving her hopelessly adrift for chunks of the running time.

In terms of the script, it’s plain to see why Wiig would take the role. The character fits the sort of humour for which she has such a gift. The problem is that the film constructed around her is weak and utterly incidental, offering her very little to bounce off. Tonally, it seems to have one foot in the world of a sentimental indie rom-com, and the other in that of a slapstick farce. Some of the characters feel transplanted from other films. Wiig’s brother is a watered-down version of Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover, while Annette Bening channels a trashier version of Caroline Burnham from American Beauty. These things wouldn’t matter so much if the film wasn’t such a drag – but the reminders aren’t favourable.

With a talent like Wiig in its corner and a few flashes of quirky humour, Girl Most Likely is at best, fleetingly OK, but for the most part fails to muster any comedic or dramatic momentum, making it a frustrating experience. 2/5

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The Guest (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Guest (2014) Directed by Adam Wingard. With Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser.

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From cult-horror director Adam Wingard, The Guest is a horror-lite-thriller about man (Stevens) visiting the bereaved family of a soldier killer in combat, claiming to be a close friend of their deceased son.

The star of the film, Dan Stevens, appears like a cross between Ryan Gosling in Drive and Chris Evans as Captain America – smooth and handsome, but with an unnerving amount of confidence that creates an early inkling of something not quite right. After meeting Mom, he’s gradually introduced to the rest of the family of four – quickly acquainting himself with each member.

After only a few minutes, it’s plainly evident we’re on familiar turf as the story sets about moving its characters into predictable plot situations. After Stevens,  the elder sister of the family (Maika Monroe) is perhaps given the most amount of screen-time – styled as sexy college-girl bait for the antagonist, which is about the extent of our invitation to get to know her.

With its soundtrack, the film seems to ape Drive with an indie/electronic track selection, yet it feels a little inflicted. Where the songs in Drive were cool and complimented the scenes, it feels like The Guest is trying hard prescribe its own ‘cool’, which is where it partly comes up short.

While the execution is patchily good and the shot selections and camera work are fine, there is an abiding sense that it’s too derivative to embrace, leaving a hollow feeling. The finale devolves further still with a tacked-on ending, complete with the speculative sowing of franchise seeds – please no! Although Dan Stevens is good value in the lead role, don’t be surprised to find yourself comparing The Guest to much better films. 2.5/5

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Death Becomes Her (1992) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Death Becomes Her (1992) Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.

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From Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckiscomes this playful comedy-fantasy film set in Beverly Hills about two bitter rivals (Streep and Hawn) aiming to out-do each other in matters of staying young, beautiful and adored.

Beneath the flamboyant comic exterior, there is a deeper issue to pay attention to here. Hollywood’s insistence on ‘young and beautiful’ is ripe for a bit of playground fun-poking, but it is a sinister, often destructive attitude that lends itself well to the dark comic tones of Death Becomes Her. The film is at pains to flaunt the ridiculous, kiss-ass nature of self-obsessed people and their thinly-veiled narcissism. It is in these moments that it hits its mark. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn revel in the opportunity to vamp it up while wickedly sparring with each other, with Bruce Willis on the sidelines as their bumbling victim/referee.

Through some enjoyable special effects and physical acting (particularly by Streep), Zemeckis captures a sense of knockabout fun that gives the film its appeal. For the actors, it’s a stage to deliver cartoon performances straight out of panto-school, with Streep and Hawn scabrously jostling for attention and adulation.

Although the film begins promisingly and is elevated by the gusto of its leads, at the same time it fails to find a stable comedic rhythm and gradually loses its grip on our attention. The final third seems to fizzle rather than fizz, as the plot begins to show signs of fatigue.

For a director as celebrated as Zemeckis, Death Becomes Her isn’t anything to write home about. It’s sometimes as disjointed as Meryl Streep’s neck becomes, with fits and starts of comedy that provoke smiles rather than laughs. Still, there’s some fun if your’e in the mood for it. 3/5

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Miller’s Crossing (1990) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Miller’s Crossing (1990) Directed by Joel Coen. With Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro and Jon Polito. 

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Set in the 1920’s during the era of prohibition, Miller’s Crossing is a noir gangster thriller written by the Coen Brothers starring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reegan, a smarter-than-your-average hoodlum, playing right-hand man to Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss.

With the Coen’s, there’s an inherent breath of comedy running through most of their work – even the darker pieces in their catalogue. By turns, the humour in Miller’s Crossing can be seen as irreverent, as the Coen’s appear in the mood to have a little fun with the formula of the gangster epic. All the ingredients are there; the period detail complete with fancy cars and ‘Tommy Guns’, the sassy-mouthed broad (Marcia Gay Harden) and witty repartee. There’s the obligatory talk of loyalty, ethics and code but it’s all done with the Coen’s individual stamp, marking it aside from the standard fare of the genre. Through their razor sharp and highly quotable dialogue, the Coen’s create a rich sense of character which to an actor, must read like kid-in-a-candy-store stuff.

The performances are all excellent. Gabriel Byrne leads the line brilliantly. We sense his character is a little fed-up with his world and the fools he finds himself surrounded by. It’s almost as if he’s seen all the gangster films and knows all of the stereotypes. Many of the characters circling his world are the typical power-hungry clowns –  the architects of their own downfall. It’s never more evident than the first character we meet, Jon Polito’s Johnny Capser, a comedy-gangster in the mould of Danny DeVito, albeit a nastier version.

During any of the Coen’s offerings, there’s always the strong sense that your’e watching a film by great artists who love and understand the power of great cinema. In Miller’s Crossing they have yet another classic film that purposefully doesn’t quite fit the genre it ‘belongs’ to. And that’s part of what makes them great. 5/5

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Gone Baby Gone (2007) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Gone Baby Gone (2007) Directed by Ben Affleck. With Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. 

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A little girl goes missing in Boston. Two local private detectives are hired by the family to investigate her disappearance, working alongside the police and community. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is the directing debut of Ben Affleck – a sombre drama-thriller posing some difficult moral questions.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan are boyfriend-girlfriend detectives taking on the case. Her reluctance to become involved is superseded by his curiosity, as they use their local contacts to gain information the police aren’t privy to, drawing them deep into the heart of the search for the missing child.

As a debut director, Ben Affleck does a fine job of keeping hold of his narrative, building intrigue and posing some dividing questions. There’s an air of hostility to the whole piece, backed up by a sense of futility inherent in the lives of the people living day-to-day in one of America’s many lost communities – a place where drugs and crime are a way of life.

The film is complimented by the dual heavyweight presence of Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris in key roles, bringing their dramatic chops to a story fused together by sadness and regret. In the lead role, Casey Affleck fits well as the underdog – disrespected by the cops for his youthful appearance and confronted with aggression by resentful locals.

Although it will be a difficult viewing experience for any parent, Gone Baby Gone is a hard film to pick fault with. That said, given the subject matter, it isn’t a film that you’d select to re-watch again and again. All things considered, a solid debut from Ben Affleck with some strong talking points. 3.5/5

 

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Malèna (2000) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Malèna (2000) Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. With Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro, Luciano Federico and Pietro Notarianni.

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After receiving resounding acclaim for his film Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore co-writes and directs another coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy called Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who becomes hopelessly besotted with a beautiful woman called Malèna (Monica Bellucci) as Italy enters the Second World War in 1940.

Although the war plays a big part in determining the events that surround each character’s life, we see the film from Renato’s young perspective, meaning that his all-consuming fixation on Malèna reduces the war to little more than background noise. Straight away, there’s beauty in the innocent purity of that; one of the most significant events of the past few centuries reduced to nothing because a boy is in love.

The score, written by the legendary Ennio Morricone describes many things, most prominently, beauty and the nobility of bashful, unrequited love. It’s one of those pieces of music that as you’re listening to it, you’re mentally adding it to your Spotify playlist.

The cinematography by Lajos Koltai is flat-out gorgeous. The camera adores Monica Belliccu, telling us stories without words about her struggles and the burden of having to live with her own beauty, the cause of being equally worshipped and hated – the men all want to court her while the jealous women all want to scratch her eyes out.

In his first film, Giuseppe Sulfaro is a joy as Renato. Observing him scurrying around the cobbled streets of Italy on his bicycle, following Malèna wherever she goes is at first adorable and amusing. But as things develop, he becomes more of a Guardian Angel to her, which gives way to some deeply moving moments.

While there is darkness and some frankly upsetting scenes – because the film is told from such a young perspective, there is also an abundance of humour. Renato’s fantasy visions of himself and Malèna as a couple are both funny and charming. With Bellucci set to stun and cinematography and music to melt your soul, there is much to fall in love with about Malèna. 4.5/5

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