Captain America: Civil War (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. With Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany and Chadwick Boseman. 

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It’s beginning to feel like we’ve been through a lot with these characters. It’s all of 8-years since we first met Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and in that time, he’s wisecracked his way through going toe-to-toe with Mickey Rourke, saved New York from extra terrestrials, and gone all Dr. Frankenstein in creating bad robot, Ultron…and those are just a few select highlights. Of course, on paper, this spanking-new Russo brothers offering belongs to Chris Evans’s lantern-jawed Captain America, but make no mistake, this is Avengers 2.5, co-headlined by Downey Jr’s charismatic Tony Stark.

After the critical acclaim adorned upon Captain America: Winter Soldier (bums on seats also helps), co-directors Anthony & Joe Russo’s stock was high. So high, in-fact, that not only did they win this prestigious gig, but have been entrusted with driving forward the future of the MCU, by co-helming  Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II, to be released in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

So, we pick up the reigns after last summer’s Age of Ultron, which sowed the seeds of division between Earth’s mightiest defenders. In many quarters (including this one), Joss Whedon’s film was criticised for behaving like a cluttered set-up film. The problem is, these Avengers movies are not self-contained stories, they are part of a greater whole…or so we are led to believe. The aforementioned seeds of division begin to sprout in this continuation, to the point of much-anticipated fisticuffs.

Many of the things that were problematic with Ultron, remain here. For starters, there are now so many characters to accommodate, that frankly, it’s becoming a struggle to keep up. With that in mind, the Russo bro’s do a borderline miraculous job keeping their film afloat, despite it being bum-numbingly long (147mins), having prominent stop/start pacing issues, and sometimes getting itself bogged down with one too many scenes of characters waffling their way through the occasionally porridgey plot.

What keeps it afloat, and, ultimately helps it soar, is the undiluted joy of witnessing such audacity realised, as our rival heroes face-off with and against each other in some of the most enjoyable MCU action sequences to date. What makes this all the more entertaining, is how the audience are constantly pressed to take sides, but also how the film is written to ensure there isn’t really a right side to take. In short, we’re allowed to root for who we like best, which is very deftly done. Kudos to screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for adapting the Mark Millar graphic novel in such a way.

Even before it all kicks off between the good guys, though, the films opens with a ferocious action sequence that doubles as reassurance that the Russo’s are the perfect duo to take over from Joss Whedon. What Civil War has that Ultron did not, however, is an ace in its pack by the name of Spider-Man. They make us wait for him (don’t worry, not as long as Luke Skywalker), but when he’s introduced, it’s done with exactly the right amount of nod-wink humour, that we immediately take the character to heart. It feels, in some way, like a homecoming, and it reinvigorates the film just at a moment when feels like it’s beginning to sag.

Watching Captain America: Civil War, is a bit like stuffing yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s so much to digest, and the 147mins feels hefty, yet the action and world building that have gone into creating these enormous films carry it firmly over the line, as we attempt to catch our collective breath for whatever is coming next. 4/5 

 

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John Wick (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

John Wick (2014) Directed by Chad Stahelski. With Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Mikael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters and Ian McShane. 

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Of all the genres, the revenge/action oriented field is one that has become most crowded and worn in recent years. We’ve taken all we can of Liam Neeson in a black leather jacket, doling out his own particular brand of justice to a line up of cardboard baddies. It is then, all the more surprising that first time director Chad Stahelski’s John Wick, is as fresh and exciting as it is.

Keanu Reeves plays the title role; a retired hitman reactivated through personal tragedy. Indeed, had it not been used so famously before, the tagline “This time it’s personal” would perfectly befit. That’s the real trick of the movie, though – it comes at you like every other revenge flick you’ve ever seen, but in the hands of a talented, hungry director with everything to prove, it has a vital energy and a visual snap in its tail, that, coupled with an urgent sense of momentum and well balanced pacing, sets it well aside from a crop of similarly-themed and forgettably formulaic fodder.

Stahelski, with the help of cinematographer, Jonathan Sela (would you believe this guy photographed A Good Day to Die Hard!?!?) works in striking shot compositions and lighting, alongside balletic action set-pieces, which brilliantly combine a sense of grace and brutality amid a neo-noirish feel adorned with night-time cityscapes and hip nightclubs. Keanu Reeves is an actor often maligned for his lack of range, but outside of Bill & Ted, he’s never been more perfectly cast than here.

In the career of any actor, timing is often a key factor between success and the void. Reeves, a product of the 1980’s, achieved A-list status by the 1990’s, which climaxed with his career-defining role as Neo in The Matrix. Since then, for over a decade and a half, he’s struggled…until now. It’s one of those beautiful life-art mirror situations, with perfect symbiosis between actor and character, as Reeves comes out fighting as underdog, with an enigmatic character who kicks ass with a brand of ‘gun-fu’ that, if it has been done before, has either never been done this well, or was so long ago that I’ve forgotten.

It’s hard to pick fault with a film that works as effectively as John Wick. It embraces cliche, but balances it well enough to sit perfectly in the gap between the irreverent and the solemn. A rip-roaring success for all involved, and hopefully the beginning chapter of an exciting action series. 4/5

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Ricki and the Flash (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Ricki and the Flash (2015) Directed by Jonathan Demme. With Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield, Kevin Kline and Mamie Gummer. 

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Jonathan Demme directs Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline to a script written by Diablo Cody…what’s not to like!? It’s reported that Cody penned the screenplay to be loosely based on her own stepmother who fronted a New Jersey bar band for many years. The film shares DNA with Dan Fogelman’s Danny Collins, in which Al Pacino played an ageing rock star attempting to build bridges to his broken past. In a way, Ricki and the Flash is the exact same experience, albeit with a few extra grains of sugar on the spoon.

The rock n’ roll scene is littered with remnants of broken dreams. Anyone able to string together three guitar chords and belt out a Beatles tune (in tune) is likely to have deluded themselves by swallowing gallons of grandeur at some stage in their lives. Getting good on an instrument like the guitar buys you a lot of social acceptance, and it’s not long before that morphs into your personality to make the guitar neck feel like an extra arm. This, in some way, describes Ricki’s backstory. She’s a woman who has at some point believed she’d share a stage with the likes Springsteen and Petty. But in chasing that dream, her family got left behind.

At first sight, it’s surprising to meet Streep decked out like an 1980’s throwback, complete with leggings, long boots and ratty braids, while chugging out Tom Petty’s American Girl in a cobbled together, backstreet bar band. After only a few chords, it’s apparent that Streep is either the real deal, or, as is usually the case, has the natural ability to convince us she is the real deal. It’s a long stretch from Margaret Thatcher, but then, Streep is the ultimate chameleon, an actress able to inhabit any role and show us something new.

While it might not immediately jump out as anything particularly remarkable, there are many interesting facets to the tale, which are given life by Streep’s presence. There are fine supporting performances here too, not least Mamie Gummer as Ricki’s estranged daughter (she’s Streep’s real-life daughter too), which lends the film a small slice of authenticity. Praise must also go to Rick Springfield (remember the song Jessie’s Girl?), who plays lead guitar and boyfriend to Ricki. Springfield not only rocks, he is a rock to Ricki, and we can easily surmise, to Meryl Streep too, given his vast experience on the rock circuit.

While Ricki and the Flash won’t exactly rock your world, it offers enough to keep your toe tapping along to the beat. Although it regularly succumbs to cliché, sometimes that’s exactly what we’re in the mood for. 3.5/5

 

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The Drop (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Drop (2014) Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. With Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts and Noomi Rapace. 

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Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop is the story of two cousins (Hardy and Gandolfini) working in a Brooklyn ‘drop’ bar called ‘Cousin Marv’s‘, which doubles as a watering hole for sports fans, and a depository for the criminal underworld. Adapted by Dennis Lehane from his own short story, Animal Rescue, the film is a gritty, absorbing tale of duality, with two engaging performances by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini.

The sight of Gandolfini in this kind of setting, immediately brings to mind Tony Soprano. I remain utterly convinced there isn’t a better TV-series out there. If you haven’t seen The Sopranos, first of all, you’re an idiot; now we’ve established that, stop reading this and go improve your quality of life by purchasing the box-set. *inserts winky-faced emoji.

Unlike so many crime-thrillers, The Drop isn’t a film that’s held aloft by plot or set-pieces. Rather, its brilliance is in the detail and depth of character that Hardy and Gandolfini provide. These are two men for whom, in light of their entanglements, we’re allowed to have empathy, which both splinters and heightens as things unveil. The hard push of the cold, cruel world that’s depicted is strikingly juxtaposed with an emotional pull that whacks a solid punch.

The Drop is not a film that goes out of its way to be overly hospitable, yet with each passing scene, you find yourself more engrossed. It’s partly about the menacing threat of violence that lingers in the air, but it’s also a finely balanced, beautifully acted piece that twists our perspective by fogging our moral compass to such a degree, that you might temporarily lose sight of your bearings. 4/5

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) Directed by Matthew Vaughn. With Colin Firth, Taron Edgerton, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Strong. 

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The dream-team writer-director pairing of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman with graphic novelist Mark Millar strikes again. In 2010, everyone loved Kick-Ass; those who didn’t were simply wrong. Kick-Ass was the first real example of a colourful comic book for adults, brought to life with exactly the right amount of vigour and kink. It was upbeat and light of heart, creating a cult following that made it far cooler than Batman and Superman combined. For Kingsman: The Secret Service, the band are back together for a dip into a world overstuffed with Bournes, Bauers and Bonds.

Tonally, the film feels like a contorted world of James Bond Vs Austin Powers, refereed by Guy Ritchie. There’s an audacity to the work that makes it resonate with that same distinctive tinge of rebellion that made Kick-Ass such a joyously riotous experience. Colin Firth plays Harry ‘Galahad’ Hart, a gentleman spy with good taste in suits, spectacles and violence. It is, at once, curious casting, but it also shows us how brilliant Firth would be as an alt-universe 007. Although Firth carries the film initially, the film’s focus turns to Taron Edgerton’s ‘Eggsy’, an unrefined young street kid caught between gang violence and an abusive stepfather. Through a past bond, an otherwise unlikely relationship forms, and Galahad takes it upon himself to invite Eggsy into the world of the Kingsman.

Once again, the Vaughn’s film is like a cartoon for grown-ups, with copious amounts of swearing, colour, violence and an eclectic soundtrack of familiar tunes.  As he has previously shown, Vaughn is able to sprinkle magic on, what many would consider to be worn material. His film X-Men: First Class, is arguably the most entertaining of the series, mostly thanks to Vaughn’s ability to make fun happen.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time in church and witnessed many a strange occurrence, but nothing that dropped my jaw like the sequence midway through Kingsman, when Colin Firth’s ‘Galahad’ visits an extreme right-wing gathering, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a perfect example of what makes Matthew Vaughn such an exciting director. His films have a throwaway quality akin to the likes of Quentin Tarantino…but you could never actually throw them away. You sit there thinking – ‘I can imagine people hating this’, realising that the dividing line between you and them is there for a good reason.

With Samuel L. Jackson on winning form, and cheeky script that isn’t afraid to mock its own conventions, Kingsman: The Secret Service is home to a good time. It didn’t ought to work as well as it does, especially considering how well-trodden the turf it covers has become, but the elements are balanced in a rejuvinating way that encourages us to want to play along for the hell of it. 4.5/5

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Cop Car (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Cop Car (2015) Directed by Jon Watts. With Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson. 

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Based on title alone, Jon Watts’s Cop Car isn’t a film that’s going all out to sell itself, but, with Kevin Bacon playing ‘bad cop’ and a running time of just over 80-mins, what we have is a tight, strikingly shot little crime-thriller, reminiscent of an episode of the recent Fargo TV-series. Watts co-writes and directs, introducing us to characters using the bare minimum of back-story, leaning back on visual storytelling as the audience is allowed to imagine what has led to the events the film opens with.

Right off the bat, there’s a ‘Stand By Me’ feel, as we meet two mischievous young boys walking through a field, playing some kind of call-and-answer game of swear words. Initially, it’s an amusing intro, but it isn’t long before they make an unusual discovery, which sets the tone of what is to come.

Without giving too much away, their day crosses paths with Kevin Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer, a cop on the wrong side of the law. In recent years, Bacon has enjoyed sending himself up in commercials for mobile-phone companies, and in a moment, we’re quickly reminded what a beguiling screen presence he is, as he reaches to the dark side to reveal a no-so enthusiastic need to ‘serve and protect’. Partly due to the events that transpire, there’s something inherently comical about Bacon’s portrayal (the 70’s moustache helps), so much so that in the balance of things, we’re invited to root for him, to a point.

As well as some beautifully composed wide shots of skies and cars on roads, there’s a smart anti-gun message woven into the story, which isn’t heavy-handed, but one that clearly states a point by way of what occurs. While it was never destined to change the world, win awards or break the internet, Cop Car is nevertheless a film you could quite easily miss, and that’d be a shame. 3.5/5

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Cinderella (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Cinderella (2015) Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter and Derek Jacobi. 

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Kenneth Branagh has aligned himself with classic stories, over the years. From William Shakespeare to Mary Shelley, as a director, he’s proved himself a safe pair of hands for beloved material – so it seems a perfect fit for him to take the reigns of this live-action updating of the classic romantic-fantasy, Cinderella.

The film opens with a burst of colour and magic to set the tone. The role of Cinderella or ‘Ella’ as she’s called when we meet her, falls to the innocent-faced Lily James of Downton Abbey fame. James possesses a child-like aura that allows us to buy into her blind, optimistic romanticism, even as she falls foul of her resentful stepmother, played by Cate Blanchett.

The appearance of Game of Thrones’s Richard Madden as the ‘Prince’ of the piece is at one alarming – especially as he’s being pushed into an arranged wedding. Your brain screams – ‘I CAN’T TAKE ANOTHER RED WEDDING!’. Madden is fine, if not a little wooden, but, given the material he’s playing with, can do little other than what’s required of him, namely, being charming and handsome.

It sounds hollow to criticise Cinderella for being overly twee, but with this new push of live-action realisations by Disney, and especially under Branagh’s guidance, I was expecting some of that to be stripped back, with new life poured into the classic tale. A high-spirited Helena Bonham Carter is fun when she turns up, and Blanchett is a scene-stealer, but beyond the beautiful costume design and opulent majesty of the visuals, it lacks a vital sense of freshness.

There are moments when Cinderella verges on becoming truly enchanting, but it’s also played so safely, that it reduces itself to a bit of a chore, for the adults. But, if you’re watching this with your young daughter, whose loving gaze never flinches from the screen, you can forgive yourself for letting it off the hook. 3/5

 

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