Out of the Furnace (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Out of the Furnace (2013) Directed by Scott Cooper. With Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harreslon, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe.

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Co-written with Brad Inglesby, Scott Cooper’s ‘Out of the Furnace‘ is a heavyweight drama-thriller that tells the story of two brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) and their life struggle in small-town, Eastern Pennsylvania.

Photographed by Masanobu “Masa” Takayanagi, the film captures the of decay and beauty of a part of the forgotten real America. Even before the global financial recession of 2008, we see a town struggling to make ends meet. Christian Bale’s character, Russell works the local mill, striving to make an honest living to look after his girl (Zoë Saldana) – who wouldn’t!? His brother, Rodney (Affleck) – a veteran of war in Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic-stress and makes the decision to enter into a world of bare-knuckle fighting as a source of income. It is here that the main thrust of the plot takes hold.

The film is alive with fine performances. In the lead role, Christian Bale is excellent, once again demonstrating commitment with a natural presence that shows sensitivity and great depth. Although we’re very much grounded on men-being-men turf, the script affords Bale’s character the room to be more rounded, by serving up an affecting sub-plot involving his relationship with his girlfriend. This is, though, a very bleak tale of struggle and strife that manages to be gripping, despite a sense of inevitability about the ultimate destination of the plot.

The environment is very much present in the feel of the overall narrative here, which allows the film its authenticity. You can smell the sweat and dirt and the supporting actors are given more to do than just support. Forest Whitaker plays a local policeman with a complex association with Bale’s character, while Willem Dafoe’s conflicted interests make him more than just a bit-part player. It is, though, Woody Harrelson, as the scumbag leader of a drug-dealing fight club who stands out the most prominently. Harrelson ensures there isn’t so much of a whiff of benevolence to his character, creating a dangerous monster who feels genuinely threatening.

While it might offer nothing new, Out of the Furnace nevertheless packs a punch on the way to being a highly accomplished yarn with a range of top-drawer performances, fleshed out in a mix of understated sub-plots that give it life beyond its central narrative. 4.25/5

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Layer Cake (2004) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Layer Cake (2004) Directed by Matthew Vaughn. With Daniel Craig, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Colm Meaney, Burn Gorman, Sally Hawkins, Sienna Miller, Jamie Foreman and Michael Gambon.

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Anyone familiar with Guy Ritchie’s guns n’ geezers films, can have a reasonably good idea of what to expect from Matthew Vaughn’s debut offering, Layer Cake. Adapted by J.J Connolly from his own novel of the same name, the film stars Daniel Craig as a successful cocaine dealer, intent on tying up loose ends and “quitting while he’s ahead” – only, there’s one last job…isn’t there always!?

While it can’t escape its kinship with the likes of Snatch and Lock Stock, Vaughn applies a glossier finish to his film, which is rubber-stamped by the casting of a smooth-talking Daniel Craig in the central role. This is a pre-Bond Craig, although it could easily be viewed as the audition that landed him the iconic 007 role. Although his character is guilty of serious crimes, he is a loose-fit in the criminal world; preferring to deal with his customers at arms length while his operation runs efficiently under the radar. Just as he’s getting ready to pack up and call it a day, trouble comes knocking in the form of mob boss, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham).

What is refreshing about Craig’s character (and the underlying narrative of the piece), is that this isn’t a gangster film about someone pursuing greed. This is about someone recognising the pitfalls of the lifestyle and trying his best to divorce himself from it…only it won’t let him. On paper, it sounds like a recipe ripe for comedy to thrive, although Vaughn never opts to go down that road – keeping his film edgy and focused ahead. The supporting performances are a range of colourful stereotypes and familiar faces. Jamie Foreman, Burn Gorman and Sally Hawkins play a ragtag trio of drug dealers, clearly heading for disaster on one level or another, while Michael Gambon brings a little Godfathery weight to proceedings.

As with Vaughn’s subsequent work on Kick-Ass, the soundtrack choices play a significant role. The Rolling Stones’ Gimmie Shelter will add a certain va-va-voom to any seduction scene while Duran Duran’s Ordinary World and The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary are also given generous airtime. In a sense, using such instantly recognisable music is employing the exact same method of impact-through-music that your average Manhattan-set chick-flick aims for.

Amid graphic shows of violence, sex appeal and mountains of drugs and cash – this isn’t a film that is in any way trying to glamorise the world it depicts. The contrary, it’s message is loud and clear – the personal, physical and psychological cost of being involved in organised crime vastly outweighs the dubious financial gains. With that, Layer Cake is yet another confidently made British gangster film. 3.5/5

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Fargo (1996) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel Coen. With Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. 

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Officially directed by Joel Coen, with brother Ethan on co-writing and production duties, Fargo is a violent crime drama-thriller, told with the brothers’ signature sense of  jet-black humour. The plot is kick-started by William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, who hires two men (Buscemi and Stormare) to kidnap his wife in order for him to claim the ransom from his father-in-law. Things go a little awry, which draws Frances McDormand’s tenacious and heavily pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson into the tangled plot.

Aside from being a brilliant film, Fargo’s success has recently spawned a successful, critically acclaimed television series, which many will now consider to be the definitive telling of the story. For those people, I would encourage seeking out the original film, as there is so much that makes it worthwhile. Outside of the main narrative thread of the bungled crime job, there is much woven into the subtext. Through Frances McDormand’s excellent performance, we have an honest, loveable character to root for – yet we somehow feel complicit in the wrongdoing and are given opportunities to empathise with the plights of some of the more morally dubious characters. 

There is something cartoonish about Steve Buscemi’s two-bit criminal here. Bits of his performance could be straight out of a Hanna Barbera production, yet don’t let that fool you. Amid the comic delivery, there’s a dangerous lunatic. That’s another rare thing about the Coen’s – they serve us these absolute whack-job characters, then somehow make them appealing. As Buscemi’s partner in crime, Peter Stromare is much less the ‘comedy gangster‘. Imposing in stature and not the most talkative, we feel Stormare is the real threat here (imagine Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men but with less scary hair).

William H. Macy’s increasingly nervous character has perhaps the most boo-hiss-ability, yet even he gains a small fraction of our empathy as he goes from one disaster to the next.

In a film so rich with fine performances, Fargo also boasts the sublime photography of the great Roger Deakins – a long running collaborator with the Coen’s. Deakins captures weight and mystery with his striking depictions of the icy landscapes of Minnesota. There is something so matter-of-fact, yet so hauntingly beautiful about his shots . With so many colourful characters intertwining throughout the drama, the film also serves up a semi-homely look, amid the shocking flashes of violence that occur regularly throughout.

With striking visuals and a great script served by a collection of excellent performances, Fargo is one of the Coen brothers’ best films to-date. Considering their impressive catalogue, that is really saying something. 5/5

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Lucy (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Lucy (2014) Directed by Luc Besson. With Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman and Choi Min-shik.

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Written and directed by French film maker, Luc Besson – Lucy is a mind-bending science-fiction action film starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman who is unwittingly exposed to a drug (CPh4) which gives her access to untapped brain power. It is commonly said that we human beings use just 10% of our potential brain capacity –  Besson has a great deal of fun showcasing what might happen if the other 90% were to be unlocked.

Amid the draw of the high concept, Besson opts to set his film up against the backdrop of underground crime as the mysterious Mr. Jang (Choi Min-shik) is introduced as a (kind of) Korean version of Gary Oldman’s character in Leon. From there, the film fires its boosters, throwing itself headlong into its own mayhem, adding the credibility of Morgan Freeman in the role of a neurological researcher to help validate the exposition.

Of course, after her experience playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Johansson is on home turf in this kind of role – a role which requires her to look in complete control, while offing bad guys without so much as a bat of her pretty eyelashes. It is a testament to her ability that she can make it all look so effortlessly convincing.

With 1994’s Leon as a shining example, Luc Besson has previously demonstrated more than an adeptness for delivering thrilling action, and he briefly recaptures some of that magic here, albeit without the crucial emotional gravity of his signature film.

With all of its wacky ideas in tow, Lucy is one of those films that you are better off just going along with. The action is well-staged (one car chase through Paris looks particularly impressive) and everyone involved commits themselves. It does go utterly bonkers, at times, but if your’e along for the ride, you’ll probably enjoy the madness. 3.25/5

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Le Week-End (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Le Week-End (2013) Directed by Roger Michell. With Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum.

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The poster for Le Week-End boasts “From the director of Notting Hill” as if that might in some way indicate a reassurance of cosy ground for fans of slushy fairytale romance. And while Roger Michell’s film is set in Paris,  the romantic capital of the world, there isn’t so much as a whiff of anything approaching a Ronan Keating ballad. No, this is an inverted romance – told with a scabrous wit, that in many ways aims to subvert the likes of Notting Hill.

The film stars Jim Broadbent (Nick) and Lindsay Duncan (Meg) as a pair sixty-something’s on a weekend break to Paris to mark the occasion of their wedding anniversary. Of the pair, Nick is the one intent on building bridges, whereas Meg seems to view the trip as an opportunity to break free and rediscover herself. This clash of intentions gives way to some spiky relationship humour from which Broadbent and Duncan deliver two wonderfully contrasting turns. Amid their harsh personal critiques of each other (Duncan is the most snappy), we are able to sense a deep and profound connection between these two people, who have in a sense worn each other down to a nub. Duncan especially seems to blame everything that’s wrong in her life on her husband, who in turn feels invisible to the person he adores the most.

With plenty of accordion in the soundtrack, coupled with the cobbled streets of Paris, chic hotel and restaurant interiors, Roger Michell ensures his film has at least the look of a contemporary European rom-com. In a sense, it recalls Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy only turned on its head and given a healthy dash of thorny, fed-up-of-it-all British humour. Midway through, Jeff Goldblum arrives to deliver yet another one of his infectiously eccentric turns, which adds a welcome air of upbeat energy to compliment the piece.

Thanks to a fine script, Le Week-End is a prime example of a simple idea made endlessly complex by its focus on two people and the infinite reasons that have led them to be who they are when we meet them. There are some aching truths about the nature of long-term relationships that range between bitter-sweet and dagger-in-the-heart sharp. There is also the suggestion that true love conquers all. Ahh3.75/5

 

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Ender’s Game (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Ender’s Game (2013) Directed by Gavin Hood. With Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfiled, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis and Abigail Breslin.

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A kid (Asa Butterfield), brilliant at video games is drafted into an elite academy to play a crucial role in an intergalactic war. No, you’re not watching the joy-fest that is 1984’s The Last Starfighter – this is Ender’s Game, Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction novel of the same name.

At times, you might wish you were watching something with lighter aspirations. This is an attempt to carve out some heavyweight sci-fi, front-loaded with a text about the nature of modern warfare -the most effective soldiers aren’t those with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but those with the edge to outwit their opponents. Although it looks sleek and polished, Hood’s film continually struggles to breakout of itself, leaving behind a trail of competent, but ineffectual scenes; many of which feature a bored-looking Harrison Ford as a senior military bod, Colonel Graff, and the willing Asa Butterfield in the title role.

Butterfield, who after having starred in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, is clearly a gifted young actor. Although the film creaks and cracks under the weight of its own idea, he nevertheless emerges as curious, deftly unnerving presence. There is a sense that some of this taps into the kind of trends we’ve seen in modern cinema; The Hunger Games, Divergent etc – and like those films, it never quite convinces itself, or us. This included, there is something distinctly anodyne about these films – in the sense that they are packaged as a product for everyone, yet they often lack the courage of their narrative convictions. Like the aforementioned, great actors unexpectedly appear (a Māori Ben Kingsley here – yes, you read right) to clock in a shift. All it achieves is to reinforce a sense of detachment as you try not to snigger at an overacting Ben Kingsley doing his best Māori  accent, complete with full facial tattoo.

What is for sure, is that intergalactic war was a lot more fun in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Hell, even Paul Verhoeven’s underrated Starship Troopers managed to sell it better. In the end, Ender’s Game falls as flat as Harrison Ford’s one-note performance. Despite boasting beautiful set-design and array of visual effects – it is an overly solemn experience with an unearned sense of its own heft. Although there is a final third suggestion of a sequel, it will struggle to attain as much as cult status over the next few decades. 2.5/5 

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Chinatown (1974) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Chinatown (1974) Directed by Roman Polanski. With Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez and John Hillerman.

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The 1970’s was a glorious decade for movies. With The Godfather and The French Connection setting the example of cinema for grown-ups, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, with its hard-boiled recollection of classic film noir and a captivating central performance from a Jack Nicholson in his prime, is a further reminder of the high quality film-making that has almost become indicative of the era.

Directed by Roman Polanski, working from a deliciously twisty script by Robert Towne, the film stars Nicholson as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private detective hired to investigate a local businessman accused by his wife of having an affair. From there, the plot thickens as Nicholson finds himself way in-over his head.

It’s all smokescreens and fedoras with a healthy dash of suspense, mystery and intrigue. It’s the sort of adventure that Captain Jean-Luc Picard would programme as a Holodeck simulation on Star Trek: The Next Generation – as Nicholson is inexorably drawn into the world of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn, a feisty dame caught up in her own tangled web of shady dealings.

There is a sense of tangibility to Chinatown. The authenticity of its few action scenes further compliment the drama. Fight scenes in films are often designed to seduce us with a sense of hyper-reality that simply does not exist. Quick edits and multiple-angle shots of punches and kicks – all resulting in a few minor bumps and bruises for our hero. Not in Chinatown. The fights are scruffy and awkward. The blows don’t ever seem to really connect, and there isn’t the now typical wrecking-ball-hitting-a-skyscraper sound effect accompaniment with every blow. In scaling down the action, Polanski maintains a very natural feel that allows us to remain fully engaged.

Although Chinatown is considered an all-time classic, it is like many great films, a simple idea. It is that same simplicity that affords it to shine, with Nicholson confidently taking centre stage with a nuanced performance that fully makes use of his charisma and inherent star power. There is devil behind those eyes; an understanding of things that we aren’t quite privy to. It is a quality he has carried over to other films, but one that makes his eminently watch-able in more or less any role.

With a soundtrack that teases between a suspenseful lone piano and trumpet jazz, Chinatown could be described as the example of a neo-noir thiller. It contains all the ingredients and refuses to sell itself short by resorting to over-emphasising. Best viewed late at night with a measure of something stiff. 4.25/5

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