La La Land (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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La La Land (2016)


Directed by Damien Chazzelle


With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone


La La Land. An Oscar-winning musical starring two of the hottest screen stars in town. Sounds like something from the 1950’s, and well, that’d be just about right. Yes, it turns out they can make ’em like they used to.

Here’s the rub – he’s (Gosling) a frustrated jazz pianist, she’s (Stone) a hopeful actress. They meet in Los Angeles and take an instant like-dislike to each other. They fall in love with each other, we fall in love with them, oh, but if only it was that simple.

As writer and director (don’t you just hate him!?) Damien Chazelle proves himself a surefooted force, as La La Land proudly demonstrates his schooling on classic musicals; think Singin’ in the Rain meets Once More with Feeling! (yes, the Buffy episode). His debut offering, Whiplash, showed his talent for capturing rhythm in film, not only in the literal sense of musical numbers, but also the emotional rhythm of the drama, and how impact is amplified when we genuinely feel for our characters.

It helps that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are two of the most endearing movie stars on the planet, both conveying a fluid understanding of the other, while using their inherent charisma to comfortably surpass any limitations when it comes to the song and dance; handy viewing tip – they’re supposed to be ‘normal’ people, not professional singers and dancers. There are resplendent moments of unshackled joy happening left, right and centre, as Gosling and Stone capitalise on their natural chemistry to deliver a potent dose of Hollywood bedazzlement, the like of which hasn’t been seen in decades.

Away from the movie star glamour on show, there are multiple stars of La La Land. Linus Sandgren’s dreamily sumptuous cinematography is museum-worthy – almost every single shot renewing and spilling over a sense of love, colour and affection. While the soundtrack doesn’t feature any particular showstopping tunes, it is beautifully spaced around the love story we’re being told and is thoroughly welcome whenever it arrives.

La La Land aims to seduce, and from beginning to end, it does so with a magical spring in its step. Yes, we can cynically observe how overly in love with itself Hollywood is, but by that token, you’d have to trash a lot of cherished musicals to prove a point, when in reality, it’s more fun to let the stardust sprinkle down while getting drunk on the artfully choreographed sense of romantic wonder on offer.

5/5

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Camp X-Ray (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Camp X-Ray (2014)


Directed by Peter Sattler • Written by Peter Sattler


With Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi


Previously known for his work as a graphic artist, Camp X-Ray is the low-budget directorial debut of Peter Sattler. Kristen Stewart stars as an inexperienced soldier assigned to Guantanamo Bay, guarding “detainees” not from potential escape, but from suicide.

In alignment with the grim setting, Sattler adopts a washed out tone represented by the limited palette of the environment; a breeze-block grey of sparse interiors and overbearing military claustrophobia. The film immediately seizes our attention, establishing the political climate with a lingering shot of the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center. Straight away, we know exactly where we are.

Perhaps most surprising/rewarding about Camp X-Ray, is that aside from that one opening shot, the politically charged setting is used to demonstrate the commonality of human life, irrespective of borders, religion or race. The heart of this intimate story is told via the cautious relationship between Cole (Stewart) and Ali (Peyman Moaadi) – the latter a prisoner in camp. Both performances transition through gears; Stewart’s one of bottled emotion and swelling guilt, Moaadi’s reflecting the tortured strain of incarceration and persecution.

Gender inequality in the army is addressed, as Stewart is bullied and sexually coerced by her immediate superior, highlighting failures between ranks – the war mentality seemingly giving free licence to commit widespread abuse in the name of representing flag and country…even toward those supposedly on your side. Through its low-key lens, Camp X-Ray is a hopeful, thought-provoking film, portraying great sadness versus pin-pricks of light.

3.5/5

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The Rookie (1990) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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The Rookie (1990)


Directed by Clint Eastwood


With Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga


The Rookie is an expensive looking action movie with all the ingredients and little flavour. With Clint Eastwood behind the megaphone, casting himself in the central role of veteran detective, Nick Pulovski, the movie is a bland trudge through a series of worn motifs as Clint takes young whipper-snapper Charlie Sheen under his wing as they battle to take down Raul Julia’s dollar hungry lawbreaker.

Dumb and largely nonsensical, the silliness isn’t complimented by the spirit conveyed throughout the Lethal Weapon series – more a pessimistic grittiness which leaves the movie stranded somewhere in nowheresville. There are violent bar brawls and impressive car chases, but oddly, none of it amounts to anything you’d call substantial.

Around the straightforward plot, Eastwood and Sheen aren’t able to muster much chemistry. Sheen’s ‘rookie’ character carries both the guilt of a family tragedy and father issues, but really, he comes off as a bit of a wet blanket in need of a good slap, as he struggles to come to terms with various things you’ll struggle to stay interested in.

Raul Julia is uncharacteristically ineffective, as his cold-blooded psychopathic sidekick Sonia Braga grabs most of the attention with virtually no dialogue. One scene in which Eastwood is bound and sexually assulted by Braga is full-on weird in the way it is prolonged and depticted as erotic – imagine how that might play in a reverse of the sexes…

Throughout the piece, Eastwood attempts to birth new iconic one-liners; “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster”…”Got a light?” – it seems like each time Eastwood opens his mouth, he’s trying out a witty quip, even as he and Sheen escape an exploding building he finds time in mid-air to squeeze in “fasten your seat belt”.  While gruff catchphrases have always been his trademark, the lines don’t land the way they should, which is perhaps symptomatic of the autopilot feel of the movie.

In small cult corners, the film will have its devotees, but for the most part, it’s an afterthought of a cops n’ robbers tale that seems to exist to serve a higher purpose. Indeed, it’s widely reported that Eastwood made the film in order to get White Hunter Black Heart green-lit.

2.5/5

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Open Water 3: Cage Dive (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Open Water 3: Cage Dive (2017)


Directed by Gerald Rascionato


The found-footage formula is stretched to its limit with Open Water 3: Cage Dive, an Australian shark thriller in which we’re asked to give two shits about a romantic entanglement subplot involving two brothers and one of them’s soon-to-be future wife. To label it ‘Hollyoaks with sharks’ would make it sound too appealing a prospect, yet such is the non-appeal of the human beings in the movie…it’s hard to ignore a feeling of hoping the sharks are well fed.

The plot device that gets a boat capsized and our characters in the water has to do with a freak giant wave that nobody saw coming from miles away. Nobody. The movie then spends the majority of its time failing to stay afloat, as it struggles to register any suspense amid sub-par, soap opera style writing and incoherent dialogue. Directed by Gerald Rascionato, things begin without impetus, as we’re introduced to faintly outlined characters with little or no reason to care. To boot, the characters regularly do incredibly stupid things; thrashing around in shark-infested waters, setting fire to their own life boat…the list goes on.

On a more positive note, many of the visual effects are done with restraint, and there are concerted efforts to create suspense, but more often than not, these attempts are undermined by a severe lack of overall investment.

It perhaps seems remiss to call out a found-footage movie as ‘amateur’, as by nature, these films trade in the way they appear unprofessional, with little-known actors and low production values supposedly giving way to a sense of realism. The downfall of Open Water 3 comes by way of it being amateur at being amateur. While the threat of sharks is inherently scary, there’s nothing about the writing, directing or performances that is in any way thoughtful enough to promote the film beyond the basement of direct-to-streaming-services. Yet another crappy movie about sharks.

2/5

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London Has Fallen (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

London Has Fallen (2016)


Directed by Babak Najafi


With Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Waleed Zuaiter and Radha Mitchell


London Has Fallen is the action-thriller sequel to Olympus Has Fallen that no-one asked for – a movie about a terrorist attack at the heart of England, in which somehow, America is the main focal point. Gerard Butler returns as Mike Banning, a ‘real man’ made of “bourbon and bad choices“, now an expectant father looking to gear down and retire from his job as President Aaron Eckhart’s personal muscle. Contrary to how that quote might read, the script isn’t written to send itself up, as it clumsily knocks over every hurdle in an empty-headed barrage of fantasy nonsense that is as insulting as it is stupid.

After the sudden death of the British Prime Minister, the leaders of the world gather in London to pay their respects, but not before half of them are wiped out by stupid writing and bargain-basement CGI. Of course, they didn’t factor Mike Banning.

Boring, predictable and derivative, Iranian director, Babak Najafi, is unable to make anything of a dog-shit screenplay that spews more than its share of tumbleweed moments, while aping Arnold Schwazenegger’s “get to da chopper” and “i’ll be back” without the faintest whiff of irony.

While there are a few moments of solid action, there’s nothing special about the shoddy effects. Be that rendering issues brought about by a lack of time or money, it’s surprising to see such amateur work in a sequel to a movie that took a $170m worldwide gross. Indeed, one shot of a falling helicopter looks distinctly mid-1990’s low-budget CGI, while the many street explosions, smoke and fire effects look cheap and unfinished.

As well as being utterly banal, there’s something achingly depressing about London Has Fallen, a mean-spirited film that recycles our fear of terrorism as a form of ludicrous entertainment. It does this in a way that shamelessly neglects the suffering and loss of those unfortunate enough to find themselves caught up in such a tragedy, focusing solely on the vengeful triumph of the cartoon hero.

1/5


 

 

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) 


Directed by Chad Stahelski  • Written by David Kolstad


With Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, John Leguizamo and Laurence Fishburne


It’s fair to say that 2014’s John Wick took more than few people by surprise. Chad Stahelski’s rapid fire revenge tale of a pissed-off assassin out to avenge his dead puppy wasn’t afraid to poke fun at its own absurdity, helping it stand out from its peers while gaining almost instantaneous cult appeal in the process. Stahelski returns to helm John Wick 2, working again with writer, David Kolstad, and star Keanu Reeves, to deliver a rip-roaring sequel of dazzlingly choreographed violence and nod-wink humour.

We pick up with JW shortly after the events of the first movie, cutting to the action as he brutally dispatches a warehouse of bad guys to reclaim his stolen car. It serves as a firm reminder of the overall tone, quick to re-establish and go one further in its portrayal of an underlying sense of self-deprecation that identifies it as film clear in its intentions to give us a good time, without the distraction of the kind of distorted political subtext we’re fed by the likes of Olympus/London Has Fallen. Before Wick gets chance to put his feet up and enjoy retirement, he’s drawn back into action thanks to a years-old blood oath. Off to Rome he goes to finally settle the score. If only it was that simple.

Everyone involved seems to enjoy their part of the gag, fronted once again by Reeves, who continues his monosyllabic turn between impressive bouts of heightened gun-play and hand-to-hand combat. As a shadowy overseer, the presence of Ian McShane contributes much to a playfully enigmatic underworld of assassins, which extends itself much further this time.

While the choreography of the action is breathtaking to behold, it’s often apparent our exhilaration doesn’t entirely stem from the suspense of the scenes – more a marvel at the organised chaos on show as Wick goes full-sugar Rambo in gunning down an endless production line of brainless henchmen, all seemingly happy to take turns in running directly into his line of fire. Without the wry tone that underpins everything, they wouldn’t get half as much license to indulge themselves in this way.

There’s little in John Wick 2 that we didn’t get in the previous offering, but there’s a lot more of the same, played with understanding by those involved. There’s a glitch in the matrix when Laurence Fishburne shows up for around 15-minutes to spout some wisdom, which slows the pace and plays like an unwanted Neo/Morpheous reunion. Also, the plot goes bonkers at the end and threatens to boil over, yet that carefully woven sense of fun keeps it afloat as the promise of a third chapter looms.

3.5/5

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Lethal Weapon (1987) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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Lethal Weapon (1987)


Directed by Richard Donner


With Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan.


The film that began a series of engaging buddy-cop action-comedies, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon introduces the sparky pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover – the former a suicidal cop-on-the-edge – the latter an “I’m too old for this shit!” cop with a young family and everything to lose. Thanks to a fertile combination of Shane Black’s witty script, actor repartee and Donner’s overseeing eye, the two-worlds-collide formula is a winning one.

The abiding impression has little to do with plot mechanics – more a general affection for the interplay between the leads as Gibson and Glover quickly form a bond. Buddy-cop movies are often driven by an undercurrent of unspoken love between two male protagonists – Lethal Weapon is no exception.

Between the sounds of Eric Clapton’s electric guitar trilling and David Sanborn’s saxophone flourishes, the movie wears a noir-ish playfulness that is amplified by the performances. That’s not to ignore its hard edges; suicide, torture, prostitution and drug use regularly surface in a film that has a flavorsome blend of fluctuating light and shade.

There are a few character inconsistencies, one in which Glover orders an armed criminal to show his hands, then, in the next moment, looks away and forgets the danger, leaving himself vulnerable. It sounds like nit-picking to flag it up, but it ignores who we’re being told Glover’s character is, and thus, pulls us out of the movie.

There are amusing observations that frame the film in its time: an incidental scene in which Glover and a police colleague opine about 1980’s men being overly sensitive wussies.

Besides a pair of one-note bad guys and a run-of-the-mill plot, you could build a case to say that Lethal Weapon pars with Die Hard as the standout 1980’s cop thriller, certainly in terms of heart and warmth. There’s a satisfying nuance to Richard Donner’s direction; broad, cinematic tones blending seamlessly with playful levity, during which Glover and Gibson spark an honest chemistry that imbues the whole film with an undeniable affability.

4/5

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