American Ultra (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

American Ultra (2015) Directed by Nima Nourizadeh. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace and Connie Britton. 

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Project X director, Nima Nourizadeh follows up his study on the partying antics of high school seniors, with an action-comedy/indie-romance about a stoner (Eisenberg) who gets a case of the total recalls (he’s really a deactivated secret agent, Jason Bourney type), when the government (Topher Grace) notices he’s trying to move out of the area and duly serves notice of a hit. The trouble is, he’s too well trained.

Jesse Eisenberg is an intelligent actor whose career has been largely forged on his unlikeliness to succeed, an idea that American Ultra fully throws its weight behind as his nerd-done-good screen persona carries over to a film in which we are asked to to have fun with the idea that can beat up all the bad guys and get the girl of his dreams.

With an undercurrent of romance blended with a post-grunge, early 1990’s aesthetic (Eisenberg, believe it or not, looks a bit like 1988-1991-era Jon Bon Jovi), the film seems to want to echo the lofty heights of indie cool achieved by Tony Scott’s True Romance, all the while patting that idea down with regular bouts of silliness. Eisenberg plays well with Kristen Stewart (they have previous together in Adventureland), as they quickly go from cuddling on the couch to ducking automatic gunfire.

The script by Max Landis boasts a plethora of droll dialogue, and the action, when it comes, is surprisingly well-staged (one supermarket set piece stands out), but the film becomes annoying whenever Topher Grace’s inexplicably angry (and overacted) CIA head honcho appears. Moreover, given the switches of tone between the cool indie kids and the nasty government, to the whack-a-day comic thrills and spills, the overarching ‘plot’ starts to get dull long before the inevitable and entirely predictable conclusion.

Like its two central characters, there’s a sense that American Ultra wants desperately to be embraced by a young audience in the mould of a quirky indie alt-comedy, which is at home smoking behind the bike-sheds with the cool kids. The problem is, you can’t buy that kind of cult appeal, even with ‘cool indie kids‘ Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in headline slots. At best, throwaway fun. 3/5

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) Directed by Seth MacFarlane. With Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Amanda Seyfried and Neil Patrick Harris. 

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My girlfriend despises westerns; the bar fights, the dusty land, and how every western ever made has to end with a Mexican standoff. With that, she, like me, loved A Million Ways to Die in the West. Seth Macfarlane’s movie (he co-writes, directs and stars) is an open-ended love letter to the classic western, but one in which he also hilariously berates and sends-up the clichéd format.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in the old west. It takes a scene-and-a-half to settle into the tone of his performance, but once you’re aligned, the film is a non-stop laugh-along as MacFarlane plays it from the angle of a man out of time – almost as if Albert has been to the 21st Century and hates all the things about 1882; bar fights, the dusty land, and how every western ever made has to end with a Mexican standoff.

MacFarlane is supported by a hugely talented cast, with an array of brilliant comedic showings from Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, which are beautifully anchored by two excellent performances from Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron. It is MacFarlane himself, though, who, starring in a film he has written and directed, demonstrates what a genuine master he is, continuing his sharp-witted brand of close-to-the-bone humour, in a spoof film that makes you actually care about the characters…no easy task

It’s a brilliant subversion of the western genre, but conversely, one that retains great affection for all the things we romanticise about that era, perhaps best exemplified by Joe McNeely’s rousing score and the breathtaking visuals that open the film – an immediate seduction by MacFarlane which instils a thirst for some old-school wonder and adventure.

The film is home to many cameo appearances, but one, which I won’t ruin, is so perfectly judged that it’s worth the ticket price on its own. In short, A Million Ways to Die in the West is an absolute joy, which bathes itself in the glory and romance of the western, on the way to being a extremely funny combination of self-referential comedy and escapism. 4.5/5

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Look Who’s Talking (1989) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Look Who’s Talking (1989) Directed by Amy Heckerling. With Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, Olympia Dukasis and Bruce Willis. 

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There’s a lot about Look Who’s Talking that’s just plain lazy. It’s staggering today, to think it outperformed Back to the Future Part II at the domestic box office in 1989, but then, never underestimate the public capacity to be easily sold on a cheap concept, frilled up with a few star names. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling (no heckling!) the film is well known as an internal monologue comedy about the thought process of babies, but it’s also a thin rom-com in which single mom, Kirstie Alley (a big name at the time thanks to TV’s Cheers) meets cab driver, John Travolta. So far, so ho-hum.

When a plot is as telegraphed as this, the jokes need to have a big impact to survive the monotony of making the viewer play join-the-dots, but aside from a few smirks, Heckerling’s script relies on cute and winsome, above sharp and smart, which leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to become bored – space they fill with pop songs and Manhattan.

The notion of knowing exactly what the baby is thinking is a highly attractive one, and one ripe for great comedy –  see Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy, which is built heavily around that very idea. Bruce Willis supplies the voice of baby Mikey, which is, ultimately, the main draw of the piece, and while that’s occasionally lowbrow amusing, there’s also a sense that it’s trying hard to charm us into cutesy, sentimental submission…something Hollywood does not do easily. Stewie Griffin this is most definitely not.

Travolta and Alley give it a good go, with upbeat performances and a clear enthusiasm for the work, but Look Who’s Talking is sloppy, utterly predictable and not nearly funny enough. With a global box office haul of almost $300m, it wouldn’t be a stretch to rename it Look Who’s Laughing (All The Way to the Bank), or in my case, Look Who’s Not Laughing. 2/5

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Spy (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Spy (2015) Directed by Paul Feig. With Melissa McCarthy, Jude Law, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne.

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Hear the word “spoof”, and Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun, or Airplane! spring to mind – a showreel of amusing sight gags, that, more often than not, run out of steam after about 20-minutes. Of course, the aforementioned are examples of spoof comedy done well, but for every Blazing Saddles, the genre is littered with cheap knock-offs, rushing to capitalise on the breakout success of series’ like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Written and directed by Paul Feig and starring Melissa McCarthy, Spy is an entertaining secret agent parody that never ought to have worked, given how many spy spoofs we’ve had between releases of Austin Powers, Get Smart and Johnny English…but work it does. 

McCarthy is a hoot (good to see after a few recent misfires), reaffirming her ability to take the lead in a movie, especially after the mess that was 2014’s Tammy. Under Fieg’s witty direction, McCarthy is never anything less than very funny,  and is supported by a host of inspired turns from Jason Statham, Jude Law, Allison Janney and Rose Byrne. Indeed, there’s a sense of relief in Statham’s performance as he revels in sending-up his own hard man screen persona. The British actor, best known for low-rent action vehicles, doesn’t hold back in fully realising the opportunity to mock his own career…and what’s more, he’s hilarious. Same applies to Jude Law, who relishes the chance to play a 007-style part, a role he’s long been associated with in the media.

Perhaps one minor drag is the presence of comedienne, Miranda Hart, who seems shoehorned in, probably due to her success on UK television – a case of a familiar name to sell the film in old Blighty!? Personally, I didn’t find her funny, moreover, she was out of step with the rest of the cast, but then, her whole shtick seems to revolve around awkwardness. Whatever, it didn’t work for me.

Though tonally, it is a film that has the immediate feel of a family caper, as is the way with contemporary Hollywood comedy, it has both feet planted in a Bridesmaids arena of the extremely potty-mouthed variety, with a side-order of viciousness. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden must have been at work, because at one stage I’m fairly certain I got hit smack in the face with a subliminal, monstrously erect willy.

For the most part, Spy is rich with fun, fast-paced action sequences that embrace comedy at every turn, but not in that standard, eye-rolling way of your average spoof – more a loving tread of ground that it knows has been overused, yet cleverly,  it harnesses tired elements and refreshes them by the strength and willingness of the performances. 3.5/5

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Creed (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Creed (2015) Directed by Ryan Coogler. With Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson. 

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After achieving critical acclaim together on 2013’s Fruitvale Station, the teaming of writer-director Ryan Coogler and actor, Michael B. Jordan takes an unlikely left turn into the world of Rocky Balboa with Creed, a film that continues the legacy of the Italian Stallion while birthing a new, youthful strand of storytelling.

Jordan plays Adonis, the son of Apollo Creed from the first four Rocky movies. A prime physical specimen, Jordan is excellent in a performance that conveys a great balance of reverence, arrogance and guts – mirroring the personalities of both Apollo and Rocky, while conjuring a new character born out of abandonment, learning how to live and love. It’s exactly the kind of emotional depth many people wrongly disassociate with the Rocky movies, which in essence, are a series of films about a character who happens to be a boxer.

Stallone is never more at home than in the skin of Rocky Balboa, a character he has built and evolved throughout six previous films of varying quality. In 2006, his return to the screen (and ring) as Rocky was a glowing triumph of nostalgia and heart, in which the passage of time had forced the character onto the ropes of life as the underdog we could all root for, once again. That same theme is continued here, almost 10-years later as Balboa opines – “Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated”. 

Huge recognition must go to Ryan Coogler, who does a J.J. Abrams with Creed, co-writing and directing the film to appeal to fans old and new – not only fully understanding the sense of heart and rhythm a ‘Rocky’ movie needs to have, but also the importance of past and present, and never being bogged-down by trying to service both. It’s a hard trick to pull off, especially to make it all feel so natural, but he does it with ease.

Familiarity and affection for the character and the series as a whole, is a must for getting full value out of Creed. There are nostalgic references to each of the six movies, but one particular nod to Sylvester Stallone’s real-life deceased son, Sage, who co-starred alongside him in Rocky V, is so heartfelt and touching, that as Stallone plays the scene, you can see the love, affection and loss burning behind his eyes. If only for this moment, the man deserved that Oscar statuette. In short, a beautiful, emotional film that resonates a strong sense of love, friendship and family. 5/5

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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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