Apocalypse Now (1979) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Apocalypse Now (1979) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With  Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Sam Bottoms, Dennis Hopper and Albert Hall.

For a film that isn’t about very much, there’s much to say about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Set during the Vietnam war, the film is essentially ‘men on a boat’ travelling into the unknown on a mission to “terminate the command” of Marlon Brando’s rogue Colonel Kurtz, a decorated U.S soldier who has gone ‘off the reservation’ by taking the lead of a depraved cult, deep in the Cambodian jungle.

Adapted for the screen by John Milius from Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the tone is one of duality between cinematic marvel and sheer horror. We’re introduced to the film by Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, narrating the inescapable reality of his own predicament of insanity. As Jim Morrison sings ‘this is end my friend‘ over images of an entire tree line being incinerated by napalm, we’re left alone with Willard in his room, paranoid over the strengthening enemy ‘squatting in the bush’ while he grows weak awaiting the next mission. The scene ends with an intoxicated Willard punching a mirror, naked and wailing helplessly in his own bloodstained bed sheets. Welcome to the jungle.

What ensues is a tour de force of what cinema can be. Coppola’s ego is on show and there are moments that are deeply upsetting, but there is something unflinching and true, in as much as the horror it inflicts upon you is what ought to be expected from a film set in a war zone as deranged as Vietnam. There is a background sense that the U.S is losing the war, and from that apart, the war has no achievable end. The central consciousness of the film is a U.S soldier driven to the edge of his sanity, on a mission to assassinate another U.S soldier who has fallen over the edge of his own – perhaps a metaphor for the mental mind-fuck of a country out of its depth, choking in the aftermath of its own napalm cloud.

Perhaps the most iconic sequence of Apocalypse Now is its most misunderstood, misrepresented, misremembered. The stunning ‘Ride of the Valkyries‘ helicopter attack on a peaceful village has become an emblem of power and victory, viewed outside the context of the film as a moment of military justice from the skies. The actual scene is a further establishment of how desperately miscalculated the war in Vietnam was. Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “Charlie don’t surf” are t-shirt slogans, forever ingrained into the culture of “boo-ya!”, yet heard in context, they are the words of an army commander operating outside the parameters of humanity, seeking pleasure in horror as he forces his troops to surf breaking waves as they simultaneously dodge explosions and blow innocent people into oblivion.

Through the texture of Vittorio Storaro’s spellbinding cinematography, Sheen’s performance is a fine mix of understated and weighty, as he narrates an insight-giving inner monologue. With a wounded screen presence and a long pain at work behind his eyes, Sheen and Brando’s Kurtz are two peas in a pod. It is through Willard’s narration and reading of Kurtz’s background that we also learn about who Kurtz is. There is a symbiotic nature to their characters in the way they are written, as we take a sight-seeing trip through the worsening dementia of Coppola’s conflict zone.

It took 16-months to shoot, Coppola tried to take his own life and Martin Sheen suffered a near fatal heart attack. The good news is, a sense of crumbling sanity makes it on the screen, enhancing a visually astounding piece of cinema that is as alarming today as it was in 1979. Coppola says of his own movie – “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” Indeed.

5/5

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfieffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi.

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When it comes to classic material, Kenneth Branagh is the proverbial moth to the flame. In musical terms, he’s a high class cover act attempting to put his own spin on much-loved works. From Shakespeare to Stan Lee, his films are often less a reinvention and more a refresher course for the uninitiated. His revised version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express continues this cinematic trend.

With a cast of faces you’ll instantly recognise, Branagh’s film embraces old-fashioned storytelling on the way to being a lavish, yet increasingly dull trudge. From a simplistic point of view, the starry cast help the audience at playing a game of whoddunit (we can guess which famous actor is guilty). After only a short time, it’s clear the film lacks depth and the famous faces cease to become characters in a film, and more famous actors enjoying a role-playing murder mystery weekend on a posh train. That adds up to not much fun for us.

The production is quaint and everything is well dressed and seductive to a point, but the hollowness leaves a taste of steepening apathy that can’t be rescued by a glossy finish. Sporting a magnificent moustache, Branagh’s elegant turn as Hercule Poirot is the film’s best draw. Branagh doesn’t hold back in his portrayal, and has the conviction to dive into the accent and the character with a well established sense of fun. There’s a delightful freshness about Daisy Ridley, but the same can’t be said of the cardboard cutout cast who range between bored (Penélope Cruz), mostly absent (Olivia Colman) and stiff caricature (Willem Dafoe).

What ought to have been a welcome return for a celebrated character ends up being a lackluster affair that won’t live long in the memory. The time and place are well adhered to, but the things that are good about Murder on the Orient Express have little to do with the story it attempts to tell.

2.5/5

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The Beguiled (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Beguiled (2017) Directed by Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. 

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Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film of the same name draws less from that movie and more from the original source material of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. Coppola’s screenplay switches the perspective from the male gaze of the 70’s film to that of a group of isolated women who happen across an injured enemy solider (Colin Farrell) 1-year before the end of the American Civil War.

Winner of Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd establish a strong sense of atmosphere, creating a tactile background canvas that evokes a southern gothic dreamlike quality to build an absorbing story which is in part a study of the power balance between men and women as told through the lens of the past.

What’s beautiful about Coppola’s adaptation is the way in which non-verbal communication is as much a part of the writing as the dialogue. The dynamic between the women is deftly applied; women who are trained to behave well around men, to please men, but until Farrel’s arrival, have had no opportunity to put their training into practice. His arrival disrupts their group, creating a sense of competition among them that is all of divisive, dangerous and excting.

Nicole Kidman is the matriach of the group – strong when she needs to be – the kind of woman who knows what needs to be done, struggling to fend off her own desires. As she tends to Farrell’s wounds, her wet cloth moves from his torso, down his abdomen to his inner thigh. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a trashy romance novel and her yearning is palpable, but there’s dignity and sympathy in Kidman’s portrayal of a woman carrying a headmistress-like responsibility of being the leader of an inherited family unit.

The second elder of the group, Kirsten Dunst gives a more vulnerable performance than we’re used to from her, seemingly tapping into a younger version of herself. There’s something fragile but distantly hopeful about her. She’s different from the others, which is highlighted in a dinner scene in which she wears an off-the-shoulder dress (considered vulgar at the time), to which Kidman’s character points out how Dunst is from “town society with different rules”. Her competition with Elle Fanning’s more openly flirtatious character makes for a risky dynamic that adds intrigue to the drama. Fanning is self-absorbed but her youth makes her potentially the most inviting prospect to Farrell’s mysterious character.

The sudbued lighting and leaning toward the effect of natural light adds further texture and atmosphere. Shot on 35mm on one location in New Orleans, Coppola offers depth in her cinematic framing, but with a close intimacy that translates to the small screen.

The use of music is minimal and plays under the surface of the drama, which allows the natural sounds to be a more prominent feature in the tapestry of the storytelling. The distant boom of canons are met with wide long shots of beautiful treelines poisoned by plumes of war smoke. The lighting is notably subdued and natural – Coppola opting to use candles in the dark and plain daylight in the morning.

With a slight running time of 1hr-30mins, Coppola creates a good amount of drama and intrigue around a small setting. The young actresses are excellent in supporting roles, while threat lurks inside and outsdie the confines of the house they share. A dangerous liaision story of manipulation and desire told with artful style.

4/5

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Dunkirk (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Dunkirk (2017) Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s love of cinema is a blessing to all of us. Small corners of the internet take issue with the god-like adoration directed toward him, however, he gives the impression of a man who could not be more humble when it comes to his place in the grand pantheon. Nolan’s relatively small back catalogue is a collection of epic, tactile tales of heroism and adventure. The scale of his work has widened since Memento, yet it is with Dunkirk that he seems to achieve a mature marriage of epic intimacy.

The film is effective in stitching together drama from various viewpoints, occasionally backtracking into a form of non-liner storytelling typical of Nolan’s work. His sparse screenplay seems to be about realising the essence of the situation, as intertwining stories of component characters are told from sea, land and air. In war we see the absolute best and worst of human nature pitted against itself. Nolan doesn’t shy away from darkness, but prefers to shine light on the best of people. In many ways, Dunkirk is more a superhero film than any one of his Dark Knight trilogy.

The allied British and French troops aren’t always portrayed as perfect heroes. Yes, they fight side-by-side against a notably off-screen advancing German army, yet among themselves they distinguish nationality to give preference to each other based on it, even at the cost of lives. No matter which side of the conflict they fight for and no matter what the cause –  human beings do desperate things to survive.

Keeping the aggressive force in the background adds suspense as the audience are given the same narrow perspective as the characters. We see and hear what they see – the terrifying threat of marauding enemy planes, gunfire and bombs.

Dunkirk is a film about heroes, but also about the cost of being a hero. It’s about what war does to a person – how when forced in a live or die situation, some ‘heroes’ might choose to save themselves first. The film making is mature and precise in its delivery, making it a rare example of a film about warfare that isn’t simply about the graphic or political nature of it – more a study on the forced adoption of a certain mentality.

The overall feel of Dunkirk is a one of respect. Respect for the remarkable things people did in the name of preserving a way of life. There are moments of heartbreak, but it doesn’t feature the full-on horror of warfare seen in Saving Private Ryan, leaning more toward being a focus on normal people doing what needs to be done.

Of the main story arcs, I personally found Mark Rylance’s to be the most moving. Rylance is a beautifully understated screen presence, so much so that I found myself willing the movie to be about him, his son and the plucky friend who joins the fight. Headed by Tom Hardy, the dogfight sections of the film offer a claustrophobic white-knuckle experience, while highlighting the bravery of the men willing to fly a tin can through the sky while being shot at on limited fuel supply.

Poetic shots of soldiers congregated on beaches, helplessly undefended against air bombing raids are poignant and devastating, but I did encounter brief moments when I lapsed into almost losing interest, mainly aspects of Foinn Whitehead’s central journey of survival, which I found less emotionally powerful than others. I’d attribute that to a combination of finding other sections so involving and the distracting presence of One Direction.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of Dunkirk is how the lyrical nature of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography captures that defiant sense of homemade heroism. Hans Zimmer’s score amplifies suspense, but also gives way to a sense of pride in valour in the use of an adapted version Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. There’s a beautiful restraint in the way the music is employed to evoke sentimentalism with the brakes on, which is reflected in the authenticity and respect with which the film treats both the subject matter and the audience.

4/5

 

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Wonder Woman (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Wonder Woman (2017) Directed by Patty Jenkins. With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston and David Thewlis.

The era of superhero films has been the dominant cinematic force of the past 10-years, yet while Marvel Studios appeared to find their rhythm from the very start with Iron Man and co, the DC playground had failed to affirm its stamp of quality. Until now.

As is now a familiar structure of these films, Patty Jenkins gets straight into the origins of Diana Prince (Gadot), which is given a fresh feel by the fact that all the characters are women. Though its roots story stuff, it doesn’t feel quite as laboured or drawn out as so many of these chapters in superhero storytelling can fall victim to. If that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, well…

Towards the end of the first act, Diana’s mother exclaims – “The world of men do not deserve you“. There’s also a feeling that Gadot deserves a better film constructed around her – not that Wonder Woman is a bad film – the contrary, it has fine moments and Gadot shines brightly. But the framework of the storytelling isn’t anything out of the ordinary for these movies. Of course, it’s a mountainous step up in quality from recent DCU offerings, most of which front-load an edgy collage of dampened drama that achieve nothing to elevate the soul. There is one dramatic shot when Gadot looks like an oil painting from Zack Snyder’s 300, however, under the eye of Patty Jenkins she’s a framed as a heroic Goddess to be worshipped, as opposed to a woman to be ogled.

Gal Gadot is stunning in that ridiculously beautiful kind of way, yet she’s portrayed in such a positive light, that it’s impossible to not fall in love with her. But we aren’t just falling in love with her physical appearance, we’re falling in love with her ideological insistence on putting others before herself. She has an extraterrestrial aura that modern superheroes can’t find. She isn’t suffering with the internal angst of Superman, Iron Man or Batman – she’s just plain good. And what’s wrong with that!? It seems that the trend for a superhero is to be brooding and complex, with a multitude of internal issues to decipher. Why can’t heroes just be straight up good like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and have dilemmas and choices presented to them by the world. Gadot’s character is an emblem of hope.

Snyder co-wrote the story and is onboard as a producer, meaning his visual style is fully present, though his tendency to fetishise isn’t carried forward by Jenkins who aims to make Wonder Woman far more than a simple object of desire. Her ethos of ‘love wins’ might seem like jumping on the bandwagon of a hashtag, but it’s an important message for our world and Allan Heinberg’s screenplay aims to make a firm point of it.

One centrepiece action sequence is given a visceral kick-start, before branching off into spectacular slow motion mayhem, accompanied by Rupert Gregson-Williams’s excellent banshee wailing score. Seeing Wonder Woman in close combat makes for some remarkable visual imagery, though some air comes out of the tyres in less convincing CGI shots of her.

Chris Pine takes what would traditionally be the female sidekick role. It’s a switch that works for him as an actor. Pine isn’t always credited for the strength of his performances, possibly due to his ‘Ken doll’ good looks, but his character doesn’t get in the way of who Diana is, rather adding to her through his own arc. Touches of humour let in some light, which is found in various responses to Diana’s naivety.

Though filled with undercurrents of darkness and a few stock baddies, where Jenkins triumphs is that she attempts to embrace the soul of who a hero is, rather than shying away from it with embarrassment. The final act ‘boss level’ almost squanders much of what comes before it, and it’s a real shame the character has to be wasted as part of the overall DC extended universe. On this evidence, she should leave them all behind and forge her own path.

3.5/5

 

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The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Directed by Wes Craven. With John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Dee Wallace, Suzie Lanier-Bramlett and Martin Speer.

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Wes Craven’s original exploitation offering, The Hills Have Eyes (it now has sequels and a remake and a sequel to a remake) is an American horror story about a vacationing family whose car breaks down in the hostile Nevada desert. Craven also penned the script, in which the group are forced into a survival fight against hungry local cannibals.

As one of those anachronic people who saw Aliens before Alien, my first impression of The Hills Have Eyes ’77 isn’t helped by the fact that I saw the 2006 remake years ago. Due to limitations of age, budget and technique, the original isn’t as visually assertive as Alexandre Aja’s more cut-throat 2006 version, although the plot is identical, but with more humanisation of the cannibals, many of which are named after planets in the solar system.

Poorly aged though it sometimes is, there’s a narrative of family vs family woven into the fabric of what we see. One civilised family – one not so much – Wes Craven wants to tap into the fear of leaving our comfort zone. By design, it’s a film to make you mistrust people – to feel paranoia toward the motives and agendas of those you don’t know. With a caravan in tow, it’s cosy suburban living forced to face the wild unknown it commonly shelters from. The sanctuary of the family unit, invaded and ripped apart like a meaningless old rag. These are the kind of crazies who give babies special treatment on account of their potential delight to the tastebuds.

Though I confess to being repelled by the sight of a massive spider and an angry rattlesnake (I’m a wuss), as a horror film in 2018, The Hill Have Eyes is unlikely to shock, surprise or upset anyone versed in the genre, yet it remains a soft recommendation for anyone doing their homework. Over time, it’s the little flaws that can be the most damaging – one prolonged close-up reveals a facial makeup prosthetic not sufficiently glued down. Sacrilegious as it might be, I regret to admit I found the remake a more compelling piece of entertainment. Be that as it may, Craven builds and maintains an unsettling tone that’s effectiveness is only obstructed by the fact that its orignal elements have suffered a dilution of their shock value.

2.5/5

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Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Julie Dreyfus and David Carradine

Quentin Tarantino’s deep melting pot of influences is perhaps most noticeable in Kill Bill Vol 1, his modern samurai revenge film about a woman (Uma Thurman) with a shopping list of assassinations to carry out. From a shocking black & white introduction onward, Kill Bill is one of those rarities – an entertaining movie in which style becomes substance.

Accompanied by lone tremolo guitar chords, Nancy Sinatra sings ‘Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down‘ over the titles (it would’ve made a perfect Bond theme). There’s an instant feeling of quality, like we’re in the hands of a director in the mood to show us a good time. There’s a texture to the film that seems to leap off the screen with a sense of cool elation, as cinema from across the globe is invoked in a collection of scenes and sequences fed directly by Japanese, Chinese, Italian and American influences, both mainstream and exploitation.

Thurman’s presence is a curious one – sexy with her tumbling blonde curls, yet somehow bridging a fine line between the sexes, incorporating variations of the classic Hollywood tough-guy alongside her soft femininity. Whatever she’s channeling, she’s fascinating to watch. The action sequences are beautifully designed and shot, with combinations of wire work, dizzying angles and inventive usage of the eye-catching environments.

The leftfield nature of Tarantino’s dialogue is conveyed with a knowing tone by the large supporting cast, be it Michael Parks as a Texan homicide detective or a venomous Lucy Liu as one of the ‘Deadly Viper Squad’, everyone seems to invested in the joke.

Visually, the film has a broad canvas; the dry Texas desert, middle American suburbia, crisp Tokyo snowfall (the latter feeling like something from a dream). The high style combined with the globe-trotting cultural criss-crossing affords an amount of visual depth rarely captured. It’s part of what makes the film feel so fresh and unique, even though most of what we see is directly recycled from something Tarantino loves.

Tarantino’s offbeat sense of humour is central to the fun, as the wacky violence takes on the larger-than-life appeal of a comic book, especially in the riotously over the top final act. Indeed, one captivating section describes O-Ren Ishii’s back story in the form of anime with graphic explosions of visceral violence.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a visually ambidextrous first half of a tempting double bill, complimented by a glorious soundscape of musical selections that feel instantly iconic. There’s inbuilt cult appeal to a film that feels like a greatest hits of Quentin Tarantino’s hyperactive subconscious.

5/5

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