The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Directed by Irvin Kershner. With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams. 


In 1977, the cinematic world changed with the release of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Few people saw it coming, but going to the cinema was never going to be the same again. Star Wars set imaginations alight around the globe with its optimistic grandeur and sweeping, romantic themes of good vs evil. The Empire Strikes Back ripped up the ‘difficult second album syndrome’ when it was released in 1980, taking the fun of Star Wars and furthering it into a captivating tour-de-force of drama and inspired character development.

The film beautifully fleshes out the characters we fell in love with the first time around, adding depth and humanity in nearly every way. Darth Vader – arguably the greatest screen villain of all-time – is more ruthless and irritable this time, choking his generals for their incompetence, thus escalating his own frustration in tracking down those responsible for the destruction of the first Death Star. The sound of Vader’s breathing mask is alone an ominous one, and the script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett has a shocking dramatic sting in its tale that ensured that Star Wars was to live on as much more than just a one-hit-wonder.

The lighting, editing, shot compositions, camera work and art design are exceptional, helping to make the lived-in universe of Star Wars once again feel like a tangible, real place to inhabit for two hours. While Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker begins to lose some of his naivety amid a journey of personal discovery, Harrison Ford piles on the roguish charm as Han Solo – bantering and bickering with Carrie Fisher’s spiky Princess Leia between dodging asteroids and the laser-fire of Super Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters.

Once again, John Williams’ score is a thing of sheer magnificence, introducing further romantic themes on top of the already established swashbuckling ones. The Imperial March is a resounding wallop around the ear-holes, projecting dominance and ill-intentioned power with a musical force that would blow away any heavy metal band, even with their amplifiers ‘turned up to 11’.

Then we have the Jedi Master, Yoda, a wonderfully eccentric creation and a great twist on audience expectation. For those overly familiar with Star Wars, it’s worth reminding yourself just how surprising many of the story revelations of Empire were.

So much of what makes Empire so great is in its bold dramatic revelations and its brave story choices. The film chooses character development first, yet still whacks an almighty visual punch with ambitious effects sequences, decades ahead of their time.

Empire is like the perfect middle-act, and succeeds in expanding the Star Wars galaxy as a rich and vast playground. Dramatically, it’s the most resonant of the original three, backed up by some of the richest production design in the history of cinema. To me and so many others, The Empire Strikes Back is a mark of quality that gets better every time that I see it. 5/5

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Coherence (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Coherence (2013) Directed by James Ward Byrkit. With Emily Baldoni, Nicholas Brendon and Maury Sterling.


From first time writer-director James Ward Byrki, Coherence is an 89-minute trip to the Twilight Zone in which a group of people at a party are plunged into an intense situation. Due to the through-line of the plot, it’s an awkward film to review, moreover, the fun and suspense comes by way of discovering the details for yourself. Indeed, from the point you learn what’s going on, Ward Byrkit proves himself beyond the strength of his idea by skilfully honing a thick air of suspense and mystery.

The cast are a group of relative unknowns (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas Brendon being perhaps the most recognisable face), with varying amounts of screen-time. The focal character is Emily (Emily Baldoni) – with each character playing varying amounts of importance in the unravelling events. With the help of a subtle soundtrack score by Kristin Øhrn Dyrud, the tension slowly builds as the world seems to become a much smaller place.

As the plot takes place within the confines of a living room-kitchen setting, the interactions between the characters take on a Big Brother feel as divisions and double-crossings begin to split the initial sense of harmony.

There is only so very little that can be said in review, but huge praise must go to Ward Byrkit who flies out of the traps with a confident debut that refuses to rest on its laurels, on the way to being an engagingly smart and creepy piece of science-fiction. 4/5

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Directed by Joss Whedon. With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.


It’s like spinning plates for 5-years – eventually, there’s going to be some crashing and smashing. Of course, Joss Whedon’s Avengers trade in the currency of crashing and smashing, which is partly why we pay the increasingly inflated admission fees, but with each sequel, we’ve also come to expect greater narrative depth and rich character development that’s supposed to leave us craving for more. In simpler words, “we loved what you gave us last time, Joss, now can we have more of the same, only y’know, bigger and better!?”

There are moments in which Whedon does at least manage to equal the fun of his first Avengers team-up, yet sadly, there are too many that come up short. He had the element of surprise up his sleeve the first time around (something James Gunn’s Gaurdians of the Galaxy benefitted from in spades) ,but now we know this world and how these characters interact with each other. Whedon knows that simply rehashing things won’t do, but for much of the many action scenes (yet more chaotic sequences of CGI destruction) it somehow feels rehashed – lots of noise but little in the way of finesse.

In terms of character, wit and all-round likeability, the Avengers films are light years ahead of the Transformers series, but in the sense of CGI mayhem, they are cut from the same cloth. Fun as the chaos sometimes is, the over-reliance on CGI always restricts my own personal involvement, so if you’re like me (tired of endless destruction in these movies) don’t be surprised to find yourself checking your watch from time to time.

The script continues to allow the Avengers to indulge in that Whedonesque sense of self-parody. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye exclaims – “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” Beyond that, there’s more serious character development amid the carnage, albeit not entirely convincing. It feels as though Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a little betrayed here. So great in The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, all of a sudden her character appears vulnerable and co-dependent, almost like the damsel in need of saving, but not quite in distress. The guys mostly maintain their wining streak. Both Chris’ Hemsworth and Evans are a lot of fun and Thor and Cap, while Mark Rufallo is a good presence in any film. Being completely unfamiliar with text of the comics, there’s development of Renner’s Hawkeye that seems to stall the film for twenty-or-so minutes, almost as if the film is pausing for breath and doesn’t really have anything to say, so it starts babbling. Downey Jr picks up where he left off, playing Tony Stark with his now trademark wit and intelligence, as the long-form storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sees him becoming increasingly isolated in his responsibility to making the world a safer place.

This is the plot for Age of Ultron, as Stark’s ambition to protect the human race turns on him. Stark is Dr Frankenstein, Ultron is his monster. In turn, this sows the seeds of division that will undoubtedly lead into the Civil War storyline of the upcoming Captain America sequel. There’s another problem. There are too many times that this film feels like a plot set-up for another instalment in a franchise. Iron Man 2 was guilty of the same sin, and isn’t highly regarded because of it. Audiences are sick to the back teeth of commercials – they most certainly don’t want the plot-lines of their summer blockbusters to start behaving like them.

In the spirit of avoiding spoilers, I can’t write freely about all of the players in the field. That said, the marketing openly promotes the dual presence of the brother-sister double-act of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In terms of performance, while the two don’t have a massive impact, their joint presence is a welcome new dynamic. Sadly for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver though, nothing he does remotely rivals that scene in X:Men: Days of Future Past.

So, while the smashing and crashing of Age of Ultron is fun in part, it’s a shame that so much of it feels perfunctory, especially when it’s well-known just how hard Whedon worked himself on it. That said, it’s far from being a bad film, it’s just one that fails to live up to the ridiculously sky-high levels of expectation placed upon it. 3.5/5

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While We’re Young (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

While We’re Young (2014) Directed by Noah Baumbach. With Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. 


From acclaimed writer-director Noah Baumbach comes While We’re Young, a coming-of-un-age film about a couple in their 40’s who are befriended by a couple in their 20’s. Set against the backdrop of New York, but with tourist attractions well out of sight, the elder couple are played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, a not-exactly-old pair of New Yorker’s who begin to feel decidedly ancient in the company of Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried – a pair of (dare I say it) hipsters who embrace culture and openness in a way that the 40-something’s have semi-forgotten.

Thankfully, the tone keeps us from rolling our eyes too much and although initially it seems the case, Baumbach’s intentions aren’t to lecture us for not being hipsters. No, he’s more interested in exploring the humour between the age and culture gaps, while concreting the simple truth that we’re all basically the same, just different interpretations of it.

Baumbach isn’t afraid to embrace his influences either, with the style of Woody Allen evident throughout. Like so many Ben Stiller headliners, While We’re Young was marketed as an out-and-out comedy. Perhaps this might have led to some amount of confusion over expectations – certainly the majority of the humour is delivered with the intention of being wryly amusing over downright laughing-in-the aisles hilarious.

Performance-wise, it’s fine. Driver and Stiller are given the lions share of the screen-time, while Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried are more back-seat passengers than they ought to be. Stiller is basically the same old Average Joe we’ve seen what seems like a thousand times over, while Driver is a more curiously magnetic presence, playing a quasi version of Keanu Reeves from Bill & Ted, but without the spontaneous air guitar and a better vocabulary.

Ultimately, the film skirts around the idea of the perception of what is ‘cool‘ and the things we should be aspiring to. Occasionally it feels like it’s about derail, but it just about keeps its balance despite some hairy moments. Sadly, it fails to muster the same grounded humanity of Baumbach’s earlier effort, Frances Ha, and although it has patchy moments of good humour, there isn’t enough going on to make a strong recommendation. 3/5

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’71 (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

’71 (2014) Directed by Yann Demange. With Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid and Sean Harris. 


71′ tells the story of Gary Hook,  a young British soldier who finds himself abandoned on the hostile streets of Belfast during a time of intense sectarian conflict in 1971. Directed by Yann Demange and starring Jack O’Connell, the film is not only an effective thriller, it is also a stark portrait of a frightening time in the recent history of Northern Ireland.

After his fearsome performance in the prison drama Starred Up and now this, Jack O’Connell has quickly established himself as one of Britain’s most exciting young actors. In ’71, his performance once again feels honest and undiluted, showing measures of toughness and vulnerability as he fights for survival across a deadly suburban landscape, hunted by members of the IRA.

The film pulls no punches in its frank depictions of violence and suffering, with cinematography by Tat Radcliffe helping to emphasise a gritty, nightmarish world where order ceases to exist and the people live in a state of repression and fear. There is balance in the representation of the Catholics and Protestants, with innocents and good Samaritans on both sides. It is the moments Gary shares with these characters that ’71 finds its heartbeat, fleetingly helping restore our faith in humanity amid a mire of hate.

Given the real-world conflict the film sets itself within, the events are charged above that of your average action-thriller. The sense of distrust between people is heightened by depictions of corruption and betrayal within the British Army – demonstrating that in any conflict, there are degrees of wrongdoing on both sides.

With some heart-pounding moments of suspense and a threatening atmosphere throughout, ‘71 is an impressive piece of work that captures the chaos and unrest of the period, while remaining resolute in its core ambition as an uncompromising action-thriller. 4/5 

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Girl Most Likely (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Girl Most Likely (2012) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. With Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss.


Co-directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Girl Most Likely is a New York/New Jersey-set comedy-drama about Imogene (Wiig), a woman facing the crisis of moving back home with her mother (Bening) after losing her job and boyfriend.

Such is my admiration of Kristen Wiig, that I’ll literally watch anything with her name attached…even a Ghostbusters reboot (seriously, I’m brainlessly optimistic about that). It feels like acid in my mouth to say it, but she’s in the wrong film here. Her performance is fine (her usual on-the-brink-of-crazy shtick), and she’s responsible for keeping the film semi-afloat, but the script and story aren’t good enough to serve her talent, leaving her hopelessly adrift for chunks of the running time.

In terms of the script, it’s plain to see why Wiig would take the role. The character fits the sort of humour for which she has such a gift. The problem is that the film constructed around her is weak and utterly incidental, offering her very little to bounce off. Tonally, it seems to have one foot in the world of a sentimental indie rom-com, and the other in that of a slapstick farce. Some of the characters feel transplanted from other films. Wiig’s brother is a watered-down version of Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover, while Annette Bening channels a trashier version of Caroline Burnham from American Beauty. These things wouldn’t matter so much if the film wasn’t such a drag – but the reminders aren’t favourable.

With a talent like Wiig in its corner and a few flashes of quirky humour, Girl Most Likely is at best, fleetingly OK, but for the most part fails to muster any comedic or dramatic momentum, making it a frustrating experience. 2/5

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The Guest (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Guest (2014) Directed by Adam Wingard. With Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser.


From cult-horror director Adam Wingard, The Guest is a horror-lite-thriller about man (Stevens) visiting the bereaved family of a soldier killer in combat, claiming to be a close friend of their deceased son.

The star of the film, Dan Stevens, appears like a cross between Ryan Gosling in Drive and Chris Evans as Captain America – smooth and handsome, but with an unnerving amount of confidence that creates an early inkling of something not quite right. After meeting Mom, he’s gradually introduced to the rest of the family of four – quickly acquainting himself with each member.

After only a few minutes, it’s plainly evident we’re on familiar turf as the story sets about moving its characters into predictable plot situations. After Stevens,  the elder sister of the family (Maika Monroe) is perhaps given the most amount of screen-time – styled as sexy college-girl bait for the antagonist, which is about the extent of our invitation to get to know her.

With its soundtrack, the film seems to ape Drive with an indie/electronic track selection, yet it feels a little inflicted. Where the songs in Drive were cool and complimented the scenes, it feels like The Guest is trying hard prescribe its own ‘cool’, which is where it partly comes up short.

While the execution is patchily good and the shot selections and camera work are fine, there is an abiding sense that it’s too derivative to embrace, leaving a hollow feeling. The finale devolves further still with a tacked-on ending, complete with the speculative sowing of franchise seeds – please no! Although Dan Stevens is good value in the lead role, don’t be surprised to find yourself comparing The Guest to much better films. 2.5/5

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