The Killing Zone (1991) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Killing Zone (1991) Directed by Addison Randall. With Deron McBee, Armando Silvestre and James Dalesandro.

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It’s a Z-list action film. Forgive me for cutting to the chase, but that’s all you really need to know about writer/director Addison Randall’s ‘The Killing Zone’. The plot and other contrivances are barely worth a mention. Randall is no more talented than a frustrated soft-core porn director working in the action genre. His film has helicopters, car chases, shoot-outs, electric guitar licks, explosions, boobs and a muscle-bound beefcake action star in former American Gladiator, Deron McBee.

The action happens because there’s a bad guy, himself out for revenge. His vengeance crosses paths with the hulking Deron McBee, who with the help of a bent cop, engages in vigilante justice.

Like his 1989 film ‘Shotgun’, The Killing Zone is complete rubbish. But unlike Shotgun, it isn’t the kind of rubbish you might remember. It’s just bland, stupid and ineffective in every way. The soundtrack sounds like it was recorded live on a £10 toy keyboard, while the action it accompanies is shot with zero imagination or wit. The acting ranges from terrible to worse although star, Deron McBee, at least looks the part riding his Harley Davidson, complete with a huge mane of blonde hair, strategically ripped jeans, a tight vest and cowboy boots.

If you stay the course and get to the end, you’ve done well. You won’t have learned anything new and you might have felt yourself regressing slightly, but no-one can question your powers of endurance. Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire mess is when an attractive female character is molested as she’s being held hostage. She’s wearing a thin white t-shirt. A man pours water over her and the camera zooms in to focus on her breasts, disregarding her distress to revel in the sight of her chest. It is in grotty moments like this, that we see Addison Randall for what he really is. A cheap and nasty director appealing to the lowest common denominator of taste. Boring and horrible.  1/5

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Directed by Robert Wise. With Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Billy Gray.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still was a seminal moment in science fiction cinema. Boasting one of the best titles ever, it has since become an iconic landmark in the great pantheon of the genre. Let’s be absolutely clear, I’m talking about Robert Wise’s 1951 black and white classic, not the one starring the bloke from Bill and Ted.

The set-up is simple. A flying saucer lands in the broad daylight of Washington DC. The world goes nuts. After a while, a mysterious man called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from the alien craft, which triggers a response that sets the plot of this intelligent study of the state of humanity in motion. Released just six years after World War II, and a few years into the Cold War, the film is ultimately a rallying call for peace in the world. It is a judgement on humanity, telling us to change our ways, or else…

There is no denying the historic status of the film, or for that matter, its cultural significance. That is not to say it isn’t flawed. Although the overall message remains intact today, in many other ways it has become a product of its time. The more discerning viewer will see through some of the peculiarities of the plot (even in 1950, would a mother have ever allowed her young son to spend the day in a city with a complete stranger?) and engage with the central idea.

There are a few ‘Plan 9′ moments dotted around (you can see the wires), and the threatening robot, Gort, has lost much of his menace over the years. In truth, he looks more like a bad cosplay attempt, than the foreboding presence of intergalactic doom that he is supposed to represent. It’s a saving grace then, that Michael Rennie’s performance as the alien visitor, Klaatu, is a blend of kind, gentlemanly manners underpinned by a broodingly sinister feeling of unease. Furthermore, the script isn’t at pains to explain absolutely everything, leaving the audience plenty of imagination space to make their own decisions about where the aliens are from and what they ultimately intend.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic, albeit a flawed one. Its better aspects have informed generations of science fiction, and Bernard Herrmann’s score effectively moves between describing the rumbustious chaos of humanity in confusion, to the mysterious intrigue of an alien force. “Klaatu barada nikto!” 3.5/5

 

 

 

 

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Tracks (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Tracks (2013) Directed by John Curran. With Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver.

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Based on the memoirs of Robyn Davidson, who travelled on foot across 1,700 miles of Australian desert in the late 1970’s, Tracks is a film with a lot of ground to cover. Directed by John Curran and starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, the film is a beautifully sparse looking adventure that often struggles for air on an emotional level, mainly down to its protagonists steely exterior. In fairness, that’s not a fault with the writing, the direction or the acting, it’s just indicative of the character.

As the film progresses, we learn that Davidson prefers the company of animals to people. She’s had a hard start in life and the journey represents an escape from the modern world. In essence, it’s her hiding place. She says – “The universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these was dogs.” It’s this kind of witty rhetoric that masks her underlying sadness. We learn of her unhappy childhood experiences. Abandonment. It allows us at least to understand her motivations and her reticence when it comes to building relationships.

Wasikowska gives a fine central performance, firmly inhabiting the role of a young woman with a fierce inner strength. The sight of her trekking the barren deserts with three camels and her loyal dog makes for some strikingly poetic imagery. Ironically, as much as she wants to leave the world behind, her feat captures the imagination of the global media, leading to regular visits from reporters, one in-particular played by Adam Driver who is determined to chisel away at her initially dismissive attitude.

Like the landscape it covers, Tracks is a dry, serious story told at a slow pace. It has been compared to Sean Penn’s similarly themed ‘Into the Wild’ and while it isn’t as soulful or engaging as that film, there are still things to recommend. The journey doesn’t perhaps feel as long as it ought to, although it’s still hard to argue a case for it being much longer than its 112mins. 3/5 

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Directed by Nicholas Meyer. With William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban, DeForest Kelley, Kirstie Alley, James Doohan and Paul Winfield.

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It’s a widely held opinion that Star Trek II is the best of the series to date. That said, by comparison, Star Trek: The Motion Picture would make any film look like a classic. In the three years since we last met up with the crew of the Enterprise, they’ve all gone away and rediscovered their personalities. Gone are the achingly dull salutes to Kubrick’s ‘2001’; replaced by a tone more fitting for that of adventure and excitement. Straight away, we’re plunged into a battle situation aboard the bridge of a vessel captained by Kirstie Alley, which turns out to be an elaborate training programme in which all the crew give up their time to role-play over-exaggerated deaths with real looking explosions and smoke. Maybe it’s a direct response to the portentous tone of its predecessor. Whatever the reason, it’s a silly gag and doesn’t work.

Despite the naff execution of the intro, the idea of the battle simulation becomes relevant later in the plot and in truth, it’s good to see the actors appearing more relaxed and at home in their roles. The idea for Star Trek II takes its roots from an episode in the 1960’s television show titled ‘Space Seed’, reintroducing the title character of Khan (Ricardo Montalban). With his New Romantic wig and pumped up chest muscles, Khan is exactly what Star Trek needed. A charismatic villain with a purpose, fuelled by an unhealthy vendetta against William Shatner’s Captian Kirk.

As well as a strong antagonist, Star Trek II is more satisfying thanks to its underlying themes confronting ageing, death and friendship. It does what all good sequels should do; it takes the existing characters and builds on them and their relationships. It also remembers why people love Star Trek, returning to a more action orientated storyline while retaining the darker look of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

As with all Star Trek films, the acting is a mixed bag is very good and terrible. Walter Koenig has never been able to convincingly string a sentence together, while Kirstie Alley’s Saavik sounds like a parody of a Vulcan, rather than an actual one. James Horner’s main theme isn’t as swashbuckling as Jerry Goldsmith’s, but it still fits the piece well. Due to the high budget of Star Trek: The Motion Picture ($35m), many of the sets and props were re-used to keep the budget from spiralling which allows ‘Khan’ to retain a pleasing sense of visual continuity.

The final third boldly goes where no Star Trek adventure has gone before or since, by adding some real dramatic weight. I won’t spoil it for any new viewers, but there is an unexpected sense of genuine emotion that perhaps explains why this instalment in the vast offering of Star Trek related film and television is  generally considered the greatest ‘Trek’ ever made. 3.5/5

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The Aviator (2004) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Aviator (2004) Directed by Martin Scorsese. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Danny Huston and Gwen Stefani.

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With the help of his esteemed editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, film maker Martin Scorsese has a great knack for making a snappy feeling biopic. In a sense, he’s a great illusionist. The running times of his films (this one clocks in at 170mins) often land comfortably beyond the 2.5hr mark, yet they never seem to feel quite that long. It is a testament to his skill as a storyteller; that he has the ability to help us escape the trappings of time and lose ourselves in his pictures.

Scorsese often admires significant people for their achievements, yet he is never shy of showing people for who they really were. Take boxer Jake La Motta for example, a fearsome presence in and out of the ring in 1980’s Raging Bull. A man who could hurt himself and his loved ones far worse than he did any of his competitive opponents.

With 11 Oscar nominations and 5 wins to its name, The Aviator tells the remarkable story of Howard Hughes, from the late 1920’s to the mid 1940’s. Hughes was a man with a few ‘strings to his bow’. A business man, an inventor, a film director, an aerospace engineer and, as the title of the film suggests, an aviator. Yet there was more still to Hughes. For years, he tried to fight off  the tendencies of an obsessive compulsive disorder. He courted screen beauties like Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn, as well as fighting to preserve his name in court against accusations of financial wrongdoing against the American people. He didn’t lead a dull life.

Leonardo DiCaprio steps into Hughes’ sizeable shoes for his second collaboration with Scorsese after 2002’s Gangs of New York. It represents a real watershed moment for the actor. All of a sudden, he feels like he’s shedding that poster boy ‘Titanic’ image for good by fulfilling his potential and stepping into a new phase of his career. For such a remarkable man like Hughes, it had to be a similarly remarkable performance and DiCaprio delivers with a flush. The enigmatic, flawed genius of Hughes is captured superbly. There is a real sense that this man thought he was bigger than life, yet his own personal demons were never a split-second away. It’s a complex and fascinating performance that is matched brilliantly by an Oscar winning Cate Blanchett, playing opposite him as Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett fully captures the essence of Hepburn, bringing with her a reassuring sense of authenticity which allows the audience to further immerse and soak up the feeling of being in the period.

Despite some of CGI aerial scenes having lost a little shine (they look too shiny) in the past 10yrs, Scorsese assembles a rich, handsome looking film, filled with beautiful period detail, including the eye-catching high fashions of the time. Howard Shore’s score also reflects the musical landscape of the time, working in tandem with the film to create an undercurrent that celebrates the movies of the Golden Era. Furthermore, Scorsese plays with colour palettes in an attempt to add subtle visual style to his film. Greens become blues in an attempt to reflect the development of colour in films throughout the periods the story covers.

Scorsese’s love for cinema bursts through in this intriguing drama of an extraordinary man’s battle to balance his drive for success with his decreasing sanity. Told with passion and vigour, The Aviator is further complemented by a fine supporting cast. It takes 2hrs and 50mins to watch it. I can honestly say the time flies. Pun intended. 4.5/5

 

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Directed by Robert Wise. With William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan.

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I have never understood the rivalry between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars. There is nothing in the existing Star Trek canon that comes close to touching the greatness of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s undisputed. People often cite The Empire Strikes Back as the greatest film of all-time, whereas, people call Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the greatest Star Trek film of all-time. It doesn’t take a warp drive engineer to see the difference.

I bring it up now, because this 1979 reintroduction of Star Trek was made possible by the success of George Lucas’ space opera. Before ’79, Star Trek existed as a cancelled 1960’s television series. The original Star Trek series was fun and colourful, yet its success was a more gradual achievement, with more and more people discovering it through TV repeats. Then, Star Wars exploded and sci-fi hit the mainstream.

Please understand, I consider myself a big Star Trek fan, yet despite my love for it, I’m not blind to its frequent lack of quality. That lack of quality has never been more evident than in the various cinematic ‘Treks’. For years, people used split the quality of the films by the even and odd numbered sequels. 2,4,6,8 were considered “good”, while 1,3,5 and 7 (seven is OK, by the way) were labelled “bad”. Even the television series’ were a mixed bag. The original series is enjoyable but of its time, whereas Star Trek: The Next Generation did a great job of creating a broader universe, thanks to Rick Berman’s persistence and the darker spin-off show, Deep Space Nine, which added a much needed underlying narrative depth to the Star Trek universe. Voyager and Enterprise, however, offered little to tempt new fans and the the life of Star Trek as a TV experience fizzled off our screens in 2005.

What director Robert Wise unwisely attempts to achieve with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is to emulate the serious science fiction of Stanley Kubrick. No-one comes to Star Trek to have a deep and meaningful experience. They come to be entertained. This is a film that crumbles under the weight of its own self-importance. It doesn’t have the dry wit of a Han Solo, or the deep, spiritual aspect of ‘the force’. It has cardboard characters, walking around admittedly impressive looking sets (yay art department) omitting boring dialogue and sharing zero chemistry.

It’s one of those films that goes on and on, and never seems to end. Halfway through, you’re dying for an angry Klingon to erupt and start shooting the place up. Alas, it never comes. All we have is a convoluted plot that seems to slowly go nowhere. The usually charming William Shatner seems forced to apply the brakes as Captain Kirk. DeForest Kelley’s ‘Bones’ looks like he’s itching to let loose, but again, is hindered by a screenplay that seems underdeveloped. It”s all so hollow and lifeless.

The visual effects are good, but there comes a time in the film when they become experimental and overused. It really feels like there is less than half of a story to tell, and knowing this, the director crams the running time with long, drawn out sequences where no-one speaks and nothing happens. I think we’re supposed to be feeling awe at this stage, but we’re just bored.

The admittedly triumphant score by Jerry Goldsmith flatters to deceive. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a million miles wide and a few centimetres deep. It forgets its origins and takes itself far too seriously. If you must boldly go to this one – set phasers to snore.  2/5

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Road House (1989) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Road House (1989) Directed by Rowdy Herrington. With Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliot, Ben Gazzara and Kevin Tighe.

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It’s hard to believe that Roadhouse was made with a straight face. None of anything that occurs seems to stand the test of common sense, yet somehow, there is an inherent entertainment quality that lifts it above other similarly stupid offerings.

Patrick Swayze is a bouncer with a difference. He says things like “Nobody ever wins a fight”. He studies Tai chi. He lives in a peaceful barn conversion and he isn’t a complete dick, unlike the majority of the townsfolk of ‘Jasper’, the fictional community in which the film is set. A local business man (Kevin Tighe) hires him to help “clean up” his bar; which seems closer to a fight club than a drinking establishment. All seems hunky-dory, until Ben Gazzara’s ‘Brad Wesley’, the local bully, takes umbrage and decides to declare war on Swayze and the bar.

The fight scenes are as ridiculous as you might expect, as are the consequences of them. Swayze is involved in numerous scraps along with some serious beatings, in which it seems easier to guess which bones haven’t been broken. The next day, he’s a fresh as a spring lamb. Of course, it wouldn’t be much fun if he spent the whole film in hospital (he stitches his own wounds), but you see my point. Speaking of hospital, that’s where he meets Dr Kelly Lynch for the obligatory 80’s romance of the plot. Another box ticked.

Despite an avalanche of stupid, the script for Road House is good fun; never better than when Sam Elliot appears halfway through the film to steel it from under Swayze’s nose. Lines like – “This place has a sign hangin’ over the urinal that says, “Don’t eat the big white mint” are delivered with a dry, but warm cynicism that almost make you pine for a Sam Elliot spin-off movie.

In a sense, Roadhouse feels like all the naffness of 80’s action films rolled-up into one, as kind of an end-of-decade celebration of the cheese-fest’s that were prevalent throughout the era. Both Patrick Swayze and Kelly Lynch look like they’re trying to finish off the ozone layer with the amount of hairspray it must have taken to keep their huge ‘do’s in place, while the pop/rock soundtrack, mostly provided by The Jeff Healey Band, recalls the upbeat tempo of the likes of Top Gun and Cocktail. It isn’t anywhere near what you might describe as a classic, but if your’e in the mood to sit back and go with the silliness, you might enjoy yourself here and there. 3/5

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