Shallow Grave (1994) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Shallow Grave (1994) Directed by Danny Boyle. With Kerry Fox, Ewan McGregor, and Christopher Eccleston.

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I’m struggling to think of a film that looks and sounds more 1990’s than Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Between Ewan McGregor’s Def Leppard haircut, some painfully awful techno and the insistence of tucking everything into your jeans, there’s a little gem of a film hiding away. This is pre-Trainspotting Boyle, a year before everyone sat-up and got excited about this talented young Lancashire-born film maker. The rest is cinematic history.

Of course, those who know their stuff will be fully aware that Boyle was cutting his teeth in television years before his first directorial feature offering. To an extent, Shallow Grave has the feel of a film made for television (it was funded by Channel 4), with its low budget and simple locations. That isn’t to say, however, that it is any less of a film for its paired down aesthetic. The contrary, Boyle makes the most of what he has and uses it to his advantage. He presents us with the simple, identifiable twenty-somethings – caught up in a situation way over their heads; forced to adapt and survive when they encounter a situation that tempts them into taking drastic action for their own selfish gain. That’s the plot, by the way.

Of the three central characters, Ewan McGregor was clearly born to be a star. Under Boyle’s direction, and even though his character is a bit of a tit, the actor emerges as a confident screen presence, with an agreeable wit and flashes of Scottish charm.

Much like Trainspotting, there is a basic central theme revolving around a bag of loot, and the dividing power it possesses, even on a solid friendship. Beyond that, though, it is also a dark and, at times, creepy drama-thriller. The underbelly of gangland crime coming home to roost provides a certain amount of horror – even more so with the realisation of some wince-worthy moments of graphic violence. It also deals with the effect that being exposed to such extremes can have on an otherwise everyday person, as we witness Christopher Eccleston running the gamut of emotional responses. With back-stabbing and double-dealing high on the menu, Shallow Grave is worth going back and digging up. 3.75/5

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Men in Black 3 (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Men in Black 3 (2012) Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. With Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Jemaine Clement, Emma Thompson and Alice Eve.

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After the frankly abysmal Men in Black II, you might be forgiven for having reservations about another dip into the comic-book inspired world of underground alien surveillance that is, the MIB franchise. The good news is, normal(ish) service is resumed. It’s hard to believe, but fifteen years have passed since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones first donned the suit and tie combo to “protect the Earth from the scum of the universe”. In that time, comic-book inspired films have taken over our multiplexes and amid the rush, MIB has become a trifle passé. Even Will Smith’s star doesn’t shine as brightly as it used to.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the film aims to have fun by embracing the daftness. Colourful and lively, it is further lifted by Smith’s willingness to play along with the materiel, however ridiculous it might be. The central thrust of the plot involves time-travel; Smith’s character travelling back to meet a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ character, played by Josh Brolin. Try to keep up.

Amid the madcap fun, Josh Brolin does a remarkable job of playing a younger Tommy Lee Jones. With small mannerisms and deft touches, Brolin’s turn is more impressive than any and all of the film’s countless special effects. On the subject of the effects, director Sonnenfeld ensures a tighter lid is kept on overusing gimmicks (i.e cute talking animals/aliens) this time around. The effects are fun and entertaining, but he understands that they are best employed as set-dressing and background detail. This is where there is fun between the gaps in Men in Black 3; sometimes, it’s enjoyable to sit back and admire the weird collection of alien beings dotted around each scene.

While it feels like step-up from ‘II‘, it does little to make itself stand alone as particularly good film. A small appearance from pop-star Nicole Scherzinger leaves us wanting more, and the actors are mostly likeable; Jemaine Clement plays a suitably over-the-top baddie, while Emma Thompson is a welcome addition to any cast. In the end, though, too much from the previous films is recycled to make it feel like a fresh adventure. Indeed, with so much time between sequels, you might be surprised how disinterested it is from veering away from the same old formula. Passable, harmless fun at best.  2.75/5

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48 Hrs. (1982) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

48 Hrs. (1982) Directed by Walter Hill. With Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar, Sonny Landham and Annette O Toole.

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Walter Hill’s 48Hrs is perhaps most notable for boasting the first big screen appearance of stand-up comic turned A-list movie star, Eddie Murphy. Co-written by Hill with three other writers – one of which is Steven E. de Souza (writer of Die Hard) – the film is clumsy, noisy and entirely predictable for the duration of its 96-minute stay.

The story is a simple twist on the buddy-cop thriller; two contrasting personalities thrown together to chase bad guys and crack wise. Murphy is a convict given a 48 Hr (hence the title) release from prison to help “cop” Nick Nolte catch some bad guys.  These films tend to stand and fall based on the chemistry shared between the seemingly reluctant leads. The more they rub-up against each other, the better for us. On this level, 48 Hrs manages to be some fun. Murphy is a born scene-stealer, and in truth, the moment he arrives on screen – things get a huge lift. His comic talent brushes up against a scabrous (and questionably racist) Nick Nolte, who spends most of the film fighting, shouting, drinking and firing his gun.

Like much-nearly-all of Walter Hill’s work, it revels far too happily in the joy of masculinity. Women are treated as second-rate human beings; sexy hookers, angry lesbians, pissy girlfriends. If nothing else, it renders many of his films one-dimensional and frankly boring. The men too are pigs – interested in sex (“trim”as Murphy calls it) and themselves, all the while demonstrating textbook emotional reticence.

The bad guys too are about as stock as they come. James Remar and Sonny Landham play a pair of violent prison escapees for Nolte and Murphy to chase. The script isn’t the slightest bit interested in spending any time fleshing them out, serving us the bare minimum insight into why these guys are so angry and pissed off. It’s this kind of one-note characterisation that further saps our interest, as we’re expected to accept gunfire and testosterone as a substitute for any kind of real human touch.

Without the star power of Eddie Murphy, 48 Hrs would be nothing. He (just) keeps it afloat with his upbeat energy and cheeky charm. The film constructed around him is a lazy, often stupid trudge through the already worn clichés of the genre. 2.75/5

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Maps to the Stars (2014) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Maps to the Stars (2014) Directed by David Cronenberg. With Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Evan Bird, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack and Olivia Williams. 

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Working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars plays like a deranged Hollywood fairytale – taking a hefty swipe at Tinseltown’s insular self-obsession and more directly, its incestuous relationship with itself. The film revolves around a group of characters headed up by an excellent Julianne Moore as ‘Havana’ – an actress living in the shadow of her famous mother; tormented by her past and emotionally lost in the spin-cycle of her own fame and fortune. Beyond that, it tells the story of a famous family divided by its attempt to hide its secrets from the glare of the media; to live a lie for the sake of keeping up appearances. Unlike the themes and subtexts buried deep into the surreal core of Cronenberg’s previous film, Cosmopolis, this really feels he is getting something significant off of his chest.

I’ll be honest, I strongly disliked Cosmopolis. Not because of its message or its style, but because I felt as though it laboured its point for the sake of it. For anyone familiar with it – imagine my trepidation as Maps to the Stars begins with Robert Pattinson inside a limousine – ahhgg!! Thankfully, although they both take a stab at the bubble wealthy people live in, this film has a bite to accompany its bark.

Most of that ‘bite’ emanates from Julianne Moore’s Havana. Moore is a tremendous actress in the most forgettable of films. Find her a role like this and you’re setting the stage for greatness to shine. All the while, there’s something reassuringly unassuming about her as an actress; an underlying intelligence behind each performance that marks her aside from many in her profession. She demonstrates that perfectly here – playing a complete bitch so wrapped-up in herself, that she often forgets how to be a human being (sometimes to jet-black comedic effect). This is film full of little monsters offset by personal tragedy.

Actor Evan Bird plays the spoilt brat of the piece (Benjie). His character is the child star of a popular film franchise. To a point, he represents the Justin Bieber’s and Miley Cyrus’ of this world. These people are victims of their own success; scrutinised to the nth degree. Their sheltered lives have a degree of solitude, in the sense that they are prisoners to fame. Without the right balance, it isn’t hard to image madness descending, and through Evan Bird’s performance, Cronenberg states that danger with a jolt.

Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography captures the decadence of Hollywood life. The characters live inside of bubble of material perfection, yet are immune to its worth. It is simply what they expect and it provides no satisfaction. The luxurious interiors serve as a striking stage for despicable behaviour and heartbreak to play out.

There is a lot to mine from Maps to the Stars. It might not play to everyone’s direct taste, but celebrity culture has become an increasingly prevalent part of our lives over the past few decades and Cronenberg hates it (and them). There’s also an in-joke that somehow, this is all Carrie Fisher’s fault. 4/5

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Predator (1987) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Predator (1987) Directed by John McTiernan. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves and Shane Black.

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‘The hunter becoming the hunted’ is a concept that immediately tweaks my interest. Add a science-fiction slant to it and I’m there – front and centre. John McTiernan’s violent popcorn movie is everything you might hope. Released a year after James Cameron’s Aliens, it continues the trend of military might vs an extraterrestrial foe. Led by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Dutch), a covert team of wisecracking mercenaries are sent on a mission, deep in the Central American jungle. Little do they know, something else is lurking in the undergrowth.

For the first 20-odd minutes, Predator plays like any other 1980’s action vehicle. It’s all helicopters, muscles and macho bullshit. It’s just like Rambo: First Blood Part II – only with the charisma of a cigar-chewing Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers; an early test of strength between the pair establishes who is the boss. The hangover from Vietnam lurks in the background as the men fly out to the jungle to face more than they bargained for.

Outside of The Terminator series, this perhaps the signature Schwarzenegger piece. It is the role which features some of his most famous lines “if it bleeds we can kill it…”“get to da choppa! “. It is also the role that he most effectively inhabits with the dual force of his physicality and larger than life charms. He casually quips like Bond, but you better believe he can hit harder than George Foreman.

As a movie set, the jungle of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico makes for a stunningly cinematic backdrop for the action to take place against. It also provides the perfect playground for the alien to stalk and test its prey as it watches Arnie’s team of commando’s from the treetops; we’re even treated to Predator-cam – which is effective in contributing to the sense of the other-worldy threat.

As characters are brutally picked-off, there is a predictable sense that it’s all heading for some kind of epic showdown, yet given the various elements, it doesn’t detract from the growing suspense. Pitting a hulking Schwarzenegger against a formidable 8-foot alien foe makes for some great thrills, and while Predator isn’t going to bother Alien in the all-time classic stakes – it’s still a superior sci-fi actioner, with a solid premise and endlessly quotable dialogue. 4/5

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Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) Directed by Eli Craig. With Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss and Philip Granger. 

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Co-penned and directed by Eli Craig, Tucker and Dake vs. Evil is an amusingly inverted teen-slasher movie with more than a few genuine laughs up its sleeve. Taking the established tropes of the genre (John Boorman’s Deliverance is invoked early on), the tone edges towards that of a spoof – but without over-stepping that particular mark. The titular Tucker and Dale are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, two stereotypical “hillbillies” – wrongly stereotyped as backward, uncivilised murderers by a group of “college kids” on a spring break retreat in the backwoods (where else!?).

Written with a solid understanding of the genre – and despite frequent bouts of gore, it has a surprisingly amiable centre about the power of friendship to encourage self-esteem. Amid the frankly ridiculous events of the film, it seems all the more impressive to have woven in such a beautiful message -albeit a gigantically exaggerated one. Yet, with two fun central performances, it subtly succeeds on a level above its level.

Of course, familiarity with the genre up for pastiche is essential to unlocking much of the comedy on offer. The film almost expects you to be in-step, with many of the gags loaded with mocking clichés. Labine and Tudyk delight in sending-up the stereotypes, creating some fine chemistry as their bewildered characters stumble from one misunderstanding to the next. One chainsaw gag, like much of the humour, is funny because it is preposterous – but it also ties in beautifully with other movies the film is attempting to subvert.

Inevitably, the joke wears a little thin towards the climax, but thanks to a sprightly 89-minute running time and an enjoyable first two acts, you shouldn’t feel too disappointed. Knowledge of films like Deliverance, or perhaps Wrong Turn (for a more recent generation), help identify the source of the humour – yet there’s still fun to be had with the two leads who make for a lovingly witless duo. 3.5/5

 

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Flash Gordon (1980) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Flash Gordon (1980) Directed by Mike Hodges. With Sam Jones, Melody Anderson Max Von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti, Brian Blessed, and Topol.

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I’ve been told to guard against my own nostalgia getting the better of me when it comes to reviewing Mike Hodges’ 1980 cult classic, Flash Gordon. My Dad rented it on Betamax in the early ’80’s, and we settled down to a double-bill of it and Star Wars – I was blown away. While George Lucas’ space opera still has the power to turn most of us back into starry-eyed 7-year-old’s, Flash survives to be seen by many as more of a guilty treat. Not I.

I won’t bore you with the plot set-up – suffice it to say that an American footballer and his friends unwittingly travel to the planet Mongo, whereby they encounter a tyrannical leader with intentions of destroying Earth. Intergalactic insanity ensues.

In my mind at least, there has to be something wrong with you to not get this. The joyously camp tone is feast for the eyes, with the art department and wardrobe design doing a Spinal Tap by cranking everything up to number 11. The soundtrack (provided by Queen), blasts off with its glorious, unashamed anthem. Freddie Mercury and co belt the title song with a conviction you might expect to hear placed elsewhere. Wherever it comes from, it rocks.

The whole thing has an air of innocence about it that papers over its obvious flaws. As Flash, actor Sam Jones is a cardboard cut-out hero, pitted against a deliciously over-the-top Max Von Sydow as the dastardly Ming the Merciless. They are supported by a range of the stunningly beautiful (Ornella Muti), the devilishly handsome (Timothy Dalton), with a fist-full of true South Yorkshire grit (Brian Blessed) as back-up. The whole thing has a party atmosphere, but one in which the drinks are free and the bar never closes. This is pure, escapist fun at its most B-movie effective.

All of these things that I’m highlighting as positives, could easily be sneered at by anyone who opts to not play-along with the larger-than-life tone. In the end, fighting it is doing yourself out of a pleasure. It’s one of those films that I can watch any time it pops on the TV. Like an antidote to sadness, it puts a song in my heart and forces a beaming smile across my face. Sexy, colourful and utterly bonkers – Gordon is very much alive! 4/5

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