Blue Steel (1989) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Blue Steel (1989) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. With Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown, Elizabeth Pena, Richard Jenkins and Louise Fletcher.

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Directed and co-written by Kathryn Bigelow, Blue Steel is an edgy cop-thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner, a rookie NYPD officer who attracts the attention of a psychopath after he witnesses her using lethal force during an armed robbery.

Visually, Bigelow and cinematographer Amir Mokri create a sense of hostile atmosphere through stylish lighting and compositions, which subtly reinforces the feeling of an NYPD opposed to a female cop in its ranks.

A better film than the 5.6 IMDb user rating would have you believe, Bigelow constructs a gritty, night-time thriller embellished with neon signs and buckets of rain. Jamie Lee Curtis carries the film beautifully, bringing a rare blend of toughness, vulnerability, sexuality and intelligence as she builds her character despite the insistence of the narrative to surge forward into by-the-numbers territory. Indeed, as it unravels, the plot becomes increasingly formulaic (and sometimes silly) as the obligatory chases and face-off’s ensue.

The bunny-boiler of the piece is Ron Silver, a Wall Street trader losing a battle with sanity. Although his part of the plot is less interesting than time spent building Lee Curtis’ character, he does acquit himself well – channelling a little Travis Bickle meets Alex Forrest, but with a suit and tie in-place of a Mohican and an ’80’s perm.

There is a domestic violence subtext, regarding Lee Curtis’ parents, which is never satisfyingly resolved – perhaps another aspect of the script that got sidelined in favour of steaming ahead with the requirements and responsibilities of being a ‘tense Hollywood thriller‘.

While the performances are very good, there remains a feeling that a better film got away, somehow. Perhaps that film doesn’t involve a crazed lunatic and focuses solely on Lee Curtis’ character and her life both in and outside of the NYPD. In the end, Blue Steel is a good film that could have been a great one. 3.25/5

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To Catch a Thief (1955) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

To Catch a Thief (1955) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams.

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Fun and frolics on the French Riviera with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are on offer in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, a picturesque holiday brochure of a film with a huge injection of Hollywood glamour. Grant plays John Robie, a reformed thief accused of reverting to his old ways following a spate of local robberies. Together with Kelly (daughter of a wealthy woman targeted), he endeavours to find the real thief to clear his name.

After his previous two films, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, this represents a gear-down from Hitchcock as he employs a far more playful, easy-going tone. Cary Grant’s trouble-free charms are a good fit for the vacation feel of the production, with the radiant Kelly on-hand to lay-on her brand of mesmerising glamour. Together, and despite a noticeable age gap (he’s 50, she’s 24), they manage to conjure a few delightfully romantic moments.

While the film is primarily about the conflicting cat-and-mouse tactics of professional thieves, Hitchcock attempts to up-the-ante with a high-speed car chase (slightly hampered by some wonky rear projection) and tense rooftop action scenes.

While the adapted screenplay by John Michael Hayes (based on David Dodge novel) has its occasional moments, the film relies heavily on star-power to make its mark. There remains something run-of-the-mill about the plot – (you can see the influence on the Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp vehicle The Tourist), as old-school Hollywood dazzle is used to paper-over the (dare I say) incidental-feeling story.

It’s a little bit like the film equivalent of easy listening music. You know what you’re going to get and there’s not that much to complain about. Although it’s some way from being Hitchcock’s finest hour, the cheerful approach and A-list star-quality nevertheless makes To Catch a Thief an effortlessly endearing experience.  3.25/5

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Walk the Line (2005) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Walk the Line (2005) Directed by James Mangold. With Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Patrick.

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Co-written and directed by James Mangold and based on the autobiography of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line covers periods of the musicians life from his days growing up on a farm in the 1940’s, his tempestuous relationship with June Carter, to his ‘The Man in Black‘ phase, which featured his famous recordings at Folsom Prison.

The simmering intensity between Johnny and June is played out brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix and an Oscar-winning Reese Witherspoon – both actors admirably committing themselves to roles wide-open to scrutiny.

Phoenix’s Cash is a man with his heart on his sleeve – a no-frills ‘guitar-picking-man’ with a guilty conscience. Some of that guilt stems from childhood, and the divide between himself and his belligerent father (Robert Patrick) over the tragic death of his older brother, Jack. The rest of the guilt is over his struggle to maintain balance between ordinary family life and the immense pull of success in the music business. It’s curious to observe, but there’s an introverted expressiveness about Phoenix’s Cash – almost as if the actor is channelling two warring personalities at the same time.

The real litmus test comes in capturing the essence of the music, and neither Phoenix or Witherspoon disappoint; the contrary, they excel. Witherspoon positively takes off during her show-stopping performance of Jukebox Blues, oozing with charisma and giving the impression of a woman completely at home on stage. Oddly, although the songs are pre-recorded, there remains a feeling of spontaneity as the on-stage chemistry between the pair is brought to life.

Aside from the music and performances, there are spells when the films tends to marginally drift. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but there are times when it seems to lack cohesive structure. Whatever the reason – the 136mins does feel a little heavy.

Essentially, Walk the Line is a story of love and reconciliation with some great music along the way. As seems the case with any rock n’roll story, there’s the obligatory tantrums and battle with substance abuse – but in the end, Cash never became a victim of his success. He was just a supreme talent fuelled by the companionship of the woman he dearly loved. 4.25/5

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Rebecca (1940) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Rebecca (1940) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson.

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Based on a book by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca is a psychological drama-thriller directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock – the only one of his films to win a Best Picture Oscar. An aristocratic widower (Laurence Olivier) meets a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine). They wed and attempt to settle down in Manderley, the sprawling country house he once shared with his late wife, Rebecca.

With his prowling cameras and deep focus photography, Hitchcock creates a thick sense of atmosphere and tension that pervades and builds throughout the entire film. It’s reported that Hitchcock told Joan Fontaine that everyone on the set hated her, hoping that the sense of unease would bleed into her performance. Wherever it comes from, Fontaine carries the anxiety well as she struggles to fill the shoes of her husbands dead ex-wife.

Laurence Olivier portrays the brooding intensity of Maxim de Winter – keeping we the audience and his new wife at arms-length by behaving in an oddly coy manner about anything to do with his ex-wife. Naturally, this only feeds her curiosity. Contributing significantly to the sense of general edginess is the excellent Judith Anderson as the ghoulish Mrs Danvers, the scheming head housekeeper of Manderley. Through Hitchcock’s mastery and George Barnes’ photography, Mrs Danvers appears to glide the halls of the huge house – her attitude verging on covetous and her intentions clearly ill towards the new Mrs de Winter.

Although the running time clocks up a few more minutes than it ought to (130 in total), Hitchcock (in his first Hollywood film) expertly changes through the gears as the foreboding plot gradually unravels. From an unsettling introduction to the memorable final shot – the black and white photography serves to enhance an overall spookiness that makes Rebecca a morbidly engrossing experience. 4.5/5

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Friday Night Lights (2004) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Friday Night Lights (2004) Directed by Peter Berg. With Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez and Lee Jackson.

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Based on a book by Buzz Bissinger entitled Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, and directed and co-adapted for the screen by Peter Berg, Friday Night Lights tells the true story of a college football team -The Permian High Panthers – and their bid to challenge for the Texas State championship in the late 1980’s.

What I like about Friday Night Lights, is that you could strip away the college football and apply it to more or less any team sport. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any sports film that covers so much ground around the collective effort involved with striving for success. With that, and like all the best sport-related films, you need very little knowledge about the game to feel involved.

Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as Coach Gary Gaines, the manager of the Panthers who shoulders the weight of expectation placed upon him the people of Odessa, Texas – a troubled backwater town crying-out for a little joy. Like so many struggling, working-class societies – sport plays a pivotal role in the overall morale of its people. Through incidental photography and sparse electric guitar, Berg manages to paint a picture of a melancholic town, mis-sold the American Dream.

The inner-dynamics of the team dressing room are beautifully played by a young and talented ensemble cast. The playful banter, the pre-game adrenalin, the blow of injury and the rousing team-talks – its all there. Not only that, the film deals with the pushy parents, desperate to see their kid succeed where they fell short. This creates interesting subtexts of individual drama relating to the core drama on offer.

The competitive action of the games are suitably bone-crunching in their portrayal. Between the clash of helmets and the brute force of a full body tackle – bloodied noses and broken fingers are standard.

With an array of fine performances headed up by the never-less-than-brilliant Thornton, Friday Night Lights is a gem of a sports film, imbued with genuine heart and the significance of commitment to the cause above winning. Touchdown. 4.5/5

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Rush (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Rush (2013) Directed by Ron Howard. With Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, David Calder and Pierfrancesco Favin.

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Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, Ron Howard’s Rush is a flashy biopic about the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda during the mid-1970’s.

Like so many biographical films, Rush is embellished with fictitious frills to extend its drama. Of the two central performances, it is Daniel Brühl’s interpretation of Nikki Lauda that leaves the strongest impression, partly due to Lauda being a more enigmatic figure than his rival. That isn’t to say that Chris Hemsworth isn’t good as James Hunt; the pretty-boy, Casanova racing driver – determined to ‘have his cake and eat it’. The differences between the two men adds an extra dynamic to their fascinatingly intense rivalry. The script by Peter Morgan does a fine job of expressing this, but is balanced and human enough to help us understand the deep-seated respect that these two men had for each other.

While the excitement of their rivalry is captured, Howard also takes the time to explore the private lives of the men away from the track. Both struggle to maintain a balance between their mutual passion (Hunt can’t resist the endless party and Lauda fears he’ll lose his edge through the comfort blanket of personal happiness), as their love-lives cross paths with their desire to stay in pole position on the racetrack.

There are though, a few minor quibbles. The excellent cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle has an ‘Instagramed’ contrast that screams 1976 – perhaps prescribing a little too much faux authenticity on top of the excellent period detail. Also, some of the dialogue seems forced for the sake of unnecessary exposition.

Small things aside, not only is Rush an adrenalin-fuelled ride with blistering race sequences, it is also an exciting exploration of the psychological battleground that sport at the highest level is played out on. Rivalry is the petrol in the engine for these men and through fierce competition, they push each other to new limits of achievement on and off the track. It’s testament to Ron Howard’s storytelling that you don’t have to care about Formula One to feel engaged. His film is accessible and in some of its best moments, thoroughly breathtaking. 4.25/5

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Hitchcock (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Hitchcock (2012) Directed by Sacha Gervasi. With Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston, Toni Collette and Michael Wincott.

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It’s interesting that we find ourselves at a point in time when there are non-fiction films being made about the story behind the making of seminal films. Saving Mr Banks is one other recent example of a film that gives life to the story behind the legend, with Emma Thompson playing P.L Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. Based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock is another, with Anthony Hopkins in the role (and fat suit) of the famous film-director during the making of his celebrated classic.

Whenever you’re making a film about a figure as legendary as Hitchcock, there are certain things that you need to get out of the way – namely introducing the performance. In the very first scene, Hopkins sets his stall by diving straight into character, which in turn allows the audience to settle-in to accepting him in the iconic role.

Hopkins is further complimented by the rich period production design and first-rate casting. In a crucial role, Helen Mirren is outstanding as Hitchcock’s devoted wife, Alma. The idiom – “Behind every great man is a great woman” – fully resonates here as the breadth and depth of Alma’s loyal support (both emotional and creative) are given due recognition. Scarlett Johansson encapsulates the glamour and professionalism of Janet Leigh while in a small role, James D’Arcy almost becomes Anthony Perkins before our eyes.

Essentially, the film is chiefly about Hitchcock and his relationship with his wife – with the story behind Psycho as a stage. Towards the end, the film does become a little foamy, but the many things about it that are both interesting and fascinating might ease you into a more forgiving frame of mind. 3.5/5

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