Atomic Blonde (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Atomic Blonde (2017) Directed by David Leitch. With Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones and John Goodman.

Directed by David Leitch, the man co-responsible for John Wick, Atomic Blonde is a spy-thriller set on the eve of the fall of the Berlin wall. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, it stars Charlize Theron as a sexy undercover operative, whose mission is to locate a secretive list and to untangle some increasingly tedious plot entanglements.

Jonathan Sela’s cinematography (also John Wick) melds a junky, neon-lit colour palette with smoky ashtrays, nice architecture and cold, grey stone. There’s an abundance of ’80’s technology and regular intervals of carefully selected pop music. It gives the effect of watching an MTV spy thriller – we even see a clip of  VJ Kurt Loder questioning the plagiarism of sampling in popular music. We see Charlize Theron in her hotel room, surrounded by the glow of pink and blue fluorescence. It’s all so framed and determinedly stylish, that it begins to feel like that’s all the movie has.

That same voguish style makes it feel like a sister piece to John Wick, sans a willingness to occasionally mock itself. But then, there’s a payoff – the action in Atomic Blonde is more perilous than John Wick, with Theron engaged in grueling bouts of hand-to-hand combat with assailants wielding more brute force than herself. With that, she’s called to use every advantage she can gain, often meaning whatever implement might be to hand. There are two action set-pieces that are so pulsating in the way they are staged and shot, that the movie outguns many of its peers on their existence alone. Indeed, Theron is a match for any contemporary male action star, but make no mistake, she’s severely put through her paces.

Considering how accomplished the set-pieces are, it’s a shame to feel a sense of semi-detachment from the spy plot, which isn’t anywhere near as engaging as the breathtaking explosions of action orbiting it. There’s dry talk of double agents with serious old men in rooms being very serious about things that add up to not much. It isn’t particularly clever or involving and at times, dry tedium sets in. Seasoned pros like Toby Jones and John Goodman slip in and out of scenes, spouting exposition dialogue, little of which seems to count.

James McAvoy is guilty of ever-so-slightly overcompensating – he plays a pivotal character in a mostly forgettable role. Enjoy him as I occasionally do, I also find a brash insincerity to McAvoy’s screen presence, and it often feels like he’s the go-to guy for roles of annoyingly alpha male blokey-blokes. The same goes for his turn in Atomic Blonde.

It’s a good thing that Theron is incredible. Now in her 40’s, she’s as stunning as ever, carrying a wearied sense of discordance with the world she’s forced to live in. She smokes heavily and drinks triple measures of vodka to mask her external and internal pain. We learn little about her, other than her ice-cool veneer is armor against getting killed. At times, she’s like a hybrid of James Bond and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct – all cigarettes, perfect cheekbones and cool. She’s styled to the nines; thigh-length leather boots, sexy trench coats, patent red stilettos – she’d look equally at home on the catwalks of Milan as she adeptly crunches bones on dusty old stairwells. In short, Theron is the reason to see the film, sadly though, she’s the only reason.

3/5

 

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Double Date (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Double Date (2017) Directed by Benjamin Barfoot. Written by Danny Morgan. With Danny Morgan, Kelly Wenham, Michael Socha, Georgia Groome and Dexter Fletcher.

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Sporting a robust head of ginger hair and the friendly physique of a not-quite couch potato, Jim (Danny Morgan) is the 29-Year-Old Virgin. He’s led a sheltered life at home and struggles to talk coherently to women. His closest pal Alex (Michael Socha) is an idiot, but an idiot with a heart who desperately wants to help his friend achieve first contact before his 30th birthday. In due course, they meet two sisters (Kelly Wenham & Georgia Groome) who show them the night of their lives…

Written by Danny Morgan and directed with elan by Benjamin Barfoot, the film’s prologue is as much an attention grabber as you’ll see, with excesses of horrific stabbiness reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, detouring into a blend of black comedy that pitches its tent as a curious fusion of post-Tarantino grindhouse, graphic novel pop-culture and boy’s own rom-com cheese. It didn’t ought to work half as well as it does, but such is the enthusiasm and belief in the material by those involved that it frequently births surprises. Morgan’s clever script services his characters well, often adding small moments of depth that can range from oddly touching to outright hilarious.

As a screen duo Morgan and Socha share excellence, forging a bromance with an affectionately misplaced sense of purpose. Gyllenhaal-esque in appearance, Socha’s naive stupidity is such a wittily played overcompensation (a bit like Jay in The Inbetweeners) that you can’t help but hope he finds happiness. Though some of the humour is front-loaded with arm-flexing masculinity, its aim is to subvert that by demonstrating how fragile and needy men are when it comes to the question of their sexual potency.

As Kitty, Kelly Wenham is like Meagan Fox in Jennifer’s Body, only far more deadly and adept, garbed in a pink satin kimono, kicking ass with a combo of psychotic kickboxing skills. In one jaw-dropping fight scene on the brink of becoming a sex scene, she unleashes all hell, flitting in-and-out of the role of predator and sexual aggressor, punching, kicking and snogging her way to a climax of something truly memorable. There’s a sense of empowerment to Wenham’s performance, that in terms of subtext, plays like a sexy woman’s response to the one-note advances of your average ‘bloke’ on the pull. She’s nothing short of electric (look up Barfoot’s short film ‘Fist’ for more delightful eccentricity from Wenham and Danny Morgan).

Along with a cool soundtrack by Goat, there are many films mashed into Double Date, which might best be described as an irreverent romantic-comedy with a huge dollop of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The dark humour is at twists wacky, with the affectionate screen partnership of Morgan and Soscha providing gutter-level laughs around pools of blood and an overtly sexy undertone. Razor-sharp and gruesomely funny.

4.5/5

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Irreplaceable (2016) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Irreplaceable (2016) Directed by Thomas Lilti. With François Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt, Christophe Odent.

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Originally titled Médecin de campagne but converted to Irreplaceable for English language audiences, this mature French drama is the work of Thomas Lilti (director and co-writer) – an intimate story about Jean Pierre (François Cluzet), a respected country doctor dealing with a life-changing health diagnosis, and, his own reticence to accept help in the form of Marianne Denicourt as a dedicated deputy.

A veteran of French cinema, Cluzet is a natural screen actor who can covey the smallest moments of subconscouis drama with the deftest of touches. Here, he does exactly that, playing between the spaces of a man in denial and need. His screen relationship with Marianne Denicourt is one of a slowly forming respect and good humour, that, along with an earthy aesthetic and seasoned writing allows them to conjure a relationship that gives us many a reason to care.

The intimacy of the portrait is what gives the film its appeal. There’s no grandstanding to elevate the drama, more an unprocessed effort to remain faithful to life, which is a mirror of Cluzet’s intuitive ability to not only act, but interact with his co-star, Denicourt, who through her work gently illuminates Jean Pierre’s world with a sense of solicitude.

It’d be easy dismiss such a low key offering as little more than incidental film making, but that’d be a mistake. Lilti crafts a thoughtful piece that encourages a focus on the quality of life and the value of kindness.

4/5

 

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Bone Tomahawk (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Bone Tomahawk (2015) Directed by S. Craig Zahler. With Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins.

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Director S. Craig Zahler proves himself one to watch with his debut big screen offering, Bone Tomahawk, a descent-into-hell western starring Kurt Russell as an unswerving small town sheriff leading three other men in a dangerous search for a kidnapped woman, which takes them into the godless badlands of the unknown. It doesn’t help that said woman has been snatched by a cave-dwelling band of cannibalistic Native Americans. This isn’t one for the faint-hearted.

A gruesome tone is established in the opening frames, which mirrors the introduction of the very first episode of Game of Thrones, inviting the audience to suspect a sense of something unnatural lurking in the back of beyond.

Sheriff Russell is joined by a badly incapacitated Patrick Wilson (it’s his wife that’s been taken), a barely recognisable Matthew Fox (remember him from TV’s Lost?) and the magnificent Richard Jenkins. They make for an incongrous bunch – less a hateful eight and more a hopeless four, yet their forced bond in the harshest of settings plays host to a unusual teaming that we can root for, despite the challenges they present to each other and us.

Wilson’s character is the audience, our latching-on point if you will – a wholly decent man willing to sacrifice himself for love, while a tough-but-fair Russell and a well-to-do Fox represent a struggle for male dominance. The old man of the group is Jenkins, whose eccentricity brings flickers of light amid a descending sense of desperation. All four performances add depth but two inparticular standout – Russell channeling an old-man version of his Wyatt Earp from Tombstone, and Fox with an eye-catching riff on Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, complete affluent tastes, condescending manner and a quick trigger finger.

Two-thirds a straight-up western, one-third The Hills Have Eyes, Zahler not only directs with a deft understanding of old and new in his pacing, he also writes characters with a touch of wry incidental sprinklings, much like a well-behaved Quentin Tarantino. As shocking as the final act is (one hide behind the couch moment), the hazardous journey there builds the characters well, allowing us in enough to give a damn about what happens to them.

4/5

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Directed by Luc Besson. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna and Ethan Hawke.

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Luc Besson’s screen translation of the French fantasy comic series, Valerian and Laureline, is an eccentric concoction of cinematic nods to Flash Gordon, Avatar Blade Runner and Star Wars, in which a pair of young mercenaries in the 28th century  (DeHaan and Delevingne) find themselves in the middle of an intergalactic standoff between a peaceful alien race and a wicked Clive Owen.

In terms of storytelling, Besson’a best work (Leon, La Femme Nikita) is done with a simpler, less hyperactive method. It often seems that what he lacks in narrative discipline, he counterbalances with visual dazzle. Valerian has the look a Lucas-era Star Wars prequel on drugs, with its eye-popping design bursting out of the screen like some kind of wacky hallucination. And, thanks to an intriguing prologue and one clever set-piece, for around 45-mins it successfully coasts by, feeding our optical sensors a colourful rainbow beam of straight up fun.

Sadly, the visual energy lasts for only so long, as the story sticks in the mud and the characters aren’t afforded enough depth to earn our investment. DeHaan, and an ass-kicking Delevigne are fine, but an attempt to recreate Han and Leia’s ‘will-they’ love story of The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t resonate, partly because they look more like brother and sister than potential lovers, and partly because the writing offers little reason to cheerlead them.

As the second act loses steam, a wack-a-day Ethan Hawke bounces on as futuristic pimp, playing host to pop-star Rihanna, who swirls, twirls and gyrates her way through an indulgent performance that stops the movie in its tracks, and is a prime demonstration of Besson’s ill-discipline – a cinematic pleasure-seeker whose semi-worship of supermodels and pop-stars often lumbers his ability to tell a good story. That’s not to blame Rihanna, who isn’t awful..she’s just Rihanna.

This is above all a visual experience with thin characters and a waffling plot. Like Flash Gordon, it will thrill young eyes and has a good shot of finding cult popularity in coming years. Some of the creations are a true joy to behold, with an array of fantastical imaginings covering everything from costume design to sound effects. Besson has to be given credit for his ability to put the film on screen, with a frankly mind-boggling level of visual detail to absorb. It’s a shame to come away slightly fatigued (it’s too long) and underwhelmed by an experience that aims so hard to please.

3/5

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The Wave (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Thw Wave (2015) Directed by Roar Uthaug. With Kristian Eikjord and Ane Dahl Torp.

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Such is the expanse of ambition throughout world cinema today, that small countries like Norway can compete with Hollywood when it comes to big screen manifestations of ferocious natural disaster. Directed by Roar Uthaug (the man behind the 2018 Tomb Raider reboot), ‘The Wave’ (Bølgen) is a handsome-looking film set on an idyllic mountainside location that picks up on the eve of a catastrophic rock slide.

Kristian Eikjord is Joner, a geologist preparing his young family to leave town following a change in his career. At the eleventh hour, his colleagues notice anomalous readings from the mountains which bother him greatly, however, everybody else thinks he’s overreacting. Think Chief Brody in Jaws, trying to convince the Amity Island council to close the beach because of the shark. It’s much the same build.

From the first few magnificent shots, John Christian Rosenlund’s cinematography is breathtaking. Beautiful tracking shots reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining follow a car along a mountainside road, with grand vistas and a quaint sense of quality living in a blissful place. So it’s an odd feeling to feel invited and terrified by a location in one sitting, which thanks to claims of a real-world threat of such an event, is what The Wave achieves.

The lead performances of Eikjord and his screen wife, Ane Dahl Torp are grounded and personable. Their quiet-life family dynamic is enough to make us care, even when the boundaries of reality are stretched. As panic escalates, Eikjord carries a sense of fraught tension well, while the CGI effects blend with the physical aspects to create a satisfying enactment of what extreme devastation looks like.

Beats are played from the likes of Jaws, The Impossible, The Day After Tomorrow,The Abyss…to name but a few. It almost has the feel of international movies fighting back against the Hollywood regurgitation of original ideas, as Uthaug and his writers serve Tinseltown back its own repackaged product. Derivative though it is, it still manages to be gripping and suspenseful, only tripping itself up with the Hollywoodisation of its final third. Before that, it’s a mature foreign language film that shows greater promise than it can finally deliver on. A sequel entitled ‘The Quake‘ is now in the works.

3.5/5 

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Directed by Jon Watts. With Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Zendaya and Jon Favreau.

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Due to owners rights (Sony own him), Spider-Man hadn’t been able to play with the Avengers big boys until his extended cameo and that airport showdown in Captain America: Civil War. A mutually beneficial deal was struck which paved the way for that and this homecoming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Along with six writers, director Jon Watts takes the unenviable task of essentially rebooting Spider-Man for the third time in recent years, with young British actor Tom Holland slipping into the famous red & blue onesie. The good news is, we’re not made to endure Uncle Ben’s death for a third time, or, the radioactive spider bite. It’s high praise to the deftness of the screenplay that Homecoming doesn’t feel like that much of a reboot. Of course, it’s a help that Spider-Man is jumping on the moving juggernaut that is the MCU, with the world/universe he’s in already fleshed out. He just needs to find his place amongst it all. And find it he does.

There’s a lot of talk in the movie of Spider-Man ‘staying on the ground’, which is no small part of what makes his story work. Some of the MCU films lack personality for having too many personalities crammed into them. Spider-Man: Homecoming aims to chisel out its own identity, operating partly as a tale of teenage angst as Peter Parker swoons over a girl he fancies and builds Lego Star Wars toys with his nerdy friend, all the while trying his best to win a gold star at the school of Tony Stark. Which brings us neatly to the part of the story that links him in with the wider ‘verse.

Some might say that Downey Jr’s presence smacks of franchise hand-holding, but he’s given the somewhat distant role of Peter’s father-figure, in the absence of Uncle Ben, and, given the playground we’re in, it feels right for him to be there as together with Jon Favreau’s ‘Happy’, they gift Peter a high-tech Spidey suit and monitor his antics from the periphery.

These films (there’s 18 to date) can often be summed up as bits of forgettable story woven around massive CGI set-pieces, and to some extent this isn’t anything new. But it is fun, and it does have a focus on what it wants to be, Moreover, an enthusiastic Tom Holland feels more ‘right’ for the role than anyone before him, playing the character with a more age-appropriate spin than we’ve previously seen. His optimistic naivety works well, meaning that Spider-Man often seems out of his depth and more vulnerable than many of the MCU heroes. Pitted against Michael Keaton’s blue-collar guy gone rogue, ‘Vulture’ (Batman v Spider-Man anyone?), there is a good sense of men-against-boys, which hasn’t been prevalent in any of the previous Spidey adventures.

There were times when I thought about Kick-Ass, particularly as the film covers similar ground in pitching its hero as an in-over-his-head YouTube sensation, struggling with hormones, girls and identity. But of course, it’d be almost impossible to make a mainstream-appeal Spider-Man film without butting your head on the ceiling of ‘we’ve-seen-that-before‘, and in fairness, Kick-Ass was a part subversion of Sam Raimi’s take on the character. On the whole, Jon Watts steers the ship in the direction of youth in flux. And, with the usual excess of wit and knowing nods you’d expect, it’s mostly the right direction.

3.5/5

 

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