Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Julie Dreyfus and David Carradine

Quentin Tarantino’s deep melting pot of influences is perhaps most noticeable in Kill Bill Vol 1, his modern samurai revenge film about a woman (Uma Thurman) with a shopping list of assassinations to carry out. From a shocking black & white introduction onward, Kill Bill is one of those rarities – an entertaining movie in which style becomes substance.

Accompanied by lone tremolo guitar chords, Nancy Sinatra sings ‘Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down‘ over the titles (it would’ve made a perfect Bond theme). There’s an instant feeling of quality, like we’re in the hands of a director in the mood to show us a good time. There’s a texture to the film that seems to leap off the screen with a sense of cool elation, as cinema from across the globe is invoked in a collection of scenes and sequences fed directly by Japanese, Chinese, Italian and American influences, both mainstream and exploitation.

Thurman’s presence is a curious one – sexy with her tumbling blonde curls, yet somehow bridging a fine line between the sexes, incorporating variations of the classic Hollywood tough-guy alongside her soft femininity. Whatever she’s channeling, she’s fascinating to watch. The action sequences are beautifully designed and shot, with combinations of wire work, dizzying angles and inventive usage of the eye-catching environments.

The leftfield nature of Tarantino’s dialogue is conveyed with a knowing tone by the large supporting cast, be it Michael Parks as a Texan homicide detective or a venomous Lucy Liu as one of the ‘Deadly Viper Squad’, everyone seems to invested in the joke.

Visually, the film has a broad canvas; the dry Texas desert, middle American suburbia, crisp Tokyo snowfall (the latter feeling like something from a dream). The high style combined with the globe-trotting cultural criss-crossing affords an amount of visual depth rarely captured. It’s part of what makes the film feel so fresh and unique, even though most of what we see is directly recycled from something Tarantino loves.

Tarantino’s offbeat sense of humour is central to the fun, as the wacky violence takes on the larger-than-life appeal of a comic book, especially in the riotously over the top final act. Indeed, one captivating section describes O-Ren Ishii’s back story in the form of anime with graphic explosions of visceral violence.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a visually ambidextrous first half of a tempting double bill, complimented by a glorious soundscape of musical selections that feel instantly iconic. There’s inbuilt cult appeal to a film that feels like a greatest hits of Quentin Tarantino’s hyperactive subconscious.

5/5

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Directed by Rian Johnson. With Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adma Driver, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis and Laura Dern.

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Lucasfilm never envisaged their sequel to The Force Awakens would become the most divisive film in recent memory, but then in Rian Johnson, they hired a smart and progressive film-maker whose highest profile release to date had been the respected sci-fi thriller, Looper. Together with his long-time producer and collaborator, Ram Bergman, Johnson cultivates what is the most enterprising addition to Star Wars canon since The Empire Strikes Back.

After the goose-pimples of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and the never-ending elation of John Williams, the film begins with space combat reminiscent of a World War II thriller, with Resistance bombers taking on a First Oder dreadnought (not a Death Star in sight). There’s bright early humour to re-establish Oscar Isaacs’s Poe Dameron as he toys with an increasingly hapless General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), whose sniveling character is firmly set in that mold by Johnson.

It doesn’t take long to sense a shift in tone from where J.J Abrams left us, as we finally get to see how that literal cliffhanger of an ending plays out. This is exactly the moment where Rian Johnson affirms that Luke Skywalker line in the trailer – “This is not going to go the way you think.” From thereon in, this isn’t the ‘Star Wars’ you grew up loving, but it’s the ‘Star Wars’ it needs to be. Think of it as your parents making you eat your greens. You didn’t agree with them at the time, but one day you’ll know they were right. If parts of The Empire Strikes Back were about growing up and making life-altering choices, The Last Jedi is about not knowing how to grow up and accepting failure. If you stop and think about that for a second, it’s a bold hand to play in a series as widely ingrained into the everyday consciousness as Star Wars, and despite the voices of discontent across the internet, it feels right.

For many fans, seeing Mark Hamill back as Luke Skywalker was always going to be emotional, but Johnson only allows his audience a fleeting glance of the Luke they know. Instead, we meet a 30-odd-years later Jedi, disillusioned and in self-imposed exile on Ahch-To – also home to Porgs, the most loveable creatures since a baby Ewok. Despite Hamill’s well-known misgivings about the direction of his character, he summons a gutsy performance as he resists Rey’s desperate pleas for him to join the fight.

Dark and grey as the writing is, the film still carries that beacon of naive humour that people sometimes forget is a central theme of George Lucas’s beloved original trilogy. For a saga that has always been so clear-cut in its distinctions between good and evil, there’s also a surprising subtext about the scepticism of war. A distinguished Benicio Del Toro spouts to John Boyega’s Finn – “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join“. Its moments like this that Star Wars is playing for the grown-ups, but then, seconds later we see silliness as the ball droid BB-8 operates the laser cannons of an AT-ST (the chicken walker things from Return of the Jedi). We might groan a little, but then Star Wars has always been a series that aims to play to young and old.

As the conflicted Kylo Ren, Adam Driver provides another performance of moral complexity and depth. In terms of villains, it’d be easy for Star Wars to rest on its laurels, yet the events in Johnson’s script seem to mock convention, bypassing the internet theories with character arcs that are often surprising. Kylo Ren is a villain for our times;  undermined, abandoned, misunderstood, confused and bursting with rage.

There is a ‘space casino’ middle-section that plays as a droopy detour away from what we’re interested in. The section is headed up by John Boyega’s Finn and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose and feels like an unusual return to the feel of the ‘prequels’. It’s ineffectiveness makes Finn much less a character than he was in The Force Awakens, while Rose is an affectionate attempt to make a character who is representative of us all, but despite one beautiful line, that doesn’t quite work either.

Then there’s our Princess, Carrie Fisher. The film was never supposed to be our goodbye to her, but sadly, it’s imbued with a sense of poignancy that was never supposed to be there. On top of everything else that happens, the contribution of this inherent sorrow is perhaps a reason why so many left the theatre feeling flattened. Fisher is Leia one last time and Johnson gives her much more to do than J.J did. When Luke kisses her head after saying “No one’s ever really gone”, don’t be surprised to find a lump in your throat.

The voices of discontent have been loud and clear, but the narrative of burying the past and forming a new future away from the established norms is not only a development in the plot, it’s Rian Johnson’s philosophy for the future of Star Wars. I’m with him all the way.

4/5

 

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The Hateful Eight (2015) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Hateful Eight (2015) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, James Parks and Bruce Dern.

To the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight opens with a stunning showcase shot of the Panavision Super 70 lenses it’s captured in. We pick up in the deep blizzard of a wintry Wyoming landscape sometime after the Civil War, as a horse-drawn carriage escorts John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) across treacherous terrain. On their way, they encounter Major Marquis Warrena, a fellow bounty hunter in the charismatic form of Samuel L. Jackson. From the offset, the movie sets its stall as a tense examination of deception and lies to survive. For Russell, the film is reminiscent of The Thing; the arduous snowbound setting, the distrust of who is who they say they are, the enemy within.

Tarantino’s 8th film is his tightest and most disciplined since Kill Bill Volume 1. Lengthy though the running time is, it never sags under that weight as the writing allows each actor ample space to bring something new as the story unfolds. Among so many fine performances it’s hard to pick a favourite, which is testament to how well the film itself performs – you could highlight any number of the performances as your standout and I wouldn’t argue. Most prominently, the storytelling is focused and purposeful.

The Hateful Eight doesn’t meander or get away from Tarantino like Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol 2 and parts of Django Unchained did. He’s on tip-top form and it shows from the very start. The reprehensible nature of almost every character creates a thickening air of distrust for anything anyone says, which is underscored when innocents cross their paths. In this world, innocence, like hesitation, is weakness. It doesn’t matter how nice you are to the bad people, they’ll you show no mercy. This is an unforgiving land in which taking prisoners is risky – ‘kill or be killed’ is the motto. You learn that fast or you die.

As we know with Tarantino, his stories are told in chapters (always good for a home viewing tea-break), lending a book-like structure to the narrative. His adoration of cinema is woven into his work with such a sense of geeky affection that it builds a vital edge into each movement. As excesses of inevitable violence erupt, it manages to be both signature Tarantino and fresh in one take. That’s his simple ability as a writer shining through – to invest his audience enough in what has foregone to make them care about what comes. Often in the space of a few lines, each character gains identity and a sense of history.

You get to the end of The Hateful Eight and realise Tarantino has done it again. Once again he takes a genre and seasons it with his own unique spice of dark, irreverent humour to make it feel new again. With two-thirds of the film confined to one location, it isn’t hard to imagine a stage play being born of the material. It evokes memories of Reservoir Dogs, as deepening grooves of mistrust develop between the characters, allowing the audience plenty to chew on. I shouldn’t mention the word masterpiece, because it almost is.

4.5/5

 

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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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