Film Fight 2016: February

For February’s Film Fight, we have five movies, with the tail-end of the Oscar nominees in the mix.

First up, Trumbo tells the true story of Dalton Trumbo, an acclaimed Hollywood writer who was blacklisted due to his communist views. The story itself is interesting, showing the damage that was done by McCarthyism. Bryan Cranston puts in an excellent (and deservedly Oscar-nominated) performance as the lead, but the rest of the cast manage to keep up just fine. The dialogue, at times, can be a little too on-the-nose; stating intentions and conflicts rather than really showing them. All in, a worthwhile film. (See my Trumbo Twitter review).

It took a long time to convince the studios it had an audience, but Deadpool is finally a film. If you have any knowledge of the character, you know what to expect: puerile and dumb jokes, mindless and brutal action, and a tonne of self/meta-referential material. The film manages to put the elements together well. It never lets the in-jokes get in the way of moving the film forward, and has enough action to entertain. The baddies are ill-conceived and forgettable, but you likely won’t care much. Dumb, but good. (See my Deadpool Twitter review).

The Coen Brothers have a running history of telling shaggy dog stories, and Hail, Caesar! isn’t about to change that. Nominally, it’s the story of a studio enforcer during the golden days of the Hollywood studio systems, following his various attempts to put out fires as they appear. However, don’t worry about where the plots will land. Instead enjoy the dry humour, rich style, and entertaining glimpses at the films being made. The film meanders and revels in its own oddity, sure, but that’s part of the charm. Unnecessary narration aside, this is a film worth seeing. (See my Hail, Caesar! Twitter review).

It’s fair to say that The Finest Hours isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t a great film either. Most accurately it is inoffensive but predictable: a decent, by-the-numbers rescue movie with some delusions of award-worthy grandeur. It’s cleanly shot, reasonably acted, and keeps moving forward. It’s also a little bland, a touch slow, and never feels perilous; which would be a disaster for lesser films in the genre. Chris Pine does a great job of acting against type, as the meek lead, but Casey Affleck has basically nothing to work with to raise his performance above being acceptable. Fine. (See my The Finest Hours Twitter review).

Finally, Triple 9 shows John Hillcoat on form in the director’s chair, grasping with a group of criminals and cops executing various heists at the behest of the Russian Mafia. The premise is reasonable, but nothing new. The edit and shots are busy, fast, noisy, and uncomfortable (intentionally). As our cast gets put in more compromised situations, the discomfort ratchets up a notch. What a cast too: Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Normal Reedus. Either genuinely great actors or extremely watchable in these kinds of roles. That said, trying to service such a large and talented group of actors means the film feels a little overstuffed. There’s never quite enough time to give everyone room to breath. Okay. (See my Triple 9 Twitter review).

The winner for February is Hail, Caesar!. I’m an unapologetic fan of the off-centre comedy that the Coen’s produce, and there are few who can make a film that doesn’t really go anywhere entertaining.

Film Fight 2016: January

As is standard for January, it’s a fairly full month, mostly consisting of Oscar nominees. There are seven films in the fight.

First up, Joy is David O. Russell’s latest film, with his usual cast of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in place. The movie, then, at least has good pedigree, and that shines through in an excellent lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence as the inventor of the miracle mop; a subject matter that shouldn’t be interesting. It’s not the premise that lets the film down, though, but the execution. It has some atrociously clunky dialogue, a host of characters that add very little, and incredibly dull pacing. There’s plenty of screen time to cut here. Worst of all, though, is the quality of the storytelling. All the worst tell-don’t-show tropes make an appearance: heavy narration, flashbacks, and dream sequences. A very poor movie. Avoid. (See my Joy Twitter review).

The Hateful Eight is most definitely a Tarantino movie, for good and bad. His stylised dialogue is unmistakeable, the violence is wildly over-the-top, and the characters are broad and comic-book. The focus in The Hateful Eight on, mostly, a single location shows his excellent eye for staging a scene, if not necessarily a shot. However, some of his worst traits are apparent too. The most obvious problem is the unnecessarily long runtime. The lengthy opening before hitting the main location could either be cut entirely or played out in a much shorter form. The man needs to edit. Enjoyable overall, but the length makes it less easy to watch than other films. (See my The Hateful Eight Twitter review).

Room is about a young woman who has been in captivity for years, stuck in just a single room. During that time, she has had a child who is about to turn five, who knows nothing of the world outside of the room. The film does an extraordinary job of normalising its setting by following the viewpoint of Jack, the little boy. Through his eyes, and the excellent performance of Jacob Tremblay, we see an engaging, tense, but character-driven story play out. Brie Larson is exceptional as the mother, dealing with her situation and showing us the consequences of such an awful situation on a young woman. This film is a must-see, and an easy contender for film of the year. (See my Room Twitter review).

A lot has been made of Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance in The Revenant, with many asking if this will finally be the year he gets his Best Actor Oscar. While it’s probably not his absolutely best movie, it’s still a hell of a thing we see on-screen. Left for dead in the wilderness, with his son killed in front of him, he crawls through the frontier looking for revenge. However, for my money, Tom Hardy steals his scenes as the unhinged party member who sets off the much of the action, casting an imposing shadow over the film. Beyond that, it’s an interesting film technically: extensive use of natural lighting and (faked) one-shots, give a ferocious yet naturalistic feel. The set pieces are stunning, but the film as a whole is a little slow in the middle. Still, very worth seeing this great movie. (See my The Revenant Twitter review).

The period telling of an ancient story, The Assassin looks gorgeous from beginning to end. It’s direction is near-faultless: framing is impressive, staging and camera movement is impeccable, yet subtle. The fights, which we see far too little of, are wonderfully choreographed and stylised, with a strong lead performance by Qi Shu. All of that said, The Assassin is, well, fairly dull. Much of the politicking is uninteresting, and we spent far too little time focussing on the eponymous character doing what she does best. Disappointing. (See my The Assassin Twitter review).

Creed is the latest film in the Rocky franchise, and feels it. Many of the plot points have obvious parallels with the first movie, making it feel somewhat like a reboot. However, there’s enough of a twist here to keep it fresh. Michael B. Jordan, as the son of Apollo Creed, puts in another great performance, while Stallone’s Rocky (now in the mentor role) does fine. It’s everything you expect, montages and all. A good, solid entry to the boxing film world. (See my Creed Twitter review).

Finally, Spotlight is the true story of a lengthy investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a straight-forward story, well-told. The cast are all at the top of their game, with Ruffalo perhaps edging ahead. There are some neat directorial touches (the framing of Liev Schreiber’s character as isolated, in particular), and the whole thing is competently done. Worth-seeing as a solid piece of storytelling, even if it’s not spectacular. (See my Spotlight Twitter review).

The winner for January is Room, a film that is both horrible and fantastic to watch, with some of the best performances in memory.

Film Fight 2015: Finale

Another year, another Film Fight almost over. While the monthly posts were later than I’d have liked, they weren’t as bad as the previous year. As per my annual caveat, Film Fight is done in a knock-out style: it’ll select my favourite film of the year, but there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the honourable mentions. Films that were good, but were beaten in their own month:

  • Big Hero 6
  • St Vincent
  • Foxcatcher
  • Whiplash
  • Ex Machina
  • Catch Me Daddy
  • The Voices
  • Child 44
  • Spy
  • The Overnight
  • Southpaw
  • The Legend of Barney Thompson
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
  • Straight Outta Compton
  • Sicario
  • Suffragette
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Mississippi Grind
  • Steve Jobs
  • Bridge of Spies

Then the month winners:

  • January: Birdman
  • February: Selma
  • March: Predestination
  • April: Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • May: Mad Max: Fury Road
  • June: Slow West
  • July: Ant-Man
  • August: Trainwreck
  • September: The Martian
  • October: Macbeth
  • November: Kill Your Friends
  • December: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

As always the first month or two of the year, had some exceptional films. The middle and very end of the year had the usual big budget films, with some nice smaller films squeezed in between.

Trying to pick a winner is very difficult. A few big Hollwood blockbusters made it through (Age of Ultron, Ant-man, Star Wars) that might not have made it in other months. They’re all good films, but there is little unique about them that won’t be repeated again next year. For a genuinely unique action film, we need to look to Mad Max: Fury Road. Relentlessly paced, clear action, with some of the best characters of the year; it’s a visual action treat.

The Martian showed us that you can do a big budget sci-fi film, with action and characters we care about while trying to stay grounded in reality. Predestination went the other way into time-bending craziness, pushing the sci-fi boundary without sacrificing on characters.

Macbeth is an extraordinary piece of film-making: incredibly acted and with some of the best visual storytelling in decades. Birdman was similar, capturing some excellent performances in a relentless edit, constantly blurring reality.

What should win? I’m genuinely torn between those last two to the point I’ve considered a tie for quite some time. However, I think I’m going to give it to Birdman. While both films were well-acted and directed, the editing in Birdman is exceptional. Constant motion keeps the pace up, while never really letting you see what is real and what isn’t. A very well deserved win.

Film Fight 2015: December

For the final Film Fight of the year, we have five films.

First up, Black Mass tells the story of real gangster, Whitey Bulger, and his secret pact with the FBI. The film is fairly fragmented with no clear or interesting vision as to where it is going to go; with each scene more like a way to fill out the timeline in patchwork than form a cohesive whole. Johnny Depp puts in his first good, serious performance in years as the lead. He’s genuinely brilliant: compelling, frightening, ruthless, and cold. It’s very easy to forget who you’re watching. Depp aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend this. Probably not worth seeing. (See my Black Mass Twitter review).

Bridge of Spies is another collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so you probably know what you’re going to get: a safe Hollywood drama, great production values, well-acted, and with masterful direction. The story (of a lawyer forced into defending a Russian spy, then into a trade negotiation for an American spy) has measured pace and quiet tension. You know things will likely work out, but there are enough bumps along the way to keep it interesting. Of note, Mark Rylance has a stand-out performance as the exceptionally calm Russian spy, never cracking and always being entirely believable. An unnecessary epilogue aside, this is worth seeing. (See my Bridge of Spies Twitter review).

While Pixar have done exceptional work over the years, it feels like they phoned in The Good Dinosaur. To be clear, it’s not a bad film. It’s pleasant enough, and looks incredible. However, it lacks any of the magic of a Pixar film. The plot is uninspired and unoriginal, the pacing is a little leaden, and the lead character is fairly dull. Spot, the caveboy who joins Arlo on his adventure, is the film’s highlight: fun, wild, and sympathetic. Overall, the movie is forgettable. (See my The Good Dinosaur Twitter review).

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have made some great comedy separately, and have been in a decent film (Baby Mama) together before, so expectations were somewhat raised for Sisters. It doesn’t quite live up to that. The characters are thin, even for a comedy, and much of what you see plays out a little predictably. That said, the central house party is funny, even when it is failing to surprise. Okay, but not great. (See my Sisters Twitter review).

Finally, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a return to form for the franchise, following the largely awful prequel trilogy. We get interesting characters, fun dialogue, some excellent action sequences, some great little character moments, and everything else we found in the original trilogy. It’s far from perfect. There are plot elements that are a little tired and others that stretch credulity too far, even given the premise, but these are very much forgivable in the context of this family adventure. Very good. (See my Star Wars: The Force Awakens Twitter review).

The winner for December is Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It may not have won a stronger month, but is worth seeing.

Film Fight 2015: November

For November, there are 4 films in the film fight.

First up, Spectre is the latest in a run of underwhelming Bond films. While the grittier tone is where the series needs to be, it is constantly undermined by nonsensical plotting and terrible, cheesey, contrived ideas. The opening sequence is fairly impressive (a long tracking shot through a busy crowd, into a hotel) and Mendes has an extraordinary eye for framing; some of the stills are genuinely stunning. However, the action scenes are muddled and lack excitement. Coupled with one of the worst final acts in Bond history, there is very little to like here. Avoid. (See my Spectre Twitter review).

Kill Your Friends is similar in tone to American Psycho, and that’s not a bad thing. Here we see a dark satire of the cutthroat nature of the music industry through the eyes of an A&R man who doesn’t really care for music. Brutal, dark, and funny, the subtle shifts in mood as the protagonist begins to crack keep us engaged. Worth seeing. (See my Kill Your Friends Twitter review).

While many that knew him say this account of the man is very inaccurate, Steve Jobs is reasonably good as a film. The performances are at its heart. Fassbender and Winslet are excellent, delivering the fast and tight dialogue we expect from Aaron Sorkin’s work. The wider cast are generally good (Seth Rogen surprising in a serious role), with only Job’s daughter coming off as weaker. That said, the film is far from perfect: the drama feels contrived to fit into the three-act structure, with much of the emotional content consequently coming across as hollow. Solid, but somewhat flawed. (See my Steve Jobs Twitter review).

Finally, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part 2 wraps up a series that has been hit-and-miss. Part 2 is a far better film than Part 1, in so far as it is a complete film. It has some fairly exciting action moments, but they are let down by some of the flattest character moments in the series so far. Far too many of the loose ends being tied up don’t serve the story. They’re really there to pad out a reasonable runtime into epic grandeur, a move that falls flat by ruining the pace. If you’ve seen the rest, then you’ll see this. Otherwise, it’s not worth the time. (See my The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part 2 Twitter review).

The winner is Kill Your Friends, as the most entertaining, well-paced film of the month.