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Again, a few months late, but August’s Film Fight has 4 films…

First up, Guardians of the Galaxy represents a change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Where the earlier films are straight-faced without being dour, Guardians is out-and-out comic book crazy as we see the wider cosmic parts of the universe. The cast are great, managing to pull off fun action with genuinely funny moments; playing the right level of knowing insight into the absurdity of, for example, a tree that is best friends with a psychotic raccoon. The storytelling is a little exposition-heavy at times, but you won’t mind when everything else works so well. Very good. (See my Guardians of the Galaxy Twitter review).

The Inbetweeners 2 is the result of extending a series way beyond breaking point. Where the series was funny, and the first film was okay, there’s barely anything left for a second film. There are a handful of horrible but funny moments, but most of the film is just the same reheated filler. Avoid. (See my The Inbetweeners 2 Twitter review).

The Expendables 3 is another sequel that should never have been made. As is par for the course, the opening and closing action sequences are big, extravagant indulgences that can be greatly entertaining. The problem is everything else: the awful acting, the terrible dialogue, bad pacing, pointless subplots etc. There’s very little to like when something isn’t exploding on screen. Also avoid. (See my The Expendables 3 Twitter review).

Finally, The Rover is an exceptional, cold-blooded revenge thriller against the backdrop of a society that no longer has meaningful consequences. Set in a post apocalyptic world, reminiscent of The Road, Guy Pearce delivers one of his best performances as the not-quite-right lead. Brutal, relentless and breathtaking. Very good. (See my The Rover Twitter review).

The winner is The Rover for being such a cold but gripping film.

Yup, they’re getting later and later at the moment, but here’s the Film Fight for July, with 4 films…

First up, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a fun-enough sequel to what was a pretty good kids movie. It’s not a masterpiece, feeling a little formulaic at times, but it really didn’t have to be a classic. There are sad moments, fun moments, exciting moments. It does its job of being an entertaining, if light-hearted, film. Enjoyable. (See my How To Train Your Dragon 2 Twitter review).

Boyhood is a fascinating experiment: director Richard Linklater assembled his cast every year for a few weeks, ostensibly so we can see the 7-year old boy at the centre of the film turn into a 19-year old man. While the pacing doesn’t always work, it’s great to see the actors improve year-on-year. While Ellar Coltrane, as the lead, sees the most obvious evolution, it’s great to see now-seasoned actors, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, going from serviceable at the start to great towards the end. Very worthwhile. (See my Boyhood Twitter review).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good reboot of the franchise, so it was going to be interesting to see where its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of The Apes, went next. There’s a significant time jump and the human population is all but wiped out as the film begins. A small group stumble into Caesar (the ape leader) and his new family, causing tensions to rise. While the supporting cast are sketched in overly broad strokes, the leads are well-drawn characters forced into worsening situations. There are a number of missteps (the music is overwrought, the apes using guns is never earned) but it remains entertaining. A solid action/adventure. (See my Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Twitter review).

Finally, The Purge: Anarchy takes the silly premise of The Purge (that for one night a year no crime is illegal) into a new direction. Where the original was a home-invasion horror, Anarchy is more of a suspense-thriller, in the mould of Judgement Night. Viewed through that almost B-movie lens, it’s an entertaining film. There aren’t many surprises, but the action keeps the pace up nicely. Good. (See my The Purge: Anarchy Twitter review).

For July, the winner is Boyhood, for being such an interesting cinematic undertaking.

It’s October, so clearly this Film Fight for June is very, very late. It is, however, quite full, with 6 films reviewed.

First up, A Million Ways To Die In The West is an absolutely terrible comedy. While it certainly does have some funny moments, most of which don’t rise above toilet humour, the film as a whole is almost as bad as Seth Macfarlane’s performance. He comes across as wooden when delivering anything that isn’t a gag. His knowing insights into the genre he’s pastiching get old quickly, and there’s little else going on. Boring, poorly paced, and badly acted. (See my A Million Ways To Die In The West Twitter review).

Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat, or All You Need is Kill, depending on your context) is an excellent take on the time loop genre. An unwilling PR mans gets pressed into combat against an unstoppable alien force, being forced to live through his bad day thousands of time, as he slowly becomes a weapon. It does a remarkable job of compressing the wealth of information it has to convey into a clear shorthand; you’re rarely at a loss as to where he is in the cycle, even in the midst of the fast-paced action. Exciting and well made, an excellent watch. (See my Edge of Tomorrow Twitter review).

Fruitvale Station is the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury prize winning film, based on the true story of a man who was shot by police at the titular station. It is shot in a straightforward manner, following him around for the day leading up to the events; giving us a chance to see the struggles of the man before seeing his last struggle. The performances, like the camera work, are grounded leading to a horrible unease as the ending gets closer. Great film, well worth seeing. (See my Fruitvale Station Twitter review).

There have been many hours of media activity around the West Memphis 3, so it’s not surprising to see a dramatised version in the form of Devil’s Knot. It is, however, surprising to see an otherwise decent pair of leads (Reece Witherspoon and Colin Firth) turn in such poor performances. With the exception of Kevin Durand’s small role, where he absolutely nails it as John Mark Byers, there’s nothing worth seeing here. It’s poorly paced, with overwrought music, and a lack of care. If you want to know about this case, watch the Paradise Lost documentaries. Avoid this. (See my Devil’s Knot Twitter review).

When 21 Jump Street was announced, it seemed like a bizarre, completely unnecessary and likely very bad movie reboot of a once popular TV show, in the vein of Bewitched. It turned out to be one of the funniest dumb comedies out of the US in a good while. 22 Jump Street then is that most unnecessary of things: a sequel to an unnecessary success. Thankfully, it turns out to also be pretty good. While it never hits the highs of its predecessor, it does turn in some great scenes. It is highly derivative but knowingly so, without being a simple cash-grab. Worth seeing. (See my 22 Jump Street Twitter review).

Finally, Cold in July is… well, barely memorable. I am writing this significantly further on from seeing the film that I would like, but nothing much really stands out. The film is something of a throwback to the 80s revenge thrillers that have seen a small resurgence of late. It’s quite bloody in places and with relatively good performances, but the over-the-top lighting and bad pacing put this into B-movie territory. Decent. (See my Cold in July Twitter review)

The winner this month is a tough choice. As an example of the action genre, Edge of Tomorrow is very strong, but I think it’s edged out by the slightly more worthy Fruitvale Station. (As an aside, Fruitvale Station is currently on Netflix if you happen to be in Canada).

May was a reasonable month with five films for Film Fight.

First up, Blue Ruin is a strange revenge thriller, where a man seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents. The story and twists are doled out in a careful manner, with just enough exposition to keep things moving. It’s shot through with a dark humour arising from the fact that, while the protagonist is reasonably determined, he’s quite far out of his depth. Beautifully shot, and often brutal, Blue Ruin manages to juggle a number of balls effectively. Very good. (See my Blue Ruin Twitter review).

Bad Neighbours is a Seth Rogen comedy about maturing, told from the competing perspectives of new parents and their new fraternity neighbours. The arc of the story is much as you’d expect, and many of the gags could be used in just about any similarly styled comedy. That said, it’s an entertaining enough couple of hours, with a pace that keeps things moving along. It’s hard to get excited about the film, or to pan it. Good, not great. (See my Bad Neighbours Twitter review).

If you’re looking for an odd indie film with a weird sense of humour, Frank fits the bill. It’s based very loosely on the time writer Jon Ronson spent in the company of Frank Sidebottom, but allowed to slip quite far from reality. It’s full of oddball characters and awkward interactions, with a great cast (particularly Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal) making the often on-the-nose writing work. Quirky and enjoyable. (See my Frank Twitter review).

Another Godzilla reboot can surely only be better than the last. Well, yes, it is, but it’s still really quite poor. It opens well, with some big action coupled with some emotional beats, but quickly slides into awfulness. There are some great action set pieces throughout, but this is the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t just mean that it’s a shallow action movie. No, it’s utterly moronic. The dialogue is dumb, the plotting makes little sense, and the contrivances that hold it together are, at times, painful. It doesn’t come close to recent genre entries, like Cloverfield or Pacific Rim. Very bad. (See my Godzilla Twitter review).

Finally, X-Men: Days of Future Past does something that none of the other movies in the series have managed: showing a complex, cohesive and, fundamentally, comic-book plot in a fun an exciting way, whilst great actors put on a hell of a performance. Fassbender and McAvoy get to pit their characters, each with increasing depth, against each other whilst a giant, time-hopping plot plays out behind them. The action sequences are fun, the gags work well, and there’s little to let this down. A great superhero movie.  (See my X-Men: Days of Future Past Twitter review).

There were a number of good options this month, but I think the winner has to be Blue Ruin. Dark, brutal, but with just enough of a funny edge to make it less bleak. Great.

April was a relatively quiet month for cinema, with only three films viewed.

First up, Noah is a heavily dramatised and expanded telling of the story of Noah and the ark, as imagined by Darren Aronofsky. I’m a fan of much of Aronofsky’s work (particularly The Wrestler and Black Swan) so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in tackling what appeared to be a dull subject. I was wrong to do so as there is almost nothing worthwhile in this movie. Visually, it’s horrendous: bad green screen, awful CG, and colour-graded in the least tactful way you can imagine. The story is overblown, the performances lack any subtlety, and the dialogue is, to a line, atrocious. I cannot begin to imagine why anyone thought this was worth filming having seen a script, but all we can do now is avoid it. One of the worst films in recent years. (See my Noah Twitter review).

A few years ago The Raid was a surprisingly brilliant action movie, full of intricate choreography and a relentless pace, confined to a small tower block. The Raid 2 sees the scope expand across many more characters and locations, but keeps the essence: a fair plot that is fast moving, but with stunning fights. The stunt set pieces throughout are brilliant. From the prison riot through the nightclub brawl, you won’t be disappointed. The story itself is a little more convoluted, and told out of order, but don’t let that throw you too much. Enjoy the action, enjoy the movie. (See my The Raid 2 Twitter review).

Finally, Calvary is a strangely dark story about a priest forced to represent the better side of humanity to a largely unseen antagonist (and a cast of other broken people), beyond what he should have to bear. While that sounds high concept, the film is very much grounded in humanity. Shot through with a dark humour, it’s an oddly affecting film that can be laugh out loud funny one minute and tense the next. From the look through to the performances, this film rarely slips. Exceptionally good. (See my Calvary Twitter review).

The winner, as should be obvious, is Calvary; an unexpected gem.

March, as with February, was a reasonably busy month for films, with five fairly good movies.

First up, The Grand Budapest Hotel is precisely and obviously a Wes Anderson movie. It has all the elements of his signature look and feel: the wide framing, the grand shots, the pastel colours, the awkward dialogue, the quirkiness. It’s all there. The story itself centres on the life of a young man who finds love and a mentor and has to fight for both, but is told with all of Anderson’s dry silliness. It’s fair to say that if you like his other films you will like this. I am an Anderson fan, so I’d say this is a lovely film. (See my The Grand Budapest Hotel Twitter review).

The Zero Theorem, meanwhile, is precisely and obviously a Terry Gilliam film. Weird, bordering on surreal, characters inhabiting a bizarre, but not entirely unfamiliar, world. Christoph Waltz is great as the lead, an obsessive recluse searching for an answer to a macguffin of a problem. The whole film is a strange look at hiding away rather than embracing society, and the effects that might have on a mind. It’s not the easiest film, but it is fun. Good. (See my The Zero Theorem Twitter review).

Under the Skin is an alien movie. I don’t merely mean that the lead is an antagonist (played by Scarlet Johansson) sent to lure men to their doom in the manner of many b-movies; no, it’s keen to impress upon the audience a very alien, detached view of the world. After the initial laughs provided by the candid shots around Glasgow subside, we’re left with a stark and difficult to grasp film about the main character’s first glimpses of emotion. At times, utterly devoid of something comprehensible for the audience to get behind and at others so painfully at odds with their views (the beach scene with the young child is devastating), this is an interesting movie but hard to say that it is enjoyable. Worth seeing, if you have tough skin. (See my Under the Skin Twitter review).

British prison movie, Starred Up, is an unflinching look at the criminal justice system in the UK. Told from the point of view of a young man raised under harsh conditions, his arrival in the same prison as his father is as sad as it is inevitable. As he starts to be able to cope with the anger he has, the system keeps dragging him further in. Dark, brutal, and maybe a little heavy-handed at times, this is definitely worth a watch. (See my Starred Up Twitter review).

Finally, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves itself to be one of the best blockbuster action films in years. It manages to effortlessly handle the world-building, character progression and plot (albeit a light one), while integrating some fantastic set pieces. It’s big, without being sprawling, and fun without being silly. While the Apple advert jammed in the middle jars quite badly, the rest is a great mix of action and adventure. It’s not as epic as The Avengers movie, but is probably a better movie for it. Very good. (See my Captain America: The Winter Solider Twitter review).

It’s another difficult month to pick a winner, especially given they all do very different things. I think I’ll go for The Grand Budapest Hotel, as the film most likely to stand the test of time.

I’ve been letting Film Fight slide a little, but it’s time to get back to it. February was almost five months ago, but was exceptionally strong, with six films that were all (spoiler!) really good. Not a bad one in the bunch, but what will win?

First up, Inside Llewyn Davis is relatively restrained for a Coen Brothers movie, showing life for a talented but struggling musician in the 1960’s folk scene. The titular character’s problems are mostly of his own making, finding himself unable to progress personally or artistically. The soundtrack is excellent throughout, the performances and characters are spot on, and the whole thing looks just right. The divisive meta ending aside, this is a strong movie. (See my Inside Llewyn Davis Twitter review).

Dallas Buyers Club is the sad story of a man who finds out he has AIDS and is given 30 days to live. Struggling to come to terms with his death sentence, he has to start putting aside his prejudices and old life in order to survive. Touching, sad, and wonderfully acted, this is another excellent performance by Matthew McConaughey; an actor on a great run of late. Very good. (See my Dallas Buyers Club Twitter review).

The Lego Movie is exactly what you might hope for: a funny, daft and often self-deprecating adventure aimed at kids, but with more than a few nods to the older audience members. The original characters are all good enough, but it’s the weird takes on existing characters (like Batman) that really shine. It’s got a good message, and manages to be both fun and well-considered. (See my Lego Movie Twitter review).

Her is about a lonely, quiet man who finally finds love again. To give it the twist you’d expect from a Spike Jonze film, his new partner is the artificial intelligence that he installs on his computer to put his life in order. The film follows their romance, as a commentary on the ever-changing nature of relationships from new love to drifting apart, but set against the question of what it means to be human. Jonze doesn’t let the big ideas get in the way of the story, as you’ll find yourself rapt from start to finish. A very good movie. (See my Her Twitter review).

Richard Ayoade’s second feature film, The Double, is about a man whose small life starts to fall apart when he meets his more successful doppelgänger. Set against a surreal Kafkan bureaucracy that makes the whole thing feel weird, we see the lead unravel scene-by-scene. Jesse Eisenberg does a great job as both the mild and meek character, and his charismatically aggressive double. There are no big laughs, but that’s fine: the humour is all in the tension. Funny. (See my The Double Twitter review).

Finally, Only Lovers Left Alive is about a vampire who is growing weary with immortality, especially with the humans he sees as ruining the planet. When his distant wife comes to comfort him, the film really starts. Between the cinematography, editing, and music, the film has a weirdly hypnotic feel that gives the comfortable romance a surprising warmth. This does, however, mean that the few dodgy lines of dialogue are oddly jarring, pulling you out of the trance-like mood. Still, both Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are excellent, with a great supporting cast around them. A little odd, but definitely worth seeing. (See my Only Lovers Left Alive Twitter review).

The winner? Well, this is the toughest month in a very long time, but I think the contrast of scope and intimacy in Her being handled so well puts it ahead.

A new year, a new start for Film Fight. It’s been a busy start to the year so this is coming quite late. Three films for January:

First up, American Hustle has the kind of cast that you know you’re not going to have to worry about. They’ll turn in great performances and nail whatever you throw at them. That’s precisely what happens here, save for a few comically over-the-top moments. Leaving the cast aside, then, we’re left with a wildly unevenly paced film. At times, we get a barrage of clips, being narrated by the leads, at other times nothing much happens for 15 minutes. Given the lengthy runtime, this starts to become problematic. An entertaining film, with fun performances, but not a classic.  (See my American Hustle Twitter review).

Similarly, 12 Years A Slave has some of the most stunning performances of the Oscar season. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the titular slave, is as fantastic when he’s trying to keep his head down as when he’s being brutalised by one of his masters. Likewise, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the cotton plantation owner is shocking and unnerving; bringing a genuinely frightening presence. We see the same level of performance from the rest of the cast, except for one minor but pivotal role that seemed quite out of place. It’s tough to watch the lingering, violent shots but it’s certainly worthwhile. An excellent film. (See my 12 Years A Slave Twitter review).

Finally, The Wolf of Wall Street is a fantastic, comic take on some of the worst excesses that came out of the world of stockbrokers. Based on a true story, it follows a mans rise from nobody to head of his own stockbroking firm; a position he gets to through lying, stealing and cheating, while indulging in every excess imaginable. The 18 rating on the film is well-deserved, given the copious sex and drug-taking scenes that make up the bulk of the film. The film is entertaining with a wonderful cast, but at three hours is vastly longer than it needs to be, knocking at least half an hour off would lose nothing of substance. Fun. (See my Wolf of Wall Street Twitter review).

It’ll be no surprise to say that 12 Years A Slave is the first winner of the year.

Twelve film fights later and we’ve got another finale. As always, my caveat from earlier years still applies: Film Fight is done in a knock-out style and, as such, only picks my favourite film of the year; there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the films that were good but that did not win their month i.e. the honourable mentions:

  • Lincoln
  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • Robot and Frank
  • Compliance
  • Trance
  • Mud
  • The Iceman
  • World War Z
  • This Is The End
  • The East
  • The World’s End
  • Monster’s University
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • Filth
  • How I Live Now
  • Machete Kills
  • Captain Phillips
  • Anchorman 2

Then the monthly winners:

  • January: Django Unchained
  • February: Wreck-It Ralph
  • March: Cloud Atlas
  • April: The Place Beyond the Pines
  • May: Upstream Color
  • June: Much Ado About Nothing
  • July: Pacific Rim
  • August: Lovelace
  • September: The Way, Way Back
  • October: Prisoners
  • November: Gravity
  • December: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The winners, as a whole, don’t seem quite as high-quality as some other years, but there are some absolutely fantastic films in there. The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful look at privilege and family ties. Upstream Color is a wonderfully hypnotic piece of story telling that pulls off its dreamy feel far better than similar films. In Pacific Rim we have the monster movie done well: the story is nonsense but the fights are fun and have weight, despite being CG. Lovelace has two of the best lead performances of the year. While Gravity is spectacular visual storytelling, gripping throughout.

The winner, though, as predicted back in June, is Joss Whedon’s take on Much Ado About Nothing. It’s suitably breezy, funny, delightful, wonderfully shot, and rammed full of excellent performances. This is an absolute masterclass on making Shakespeare feel relevant today, without dumbing down the source material. A well-deserved win.

A very quiet December, with only two films viewed.

First up, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that manages to be confidently better than the original in almost every regard. The pacing of the film is excellent, moving through months of propaganda in minutes without feeling rushed before settling into a slower, but still lively, pace for the main events. It’s a little darker, the situation unravels a little more and, most importantly, I actually cared about what happened to most of the characters by the end; something I can’t really say about the original. The ending marks it very much as the middle chapter of the series, but it had done enough by that point that a cliff-hanger ending didn’t seem unfair. Well worth seeing. (See my The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Twitter review).

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, on the other hand, was never going to live up to the original, which was likely my most watched comedy of the preceeding ten years. Let’s be clear: it’s a good comedy, better than most of the competition, and with some incredibly funny moments (Doby!). In fact, for the first hour it seems like it might just pull off getting into the same league as the original. Sadly, it begins retreading the same plot arc as the original, and the same jokes. While the supporting cast are still great (Brick is a particular highlight), it’s Ron Burgundy that seems a little off. Rather than being the out-of-time, dumb, but loveable anchorman, he is played as an amped-up-to-eleven version of the original; a louder, pantomine parody. Again, it’s a good film, it’s funny, but it’s not a classic. (See my Anchorman 2 Twitter review).

The final monthly winner for 2013, then, is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. An unexpectedly fun sequel.

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