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.

Film Fight 2015: October

October looks to be a great month for Film Fight, with 5 films.

First up, Macbeth is an astounding take on the Scottish Play. The performances by the leads are exceptional, with good performances throughout the rest of the cast. Fassbender outdoes himself here, with Marion Cotillard (as Lady Macbeth) every bit his equal. I’d recommend this film based on seeing those two alone. However, there is more on show here: the visual storytelling is eye-opening. Every shot, every edit tells the story by itself. You could happily switch off the dialogue and understand everything. That takes real skill. An excellent film. (See my Macbeth Twitter review).

Denis Villeneuve has directed some grim films before, like Prisoners, but nothing quite like Sicario. There is an unsettling brutality that pervades the film, as Emily Blunt gets drawn into the war on drugs by a CIA agent, played by Josh Brolin. The set pieces are nerve-tingling, never rushing to the pay-off, always escalating towards what you know is going to be a ferocious end. That’s without saying anything about Benicio Del Toro’s character, who comes into his own in the last few acts. The measured pace and beautiful visuals help balance the more graphic aspects of the film, but this is not easy viewing. Very good. (See my Sicario Twitter review).

The story of Suffragette is told from a perspective we don’t see enough of in the history of the suffragette movement: that of an ordinary woman (rather than Emily Pankhurst et al). Through this lense, we are shown exactly why this historic movement is so important (if that wasn’t already clear). Carrie Mulligan puts in a great performance, surrounded by a decent cast. It generally looks good, with natural lighting adding to the ambience. The film is only slightly marred when it does something a little more fast paced (what we might call an action sequence), where the visuals are a little muddy. All in, a very good (and important) film. (See my Suffragette Twitter review).

Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first original feature film, focussing on child soldier’s in an unspecified African country. While Idris Elba leads the cast as a commandant who indoctrinates captured children into his cause, it is one of the children we follow. Through the eyes of Agu, we see the devastating effects of war on children, the film rarely flinching when showing us the atrocities committed. It’s well-shot and well-paced throughout, keeping the audience engaged with a very difficult subject. Worth watching.  (See my Beasts of No Nation Twitter review).

Finally, Mississippi Grind is the story of an habitual gambler and loser, meeting another gambler who is everything he wishes to be. A road trip ensues and the plot unravels. Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelson are great in the lead roles, playing off each other well. It’s not a buddy comedy, by any stretch, but the interplay of the main characters is what makes the film. The overly happy ending lets down an otherwise grounded, and even film. Worth seeing. (See my Mississippi Grind Twitter review).

Any of the films in October would have stood a chance of winning most other months this year, but the winner for me has to be Macbeth. Fantastic performances and directing make the film an exceptional whole.

Film Fight 2015: September

September was a mixed month, with some good films and some not so good.

First up, American Ultra is an over-the-top comedy about a guy who is activated as a mind-altered CIA assassin, but whose stoner tendencies have messed up all but the most reactionary programming. Eisenberg nails the role, as he does most of the time, switching effortlessly between burnt out and hyper deadly. The comedy is stock, but the action is quite energetic. Darkly funny, well-paced, and enjoyable. Fun, but not essential. (See my American Ultra Twitter review).

Gangster films often have a gritty edge, an underlying tension that everything will go wrong. Legend has no edge, no grit, and very little to recommend it. Unnecessary narration starts us off on the wrong foot, and continues on throughout the film. It’s meanderingly paced, save for a few obligatory scenes of the Kray Twins getting into fights with their enemies (and each other). The only real standout is Tom Hardy, excellent as both the superficially charming Reggie and the deranged Ronnie. It’s an excellent performance in an otherwise dull film. (See my Legend Twitter review).

The D Train is an indie film about a desperate high school reunion organiser trying to get the popular kid (now an actor) to attend the next big reunion. This involves him farcically lying and cheating, and getting further and further into trouble while wooing his target. The humour is timid and seldom, but often enough that it makes for decent viewing. The film is reasonably well made, with some neat framing choices. Okay. (See my The D Train Twitter review).

A biopic should be more interesting than Life, a boring look at the life of Hollywood icon, James Dean. It shouldn’t be entirely written off: the performances are good, if understated, with some decent dialogue. For a film told from the perspective of a photographer, it also looks the part, with a number of great shots. However, it is also turgidly dull. Glacial pace and lack of any real dramatic conflict mean every scene is utterly flat. Writing this review 2-3 months after seeing the film, I had to use IMDB to remind me the film to which “Life” was referring; it is that forgettable. Avoid unless you’ve had trouble sleeping. (See my Life Twitter review).

Finally, The Martian is the story of an astronaut left for dead on Mars, his crew who feel guilty, and the NASA staff back on Earth trying to rescue him. It tries to stay grounded in its fiction, but isn’t above having a big dramatic/action scene if it helps. Matt Damon is very likeable as the lead: you want to see him survive and be rescued, no matter how hopeless his plight seems. Pacing is great, one overlong sequence aside, as there’s always another crisis, some way in which the plan crumples and needs reevaluated. The stakes are always clear and the danger palpable. As blockbusters go, this is of the highest quality. Must see. (See my The Martian Twitter review).

The winner for September is The Martian, as one of the best big films of the year.

Film Fight 2015: August

August is a surprisingly big month, with 8 films in the Film Fight, making it also more than a little late.

First up, The Legend of Barney Thomson is the directorial debut of Robert Carlyle, with himself in the titular role as an unlikeable barber who accidentally becomes a murderer. While the police investigation thread doesn’t quite land, Barney and his mother (a scene-stealing, excellent turn by Emma Thompson) are engaged in a dark comedy that never strays too far into farce, but remains larger than life. Very good. (See my Legend of Barney Thomson Twitter review).

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is exactly what you expect from the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have some of the biggest practical stunts in cinema, stylish fights, and excellent choreography/editing; the Opera scene stands out as particularly well done. We also have a convoluted, slightly nonsensical plot, but that’s par for the course. Sit back and let the action wash over you. It’s worth seeing. (See my Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Twitter review).

Pixar are still the best animation studio out there. Inside-Out is another good example of their output, but is a little lacking. The imaginative worlds they build have always been fully-formed, and make sense from an internal point of view, but the world inside Inside-Out seems to lack cohesion. The film itself is funny and at times emotional, which is probably no surprise for a film about the embodiments of a child’s emotions. It’s not a bad film but does feel flimsy in places, even for a kids film. Okay.  (See my Inside-Out Twitter review).

Marshland is a story about two Spanish detectives with very different approaches investigating some rural murders. The plot itself is able, if a little generic. There’s nothing particularly fresh in the story or characters, you’ve seen variations on this before. It is, however, a very solid effort in the crime fiction genre. Where it excels, however, is in the visuals. The aerial shots are gorgeous, and the colours, framing and lighting are world-class throughout. Good. (See my Marshland Twitter review).

Trainwreck is that rarest of things in American cinematic comedies: a fresh take. While elements of it are standard set-pieces, it builds smart jokes on top of enjoyably gross humour. For once, the character building is actually pretty good, with the leads getting more than the standard fall-from-grace and climb-back arc. Amy Schumer shows her comedy translates from stage to TV and now to cinema. Very funny. (See my Trainwreck Twitter review).

Meanwhile, Absolutely Anything is that saddest of things: a comedy with absolutely nothing new to say, not even the jokes. The premise is stock (Simon Pegg unexpectedly gets the power to do whatever he wants), and is propped up by tired cliches and reheated stereotypes. Nothing here develops beyond the terrible, narrow starting point. A comedy with no redeeming qualities. Avoid.  (See my Absolutely Anything Twitter review).

Yet another comedy: Vacation digs up the classic National Lampoon series for a modern take. While it fails to better those films (which are admittedly of their time), it manages enough funny, if disjointed, moments to make the whole experience pleasant. Both Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are likeable as the new leads, and the supporting cast each deliver the little that is asked of them. Not a classic, but okay. (See my Vacation Twitter review).

Finally, Straight Outta Compton is the dramatisation of the rise and fall of NWA, and its stars. At two and a half hours, the slow start feels like it might be a slog, but things pick up by the halfway mark as the group splinters and the real drama begins. The performances as a whole are decent, and the subject matter is interesting enough. It’s probably a little longer and less focussed than it could have been, but overall it works. Good. (See my Straight Outta Compton Twitter review).

The winner for August is Trainwreck. While none of the (many) films this month was faultless, I think I’d probably see this one again soonest. Note: Barney Thompson had originally been the winner in my first draft, but I changed my mind between writing this and publishing it.