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.

Film Fight 2015: July

July is traditionally big studio film territory, and that is what we have this year. Four films…

First up, Terminator Genisys is yet another entry in a franchise that should be facing its own Judgement Day. The film immediately sets to ripping apart the timeline to great effect, but quickly squanders its boldness with a plot about an evil Facebook-like company. There are some great set pieces, but they’re undermined by the clunky exposition and bad acting (Jai Courtney is especially flat). It’s a better film than its immediate predecessor, but that wouldn’t be hard. Fun, but not a classic. (See my Terminator Genisys Twitter review).

Seth MacFarlane certainly has his style of comedy and, as in Ted 2, it’s starting to wear a little threadbare. Even if you like his heavily referential/gross-out jokes, here they’re presented as a loosely connected series of sketches barely held together by the thinnest of plots. There are a few funny moments, but it’s largely devoid of anything to hold your interest. Avoid this movie, there are many better options. (See my Ted 2 Twitter review).

When Ant-Man was first announced, it wasn’t clear how they’d fit a character who is more grounded in the golden age of comics, despite his relative latter day importance. This film manages it with a few knowing winks and a fairly unique heist. When it’s being light and breezy, Ant-Man does very well. The small scale set pieces work surprisingly well, with both action and comedy moments aplenty. It doesn’t, however, earn a few of the main character beats. The relationship between Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne feels particularly unearned. Light-hearted and fun. (See my Ant-Man Twitter review).

Finally, Southpaw is built on every boxing cliche that you can imagine, from the rise-fall-rise structure, to the external struggles (family, drugs), and the training montages. We’re not getting originality so what are we getting? Well, another jawdropping performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who couldn’t look more different than he did in Nightcrawler, and an absolutely gut-wrenching plot involving his daughter. Some of the emotional moments are genuinely affecting, even if some of the relationships are by the book. It’s a mixed bag, but a solid film. (See my Southpaw Twitter review).

It’s difficult to pick a winner this month, with a serious film and a fun film that could win other months, but I think Ant-Man edges out for the simple fact I’d watch it again sooner than later.

Film Fight 2015: June

June’s Film Fight is back up to the nearly standard four films…

First up, Spy is, as the name suggests, a spy film. Melissa McCarthy gets to show off her comedy skills as an agent who is thrust into the field after years behind a desk, and does so admirably. The comedy works as a mixture of great lines, unexpected brutality, some slapstick, but never becoming a spoof. The extended cast are mostly good, but this is definitely McCarthy’s film. We feel sorry for her, but in a way that keeps us on-side. Very funny.  (See my Spy Twitter review).

Jurassic World is an attempt to bring back the classic dinosaur franchise and, for the most part, uses that as a reason to coast on what we’ve seen before. Chris Pratt is as likeable as he usually is, but almost nothing else in this film works. The plot doesn’t hold together, seeming like an excuse to glue together a bunch of set-pieces. Most of those action sequences are done with CG that is bad enough to undermine them entirely, with the jungle bike ride being particularly awful. This is empty spectacle. A fairly mediocre waste.  (See my Jurassic World Twitter review).

Michael Fassbender stars as a classic near-silent outlaw with a good heart in the Slow West. Following a young man’s journey across the American frontier to find his love, the story is enjoyable if obvious. Instead it’s the beautiful and simple cinematography, coupled with the lead performances, that make this something special. It gets enough right that its few faults become glaring (an unnecessary dream sequence and epilogue, an out of place song), but not overbearingly so. Well-acted, beautifully shot, and generally very good. (See my Slow West Twitter review).

Finally, The Overnight does a kind of comedy that you rarely see: building up an uncomfortable tension for over an hour before releasing it in a big moment. There are laughs along the way, but the focus is very much on the weirdness of the situation: a couple meeting new friends at their kid’s playdate, that gets a little out of hand. The whole (tiny) cast is great, and it’s extremely well-paced, save for an unnecessary epilogue. Very worth seeing. (See my The Overnight Twitter review).

There are three good films this month, but I think I’d probably revisit Slow West over the years to take in those performances and scenery.