For the November Film Fight, we have 4 films.

First up, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is an attempt to take the over-the-top pranks of Jackass and try to cram them into a story, with mixed success. It plays out in a similar fashion to much of Sascha Baron Cohen’s work, like Borat or Bruno: unsuspecting members of the public play against the characters in ridiculous situations to see how they react. It’s dumb and mean-spirited humour of the lowest form, albeit done very well. This film won’t change your mind about Johnny Knoxville and his brand of humour, but if you already find it funny then this is a pretty good example of the genre. (See my Bad Grandpa Twitter review).

Captain Phillips seems bizarrely tone-deaf. At times, the story of a tanker captain taken hostage by Somali pirates is remarkably tense and, despite knowing the ending, you can’t help but be drawn in by every twist. Hanks puts in his usual, down-to-Earth and absolutely spot-on performance, with no surprises, with the Somali pirates coming across with jagged believability. However, at other times, it goes way too far in one direction or another. The opening with Catherine Keener is so underplayed that no-one appears to be making any effort. Contrast that with the many Oscar-baiting moments later, and you have a film that, while very good on the whole, can’t seem to decide what to do with itself. (See my Captain Phillips Twitter review).

The next entry in Marvel’s cinematic universe is Thor: The Dark World. The lead character isn’t the most cerebral in Marvel’s canon, and that is fully on display here. Expect the usual “smash, drink and nobility” sentiments wrapped around a plot where Thor saves everyone from world-ending doom. So, nothing new. That’s not to say it’s bad. Thor is fun and dumb, and I’m not sure anything else would work. Loki is as great as ever, playing the meddlesome brother, but the main bad guy, Malekith, is so generic that you wonder why they brought in as great an actor as Christopher Ecclestone to do the part. The film, then, is ultimately fun and fine, but you’ve seen it many times before. (See my Thor: The Dark World Twitter review).

Finally, Gravity is Alfonso Cuaron’s way of following up the his 2006 Film Fight finalist, Children of Men. It is an astounding piece of film that, I believe, cannot be done full justice in a home-viewing setting. The 3D IMAX screenings draw you in better than anything else I’ve seen in the format, with the eye-filling frames giving you nowhere to look for respite. The story itself is a little saccharine at times, but that’s largely beside the point. The film is a journey that mixes moments of eerie calm with uncontrolled frantic action. I don’t want to say too much about the content, other than it’s a thrilling movie, with a great lead performance and great support. Definitely see this in as big a format as you can. (See my Gravity Twitter review).

The winner for November is Gravity, a film that was worth waiting seven years to see.

Five films in the Film Fight for October…

First up, Filth is a film in the Irvine Welsh tradition: an anti-hero swept into a maddening situation of his own making, presented in a surreal technicolour, before dropping into a cold, dank reality. That Filth isn’t anything new doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s not. James McAvoy does a fantastic job of showing the breakdown of a cop who was always a little on the edge. Supported by a fun cast, he is certainly the film’s highlight. The film is somewhat undone by the weirdness. While it mostly fits the portrayal, it sometimes lacks a point beyond being strange. Overall, the film is decent, but could’ve been better. A film to watch, rather than rewatch. (See my Filth Twitter review).

How I Live Now is the story of an American girl who comes to stay a summer with her cousins in rural England. Unfortunately, a devastating war breaks out whilst no adults are around. The film could’ve descended into a crude Lord of the Flies rip-off at this point but it doesn’t. Instead it does an excellent job of building a new survivalist world in the background, the young cast slipping into it seamlessly as the world collapses around them. There are many excellent moments of despair (that I won’t spoil) but the film is somewhat let down by a flimsy central romance, hints of psychic abilities that go nowhere (apparently they’re more important in the book), and more than a few lines of clunky dialogue delivered poorly by the youngest actors in the cast. All in, it’s a beautifully presented work, let down by the details. One to see. (See my How I Live Now Twitter review).

Wherever you sit on the Wiki Leaks debate, The Fifth Estate should’ve been an interesting insight into the organisation’s early days and founders. While Benedict Cumberbatch puts in an excellent performance as a controlling, jealous and paranoid Assange and Daniel Brühl does a good job of playing his level-headed counterpart, they can’t save the film from its many flaws. When it has to lower itself to silly CG office spaces filled with countless copies of Assange to explain the technology of the organisation, you know that it’s not going to get better. A real shame, given the meaty subject. (See my The Fifth Estate Twitter review).

The problem with Prisoners is that it’s an afternoon murder mystery with torture porn set-dressing: it has the cliched attempts to mislead of the former, and the unnecessary and over-the-top suffering of the latter. I don’t really want either. The cast can’t be held responsible here, as everyone puts in an outstanding performance; from Jackman’s angry father-figure to Dano’s disturbed young man, the principle actors do a great job. It’s a shame, then, that they don’t get better material with which to work. You’ll see many of the attempts to fool you coming, as not one hasn’t been seen many times before. All of that said, when it lets Jackman’s character go off-the-rails, things can get remarkably tense. Just how far will he go to save his daughter? Good, but not a classic. (See my Prisoners Twitter review).

Finally, if you’re looking for a ridiculous, over-the-top action film with lots of B-movie trimmings, then Machete Kills will work for you. It’s not as well made or silly as the original, but you’re unlikely to care. You’ll get the intentionally terrible dialogue, wonky effects, explosions and half-baked characters you’d expect from a grindhouse film. Enjoy after a drink or two for maximum impact. (see my Machete Kills Twitter review).

The winner for October is Prisoners. It’s not a strong winner, but the best of a fun-to-average bunch.

A fairly quiet month in September, with only two films…

First up, The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age indie film, about a dorky boy who, with the help of Sam Rockwell’s character finds the self-confidence he badly needs. It does the dweeb-stands-up-for-himself trope reasonably well, but balances it with some difficult family moments. The performances are all decent enough, with Steve Carrell standing out as being cast against-type but doing well. As these kind of films go, this one is remarkably good. (See my The Way, Way Back Twitter review).

Finally, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has Casey Affleck as an outsider who suffers for someone else’s mistakes. As he goes to prison, he leaves behind a family who have to cope without him. The problem is that nothing in the story makes you care particularly about the suffering of either of the leads, and the film has little else going on. Without any reason to buy into the narrative, the movie feels unnecessarily drawn-out and dull. Entirely forgettable. (See my Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Twitter review).

The winner is The Way, Way Back for a good take on a well-trodden genre.

For August, we have 5 films in the Film Fight…

First up, Monsters University is the entirely unnecessary prequel to what is possibly Pixar’s greatest film, Monsters Inc. It obviously has a heavy burden to live up to its forebear. The good news is that it doesn’t entirely fluff it, though it clearly isn’t operating at the same level. It has a number of funny bits, interesting characters and the charm you’d expect of a Pixar movie, so you won’t miss out in seeing it. That said, it feels like it’s just being made for the money; building out a backstory that no-one needed. It’s good, not great. (See my Monsters University Twitter review).

Nicholas Winding Refn has directed some excellent films, like Bronson and Drive (which won the 2011 Film Fight Finale – even if I latter changed my mind, and decided that Another Earth should’ve won). Only God Forgives is not an excellent film; it’s astonishingly bad. While it looks incredible throughout, the rest is pretentious, lacking substance, flimsy and poorly constructed. It’s unevenly paced, has paper-thin characters, and many of the scenes simply do not matter. It is incredibly badly judged on almost every level. A strong contender for the worst film of the year, and certainly the most disappointing.  (See my Only God Forgives Twitter review).

Kick-Ass 2 manages to be even more nihilistically fun and gleefully violent than its predecessor, which is no easy task given the explosion of colour and carnage of the original. The main plot is about a supervillian uprising, funded by an unexpected source, and a group of vigilantes trying to stand up for normal people while realising they’re not playing a game. There’s a subplot following Hit Girl to high school which has some laughs, but is entirely superfluous to the main plot. On the whole, it’s hit-or-miss, but fun enough that it’s worth seeing. (See my Kick-Ass 2 Twitter review).

Lovelace is the dark story, based on her biography, of Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. It is first presented as a “fun” telling of her story (with enough warning signs to see what is coming), but the narrative doubles back to show the horrendous abuse she suffered, essentially being forced into the industry by her then husband. Peter Sarsgaard puts in a terrifically terrifying performance as the abuser, and Amanda Seyfried (an actress whose output I would normally avoid) is very believable as the abusee, showing real vulnerability. Very worth seeing. (See my Lovelace Twitter review).

Finally, Elyisum is Neill Blomkamp’s first film since the very impressive District 9. How has he done with a bigger budget and better known cast? It’s certainly a grander presentation, but a much less effective story. As an allegory, it’s clunky and obvious, whilst as a straight-up story it’s inconsistent. Even the action sequences are, at best, hit-or miss. The physicality of District 9’s action (even though much of that was CG) gives way to some limp shoot-outs with gadgets that you will not care about. The film, tellingly, comes alive each time Sharlto Copley’s character, the main antagonist, is on-screen as he tears himself towards some goal through sheer force of will, even if we don’t care much about said goal. Mostly bad. (See my Elysium Twitter review).

The winner is Lovelace. The performances were worth seeing, and the rest of the production wasn’t exactly slouching either.

Four films in the Film Fight for July.

First up, The East is something of a missed opportunity. Having thoroughly enjoyed Brit Marling’s performance in the mesmerising Another Earth, I had high hopes for her in this. I was not disappointed. Marling shows the right mix of vulnerability, naivety and determination for her character (a corporate spy) to make sense. The rest of the cast, however, are a little wasted. We know both Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard are capable actors, but here they don’t have much to work with. The film ticks over nicely, until a muddled last act undoes a lot of the ground work, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Worth seeing. (See my The East Twitter review).

Man of Steel, however, is not worth seeing. It spends twenty or so minutes building up a fascinating mythos and origin at Superman’s home planet which makes you yearn for a better movie called Krypton: Civil War. Sadly, we quickly move to Earth and see an incoherent mess of characters play out pointless CGI battle after CGI battle; motivations and actions being principally determined by the needs of the plot. There’s very little to redeem the film outside of the first stretch; even Michael Shannon can only do so much with his take on General Zod. I’d avoid this, and would have concerns about the rest of the DC universe they’re trying to build out. (See my Man of Steel Twitter review).

If you like big monster films and don’t feel they’ve been done well in a long time, Pacific Rim is for you. The plot is dumped through exposition at an alarming rate, a lot of it is clunky, and you’ll see every twist coming a mile away (the pilot that hates the protagonist will eventually grow to respect him? Shock!). That all said, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Unlike many CG films, it manages to deliver action sequences which are exciting but clearly shown (take that, Transformers), and which you can’t help but get involved in despite the fake nature of it. The comic relief between Charlie Day and Ron Perlman is pitched just right to not be annoying, and the stakes rise at just the right pace throughout the film. One of the better action films of the year. (See my Pacific Rim Twitter review).

Finally, The World’s End sees Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite for a comedy simultaneously smaller and much larger than their previous efforts. It follows the reunion of a group of old friends determined to finished a pub crawl in their old home town, when something apocalyptic begins to happen. The details of that, I’ll leave to the film, but the first moment you really see something is wrong is excellent. The remainder of the film is fun but not particularly funny. If you see it as a silly adventure, rather than a pure comedy, then you’ll be okay. Decent.  (See my The World’s End Twitter review).

Tough to call the winner here, but I think I’ll go with Pacific Rim. While The East is a very good film, Pacific Rim edges it as the film I’d most like to see again right now.

Yes, yes, it’s late, I know. For June, we have 5 films in the Film Fight.

First up, The Purge has an interesting enough premise: for one night, the rule of law is suspended in order to allow people to exercise their pent-up emotions. Murder, as you might guess, is rampant, and this goes predictably badly for the protagonists of the piece. The problem with the film is that it can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be: it sets up a social commentary but doesn’t give it the time to breath, instead degenerating into a home invasion horror with just a hint of Funny Games thrown in. If it had focussed on either side, it might have been better, but as-is it’s a predictable and mindless horror. It’s not awful, but you won’t see it again any time soon. (See my The Purge Twitter review).

The Iceman sees Michael Shannon deliver another mesmerising performance as an ice-cold hitman. His paranoia and shady dealings see his life beginning to unravel in ways he can no longer control. It’s not exactly an original story (though it’s based on a true one), but the lead performance makes it worth the admission by itself. Even though some of the supporting cast are notably weak (you’ll want to switch off any time his family appear) and the last section feels rushed, it’s still a great film. (See my The Iceman Twitter review).

Whedon’s first film after The Avengers couldn’t be much more different: Much Ado About Nothing is a timeless take on the Shakespeare play. It is fantastically well-done. The cast, stuffed with Whedon alumni, nail every part, bringing out the wit and comedy of the source material in every scene. It’s beautifully shot, shown in black and white, with nothing extraneous to slow down the pacing. There’s not a moment where you feel that it doesn’t work, and that’s without compromising the play for a modern audience. An excellent film that feels small and perfect. (See my Much Ado About Nothing Twitter review).

I am a big zombie move fan but having heard about the post-production issues with World War Z, I didn’t hold out much hope. I was surprised to find, then, a film that was not without charm. While every character in the film was utterly two dimensional, there merely to service the plot, the whole thing worked quite well as a big, dumb action film. The pacing was frantic for all but the last act, which was a nice little diversion. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, but it was quite fun. (See my World War Z Twitter review).

Finally, This Is The End is the epitome of Judd Apatow style comedies. If you hated or loved Superbad, Knocked Up or Pineapple Express, you’ll feel exactly the same about this. By now, you’ll undoubtedly have heard that it features James Franco, Seth Rogen et al. playing versions of themselves at a party on the fateful night of the apocalypse. Hopefully you won’t have heard about too many of the cameos or the silly ending, as there are some great moments that shouldn’t be spoiled. Again, this film will really depend on how you feel about the cast. I enjoyed it, but if you’ve seen them before you know what you’ll think. (See my This Is The End Twitter review).

The winner for June is Much Ado About Nothing, a flawlessly executed take on a classic. Contender for film of the year.

The first batch of big summer blockbusters have arrived, alongside some more thoughtful films, making for five films in today’s Film Fight for May.

First up, Iron Man 3 is the prototypical big-budget, CG-heavy, plot-light blockbuster we’ve come to expect from much of Marvel’s output (Avengers aside). This movie, however, gets ideas above its station, trying to instill more human qualities in its protagonist by giving him a young boy as a sidekick for a reasonable portion of the movie. It fails badly, as the kid is thoroughly unlikeable, Stark’s interactions with him (and many other ordinary people) are creaking and awkward, and he all but gets dropped out of the last act, making his set-up pointless. There are decent set-up pieces about The Mandarin, but the mid-film reveal is silly and he is replaced by generic baddies fighting lifeless CG battles. You’ll stop caring about anyone by the half-way mark, if you cared at all. The worst entry in the Marvel Film universe since Hulk. (See my Iron Man 3 Twitter review).

A better big budget film wasn’t far away, in the form of Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s light-hearted, enjoyable, nonsense; the plotholes are many and consistency is low, but it’s fast and it’s fun. By the time your brain catches up, you’ll be on your way home. It’s weakest point is the relationship between Kirk and Spock. It’s sold as a strong bond, but it’s difficult to buy that after they’ve had so little screen time together, much of which they’ve spent despising each other. Ignore that, and you’ve got a decent film, but certainly not a classic. (See my Star Trek: Into Darkness Twitter review).

Matthew McConaughey continues a recent run of excellent performances (Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, The Paperboy) in Mud, a movie about two young boys finding a man hiding in a swamp, and the few days that follow. While the pacing is as mired as the setting, you couldn’t ask for a better cast of character actors. They do their best to keep things moving forward, but it’s slow going. It’s worth sticking with it though. (See my Mud Twitter review).

Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s first movie since his debut, the excellent Primer. Where that film was difficult because of the complexities of time travel being depicted as naturalistically as possible, Upstream Color is a challenge for many other reasons. It’s a beautiful mess of fast edits, dreamy music, half told moments, pieces that don’t quite fit and motivations that are far from apparent (Carruth himself has said he’s bothered by the motives of the voyeuristic sound recorder). I won’t begin to describe what this film is about. It’s involved, but worthy of the time it’ll take you to truly consider it. A classic. (See my Upstream Color Twitter review).

Finally, Dragon is a very interesting idea: it plays out as a Chinese period take on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, swapping out the mafia for martial arts. It should’ve been good, but too much of the film is played for laughs; silly and slapstick, where it would have benefitted from being more sombre and serious. A wasted opportunity. (see my Dragon Twitter review).

The winner for May is Upstream Color, for its unique vision.

Note: Upstream Color won’t appear in UK cinemas until later this year. You can wait until then, or get a US copy imported (I got a region-free copy).

There are six films in the Film Fight for April, making it quite a busy month…

First up, Compliance is a worrying look at control, and how someone that seems like an authority figure can cause serious problems without being questioned. Based on a true story, it shows how a man posing as a police officer over the phone talks the manager of a fast food place into some highly questionable behaviour. It explores its theme well, despite overextending a few scenes to pad out the paltry runtime. The performances are reasonable, and the film manages to hold interest despite a few pacing issues. Worth seeing. (See my Compliance Twitter review).

Trance is the latest work by director, Danny Boyle. It’s a typically stylish and slick heist movie about the theft of a painting, with all the hallmarks of a Boyle movie. That includes the expected last-act twist, which is so utterly predictable and surrounded by silliness as to fall apart under its own weight. Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson were both great, but the rest of the film was hampered by the ridiculous premise. Watchable, but not a classic. (See my Trance Twitter review).

Maniac is an entirely forgettable, modern-day, B-movie slasher film. Its one gimmick, the point of view camera, starts to lose its appeal very quickly, and forces the film to rely on cliche: the killer with mother issues, obsession with (essentially) dolls, people that can’t run away or make silly choices etc. There’s nothing in this film that you haven’t seen many times before, so there’s very little reason to see it again. (See my Maniac Twitter review).

A brilliant cast, lead by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, makes The Place Beyond The Pines a particularly bold movie. It compares the actions and decisions of three men over the course of several decades to show how blurry the line between good and bad is, how only a handful of choices and circumstance keep us from going down much darker paths. The narrative is sprawling, but never confusing, and the arguments it makes are convincing. It’s let down, in part, by a weak final act, focussing a little too much on weaker characters brought together by serendipity. A classic film that deserves to be remembered. (See my The Place Beyond The Pines Twitter review).

Spring Breakers, meanwhile, follows a handful of young girls as they head off the rails in an attempted satire of selfishness and hedonism. It attempts this by painting a dream-like, neon unreality; glitches in the cutting used to put multiple takes together, with a never ending stream of music. Sadly, it fails utterly in its goal. It comes across, for the most part, as sluggish and dull. There’s no substance here, or even a strong message, just vague ideas presented vaguely. Awful. (See my Spring Breakers Twitter review).

Finally, Olympus Has Fallen was being billed by some as a modern take on Die Hard, as the most recent Die Hard films are nothing like the original. It doesn’t live up to that, but it is a surprisingly fun, if utterly dumb, action film. There are a whole heap of big action set pieces to keep you interested (including a surprising opening sequence). These help hide the many plot holes. If you notice those, you’re paying attention to the wrong things. This is an unabashed, straight-up action film; sensible plotting be damned. Enjoyable. (See my Olympus Has Fallen Twitter review).

The winner this month is The Place Beyond the Pines, for its many excellent choices.

A slightly better showing this month than last, with 5 new films…

First up, Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, epic story by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. It’s made up of six stories, each set in a different time period, but with the same cast members playing roles in each. The stories intertwine to various degrees, but you shouldn’t try and closely follow the logical connections: the film is much more about the thematic connections between the stories, particularly those that lead into the far future. We get some very good performances, particularly from Halle Berry and Tom Hanks who do a wide-range of characters, from the grubby and desperate to relatively heroic. This is an excellent film that is worth seeing at least once, but you’ll probably want to see it again. (See my Cloud Atlas Twitter review).

Stoker, from Park Chan-wook, is that most disappointing kind of film: one for which the trailer does an extremely good job of setting up a mood and atmosphere, which the film itself utterly fails to deliver. Most of the drama is so obviously telegraphed that you’ll see it coming from very early on, which seems to have lead the film makers to believe that they don’t then have to earn those moments. There are a number of places where characters do things that don’t emanate from themselves, but are there because the plot mandated it. This leads to some terribly stilted dialogue, and leaden scenes. All in all, there’s very little redeeming here. Dreadful. (See my Stoker Twitter review).

I’ve never felt that The Wizard of Oz really needed any more backstory, but given the number of people attempting to provide just that, I am clearly in the minority. Oz: The Great and Powerful shows how the great wizard, Oz, came to be ruler of the Emerald City. It’s a nice enough take (he was originally a con-man magician) but, being aimed at children, there’s only so much they can do with the premise. While it doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, it is at least a fun film with a few decent laughs in there, though I can’t quite remember what they were now. Fun, but entirely forgettable.  (See my Oz: The Great and Powerful Twitter review).

Robot and Frank is the surprisingly sweet tale of a former cat burglar who, in his old age, gets a a helper robot. After the fairly predictable beginning (old man hates robot, old man grows to like robot), it settles down into a lovely story. At times it’s genuinely touching and sweet, and at others it’s very funny, particularly when it does something quite unexpected. The various subplots eventually pay off into a few moments that really make the film. Frank Langella is great as the lead and Susan Sarandon does fine as the love interest, but both James Marsden and Liv Tyler seemed fairly half-hearted. That aside, it’s a wonderful film. (See my Robot and Frank Twitter review).

Finally, The Paperboy is a bit of an in-cohesive mess. There are a number of ideas being progressed, from youthful arrogance, to seeking danger, to not always really knowing those who you should be close to. The setting, a baking hot summer in smalltown Florida, seems like a good boiling pot for the themes, but none of them ever really heat up and turn into the driving force of a film. We end up with a half-cooked stew of bits and pieces that don’t fit particularly well. There are some excellent performances (John Cusack is great as a slimy Floridian swamp dweller) and it captures the feel of the moment well, but there are too many structural issues for that to matter. Disappointing. (See my The Paperboy Twitter review).

A tough month to call, but I think Cloud Atlas wins due to the scope of its vision, and all the moments it does deliver well, even though there are a few that fail to work.

Yes, I know, I’m continuing a bad trend for late posts this year. February has only 3 films, after the big hitters coming out in January leaving slim pickings this month.

First up, Flight is a film about substance abuse that at times works very well, and at other times goes wide of the mark. The first act, depicting a horrific plane crash that ends miraculously, is exceptionally well done; the sound engineers using the increasingly high-pitched engine noises to great effect, as well as a few other neat little tricks. The entire section is gripping. When the film moves on to its real material, that’s when it starts to flounder. The scenes in which it deals with the main character’s alcohol abuse head on tend to work relatively well. However there are too many sections that are either very forced (most of the material with his family) or are comically over-the-top, particularly the religious messages that are, at times, so heavy-handed as to be laugh-out-loud funny. In a movie about such a serious subject, these flaws seriously detract. The entire film could’ve been a lot better. (See my Flight Twitter review).

We tend not to expect too much from animated movies aimed at children, particularly when Pixar aren’t involved, so it’s a surprise to see such a fun movie in Wreck-It Ralph. The initial hook of a videogame villain who wants his life to mean more plays out quite nicely, with a number of great cameos and spoofs of other games. From there it builds into a funny but sweet story of finding where you belong, even if you’re a bit different than everyone else. It’s not going to be a classic, but it is certainly worth seeing. (See my Wreck-It Ralph Twitter review).

Finally, Warm Bodies is a story about semi-conscious zombies who find that love can help them be better people. It’s not particularly well fleshed out (pardon the pun), much of the plot happening because it’s convenient rather than it making any kind of sense, but it is sweet at times. Okay. (see my Warm Bodies Twitter review).

The winner for February, then, is Wreck-It Ralph: a sweet animation about belonging, that manages to be funny along the way.

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