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Half A Decade In Film – 2014

So here we are then. We are at the literal half way point in the decade, albeit the final point in our Half A Decade In Film spin-off mini-series. Yes, the fun ends here (well, about 2000+ words on from here) as Andrew, Paul, Liam, Mike and Owen each pick their favourite film of 2014.

Anybody who listened to our End of Year Awards podcast released not three months back will know just how much Failed Critics loved last year’s selection of movies. From the disturbing and eerie sci-fi Under The Skin, to the disturbing and eerie thriller Gone Girl and all the disturbing and eerie films in between, it was a hell of a year for disturbing and eerie movies, as voted for by you people.

Still, we’ve managed to find five more films to talk about, not all of them dark, violent, disturbing and / or eerie. Well, maybe one or two. Starting with…


Kundo: Age of the Rampant

kundoToday, those who serve the people, serve only their own interests, and neglect their sworn duty. Isn’t that shameful?

Directed and co-written by Yoon Jong-bin, of Nameless Gangster fame, Kundo is a Korean action packed drama set in the middle of the 19th Century.

I’m not a fan of Action films in general but I do love a good Western and thoroughly enjoy Martial Arts fight-fests. Kundo manages to combine the look, feel and sound of the former with the thrills and messy spills of the latter.

The basic story is not overly original in its theme. Jo Yoon, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, is knocked down a rung of the ladder when a fully legitimate heir is born. When he starts to show resentment toward to the new heir he is disciplined and eventually packed off to a life in the military. Many years later the nobleman’s son is killed and Jo Yoon returns to the family as a bitter, corrupt, evil and violent despot hell bent on claiming his birthright and milking his subjects for all he can get.

He hires a lowly butcher, Dol Moo Chi, to kill his dead brother’s pregnant widow to prevent the birth of a new legitimate heir that could challenge his claim as head of the dynasty. When the hitman fails in his mission, Jo Yoon’s vengeance is so brutal that Dol Moo Chi joins a secretive clan of mountain dwelling warriors and monks dedicated to righting the wrongs of despotic nobles and saving oppressed peasants from a life of slavery.

The story then follows the to-and-fro battles between the heartless Jo Yoon’s army of mercenaries and the altruistic mountain clan with Dol Moo Chi in the front line.

Although the basic plot cannot be said to be breaking new ground as a story, the way it is told is thoroughly enjoyable. The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine Quentin Tarantino (at his peak), Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone getting together and deciding to retell the Robin Hood story.

It is beautifully shot, the acting throughout is superb, there are some fantastic fight scenes and just the right number of humorous little interludes.

There are a few issues with it though. The quality of the CGI used is pretty poor. They are not pivotal to the story but are glaringly clunky. One horseback chase sequence, in particular, is terrible. It’s less convincing than those stock moving backgrounds you see out of the window of a car in old black and white movies. There are a few countryside scenes where flocks of birds have been overlaid. They make Hilda Ogden’s “Muriel” look a masterpiece. Even little touches as insignificant as glowing embers drifting away from a fire look like afterthoughts.

But, to be brutally honest, I’m a real grump when it comes to CGI and rarely miss a chance to moan about it, I seriously doubt these issues would bother the majority of normal people.

A genuinely enjoyable film, it may lack originality but is both beautiful to look at and fun to lose yourself in.

by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)


Pride

prideI’ve had a lot of new experiences during this strike. Speaking in public, standing on a picket line. And now I’m in a gay bar.

Another late comer in the film year that I had little or no expectation for. Director Matthew Warchus hadn’t done a feature film for 15 years (his previous film, Simpatico, I’d never even heard of) but this managed to push all my buttons. The soundtrack was for me: Heaven 17, Dead or Alive, Tears for Fears, The Smiths; this was so absolutely in my wheelhouse. The period setting, the 80s, I grew up in the 80’s and it’s always portrayed poorly on film. All that miserable Shane Meadows stuff. I was born in 1970, that was a miserable shit decade, the 80’s were fucking awesome!

We get to meet two very different groups in Pride. Gay activists and striking miners. So we get a double dose of fish out of water, elderly working class Welsh ladies going to gay clubs and party boys going to a working men’s clubs for a spot of bingo. Joyous, absolutely joyous. There’s so many jokes to be had right there.

The cast are all first rate, and mainly unknown to me, though Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine & Bill Nighy all pop up and do a turn. There’s a decent coming of age story, the mad culture clash to explore, issues of bigotry and discrimination, and yet it all hangs together beautifully and made me laugh, a lot. Proper belly ache, tears down the face, laughter. Looks great, sounds amazing, and absolutely the best of British – oh and to quote Imelda Staunton….. ““We’re just off to Swansea now for a massive les-off!”

by Paul Field (@pafster)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America The Winter SoldierBefore we get started, does anyone want to get out?

As a series of films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was always just a bit of fun. I’m not denying the quality, not at all. What I’m saying is while they are all good films, I never saw any of them as “great”. Until Captain America: The Winter Soldier rocked up and smacked me around for making such stupid statements.

For the most part, the story of Steve Rogers teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D and fighting the bad guys, all while trying to find himself in a world he doesn’t know or really fit in to, foregoes the fantastical elements of previous Marvel films and the universe they created. Instead choosing to ground itself in some kind of reality and weave us a tale of conspiracy rivaling that of most other espionage thrillers.

Make no mistake, this is an MCU film through and through. But this time around the Marvel universe feels more like a way to get some of the sillier ideas onto film. Ideas that haven’t really been acceptable since early 90’s James Bond. You know? Mechanical wing suits, hover-carrier thingies and, well, super soldiers!

Cap 2‘s greatness comes when you realise that you can take all those elements out and still be left with a top-notch spy film. A complex and engaging espionage film about shady little men trying to take over the world by using their own little terrorist army headed by a larger than life super-bad-ass bad guy. All of which can only be stopped by one man. Jason Bourne. No, James Bond? Nope. I got it, Ethan Hunt? Oh. Well, you get the idea.

My favourite part though? The fighting. I’ve said it a thousand times. A well choreographed and filmed fight can make a film great. Cap 2‘s fights hurt. Every hit is a bone crunching treat for fight fans that ramps up the stakes and forces you to feel every single punch. Captain America’s confrontation with UFC legend George St. Pierre and the first fight with the titular Winter Soldier are particularly great examples.

It’s Bourne with extra toys. Old school Bond with the ability to still have old school fun. Most importantly, it’s a brilliantly built thriller that’s grounded itself in the real world and, at least as far as I am concerned, is the best MCU film yet.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)


Nightcrawler

NIGHTCRAWLERYou can’t win the lottery unless you make the money to buy a ticket.

Some of you may have already read my review on the main site about Dan Gilroy’s atmospheric thriller. There’s not too much point in me running through the film with a fine tooth comb again, except to say that it is still my favourite movie of 2014. I had a blast watching Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, big tub of popcorn in hand. I loved Kundo for all the reasons Liam has stated above. Under The Skin, The Attorney, The Raid 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Moebius; it was just a fantastic year for film. But none of those that I saw during the year, none of those that I’ve caught up with since the turn of 2015, seriously, none have bettered this expertly made, tense, psychological dark masterpiece.

Brooker touched on Jake Gyllenhaal’s resurgence in our 2011 article, yet as good as he’s been in films like End of Watch, Prisoners, Zodiac and Source Code (and that crazy violent slightly NSFW music video thing he was in), it’s definitely with Nightcrawler that he reached his apex as an actor. The sheer ludicrousness of his omission from the Academy Awards list last month was bafflingly moronic. How he could’ve been overlooked for a Best Actor award is quite frankly beyond my understanding. As the crime-scene videographer Lou Bloom, living out his twisted version of the American dream, it was arguably the best performance of the entire year.

It managed to tread that very thin line of being both sickeningly realistic and uncomfortably amusing. Not just Gyllenhaal’s performance, although that obviously is the central piece in the jigsaw, but the film as a whole. He has a suitably talented cast of actors around him including Bill Paxton, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed; a director/writer who appears to have hit the ground running with his debut feature as a director; and some excellent cinematography courtesy of the very experienced Robert Elswit. It’s a film that has gotten even better the longer time has passed since I last watched it and I can’t wait to see it again.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)


Guardians of the Galaxy

gotgHe said that he may be an… “a-hole”. But he’s not, and I quote, “100% a dick”.

Over the last few years I’ve watched quite a lot of films at the cinema, and the ones I’ve enjoyed I’ve gone back to see again, sometimes more than just twice. When 2014 came along, there was a film which I was looking forward to seeing. Another entry in the Marvel universe. As usual I had avoided seeing any trailers or even any footage for this film. On my first viewing I was blown away at how much I enjoyed it. Even on a 2nd and 3rd viewing I was enjoying it more each time, my kids loved it, and so I embarked on what turned into a marathon number of watches of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Oh go on then, I saw it 23 times in the end! “Why” I hear you cry? Mainly because (I have a Cineworld card and 3 kids who loved it as well) I just enjoyed the hell out of it. Everything about it entertained me, from the characters to the score and the soundtrack which was rather cool. It had action, it was lots of fun and had some fantastic looking spacecraft and it was just 2 hours long, a decent run time for once. I missed – or rather never got on board as Star Wars changed the world of films, and while I’ve seen films that have blown me away, they have disappeared into my collection only to see the light of day once in a blue moon. Maybe Guardians is my Star Wars, or even my kids Star Wars..? I’m not sure, I just know I really wasn’t expecting to like it so much.

James Gunn has produced a Marvel film like no other. While the other films tend to return to earth for some or most of the film, Gunn left Earth way behind. Taking his hero Peter Quill as a child into space and with some back story to give Quill a little character, just enough for us to like him, Gunn just lets the film fly. With a great opening sequence, the film powers along, and soon we are introduced to the full team, though they don’t know it yet. Rocket, a talking Racoon; Groot, a tree, who doesn’t talk much, Gamora a green assassin and Drax a beast of man looking for revenge. Really with that line up of characters this should fall flat on it’s face or at best just about hold together. Yet Gunn and his cast breathe so much life into the film that it soars. Chris Pratt is superb as Quill, he might be a rogue be he is extremely likable. Zoe Saldana is also great as Gamora, while Rocket and Groot and both voiced well by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. It is Drax played by Dave Bautista who really steals the show; his deadpan delivery is wonderful and nothing goes over his head (his reactions are too fast!) As for the rest, Karen Gillan gives a solid performance as Nebula and Michael Rooker (a constant in Gunn’s films) is also excellent. Lee Pace continues to impress as Ronan and his one of Marvel’s better villains.

The design of this film is also superb; the look of the space crafts, the clothes, the outer space sequences are all stunning to look at. The chase sequences are exhilarating and the final battle is superb leading to a one of the best moments of the film, the dance off! Yet while the plot is rather weak it does add some weight to Thanos and may give some clues to wear Marvel are taking the films. Even so it’s still a pretty strong origins film, as it relies on its energy and the energy of the cast to get us through it. Gunn’s trick is to continue this with the sequel, it’s a big ask, but I think Gunn and his cast might just pull it off again.

by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)


And there we go, we’re done, no more new Half A Decade In Film articles to go (until perhaps five year’s time when we attempt the same thing again perhaps?) You can catch all of our prior entries here, or even click this link to view the entire back catalogue of features for the Decade In Film series. As always, let us know in the comments below if you think we’ve crucially overlooked or overrated any films so far.

Nightcrawler

Twisted, dark, intense and full of brilliant performances. Is Nightcrawler the best thriller released this year? Maybe.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

nightcrawler 2October seems to be the time of year when all the big-hitter films come out to play. They’ve had most of their international film festival runs by now, gearing up for Oscar season, and the summer blockbusters have all had their fun and dispersed for another 6 months. Fury and Gone Girl have started off this pre-Academy Award season, both of which were very promising beginnings for this period, but Nightcrawler quite possibly tops them both. The comparison may be unfair given the relatively modest budget of an estimated $8m, and the dark, sinister tone is probably more in keeping with the Failed Critics’ favourite suspense-thriller The Guest, but it is no less hard hitting than any of them.

It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a bit of a ne’er do well who is looking for his calling in life. Eventually, through a rather fortunate encounter, he finds his purpose – his defining moment, an epiphany – as a crime scene videographer. After being rejected from yet another job opportunity, Louis chances upon an encounter that will change his life. Pulling his car over at the scene of a very recent motor-accident whilst on an aimless drive through the street-light brightened roads of late-night L.A., a van suddenly pulls up behind him. Rushing out, film camera and assistant in tow, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) videos everything going on around him; from the police pulling a bloodied woman from the wreckage, to the rising flames of the vehicles engine. Fascinated by this, and being something of a self-confessed fast learner, Louis watches, observes and questions what Joe is doing. Revealing that he sells the footage to news channels, Louis becomes obsessed with this idea and in his best top-knotted entrepreneurial spirit decides to pursue a line of work in the same field. The only thing is, he gets so caught up in it that he begins to get more and more involved in the crimes themselves as his drive for success, his ambition to be the absolute best, requires the generation of bigger and better news stories.

I’m sure to some people, rather understandably, that sounds like a rather ridiculous story. Think of it like the TV show Dexter; a forensics cop who is also a serial killer? Give me a break. Wait, actually, you know what, Dexter turned out pretty damn good (well, up to and including season four in any case). And just like Dexter, Nightcrawler takes a silly premise and turns it into something golden. It may very well be one of my favourite films of the year.

For a start, it’s a bizarrely funny film. In places, it induced full-on belly-laughs. However, those laughs are not entirely guilt free. A more dark and twisted story this year, that is actually better, you’re unlikely to see. Without the film explicitly stating as such, Louis appears to be basically a high-functioning autistic; he doesn’t really understand the way people interact with each other and ambiguity seems to confuse him. He also appears to have a touch of OCD too. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know his motto is “you can’t win the lottery unless you make the money to buy a ticket”. This gives you a very clear indicator of his self-driven personality and narrow vision of success.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely superb, by the way. He’s beginning to realise some of that early promise that suggested he could potentially become one of the finest and most versatile actors working in Hollywood. Think about it, just within this crime-thriller genre alone, the roles he plays are all so varied. Whether it’s the nerdy intelligent guy in Zodiac, or the rough somewhat renegade detective in Prisoners, or even just the hard as nails skinhead police officer in End of Watch; they’re very different characters but also consistently very good performances.

He’s supported by some quality performances as well in Nightcrawler. Paxton I’ve already mentioned as Louis’ inspiration and main professional rival, and he puts in another fine shift (as if you’d expect anything less). But Rene Russo as the TV news producer plays off Gyllenhaal very well. There’s some genuine chemistry between them. In fact, I’d say the same about his relationship with his intern, Rick; a man so desperate for a job he’ll do anything for a wage and is also played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. Some of the interactions between Rick and Louis are darkly amusing. I assumed intentionally? I don’t want to say too much about their development over the course of the film, suffice to say it’s done in a not necessarily believable way, because it really does feel like a movie, if that makes sense, but it’s developed in a way that you genuinely are interested in them.

Away from the actual characters, Dan Gilroy (writer and director) apparently has a lot to say about the media. Particularly TV news. Not all of it complimentary! A phrase that’s used at one point by Bill Paxton’s character is “if it bleeds, it leads”. A message that is hammered home throughout the entire movie. Just why is ethical journalism given such short shrift, pushed to one side in favour of viewer ratings? Is it really because that’s what people what to see? Exploitation, gore, blood and guts on breakfast news whilst they munch down on their cornflakes? It appears to be a damning indictment of the pressures that are placed on them. Although, here in Britain, we don’t have quite as severe a problem as they have in the US. Just look at their coverage of the Ebola crisis for example to see how ridiculously overblown and scaremongering it can be. It’s also where similarities with David Fincher’s Gone Girl can be drawn as they both lay into television media reporting. Yet it’s still relevant to UK viewers because it talks about the constant need to have to have something, anything, to report on and compete with other news channels 24 hours a day to get higher ratings. Obviously not exactly the same as our news channels, but still has some commentary on that drive for big news stories at any expense that can be related to wherever you are in the world.

The most notorious scene from this film, and one that will probably help establish it as something of a classic for years to come, is the “horror house” section. For fear of giving anything away, I will not be discussing it in detail. However, later this week you can expect an article on this one particular scene from Callum. Yep, a whole article about one scene. That’s how good it is.

As much as I enjoyed the whole film, as intelligent as it can be at times and as biting as the satire is, there are a few negatives worth mentioning. It takes a teeny tiny dip in quality around a third of the way in. Virtually from the moment Gyllenhaal steps into the newsroom for the first time with Russo and gives a little speech. It’s not so much the dialogue that’s a problem; as it happens, I thought the dialogue and script throughout the film was one of its stronger aspects. What lets it down, and indeed many other scenes, is the choice of soundtrack. There are some completely weird and out of key choices here. Just when this ambitious but deceptively violent man is explaining what exactly drives him, in the background is a very distracting and cheesy 80’s-esque backing track. It’s honestly like something out of Big or The Mighty Ducks. A very odd sentimental choice that didn’t fit at all. It happened a few times with various other scenes. The only assumption to be made is the music is an artistic choice. What’s playing is how Louis would imagine it, and not what the actual tone of the film demands.

Also, I’m sorry to have to point it out as it shouldn’t matter at all, but some of the CGI used (which was sparse anyway) was very cheap looking. Think the aeroplane crash in Knowing. Yes, that bad. It’s not a huge problem as there weren’t really many scenes that called for the use of CGI. Most of the action scenes that we do see are actually incredibly sophisticated, complex and most of all, exciting. One fantastic car chase as the police hurtle through L.A. traffic lights is unreal. Best of all, it doesn’t have (as much as I could make out) any CGI! It’s just that, I can’t escape it, the CGI that is used on occasion is utter bollocks.

Despite all of this, as mentioned at the top of the review, Nightcrawler is incredibly enjoyable. The first half of the film that introduces Louis and his quirks was excellent, setting itself up well for the remaining 60 minutes. A slight dip in quality 45 minutes in is nothing to quibble about as it picks up again rapidly. By the end, I flat out loved it. If you’ve any interest in seeing a tense thriller that tells an intelligent story, that’s as darkly-comic as often as it is sickeningly disturbing, then I’m sure you will enjoy Nightcrawler as much as I did.

Nightcrawler hits UK cinemas this Friday, 31 October 2014.