Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

Pitch Perfect 2When Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) experiences a wardrobe malfunction at the Lincoln Centre, embarrassing the President and bringing the good name of collegiate a cappella into disrepute, the Barden Bellas are suspended from competing at Nationals. After meeting with commentators John Smith (John Michael Higgins) and Gail Abernathy-McKadden (Elizabeth Banks), team leader Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) alights upon an opportunity for reinstatement. If they can win the international competition — in what would be a first for an American outfit — then their suspension would be lifted. While the rest of the Bellas celebrate, and welcome a new recruit — a legacy — named Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) onto the team, Beca starts an internship at a recording studio. Pushed to find her own voice and produce original music, she begins to question her dedication to a cappella.

One of 2012’s most pleasant surprises, Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect overcame its Gleeky conceit to generally charming effect. It wasn’t perfect — at times it was aca-annoying — but a quirky script and colourful cast won audiences over regardless; an instant cult classic, over time it also became a sleeper hit at the box office. The sequel, this time directed by actress Elizabeth Banks, replicates both the successes and the issues of the original movie. The highlights once again include the Bella’s triumphant performances, Anna Kendrick’s winning protagonist, and Smith and Abernathy-McKadden’s spiky commentaries, while the weaknesses again result from an uninspired plot and underdeveloped support. Das Sound Machine — the Bella’s main competition — are an even more ineffectual antagonist than the Treblemakers were first time around.

Pitch Perfect 2 has other issues too, largely as a result of new developments in this oh-so unlikely saga. The introduction of Emily and the conflict faced by Beca conspire to undermine the simple joy of seeing gifted actors perform expertly remixed arrangements of famous pop songs. The inclusion of songs-with-instrumental on the soundtrack is disappointing enough, but the film’s preoccupation with original music seems like a betrayal of its a cappella premise. Neither subplot is particularly compelling — Futurama‘s Katey Sagal is desperately underused as Emily’s mother while a cameo by Snoop Dogg falls excruciatingly flat — but their confluence in the writing and performing of an original song is just aca-awkward. Song and dance movies are all about the showstopper, the barnstormer, the finale, and for it to be an unfamiliar and frankly unremarkable B-side ballad is incredibly anticlimactic.

As with the original, however, Pitch Perfect 2 is so much fun that its easy to forgive even relatively serious flaws. Banks is a competent director, and ably takes over from Moore. There’s nothing quite as intimate or understated as Becy’s first performance of Cups, but she has a sure handle on the set pieces, of which there are plenty. (The World A Cappella Competition almost out-Eurovisions Eurovision.) Onscreen, meanwhile, alongside co-star Higgins, she is also party to many of the films funniest exchanges, most of them at the expense of either herself or her gender. Even Higgins can’t match the gag-rate of the female cast, however, and unsurprisingly it’s Wilson who will be the biggest draw as Fat Amy. That said, the lesser known likes of Chrissie Fit as a long-suffering Mexican student and Hana Mae Lee as a batshit crazy beatboxer accrue a considerable number of belly laughs between them. Many more than Skylar Astin, that’s for sure.

Pitch Perfect, like the Step Up movies or any musical really, is one of those cinematic events that will always be welcome. To some they will be easily dismissed as disposable light entertainment but to others they are reminders that cinema doesn’t always have to be serious or sophisticated. Sometimes it just has to be in pitch.

3-Stars

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Into The Woods (2015)

Into The WoodsWhen a witch (Meryl Streep) reveals an historic curse lies on the Butcher (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), preventing them from having children, they are given a chance to reverse it so that they might finally start a family. Tasked with obtaining a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, the pair set off into the woods. Meanwhile, across the kingdom, a young girl (Lilla Crawford) crosses an inquisitive wolf, farmhand Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sells his mother’s cow for supposedly magic beans and skullery maid Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) attends Prince Charming’s (Chris Pine) Festival. As her items are collected for her, the witch attempts to prevent adopted daughter Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) from finding a prince of her own.

Adapted from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, Rob Marshall’s Into The Woods arrives at a time when crossovers are very much in vogue. A mash-up of several Brothers Grimm stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, the film imagines what might happen after the requisite happy ever afters. Although for the most part faithful to the musical, Sondheim approved a number of small changes at Disney’s behest, toning down the violence and removing references to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (who previously appeared as adulteresses). A far more intrusive influence can be felt in the austerity, with the studio having given Marshall only $50 million to play with. That’s not an awful lot when your film features a witch, two giants and — most expensively of all — a million dollars worth of Johnny Depp.

Nevertheless, his otherwise budget cast (and as good as James Cordon is as the film’s male lead there’s no denying he’s value for money) more than compensates for the occasionally unconvincing CGI. Streep is obviously spectacular as the witch, and dominates whenever she is onscreen, but she still leaves plenty of room for everyone else to shine. Even with so many cut Into The Woods contains countless musical numbers, with each actor getting at least one song to relish. Blunt and Kendrick delight as the Butcher’s wife and Cinderella, while Pine and Billy Magnussen (as Rapunzel’s unlucky prince) play off one another beautifully during their showstopping and waterfall-impeding duet. Arguably the biggest pleasure, however, comes from watching the various stage actors outperform their big screen counterparts: both Daniel Huttlestone (previously seen in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables) and Tony-winning newcomer Lilla Crawford bring down the house as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood respectively. Only Frances de la Tour disappoints, though it’s hardly her fault.

Unfortunately, for all of its energy and flourish, Into The Woods just doesn’t work as drama. Lapine (who wrote the film’s screenplay) confidently adapts the Grimm fairy-tales, but he struggles with his own alternative endings. Whereas the musical killed most of the supporting cast off the film keeps them alive for no apparent reason, while the deaths that remain are almost equally meaningless. Nobody suffers more than Rapunzel, who is saddled with the most backstory (actually the Baker’s sister, she was kidnapped by the witch as a baby) only to be ignored when it should be paying dividends. Meanwhile, as much fun as it is to watch the Butcher and his wife interfere with such familiar stories none of the other characters’ interactions work particularly well, and the alliance of the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood in the final act is neither iconic or iconoclastic. If anything, it’s even more archaic than the source stories, with the women hiding and looking after the baby while the men climb a tree to slay a giant. Anna and Elsa are nowhere to be seen.

Although often on fine form, there is an inconsistency to Into The Woods — lyrically as well as narrively — that ultimately undermines its success. Neither as camp as Mamma Mia! or as stirring as Les Miserables, it’s never clear whether Marshall is playing his film for laughs or taking it all seriously. With such uncertain direction, it’s no wonder his characters spend so much time lost in the woods.

3.5-Stars

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

?????????????????????????????????????Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) have reached a stalemate, with the former refusing  to turn the latter into a vampire until they are wed, and the latter reluctant to marry at such a young age. An added complication comes from Jason Black (Taylor Lautner), who is determined to win her for himself, an outcome that has the backing of Bella’s father, Charlie (Billy Burke). Meanwhile in Seattle, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Riley (Xavier Samuel) are amassing an army of newborn vampires with which to attack the Cullen clan, and their werewolf allies. Read more of this post

Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch PerfectForced to attend Barden University under the watchful eye of her professor father, wannabe music producer Beca (Anna Kendrick) joins the college’s all-female a cappella group after being bribed with a all-expenses-paid trip to LA. The Bellas, fresh from a humiliating defeat at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in which one of their number threw up over the audience, could benefit greatly from Beca’s skills, if only group leader Aubrey would break from tradition and allow input from others. Read more of this post

ParaNorman (2012)

Able to commune with the dead, horror nut Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been ostracised by his parents, his peers and his community of historic witch-hunters; a state of affairs that he rather prefers. When he is informed by his dead uncle (John Goodman) that it is his duty to perform an ancient ritual to keep the dead from walking the earth — by overruling a legendary witch — Norman sets off for the local graveyard to undo the age-old curse. Followed by his sister (Anna Kendrick), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), friendly student Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and Neil’s older jock brother (Casey Affleck), they soon find themselves confronted not only by the zombified remains of the town’s puritan founders, but a mob of terrified townsfolk desperate for answers. Read more of this post

50/50 (2011/II)

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the good guys; he’s a trusting boyfriend, an enthusiastic employee and a keen recycler. When he is driven to the doctors by a recurring back pain, however, Adam is informed that he has a rare type of spinal cancer, an unpronounceable tumour, and a mere 50% chance of survival. While his boorish best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) uses the diagnosis to strike up conversations with women, his estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) seizes the opportunity to reconnect with her distant son and Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds herself trapped in a sexless relationship by such inconvenient bad news, Adam is left to come to terms with his own mortality as he is inducted into a world of therapists (Anna Kendrick), chemotherapy and constant, inescapable discomfort – whether he has ever been to Canada or not.

Film: Despite having already raved about Jonathan Levine’s unlikely cancer comedy, an unexpectedly good natured film which somehow still has room for Seth Rogen’s now familiar sex-obsessed stoner, it seems that many still weren’t convinced enough to seek the film out in cinemas.  It’s a shame, really, because former cancer-sufferer Will Reiser’s script strikes such a fine balance between compassion and comedy that it is impossible not to be won over by such a provocative and ultimately poignant treatment of this most sensitive of subjects. Inspired by true events and cast through with accomplished actors, this is as unconventional as sit-coms come.

While it is of course the cancer which drives the movie, providing the basis for some of the movies most touching scenes, much of the comedy comes from the other dramas that result from a diagnosis. So it is, then, that Adam finds himself high on macaroons laced with medicinal marijuana, shaving his head with a razor better acquainted with Kyle’s body hair and compulsively cleaning his therapist’s car. While rarely laugh-out-loud, 50/50 always strives to find truth – if not necessarily humour – in even the most taboo of situations, those that are usually reserved for awards-bait or high melodrama. The characters are so well drawn, so well observed through experience, in fact, that much of the relative mundaneness can be almost as devastating than the original prognosis itself.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely heart-breaking as the disbelieving Adam, grounding the film with a performance that is as subtle as it is harrowingly raw. Although at times docile, as he tries to come to terms with his illness while himself trying to support those around him – whether its his concerned mother or his trainee therapist – his stable demeanour only serves to emphasise the moments in which his resolve fractures, one scene in particular standing out as he takes his regrets and frustrations out on the interior of his friend’s car. It is perhaps Rogen, however, who impresses most, with his characteristically brash exterior carefully masking a concerned individual who is just as lost and confused as his potentially dying friend.

Sweet natured and respectful, 50/50 nevertheless endeavours – and successfully manages – to find the humour even in the most trying of situations. Witty, moving and occasionally devastating, this is the comedy genre at its very best.

Extras: Both the Double Play and DVD releases of 50/50 come complete with a host of compelling special features: an insightful audio commentary sheds light on the filmmaking process as various cast and crew members discuss the production process; a collection of deleted scenes (with optional commentary), including a great sequence documenting Adam’s short-lived return to work and the film’s original ending; a Making Of documentary titled The Story Of 50/50 which sensitively addresses the impact of cancer among the crew; four mini-featurettes that focus on the destruction of Rachael’s much-maligned painting; and Seek and Destroy, a behind the scenes montage chronicling the burgeoning onset bromance between Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

**50/50 is released on Double Play & DVD from 26 March, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment**

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I (2011)

Having vowed to marry in the previous instalment, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen tie their knot in front of friends, family and a whole host of amber-eyed extras. Untying their knots on honeymoon later in Rio de Janeiro, Bella quickly falls pregnant with Edward’s love-something, retreating to the Cullen’s grand design so that it can gestate in secret. Jacob, meanwhile, leaves his pack, teaming with two fellow were-pups in order to defend the not-quite-love-of-his-life from a near certain leg-humping. With the creature feeding off of Bella’s rapidly dwindling waistline, however, she might not even make it to term.

Oh, Twilight, how I tire of all this ill will, of leaving every movie with the same gripes and grudges. Why can’t we just get on? Why can’t you just deliver? After all, you boast all the makings of a classic: vampires, werewolves, Anna Kendrick, what isn’t there to love? But never mind how at peace I believe myself to be with regards to your own disregard of myth, legend and lore, you continue to twist the invisible stake in my patience. I won’t mention the fact that you showcase a vampire’s reflection, bless his union in broad daylight without so much as a holy combustion, or even that your overt Mormon coda is more overwhelming and insidious than ever. I won’t, not again.

You just make it so difficult. Four movies in and we’re still walking the same ground, the same designer staircase we have paced a million times before. Despite a brief foray to Rio (at least our third this year), we are back in over-familiar territory. How many times are we supposed to watch Kristen Stewart frown, Robert Patterson hesitate and Taylor Lautner strip before the plot finally sets in, an incident is incited? After another stare-off between dogs and hair-models, another discussion about immortality, and another two hours of celibacy* (this time post-marriage), are we not to be forgiven for asking for more? Should it not be expected?

Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, Breaking Dawn also opens with a wedding; but, unlike it’s magical counterpart, Breaking Dawn leaves its most interesting characters to clean up the leftovers rather than take centre stage. Prior to her complicated pregnancy, Bella’s biggest concern was falling in heels, while Edward’s festering guilt at his montage of murders is brushed aside with all the incident of an out-of-place hair. What I really wanted to see was more Kendrick (her  “who gets married at 18?” voice of reason, her buoyancy, was a grounding the later plot developments sorely needed) and Billy Burke (come on Daddio, do something!), not a poorly judged mind-meld between CGI mutts.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn is not without merit, however: at the very least it doesn’t feature another round of vampire baseball. More importantly, it is also welcomingly mental. While the first movie brought us vampires who could swim up trees, the second movie had its bloodsuckers run away to Rome at the sight of a paper-cut, and the third film sent them camping for a bit of a snuggle, Breaking Dawn finally pays dividends to its vampiric roots. Pregnant with something inhuman, Bella is left to shrivel and bleed as Edward – you’re not going to believe this – actually drinks some of her blood. I don’t want to give away the ending – though if you haven’t guessed from the trailer then you clearly flunked biology – but it is surprisingly, gloriously horrific.

Far from the worst film of the year – Green Lantern, Immortals and Conan the Barbarian can fight for that honour – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I is saved from the naughty step by series-best performances, Anna Kendrick’s wedding speech and a long-overdue willingness to get down and dirty with its demons, even if it is at the expense of evil evil sex and sexuality. While director Bill Condon can frame a decent OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT!? EW EW EW EW, however, he too falls foul of sub-standard source material and a thunder-stealing soundtrack.

*There is some sex, but it’s almost exactly as sexy as an unmedicated Caesarean birth. 

50/50 (2011)

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is just an ordinary twenty-seven year-old. He works in radio with boorish best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), he jogs, avoids phonecalls from his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and has successfully convinced himself that his sexless relationship with girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is nevertheless destined to bounce back. Visiting the doctor with complaints of back-pain, however, Adam is unceremoniously confronted with the news that he has cancer, and is quickly inducted into a world of therapists (Anna Kendrick), chemotherapy and constant, inescapable discomfort. With everything changing, Adam is forced to accept that his life might shortly be over – whether he has ever been to Canada or not.

This could have been such a different movie; boasting a central performance from coarse manchild Seth Rogen and following the trials and tribulations of a man struck down by an uncommon and severe type of cancer, it could have been dreadful. And inappropriate. And offensive. Thankfully, 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s latest stepping stone to cinematic supremacy, is none of those things. Drawing from Rogen’s own experiences, through the writings of his real life cancer survivor Will Reiser, director Jonathan Levine scores the perfect balance between comedy and drama, tempering the dick-jokes with a overwhelmig poignancy which develops across the movie with truly devastating aplomb.

Reminiscent in places of a toned down (500) Days of Cancer – Anna Kendrick sports only a hand-full of quirks – 50/50 manages to tell an engaging love story while simultaneously giving its full attention to Adam’s condition. Gordon-Levitt gives arguably his finest performance to date; from his initial “but I recycle” shock at being diagnosed to the heartbreaking realisation that he might very well die, it’s a role that allows him to fire on all cylinders without once falling into melodramatics. Perhaps 50/50‘s biggest success, aside from pulling off Hollywood’s first ever cancer caper, is the way in which it handles life’s smaller ups and downs: the break-ups, romances and overbearing mothers, such that they never once feel contrived.

Bryce Dallas Howard manages to bring immense sympathy to an unfaithful girlfriend trapped by her own humanity, while Anjelica Huston devastates as a pressured mother desperate to help her son should he ever call her back.  It is Anna Kendrick, however, who ultimately wins hearts as the film’s unorganised comic relief. Playing a novice character similar to Up In The Air‘s Natalie Keener in everything but personality, Kendrick’s performance rings surprisingly true as the post-graduate professional who still feels like a child wearing ill-fitting grown-up clothes.

But what of Rogen? While his portrayal of Adam’s weed smoking, sex starved best friend Kyle might not scream versatility, it is thankfully a case of actions speaking loud than words. Forever in the background, it is a hugely selfless performance, one that boasts a tremendous honesty rooted in Rogen’s experience with this exact situation. In a third act twist, hinging on an otherwise nondescript trip to the bathroom, Rogen inadvertently – and indirectly – provides one of the biggest emotional punches of the entire movie.

Touching, life-affirming and occasionally devastating, 50/50 is nevertheless a witty and well humoured tale of cancer, car-cleaning and chemotherapy. Transformed into a frail, angry and increasingly lonely patient, 50/50 is a truly stirring tale of Adam’s struggle to survive and – however unlikely – the most enjoyable film about cancer you are ever likely to see.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Bassist, gamer and unlikely lathario, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is sleepwalking through his twenty-something life when he spots the red-haired Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) across a sandy dreamscape. Waking up to find that she delivers for Amazon, Scott initiates a meeting and asks her out on a date, facing increasing pressure from his gay room-mate (Kieran Culkin), disapproving sister (Anna Kendrick) and assorted bandmates – guitarist Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and groupie Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) – to end his platonic relationship with Chinese school-girl Knives Chow (Ellen Wong).  Before he can achieve his endgame, however, Scott must battle Romana’s seven evil exes without inadvertently becoming one himself.

With the exception of DreamWorks’ outstanding How To Train Your Dragon, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was my favourite film of 2010. Every so often a film comes along which appears to define a generation – whether it’s Casablanca, Star Wars or Clerks – tapping into the Zeitgeist and paying homage to the mediums that have shaped not only its filmmakers, but the majority of the audience too. The finished product is so packed with sentiment, so compellingly dynamic and lovingly crafted that it really is the go-to movie for validation of a disaffected youth.

Ostensibly a musical with its numbers replaced with mortal combat, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World attempts to relate the loserish life of Scott Pilgrim against a backdrop of pixellated nostalgia and big budget bombast. The characterisation is note-perfect, as our protagonist’s social life is populated with sympathetic ex-girlfriends, ambitious bandmates and a gay room-mate who just wants his flat back to himself. Enter Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers, the one woman who might be able to offset Scott’s hyper-real insecurities with her relative soliditiy, her own individuality manifest in an ever-changing hair colour rather than a self-obsessive and alienating selfishness.

Considering just how many characters comprise the film’s ensemble, it really is remarkable how memorable the majority prove. While the actor’s are largely responsible for this – with Kieran Culkin and Ellen Wong proving particular highlights – it is Edgar Wright’s embrace of creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six volume graphic novel that gives each character the chance to shine. From the evil exes themselves to Aubrey Plaza grumpy Julie Powers, each supporting role is so well-drawn, so well-written and so strangely recognisable that Pilgrim’s Toronto, Canada, is brought to life with so much care and insight that it could be set anywhere at all.

But there is more to Edgar Wright’s movie than just fun characters. Viewed through Scott’s eyes,  the film exists in a world as computerised as it is cinematic. Boasting dialogue so stylised as to suggests Toronto might be twinned with Sunnydale, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is one of the most infectiously organic films you are ever likely to see. From the surrealist editing to the desert-like inter-dimensional highway, the film pelts along at a truly riveting pace, from the massive themed fight sequences to the comparatively intimate interactions between bandmates and lovers.

Ultimately, however, it is the dressings as much as the whole that marks Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as our film: the references to such iconic video games as Street Fighter and Super Mario, the comic book stylistics that erupt from ringing phones or strummed guitars, and the thrilling soundtrack that is every bit the match for the attention-deficit visuals and frantic pace. Witty, touching and brimming with originality, Scott Pilgrim is the perfect hybridisation of influences that have inspired a generation.