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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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I (2014)

Mockingjay Part IHaving been rescued from the 75th Hunger Games by insurgents from District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now exiled underground with her family (Willow Shields; Paula Malcolmson), friends (Liam Hemsworth; Woody Harrelson) and assorted refugees from the other districts (Sam Claflin; Jeffrey Wright). As President Snow (Donald Sutherland) tries to quash the nascent rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) seeks to fan the flames. Capitol interlopers Plurarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) agree to help by turning Katniss into the Mockingjay, a figurehead for the resistance, and with the help of director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) they leave the safety of the bunker to put together a series of propaganda films on the surface. Before she can help them, however, Katniss must come to terms with the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — something made all the harder by the revelation that he is now working for Snow.

Although largely seen as the refrain of the fanboy, “it’s not as good as the book” is a criticism that might accurately be leveled at Lionsgate’s extant Hunger Games franchise. The first film was held in relatively high regard upon its release in 2012, and following the subsequent deluge of imitators it has become the yardstick against which all other Young Adult adaptations are measured, but next to Suzanne Collins’ source novel it isn’t quite as impressive. In a drive to recreate the book’s urgency and momentum original director Gary Ross left an awful lot out, as did successor Francis Lawrence when he took on Catching Fire the following year. District 12 lost most of its screentime to the titular Games, and unconvincing special effects, bizarre casting choices and incomprehensible action sequences have dogged the series ever since. Ultimately, however, the story of Katniss Everdeen — Girl on Fire — has been just about compelling enough to compensate.

Mockingjay, however, was always the weakest episode in the trilogy, and it followed that the film (or films, as it was inevitably split in two, Deathly Hallows style) would likely follow suit. Buried underground and removed from the action, Katniss spent most of the novel on hold as control was ceded instead to Coin. This is the part of the narrative that occupies Mockingjay – Part I, and it was hard to imagine returning director Lawrence being able to make it work, especially seeing as key characters from the book — often present throughout Collins’ trilogy — had yet to be introduced and relationships satisfactorily established onscreen. In the event, this is particularly evident in the opening act, as Katniss — distrustful of Coin — is sent back to District 12 to see the damage wrought by Snow for herself. Whereas the destruction of Hogwarts — after eight films spent within its walls — verged on iconoclastic, seeing the Victor’s Village in ruin just doesn’t have the same impact; the mythology doesn’t mean quite as much. The previous films haven’t done enough to make audiences care about anyone or anything other than Katniss.

Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) do their best to bring you up to speed — but it’s too little, too late. It’s a silly example, but both Katniss and sister Prim go out of their way to save the family pet despite the fact that it has never been mentioned before, robbing their efforts of the emotional resonance that they perhaps deserve. That they each call the cat by different names only confuses matters more. Similarly, it is mentioned that — like Peeta and fellow victor Johanna Mason — Annie Cresta is a prisoner of the Capitol, yet you’d have to really rack your brains to recall her fleeting cameo in Catching Fire. It’s only now that the supporting cast is finally getting some attention that you realise how small and superficial the ensemble actually is, with extras once again being called upon to provide the stakes and scale whenever the film rejoins the battle taking place beyond Coin’s bunker. The Hunger Games must have some of the hardest working extras in the industry.

It’s all the more amazing, then, that the film kind of works regardless. Jennifer Lawrence continues to carry the series, and from the moment the camera opens on Katniss Everdeen you can’t help but invest in her struggle. She no longer has to do so single-handedly, however, and both Moore and the late Hoffman help to shoulder the weight. Hemsworth gets more to do as well, and if anything he makes Gale more sympathetic than he was even in the books — he’s lost Katniss to Peeta, and he knows it, yet he stands by her side regardless. Mainly, however, it’s thanks to the subtext — now essentially text — that Mockingjay – Part I manages to hold your interest. There has always been a sense of satire to the series, and ever since The Hunger Games first hit our screens it’s been impossible to look at reality television in quite the same way; but here the socio-political commentary takes the fore. Mockingjay has a lot to say about propaganda and the media, about democracy and dictatorships, and about rebellion and terrorism. Given that the series is allegedly set in a future dystopian America its message could be very pertinent indeed.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I, being half an adaptation of a disappointing book, is about as good as it could ever possibly be. Excellent performances, a strong satirical edge and a killer ending (Katniss’ torments are worth one hundred anonymous tragedies) help to compensate for an uneventful story, slight supporting cast and lack of emotional weight. Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from here.

3.5-Stars

The LEGO Movie (2014)

The Lego MovieEmmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) — an inconspicuous, conscientious construction worker — follows instructions to the letter. He’s a model citizen, particularly in the eyes of the megalomaniacal President Business (Will Ferrell), who wishes everyone was just as respectful of the rules. Everything changes for Emmet, however, when he happens across The Piece of Resistance, a mythical relic sought after by the rebellious Master Builders, gifted individuals capable of redesigning the world around them. He is dragged into an ongoing conflict between order and chaos, suppression and expression, and — with the help of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett) — begins to realise his true potential.

The main problem with Battleship, the last plastic plaything to be adapted for the big screen, aside from the wooden acting and terrible special effects, was that nobody involved in it understood or respected the game it was based on. Unconvinced that audiences would flock to a nautical war film that eschews explosions for tactics in the numbers necessary to justify production, the studio added aliens for no reason other than to boost profits, twisting the film into something that bore almost no resemblance to the game. Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy similarly mistook the appeal of the toys of the same name, instead producing a film for teenagers that was about pixels and inappropriate posturing when it should have been a children’s movie about toy robots.

The LEGO Movie makes no such mistakes in terms of theme or demographic, as directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller clearly understand the attraction of brightly coloured building blocks. Theirs is a film about imagination, creativity and doing big things with little pieces. The master builders — sort of alchemist Jedi — are fighting for the freedom to express themselves against a tyrant obsessed with order and perfection. Building from the instructions was always fun, and undoubtedly has its place in play, but what makes LEGO so popular and enduring is its versatility. Fans are invited to use the prescribed plans as a springboard, to mix things up and create something new and unique; something only that particular individual could have created.

With its heart in the right place, and by employing a premise that perfectly embodies the brand values of the product, then, the filmmakers are free to have as much fun as they desire with their box of bricks. The LEGO brand has branched out in recent years, into video games and other media, and it’s great fun to pick out the various subsets and other licensed properties; still, the relative newcomers are not allowed to overshadow proceedings, and the focus remains very much on the archetypal LEGO figurine, as well as with the animals and building blocks that are ubiquitous in all collections, past and present; familiar to all children, big and small.

The voice cast are wonderful — without exception — and Chris Pratt leads the lot as an everyman who may or may not be The Special. Morgan Freeman is a delight as Vitruvius, a blind wizard and leader of the rebellion, who gets many of the film’s best lines. The supporting cast (and assorted cameos) are great fun as well, with a number of real stand-outs: Will Arnett is hilarious as Batman, poking fun at a character who is all too often held up as the model of po-faced seriousness, while Liam Neeson excels as Good Cop/Bad Cop, a play on the actor’s kick-ass persona and possibly the first role to truly reconcile his non-threatening demeanor with his altogether more menacing voice. The film even rights the wrongs of Transformers, albeit unofficially, with a shape-shifting pirate (with a shark for an arm) who has as much personality as he does pixels.

The film, then, is hysterical, has an inspired plot and boasts a cast of colourful characters, and yet its successes don’t end there. An uncanny combination of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut‘s facial expressions, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘ zany humour and A Town Called Panic‘s manic energy, the crude animation has a charm and depth all of its own, beautifully blending stop-motion and CGI animation. The 3D too is outstanding, with the format’s much-maligned miniaturisation effect facilitating the belief that you are indeed watching tiny figures in action. It’s also gorgeously soundtracked, with both “Everything Is Awesome” and Batman’s ode to darkness likely to stay with you for weeks to come.

It’s only February, but 2014 has already seen its first masterpiece of the year. Everything about The LEGO Movie is note-perfect: the themes, the tone, the animation and the humour are all priceless. Cynics may still see it as one big advert for a global brand (or several, judging by the number of cameos), but this film isn’t for them; it’s for you.

5-Stars

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

The Hunger Games (2012)

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a fatherless hunter-gatherer from the twelfth outlying district of Panem, is forced to volunteer her life when her sister is picked as tribute for the Capitol’s nefarious Hunger Games. Devised both as penance for a past uprising and a deterrence from future rebellion, the Games pit a boy and girl from each of the nation’s districts against one another in a battle to the death from which only one victor can emerge, an event which is broadcast for the enjoyment or torment of the programme’s various viewers. Mentored by past victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and represented by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) must fight for survival against 46 other competitors, including 12 year-old Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and the formidable Cato (Alexander Ludwig).

It’s difficult, when it comes to things so close to the heart, or whichever obscure area of the brain is tasked with regulating such rampant faboyism, to take a step back and evaluate something as already subjective as the predicted enjoyability of a motion picture. There is, however, a certain level of detachment that can be maintained, a narrative investment that can facilitate the illusion that you are watching something – or at least this one, specific version of that thing – for the very first time. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is still its own beast, forever preserved in her source novel, but in this instance director Gary Ross has created something different, something more.

Told entirely from Katniss’ perspective, one of the first things to hit you about Collins’ storytelling is its immediacy. From the first page we are in Katniss’ world, her Panem, and from there we view the nation, in all its murky glory, through her scrutinising eyes in relentless real-time. Ross continues this intimacy, utilising an impressive arsenal of close-ups and fraught shaky-cam to immerse his 3D glasses-less audience in a dangerous and unstable environment. Unlike first person narrative, however, Ross does not seek to exclude the rest of his characters, instead using this new medium to explore Katniss’ surroundings and relationships without ever jeopardising her own agency and importance to the story.

Ross’ Panem is worlds away from that broadly sketched by Collins in a child-friendly font. Whilst the books only alluded to the reality faced by those ostracised by the Capitol – at least until the subsequent instalments – the film doesn’t shy away from the destitution and degradation endured by the denizens of the outlying Districts. Washed out and mired in filth, District 12 resembles at best a neglected shanty town and at worst a disturbing parallel with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. This bleakness is only exaggerated with the arrival of Effie Trinket and her entourage of Peacekeepers, before she remorselessly tears two families apart and whisks the District’s teenage tributes away to a Neverland of excess, a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Whoville, where they will most likely end their young lives.

This isn’t the only example of the film taking Collins’ Young Adult novel and turning it into something undoubtedly fit for all ages. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), originally effectively relegated to the sequels, is introduced early, his dealings with the head Games Master Seneca Crane (Wes Bently) reorganised as a surprisingly effective framing device that speaks of a politically-charged world beyond Katniss’ immediate understanding. The first contemporary uprising is also brought forward, adding to the already charged atmosphere as we watch human beings refusing to cheer the death of their friends and family, a haunting impression no amount of juvenile talk about jibber-jabbers and mockingjays can seek to undo.

Thematically, this is a much stronger telling of the story, as an ever-present and ominous unrest asks serious and important questions not only about the running of a fictional future dystopia but of our own lives and society as well. Collins’ issues with reality television and other forms of distraction that aim to mask oppression, poverty and war as they happen, unchallenged, elsewhere remain intact, emphasised here by the parallels that are drawn visually. As a pruned and preened child chases his sister with a facsimile sword, desensitised to the genocide that such an act ultimately endorses, it is difficult not to shudder in ghostly apprehension of its near-inevitability.

Other improvements include a certain narrative efficacy; surprising, perhaps, as Collins’ source novel was already pretty trim, and all the more compelling for it. While some characters might have been omitted they are rarely missed, the newly reshaped relationships and causality also proving more satisfying and economical than their original configuration. The endowment of the mockingjay pin, for instance, has much more resonance coming from Prim (who was herself given it as a gift) than it would have done had it come from a cameoing mayor’s daughter, while the omission of Peeta’s father and numerous hunting sequences come as somewhat of a relief.

Perhaps the most obvious benefits offered by the medium of film, however, are the sensory aids of picture and sound, and both are used to optimum effect. In addition to the naturalistic cinematography, the bleakness of the opening segment and the unreality of the Capitol itself, Ross’ direction facilitates a number of other stand-out scenes and sequences. Inside the arena, the effects of a powerful hallucinogen on an injured Katniss and the dying sight of one particular tribute prove particularly memorable. The sound design, on the other hand, is even more effective, its expert use generating a reality – and, in some instances, subtle horror – that the images alone could not possibly convey. The soundtrack in general is one of the strongest so far this year.

But that is to seriously short-change The Hunger Games‘ biggest asset: it’s characters, brought to life by Ross’ faultless cast. The consistently compelling Jennifer Lawrence leads an outstanding cast, yet outshines them all with her interpretation of Katniss. Strong, stubborn and yet exuding a reluctant vulnerability, Lawrence breathes independence and integrity into a character who could have easily been squandered at the head of a thankless love triangle. Along with Josh Hutcherson’s dependable Peeta, they bring a nuance and dignity to a relationship which rarely delivered as construed on the page. Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, does his best with a difficult part as boy-at-home Gale.

There are issues, however, and not all of them originate from deviations from the source material. At 142 minutes, it is debatable whether or not the already considerable running time is used to the best effect. While the initial focus on peripheral characters and interactions undoubtedly helped to establish the world and ultimately served the various themes, it also leads to an unfortunate side-lining of the arena-set action. With many of the film’s subplots already due to come into play later down the line, it is entirely possible that they blurring of the other tributes, the undermining of certain hardships and the underdevelopment of a few key relationships was not entirely necessary.

Aside from this narrative imbalance and a few precarious effects (it’s a shame the filmmakers should have such an issue with CGI fire – given the subject matter), however, there is very little that is actually wrong with Ross’ film. Harrowing, intelligent and startlingly relevant, The Hunger Games is both an entertaining film and a strong cinematic adaptation. With the second instalment – Catching Fire – offering much more in terms of action and social commentary, this should be the franchise to watch. See, a whole review and I didn’t have to mention Battle Royale once. Well, twice.

Man on a Ledge (2012)

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) is a wrongfully convicted man, having been charged with the supposed theft of a $40 million diamond from shady businessman David Englander (Ed Harris). Escaping custody during his father’s funeral service, Nick goes on the run to New York where he plans to steal the diamond (for real this time), and in the process expose Englander’s fraud and his own innocence. Taking to a 21st floor ledge on the façade of the city’s Roosevelt Hotel, Nick draws attention to himself – and negotiating officer Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) – under the guise of a suicide jumper, while his brother (Jamie Bell) and his brother’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) break into Englander’s stronghold just across the street.

Calling this film “Man on a Ledge” is like calling Inception “Men go to Sleep“, not only does it get the focus of the movie completely wrong, but it inadvertently spotlights the film’s least interesting element. In pointing a camera at Sam Worthington, far out of reach of his trusty Avatar, the creatures of Wrath of the Titans or even a half-decent explosion, director Asger Leth has merely provided the strongest evidence yet that Worthington is one of the least commanding screen presences fronting blockbusters today.

Good thing, then, that just across the street there is a story almost worth witnessing. While Bell and Rodriguez might not be out to win any awards, their characters at least have some chemistry, pulling the audience into an audacious heist plot that sees the former do a little dance and the latter strip to her underwear. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, very nearly convinces as a suicide negotiator in desperate need of a successful operation. While she may bring little of note to the role – there is no trace of the personality she oozes in Slither and Spider-man – it is a passable performance that at least gives you someone to route for.

That is, however, until the film face-plants into its final act, ramping up the ridiculousness as we embark on the requisite twists and turns with none of the tension or imagination needed to sell the revelations or make the required impact. While we all know full well how the film is likely to end, there is no predicting the idiocy with which the endgame will be reached. There comes a point at which Worthington is required to do more than just stand still and occasionally touch his ear, and from this moment on the game is up.

A by-the-numbers thriller in the Phone Booth vein, Man on a Ledge is as static and uninvolving as it sounds. With an ever so slightly better movie taking place just over the street, it really is a shame that we have to spend so much time waiting for Banks’ afflicted officer to get a fingerprint and wrap up her negotiations.

The Next Three Days (2010)

Lara Brennan is worried that, following a row with her boss, she might not have a job in the mornng. Her problems, however, get exponentially worse when her boss is found murdered and Lara blamed for the crime. Left to raise their child by himself, her college professor husband soon realises that, due to overwhelming evidence, she is not getting out again any time soon. Determined to break her out before she is transferred to a higher security prison, John Brennan buys three minutes of Liam Neeson’s time and visits YouTube for ideas. Dropping his son off with a fellow parent (Olivia Wilde), he exploits his wife’s diabetes and sets about breaking her out of hospital.

A remake of French movie Pour Elle (Anything for Her), The Next Three Days adds little to the story as it previously stood. With direction from Paul Haggis, this is at least a competent rehash of what came before – with a few good action beats ensuring that the trailer is just short of deceptive. When The Next Three Days isn’t trying to be Die Hard, it is elevated as a result of solid performances from a sympathetic Russell Crowe and a likeable Elizabeth Banks.

What renders The Next Three Days so average, however, are the fleeting moments of greatness. As Lara grows more and more despondent and her situation looks increasingly hopeless, her unexpected admission of guilt to her husband comes as a genuine shock. As Banks storms off without further explanation, the film truly engages as the filmmakers appear to ask their audience to will two murderers to freedom. After all, by the time John arrives at the hospital to spring his wife, he himself has committed murder. However, as this moral ambiguity – and the distinct possibility of having to abandon their child at a zoo birthday party – are disappointingly put to rest – The Next Three Days renders itself distractingly predictable.

Ultimately a thriller (when it gets around to it), however, The Next Three Days successfully holds your attention for its duration. However, while the writer might have an easy ride in store, the film’s greatest strength – and its biggest weakness – is its simplicity. John Brennan is just a teacher, a teacher who successfully breaks his wife from custody and escorts her into another country. As he struggles to acquire fake passports and starts leaking money left, right and centre, it really sells the stakes faced by all involved. While his desperate plan gives proceedings a touch of realism, it undermines the believability of the film’s final act. His preparation? A brief encounter with an ex-convict. His plan? To exit via the front door. As the characters miraculously evade capture, it often proves a suspension of disbelief too far.

A solid movie with some respectable performances, The Next Three Days has more potential than it does creative ambition. Quite happy to trace over someone else’s lines, Haggis crafts a movie that may be worth your time but definitely isn’t worth your money.