Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg | Cinematographer Ben Richardson | Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015

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Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

The first Pitch Perfect was not only a surprise hit, it was also quite an act for a sequel to match. This sequel is from the same writer, but it seems the brief has been to faithfully recreate the exact structure of this first film. So we get an embarrassing audition (for new girl Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld), a ‘riff-off’ scene, a romantic sub-plot (Amy and Bumper, but also, more boringly, Emily and Benjy), and a big show at the end (the Worlds) with a final song formed from snippets built up throughout the film. This means there’s still a lot of the same delights, but it just seems that little bit more tired. The first film’s stand-out performers are given more time (Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine as Fat Amy and Bumper, in particular), with Skylar Astin’s Jesse barely even registering. And while there are still plenty of laughs, particularly when building on established characters, the writing for the newbies can sometimes be lazy (Chrissie Fit as the embattled Guatemalan immigrant caricature Flo springs to mind), while director Elizabeth Banks and her comic foil John Michael Higgins as the announcers/a cappella bigwigs shade over rather worryingly from comedy sexism (which can at least be rebutted by Banks’s eye-rolling) into full-blown comedy racism towards the end (and as both are white, there’s no rejoinder to this unexpected nastiness). However, I enjoyed the rivalry with German a cappella villains Das Sound Machine, and Beca’s strange chemistry with their leader Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), and the largely unfamiliar songs grew on me with a second viewing. It’s not the classic of the first film, and probably not one I will be re-visiting quite as often, but it still certainly has its pleasures.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Elizabeth Banks | Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin) | Cinematographer Jim Denault | Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam DeVine | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Saturday 16 May 2015 (and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 19 May 2015)

The Last Five Years (2014)

There’s no accounting for taste I suppose, so maybe you’ll want to set aside this whole review, but I just can’t fathom why there’s been such a lukewarm response to this film (or so it seems to me). I’ll state this upfront, just to be clear, but I think The Last Five Years is fantastic. I mean, I generally love Anna Kendrick, but here she’s playing to her strengths, which is being adorable in a musical setting. The film takes a little time to warm up, as it begins with Kendrick’s character Cathy in tears in a bleak, colourless New York townhouse, and this kind of emotional timbre is not Kendrick’s forte (or maybe I just don’t like to see her being sad). However, following this we start to discern the film’s narrative strategy, as it skips back five years to the start of the relationship between her and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) that defines the film’s structure, in a brightly-coloured romantic musical comedy number “Shiksa Goddess” (for Jamie is Jewish, and Cathy is not) sung from his point of view. The film then goes on to interleave these two stories in a ‘he-said she-said’ sort of way, as each reimagines the highlights but in a different temporal direction. In truth, there are no profound depths here, but putting on a musical about a failed relationship seems somehow a little transgressive in itself. Kendrick’s Cathy is the emotional linchpin, though, as Jamie, for all his initial likeability, is swiftly revealed to be egotistical and vain, and the imbalance in their respective successes — he as a novelist, she as a musical theatre actor — is both comedically skewered and also one of the causes of their relationship breakdown. Cathy has a particularly memorable musical audition scene (“When You Come Home to Me”) in which she sings her frustrations with the process while also delivering a delightful catty aside about Russell Crowe’s musical theatre talents, as well as a number sung from a small-time repertory company in Ohio, a job she takes to make ends meet. In its focus on quotidian setbacks and bittersweet emotions, it plays a little like an updated US version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of my all-time top-five favourites), so how much you like it will probably depend on your tolerance for this kind of thing, but if you have any time for musicals at all, definitely check it out.


© Radius-TWC

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown) | Cinematographer Steven Meizler | Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Monday 27 April 2015

The Voices (2014)

This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.


© Lions Gate Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Marjane Satrapi | Writer Michael R. Perry | Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre | Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015

Drinking Buddies (2013)

I like beer, it must be said, and I like the new wave of craft breweries in the States (and here in the UK) that have sprung up over the last decade. It’s almost certainly to this film’s benefit that it doesn’t spend too much time actually talking about beer (aside from a few establishing shots of brewing taking place, there’s no in-depth discussions of hops, malts or mouthfeel), but the characters certainly do drink plenty of it. You might posit that it’s because of the relationship dramas occurring in their lives, but really it’s probably because, well, you know, beer is nice.

Given the central characters work at a craft brewery (or a microbrewery, as it once might have been called), the film sets itself very much in a gentrifying inner-city world where men wear beards and trucker caps, where young people hang out in bars which have a studiedly old-fashioned vibe, go hiking in the wilderness, play music from vinyl records, and, of course, drink beer just so long as it’s not mass-produced lager. In this respect, the poster is somewhat misleading, since you’d hardly recognise one of the film’s leads, Luke (played by Jake Johnson, second from right in the poster), who sports a slightly unkempt thick beard throughout the film.

The film’s real central character, though, is Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works in a marketing capacity at the brewery. She and Luke flirt throughout their working day, but each has a stable (if rather more straight-laced) partner that they live with. Kate is with the humourless Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is engaged to the serious-minded Jill (Anna Kendrick). After the two couples have returned from a holiday together at a rural cabin owned by Kate’s partner Chris, the latter break up, leading Luke to start wondering if he has deeper feelings towards Kate. One suspects at this early point that the film is heading towards partner-swapping territory, given that Chris and Jill also seem to hit it off quite well. However, nothing is quite so programmatic, and it ends up being quite a bit more subtle than the set-up initially suggests.

Of course, this kind of small indie interpersonal drama is hardly the stuff to break any cinematic moulds. Stylistically, it sets itself apart from earlier films in the same vein (like Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs) thanks to some expert lensing courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson, with cleanly-framed images taking their cue from the metallic sterility of the brewery and the modernism of Chris’s swanky apartment. Yet the key to any such enterprise is the quality of the ensemble cast, and in this case the four actors gel together really very well. Kendrick and Livingston are rather less showy in their smaller roles, given that their characters are written to be somewhat pedestrian, but Johnson nicely conveys his character’s charming goofiness with a very subtly combative edge. Best of all is Wilde, who holds the film together with a low-key improvisational acuity, avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘strong, free-spirited single woman’ clichés. On the part of the whole cast, it has to be said there’s a lot of drunk acting required, and none of this comes across as forced or embarrassing in the way these things sometimes can; there’s also thankfully no sententious moralising either.

What results is a very focused little drama that feels like it’s dealing with people I know (or have been) in recognisable situations. It’s very careful not to push the revelations too hard or wring them out for melodramatic purposes, finding an ending that feels organic to the characters without closing off anything too neatly. And that kind of thing is, for me, always refreshing to watch. Somewhat like beer is to drink, so I’m going to stop now and think about that for a while instead.


© Magnolia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg | Cinematographer Ben Richardson | Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Wednesday 6 November 2013

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Pitch Perfect (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Jason Moore | Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin) | Cinematographer Julio Macat | Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin | Length 112 minutes | Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2012 (and also at home on Blu-ray on numerous occasions, and at a friend’s home on DVD, Saturday 27 July 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Universal Pictures

The last film I saw in 2012, and one I enjoyed so much I immediately went and ordered the Blu-ray from the USA where it had already been released, is this campus comedy tapping in to the (presumably burgeoning) activity of collegiate a cappella singing. And yes, although that’s the kind of thing that TV series Glee does, this film feels far more fresh and interesting.

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