Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.

Love and Mercy film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Pohlad; Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 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.

Pitch Perfect 2 film poster CREDITS
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 Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.

The Lego Movie film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted; Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.

Role Models (2008)

I may have had a little bit of trepidation going into this comedy, mainly because it looks like something that could so easily be so badly (and unfunnily) generic. The premise — two rather childish men, to avoid jail time, are sentenced to community service, which involves mentoring two fatherless misfit boys; hilarity ensues — could fit easily into the oeuvre of, say, Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn without any problems, and I’m not the biggest fan of the resulting ‘hilarity’ in those situations. However, it turns out that Role Models is for the most part pretty well-judged, and most importantly it has laughs. I’d say it fits in most clearly with the gently ‘bromantic’ comedy of, say, Judd Apatow along with the improvisational work of Will Ferrell et al. (which of course is rooted in Saturday Night Live) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

The two guys in this situation are Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott), driving from school to school peddling a terrible energy drink called Minotaur, while the latter is dressed in a furry Minotaur costume. It’s reasonable to say that their lives are at a dead end; Danny, in particular, is sarcastically bile-filled and consequently is, quite reasonably, dumped by his long-time girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). A sequence of nicely underplayed lashing-out leads to a criminal conviction, its commutation to community service, and thereby to a mentoring programme run by Gayle (Jane Lynch) where they meet their respective charges. Danny must mentor Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is heavily involved in live-action role-playing (LARP) games, while Wheeler gets the potty-mouthed and largely uncontrollable Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, channelling Tracy Morgan, which is appropriate given that he’s played Morgan’s son in 30 Rock).

Sure, it’s at this point that we get a pretty thinly-veiled morality story about two men trying to work through their own issues via the healing power of connecting to another human being, which is why I’d put this in the ‘bromance’ category. But none of this is really layered on like you might fear (well, it generally avoids schmaltzy musical cues, in any case, which is my own pet hate), and the focus is firmly on the relationships between the two men, and between the men and their mentees. This leads Danny to get more involved in Augie’s LARPing activities — which is where most of the comedy cameos appear, including a wonderful Ken Jeong as the self-appointed ‘King’ of the LARP group, as well as Joe Lo Truglio and Matt Walsh. This of course could be the cue for much mockery, and though some individuals are the butt of jokes, it’s not in the end because of their choice to dress up as faux mediaeval knights and play make-believe war games, but rather because of the insecurities of Danny’s character.

It’s not perfect by any means. Wheeler’s crudity leads to plenty of rather weak ‘boobie’-based observational bonding with his filthy-minded young charge — but at least this isn’t dwelt upon. What instead we get is a rather fond and unsentimental portrait of wayward men learning to be better, and even if the set-up is hardly original and the pay-off hardly a surprise, it still provides plenty of enjoyment along the way.

Role Models film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain, Timothy Dowling, Paul Rudd and Ken Marino; Cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook; Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 January 2014.