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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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.


© 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 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.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

PREVIEW SCREENING FILM REVIEW
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

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Role Models (2008)


FILM REVIEW || Director David Wain | Writers David 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 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

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 SNL) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

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