As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.
I feel like I’ve been taking on quite a few unchallenging romcoms lately (as I did action films last year), and it’s a genre that more than many really does stand or fall on the likeability of its lead actors, and the breeziness of its writing. Which is just as well for How to Be Single because it has plenty of both. I mean, sure, it has some cloying sentimentality — most notably when Leslie Mann’s embittered character Meg gets the sudden desire to have a baby after apparently working for years as a maternity doctor — and it does suggest that being single is just a step on the path towards happy, heteronormative coupledom. Still, throughout its running time it does admirably stay focused on the single life of its four female leads, and when characters do get into relationships the film swiftly fast-forwards from first kiss to break-up via an intertitle (e.g. “3 months later”). It also along the way challenges the idea that having children without a father should be strange (though there’s a small role in this respect for Jake Lacy, which seems to present an alternative path from his character in Obvious Child). But whatever else it may do, it’s mostly about how lovely and watchable and empathetic Dakota Johnson is as a star — which is great because she was by far the best thing about Fifty Shades of Grey — and it has a good supporting turn from Rebel Wilson, who thankfully is not required to do an American accent, even if her character can sometimes be just a little too far along the ‘wacky/fun/drunk comedy sidekick’ continuum. Of the other stars, Alison Brie has a fairly minor role, and only Anders Holm as bar owner Tom really makes much of an impression amongst the roster of boyfriends, partners and love interests. Still, that’s fine by me, because this is a film primarily about the women’s experience of New York. It’s largely a middle-class vision (the script cheerfully references Friends and Sex and the City, of course), and as I said above, it doesn’t really challenge too many orthodoxies, but it’s likeable.
Director Christian Ditter; Writers Dana Fox, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (based on the novel by Liz Tuccillo); Cinematographer Christian Rein; Starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Anders Holm; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 1 March 2016.
Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)
Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.
As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play); Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016.
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.
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).
Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of throwing out disparaging comments about Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, based on his favoured genre, the special effects-laden science-fiction tentpole Summer blockbuster; I did it just the other day in a review of Jurassic Park. The thing is, though, he does have a distinctively meretricious style, which probably makes it perfectly suited for an action comedy heist film set in the permanent dayglo of Florida in the 1990s. I’ve seen quite a few films this year set in that pendulous part of the world — it’s a popular film setting after all — and all of them have gone out of their way to impress upon me what a strange and warped corner of society it is.
So we find ourselves in a world where obscene displays are the norm — whether of wealth or of bodies. Our protagonists are bodybuilders who meet through Sun Gym. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers, the former very much the ringleader. Daniel fancies himself a smart self-made man, who has helped to build up the gym to be a flourishing business with little personal return to himself. Inspired by the self-help motivational speaking of Johnny Wu (another memorable small turn from the dependably maniacal Ken Jeong), he gets the idea to take what he deserves in that time-honoured fashioned of stealing it, and for this he enlists the help of born again Christian, the impressively built Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Their mark is Jewish-Colombian businessman Victor (Tony Shalhoub) and this, as is also the time-honoured fashion, is where things start to go awry.
It’s not just the men’s impressively-defined pectorals that are on display. There’s the wealth of Victor — with his flashy cars, boats and large airy mansion by the sea — and Frank, the porn baron who becomes the gang’s second victim. And of course there are the women, most of whom seem to be (or have been) strippers; the movies are starting to convince me this is the only profession down in Florida, and it’s wearying to be honest. Therefore, Rebel Wilson is refreshing as Robin, a nurse at an erectile dysfunction clinic who marries Adrian without being aware of his source of income. She’s only on screen for a few scenes, long enough though to convince us that when this film isn’t obsessing over pecs and breasts, penises are a matter of abiding interest. The only ones we see on screen are rubber (one of Victor’s sidelines is in sex toys), though they are much discussed — apparently Adrian has suffered some adverse effects from his heightened steroid usage — and we even get one teasingly brief shot of Daniel in his Calvin Kleins, a cute little nod to Wahlberg’s pre-acting days.
For aside from its plentiful action setpieces — chases and shootings — the film is also a comedy, and I cannot deny there are laughs. Mostly these are had at the expense of the three central protagonists, who get up to some very silly (and very morbid) stuff. It’s a difficult blend to pull off, but this much I think the film succeeds at, and reveals Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have a deft touch as the dimmest but most personable of the three, a man somewhat misguided by the power of Christ, but still hopeful for redemption; for me, his character is the strongest in the film and remains compulsively watchable. The difficulty is in finding these men funny while also needing to judge them for the horrific crimes they commit — the film seems to be in several minds as to whether they are murderous aggressors or victims (of class and circumstance) or heroes (low angle shots against the sky, heroic slow-motion striding into combat), and ends up trying to advocate rather uncomfortably for all three.
After all, the other thing on display is Michael Bay’s directorial style, and it’s not a style that feels comfortable being subservient to characters or a story. There’s not a scene that goes by where the action doesn’t move briefly into slow-motion, or feature some other eye-catching visual effect (a freeze-frame with witty text superimposed is another favourite). By now, he’s able to make it seem the most natural thing in the world — possibly thanks to having in part created the grammar of visual expression in modern blockbuster movies — but it’s still diverting, and doesn’t always mesh with the emotions on screen.
That all said, I wanted to like what feels like Michael Bay’s first recognisably human film, though the location and the story can at times make that difficult. It’s based on real events, as the film likes to constantly remind us, but as ever such claims must be taken advisedly (the Wikipedia entry details all the changes made to characters and storylines) and there’s not always a lot to grasp onto in terms of recognisable character motivation. It’s a look at a seedy underbelly of society filmed as if it’s the most glamorous thing in the world and if it’s not entirely hateful, that at least marks it as a small step for one of the titans of violently dehumanised spectacle.
Director Michael Bay; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on articles by Pete Collins); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 25 August 2013.
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.
I admit I have next to no interest in the subject matter per se, but as ever the nominal subject is just the euphonious background to a drama of fitting in. Anna Kendrick plays outsider Beca, arriving for her first day at leafy liberal arts university Barden. We are introduced to her outside an airport terminal, wrapped up in her own little world of mixes and mash-ups, headphones on, wearing heavy eyeliner and a stand-offish attitude to everything, especially other students. However, her lecturer dad offers her an ultimatum: he’ll let her pursue her music production dreams if she gets involved in student life, leading her to cautiously nose around the student fair, where she meets uptight blonde Aubrey (Anna Camp) and the more relaxed Chloe (Brittany Snow), who run the Barden Bellas, the only all-woman a cappella society on campus.
In truth, the way the plot unfolds hardly challenges any expectations, but it’s the film’s fondness for its characters that’s more interesting. Aubrey and Chloe’s tug-of-war over the group’s leadership runs throughout the film, but the standout is Australian actress Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat’ Amy (her name for herself), who it’s clear has improvised a lot of her dialogue. You can tell both because of the extensive outtakes of her ad-libs on the DVD extras, but also because of the way the other actors react around her: there’s a nice scene at an a cappella society social mixer where Anna Camp can do little more than just grin and nod awkwardly as Wilson makes outrageous (and slightly insensitive) jokes, while on a bus ride, Wilson’s comedic pauses in explaining why she has the phone number of their male nemesis Bumper is accompanied by Kendrick discreetly cracking up in the background. It shows a generosity towards the improvisational nature of good comedy that the filmmakers have left these little puncturing moments in the film.
There are, though, plenty of other comic highlights, whether the previously mentioned Bumper, egotistical dictator over the Barden Treblemakers, played with brittle self-mocking humour by Adam DeVine, the bitterly sarcastic championship commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, or Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), a Japanese girl who speaks in a barely-audible whisper and manages to use the resultant extreme close-ups of her lips to great effect. Alongside these strong characters, Skylar Astin’s Jesse makes for a blandly unaffecting male romantic lead, though his story sets up the many Breakfast Club references.
The plot may not take any risks, but the focus on the women’s group with its strong characters is refreshing, and it’s their characters that really make the film. And though I didn’t know much about the world of a cappella singing, the many stage performances are delightful to watch — they may not be overtly comedic, but there’s definitely an underlying ridiculousness to the undertaking that the film is very aware of, without being in any way nasty about it (the appearance of the older Tonehangers is a particular stand-out). It has proved to be a film I’ve enjoyed watching on many occasions already this past year. Quite whether it stands the test of time will be interesting, but for now, this is one of the best teen films out there.
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 on Blu-ray at home on numerous occasions, and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Saturday 27 July 2013).