Monday, 25 May 2015

'Pitch Perfect 2' Review (2015)

Why do we even bother any more?

No seriously, why do we bother with comedy sequels? Of all the trends hollywood has pushed down the throats of the movie going public, comedy sequels are probably the absolute worst. They are notoriously difficult to pull off and more or less end up being a retread of the same plot of the original, sometimes with the same exact jokes and story beats. If you want proof of this phenomenon, just look at the Hangover franchise. Sure the original takes you on such a ride that you don't want it to end, but you don't want to go on the same ride over and over. The only time I can think of that didn't succumb to the consecutive comedy curse is 22 Jump Street, and that film was predicated on making fun of why comedy sequels are so historically bad. Ironically, comedies are probably the only genre of film that get less funny as their franchises go on. For instance, the original Gremlins scared the life out of me as a kid, but Gremlins 2 is a live action looney tunes movie. Think that's a joke? Here's the films opening.

*rests case*

Sadly 'Pitch Perfect 2' doesn't exactly convince me otherwise.While I commend the film for being one of the first sequels in a while to put a 2 in it's title, it doesn't exactly open with bugs and daffy. Continuing the adventures of the Barden Bellas, Pitch Perfect 2 takes place in real time, 3 years after the events of the first film. The group has won success after success and are no longer the misshapen underdogs who needed something to prove. So naturally, the film's opening scene is a so so musical number that immediately knocks the group down a giant peg or two. They've not lost their talent or anything, but something occurs that labels them as national embarrassments. This makes them blacklisted from participating in competitions or recruiting new members. However, the Bellas ARE able to redeem themselves by participating in the a world championship, as the United States defending Accapella Collegiate champions. The opening is slightly abrupt, but once it gets the ball rolling the film picks up. Mostly.

The cast from the original return but they seem to have lost their charm. Previously, the cast was a rag tag group of gals who went through the scourge of team building, helping them to learn about one another. The sequel seems to have lost this heart as the ensemble cast has been relegated to a group of one note joke machines. There's the one who's promiscuous, the one who's fat, the one who's a lesbian, the one who's a control freak (even though she was the opposite of the control freak in the last film), the weird one who whispers and joining the one note joke crew is the one from a third world country and two seat fillers who seem to be a parody of the film's lack of character due to the fact that they're names aren't even established by the roll of the credits. While the original was known for it's abrupt comedy that played on stereotypes, it didn't come off as uninspired as it does in this film. Now when the group calls her Fat Amy, it's less of a clever joke but more of an eye roll inducer. 

The smile will be forced.

Usually sequels feel the need to up the stakes by providing a number of unnecessary side quests that only serve to deviate from the original story and sap it's tension. Pitch Perfect 2 does the opposite in that, when you're watching the main story play out, you're checking your watch wondering when it's going to move on to that other thing. The first of these focuses on main character Beca, played by Anna Kendrick. Her story focuses on her anxiety of reaching her potential as a music producer, interning on the side, and dreading life beyond the safe college walls. It feels like the natural progression of what a story set in college should take as it resonates with the audience it's portraying. Aside from the dramatic aspect of it, the story provides some of the best jokes in the movie. This is due in great part to the role of Keegan-Michael Key, who plays her neurotic boss, who is on the brink of a psychotic break due to being surrounded by inept hipsters and hack artists. 

The other story that makes the movie worthwhile is that of fan favourite Fat Amy. Her story is intertwined with Adam Devine's Bumper, who, although he's graduated college, still hangs around his old stomping ground. He and Amy carry on in a no strings attached relationship that, while ripe for humour, as it features two of the films best characters, also features an arc with more depth than expected. Whereas Beca's story deals with the worry many have about their career after college, Amy's tackles the flip side of that anxiety. Amy has to deal with the uncertainty of a relationship that carries on from one stage of her life, to the next, and wonder if she will be able to handle the certain dynamic change that will occur. These subplots make it all the more frustrating that Pitch Perfect 2's main story exists. There could've been a funny yet soulful story about the uncertainty of post-grad life and the risk of indecision, yet all that's given to us is a ho hum by the book story about losers who became winners, who are losers again and must become winners...again. The film attempts to weave in the deeper elements of the story into the plot but they end up getting the short end of the stick so the movie can make another joke about how much the lesbian in the group wants to do the girl with the revealing top. 

The film has one other side plot that I almost failed to mention simply because, much like the film itself, I forgot about it. The only new character with any sort of character at all is Emily played by Hailee Steinfeld. Her character is a freshman at the college and is joining the Barden Bellas on the recommendation of her mother, a 'legacy Bella'. This portrays yet another instance in which the film could provide thoughtful insight into life after college, using the mother as the embodiment of being unable to let go of one's past, but the film does little to nothing with this story and here lies the great film Pitch Perfect 2 could have been.

Acca-ashes to ashes, acca-dust to dust.

However, there is another saving grace to Pitch Perfect 2, which naturally is it's mesmerizing musical pieces. Much like the first movie, this film provides a world much different from our own in which accapella is considered a treasured past time, rather than a neat gimmick on a youtube video. This is expanded when the Bella's meet the villains of the film, Das Sound Machine, the German accapella group that poses the biggest threat to the Bella's redemption. The interaction our heroes have with this group actually made for some of the funniest moments in the film as Anna Kendrick's character is unable to muster up a winning comeback to the insults of the aesthetically impeccable duo of Kommisar and Pieter Krammer. Humour aside, their group gave the best musical performances of the film (I never thought I'd see dubstep performed by an accapella group), even surpassing the group we're supposed to be rooting for. The movie doesn't even present the group as particularly dickish, unlike in Dodgeball where you rooted for Vince Vaughn's team because Ben Stiller was such an asshole, even though he was objectively more qualified that Vaughn. 

Never have German villains been so likeable

There are of course, a number of notable celebrity cameos in this film. Comedies seem to be the only genre in which the break from reality that occurs when a misplaced celebrity shows up increases my enjoyment of the film. They provide a welcome distraction from the film's main story which is not just unfunny but also repetitious of the first film. The same sing-off from the first appears in this one, albeit on a grander scale. It's not as egregious a regurgitation as the fight scene in Anchorman 2, seeing as this one actually serves to be just as if not more entertaining than the scene in the first film. The announcers from the first film also return here and have inexplicable been given larger roles, even at one point showing up as runners of an accapella podcast that gives pre recorded commentary to a live event. As entertaining as Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins can be, their moments in the film are cringe worthy at best. 

In the end, I found myself disappointed with Pitch Perfect 2. Which is strange because, 1) It's a movie about accapella, and 2) it's a sequel to a movie about accapella. Knowing all this going in, it was exactly what I expected it to be. The only problem was the first film had surprised me in so many ways and still to this day remains re-watchable, despite the fact that the euphoria of said surprise has dissipated. While the music in this film is still very much on point, and the film does make me laugh, that's just the vegetables. The meat and potatoes of this film were very much stale, which doesn't satiate a hungry viewer. The best thing I can say about this film is that unlike other comedy sequels, it doesn't retroactively make it's predecessor worse.

A.N.R = 6.4/10

'Mad Max: Fury Road' Review (2015)

It seems as though there's always some form of impending doom on earth. The sea levels will rise, we'll run out of water, the dead may rise again. Whatever news you follow, you can always find something to be extremely paranoid about. Something out there that will bring about the end of this thing we call life on earth. Thing is though, this has always been the case. There's always been some prophecy of impending doom. In my lifetime, short as it's been, there's been at least 3 instances in which the world was supposed to end. I'm so desensitized to it at this point, that last time I made a sign saying "THE END IS NIGH" a la Watchmen. But as art tends to draw from life, it's not really surprising that there are countless fictional universes which deal with the end of the world.

Sometimes it's an uprising of cyborgs, of apes, or just the oppressed majority of society. Sometimes it's the collapse of infrastructure and the massive lack of resources. Sometimes it's a case of blowing it all up. Whatever the cause usually is, the best of these stories are those that have the most to say about the people living in this new post-apocalyptic world. We generally don't care to see the world ending, we're much more fascinated by what happens after that. We're not sure what exactly would happen, but fiction seems to content with showing us as depraved, selfish, darwinistic savages that resort to the basic desires of survival. Basically, we won't be singing kumbaya around a fireplace, unless the day's hunt is above said fire.

The couple on the right is plotting to eat the couple on the left.

Set in an undisclosed time after a nuclear war left the world to dust, Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about the titular character Max Rockatansky and his struggle to survive in a world gone mad. This struggle, it seems, is not going so well, as the film opens up with Max being kidnapped by a group of the desert army the War Boys. Max is designated as a universal blood donor, but seeing as society has collapsed, instead of donating his blood to be stored for later use, Max is shackled and directly plugged into the arm of Nux, a sickly War Boy, played by Nicholas 'Beast' Hoult. As this all occurs, leader of the War Boys, Immorten Joe, decrees that Imperator Furiosa must go forth into the wasteland to bring back guzzoline, a precious commodity in this world. Little does Joe know, that Furiosa has taken it upon herself to kidnap his pregnant prisoners 'The Brides' who all carry Joe's offspring. Once he realises this, Joe leads an all out assault to recover his stolen property, which Nux refuses to miss out on. Nux decides to strap his blood bag, human being Max, onto the front of his car and join the chase, on the Fury Road.

If you think all of that is too much to take at face value, and requires more information, then don't see Fury Road. It will do nothing but frustrate you. I for one, have sat through countless films that feel the need to tell and tell and tell, over explaining to the point where it almost insults the audience's intelligence. They even go so far as to create a character that doesn't have a clue, just as an excuse to bog down the movie with exposition in a way that doesn't break the continuity. Mad Max thankfully bucks this trend and basically chews you up and spits you out into this world and hopes you pay attention. It doesn't make any attempt to explain itself, it just expects you to be able to keep up. With that method employed, Mad Max has some of the best world building I've ever seen in a film. By not taking you out of the movie to explain the world your movie is in, Mad Max does the simplisticly brilliant thing of just leaving you in that world. You pick up everything you need as it goes along, just by watching the characters inhabit their environment. This is emphasized only by the movie's improbable attention to detail. The amount of work put into the environments, the vehicles, weaponry and even the costumes is phenomenal. There are so many little pieces that serve as rewards to the viewer with an astute eye.

The movie also feels real because most of it actually is. Director George Miller has gone on record in saying that over 80% of the effects in the film are a result of stunts, set construction and make up, with CGI used sparingly. That sounds difficult, but not impossible. It however does seem impossible when you see just what Miller has been able to accomplish. The choreography of the stunts is simply staggering and this film will certainly be one that is studied for it's contributions to cinema for years to come, which is mind boggling. Any film that comes out between the months of May and August aren't supposed to be studied by anyone. Those films are supposed to sell tickets at exorbitant prices and provide flashing lights to eat your popcorn at. Sure everyone likes seeing Vin Deisel use a giant safe as his own person car hammer, but it's hardly deserves deep thought.

*rubs forehead*

Outside of the world itself Mad Max has a pretty simple story. The film is essentially one big car chase with 80 different cars. Max himself doesn't have too big of a role in the film as he's more of a drifter in this plot, someone who's been thrust into someone else's plight, just trying to survive. Truly, the hero in the film is Charlize Theron's Furiosa. The world building I spoke of earlier is furthered in the performances. Everyone makes you feel as though they've been in this world for a long time and have become the creatures they are today to survive. Nicholas Hoult gives the most psychotic performance which is fitting as Nux someone who was born into this world of sand, oil and bullets. Max is stoic and reserved, but has moments where he breaks, as a man who tries to cling on to the saner days of the past. Furiosa however is probably the most nuanced in that her character is sufficiently psychotic, but her hope gives her a focus that makes her seem not so much psychotic, but at least maintaining a controlled insanity.

Mad and madder.

The only time action movies reach this caliber of excellence is when they're made outside of the US. Films like Snowpiercer and The Raid come to mind. even then, those films don't portray the sense of scale that Fury Road does. This film has long sweeping shots with an army of vehicles that only grows and grows. It never lets you forget that you're in a huge sweeping wasteland that seems to never end. Aside from that, even though the film is in such a wasteland, it never seems bleak. The colours are vibrant and the world, as dead as it is, feels alive. The road itself exudes a raw emotion that reflects the severe insanity of humanity's last survivors. The film is simply a technical marvel and a damn entertaining one at that.

A.N.R = 10/10

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments you can leave one below. This film ended up topping my best of the year and you can actually listen to my podcast on the best of 2015 right here:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

'Marvel's The Avengers: Age of Ultron' Review (2015)

So in the months leading up to the release of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' the anticipation for the sequel was far less skeptical than the original. How could a movie that purported to balance six different characters from films that, while in the superhero genre, were said to have come from drastically different worlds, actually work? Could the world of "science so advanced its magic" of Thor work with the advanced, yet grounded sci-fi of Iron Man? Many thought that characters would be short changed as a result of sharing the silver screen, ultimately doing a disservice to the universe that they were trying to advance. The real question is, why in the world would any of that be a concern?

Picture, if you will:
  • A man who wears a robot suit that flies around the world shooting lasers out of his arms
  • The world's first superhuman who carries an indestructible shield that works almost like a boomerang. 
  • The literal Norse God of thunder hammer and all
  • A Hulk.
That is not a combination of things that you should worry about putting into your film. That is the kind of combination that is the formula for printing legal tender.

Pictured: Tuesday at Marvel Studios

As the conversation leading up to the sequel wasn't "Will it make any money?", but rather, "It will probably make ALL the money.", it's safe to say that formula worked. But really, there's no reason to think it wouldn't. Comics and television shows have always crafted giant crossovers of this nature. To this day, it still occurs, and it always brings a bigger audience. Now whether or not it's a good artistic decision is a different argument entirely, but since 'The Avengers' sits comfortably at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s also safe to say it worked critically just as it did commercially.

The issue of juggling an ensemble cast I suppose could have been a concern, but then again not really. The X-Men films had been doing it successfully for years on the superhero front, and even films like Silverado, which is essentially 'The Avengers' but a western. Both those films worked best because there was a director who could manage an ensemble cast, and Joss Whedon also belonged in that company. To say that an Avengers film wasn't going to work is to misunderstand and discredit audiences of popular cinema.
This is exactly what the people want to see.

The real question is, can you do it twice?  'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is not just a sequel to it's predecessor, but the eleventh iteration in an ongoing franchise, with a universe that gets more complex as the years go by. There was always going to be a difficulty finding a focus. Age of Ultron immediately shuts up any doubts you might've had prior to the curtain being drawn. The crowning moment in the original is seeing the titular team actually assemble. Age of Ultron recognizes this and opens with a tracking shot that very much is similar to the one shown near the end of 'The Avengers'. The team is as you left them, working in tandem, and quipping at each other left and right. You get a sense that a great deal of bonding has occurred. The heroes work together this time around instead of being at each other’s throats.

Well sort of. 

This is essentially what the movie deals with. The Avengers now exist. The rumours of giant rage monsters and hammer warriors have become reality. Of course, such a monumental change would have at least, a modicum of effect on the world at large. It's not a new route for a sequel to take. Batman Begins described it best with Jim Gordon's speech about escalation. The Avengers have escalated the world of crime prevention so naturally, the criminal element would respond in the only way they know how. This introduces us to our newest superpowered element, the Maximoff twins. As a result of evil experiments using tools of an otherworldly origin, regular old Pietro and Wanda Maximoff have been transformed into the "enhanced" Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. As the film eloquently puts it "He's fast and she's weird.” That weirdness however, is the driving force for the film's plot. Working in the shadows she treats Tony Stark to a vision of impending doom. Being the type of guy Tony is, he takes this to be completely literal, and here one of our heroes is burdened with the urge to stop the fight before it even starts.

It’s this that drives Tony to kick-start the Ultron program, an artificial intelligence program capable of “peace in our time”. Of course, Tony, having invented robo-butler Jarvis and having never seen Terminator, I Robot, War Games, 2001, Wall-E, The Matrix, Tron, or even Transcendence, he decides to go ahead with it anyway. Of course, Captain America has definitely seen War Games so in order to make sure he doesn’t stop him, he tells only fellow Science Bro, Bruce Banner. Eventually it goes right and Ultron is born, and immediately, as a robot, decides humanity is it’s own worst enemy and the only way to establish peace is to end it because OF COURSE HE DOES.

I don't want to say it's their thing, but it's kind of their thing.

While Age of Ultron may not provide anything new to the artificial intelligence genre, the character himself is like something I can’t say I’ve seen before. Voiced by the ever so devious James Spader, Ultron is more charismatic than I anticipated he would be. The character is supposed to reflect the personality of his creator, the snarkiest of Avengers, which accounts for his charm and smarm. Spader brings a realm of nuance to the character that makes his speeches about world domination not as cheesy as the script might suggest. He’s fiendishly clever and extremely likable. The performance only furthers the character’s credibility, simply because, although he is a robot, he is still extremely human. 

The wonder twins I mentioned earlier are quick to aid Ultron in his plight. Interestingly, the characters don’t suffer from being new additions to a film already jam packed with super people. Being orphans as most in their profession are, their origin is refreshingly glossed over. Having lost their parents to bombings making use of Stark Industries weaponry, the Maximoff twins swore vengeance against the former arms dealer and his band of superfriends. It’s a story beat that benefits from this already existing universe. It would be logical to assume that the illegal weapon smuggling established in the first Iron Man would have some adverse effects down the line. Aside from that, the characters themselves are very much well defined. Scarlet Witch gives off a creepy vibe and Quicksilver is impatient and feisty. What makes them work is their innate connection with each other which is more than brought forward in the performances by Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. Of course this doesn't negate the fact that just last year I saw these two have a different innate connection, but that’s Hollywood.

Twincest to make George R.R Martin blush

Of course since 9 characters isn’t enough, Paul Bettany also joins the cast as the Vision, the movies other caped crusader. Bettany’s voice is nothing new to the franchise, having played the aforementioned robo-butler (robutler?) but this performance is slightly more involved. Much like Ultron, Vision is an artificial intelligence, although rather than deem the world ripe for extermination, he is far more forgiving. I don’t know if this is because this character was introduced in the last 30 minutes, or if Spader was just so convincing, but I found this character to be a bit lacking. He seemed to be far too removed from any sense of actual humanity to have any real connection to it. While he’s part of a few of the movies more memorable moments, I still wish there had been more to chew on with this role.

Is it bad that I preferred the murderous left to the righteous right?

The main cast might be making jokes and kicking ass, but they’re far from just vehicles for action and comedy. They each have bits of their stories that get advanced ever so slightly through their characters. The Hulk and Hawkeye are the most notably developed out of the main cast, having been absent since the last Avengers film. Jeremy Renner’s performance in this is particularly noteworthy, which is probably because it’s the first time we get to see him be his character. There’s a romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow that might seem sudden, but it’s nonetheless believable. It's a sweet subplot that might also seem out of place but provides a sense drama to the film as it begs the question of how sustainable is this whole arrangement, and how soon is it before it all falls a part. Can you be an Avenger yet still seek to have the coveted normal life? Many superhero films have tried this to the point where it's a recognized trope, but again, due to the universe these characters inhabit, it made sense to me that you'd ponder such things after all this time.

Amazingly, the film strikes a balance between humour and tension and fares more along the side of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, than Thor: The Dark World, in terms of overall tone. The story itself plays out well enough. You never really believe that Ultron will win and it does play out somewhat similar to the first one. As the first one had the Avengers split apart only to come together to fight against a hoard of evil minions controlled by the big bad, so does this one. The set pieces are still absolutely fantastic, taking advantage of the fact that the Avengers are now a globe trotting force and are truly Earth’s mightiest heroes. What’s even better about this film is that it doesn't feel as though action is put in because there needs to be an action scene at that point in time. There always feels like there is a reason for a fight, and not just ticket sales. Furthermore, the movie directly acknowledges a troubling trend in superhero films which is Superhuman Reckless Endangerment. Rather than throwing their enemies into buildings with abandon, the Avengers make painstaking efforts to control the collateral damage, something that was present in the first film. There are still innocent lives lost but there’s an effort to keep that number as low as possible. There’s a particular scene following the fight between the Hulk and Iron Man in which the film takes a step back, letting you know that these heroes feel the weight of those losses.

Man of Raw Deal
I once heard C. Robert Cargill say how a film is great based on the moments that stick with you. To Age of Ultron’s credit, I have a hard time picking which moment I liked the best. I could say it was one of the glee inducing bombastic action sequences, I could say it was seeing superheroes actually save people, I could say it was seeing The Avengers eating Chinese food and trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The point is, there’s always going to be something. Avengers Age of Ultron is an action movie but it’s also a classic “Man vs Self” story, emphasizing that our biggest obstacles come from within. It’s extremely comedic but it always takes time to acknowledge the drama. There’s a romance in there but there’s also a 3 way bromance. Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t a perfect film. Like the Star Wars films before it, Avengers films are the sort of big event filmmaking that the cinema is for, that simply shouldn’t be left to be caught one day on cable or when bored browsing through Netflix. Not too many movies deserve to be seen on the big screen these days, not even in the summer, but Avengers: Age of Ultron definitely does. 

A.N.R = 9.0/10

Be sure to listen to my weekly film discussion podcast Take 4, here's our episode on artificial intelligence like Ultron himself: