‘Pitch Perfect 2’ Movie Review 0 54

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Back in 2012 Pitch Perfect sort of took the movie world by storm (making $113 million on a $17 million budget) with its mix of female friendship, quirky characters and, of course, wonderfully upbeat A capella singing arrangements. Now Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and the rest of the Barden Bellas are back for another go at setting the box office alight.

Following on from an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction involving Fat Amy (Wilson) at a special birthday event for the President that humiliates not only the group but the wider  A Capella singing world, the Barden Bellas are suspended. However, due to a loophole they’re still allowed to perform at the world championships and so they set out to be the first American team to win the international competition, with the might of the European group Das Sound Machine standing in their way. Meanwhile, Beca (Kendrick) has to choose between her loyalty to the group and her career as she interns at a music studio.

The first movie had a sort of natural, effortless quality to it that made you feel totally at ease. It also had a real element of surprise, not just in making the singing style very cool – via a combination of great voices and clever melding of well-known songs from past and present – but because it presented a fairly traditional and somewhat generic plot and constantly threw us curve balls along the road. Even the inevitable final showdown had stuff we really didn’t expect.

It’s a shame, then, that the same can’t be said for Pitch Perfect 2. Now it still provides much of the same sort of endearing female camaraderie and level of musical craftsmanship that made the first one so fun. But that aforementioned element of surprise is sorely lacking this time around and it plays more like a game of sequel one-upmanship than it does a fully justified follow-up with anything new particularly to say or do beyond just making the musical performances bigger in scope. The choice of songs aren’t as memorable this time around either, certainly nothing to rival the use of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” or Ace of Base’s “The Sign” that made the first one so great.

From the opening number featuring an embarrassing moment – last time it was one of them being sick on stage, this time it’s a particularly mortifying wardrobe malfunction – to the categorized rif-off to the unavoidable big finale, there’s a feeling of just re-treading old ground just with a bigger budget, a sort of lackadaisical “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach that stops it from being the special sequel it could, and should, have been.

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Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and Co. return for more A capella shenanigans.

That being said, on a technical level those musical performances are very well done indeed with the all-important production design better than ever. This is not so much evident in the performances of the Bellas, who retain their charming DIY style, but rather in the introduction of the dreaded Das Sound Machine (headed by the brilliant cast Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Flura Borg), a Kraftwerk-esque European group whose polished performing style and pristine appearance becomes an amusing source of intimidation – and in Beca’s (Kendrick) case, weird sexual confusion – for our singing heroes.

Most of the core Bellas remain the same, with the exception of Aubrey (Anna Camp) who has graduated and only appears in one key segment of the film half way through and Emily Junk (True Grit Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld), a college freshman who joins the group after proving her worth. It might seem like the latter has just been added purely for the sake of shaking things up a bit – and there is a bit of that going on – but they quite nicely tie her into the story because she is the daughter of a legendary Bella from decades past (played by the wonderful Katey Segal).

Much in the same way as the Despicable Me sequel did with their fan-favourite characters the Minions, this expands the role of Fat Amy by giving her a love subplot with former Bella opponent Bumper (Adam DeVine) leading to a very funny solo number which is a definite film highlight. Once again Wilson embraces the role with all she’s got and provides much of the film’s funniest moments, along with the strange low-voiced Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and the still-hilarious commentary by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, the latter of whom also makes her directorial debut here.

Pitch Perfect 2 can be labelled as somewhat of a disappointment, purely because it lacks the first film’s certain X factor magical quality and follows a path that’s far more predictable this time around. However, there’s still plenty to enjoy here particularly for die-hard fans of the last film who, let’s face it, are going to be making up much of the audience. The much-loved characters are back doing what they do best and the fun that the cast clearly had making it really come across on-screen. It’s a bigger, flashier film than its predecessor, that’s for sure, although it just goes to show that isn’t always the best thing.

Pitch Perfect 2 is released on May 15th.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 414

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 447

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10