Tag Archives: Elizabeth Banks

Power Rangers

Most people my age or younger will remember at least one iteration of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers live-action television series, which first aired in the UK in 1994. Most people my age or younger will remember their iteration of the five colourful superheroes with a degree of fondness.

Some people my age will have revisited the show since then on a nostalgia trip and been thoroughly devastated at how bloody awful it actually is.

Big robot dinosaurs combining into one ginormous suit of armour and proceeding to smash giant space monsters to smithereens; what’s not to love if you’re seven years old? And, I guess, what is there still to love if you’re now 30 years old?

That was one of the questions that fell to writer John Gatins (Real Steel, Kong: Skull Island) and director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) to answer. Another was how do you make a single unifying movie, based on a series that keeps reinventing itself for multiple generations of kids, that would appeal to all of these audiences?

Their answer rather unsurprisingly largely consisted of not bothering to pander to any particular one of these pre-existing crowds and instead create their own story. Thankfully.

Jason the jock (Dacre Montgomery), rebellious Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler) the genius who is “on the spectrum”, Zack (Ludi Lin) the crazy one, and the loner Trini (Becky G.) – the only cast member who was actually a teenager during production, at 19 years old – must put their differences to one side and bond as a cohesive unit if they are to unlock their true potential as guardians of the Earth’s lifeforce (or something) against the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

For a large portion of Lionsgate / Temple Hill Entertainment’s big budget adaptation, the Power Rangers exist solely as their teenage misfit counterparts, who band together through circumstance after stumbling upon glowing coins that grant them superhuman strength. It’s a good 70 minutes in before we see the Red, Pink, Black, Yellow and Blue suits of armour, let alone any action, fights, zoids or monsters.

Rather than a tale of teenagers with attitude, this is more akin to a story about teenagers with boring, mundane, typical teen angst. Not quite social outcasts, just regular Breakfast Club high school kids with normal lives – except for the whole acquisition of super powers and an ancient evil force intent on their destruction, of course.

The problem here is that the creators wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted a Power Rangers film with minimal Power Rangers-ing. The course direction is similar to Israelite’s debut feature, Project Almanac, as a group of kids discover a power greater than themselves and deal with the consequences. In isolation, we should be grateful for a film of this calibre deciding to spend some time building backstory for these otherwise ordinary kids; yet it feels like an age before we even get a glimpse of a shiny metallic suit, or spinning high-jump over the heads of some henchmen, putty patroller, fodder types. I’m not requesting Transformers levels of constant inane explosions, but something would’ve been better than nothing.

It’s also disappointing considering the amount of time spent bulking up their backstories, that they remain extraordinarily bland. Billy is the strongest personality in the ensemble, but has only two interesting features: He’s defined by his relationship to the Chris Pine Kirk rip-off, Jason Lee Scott (not to be confused with actor Jason Scott Lee, according to Wikipedia) and his Hollywood-autism. That is to say, he’s good with numbers and doesn’t get humour when it’s convenient for the script to crack a few jokes. He’s rarely the butt of a joke, but most of the humour is derived from his lack of social awareness.

It’s not exactly new for Power Rangers to bang the diversity drum, albeit in a slightly less abrasive fashion than yesteryear. In 2017, the African American character wears a blue uniform, as opposed to automatically being the Black Power Ranger. The Chinese character dons the Black mantle as opposed to uncomfortably being labelled a Yellow Power Ranger, which is reserved for the hispanic Trini whose sexuality is somewhat ambiguous. Causing some level of upset elsewhere is the fact that Kimberly is still the Pink Power Ranger and, more controversially, now has boobs.

Yes, both of the female character’s costumes have boob… pockets? I’m not sure what the correct term is, but they have space for boobs in their costumes’ chest plates. The notion of the sexualisation of teen girls was something that caused a brief outcry from some quarters when the first images were revealed, but it’s turned out to be little more than a damp squib. These aren’t non-binary Power Rangers, nor are they sex-things to be lusted over. The characters have genders; their costumes denote their gender. There’s not much more to it and (to use a slightly inappropriate term given how this paragraph has gone so far) it’s not worth getting your knickers in a twist over.

As well as the five young heroes, their home town of Angel Grove would have benefited from a touch more personality. The small slice of Americana would have leant the final catastrophic battle more weight if you were even slightly bummed out to see a place you cared about being destroyed. Alas, it was indistinguishable from whichever other town in whichever other modern CGI-laden action movie you can think of.

The bad guys will be bad guys; and whilst it was enjoyable to see Elizabeth Banks ham it up to High Heaven as Rita Repulsa, she was very comfortably nestled in Villain 101 territory. The decision to make Goldar a voiceless CGI globule was also depressing. A quipping sidekick to Rita’s sinister villainy would not have gone amiss.

On the subject of quipping, when Zordon’s (Bryan Cranston) android assistant, Alpha (Bill Hader), could be heard, he barely raised a smile, let alone a chuckle or laugh. But at least we’re spared the agony of an irritating, bumbling, goofy clown that irritates more than entertains. He’s just… there.

An action movie of this calibre doesn’t necessarily have to be wholly original in concept to be entertaining, but it definitely needs character and personality. This would be hard enough to achieve in any ordinary 12A, 120 minute, bog-standard origin story; never mind one that is supposed to have five main characters.

Ultimately, that’s all that Power Rangers could be. A broad mishmash of Fantastic Four (minus the body-horror) levels of character development and self-awareness, with MCU at its most vanilla. It’s an inoffensive popcorn movie struggling to be relevant.

Although you’ll forgive me if I don’t accuse it of ruining my childhood – a rewatch of the original 5-part Green with Evil arc already did that by itself. I mean, who thought it would be a good idea to give Zack his own flying car?

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two

hunger-games-mockingjay-part-2-star-squad-1

“I’ve been watching you, you’ve been watching me. And I’m afraid we’ve both been played for fools.”

Teen fiction trilogies; final films split into two parts; a star’s wasted talent; The Hunger Games ticks so many of my pet hate boxes that even if I was its target audience I would have absolutely no business sitting for 137 minutes to see the fourth part of this dystopian trilogy for kids. But there I was, having only recently watched Mockingjay Part One, surrounded by far too many people that are my age, all of us various degrees of curious as to how Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen was going to end her story.

Fresh off of an attempt on her life by fellow Games survivor Peeta, Everdeen’s love interest who’s been brainwashed by The Capitol and the people that rule the country from there, Katniss is still the poster girl for the country’s rebellion and has become the most important of commodities in the fight against corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having cleared the way for an assault late in the last film, rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore), guided in part by former games maker Plutarch (the late, great, Philip Seymour Hoffman), has put in motion a plan to take the Capitol and the ruling presidency and bring a new time of peace to the country of Panem. Standing in her army’s way, however, is a city filled with lethal boobytraps and sadistic games that Snow has put in place to thin the ranks of the rebellion before they reach him.

Essentially on propaganda duty, Katniss is left at the back of the assault to be filmed across the battlegrounds in which the rebels are victorious, with her job being to inspire hope and a want to fight in the citizens of Panem while simultaneously instilling fear and doubt in their enemy through a steady stream of courageous looking vignettes to go with the wander through the maze of a city. Deciding to take it upon herself to be the tool of Snow’s destruction, Katniss fights through every inch of the ruling city to claim her target and finish the Hunger Games for good.

Including part one, Mockingjay is more than four hours long and for the most part, it is very well paced and almost perfectly formed. Part Two starts out relatively quickly after the slow-ish burn of Part One, not much time is wasted in getting to the action. As quickly as Katniss’ old squad leader Boggs is assigned as her lead guy again, her and her band of merry men are in the war ravaged city heading to Snow’s hideout and jumping into the maze of traps that await them. Each scene is filled with tension and shot in such a way as you feel you are in that ruined world with them; every moment you spend with Katniss has you wanting to take the next steps with her and push her to her goal. You are definitely rooting for this girl to get her job done and get back home.

But it feels too long. At two and a quarter hours, Mockingjay Part Two feels like a bit of a slog at times. It could have easily been shortened by half an hour and it falls victim to that most common of problems with films trying to do and say too much, it ends several times before it actually ends. Everything is tied up with a nice neat ribbon, but it could have been completely pulled from the film and it would have been much better. That’s my only real gripe though. The film, and the series, turned out to be pretty decent, not totally unwatchable fluff that, maybe, will pave the way for the teens it’s aimed at to look into other dystopian films and perhaps trip across greats like Battle Royale. That isn’t to say I’m going to run out and sit through the mountains of teen fiction guff that has been turned into into films for the undeveloped fools to digest, but I won’t run screaming from them just yet either.

Like Kristen Stewart before her, I still much prefer Jennifer Lawrence outside of the franchise that made her a household name, but i can’t fault her performance across the entire Hunger Games series and to see her develop from the girl who volunteered for the Games to the woman that spearheaded revolution is a pretty impressive thing to watch. But she’s only as good as the cast surrounding her and it’s a more than impressive roll call on that count. The previously mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore and Donald Sutherland are joined by the likes of Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, a pair that kept me interested through the first instalment and are still excellent in the fourth with a few extras in the form of Daredevil’s Elden Henson and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer to name just a couple that all make stand out performances.

Bottom line, I’m not the audience that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two is chasing after, but it doesn’t stop the film from being just a little enjoyable. It’s a fitting conclusion to a series that has been consistently improving but at the same time, somehow, consistently average. Slightly overlong and a little predictable, but overall, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I’d go so far to say as I walked out of the theatre mildly impressed with what I’d just seen and happy I’d stuck with the series to its final, cliched shot.

Magic Mike XXL

Never before has the tagline “You’re Welcome” been so appropriate and so accurate.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

xxlMagic Mike XXL is in the business of giving the people exactly what they want.  It knows that the people turned up to Magic Mike to see really, really ridiculously good-looking men strip for their enjoyment for 100-odd minutes, and occasionally some plot would intrude on the sidelines to give everyone a breather – in other words: they turned up to see the film that they were sold.  Instead, audiences were treated to a rather serious dramedy about those affected by the recession and who only use male stripping as a way to make ends meet, whilst the stripping segments were shot and treated like Soderbergh was resentful of even having to include them as they got in the way of his serious dramedy that he would really like for you to pay attention to, dammit!  This isn’t a problem, because the film is great and it’s Soderbergh so of course it’s great, but it’s not what the people initially wanted.

XXL is nothing but giving people what they want.  It may start off seeming like we’re going to get more of the first Magic Mike, with a pensive shot of Mike staring off at the ocean looking miserable, but that is quickly revealed to be a misdirection, a reverse of the first film.  Instead, XXL is pretty much 115 minutes of really, really ridiculously good-looking men gyrating in pretty much every last possible direction there is to gyrate in whilst the women on-screen lose their minds, broken up by sequences of these Best Bros For Life hanging out, ribbing on each other, and only sort-of-seriously contemplating their various futures.  XXL is here to please, to (what some could see as) an almost cynical degree.

Not that I much care, because Donald Glover just walked down the stairs with a fashionable trilby, a dinner jacket with no shirt on underneath, and is now serenading this young woman with an improvised half-rap-half-crooned song because she needs a man to remind her of just how special she is and Donald Glover is precisely the man to do that job… and then he strips off his clothes and starts gyrating in her direction whilst the other ladies rain dollar bills from upon high.  Look, Magic Mike XXL is exactly what it says it’s going to be, no bullshit, and I LOVE it for that.  I sat down to see impossibly good-looking men, and also Kevin Nash but if that’s your kind of thing then you’ll receive no judgement from me, strip and dance for my enjoyment for nearly two hours, and I got the very best possible version of that!

There’s a part of me that wants to sit here and compare it to the first Magic Mike, as most everybody else will, but it really resists that.  By its very nature as blatant fan-service, XXL is blazing a very different trail to that of the original film.  That one was very bittersweet, very cynical, it has moments of joy and fun, but it’s wrapped up in these constant reminders that our protagonists are sad or angry people and that Mike doesn’t want to be a male stripper all his life.  Couple that with almost all of the stripping sequences being cut short or shot at a distance, and you get a film that acts more as a cautionary tale about the “male entertainer” business than a celebration of it.

XXL is the exact opposite of that.  There are scenes of our cast – which, for the record, consists of Mike (Channing Tatum), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Mike has joined the rest of the guys for one last ride up to Myrtle Beach for the 2015 Male Stripper Convention – wondering aloud about what they’re going to do when this is all over, but these are fleeting at most.  Everyone is instead here to enjoy the ride, to go out in style, because everybody loves what they do and tomorrow will come with what may.  It therefore feels more celebratory, more accepting of the male stripping business, instead of lumping it in as something that everyone is quietly ashamed of doing and therefore making it appear like a lesser life-choice.

Or, to better explain, it’s best encapsulated by a monologue delivered by Andre (the character that Donald Glover plays and, incidentally, I did not know that I needed Donald Glover abs in my life until this film showed me them) about two-thirds into the film.  He relates to Ken how he first got into the industry in order to get more money, in the hopes that the cash would help him fund and further his rap career, thinking that he would hate the gig and resent himself for sinking so low.  But over time, he found the work rewarding, enjoyable, motivating, empowering.  He gets to meet loads of girls every night and he gets to make them feel better, make them feel alright for five wonderful minutes, and he loves the feeling that comes from that.  And if his EP took off tomorrow, he’d try and find a way to keep it going on the side because he enjoys stripping that much.  The film agrees with him, too: these men are providing a service, their job isn’t beneath them because there’s nothing wrong with it to begin with.

And though these guys do it for the thrill of the crowd and the adoration of women across the country, they’re not lecherous creeps or disrespectful arses.  They respect women, enough to keep interactions professional when working and to respect if a woman is not interested in them when not working.  They may ask each other if they got laid the previous night – or, as they actually say in the film, “Did you bangy?” – but nobody is seriously insulted if they don’t, and when Richie expresses a desire to find the one – for, you see, his nickname is not an exaggeration and that fact intimidates pretty much every woman he tries to have sex with – the rest of the guys are nothing but supportive of him for it.  They tease each other, with Ken’s insistence that he is a “Grade 3 Reiki healer” being a constant target for mockery, but they never cross over into bullying and it all comes from a loving place.

If Entourage is a walking encapsulation of everything wrong with “bro-culture” and the entire concept of “bros”, Magic Mike XXL is a sharp rebuttal against the idea that “bro-culture” is just that.  These are legitimately charming and likeable men who are still dudes and bros, but are self-aware enough to not be misogynistic bullies.  Their bonds are strong and genuine, since the film gives everyone more than enough time and moments to interact with one another and display that legitimate affection.  For an example of that respectfulness, Mike spends a fair bit of the movie bonding with a girl called Zoe (Amber Heard).  He clearly wants to sleep with her, but she resists the idea and the two instead become teasing friends throughout the rest of the movie, through things like her mocking him for preferring cookies over cake – “Cookie people can’t be trusted” she quite rightly notes – or him giving her the lap dance to end all lap dances at the film’s end.  Does it matter that she feels superfluous to the plot, like she was meant to have some significance at some point but that got drafted out?  No, no it does not because she still feels well-drawn and is a really likeable screen presence.

Besides, this is a movie about giving the people what they want.  That’s why there are quite literally zero stakes, because that runs the risk of dampening the mood.  It’s a fun, happy-times hang-out movie when it’s not walking right up to the line of softcore pornography.  Speaking of: god, every single one of this film’s stripping segments are amazing!  This is a film that takes great pleasure in getting its cast members to debase themselves for the enjoyment of straight women, gay men, and bisexual folks everywhere, the camera providing excellent views of every gyration, every twerk, every slide, every bicep, ab, heavenly blue eyes that you can just get lost in.  Joe Mangianello gets high on MDMA and proceeds to turn a gas station store into a non-stop playground of sexual innuendo that barely gets away from being straight up sex, Channing Tatum says his name whilst twirling out of the room because that is the dreamiest fucking thing I have ever seen in my entire life, Matt Bomer imitates Justin Timberlake imitating Michael Jackson for 5 wonderful minutes, and the film ends with 20 straight minutes of male stripping before going directly to the credits because that’s what we all came here to see and why pretend otherwise?

And the film anchors this with both a cast of wonderful, charming, and charismatic men who are willing and eager to allow themselves to be taken apart and looked at as lust-after-able and loveable man meat, and a nearly show-stealing Jada Pinkett Smith.  I want to really stress this: in the movie equivalent of the viewer being the cheese slap-bang in the middle of a delicious beefcake sandwich for 115 glorious minutes, Jada Pinkett Smith is the one who almost steals the entire film out from under everybody.  She plays Roma, an MC at a stripper club for women of colour that Mike used to dance at.  She exudes confidence, she calls her enraptured audience members “queens” and treats them as such, she sends some of her most beautiful black men after plus-sized women because she knows that they are just as deserving of this treatment as everyone else is, she can reign the bros in but she’s not humourless, she’s bisexual but the film does not make a big deal out of it, she grabs ahold of that microphone and introduces each and every man with the exact kind of showmanship required, and she oozes so much charm that I was practically seconds away from shouting back at the screen, “Yes, you wonderful and amazing woman!  Thank you for these gifts from above!”

Look… I could sit here and lie to you all that I love this film for its forward-thinking attitudes towards the business of stripping, for its naturalistic but incredibly funny dialogue, for its unwavering commitment to shooting its male cast and the entire film in the female and homosexual gaze for once in this miserable patriarchal industry.  I could sit here and lie about how the film’s lack of any real message or theme hurts it, how a runtime just shy of two hours makes the whole experience drag, and how its insistence on giving women what it thinks they want is just as condescending and insulting as it is desperately trying to not be.  But I can’t do any of those things.  Because they’re lies, and I can’t lie to you in a review, doing so defeats the entire concept of the form.

No, I love this film because Joe Mangianello’s super suggestive gas station number is set to “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys and myself and my friend Lucy both collectively – along with the 8 people that were in our audience during out 11:30 on a Friday morning screening, oh how I wish I had gotten to see this film at night with a full crowd – lost our shit once the song started up.  I love this film because Matt Bomer has the voice of an angel, the body of a Michelangelo sculpture, and eyes that make any human being Bomer-sexual through even just the tiniest of exposures, and this film utilises them for all that they’re worth.  I love this movie because Channing Tatum can do things with his hips that make my hips do things of an entirely different nature.

And I do not feel ashamed about any of this.  I know that I, as a film critic, am supposed to demand more from the cinema that is put in front of us for our consumption, for more than surface-level enjoyment and eye candy, and that loving this movie for those surface-level reasons risks making me a hypocrite, one of those “stop pandering, unless you’re pandering to me” kinda guys.  But, well, isn’t this more?  A mainstream Hollywood movie made within the studio system that treats women respectfully, is embracing and loving of the stripping profession, and takes great pleasure in objectifying the everloving fuck out of some gorgeous guys for the sole and purposeful entertainment of straight women, gay men, and bisexuals the world over?  Can we get any more than this?  Doesn’t that make Magic Mike XXL something special?

I don’t know.  All I know is that I enjoyed every last second of this wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing, that I needed a cold shower afterwards, and that, barring a second half that somehow just shits out solid gold week in week out, this will be on my Top 10 Films of 2015 come the end of December, and it will be very, very high.  And it will be because really, really ridiculously good-looking men spent roughly 115 minutes gyrating for my personal enjoyment.

Callum Petch needs a roughneck brother that can satisfy him.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Elizabeth Banks Interview

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

pitch perfect 2 elizabeth banksI am unbearably nervous.  My heart is racing, my breathing is barely controlled, and the pen of mine that I am currently fiddling with is basically a blur.  This is not nervousness brought on by excitement and being star-struck – although that may have been a barely noticeable part of it – this was nervousness brought on by anxiety and fear.

About 48 hours earlier, I received a message from the editor of The Hullfire, my university’s student newspaper.  It told me that there had been some actual progress with regards to an interview opportunity that he had teased a few months back and to which I more or less replied at the time, “Get me in there, do whatever it takes!”  The interview was going ahead, it was set for Thursday, and if I wanted it, then the session was mine.  I then didn’t hear anything more until 7pm the next day, where I was finally let in on the details of the thing: the interview was at 3:40PM the following day, I had to attend a 12PM screening before it, and it was down in London.

Against most people’s common sense, and even my own, I spent the next 4 hours making the travel arrangements and nailing down locations and such.  Cos when you have been writing critically about films for five years, seemingly no closer to making it or even being paid for your efforts, and someone metaphorically calls you up to say “Hi, we’d like for you to attend a press event first thing tomorrow in London and you’re going to have to figure out how to get down there on your own”, you damn well make it work.

This was my first journey around London by myself, going to places I didn’t know, to the type of event I had never experienced before.  Hence the anxiety and fear; going on unfamiliar experiences by myself doesn’t usually sit well with me.  Not helping matters was the general surreality of the whole experience – the NBC Universal offices, where the screening took place, are two floors in a building filled with corporate offices that’s incredibly sparsely designed and has TVs that play NBC Universal related trailers on muted loop, like something out of a film, whilst Claridge’s, where the interview took place, is a living parody of what you and I think the incredibly rich live like – and the fact that the other critics/journalists at the event, despite also being university students, seemed very experienced and all seemed to know each other.  As the fresh-faced newbie that nobody knew and didn’t acknowledge the existence of, this caused me to feel exactly as you’d expect.

That’s why I was sat in a waiting room at Claridge’s at 3:35PM, 5 minutes before the roundtable interview was supposed to start, terrified beyond belief.  I mean, I was about to share a room with the director of Pitch Perfect 2, which I had to sign an embargo agreement on before I could go into the screening, and a movie star in her own right.  Why wouldn’t I be terrified?  What if I said something incredibly stupid?  What if I flubbed my questions?  What if my recording didn’t work properly?  What if I fainted, or was incredibly unprofessional, what if she just plain didn’t turn up?  Knowing my luck, any one of those things could have happened and I wouldn’t have been in the least bit surprised.

We are escorted at 3:40PM into the hotel room next door with a roundtable all set up, take our seats, and wait in incredibly awkward silence.  There are 8 of us, each with our own Dictaphones, lists of questions, degrees of experience, and our own personal relationships with one another – some knew certain people, others knew others, but none of us, least of all I, knew everyone at the table.  So we waited, as the minutes ticked by.  Sometimes someone would make a quiet murmured comment intended to make things less tense but would only cause things to feel even more awkwardly, anxiously terrifying.

Then Elizabeth Banks walks through the door and the room’s energy drastically changes.  Dressed casually, grinning from ear to ear, and not seeming in the slightest bit tired, phased or sick of having to spend yet another 20 minutes fielding questions, she projects this aura of calming control that seemingly affects every one of us.  “You’re all so young,” she observes as she sits down and that combined with her loud emphatic request for questions – simply delivered as “What d’ya wanna know?” – flushes out any trace of fear in the room with genuine laughter.  Somebody uses the age comment as a jumping off point to ask for her thoughts on what about university and college-aged protagonists appeals to audiences, and we are off.

“I think it’s a transitional age.  When you’re younger than 20, you’re aspiring to be 20, and when you’re my age, you go, ‘Oh, it was so nice when I was 20.’”  She answers most every question like that, with that kind of insight and self-awareness and examination, into both herself and the Pitch Perfect series that, as its producer, she has helped shepherd into existence, but in a casual way that keeps the mood from feeling too pressurising, too constricting.   Somebody follows up my question on female empowerment and friendships in the series by asking about the importance of a studio comedy fronted and driven by an almost entirely female cast, which leads into Banks, who proudly admits to being a feminist, noting that, while she didn’t set out to make a feminist movie, “because we made a movie about a group of women, and nobody else makes those movies, we are a feminist statement.”

Pitch Perfect 2 is a very much a film of expansion, from the cast to the sets to the scale to the commitment to and exaggeration of the A Capella world it takes place in, which also bleeds over into Banks’ role within the film.  Whilst she still returns on-screen as co-A Capella commentator and podcaster Gail, Banks found herself in the director’s seat for the first time in a feature film, a surprising rarity with the Hollywood studio system’s frustrating reluctance to hire female directors.  “I was actively looking for a movie to direct, and the stars basically just happened to align,” she admits, noting that due to her production work, her hiring of Jason Moore [the first film’s director], and the studio trusting her, “it was like, ‘yeah, of course I should do it.’”

That kind of determination and desire to try new things likely surprises no-one if they’ve been paying attention to her filmography.  This year alone, in addition to Pitch Perfect 2, she’s co-headlining the crime drama Every Secret Thing, appearing in Magic Mike XXL, co-starring in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, and wrapping up her work in The Hunger Games series with Mockingjay, Part 2.  I ask her if this comes from a desire to push herself, which she mostly refutes but instead simply states: “I don’t want to be bored.  I want stories that interest me.”  That might explain why, when the subject of comedy sequels and a possible third Pitch Perfect comes up, she notes that she and Kay Cannon (the series’ screenwriter) “really strove to do something organic and authentic” with PP2 instead of just repeating themselves and why she’s hesitant to commit the series to a third instalment just yet.  “I don’t know what the journey would be in the next one, we don’t have a plan yet.”

Each of us interviewing Elizabeth take turns in no specific order, mostly managing to link our own questions from questions prior, never accidentally talking over one another, like we’re all linked in together and acting as one cohesive unit despite that lack of familiarity.  It really helps keep me calm during the session, as the fear of failure melts away and worries about being judged fade into the back of my mind.  Banks very much seems to exude that kind of kind, understanding calm, the sense that you could ask her how her day’s been and you won’t get an answer too dissimilar to asking one about the belief that the public are scared of musicals – “The people that write the cheques are scared,” she corrects.  I ask a slightly bumbling question about the film’s frank and honest handling of bisexuality and sexual desires and her response is both funny, sincere and intelligent – “College is a liberal time.  You’re supposed to experiment.”

Eventually, one of her PR guys intrudes to let us know that our time is up.  She says her goodbyes and leaves, we all hit stop on our Dictaphones and start filing out of the room.  The calm from her time in the room is still within me and it doesn’t dissipate until I get halfway to the stairs and decide to check my phone to make sure the audio actually recorded.  Mild panic ensues as I fumble around with my headphones and I skip past the dead air, my mind continually worried that I’ll step out of the shower any second now and find out that the entire experience was actually like Season 9 of Dallas.

But then I hear her voice.  The recording worked and, more importantly to myself at that moment, I had physical evidence that the whole thing had actually happened.  I really did just see Pitch Perfect 2 at an actual critic screening, and I really did just spend 20 minutes in a room with Elizabeth Banks asking her questions like a professional film critic/journalist.  I keep my elation contained until I make it back through the front entrance of Claridge’s, at which point I proceed to cackle like lunatic and swear triumphantly to both myself and the heavens.  The feeling was incomparable.  Not so much because of the experience, but more because of the knowledge that I could, in fact, do this.  I could do this for a living, for real, instead of failing miserably like I was always terrified of happening.

I then head off to meet a friend of mine who lived nearby for a bit before catching a train home.  That feeling does not leave for the rest of the day.

Callum Petch has gotta get out to get compensation.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Pitch Perfect 2

Funnier, more heart-felt, and just plain better, Pitch Perfect 2 gets to join that exclusive club of comedy sequels that are markedly better than the original.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Full Disclosure: The reviewer saw this film at an early press screening provided by the distributor, Universal Pictures, that also included a 20 minute roundtable interview with Elizabeth Banks afterwards.

pitch perfect 2Who was actually surprised by the fact that Pitch Perfect became a sleeper hit in cinemas and a massive success on home media?  No, seriously, who actually didn’t see this coming?  The narrative that surrounds the first Pitch Perfect is very much that of a film that, despite being shunted out in mid-October and made for pittance ($17 million), succeeded against all odds and expectations, becoming a beloved and surprising cult hit.  Yet, and trying not to diverge into ‘I told you so’ territory here, I saw this coming from a mile and a half away.  It’s a basically a girl friendship movie, aimed at young women – a market Hollywood still doesn’t tap into near-enough – with a great sense of humour and good songs.  You know, it’s like everybody forgets that Mean Girls, Bring It On, Clueless, et al exist.

Well, Pitch Perfect did extremely well, so now here comes Pitch Perfect 2, as is the Hollywood way.  Now, regular followers of my work, my Twitter, my radio show, or who just happened to be in the general vicinity of me these past few months, will more than likely know that this, out of everything else, was my most anticipated film of the year going in.  What keeps getting lost in this whole thing is that I think the original Pitch Perfect is barely great.  I do really like it, think it’s really funny, know that its heart is in the right place, and it pulls off the girl friendship thread with aplomb, but I don’t love it.  It relies too much on gross-out vomit-based comedy for my liking, the actual one-liners and such are way more hit or miss than I expect from Kay Cannon – the film’s writer and an ex-30 Rock alumni – and the Beca (Anna Kendrick)/Jesse (Skylar Astin) romance at best distracts from the true core of the film, The Bellas, and at worst is kinda gross.

So, that’s the base that Pitch Perfect 2 has to work from, although it also has to deal with the handicap of losing original director Jason Moore and being a comedy sequel which, barring very rare exceptions, are at best decent time-wasters and little more.  At best.  So, with all those factors working against it – along with pre-release plot info and casting announcements, pretty much everybody is back and there are a bunch of new cast members too, suggesting that this would be every bit the pointless comedy sequel – the fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is damn good is a legitimate surprise.  The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is great is a miracle.  The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is, in many respects, better than the first film is nothing short of witchcraft.

See, Pitch Perfect 2 is the kind of sequel that doubles down on what works but doesn’t simply repeat the first film.  Although the set-up of the film involves busting The Barden Bellas back down to underdog status – Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally ends up flashing the President during a benefit concert, which leads to the Bellas being suspended from the National A Capella Association unless they can win the World Championships, something that no American team has ever done – the film is actually only interested in that aspect as a means to filter its main focus through.  Instead of being another underdog movie, this is primarily a film about friendship and the fear of moving on, as the film doubles down on the relationship between the girls and minimises the romance elements in service of that.

To wit, the Bellas just aren’t in sync like they used to be because the fast-approaching milestone of graduation is affecting them in different ways.  Beca is secretly interning for a hot-shot music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) and very worried that she might not be able to make it in the industry, Chloe (Brittany Snow) is preparing to fail her chosen major for the seventh year in a row to make sure she doesn’t have to leave the Bellas, Barden freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is the daughter of a Bella legacy and whose sole life goal is to join the group but doesn’t fit in as well as she thought she would, and the rest of the team are thrown off of their game by the European champions, Das Sound Machine.  There’s also the return of Benji (Ben Platt) who falls for Emily at first sight, Bumper (Adam DeVine) is in a no strings attached relationship with Fat Amy but may be developing actual feelings for her, and the world of the original Pitch Perfect is blown wide open and expanded with even more characters and little incidental details.

In simple terms: there is a lot going on in this nearly 2 hour comedy, but credit to Elizabeth Banks, who takes over the reins on the director’s chair, and returning screenwriter Kay Cannon, they never lose sight of the central themes of friendship and moving on.  That heart, that loving relationship that its cast share, never gets completely lost beneath all of the moving parts, and when it finally bursts through totally in the final third the film is on pure unstoppable fire – there’s a specific moment during a campfire scene late in the movie where I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I teared up like a complete sap.  There’s a believability to everyone’s relationships, the closeness and intimacy that they all share that is subtly and carefully built up so that the last third, which deals with every single plot thread and arc one after the other, is sustained catharsis that leaves those central relationships standing tall throughout.

This is also, despite being nearly 2 hours long and having all of that content to cover, a very tightly paced film that never noticeably dragged.  Despite this being her first feature directing gig, Banks shows a confidence in editing and scene pacing that is rarer than usual in the American comedy feature genre – I didn’t find any scenes that just devolved into leaving the camera running whilst excess improv took place.  She also seems to enjoy indulging her inner-Step Up 2, expanding the scale of the world to comical proportions whilst still keeping a tenuous grip on reality.  Gail (Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), the commentators, are back and are revealed to be the hosts of an A Capella podcast and the representatives of the National A Capella Association, David Cross turns up as an A Capella enthusiast who hosts underground high stakes Riff-Offs, and musical performances are generally more flamboyant and busy than last time without losing the charm of the lower-key original – which is a good summary of the film overall, quite honestly.

Pitch Perfect 2 is also just plain funnier than the first film, the jokes coming thick and fast and not really letting up until the credits roll.  Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily is especially well-served by the script here with her character’s excessively awkward and geeky enthusiasm being a great source of humour, whilst Keegan-Michael Key nearly runs away with the entire film from everyone else as a hysterically overbearing and egotistical record producer who treats his interns like a schoolteacher who has stopped giving a damn about parental blowback.  There are also frequent jokes that allude to both the sexually voracious nature and strongly hinted bi-sexuality of most of the Bellas in ways that feel genuine and sincere – in comparison to, say, Seth Rogan/James Franco comedies that hit the “these two are totally gay for each other, but they’re not really gay, see, they have sex with women!” button so hard and so frequently that it’s permanently stuck in the machine by this point – and that’s refreshing as hell to see.

All this being said, Pitch Perfect 2 is not perfect.  For one, although that last third is an incredibly satisfying 40 minutes to experience, the messy “throw everything out there at the beginning and we’ll deal with it in turn later” nature of the first third means that it takes the film a little while to get going and feels more than a little awkward.  It also bends over backwards to ensure that everyone is able to return for this movie in ways that are definitely forced, all but lampshaded when Bumper’s introduction to this film occurs when a random cut during a party scene reveals him to be back as a security guard, shouting this fact to no-one in particular.  Whilst I do find Bumper’s story with Fat Amy here to be oddly sweet, and whilst the return of Aubrey is amazing and works totally, it still makes their inclusion here feel somewhat mandatory, like a Pitch Perfect Sequel check-list was being ticked off somewhere (better handled is Jesse who just appears sporadically as Beca’s supportive boyfriend and little more).

More problematic is the film’s frequent detours into lazy racial stereotyping humour.  Although Worlds is barely a factor in the film, their eventual appearance does lead to an extended sequence in which Gail and John make lengthy stereotype-based jokes like the Taiwanese team being made up of “Ladyboys” or how the Korean team’s barbeque is something to avoid.  It’s kind of OK, because Gail and John have already been made out to be terrible, terrible people (John especially and he gets even more hilariously casually awful this time), but it does still skirt that line nonetheless.  A bigger problem is new Bella Flo (Chrissie Fit) whose joke and characteristic is that she is an immigrant who has just had the absolute worst life up to now.  It feels too mean-spirited, especially since most of the jokes play on that immigrant backstory, and, coupled with the commentators and the excessively stereotypically German nature of DSM, leaves this strand of humour feeling lazy in a way that the film otherwise avoids.  It’s disappointing.

Those, however, are still relatively minor flaws and fail to take away from what Pitch Perfect 2 manages to get right.  Prior to seeing the film, the thing I wanted from it was for it to be a girl friendship movie, to commit fully to its premise and promise and centrally be a film about the bonds shared between a collective group of coolly weird women.  Though there is a tonne going on in Pitch Perfect 2, Banks and Cannon never lose sight of that very thing whilst still expanding the world of the film and not simply re-treading ground covered in the original.  This is a funny, heart-felt, heart-warming film that is brilliantly paced, excellently acted – surprising no-one, hence why I didn’t really mention it – fiercely feminist, damn near everything I wanted, and better in almost every single department than the first film.

I now count two comedy sequels in consecutive years that are as good as or better than the films that spawned them.  Can this become a full-on trend, please?

Pitch Perfect 2 is due out on May 15th.

Callum Petch saw the sign.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!