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London Film Festival 2016: Day 10

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Since last Sunday, I’ve taken to wearing my press badge whenever I’m out of the house I’m staying in in London.  Before I even step out of the door first thing in a morning, I throw the pass on around my neck and it stays there for the entire remainder of the day, until I get back to the house and start writing.  Even when I don’t need it on, if I’m just wandering around London killing time or attending screenings that I’ve paid money for, I still keep it hanging.  It brings me a kind of comfort, that I am making the absolute most of this experience whilst I have the chance to do so.  This fortnight has been the greatest – it really, really has – and I haven’t felt anything less than happy the entire time I’ve been here, on this trip.  And as I sat down in the Picturehouse Central café after definitely not watching a film that I am absolutely not under embargo for and so can’t talk about for the time being, that was the only thought that ran through my head: this has just been the greatest.

I can tell you that I definitely won’t miss the ridiculous sleep schedules, though.  Ploughing through a massive 18 hour day on less than 6 hours sleep is kind of a pain, I won’t lie, but at least that kind of schedule allowed me to be disappointed by Nocturnal Animals (Grade: C+) a good month before I would have been in general cinemas.  The long-awaited film follow-up to A Single Man by fashion designer Tom Ford, and an adaptation of the novel Tony And Susan, the film supposedly follows highly-disillusioned art gallery designer Susan (Amy Adams) who is in a loveless relationship with her second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), is slowly going broke, has grown to despise her artistry, and is also currently suffering from severe insomnia.  One night, she receives a package from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has not spoken to in the nearly 2 decades following their divorce.  Edward has finally finished the novel he always wanted to write and has sent Susan the first manuscript.  He’s also named it after an in-joke between the pair, dedicated it to her, and the characters in the story are heavily reminiscent of Edward (named Tony in the manuscript), herself (represented by Isla Fisher), and her daughter, and very nasty things happen to the lot of them.

Nocturnal Animals, basically, is an endless drumroll for a crescendo that never fully arrives.  In theory, the movie is two separate stories that are meant to keep converging and intersecting in ways that tell us more about the two characters, but the overlap turns out to be relatively minimal.  In reality, the movie is two films taking turns to play out across 2 hours, and the supposed subtext and character study elements in the second story don’t manifest themselves enough.  What instead happens is that you’re watching this B-grade gritty thriller that is clearly meant to be an examination of regretful male impotence, and then every 15 minutes the film will cut to a shot of an absolutely wasted Amy Adams staring pensively into the middle distance.  If you’re lucky, the film might even throw in a flashback to Susan and Edward’s relationship to add some kind of actual context to proceedings.

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There’s just no real indicator of what Ford (who also wrote the script) is trying to say with these sequences, outside of the immediately obvious theme of how creative types throw themselves into their work and that those who know the author and what to look for can become understandably troubled by what they experience as a result.  Otherwise, the film is so deliberately opaque and meticulously designed that any deeper meaning or reason for being or message that Ford is trying to convey was utterly lost on me.  Kind of like most fashion for me, come to think of it.  He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound or meaningful given the way he directs these sequences, but I’ll be buggered if I can tell you what those are.

That said, Nocturnal Animals isn’t a waste.  The manuscript sequences are quite entertaining, and its inciting incident is genuinely gripping in a way that kind of makes me wish that Tom Ford had just made a straightforward thriller, or actually delivered the psychological thriller he initially promises, rather than the unwieldy hodgepodge he’s crafted.  The film looks absolutely stunning, of course; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey having clearly pored over every single image in a concerted effort to ensure that each and every single shot could be slid into a fashion catalogue and fit right in.  There are also a great pair of performances from Michael Shannon, as a rule-adjacent West Texas Detective that is exactly as perfect a fit for him as you would expect, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as a slimy redneck psychopath – and from whom another good performance has been LONG overdue.  Mostly, though, I’m just disappointed by how empty I found the film to be.  There may be substance here, but it’s all been scrubbed away by the relentless need for style, and I’m left wondering if there was actually any substance in the first place.  If you want to make a nasty, gritty thriller, just make a nasty, gritty thriller.  Own that; don’t detract from it by trying to be something you’re clearly not.

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Having most definitely not spent the 3 hours between Nocturnal Animals and our next film watching a totally different film that I can’t talk about yet, my day eventually led me back into the realm of public screenings, which I’m now relying on for the rest of the festival.  The Last Laugh (Grade: C+) was the first of 3 for the day and attempts to tackle the burning question that surrounds Comedy ever more nowadays: should comedians make fun of tragic events?  Specifically, The Last Laugh attempts to discuss that question in relation to The Holocaust, one of human history’s greatest atrocities and still a taboo subject to this day, for the most part, when it comes to humour and jokes.  Is it OK to make light of The Holocaust?  The Last Laugh comes at this from a variety of angles, particularly through questioning whether Comedy can help people work through trauma and eventually heal thanks to it, as depicted through a Holocaust survivor who likes cracking really dark jokes about her experience.

All of the usual arguments in this debate are brought up and examined – whether jokes about taboo subjects re-enforce negative stereotypes even if they’re being done with kind intentions (as illustrated by Jack Benny’s “your money or your life” skit re-enforcing the stereotype of the cheap Jew), how much time needs to pass before such material becomes acceptable fodder, whether only certain groups of people are allowed to make certain jokes, how different people can find certain jokes and portrayals to be wildly different in terms of respectfulness or offensiveness based on their subjective beliefs, everybody’s personal “line” and whether they’re capable of finding comedy in situations that other comedians can, and of course the old standby of “if you’re gonna go there, the joke had better be a riot.”  Each is backed up by relevant clips and analysis, and the result is a very comprehensive look at this more-relevant-than-ever issue.

Where it all falls down is in two key areas, the first being the film’s half-assed attempt at trying to remain objective and not pick a side.  Despite attempting to remain neutral, by sheer force of number on the part of the comedians and the way the footage is edited and ordered, the film can’t help but come down on the side of those wanting to preserve their rights to make taboo gags.  I’m not knocking the film for coming down on their side, hell I mostly agree, but I am knocking it for clearly wanting to remain objective but doing such a terrible job at trying to be so.  For two: in a documentary about offensive comedy, 90% of the contributors to the talking-heads are Men, and all of them are White, so unchallenged issues of privilege come into play as a result.  To be fair, the film is explicitly primarily in relation to The Holocaust rather than offensive comedy at large, but given the social and cultural landscape that The Last Laugh has been released in, for it to be about taboo comedy and not feature a single person of colour and maybe just 4 women in your interview list feels incredibly out-of-step with the current world and recklessly irresponsible as a result.

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The evening brought about the second of the films I had bought a ticket for prior to the festival, in the shape of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B), which I guess you could say was one of my absolute most anticipated films of the festival.  Set in New York, as many indie dramedies usually are, the film follows The Commune, a highly respected but struggling improv comedy troupe founded by the 37 year-old Miles (Birbiglia).  Its current incarnation includes the slowly-embittering Miles, obvious breakout talent Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and his girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the aging Bill (Chris Gethard), aspiring graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), and the parent-reliant Lindsay (Tami Sagher).  About twice a week, they perform a super-cheap sold-out improv show at Improv America, and the rest of the time they live together, work menial low-paying jobs to get by, and gather around every weekend to watch Weekend Live, an American comedy institution that likes to poach talent from The Commune at every opportunity.

The group begins to fracture once Weekend Live comes a-knocking once more, offering Jack and Sam audition spots, at the same time as their beloved Improv America is being shut down, Bill’s dad gets into a serious accident, and Miles becomes more and more bitter for being passed up by Weekend Live.  After all, “why wouldn’t the show want to hire the guy who taught most of their recent hires everything they know?” he reasons.  Don’t Think Twice pivots on this, on that heartbreaking moment where you realise that the artistic or creative lifestyle you desperately want may not be achievable after all.  Do you try and keep up that optimism, putting forward strong writing packets and hoping that your big break is still just around the corner?  Do you turn incredibly bitter towards your friends as they achieve the success that eludes you, especially if you think they don’t deserve it?  Or do you deliberately screw up your opportunity out of that anxiety of change, of wanting to try and preserve your life as it is now despite all the tides fighting back and winning against you?

It’s a very bittersweet film, funny due to our cast of characters being semi-professional funny people, but mostly dramatic as the group very slowly and very painfully splinters apart.  As a result, I honestly feel like this film was done a disservice by watching it with a sold-out crowd, who all seemed to think they were watching a straightforward comedy and laughed uproariously at any cutting remark regardless of how hurtful it was and loudly winced every time the drama got too heavy.  I feel that my viewing experience didn’t allow me to fully appreciate the film, snobbish as that is to say, and drew more attention that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have paid to the film’s minor flaws – the ensemble is all well-performed and lived-in but certain characters get noticeably underserved by the script, and the blatant Saturday Night Live swipes are too self-conscious and loudly inside-baseball, seemingly born out of genuine sourness on the part of Birbiglia.

But Don’t Think Twice is worth watching purely on the back of an absolutely sensational Gillian Jacobs.  Jacobs is a brilliant comic talent, as anybody who watched Community will be able to tell you, but she’s asked to carry the bulk of the film’s drama and pulls off that task masterfully.  Sam began as a super-fan of The Commune before being asked to join, and their slow disintegration causes her to start self-destructing out of a desire to try and preserve this perfect little status-quo she currently has.  To Sam, improv is not a stepping stone to Weekend Live or some alleged higher-form of comedy, improv is the best that things can get and that desire to remain locked in her comfort zone is quietly devastating to watch.  Jacobs absolutely nails her work here, especially during a heartbreaking final improv scene, and her performance will touch the hearts of anybody who has tried in vain to keep their group of friends together or has committed intentional or unintentional self-sabotage in their creative careers for whatever reason.

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Since press screenings wrapped up for good today, leading to there being no reason to get up super early the next morning, I chose to stay out on this Friday evening and catch a second evening movie for once, with my press-ticket-approved screening of The Man From Mo’Wax (Grade: B+).  A warts-and-all documentary about James Lavelle, the founder of the highly-influential Mo’Wax Records label and co-head of the group UNKLE.  And when I say “warts-and-all,” for once, I do mean warts-and-all.  This is the kind of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption documentary that really does properly lay into its subject during its middle-stretch.  I’m not talking about a documentary that goes “yeah, he could be an asshole during this period, but the man was a genius so it was all good,” I mean this is a film that unrepentantly looks at the man that James Lavelle was after Psyence Fiction dropped and goes, “No, this guy was an A-grade ASSHOLE and there was no excusing it.”

That’s actually really exhilarating to watch, and the film going so all-in on this period makes the two sections either side of it much stronger as a result.  Lavelle starts off as a youthful visionary, a misfit drawn to Hip-Hop thanks to it sounding “otherworldy,” with the drive, ambition, and raw unvarnished skill that led to him dropping out of college and founding Mo’Wax at just 18 years of age.  But that youthful nature quickly ends up enabling all of his worst impulses once he and the label become famous, leading to him burning professional and personal bridges through rampant assholery, letting his attention drift away from being a label boss, and trying misguidedly to become a musician and songwriter in his own right as the primary creative force of UNKLE, epitomised by the film’s reveal of just when exactly the vast majority of these “present day” interviews are taking place – a quietly brilliant reveal so masterfully done I was on the verge of standing up and applauding at the sleight-of-hand being pulled off.

Spending so much time on James driving himself further into a hole is what makes the epiphany of his behaviour and his eventual curation of 2014’s Meltdown Festival act as a genuine act of personal redemption.  The film doesn’t pretend that it’s some kind of massive world-beating success that shows everyone just how wrong they were to write James Lavelle off, and it doesn’t pretend that this lets him off for how much of a massive dick he could be throughout the 2000s, and that’s what makes James’ minor redemption work gangbusters.  It would have been so easy for director Matthew Jones and editor Alec Rossiter to betray all of the hard work of their film’s previous hour to give James an unambiguous happy ending, and their refusal to do so is what makes The Man From Mo’Wax a real find.  Even viewers with no interest or prior knowledge of Mo’Wax, UNKLE, or even Trip-Hop can find something in this focussed and super entertaining documentary about a youthful visionary being undone by success and eventually beginning to turn themselves back around again.

Day 11: Things become far less set in stone as I start braving the Rush Queues in order to make up my schedule on the fly.

Callum Petch got this sinking feeling he sank with the tulip.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Keanu – A spoilerific review of a film you probably will never see

So I’m a few days into a Las Vegas holiday, I’m already sunburnt and I need something inexpensive to do before I eventually splurge on the Strip in a few days time.

I was advised by my friend Jeanne, who is a Vegas local, that there is a newly-opened, small, but awesome, cinema at a nearby mall. Myself & Mrs L set off with fairly low expectations to see Keanu, a film about a cute kitten who wears a bandana and a gold chain and is in the middle of an ownership dispute between a couple of regular guys and several gangs.

An odd premise, I’ll forgive you for thinking. However, there is a lot to like about this movie. The film is based around Jordan Peele, who plays Rell/Tectonic (we’ll get to the second names later) who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and is going through the clichéd “my life is over” blues, very similar to the start of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Attempting to console Rell is Clarence (aka Shark Tank), played by Keegan-Michael Key, who is en route to Rell for a bit of brotherly love, when Rell hears a strange scratching sound at his door.

He opens the door to find a little kitten, whom unbeknownst to Rell, has just escaped a gangland hit by the Allentown Boys at a local drugs den. Rell instantly snaps out of his depression as he takes on the Kitten as his own and names him Keanu, although there is little offered to explain why he went for that name… It just works however.

Skip forward a couple of weeks, Keanu is fully integrated into Rell’s home and as Clarence’s wife is going away for the weekend with a male neighbour (Errr, wtf?) the boys decide to hit the latest Liam Neeson movie. In the drive home they both get into a debate about which of them is the most lame, or more specifically, the most white in their behavior. Rell is the stereotypical stoner type, however more from a white person’s perspective, he is unemployed, bums around his apartment all day which is adorned in movie posters of his favorite gangsta movies such as New Jack City.

Clarence is blue-collar and as polite as you can imagine and has an unusual penchant for George Michael & Wham, not too dissimilar to Deadpool, however it plays a slightly more significant role in the overall arc of this movie. So they debate who is the most lame and to be fair they are both pretty dull and uninteresting at this stage but as they arrive back at Rell’s place they discover it has been ransacked and Keanu is missing. They approach Rell’s weed dealer, who conveniently lives next door and are able to deduce that the heavies meant to target the dealer and not Rell.

This sends Rell into a rage and he drags Clarence to the strip club where the 17th Street Blips are known to be based (Blips based on a gang bigger the bloods and the crips), however they have no plan whatsoever on how to deal with these guys when they arrive. They are instantly earmarked by Hi-Cee, a female gang member, on arrival due to their clean dress and lack of street cred. This forces the guys to improvise on the spot, and suddenly the movie comes to life as Clarence retorts in hilariously over the top gangsta lingo to try and earn her trust. They demand to see the boss of the gang ,Cheddar (played by Method Man), whom we learn has adopted Keanu as his own, dressed him in the Bandana and Gold Chain as depicted in the movie posters and called him New Jack.

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Cheddar smells that the guys are not what they try to portray, which are heavy-handed gangbangers looking for work, but the guys step it up even further on the mimicking of gang culture, particularly pushed by Rell who is the more angry, cold blooded of the 2 and Cheddar eventually presumes they are the notorious Allentown Boys (or Allentown Niggas as he prefers), the 2 super Assassins from the opening scene of the movie (who are actually also played by Peele & Key).

The guys keep up the act and reveal their gang names as Tectonic & Shark Tank, and ask for Keanu as a mark of respect if they complete a drug sale for Cheddar. The boys take Cheddar’s fledgling gang members (including Hi-Cee) on the job where they demonstrate their faux-deadly skills to hilarious effect, including some Matrix-sequel wall running which is so sloppy that it really took the roof off the cinema with laughs!

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Rell takes Hi-Cee to deliver their merchandise whilst the rest of the crew stay in the Van (Clarence’s all family vehicle) and listen to George Michael. Clarence hilariously spins the lyrical content of songs like Father-Figure and the break up of Wham/Andrew Ridgley’s fading career being a metaphor for George Michael taking him out, and was never seen again. This hilariously results in one of the gang members getting a George Michael tattoo, not even realizing that he isn’t black.

The drug deal is a strange part of the movie, as Rell delivers to Anna Faris (Scary Movie) who is playing herself and the deal eventually goes awry and Hi-Cee pops them all off as they escape with the movie, whilst Rell has to pretend he is unfazed by the carnage. They eventually get back to the strip club and have a celebratory party, the gang fully convinced at this stage that Tectonic & Shark Tank are legit. The boys approach Cheddar, asking for Keanu however he wants more work from them in return.

This sends the boys plan spiraling out of control and they eventually kidnap Keanu and run, but bump into the real Allentown Boys who also want Keanu for themselves. Whilst tied up and about to be dismembered by the Allentown boys, Keanu bites through Rell’s ropes (as he’s been traiedn to scratch pictures of Rell’s ex) and Rell is able to one-up the heavies as they pick through various implements to torture the guys. This ends up with the boys crossing the line of being faux-gangstas as they actually shoot the Allentown Boys in self-defense, but no sooner do they escape, they run in Cheddar’s gang who now know the truth about Tectonic & Shark Tank.

The gang deliver them to Bacon (Luiz Guzman), a Mexican super drug boss whose brother is killed by the Allentown Boys in the opening scene of the movie, and is the real owner of Keanu (actually called Iglesias). Cheddar passes the boys off as the real Allentown Boys whom Bacon has a massive contract out on. Just as it seems all is lost for our protagonists, Cheddar refuses to hand over Keanu/New Jack/Iglesias and a mass shoot out erupts with most of the gang members on both sides dying.

Eventually the film closes out with a car chase between Cheddar, Bacon & Rell who, are all after Keanu. They crash eventually and show down, just as Cheddar appears to have the upper hand as his remaining crew arrive, Hi-Cee reveals herself as an undercover cop and arrests everyone, including Rell & Clarence. However at this point Rell & Hi-Cee have become suitably close enough to warrant a romantic interest and she promises to testify favorably on his behalf, but ultimately they go down for the murder of the Allentown Boys, with Hi-Cee adopting Keanu until Rell gets out.

In summary: This is such an odd movie, because despite it being written and starring two black actors in Peele & Key, the humour is definitely aimed at a white audience, or at a push, a non-urban black audience for lack of a better word.

That in most instances would be a damning critique, but it’s not. It’s actually genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and whilst the first 15mins I found the protagonists dull, once they start faking it, they’re very entertaining in a hugely Alan Partridge-esque cringeworthy fashion.

Keanu himself doesn’t really feature a whole bunch, but he is the central plot figure that connects the various factions and is really adorable in a combination of real animal acting and a bit of silly CGI. The various factions allure to Keanu is somewhat inexplicable, other than Rell perhaps but you do find yourself falling in love with the little guy whenever he shows up on screen.

It’s a shame this won’t be coming to the UK but I think it’s one that is incredibly hard to market to an audience that has no familiarity to Peele & Key, who are seemingly being pushed as the new Wayans Brothers, in the United States. Hopefully it might make it to streaming sites as a home-only release and it will definitely provide lots of laughs if you enjoy a truly silly comedy with a dash of cuteness for good measure.

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland just doesn’t work.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

tomorrowlandDespite how I may come off on here and on my Twitter from time to time, I am actually rather much an optimist.  Oh sure, I have cynical and realist tendencies – I write for the Internet, for god’s sake, they’re kind of a pre-requisite – but deep down, I am very much an optimist.  I like to believe the best in people, I like to believe that bad people can change over time, that our planet is still salvageable, that one day we may end up living in some kind of wonderful progressive future of sunny optimism.  We might not get jetpacks, but things may be more or less sustainable.  And given the choice between excessively bleak and cynical verging-on-nihilist stories, or idealistic heart-warming tales of happiness and friendship, I will pick the latter almost every time.  In some ways, this makes me childishly naive and unprepared for reality, but what is our day-to-day existence without some semblance of hope?

I tell you all of this not because I enjoy over-sharing about myself on the Internet, but because I want you to know that I agree with almost everything that Tomorrowland is preaching.  That the future does not have to be set towards total annihilation through global warming or thermonuclear war or some kind of natural disaster, that optimism can triumph over cynicism, that those best qualified to save us from such catastrophes should be given free rein to set about doing so, that our obsession with violent destructive media that treats the apocalypse as nothing more than destruction porn is worrying and possibly sets back our willingness to take environmental threats seriously, that cancelling the Space program but keeping a nuclear weapons program going is inexplicable…  I agree with pretty much all of that!

It’s also why I am incredibly disappointed to have to tell you that Tomorrowland just straight up doesn’t work.

I’m not going to mince words or delay the reveal, folks, the reason why Tomorrowland just doesn’t work is because it’s not really a story.  Oh sure, the two problems that you were probably expecting to hear when the time inevitably came for the sentence “Brad Bird has made a bad movie” to be printed are also here.  The last third is a total mess of prior foreshadowing that gets no payoff, that sidelines our supposed lead character, Casey (Britt Robertson), almost totally, and contains random robot violence and explosions that feel almost completely at odds with the “positive thinking can change the future” message that the film had spent 90-odd minutes preaching beforehand – all things that reek of executive meddling wondering why a $180 million Summer blockbuster doesn’t have any action to sell people on and forcing substantial rewrites.  Meanwhile, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s grubby fingerprints are all over the abysmal pacing, structure, and plotting – no 2 hour movie should spend upwards of 70 minutes setting up its story – that kill almost any semblance of emotional depth and resonance.

Those are problems, but even if you stripped them out, this film would still not work.  See, the messages that Tomorrowland wishes to impart are great messages… it’s just that Brad Bird, who directed and co-wrote the story and screenplay, forgot to fashion them onto an actual, y’know, story.  This is the kind of film where characters will shout the film’s ideology back and forth at one another instead of actually performing actions that communicate them without incredibly clunky dialogue.  There are multiple instances where the film will stop, physically stop in its tracks, whilst a character stares just slightly off to the side of the camera and monologues about the righteous indignity that Brad Bird has against our collective cynical apathy.

That second paragraph in this review?  That is quite literally a 3 minute monologue that our nominal villain gives just before the really-quite-terrible whizz-bang action finale kicks off.  I half-expected Bird to just at one point walk on-screen, tell everyone to take 5, and finish the rest of it himself.  The cynical and optimist push-pull protagonist dynamic is the sole thing that Frank (George Clooney) and Casey’s relationship is built on, instead of it being only a part of two fully-rounded characters.  There are no real characters, no emotional stakes, just endless sermonising, that I agree with which is something I find incredibly annoying, about how awful cynicism is and how things need to change.

In fact, I take back my complaint about Lindelof’s “mystery box” storytelling.  He was only trying to hide the fact that there isn’t really a story to this movie, so let’s give him points for trying to make this an actual film instead of just an extended lecture from a High School principal about how very naughty we’ve all been.

Not to mention the times when its themes and ideas end up becoming contradictory for one reason or another.  Tomorrowland believes that our best and brightest should be given their own perfect utopian space to work unencumbered by politics and the law and such, where they are free to create anything they want.  Frank, however, was kicked out of Tomorrowland for… inventing something he shouldn’t have.  There’s a setpiece set in a geek and sci-fi nostalgia shop that’s run by a pair of robot villains (a wasted Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) that insinuates that relaxing and regressing too much in nostalgia instead of thinking up bold new exciting futures is bad and a waste of potential.  Tomorrowland itself… is designed almost entirely like how people in the 60s thought our future would look like and shares influences with the area at various Disney parks.  The film keeps saying that positive thinking, non-violence, and forward-thinking will create a brighter future… but the finale boils it down to fighting robots and trying to destroy the one machine that is certainly going to kill the future.

What’s most frustrating about such massive systemic flaws is that I can see the film that Tomorrowland could and should have been poking through every now and again.  Specifically, the film looks outstanding.  I mean, of course it does, it’s Brad Bird!  The man has always been gifted visually, and I honestly would have been offended if the film didn’t look fantastic.  Besides, I’m a sucker for the visual designs of how people in the 50s and 60s thought the future would look.  There’s a lightness and optimism to the film’s visual palette, a sincerity and love that communicates the general messages of the film in a way that feels natural instead of via the tin-eared lecturing provided by the plotting and dialogue.

There’s also Britt Robertson’s fantastic performance as Casey.  Bird and Lindelof’s script doesn’t give Casey much of a character besides relentless and boundless optimism – this is a high schooler who sits through multiple lectures about how the world is doomed, is the only character who wants to ask the question of how we fix it, and leaves her lecturers speechless when she does, in case you want another indication of just how non-existent this film’s subtext is – but, dammit all, Robertson is going to try and imbue Casey with one, anyway!  It’s a relentless charm offensive, full of charisma, wonder, and a quiet insecurity and sadness, the kind of performance that normally leads to deserved stardom and a long and healthy career.  There are even points where she’s acting circles around George Clooney – who is often good, but feels more than a little miscast as the grumpy cynical member of the main cast that’s rounded out by Raffey Cassidy, as a pre-teen android called Athena, whose relationship with Frank is something I am not even going to touch with a ten-foot pole.

In all of Tomorrowland’s 130 minutes, there are precisely 5 of those where it works totally.  Casey sneaks off to a large open field in order to discover the world that appears when she touches the pin without any of the distractions and restrictions of reality.  So she touches the pin and is instantly dropped into the centre of Tomorrowland.  It is an utterly magical place, filled with pristine surfaces, bright cheery colours, beaming sunshine, skylines, jetpacks, flying cars, rocket ships with seats just for you.  Brad Bird demonstrates all of this in one shot, taking his time when following Casey through this utopia, letting that optimism sink in, as Michael Giacchino’s score emphasises the wonder that is adamant in Casey at this wondrous place.  For 5 glorious minutes, Bird stops shouting at the audience and just shows.  He visualises what our future could be like instead of lecturing us on it, and the sheer joy and childlike hope it features swelled my heart and almost moved me to tears.  It is magical.

But then it is cruelly cut short, the utopia fades away and Casey is left back in reality, waist deep in a swamp.  The pin was not a gateway to Tomorrowland, it was an advertisement for it, marketing for a utopia that exists but not in the way that it sold as.  Infected by cynicism, hopelessness, and a leader that would rather sermonise the people he was originally trying to save instead of actively going out of his way to save them.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tomorrowland, really.

Callum Petch can give you a kiss in the morning and a sweet apology.  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)!