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Pixels

At its best, Pixels is The Big Bang Theory of movies.  That’s not a compliment.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

pixels 1There are currently three potential reviews for Pixels floating around in my head.  All are equally, vehemently negative, but each takes the film to task for a different set of faults.  Yeah, this one really is as bad as you’ve heard it and were expecting it to be.  It’s not quite Entourage levels of bad, but it is really, really damn close.  It is a complete failure as a movie, littered with plot and logic holes that you can drive multiple cement trucks through and boasting atrocious performances and lifeless direction, it is a complete failure as nerd bait, such is the absolute contempt that it shows for those it spends 100 minutes pandering to, and it is a misogynistic piece of utter tripe that caused my blood to genuinely boil in anger at multiple points.

This is horrible.  This is absolutely horrible.  To pay money – real actual cash actual money cash real actual dollar – to watch this movie is to enable all of the horrible, self-absorbed people who were involved in this film’s creative process.  Pixels is a movie that hates its target audience – which, bewilderingly, is videogame lovers who matured in the 80s instead of young kids today who love videogames – hates them all with a fiery passion, but loves itself unabashedly, and so spends its entire runtime insulting the characters that its cast are playing whilst flinging adoring wish-fulfilment affection on its cast and the Adam Sandler personality, otherwise known as all of the worst parts of nerdom.

This is not a movie.  This is Happy Madison’s self-insert fan-fiction about how awesome they are.

Our film starts in 1982, and teenager Sam Brenner is the greatest whiz at videogames who ever lived.  Encouraged by his friend Will Cooper, he enters the 1982 World Videogame Championships, meets the incredibly creepy and paranoid Ludlow Lamonsoff, and promptly loses in the final round to self-absorbed cool gamer Eddie Plant.  The Championships are recorded and used as part of a space probe filled with examples of Earth culture, intended to educate any alien race that finds it.  33 years later, Earth is invaded by aliens who have taken the games as a sign of war.  However, the world can be saved if the citizens of Earth can defeat the aliens in giant real-life versions of classic arcade games, so President Cooper (Kevin James, really) recruits Sam (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad, who has officially burnt up all the goodwill he earned from playing Olaf), and Eddie (Peter Dinklage for some ungodly reason) to save the planet.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I hear some foolish optimist say in the far-off background.  Ah, but you see, I haven’t mentioned the specifics.  Let’s start by talking more about Ludlow Lamonsoff because OH WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LUDLOW LAMONSOFF.  It would be lazily offensive enough if Ludlow was just a hyper-paranoid basement-dwelling nerd who frequently gets into shouting matches with his grandma and believes that The Zapruda Film was edited because “JFK shot first” (in just one example of this film throwing a bunch of random things you know together to create something meaningless yet is supposed to be a joke).  But, no.  It is far, far, far worse than that.

Ludlow is in love with the lead character of an 80s arcade game called Lady Lisa.  In the 80s portion, he sits around creepily holding conversations with the sprite who is incapable of responding in any way shape or form.  Flash forward 33 years and his obsession has not faltered at all.  He has a full-on shrine to her, constantly notes how he has tried to bring her into reality, and frequently makes reference to wishing to marry her.  This is played for goofball “NERD!” laughs, along with the rest of his personality, instead of the deeply-troubling stunted behaviour that it really is.  And, somehow, this ends up plumbing even lower depths once the aliens inevitably use her as one of their invading force soldiers later on.  I can’t get into it here because spoilers – early next week on my new website (callumpetch.com), there will be a spoiler-filled look at the awfulness of this whole thing – but you had better believe that it caused me to shout “FUCK YOU!” at the film in the middle of a semi-crowded screening.

Eddie, meanwhile, is currently in prison for various incredibly unimportant reasons.  His demands for his release include his own island, a helicopter, not having to pay taxes, and a three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.  He gets the last two, which, yes, means that he is being paid in women who have no say in the matter.  The film, in fairness, wheels this back somewhat, before plunging ahead full-steam just before the credits roll as yet another part of one of the most hatefully sexist final reels I have ever seen in a blockbuster motion picture.

Then there is Sam.  Sam is The Adam Sandler Character, surprising nobody since this is a Happy Madison movie.  You know the drill by now: aggressively mean, ragingly sexist, spends almost all of the time that the movie runs for insulting his love interest – this time being thanklessly played by Michelle Monaghan and, good lord, what dirt did the casting director have on this lot (which also includes Brian Cox, Sean Bean, and a Jane Krakowski who is quite literally just a background decoration that hangs off of Kevin James’ arm in her every appearance) to get them to appear in this?! – and making claims like she’s a snob for not wanting to have sex with him.  Oh, did I forget to mention that they both meet very shortly after she finds out that her high-school-sweetheart husband is divorcing her and that Sam is the one who keeps initiating the flirting against her will?  Cos those are things that happen.

Now, in fairness, if this was where our cast started and they grew and changed as the movie went on, then maybe I’d be able to let this slide.  As a bunch of terrible people grew up emotionally into non-shitty people who could move on from their glory days and manchild ways.  But that’s not what happens.  In fact, none of these people change.  At all.  These characters remain the exact same for 105 minutes barring one development for Sam, which doesn’t actually have anything to do with him improving as a person, and Eddie, who becomes less of a jerk to guys and also has a development that has nothing to do with him as a person.  There are no arcs, no real developments, no change, no growth.  These people start off as they are and then are rewarded for how they are with fame and women despite being terrible raging sexists.

And it’s not just offensive in how that leads to a glamorisation of all of the worst, most entitled parts of geekiness and nerdom – the ones who completely believed their parents when they were told by them that one day everything will come to them and that women will love them for who they are, and so never changed – it’s offensive in how it leads to a movie with nothing going on.  Oh, sure, there are big (supposedly) expensive action scenes and world-ending stakes, but there’s nothing really going on.  No depth, nothing below the surface that isn’t just being ragingly, actively sexist.

Why are any of these people the way that they are, besides fodder for snobby outdated and lazy “NERDS!” jokes?  Why is Kevin James’ president character still friends with Adam Sandler 33 years on, for reasons other than “to make the plot happen”?  Why does the offending game footage have to be captured from the championships that our characters enter?  Other than the fact that they use some of the games that the guys have played, it’s never once brought up even though this information in the prologue SHOULD ACTUALLY MEAN SOMETHING!  Why mention that the aliens were once a peaceful race until they found the probe if that’s not actually going to mean anything in the finale?!  You’d think that would lead to an ending that’s solved through words instead of pointless power fantasy wish fulfilment, but nope!  Evil aliens!  Donkey Kong!

That kind of absolute laziness abounds throughout so much of the film that I don’t feel guilty for nitpicking, because it’s indicative of how little thought went into the movie as a whole.  Why do the humans spend the first and last games being the good guys, yet spend the Pac-Man game being the ghosts?  Why does Q*bert not speak Q*bertese?  Why are there things like Tetris and Max Headroom running about when they came well after 1982, which is when the probe went up?  Since Q*bert is a trophy given to the humans after winning a game, why do the aliens refer to him as a traitor later on?  They GAVE THE HUMANS Q*Bert!  Why is Lady Lisa, during the full-on invasion, rendered as a real person instead of an 8-bit sprite?  What is the deal with the entire Iwatani – who is not the real Professor Iwatani, although the real Iwatani does cameo, so, other question: why isn’t Iwatani just playing himself – Pac-Man segment?  Everybody knows that these are aliens pretending to be videogame characters so why, in this moment, does everybody pretend that they aren’t?

Since when can you perform cheat codes in Arcade games?  Why can this somehow translate to reality?  And, more importantly, WHY THE FUCK IS THIS GLARING FACTUAL INACCURACY A CENTRAL GODDAMN PLOT POINT?!

See, that right there is all the evidence one needs to realise that Pixels is not fit for purpose.  Seriously, WHO IS THIS MOVIE FOR?  It’s definitely not for kids, despite the focus on videogames and the presence of characters and games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, because most of its “humour” traffics in sex gags, 80s references, gay panic jokes, and outdated “NERD!” stereotypes, not to mention the toxic sexism that developing minds should be kept far away from.  It’s not even for nerds, because it spends 105 minutes spitting in their faces with every last lazy cliché that has ever been levelled at nerds over the years – the movie equivalent of The Big Bang Theory.  Christ, it’s arguably not even for those who matured in the 80s, since it doesn’t do anything with any part of its set-up that a million other films haven’t done better.

No, Pixels is for Happy Madison.  It’s for Adam Sandler, it’s for Kevin James, it’s for the film’s director Chris Columbus.  This is their self-insert power-fantasy, where they play terrible man-children who are hated by the world for (at least according to the film’s point of view) no good reason, until they end up saving us all without having to grow or change or improve as people and we all love them because, aww, they’re not such bad guys after all(!)  And then women throw themselves at them for being so amazing and everything ends peachy-keen.  What really gets me is that the film is so blatant about this.  There’s no pretence that this is anything other than an extended ego-stroking or masturbation session that we are all voluntarily subjecting ourselves to.

Do you want to know how obvious this is?  Kevin James plays The President Of The United States.  He’s apparently near-illiterate, and he starts the film off being hated, seemingly because his policies are causing financial ruin for the younger generation and he’s lead America into some kind of war.  But he’s just such a lovable bumbling kind-hearted kinda guy who just wants to spend time with his wife and friends, and can’t the media just get off his back already?  And then, once he starts turning the tide of the alien invasion, EVERYBODY loves him!  This is represented by a scene in which a dastardly reporter tries to trip him up at a press conference with a tough question filled with big words but is foiled because every other journalist shouts at the mean reporter, Kevin James gives a witty answer, and we end the scene with everybody pointing and laughing at the meany-pants reporter who is crying after being thoroughly served.

You know what?  I retract my sub-heading.  At least The Big Bang Theory is made for the enjoyment of other people.  Pixels exists to serve nobody but the people who made it as a 105 minute exercise in them telling themselves that they are awesome as they are and everybody who says otherwise is a mean-old jerk.  The very last thing that any of us should do is enable this shit by giving them money for it.

Callum Petch got Pac-Man fever, it’s driving him crazy.  He now writes for his own website (callumpetch.com)! Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Inside Out

Inside Out is beautiful.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

inside outI’ve sat here for the last three hours trying to figure out how to start this review.  See, Inside Out is a fantastic movie – that much is not up for debate.  It’s not only the best Pixar movie released this decade, it might genuinely be the best thing that they have ever done.  It’s certainly their most emotional and their most emotionally honest, no surprise given that the film’s director and main creative force is Up and Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter whose work is characterised by emotional honesty and an uncanny ability to zero in exactly on everyone’s weak-spots.  This is quite possibly the best film that I have seen all year, and if it hasn’t bested Mad Max: Fury Road then it is right up there.

It’s also a film that gains a lot of its power from my own emotional baggage.  This is a film that is fantastic as a movie in many objective ways, but it’s also a film that connected with me so thoroughly, so totally, and so attuned to myself that my opinions and thoughts on it are mostly informed by that fact.  In other words: this film is amazing by itself, but it is transcendental to me because of my various issues and experiences.  So, to properly explain that, I would have to talk about this film and myself in-depth for a very prolonged stretch of time: both no-nos in the world of film reviewing.

Therefore, you can expect this review to be much less in-depth, and much shorter, than my other animation reviews because I’m going to stick to surface-level criticism and analysis.  By which I mean, why the film is a fantastic film.  For those of you who do care about why I love the film as much as I do, there will be a spoiler-filled and very personal post on my own new website – callumpetch.com, tell your friends – later in the week where I will engage in all of the writer no-nos in an attempt to properly explain how the film connected with me and why I put it right up there with Fury Road.  That all OK?  If not, too bad, I’m the one writing this stuff.

So, Inside Out.  Now, normally when we label an animated feature as small-scale, what we mean is that the main cast is smaller than usual and that the stakes are slightly more personal than usual.  Look at something like Big Hero 6.  Most of that movie pivots around Hiro and Baymax, and the main stakes come from Hiro working through his grief.  However, the film still has a rather large secondary cast, the stakes outside of Hiro’s emotional state are much wider-reaching, and the film still has multiple large-scale action beats and setpieces.  In a way, Big Hero 6 is a small-scale film, but in many respects it’s not that much different from your standard big studio animated movies nowadays, that often trade more and more on bigness.

Not so with Inside Out.  Pete Docter’s newest masterpiece commits completely to that small-scale, utilising it to wrestle with big concepts and never once succumbing to the requirements of The Big Studio Animated Family Feature Factory.  Throughout Inside Out, the stakes remain deeply personal and the events on screen reflect it.  When 11 year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) finds herself uprooted without warning from her lovely home and life in Minnesota to inner-San Francisco by her parents, her emotions, led by Joy (Amy Poehler), try and help her adjust to this change.  Things swiftly go wrong, however, when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally turns a joyous core memory sad and, in the chaos, she and Joy are ejected from Riley’s headquarters with all of the core memories.  Dumped into Long-Term Memory, the pair have to make their way back whilst Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) attempt to perform damage control since Riley can no longer feel Joy or Sadness.

Essentially, the stakes are purely about whether Riley can avoid emotionally shutting down now that she’s been forced away by circumstances beyond her control from her enjoyable life.  There is no villain, no purposefully antagonistic force – one would think that Anger or Disgust would work to make Riley’s life hell but, in reality, they’re just trying their best to stand in for Joy – and there is no one major specific event that brings this issue to light.  It’s all the little things – the disappointment in a new house, the loneliness that comes from not knowing anyone, the discovery that your friends’ lives don’t stop once you leave them, finding out that your new nearby pizza place makes garbage food – that slowly break someone down as they struggle to adjust.  How someone who has spent most of the best moments of their life feeling happy struggles to understand that feeling sad and showing that you feel sad are not bad things.

Those are the stakes, that’s the scale, and Inside Out commits completely to them.  There’s no giant threatening outside force, there’s no big action-packed finale.  This is a quiet melancholy tale about emotional maturation, and specifically the emotional maturation of a young girl as represented via a look at her cute and often funny little emotions.  The film is funny – it has many gut-busters and ends on what will quite frankly be the funniest gag I see in any film this year – and it has many utterly inspired scenarios and usages for its central conceit of a glimpse into one’s brain, but it is primarily this low-key story about a serious subject and it never once contradicts or downplays that in favour of big setpiece sequences or excess melodrama.

Instead, the film hits upon something real and never loses sight of that kind of honesty.  It never pulls its punches, never sugarcoats anything, and that leads to some of the most emotionally affecting sequences in Pixar’s history.  Because they’re working so close to reality, and only very slightly dressing it up with distancing parallels – like how Monsters, Inc. uses monsters and scaring as a parallel for our natural resources, or (more relatedly) how Toy Story uses the toys we played with as a kid to look at growing up – there ends up being this unavoidable directness with how it handles these vital sequences, and the fact that it never plays a single one of these as anything other than these quiet moments of important realisation and self-improvement adds to that.  The most drastic action that Riley takes is still befitting that intimate feel, raising the stakes but not in an excessively dramatic way.

And that abounds throughout.  From the way that Joy and the others treat Sadness because they don’t understand her necessity, to the way that the film is always on Sadness’ side even when it’s mining her for quality jokes, to the way that the film keeps its focus locked firmly on Riley and her headspace – it only steps into the heads of other characters once during the movie itself, before using that idea during the credits for a series of rapid-fire gags to send the audience home happy – to the way that the film is able to take advantage of things like how Riley’s dreams are made but doesn’t outstay its welcome in them.  Every aspect of this film has clearly been carefully deliberated on to achieve that balance between realistic and distancing buffer, fun joy and heartbreaking sadness.  It’s a perfectly melancholy movie whose tight personal view is never once sacrificed for any reason.

That’s why Inside Out works.  There’s also some outstanding voice work – especially from Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith – some gorgeous animation, and another brilliant score by Michael Giacchino (who just always seems to create his best work when associated with Pixar), but those are really by-products of Pete Docter nailing that scale and tone.  By remaining small-scale throughout, by remaining openly emotional throughout, and by remaining honest and upfront about the subject that it is handling throughout (because it would have been so easy to put in some kind of antagonistic force in order dilute the emotional potency), he and the entire team at Pixar have created one truly mesmerising piece of cinema.

This is the kind of film that puts most grown-up dramas about emotional wellbeing to shame, this is the kind of film that proves what animation is capable of, this is either the best or the second-best film that I have seen all year.  Inside Out is not optional.  This is mandatory viewing.  Go and see this movie right the hell now.

Callum Petch is waking up feeling good and limber.  He now writes primarily for his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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)!

Everly

Violent, trashy, and boasting an outstanding lead turn by Salma Hayek, Everly is the calling card that Joe Lynch deserves.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

2014, EVERLYJoe Lynch is one of those guys who feels like he really should be a better known name in genre movie circles than he is.  He first appeared on radars with 2009’s surprisingly great Wrong Turn 2, and followed that up with a segment in the apparently great and under-seen (I am one of those who have yet to see it) Chillerama in 2011.  He should have broken big with 2012’s Knights of Badassdom… but the film was taken away from him by its producers, significantly edited down against his will, kept in release window purgatory for well after the initial hype had died down, and then was dumped into cinemas last year with no fanfare, ultimately being a disappointment, albeit one with clear potential (that may exist in the director’s cut that we will likely never get to see).

This is all kind of a shame, but it does make Lynch a lovable underdog for me.  I want to see this guy succeed, cos he clearly has a tonne of potential, and a fun and unique approach to gory mayhem.  If he could just be given a proper opportunity, one that wasn’t tied down to straight-to-DVD horror movies (that never get their proper due if they are good) or meddled to death by producers, then I knew that he could put out a damn great B-movie.  Fortunately, Everly is neither a straight-to-DVD horror flick and nor has it been unnecessarily meddled with by producers, and it makes for as great a calling card as any because Everly is a heck of a lot of fun.

Set in something close to real-time and taking place almost entirely in one apartment, Everly (Salma Hayek) is a woman who was kidnapped four years prior to the film by a Yakuza boss to be his personal sex slave.  She has not seen the outside of her apartment nor has she had any contact with her mother Edith (Laura Cepeda) or her young daughter since then, although she has been working with a police officer in an attempt to bring the gang down.  Her boss, however, has discovered her betrayal, killed the officer, and ordered some of his men to kill her as punishment.  Unable to leave the apartment and with a bounty placed on her head after the initial hit fails, Everly now has to survive long enough for her mother and daughter to meet up with her, so she can give them a rucksack full of cash that will allow them to get away from the Yakuza’s reach.

And… that’s pretty much it.  It’s a simple premise for a lean, mean, 90 minute action movie, and Lynch and the film’s writer, Yale Hannon, wring it for every last possible drop.  This is a film that careens wildly between tense scenes of uncomfortable violence, to bloody slapstick, to quiet drama, to fun and cathartic action sequences, to extremely pitch-black comedy with barely any time to breathe between each switch.  That will probably turn off some people, but I happened to dig it.  It reminded me a fair bit of the recent works of Matthew Vaughn, except if he just completely let go of any restraints he placed on himself, it’s that kind of mischievous “we don’t do anything by halves” approach to action filmmaking, albeit a lot bloodier.

Yes, if you like your action bloody with a capital B and violent with a capital V, then Everly is absolutely the movie for you.  I haven’t had the pleasure of watching an action movie that is this joyously committed to sending the claret flying everywhere at the cinema in a near-literal age, although there are many scenes that were incredibly hard to watch, so committed is this film to violence-ass violence.  That said, though, this isn’t just violence for the sake of violence, although there is some of that.  The film actually makes a big deal out of the aftermath of each confrontation and the restrictive nature of Everly’s apartment.  The bodies and blood don’t just magically disappear between scenes so they end up informing the geography of later action scenes, as well as a sequence of character-based tension at about the film’s halfway point.  Lynch’s horror roots are undoubtedly a reason for the emphasis on the aftermath of these action scenes, but it does make for a refreshing change of pace in a genre that normally enjoys getting away from the aftermath of violence as soon as possible.

Also refreshing, Everly herself.  In contrast to the usual emotionless, hyper-competent badasses that usually turn up whenever a woman is given the chance to lead an action movie, Everly is human.  She has some talent with firearms, but she’s not a crack shot.  She is capable under pressure and in overwhelming situations, but she’s not invincible.  She can be tough and determined, but she’s also barely holding it together and running mainly on survival instincts for herself and her family.  Everly feels incredibly well-rounded, basically, with multiple sides to her, reminiscent of The Bride from Kill Bill, albeit not as fully developed as that character for obvious reasons.  And because Everly feels three-dimensional, she’s that much more relatable, that much more root-able, it makes the times where she’s at risk that much more tense and the times where she’s unleashing hellfire upon her would-be attackers that much more cathartic.

Although the well-handled script provides that groundwork, Salma Hayek is the reason why Everly works so totally as a character.  She completely throws herself into the role, switching smoothly and convincingly through each facet of Everly without ever letting one overshadow the rest.  She’s convincingly tough, but not excessively so.  She’s warm and motherly when necessary, but is also befittingly awkward for someone who hasn’t been able to be a mother for most of her child’s life.  Everly’s also in way over her head and Salma lets us, the audience, into that fear throughout almost the whole movie, never burying that fear under excess Tough Girl vibes.  A lesser actress would have made the character a complete mess, the kind that alternates between “hyper-competent badass” and “crying trainwreck” with no nuance, but Hayek finds that through-line and nuance, and that helps make Everly feel like a consistent character.  She is so good in this role that I sat there wondering why casting directors haven’t put her in everything already, and why she’s mostly been wasting her talents on Happy Madison vehicles for the last half-decade.

(Also, if you’ll let me be frank, it’s pretty damn great to see a non-white non-twentysomething woman being cast in a role like this.  Can this happen more often please, movie industry?  Thank you!)

However, there are a few things that keep Everly from being one of the very best genre pictures of the last few years.  For one, it’s another action movie that has to dangle the threat of rape over its heroine; the film actually opens with the sounds (but not images as the film never shows it) of Everly being raped.  I get why this seems necessary, but you don’t need to depict rape in any form for the audience to get the message, especially so in this post-Fury Road world that we reside in, so it’s disappointing to see it happen here.  There’s an extended torture scene around the two-thirds mark that goes on just a little too long, seems to take a little too much pleasure in turning the screws and ratcheting up the tension for Everly and the audience, and has a payoff that doesn’t quite justify the amount of time spent on the build-up.  And the post-finale beat – and, incidentally, I really liked the final confrontation, although I know that it will rankle the hell out of you if you’re a member of the “WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHOOT THEM?” crowd – feels more than a little gratuitous and openly manipulative in the form that it takes.

For me, though, these ended up being minor quibbles.  I found Everly to be an absolute blast, being gloriously violent, loads of dark trashy fun, stylish, and many other redundant words to describe the highly entertained state that I was in for the entire time it was playing in front of me.  It’s a fantastic star turn for Salma Hayek, a distinctive calling card for Joe Lynch, and just a damn fine film in its own right.  I had a lot of fun with this one, and I can damn-near guarantee that you will too if you like your B-movies bloody, trashy, and damn great.  Seek it out.

Callum Petch will go down for his sins.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Knock Knock

Well, at least Keanu Reeves is still picking interesting projects?

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

WARNING: Minor-ish spoilers for Knock Knock, semi-major spoilers for the 1971 version of Straw Dogs, and possible Trigger Warning for discussion of rape scenes.

knock knock reevesI think Knock Knock is attempting to run on the Straw Dogs principle.  Allow me to explain.

In the 1971 version of Straw Dogs – the good one, in case you need further distinction between the two films – there is a centrepiece sequence in which Amy, the wife of David, is raped by Charlie.  The scene has become infamous, however, because of how ambiguous it is seen to be by many people for, at a certain point during the rape, Amy can be seen by some to enjoy it, indicated by her kissing and embracing Charlie, possibly turning the rape into consensual sex. It turns the scene into something much less clear-cut, that can distort or enhance the film’s subtext depending on how you view it, although it is important to mention that Amy has traumatic flashbacks to it throughout the rest of the movie, and that her second rape later on is clearly and unambiguously a rape.

Although it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, Knock Knock seemingly wants to use that principle to fuel its entire movie.  Evan (Keanu Reeves) is a devoted and loving husband and father who, one night when his wife and children are away on a trip, provides shelter for two women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), who are stranded in the cold and rain lost on their way to a party.  They then proceed to, whilst waiting for a cab, slowly start coming onto Evan, who frequently and firmly rebuffs their advances.  Then, when the cab does arrive and it’s time for them to leave, they approach Evan, naked, unzip his trousers and, despite his pleas, give him a blowjob, eventually transitioning into full-on sex between the three of them.

The second half of Knock Knock chronicles their subsequent punishment of Evan for the sex, using the justification that Evan is completely deserving of this because he didn’t stop them.  The fact that the sex kept going after the initial blowjob is treated, by the two girls and the film itself despite Evan’s constant pleas that he didn’t want to do it and is a loyal father and loving family man, as though it were consensual and that Evan should just have said “no”.  Except that he did.  Frequently and emphatically.  And the film goes to great strides during its second half to show that, no, Evan could not have physically stopped them from overpowering him, because if he could break free and stop them at any time the film would be over.  Evan was, at least from where I am sitting – and though I have talked with many people about this, I am still not completely certain or confident in saying this, so feel free to continue this debate in a civilised manner in the comments or on my Twitter – raped, yet the film treats him as if he could have just stopped it at any time.

That is an extremely privileged and rather reprehensible viewpoint that, if the genders were reversed, would be taken as being a rape apologist.  But it’s what the entire film bases its moral compass on and, therefore, its second half on.  And it’s so tone-deaf and just plain wrong, not to mention its marginalisation and discrediting of female-on-male rape, that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  “This can’t be the film’s entire message and point.  There has to be a twist coming, a reveal that will change this whole thing completely.”  But it didn’t, and there is no twist, which is just bewildering to me.  After all, movies like this are basically morality plays and I cannot believe that this film’s message is “Don’t ever cheat on your wife, being raped is no excuse.”

By which I mean, I literally cannot believe it because, well, this film is too utterly ridiculous to be taken as a straight-faced erotic horror-thriller.  The dialogue is utterly ridiculous – Keanu Reeves earnestly extolling the virtue of vinyl is something that really needs to be seen to be believed – the characters are paper-thin, the tension is nearly non-existent because the film gets really stupid the further in it gets, the acting is legitimately laughable – including a woefully miscast Reeves who spends pretty much the entire time purposefully giving the exact opposite of his John Wick-quality performance – and the payoff to this seemingly straight-faced tense and terrifying horror-thriller is… two full-on honest-to-god gags.  Not of the unintentional kind, of which this film has plenty, but of the genuine intentional kind.  One of them’s actually pretty damn funny, too.

So I’m having a hard time taking Knock Knock seriously because… well, I really don’t know if it wants to be taken seriously.  It’s so ridiculous, so histrionic and melodramatic, that I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a ridiculous parody or is just so completely inept that it’s coming off like this.  So is the film sincere in its primary message – and secondary message of “Bitches be crazy” – or is it just negligence brought on from nobody adjusting the film’s moral compass to be more firmly behind Evan or the girls?  Is Keanu Reeves – because, good lord, he deserves every last Razzie that’s going to be thrown his way come end of year, and I say this as one of his absolute biggest fans – purposefully being so hammily terrible or is just hammily terrible?

What’s more… I don’t hate this movie.  It is an incredibly bad movie with a reprehensible moral compass (if everyone involved is being serious) and nothing to recommend about it besides its unintentional hilarity, but I don’t hate it.  I think I was honestly having fun at how utterly terrible this film was, like I was watching a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 candidate unfolding in front of my eyes, if that show were still with us.  Like, the film is pure garbage, but it wasn’t the kind of garbage that causes me to sit and question why we as a collective humanity exist and why I am wasting my life watching the film in front of me.  Knock Knock is almost, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, so bad that it’s good, even though it’s kind of an embodiment of every MRA douchebag “aren’t women so mean to nice guys” and rape apologist ever at the same time, somehow.

And yet I don’t hate it, and I’m afraid for what that says about me as a person.

Callum Petch is cheating on you, yeah.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Minions

Minions is a precision-tuned, finely-honed, 91 minute joke machine.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

minionsThe best parts of the otherwise middling Despicable Me, which I’ve never quite gotten as a whole in the same way everybody else seems to have, were the Minions.  I mean, what’s not to love about the Minions?  Their design is simple yet distinctive and adorable, their collectively simplistic and mischievous personalities are endearing, Pierre Coffin’s voice work – that combines words of various languages and straight up babbling into nonsense sentences – of each Minion is stellar, and they’re home to the film’s best examples of ridiculous physical comedy.  They’re great comic inventions, so it makes sense that the second Despicable Me would double down on their screen time and that they would eventually, much like their Madagascar counterparts in the form of The Penguins, get their own solo spin-off movie.

It also stands to reason that their appeal would run out quickly when turned from minor comic show-stealers to vital part of the plot to main stars of their own movie.  However, much like The Penguins, that’s yet to happen.  Despicable Me 2 was far better than the first movie, although the increased Minions screen-time is not the sole or even main reason for that, and Minions manages to keep up that comic momentum for pretty much all of its 91 minutes.  Unlike the Penguins of Madagascar movie, Minions is not a film that wants to add legitimate emotional depth to its comic creations, barring one small little scene cribbed straight from The Land Before Time.  Instead, it just wants to turn them loose for 91 straight minutes of loud, ridiculous slapstick silliness.

And that’s OK, because it works!  Or, at least, it worked for me.  There are some lame gags, namely whenever the Minions break out into choreographed song-and-dance routines, but most come thick, fast, and with a resounding cleverness and intelligence to the way it performs its slapstick.  The rhythm and pacing of the film’s comedy is such that film almost never lingers on any punchline for an excessive amount of time, perhaps best epitomised by a short gag where the Minions escape from a polar bear by swimming away on a sheet of ice only to immediately try turning around when they spot a grizzly bear on the other side of the lake, with the film cutting to a different scene almost as soon as the second bear is revealed instead of holding it for diminishing laughs.

That kind of blistering pace is kept up throughout the film.  Don’t like this one joke?  Don’t worry, another 7 will be along in a few seconds, maybe one of those will take your fancy instead!  The story – which, for what it’s worth, involves Minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all Pierre Coffin) trekking off to find a boss for their kind to serve, stumbling into the life of female supervillain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) in the process – zips by as a result, being the launching pad for the gags instead of anything worthy of proper scrutiny, and any and all attempts at creating legitimate emotional depth will be undercut at every last opportunity by one gag or another.  Again, this would be a problem if the film wasn’t riotously funny, but I found it to be, I was in hysterics pretty much the entire time.

Strangely though, for me, the Minions almost end up being upstaged in their own movie by the supporting cast.  By its prequel nature, Minions gets the chance to explore the world of villainy more than both of the Despicable Me movies have been able to, which allows for a whole bunch of utterly ridiculous gag characters to make brief appearances – a time-travelling villain who keeps bringing his future self back for menial tasks, a prideful sumo wrestler, a unicycle-riding clown who juggles and spills bombs, one beautifully brilliant bait-and-switch that I don’t plan on spoiling here.  Their appearances are short but memorable and, although the film still doesn’t dig as deep into its world as I would like for it to do, they help shade in the world, make it feel like there is a world outside of our otherwise limited cast.

Which brings me onto Scarlet Overkill.  I love Scarlet Overkill.  I love everything about Scarlet Overkill.  I love her initial owning of her sexuality.  I love her amazing fashion sense.  I love her driven personality that starts off as affable and slowly goes more crazed and straight up evil as the Minions keep inadvertently screwing up her plans.  I love her wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions and body language.  I love Sandra Bullock’s slowly-unhinging voice work.  I love her relationship with her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), a relationship that is shown to be rock solid and filled with genuine devotion, in a sharp contrast to how most marriages are shown in movies, yet doesn’t fully define her life.  I love how much the film is willing to make her the butt of the joke and how funny she gets to be.  I love how she doesn’t command the film despite being, arguably, the best thing about it.  …I just think that she’s an amazing character, basically.

Animation-wise, Minions sticks to the Illumination standard, with simple yet endearing character designs in very good yet not amazing environments.  That said, Minions does show Illumination making strides in terms of technical strength, even if they still haven’t quite carved out an identity of their own yet.  Specifically, I really like the film’s commitment to shading.  Rather than working entirely from primary versions of the film’s various yellows and oranges, Illumination instead utilises different strengths of each colour to create this warm, comfortable glow that’s most noticeable when Kevin and Stuart are searching for Bob in a New York shopping mall.  It almost feels like a warm nostalgic filter that works very well for the 1968 setting, but also keeps the visual style from being a garish technicolour overload.

As much as I found myself laughing at Minions, though, I did also find myself missing that emotional undercurrent that could have pushed the film into being fantastic instead of just great.  Again, the film proceeds to undercut any attempt at legitimate emotional depth with a gag at any time; even the collective depression of the Minion tribe is played for ridiculous laughs instead of anything we’re supposed to take seriously, whilst the bond between Kevin and Stuart and Bob mostly just comes down to ‘these three share screen-time together’.  That is all fine because, again, the film is funny enough to make this a non-major issue, but I recalled how Penguins of Madagascar was able to foster a legitimate emotional depth and connection between its main protagonists and how pulling that off managed to push that film into being one of last year’s best animated features.  So I ended up a little disappointed in that not being the case here, especially since one of the reasons why Despicable Me 2 was such an improvement from the first one was because that emotional grounding was there.

Nevertheless, and despite it still not painting enough of a distinct or unique identity for Illumination to capitalise on in future films (more on that later this week), I really enjoyed Minions.  I’d been having a really miserable past few weeks prior to walking into the film, and so all I wanted it to do was make me laugh and cheer me up.  I just wanted something to laugh at for 91 minutes, I wanted what the film was selling me.  And I did.  A lot.  I laughed from the opening credits, that trace the origin and evolution of the Minion species, right up until the close, where it ties the whole story back into the standard Despicable Me series far quicker than I thought it would.  That is all I wanted, and that is exactly what I got, so I am more than satisfied with Minions.

Callum Petch made the scene, week to week, day to day, hour to hour.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Accidental Love

Accidental Love should have stayed unreleased.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

accidental loveAccidental Love has a long history behind it that I feel is worth mentioning before I attempt to impart coherent thoughts on the film itself.  See, the film was originally titled Nailed and its production first began in April of 2008 before being shut down once James Caan left over creative differences.  His role was recast and filming started again, before being shut down again.  Then it started up again, then was shut down again.  This happened 4 times over the course of two months, either via delays or just straight up shutting down production, leading to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees to finally shut down production for good – supposedly on the final, crucial, plot-kicking-off-event day of shooting – in June 2008 as the crew weren’t getting paid.

The film then languished in purgatory for a full year and a half, before David O. Russell quit his directorial role, supposedly after clashing hard with the film’s producer, Ron Tutor, leading to 2010 re-shoots (no really) being done by somebody else.  An unfinished cut was screened in Los Angeles in March of 2011, supposedly without the knowledge of any of the cast or crew, in an attempt to find a distributor.  And now, four years after that screening and seven years after principal photography first begin, the film is finally seeing a release to the general public, albeit with an entirely different and hilariously generic title, and with O. Russell’s director and co-screenwriter credit changed to Stephen Greene because… well, I think you understand why he wanted his name removed from this regardless of how the film turned out.

So, it very much seems like the universe was out to get David O. Russell, that it was going out of its way to ensure that none of us had to bear witness to Accidental Love.  Unfortunately for us all, it didn’t go far enough.  Accidental Love got out and…  I honestly have no words.  I really don’t.  I got nothing here, folks.  I sat through all 100 minutes and I honestly could not tell you what happened, or what it was about, or what the point was, or why any part of this exists.  It’s one of those movies where quite literally every single thing is wrong, to such an extent that I have no idea what this film could have been even if it weren’t mired in production hell.  Could this has been a good movie at any stage?  I don’t know, I honestly do not know.

Here’s the gist of the set-up.  Jessica Biel plays a happy waitress at a throwback diner who is about to get married to pompous self-involved jackass James Marsden.  At the restaurant of the proposal, however, she suffers a freak accident and ends up with a three-inch nail in her head that can cause sudden mood-swings, unavoidable onsets of lust, and occasional lapses into Portuguese (for some reason).  Denied surgery because she doesn’t have healthcare, and with James bailing on her because he’s a self-involved jackass, she ends up inspired to travel to Washington D.C. when she sees an advert for a freshman congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in an attempt to coerce him into passing a bill providing free emergency health care for herself and her friends, a preacher with an inflamed penis (Kurt Fuller) and his charge’s prolapsed arse (Tracy Morgan).

Then, things get really weird.  There are a group of Girl Scouts who get involved for… some reason that I think is due to Shakira because that whole concept sounded funny to… someone.  Catherine Keener plays the Congresswoman who is opposed to this sort of thing because it might encourage child lesbianism, which she is also against, and she’s trying to push through a bill to build a military base on the moon because… reasons.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel fall in love because he could give her an orgasm whilst James Marsden couldn’t which is… something, alright.  There’s a moment late in the film where Gyllenhaal runs off to join a tribe in order to become a man and he either excessively bronzed up or just straight up blacked up (I honestly couldn’t tell, the lighting in this movie is abysmal) because… I honestly just do not know.

Look, I love me some absurdism.  Literally 18 hours prior to my typing these words, I just got done watching Wet Hot American Summer for the first time and I laughed harder at that than I had at anything else in months.  But the best absurdism, sort of contrary to the entire point of the concept but there you go, has a central point to it, a reason as to why, in a WHAS example, a man is dry-humping a fridge whilst a crowd of 10 year-old kids cheer him on.  But Accidental Love really doesn’t seem to have a point.  I think it purports to be a political satire?  Yet its satire is on the level of middle-schoolers who have watched a few episodes of The Daily Show but don’t at all get why that show is so good – Republicans oppose health care because they’re paranoid hate-filled lunatics, and it’s impossible to do good in politics because nobody’s got any principles.  Very insightful satire, folks.  Next you’ll blow my mind by telling me that Capitalism is a bad thing we should all rebel against.

Then there’s the fact that this is just shot and designed appallingly.  There’s this half-assed Tim Burton-y feel to the film’s pre-D.C. locations, where nothing feels quite real in this obvious stagey way, but is done with even less effort than Burton has in recent years (and which he did far better in last year’s sadly ignored Big Eyes, natch).  The camera spends much of its time tilted at 45-degree angles for no particular reason, everything seems to be underlit all the time (as I’ve already mentioned), and there is this dreadful Danny Elfman-esque score backing damn near everything.  The score is really irritating, I cannot stress that enough, so excessively quirky and blaring and zany and straining to communicate just how ka-RAAAYYYYZEEE the movie you are watching is and I hate it I hate it I hate I hate I hate I hate hate hate hate…

That score ends up indicative of the film in general.  It’s trying way, way too hard to be quirky and off-beat and Indie, yet doesn’t seem to have had any actual effort put into it anywhere.  It feels like a film that just had a whole bunch of the stupidest ideas thrown into it randomly and with no concerted effort to have the resulting concoction make any sense, have any actual point, or be any good.  It’s not funny, I’ll tell you that much, and everybody screaming their dialogue really fast at the top of their lungs does not disguise that fact.  I don’t know what this film is.  Are there supposed to be jokes?  Cos I didn’t find any.  Is this supposed to be a satire?  Are we supposed to laugh at Jessica Biel, since her condition keeps trying be played for laughs like the film believes that people who suffer mental damage from strange accidents is hilarious?  Are we supposed to like any of these frequently and outwardly horrible people?  I don’t know, I don’t know, I just do not know.

Just… I… It seriously just blows my mind that human beings made this.  Like, I’m used to good actors giving bad performances in bad movies – it’s like this was purposefully timed to remind us all that Jake Gyllenhaal can, in fact, give the polar opposite of the quality of his Nightcrawler performance when he really tries – and for (apparently, since I’m still yet to see a David O. Russell movie that I actually like) good directors to make terrible movies, but this…  Accidental Love goes beyond that.  This is so utterly inept, so totally incompetent, and so thoroughly and fundamentally wrongheaded and misguided that I see no universe in which this could have turned out to be any good.  Even if its production went off without a hitch, even if it weren’t so thoroughly outdated by now, I still cannot imagine this…  I…

I’m sorry, I just can’t believe that this was made by living functioning human beings.

Callum Petch, while you were sleeping, took over your town.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Jurassic World

Jurassic World is honestly kind of a bad film, but I love it anyway.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

jurassic worldThere’s this thing about irony: if you coat enough of your work in it, it can lead a critic to become genuinely confused as to where the intentional faults and flaws end and the unintentional ones begin.  It’s honestly a pretty brilliant tactic, cos how am I supposed to know what is an intentional mistake and what isn’t when almost the entire point of the movie is being drowned in irony and satire?  Especially when the film itself calls out in-universe its satirical and ironic aims and intentions.

Jurassic World is a film that swims in irony, perhaps too much for its own good, occasionally appearing to use that as a defence mechanism for the rest of the film.  Is the fact that almost every last dinosaur is a never-quite fully convincing CGI effect a comment on modern filmmaking’s detrimental obsession with CGI or just a detrimental obsession with CGI?  Is the film’s constant product-placement, that is even a minor plot point and a point of contention for one of the park’s staff members, a wink and nod to its blatancy in modern blockbusters, with its eventual destruction a cathartic blow to such a practice, or just blatant cost-subsidising product placement?  Is the fact that the film really isn’t at all scary an acknowledgement that we’re no longer frightened by things that have become institutions, and the failure of the I-Rex to change that being a comment that you can’t just manufacture scary things by throwing a bunch of scary ideas in a blender and printing the resulting concoction, or just a failure on the part of director Colin Trevorrow?

Again, it’s difficult to know where the intentional faults end and the genuine faults begin.  Is the fact that much of the movie is all about shaming emotionless Cylon Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, not actually a Cylon) into understanding that these animals are animals, dammit, and not just numbers on a spreadsheet – as well as being shamed into realising that work should not be everything and that family, specifically visiting nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), are deserving of time and attention too a sly parody of such “women shouldn’t science or business” plots or just poor writing that ends up lapsing unintentionally into that area?  Speaking of, is her relationship with Owen (Chris Pratt) a purposefully ridiculous demonstration of how fast, frivolous, and ultimately pointless these sorts of obligatory romances in blockbusters are, filled with awkward implications and such, as a “take that” to their continued existence, or is it just all of that with none of the parodic undercurrent?

I could keep going on and on and on – applying this same uncertainty to things like the film’s barely one-note characters, its sledgehammer subtle digs at the military, its unresolved plot threads that are just blatant sequel-teasing, the fact that Owen is quite literally portrayed and characterised by the film as The Greatest Human Being Who Ever Lived and whose sneezes can probably cure cancer – but hopefully you get the point.  Since Jurassic World announces from practically the first frame that this is going to be a film with a meta-text about the state of filmmaking today running through it, it eventually reaches the point where one just has to question if it’s only doing so as a pre-cautionary defence in case everything went wrong; the equivalent of slipping on a banana peeling, falling, breaking six bones, and proclaiming, “Totally meant to do that!”  I’m glad that we have another blockbuster, the second in two months no less, that wants to say something instead of just being pretty lights and loud explosions, but the sheer extent of its commitment (?) to this theme and message for much of the film’s runtime arguably does it more harm than good.

See, by traditional metrics and what we usually define as ‘good filmmaking’, Jurassic World is a bad film.  Its characters are barely the definition of one-note, its dialogue is not corny enough to be corny, it’s not scary, the dinosaurs and the humans never give off the illusion that they share the same reality as one another barring one sequence that only serves to make that fact even more clear, there are some plot turns and developments that scream “last minute sequel-opening rewrite”, its desperate desire to be Aliens sometimes does it no favours (more on that in a sec), its extreme pacing means that there’s barely time for everyone to get their bearings before the I-Rex breaks free, and the Owen and Claire stuff – despite Chris Pratt being on a full-on “come on, come fall asleep on my abs” charm offensive – never works and never stops feeling token at best.

But, goddammit, do I love this friggin’ movie anyway.

Jurassic World is nonsense.  Jurassic World is absolute nonsense and, goddammit, do I love it for that, because it is massive amounts of pure fun!  That meta-text may sound like it drowns the film in humourless detachment, but it still bristles with pure glee at its various setpieces and ideas.  That sprinter’s pacing is like the film is just desperately trying to get to them out of palpable excitement: “No, folks, seriously, there’s a moment where the I-Rex fights an Ankylososaurus!  Hold on, I’m just gonna hit the fast-forward button so we can get there quicker!  I can’t wait to see the look on your faces, you are going to flip!”  In a way, it’s rather analogous to Zach’s character in the film, as the big brother who doesn’t seem like he wants to be here at all, but is not immune to the pleasures of seeing a Mosasaurus eat an entire shark in one bite.

This glee at being able to fling full-scale mayhem about the place does occasionally cross over into being rather mean-spirited – the Pteranodon setpiece is a load of fun but is tainted by one extended and really unnecessarily cruel death sequence – but mostly sticks on the right side of that line.  Mainly by being Aliens.  I’m not kidding, Jurassic World lifts so much from Aliens’ playbook that I’m expecting James Cameron’s lawyers to be sicced on Universal any second now.  Precocious children?  Check.  A mother figure who puts herself in harm’s way despite wishing not to in order to keep those children safe?  Check.  One capable partner whom she eventually bonds with despite prior reservations?  Check (minus the romance part in Aliens for we all know that no man can tie Ellen Ripley down).  That same endless breathless rush from one setpiece to the next once the release valve is turned?  Check, check, check!

Now, of course, these are all traits that are not specific to Aliens, but the similarities don’t stop there.  There’s even a Weyland-Yutani equivalent in the form of InGen, a corporation who have got their mitts all over Jurassic World, even the parts that no-one else knows about, and who have really just the worst and stupidest ideas.  Those raptors that Owen is trying to tame are being bred to become weapons of war, loyal and efficient comrades of soldiers in the field, whilst you gain absolutely no surprises for guessing that they’ve been involved in the creation of the I-Rex and that their refusal to be forward about what went into the thing is very bad for everybody involved.  They’ve got a representative, played by the great Vincent D’Onofrio, who is such a smug asshole that you can imagine he drives his car to work on a personal make-shift carpet of baby seals.  And there is even a setpiece in the film’s ridiculously fun final third that is so startlingly similar to the first Xeno ambush at Aliens’ halfway point that I’m still not sure that the projectionist didn’t just splice in some footage from that briefly.

This is sometimes to Jurassic World’s detriment, when it is being so blatant in its Aliens referencing that it distracts from the quality of the film itself, but it manages to get away with it by being Aliens in spirit, rather than in flesh.  These are two films that share similar makeups and similar traits, but still feel fundamentally individual.  This is still a Jurassic Park movie at its core, it’s got that same sense of wonder and the same sense of awe and spectacle, but it’s also a Jurassic Park movie that realises that trying to be just Jurassic Park again won’t work.  The core can still be the same, but everything else needs a change-up.  So why not take from the playbook of Aliens and go bigger, more action-packed, more crowd-pleasing, and fundamentally different, whilst not losing sight of the core of your series, instead of just doing the first film again?

Jurassic World is not a film that is going to win any awards for storytelling, or for character-work, or pacing, or thematic depth or anything of that sort.  Again, take it on traditional merits for what we consider ‘good filmmaking’ and it’s honestly a mess and kinda terrible.  But the film instead succeeds on something far more valuable to me: fun.  Wonder.  Pure entertainment.  I don’t hold Jurassic Park up to the same unassailable nostalgic standard as most do, although I do still really like that movie, and even I felt my heart stir and soar at our first introduction to the new park as John Williams’ classic theme overtook the soundtrack.  And when the film takes off the safety and goes all-out in the crazy, ridiculous nonsense, including an absolutely wonderful finale that aimed directly for my inner 5 year-old and did not miss?  Oh, it is right up there with Mad Max: Fury Road for the most amount of fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.

So, in a way, I guess Jurassic World really is like a theme park.  It’s emptier than it lets on, hides behind the “I meant to do that” defence for anything that goes wrong, and kinda falls apart if you think too much about it.  But if you just sit back, let go, and allow the pure fun of the whole thing to overtake you, then nothing else matters because HOLY YES THAT LAST SETPIECE YES OH MAN!  And, really, shouldn’t we all just let go and give into stupid fun nonsense a little more often?

Callum Petch was ready for the flight.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Search Party

Search Party is the worst kind of terrible comedy.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

search partySearch Party begins at the bachelor party of one Nardo (Thomas Middleditch).  In just a few hours, he will be getting married to the love of his life, Tracy (Shannon Woodward), but right now he’s getting high in a van with his two best friends – straight man business guy Evan (Adam Pally), and loser slacker Jason (T. J. Miller).  During this session, he experiences nerves about his impending nuptials which Jason, who doesn’t like Tracy for whatever reason, takes to mean that Nardo just plain doesn’t want to get married.  He therefore crashes the wedding, leaving Nardo heartbroken and Tracy jetting off to Mexico to experience their honeymoon alone.

The next evening, Jason gets a call from Nardo.  Nardo went to Mexico to try and find Tracy, but was promptly car-jacked and “tuxedo-jacked” and so now is stranded in Mexico, naked, with no car, no cash, and no way of getting to Tracy or back home.  Jason promptly grabs Evan – since he’s not allowed to drive Evan’s company car without Evan present – and the two begin their race down to Mexico to try and get Nardo back unharmed.  Preferably before 8am at that, as that’s when Evan has a big meeting with his boss (Lance Reddick) that could land him a big promotion.

I wrote down that entire plot synopsis because I wanted to make it really, really clear to you about just how desperately Todd Phillips-y Search Party is trying to be, and especially like Due Date.  Conveniently, Search Party is the directorial debut of Scot Armstrong, who has been one of Todd Phillips’ closest collaborators, having co-written scripts for Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, and The Hangover Part II, so it makes sense that Search Party plays like a bad Todd Phillips movie.  I mean, that’s a redundant descriptor, as pretty much all Todd Phillips movies are bad movies, but the point still stands.

So, it’s a bro-comedy, and comes with everything that you’re expecting from a modern day bro-comedy.  Lots of references to and smoking of weed, racial and just plain racist stereotypes because “ha ha, aren’t non-white people hilarious for being non-white?”, casual sexism verging into outright misogyny at points, painfully laborious set ups for extended setpieces that are not as inherently funny as the film’s writers thought they’d be, a wet-blanked nagging love interest for our straight man (Alison Brie) whose sole purpose is to roll her eyes at the antics of the stupid boys, a cheap and stunningly incompetent action finale, the man-child best friend being the kind of hateful imbecile that makes you wonder why anybody would ever voluntarily hang around this bell-end, terrible CGI, a vomiting donkey…

That’s not why I hate Search Party, though.  Bro-comedies aren’t my thing, but they normally just bore me and cause me to sigh by this point.  They’re not for me and, although I do believe that human society would be a million percent better off by the eradication of their existence, they don’t annoy or offend me anymore, unless they are really atrociously offensive.  And although Search Party is rather offensive – women are either evil, bangable background candy, or personality-free prizes for our cast, Mexicans are lazy or threats to our heroes, JB Smoove’s evil crazed drug dealer is exactly what you’re imagining the result of that description to be – and really poorly made – continuity errors abound everywhere, certain shot choices and cuts make no sense, I can feel the cheapness radiate from this film’s entire being – it’s not offensive enough or incompetent enough to draw my ire by itself.

No, my ire is drawn from the cast.  Specifically, this cast list is a veritable dream team of stars from cult sitcoms from the past half-decade who have long deserved a shot at movie stardom.  Our leads are Adam Pally from the cruelly short-lived Happy Endings, Thomas Middleditch from Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, and T. J. Miller who is also from Silicon Valley and whose unmistakeable voice has popped up in the margins of pretty much every single animated project released since 2010.  There’s also Alison Brie from Community, Krysten Ritter from the also criminally short-lived Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23, Jason Mantzoukas from The League, JB Smoove from 30 Rock and Chris Rock’s amazing Top Five, and Shannon Woodward from the quietly great Raising Hope.

This is a stacked cast of astoundingly talented comic performers who killed it on their respective shows, have shown talent in guest spots elsewhere, and who deserve their breakthrough moment and an opportunity to headline a damn good comedy feature.  The fact that they’ve been brought together for one movie is ridiculous and should, in theory, produce a film of non-stop hilarity.  Hence my ire, because this is a cast that has been given absolutely nothing to work with.  Like, there is almost literally nothing in this script that constitutes an actual joke and multiple, multiple characters get quite literally nothing funny to do.  Alison Brie is given no jokes whatsoever, inexcusable, and Lance Reddick’s role could genuinely be replaced by a balloon tied to a wet floor sign and you’d get the same effect.

So this isn’t a case of a cast not being able to turn mediocre or worse material into something decent through delivery and sheer force of will, like the best comic performers can, this is a cast trying to make something out of nothing and coming off as incredibly desperate as a result.  Nobody could make this work.  You could give this script to an in-their-prime Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, and Robin Williams and you would still get the exact same results!  Garfunkel And Oates – the musical act of Riki Lindholme and Kate Micucci – show up at the beginning and end of the film to sing two of their own songs and they are far, far, far funnier than anything the film itself comes up with, and their whole thing is “Aww, look!  We’re two sweet girls singing cute songs on ukuleles and acoustic guitars PUSSY VAGINA PUSSY VAGINA PUSSY VAGINA DICK DICK DICK”!

And what gets me, what REALLY gets me, is the fact that this cast will not be given this chance again, and I’m not just saying that because Universal have delayed the film’s release in America for close to a year now and are dumping it in pretty much every other country for the time being.  This cast will not be brought back together exactly like they were here for any other film, not to mention the fact that at least half of these folks’ movie careers are about to hit massive brick walls as a result of this.  Let’s Be Cops was another terrible film that squandered excellent sitcom actors who deserve a chance to prove themselves in a big screen film on completely garbage material, but that film was a success and I have a good feeling that Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. will be brought back together multiple times in the future to try again and again, hopefully on scripts that contain even trace amounts of wit and humour.  But that’s not happening with these folks.

That’s why Search Party is the worst kind of terrible comedy.  It’s the kind of terrible comedy that ensnares a whole bunch of incredibly talented and potential-filled comedic actors and actresses in its web, and then traps them in an extremely lazy script that gives them nothing to do except stumble through the motions of a dreadful bro-comedy, whilst their attempts to try and make something, anything, funny happen in a script that has no funny just makes them look pitiably desperate and hopelessly out of their depth.  That’s why Search Party angers me, because nothing angers me like talented people having their big chance and potential actively squandered by utter shit.

There is a very good reason why you probably haven’t heard of this film prior to this review.  Trust me, you are better off not seeking it out.

Callum Petch has sucked more blood than a backstreet dentist.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Results

Results is a film that I enjoyed more and more the further into it I got.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Results - 2015Results is the closest that writer-director Andrew Bujalski has yet come to making a ‘traditional’ indie dramedy, much as there can be a ‘traditional’ indie film.  The architect of the alternately loved and despised Mumblecore subgenre with 2003’s Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski has slowly been making tentative steps away from that excessively low-key and realist genre since 2008’s Beeswax.  First there was 2013’s experimental Computer Chess, and now there’s a somewhat conventional romantic dramedy.  It hits the ground running, there’s a concrete ending, it has full-on themes that aren’t oblique or hidden beneath multiple scenes of nothing much happening, and professional recognisable actors in front of the camera.  But it still feels recognisably Bujalski – proceedings are occasionally aimless, stakes are low, characters behave like people, and conversations are still filled with awkwardness and people stumbling over their words, although not to the usual extent.

…right, that’s not going to work.  So… reviewing Results is hard.  I’ve spent ages mulling over that first paragraph in various different permutations, and not just because my brain is dead-set on not working today.  See, Results is one of those films that I just really liked watching.  There are specific reasons why Results is great – and is the first Bujalski film I have really enjoyed, natch – but they kinda fall secondary to the fact that I really, really enjoyed the act of watching Results.  It’s one of those films that I started out liking and then found myself enjoying more and more the further and further I got into the film.  I mean, it does a lot of specific things right as the film goes on that definitely helped augment my enjoyment of the film, but the act of watching the film was the thing that I enjoyed the most from it.

I think that’s because Bujalski tones down the parts of Mumblecore that I don’t gel so much with – the excessive aimlessness, the resultant feeling that a film goes on for too long despite being barely 80 minutes, white people complaining about their pointless problems – and melds the parts that I do like – real-feeling characters, strong emphasis on relationships, great soundtracks – with more ‘traditional’ filmmaking conventions to make a film that works for me.  Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies from 2013 did something similar, although that hues a bit closer to traditional Mumblecore than Results does, and that ended up as one of my favourite films of the year.  I get the sense that I love the ideas and ideals of Mumblecore, but I just need it watered down somewhat for me to truly enjoy its results.

So, yeah, that’s the primary reason why I rate Results so high, it’s a film that I like watching because it’s Mumblecore without the genre’s excesses that usually turn me off.  I guess I really like the results that come from that: character studies about interesting and somewhat relatable people who behave like real people in a world that feels realist but not excessively so.  When pulled off well, as it is here and in Drinking Buddies, it provides a story that feels grounded in a relatable reality, but still has enough of an escapist distance to keep me from rejecting it – one reason I end up watching movies, you see, is for some semblance of escapism from my life, and so films that stray too close to realism run the risk of being rejected by me, usually for reasons related to my life.  As a brief sidebar, I really despise Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu Mamá También because the two male leads remind me too much of some people I used to go to school with, and if wanted to spend two hours in the company of people I disliked at secondary school I would have actually stayed in touch with them.

Anyways, enough self-examination, Results is an enjoyable film based on its actual content too, believe it or not.  Despite ostensibly being a romantic dramedy, Results is actually about loneliness, lonely people, and the various ways that exercise and personal training attempts to fill that emptiness in their lives.  Trevor (Guy Pearce) is an idealistic dreamer who runs a gym called Power 4 Life that he wants to expand, fully believes in self-improvement and self-bettering that can come from training, but involuntarily has nothing else going on in his life as a result.  Kat (Cobie Smulders) is Power 4 Life’s top personal trainer and fills every last second of her life with work and clients, to the point of self-exhaustion, committed to what she does but with seemingly little thought given to her life removed from where she’s at now.  Danny (Kevin Corrigan) is a depressed recent divorcee who has recently come into a multi-million dollar fortune and signs up to Power 4 Life under questionable motives.

From there, things happen.  Lots of things, actually.  This is a film that very much earns its 105 minute runtime, as it works through damn-near every last possible aspect and character pairing that you can get from these three leads, but the film feels extremely natural in the way that it shifts gears, topics, and plot-based through-lines.  The film seems like it’s going to be about Danny falling for Kat and the subsequent fallout between all three leads, but that’s all resolved by the 50 minute mark at the latest.  From there, the film places that loneliness aspect at the forefront and deliberately works through each characters’ various neuroses and issues in a manner that again manages to walk the line of being realist but not excessively so.

More importantly, there’s the way that the film treats Danny.  Trevor and Kat are easy to like, and the film makes no effort to keep them from being likeable and understandable, but Danny frequently is not.  He’s clearly depressed and hurting badly from a messy end to what we are told was a bad marriage, but he’s still an incredibly hard guy to like.  He’s very… awkward around Kat and spends much of the time when she’s not doing sessions with him looping a three second clip of her squatting in a Power 4 Life advert over and over again, pausing at the precise frame where her lowered form is at its most perfect.  He’s petulant, more than a little creepy when it comes to women, aware of his faults but seemingly uninterested in actually working on improving them, and every time he starts being consistently likeable, he reverts back to being unreasonably selfish or borderline sexually-harassing.

Results recognises this, though, and doesn’t try to force Danny into being likeable.  It still holds some semblance of affection for him, because it has that kind of genuine affection for all of its characters, but it mostly views him as pitiable, occasionally bordering on outright unlikeable.  It wants you to keep that kind of distance from him instead of entering his headspace and fully empathising with him – best example coming from the fact that Bujalski never shoots any of Kat’s exercises or positions with a leering focus on her body, the emphasis nearly always being on herself, somebody else’s reactions, or something else that they’re doing in the scene instead – but not to the extent that you remain completely detached from him.  After all, he can get better, he can improve, he just needs that kick up the arse to do so, he’s not without hope.  It’s a tough line to walk, and I’ve probably done a poor job of explaining what I mean here, but the film pulls it off and it’s all the better for doing so instead of it completely sympathising with Danny, warts and all.

There’s also the fact that Kevin Corrigan nails Danny completely, taking him up to the brink of being completely likeable and sympathetic before walking him right back to the start again through perfectly delivered dickish behaviour.  More than any other character in the movie, Danny is the one who feels the most human, even when he’s posting menial requests on Craigslist and paying the resultant responder $200 a go, and Corrigan’s nuances and especially his facial expressions and body language, do an outstanding job at walking that tightrope.  That’s not said with the intention of underselling Guy Pearce or Cobie Smulders, though.  Pearce is at his most likeable and natural, exuding charisma whilst letting Trevor’s few moments of sadness and loneliness and doubt feel momentous without resorting to over-dramatics, whilst Smulders feels incredibly relaxed and natural as Kat, striking up fantastic chemistry with Guy Pearce and the exact amount of awkward chemistry required with Kevin Corrigan.

But like I said near the beginning, there’s a real charm to Results.  A really enjoyable natural feeling that I got from just watching the film.  Sure, I really like it for its well-handled character study of loneliness, its fantastic performances, and the way that it balances the aspects of Mumblecore with the aspects of your more ‘traditional’ indie feature, but I mostly like it because I liked the feeling that I got from watching it.  That feeling that I got from watching well-drawn characters grapple with their problems in a way and pace that felt real but not laboriously so.  Characters who felt real with personal and small-scale problems, but not to the extent that their grappling with said problems felt whiney and painfully self-involved.  It’s hard to explain, because it’s such an abstract concept and it’s tied to a lot of personal stuff and things that I personally enjoy in movies, but it’s the reason why I loved Results so much.  I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it in the manner and extent that I did, but it’s more than worth checking out.

Callum Petch won’t break, he can hold the chrome.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Spy

Spy is the best comedy I have seen since 22 Jump Street.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

spy 1I assume that you have all seen the trailers, posters and such for Spy by this point and have this movie figured out.  There will be a lot of swearwords, because swearwords are funny, Melissa McCarthy is fat and not twenty-something so therefore will fall over a lot and be the butt of ten-hundred jokes about how undesirable she therefore is, it’s two hours long and as such will be padded to hell and back, and it’s an action-comedy so the action will be cheap-looking, flatly directed and mostly just an afterthought to endless pointless sequences of characters riffing on one gag until it’s long-past being entertaining.

Well, you’re wrong.  You’re dead wrong, primarily because you’ve been sold the wrong film.  Writer-director Paul Feig, and his immensely talented mostly female cast, has actually crafted a brilliant, subversive, and hilarious movie that wastes not a second of its two hour runtime, is really intelligent in its silly comedy, and, thanks to its self-belief message and a whole bunch of conscious and unconscious design choices, is quietly feminist.  What appears to be cheap and mean-spirited out of context builds up to make a heartfelt point in context, and what sounds sophomoric and juvenile out of context ends up quietly clever and character-driven in context.

To wit: Spy follows the exploits of Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a lowly analyst at the CIA who, despite making an incredibly effective team with ace field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) whom she has an unreciprocated crush on, is treated like complete garbage by almost everyone at the Agency, either willingly – in the form of loose cannon field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) – or unwittingly – by Fine himself, mostly.  When it turns out that Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a recently-deceased terrorist who has come into possession of a nuclear bomb, knows the identities of every single one of the CIA’s field agents, Susan steps up and volunteers to be sent into the field, aided back at the Agency by her only real friend, the anxious and slightly bumbling Nancy (Miranda Hart).

Again, this is probably the point where you’re expecting Susan to klutz her way through the operation, discovering leads by mistake, and generally proving Rick Ford right when he keeps insisting that “you’re gonna f*ck this up” to her face.  In a lesser movie, this would be the case for all of Spy’s two hours.  Here, though, that does not happen.  Susan is an immensely capable field agent, as the film bold-facedly demonstrates before she’s even sent out when the CIA’s head (Allison Janney, who is exactly as brilliant at being alternately inspiringly nice and hilariously cruel as you’re thinking she’ll be) brings up footage from her training days.  Susan is an excellent field agent, all of the skills are right there… she just doesn’t believe in herself because everyone, quite literally everyone, has told her that all she can be is a bumbling fat middle-aged woman.

Those demeaning cover identities?  Provided to her by an agency that only sees her as an ugly middle-aged woman.  Her directive to follow the targets and never directly engage?  The agency refusing to believe that she is capable of taking the lead.  Fine is a guy who can butter her up one minute by thanking her for her invaluable help and then, the next minute, treat her like a secretary and order her to fire his gardener for him; equal parts oblivious to his demeaning treatment of her, out of some misplaced fear as to what might happen to her, and perfectly aware, as he uses these stealth snipes to ensure that she can’t steal his glory by doing his job.  And Rick… well, Rick is just Fine without the veneer of obliviousness, a walking pompous macho-man who brags excessively about his undoubtedly made-up accomplishments but in practice can barely make a dramatic entrance without falling on his arse.

So when the film does provide a fat joke, and I counted maybe three in the entire movie, or dresses Susan up in hideous clothes and has lecherous men ignore her totally, Susan is not the target of the jokes.  The joke is instead on everybody else for being so unrepentantly awful towards her and the laugh coming from just how terrible they are.  Susan herself is always treated with respect and always shown to be legitimately capable, with her early-film klutzes coming from nerves more than anything else.

Compare this with a Kevin James movie.  In those, the target of the joke is nearly always Kevin James.  There is no subversive intent to Paul Blart fat jokes.  Paul is fat, he is doing things that he is supposedly not physically in shape for, and the punchline is always “fat man fall down go boom”, which is why the moments where he does display competence don’t resonate, because the film never asks you to take him seriously because he is always the target of the gag.  In Spy, though, Susan is not the target of the joke, everyone else is, and her competency is just a fact of her character.  And once she understands that she is, in fact, damn good at what she does, there’s basically no stopping her.  She’s even better than her male counterparts who are either utterly useless, lecherous, or heavily reliant on her support.

Relatedly, then: the swearing.  Believe it or not, there is actually a point to it, which may surprise you since that first Red Band trailer relied a lot on the idea that swearwords are inherently funny.  As you might have gathered, the spy world is considered a man’s game so, in Spy, the men are obsessively masculine caricatures who fill most sentences with a vocabulary akin to that of a drunk pirate who’s just stubbed his toe.  Susan and Rayna, though, are women in a man’s world, women constantly underestimated and not taken seriously by their male counterparts, so one of the ways in which they try fitting in is to awkwardly launch into sweary tirades over everything – Rayna taking to it better than Susan since she’s basically a spoilt child resentful of the fact that her father clearly wanted a son instead of her.  It’s swearing with a point instead of swearing for swearing’s sake.

And yet these gender politics and messages don’t overtake the film.  Susan’s tale of self-confidence is the primary arc and underpinning, but everything else is subtext that one doesn’t have to get to enjoy the film.  After all, Spy is more than very enjoyable on its surface terms.  It’s funny, for one.  Incredibly funny.  Paul Feig’s other similarly brilliant female-driven comedies, Bridesmaids and The Heat, were very funny but also seemed to creak under the weight of their 2 hour runtimes, unable to keep up the pace for their entirety.  Spy is somehow able to remain consistently funny throughout, as Feig’s propensity for running gags and well-defined and established characters pays off a relatively slow beginning by mining endless material from the world and characters that he’s created instead of endless non-sequiturs and improv.

He’s even able to sustain the comedy in the film’s final third, the point where the plot should take over and the jokes normally vacate the premises.  But because the script is so tight, and he does such a good job at building up the film’s various running gags and character quirks, the jokes work themselves seamlessly into the finale, as they do most other action scenes.  Yes, this is an action-comedy in the truest sense of the word, where the action sequences are equal parts funny and thrilling.  A pre-title prologue with Fine out on assignment is shot just like the action and staging in a spy thriller then contrasts that by cutting back to the mundanity of the CIA and their constant infestations, a chase to capture some would-be assassins is genuinely exciting but also knows just how much to undercut its seriousness with a joke without completely robbing the scene of tension.  But the standout is undoubtedly a one-on-one fight in a kitchen that utilises excellent fight choreography and clear camerawork to create a fight that works brilliantly and equally on both the comedy and action levels.

Then powering the film is the exceptional cast.  Jason Statham is going to get most of the attention, since he is going so against type by playing his excessive machismo for ridiculous comedy, and he does deserve that praise because he is phenomenal here, but that’s doing a disservice to the rest of the cast who are just as good and in some cases even better.  Miranda Hart is delightfully charming as Nancy, managing to infuse a genuine warmth and personality into a role that could have just been stereotypical, while Peter Serafinowicz goes the complete opposite as the sex-crazed Italian agent Aldo, playing up the character’s deranged sexual deviancy to such extremes that he manages to cross from being offensive to just plain hilarious.  Rose Byrne, meanwhile, is clearly relishing the opportunity to play Rayna and commits totally to being a stuck-up petulant child, and her dynamic with Susan is pure gold.

But the true star, unsurprisingly, is Melissa McCarthy.  McCarthy is one of the comedy world’s fastest rising stars for a reason, not even Identity Thief and the underrated-but-still-mediocre Tammy could damage that, and Spy is where even her staunchest critics will have to finally give up resisting her charms.  She seems to connect with the script in a way that goes beyond just ‘getting’ the character – which, since one can also read the film as a meta-commentary on how Hollywood sees McCarthy and other women like her, makes sense – and so every facet and every change in Susan Cooper works totally.  McCarthy gets to stretch her range, going from timidly quiet and awkward to excessively boisterous and sweary to self-confident and self-accepting, and nails all of it, hopefully finally breaking out of any potential type-casting for good.

I’m five days removed from Spy as I write this, folks, and I’m still surprised that this film is this good.  I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, Paul Feig has nearly always been at least great and the cast is so strong that it would have taken a minor miracle to turn in a mediocre or worse film, but I’m shocked that Spy is this good.  That it has had this much thought put into it, that it would still work if you stripped out the “comedy” or “action” part of the “action comedy” equation but wouldn’t work as well as it does with both, that it bothered to have legitimate emotional and thematic through-lines propping up the comedy, that it is so well-paced, that it is just so goddamn funny…

Pessimists and cynics could see this as a damning observation on the state of the American feature-length comedy today.  That wouldn’t change the fact that Spy is the real deal and the best comedy I have seen since 22 Jump Street.  Do not miss this.

Spy is due for release on June 5th.

Callum Petch has been waiting hours for this.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Moomins On The Riviera

Moomins on the Riviera is willing to be different, so it’s worth your time.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

moominsI can’t sit here and tell you that I particularly enjoyed Moomins on the Riviera.  Not in the usual “I am invested totally in this and believe this world and love these characters and find this entertaining and even somewhat funny” way, in any case.  The fact of the matter is that I laughed, in any capacity, about maybe 3 times throughout the entire film, and that I still rather tired of it at about the hour mark of its 80 minute runtime.  In the traditional sense, I didn’t really enjoy Moomins.

But that said… I do rather like it.

If you’ve been following this website and/or myself for the past few years, you’ll know that I get through a lot of animation and, in fact, I make it my mission to see every last one that comes out in cinemas regardless of quality.  Therefore, I have seen a lot of mediocre-to-bad animated features in my time, mostly by non-major studios.  See, what they, and most foreign animations that get a wide release, fail to do is craft out unique identities of their own.  They instead settle for mediocrity and sloppily adhering to formula or just plain copying the more successful companies in the hopes that the successful money will magically roll down to them.  Hell, I basically just got done ripping into Two By Two for this two weeks back!

Moomins, however, opts to carve out its own distinct identity, refusing to conform to modern animation trends and desiring to be different.  Most obviously, there’s the fact that this is a traditionally-animated feature, handled expertly by Sandman Animation, instead of CG.  Already this film is in my good graces as I am a sucker for traditional animation, but that alone is not the reason why Moomins looks so great.  It is, after all, very simply designed and is mainly powered through limited-animation.  Instead, it’s the design and colour of the world that makes that work so.  Everything in the film is drawn with such a charming simplicity, from the characters to the environments to the rain to even crowds of people, a lack of extraneous details, that it makes a refreshing change from the busy “everything everywhere all at once” nature of most modern animation.

That’s not mentioning the colouring, though, which is the film’s visual trump card.  The palette is very relaxingly warm, lots of oranges mixing effortlessly with whites and blues, with clever shading adding definition to the world and differentiating between certain buildings and background characters subtly but brilliantly.  It’s a relaxing colour palette, too, that accurately communicates and portrays the low-key soft nature that the film is going for.  It builds an identity beyond the fact that it’s traditionally animated, feeling decidedly newspaper comic-strip-y (which is where the characters come from but which I have no prior experience with, I must admit), and the fact that it commits to that simple and rather minimalist nature the whole way through is to be applauded.

That low-key identity carries over into the non-visual elements of the film, too.  Moomins on the Riviera is very low-key in everything – there’s only one chase, all lines of dialogue are delivered in this consciously soft manner, and the jokes are simple but understated, even delivering physical comedy in an incredibly quiet and deadpan manner.  More importantly, Moomins is a weird film.  It’s so low-key, so quietly innocuous and deadpan in the way that it delivers its material, that it can flit from everything from the Moomins electing to live on the bed of their large expensive hotel room, to a rich aristocrat who just wants to live like a penniless bohemian artist who only sculpts elephants, to a group of pirates who appear in the film’s first 10 minutes and then are never seen again, and yet still feel like a cohesive film.

The tone is so off-beat, so low-key, so deadpan that I have to admit a fondness for it even though I was never really truly entertained by the film – especially since some of its cast, specifically the nasally and massively unlikeable Little My and the unbearably shallow and irritating Snorkmaiden, are far too often not pleasant to watch.  The feature-length animation landscape outside of The Big Three – still Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks until Illumination are able to launch a good non-Despicable Me film – is mostly too generic and interchangeable, filled with soulless imitators or risk-averse opportunists.  Hell, even The Big Three have got distinct brands by this point that they don’t try breaking out of enough.  To have a film like Moomins come along with such a distinct and off-beat personality, even if it doesn’t quite work for me, is a legitimate breath of fresh air that I have to respect.

Therefore, I’m willing to give Moomins on the Riviera a passing grade and recommend you all give it a try.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like or enjoy it, but it is something different and we should encourage different, especially something different that commits totally to and succeeds at that something different, even if it’s not completely to my tastes.  Again, I didn’t really enjoy the film, but I do rather like it and it’s unlike most animated fare out there nowadays.

Callum Petch has still got a losing streak.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

Two By Two

TWO BY TWO IS NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY FROM AMAZON.CO.UK

Despite a decent premise and above-average animation, Two By Two is content to be as formulaic and uninteresting as humanly possible.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

twobytwoI’m struggling to think of an animated film released this decade that has uglier main character designs than the ones that Two By Two sports.  Not the animals that still exist today, save for the King lion who has a really distracting quiff because nobody remembered how bad it looked on Alec Baldwin Lion from Madagascar 2, those all look fine, although they do suffer from the film’s excess colour palette.  The film’s main characters, however, are not real species of animal, so the film’s designers get free reign with regards to their design.

And, oh hell, are they ever unpleasant to look at.  The Nestrians are coated in excess fuzz, they have too many differently-shaped appendages and so little rhyme or reason as to their construction that they basically look like somebody just kept gaffa-taping a children’s playset of shapes together until they got bored, their nose grabs the attention in a bad way, their colour scheme is unnecessarily garish… I get that the point of the film is that the Nestrians are always out-of-place no matter where they are, but they just look plain hideous.  The Grymps are a little better, but they suffer from ill-fitting eyes and needless body patterns that look like bad henna tattoos, whilst the Griffins are just kinda not pleasant to look at, and not in an intended “fierce predator” way.

It’s a shame that those characters are so unappealing to look at, too, because the animation is actually pretty decent compared to most mid-league animated fare.  I mean, the colour palette really is sickeningly bright, and instead of looking convincingly wet during any one of the numerous sequences involving water, characters instead end up looking like shined vinyl models of themselves, but otherwise things are rather decent.  Character animation manages to tow the line between “limited animation” and “just plain cheap” rather well, there’s a nice lived-in feel to the ark, and there’s some decent boarding here and there.  If the character designs weren’t so ugly, this would be an OK movie to look at.

I mean, it’s not a particularly good one to watch.  Yeah, Two By Two is not good.  It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either.  This itself is a shame because the film frequently hints at a much more interesting and entertaining movie than is presented here.  The plot involves two Nestrians, a father and son called Dave and Finney respectively, and two Grymps, a mother and daughter called Hazel and Leah respectively, trying to survive the inbound flood by taking passage on Noah’s ark.  The Nestrians, however, aren’t on the guest list to board the ark and are basically left to go extinct.  Dave stows he and Finny away on the ark, however, by pretending to be Grymps, which causes extra problems when Finny and Leah accidentally miss the launch of the ark and have to find a way to survive the flood and the Griffins hunting them.

There are actual large scale stakes there as well as thematic touches like the strongest deciding who gets to survive and what not – a group made up of the king lion, a flamingo, and an elephant check and decide who is allowed on the ark or not, and they are a group that can barely hide their contempt for the other species – but Two By Two actively goes out of its way to not touch on them.  The extinction risk is left unspoken and is completely undercut by a brief indulgence in cartoon physics that, unsurprisingly, make the life-and-death stakes feel insincere, whilst that thematic underpinning also goes untouched until the ending where, in a very brief line, it’s promptly dropped completely and explained away as a misunderstanding.  It’s a film that seems terrified of getting even slightly dark, keeping up the day-glo sunshine tone regardless of how boringly formulaic it makes the final product.

In a way, that puts it in close proximity to DreamWorks’ recently released Home which back-grounded its themes of colonialism in favour of misfits finding each other, whilst Two By Two backgrounds its themes in favour of things like parental love and finding friends and your place in the world.  But where Home gets away with it by having likeable and entertaining characters, Two By Two’s cast are all really grating.  The Nestrians, who are both excessively optimistic and panicky, are too shrill and irritating, the Grymps, who pride themselves on being loners and hate company, are too needlessly uptight and angry, the Griffins are basically just boring Cockney “Infinity +1” villains, and the other two characters who tag along with Leah and Finny – an overweight land creature named Obesey, and the parasite that lives on top of him and is voiced by radio DJ Chris Evans for some bizarre reason – are incredibly uninteresting and poorly voiced.

So that ends up leaving Two By Two feeling rather emotionally hollow and making its formulaic beat-by-beat nature really obvious.  That’s a shame because the film isn’t bad, really, again excepting its awful lead character designs.  There are a few genuinely funny gags, some scenes are entertaining, the actual animation is fine, and it all works competently, even with flat line readings all about the place.  It’s just not particularly good, or interesting, or original, or doing anything really to adequately justify taking up 80-odd minutes of anyone’s time, especially with how actively it steers itself into formula to avoid those far more interesting avenues.

In fact, that formula was far better served in Ice Age, which actively addressed the extinction stakes and thematic undertones that Two By Two strives to avoid.  Ice Age adopts the appropriate melancholic tone, has pleasant to look at characters who are entertaining to watch and likeable, and aims to be more than just an 80 minute time-killer.  Basically, although there’s nothing fundamentally or majorly wrong with it, there’s no real reason to recommend Two By Two, either.  You’re better off leaving it to drown.

Callum Petch has seen so much he’s going blind.  Follow him on the Twitters: @CallumPetch

Callum is one of a number of guests that occasionally makes appearances on the Failed Critics Film Podcast, hosted by Steve Norman and Owen Hughes. Unfortunately, you won’t find any of our previous 250 episodes dedicated to a Two by Two review, but you can catch up with one of our more recent editions of the slightly shambolic movie podcast by clicking the link at the top of this page, streaming directly from acast.com/failedcitics, or subscribing in iTunes (or whatever your favourite podcast app of choice may be)!

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)!