Monday, 21 September 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) (Review)

Pitch Perfect was one of the biggest breakout comedies of 2012, raking up a substantial box office gross and a legion of fans, thanks mainly to standout roles from Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick and a specific ‘Cups’ rendition that almost, kinda shook the world. Pitch Perfect 2 came storming out the gates three years later to an even stronger box office showing (out-grossing its predecessor in three days) and building the franchise further – but how does the film stack up to the original?

We meet Beca, Amy, Chloe & Co three years down the line, as they perform for the President’s Birthday Gala. Quite frankly, it all goes tits up (ahem) and they become an international disgrace. Their only shot at redemption is at ‘The Worlds’, a worldwide a capella competition - but America’s reputation in these contests, personal troubles and struggles and group tension threatens what already seems like an undefeatable task. Can the girls take on the World and win back their crown?

The majority of the cast returns for the franchises second outing, with an expanded role and Directorship for Elizabeth Banks; who takes what worked with the first film and runs with it. Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow are particular standouts but one woman steals any and every scene she is in. Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy proves to be constantly hilarious yet again, with her expanded role offering even more belly laughs the second time around. Her chemistry with Adam DeVine as Bumper is undeniable and fun to watch but even he isn’t immune to being outshone by the funnier counterpart.  Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld offers promise as an actress, but her character is undeveloped and often one dimensional, seemingly used to progress the plot at points. This needs work for Part 3.

Unquestionably, the film is a giggle from start to finish, with varying degrees of success throughout. While some laughs are a little close to the mark, others fail to live up to it. But when the film is really, truly funny, it really, truly works. The opening sequence is incredible and super hilarious, while a scene involving Fat Amy paddling across a lake singing ‘We Belong’ made me cry of laughter – in fact, the whole retreat section is brilliantly done and a chuckle. The competition commentators continue to offer dry and witty humour that you probably shouldn’t laugh at, but you do, in a thankfully expanded role. Even when it’s not trying to be funny, you are always smiling with this film.

It’s cheesy, sentimental and more over the top than the last film, but heartwarming and an absolute giggle from start to end. While the finale performance is slightly self-admiring, the overall film continues the success of the original in more ways the one, expanding on the success and adding more room for growth. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the girls again in Pitch Perfect 3 when it hits cinemas in 2017.

Summary: Pitch Perfect 2 improves on the original in most ways – with Fat Amy being a continued highlight throughout - but needs a little fine-tuning in regards to new characters and the music selection.

Highlights: Any and every scene with Rebel Wilson/Fat Amy.


Friday, 18 September 2015

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon (Album) (2015)

Lana Del Rey has always been an enigma to me. Her music is nothing short of captivating and fascinating – everything from her early, unreleased demos to her most current work has her signature sound attached to it. When you hear a song by Lana, there is no mistaking that it is quintessentially Lana. Today, she has dropped her latest collection – Honeymoon, the follow up to 2014’s Ultraviolence that proved a success but slowly fizzled out for me, in the shadows of her first major release, Born To Die and its Paradise expansion -  a collection that remains one of my favourite albums ever. She is truly one of my favourite artist and I pray that Honeymoon continues my love.

Born To Die offered a mixture of eclectic and versatile tracks and sounds that Ultraviolence lacked. Del Rey promises that Honeymoon returns more towards the Born To Die vibe, leaving myself and her dedicated fanbase enthralled at what is to come. High By The Beach has been one of my favourite tracks this year, with promotional singles Music To Watch Boys To, Terrence Loves You and the titular track looking promising – but how does the album shape up as a whole? Find out my 'first impression' ranking of the 13 new tracks (discounting the beautiful Burnt Norton interlude) that form Honeymoon and a mini summary of the album as a whole, below.

High By The Beach
Swan Song
The Blackest Day
God Knows I Tried
Art Deco
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Music To Watch Boys To
Terrence Loves You

You know it's a brilliant album when the 'weakest' track is still incredibly strong and enjoyable. The album is laced with Lana's signature sound, which she has continued to build as she reaches her third major label release, this time refining it and striking the perfect balance between Born To Die and Ultraviolence, evident specifically through Freak. High By The Beach is incredibly infectious, while Salavatore offers an Italian 'New World' vibe and 24 is the perfect Bond cinematic soundtrack theme that didn't happen (but should have happened).  

The Blackest Day displays some of the most beautiful songwriting on the record, with God Knows I Tried illustrating her struggle to come to terms with her fame. Art Deco, Religion and Freak are some of the more diverse and experimental sounds on the record, whilst Honeymoon and Terrence Loves You acts as the bridge from Ultraviolence. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood is a beautiful cover and tribute at the end of the album that encompasses many of the themes and issues displayed throughout the album. Rest assured though, Lana seems to have found out who she is on the record and we love her all the more for it.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (2015) (Review)

For those who don't know, The Maze Runner franchise is the latest entry into the YA genre. 2014's The Maze Runner was a decent kickstart for a franchise that presumably hoped to follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and most recently, Divergent. Whilst the film was a moderate success it didn't reach the dizzying heights of the former two examples, meaning its sequel really needed to deliver to be considered a success. For the majority of the time, it does.

Scorch Trials picks up almost instantaneously from its predecessor, continuing the story of Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and fellow Gladers rebelling about the powerful W.C.K.D organisation, intent to discover more of their origins, while fighting the perils of the Scorch, a landscape filled with diseases, at every twist and turn. The follow up - costarring Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee and Kaya Scodelario, as well as newcomers Aidan Gillen and Rosa Salazar - greatly benefits from an inflated budget (which may jeopardise character development) that helps build the intensity at every opportunity.

Action is available in abundance throughout the sequel - in fact, it is really quite relentless, barely pausing for breath. But it's the hints of horror thrown in to proceedings that helps the film stand away from other YA adaptations that it is so often compared with, bringing a whole new dimension to the forefront, ready for exploration. The solar flare and its consequence can be really quite terrifying, helped with some wonderful cinematography from director Wes Ball and CGI tricks. The desolate city, in particular, is done tremendously and helps demonstrate the scale of the story really well.

Another gem in the crown for The Maze Runner series is a talented cast. While it offers no massive names that other franchises would play off, a solid cast of returning and newcomers bring their A-Game - arguably more so than the first film, which felt very contained and underplayed in places. Opening the story a lot more allows the characters to experience more than sitting in a field with an occasional bit of running. In fact, they really twisted that around. I've said it before, but it really pauses for breath - especially in the first half. They could do with establishing more of a balance between story and thrills at least this way, the excitement is revved up even more. Dylan O'Brien does well in the lead role and Aidan Gillen and Rosa Salazar are standouts when it comes to the newcomers.

An issue I did have with the film, however, is with this increased budget and extensive amount of newcomers, the supporting cast take a bit of a backseat and often feel a little undeveloped and under appreciated. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, for example, is an incredible talented but used few and far between. When he is used, it seems he is there to bring a conflict of interest to Thomas' ideas - a massive shame as these two seem to have genuine chemistry on screen. Another slight fault in the film is that the massive 'twist' at the end is a little bit too predictable. It's handled very well overall, but could have been done even better if it was a little but more of a surprise. Credit to O'Brien and Salazar for what is truly a touching movement and lead in to the big (but could have been bigger) reveal as the film approached its climax finale.

Despite these few flaws and niggles, the sequel was very strong. Whilst it answered fewer questions that I would have liked and added some more in the process, it certainly has me hooked and eagerly awaiting the final instalment to the trilogy, expected in 2017. It out trumped its prequel in terms of excitement, thrill and intensity and has potential to become one of the standout YA film franchises, only behind Miss Everdeen, for me.

Summary: A step in the right direction, The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials could do with fully utilising its strong supporting cast, but acts as an improvement over the first instalment, building excitement, intensity and thrills as we head for the big finale.

Highlights: The desolate city is incredible and a particular scene involving cracking glass really had me on the edge of my seat!


Monday, 7 September 2015

Furious 7 (2015) (Review)

Furious 7 came speeding into cinemas back in April when this blog was a figment of my imagination, smashing records in the process for both the franchise itself and for the box office in general. In light of the DVD and Blu-Ray release of the film, I take a look back on why it has become one of my favourite films of the year so far and why it deserves the success its earned.

Whilst continuing the extravagant thrills and gripping stunts the franchise is known for, no one could prepare for the emotional resonance and significance the seventh installment would have, even with the pyrrhic incentive of featuring the late Paul Walker’s final performance. Walker’s untimely death put the production on hold, with later promises that the film would be delivered in the actor’s memory, engulfing the film in sadness, running throughout the veins and foundations of the film.

The film follows Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Connor (Walker) and Co protecting themselves and their families from the danger Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) poses, as he spins out on a revenge-fuelled battle for the trouble they brought to his brother. It’s very paint-by-numbers, but plot is usually second gear anyway for this franchise, which focuses more on the stunts, visual exhilaration and set pieces - all of which are supersized and glorified from previous franchise entries.

If you’ve come looking for a film that engages your brain or educates you profoundly you should know by now that this is not the film for you. This is very much a popcorn thriller and a very good one at that. An attack of the senses, the film speeds through its 137 minute run, rarely pausing for breath. The mind-blowing airdrop scene that segues into the bus ambush sequence is mesmerisingly big and bold and feels like nothing we’ve ever seen for a franchise already known for the audacious sequences. And then comes the Dubai skyscraper, which is somehow bigger and bolder. The film just doesn’t lay off building upon its set pieces and action. So strangely, when the film does pause for breath, it shines the brightest.

Emotion is embedded in the film’s structure from beginning to end, whether coincidentally or purposefully– “Just promise me, Brian. No more funerals” creates a moment of sorrow and woe that continues throughout proceedings. A phonecall between Walker’s character and his onscreen wife reinforces the genuine infection between not only the characters, but the actors - the family they form, another theme strongly prevalent. By the time the final ‘For Paul’ sequence rolls by, there’s not a dry eye in the room. Poignant music, a stunning montage and touching narration is the most sincere goodbye. Handled to perfection, the goodbye to both O’Connor and Walker serves as one of the most touching and moving scenes in recent film history.

The decision for Brian O’Connor to live on in the franchise was the best thing they could have done. To allow the character Walker has embodied for such a long time to live on allows the audience to feel solace, that even though he is no longer with us, he lives on in these films, a franchise he arguably defined.

Summary: I never thought I'd get so emotional over a film that's usually so dominated by stunts and tricks but Furious 7 offers the most emotional sendoff to a character and actor we all love, immortalising Paul Walker in film in the most perfect way. 

Standout: 'For Paul'. Most gracious, tearful moment for an ending I almost dreaded.