Pitch Perfect 2 Blu-Ray Review (The Hollywood News)

PP2 1Pitch Perfect put the cheesy charm of the a cappella movement on the movie map, so naturally a sequel is going to give its audience more of the same, only bigger and better. That’s all you really need to know about Pitch Perfect 2, hitting screens courtesy of cast member-turned-director Elizabeth Banks. The first film saw Anna Kendrick‘s outsider/mash-up maestro find acceptance in the Barden Bellas before giving their beloved genre a good kick in the ass. Her character Beca formed the centre of a classic rite of passage tale, showcasing winning support turns from Rebel Wilson and Anna Camp.

With the tonsil-busting team established and all that angst out the way, Banks and screenwriter Kay Cannon can only tread water, returning us to the much-loved characters but this time without a lot of point outside of the impressive vocal gymnastics. There isn’t so much a story as a collection of bits and pieces, all of which manage to add up to a reasonably satisfying whole.

The script is basically concerned with how the Bellas get their groove back, after a catastrophic incident whereby Fat Amy (Wilson) gives President Obama an eyeful after the ultimate wardrobe malfunction at a prestigious performance. After that strong start the action roams around for the best part of two hours, taking in a raft of comedy goodness, from a romantic subplot between Amy and Bumper (Adam DeVine) to a Christmas album recording for Snoop Dogg. Halfway in the plot begins to go somewhere, as Beca faces the prospect of a juicy record company career away from campus and the spectre of the World A Cappella tournament looms large.

The tournament involves locking horns with Das Sound Machine, a terrifying German outfit of PVC-clad aca-warriors led by Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. DSM are funny, but transplanted straight out of a cartoon, and they’re less then politically correct. These militaristic music-mongers feature in the movie’s most amusing sequences, such as the “riff off” at the home of eccentric enthusiast David Cross. This set piece displays all the energy and creative edge we came to associate with part one – in fact it’s better than the final showdown, which lacks danger and is followed by a somewhat abrupt ending.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily, a major new addition to the cast. She’s pleasant enough, but I’m not sure what she really brings to the table in a movie overflowing with characters in the first place. Kendrick is as likeable as ever, and Wilson wisely gets to do more this time round. Camp shows up in a smaller role, with Aubrey now running a country retreat used by the group later in the film. If anything Banks and Cannon ration the performers quite effectively. Skylar Astin returns as Jesse, but is scaled down in favour of Ben Platt‘s Benji, who romances Steinfeld. Not everyone is well-served –  I found it hard to see why Chrissie Fit‘s offbeat dialogue was supposed to be funny (she comes out with far better material in the outtakes) and she’s doing the same joke as Hana Mae Lee‘s Lilly anyway. Banks herself has some choice moments in the company of sparring partner John Michael Higgins.

Universal haven’t skimped on the extras, with the Blu-ray carrying a long list of featurettes, bonus musical content, deleted scenes and a commentary. If you’re not all aca-ed-out by the end of the feature you can dive into various toe-tapping treats.

Pitch Perfect 3 is on the horizon, and it’s tough to see where the Bellas could go next. Saying that, the second instalment similarly had nowhere to go and went alright. Banks has succeeded in making an entertaining follow up, her directorial debut showing the kind of warmth, sass and sheer sense of joy that set its predecessor apart from the crowd. It’s far from perfect, but its pitch is in the right place.

This review appeared on The Hollywood News.

Sean Penn Now & Then: The Gunman & State Of Grace Blu-Ray Reviews (The Hollywood News)

THE GUNMAN (2015)

SP TGA surprising feature of the mature action movie’s unexpected rise has been the calibre of names attracted. Oscar-winner Liam Neeson reinvented his career via the Taken franchise, and now director Pierre Morel nets Sean Penn for butt-kicking duties in The Gunman. Of course Penn is as known for his staunch political views as his acting, so there’s a bit more going on here than a simple case of a tin opener and a can of whup-ass.

He plays the hilariously-named Jim Terrier, who operates in the murky world of private security in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With one foot in the humanitarian end of the equation (alongside surgeon girlfriend Jasmine Trinca) and the other working at the behest of corporate interests, it isn’t long till an impromptu assassination leads to Terrier fleeing the scene. Years later, this bone-cruncher of conviction is helping the poor with their water supply when unknown elements come to wipe him out. The rippling star (looking exceptionally craggy in full HD) must then traverse the globe, tracking down his former associates and trying to work out who wants his head on a platter.

Penn performs this wronged tough guy well, but the central character also displays the movie’s key weakness. If you’re following a man on the run it helps if you have some sympathy for him. Terrier’s former act of atrocity is so appalling it’s very difficult to get on board. In fact his workmates – now trying to live their lives as well-paid stuffed shirts – convey more remorse than he does. It helps that they are played by a truly impressive supporting cast – fans of brooding, middle-aged actors have an embarrassment of riches. In addition to Penn you’ve got Winstone, Bardem, Elba… not to mention Mark Rylance.

This is Rylance’s first high profile villain role, and he’s as good as you’d expect. But even he starts to go adrift as the story builds to a pretentious climax at a bullfight. Co-writer Penn must take responsibility for some dialogue so cheesy you could coat it in red wax and market it for Edam. It’s a strange combination of scribes overall – the script also carries the names of Don Macpherson (The Avengers – as in the Ralph Fiennes one!) and Dredd‘s Pete Travis. Also you might think Penn would work up a more balanced battle of the sexes, but no. Trinca is presented as impossibly saintly and well-lit as the female element, and is required to do little more than freak out and weep as bullets fly over her head. Out of the stellar line up, Winstone makes an impression as Terrier’s wing man, dressed like a member of Status Quo.

The special features show the verbose actors speak up in support of their infamous star/writer/producer. And you’ve got to hand it to him for trying to do something a bit different, even if this bird is really carrying too much on its back for it to fly. On the whole the film does alright as a chunky slice of smack-happy tosh. The various fights and car chases are decent, care of Taken veteran Morel. However the efforts of The Gunman to be both relevant and disposable means it collapses between two stools, bearing a mismatched combination of lean muscle and well-meaning paunch. It sort of apes the Bourne films, but they kept their subtext as fleeting as Matt Damon‘s footwork. Penn just isn’t a light enough touch for the beer and pizza crowd.

STATE OF GRACE (1990)

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Sean Penn and Gary Oldman are long-established in the movie firmament, but they were once young guys who fired on all cylinders in edgier fare. An opportunity to remind viewers of this has presented itself with the release of State Of Grace on Blu-ray. A well-made crime thriller set in Hell’s Kitchen, it caught a few actors on their way up the ladder, from Ed Harris to John Turturro.

Penn plays Terry Noonan, who returns to the New York neighbourhood he grew up in looking for employment. This means rekindling his relationship with the Flannerys, an Irish family with whom he was intimately involved. Best friend Jackie (Oldman) is an unstable enforcer who works for hoodlum brother Frankie (Harris). The place has changed in Noonan’s decade-long absence, as locals are squeezed out by the property boom. Frankie is turning against the people he used to call friends in a bid to impress a mob boss (Joe Viterelli). Meanwhile, Terry encounters old flame Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright), who in attempting to distance herself from her heritage represents salvation for Penn’s tortured soul.

Partway through the story there’s a revelation about the lead character that isn’t a surprise if you’ve read any of the publicity. However if you avoid the blurb you may find, like I did, that the development deepens your involvement in the narrative.

The decaying urban backdrop to the film is very interesting, arguably more so than the players out front. No-one here is that likeable, but the situation – always one step away from disaster as Oldman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic – is a compelling walk along a cinematic knife’s edge. Acts of shocking violence are committed under the auspices of maintaining “good manners” amongst the criminal fraternity, a more appropriate term than most in this case. Death has become a constant feature of these peoples’ lives: a friend is pulled out of the river on the same day Terry and Jackie have to attend a funeral.

In addition to the main cast there is a treasure trove of talent in support to keep your attention glued – John C. Reilly (looking exactly the same as he does now!) takes the role of a wayward peer and screen legend Burgess Meredith has a short but poignant scene as Penn is sent to his apartment to collect money.

We’ve seen this type of set up before (I was reminded a little of Mean Streets) but director Phil Joanou gives the production its own life, shooting in a sweeping, epic style that lends itself nicely to the Blu-ray treatment. Dennis McIntyre’s solidly-constructed script boasts some snappy dialogue – “What, are you some kind of asshole or are you taking lessons?” – that’s a treat for the ear. Speaking of which, Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is a key aspect of this class act. There are strong minor touches also, such as the moment henchman R.D. Call scoops up some nuts to eat after gunning down a bar owner.

The disc carries around twenty-five minutes of special features, which are decent. Directing A Bunch Of Gangsters has an enthusiastic Joanou describing the process and Harris shows up to discuss the role of Frankie in his own featurette. Nothing extensive, but certainly enough to satisfy anyone with a curiosity.

Ultimately the film isn’t in the same league as Scorsese. The striking slow-motion climax really belongs somewhere else. Oldman overdoes it and Wright is just plain drippy. Yet State Of Grace remains a punch-packing entry in the twentieth century gangster movie canon and is worth catching in hi-def twenty-five years later.

The Gunman & State Of Grace reviews appeared on The Hollywood News.