Film review – Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

If Inside Llewyn Davis is the poisonous view of the hardest and most demoralising sides of the music industry, with all its rejection, squalor and misery, then Begin Again is the antidote. They are from different sides of the tracks and share nothing but a basic premise and the same city (New York) in common.

Begin Again tells the intertwining stories of two people whose lives have been ruined by the music industry. Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has been sacked from his own record company by co-founder Saul (Mos Def) and has taken to the bottle to avoid finding focus in his life, much to the detriment of his relationship with daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He has a chance meeting in a bar with Gretta James (Keira Knightley), who has plenty of talent but no stage presence or confidence. He decides she has enough potential to turn into something more than just a singer at an open mic night, though her reluctance is powered by the recent breakdown of her relationship with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), now seemingly destined for stardom.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Begin Again falls down where films like Inside Llewyn Davis or Carney’s last film Once succeeded for the simple reason that the songs and performances simply aren’t as good. Keira Knightley has found herself in an awkward situation. Her fame ultimately puts her as an a-lister actress and celebrity, with the ability to elevate an average film to blockbuster status due to her past successes. As a viewer, subconsciously there is an expectation that her ability as a musical performer should match that. Sadly, the studio has had this well in mind and ensured, through post-production, that her voice and entire backing track is polished to perfection, removing the intimacy seen in Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s raw but powerful performances in Once. It’s an inevitable source of frustration as it is evident she has some talent, though what that is feels hard to decipher.

Ruffalo’s performance lacks conviction and the feeling that he has been really scorned by the music industry never fully materialises. Adam Levine plays his part coolly, almost as an exaggeration of his real-life personality (or what it is perceived to be). Steinfeld provides another assured performance in her supporting role, even though she doesn’t look like she’s ever picked up a guitar before. James Corden makes the most of his limited screen time.

It’s disappointing that overall this film fails to deliver on so many levels. The one thing it will be remembered for is the track “Lost Stars”, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 2015. It is the one song here that stands up to those around which Once was built. However, one song does not a musical make; it is very unlikely this will follow its predecessor onto the West End and thus it is destined to be forgotten.

Begin Again is available for purchase now, or can be streamed on Netflix.

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Film review -トウキョウ トライブ / Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)

Movies should aspire to be the best in their genre. There’s no point existing as a movie unless you can at least be better than everything that has gone before in your genre. If you can’t do that, then why not mold yourself a new genre completely?

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that Tokyo Tribe is the best Japanese-language rap-musical in the tribal gang realm.

The story is pretty hard to explain. To summarise, we are let into a highly stylised version of modern Tokyo, where tribal gangs vie to rule the city. Set over one night, we see the heightening tensions as ganglord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) and son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) declare war on all other tribes in Tokyo, announcing as much by killing the popular peace advocate Tera (Ryuta Sato). The uprising against their power trip is led by central heroine Sunmi (Nana Seino), and multiple stylised battles culminate in a dawn all-out-war.

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras


Amazingly, the intertwining of multiple storylines and characters is reminiscent of Love Actually, though the comparisons inevitably end there. In fact, at times it’s simply hard to follow just who the central characters are. About 90% of the dialogue is delivered as rapping, so as an English native who barely speaks any Japanese it is hard to follow what are clearly some very fast and rhythmical lyrics. On this occasion, it really pays to speak the language.
Another issue is the excessive number of characters that are continuously being introduced into the mix. It felt at times like several characters were frivolously being added in too late for us to care about who they are, often getting only a handful of lines to describe who they are, what tribe they represent and a little about themselves before disappearing for the rest of the film.

That said, there is a memorable turn from Cyborg Kaori as a beatboxing servant, which is worth watching out for. She does things with her voice that seem completely unnatural. The results are fascinating and her various YouTube videos are worth checking out. This is an example of a distinct character being given the chance to shine; it’s a shame that the cast wasn’t smaller so more focus could be given to each of the talented artists involved.

Many of the featured actors and actresses, however, are new to the hip hop world and the intriguing on-disc Making Of documentary reveals a lot of the insecurities of the stars, particularly with standout performer Nana Seino. She’s clearly a talented actress but it’s sad she was the focus of such a lot of “fan-service” throughout the film.

Stylisitically, the film is top notch. From start to finish there is no break in the feeling that the characters inhabit this entirely alternate reality and in that sense it is a great success.

The same cannot be said for the storyline.

At times it’s a brilliantly unique film that threatens instant cult-classic status. Often it’s just a complete mess that loses itself in style over storyline. If you know of Sono Shion and liked his previous efforts then you know you’ll enjoy this. If not, then approach with caution.

Tokyo Tribe can be purchased on Blu-Ray in the UK now and was released by Eureka films.

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)

The sequel to the smash hit musical comedy Pitch Perfect, covering Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson et al. as they struggle to break down boundaries and show the world that a capella singing is actually really cool… Wait, what? In their world, a capella is already cool? They just aren’t cool enough to do it because they’re outcasts. Okay…

I have a slight vested interest in this film, on at least one level. I myself am in an a capella group and also take part in local theatrical productions so performing on stage has always been in my life. From memory, though, I don’t ever recall a capella singing being this popular. When there’s a tournament in Pitch Perfect World, the whole town drops everything to show their support for their favourite group. For me, I’m usually pulling in favours just so my closest family members turn up. Maybe I just don’t have the right acca-skills.

Pitch Perfect 2 has plenty of big laughs but you may have already seen them all in the trailer.

Well, this is a chick flick and it doesn’t have to have a watertight storyline. However, despite throwing away any grasp on reality to accept the film for what it is doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film. It’s basically a rehash of the first film – pretty much the same cast going through very similar personal struggles but pulling it together because their dedication to their friends supercedes anything else in life. It’s sweet, and I buy into the basic principal.

Unfortunately, outside the handful of really hilarious moments – most of which you’ve already seen in the trailer – the jokes consistently fall flat. Chrissie Fit’s Guatemalan character is just plainly not funny and every line she delivered felt like it was about forty years out of date. Likewise, Cynthia-Rose (portrayed by Ester Dean) is a really throwaway lesbian character that doesn’t really add anything to the storyline other than some cheap gags based on rudimentary stereotyping.

It was nice to see Hailee Steinfeld – who I know only from her Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit – in a comedic role but, like the more established Kendrick, she almost seems a little above the content. I’m not sure whether the plan is to keep her in line to do Pitch Perfect 3. I guess time will tell.

So what can I say? It passed the time and I enjoyed parts of it. I wanted to see Mad Max but the majority of the seven other people I was with preferred this. I won’t rush to see it again, but I doubt my indifference towards it will change the fact that its target audience (basically the millions of people who loved the first film) will buy tickets and love it.

Pitch Perfect 2 is out now at cinemas worldwide.

The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1943)

After listening to the excellent Masters of Cinema Cast discussion on Busby Berkeley’s 1943 musical extravaganza The Gang’s All Here, I knew I had to watch it for myself. I didn’t know what to expect and having watched it now I still don’t really know what I made of it.

I was reminded of a few modern day film-watching woes as the film played out. You know when you’re watching a 2D film at home and for some reason they have these annoying and hard to follow fast-paced sweeping shots following someone through a surprisingly tricky pathway full of things jumping towards you, and you sit there unimpressed because you aren’t at an IMAX screening? There was a great one in the Jim Carrey-starring animation A Christmas Carol. Out of context it just doesn’t wow, because the sole purpose of it is to show off a piece of technology or visual effect.

Another example is the 30-ish minutes of wasted special-effects shots in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Loads to see, if your thing is watching outdated effects showing a spaceship slowly crawling through space. In the distance. But watched in 2015 you can’t help but drown in the lethargy of it all.

So we have The Gang’s All Here. A work of Technicolor wonder. A flimsy plot serving as a platform for countless big hit parade smashes in state-of-the-art colour film. A picture oozing razzmatazz. A picture that just doesn’t wow, simply because the visuals it spends so long showing off are just something we expect of a modern film.

That’s not to say The Gang’s All Here is the first colour film and a massive surprise to audiences. Indeed, they had been treated to both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind in 1939, some four years eariler, both shot in Technicolor. This was, however, Berkeley’s first feature to be filmed entirely in Technicolor, which would have been a great honour at the time due to the high production costs associated with the technique. It wasn’t an opportunity he was going to waste, and he certainly made enthusiastic use of his chance to use colour for the first time.

Really, the plot is a duplicate of far too many films of the era: woman and soldier fall in love in a whirlwind romance on the eve of his departure for the war (in this case, he’s off to Japan). It really isn’t important. What the 1943 American audiences wanted was escapism – two hours of over-the-top dance numbers, busy routines, familiar songs and huge stars. And that’s what they got.

There are a few numbers where Berkeley really goes to town. The big opening number “You Discovered You’re In New York” – sung by Brazilian Carmen Miranda – is a sharp comment about wartime shortages. Her other big number “The Lady In The Tutti Fruity Hat” doesn’t hide the fact that it’s full of innuendo (7ft bananas, anyone?) and is probably the most memorable number in the whole film.

There are also moments of total surrealism, none more so than the finale “The Polka-Dot Polka”, which is Berkeley indulging in his big budget and experimenting with the Technicolor medium. It’s kaleidoscopic and hilarious and deserves to be seen.

It’s not at all a perfect musical, and it hasn’t retained its popularity over the years, for one reason or another. There probably won’t be a stage adaptation, owing to the fact the storyline isn’t strong enough and the wow factor on the big number comes from visual effects that couldn’t be recreated on stage. However, it deserves to be seen in full HD, with attention given to the brightly saturated colours of the original print. Inevitably, Eureka and Masters of Cinema have delivered on this release yet again.

The Masters of Cinema release of The Gang’s All Here is available to buy now. Strangely, you can watch the whole film via YouTube below, though the low picture and sound quality just doesn’t do it justice. You can get a flavour of it though.

Into The Woods (Rob Marshall, 2015)

Into The Woods is the big screen adaptation of the classic Sondheim musical of the same name, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. With a big cast and even bigger budget, it is a film hotly anticipated by fans of musical theatre the world over. So was it any good?

Well, first things first. If you’re thinking of going to see this, you’d better like musicals. If you went to see Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and thought “I wish these songs would stop”, then you’ve got to avoid this. This is a Sondheim musical (he also wrote the music for Sweeney Todd) and the songs really aren’t a patch on his best work. Having been part of amateur theatre groups in my time, I’m familiar with picking up songs quickly and memorising their melodies with just one or two listens. I can’t even hum a single song from this. It’s probably because they’re just relentless. It doesn’t break you in easily either. The first song either was 12 minutes long or felt like it was, with characters weaving in and out of each other’s motifs in a really clever but essentially quite annoying manner. It was just too much.

If you don’t know, Into The Woods is a story that inter-weaves the plots from four classic fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It’s quite clever, although a bit pantomimey at times. However, you have to be willing to go along with the storyline, as with many musicals, and allow yourself to be entertained. As best you can.

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The cast is full of huge stars: James Corden and Emily Blunt play the cursed bakers set a task by Meryl Streep’s evil witch. Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, Chris Pine is the charming but cringeworthy Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman is brilliant as the mother of Jack, and Johnny Depp manages to portray Riding Hood’s Wolf at a notch slightly less creepy than his take on Willy Wonka, despite the first half of the song sounding like he is a paedophile (though this is just a criticism of the quite awful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if I’m honest).

There are some wonderful moments. If you’ve never seen the quintessential male bravado one-upmanship song “Agony”, then Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson do a mighty fine job of it. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are both excellent in their respective roles and continue to impress me as they develop through their careers. Tracy Ullman, as I’ve already mentioned, was another highlight.

My overarching feeling is that I am well-positioned to really like this. One of my guilty pleasures is a good Disney film when I’m feeling down. I’m a fan of musical theatre. I think all of the cast have been brilliant in plenty of other films and this film doesn’t represent a career-lot for anyone. I just left the cinema feeling indifferent and worn out.

It’s well timed because it goes hand-in-hand with Disney’s other big release in Q1 2015, Big Hero 6, which is due out in just under a month and probably has minimal cross-over with the younger target audience.

It is a faithful but watered down version of the stage musical, aimed squarely at the family audience. It retains some of the darkness and some of the magic, but falls short across the board.

Into The Woods is out now at cinemas across the UK.