Ricki and the Flash  (2015)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     101 Min        12A

Featuring Academy Award titaness Meryl Streep as fictional musician ‘Ricki’ Rendazzo (although screenwriter Diablo Cody was apparently inspired to create the film, not the character traits, by her mother-in-law Terry Cieri and her New Jersey band ‘Silk and Steel’), frontwoman and guitarist of her band The Flash, and detailing a tumultuous reunion with her estranged family after her daughter, Julie (played by Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer), enters a painful divorce and attempts to take her own life. Kevin Kline plays the ex-husband, with musician/actor Rick Springfield as Ricki’s current beau and lead guitarist of The Flash.

Director Jonathan Demme (‘The Silence of the Lambs’ 91, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ 08) initially creates an intimate drama but it all starts to slip away from him as time goes on, veering dangerously close to becoming a cheesy pastiche of middle-class soap opera vignettes – one of Ricki’s sons is gay and she doesn’t get it, her ex has married a black woman (there’s suggestion Ricki is racist as a result) and he keeps a stash of weed in the freezer (Ricki finds it in a second), and of course the cliché of the failed suicide attempt; there’s a blasé approach to everything, all with paper-thin treatments and Ricki as a down and out ‘rebel’ not welcomed by anyone but who’s musical talent will be offered as some kind of recompense for not bothering to be a mother for decades.

The music, however, is really good, with Streep’s vocals immediately evoking Stevie Nicks and working far better here than they did for her Oscar nominated turn in ‘Into the Woods‘ (Streep also spent a dedicated several months learning to play guitar, even receiving some tuition from Demme’s pal Neil Young no less), and indeed the performances all round are what partially redeem the film from its frequently transparent and hollow writing.

Straight Outta Compton  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     147 Min        15

Dramatisation of the rise to prominence of N.W.A.(Niggaz Wit Attitudes), the seminal rap group consisting of focal members Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), detailing its foundations, socio-political effect and its bitter infighting and eventual split (the film’s name is taken from the title of their debut album and the first track on said album – Compton is a city south of L.A.). Both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are listed as being among its producers, so you can probably take a lot of it with a pinch of salt, and it’s not a biography of any one of the individuals per se so it has controversially not made any mention of Dre’s several physical abuses of women, but as a cinematic account of part of the music industry it is remarkably refreshing in the energy of the film, the performances, and the way it involves the audience in the music itself.

Mitchell, Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson Jr. all hand in great turns and are performers to expect more from in the future (O’Shea Jackson Jr. is of course Ice Cube’s son, and is indeed his spitting image) – interestingly, one scene features the crew receiving some police harassment courtesy of the L.A.P.D. and the main instigator of it is a black cop – much like was the case in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (91), which was Ice Cube’s Hollywood breakthrough. With Paul Giamatti in support as N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller and directed by F.Gary Gray (‘Law Abiding Citizen’ 09, ‘The Negotiator’ 98), the film has been given a sinister seal of authenticity by portraying Marion ‘Suge’ Knight (played very well by R. Marcos Taylor) as a bit of a psycho – Knight who reportedly during filming got into an argument onset, one that was ended permanently by him running the other conversants over, killing one outright. In July of this year he was told he would stand trial for the murder.

We Are Your Friends  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A film universally panned but which actually works quite well within its own somewhat narrow purview – namely that of one young man’s attempt to make a living out of djing and trying to identify who he is and who he wants to be in the process, all while his friends effectively go through the same journey although he remains very much the protagonist. The style of dance music used throughout really isn’t my thing, so I was very surprised to find I enjoyed the track selection throughout, and the way it has been used and sound engineered to provide a distinctive feel to the movie has been really well executed. Surrounding something of a focus on sound the drama unfolds as one might imagine, with things going awry and the ensuing deep reflection, but Zack Efron as the central character Cole fits the part perfectly, and the support from Wes Bentley and Emily Ratajkowski compliment both Efron and the style of the piece to make this a well rounded out film that ought to resonate with many young people feeling a little lost as well as please aficionados of EDM (electronic dance music). Almost makes me want to go clubbing. Almost.

This is the song the film takes its name from:

Love and Mercy  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

Biopic of the life of Beach Boys member and key song writer Brian Wilson, told as a dramatic interpretation in two different time frames – the first with Paul Dano as a youthful Wilson in the sixties just beginning to establish himself creatively and struggling to convince the others of the need to outgrow their initial pop hits, and the second with John Cusack portraying him as a deeply troubled adult who’s life is dominated by the attentions of his almost live-in psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) whilst he tries to embark on a romantic relationship with serendipitous car sales rep Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Both performers have done a really great job of identifying with that period of Wilson’s life – especially true for Cusack who throws in a number of clever nuances here and there, with Banks and Giamatti predictably good in their supporting roles too. As you might imagine, Beach Boys tracks feature heavily throughout (though composer Atticus Ross has often rearranged the wealth of original material they had access to, using their music to subtly create something unique for the film), including their enduring ‘God Only Knows’ and it’s fascinating seeing the negative and damaging reaction that Wilson gets from his father, and one time manager, regarding the song which would go on to become significant to so many people. Indeed, I used to have a young lass tied up in my dungeon for whom the song was the most important in her life. She likely has a different interpretation of it now, but nevertheless the film manages to take a lot of these music industry clichés: familial opposition, drugs, not appreciated in own time etc., and put them into a narrative that not only neatly absorbs them but also makes you appreciate them anew with a compelling story and a sympathetic main character.

The balance between each timeline is perfect and it really tells that director Bill Pohlad (more usually known as a producer on such films as ‘12 Years a Slave‘ and ‘Into the Wild’ 07) was determined to tell a real, accurate story with precious little in the way of embellishment. Indeed, the film has been heralded by all as remarkably true to events and if anything it seems to make the villainous characters seem nicer than they were in real life. All of which makes ‘Love and Mercy’ (the title coming from the opening track of Wilson’s debut solo album) not only a great film, but a sterling example of what biographies and historical films should be trying to achieve.

Amy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The latest documentary from director Asif Kapadia follows in the footsteps of ‘Senna‘ with another collage of primary source material, this time used to portray the life and tragic death of jazz singer Amy Winehouse. There is a stylistic difference between the two films in that with Senna the majority of the material was filmed whilst Ayrton Senna was already in the spotlight and aware cameras were rolling, whereas here a lot of the footage used was filmed among Amy and her friends before she hit the big time, no one presumably imagining many people, if anyone at all, was ever going to view it, so in a sense you are getting a snapshot of what someone might be like, but you’re also at times seeing someone doing the kind of random things anyone might do if a camera was suddenly thrust in front of their face.

Despite being about a completely different personality, this is thematically quite similar to Senna in that there’s an underpinning narrative of destruction with a heavy dosage of blame lain at the feet of the industry and a world that she was propelled into by the popularity of her music. Arguably, there is an unavoidable dismissive initial reaction to the scenario from a neutral perspective, given the well publicised story of another young musician whose life is dragged ever downward by drugs and fame until an all but inevitable early death. Tragic, but also a cliché and with a strong element of self annihilation. The film does successfully allay some of this by showing a tortured and talented soul with some fairly villainous influences on her life, indeed one of said villains gets arrested at one point for perverting the course of justice but we never find out what they actually did, which stands as a curious oversight.

Similarly, there is a degree of ambiguity over the role of Amy’s father, both in her life and in the film. He has appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC denouncing the film, and indeed he brought in transcripts to show that where the film has his voiceover saying Amy didn’t need rehab, it actually cuts out before he goes on to stipulate he meant at that point and that later on she absolutely did. We don’t get to see these transcripts in detail of course and I’m not sure it ultimately makes too much difference, although he shouldn’t have been cut off like that, as it does become quite difficult to sympathise with someone who invites a reality TV crew to film themselves with their daughter in St Lucia, against her wishes, whilst he is supposed to be there helping her to recover.

Neither is there any mention of the two year relationship she’d been in with film director Reg Traviss before she passed away, but the pivotal role her marriage played in events is shown in great detail and just as Senna ended with a line meant to give you something to take away from the film, so too do we here learn from her bodyguard that right before her death she’d admitted if she could sacrifice all her singing ability in order to simply be able to walk down the street without being harassed by the paparazzi, then she would. Indeed, we see multiple scenes where she is severely hounded by the press and it’s no surprise at all it took its toll on her.

I never really got into her music, partly because I found it really difficult to make out the lyrics – and the film seems to at least partly acknowledge this problem by showing us subtitles every time she sings, which was a great idea as it’s a prime opportunity to showcase the poetry of her work, and the songs play alongside the chapters of her life in the film that they relate to. We also see a number of illuminations as to her no nonsense approach to interviews which often proves quite endearing – perhaps chiefly when onstage at the Grammys and she hears the album titles of her competitors read out, disdainfully remarking ” ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’? Did he really call his album that?” in reference to Justin Timberlake. Most amusing.

There is a suggestion that chunks of important material and information are missing, but the film nevertheless rehumanises a person that the media too often milked as a cash cow and Kapadia is once again successful in delivering his intentional exposé of the sort of dangerous and destructive world that the modern public eye can be.

Magic Mike XXL  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     115 Min        15

I did have concerns about this when the film started and I realised I was the only male in the audience (the story focusing on the world of erotic male dancers as it does) – the original ‘Magic Mike’ (2012) was directed by Steven Soderbergh and I remember it as one of his typically intimate films rather than something that could have easily degenerated into flashy nonsense. Soderbergh did at least stay on to produce the sequel and although Matthew McConaughey is absent this time around, leading man Channing Tatum (whose autobiographical tale the first film was, having been a stripper in real life before beginning his film career) returns to reprise the titular role, along with his crew Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), and director Gregory Jacobs manages to keep the film very true to the feel of the original, albeit with a screenplay less drama heavy than before (Jacobs’ long standing experience as Soderbergh’s assistant director, including on ‘Magic Mike’, no doubt has a lot to do with this).

Mike is lured back to the adrenaline fuelled world of stripping off in front of hordes of flustered, aroused women (there were reputedly close to a thousand female extras used for the final scenes) for wads of cash and assumed fringe benefits (to be fair, he didn’t require much persuasion), tempted away from his carpentry business for one last trip with the Kings of Tampa to compete at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It sounds like another ‘Step Up’ film but the narrative is well balanced between really well choreographed and superbly delivered dance sequences, on and off stage, and believable scenes of camaraderie with moments of reflection as they all take stock of where their lives are heading. A solid amount of comedy, great performances and some fantastic individual scenes easily make this the match of its predecessor – be prepared for a lot of dancing led from the hips and not always aimed there shall we say. With support from Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Glover. The current ratings discrepancy on the IMDB between the genders is also quite amusing, seems you mortals are easily intimidated by size …

Danny Collins  (2015)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     106 Min        15

‘Hey baby doll, what’s going on …’ Aargh! That song’s stuck in my fucking head! It’s not even like it’s stuck in there in the sort of ‘ah this is really catchy I’ll listen to it a few more times’ kind of way – it’s shit and it’s not even sung very well, noooooo ….

As you may have guessed, this film features a song called ‘Baby Doll’ and it is performed by none other than acting legend Al Pacino in the titular role of aged, drug abusing, successful, and yet distinctly disheartened Danny Collins, whose manager one day presents him with a hand written letter from John Lennon that tells him to stay true to his music and to give him a call sometime. Never having received the letter in the decades since it was written, and in his view having sold himself out artistically since then, Collins questions how different his life would have been if he’d been able to speak to his musical idol at the time, and he begins to take everything back to the drawing board to salvage his soul from ‘the road’ and endless performances of music he has long since lost interest in.

Shown after a brief credits role at the end is the real performer, Englishman Steve Tilston, this is based on (the central plot with the letter is true, though the rest appears to be fiction), and director/writer Dan Fogelman has done a great job of keeping us interested in what is a fairly low key film, one ultimately revolving around two dynamics – the main one of Collins trying to reconnect with a son (Bobby Cannavale) he has never had anything to do with before, and the second his attempt to seduce the manager, Mary (Annette Bening), of the hotel he permanently checks into and the ensuing relationship between them that results.

It’s very well paced for what it is and performances full of charm all round really ground the film in the characters, but mostly this works because it all feels very real, a lost soul trying to reconnect with what he has been missing for most of his life. Jennifer Garner plays his son’s wife and Giselle Eisenberg their young daughter, who is supposed to have ADD (attention deficit disorder) but really she seems just like a normal kid enjoying herself. The music comes predominantly from John Lennon with the occasional little ditty from Collins, although Al Pacino has apologised for his crooning in the film, and whilst billed as a comedy the focus is very much on the family drama here. With Christopher Plummer in support too (also, the brunette in the pic above is only in that one scene, disappointing I know).

Pitch Perfect 2  (2015)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        12A

Not quite as on key as its predecessor, the focus here is split too much between the singing of the successful all girl a cappella group ‘The Bellas’ from the first film and their less interesting personal diversions and indeed that too of new character Emily, played enthusiastically by Hailee Steinfeld, with the overall effect a dilution of the original’s strongest elements. The cast have all returned including main players Anna Kendrick as Beca Mitchell and Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat Amy’, with Elizabeth Banks, who plays competition commentator Gail, actually taking over directing duties as well – her last outing being the ‘Middleschool Date’ section in ‘Movie 43‘.

The underlying thread is that all the girls are going to have to deal with their upcoming college graduation and with it the end of their time with the group, but this isn’t really explored enough to be a theme and it’s more of a depressant the way they’ve occasionally inserted it in. Pulling weakly in too many directions, the story goes into Beca’s stealthy attempt to become a music producer as well as Emily’s new girl on the block jitters and her inevitable arc of mistakes made and eventual recovery and acceptance, none of these diversions have any real bite to them though.

Eventually, we are greeted with a group riff-off and here the film comes to life, indeed this is the highlight of the movie as although the Bellas are training to take on German world champions Das Sound Machine, it’s easy to forget any of them really care about it with so much trivia going on elsewhere and there simply isn’t enough of the music. Some fun still to be had though, and The Red Dragon certainly enjoyed the several scenes of Beca questioning her sexuality around the glamour of DSM’s lead female vocalist, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen. Again, not nearly enough made of this audience winning visual cocktail.

This song was featured in the first film and was released as a highly successful single for Anna Kendrick at the time. I love the Visit Scotland poster at the beginning – I’m happy to give you a guided tour Ms Kendrick, BEFORE I DEVOUR YOUR SOUL AND MAKE YOU MY MINDLESS SLAVE, or something along those lines …

Whiplash  (2014)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     107 Min        15

Another best film contender at this year’s Oscars, ‘Whiplash’ is the up-close and intense story of one music teacher’s bullying of his students in an effort to drive them to greatness. Determined potential drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is numero uno on the list of students to break, and J.K.Simmons is abrasively and brutally brilliant as the demonic instructor hell bent on validating himself through ‘discovery’ of talent, whose determination is no doubt driven relentlessly on by his seeming failure to uncover any diamonds in the rough so far in his career, thus he feeds his own sadistic cruelty quite convinced the pain and suffering he causes is justified.

Teller is miles (ahaha) better in this than in anything I’ve seen him in so far (see ‘That Awkward Moment‘), and since it is him drumming (albeit with a lot of great editing from Tom Cross: the film’s solo, for example, took two days to film) he deserves a lot of credit, as does Nate Lang, who plays one of his competitors, for training him (Lang spent months tutoring him in the discipline of jazz drumming, differing considerably from his previous tenure drumming for both a church youth group and his band ‘The Mutes’ in high school). Teller, though, doesn’t yet have the emotional range to fully light up the film, to really, really make us feel for him.

It may perhaps seem a little too far fetched, that Simmon’s Terence Fletcher has been exaggerated beyond what would simply be allowed anywhere, but it’s partly based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s own time in a jazz band (whose previous writing credits oddly include ‘The Last Exorcism Part II‘) and in The Red Dragon’s experience it’s bang on, and reminded him perfectly of one individual who was so despotic that he received bodily threats from concerned parents and yet who was still allowed to continue teaching unabated, resulting in a mass exodus of distressed and scarred students. No doubt many in the classical music industry will see similar shades of someone from their own past, or present …

Step Up 5 Million : All In  (2014)    47/100

Rating :   47/100                                                                     112 Min        12

Ok, so this is Step Up 5 (aka Step Up : All In) not five million, but really it’s so formulaic and derivative of its predecessors that they could rinse and repeat and get up to that number without any real effort. It has been billed as the film reuniting cast members from the other films, but what they really mean is that Moose (Adam Sevani) and Andie (Briana Evigan) are back in it – there is no Channing Tatum, for example, and although a few other semi familiar faces appear they, just as before, receive so little character development and so few lines that they might as well be new blood for all anyone is likely to care. The acting is terrible, and the screenwriting is offensive to writers everywhere, with possibly the worst element being lead male character Sean (Ryan Guzman), who does return from the previous film but who seems to have retained none of the life lessons he bored us with last time, managing to be both an indistinguishable carbon copy of all the leading male characters in the franchise as well as the least likeable of the lot.

The dancing, at least, is for the most part very good and has been well choreographed, but even the biggest fans of the series are going to struggle sitting through the garbage comprising eighty percent of the film to get to it. The story is the usual ‘some crew will try to bond in order to win a dance competition against the bad guys and the hot leads will fall for one another, even though one of these leads did the same thing a few films ago and that didn’t seem to work out too well for her and the other one would clearly rather make love to himself’ – eighty percent dancing with twenty percent story would have been far better. Evigan is by literal leaps and bounds the best thing about the film – and indeed it wasn’t until I sat and tried to remember the other four films that I realised her shaking her ass in ‘Step Up 2 : The Streets’ (08) is pretty much the only thing I remember about any of them. Bring on ‘Step Up 6 : All Out’, when Andie tires of male dancers breaking her heart and must now seduce the hottest girl in town through erotic, sweaty street dance – the girl is tempted, but what will her Republican Senator daddy who’s about to fund the state ballet have to say ..?? Only Moose knows …