It is my estimation that there are very few people on the fence about seeing a movie about the universe of college a capella. The people who want to see this movie would all but kill to do so — on the other hand there are those who’d rather endure a three-hour documentary on the referendum to criminalize the distribution of lead-based paints. I was hardly in the latter category upon approaching Pitch Perfect. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the seasonal performances of my college’s championship-winning a capella group the Binghamton Crosbys (namedrop). I would happily welcome an influx of musical films to mainstream Hollywood. I really really liked the first season of Glee. I say all this to illustrate how open to the idea of Pitch Perfect I was and how much I really wanted to like the movie. Unfortunately as I would reluctantly acknowledge not long into the picture Pitch Perfect was missing many of its marks. Not all but many.
The movie touts itself not as Glee: The Movie as many on the opposing side are likely to deem it but as something far more self-aware. There are a handful of jokes about the rigid containment of the a capella world’s celebrity with remarks that all the authentically cool kids at the central Barden University exist beyond the confines of the a capella community. Unfortunately while it strives to adopt a self-deprecating attitude toward the tropes of the genre it draws the line at the rejection of the more hackneyed elements of its romantic and interpersonal storylines.
While the story is based in the always-worth-revisiting “be yourself” underdog theme it doesn’t quite execute this idea with full force. The highly talented Anna Kendrick plays Beca a “rebellious” aspiring deejay enticed into the nearly defunct Barden Bellas by well-meaning vet Chloe (Brittany Snow) due to her natural skill for singing but disliked by queen bee Aubrey (Anna Camp) for being just a little too different. But in all honesty she’s hardly different enough to evoke our sympathies. In fact the only outstanding characteristics Beca seems to have is that she’s pretty self-entitled and always a little bit miffed. Still she’s the apple of everyone's eye including the guileless flimsy male lead Jesse (Skylar Astin) who himself is a cherished new member of Barden's rival a capella group the all-male Treblemakers — led by the wickedly obnoxious top dog Bumper (Adam DeVine). Beca and Jesse are meant to found the real emotional crust of the movie; he teaches her about the greats of cinematic soundtracks and about not pushing people away and she... well she doesn't really teach him about anything. Their relationship lacks the real substance that would effectively carry the film based primarily on the fact that they're both cute and microscopically off-center.
And then there are the supporting characters — the Bellas' team of misfits whom we're meant to love. Rebel Wilson leads this pack as the kooky brazen self-decreed Fat Amy. Beside her the sexually-charged Stacie (Alexis Knapp) the quiet psychopath Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) whose alluded homosexuality is quite unfortunately the punchline of her character among a few faceless sub-supporting characters. And while the theme does don a sheath of the classic “be yourself” mindset it seems to be more interested in poking fun of these girls and their quirks than it is in celebrating them.
But they do band together they do develop a camaraderie and they do come to compromise their differences in order to better one another and the team. And then comes the final musical number.
See for all of the film's faults there is something it knows how to do: it puts on one hell of a show. As much of a cynical nitpicker as you might be once the Bellas' final performance on the competition mainstage takes way you're bound to enjoy it. Showcasing the individual vocal talents of each of the (primary) singers sewn together in an expertly crafted compilation piece viewers are likely to get a chill or two. This is where Pitch Perfect hits: in its sheer unembarrassed celebration of a capella of music in general and of the girls onscreen. The movie makes the mistake of trying to have it both ways. When it goes for self-deprecation it makes it look all the more unaware of its inherent flaws in plot and character. But in being what plenty of people would be just fine with — an a capella movie that isn't ashamed of loving a capella any more than its over-the-top characters are — it succeeds. Unfortunately this sentiment feels limited to the final performance of the film. But to its credit it's a performance good enough to make up for a whole lot of the stuff that leads up to it.
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Early on in No Country for Old Men there is a wide-angle shot of an open field in border-town Texas. Gorgeous but menacing it is the very snapshot of “calm before the storm.” One of the men who will momentarily be in the storm’s epicenter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is actually providing us with this view through the scope of his rifle as he stalks the unsuspecting antelope. Even further in the distance a cluster of bullet-ridden trucks catches his eye and so he walks that distance for a closer look. What he finds is a drug deal gone awry and $2 million with his name on it. He scurries away with the cash and without the knowledge he has just turned the devil onto him. Enter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who some know as the devil or as a ghost or as the bogeyman or not at all and whose blood money Llewelyn just intercepted. There are crazy-serial-killer types and then there is Anton a murderer whose blood is so cold that he derives only apathy from taking a life—which has afforded him a very successful career as a hitman. Once word gets out that Anton is after Llewelyn a third man enters the fray—an aging policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) loath to draw his gun in the small town he has manned for years let alone hunt down a lunatic. So the tango begins with Llewelyn unwittingly carrying a transponder through which Anton can track him and Anton wittingly leaving a path of bodies through which the lawman can track him. It takes a cast like the one in No Country to pull off what the Coen brothers demand of their actors—which is to say acting that transcends dialogue delivery. Take Bardem’s villain for example a man(iac) of few words. The Oscar nominee whose Anton is fear-inspiring on first look says as much with his impassive demeanor and lack of swagger as he does with his terse literal dialogue. But when he does speak it makes the words stick that much more; a scene in which he introduces the word “Friend-o” into the cinephile lexicon will have you sweating and chuckling—nervously. His is the type of psycho that’s as entrancing and potentially iconic as Hannibal Lecter. As the guy on the run so to speak Brolin is this movie’s version of the good guy though that doesn’t exactly compel you to root for him. Brolin instead like Bardem conveys what isn’t spoken--in his case logical fear that is stupefied by virility and money hunger. It marks another great performance for Brolin whose 2007 has been full of them. Jones meanwhile could not have been a more perfect casting choice to provide No Country’s voice of reality its Mr. Righteous. His aging overmatched cop doesn’t even get harmed but still might be the movie’s lone true victim thanks to the eloquent but stoic performance of Jones who also serves as narrator. And Woody Harrelson in a small speedy role shows zest we haven’t seen in a long time. Joel and Ethan Coen have always worked best in the dark be it comedy or drama. With No Country they’ve reached their peak darkness in both genres. The movie is often something of an exercise in subtle pitch-black comedy—perhaps the only way in which it strays from its source material a wildly beloved novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy—detectable only by those who pay close attention to and/or are familiar with the Coens. But it’s the suspense here that differs from their entire oeuvre and all of their contemporaries. With virtually no music long periods of silence and positively nothing extraneous the directors create tension via minimalism: Chase sequences are done mostly on foot and conclude intimately and gruesomely with one scene featuring Brolin and Bardem separated by a hotel-room door proving especially suspenseful damn near Hitchcockian. But No Country isn’t all about the chase; in fact it's about the Coens' originality and how they inject it to keep this from being a “chase” movie. It's an instant classic—a horrifying funny suspenseful masterpiece that could only have come from these two filmmakers.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) is about as average as one can get. He’s an electrician working for the Army doesn’t have any family. In other words he is perfect for playing a guinea pig in the government's new Human Hibernation Project. Joined by Rita (Maya Rudolph) a street-smart hooker who needs to hide out for a while they are to be kept on ice and revived a year later. But when they awaken they find out that they're almost a thousand years into the future. The project was forgotten and scrubbed their hibernation pods became landfill--and now Bowers is the smartest man on Earth. They meet Dizz (Dax Shepard) who's addicted to a lounge chair a bungling doctor (Justin Long) and the president/pro-wrestler (Terry Crews). Guess this means prognosticators--hoping for a better more intelligent future--are dead wrong.. Idiocracy effectively becomes a bunch of one-liners spliced together which really doesn’t do any of the comic talent justice. Still all the performers play rather believable idiots. Wilson turns on his easy-going charm as the least dim-witted bulb in the bunch (but never quite gets what Rita does for a living). The affable actor always shines brighter in a movie that doesn’t have “romantic comedy” in its description. Rudolph does her usual Saturday Night Live shtick while Long (Accepted) as the doctor who checks people in and out as if they were in a Jiffy Lube is hysterical even if the one-note hospital gag gets a tad tiresome. Crews is also pretty clever in his role as the dunderhead president who can't figure out how to save his planet from starvation. Why haven't you heard about this movie? Well that's the true Idiocracy. Fox seems to have rushed this little gem out failing to promote it in anyway much like they did with the cult hit Office Space. Ironically both are directed by Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butthead fame). Judge has put his finger on the pulse of what's wrong with this world and gives a bleak social commentary about our future. For example his version of the classic film of the future is a giant naked butt expelling intermittent gas every few minutes. That kind of fart film is the wave of this future run by live-action Beavis and Buttheads. Maybe Judge means to say that the people of Idiocracy’s future--who watch the Masturbation Channel and Fox News (yes that survives) and shop at stores bigger than small cities--are the descendants of those who run the studios today. Or maybe not.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.