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.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.