Universal via Everett Collection
Somewhere inside of Pitch Perfect there exists the movie it wants to be. Buried beneath the scathing send-ups of the dreamer genre, there are actual dreamers. Ones we're charged to root for — after all, we are hinged to their story about "making it to regionals," or whatever — but that we can't. Because the film itself refuses to do so. At once, it's a celebration of the socially disbarred and a satire of all the sugar-coated entertainment that has been devoted to it... okay, mostly Glee. And while this marriage isn't necessarily doomed, too often does Pitch Perfect find itself torn between asking us to root for its heroes and asking us to laugh at its victims (the same people). We can't say for sure whether something was lost in translation from script to screen, or of Kay Cannon's original screenplay was laden with the troubles we find on the screen, but we're hoping that the upcoming sequel's new director, actress Elizabeth Banks, can figure out her animal better than first installment helmer Jason Moore could.
In order to do so, she'll have to know when the movie need to stop laughing at these people. And here's a good indicator: if it is laughing at them for being fat or gay, you've probably taken a wrong turn.
The film offers glimpses of its potential — loner Anna Kendrick identifying Brittany Snow's shared familiarity with David Guetta's "Titanium" as awe-inspiring (one of the film's better attempts at tackling a genre staple) — but undoes its own mission when it turns the trope battering in on its characters. Pitch Perfect sets up its underdog a capella clique as a group of eccentrics with whom we're supposed to relate: genuine talents unappreciated due to weight, race, sexual orientation, and a laundry list of personality defects. But just when you think the movie is on their side, it jumps right on in, poking fun at Rebel Wilson's character for her size and Ester Dean's for her homosexuality. And one might spout the defense, "But these girls are making fun of themselves!" Well, that's the problem. They think they have to.
Wilson's breakout character goes by "Fat Amy," underlining her self-assigned moniker with the rationale, "So twig b**ches like you [she's talking to Anna Camp] don't do it behind my back." Therein lies the film's defeat. It thinks that these girls have no shot at dignity, so they have to succumb to self-parody. This is not simply embracing a sense of humor about yourself (a valuable characteristic) but becoming the joke that everybody says you are because you don't see any other choice. And Pitch Perfect doesn't just limit this fate to "Fat Amy," but to its excessively marginalized gay character, Cynthia Rose (Dean).
Universal via Everett Collection
The joke about Dean? The same joke that has been assigned to gay characters since before the days of Three's Company, and that still, by some grace of ungodly ignorance, works its way into network television and blockbuster cinema today. Her sexual orientation is her punchline. For the length of Pitch Perfect, we're offered "hints" that Cynthia Rose is attracted to women — the way she dresses and carries herself are brandished as lesbian stereotypes, and we even get a scene of her groping fellow a capella band member Stacie (Alexis Knapp) for good measure. And then, finally, concrete evidence: "When I broke up with my girlfriend..." followed by a de facto rimshot from Rebel Wilson.
Of course, Pitch Perfect was a hit, and this is owed to a very simple, very convenient allowance made by its story: the singing. Yes, these girls can sing. And when they get up on that stage at the end of the film and belt their heroic ballads, it's as if the film is saying, "See? We were behind them all along!" But giving stars like Wilson and Rose solos doesn't retroactively make Pitch Perfect's mean-spirited attitude about their identities "good natured ribbing." We were still asked to look at Fat Amy as a fat girl first, swelling with laughter at her inability to run, her propensity for falling down, and — most riotous of all — the inscrutable idea that she might consider herself sexy. You can endorse this material all you like with defenses that Fat Amy and Wilson herself were on board with the gags, but the simple fact that the one overweight young woman in this movie feels no other course than to dominate her screen time with fat jokes is unforgivable. Some would call it wise advice to garnish an embarrassing faux-pas with some self-effacing humor; this is not how heavy people should made to be felt about the way they look.
In earnest, there's optimism attached to Banks' ascension into the director's chair. Although she has never handled a feature on her own, her comic sensibilities as an actress, and as a woman, might be more conducive to a little bit of respect for the young ladies at the center of this story. We can hope, anyway — with a wealth of talent in stars like Kendrick, Wilson, Dean, Camp, Snow, and the rest, and in a writer like Cannon, there's too much good to let the end product wind up so misguided.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
The film follows the same tired action genre step by step. Ex-con and single dad O2 (Tyrese Gibson) is trying to go straight for the sake of his young son Junior. But when the kid is kidnapped in what seems to be a typical carjacking O2 has to pull out all the stops to get him back. Turns out O2 had some nefarious dealings with a gang overlord named Big Meat (The Game) who likes to hack off people’s body parts with a machete. And now Meat wants some payback taking for ransom the only thing O2 cares about in the entire world [sniffle]. So what’s a guy to do? Pit rival gang leaders against each other hook up with a beautiful street hustler (Meagan Good) rob safety deposit boxes and get caught in an extended car chase that’s what. "It's either all or nothing " realizes O2. Very prophetic. Waist Deep has got some great character names--Meat O2 Coco Lucky Junior. Too bad most of the performances can’t live up to them. Tyrese (Four Brothers) does try his best though as the hunky O2 making a convincing albeit a tad stiff attempt at playing a father who’s whole life is his son. Good (Roll Bounce) gets to wear tight sexy clothes and strut around as Coco O2’s accomplice and eventual love interest as they rob banks Bonnie and Clyde style. Larenz Tate (Crash) plays Lucky O2’s unreliable cousin who actually isn’t lucky at all caught between a rock and hard place. And then there’s Meat played by big-time rapper The Game in his feature debut. With a battered face and covered in tattoos The Game certainly looks like one mean badass wielding a mad machete. Thankfully he doesn’t have to do much more than that. Here’s a few words of advice to would-be actors who want to play effective bad guys: Less is more. It’s movies like these that really give South Central L.A. a bad rep—shoot-outs in the middle of the street in broad daylight the carjacks the depravity the sad stories of little kids getting shot. It’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy place. Of course actor-turned-director/co-writer Vondie Curtis-Hall (best known for his numerous TV guest spots) doesn’t want it to be showing the grit in all its glory and collecting a cast from the area who could lend some credibility to the surroundings. But Hall needs a few more lessons in how to craft a well-thought action movie. The script is hackneyed beyond the usual taking bits not only from Bonnie and Clyde but also Thelma and Louise Boyz N the Hood--and even a little Shawshank Redemption. Hall’s camerawork is also too frenetic at times almost dizzyingly so with unnecessary close ups and choppy sequences. That isn’t to say some of the gun play and car chases aren’t exciting enough. There just seems to be a lack of experience overall.