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.
If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
Luke (Steven Strait) and Brier (Pell James) first cross paths on a New York City subway before the doors shut on their instant attraction to one another. Of course it is immediately and abundantly clear that they will naturally meet up again before long but where and how? The answers: L.A. and well it's complicated. Each having forgotten about the other Brier a top model in NYC decides she needs a change of scenery and tells her agent (Carrie Fisher clearly in it for the paycheck) she's heading out to L.A. to pursue acting while Luke and his brother Euan (Kip Pardue) decide to move to the West Coast as well. Once there Brier befriends Clea (Ashlee Simpson) and on her first night in town takes Brier to a local dive bar where Luke works as a struggling "musician." Wow that's some coincidence. There is an instant re-connection between Luke and Brier but she refuses to get involved with musicians since her rock-star ex mistreated her. Instead she shifts her focus on generating buzz for Luke. Eventually Luke gets the big recording contract becomes the rock-star jerk he'd swore he'd never become and loses it all. But all is well when Brier decides she can no longer resist Luke's ballads and Metallica-guitarist-circa-'85 hair.
The theme of Undiscovered could apply to its cast. Each of the four leads are on the cusp of being on the cusp and certainly they hope this movie will take them one step closer. For James that might happen. She is a natural on screen and gives a breakthrough performance as the comely Brier. Strait is also a relative newcomer. After turning his debut performance in this summer's Sky High he holds his own in Undiscovered but seems to be relegated to taking his shirt off to make the teenyboppers swoon. Finally there's Simpson who is also making her major-role debut. It's awkward to see her on-screen and yes subconsciously you wait for her to make a noticeable mistake (or butcher a voice-over due to acid reflux). Of course it doesn't happen; she moves along pretty smoothly but is at times subjected to dialogue that seems beyond her especially when she has to words big words such as "banter." And certainly it's not her fault when she describes Luke--a musician best left struggling--as "a cross between Jeff Buckley and Elvis Costello." That's just someone else's words she reciting.
Prolific music-video director Meiert Avis is making his feature film directorial debut with Undiscovered--and his obvious greenness shows. At times the film is more like a music video surrounded by a weak storyline than a cohesive film. His expertise in the rather linear realm of music videos doesn't exactly qualify him for the complexities of a 90-minute film contrived and straightforward as his debut may be. Avis tries to employ every possible clichéd obstacle for the characters to overcome--which reeks of inexperience but could also be the screenwriter's fault. No doubt Avis feels at home with newcomers such as Strait and Simpson who--for all intents and purposes--sing and act but the plethora of singing scenes feel forced. That is forced into the script to showcase the soundtrack when the movie goes undiscovered at the box office.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.