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 this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.