Tag Archives: movie review

“Pitch Perfect 2” lacks harmony

Pitch Perfect (2011) is certainly not a great movie. It is a standard by the numbers film with some interesting, strong female characters. However, it seems fresh. There are independent women not reliant on male companions for success. The music and choreography are strong. There are funny moments and inside jokes that reward the audience. So there were strangely high expectations for the sequel. But comic sequels in general are hard nuts to crack, usually too dependent on the original, maintaining a joke’s original wit harder to pull off the second time around (just imagine creating a sequel for a joke you’ve already told). And so it is with Pitch Perfect 2, an all around bore of a film that succeeds at none of its predecessor’s strengths.

It’s been three years since the end of the last film. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is about to graduate and has taken an internship at a music producing studio. Her loyalties are split however by this new venture and her attachment to the Barden Bellas, a recent national disgrace who are competing for their survival at the world acapella championship. With the usual crew of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow) and newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), they must band together to get through this latest challenge.

Movies need their protagonists front and center. They are the heart and soul of a film who enable an audience to channel their emotions. So it is strange that Beca has very little time in the film. What could have been a somewhat interesting dilemma (loyalty to one’s friends and confronting the future) is watered down by a continuous need to keep returning to less interesting characters such as Emily or Fat Amy (who is given far, far, far too much screentime- she works as comic relief in spare moments, not with her own storyline). Beca’s boyfriend, Jesse (Skylar Astin), is in but a handful of scenes, and they have practically no plotline together, their relationship one of the true rocks of the first film. In essence, the heart is ripped out of the film right from the get go, and we are given nothing to feel for.

Nothing in the film feels earned, creating more disinterest. We don’t see Beca really struggle with the decision of whether or not to stick with her internship or the Barton Bellas so when she does work things out at a retreat it feels hollow.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is its reliance on the first movie. The filmmakers seem intent on revisiting every single element of the previous film. They revisit Bumper (Adam DeVine) and Fat Amy’s romance, make up a lame excuse for Chloe to still be at school (she’s flunked some course three times), bring back Aubrey (Anna Camp) for a pointless cameo, have Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins) making the same commentary jokes and even have the same structure of the first outing (a new girl enters the Bellas after an embarrassment leaves the team scrambling and that same young recruit makes a mistake at a sing off where the team needs to reconnect with their purpose in order to prove to the world at a singing competition how united they are).

Comedy sequels are so hard to pull off. Caddyshack II (1988), Fletch Lives (1989), Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) are all testament to that. Audiences have forgotten them and so too will they will probably forget Pitch Perfect 2.

 

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“Ocean’s 8” hits most of the right notes

The new craze in Hollywood is taking old franchises and rebooting them with an all-female cast. Never mind that this is just another excuse to stay away from original ideas under the guise of inclusion. Or undervaluing the fact that there is just as much discrimination behind the camera as in front of it (“Ocean’s 8” was directed by a man, Gary Ross). Can you imagine a franchise helmed by creative women and men, starring women and men in equal, genre-bending roles and full of inventive, original concepts not based on old franchises or the latest book series? Apparently, Hollywood can’t.

Rant aside, looking solely at the quality of the most recent female-led film, “Ocean’s 8” manages to be a fun, is ultimately less-than-fruitful, ensemble and another interesting heist film.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has just gotten out of jail, but over her five years in incarceration, she has developed a plan to steal the famed Toussaint necklace, valued at $150 million. She gathers together a team, including her old partner, Lou (Cate Blanchett), jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), schemer Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna) and costume designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter). Developing a plan to get noted actress, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), to wear the necklace at the famed New York Met gala, the team works to enact a tightrope scheme that will make them all rich.

The film follows the heist plot to the letter: hatch the plan, recruit the team, enact the plan, navigate the complications, get out, deal with the twist and savor the winnings. It’s fun yet so familiar as to be boring at times. We know what’s going to come before it happens and though we enjoy watching it, our suspense is placated. A change in routine, especially in comparison to the previous films, would serve the story so much better. Perhaps a mole in the group. Perhaps a gigantic twist in the course of the plan (an even bigger trophy presents itself and the crew changes course). Something that makes the film feel different other than a female cast.

Or perhaps, in true feminist form, the film plays with sexism inherent. There’s a bit where Debbie’s relationship to her ex plays a role in the plot of the film, but this could have been stretched even further. Perhaps we see the backgrounds of other characters as well, treated like dirt in a male-dominated world. The heist then serves as a rebuttal to all the chauvinism they’ve had to deal with, especially considering that what they’re stealing is a diamond necklace, a symbol of princess royalty. If films are going to utilize (some may say pander) to feminism, they should go all out and really drive home feminist ideals.

The other thing the film lacks is a strong heart at its core. We don’t really get to know the crew’s inner demons and personal motivations. Why does Debbie want to steal the Toussaint necklace? Because it’s what she’s good at, she says. That’s not very interesting. If her family had failed to get the necklace in the past and that resulted in their capture, that’d be more interesting. Her motivation is vilification. Or if we saw a flashback of her past when she was young and how she fantasized about having this huge necklace, that would make her journey a childhood fascination. Similarly, we could learn about the backgrounds of the rest of the team and what drives them. Money is just not a very interesting motivator. Finding a deep, psychological driver for the team would really put us behind them and drive our emotions.

“Ocean’s 8” does do a good job of differentiating its characters. They each have a distinct personality, especially Anne Hathaway’s Daphne, and seeing how they bounce off each other is fun. The appeal of all of the “Ocean’s” films is the star-studded cast in a big plot production. There’s Sandra Bullock. There’s Rihanna. There’s Cate Blanchett. They’re doing a heist. It’s fun, and the film meets that level of premise.

A few changes to the plot and a deeper motivation would have really made “Ocean’s 8” a winner. As such, it’ll just have to settle for a fun night out at the movies.

“Book Club” sucks

Written and directed by Bill Holderman, “Book Club” tells the story of four friends, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), judge Sharon (Candice Bergen), hot to trot Vivian (Jane Fonda) and married Carol (Mary Steenburgen), whose monthly book club stumbles across the infamous “Fifty Shades” book franchise. Each of the women begins a romance awakening in regards to the books involving a myriad of new lovers like Mitchell (Andy Garcia), old lovers like Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) or long lost lovers like Arthur (Don Johnson).

The entire film feels like a commercial, whether it’s for wine, book clubs, the “Fifty Shades” franchise or aviation. It’s an uninspired, lazy attempt at a women’s comedy, with an endless barrage of sex jokes and age jokes written in the most pedantic way possible. Oh, the old woman fondled in the back of a car. Oh, the old man has an erection he can’t get rid of. Hardy, har har.

There’s a few laughs here and there, but an enormous sense of been-there, done-that with a variety of older actors looking for a paycheck. They’re engaging to be sure because we know them, but there’s not much more beyond that. The plot is a thin excuse for a film unable to carry a story for more than thirty minutes, much less feature-length.

Writer-director Nancy Meyers is able to craft entertaining if not groundbreaking romantic comedies whose plots are not intricate because the viewer can always feel a certain amount of heart in the story. “The Intern”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “It’s Complicated” are charming, light fair that someone put some thought and love into. “Book Club” has all the sentimentality of a Hallmark greeting card from cousins you don’t want to see at Christmas.

“The Florida Project” a portrait of lives too often hidden

Writer-director Sean Baker has always focused on the smaller stories of the smaller people, the underprivileged and often noticed of American society. In “The Florida Project”, his subjects are set against the backdrop of the happiest place on Earth, further illustrating the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots.

Set over one summer, “The Florida Project” follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she courts mischief with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). They live in a decrepit motel under the management of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who tries to protect his tenants as best he can.

The film does a good job of building through little moments, illustrating how Moonee copes with a mother who is not fit to care for her. The viewer goes through a swing of emotions wondering if Halley should be allowed to raise her given her anger-fueled, psychotic rants. She clearly cares for Moonee, but is that enough?

Willem Dafoe shines in his Oscar-nominated role as Bobby. He is both caring and stern, almost a Dickensian character for the miscreants in his motel.

It’s often easy to forget or ignore the people like Halley and Moonee, especially in a tourist destination like Orlando. Films like “The Florida Project” do a good job of reminding us that life is far from peachy for many.

“Julieta” another solid Almodóvar film

Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has crafted quite a collection of films that primarily examine the modern female psyche in Spanish culture. “Julieta” is another pristine film that is heartfelt, multi-layered and unique yet familiar.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) is preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) when a chance encounter with Bea (Michelle Jenner), her estranged daughter’s best friend, upends her life. Delving into the past, young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets Xoan (Daniel Grao) and their love leads her down a strange path of random chance and heartache.

Almodóvar deftly blends together themes of regret, depression, hope and maturity into Julieta’s story. The plot uses backstory, flashbacks and clear progression to illustrate Julietta’s emotional state as she goes from naive youth to young mother to sorrowful widow to distant matriarch, and we recognize the transfer of her story to her daughter, Antia. The passing of a similar story from mother to daughter (and we assume eventually to her daughters as well) brings universality to the narrative.

Almodóvar has never been an especially flashy filmmaker, especially in later years, but then again, he doesn’t need to be. His camera focuses on actors and their interactions and reactions to tell the story. This guiding principle keeps the drama focused on the characters and really allows his actors to inhabit their roles. It makes for a very personal experience.

“Timbuktu” a portrait of modern times

For many Americans, the problems of the outside world seem so distant, especially those of different cultures. One of the best avenues for seeing the lives and plight of other peoples is cinema, and “Timbuktu” illuminates the lives of some Malian citizen in modern times, illustrating the struggle of communities under the grips of ISIS forces.

In Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. When ISIS gains ground in their war, the family’s lives are upended by a new reign of restrictive laws and personal vendettas.

“Timbuktu” does a good job of showing a wide range of life throughout the town. Kidane and his family are the focus of the story, but various subplots involving other people are explored which contribute to the theme of personal liberty being curtailed by religious dogma. It’s very much like a Robert Altman film in a way.

Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Kiffa, Mauritania and lived in Mali as a child, adding credence and authenticity to the film. This is a portrait of Malian life through the eyes of a Malian, not the vision of a white filmmaker on how he interprets Timbuktu and ISIS. The film feels real. You can almost run your hand in the sands of the town as you watch it.

Seeing Timbuktu come under the control of radicals is heartbreaking and we gain a connection to Kidane’s family. Though we may be separated by oceans, culture, language and even faith, we are similar in so many ways and seeing their freedom stripped from them gives an American audience greater empathy with world events. At the same time, “Timbuktu” tells an interesting story that’s not defined solely by political outreach or themes. Kidane, Satima,Toya and Issan are interesting characters with interesting character arcs. The film is a historical artifact in a way, giving a glimpse into a story most of us only see snippets of on CNN.

“The Death of Stalin” hits some marks while missing relevance

Watching “The Death of Stalin” is quite enjoyable. Characters trying not to be assassinated, scheming to get the upper hand on their peers, trying to profess the most love for a malevolent dictator that no one liked. But as soon as the film ends, you realize that the story lacks staying power and nothing really new was presented.

Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has the Soviet Union in the throes of his dictatorship. Everyone is terrified of him. People are routinely rounded up and executed. His cabinet do their best to stay in his good graces, but when Stalin keels over from a brain hemorrhage, the entire empire is up for grabs. Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) all try to outwit each other in a game of cat and mouse to change the Soviet Union and usurp power and control for themselves to hilarious effect in this new power vacuum.

The film does a great job of creating jokes at the Soviet system’s expense. The lengths to stay alive and seem devoted to Stalin are extreme (and mirror our current times and fascist-leaning “leader”). And there are quite a few laughs (mostly quips) from the family dynamic of a bunch of wayward sons losing their patriarch whom none of them really liked. It’s an interesting story and a good filter of history.

It is a bit strange to see non-Russians playing such important Russian characters (Steve Buscemi looks absolutely nothing like Khurschev), but that is forgivable.

The biggest problem is that the film does not present anything new. For anyone remotely informed about Soviet history, the fact that the Communists routinely executed their citizens and must have pledged loyalty to the one in charge is not ground breaking information. The film doesn’t have much to say about the Soviets than is already known. And the ending, where such an opportunity is given to present a moral argument or show characters change, is just more of the same.

Perhaps if the film wanted to tie into current tyrants more or make a point about how power always corrupts or show how squabbles result in the doom of everyone, the film would have more resonance, but the movie just sort of ends with no character change or revelation. It’s a bit disappointing for so rich a tale otherwise.

Nevertheless, “The Death of Stalin” offers some funny moments and some commentary on historical inaccuracies. It’s a fun watch.