Monday, October 1, 2012

Singing praises about "Pitch Perfect"

It has been an incredibly long time since I enjoyed a movie as much as I did “Pitch Perfect.”
The movie belongs to the genre of group competition which typically involves rival females and includes such works as “Bring it On” and “The House Bunny”. Those entries examined the world of competitive cheerleading and sorority houses and are two of the most enjoyable. “Pitch Perfect” is set in the world of a cappella singing and is bursting with humor and charm. Anna Kendrick stars as Beca, a college freshman pursuing a future in music production. While attending the activities fair at college, she is asked by Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp) to audition for their a cappella group. The group had several members leave following a disastrous onstage incident at last year’s finals competition. Beca and several other vocalists join the group and begin preparing for redemption at this year’s competition. Yes, the movie has the standard rivalry within the group, the newcomer who needs to gain acceptance, a climactic competition and a college romance, but it feels fresh and lively thanks to a strong screenplay full of clever and funny one-liners, enjoyable music numbers and great performances by Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and the always wonderful Snow. Kendrick has the difficult task of transitioning from a reserved introvert, to being a major stage presence and a strong driving force in her a cappella group. Elizabeth Banks (who is one of the film’s producers) has a terrific supporting role as a crass, wisecracking announcer. “Pitch Perfect” expertly weaves the scenes of musical numbers into the story so the music never overshadows the story of the group and doesn’t alienate viewers who aren’t fans of singing competitions. It would be a mistake for people who don’t like “Glee” to dismiss this film as being just about singing. The singing of course is part of “Pitch Perfect”, but I would recommend this film to anyone who likes good comedies and having a great time at the movies. Not every joke works, but most do and the movie is consistently funny and entertaining. The members of the group all work well together and elicit our support and affection. There are a few false notes (this review had to have at least one musical pun), mostly involving Beca’s relationship with her almost boyfriend, but their storyline builds to one of the movie’s sweetest and most satisfying moments. Roger Ebert said of “A Prairie Home Companion” it’s a film so sweet you want to cuddle with it. Pardon me for pouring on the cheese, but I think “Pitch Perfect” is like a warm, snuggly blanket or that rare sunny day after a long stretch of rain. I watch many movies, but very few find their way into my DVD collection. “Pitch Perfect” is one I’ll definitely be adding.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Cosmopolis" isn't always clear, but always absorbing

I did not fully understand “Cosmopolis”, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It ranks among “Mulholland Dr.” as one of those strange journeys through an off-kilter version of reality. “Mulholland Dr.” is the better movie, but “Cosmopolis” has the same ability to envelop the viewer in a dreamlike excursion. Robert Pattinson gets to display the widest acting skills of his career as Eric Packer, a billionaire financier who has just made the biggest mistake of his career by betting incorrectly against the yuan. As his fortune dwindles throughout the day, Eric is chauffeured in his stretch limo through the city. Reviews in “People” and “Us” have dismissed “Cosmopolis” as a movie entirely about a guy riding around while having inane conversations with random passengers. This is incredibly misleading. True, there are many scenes set inside the limousine during which conversations occur. There are also many scenes outside the limo taking place in restaurants, a bookstore, a nightclub, a barber shop, a taxi headquarters and other locations. It honestly feels as if only a third of the movie is set inside the limousine. To say the whole film is set here is similar to saying the entire film “Training Day” takes place inside the black Monte Carlo driven by Denzel Washington’s character while Ethan Hawke’s character rides shotgun. Furthermore, the conversations are often interesting and many of the exchanges are memorable and thoughtful. Characters discuss economic theories, monetary units, units of time, social revolution with an academic and amused aloofness. Whether viewers enjoy this is largely dependent on whether they find the topics of discussion interesting. This is not unlike any other movie or even an evening at a cocktail party in which a guest can be pleasant or interminable based on the subject of their conversation. One exchange between Eric and his wife Elisse (Sarah Gadon) is about cab drivers. She says to him she enjoys talking to the drivers to learn about where they come from. “They come from horror and despair,” he says. She replies one can learn a lot about the horrors of the world this way. In addition to good dialogue, the movie is full of narrowly drawn, but captivating characters played strongly by talented actors. Because each character joining Packer in his limo is in the movie for a short time, there isn’t much opportunity to learn about their story, but this doesn’t stop most of them from leaving an indelible impression. Most of the passengers are associates of Packer and they are not villainous, nor are they endearing. One glimpse of a life outside Packer’s world of high finance comes from a co-worker who was called to a meeting in the car on her day off. Wearing workout clothes with her hair pulled back and sweat on her face, Jane (Emily Hampshire) explains she’d been jogging in the park on her day off when her phone rang. She thought there might be an emergency involving her child and the nanny was calling. This conversation occurs while a doctor performs Packer’s daily medical exam. He observes she is clutching her water bottle and tells her it is indicative of sexual tension. Other characters in the limo are played by Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton and Juliette Binoche and each encounter offers a piece of Packer’s life. While several scenes occur inside the limo, there is a rich display of detail. Baruchel’s character grabs an ice-cold bottled beverage from a cylindrical cooler with a glass door. Pattinson relaxes in a large throne-like chair in the back of the stretch. LCD screens and panels cover many inches of the interior and trading information graphs are visible in bright lights. No outside sound enters the vehicle, making the audience an additional passenger and bringing viewers closer to the characters. As stated before, “Cosmopolis” is not easily decipherable upon a single viewing, but it’s not easy to forget. It’s also one of the few movies this summer worth revisiting.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An exploration of how people's characters are formed

Jessica Chastain in "Jolene".
“Jolene” is an impressive film on several levels. There is a power to it, which accompanies so few movies. That power lies in the film’s ability to grab not the viewer’s attention, but their heart and mind. The story is that of a young girl who at 15 finds herself married and living in a small town with her working-class husband. Jolene tells us early on her parents have died and she spent her life in various foster homes where she was mistreated by her foster parents. She is excited to settle down and enjoy a comfortable future.

If you are someone who prefers to know very little about a film’s story before seeing it then you might prefer to wait until you’ve seen “Jolene” to finish this review. As a writer, I make a strong effort never to reveal any surprises and do not discuss anything not reasonably inferred from the trailer. My reviews may contain more information than someone who wants to go in completely fresh might like, but that is the nature of reviews. With that out of the way, Jolene doesn’t stay put for long and the movie plays out like a series of vignettes threaded together my this character as she travels through life. Jolene is played by Jessica Chastain. This was her first feature film and she won a Best Actress award at the Seattle International Film Festival for it. I’ve seen almost all of Chastain’s films and after seeing this it’s obvious why she quickly became one of the busiest actresses in the business.

What Chastain manages to do with this character is breathtaking. Over the course of the film she plays Jolene as a na├»ve teenager, someone running from her past, someone who is capable of being self-sufficient and who has weathered some rough patches. The transition is seamless and seemingly effortless. A miscast actress in this role could have made it an excruciating thing to watch as she went from an “Aw, shucks” personality and strait into a gruff tone of voice and cold, steely eyes to represent world weariness. Chastain does what a truly great performer does, which is actually become the character. Watching the character of Jolene is so much like watching an actual person metamorphose over time that it almost transcends filmmaking and becomes a real experience. The span of time in the movie is 10 years, but Chastain’s acting range in this role does more than the best Oscar-winning makeup effects could do in biopics spanning a greater length of time.

I can’t speak for others, but as I get older I find myself becoming more interested in and affected by films that have something to say about life’s effect on people. The simplistic black hats and white hats is uninteresting to me and I am fascinated by characters that are not good or bad, but simply products of their environments and who behave the best they can at the given time and circumstances. “Jolene” is an excellent exploration of how people are shaped by their experiences.

While married Jolene has an affair and the marriage ends badly. Her affair is a selfish act, but there is no malice motivating this. She is young and has not experienced much genuine affection before and to her it seems fine. She leaves town and gets a job working at drive-in burger joint somewhere in Arizona. What’s a cross-country journey film without a stop in Arizona? Her time here not only brings the next chapter in her life, but also allows for some of the film’s most striking scenery having been shot on location in Scottsdale. In every segment or chapter or vignette Jolene learns new skills, meets new people and enters a relationship. The men she meets include a shady tattoo artist (Rupert Friend), a mid-level Las Vegas mobster (Chazz Palminteri) and a wealthy businessman who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is worse off for it (Michael Vartan). Of these three men I find it curious the one who treated Jolene with the most respect and showed her the most kindness was the mobster. I haven’t read the story “Jolene: A Life” by E.L. Doctorow, on which the film is based but perhaps there is something to this. The tattoo artist is disrespectful and dishonest and the businessman named Brad is physically and mentally abusive, but in keeping with this film’s theme of (as I see it) demonstrating how people become who they are because of life experience. The tattoo artist engages in an illegal side business because from his point of view it’s the only way to keep his shop open. The businessman’s parents gave him too much and he treats people badly as a result. On their first date he orders a bottle of wine and after a matter of seconds complains about the “incompetent waiter” for not having brought the wine yet. He berates the waiter. Jolene comments on how rude he is and he apologizes to the waiter. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Any woman who is turned off by someone mistreating a waiter or anyone in a service position is definitely a keeper, yet this scene illustrates how two people from different backgrounds can have completely different views of how to treat the same person. Jolene’s hardscrabble past has taught her humility and empathy, while the businessman’s privileged existence has created an unhealthy and almost pathological detachment from much of society.

Something great about “Jolene” is its exploration of different walks of life in America and its willingness to explore a type of character underrepresented in film. So often working-class characters serve only as decoration or support to the main character. It’s refreshing to see the story of someone who struggles to find their footing take priority. At the end of the film Jolene is wiser, but still hasn’t learned everything about life. Nobody ever does.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Communication is difficult for most couples, some more than others

Written and directed by Max Mayer.

About halfway through Adam, a wonderful and deeply affecting movie about a romance between two young people, I realized something which made me appreciate the movie more.
Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s syndrome and struggles to pick up social cues. This results in some awkward conversations with people including the woman (a charming Rose Byrne) who moved into his building and with whom he slowly enters a courtship. For example, Adam sometimes talks for great lengths to people about astronomy who clearly aren’t interested. He doesn’t recognize the look in their eyes indicating a need to switch topics or he doesn’t have the sense to restrain himself to a few sentences on the matter.
What I realized is Adam really isn’t that different from someone without Asperger’s syndrome.  We’ve all been at a cocktail party and spoken to someone who went on and on way too long about a single topic without regard to whether we were interested. We politely nodded and then found a way to exit the conversation.
As a romance, Adam presents one of the most honest and thoughtful portraits of a relationship I’ve seen in years. As a drama, it shows its protagonists at a crossroads and examines the difficult choices people must make. Following the death of his father, Adam finds himself living independently for the first time at the age of 29. After a breakup, Beth Buchwald (Byrne) moves into a new apartment to start a new chapter in her life.
After meeting each other in the laundry room of their apartment building, Beth asks Adam to join her on an outing with her friends. He stays behind. He is too overwhelmed by the prospect to leave his apartment, but when Beth returns he is waiting for her and they have a conversation before saying goodnight. These conversations and experiences between Beth and Adam are what make their relationship so touching and unlike a typical movie romance. Much of the time they are on screen it is only the two of them, without any outside distractions. This allows the audience to witness the relationship’s most personal and endearing moments. Adam and Beth each have a friend to confide in and discuss their relationship with, but there are none of the obnoxious sidekicks so popular in movies who serve only to ask crass questions about how good the sex is or make quips about penis or breast size.  
Sexuality plays a small, but important role in Adam. Once the couple has agreed they are dating, Beth lays down some ground rules while the two are cuddling in bed (fully clothed) together. She tells Adam holding and kissing are OK, but she needs time before she is ready to have sex. He has no problem with this and agrees. She then embraces him tighter. Later in the movie they are giving each other massages (again fully clothed) on the bed. Beth eventually takes Adam’s hand and places it beneath her shirt and onto her breast.
“Do you want sex?” Adam asks.
“I think I do,” Beth replies.
The two embrace each other as the screen fades to black. It is a wise decision for the filmmakers to not include any more of this. With a PG-13 rating, Adam could have included much more here, but by omitting the visuals the movie keeps the focus on what is important about the scene. It’s not about the act of sex here, but the intimacy and trust required by both participants to make the act possible. It’s refreshing to see a relationship in which the sex is discussed as an important step in the relationship rather than simply something to rush into and get out of the way.  Communication for this couple is paramount given Adam’s condition and sometimes Adam’s communication is a little too blunt, but this is something which might be a benefit. Many people might like it if someone simply asked or stated something rather than being secretive about it.
Further praise can be given for the way Adam shows both Beth and Adam struggling to make their own ways in the world. Beth’s father hovers over her and tries to guide her relationship. Adam needs to do things he’s not done on his own before. This parallel allows Adam to transcend being a movie about someone with Asperger’s syndrome and become a movie about two young adults becoming more self-reliant. Adam explores Asperger’s syndrome without being condescending. It is cute without being cutesy, sweet without being smarmy and tugs at the heartstrings without being manipulative. In many movie relationships, couples' interactions often seem contrived or forced, but everything in Adam seemed real to me.
I was sad when Adam ended because I cared so much about the characters and wanted to spend more time with them. I became strongly affected by their story and would have been pleased for the film to be longer, although it does not feel incomplete. This is an almost perfect romance and one I’ll be watching again and again in the future.