Tag Archives: Movie Review

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” really takes me back

Lara Jean’s relationship to romance novels is not unlike mine to movies in my teen years. Continue reading

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Review: “Pitch Perfect 2”

Pitch Perfect worked because it never took its subject too seriously. To the new crop of Bellas, A cappella wasn’t much different than any of the others extra-curricular clubs with booths at Barden’s activities fair, besides the coincidence that they actually had singing talent. It was a gateway to meeting friends and having fun in college, not building a career. So the film created likable characters, accessible outcasts who’d make fun of themselves before others could. For that reason, it was a surprise smash hit and was masterfully gender-neutral.

Early on in Pitch Perfect, the film’s unfiltered and incomparable A cappella commentary team, played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, is repulsed by the rag-tag Bellas taking the stage for their first competitive performance. These are not the attractive, pampered Bellas of just one year ago; this is a hodgepodge. “I wanted the hot Bellas, not this barnyard explosion,” was an apt comparison one frat boy made. He can because he has a reference point, but as an audience we didn’t know enough to spot a difference.

The trouble for Pitch Perfect 2 is now we’re asking the question: Who are these Bellas? The Treblemakers are performing at freshmen orientation, while the Bellas entertain the President and First Lady. They’re more showy and cinematic than ever. It’s like accidentally walking into a Lady Gaga concert, when you think you’re going to see an intimate acoustic show. These girls have read every good thing written about them through winning three straight national championships, and they wear the persona on their sleeves. What happened to the Beca who complimented the Sock-a-pellas by saying, “At least they’re different”? When she and the Bellas go to a car show to scout Das Sound Machine, a German A cappella juggernaut they’ll meet at the World Championships, they’re more spiteful and judgmental than when they used to recognize and appreciate fellow aca-nerds.

Kay Cannon, the writer whose reputation is upheld by the first film not by the second, moves the story forward three years after the first one ended. Beca, Amy and the rest are seniors now, though only Beca is worried about finding a job (the problem at the heart of the plot). Brittany Snow is back, which is great for casting but feels like a really sad story for her character, Chloe, who’s scared to leave college. Cannon found an entertaining way to filter Anna Camp’s character, Aubrey Posen, into the new installment, so why couldn’t she do the same for Snow? Cannon’s choice to circle back around to Beca’s initial conflict — an urgency to skip college and start building a resume as a music producer — is a good one, but poorly executed. Cannon doesn’t fully commit to it, so it leaves Anna Kendrick on an island by herself. Even when she’s together with the Bellas, her head is in a different place. It’s a good piece of acting but not entertaining.

Instead, Cannon goes all-in on Rebel Wilson. Wilson was hilarious in the first movie, but when her jokes don’t hit like they did before, it starts to look like she’s overwhelmed by her story. What I guess is supposed to be her big scene, a love ballad to ask Bumper’s forgiveness for what we’re supposed to believe is a serious relationship, is a big miss. It works in a musical, but, as my girlfriend astutely observed after we saw this movie, the franchise isn’t a musical — it’s a film about college girls who are in a musical group. Cannon makes this Wilson’s picture, which is misguided.

For the rest of the Bellas, their self-aware jokes are recycled and their characters don’t go deeper into anything. The new addition, Hailee Steinfeld, isn’t as likable as casting wants her to be either.

Here’s the good news. Here’s why you and I still like this movie despite all the criticism: It’s still really fun. The music is still great. Anna Camp is really entertaining as a corporate retreat counselor. There’s still funny moments coming out of unexpected places. There’s a terrific riff-off that includes some of the Green Bay Packers. There’s Keegan-Michael Key as a jumpy music producer. And Gail and John are as good as ever.

“Pitch Perfect 2”: ★★

Review: “Tracks”

As one of the most pleasant surprises so far this year, “Tracks” is a meditative film following Robyn Davidson, who, in 1977, longed to find solace and sought it on a 1,700-mile trek through the desert of West Australia.

It’s a generous film, based on Davidson’s National Geographic expose and subsequent memoir, about a her adventure as a beautiful young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who sees the world a little differently and seeks solitude with her faithful dog, Diggity, and four self-trained camels.

Her trek is an adventure that may be, as she says, inspired by her father who completed a similar voyage through Africa, but it also acts as a way to clear her head from all the noise. In the dry, hot outback, Davidson, played terrifically by Wasikowska, finds herself by reflecting on the loss of her mother at a young age.

The film had a similar effect on me as an audience member. The natural way about it — quiet and calm — is soothing to be part of and enjoyable. While Davidson isn’t immune to her own stints of bad luck, “Tracks” never comes off as altered for theater; in fact, it may be one of the most honest films you’ll see this year.

I’ve always enjoyed Wasikowska’s work and this role seems bred for her, especially as an Australian who grew up knowing Davidson’s story no doubt. Mia plays the quiet, self-reflective woman so well. She did so as a shy Alice, in “Wonderland,” even as the quiet daughter of a pastor in “Lawless,” and comes through in the same vein of the upcoming “Maps to the Stars.” Mia inhibits such a quiet, innocent demeanor that her portrayal of Davidson comes off as a natural act. There’s nothing threatening or inconsistent about Mia walking through the desert in her underwear or roaming around topless. I never felt uneasy or stricken about it.

Aligning itself with Mia’s steady presence, nothing about “Tracks” is hard or rocky. It’s a film that allows the vast, scenic outback do its talking and Mia to take us on the journey. Moreover, Adam Driver, as a National Geographic photographer named Rick (famous for his photos in Davidson’s expose) is just hoppy and smiley enough to be a delightful addition to the film — although sometimes Davidson wishes he weren’t around. Mr. Eddy, too, is joyful when he’s on screen.

Director John Curran has done a nice job with this film. “Tracks” more than likely won’t give you too many highs and lows, scares or shocks, but Curran’s scenic directing ought to keep you interested. This is a quiet picture, not over-working itself to find spots of dialogue, and Curran keeps it going in the right direction as a film about Davidson’s journey.

He puts his fingerprint on the film through aerial shots that fly high over the animals’ tracks following Davidson and her companions along like the lines on the map we see so often throughout the film. It’s a nice thematic touch, accompanying the title and sometimes just bridging the gap between Point A and Point B because we most certainly can’t go to sleep with Davidson every night. Doing so, would make the film far too long. It’d make you work to get to the ending when, instead, it’s a very nice, therapeutic 112 minutes.

What we, and Davidson, learn from this expedition, is that we can’t be loners forever. Davidson grapples with the idea that her adventure wasn’t yielding the intended results, but it ends up leaving her better off. She becomes a changed woman afterward with a newfound appreciation for the people who care about her and the solace they offer her as well.

“Tracks”: ★★★1/2

Review: “Safety Not Guaranteed”

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It was decorated with independent film awards in 2012, including the Waldo Salt Screewriting Award from Sundance, the Overlooked Film of the Year from Phoenix Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and an ALMA Award to Aubrey Plaza for her dynamite performance as a Seattle-based magazine intern named Darius.

“Safety Not Guaranteed,” which is about a team of journalists who chase after a story from a classifieds ad seeking a partner to travel through time, is as ambitious as film’s come these days and it delivers. Its stars, including the award-winning Plaza, are each excellent in their own right.

Plaza plays Darius, a young intern who has a lot to say but is on the verge of losing any aspirations. Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a hilarious Escalade-owning journalist who battles with the limitations of his age. Mark Duplass plays Kenneth, the one who posted the classifieds ad.

The film is as creative as it is surprisingly heartfelt, as Darius’ interest in Kenneth grows from professional, to surprising, to friendly, to emotional. Plaza and Duplass are wonderful together, shining in one scene when Kenneth puts Darius through extensive gun training and another when Darius comforts Kenneth who is embarrassed about his fake ear.

Plaza alone carries this movie and earns her ALMA Award. She’s lightning in a bottle.

Johnson is excellent, carrying his character through a number of solo scenes. He’s supposed to be the serious journalist, but he uses the the team’s undercover trip as a vacation to hook up with one of his old main squeezes. He’s admirable, though, battling with the realization that he can’t do the same things he used to, so he finds solace in helping 21-year-old Arnau, played by Karan Soni, live it up while he still can (cough, cough, he gets him laid).

The screenwriter, Derek Connolly, openly plays with the idea that everyone thinks Kenneth is crazy for thinking he can time travel—although, he says he’s done it before—which is an important aspect of the film because the more truth that comes out about what is happening, the more invested we and the characters become in the whole idea.

Connolly is creative and inventive in his writing, especially for his first go-round. The movie establishes the clever item of a tin box, which would contain letters from the past if Kenneth or Darius gets hurt or something happens during their time traveling. Moreover, the script plays with the mystery behind two things: Kenneth’s reason for going back to 2001 and what’s in Kenneth’s garage. When we finally find out each, it’s quite miraculous. Really something.

Common sense tells us time traveling isn’t real, but the further into the movie we get the more we want it to be true—and the same is being felt by the characters; in fact, they realize Kenneth may have some chops when they realize he’s actually being followed by governmental employees. Following their realization, Kenneth in one car, agents in another, and Jeff, Darius and Arnau in another, we get a hilarious and ironic 15-miles-per-hour car chase.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is quite incredible, whether we’re talking about the actors, writing or the idea. It’s the kind of film that’s few and far between the usual crap that hits theaters these days and serves as a reminder that independent films can really entertain and push the envelope. “Safety Not Guaranteed” does it right, at least reminding us to keep our eyes open because you never know when you’ll stumble upon the chance of a lifetime in the classifieds.

“Safety Not Guaranteed”: ★★★1/2