Monday, October 29, 2012

What is Any Ocean but a Multitude of Drops? CLOUD ATLAS


Starting with nothing less than a Homeric incantation in which a white-haired old man stares into a crackling fire and seems to summon the fiction into being, Cloud Atlas, an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s tricky novel, is the kind of movie that’s easy to recommend and admire, if for no other reason than that nothing quite like it has ever existed and is unlikely to come around again any time soon. It wobbles at times, but luckily it’s ultimately better than the sum of its gimmicks. This is a complicated film about simple truths: love, ambition, knowledge, power. A major motif is a musical composition that one of the characters writes called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” It’s a lush, haunting piece of music that winds its way through the soundtrack and, by its very nature, echoes the major structural conceit of the film. A sextet is a piece of music to be played by six musicians. This film – like the novel before it – contains six stories, any one of which could easily expand into its own film, but together combine into one gorgeous whole.

Spanning centuries and genres, the film breaks apart the book’s chronological and mirrored presentation and instead places the six stories parallel to each other, cutting between the stories with a gleeful, witty, dexterous montage that recalls D.W. Griffith’s 1916 feature Intolerance in the way it so skillfully weaves in and out of varying plotlines. A massive undertaking, three directors, Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (of The Matrix films and Speed Racer) split the six sections among them, adapting and directing separately but from a shared common vision so that the story flows both stylistically and emotionally. Like some strange geometric object with many sides and layers, the film grows all the more epic by expanding outwards through time and space.

It takes us to the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth century aboard a ship sailing towards America. Then, we’re in Europe in the 1930s, following a disinherited, but ambitious and talented, music student to the home of an elderly composer. Next, we’re in 1970s America, following an intrepid reporter into a conspiracy at a new nuclear power plant. On to the present, where we find a publisher who is the victim of a mean brotherly prank and stuck in an unexpected place. Then we’re to the future, where a clone slave describes her story of finding awareness of the consumerist dystopia she lives in. Finally, to the far future, where we find a post-apocalyptic world that has returned to clannish living in the wilderness, where the peaceful people are terrorized by a tribe of aggressive cannibals. Tykwer and the Wachowskis present each setting with handsomely realized production design and detailed special effects. Moving between them is anything but disorienting; it’s, more often than not, invigorating.

Almost too much to handle in one sitting, this film is a rush of character and incident, themes and patterns, echoes upon echoes, all distinctive melodies that fade and reoccur time and again. Some sequences play more successfully than others, but the film is largely fascinating and generally gripping as it becomes a symphony of imagery and genre, returning again and again to mistakes humankind makes, the benefits and constraints of orderly society, and the way underdogs try to find the right thing to do against all odds. The themes play out repeatedly in a flurry of glancingly interconnected genre variations. What appears as drama later plays as comedy, as action, as mystery, as tragedy. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have put the film together in such a way that the editing escalates with the intensity of each plotline, bouncing in an echoing flurry during rhyming plot points (escapes, reversals of fortune, setbacks, reunions) and settling down for more languid idylls when the plots simply simmer along. By turns thrilling, romantic, disturbing, suspenseful, and sexy, there’s a fluidity here that makes this a breathless three-hour experience. The film moves smoothly and sharply between six richly imagined stories that connect more spiritually and metaphysically than they do literally, and yet artifacts of one story may appear in another, sets may be redressed for maximum déjà vu, characters in one story may dream glimpses of another. This isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but rather a stylish assertion that people are inescapably connected to their circumstances and to those who lived before and will live after.

In order to underline its insistence upon the connectedness of mankind then, now, and always, the film features the same cast in each story, making it possible to get a sense of the progression of a soul through time, each reincarnation living up (or down) to the example of earlier experiences and choices. Through mostly convincing makeup, actors cross all manner of conventions, playing not just against type, but crossing race, gender, age, and sexual orientation in unexpected ways. (Some of the biggest pleasant surprises in the film are in the end credits, so I’ll attempt to preserve them.) For example, Tom Hanks appears as a crackpot doctor, then again as a thuggish wannabe writer, then again as a haunted future tribesman, among other roles. This is a large, talented and eclectic cast with Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant delivering strong performances, appearing over and over, sometimes obviously, sometimes unrecognizably or for only a moment. This allows the filmmakers to dovetail the storylines even further, for what is denied in one (lovers torn apart, say) may be given back in the space of an edit (lovers, not the same people, but played by the same performers, reunited).

Though some will undoubtedly be turned away by its earnest (if vague) spirituality and messy philosophical bombast, this is the kind of film that, if you let it, opens up an endless spiral of deep thoughts. You could think it over and spin theories about what it all means for hours. To me, that’s part of the fun. It’s a historical drama, a romance, a mystery, a sci-fi epic, a comedy, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy all at once. In placing them all in the same film and running them concurrently Tykwer and the Wachowskis have created a moving and exciting epic that seems to circle human nature as each iteration finds characters struggling against societal conventions to do the right thing. The powerful scheme and rationalize ways to stay on top; those below them yearn for greater freedom and greater meaning. There’s much talk about connection and kindred spirits; at one point a character idly wonders why “we keep making the same mistakes…” It accumulates more than it coheres, and yet that’s the bold, beautiful mystery of Cloud Atlas, that it invites a viewer into a swirl of imagery, genre, and character, to be dazzled by virtuosic acting and effective filmmaking, to get lost amongst the connections and coincidences, to enjoy and perhaps be moved by the shapes and patterns formed by souls drifting through time and space.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tricks and Treats: FUN SIZE


The worst thing about Fun Size, a one-crazy-night teen comedy set on Halloween, is that it’s so close to being better than it is. As it stands, it is not difficult to see the funnier movie within that nearly bursts through. The set-up is simple enough. Teenage girl Wren (Victoria Justice) wants to go to a party with her best friend April (Jane Levy), but plans change when her mom (Chelsea Handler) saddles her with babysitting duties. So, while Mom goes out partying with her new boyfriend, Wren and friend set out trick-or-treating with her pudgy, uncommunicative little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll), who, wouldn’t you know it, wanders away. This leads to an episodic scramble around town to find the kid before the night is over or Mom gets home, whichever comes first. 

Director Josh Schwartz (creator-showrunner of such TV shows as The O.C., Gossip Girl, and Chuck in his feature debut) and screenwriter Max Werner (who writes for The Colbert Report) have a way with snappy teen dialogue that benefits greatly from the solid performances from the leads. They’re believable teens who are somewhat torn between going to that huge party and finding Albert, but there’s the main problem. In order for the madcap scramble of the plot to truly take off, there needs to be considerably more urgency in this main plotline. The movie sets up a situation that seems to be heading towards the girls getting into increasing trouble looking for Albert, but instead the plot meanders and seems to forget that there’s a little boy wandering into dangerous scenarios, like a rift between a gas station employee (Thomas Middleditch) and the guy (Johnny Knoxville) who stole his girl (Abby Elliott), a subplot that goes nowhere fast.

All of the ostensible danger inherent within all this plotting seems so distant that there’s no real reason to think anything bad will happen to the boy or that their mom will find out about the antics. The movie is built upon a crisis that fades into the back of the mind, something to be brought up only to prod the story along. But what little story there is can be thinly amusing, as is the way the background is perpetually crowded with all manner of people wandering about in goofy costumes. The girls find two sweet nerds (Thomas Mann and Osric Chau) not-so-secretly crushing on them who are more than willing to give them a ride around town as they try to find the missing kid. I liked the scene in which Wren tells one of the boys that she considers him a friend, a revelation that causes him to drop his can of Crush soda. “My Crush…” he murmurs. Later, the group and his car will be involved in the best sequence in the movie, a solid, escalating bit of hilarity that involves a Josh Groban song, an angry Roman Gladiator with his Hulk friend in a big truck, and a giant malfunctioning mechanical chicken.

Schwartz approaches the material in a slick, quickly paced way that frames the action with functional studio comedy style, shifting the emphasis to the charming young performers in the film’s center. In a John Hughes-reminiscent touch the film has a welcome focus on its female leads, with Justice (who spent several years appearing in Nickelodeon sitcoms, all unseen by me) and Levy (so good as the lead in ABC’s Suburgatory, at least in the couple of episodes I’ve caught) sharing a believable best-friend chemistry that’s at once warm and prickly. It’s a shame that so much of their interactions hinge on social status and boy talk, but that’s just par for the course I suppose. This is a standard movie of smart, pretty girls and endearingly dweeby guys in a predictable plot filled with one-note comedic characters that walk in and out of their scenes without making much of an impact. Although some subplots, like Handler’s, veer off into welcome changes of pace, the whole thing comes around to precisely the romantic pairings and emotional resolutions you’d easily guess that it would. And, despite the modicum of laughs along the way, in the end it’s just a little bit less than enough. I guess that means Fun Size is to teen comedies as a fun size piece of candy is to full-size candy bars.

Friday, October 19, 2012

New Boo: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4


In case you haven’t been paying attention, Paranormal Activity, the very scary and wildly successful 2009 low-budget horror movie about a haunted house and the young couple living in it who decided to set up cameras to capture the evidence, has turned into an annual event. After two sequels, which in fact served as prequels that backed further and further away from the original haunting to find different vulnerable characters filming their homes at all hours, we’ve arrived at Paranormal Activity 4, the first since the first to take place in roughly present day and move the whole – at this point nearly lumbering – thing forward. Now, the narrative can has been kicked down the road a tiny bit.

What’s most surprising is how little that seems necessary at this point. After faltering with the mildly disappointing Paranormal Activity 2, producer-creator Oren Peli handed the reigns of the franchise to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Their Paranormal Activity 3 is quite possibly the best movie that this concept can sustain, a movie of big scares and shocking, seamless effects, with sharp performances of sympathetic characters and inventive, playful maneuvering of the franchise’s tropes. With 4, Joost and Schulman return, but somehow in the interim their handling of the premise has grown irritating and played-out. Instead of using the locked-down camera angles and quietly accumulating dread for a good mix of suspense, humor, and scares, the movie feels tired, at once too much and not enough.

In typical P.A. fashion, the movie introduces us to a normal suburban family, living in a house that’s suddenly filled with things that go bump in the night. A little boy (Aiden Lovekamp), his teenage sister (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend from across the street (Matt Shively) are the ones who notice weird noises and strange movements and decide to set up cameras to capture the action. (This family has, rather conveniently, something like a half-dozen MacBooks around the house.) This time we get Skype chats and iPhones added to the mix of video sources, as well as a novel use of an Xbox’s Kinect motion sensors that somehow works to both reveal creepy disembodied movement and make it all seem so depressingly tangible. Instead of real innovation, these new sources of footage merely recycle the techniques of the preceding films to lesser effect.

All of this allows for the typical long-stretches-of-still-silence that is so familiar from the series, but unlike the third film, which put objects like an oscillating fan or a sheet to great visual effect, this film grows static in ways that feel like missed opportunities. I was ready for a big scare, or at least a bit of visual trickery, when a refrigerator door blocks most of the frame on several occasions, but no such luck. Rather than building creative illusions and eerie how’d-they-do-that freakouts around likable characters, we’ve got a generic bunch of mildly curious people wondering why sometimes they hear footsteps in an empty house or why the creepy kid (Brady Allen) across the street is so insistent that his imaginary friend has it out for his neighbors. There’s no sense of build or connection between the low-functioning scares.

After something like 70 minutes of sporadic sudden noises and quick movements, any one of which would be just about the least scary thing in any of the previous Paranormal Activity movies, there’s the typical climactic explosion of malevolent psychic energy, only this time it’s pushed so far that it’s loud, sustained, and over-the-top. This is clearly an attempt to fold large pieces of the narrative of the previous three together – the brief return of the possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) makes that intent more than clear – but it’s a nice try that falls flat. It’s an attempt to hint at explanations and provide big splashy shocks with people flung this way and that, sudden deaths, and all manner of abrupt appearances and rapid movements. But it’s such an overwhelming pile-up of nonsense that it’s underwhelming. The final image is most shocking for how completely miscalculated it feels, expanding the scope of it all to a comical extent. I still have a great deal of affection for this series, so the good news is that this fourth installment is not irreparably, franchise-killing bad. It’s simply the least effective of its kind, functional without working up the energy or imagination to really entertain.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Geopolitical Showbiz: ARGO


In early 1980, an unknown producer quietly, but with a modicum of industry press attention, put a next-to-no-budget science fiction movie named Argo into production. This movie was not destined to be a hit. It wasn’t even to be made at all, cancelled before it even got off the ground. It was, however, a movie of some small historical importance. Argo was a C.I.A. cover story for an attempted extraction of six Americans trapped in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This unlikely true story is now a movie named Argo, so the whole thing comes full circle. Now a movie about itself, to a certain extent, its new iteration, directed by star Ben Affleck, is a nicely paced period piece thriller.

Though smartly scripted and narrowly focused by Chris Terrio, this film starts messily, with a flurry of heavy-handed exposition and clumsily staged scene setting. Laying out a Cliffs Notes background of 20th century Iranian history right off the bat led me to believe that the film would be far more interested in providing and exploring the political context rather than leaving the setting and situation as mere set-dressing and plot motivators for its primary concerns. Those concerns are nothing more than crisply presented scenes of period detail and men in suits urgently taking care of business, a terrific collection of character actors doing what they do best: lending weight and likability to small, but impactful roles.

In the film’s opening moments, the American embassy in Iran is taken over and six of its employees (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and others) manage to flee, taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). They can’t stay there for long. Soon someone will grow suspicious. The embassy hostage-takers will realize they don’t have all the Americans in their possession. Domestic pressure is mounting as well. The days go by with little news, good or bad, and the populace grows weary and restless. Affleck fills the opening of the film with copious cutaways to news footage both mock and real, filling in information of the political malaise of the times with overeager intrusiveness. Still, the point gets across. What will become of this dangerous situation? The U.S. government needs a plan.

That’s where the fake movie comes in. It’s, in the words of the C.I.A. operative played by Bryan Cranston, “the best bad idea we’ve got.” The agent played by Ben Affleck will fly into Tehran posing as a producer of a Canadian science fiction film, meet up with these hiding Americans and fly away claiming them as Canadians in his film crew. To do so, the movie needs be adequately believable, which is where two Hollywood veterans – a special effects expert (John Goodman) and a weary producer (Alan Arkin) – come in. They’re there to make the whole thing look legitimate. The Hollywood sequences in the film are dryly funny in the tension between the literal life-and-death stakes of the agents’ plans and the been-there-done-that attitudes of the showbiz types.

Focusing on the process of this unlikely, stranger-than-fiction rescue attempt, Argo mixes scenes of tense walks down hallways, conversations around rotary phones and passing manila folders between men in sharp suits and shaggy facial hair. (This is a film that gets a lot of mileage out of its period costuming, a sort of spy game Mad Men in that way.) In sequences set in America, great that-guy actors like Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, and Titus Welliver fill in quickly sketched government roles, spouting jargon, delivering terse one-liners, and getting the plot moving. In Iran-set sequences, threats are presented as vague foreign rage that rumbles outside the home in which the six Americans are nervously hiding, unable to even look out a window for fear of capture and execution. As the hidden Americans’ and their hopeful rescuers’ plotlines slowly merge, the film builds to an extended period of undeniably effective suspense, skillfully made.

Affleck has proven himself a relatively unshowy auteur, creating functional pieces of serious-minded mid-budget genre filmmaking – thrillers of one sort or another, all – without generating much in the way of distinctive filmmaking. In Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as in Argo, he gets good actors solid material and stays out of the way, doing only what’s necessary to get the story on the screen. That’s not an altogether unworthy approach. Even if here it leads to some visual uncertainty – he’ll go for three shots when one would do – he knows when to capture strong popcorn energy and how to build tension out of nervous editing and tense parallelism. The final stretch of Argo is a nearly white-knuckle tightening of dramatic tension that unfolds so crisply and intensely that I could feel the collective exhale in the theater when the pressure eventually released. This is strong work. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's Alive: FRANKENWEENIE


A black-and-white, stop-motion animated, family-friendly monster movie about life, death, and the ethics of scientific research, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is definitely not the kind of film that you see every day. It’s a skillful, inventive expansion of his 1984 live-action short of the same name. In this telling, it all starts when little Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) reacts in horror and disbelief when he sees his beloved dog Sparky flattened by a car. His parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) try to help their mourning son the best they can, but his movement through the stages of grief gets stuck at denial. And so, being a precocious, science-minded young fellow, he uses the excuse of the impending science fair to do a little reanimation in his spare time.

The core sentimental pulse of the story is simple, resting on nothing more than the love between a boy and his dog.  But when said love involves harnessing lightening to spark Sparky back to life, it’s clear that complications are inevitable. Burton, working with a screenplay by John August, has created a lovingly handcrafted little world into which this new scientific discovery can be introduced. Victor’s science teacher, a stern European émigré (Martin Landau) has put the love of science and competition into his class, a creepy collection of kids (voiced by Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, and James Hiroyuki Liao) with huge eyes, furrowed brows, and a jumble of thick accents and odd traits. One looks like Igor; another owns a poodle that looks a little like Elsa Lanchester. They’re a cast of characters that are poised for some kind of trouble. It’s only a matter of time before Victor’s secret resurrection becomes known, not only to his parents, but also to his classmates who will only be too eager to best him in pursuit of the top prize at the science fair.

This is a sharply made film, lovely in its high-contrast homage to Universal’s monster movies of the 30s and 40s filtered through a standard family film framework. It is also, of course, beautifully, obviously, clearly, a Tim Burton Film. It’s not just that he’s adapting his own earlier work. Here he’s made not his best film, but one of his most self-referential. One can find connections between this film and his earlier works: from stop-motion (Corpse Bride), black-and-white cinematography and Landau (Ed Wood) to Ryder and O’Hara (Beetlejuice); from a focus on coming to terms with the death of a loved one (Big Fish) to a quirky small town with a penchant for mob mentality (Edward Scissorhands). Not just a well-intentioned romp through his own greatest hits, Frankenweenie is the work of director taking some of the big ideas that course through his career and reworking them at a smaller scale.

Much like the dog at the center of the story, the film is a patchwork of inspirations that have been sewn together, repurposed for new life. They’re also both charming and appealing in an eager-to-please way. There’s a jolt of energy coursing through this rather short feature – just 87 minutes, including the end credits – that really ramps up in the delightful climax that finds Victor’s competitors trying their hands at reanimation. The sequence that follows is a cheerfully macabre – a little girl’s cat appears to explode with a grim, hilarious pop and fizz – smash of monster mayhem, building slowly to an agreeably towering goofy monstrosity. If Burton overdoes the sentimentality in the final seconds of the picture, arriving (as he did in his early short) at perhaps the wrong way for little Victor to get over the death of his dog, it can almost be forgiven. After all we’ve been through with these two, it’s just nice to know that the love between a boy and his dog can be immortal.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Grudge Report: TAKEN 2


Taken 2, like Taken before it, delivers on its promise. These movies can do so simply by not promising all that much to begin with. These are nothing more than well-made junk, advertising and providing relentless forward momentum, parental vengeance, and Liam Neeson’s grade-A gravitas. The first time around, his ex-CIA agent punched, kicked, shot and shocked his way through the Parisian underground after his vacationing daughter (Maggie Grace) found herself kidnapped by human traffickers. The movie didn’t have much in the way of plot or character, but it was short and fast, blessed with an unstoppable force of a protagonist in Neeson, whose every growl and scowl landed strongly. He used his height and seriousness to create his menacing demeanor. It doesn’t hurt that he also got to rumble out an instantly iconic action movie monologue, one that finds him calmly, gravely informing his daughter’s kidnappers that he has “a particular set of skills…” warning them of swift retribution that sure enough comes to pass.

Now, in the grand tradition of Die Hard 2 and Speed 2 and Death Wish 2, a movie about a more or less regular person in an extraordinary action-thriller scenario is followed up by a movie about that same exact regular person ending up in a shockingly similar scenario. This time, Neeson, vacationing in Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen), finds himself taken. He recognizes this inevitability soon enough to call his daughter back at the hotel and tell her the bad news in a pale echo of the first movie’s great monologue. “Your mother…and I…are about to be…taken.” This time the daughter has to rescue the father, who in turn must rescue his ex-wife. He wiggles out of his restraints soon enough that most of the movie he gets to fight his way to his wife and daughter while trying to take out the threats in between.

But who are the kidnappers this time? They’re none other than aggrieved friends and family of some of the bad guys Neeson maimed, killed, or otherwise hurt in the first film. Led by Rade Serbedzija as the scowling father of the guy Neeson electrocuted, this band of anonymous vengeful others are out for Neeson’s blood. I like the idea of a sequel to a movie of mostly consequence-free violence basing its entire plot around providing consequences to that film’s actions. That this movie continues and expands upon its predecessor’s slight case of xenophobia, in which all foreigners are both undeveloped characters and mindless plot-device aggressors, is disappointing. The film is filled with stage-setting shots that linger on burqas and mosques while the sound of an unseen muezzin filters through the background noise and the villains make their way towards our protagonists. Instead of using its locale as a picturesque backdrop for action, the film feels like nothing more than cheap exoticism as code for threat in ways the feel awfully tired.

Still, the grudge-driven plot seems fitting, even if writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen ultimately have once again used their narrative hook only to provide quick, satisfying bursts of action sequences sprinkled with a moderate amount of connective tension. Director Olivier Megaton (with a name like that, you hardly have to go on to describe him as a French action director) films the car chases, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat with a slick competency (and with strangely sanitized PG-13 brutality). The benefit of the movie being little more than one long chase scene is that there’s no wasted time and there’s no reason to feel cheated. It is exactly what it wants to be and no more than what little it promises. And there’s still some time for occasional moments of mild invention, like when Neeson manages to call his daughter and walk her through the details of using a map, a shoestring, a pen, and a grenade to pinpoint his location.

Taken 2 doesn’t live up to the modest surprise of its predecessor. For one thing, the novelty is gone. Neeson’s character is hyper-competent, so much so that surprise is not really in the cards. When the situation is at its most dire and he tells his wife that everything is going to be okay, of course I believed him. And that’s really all that matters here. The movie is dependent entirely upon how willing the audience is to see Neeson run through the streets of a foreign city, fighting bad guys every step of the way in order to restore safety to his family. As a sequel, narratively speaking it’s an afterthought. As a movie unto itself, there’s just not much to it beyond what little it promises. But I guess that’s the point.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sing it On: PITCH PERFECT


Pitch Perfect is a light, inconsequential comedy about college a cappella groups. That’s, as the movie is quick to tells us again and again, when people perform fully orchestrated songs with only their mouths. The movie is basically wall-to-wall music; even the Universal logo’s theme gets a dramatic vocal spin before the movie begins. The whole thing is peppy, bouncy, and scattered. It has a collision of standard plotlines: the let’s-put-on-a-show, the underdog-team-of-misfits and the follow-your-dreams, as well as some standard college comedy and rom com material. And yet, on some level it works. With the sheer likability of the cast and the strength of the melodies, it just about gets by, a little bit nerdy, a little bit sassy, and a little bit dirty.

We follow adorable Anna Kendrick as a too-cool-for-school aspiring D.J. who wants nothing to do with Barden University’s down-on-its-luck all-girls group. But wouldn’t you know it? She joins anyways. The leaders of the group (Anna Camp and Brittany Snow) are unhappy after a disastrous performance at last year’s a cappella finals and don’t think this year’s applicants bode well for their chances this time around. Aside from Kendrick, the girl with talent even she doesn’t quite realize, this is a ragtag group of weirdoes with standard goofy traits, roughly sketched. The one real comedic gem of the bunch is Fat Amy. As she explains, she calls herself that so skinny girls don’t have to say it behind her back. She’s played by Rebel Wilson (you might remember her as Kristen Wiig’s roommate in Bridesmaids), who brings a committed confidence to her very strange character.

As it so happens, the girl group has a heated rivalry with last year’s winners, an all-boy group who, surprise, surprise, attend the same college. That the two best a cappella groups in the country come from the same school is funny, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a joke. It’s just narratively convenient. The leader of the boys (Adam DeVine) is a real jerk, but there’s a sweet guy among them too. He’s played by Skylar Astin and it’s quickly apparent that he’ll be paired off with Kendrick for the duration of the film, first as endearingly antagonistic competitor, then as buddy, then as…well take a wild guess. Anyways, the two groups march through the qualifying rounds with a routine inevitability. There’s no tension to the competition sequences. (They’re not funny either, despite John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks playing what is essentially Fred Willard’s role from Best in Show.) Of course both teams will make it. We’ve got to keep hearing them sing.

Much like Bring It On, the Kirsten Dunst cheerleading comedy from, sheesh, over a decade ago, did for its chosen extracurricular activity, Pitch Perfect is a movie that makes much out of its easily recognizable, but somewhat insular, world, coining the kinds of phrases that will be surely quoted in school choir rooms and a cappella groups for years to come. (“A-ca-what?” That sort of thing.) The plot of the movie is largely interested in watching the students practice routines, argue about song choices, clash with rivals, grow closer together through singing, and performing. It’s a good thing that these songs are well done. They’re easy to listen to and often brought a smile to my face and a tap to my toes. The actors are all fine singers (and/or were dubbed or auto-tuned to perfection) and bring some fine charisma to their characters’ stage presences.

But let me be clear. This is a sloppily made movie. It is basically a distended sitcom pilot, and not even a particularly good sitcom either. Director Jason Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon are both making their feature debuts after working for years in television, so it’s somewhat understandable if not entirely excusable. The movie is visually indifferent with a large ensemble that remains mostly background as the leads act out standard plots and relationships that don’t quite pay off. There’s even a little joke late in the game in which two mostly anonymous supporting characters are forced to remind one of the main characters that they’ve “been here the whole time.” The personalities may sell a lot of the zippy jokes, but other times, like in a particularly gross scene involving a big puddle of vomit, the writing feels miscalculated.

A handful of key moments between characters seem to happen unseen between scenes and a large part of the middle of the storyline contains scenes that could probably be shuffled in any order and still work (or not) just as well. I’m sure there are endless alternate takes and deleted scenes on the proverbial cutting room floor with this one. Still, I must say I found myself enjoying it slightly more often than not. And judging from the loud giggling I heard in the theater throughout the entirety of the movie, I’ll bet it’ll find a spot in many slumber party viewing rotations for at least the next few years.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Monster Mush: HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA


You might not know it based only on the evidence of Hotel Transylvania, but Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the best animators of his generation. People around my age, especially, will recognize his powerful influence over his field if I mention the titles Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack, three popular and influential animated series he directed for Cartoon Network in the 90s and early 00s. Characterized by fast, expressive movements and crisp, clean, caricatured figures moving through bold, colorful landscapes, these 2D, largely hand-drawn, shows play like they spring fully formed from a consistent, energetic vision.

But now, to the film at hand: Tartakovsky’s feature film debut. It’s a three-dimensional computer animated comedy about Dracula not wanting his daughter Mavis to leave the monster hotel he built to keep her away from dangerous humans. It’s clear that something went wrong during the making of Hotel Transylvania. You can tell by the gorgeous watercolor concept art that serves as a backdrop for the end credits. There’s certainly nothing that entrancingly good-looking in the film itself, a bland overly-familiar CGI animation effort that feels colorful and plastic in predictable patterns, where wacky character design looks like nothing more than a basket of McDonald’s toys. I like how broadly caricatured famous monsters like the mummy and Frankenstein look here, but they’re really only good for a sight gag or two before growing boring. Gone are Tartakovsky’s instantly recognizable drawings, subsumed in a cookie-cutter computer environment, his bold expressive 2D style ironically flattened out and homogenized in 3D.

The more-or-less one-joke plot (attributed to five writers) is as follows. A human wanders into Hotel Transylvania (a huge Scooby-Doo­-style castle) and catches the eye of Mavis, so Dracula tries in vain to keep the human away from the castle in order to protect his daughter from falling in love and to maintain his business model, which is built upon assuring the guests, monsters all, that humans are A.) universally dangerous and B.) never to be found on the grounds. The plot has thinning issues, growing less complicated as it goes along, settling far too easily into predictable grooves of narrative along paths that have been well trod. Stranger still are the moments when it eschews predictability to ill effect. Why not play around with the received pop-culture assumptions about these famous monsters? Why not go out on a rousing cover of “The Monster Mash?”

Voices heard here are grating, frenzied explosions of mismatched celebrity voices. As Dracula, Adam Sandler commits to one of his infamous grating accents, this time around a broad, sloppy Bela Lugosi vant-to-suck-your-blud style of loud mumbling. On the other end of the spectrum is Selena Gomez as daughter Mavis, who seems to have perhaps literally phoned in her lines in her normal speaking voice. The human who gets mixed up in door-slamming, pay-no-attention-to-the-guy-who’s-clearly-not-a-monster shenanigans is Andy Samberg who does a broad SoCal drawl. Elsewhere, cartoony monsters can be heard speaking like Steve Buscemi, CeeLo, Kevin James, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, David Spade, and Jon Lovitz. Weird, huh? Distracting too.

Hotel Transylvania is a movie both manic and sleepy, racing through turbocharged sub-Looney Tunes concepts so quickly and constantly that none of the gags have time to land, assuming they ever could have done so. I don’t know. When I see Frankenstein detach his legs and walk them behind the mummy to unleash a stinky blast of flatulence that is then sucked up by a witch with a bellows who then proceeds to use it to stoke a fire, I’m just not amused. Maybe that means I wasn’t on the right wavelength for this picture, but I tried. I really did. I like fast and silly, but this movie’s so much of both that it skips off the tracks and lands with a disappointing thud on the same old tracks we’ve been down hundreds of times before. Gee, parents and kids should better understand each other. People should not be hated for being different. It’s all wacky jokes, pleasant enough, but not too funny, in service of all the usual morals. That’s fine as far as that goes, but if you don’t have anything new to say, at least you could say it in an entertaining way.
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