Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)

January 22, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

pitch perfect

Pitch Perfect by Hubert Widjaya — watercolor and pen on Canson paper.

Note: Huge shoutout to Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya for providing the wonderful artwork for this post. See below for a casual chat we had about the film following my review.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of musicals, especially ones that look like they are riding the wave of a popular trend to make a quick buck at the box office. But as it turned out, Pitch Perfect was one of the my biggest surprises of 2012, and I must admit that I was completely wrong to prejudge the film as simply a two-hour episode of Glee.

So what made Pitch Perfect so good? It had a formulaic premise — a new girl, played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air, 50/50, End of Watch — she’s obviously killing it right now) joins an all-girl a cappella group full of misfits and leads them against a rival campy all-boy group in a battle to capture the national title. It was also a little hit and miss at times, as most comedies involving teens and college students can be.

pitch

Original film poster

But Pitch Perfect was funny — very funny, and unexpectedly so. Full credit to director Jason Moore (former TV director) and screenwriter Kay Cannon (who worked on 30 Rock — that explains a lot) for making the humour dry, quirky and satirical, without overstepping the mark (for the most part).

Massive kudos to Aussie Rebel Wilson, who appears to be conquering Hollywood with one scene-stealing role after another. Here she plays Fat Amy, easily the standout character of the whole group and the provider of the best laughs. The rest of the cast, which includes Skylar Astin (Spring Awakening), Anna Camp (The Help) and Brittany Snow (Hairspray), as well as the always welcome Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, were also all very good.

Oh yes, and the singing. I was pleasantly surprised by how excellent it was, especially considering much of the main cast, as far as I know, aren’t known for their vocal cords. I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of Glee but it was easily just as good as any of the singing in that.

Singing is, of course, just half of the equation. What made Pitch Perfect a real treat for me was the classic songs covered by the singers. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the Bangles, Ace of Base and the theme from The Breakfast Club, among others, many of which are given fresh interpretations or mixed with more recent hits to form catchy medleys.

While you’re likely to forget about Pitch Perfect in a couple of years, you’re also likely to have a great time while watching it. I certainly did.

Conversation with HW:

PJM: Are you a fan of Glee? Chances are, Pitch Perfect is  an attempt to cash in on the success of Glee, which I thought would have been a recipe for disaster, but I think they pulled it off. What did you think?

HW: Haven’t seen Glee. Judging by the ads Glee looks like its aimed at a girly/female audience, whereas Pitch Perfect had a streetwise chick vibe — which is why I saw it. It solidly lived up to expectation. Great one liners and natural performances.

PJM: Who were the standouts for you?

HW: I have only seen Rebel Wilson in this, but can see why she’s popular. She has a sweet but dirty vibe, and isn’t forcing her charisma, which she does apparently in Bridesmaids. Anna Kendrick though is a standout; she brings the heart, and sweet emotional center to what could have been a low-brow teen flick. In fact, it loses a star for two ill-judged vomit scenes. Like they were trying to appeal to teen boy market.

PJM: I never expected Anna Kendrick to have such a great set of pipes.

HW: You’ve raised a good point. Do you know if they all sing for real or if it’s dubbed?

PJM: I understand it’s all real voices but recorded in the studio. It’s not live like in Les Miserables.

HW: Right.

PJM: How does this film compare to other musicals you’ve seen in recent years, if any?

HW: Only really seen Chicago I think at the cinema, but that was brilliant too. Pitch Perfect was almost like two forms of entertainment for the price of one. A movie and entertaining songs within. Where does it lose marks for you?

PJM: It’s not really losing marks as opposed to not gaining marks. Some of the jokes were a little hit and miss and enjoyment depends on your musical tastes. It’s a good film for people who grew up on the classic songs they sing but have not given up on more modern hits. So what would you give it out of five?

HW: A solid, sing songy 4 stars.

PJM: Me too. 4 stars out of 5.

Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)

October 16, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.

I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.

Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.

Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.

The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.

The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).

End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.

Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.

On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

January 23, 2010 in Movie Reviews

When I first heard about George Clooney’s new film Up in the Air, I thought it was the sequel to the 1994 basketball comedy The Air Up There starring Kevin Bacon.

Well, not as such.

The story revolves around Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man with a very unique job which I won’t divulge, but I will say it does require him to be ‘up in the air’ a lot.  Despite having to use his mouth for a living, Bingham shies away from human connection.  Enter Alex (Vera Farmiga) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), two women who will turn his life upside down and make him question his life choices.

Up in the Air is the real deal – interesting premise, terrific script, great performances; warm, funny and very human – just about everything you could ask for in an A-grade drama comedy.  It’s not the type of film that will make you go ‘wow’, blow your mind or change your life, but it’s a film voters of awards will love (and from the awards it has already received, evidently so).

Up in the Air is co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, director of Juno and Thank You For Smoking.  If you have seen one or both of those films, then you’ll have an idea of the style and feel Reitman injects into Up in the Air.  It is a film dealing with serious issues and tragic situations, but somehow there are plenty of great laughs – certainly more than I expected. Full credit goes to Reitman and I have a feeling an Oscar nomination is coming his way shortly.

As for the performances – I’ve never been a huge fan of George Clooney because of that smug, dickish vibe he constantly gives off, but I have to admit it works perfectly here.  He is charming and funny and he makes you believe Ryan Bingham is real person.  Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, I am a big fan of, so I have nothing but praises for her subtle, believable performance.  And there’s the always-welcome Jason Bateman, who offers his usual stellar presence.

But it is the tiny chipmunk girl from the Twilight Saga, Anna Kendrick (I think she plays the annoying friend Jessica), that absolutely steals the show as the young hotshot.  I never knew she could act.  I think she’ll get a nomination as well and I wouldn’t be too surprised if she won.

If there is a complaint about Up in the Air, it’s that the film is a little flat.  Yes, there are ups and downs and it can get quite emotional, but there’s not much heart-thumping excitement. At 109 minutes, it’s definitely not a movie children would be able to sit through without getting restless.

Nevertheless, on the whole, Up in the Air is a quality movie that ticks most of the right boxes.  It’s unlikely to be one of those memorable films you’ll remember years down the track, but for now, at least, Up in the Air will come to mind when I think about the top films of the year.

4 out of 5 stars

[PS: Felt good to get that one out.  It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie!]

 
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