Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pitch Perfect (2012) ***

When I heard that Rebel Wilson, the blond, British girl from “Bridesmaids” who poured frozen peas on her tattoo, would be in “Pitch Perfect,” I knew I had to see it.  I was not disappointed.  “Pitch Perfect” is a lot of fun, and it turns out Rebel Wilson isn’t even the best thing in it.
The movie takes place at a college where a cappella singing groups are the big thing.  The most dominant group, the Treble-Makers, is an all-male group, and national champions.  The Bellas, a female group, were once competitive, but have seen their fortunes fall after their leader had an on-stage vomiting incident.  With their numbers decimated, the Bellas have to recruit desperately, taking on a group of misfits like Fat Amy (“I call myself that so twiggy bitches like you won’t say it behind my back.” - Rebel Wilson), a whispering Asian girl, and a grumpy alterna-hottie (Anna Kendrick).    Beca, the alternative girl, spends her time mixing music and warily flirting with one of the Treble-Makers (Skylar Astin), when she isn‘t rehearsing with the Bellas and challenging the conservative leadership of Chloe(Brittany Snow).   (No one in this movie spends their time attending college classes or studying.)
The plot isn’t nearly as important as the music.  Even more than the TV show “Glee,” “Pitch Perfect” tries to pack in as many musical numbers as possible, and fittingly, the singing is the most fun thing about the movie.  This is true even if they do trend heavily toward pop music (They even sing a Miley Cyrus song.)  As for comedy, I actually found Rebel Wilson to be a bit disappointing.  Her character in “Bridesmaids” was hilarious, but in “Pitch Perfect” the funniest thing about her is her name, Fat Amy.  Fortunately, the comedic slack is mostly taken up by Brittany Snow and Anna Camp, who play the Bella leaders, and Anna Kendrick, who is a decent straight-man in addition to being super-cute.  Did I mention these ladies can sing?  By far, however, the funniest part of the movie is the outrageous banter of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play the a cappella competition announcers.  It’s worth watching “Pitch Perfect” just for them.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Avengers (2012) **

You have to give Marvel Comics credit.  In a genre ruled by guys like Superman and Batman, they chose to make comics about an enraged, green monster; a hokey, patriotic bodybuilder; and figments of Norse mythology.  Even more remarkable is that a modern-day movie studio turned these characters into tent-pole franchises.  By stringing together a series of films (Iron Man I and II, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and finally The Avengers), all linked by a subplot involving a secret government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., Paramount Pictures and Marvel have created a true economic juggernaut.
I haven’t seen all the films in the series.  I thought Iron Man was okay, and Thor was surprisingly watch-able given its goofy premise.  For me, these movies never managed to balance spectacle with intellectual heft the way the “X-Men” series did.  I had high hopes for “The Avengers,” however, when I learned that Joss Whedon was directing.  This is the Joss Whedon who created the TV show “Firefly,” the coolest and most fun sci-fi western ever to get prematurely cancelled. With Whedon teaming up with actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, the project had real potential.
I suppose that’s why I was so disappointed with “The Avengers.”  When I watched “Thor,” my expectations were low, and I was pleasantly surprised by the film.  Not so with “The Avengers.”  Like “Iron Man,” the movie takes excellent actors and refuses to give them much of anything interesting to do or say, instead dulling the senses with nonstop action and gee-whiz CGI effects.
The movie finds Loki, who was banished to another dimension for his crimes in “Thor,” making a comeback.  Aided by alien allies, he returns to Earth to claim the Tesseract, some sort of high-energy cube that the government is trying to figure out.  After he busts things up and takes the cube, SHIELD agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assemble the crew of misfits who will become the Avengers: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor.  Action ensues.  One-liners are exchanged.  Thirteen-year-old boys are delighted.
I was particularly disappointed by Loki.  Loki is supposed to be the god of deception and mischief, but this film reduces him to the role of petty, would-be tyrant.  Other than occasionally fooling someone with a false image of himself, he doesn’t really engage in much trickery.  Tom Hiddleston is excellent in the role, but it’s just another example of unmet potential in this film.
If I seem to take these comic-book movies too seriously and judge them too harshly, it’s because I refuse to give points based purely on spectacle.  I’ve already seen men flying, things exploding, and girls in skimpy outfits, and I’ve heard all the zippy one-liners from action heroes I need to hear.  Am I up for seeing more of this stuff?  Damn straight!  But for a movie to impress me it also has to have all the other elements of a good film, like well-developed characters, good dialogue, and a compelling plot.  Apologies to Joss Whedon, but “The Avengers” falls flat in these areas, and with better films like the X-Men series and “The Watchmen” out there, there is no excuse for it.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Cat in Paris (Un vie de chat, 2010) ***

In the movie “Chaplan,” there’s a scene where the star discusses the advantage of silent films when it comes to the overseas market.  All one had to do was change the language on the text cards.  Animated films share this advantage to some extent.  Dubbing a cartoon is doubtless easier than a live-action film, especially if the cartoon has rather crude animation, as does “A Cat in Paris.”  Thus, I came into this family movie expecting my kid to have to read French subtitles, but we got to watch it in English, complete with gangsters with cockney accents!
The story is fairly simplistic.  A young girl discovers that her cat has been sneaking out every night to run the rooftops of Paris with a cat burglar.  Meanwhile, the girl’s mother is a police superintendent focused on capturing the ruthless gangster who killed her husband.  The characters are thinly developed, with the exception of the gangster.  With his hooked nose and cockney accent, he is quite compelling.
To call the animation in this film crude is not to say it is ugly.  The fluid, hand-drawn animation of the characters running across the Paris skyline are beautiful.  What the film lacks in plotline, it makes up in humor and visual beauty.  It’s a good, family film.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 19, 2013

En la Cama (In the Bed, 2005) ***½

In America, when you see a movie poster featuring people in their underwear, you can probably count on some partial nudity in the film.  In Chile, it apparently means full-on sex.  Like a Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise”) soft-core porno, “En la Cama” blends graphic sex with long sessions of conversation.
This Spanish-language film by Chilean director Matias Bize is filmed entirely in a motel room, where two strangers are engaging in a 1-night-stand.  Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela) and Daniela (Blanca Lewin), it seems, have met at a party and wound up here, making the walls shake.  When they aren’t going at it, they talk, gingerly at first, then more intimately as the night wears on, until their talk becomes even more intimate than their sex.  In the confines of their motel bed (hence the title “In the Bed”), they in one night go through the ups and downs of a relationship that would normally take weeks or months.
They also look pretty good naked.  I wasn’t joking when I called this a soft-core porno.  It’s a thinking-man’s porno, though.  The actors are excellent, and much as in talky, American movies like “Before Sunrise,” the film makes conversation seem action-packed.  “En la Cama” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  Those who don’t like talky movies will be bored, as will those simply looking for a sex movie.  Of course, the film is in Spanish, and Chilean Spanish at that, which is quite hard to understand for me.  But relax, the subtitles are in regular English, and sex looks the same in every language!

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Marriage Italian Style (Matrimonio all’ italiana 1964) ****

I had always thought of Sophia Loren as this legendary beauty, but not as a serious actress.  Pardon my ignorance.  In “Marriage Italian Style,” Loren shows tremendous acting chops as she teams with the great Marcello Mastroianni to create a tour de force of a satire on sexual politics.
In Vittorio de Sicca’s masterpiece, Loren plays Filumena, a young Italian prostitute who falls for the handsome, wealthy Don Domenico (Mastroianni).  He makes her his mistress, keeping her for years, but is never willing to commit to her emotionally or legally.  We learn all this through flashbacks.  The film actually starts with Filumena apparently dying, and Domenico finally consenting to marry her on her deathbed.  With the marriage complete, Filumena makes a miraculous recovery, and Domenico realizes he has been duped.  Thus resumes the pair’s lifelong game of emotional blackmail and bribery, exemplifying the saying, “All’s fair in love and war.”
Marcello Mastroianni is as good as always here, but it was Sophia Loren who really impressed me.  She wears too much eye makeup, but still lights up the screen.  She beautifully portrays the pathos and dignity of her character.  The story itself is worthwhile, too.  At first I thought it would be an old-fashioned tale of a woman getting some rogue to marry her and then civilizing him; sort of a reverse “The Taming of the Shrew.”  If the film had been made in the U.S. in the early ‘60’s, that’s what it would have been, but the Italians apparently don’t go in for that sort of thing.  “Marriage Italian Style” casts a pragmatic eye on the character of Filumena, a female survivor of WWII and its aftermath who does what she has to.
It would be possible to take a look at this film’s title and movie poster and come into it expecting a comedy. Don’t make that mistake.  This is a serious human drama.  There is some comic relief, but it is no farce.  Still, Filumena is so inventive in getting what she needs from a world and a man intent on denying her, that rooting for her is ultimately a triumphant act.  This one is highly recommended for those who like foreign films.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Hunger Games (2012) ****

After seeing a lot of movies lately that were just “alright,” it was nice to finally see something amazing!  “The Hunger Games” is sheer delight!  Having never read the book, I came to the movie with no expectations, and I was blown away.
For the other four people in the free world who haven’t already seen the movie, read the books, and gotten the T-shirt, “The Hunger Games” tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl from a future dystopia.  In this version of the future, civil war has led to the division of the planet, or at least Katniss’s country, into districts.  The poorer, outer districts are pretty much exploited to provide energy and other resources for the lavish lifestyles of those in the rich districts.  (Not all that different from the current system, really.)  To remind the outer districts of the failure of their past rebellion, a Hunger Games is held every year.  Each district has to hand over one teenage boy and girl who will enter the game and fight to the death like gladiators, for the entertainment of a television audience.  It’s completely sick, and it feels eerily reminiscent of our own reality tv shows.
Katniss is a total badass.  With her dad dead in a mining accident, and her mom unable to deal with life, Katniss is left to raise her younger sister.  She also has to feed the family, which she does by sneaking into the restricted forest and hunting with her bow.  When her sister’s name gets drawn for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She is whisked off to her fate, along with a local boy, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  In the Capitol, Kat and Peeta are given some cursory training, mostly in how to appeal to the wealthy judges who influence the games by sponsoring care packages to help players they like.  Then the gladiators are turned into the arena, and the underage bloodbath begins.
Like all good dystopian fiction, “The Hunger Games” holds a dark mirror up to our own world.  From its critique of economic exploitation to the depiction of what reality TV could become, the film has a lot to say, even if its messages are rather uncomplicated.  Fortunately, the film works equally well as an action movie.  There’s really nothing negative to say about the movie.  Anyone who saw Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” will not be surprised at how good she is in this role.  This actress knows how to cook a squirrel on a stick!  The rest of the cast is excellent as well.  Woody Harrelson, in particular, is riveting as Haymitch, the alcoholic coach and former Hunger Games competitor.  There’s also a surprise performance by Lenny Kravitz.
The sequel, “Catching Fire” comes out this year, and I can‘t wait.  I’m hungry for more.

4 stars out of 5