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Thursday
May142015

Pitch Perfect 2

Depending on the genre, it’s easy to make a sequel from a successful first entry. All you have to do for an action movie, for example, is do exactly what made the first one so fun and make the action bigger, louder and more explosive. It’s a formula that has worked hundreds of times for action movies, from “Rambo” to “The Avengers,” but it hasn’t always translated well to other genres. While “Pitch Perfect” was indeed a surprisingly fun, funny, toe tapping good time, how do you take a cappella to the next level? The answer is that you can’t, at least you can’t as evidenced by “Pitch Perfect 2.” It’s still entertaining and worth seeing, but the magic captured in the first film is mostly gone this time, as the musical numbers have to do all the heavy lifting while the story around them stumbles along.

We meet the girls back at Barden University a few years after the events of the first film. Barden Bella members have come and gone, but the core group remains the same, including Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). Also joining the group as a “legacy” member, thanks to her mom who used to be a Barden Bella herself, is newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld). After an embarrassing performance in front of the President that had Fat Amy exposing herself, the Bellas are suspended from performing in the American a cappella circuit. This, naturally, doesn’t include the upcoming World A Cappella Championship in Copenhagen, which they decide to take part in. However, an American team has never won it, so it is agreed upon that if they can pull off the seemingly impossible task, their suspension will be lifted.

It’s a contrived set-up, one that even the most passive viewers will realize makes no sense. An embarrassing mistake during a performance, even one as surprising as the one that happened to the Bellas, would never result in such a harsh punishment, but it’s indicative of the narrative as a whole. None of the plot turns do much to elicit responses, as they feel like they’re merely going through the motions instead of crafting something viewers can latch onto. Even its narrative conflict, the backbone of any story as anyone who has taken storytelling 101 will tell you, accomplishes nothing, as it’s barely brought up and resolved before any actual conflict happens.

This is something the first film didn’t suffer from, primarily because it had room to work with its characters. Beca was a loner in the original, someone who was perpetually unhappy and didn’t even really know why. It took a ragtag a cappella group to show her that and, as the film went on, she had emotional breakthroughs that brought her arc around to a satisfying conclusion. The closest “Pitch Perfect 2” comes to that is in the budding romance between Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam DeVine), but it’s somewhat amusing at best and completely unnecessary at worst. To put it simply, from a character or narrative viewpoint, there’s nothing truly at stake.

It has other problems, like shameful product placement for things like Volkswagen and Pantene Pro-V, but luckily, “Pitch Perfect 2” retains the musical verve that made the first film so great. Like its predecessor, it cleverly mashes up old and new tunes into something that sounds fresh, that gives certain songs most haven’t heard in many years new life. To top it off, the film introduces a completely original song, deviating from the very nature of a cappella, and it’s arguably the best song in the whole thing. If you’re on the fence leading up to the conclusion of the film, the song that caps it off will sway you to recommendation.

It did for me, at least. It’s a good thing too, because nearly every other facet of the film pales in comparison to the original. It’s more mildly humorous than flat out funny and it lacks the style and intelligence that made its predecessor so special. It’s worth seeing, but in its attempt to emulate those things, “Pitch Perfect 2” shows its weakness.

Pitch Perfect 2 receives 3/5

Friday
Sep282012

Pitch Perfect

If there is ever going to be a movie that is going to make a cappella cool, it’s Pitch Perfect. In fact, it exists in a world where a cappella is the cool thing to do. The popularity pyramid is distorted from reality, to the point where those who are able to sing harmoniously alongside others are at the top. One hilarious scene shows the leader of the Treble Makers, a college a cappella group, shun a nerd trying to join the group just before matching pitch with his comrades. Such desire for acceptance into an a cappella group may seem silly now, but it won’t after watching the movie. Pitch Perfect is lively, funny, moving and just plain fun. If it doesn’t make you want to sing afterwards, you’re probably a metalhead.

The film begins at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in New York. The all-female Borden Bellas are competing in the event against their all male rivals, the Treble Makers. Despite a solid show, one of them ends up getting sick on stage, effectively ruining their chances at winning. Flash forward a bit and a new school year has arrived. The two girls remaining on the team, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), are dying to get another shot at that championship and decide to hold tryouts. Eventually, they band together a ragtag group of girls, including the free spirited Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so people won’t have to call her it behind her back and aspiring DJ, Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is only joining because her father has agreed to personally help move her to LA to achieve her dreams if she sticks with school for one year and participates in college events. There’s only one rule these girls must follow: do not sleep with a member of the Treble Makers. If they do, they’re off the team. It seems a simple enough rule to follow, but the charms of Jesse (Skylar Astin) may make it harder than anticipated.

What follows is fairly predictable fodder. The narrative and thematic correlation between this and something like Step Up is hard to miss—the film even has the equivalent of a dance-off, where competing singers meet to show each other up vocally—but what Pitch Perfect proves is just how vital a good cast is. Just as a terrible cast can effectively ruin a good script, a great cast can elevate a clichéd one, which is precisely what happens here. Kendrick is her usual adorable self and she gives a performance that is simultaneously hardened and vulnerable. Her character isn’t someone who is likely to earn friends on her own due to her stubborn attitude, but as she performs with the Borden Bellas, she comes to appreciate those around her, with all of their flaws and differences. This all comes forth despite her initial disinterest in a cappella. It’s easy to understand why she comes around and opens up to the group; they’re all so interesting and likable (well, almost all of them) that it would seem silly not to. In particular, Rebel Wilson is fantastic. She is absolutely hilarious here and manages to steal each scene she’s in, despite a supporting role.

But I suppose the big question is: how is the singing? To put is simply, it’s fantastic. The chosen songs are all toe tappers and they work perfectly within the context of what the performers intend to do, showcasing their highs and (occasionally) their lows. There’s something mesmerizing about how every sound you remember from the original song, from the drums to the guitars to everything in between, is recreated without instruments and through the mouths of those singing. One of the best scenes, that highlights the fascination of a cappella, comes during an early audition. Each performer sings a certain part of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” from full out lyrics to simple beats, and their auditions are spliced together to form one musical whole. The structure of this sequence is flat out brilliant and even if you don’t like the actual song, you’ll be impressed by its implementation.

Pitch Perfect is just flat out fun, though that’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. It gets a bit grating at times with a cappella plays-on-words, like a ca-excuse me and a ca-awesome, and it goes completely off the rails about two-thirds of the way through with an extremely out of place puke scene that rivals a similar scene in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police. As if the prolonged upchucking wasn’t enough, one of the characters then falls into it and, instead of getting up in disgust, makes an angel. You also have to sit through a few painfully overdramatic plot turns, but sticking with Pitch Perfect proves to be a fulfilling and inspiring experience. It may follow a narrative trajectory explored by countless dance movies before it, but this time it’s handled with care by the filmmakers and performed by actors who can actually do what their profession implies.

Pitch Perfect receives 4/5