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Entries in Hailee Steinfeld (2)

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

Wednesday
Dec222010

True Grit

Many claimed years ago that the Western genre was dead. It’s an easy argument to make and a tough one to refute because the sheer number of films has decreased substantially (and I’m talking about true Westerns, not simply films with Western elements like Serenity or Jonah Hex). But I would argue they aren’t dead; they’re just dormant. Along with 2007’s terrific 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers’ newest, hotly anticipated film, True Grit, proof is offered up that there is still some life breathing in those old Western lungs.

True Grit, adapted from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (which was previously adapted to film in 1969 by John Wayne), tells the story of little Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is seeking out revenge against the man who murdered her father, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Despite her strong personality, she is too little and weak to get the job done herself, so she hires bounty hunter and ex-US marshal, Reuben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help. However, a Texas lawman named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is also on Chaney’s trail, hoping to bring him in for a separate crime he committed in his home state. Although they initially agree to work together, a disagreement sets La Boeuf off on his own and a race for Chaney’s head begins.

With the exception of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers are yet to make a movie I dislike. With No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and the oft forgotten, but all the same terrific, Blood Simple (all of which they wrote the screenplays for as well), the two siblings are one of the strongest forces in Hollywood. True Grit only reaffirms that statement. It’s a rough, tough, mean and entertaining romp through the wastelands of the old West, a vision we rarely see in our modern cinematic society that is too busy looking forward to remember where it's been.

This is how movies used to be made. Unlike 3:10 to Yuma, which more or less caved into the pressures of a modern audience that calls for action packed extravaganzas, True Grit takes its time. It’s about the characters and story, not how high the body count can reach. The Coen brothers may not always seem to know what movies audiences will flock to, but they know what makes a movie good and that is all that matters.

And part of making a good movie, of course, is assembling a talented cast. Jeff Bridges, collaborating with the dynamic duo for the first time since 1998’s The Big Lebowski, gives an award worthy performance as Reuben Cogburn. What with this and the much anticipated Tron: Legacy, he’s having quite a week. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Berry Pepper all show up to lend their considerable talents as well, the latter of whom is so good it almost makes me want to forgive his annoying performance in one of this week’s other (not nearly as good) releases, Casino Jack.

The weak standout is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who sometimes recites her lines as if she’s standing on a stage. While not a bad actress, she has a tough time working opposite Bridges and Damon. Whereas their dialogue flows naturally, hers is a bit stilted at times. She speaks with a matter-of-fact attitude, which suits her quick talking character, but there is a refusal to speak in contractions that brings the dialogue to a halt. Regardless of whether or not it was for authenticity’s sake, it didn’t work and became a major distraction.

That predicament isn’t limited only to Steinfeld, however; it’s a mass problem among every character. Contractions are used liberally, seemingly only when a line wouldn’t have been funny otherwise. This inconsistent approach is what bugged me the most about True Grit, but the wonderful direction, otherwise great performances and beautiful cinematography make it easy to forgive. This is the Coen brothers' best movie since No Country for Old Men. It's a must see.

True Grit receives 4/5