(On Cable TV, May 2016) The original Pitch Perfect was an all-too-rare surprise: A crackling good movie disguised under less-than-promising clothing. It not only featured a number of great performances (notably a career-best role for Anna Kendrick and a breakout turn by Rebel Wilson), but managed to hit, at least three times, a quasi-magical state of pure joy. All of this to say that it set almost ridiculous expectations for its rapidly inevitable sequel. To its credit, Pitch Perfect 2 does try to replicate much of its predecessor’s highlights. We get the signing performances, the banter between the characters, a joyous song battle, an underdog competition and some hilariously inappropriate colour commentary. Elizabeth Banks does well at the helm, and the vast majority of the first film’s cast is back for more of the same. It succeeds at being a breezy comedy, toning down some of the original’s weaknesses (there aren’t that many vomit jokes, for one thing, and the romance is far funnier here) and maintaining much of the charm. It even throws in some fan-service homoeroticism for good measure. Pitch Perfect 2 is not, however, quite as surprising nor quite as successful as the original—something that should be considered inevitable rather than disappointing. Those who liked the first movie should at least keep this in mind: the sequel is a decent follow-up and it should flow well in a back-to-back viewing.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) When I say that I have a soft spot for silly comedies, Walk of Shame is the kind of film I’m think about. It’s amiable, silly, and episodic (although it does tie things up as it progresses), doesn’t really lead to a Big Important Message and allows charming actors to do their best. Here, Elizabeth Banks is the highlight as a local news anchor who suffers the worst night of her life as complications pile up following a wild night out. Taking fullest advantage of Los Angeles as a magnet for strange behavior, Walk of Shame starts piling up the absurdities early on, and doesn’t really stop until its “fugitive in a yellow dress” has caused an indecent amount of mayhem. It’s not meant to be refined, but it does accomplish most of what it tries to do. My mild liking for the film is probably unexplainable given its reliance on humiliation comedy, ethnic stereotypes, directorial laziness and a big dose of misogyny. I can’t quite make sense of it myself, except for the following: “soft spot for silly comedies”.
(On-demand video, August 2012) There’s a comforting familiarity to genre exercises that makes it easy to forgive them for, well, being genre exercises. Man on a Ledge may benefit from an unusual premise (man goes on a ledge as a diversion for a heist), but it quickly becomes just another thriller with the usual palette of elements: clever virtuous thieves, corrupt cops, framed hero, rapacious journalists, and so on. To its credit, Man on a Ledge plays its thriller cards well, especially in the first act of the film while all of the plot strands are being set up. It’s the second third that hits a bit of a lull as the same situation is re-threaded for about 15 minutes: thrillers live or die on narrative energy, and there’s a sense, as the thieves goof around their target, that time is being wasted. At least the last act of the film speeds up again, leading up to a nice appropriate moment of stunt-work. Some dynamic camera work helps keep up interest throughout, but some thanks must be given to the good cast assembled here for the film: Sam Worthington as a scruffy protagonist, Ed Harris as a rail-thin villain, up-comer Anthony Mackie as a partner working at cross-purposes, Elizabeth Banks as a damaged police officer and Genesis Rodriguez as a wise-cracking rogue. It plays reasonably well as a genre thriller, and that’s fine if that’ all you really want to see. Where it falters is in comparison with other better movies of this kind –specifically Inside Man, Spike Lee’s far-better “New York crime thriller” entry which felt as if it had some connections to contemporary reality rather than just being a somewhat showy thriller. The far-fetched nature of Man on a Ledge’s plot could have used a bit more grounding (so to speak, ahem) and that’s probably when genre exercises can go astray, by being more focused on their own plot convolutions rather than spending just a bit more time on making it feel even more credible.
(On cable TV, April 2012) There’s something almost archetypical in the holy fool that Paul Rudd plays so loosely in Our Idiot Brother: a childish man with no perceptive filters and an almost-infinite good faith in his fellow humans, the titular brother becomes a catalyst for dramatic change when he’s forced to spend time with his three sisters and their families. The specific of the plot becomes secondary to the character work and the conflagration when too much unfiltered truth exposes everyone’s illusions. The trailer makes the film look like a laugh-a-minute, but the actual film is more measured and demands to be taken more slowly. In the roles of the three sisters, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer do fine work, but it’s really Rudd who holds the film on his shoulders. With all the self-deluded characters, painful confrontations and elaborate rationalizations, Our Idiot Brother becomes a profoundly humanistic film. As a result, and with the help of a conclusion in which everything predictably goes well, it’s a charming, likable and self-assured film. It may be a bit too gentle and slow-paced to please those looking for laugh-a-minute hilarity, but when a film has so much charisma, it doesn’t really matter.
(In theaters, December 2010) One of the keys behind a successful thriller is being absolutely, indisputably, unarguably behind the main character. Moral ambiguity may be fine for dramas, but for straight-ahead thrillers, it’s better to be on-board from the get-go. Alas, it’s one of The Next Three Days’ biggest flaws that it never completely allows the audience to get behind the protagonist as he reinvents himself as a criminal in order to save his wife from a life imprisonment murder sentence. It says far too much about my own views of law-and-order to confess that I spent two-thirds of the film silently disapproving of the hero’s jailbreaking plans. Even at the end, I was actively cheering for the police to bring them in, and for at least one of the so-called heroes to kill themselves. Once you’re at that point in moral allegiances, it’s hard to come back. Part of the problem is also that The Next Three Days leaves far too much time for the audience to ponder morality: At two hours, the film is too long for its own good, and part of the problem is director Paul Haggis’ lack of commitment to thrills: The screenplay can’t decide whether it’s marking time as a ruminative drama or if it’s moving forward as a suspense film, and no amount of clever planning can overcome the lassitude of a film that doesn’t quite know how to get going. Russell Crowe is fine as a schoolteacher who reinvents himself as a mastermind criminal, but Elizabeth Banks isn’t particularly sympathetic as the object of the film’s affection. The result is, even if you can go along with the protagonist’s descent into criminality, a bit of a waste of talent for everyone involved: A pile of contrivances amount to little more than a fairly dull way to spend much of two hours.