Tag: elizabeth banks

Brightburn


Brightburn (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The question of what might have happened had Superman grown up evil instead of good is not at all new, but “Brightburn,” written for the screen by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, had the opportunity to burst the door open for the superhero horror sub-genre with an exclamation point. Instead, the picture is, for the most part, dramatically inert, choosing shock over suspense, violence instead of creeping terror. I felt the actors—every single one clearly capable of so much more than what the reductive screenplay offers—longing for deeper, more challenging material. Over time, I grew disinterested in its lifeless parade of villainous young Clark Kent.

Top-tier superhero films command a sense of wonder. It does not matter whether one’s power is innate, transferred, or achieved through creativity, technology, and hard work, superhero movies that successfully capture viewers’ imagination treat as though the powers in their respective stories are new, wonderful, potentially scary and dangerous, eye-opening.

In this project, notice, for instance, there is a flatness in tone and mood as twelve-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers his super-strength and indestructibility. He need not be overtly thrilled given his laid back personality, but a more intelligent screenplay would have found ways to communicate his delight, alarm, or confusion—perhaps a mix of all three—for being a special freak. Brandon, after all, despite his extraterrestrial origin, is raised by human parents (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) and so, naturally, he must respond in human ways. Otherwise, we fail to relate to his muted reactions.

Conflicts surrounding Brandon lack depth. At school, he is made fun for being too smart, too quiet, too different. The script does not bother to introduce any of Brandon’s peers (or teachers) in a meaningful way, whether the supporter character becomes a friend or foe. Without the requisite context surrounding Brandon’s challenges outside his home, the individuals he interacts with simply exist as as sheep lining up for the slaughter. It is without question that the writers are not interested in the interactions between social and abnormal psychology within the conditions of a superhero flick. Scenes at school should be highly informative given there is no other pre-teen Brandon can socialize with at the Breyer farm.

Like forgettable horror movies, it appears as though “Brightburn” is more interested in how to make violence and mangled body parts appear beautiful or realistic. Sure, pulling a sharp object from one’s eyeball, for instance, makes the audience wince but that is all there is to it once the scene is over. Slasher elements do not work here because little effort is spent on the chase or tease. There is minimal patience from behind the camera; it moves so quickly and so often as if self-conscious that viewers would notice less-than-perfect images. It does not help either that the score is relentless in signaling audiences how to feel. Clearly, it does not understand the difference between an evanescent jump scare and horror that lingers.

Pitch Perfect 2


Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

On President Obama’s birthday, the Barden Bellas, three-time a cappella champions, were invited to perform at the Lincoln Center. The performance goes swimmingly—at least initially—until Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is shown suspended on a white sheet à la P!nk at the 2010 Grammys. Wearing no underwear, Fat Amy inadvertently flashes the world and the images spread like wildfire. The Barden Bellas’ once excellent reputation is tarnished and the university’s dean is forced to make a drastic decision.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks, “Pitch Perfect 2” matches the novelty and verve of its predecessor at times, but it does drag in parts. As it should be, the film is at the top of its game when characters are performing mashups of mainstream songs both new and old. However, in order to appeal emotionally to the audience, the script tries to explore friendships and relationships which often come across as tired and forced.

There are a few smart choices here. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is now a senior and she is making preparations when it comes to what she wants to do next after graduation. She hopes to become a record producer and so she divides her time between the a cappella group and interning with a music producer with a sharp tongue (Keegan-Michael Key). The scenes that take place in the conference room and the studio are entertaining and amusing. We believe that Beca is ready to start a new chapter, not simply sitting through a series of scenes where the character realizes eventually that she loves being a Barden Bella more than a chance at a real future. Always be on the lookout for cameos.

Less interesting is the love interest between Fat Amy and Bumper Allen (Adam DeVine), a former Treblemaker who used to work for John Mayer. I missed Bumper Allen’s sassiness; they try to make him a nice guy here which makes him almost boring. Although Wilson and DeVine do try to give it their best shot, especially when it comes to the range of facial expressions they possess, I never felt like there was anything at stake. Even if they do not end up together in the end, it still feels all right. Thus, the couple’s scenes are trivial for the most part, about twenty minutes of padding that fails to push the story forward.

Perhaps the best part of the film is when the Barden Bellas participate in an underground rif-off against other a cappella groups. It is creative, funny, and we get a real sense of the styles, strengths, and weaknesses of each group. This is stronger than the finale—the latter satisfying but not particularly impressive. The last performance relies too much on sentimentality than presentation and talent. The main rival of the Barden Bellas in this film, Das Sound Machine (Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), commands such a presence that cuteness and sweetness simply fail to measure up.

“Pitch Perfect 2” offers a good time and is best seen with a group of people. It might have been better if there had been less talking and more singing, but actors like Kendrick and Wilson possess such an effervescent, effortless charm that they could be selling me something that I don’t need yet I’ll still listen to them speak.

Wet Hot American Summer


Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

It is the last day of Camp Firewood which means that the camp director, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), and her camp counselors must endure one more day of trying to overcome their feelings for one another. Geeky Coop (Michael Showalter) is finally noticed by salacious Katie (Marguerite Moreau). The only problem is she’s still seeing scatter-brained Andy (Paul Rudd), currently eyeing blonde Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) like a hawk.

Meanwhile, Victor (Ken Marino), known as the stallion of the bunch, looks forward to having sex with sexually unrestrained Abby (Marisa Ryan). Incidentally, he is forced by Beth to take some of the kids to go water rafting, which is a couple of hours away from camp. Beth, too, is attracted to someone, an astrophysicist named Henry (David Hyde Pierce) who later volunteers to entertain the “indoor kids” to impress her.

Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, “Wet Hot American Summer” is riotously funny when the jokes work but extremely frustrating and annoying when they do not. The characters are supposed to be stereotypes of camp counselors in the movies of the ‘80s so the comedy must be judged on how and if they are used wisely in order to pull off a biting satire. Like reaching into a bag marbles, some are shiny and some are quite dull.

Beth is wonderful as a leader who is required to be everywhere at once. Despite her share of awkward quirks, I believed that she is functional enough to successfully manage the place. But the characters who have only sex on the brain are consistently hit-and-miss.

For instance, the dizzying dance between Coop and Katie goes absolutely nowhere. Every time they share the same frame, I wanted to see more of Andy’s amusing negligence whenever he is around other women. One of the more entertaining scenes involves a kid almost drowning in the lake because Andy is too busy shoving his tongue down a girl’s throat. Coop and Katie do have one funny scene, however, which involves trading clothes while sitting in a barn. The cheesiness of the whole thing is supposed to make us groan because movies from the past try to convince us that wearing someone’s piece of clothing is romantic. It is not romantic when the other person has lice or crabs.

I wished that McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben (Bradley Cooper), gay lovers, had more scenes together. I felt like a lot of the jokes that could have stemmed from the homosexual relationship are held back out of political correctness. The picture does not need to be sensitive especially when it is supposed to be a satire. On the contrary, it must be merciless. I had a similar reaction with the way the attraction between the crafts teacher (Molly Shannon) and one of her students (Gideon Jacobs) is handled

To my surprise, the student-teacher attraction ends up being my favorite “relationship” in the film. It is so wrong yet so hilarious. It is both a shame and a missed opportunity that the screenplay chooses to shy away from polemical topics in order to make room for comedy that is easier to digest.

“Wet Hot American Summer,” directed by David Wain, needs to recognize its strengths and play upon them. Extraneous scenes that are downright stupid and unfunny like characters running from one room to another, screaming, and knocking down breakable objects on purpose need to be excised. In scenes like that, what exactly is being satirized—the writers running out of ideas?

The Lego Movie


The Lego Movie (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Packed with impressive visuals and a witty script that consistently amuses, “The Lego Movie,” based on the screenplay and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is an animated film that many claim is equal to this decade’s “Toy Story.” Though it is an entertaining work on its own, compared to John Lasseter’s film, Lord and Miller’s work functions on a lower level.

Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) has a proclivity for categorization. Seeing different types of legos from different generations, themes, universes interacting just won’t do. So, he concocts a scheme: by using a device called the “Kragle” (short for Krazy Glue), not even the rebels collectively known as Master Builders—talented lego characters with the ability to assemble a pile of legos into weapons, mode of transport, or whatever they wish to create—will be able to redo or remove what he and his followers have constructed. However, it has been prophesied that eventually someone called the “Special” will rise and put an end to Lord Business’ evil plan. This chosen one turns out to be a very ordinary construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt).

The images exude a confident vivacity that is rare in movies—animated or otherwise. Because each lego character has a specific way of moving in one space, from one point to another, and expressing himself or herself, there is rarely a dull moment. We are given time to appreciate the details and we wonder how the filmmakers managed to make every leading and supporting character stand out. In other words, what is shown on screen is not just pretty pictures. It is refreshing when we feel like some thought and effort are actually put into the project instead of relying on vapid cuteness to appeal to the crowd. Yes, I’m looking at you, “Despicable Me 2.”

But the movie is not a completely immersive experience. Many of the jokes that are very funny when uttered or shown once or twice end up being repeated so much that they lose their impact. It tests the patience. More importantly, the romantic subplot between Emmet and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is forced and unnecessary. Why is it that so many animated movies these days feel like they must have some sort of romance? I don’t mind—as long as they work. But, really, we should ask ourselves: Do young children really care about the idea of romantic love being reciprocated? If the subplot were targeted for adults, it should have been written smarter, with a little more sweetness, maybe a bit more seduction. I did not care whether Wyldstyle and Emmet would end up together.

As a result, instead of building a steady upward momentum, the film is significantly less interesting when the two lovebirds interact. Why not simply focus on the mission? When I was a kid playing with LEGO bricks and toys, it was all about explosions, surprising twists, time running out, and rescuing captured comrades (or resurrecting them if they happened to have been killed in action). Even with my female action figures, they were not used as crushes or love interests for my male action figures. Why? Because saving the word—in this film, several universes—is more important than holding hands.

“The Lego Movie” really shines in the final quarter. The screenplay takes the characters’ universe and adds another dimension. I was surprised because at times I found myself quite moved with the parallels and differences drawn between one world and another. It was then I knew: the film is dedicated to children around the world of past, present, and future who use their toys as a conduit to their imagination.

Movie 43


Movie 43 (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

When word spreads like wildfire that a movie is terrible, sometimes it is a challenge to keep an open mind and evaluate it as is–without taking word-of-mouth into consideration. This is why “Movie 43,” composed of shorts by various writers and directors, is somewhat of a surprise. I came in expecting I would hate it, but it turns out to be just another mediocre effort. While that is not a ringing endorsement, I enjoyed four–maybe five–out of about thirteen scenarios on screen, from Naomi Watts kissing her on-screen son on the lips to an animated gay cat who is caught by Elizabeth Banks masturbating to Josh Duhamel’s shirtless pictures.

The best segment is “Victory’s Glory,” written by Rocky Russo and Jeremy Sosenko, which focuses on group of black high school basketball players in the late ’50s who are worried about facing white players on the court. Coach Jackson (Terrence Howard) gives them a pep talk, assuring them that they will win simply because they are black. His argument relies on African-American stereotypes: tall, long-limbed, athletic. The comedy works because it goes all the way in poking fun of the racism that, for better or worse, has defined America as a nation. Propelled by Rusty Cundieff’s energetic direction and Howard’s performance, the penultimate short clip is a blast.

Another section that is worth watching is called “Beezel,” written and directed by James Gunn, named after an animated cat owned by Anson (Duhamel), a man who plans to begin a new chapter with his girlfriend (Banks). I enjoyed its creative leap of using an animated cat and not a trained animal who does tricks for the camera. By doing so, the feline–in under five minutes–is given color, personality, and clear motivation. Like “Victory’s Glory,” it starts with what should be a one-note joke but upends expectations by willing to experiment without veering completely off-course.

Many of the others do not fare as well. “The Catch,” directed by Peter Farrelly, does exactly the opposite. The joke involves a woman (Kate Winslet) going on a blind date with a handsome man (Hugh Jackman) who happens to have a set of testicles hanging off his neck. It should be funny. After all, many of us are so used to watching Winslet in serious roles. When she does comedy, it is difficult to read her and I like that she always has a level of danger in her eyes. However, the writers end up relying on one joke–everybody, except for Winslet’s character, failing to notice the man’s deformity–and hoping that the scrotum is disgusting enough to hide the sheer laziness of the material.

Most repulsive, boring, and pointless is director James Duffy’s “Super Hero Speed Dating.” A suggestion for the writer: if you’re going to put Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Superman (Bobby Cannavale), Wonder Woman (Leslie Bibb) in the same clip, make sure the script is written smart and worthy of the pop culture icons you are undertaking. Otherwise, like this segment, it ends up being like a cheaply produced dress up with no script, no effort, and no laughter. It is easily the most disposable of the bunch.

Lastly, “Movie 43” is not helped by the sequence of its segments. While the overarching storyline involving a screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) and a movie executive (Greg Kinnear) is as lifeless as a rock, the middle portion is almost unbearable, for the most part a landfill of uninspired ideas that will not pass as remotely funny even in an alternate universe, still there are a few standouts that do work.

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Cops knocked on the Brennans’ door and claimed that Lara (Elizabeth Banks) was under arrest for the murder of her boss. Evidence was against her: a co-worker saw her leave the scene of the crime, the blood on her jacket matched the victim’s, and her fingerprints were on the murder weapon. But John (Russell Crowe), Lara’s husband, was convinced that she was innocent. In a span of three years, the community college professor did the best he could to get his wife out of prison. When the judge sentenced her to a life in prison, John turned to illicit means. His first move was to ask an ex-convict (Liam Neeson) how he managed to escape prison seven times. “The Next Three Days,” directed by Paul Haggis, was enjoyable for half of its running time. I liked it best when it focused on John’s increasing irrationality. There were times when I was convinced all the planning would ultimately amount to nothing because I figured by the time he was ready to execute his ambitious plans, he was already neck-deep in his obsession. When he made mistakes, the consequences were high. One particularly suspenseful scene was when he created a bump key, a key that could open most locks, and decided to test it on a prison elevator. It didn’t work and when he tried to force it out, it broke. An alarm went off a couple of seconds later. Worse, the room had a camera and it recorded every move. We were left to wonder how he was going to squiggle his way out of the complicated situation. However, the tension wasn’t consistent. If the tension isn’t consistent, the momentum doesn’t build. Worse, the movie ran for about thirty minutes too long. There were scenes between John and Nicole (Olivia Wilde), a single mother who was always at the park with her daughter, which suggested that there could be romance between the two. While Nicole was a key figure in John, Lara and their son’s (Ty Simpkins) eventual attempt to get out of the country, there wasn’t an effective moment between John and Nicole where we would be convinced that something was going to happen between them. Most of those scenes should have been edited out to make room for scenes from Detectives Quinn (Jason Beghe) and Collero’s (Aisha Hinds) point of view. Instead, we mostly saw the duo spying on John while in their car or just sitting at their desks. How were we supposed to take them seriously, to feel that they were a threat to John’s plans, if we didn’t know how their minds worked? Lastly, I wished that the picture kept some of its mysteries from us. In the end, it showed us whether or not Lara’s sentence was deserved. It didn’t matter. What mattered was we rooted for John’s plans to outsmart the system.

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.