Pitch Perfect 3 (Trish Sie, 2017)

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The latest installment in the Pitch Perfect franchise, about an all-female competitive a cappella group, is as delightfully unpretentious a comedy as one is likely to find these days coming out of Hollywood. Gone are the obnoxious and dull men who cluttered up the fun of the first two films with bland romantic subplots. Missing as well is the undercurrent of loneliness and failure that made the first film (about the unnatural drive to fit in with a group) and the second (about the power of female friendship) surprisingly emotionally resonant. Instead, this time around the young women (college students no longer) find themselves whisked away from their dull entry-level jobs and into a globe-trotting USO show, which offers a chance at international intrigue that, weirdly enough, turns a goofy comedy about singing into the best Fast and the Furious movie of 2017.

Much funnier than the previous two films, the comedy in Pitch Perfect 3 is almost entirely verbal, disregarding the gross-out jokes of prior films. Much of it is in the form of call-backs, but not simply references to earlier, funnier jokes (as in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), but in knowing, muttered asides building on our knowledge of the various characters and the films’ structures. (Missing as well is the questionable characterization of the group’s lone Hispanic member, an immigrant from Guatemala. The film’s one reference to her home country is merely a setup for one of the year’s finest puns). The Bellas classic riff-off game is turned in on itself when they challenge their fellow musicians on the tour, the bizarre rituals of competitive a cappella increasingly absurd in a real world where people can make music with things that aren’t their mouths. Anna Kendrick again leads the way, deadpanning her way through what amounts to the film’s emotional crisis: whether to take an opportunity at solo stardom or remain with the group. While Rebel Wilson finds herself in the middle of an action movie plot, with her estranged father, John Lithgow (the anti-music dad from Footloose) as antagonist. Her series of fights at the climax successfully, I kid you not, calls back to some of Michael Hui’s finest work. The music is much the same as always, though the Bellas are at least this time blissfully free of internal or musical conflict: they function as a team and through years of experience are not lacking in confidence, merely opportunity. No performance has yet matched Kendrick’s chilling “When I’m Gone” from the first film, but the finales have gotten better with every movie, and this one’s choice of song couldn’t be more, well, perfect.

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Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (Jake Szymanski, 2016)

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The third of a promised six(!) Anna Kendrick movies to hit Seattle Screens in 2016 is an exemplar of the mayfly model of modern American comedy. Based on a true story formerly adapted into a book, it’s about a pair of dim-witted brothers who are tasked with finding acceptable dates to their younger sister’s wedding. An opening montage establishes their vision of the world: slow-motion revelry, drinking, beautiful people, they see themselves as the life of every party. Home videos presented early in the film by their parents cleverly undermine this fantasy conviction. In fact, the two are loud, obnoxious, and clumsy: their antics destroy every gathering and event they attend. Thus their quest: they must find nice, respectable girls to keep them in line at the destination wedding in Hawaii. To this end, naturally enough, they post an ad on Craigslist, become internet famous, and suffer through a series of meet-and-greets with dreadful dames, a Seven Chances for beer-obsessed millennials. This is apparently as far as the book goes, while the film introduces Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza as the boys’ dates. A kind of Romy and Michelle for the Facebook era, Tatiana and Alice, quickly established to be just as dumb and hedonistic as Mike and Dave, pretend to be nice girls in order to get the free vacation. It’s an attempt at short-circuiting the book’s misogyny with a “hey women are gross and terrible too”. The rest of the film consists of episodic gag sequences at the wedding, with unimaginative and indifferently filmed slapstick adding an element of body horror to the vulgar dadaist improv one-liners that have become the dominant idiom of our comedies in the post-Apatow era.

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Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg, 2015)

maxresdefaultIf there’s an equivalent to Hong Sangsoo in contemporary American cinema, I guess it may as well be Joe Swanberg. Both directors are wildly prolific, churning out tales of middle class ennui and relationship anxiety with frightening regularity. Both work with extremely low-budgets and high-quality actors, the result of the curious mix of critical acclaim and lack of box office their films achieve. Their films have a relaxed, naturalistic vibe in pace and performance, with lengthy scenes of actors seemingly just hanging out (and, more often than not, drinking). Of course, Hong is know for his structural experimentation, each film taking the form of a new exercise in narrative unreliability, where dreams and waking life, the past and the present, and multiple versions of reality all coexist in an unstable, purely cinematic universe. Swanberg, on the other hand, seems allergic to structure, shying away from anything that could be construed as plot, what can charitably be called an experiential vision of narrative. Hong always knows precisely where to place his camera, and once there, rarely moves but for an occasional ostentatious quick-zoom that serves to reframe the image and functions  as a stand-in for the emotional impact of editing. Swanberg apparently is aware that a camera is essential for the making of a motion picture.

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