Friday, May 29, 2015

Hello Goodbye: ALOHA


Aloha is another Cameron Crowe picture about a successful man who finds his professional life in jeopardy while his inner life is restored by romance. Furthermore, it’s another of his romantic comedies spiked with office drama, like Jerry Maguire was falling in love while negotiating sports agent business and Matt Damon fell for Scarlett Johansson while she helped him with his zoo in We Bought a Zoo. There’s also Orlando Bloom’s disgraced suit meeting Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, and you could throw the reality-scrambling Vanilla Sky into the mix, with publisher Tom Cruise crushing on Penelope Cruz, if you view its twisty ending optimistically. In Aloha, a depressed defense contractor (Bradley Cooper) survives an explosive encounter in Kabul and is reassigned to Hawaii, where he’s to negotiate a new roadway through Native Hawaiian territory. His military liaison is a bright charming young woman (Emma Stone). If you already think he’ll fall in love and grow a conscience, you’ve been paying attention.

Because Crowe is a warm writer sincere in his sentimentality, he can usually make his formulaic tendencies work. (Of course, he’s even better when drifting away from formula. It’s why Say Anything… is still his best film.) What’s most peculiar about Aloha is how everything around this central romance plot is much more fascinating and effective than what is inside it. Cooper and Stone have fine chemistry playing two people who have to fall in love because they’re the stars of the movie and the script keeps pushing them together. It’s largely unconvincing, following a period of initial irritation, then intense love, then a tearful misunderstanding, and so on. What’s far more interesting is watching Cooper’s interactions with other characters in a breezy, low-key, undemanding story of a man slowly regrowing his conscience.

This growth takes root as Cooper works with his boss (Bill Murray), a tycoon trying to launch a satellite with the armed forces’ help. One gets the impression Cooper has been unscrupulous in the past. Half-articulated military industrial commentary abounds in a guardedly biting way, as the rich man’s real aims are hidden from the brass (Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin). Meanwhile, both public and private interests are all too willing to manipulate Native Hawaiians to go along with their schemes, trading them land and assistance to wave construction through sacred spaces. This thread is far more interesting than whether or not the girl will fall for the guy, especially when their relationship is so thinly sketched and taken for granted. The story is dusted with a few intimations of magical realism that never amounts to anything, and is resolved far too neatly and softly to retain its teeth, but is a more intriguing element in every way.

Better still is a subplot involving an ex-fiancé of Cooper’s, played by Rachel McAdams with glowing happiness tinged with a hint of regret. It's been a dozen years since their break up. She has two kids (Danielle Rose Russell and Jaeden Lieberher) with a military man (John Krasinski). She loves her family. And yet the appearance of her old love gets her thinking. This storyline features the best writing and acting in the film, Crowe at his best drawing relationships that play out with real compassion and unexpected developments. It’s a reflection of where the main character’s life went wrong, a cozy family unit he’s invited to spend time with, but left just on the outside of embracing. There’s too much history there, and too much pressure to get his job done. If the corruption he encounters is the seed of his moral reawakening, seeing the love he left is the fertilizer for this new growth. 

There are plenty of worthwhile pieces to Aloha, but Crowe doesn’t put them together. They play like separate elements instead of a cohesive whole, connected by character and only faint echoes of each other. It’s telling that the conclusion finds several final moments, tying up individual threads – an arrest, several reconciliations, a tearful reveal – without a feeling of overall finality. This is a film of gentle rhythms and light tropical breezes. French cinematographer Eric Gautier captures lovely island landscapes and floats between the performers with ease. Crowe writes a handful of terrific lines and finds some nice cuts from his record collection for the soundtrack. It’s certainly well intentioned. But why does it feel so slight and disconnected? The writing lacks a certain sparkle, and lingers in disjunction between disparate elements. There are strange asides – a grisly toe injury, a ghostly vision – distractingly out of place, appearing once, then never mentioned again. Hardly a disaster, it’s perhaps best to approach Aloha as a sweet, earnest jumble, likable parts in search of a whole.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Strength and Weakness: FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD


Far From the Madding Crowd is a handsome literary adaptation. The surface sheen is impeccable, with gorgeous colors – cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen provides the greenest greens and reddest reds this side of Technicolor – and convincing 19th century detail. Who would’ve thought something so sumptuous could come from Thomas Vinterberg, the Dogme 95 co-founder who has previously given us upsetting dramas of abuse shot in digital smears (The Celebration) or austere pale shudders (The Hunt)? This is a richly textured Great Illustrated Classics sort of film, David Nicholls’ script collapsing the plot details and character motivations from Thomas Hardy’s classic serialized novel, smoothing out the structure to make it fit into a two-hour package. Vinterberg moves through the adaptation, hitting the highlights of the narrative’s emotional beats while wisely keeping the focus on the scenery and cast. He’s content to condense and visualize a story better told in novel form. A bit more interpretive intent could’ve elevated the effort, but what’s here is respectably effective.

What could’ve been a glossy gist of Hardy’s plot is given some depth by the tremendously talented cast. They provide a pivot point from which the audience can turn the thin surface on its side and glimpse the complexity within. (In other words, it won’t lead students too far astray if they misguidedly attempt a book report based on this film alone.) Each performance suggests emotional currents and historical context the condensed motivations don’t enliven in and of themselves. At the center of the proceedings is Carey Mulligan, a performer seemingly built for period pieces. She’s at her best (An Education, Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby, and so on) when she can play a woman struggling against the constraints of what a society expects her to be. Here, as Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman in the mid-1800s with only an education to her name who suddenly inherits a farm, she plays a great deal of determination. She’s taking charge, running the farm, willing to ruffle feathers of grumpy men.

But she’s also dealing with a variety of potential suitors, and must decide whether a reliable farmer fallen on bad times (Matthias Schoenaerts), a well-off older fellow (Michael Sheen), or a passionate soldier (Tom Sturridge), is worthy of her time and affections. They represent three very different kinds of men, the strong silent type, the lonely graying bachelor, and the fiery slimeball. Each actor plays the type to strong effect, finding nicely individualized chemistry with Mulligan. One seems a natural pairing, and so becomes a lovely throughline of smoldering unrequited love, a fine underplayed romance and a good way to renew your crushes on the participants. The other two men present a variety of complications. The plot moves along in a structure close to the novel’s original serialized nature, delaying the inevitable for the sake of melodrama. There’s not quite enough psychological underpinning in the script to sell the developments – especially a marriage decision with only a nice swordplay-as-foreplay scene to explain – but the actors make it work anyway.

Vinterberg and crew do a fine job creating the sense of place necessary for their story. It’s a time when women were allowed some agency, and yet still beholden to a society placing propriety and prosperity above personhood. She’s forced to consider economics as much as emotions when contemplating a relationship. Marriages are mergers. Betting on the wrong man can sink her solvency. A dashing man with a good pitch can turn into a lousy husband who would literally bet the farm, leaving them in financial and marital ruin. This recognition simmers in Mulligan’s eyes as she tries to do what’s best for the farm and its employees without shortchanging her own happiness. She and the supporting cast inhabit their characters' dilemmas with appealing conviction. Because the central interpersonal currents run strong, and the production values are high, the CliffsNotes to which they’re deployed doesn't seem so bad.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

They're Here. Again. POLTERGEIST


A marvelous horror movie, 1982’s Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg Poltergeist is a terrific entertainment, and one of my favorites of its kind. It’s a sustained piece of slowly mounting haunted house tension, with warm family dynamics and small creepy details eventually erupting in a spectacular crescendo of special effects-driven freak outs. A quintessential portrait of early-80’s suburbia wrapped up in skillful metaphor about expanding without regard for unintended consequences (or evil sprits) unchecked sprawl might kick up, it’s one of those films that has a time capsule quality, but has enough evergreen genre elements to make it timeless. When it came time to remake Poltergeist, building an entirely new film on the bones of the old was out of the question. Most of Gil Kenan’s remake is a bland updating, content to riff on the original’s most famous moments, finding new and slightly worse ways of doing everything.

The result is a contemporary Poltergeist of high competence, but little interest. It only works because its inspiration is still a good movie, and following it closely is a good way to make an effective little horror picture. This one plays like a passable tween-friendly summer diversion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can almost imagine heading home for s’mores and giggles around the campfire afterwards. Kenan’s film is brighter and lighter, with 3D and CGI taking the place of practical effects, and rounder edges on the frights. It runs nearly 30 minutes shorter, adds an awfully conventional arc for a young boy from coward to hero, and by and large keeps threats and moments of wit in a lower key. It’s both a little more and a lot less than what you’d expect. Unfortunately a bunch of clown dolls isn’t significantly creepier than one. Grown-ups sneaking a sip of liquor isn’t as interesting as sharing a joint. Nor is ditching a realtor as funny as pushing a TV for a concluding punchline.

But there’s entertainment value here, and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (of Rabbit Hole) does some smart updating. Now the neighborhood isn’t new. It’s hollowed out with foreclosures. The family moves into the house because of layoffs constraining their finances. There’s a recessionary sadness hanging over the opening. How were they to know their house was built on a cemetery? Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt play the parents, in a likable pair of performances. Their kids, sullen teen (Saxon Sharbino), nervous boy (Kyle Catlett), and little girl (Kennedi Clements), are the first to discover the haunting in their house, like electric disruptions and strangely menacing trees and clown dolls. Then the threat becomes very real when the youngest daughter is snatched by malevolent spirits and held hostage in their ghostly realm.

Who they gonna call? A paranormal researcher (Jane Adams) and a TV host (Jared Harris), of course. It all builds to flashes of nightmare hallucinations, a portal to the spiritual plane opening up in a closet (and looking a lot like Insidious on the other side), and a suburban home barfing up its supernatural secrets. It’s predictable button pushing, with fluid camerawork tracing digital intrusions through an eerily normal house pulsing with malevolent creepiness. Never particularly scary, it at least isn’t a desecration. It’s just barely enjoyable enough, I suppose. Kenan manages a brisk trot through some shivery concepts, efficiently deploying fine effects while finding a good deal of charm in the actors. The kids are sufficiently freaked out, and the adults get some dry one-liners to cut the tension. It’s not a bad time at the movies, with some moderate chills over before you know it.

As a fine example of what it is, I suppose you can shake off the déjà vu and find comfort in familiar rhythms. But why settle for a competent, but lesser, vision unless you absolutely have to? It’s hard not to wish the exact same cast and crew had been put to use on a wholly original movie. Not only has this been done better before, but Kenan’s even done a better family-friendly 80’s horror throwback before, his 2006 animated debut feature Monster House, a fast, funny, creepy good time. (Rent it and the original Poltergeist and have yourself a good double feature.) Here’s hoping this big budget remake allows the filmmakers opportunity to do more interesting original work in the future.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Retro-Future City: TOMORROWLAND


Tomorrowland tells a science fiction story we don’t usually hear these days. It’s a story of hope, saying the future doesn’t have to be as bleak as we fear. After a couple decades worth of cultural output drumming the dystopian beat, not to mention the generally terrifying disasters worldwide, how wonderful it is to find a movie taking on the mission of encouragement. Director Brad Bird, who also co-wrote with Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, looks towards an imagined world in which science and progress really can change the world for the better, if only we allow it to be shared. The filmmakers give us a shiny city on a hill, chrome and glowing with Art Deco spires and Space Age retro-futurism. Jet packs and flying cars, robots, teleportation and Jules Verne-inspired rockets fill the frame, as a great big beautiful tomorrow comes to life, beckoning us to shake off cynicism and join in the fun.

This is a vision of the future straight out of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where, coincidentally enough, our story begins. A young boy (Thomas Robinson), visiting the fair with an optimistic invention in tow, follows a mysterious girl (Raffey Cassidy) through a secret doorway contraption to Tomorrowland, the futuristic city full of scientific wonder. Skipping forward to our time, we meet an irrepressibly sunny teenager (Britt Robertson) who remains excited by a potential for good in the world despite the her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) losing his job. After a great many (too many, perhaps) complications, she discovers a vintage pin. When touched, it shows her and only her a glimpse of Tomorrowland off in the distance, untouchable and irresistible. So begins the mystery powering the plot engine, as she tries to figure out what this city is and how to get there, a quest that leads her eventually a middle-aged man (George Clooney), who once was the boy who went there, and is now cagily reluctant to return.

The film trusts the very fact of mystery to pull us along, keeping characterization thin and the obfuscation thick. Late in the game, the truth about the city is revealed and the full extent of the stakes is known. The way there is a series of thick tangles of exposition punctuated with whiz-bang special effects sequences as the teen learns of secret societies, killer robots, laser guns, quantum particles, and ultimately the answers she and we desire about Tomorrowland. Bird and crew take great pleasure in concocting complicated backstory and appealing design, then hiding it, parceling it out in frustrating and tantalizing doses between cliffhangers and info dumps. There’s a cheery sincerity to this clunking structure, recalling early sci-fi stories in which an ordinary person discovers extraordinary secrets in episodic dreamlike fashion with great wonderment. It plays like an updated serial, with bigger effects, but the same potentially hokey spirit.

Although the cluttered exposition bogs things down, Bird comes to life when staging his exciting flights of sci-fi with an animator’s flair for visual timing. Would you expect any less from the director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol? Tomorrowland isn’t as fluid an experience. Though the actors mostly sell the sloppy connective tissue, it could've used more showing, less telling, and telling, and telling. But then a toy store is suddenly the stage for a martial arts battle, or a farmhouse bursts forth with high-tech booby traps. And I won’t even begin to spoil what happens to a famous European landmark, but it’s like something out of an eye-catching old pulp magazine cover. It’s a film full of images of wide-eyed speculative goofiness, and completely committed to meeting them on that level. The film’s design is charming, and photographed in cheerfully luminous ways. Who cares if the characters are vaguely defined and the world’s a jumble? Look at this thing go!

Bird approaches the concept with evident delight in conjuring, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, these bright images and gleaming theme park (it is named for a section in Disney parks, after all) spectacle. But there’s also a sincerity of purpose and earnestness of tone as it moralizes about the power in the stories we tell ourselves about our future. It asks us not to accept dystopia as our only option, but to realize it’s never too late to change the world for the better. It may be given a cornball hard sell here, with a big speech at the end laying it on thick. But, boy, is it an honest sentiment, too. What we learn about Tomorrowland eventually sets a selfish figure intent on keeping progress to himself against those who’d rather open the possibilities to anyone willing to pitch in. Our heroes discover that even a perfect, gleaming city can’t survive without those willing to work at make things better for everyone.

It’s ultimately another film with world-ending stakes, but Robertson and Clooney, two utterly charming performers who work well together and steer the film lightly, embody a more humanist ideal. What good is a secret world for special smarties if you can’t invite people in? Why accept a bad outcome for humanity when you can work to change it? The message  and the worldbuilding – gets muddled in the telling, but Tomorrowland asks us to reach for the best of humanity instead of tolerating the worst. If our imagination dies, so do we. Accepting dystopia is easy and cynical. Making utopia requires talent, cooperation, creative thinking, and hope. We’re in this together, so we might as well imagine ourselves a nice, fun, shiny future where anything is possible. In its own imperfect, heartfelt way, Tomorrowland wants us leaving the theater thinking a little brighter.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Searchers: SLOW WEST


Slow West is a smart synthesis of the mournful revisionist Western and the lightly appealing oater. In other words, it has a somber recognition of the Wild West’s brutish, senseless violence and pernicious prejudices, and yet retains the lean, bright pleasures of a simpler entertainment. This mixture has been attempted a few times recently – the Coens’ brilliant True Grit and Verbinski’s underrated The Lone Ranger, for two fresh examples. But we’re not exactly swimming in high quality (or any) Westerns these days, and writer-director John Maclean, a musician making his feature filmmaking debut, gives us a satisfying one. He stakes out a nice leisurely pace, trotting slowly westward towards an inevitable shootout, meeting a batch of eccentric characters and dryly evocative detail along the way.

We meet a pale youth (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling alone through Colorado territory in the late 19th century, searching for his love (Caren Pistorius), a young woman who left their home country to start a new life in America. The young man runs into a wandering stranger (Michael Fassbender), a far more capable cowboy who luckily agrees to ride along and help him to his destination. They fall into a comfortable relationship, suspicious but with easy rapport. The boy explains, “My girl and her father fled from Scotland.” “Take a hint, kid,” is the older man’s terse reply. It’s a nice crisp quip, but dark undertones creep into their dynamic as we soon learn what the boy doesn’t. The girl and her father are wanted dead or alive, and the helpful stranger is a bounty hunter being led to his prey.

A sure-footed and confident film, narrative and character are pared down to bare essentials. We learn a little about these two men, but not much. We’re simply along for the ride, a short, melancholy little Western with clear blue skies and blindingly bright sun, moving towards certain tragic ending for someone. Indeed, when the violence comes it’s swift and scary, sorrowful with only the faintest glimmer of hope. (There’s even literal salt poured in the wound.) But the journey there is one of constant danger. There are robbers, rival bounty hunters, con men, and Natives. Death hangs heavy over the proceedings, if only for its constant presence in the minds of anyone heading their way. What’s west? “Dreams and toil,” one man says. Kids are orphaned. A campsite floods. A skeleton lies crushed underneath a fallen tree. A German writer (Andrew Robertt) laments Native Americans’ deaths. “One day…this will be a long time ago,” he says.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee develop a close relationship, seemingly forged out of nothing more than a need for human connection, two lonely travelers taking some comfort in knowing that at least they’re not as bad as others they meet along their slow journey. There’s a sniveling bounty hunter on their trail (played with reliably great villainy by Ben Mendelsohn), eager to pull up next to the campfire and share some absinthe and a cigar, but just as likely to hang back on the edge of the horizon. He’s sizing them up, ready to pounce once the target is in sight. The foreseeable conflict between our two leads once they reach their destination stretches out as distant suspense – disjunction between the men emphasized by split diopter effects – in favor of the toils and dangers both man and nature present along the way.

Maclean, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s steady camera, finds gorgeous natural sights – New Zealand standing in quite nicely for the American west – as our characters’ paths converge on the climactic endpoint. It’s a contemplative little picture, and yet happy to provide genre pleasures, galloping horses, gun-loading procedures, wanted signs, the welcome sight of a lone building in the center of a vast stretch of natural beauty, and the sudden terror as shots ring out. It’s all as comforting as it is foreboding, as striking as it is familiar. Maclean’s terse script contains lines like woodcarvings out of thick pulp, and draws conclusions ripe and bloody, predictable and sad. We may not get a lot of Westerns these days, but it’s always nice to see another good one.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

We Don't Need Another Hero: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD


There are moments in Mad Max: Fury Road where I sat gaping at the screen in exhilaration and awe, convinced this film is the car chase masterpiece to which all of cinema has built. That's heat-of-the-moment hyperbole, but it sure is indicative of how enveloping and sustained this exhilarating action film is. I thought back to the jaw-dropping truck chase climax in writer-director George Miller’s first Mad Max sequel, 1982’s The Road Warrior, and how blown away I was as a hurtling pyrotechnic stunt display neared its twentieth minute. Fury Road pushes past its fortieth minute, then its ninetieth, racing towards two hours with no signs of taking its foot off the pedal. People careen between tanker trucks, zoom souped-up jalopies and armored muscle cars protruding jagged metal and long, pendulous spears as guns fire, knives jab, bombs explode into the desert, and vehicles crash and flip. Every rest is simply a suspenseful pause before the chased spy their pursuers roaring over the horizon.

Miller returns to the sand-swept post-apocalyptic outback he left behind in 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, summoning up every ounce of his prodigious imagination, filmmaking prowess, attention to fantastical detail, and moral heft to create the most soulful and exciting action film in ages. The Mad Max films’ worldbuilding works wonders by staying small and specific, with stakes tactile and personal. We follow the taciturn rover Max into unique and fascinating corners of the ruined world each time out. Here we discover yet another place where water and gas are currency, and where human life has been organized in convincingly cruel and cracked ways. Max (Tom Hardy, flawlessly taking over for Mel Gibson), suffering PTSD from his earlier exploits, finds himself captured by War Boys and held prisoner in their automotive death cult in a cavernous oasis they call The Citadel.

A persuasive and disturbing dystopian society fully thought-through, The Citadel is ruled by an evil warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who breathes with a tooth-studded oxygen mask and has his putrid body sealed in plastic armor. He controls the water, and therefore his subjects, men covered in tumors and scars willing to die for a drink and promise of an automotive Valhalla afterlife. The women are treated as property, good for breeding with the Immortan and providing milk. These enslaved young women (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) sneak off with a rare free female, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in her tanker. The women flee across the desert, Joe’s vehicular army close behind. One driver (Nicholas Hoult) straps Max to the front of his car, muzzled and dripping blood as he’s reluctantly pulled into this conflict.

Miller, writing with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, has concocted a story perfect for a feature-length chase, lean and expressive. It’s a tour de force of perpetual motion, briskly characterizing its participants through actions while organizing witty, complicated fast-paced visual spectacle. Always on the move, but never exhausting, the film varies its speed in natural, and suspenseful, ways. Filming real cars barreling across a real desert, Miller finds terrific weight in every movement, a sense that violence matters. This makes the most visceral of crashes and smashes, and every moment with people crawling around and between vehicles, feel impactful and dangerous. Cinematographer John Seale’s wonderfully textured images capture the brilliant stunt work (comparison to Buster Keaton’s The General seems apt), sweeping across vast spaces and squeezing into tight corners. Editor Jason Ballantine elegantly whips up suspense and finds poetry in motion amidst the growling engines, grisly gore, saturated colors, and CGI enhancements. As new combatants join the chase, the momentum keeps things hurtling along with nerve-wracking, teeth-rattling, white-knuckle thrills.

The visual and moral clarity of Fury Road is impressive. We know at every moment what dangers confront our characters, drawn in broad strokes and colored in with Miller’s creative specificity. Wild leather outfits, bright streaks of makeup and motor oil, and steam-punk prosthetics are the ensemble’s costumes. Within them are fiercely primal performances. Theron’s the best, tearing through the scenery as an avenging warrior, bold, bald, smart, wielding a burning glare and artificial limb with deadly serious intent. The villains are grotesque men, sickly dripping disease and rot in impressively gross makeup effects. Their fleeing victims are angelic innocents wrapped in flowing white cloths (though never mere damsels in distress). And then there’s Max, in his cool jacket and affect, perhaps the last noble man left on Earth. He’s principled and troubled, is reluctant to fight, always wanting to save his own skin, and yet unable to ignore the danger faced by those around him. The moral stakes of all this turmoil is agonizingly clear.

It’s this strong, simple core that makes the action of Mad Max: Fury Road so particularly intense. Not only does Miller stage spectacular crashes and explosions, communicating an invigorating sense of pain and drive, but he quickly makes it matter. I was drawn into the fascinating world he created, cared deeply about the characters in peril and what becomes tenderly moving about their relationships. The movie charges forward, asking an audience to lean in and catch up. How exciting to enter a fully drawn world with an immediately gripping scenario of emotional and thematic weight, and find absorbing chaos. This is popcorn filmmaking at the highest level, a master filmmaker proving relentless noise and fury can be artfully shaped, and carry a genuine, meaningful wallop. Miller considers his characters' choices as carefully as he choreographs their cars, in both cases as exhilarating for what they do as how they arrive there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sing It On Again: PITCH PERFECT 2


Pitch Perfect 2 has a winning sense of pleasant reunion. The sequel to the surprise hit a capella college comedy from a few years ago carries with it a delight to be back. Surely no one expected that sloppy but likable little comedy to do well enough to support a follow up, but here we are. It returns to the world of the Barton Bellas, an all-female a capella group made up of unlikely misfits last seen winning the national title. Picking up three years later, Becca (Anna Kendrick), Chloe (Brittany Snow), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), and the rest (Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Alexis Knapp, Chrissie Fit) are on the verge of graduating, but find their final year off to a bad start with an embarrassing performance in which one of their members accidentally moons the Obamas. This gets them kicked out of the world of a capella, setting up another underdog scenario to be overcome by winning the World Championship to get reinstated. Once again, the young women must learn to work together and create a great routine, all the while dealing with their individual eccentricities.

Luckily, screenwriter Kay Cannon isn’t content to repeat the structure of the first movie. In fact, she seems to realize generic let’s-put-on-a-show and campus comedy plotlines were holding the otherwise amiable predecessor back. She knows for an encore the audience just wants to hang out with likable performers doing their shtick in between good music. The result is a movie that’s looser, longer, sillier, with more music and funnier lines. It’s the rare comedy sequel that’s actually an across-the-board improvement instead of a safe repeat of a known formula. The need to win the big championship is a climactic goal, but everything leading up to it is simply excuses for pleasant banter, funny supporting roles, silly gags, cameos, and fun musical numbers, featuring everything from Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus to Sir Mix-a-Lot and Kris Kross.

Making her directorial debut, Elizabeth Banks (who also, with John Michael Higgins, returns as a color commentator) moves the proceedings with a good pace and fine eye for smooth pop filmmaking. It’s episodic, with plenty of digressions including romances (Skylar Astin and Adam DeVine make appearances) and professional concerns (Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a record producer). But it never drags as the bright, bouncy, colorful, and consistently amusing movie zips along on slick competence providing good-natured, high-spirited, undemanding entertainment. We see a series of misadventures, from clashes with the terrifyingly perfect German group Das Sound Machine to a new freshman recruit (Hailee Steinfeld) struggling to fit in, and an underground a capella battle held in a rich fan’s basement (featuring everyone from Reggie Watts to John Hodgman to a few Green Bay Packers).

It could be scattered, but there’s a nice emotional throughline involving female friendships and the group’s importance to its members that gets a heartwarming payoff in their final performance. Along the way, Banks and her cast find funny bits of business in every scene. Whether we’re with Snoop Dogg recording a Christmas album or camping in the woods on a team-building exercise, it’s enjoyable enough to be worth the detour. It’s only a matter of time before Wilson crashes in with a loopy one-liner, Kendrick gets a flustered retort, or one of the supporting players pipes in with a goofy barb. The movie plays to everyone’s strength in that way, before drawing all the voices together in beautiful harmony for ensemble numbers that really sing. They work well together, and as a result it’s fun to be around them no matter where the plot takes them. With a favorable hit-to-miss joke ratio, this is a big crowd-pleasing comedy that’s essentially nice and easy to like.
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