Wadjda is the first feature from award-winning director Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman from Saudi Arabia to direct a feature-length film. It follows the story of a Saudi girl who enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition because she wants to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle. However, this is a country where bicycle riding is frowned upon for girls. Since premiering last year at the Venice Film Festival, Wadjda has been winning awards at film festivals all over the world, including the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Although Wadjda is the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it won’t be playing there any time soon. Movie theaters are banned in the country.
Pitch Perfect is a rollicking Glee-style comedy written by 30 Rock writer-producer Kay Cannon. Its addictive mixes and melodious cast are sure to draw high notes of laughter from audiences. Anna Kendrick (What to Expect When You’re Expecting, 50/50) plays Beca, a natural loner who dreams of becoming a professional DJ. Though it’s her freshman year, she has no interest in being in college, so she sulks around campus wearing dark eyeliner until her professor father pressures her to take part in university life. To appease him, Beca joins the Barden Bellas, an all-female competitive a cappella group that has been humiliated in the previous year’s finals. The group has lost most of its members and is desperately seeking newbies. Fortunately for the Bellas, no one can say no to a naked Brittany Snow (Hairspray).
The Bellas’ leader, a type-A control freak named Aubrey (Anna Camp), is reluctant to accept Beca because she finds the wannabe DJ a bit too “alternative” (whatever that’s supposed to mean twenty years after 1992) for the group’s prim demeanor. Still, Aubrey has little choice but to accept any girls who will audition, so she ends up with a motley collection that includes a sex addict (played by the gorgeous Alexis Knapp), a not-so-in-the-closet lesbian, a girl who speaks so quietly that no one can hear her (but who tends to mouth things like, “I ate my twin in the womb”), and Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, “the best singer in Tazmania with teeth.”
As part of this ensemble, Beca may excel at mixing, but her character seems a bit off-key. Because Beca doesn’t have much personality other than being anti, Kendrick isn’t given enough of a chance to stand out as a comedian. Instead, the real rock star of this film is Rebel Wilson. We get to see more of her here than in Bridesmaids or Bachelorette, and it’s hardly possible to overstate her absolute brilliance as she delivers some of the best lines in the film, of which the trailer highlights only a few. Whether she’s purring a line under her breath or belting out a solo, she steals every scene she’s in.
Honorable mentions go to John Michael Higgins (Bad Teacher) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, People Like Us) as the anything-goes competition announcers. Their humor comes from their brutal and hilarious honesty, as when one group performs using sock puppets and finds itself introduced as “The Sockappellas, proving that it doesn’t get better for everyone after high school.” The thing that makes this film so much fun (other than its diverse, aberrant characters) is how perfectly it locates the comedy in the seriousness with which these contests are taken. As Banks’s character explains, in the world of a cappella, “A mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life — and affect your children.”
Also noteworthy is Bumper (Adam DeVine), the wonderfully slimy lead singer of the Treble Makers, a group of guys who are geeks in real life until they get on the stage, where they’re the bosses of collegiate a cappella. Even in his few scenes, DeVine (Workaholics) creates one of the film’s most memorable characters. He’s kind of like a mini Jack Black.
One can only hope and pray for a sequel featuring Wilson and DeVine as the leads. What a sophomore year that would be.
Final Verdict: Overall, Pitch Perfect is a riotous comedy with a sharp script, perfect casting and courageously-mixed music. It’s every bit as hilarious as the world of collegiate a cappella competitions should be.
In Brave, Pixar introduces audiences to a movie that will have fans wishing there were an Oscar for Best Animated Hair.
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess with pluck, a daredevil outdoorswoman who is more interested in combing the wide, gorgeous expanse of the ancient Scottish highlands than staying at home and learning to follow the more ladylike pursuits of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). And who could blame her? The land that Pixar has created is stunningly beautiful and perfect for exploration. Drawn in dark blues and greens, the forest is veiled in fog and dotted with craggy waterfalls and glimmering hints of magic.
With her untamed red hair, Merida stands out against this misty backdrop like a flame. Her father is King Fergus (Billy Connolly), a warrior who must protect his kingdom from the evil, possessed Mor’Du, a giant bear who has an untold history of his own. Merida’s little brothers — the triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish — bop around the castle like red rubber balls, stealing sweets from the cook and contributing mightily to the 100-minute smorgasbord of cuteness that defines this film.
It is Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, who interrupts this rapturous life with talk of marriage. In an age-old custom, a tournament is held in which the first-born son of each clan competes for the hand of the king’s daughter. Here, however, each of the three hilariously-defined suitors is — shall we say, more “realistic” — than Disney princes of the past. There is Young MacIntosh, the handsome show-off with fine, flowing locks and an unsavory temper. Next is Wee Dingwall, a bit of a dolt, and seemingly just as disinterested in romance as is Merida. The last and most delightful of the three is the tubby Lord MacGuffin, who speaks a Scottish dialect that no one can understand.
But Merida is not the type of girl to lounge around the hearth singing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” To Merida, her mother’s queenly life seems dull and cold. When the headstrong princess uses her superior archery skills to shoot for her own hand, her action threatens the kingdom itself, not to mention causing a rift between mother and daughter. The resulting fight between Merida and Elinor is one of the most intense moments of the film.
Yet one of the most refreshing facets of this tale is that Queen Elinor is no stodgy, villainous caricature. She has purpose and nuances of her own. Her reasons for training her daughter in the fine art of diplomacy are deadly serious. Haunted by a legend of a time long ago when the four clans were at war, Elinor worries for the stability of her realm. Only King Fergus’ rule and a system of tradition have kept the kingdom in a precarious peace. As she reminds her daughter, they live in a world of alliances, and one false step could cause utter collapse. Elinor is the undisturbed force of order and sanity in this wild world — a serene and responsible counter to Merida’s expressive smartass.
When Merida goes looking for a way to “change her fate” by following a trail of ghostly will-o’-the-wisps through the darkened glen, the result is catastrophic. It is this search for a change in her fate that ends up showing Merida how very entwined one person’s fate is to that of another. Both she and her mother have lessons to learn.
Although Merida and Elinor are fighting about the marriage, their true conflict is a deeper one between themselves – a conflict of pride. Instead of a typical fairy tale romance, Brave is really a love story between mother and daughter and a look at how the individual negotiates community responsibility. While so many films that provide role models for girls portray romance as the be-all and end-all of life, Bravegives viewers an exhilarating exploration of other relationships and other aspects of existence.
Final Verdict: Though Brave would seem to celebrate individualism, it does not do so blindly. Its lessons are that no person’s fate is uncoupled from that of her community, and that altering one’s place in a delicate system involves a calm head, careful negotiation, and a cellar full of ale.
The film stars Miller (Superbad, 50/50) as the responsible Lauren, who is forced by tough times to move in with wild-child Katie, played by Ari Graynor (The Sitter, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard) looks adorable as always as their mutual friend, Jesse. The trailer presents Katie and Lauren as a sort of modern-day odd couple, with Katie dancing around a stripper pole in the living room while the sedate Lauren wonders what she’s gotten herself into. When Lauren learns that Katie is running a phone-sex line out of her bedroom, she offers to help her organize the business in return for a part of the profits.
From the trailer, this film looks hilariously good-humored, with a happy plot that doesn’t take the economic angst too seriously. I’m especially excited to see more of Ari Graynor, who exudes a fun, bouncy energy. Lauren Miller was married last year to Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet), whose cameo at the end of the trailer is just perfect.
For a Good Time, Call will have a limited release on August 31st and larger, national U.S. release on September 7th.
Take a look at this interesting article on Wired.com today about The Hunger Games and female “superheros” in Hollywood films. I haven’t read the books, but I’m going to see the film tomorrow. Here’s hoping that Katniss is as empowering as they say she is!
Granted, the rebellious-teenager story has been done, but Girl in Progress has something no other coming-of-age tale has: Eva Mendes.
The film stars Mendes as Grace, a single mother struggling to pay the bills, and newcomer Cierra Ramirez (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody) as Ansiedad, her daughter. In what may be her first role as something other than a sexy siren, Mendes seems a natural fit for the role of a single mom who has never grown up. Meanwhile, apparently Ansiedad is adapting to adolescence in the way we all do: by decapitating her teddy bears and adopting a hip, new hairstyle. (I imagine that if your mom looks like Eva Mendes, you’re bound to harbor some teen angst.) When Ansiedad is on the verge of making some bad decisions, her mother is too involved in her affair with a married man to notice. Thus, it would seem that the film’s title applies equally to both mother and daughter.
In addition to Mendes and Ramirez, the trailer offers some fresh dialogue, for which we may credit screenwriter Hiram Martinez. His screenplay Ansiedad, on which Girl in Progress is presumably based, was one of eleven finalists for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
As Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Borrower Arrietty), this Studio Ghibli feature became Japan’s highest-grossing film of 2010, and now Disney is releasing it in the United States as The Secret World of Arrietty. Written by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo) and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Gary Rydstrom, the film is based on The Borrowers, a popular children’s novel by Mary Norton. The Clocks are a family of miniature people who live secretly under the floorboards of regular homes. Arrietty and her family survive by “borrowing” small household items that the home’s larger residents wouldn’t miss. When Arriety is spotted by a curious human boy, her family is put in danger. Part of the visual pleasure of the trailer is seeing how Arrietty navigates the giant human world, making her own special use of pins and sugar cubes.
This version is dubbed in English and stars Bridgit Mendler (Wizards of Waverly Place, Good Luck Charlie) as the voice of Arrietty. Americans may be a bit disappointed that they won’t be hearing Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones), who played Arrietty in the UK version. On the other hand, the film is bound to be invigorated by real-life spouses Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation, Mean Girls, Saturday Night Live) and Will Arnett (Up All Night, Arrested Development), who voice Arrietty’s parents. The human boy who befriends tiny Arrietty is voiced by David Henrie (Wizards of Waverly Place, How I Met Your Mother). Sho in the Japanese version, he is now named Shawn. Comedic legend Carol Burnett (The Carol Burnett Show, Horton Hears a Who, Annie) will undoubtedly shine as the voice of Hara, a prying housekeeper who kidnaps Arrietty’s mother.
Here’s hoping that along with Brave and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, The Secret World of Arrietty will make 2012 a better year for animated features. With this version, American audiences can sit back and enjoy the film’s hand-drawn animation instead of having to read subtitles. Of course, sometimes that’s part of the fun. English-speaking viewers at the Rome Film Festival were reportedly amused by the fact that subtitles for The Borrower Arrietty mistranslated the phrase “human beings” into “human beans.”