The Repeat vs. The Repeater, or Notes vs. Guns: The Mild Pleasures of “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Slow West”

I am a little behind on some of my movie reviewing, but thought I would nevertheless post a short two-fer. Enjoy.

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)

Mediocrity notwithstanding, Pitch Perfect 2 hits a sweet feminist note, though it is not nearly as fun or fresh as its predecessor (released in 2012). Written by Kay Canon (who also wrote the first one) and directed by the actress Elizabeth Banks (making her feature-helmer debut), who also returns in her role as one of the silly competition announcers, the movie brings back the original cast (more or less), with Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as a welcome new addition. We get more singing (both formal concerts and riff-offs) and more intercollegiate drama, as well as some (thin) new plot lines about life after college. It’s the same movie as before, only not as good. True, we do meet a very funny new nemesis group – the German “Das Sound Machine” – but that’s not enough to make the movie sparkle. Somehow, Pitch Perfect 2 beat Mad Max: Fury Road on their shared opening weekend, even though the latter film was better made and a more exciting cinematic experience (and had equally strong feminist credentials, whatever that means), and both were sequels (of a sort, in the case of Mad Max). I don’t know why, but I can say that if you liked the first Pitch Perfect (which I did), you’ll probably find some things to like in the second one. Take your pick of the long-ago published reviews to see where you might stand.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm reaction, what I love is the way in which the movie is all about the female bonding. Yes, there are a couple of male-female romances within (as well as an unfortunate one-joke lesbian), but the spine of the plot is how the central female a cappella group – the Barden Bellas – are always there for each other, no matter what. At the end of the film, we are treated to a delightful (at last, since so many of the musical numbers disappoint!) final competitive performance where generations of Bellas gather around the current group in support. It reminded of the wonderful ethos, of women standing by women, that is at the heart of the great “Hammond Song,” by The Roches – or, even more so, of the way that song is performed by the Yale Senior all-women a cappella group Whim ‘n Rhythm, which uses it to call up past generations of their membership at their concerts. No matter what else falls flat (like the jokes by the Guatemalan character about her tragic upbringing), the finale is powerful. So there’s that.

Slow West

Slow West (John MacLean, 2015)

When Slow West played at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic AwardThe Hollywood Reporter published a review calling the film “a pitch-perfect debut from musician-turned-filmmaker John Maclean.” How fitting, then, that I should follow Pitch Perfect 2 with my thoughts on this film, still playing at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre. And though I must disagree with both Sundance and The Hollywood Reporter (and most critics) about the movie’s perfection, I still find Slow West to be a fascinating meditation on violence, civilization and the western genre, itself.

Slow West takes place in 1870, and centers on a young man from Scotland, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In), who has come to America in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius, “Offspring“). We don’t find out until later why she left their homeland, though we catch glimpses of her in flashbacks. When we first meet Ray, he is wandering, alone on horseback, through a desolate landscape of burning Native-American dwellings. A male voice, which we will very soon connect to a bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave) narrates this stark opening, before the man, himself, shows up and shoots a would-be hold-up artist in the head, thereby effectively taking young Jay under his wing. The violence does not end here: we’re only just getting started. And yet, it’s a quiet film, with almost no non-diegetic sounds (differentiating itself from its bleak revisionist cousin of the 1990s, Dead Man, in which the music of Neil Young blared throughout). When guns are fired and blood spilled, there’s usually very little warning. Though the film, reflecting both its title and the time in which it’s set, meanders, there is nothing slow about the eruptions of brutality. This is how the so-called civilized world tames the wilderness, through mayhem and turbulence.

So why is it less than perfect? Well, it all feels so schematic: no one speaks like a real human being, and very few characters are allowed enough depth to be meaningful. The film is beautifully photographed by Robbie Ryan (Philomena), yet the people who inhabit the landscape feel like constructs. When we briefly meet a German writer named Werner (perhaps a reference to the great Herzog?), he utters the memorable line, “In a short time, this will all be a long time ago.” That’s a brilliant statement, but it merely serves to underline the fundamental artificiality of the set-up, since no one really talks like that (well, except for Werner Herzog). Still, there are a lot of great concepts up on the screen, and Fassbender is always a pleasure to watch. The equally mesmerizing Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline“), shows up for a few all-too-brief scenes, too. See it for them, and for the cinematography, and for the idea of the movie. It may not be great cinema, but it’s compelling enough.

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