MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Pitch Perfect; Total Recall; Tell No One


PITCH PERFECT (Two Disc Combo Pack: DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Copy) (Two and a Half  Stars)

U.S.: Jason Moore, 2012 (Universal)

In the mood for a teen-oriented movie musical comedy about college boys and girls’ A cappella groups? Want to watch (and hear) a bunch of enthusiastic unaccompanied singers slugging it out in the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), with unaccompanied (sort of)  renditions of songs like Whip It, Turn the Beat Around, Like a Virgin, and We Came to Smash in a Black Tuxedo?

Want to watch (and hear) a movie where star Anna Kendrick does a Psycho shower scene parody, while playing a tattooed, ear-pierced  mash-up Freshman queen named Beca who joins  a failing A cappella group called the Bellas and is pursued by a persistent Freshman boy singer called Jesse (Skylar Astin) — a sweetheart of a guy who thinks the world’s most moving movie (and one of the five best-scored) is The Breakfast Club?  Have you been waiting around and hoping for something like this? I didn’t think so. Serious little devil, aren’t you?

Well, as Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy might say, never  judge a book or a movie (or a song) by its cover, even if  the book is a boxed encyclopedia. Defying all seemingly reasonable expectations, Pitch Perfect (whose title is one of the most overused descriptions in movie criticism) turns out to be a cute, smart, funny show, well-directed (by Jason Moore), well-acted (by Kendrick, Wilson and a cast of dozens), well-sung (there are lots of songs and they’re usually fun) and (this is a shock) well-written. Pitch Perfect is full of clichés of course. But it also has a lot of surprisingly sharp wisecracks and snappy dialogue — courtesy of 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, and maybe of actresses like Wilson, riffing.

If you skip Pitch Perfect — and it sometimes deserves to be skipped — you‘ll be missing all the bouncy A cappella scenes, which even survive a projectile vomit gag or two. And you’ll miss the scene with Toni Basil‘s Mickey and Madonna‘s Like a Virgin, and all of Wilson’s one-liners, including the immortal zinger  where Fat Amy says she invented her own nickname herself  so “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” You’ll miss Fat Amy herself, one of raunchiest, most amusing characters in any recent movie, played by an actress who sometimes has three times more presence than anyone else on screen.

You‘ll miss the smart-ass contest commentary delivered (to what and to whom?) by chatty announcers John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also co-produced the movie). And you‘ll miss the scene — a heart render really — where Anna Kendrick’s character Beca watches Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club pumping his fist to “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and she can’t  hold back the tears. Finally, you’ll miss all the aca-jokes, where Amy and others take the prefix “aca” (from A cappella) and stick it into every other word or phrase they can — like “aca-mazing” and “aca-stonishing” and “aca-mon, give me a break.“

In short, you’ll miss the spiffiest teen movie of its kind since, I don’t know, maybe Step Up — which wasn’t all that nifty. Well, maybe  The Breakfast Club, if it had A capella scenes.

The movie is based not on what you’d expect — a few nights’ worth of old DVDs  — but on the non-fiction book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory,” by Mickey Rapkin, which gives the actual lowdown on these contests. So even though this show is corny and predictable, it speaks (and sings) with some authority, even when the bozos played by Higgins and Banks are doing the aca-mentary.

The story is simple and unoriginal and could have been really bad. Cool little Beca (played very coolly by Kendrick) wants to go away to college. But her professor dad, Dr. Mitchell (John Benjamin Hickey), wants her to go to his school, Barden, for at least a year, and he wants her to participate in Barden school activities (or ac-activities), which will eventually include the Bellas. Said Bellas, led by tight ac-assed boss Bella Aubrey (Anna Camp) and fervent Chloe (Brittany Snow)  are trying to recover from a disgraceful ac-ICCA competition, which was climaxed by  that projectile-vomiting,  and they’re recruiting new talent, which includes both Beca and Fat Amy.

There’s also a nasty, over-competitive boys group called The Treblemakers,  led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam Devine), but also including Breakfast Club lover Jesse. The girls sing and have spats. The bad boys sing and sneer. The girls find themselves. The contest is on. In a stunning surprise, the ICCA competition is won by…..


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” (No, just kidding.)


Well, we don’t go to these kinds of movies for the stories, do we? Anyway, Pitch Perfect made me laugh and I liked Kendrick (again) and I liked the music, and that, after all,  has been the fundamental appeal of most teen-oriented movie musicals since Babes in Arms — except that nobody here is as good as Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney. (That‘s okay: Nobody in Babes in Arms, not even Rooney, is funnier than Rebel Wilson.)

Jason Moore, who directed Broadway’s Avenue Q, keeps things zipping along. Writer Cannon (or should say writer Aca-Cannon) keeps the badinage popping. The choreography, by (no comment) Aakomon “A.J.“ Jones, is nifty.

Anyway, the show is entertaining. The cast is delightful, a lot of the time. Anna Kendrick…well, she’s a sugarplum, tattooed or not, in or out of the shower. As for Rebel Wilson, she‘s a sugar-cantaloupe, an encyclopedia of wit and wildness. This woman deserves an Aca-cademy Award for sass.  The other actresses are good, and Kendrick is terrific. But Wilson as Fat Amy: She’s Bitch Perfect.

Extras: Commentary by Jason Moore and producers Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman and David Brooks; Featurettes; Deleted and extended scenes; My Scenes; “Starships” music video. 


TOTAL RECALL (Also Two Disc Blu-ray Combo) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Len Wiseman, 2010 (Sony)


Total Recall is a remake, or recycling, or rehash, of the 1990 Paul VerhoevenArnold SchwarzeneggerSharon Stone sci-fi actioner  of the same title about a company that creates false memories, which in turn was based (not that faithfully) on one of Philip K. Dick’s stories, the impudently titled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (a riff on the title of a Jerome Weidman novel).  It’s  a typical Dick idea. On a future Earth, a company called Rekall implants false memories in the mind of the central character, Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger), who discovers that the world he knows and the life he leads may be a phonies and illusions. An intriguing set-up. But good Dick ideas have been wasted or buried under shtick and gloss before and that’s often t case here.

When Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger made the first Total Recall back in 1990, scripters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (who also co-wrote Alien) added to Dick’s story an interplanetary war with Mars.  The new movie, directed at full throttle by Len Wiseman and designed smashingly by Patrick Tatopoulos, junks Mars and replaces it with a revolution on Earth. (Or is it?)

But (unhappily) it doesn’t return more of the inventive story and rivetingly loony plot twists of Dick‘s bad-dreamy original. Instead, Wiseman and scenarists Kurt Wimmer (of the preposterous Law Abiding Citizen) and Mark Bomback (of the exciting Unstoppable) dream up a future Earth divided into a domain of the Haves (The United Federation of Britain, on the isle of the old Great Britain) and of the Workers (The Colony, where Australia used to be). These two areas are connected by an immense elevator tunneling through the earth, called The Fall, which, naturally becomes an arena for frequent fights and chases and all-out mayhem.

In fact, fights and chases and all-out mayhem — beginning with a bad Quaid dream in which he and heroine Melina are pursued by obvious bad guys, are what this movie is all about. It‘s basically a slam-banger, with minimal characterization and so-so dialogue, but with almost non-stop action and carnage. It also has a good cast underused: Colin Farrell in the Schwarzenegger role of Doug Quaid, Kate Beckinsale in the Sharon Stone role of Doug‘s suddenly mean wife Lori — plus Jessica Biel as rebel gal Melina, Bryan Cranston as charlatan tyrant Cohaagen, Bill Nighy as rebel leader Matthias, and Bokeem Woodbine as Harry, Doug’s affable co-worker. Or are they, really?

Now, I know the automatic answer to objections about the mediocre writing here: People don’t go to movies like Total Recall for dialogue and character; they go for the action. Only nerds who read books care about good writing. The mass audience wants kicks and carnage and sizzle and smash, even from an adaptation of a writer (like Dick) who made it into the prestigious Library of America. Right?

Well no. I don’t think that’s true, and it shouldn’t be true. In the great action and adventure and science fiction movies (like the Dick-derived Blade Runner), as much as any other kind of movies (except silent ones), audiences want, or should want, and should have, all or most of those elements, and they deserve all of them. (In a better movie year, like 1962, they’d have them all, in many of the best movies.) It seems ridiculous to spend mega-million s on a show, and not try to make it as good as possible in every area. Why cast actors this talented in a production this elaborate and expensive, and in a story with concepts and themes as provocative as Dick’s,  and then give those actors almost nothing to do but fights and chases, and an occasional breather? (At one startling moment in the new Total Recall, Farrell’s Doug tinkles a little Beethoven on a piano, and, by that time, I wish he‘d played the whole damned sonata.)

Wiseman, who directed the first two Underworld movies (with his now-wife Beckinsale), as well as Live Free and Die Hard, is a  devotee of the first Die Hard, the first Lethal Weapon and the Indiana Jones movies, so it’s easy to see why he emphasizes action so much. But if, in fact well-staged action and bloodshed is all that audiences really want, then our movies have been sadly depleted, robbed of their full power (the power of people and emotions as well as of action and machinery) and so has our whole popular culture.

You can tell part of what’s wrong here by watching the cast try to shove some meaning and emotion into their roles.  Nighy, often a splendid actor, wanders in and out here, as if he’s stumbled onto the wrong set and was trying to find his way out without too much embarrassment. Cranston seems to be rehearsing for a Saturday Night Live parody of sci-fi epics. Bokeem Woodbine may have a sitcom in mind.

Farrell takes his job seriously, and he’s certainly a better actor than Schwarzenegger was. But unfortunately he doesn’t have lines as good — an unusual kudo for a Schwarzenegger movie. (Then again, Total Recall was an unusual Schwarzenegger movie.) As for Beckinsale and Biel — which sounds like a fine soap and bath oil company —  they’re a seductive pair, even though, in this movie, they have too much fighting and chasing, and not enough seducing or femme-fataling. It’s also sometimes hard to tell them apart — except that Lori snarls a lot. Watching this latest movie stab at Philip K. Dick’s fantastic world, I knew how she felt.

Extras: Featurettes; Gag reel; Total Action; God of War game demo; Pre-visualization sequences.


Tell No One (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

France; Guillaume Canet, 2006 (Music Box Films)

A provincial French pediatrician named Beck (Francois Cluzet) — still tormented by the slaying years earlier, of his lovely wife (Marie-Josee Croze) — suddenly begins receiving emails that seem to be coming from the murdered woman. When Beck investigates, questioning or re-contacting the police (Francois Berleand), her father (Andre Dussolier), her friends and others involved (Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort), he increasingly discovers a dark morass of guilt, lies, scandal and cover-up beneath the surface of the long-ago crime. And he also finds himself the target of a reopened police investigation — fleeing the law and some truly mean killers, while he desperately tries to uncover the truth.

A major Cesar (French Oscar) winner, for Best Actor and Director, this stellar adaptation of Harlan Coben’s American suspense novel was one of the big foreign language art house hits of 2008, a crisply fast, suspenseful and penetrating psychological mystery/shocker, with a terrific near-all star cast of French acting luminaries — including that sublime English expatriate Kristin Scott Thomas. (Director-co-writer Guillaume Canet, himself a star French character actor, plays one of the nastier suspects.)

Tell No One suggests, surely not without intention, one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “wrong man” thrillers, as well as his classic tale of the living and the dead, Vertigo. Canet is a real talent: The full-throttle suspense, headlong pace, Chabrolian atmosphere of bourgeois corruption and twisty, devious puzzle-plot all hook you, and so does the potent theme of yearning, undying love-beyond the grave. In French, with English subtitles.




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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon