Tag Archives: Hailee Steinfeld

Barely Lethal

Despite a whirlwind charm offensive from Hailee Steinfeld and some decent moments, Barely Lethal is a wasted opportunity.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

barely lethal 1Pro-Tip for all aspiring teenage/high school comedies: NEVER invoke the names of Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, et al during the course of your film.  Just don’t.  Ever.  Do not bring them up, either as homages or having characters mention them by name for whatever reason, as all it does is make you look worse off by comparison and leaving the viewer, myself in this case, wondering why they’re not just watching those frequently-much-better films.  The DVD cover of Mean Girls is prominently displayed at one early point in Barely Lethal and I strongly considered turning off the latter to watch the former again, even though I already re-watched Mean Girls exactly one month ago!

That’s actually being rather unnecessarily harsh on Barely Lethal, which isn’t as bad as its godawful title and trailer suggests it will be.  It’s just the kind of film that can’t stop making really obvious, really amateur, and really easy-to-avoid mistakes no matter how hard it tries.  And it keeps making them over and over and over, like a parent who still cannot operate a DVR despite having had the same one for 8 goddamn years.

So, for those not aware, Barely Lethal follows Megan (Hailee Steinfeld) who, orphaned at a young age, has spent her life being raised by a secretive branch of the US government that turns little girls into stone-cold killer assassins, headed by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson).  She’s top of her class and the first of them to be activated, much to the irritation of her rival Heather (an utterly wasted Sophie Turner), but disagrees with Hardman’s “no attachments” policy and, whilst on various assignments, finds herself drawn to and desiring a normal teenage life.  When a mission to capture evil arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) goes wrong, Megan takes the opportunity to fake her death, relocate to a quiet American town, and attend high school, posing as a foreign exchange student for a nice family.

From there, things proceed exactly as you’re expecting them to, which is the first big shame.  The spy/assassin elements never quite gel with the high school elements, you see, with the former just kinda walking in and out of the film whenever it pleases, leaving the majority of the film basically being another “fish-out-of-water high school” movie but with an unnecessarily complex backstory to that “fish-out-of-water” part.  The tone is also wildly unsatisfying, not committing enough to the dark comedy and more unsavoury implications of the spy/assassin part, but also not committing enough to the high school tone to be sincere and genuine, occupying a middle-ground that leaves everything feeling weak: the spy stuff too toothless, the high school stuff too underdeveloped.

Incidentally, I could tell that this was written by a man even if I hadn’t seen the titles and done my research, such is the utter disdain the film shows for high school and especially for teenage girls.  Even the most utterly blistering takedowns of high school culture, like the aforementioned Mean Girls, have some semblance of caring for its targets, usually out of a desire to want the place and people to be better and much less sh*tty.  Barely Lethal really doesn’t, and so every last cliché in the high school movie book – bitchy girls, arsehole teenagers who are cruel to everybody for no real reason, lecherous and/or painfully uncool teachers, hunky yet vapid and self-centred boy (Toby Sebastian) who our lead is inexplicably all over instead of their equally as attractive yet slightly dorky best friend (Thomas Mann) who acts like a petulant child when she doesn’t crush back on him – gets trotted out and abused with no substance or wit or subversive intent.  It’s basically Baby’s First High School with extra bitter vitriol.

Or, to put it another way, this is a real exchange in this movie that caused me to genuinely and involuntarily groan out loud.

“There is an army of highly trained murderous psychopaths out to get me!”

“Hey, you survived high school.”

It’s a really lazy and underdeveloped movie, basically.  How lazy?  It has a montage set to “Bad Reputation” just like EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF HIGH SCHOOL-SET MEDIA IN HUMAN EXISTENCE.  Nothing feels natural, nothing feels paced, it just blazes through everything at 200MPH.  The point when Hardman inevitably tracked down Megan should be where the last third kicks off but I had a sneaking suspicion that the film wasn’t even halfway done, a suspicion that was promptly confirmed when I checked my watch and saw that we were only 40 minutes in.  The pre-high school stuff encompasses the film’s opening 10 minutes.  10.  Out of 105.  With the rest of those minutes instead being dedicated to trotting out every cliché in short order.  Surprising nobody, this means that the cast aren’t so much characters as one-note archetypes/stereotypes that their actors and actresses are supposed to fill in through sheer force of personality.

To her credit, this is something that Hailee Steinfeld manages to pull off.  Megan’s character, on paper, very much reads as a walking “Chloë Grace Moretz said ‘no’”, which is how it could have turned out in lesser hands.  Yet Steinfeld makes it her own in a number of ways.  She carries herself and convinces near-totally as somebody raised to become something they don’t really want to be, and who just wants to be normal; somebody who is genuinely out-of-their-comfort-zone at high school.  She’s also convincing at kicking ass when required, but not to the extent where I sit and wonder why she’s upset over the evil high school clichés instead of tearing through them like a hot knife through butter.  Then there’s her natural goofy charm, which is just so easily endearing and ultimately makes it hard not to like and enjoy time with Megan.  Between this and Pitch Perfect 2, which utilised said goofy charm way better but hey ho, Steinfeld very much seems to be in the part of her career where she’s a one-woman charm offensive, which is something I am not at all complaining about.

Unfortunately, her co-stars’ attempts to do the same are hampered by the simple fact that they don’t get enough screen-time to do so.  Sophie Turner is asked to do absolutely nothing besides be the film’s alpha bitch, not helped by the fact that she just walks in and out of the film at random points, giving no weight to her inevitable final showdown with Megan.  Jessica Alba seems to be trying to turn Knox into a witty and snarky yet legitimately dangerous villain but she gets maybe 10 minutes at best and her entire existence is just for perfunctory finale fireworks, whilst Samuel L. Jackson just kinda Samuel L. Jacksons for a bit, now seemingly at the part of his career where he will appear in quite literally anything that’s willing to provide him with money.  OK, more so than usual.

As for the action sequences…  Well, you know how Spy just proved than an action-comedy can and, in fact, should be just as proficient at the action sequences as the comedy sequences?  Turns out that Kyle Newman, who also directed 2009’s should-have-been-better Fanboys, is not Paul Feig.  The film’s low-budget radiates from how incredibly small scale the very few action sequences are, and all of them are shot abysmally and edited haphazardly.  The stand-out awful action sequence though is undoubtedly Megan and Heather’s big throw-down which, despite needing to be this big payoff, is near-incomprehensible due to excessively gratuitous camera shaking and unnecessarily tight framing.  Rule #1 of fight scenes in movies: the viewer needs to be able to see what’s going on!

And it’s little amateur mistakes like that which sink Barely Lethal.  I wanted to like this movie, and I do like certain parts of it – Hailee Steinfeld is a bona-fide charmer, there are the occasional funny lines, and the eventual bond that Megan makes with her ‘foster sister’ Liz (Dove Cameron) is kinda sweet and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing – but it’s one of those films that seems to believe that openly acknowledging its awareness of high school movie clichés gives it Carte blance to indulge in them anyway.  It wastes its premise on excessively trod ground and, unlike The DUFF, it’s too lazy (and rather vindictive) to come up with good enough material to make up for that fact.

Hailee Steinfeld is clearly destined to become A Star, regardless of whether it’s Serious Actor Steinfeld from works like True Grit or Charming Movie Star Steinfeld from this and Pitch Perfect 2, and she deserves films that are willing to work as hard and be as good as she is.  Barely Lethal is just not that film, and pure charisma alone can’t prop up a boring, disappointing, lazy waste of a movie.

Callum Petch is ready to do the Bus Stop.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Pitch Perfect 2

Funnier, more heart-felt, and just plain better, Pitch Perfect 2 gets to join that exclusive club of comedy sequels that are markedly better than the original.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Full Disclosure: The reviewer saw this film at an early press screening provided by the distributor, Universal Pictures, that also included a 20 minute roundtable interview with Elizabeth Banks afterwards.

pitch perfect 2Who was actually surprised by the fact that Pitch Perfect became a sleeper hit in cinemas and a massive success on home media?  No, seriously, who actually didn’t see this coming?  The narrative that surrounds the first Pitch Perfect is very much that of a film that, despite being shunted out in mid-October and made for pittance ($17 million), succeeded against all odds and expectations, becoming a beloved and surprising cult hit.  Yet, and trying not to diverge into ‘I told you so’ territory here, I saw this coming from a mile and a half away.  It’s a basically a girl friendship movie, aimed at young women – a market Hollywood still doesn’t tap into near-enough – with a great sense of humour and good songs.  You know, it’s like everybody forgets that Mean Girls, Bring It On, Clueless, et al exist.

Well, Pitch Perfect did extremely well, so now here comes Pitch Perfect 2, as is the Hollywood way.  Now, regular followers of my work, my Twitter, my radio show, or who just happened to be in the general vicinity of me these past few months, will more than likely know that this, out of everything else, was my most anticipated film of the year going in.  What keeps getting lost in this whole thing is that I think the original Pitch Perfect is barely great.  I do really like it, think it’s really funny, know that its heart is in the right place, and it pulls off the girl friendship thread with aplomb, but I don’t love it.  It relies too much on gross-out vomit-based comedy for my liking, the actual one-liners and such are way more hit or miss than I expect from Kay Cannon – the film’s writer and an ex-30 Rock alumni – and the Beca (Anna Kendrick)/Jesse (Skylar Astin) romance at best distracts from the true core of the film, The Bellas, and at worst is kinda gross.

So, that’s the base that Pitch Perfect 2 has to work from, although it also has to deal with the handicap of losing original director Jason Moore and being a comedy sequel which, barring very rare exceptions, are at best decent time-wasters and little more.  At best.  So, with all those factors working against it – along with pre-release plot info and casting announcements, pretty much everybody is back and there are a bunch of new cast members too, suggesting that this would be every bit the pointless comedy sequel – the fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is damn good is a legitimate surprise.  The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is great is a miracle.  The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is, in many respects, better than the first film is nothing short of witchcraft.

See, Pitch Perfect 2 is the kind of sequel that doubles down on what works but doesn’t simply repeat the first film.  Although the set-up of the film involves busting The Barden Bellas back down to underdog status – Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally ends up flashing the President during a benefit concert, which leads to the Bellas being suspended from the National A Capella Association unless they can win the World Championships, something that no American team has ever done – the film is actually only interested in that aspect as a means to filter its main focus through.  Instead of being another underdog movie, this is primarily a film about friendship and the fear of moving on, as the film doubles down on the relationship between the girls and minimises the romance elements in service of that.

To wit, the Bellas just aren’t in sync like they used to be because the fast-approaching milestone of graduation is affecting them in different ways.  Beca is secretly interning for a hot-shot music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) and very worried that she might not be able to make it in the industry, Chloe (Brittany Snow) is preparing to fail her chosen major for the seventh year in a row to make sure she doesn’t have to leave the Bellas, Barden freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is the daughter of a Bella legacy and whose sole life goal is to join the group but doesn’t fit in as well as she thought she would, and the rest of the team are thrown off of their game by the European champions, Das Sound Machine.  There’s also the return of Benji (Ben Platt) who falls for Emily at first sight, Bumper (Adam DeVine) is in a no strings attached relationship with Fat Amy but may be developing actual feelings for her, and the world of the original Pitch Perfect is blown wide open and expanded with even more characters and little incidental details.

In simple terms: there is a lot going on in this nearly 2 hour comedy, but credit to Elizabeth Banks, who takes over the reins on the director’s chair, and returning screenwriter Kay Cannon, they never lose sight of the central themes of friendship and moving on.  That heart, that loving relationship that its cast share, never gets completely lost beneath all of the moving parts, and when it finally bursts through totally in the final third the film is on pure unstoppable fire – there’s a specific moment during a campfire scene late in the movie where I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I teared up like a complete sap.  There’s a believability to everyone’s relationships, the closeness and intimacy that they all share that is subtly and carefully built up so that the last third, which deals with every single plot thread and arc one after the other, is sustained catharsis that leaves those central relationships standing tall throughout.

This is also, despite being nearly 2 hours long and having all of that content to cover, a very tightly paced film that never noticeably dragged.  Despite this being her first feature directing gig, Banks shows a confidence in editing and scene pacing that is rarer than usual in the American comedy feature genre – I didn’t find any scenes that just devolved into leaving the camera running whilst excess improv took place.  She also seems to enjoy indulging her inner-Step Up 2, expanding the scale of the world to comical proportions whilst still keeping a tenuous grip on reality.  Gail (Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), the commentators, are back and are revealed to be the hosts of an A Capella podcast and the representatives of the National A Capella Association, David Cross turns up as an A Capella enthusiast who hosts underground high stakes Riff-Offs, and musical performances are generally more flamboyant and busy than last time without losing the charm of the lower-key original – which is a good summary of the film overall, quite honestly.

Pitch Perfect 2 is also just plain funnier than the first film, the jokes coming thick and fast and not really letting up until the credits roll.  Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily is especially well-served by the script here with her character’s excessively awkward and geeky enthusiasm being a great source of humour, whilst Keegan-Michael Key nearly runs away with the entire film from everyone else as a hysterically overbearing and egotistical record producer who treats his interns like a schoolteacher who has stopped giving a damn about parental blowback.  There are also frequent jokes that allude to both the sexually voracious nature and strongly hinted bi-sexuality of most of the Bellas in ways that feel genuine and sincere – in comparison to, say, Seth Rogan/James Franco comedies that hit the “these two are totally gay for each other, but they’re not really gay, see, they have sex with women!” button so hard and so frequently that it’s permanently stuck in the machine by this point – and that’s refreshing as hell to see.

All this being said, Pitch Perfect 2 is not perfect.  For one, although that last third is an incredibly satisfying 40 minutes to experience, the messy “throw everything out there at the beginning and we’ll deal with it in turn later” nature of the first third means that it takes the film a little while to get going and feels more than a little awkward.  It also bends over backwards to ensure that everyone is able to return for this movie in ways that are definitely forced, all but lampshaded when Bumper’s introduction to this film occurs when a random cut during a party scene reveals him to be back as a security guard, shouting this fact to no-one in particular.  Whilst I do find Bumper’s story with Fat Amy here to be oddly sweet, and whilst the return of Aubrey is amazing and works totally, it still makes their inclusion here feel somewhat mandatory, like a Pitch Perfect Sequel check-list was being ticked off somewhere (better handled is Jesse who just appears sporadically as Beca’s supportive boyfriend and little more).

More problematic is the film’s frequent detours into lazy racial stereotyping humour.  Although Worlds is barely a factor in the film, their eventual appearance does lead to an extended sequence in which Gail and John make lengthy stereotype-based jokes like the Taiwanese team being made up of “Ladyboys” or how the Korean team’s barbeque is something to avoid.  It’s kind of OK, because Gail and John have already been made out to be terrible, terrible people (John especially and he gets even more hilariously casually awful this time), but it does still skirt that line nonetheless.  A bigger problem is new Bella Flo (Chrissie Fit) whose joke and characteristic is that she is an immigrant who has just had the absolute worst life up to now.  It feels too mean-spirited, especially since most of the jokes play on that immigrant backstory, and, coupled with the commentators and the excessively stereotypically German nature of DSM, leaves this strand of humour feeling lazy in a way that the film otherwise avoids.  It’s disappointing.

Those, however, are still relatively minor flaws and fail to take away from what Pitch Perfect 2 manages to get right.  Prior to seeing the film, the thing I wanted from it was for it to be a girl friendship movie, to commit fully to its premise and promise and centrally be a film about the bonds shared between a collective group of coolly weird women.  Though there is a tonne going on in Pitch Perfect 2, Banks and Cannon never lose sight of that very thing whilst still expanding the world of the film and not simply re-treading ground covered in the original.  This is a funny, heart-felt, heart-warming film that is brilliantly paced, excellently acted – surprising no-one, hence why I didn’t really mention it – fiercely feminist, damn near everything I wanted, and better in almost every single department than the first film.

I now count two comedy sequels in consecutive years that are as good as or better than the films that spawned them.  Can this become a full-on trend, please?

Pitch Perfect 2 is due out on May 15th.

Callum Petch saw the sign.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Begin Again

Begin Again104 minutes of moving pictures and sound, Begin Again is a movie.  It’s fine, I guess.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Begin Again is the movie you accidentally catch on some ITV channel or whatever on a Tuesday night and you sit through because there’s nothing else on.  You know the one; it’s all pleasant, its cast is all fine and have decent chemistry, it ambles along sufficiently for its hour and forty run-time engaging you just enough to keep you from flipping the channel but not enough to keep your mind from wandering to other more important matters.  Matters such as “I wonder if Sharon really will be able to make it work with Chris” or “God, I really don’t want to go to Dave’s party this weekend” or “I should be doing something with my life.”  It’s not a film for cinemas, one you rush out to opening day and honestly not even one you go to at reduced prices time because there’s nothing else on (both at the cinema and in your life) and you have a burning need to get rid of the cash in your pocket.  It’s the film you catch on TV for free with ads by accident one random night of the week when you’re half-drunk/totally-bladdered and need something to take your mind off stuff.

That sounds harsher than I intended.  The film is fine.  Begin Again is fine.  It’s fine.  There’s just nothing going on and nothing of substance worth talking about anywhere.  Mark Ruffalo plays a once-hot-now-not A&R guy who gets fired from the label he co-founded and, in another one of his drunken stupors, stumbles across songwriter Keira Knightley when she’s forced by her friend (James Corden) at an Open Mic night to perform one of her songs.  He thinks she’s got what it takes to make it on her own, she’s coming off a bad break-up with her songwriter boyfriend of five years who’s just broken through as a performer (Adam Levine).  Together, after Mark’s old label rejects her because the head of the label (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) doesn’t get what’s so special about her, they cook up a plan to record an album in various places around New York City.  Feel free to question the soundness of that idea, considering the noises provided by any city space let alone New York, cos I certainly did.  Frequently, even.

But, eh, the film’s fine.  It moves along at a good enough pace, only really stopping every so often to demonstrate one of its numerous songs.  Things pretty much go how you’d expect, example: Hailee Steinfeld (oh, hey!  Nice to see her again) is in this as Mark’s estranged daughter who lives with her divorced mother (Catherine Keener) and plays guitar, Keira suggests getting her involved with a track on the record but Mark quietly isn’t sure if she’s good enough and you can guess how everything with everyone turns out.  The most engaged I was with proceedings came very late on when I was terrified that they were going to turn Keira and Mark’s platonic friendship into a romantic relationship; you may laugh, but I have been burnt too many times before on this kind of thing.  It has one relatively original idea of its own, looping back to the Open Mic night and focussing on a different character and their feelings towards the performance each time (Mark’s version has him visualising how Keira’s song could sound with swelling studio backing and it’s the one genuinely interesting part of the film), but it ditches the idea at about the halfway part and moves onto a series of song recording episodes with perfunctory drama/relationship interludes.

Songs are predominately written by (and credited to) late 90s/early 00s pop songwriter and ex-New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and they’re fine.  Nothing world-shattering but they’re all good slices of soft pop, more specifically the kind that people like David Gray and Damien Rice and the like peddled at the turn of the century.  They’re a bit samey and the lyrics alternate between being really clunky and a game of “Guess What Thuddingly Predictable Line Is Coming Next,” but they have hooks, are all quite soothing and Keira Knightley’s voice fits in very well with that kind of genre.  They’re all weirdly over-produced, though, which makes a late-film scene where she’s listening to Adam Levine’s album and claims that it’s over-produced rather hypocritically funny seeing as she’s just produced an album slathered in unnecessary strings, a one-off and tonally out-of-place guitar solo and a backing choir of street kids.  “Lost Stars”, though, which appears in something like three different arrangements and is clearly supposed to be the film’s breakout hit, is a genuinely great ballad (in the stripped down Keira Knightley case) and a genuinely great pop song (in the Adam Levine case), even if the latter version leans a bit too close to “Drops Of Jupiter” by Train, for my liking.

Other than that, the film’s as Ann as the nose on plain’s face.  Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are enjoyable enough screen presences to keep the whole film feeling pleasant (even if Ruffalo seems forever half-engaged and half-rabbit-in-the-headlights), proceedings never drag and are never truly dull, the songs are fine, the cinematography and John Carney’s direction are competent if uninspired… it’s all fine.  Nothing’s bad, nothing’s offensive, everything’s pretty much just OK.  I mean, if you just have to see a brand new film this week and Boyhood isn’t being shown, I guess you could go with this one.  It’s fine.  The film is fine.  Begin Again is fine.  Nothing more, nothing less, it’s fine.

Callum Petch is just a speck of dust within the galaxy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!