‘Pitch Perfect 2’ hits a high note for film by and for women, but there’s a feeling of deja vu

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Actor/director Elizabeth Banks appears in a scene from "Pitch Perfect 2." Photo provided

Actor/director Elizabeth Banks appears in a scene from “Pitch Perfect 2.”

To quote the Beyonce song used in one of its many musical numbers, girls do indeed run the world this weekend, at least at the domestic box office.

Pitch Perfect 2, a musical comedy about an all-female a cappella group, far surpassed industry expectations to gross an estimated $70.3 million in the United States and Canada this weekend, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The sequel to the 2012 sleeper hit is a rarity: It’s a summer movie about women and mostly starring women (Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Rebel Wilson, et al) that’s also mostly made by women: Elizabeth Banks, who produced both Pitch Perfects, makes her directorial debut on the second installment – she also is one of the funniest parts of the franchise as an acid-tongued a cappella commentator – and both movies were written by Kay Cannon (TV’s 30 Rock).

“This is the test. And I like to get A’s,” Banks said in her recent Hollywood Reporter feature.

Mission accomplished: Banks now holds the record for highest opening weekend for a first-time director, according to the L.A. Times.

“Lots of actors become directors — but almost exclusively they’ve got Y chromosomes. The number of still-acting female stars who have successfully made the jump to the other side of the camera can be counted on one hand (actually, two fingers: Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie, but many continue to try). And to find an actress who has directed a big studio comedy, you have to go all the way back to Betty Thomas and Penny Marshall,” Seth Abramovitch notes in his Banks feature for The Hollywood Reporter.

The opening weekend for Pitch Perfect 2 surpassed the entire $65-million domestic theatrical run of the original film, which has become something of a cult favorite perfect for a girls’ night in.  The sequel fared reasonably well with critics, ranking 69 percent fresh on RottenTomatoes.com. (I thought the follow-up hit some high notes, but there were far too many flat moments. Cannon’s TV background was definitely showing in the meandering, episodic script.)

About 72 percent of the audience for “Pitch Perfect 2” was female, and 57 percent was younger than 25, according to the L.A. Times. Fun fact: Demographically, that group complemented the audience for the weekend’s No. 2 movie, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was 60 percent male and 64 percent older than 25.

That synchronicity knocked Avengers: Age of Ultron from the No. 1 spot that the comic-book sequel had held since opening May 1 and drove the domestic box office to its largest pre-Memorial Day weekend ever, at $183.4 million, according to the L.A. Times.

You mean by making movies that appeal to men and women, young and old, Hollywood could get more people to go to the cinema? What a shocker.

Of course, it’s not really a shocker. It’s what women have been saying for years, not just in words but in actual dollars: The success of movies like Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games series has demonstrated that women will go to the movies if Hollywood gives them a reason.

Even more, if 60 percent of the audience for Mad Max reboot was men, it stands to reason that 40 percent was female – and it’s not hard to work out why, since most reviewers praised the strong feminist bent director/co-writer George Miller brought to the plot. As AWFJ’s Jennifer Merin notes in her review, “In this chapter, the strong and focused Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa, the warrior and commander who teams up with loner Max (Tom Hardy replaces the original’s Mel Gibson) when her mission to secure essential supplies is threatened and his survival skills become essential to hers. The story is genre-typical, but has some welcome innovation, including the plot-driving presence of a pivotal, well-developed female character as a hero.”

Mad Max: Fury Road stands as one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, earning an incredible 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a B-plus audience grade from CinemaScore, according to the L.A. Times. Again, what a shocker: make a movie with a strong female character doing what it takes to protect other women, craft it exceedingly well and get great terrific reviews.

The success of Pitch Perfect 2 gets what EW.com called “the summer of funny women” back on track after the Reese Witherspoon-Sofia Vergara vehicle Hot Pursuit blew a tire in its opening last weekend. We still have Spy, led by Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne, sneaking into theaters June 5, and  Amy Schumer’s personal (and filthy) Trainwreck due July 17.

It’s not just proving a big summer for female-focused comedies: Along with the aforementioned new adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd (which I finally got to see and finally opens in Oklahoma City this Friday – hurrah!), our own Jennifer Merin notes that some markets also got this week I’ll See You in My Dreams, a charming, refreshingly breezy and upbeat dramedy is about 70-something Carol (Blythe Danner), whose safe, staid and satisfactory life takes a surprising turn towards new adventures, including an unexpected romance with a handsome senior hunk (Sam Elliott), and Every Secret Thing, a gripping femme-centric thriller about a detective (the ever-busy Elizabeth Banks) on a missing child case, whose prime suspects are Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) and Alice (Danielle MacDonald), girlhood friends who’ve returned home after seven years in jail for abducting and killing an infant. The latter is documentarian Amy Berg’s first fiction feature, and she works from a Nicole Holofcener script (adapted from Laura Lippman’s novel).

So, it’s a good weekend if you cover women and the films by and/or about them, but here are the reservations that are keeping me from getting out the champagne and confetti:

1. We need consistency. Isn’t it high time we were past it being news when Hollywood makes movies about and for women? I mean, women are approximately 50 percent of the population, and it’s 2015. I’m ready for the day when about 50 percent of the movies are about women and it’s not a big deal.

2. We need originality. Does anyone else see what I see when it comes to the movies, particularly the wide releases, on this list? Pitch Perfect 2: sequel. Mad Max: Fury Road: reboot. Hot Pursuit and Spy: Storylines so overdone I groan just reading them. Plus, this week we learned that there’s a remake of the witchy 1996 high school drama The Craft in the works, with Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) directing and co-writing, at least, and Rebel Wilson spent part of her Pitch Perfect 2 interviews chatting about the search for a director for her planned remake of 1980’s Private Benjamin.

I know Hollywood is risk-adverse, but that’s a whole lot of remaking, rebooting and retreading for the films by and/or about women. I’m getting deja vu just looking at that list. Here’s hoping Schumer’s Trainwreck is anything but one at the box office, so we can hopefully see more wide releases that reflect original visions and voices.

Digging into discrimination

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies for what the organization described as rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors, reports the New York Times.

As it turns out, refusing to give people jobs solely on the basis of their gender is illegal (not to mention immoral and unethical). Yes, even in Hollywood. I know, another shocker, right? (So much sarcasm, I know, but the news this week seems to warrant it)

“Women directors aren’t working on an even playing field and aren’t getting a fair opportunity to succeed,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the L.G.B.T., Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the A.C.L.U. of Southern California. “Gender discrimination is illegal. And, really, Hollywood doesn’t get this free pass when it comes to civil rights and gender discrimination.”

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow spoke out against Hollywood sexism in a statement to Time following the American Civil Liberties Union’s announcement.

“I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender. Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward thinking and progressive people yet this horrific situation for women directors persists,” Bigelow says in a statement to Time. “Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.”

Since she’s the one who spent the entire awards season leading to her historic Oscar win for best director being referred to as “James Cameron’s ex-wife,” I’d say she certainly has experience with Hollywood’s gender issues.

Quick hitters

– Back on the topic of original visions and voices in women’s cinema: My excellent associates at the Tulsa World Jimmie Tramel and Michael Smith reported last week that there have been several Shia LaBeouf sightings around Muskogee, including at the annual Renaissance festival at the Castle of Muskogee. The reason that’s of interest to this blog is that LaBeouf is reportedly starring in American Honey, the latest film from Oscar-winning auteur Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road). According to IMDb, American Honey is about “a teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits.” The site lists Muskogee, Norman and Okmulgee, Okla., as filming locations, along with Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Although I didn’t initially fall in love with it, Arnold’s 2011 version of Wuthering Heights has haunted me in the past few years, so I’m eager to see what she has in mind for her partially Oklahoma-made film.

I’m also super excited to share that my hometown film festival, Oklahoma City’s deadCenter Film Festival, will screen Eternal Princess, Katie Holmes’ directorial debut, at this year’s event, set for June 10-14. The short documentary is about gymnastics legend and longtime Oklahoma resident Nadia Comaneci. At a special event, the filmmakers will join Comaneci and her husband, Bart Conner, a fellow Oklahoman and gymnastics legend, to discuss the process of bringing her incredible story to life.

– CBS included a full-length trailer for its new DC Comics-based series Supergirl last week as part of its upfronts for its 2015-16 schedule. Yes, that means the first female lead we’re going to get in the ongoing superheroes-on-screen trend is Melissa Benoist’s Kara Zor-El in her small-screen adventures. I’m not knocking Supergirl – Sterling Gates, a DC Comics writer who has worked on the Supergirl comics, is a fellow Oklahoman whom I like and admire – nor am I knocking TV-style superhero stories – if CBS’ Supergirl can be even close to the quality of Netflix’s Daredevil, I’ll be elated. I’m just surprised that we’re going to get a Supergirl TV series two years before DC flies Wonder Woman into movie theaters and three years before Marvel opens its Cinematic Universe up to the Captain Marvel movie. Or maybe dismayed is the word I’m looking for there. Let’s go with surprised and dismayed.

– The 68th Cannes Film Festival ends a week from today, and influential filmmaker Agnes Varda will receive an honorary Palme d’Or at the closing ceremony, reports Variety.com. She follows in the footsteps of just Woody Allen (2002), Clint Eastwood (2009) and Bernardo Bertolucci (2011), renowned directors whose works have achieved global impact but who have never won the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or.

Varda has filmed more than 30 short, documentary and fiction films for both TV and cinema, as well staging many exhibitions of photographs and art installations. Among major awards, she won a Silver Bear in Berlin for “Happiness” (1965), a Golden Lion in Venice for “Vagabond” (1985), a European Film Award for “The Gleaners and I” (2000), and a French Cesar for documentary “The Beaches of Agnes” (2008).

The honorary Palme d’Or follows a tribute to Varda at 2014’s Locarno Festival and a lifetime achievement award from the European Film Academy, presented last December at the 27th European Film Awards. Well-deserved congratulations to her.



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