Artists in Retrospect: Anna Kendrick

Note: I’m going to start a new category for postings that encapsulate my opinion of a person working today (be them good or bad) that will be classified as a retrospective of their work. I may or may not binge on their filmography and individual film reviews may come as minimal as one or two features. This will obviously pick up with more steam after Oscar season, but as for now, one here and there won’t kill. I believe I’ll do Michael Shannon next. If you don’t like Michael Shannon, I don’t like you. Getting the honor of the first Artists in Retrospect post? Anna Kendrick, of course! Well, onto it then!

After seeing Rocket Science in 2007, I fell in love with its two main stars in Reece Thompson, and the woman of the hour, Anna Kendrick who played Ginny Ryerson in said film to perfection thus snagging a trivial supporting actress nomination from me. Since then I’ve been keeping up with her filmography (and am perhaps the most excited person in the world to hear she’s getting buzz for Up in the Air – a film I was initially interested in for her participation anyways) so I’m going to lay out some films she’s starred in recently; unfortunately, none too good. We’ll go in alphabetical order – why not?

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Although Kendrick is a meager supporting performer in this feature, I feel she’s deserving of a picture of her own to introduce this feature. It is no mere fluke that she obtained a Chlotrudis Award nomination for this, her debut film performance.

Camp is the film I’m discussing, and if you like archetypal stories about differing youths coming of age in a place of shared interest. Here’s a film where each character has an obvious arc, the story falls immediately tangible, the antagonists are clumsy stereotypes and the purpose of the feature drifts on and on – never reaching an absolute conclusion.

With this, you get the slutty shrewd ample chested blonde bitch, the depressed homosexual whose flamboyant antics being to fleet with adulthood, the chubby girl that is dismissed for solely that, the plain Jane who has the soul of a poet that only the seekers notice, the former high-profile playwright whose continued success has been inhibited by overwhelming nerves and a tooth for all things alcohol and the pretty boy that is flawless – oh, and every black woman has a voice suitable for opera’s. Is this the most stereotypical tale of teenage angst in the history of cinema? Probably.

The only character of interest is Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) who is oddly complicated. She’s a young woman whose acting talent has been surmised for most of her time at the camp (primarily a camp about the stage), who vies for the attention of the slutty popular girl and who has a fascination with nature and being blunt at inopportune times. It is only this character and the performance behind it that ratifies any dire and/or rational reasoning to check out this film. Believe me, you’ll be anticipating the next scene of this character until her story comes to a close (in typical supporting fashion – without a bang, but rather a whimper).

Along with her is the inexperienced ensemble that does quite well with the material they’re given. Letterle is completely believable (tough if you’re the hunk), Chilcoat lives the role of a woman whose exigent reflection imposed onto others is seen as a formidable (and not nagging) trait and de Jesus is healthily sincere, even if his role tends to differ.

There’s a segment that kicks off the final act in which the perfect attendee Vlad (Daniel Letterle) relays his troubles to Mike (Robin de Jesus) the homosexual in despair. He mentions how he has OCD and that his life is far from perfect as he’s “a Ritalin addict”. If director/writer Todd Graff had spent half as much time divulging into this – the most important character’s conflict – as he does Mike’s sexual frustration, the story would’ve been far more interesting and nearer to a whole. Instead you bare witness to a hackneying of a disorder for the mere purpose of comforting someone’s sadness. For this (and many similar reasons), the feature is far too shallow and gimmicky to be taken seriously.

By and by, Camp is a feature that is comparable to just about everyone other genre feature about teens in crisis. A plethora of jokes will go right over your head if you’re not invested in the stage yourself (example: at the beginning of the film Jill, the sexually unintelligent one, does not recall Fritzi from their previous year together where they worked together in the production of ‘Night, Mother. If you do not know that this play is a solely a two woman act, you will not get the exaggeration of this joke) which will either be an addition or subtraction from the interest of the viewer, depending on their position within the stage community. At the end of Camp you’ll feel as if Todd Graff had pulled a fast one on you and had secretive intentions about this product that would be indicated in the title but no, apparently not. Camp is camp without self-awareness or mockery – not a ruminative feature, but a fairly enjoyable one nonetheless. [5/10]

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The following is a 2009 feature that got a release in January. What is more puzzling than this mystery story is how it managed to even scrape a theatrical release of any kind.

Elsewhere is a story you’ve seen, well, elsewhere. If you dig through any assortment of indie mysteries, odds are you’ll find an equally as compelling feature with a similar plot. Take for example 2007’s Cherry Crush (starring another young woman I’m infatuated with in Nikki Reed). Obscure mystery with an up and coming actress about a person missing and the female protagonist out to find out what’s what. Same goes for this, Nathan Hope’s first feature, where Sarah (Anna Kendrick) goes out searching for there whereabouts of her promiscuous best friend named Jillian (Tania Raymonde) who prefers to go by her street name DaBitch.This, along with plentiful other quirks imbued in the feature (DaBitch being the most popular woman on the internet for scandalous photos being posted on her MySpace), find haphazard in an attempt at connecting with teen audiences. Doesn’t Hope know MySpace was so 2007?

Sarah comes to learn about Jill’s libertine approach to life in more detail when it is realized to her that her best friend seeks a way out of their vacant, white-wash town in Nowhere, USA. She goes to extremities by allowing a man known solely as Mr. X into her life. After meeting him at a party, Jill disappears without a trace. All the “don’t worry, I’m fine” messages that Sarah receives on her cell are to no avail as she is adamant something is up, and if not for the crazy woman who knows there’s a man out there kidnapping delinquents (like her daughter), Sarah’s spark of a notion may not have burst into the raging fire within.

In addition, you’re given two people to choose from who seem the most obvious suspects that have kidnapped Jill in Officer Berg (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), a man she blackmailed with exploits between the two of them on the internet (he has a family) after catching her smoking weed and Mr. Tod (Jon Gries), who may be the strictest father in cinema history who hates everything impure that can corrupt his sheltered daughter. So you’re given two options which widdles the mystery down to a heads or tails gimmick. Too easy to be taken seriously.

With this, the plot one of the easiest I’ve come across in the mystery genre. Hope attempts to arrange a feature that sources Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and more recently, Rian Johnson, but it feels solely like Simon West’s When A Stranger Calls – just less entertaining. In fact, the only saving grace within Elsewhere are the performances. Kendrick was solid in her role, but felt uncomfortable with the hackjob of a character arc she was given; Gries delivers an devoted performance as the ominous father in the few minutes of screen time he’s given; attributing to Phillips’ decent performance are his looks – strange, off-putting anger is built right into his face; and Raymonde’s Jillian, while unlikable, does pump some humanity into the character with genuine emotion.

Regardless, the film isn’t terrible. It has it’s fair share of fine moments (the nightmare scene sticks out most), decent cinematography and supplies interesting concept that best friends have a metaphysical connection that keeps them closer than anyone would imagine. Point is, don’t see this unless you’re a hardcore Kendrick fan like myself or unless you feel the need to ridicule a failed attempt at being an interesting indie filmmaker. [3/10]

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Next is the latest comedy flop that I’ve bared witness to in The Marc Pease Experience. With a cast I adore in Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick and Ben Stiller (though my adoration for him is fleeting) and a generally funny guy in Todd Louiso directing and writing said feature, I figured something had to be up with its concealed theatrical release. Regardless the cast overwhelmed the negative reviews on this occasion and I decided to sit (well, drudge) through this unfunny comedy.

The story opens on a fragile Marc Pease (Jason Schwartzman) in his teens duking it out with stage freight. He feels inadequate to perform the Tin Man song – not a major role in the production, it appears – but is coaxed into doing so by drama club head Jon Gribble (Ben Stiller). He talks him into a state of balance by complimenting his talents and minimizing his flaws; you know, routine dialogue for someone on the brink of a collapse. This is all for not and Marc runs out of the production crying.

Jump a few years ahead. Marc is still devoted to his dwindling acapella group – called Meridian 8, but is now half the initial size – and just as much to Mr. Gribble who was the only person to interact with Marc with a caring demeanor (even if it was just to get on with his production of The Wiz). So the story is about unrequited friendship for the majority, all the while trying to take cheap shots at its already fragile protagonist in Marc which equated to this viewer wincing out of pity. This film is the celluloid equivalent of watching a bully pick on a frail peer for laughs; not too funny, but very distressing to take in.

Alas, Anna Kendrick natural charm swoops in to save the day, if only momentarily, as she portrays Marc’s girlfriend (who attends the same high school he did years prior) in Meg Brickman. Although she’s nothing more than your typical aspiring choir girl with lofty high school dilemmas and suffocating boyfriend, Kendrick’s candid fragrance cleanses the dingy scent left by the aforementioned misfires within the script. As I said, if only for a few moments. It would be strait-jacket worthy to impress that she solely saves the script with her 15 or so minutes on screen with the generically written character given to her, but only logical to speak the truth in that she is the adhesive that sustains any credibility the film wants to obtain.

In the end, what more is there to say about this puerile endeavor? It’s intellectually insulting, elementary and vehement in parading its theme and only occasionally humorous – no traits you ever want to find yourself wandering into for any film, especially a comedy. The Marc Pease Experiment is one that should have never taken place, and like the above feature, should only be viewed by hardcore Kendrick fans or by people attempting to purge a popular genre that stars a popular leading man in Stiller. [3/10]

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Last – and surprisingly furthest from least – is Twilight; a film in which I was completely certain it would not be my thing only to have that notion thrown back in my face. Yeah, it’s actually decent.

After initially being interested in this project in mid ’07 – after seeking through Kendrick’s upcoming features and seeing this one that also had the inclusion of Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed (two people I loved after Thirteen) – and having my curiosity dashed after hearing neither female was the star and that it was based off the first in a series of novels that pre-teen females are insane about procuring, my enthusiasm was in purgatory. It’s only now that I bother to watch it and my main reasons remain: Kendrick, Reed, Hardwicke and Stewart (who I’ve grown to adore as well).

You must know the story by now, if not, here’s a little summary: A teenage girl on the verge of womanhood named Bella (Kristen Stewart) feels the need to live with her father (Billy Burke) – who she has lost connection with over the years – after she feels stigma in restraining her mother from venturing town to town with her boyfriend who plays baseball in the minor league. Needless to say, she’s unenthusiastic about the switch. Upon registering for high school in the semi-vacant town, word gets to her about Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) – a mysterious teenager who speaks to no one and has dashing good looks that happen to appeal to everyone. Especially Bella’s newest (and closest) friend in the town, Jessica (Anna Kendrick!!!). When Edward begins to speak to Bella, she opens up to him, she falls for him, etc. Oh yeah and he’s a vampire.

The first thing I appreciated in the story’s structure was that Bella was a genuine new kid. She didn’t become instantaneously popular, she wasn’t peculiarly neglected – she was a student that made friends; simple, but honest. Her commonplace conversations with her pals are simple, and here, simple doesn’t equate to negativity. They avoid cliche and stick to grass root teenage dialogue. In addition, this gives Kendrick some more face time as the rambunctious best friend. She has plenty of fun in the role and you can tell as she appears to be the only participant in the film that does not take the material too serious. And with sexy vampires, cheesy visual effects, strident themes and disarraying mythology for both the fair skinned ones and werewolves in the mix, how can one really take it seriously? Sadly, this is where Hardwicke’s handicap lays.

She appears to take the story far too seriously. Done clearly to appease the hardcore fans of the novel, Catherine Hardwicke lets go the fundamentals of telling a story in the realm of reality (purpose, et al.). Whereas the film is truly fictional, I find it essential to keep your atmosphere in focus with the story – brooding darkness just cannot replace pedestrian property. This causes the story to play out more gimmicky than intended which effects the already malnourished character arcs which effects the unstable lead performances which effect the inevitable impression the film leaves with you. It grows more and more obvious with passing time, and though this does bother me, there’s a genuine campy sensation about the feature that leaves a rather sweet aftertaste.

As I said previously, the lead performances aren’t near stellar. It tends to be a bad sign when an actress given a decent role is able to outshine the significant performances with ease. This is either a testament to Kendrick’s innate ability or a fumble by both Stewart and Pattinson. I’m not completely delusional, so I’ll retain the opinion that it is the latter. While both are sufficient in their roles, neither does what is required in their individual roles. Stewart has an ineffable charm that she exudes when flustered that is one of the most adorable wonders the world has provided and Pattinson does the stoic, mysterious shtick decently (but is far from channeling the intrigue perpetuated in previous vampire performances like Gary Oldman in Dracula) but appears more fatigued than apropos to conduct a formidable performance; or at least one that mirrors the idealistic vision preserved by the female populous that adore the material. As a whole, adequate performances – I’ll be interested in seeing how both actors’ skills progress along side the story.

By and large, Twilight is a film that refuses to undermine the teenage experience, but instead of fleshing out complete characters, choose to go for the more accustomed route in Hollywood and leave interpretation up to those that have had similar experiences. It’s a bit cheeky, a bit sincere, a bit sexy, a bit funny, but entirely enjoyable. The viewing experience isn’t hindered by the murky aura conjured, and at two hours that’s an admirable aspect. If I’ve anything to contribute to the direction the series plans on taking it would have to be the visual engagement. Down play the obvious (dutch tilts are so 1988), keep up with CGI (these effects are cheesier than the first Harry Potter feature – that’s saying something) and coat the atmosphere with a less hokey interpretation of the novel’s mood; entirely dark, entirely dire. It pays to be a little ambiguous: you may irritate diehard fans a little, but it’ll go a long way in capturing a wider audience. An entertaining romp – count me in for round two. [6/10]

So what have we learned today? That, although she hasn’t been handed the most eclectic or choice roles, Anna Kendrick preserves through shoddy scripts to display her inherent talent, and that if you give her even a semblance of interesting character, she’ll knock it out of the park. Along with Anamaria Marinca, Evan Rachel Wood, and more recently, Sally Hawkins and Tang Wei – Anna Kendrick is amongst the top echelon of new actress exported from this decade. To cap off this decade? The high possibility of her garnering her first Oscar nomination with her performance in Up in the Air (released: December 25th) and I’m sure if she puts as much effort into that role (an allegedly strong one) as she has with the ones mentioned above, she’ll snag that career boosting mark with plentiful ease.

A concrete beginning to what I assume will be a prosperous career that will not die down until she feels the need to. Forever a fan.

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