Month: January 2016

Shaun the Sheep Movie

shaun the sheep2

Like his real-life counterpart, Chris, an unlucky Merino, plucky, claymated Shaun the Sheep shoots straight for the heart in his first big screen outing. Bored with his daily routine, which includes getting hauled in and out of pens and enduring the occasional shearing, Shaun concocts a plan to keep Farmer at bay while the sheep let loose for the day on Mossy Bottom Farm. What should be a relaxing afternoon frolicking in the fields or lounging in front of the telly quickly descends into a madcap adventure, however, when Farmer’s camper rolls off into The Big City.

Shaun and the rest of his flurry flock, along with dog Bitzer, give chase and try to retrieve their owner, but it’s kind of a jungle out there. Trumper, the neckless animal control officer, is determined to throw them in the pound, a sideshow of animal oddities, and they must evade him by donning human disguises. It’s easier said than done because despite their highly anthropomorphized nature, they don’t really understand all our strange human ways. More appallingly, however, Farmer loses his memory – and adopts the persona of a celebrity hairstylist – and any affection he had for the Mossy Bottom gang, throwing Shaun in particular into a bit of an existential crisis.

Fans of the TV show or Aardman productions (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away) won’t be surprised by the amount of charm the filmmakers bring to this simple story. While the studio tends to be unambitious when it comes to plotting, they are masters at detail, animating every scene with loving attention. Despite tightly focused sets and stories, there’s so much to savor visually that I always watch a second time just to absorb each inch of each carefully crafted frame. There’s the way Farmer takes his clipboard off the barn door every morning, as he has for the last decade, to reveal a clean patch of wood. There are the mismatched garments that hang on wire racks at the charity shop where the sheep go to find disguises. There’s Timmy, the baby sheep, shivering in his mother’s arms when the dejected flock seek shelter in a junkyard.

Animated movies, even the best ones, don’t rely this heavily on the visual storytelling that Shaun does, and it’s unsurprising that the film contains no dialogue, save an occasional grunt or bleat. When Shaun sets to win his day off, he tries to bribe a duck with bread, a silent exchange that pokes fun at mob film clichés better than any dopey one-liner could. The script also doesn’t let words get in the way of emotion. Farmer is more surrogate dad than taskmaster, and the animals’ attempt to bring him back home is about more than restoring equilibrium. A scratchy and dated home movie in the opening credits establishes a real affection between the characters, so it makes sense when Bitzer and the flock rush off into the city, refusing to give up even when a horrified Farmer shoos them from the salon and leaves them crestfallen. Animal lovers will embrace this cross-species family, but I suspect many others will also fall for our furry friends.

shaun the sheep1

“Feels Like Summer” by Tim Wheeler, Ilan Eshkeri, and Nick Hodgson:

shaun the sheep3

“Life’s a Treat”, Rizzle Kicks remix:

Released: 2015
Prod: Paul Kewley, Julie Lockhart
Dir: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Writer: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Cast: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili
Time: 85 min
Lang: Gibberish
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Murder, She Baked: A Peach Cobbler Mystery

murder she baked peach cobbler mystery

Watching the Murder, She Baked series as akin to indulging in a warm chocolate chip cookie…and then a plum pudding and then a peach cobbler. I should be snacking on a fruit cup, but my impulses lead elsewhere. These movies, adapted from books by Joanne Fluke, hit my light entertainment sweet spot. They’ve got me hooked in just enough that I willingly come back for more.

We last left off at Christmastime, when our heroine baker, Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney) was sitting down for a cozy holiday dinner with her family and both love interests, having solved yet another murder. This movie picks up a few months later, during which time a new bakery has opened shop across the street.

Out-of-towner Melanie (Michelle Harrison) is the owner of Magnolia Bakery and is using her signature peach cobbler to draw customers, including police inspector Mike (Cameron Mathison), away from Hannah’s Cookie Jar. When Hannah stumbles upon her rival’s dead body, however, she suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a police inquiry. With Mike keeping his distance due to the investigation, she turns to her other potential suitor, Norman (Gabriel Hogan), to help her solve the crime.

The movie tries to spice up the murder mystery recipe a bit by making Hannah the suspect, but it doesn’t taste all that different. The general trajectory of the story remains the same, and her heightened role in the case merely serves as another obstacle rather than a fundamental shift in perspective or proceedings. As with the previous film, the case does more to facilitate the romance than to really pique one’s interest in crime solving and psychology.

And that’s okay with me because what I really want to know is who Hannah’s going to end up with. I’m pulling for nice Norman, who gets to be more than the genial dentist here. In a scene that unabashedly conforms to stereotype, he uses his manly charm and dashing good looks to compel a weak-willed woman to divulge classified information about another suspect, someone who may be connected to the victim’s sister. Mike doesn’t exactly take the back seat in all of this, but he does end up on shakier ground with Norman stepping it up and after some of his own past is revealed.

I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to the next Lake Eden murder, which is shaping up to be a damn dangerous town. (So much for Minnesota nice.) And despite the fact that Hannah cannot get a grip on how to handle armed suspects, the town is small enough and filled with enough people who care about her – her chirpy younger sister, her dramatic mother, her practical-minded brother-in-law – that you know she’ll be alright in the end.

Released: 2016
Dir: Kristoffer Tabori
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Michelle Harrison, Anna Marie DeLuise, Roark Critchlow, Juliana Wimbles, Toby Levins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2016

Annie (1999)

annie 1999

I think we can acknowledge that any musical starring Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming, and Kristin Chenoweth will be worth watching, even if it is a sanitized version of the beloved Annie. As this 1999 TV adaptation shows, the sum of its talents can overcome the Disneyfication of what could be a darker production. The studio’s sugarcoated fingerprints are all over this one in order to make it as family friendly as possible, giving the movie a cheery glow but also leaving it a little hollow.

One change I did like was Garber’s interpretation of Depression era gazillionaire Oliver Warbucks, who is more sad than he is gruff. He doesn’t try to bark his way through the first act, and it’s easy to see why people would be drawn to him despite his standoffishness. When he embraces Annie (Alicia Morton), the orphan who he invites to his mansion as something of a Christmas publicity stunt, you know that she is what he’s been looking for all along. Unfortunately, Warbucks’s repressed romance with his secretary Grace (McDonald) remains that way for far too long and is awkwardly shoved in just before the movie ends. That makes McDonald’s performance, which is technically brilliant as always, fall a little flat. She is certainly the calming mother figure to Annie and the levelheaded assistant who keeps the household grounded, but she has little of the vibrancy that makes her character stand out.

Miss Hannigan, the owner of the small orphanage that Annie stays at, has the opposite problem of Warbucks and comes off as pretty tolerable, though not nice, despite Bates’s best efforts. You can almost hear the director telling her, “Mean, but not too mean,” in every scene. Hannigan ends up stomping around and looking really pissed off about her lot in life, but she’s not the abusive chain-smoking drunk she is in other versions. I don’t know that she warrants the intensity of hate she gets from her charges.

Morton’s casting really seems to dictate the tone. She’s a much sweeter, more cherubic Annie, and when she threatens to knock some sense into one of the girls who’s caught bullying another, it’s not quite clear who will end up on top. In other productions, I’d cheer for Annie because she’s the scrappy and precocious underdog. In this movie, I’m rooting for her because I just want someone to protect her.

What softens the story’s edges are also what end up making this film fun to watch though. Cumming and Chenoweth give their characters, scheming thieves in cahoots with Miss Hannigan, a cartoonish sheen that makes their song and dance pop. I admit I couldn’t stop thinking of Cumming as the Emcee in Cabaret, a decidedly different role in so many respects, but the actor has perfected all variations of slimeball. He along with a scene-chewing Chenoweth have way too much fun being bad, giving the audience license to join in.

It’s this use of Broadway talent that lifts the picture from the confines of TV. Because of the format, the choreography looks a little boxed in at times. Most of the scenes take place in large rooms, which keeps the action from weaving through sets and in and outdoors. Visually, for example, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” doesn’t quite achieve the grand scale the song suggests and has to make the most out of Warbucks’s foyer space. But McDonald’s singing, and Morton’s, gives the number extra height. Even without star wattage, however, the wonderfully diverse orphans carry off “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” with a joyous kick.

“It’s a Hard Knock Life” by Alicia Morton and the Orphans:

“Tomorrow” by Alicia Morton:

“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” by Audra McDonald and Alicia Morton:

“NYC” by Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Alicia Morton, and original Annie, Andrea McArdle:

“Easy Street” by Alan Cumming, Kathy Bates, and Kristin Chenoweth:

“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” by the Orphans:

Released: 1999
Prod: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: Irene Mecchi
Cast: Alicia Morton, Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Andrea McArdle, Sarah Hyland
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: ABC
Reviewed: 2016