Month: June 2017

Real Murders: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

The first installment of this series got off to a middling start with more emphasis on Aurora Teagarden than on the mystery. This second movie makes up for that though; starring Candace Cameron Bure as the title character, it delivers a high stakes whodunit in which the victims and suspects are all part of the Real Murders Club. The group is not, as it would seem, one where real murders occur but where an eclectic circle of friends come to discuss true crime stories old and new. On this occasion, however, a real murder is committed just before their meeting. A woman is killed in the same manner as the crime to be discussed, leading Aurora to believe that there is a murderer in their midst.

Ro, a librarian by day, dives into the case despite being warned off by her ex and his wife (Miranda Frigon), both police detectives, and her worried mother (Marilu Henner). She ignores their advice and promptly partners with a fellow club member, John (Bruce Dawson), and her journalist best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig). Joining them is newcomer Robin Daniels (Robin Dunne), mystery writer and hottie, but his sudden appearance and intimate knowledge of crime also puts him on the suspect list.

When Ro is nearly poisoned, her investigation intensifies, and she wonders if someone is instead committing copycat murders while trying to knock off the members one by one. She connects whoever she can to past crimes the club has studied, searching for clues as to who the next victim might be. No one is safe from either list though, and some of her top suspects include a butcher who was absent from the meting the night of the murders and a guy with previous run-ins with the police. Rather than relish the chance to be a part of the action for once, however, the group begins to eye each other with skepticism. No one wants to be questioned by the police or a nosy Ro, and the situation is made worse when Sally writes an article that sources private conversations between the members. They start to wonder if the Real Murders Club is more trouble than it’s worth.

This movie does a better job of balancing character and mystery. Now that we know what kind of person Ro and the other characters are, the narrative just needs to highlight certain aspects of their personalities, like Ro’s habit of rejecting guys that her mom pushes her way. Granted, I would move cautiously if my mother suggested I feign interest to get a second date, but did they need to drop hot vicar without warning? Is this going to be a habit because I kind of want Robin to stay on. He and Ro are compatible and make a good sleuthing team. The dynamic between Ro and Lynn, the detective wife of her ex, is also taking shape. Instead of two catty women baring their claws over a guy, they have something of a symbiotic relationship that also shows off their strengths. You’d think they be a little friendlier after Ro delivered Lynn’s baby on a kitchen, but a détente will do for now.

One thing I’m not a particular fan of but will have to put up with because I’ve committed myself to this series is Cameron Bure’s Hallmark style of acting. These are the kinds of roles she eats up, and girl overacts the shit out of this. It’s not that she comes off as fake but that she’s overdramatic, the friend who tears up because your great-aunt died and wants to know if you need her to catsit while you attend the funeral. No, and stop crying.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Robin Dunne, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Seann Gallagher, Anna Van Hooft, Julian Christopher
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

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A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

When I started A Bone to Pick, the first movie in the Aurora Teagarden series, I was as excited as one can be to dive into a Hallmark mystery. The title character is a diminutive, single librarian with a penchant for solving murders, which is far closer to me than a bakery owner or a remodeling expert. But the air quickly goes out of this one despite a few moments of levity, especially a late scene involving a very pregnant police captain. Aurora (Candace Cameron Bure), or Ro as she’s known to her family and friends, is a perky character who’s easy to like, but her chipper personality isn’t enough to sustain a full mystery.

The idea of a Real Murders Club is grim but enticing, and Ro and her friends gather regularly to discuss and try to solve real murders, obviously. I’m too squeamish to join one myself, assuming these things exist and I’m sure they do, but the popularity of true crime podcasts like Serial and shows like Making a Murderer suggests that these guys are on to something. When one of the members dies – from old age and not from foul play, Ro gets pulled into a real murder mystery of her own.

The woman leaves her whole estate to the young librarian, an estate that happens to include a skull tucked inside the window seat of her very handsome house. Ro’s crime solving mind clicks into gear, and rather than alerting the police, she immediately sets off to gather clues. There are a few leads for her to follow, all of which bring her back to her new neighbors whom she suspects of murdering one of their own. Under the pretense of exploring the block, she takes the opportunity to question everyone and eventually fingers a mysterious dress shop owner with a runaway husband, a woman who looks like an extra from an 80s TV movie, her bland husband, and a grumpy newspaper editor who happens to be the boss of Ro’s best friend. Her accusations do nothing to endear her to her neighbors, who are already miffed that she and not they inherited their neighbor’s property and wealth.

I can’t be sure that these are all the suspects though. The movie spends so much time trying to establish Ro’s character that there’s hardly any thought given to the others. In the end, I managed to sort everyone out, but that still left an unsatisfying reveal. Nevertheless, Ro is a force, and this first movie in a series does its best to get you hooked on the character; the sleuthing is secondary. It’s not how good storytelling works but it’s the trade-off the writers decide to go for.

And that’s fine if you’re not into the whole murder mystery thing, though this is the channel’s raison d’etre. There are plenty of characters to liven up the story, like Marilu Henner as Ro’s mom, Aida. A high class real estate agent, Aida is some strange incarnation of a helicopter parent. She pays her daughter’s rent and then criticizes her lack of fashion sense, and common sense, come to think of it since she disapproves of Ro’s morbid interests. A hot vicar strolls onto the scene as Ro’s love interest. Of course this one is not to be confused with The Hot Vicar, Sidney Chambers, but that’s for another day, ladies. Ro’s ex is also a police detective married to another police detective. I don’t care to see catty exchanges between women at odds over a dude, but that’s where this rivalry is now. And let’s not forget dowdy librarian, who is exactly the stereotype you are picturing. Finally, we have our one non-white character with a substantial speaking part. Lexa Doig, a part-Filipina actor, plays Ro’s best friend, Sally, and yes, her job is to be as supportive and non-offensive as possible.

Released: 2015
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Sonya Salomaa, Dan Payne, Miranda Frigon, Stephen Huszar, David Ingram, Fiona Vroom
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009)

It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m here to say that I like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Sqeakquel. I’ll even go so far as to say that this movie improves on the first one, which I’ll also admit to enjoying. And while this isn’t going in the pantheon of kids flicks, it’s funny and engaging enough for those little people who would get a kick out of singing, dancing forest rodents.

One noticeable improvement is the sidelining of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a major character in the Chipmunks tale. He is the adoptive father to and occasional manager of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney). When we last saw him, he was a struggling songwriter who sheltered the brothers from Ian (David Cross), an evil record producer with no respect for child labor laws. Lee has a genial onscreen presence and balances out his hyperactive costars, but he’s also as exciting as a bottle of cold milk. It’s not that he seems unhappy to be here; it’s more like he’s not really sure what he’s doing here.

Enter Zachary Levi, giddy nerd and actual Disney prince. He plays Dave’s irresponsible nephew, Toby, who comes into the picture after Alvin’s concert stunt lands Dave in the hospital. Toby becomes the boys’ temporary caretaker, which is to say the guy who happens to live in the same house for a short while but who spends most of his time playing video games. It’s not a challenging role and though he has a minor romantic storyline, the character’s largely underused and underdeveloped. Levi makes up for this where he can and is instantly comfortable with the goofy, childish tone and material. He doesn’t play down to the under-10 crowd but right to them.

The real stars of course are the Chipmunks, and they decide to take a break from their music career to get an education. They quickly find that navigating West Eastman High is harder than navigating an arena tour, and Simon and Theodore have an especially rough time fitting in. Even with the support of their school principal (a perfectly game Wendie Malick), they endure a good amount of bullying; they are tiny chipmunks, after all. Alvin deflects some of that negative attention when he joins the football team, but this only creates a rift between the brothers. Further rivalries appear when the Chipettes (Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler) enroll and steal the Chipmunks’ thunder. The boys are upset that the girls have gained their own fanbase, and they must resolve their differences with a sing-off. The winner gets bragging rights and the chance to represent the school in a competition for more school funding.

When it comes down to it, the story is not unlike the average Disney Channel Original Movie about teens trying to be cool and true to themselves. The difference is some truly adorable CGI chipmunks. Say what you will, the animation and the voice acting are all wonderfully realized, and nothing makes me smile like tiny Theodore wanting to curl up next to whatever human happens to be his guardian. It’s not all saccharine stuff though, and the series has an unsettling mean streak. Putting them in a high school environment allows the writers to get away with jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing, but why the hell do you need jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing in a movie about animated chipmunks? Kids will love the physical humor, but the snide retorts don’t serve anyone. Theodore and Eleanor are mocked for their weight and Ian threatens to barbeque the Chipettes. Sure, the little guys win in the end, but the bullies don’t change their ways; they just get caught.

Released: 2009
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Betty Thomas
Writer: Jon Vitti, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast: Zachary Levi, Jason Lee, David Cross, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Wendie Malick, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, Anjelah Johnson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

This is what you need to know. I watched this movie last night. I’m watching it again tonight, not because it made such an impression on me that I had to go back for seconds but rather the opposite. Less than twenty-four hours later, all I remember is Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive voice and a flying ship. It turns out there’s more to this movie, but there’s also more Master of None and House of Cards to get to, so… (I work with little people, hence the eclectic entertainment choices.)

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas should be a good movie. On paper, the idea is perfect for a family cartoon. Lovable rogue Sinbad (Brad Pitt) wants to steal the Book of Peace and retire to Fiji with his band of ethnically diverse pirates. The book is headed to Syracuse though, where it will be guarded by the king and his son, Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), Sinbad’s childhood friend. It’s not just any dusty artifact; the Book of Peace is a glowing, magical organism that somehow protects the Twelve Cities, which is why everyone is eager to get his, or her, hands on it.

Eris (Pfeiffer), the goddess of discord, has her sneaky reasons for wanting it and takes advantage of Sinbad’s greed, promising him even more wealth if he steals it on her behalf. His sudden bout of conscience forces her to do her own dirty work, however. When Sinbad gets blamed for the theft anyway, he must go to the outer realms, accompanied by Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to retrieve it. If he doesn’t return in time, Book of Peace in hand, Proteus will die in his stead.

In my unplanned second viewing, I appreciate that kids will enjoy this movie. There are swordfights and sea creatures aplenty, including Cetus and a frightening and fascinating island monster. The sea is formidable opponent even for a lifelong pirate like Sinbad. Viewers young and old will also come under Eris’s spell. The sultry, shapeshifting goddess oozes with evil, but the fun, tempting kind and not the scary nightmares kind.

The movie is at times visually striking. A product of DreamWorks Animation, it doesn’t have the color and lushness of Disney films, which tend to be brighter and less angular, but it borrows the same style as the studio’s earlier hit, The Prince of Egypt, and that turned out nicely. Parents hoping their kids will learn lessons in friendship, honor, and Greek mythology will be pleased too.

But for all its merits, Sinbad is simply a boring film. There’s nothing distinctive about the story or storytelling, which does little to evoke ancient Greece or its mythology. It’s also not clear how Sinbad, a character of Middle Eastern origin, gets thrown into this world, but that’s clearly no one’s concern. Pitt does a decent job. He has trouble coming up with a personality that stands out though. Sinbad is a cocky smart aleck struggling to prove himself, and this describes a lot of cartoon heroes (e.g. Aladdin, Hercules, Flynn Rider).

His two true friends, Marina and Proteus, are equally flat. Would you guess that Marina is a free-spirit who longs for the open seas but feels constrained by her arranged marriage to Proteus? Sure, she’s gets a chance to swash some buckles and defy some stereotypes. At the end of the day, however, it’s still a choice between two men who hold the key to her happiness, and the other one, Proteus, barely registers on the radar. His presence motivates everything, but his character and friendship with Sinbad need more development if he’s going to more than a rudimentary plot device.

Pfeiffer is the exception. As Eris, she’s a tantalizing and haunting presence, carving out her own corner of animated film villainy. It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t quite rise to her standard. If you’re going to watch a high seas adventure, you should come out with the feeling that you’ve been on one. Instead, Sinbad fills itself with noise and movement but few true thrills and wonder.

Released: 2003
Prod: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mireille Soria
Dir: Tim Johnson, Patrick Gilmore
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Adriano Giannini
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

The Swan Princess (1994)

The Swan Princess, a minor animated film released at the height of the Disney Renaissance, gets off to a sleepy start. Two monarchs decide to seal their friendship and kingdoms by promising their infant children in marriage. But rather than go about this the old fashioned way and force their issue to wed, they decide to arrange yearly playdates so that the young princess and prince can fall in love, naturally. When Odette (Michelle Nicastro, singing by Liz Callaway) and Derek (Howard McGillin) come of age and do start making eyes at one another, everyone is delighted, until Derek opens his big male mouth and proposes. Awestruck by Odette’s beauty, he stares blankly when she wonders what other attributes of hers he admires. The wedding is promptly cancelled. Odette escapes into a forest where she is confronted by the banished sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance) and turned into a swan.

That’s when things start to pick up. The story retains many plot points of its source, the ballet Swan Lake. Odette transforms back into human form at night, when the moonlight hits the lake, but has little hope of returning to her old life. Creepy old Rothbart isn’t going to let her fly away so easily and proposes every night in hopes that he can rule the kingdom as her consort. The guy is not at all coy about his plans, because men. Odette’s only chance at freedom is for Derek to vow his everlasting love to her. Kind of mixed messages on the feminism front; girls, demand to be respected for your whole person, but when in trouble, you gotta wait for the dude to come to your rescue.

Directed by Disney alum Richard Rich, The Swan Princess sits squarely in the average range when it comes to quality. (I spotted at least two Sleeping Beauty Easter eggs for those keeping track.) The characters look like they just dashed off the set of a Saturday morning cartoon and the dialogue suggests they took the scripts with them. There is the usual motley crew of talking animals, in this case French frog Jean-Bob (John Cleese), casual tortoise Speed (Steven Wright), and a puffin. They provide some daffy moments, especially Jean-Bob, that kids will enjoy, but they aren’t memorable characters.

Some of the animation has an ethereal quality, which I liked. The forest and lake suggest a dreamy, far-off place where all sorts of magic can happen. But it also seemed like the artists focused their talents on a few set pieces and ignored other details. You might recognize the special effects, when Rothbart casts his spells for example, as something from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television show.

Inconsistency is the key, but it also turns out to be a wonderful thing if you like your old Hollywood studio musicals. Out of nowhere bursts some showy MGM numbers, with titles like “Princesses on Parade” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The brassy sound, the synchronized high kicks, the endless staircases – none of it matches the fairy tale tone of the rest of the movie. But for a few short minutes, those song and dance numbers add charge to the delicate storytelling. McGillin, who famously holds the record for most performances in the title role of Phantom of the Opera, also lends his considerable vocal power.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

“Princesses on Parade”:

Released: 1994
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Brian Nissen
Cast: Howard McGillin, Michelle Nicastro, Jack Palance, Sandy Duncan, James Arrington, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Steve Vinovich, Liz Callaway
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017