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

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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

Concrete Evidence: A Fixer Upper Mystery (2017)

For what it’s worth, which is almost nothing, this is my favorite Hallmark mystery. Lead actress Jewel once again makes this series stand out, effortlessly adding sparkle to her sleuthing everywoman character. She does what many of the Hallmark leads try to do, which is give spunk to a stereotype. Let’s be honest; things are a bit vanilla when it comes to this and similar channels. These are all strong white women of a certain mold, women who are good at their day jobs, often as a small business owner, can rely on a supportive network of family and friends, and are financially stable enough to balance a career and a full-time hobby.

In comes Jewel as Shannon Hughes, who is all these things but who also lacks any pretense. The actress doesn’t force a personality onto the screen but lets it slip out as the story allows. Shannon still gets to be a hero but doesn’t go out of her way to be one, unlike other accidental detectives (I’m looking at you, Hannah Swensen). She tries to avoid deadly confrontation like a normal person and uses her good sense to dial emergency services, because sometimes it’s okay to leave things to the professionals. In doing so, we are spared seeing her lectured to by a protective male detective (it’s always a guy, and yes, I’m looking at you, Detective Mike) who gets to have it both ways and chastise and admire a woman at the same time. But when she does try to thwart a suspect’s escape, she uses her handywoman skills because girl is a quick thinker.

Besides a watchable lead though, Concrete Evidence also presents an enticing if not extraordinary mystery. It’s tightly plotted, a whodunit where all the players have a complex history with the victim and the other suspects. The story stretches back to Shannon’s high school days when Lily, the girlfriend of her former classmate, disappears. Lily isn’t seen or heard from again, until her skeleton is found inside a dumbwaiter in the house Shannon is restoring. It’s the same house purchased by Mac Sullivan (Colin Ferguson), star crime reporter, novelist, and Shannon’s potential love interest.

Immediately, suspicion falls on Cliff, the boyfriend and last person to see Lily alive. Besides his reputation as an arrogant jock back in the day, he now owns a competing restoration business and Shannon knows firsthand how far he’ll go to get his way. When she revisits their school for more clues, however, old friends reveal old grievances that might point to other killers. Lily’s best friend, Denise, who now teaches at the school, her husband, and even Lily’s brother, a foreman on Shannon’s crew, may not be as forthcoming as they first appear.

One thing I liked is that everyone gets a fair shot at being the prime suspect. I thought I had the case figured out early on but found myself shifting allegiances with new revelations. Meanwhile, the investigators are coming into their own. Shannon’s friend from the first movie gets more screentime as her sidekick, and another former classmate, the faithful Officer Tommy, realizes it’s more productive to trust Shannon’s instincts than to ignore them. Shannon’s relationship with Mac is also handled with care. These two aren’t in a rush to get together, so when they do begin to show signs of attraction, it feels natural and all the more welcome.

Released: 2017
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Jewel, Colin Ferguson, Erin Karpluk, Ron Lea, Jason Cermak, Colin Lawrence, Sean Rogerson, Wiliam MacDonald, Michael Karl Richards, Jenn MacLean-Angus, Ben Cotton
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

I’ve concluded that one’s enjoyment of a movie has a lot to do with expectations, and Get Him to the Greek is an example of this. At first glance it looks like a mindless Judd Apatow production, a portrait of arrested development on the pop-rock circuit. Netflix recommended I make a double feature out of it and pair it with 30 Minutes or Less, which I saw the day before and hated, or Accepted, which I had also seen and disliked less. But the movie turns out to be more, by degrees, than either of its cousins.

On the one hand, it is what the poster suggests, a film about a hedonistic rock star and his slightly clueless friend who indulge in all sorts of irresponsible behavior that writer-director Nicholas Stoller then twists into something more juvenile. It’s not just drug use; it’s a baggie of heroin up the bum that’s popped out like a pellet of baby powder. On the other hand, it also dips into more meditative territory, allowing its characters room for self-reflection. This surprised me, so much so that I found myself imaging a better indie version of the film, maybe something along the lines of meandering John Carney picture (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street).

For better or worse, it is not that. Apatow and his stars are firmly in the driver’s seat and steer it in the direction you’d expect. British radio host and comedian Russell Brand reprises his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and plays Aldous Snow, a rock star at the top of his game when he releases a song called “African Child.” An ugly anthem of white liberal guilt and white savior complex, the song is a critical and commercial failure and sends Aldous into a downward spiral. He breaks up with his partner, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), relapses into his various addictions, and stops making music.

Cue A&R man Aaron Green (Hill). He works at a record company headed by Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), who is as emotionally abusive as he is clueless about nurturing talent. Aaron hopes to earn points and Sergio’s good favor by proposing a tenth anniversary concert for Aldous at the Greek Theater, an event that will mark the singer’s iconic performance there and set the stage for his comeback. But first, Aaron must coax his reluctant star out of his London penthouse.

Once he does, the movie is a road trip of sorts, a plane trip really, and each leg is marked by escalating chaos that threatens to derail the concert. There’s a visit to the Today show that goes wildly offscript, as evidenced by Paul Krugman’s (yes, that Paul Krugman) bewildered look. A detour to Las Vegas similarly goes haywire. Aldous tries to make amends with his estranged father (Colm Meaney) while Aaron gets kite-high and inadvertently torches a fur-lined lounge. Those are the tamer moments though. The film also does its best to provoke with a threesome that ends in stereotypical homophobic anxiety. Also Aaron gets raped, and it’s a joke.

These are the reasons I’m not generally a fan of Apatow and company, and I suppose why others are. There’s a great film in here about a musician seeking redemption and a talent scout seeking his way. It’s not an original storyline, but these are two characters who, when stripped of the excess, reveal some depth. Brand is a revelation to me. I’d only known him to be a provocative radio and entertainment personality, someone who appeared on end-of-the-year quiz shows in Britain. He readily deploys that persona but also shows restraint and doesn’t play his character’s more touching moments with any cynicism. Some of my favorite scenes are when Aldous tries to reconcile with Jackie Q (Byrne clearly having a ball as a chavy pop star) and his son, proving that indeed, rockers are real people. Hill has similar moments; Aaron needs to figure out if he’s willing to sacrifice his dignity and his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) now that he has his dream job. It’s too bad then that the emotional arc of the story is propped up by an overabundance of frat house humor.

“Little Bird” by Infant Sorrow (Russell Brand):

“Ring Around the Rosie” by Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), just NSFW:

Released: 2010
Prod: Judd Apatow, Joshua Blake, David Bushell, Rodney Rothman, Nicholas Stoller
Dir: Nicholas Stoller
Writer: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Elisabeth Moss, Rose Byrne, Sean Combs, Colm Meaney
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017