Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Like a moth to a flame, I just can’t help myself when it comes to Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Maybe it’s my childhood affection for the cartoon or my love of small, furry critters, but I’ve somehow managed to watch all four films and, with the exception of the last one, actually like them. This fourth installment is the best one yet, succeeding where the others have failed. The acting and story are greatly improved, especially now that David Cross’s grating character is out of the way. The filmmakers have also scaled back the gimmicky pop culture references, giving us a family film that isn’t overloaded with slang and all the latest radio hits. The franchise could do with a bit more charm though. Four movies in, it still feels motivated by the novelty of talking chipmunks run amok, but Road Chip has enough of an emotional center for a heartwarming story to take shape.

Brothers Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are joined by Miles (Josh Green), son of Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), their dad Dave’s (Jason Lee) new love interest, in this cross-country adventure. An unpleasant first meeting at the mini-golf course leads to bad blood between the Chipmunks and Miles. The situation worsens when the siblings discover an engagement ring amongst Dave’s shopping and realize Miles might soon be their new brother. When Dave takes Samantha, and the ring, to an album launch in Miami for one of his artists (Bella Thorne), the Chipmunks have to find a way to Florida and stop the proposal, even if it means teaming up with their chief tormenter.

At least the enemies are on the same page when it comes to wanting to break up their parents’ relationship. Miles agrees to the plan, and volunteers his mom’s credit card, and the four set off to Miami. Trouble is never far behind though, and the Chipmunks find themselves on the No Fly List after they cause an incident involving chinchillas and goats. Not only are they stuck in Texas without any money, but they are also pursued by Air Marshal Suggs (Tony Hale), who has a personal vendetta against the singing rodents.

The “road” part of this trip is relatively short but it’s enough to squeeze in a boozy stop in New Orleans. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore join in a street carnival rendition of “Uptown Funk,” an enjoyable musical interlude precisely because there are so few of them in this movie. That the brothers don’t take center stage makes the scene even better. Instead of computer generated chipmunks flying around, desperate to grab our attention, the trio get to just groove to the music. Keeping the Chipettes’ role to a cameo also cuts down on the audio and visual clutter. The girls fly in for a glittery musical finale but are otherwise preoccupied as judges for American Idol.

A stripped down Chipmunks story allows Road Chip to really get to the heart of things, and that is the relationship between the brothers and Miles. If they make a fifth movie, and I’m not suggesting that they do – but if they do – I’d hope Miles rejoins the gang. Green is a fresh presence, even if I can’t figure out how old he’s supposed to be (young enough to be grounded yet old enough to traipse around the country alone apparently). He takes great care with his character, embracing every part of Miles, from the would-be bully to the traumatized son and protective older brother. Unlike so many of the actors in this series, he plays his part with seriousness and sincerity, and that’s what makes this a feel-good film.

The same is true for Hale, who gives a class on how to be a proper kids’ movie villain. Unlike Cross, the actor never feels like he’s phoning it in. His character is sneering, over-the-top, and foolish but purposely so. Also, Suggs is mean without being mean-spirited, which is one of my main gripes about the previous movies. This script keeps things light-hearted and avoids the franchise’s cynical streak. That seems to have elevated even Lee’s acting. He still looks disconnected half the time and never gives off any warm, fatherly vibes, but he has no choice but to perk up alongside everyone else.

“Uptown Funk” by the Chipmunks:

“Home” by the Chipmunks and the Chipettes:

Released: 2015
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Walt Becker
Writer: Randi Mayem Singer, Adam Sztykiel
Cast: Jason Lee, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Josh Green, Tony Hale, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Kaley Cuoco
Time: 92 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019


Marley’s Ghosts S02 (2016)

Be careful what you wish for, which in this case is a six-episode order for round two of Marley’s Ghosts. Strictly speaking, I didn’t wish for this, but after an affecting third and final episode of the first series, I wondered if an extended season might improve its storytelling. No, seems to be the answer. While the characters attempt some soul searching, in a literal sense on occasion, they return as vapid as ever, joined by even more exasperating personalities.

Magistrate Marley (Sarah Alexander) has moved on since the deaths of her husband, lover, and vicar, by which I mean she’s moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. Adam (John Hannah), Michael (Nicholas Burns), and Vicar (Jo Joyner) meanwhile remain her constant companions and, by the looks of it, her only friends. She’s developed a begrudging tolerance for her supernatural housemates, in part because they won’t leave her alone and in part because she seems to have gotten used to the idea of sleeping with three ghosts. But now Marley wants to see what exciting things await her as a single woman.

She doesn’t have grand ambitions for widowed life, but she does want to get in good with the neighborhood association and perhaps join a women’s running group. Her actions don’t endear her to anyone though. Guess running through the streets in your underwear and yelling at imaginary friends aren’t ways to win over strangers. Besides, Marley isn’t all that likable. She can be selfish and unfeeling, and her lack of empathy is a point of contention in the series. After laughing off the misfortunes of a blind man (David Brain) and an elderly woman on a mobility scooter, she realizes maybe she does have some emotional hang-ups.

Marley’s not the only one with issues though. Far from enjoying a carefree afterlife, the ghosts are experiencing their own crises. Michael is distraught to learn that his ex-wife doesn’t and maybe never did care for him, Adam finds fulfillment with another (ghost) woman (Sarah Hadland) and wonders if she could possibly be his soulmate, and ever-loopy Vicar is momentarily introspective enough to question her relationship with God.

The characters’ acceptance of their own failings comes slowly and arguably too late, but at least there’s growth. The second series needed something to go on besides the novelty of human-ghost cohabitation, and Marley and friends show themselves to be relatable by exposing their less desirable traits. I admit they grew on me after awhile, but I might be confusing this feeling with merely tolerating their presence. Still, there’s strange beauty in this group of misfits; they turn out to be a supportive if unconventional family unit when it really matters, like in the final episode when Marley receives some surprising news.

The series only has a few standout moments, however, making it an easy one to forget. Marley’s relationship with her rebellious niece, Mia (Ella-Rae Smith), is as touching as it is messy. On several occasions, Marley takes charge of Mia. She tries to restrain the latter’s adolescent impulses while also giving her room to learn from her mistakes. Alexander is most effective in these tight spots, when there’s something on the line besides her own insecurities.

My biggest problem with the series was Vicar, who’s written without a clear direction in mind. Joyner inhabits the role brilliantly, swinging from dim to thoughtful in a beat, but the character is a lazy sketch. While she has her moments of clarity, her main purpose seems to be offsetting Adam and Michael’s sizable male egos and allowing jabs about shoddy faith formation. Unlike the other characters though, there isn’t a specific experience or memory that shapes her or the audience’s understanding of her. You can always count on Vicar to reference Job when she’s confident or make up a story from Matthew when she’s not, but that’s about all there is to her. I’m not going to suggest another season to see if her character or the story could be fleshed out, and two series seems to be all we’re getting, which is fine and fitting.

Released: 2016
Dir: Jonathan Gershfield
Writer: Daniel Peacock
Cast: Sarah Alexander, John Hannah, Jo Joyner, Nicholas Burns, Elizabeth Berrington, Ella-Rae Smith, Juliet Cowan, David Brain, Sarah Hadland, Jim Howick
Time: 26 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Gold
Reviewed: 2019

Life of the Party (2018)

Life of the Party goes in some unexpected directions but doesn’t always end up where it maybe should. The film, the third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, tries a different approach with the college comedy, opting for something gentler instead of your typical rude and raunchy house party. The result is both fresh and surprising, but it’s also not very funny. McCarthy and Falcone, who serve as writers and producers with the latter taking on directing duties, seem to have their hearts in the right place, but that’s hardly enough in this case. The meandering plot doesn’t give the story or comedy much structure, and the movie fails to live up to its promise.

McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, bubbly wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). She is living her best life until she drops her daughter off at college and Dan drops the news that he is filing for divorce, selling the house, and marrying realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Seizing the opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, as one character puts it, Deanna joins Maddie to complete the remaining two semesters of her archaeology degree.

You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare scenario, and it looks to shape up that way at first. Deanna intrudes on Maddie’s social life, giving herself an open invitation to her daughter’s sorority house. Meanwhile, her fondness for mom humor makes her the target of a couple of mean girls in her class. Another film would turn Deanna into the butt of all jokes and find a multitude of ways to tear her down. Maddie would be at odds with her embarrassing mother, a rift that would drive her into the arms of a useless coed.

To my shock, however, Life of the Party does none of these things. Instead it makes Deanna, or “Dee Rock,” well, the life of the party. Maddie’s sorority sisters, not exactly the cool kids but not misfits either, immediately embrace her as their surrogate mother. The group includes Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older student who was in a coma for eight years, and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), who is always a step or two behind. Both are delightfully offbeat but have no qualms about showing off their new friend. They even take it as a point of pride when she goes out with them. Deanna, likewise, draws inspiration from the young women around her and gains confidence because of their support. It’s not often we see this type of generational divide used as a source of strength rather than division, common and natural as these relationships are in real life.

A novel concept does not make a movie though, and the film isn’t as self-assured its characters. There are a handful of minor conflicts, none of which are important enough to shape the narrative. Sometimes it seems like Deanna and gang are just hitchhiking along to their own story and stumbling from one spot to the next. The divorce and Dan’s general assholery are persistent background noise rather than major plot points while Deanna’s classroom nemeses are put in their place with a brief but wicked 80s dance battle. On the plus side, she has a college fling with Jack (Luke Benward), a fellow student and friend of Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang in a surprising bit of anti-Hollywood casting). The relationship is sweet I suppose, but it’s not all that sincere, and I suspect it’s played more as a response to the typical narrative of the middle-aged dude romancing a fawning college girl. The role reversal provides some laughs, but like most other ideas in this movie, it isn’t that compelling.

Released: 2018
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Parnell, Debby Ryan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Calendar Girls (2003)

If we’re compiling a list of pinup models for a charity calendar, Helen Mirren would definitely be on my list. So it makes sense to me that she should take the lead on Calendar Girls, a film about women of a certain age who decide to pose nude to raise funds for a cancer charity. Based on a true story, it recounts how a group of Yorkshire women, namely the ladies of the Knapely Women’s Institute, went from housewives to international stars after daring to show some skin.

British folks aren’t going to get their kit off that easily though, at least this is the lesson I learned from The Full Monty. For Chris (Mirren) and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), the death of Annie’s husband (John Alderton) from cancer is enough motivation. Both are members of the local women’s group, Chris reluctantly so, and are inspired to take a chance on their own tastefully nude calendar. This fundraising idea is not just an alterative to the group’s traditional Yorkshire scenes calendar but also a much needed diversion from the WI’s scintillating lectures on broccoli, tea towels, and the like. Of course, some of the more conservative members prefer gazing at country bridges than at wrinkled navels, and Chris and Annie face pushback from the local chairwoman (Geraldine James).

The film offers up plenty of devilish moments, and it’s funniest exactly where you’d expect it to be. The women, who also include Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, and Linda Bassett, enlist a skeptical hospital porter (Philip Glenister) to take the photos. Unfortunately, they also don’t want him anywhere near their naked bodies. Things get tricky when he has to direct them from afar, instructing them just how to angle a pair of pruning shears or a set of glazed buns to hide their lady parts.

The laughs ease up once the calendar goes into production, and national and international media get ahold of their story. Fame starts to take its toll, bringing out Chris’s diva tendencies. Her need to be at the center of attention strains her relationship with Annie, whom she accuses of being too much a martyr for the cause. Chris’s family life suffers too as she leaves her husband (Ciarán Hinds) and son (John-Paul Macleod) in her wake.

The tone of this third act isn’t enough to overwhelm the rest of the film, which remains a hilarious and light-hearted movie. It helps that the women are all top class, a gorgeous, cheeky set that I wouldn’t mind shadowing, well, forever. Mirren might not have a regal bearing here, but she’s still a dizzying force. It’s no wonder Hinds’s character, a true feminist, is utterly smitten. Imrie’s saucy streak was a highlight as well. The movie probably reinforces everything casual American viewers think about England. It certainly seems like a land of Knapely-esque villages where no problem is so big that it can’t be solved with a picnic on the Moors and a fulsome rendition of “Jerusalem.” But damn, what a fun place to be if only for a while.

Released: 2003
Prod: Nick Barton
Dir: Nigel Cole
Writer: Tim Firth, Juliette Towhidi
Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Geraldine James, Philip Glenister, Ciarán Hinds, John Alderton, George Costigan, John-Paul Macleod
Time: 108 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Forever Plaid (2008)

There’s something about boy bands that will get me to the day I die. Whether its Boyz II Men or ‘N Sync or Big Bang, I just can’t shake a group of harmonizing dudes with synchronized dance moves. And so it is with Forever Plaid, a deceased 1950s quartet killed after their cherry red Cadillac crashes into a busload of Catholic teens (or “slammed by parochial virgins” as one guy puts it) on their way to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now, thanks to some funny business in the astral planes, they’ve been granted one last performance on earth before going to that big cocktail lounge in the sky.

The movie, a filmed performance of the popular Off-Broadway revue, isn’t as flashy as some of the live versions of musical shows you see today. In fact, the production has a slight home video quality to it, albeit with privileged front row access, but that doesn’t take away from the show’s humor or the impressive talent of its stars. For about an hour and a half and with no intermission, Sparky (Larry Raben), Smudge (David Engel), Jinx (Stan Chandler), and Frankie (Daniel Reichard) settle in for their last hurrah. They sing their cheery hearts out to classics like “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the opening and closing numbers respectively, while regaling the audience with stories about how the group came to be (the high school AV club) and where they held their practice sessions (the basement of a cleaning supply store).

This was the first musical I ever saw onstage, and a quarter century later, I’m just as delighted by the four lads who make up Forever Plaid. They have a earnestness about them that transcends time and even death. Their premature end seems to have preserved their optimism, and they young-ish men have convinced themselves that things were and always will be on the up and up, never mind that they would likely have been eclipsed by groups such as the Beatles. Their lack of perspective, however, keeps the show light. These are just four dudes happy to be here and with a jaunty set list to match.

The actors all do their parts justice, not only nailing their harmonies but also the group’s tight bond. Raben, as the aptly named Sparky, shows off his character’s skill as a natural performer and the Plaid’s leader. He gently encourages his shyer stepbrother, Jinx, who comes into his own mid-song in “Cry.” Smudge has a similar show-stopping moment when he belts out his feature solo in “Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang.” Both Engel and Chandler are original cast members while Reichard originated the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. Reichard, as the young Frankie, gets the show’s most pensive monologue. As their show comes to an end and the Plaids wax lyrical about what might have been, Frankie seizes the moment, imploring them to take pride in what they have accomplished.

I almost wish more somber touches could have been added in between the humor. These days, you can probably take out the Caribbean medley (“Day-O,” “Kingston Market,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Matilda Matilda”), which cobbles together embarrassing accents and props from a cruise ship gift shop. Instead, maybe the Plaids should ponder their cosmic fate a bit more. I care too much for them to wait until the final minutes when they really open up.

Released: 2008
Prod: Barney Cohen, Benni Korzen, Suren Seron, Christopher Gosch
Dir: Stuart Ross
Writer: Stuart Ross
Cast: Stan Chandler, David Engel, Larry Raben, Daniel Reichard, David Hyde Pierce
Time: 90 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019