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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS [dir. Tim Hill]


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.


Jason Lee stars as the post-modern Dave Seville, a hard working adman who longs to be a successful songwriter. Unfortunately, his old buddy, record executive Ian Hawke, thinks his music stinks. When our hapless hero stumbles upon a group of talking chipmunks in his apartment, he immediately thinks he’s gone crazy. After some convincing, the human strikes an accord with the talented critters - he’ll let them stay in his house if they sing his songs. When the rodents express a desire to have their very first Christmas, Seville is inspired. He writes a nutty novelty tune, plays it for Ian, and the rest is history. As the reticulated boy band burns up the charts, their two legged guide tries to patch things up with ex-girlfriend Claire. This distraction allows Ian to swoop in and steal the varmints from under his pal’s nose.


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife - all in service of a crass commercial statement. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals (Jon Vitti - ex-Simpsons, and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi of Pete and Pete fame) who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. Had it strived for anything subversive or revisionist, the lack of sell-through support would only be matched by the bellyaching coming from the Bagdasarian camp.


It’s clear that the owners of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore don’t cotton to the modern comic sensibilities. The Chipmunks are never anything more than a vehicle for sloppy slapstick, surreal non-sequitors, and an overdose of pallid pop references. If you think CG critters cracking hip-hop wise is the last word in witty, you’ll adore this dreck. In fact, the script seems stuck in the early phases of the 2000’s, a time when rap and urban slang flooded the commercial concept of culture. It makes the use of the band’s old standards (both “Witch Doctor” and “Christmas” make multiple appearances) and their frequent freaked out cover versions (“Funky Town”? Please!) all the more bizarre.


It would be nice to think that the adults could balance out the saccharine shtick. Unfortunately, neither Jason Lee nor comedian David Cross (as Ian) can deliver. Lee is lost, mostly playing at a pitch right above psychopath. Instead of being frustrated by his new roomies - thereby guaranteeing Seville’s trademark shriek of “ALVIN!!!” - the My Name is Earl star seems to be having a hissy for no apparent reason. Cross is even more clueless, trying to riff on the surreal situation of talking, singing vermin in a plausible post-modern way. It doesn’t work. About the only actor who finds the proper tone is Geena Davis lookalike Cameron Richardson. She’s light and airy, as fluffy in her self-effacing superficiality as the movie is loud and lumbering.


And then there’s the question of marketing. Who is actually aching for a live action Chipmunks movie? It can’t be the Boomers who grew up with the gimmicky act. There is nothing in this adaptation to make them smile. It can’t be the Gen-Xers who made the Saturday morning cartoon series from the ‘80s sail. Again, this film avoids anything remotely resembling the character’s retro past. If it’s aimed at current wee ones, then Hollywood really thinks children are dumb. As long as it’s colorful, corny, and constantly in motion, it should hold the bratlings at bay, right? Wrong. Alvin and the Chipmunks is so lacking in legitimate fun that even the simplest of small fry brains will have a hard time finding a reason to rejoice.


Even the CGI looks second rate. In an attempt to make the trio as ‘true to life’ as possible, a weird combination of approaches has been employed. The bodies are like that of real chipmunks, but the faces have that blank, dead-eyed stare of an attempted anthropomorphizing. Instead of going with something more suggestive, the contradictory combination makes the main characters look unnecessarily busy and blurred. When the action does slow down, Alvin and the boys get away with a lot of cheesy glances. And don’t let the voice talent fool you. Justin Long (Alvin) Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore) might just as well have not shown up for the recording sessions. They do nothing that’s memorable.


In the end, Alvin and the Chipmunks comes across as another nostalgia raiding stab by Tinsel Town directly into the heart of many an individual’s childhood memories. Like the equally unseemly (but much more successful) Underdog from Disney, studios can’t seem to recognize that every old school kid vid character doesn’t need a mid-millennial update. You can make them krump and Emo everything to kingdom come, but these weird wildlife sensations stand as a specific symbol from a specific era. As an old novelty act, they may have some staying power. But it’s clear that Bagdasarian’s babies can’t carry a big screen comedy - not even one aimed at the single digit age demographic. 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

I AM LEGEND [dir. Francis Lawrence]


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.


The year is 2012. A cancer cure based on the measles has mutated, wiping out 90% of the Earth’s population. Those who did not die have turned into blood craving creatures, adverse to sunlight and primal in their brutality. The last supposed survivor is Dr. Robert Neville. Along with his German Sheppard Sam, he’s stayed behind in an abandoned New York City in hopes of finding a cure for the remaining monsters. He spends his days foraging for food and trying to contact anyone else still alive. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, avoiding the horrifying beings outside. One day, he discovers something frightening - the fiends are no longer acting instinctually. Instead, they appear to be thinking, determining the best way to get at Neville - even if it means their own destruction.


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong. About as faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel as I, Robot was to the work of Isaac Asimov, this pointless exercise in production design strives to be the most understated blockbuster in the history of the format. Sadly, it fails to realize that there already is a category for this kind of film - it’s called the ‘lackluster’. Smith’s star power might guarantee tickets and fans in the seats, and he does hold the screen with a desperate charisma that’s hard to challenge. But when you come to a post-apocalyptic thriller, you expect solid sci-fi and considered cinematic chills. Sadly, we are only partially satisfied.


Though it tends to look like a backlot gone to seed, the digital rendering of Manhattan into a gloomy ghost town is very effective. The quarantined buildings, aging shredded plastic drifting in the breeze, look remarkably real, and when Smith interacts with famed facades (Union Station, Times Square) we get a feeling of grandeur and scope. Lawrence does a good job in these moments, making up for times when the script stifles his efforts, and there’s one particular sequence where Neville cases his dog into a horrific hive of evil that exemplifies what I Am Legend could have been. But then the movie shifts over into Cast Away mode, and we’re stuck with another superstar talking to mannequins.


Indeed, the foremost problem with the film is the lack of intrigue. Since we don’t see the actual destruction of New York (flashbacks fill in some blanks, most dealing with how Neville lost his family) or the nature of the monster’s terror, we are left without the necessary context to create suspense. Even worse, the occasional scares are limited to the standard horror film histrionics - the sudden appearance of deer, the trailer highlighted arrival of a lion. For a narrative wanting to work on a much more subtle, slow burn nature of fear, these jolts feel forced and completely calculated.


Even worse, the movie has to manipulate our feelings by sinking to animal endangerment as a means of mining emotion. Since Smith is given little to do except weep and look despondent, it’s up to his sidekick to provide the pathos. Even worse, when a last act twist triples the population, lame ideas about religion, destiny, and faith come crashing into the mix, making the movie even more scattered than it needed to be. With the unexceptional CGI used to render everything outside Neville’s domain (the various wildlife, as well as the creatures, look sloppy and second tier) and the failure to come up with a satisfying finale, I Am Legend plays like 80 minute of set-up in service of 10 minutes of mindless mediocrity.


While fans have often complained about Price and Heston’s efforts, one thing about previous versions of Legend are crystal clear - Matheson’s main themes were mostly respected. Here, Goldsman and fellow scribe Mark Protosevich toss out 90% of the novel, and instead appear to remake 28 Days Later by inserting albino zombies lacking anything resembling a personality or purpose. There is no real interaction between the two sides - Smith does some doctoring stuff on the fiends, but that’s about it. Gone are the confrontations where semi-salient beings discuss their issues with our hero. Instead, we get stupid sequences of Neville ‘renting’ DVDs and mimicking the dopey dialogue of Shrek.


Even worse, we really don’t care about Neville’s plight. Since we are unaware of the danger, unsure of how he’s managed for over three years without a great deal of “only in the movies” luck, and fail to fully experience the devastation that he has witnessed (both literal and personal), we wind up with enigmatic visions that offer nothing but art department air balls. Neville’s methodical daily routine is only interesting once. After that, it becomes an illustrated guide to the amateur survivalist. The backdrop looks great, but it’s never really explored. There are dozens of unanswered scientific questions (why can’t the monsters just wear lots of protective clothing before venturing out? why aren’t deer and lions affected?) as well as issues involving basic human nature (why didn’t Neville simply sail away, or conduct his research somewhere else?)


It all adds up to a movie that’s more puzzling than evocative. Smith can still carry almost any concept, but he has to work overtime to get this mess to gel. Lawrence is even less guilty, since he builds a decent playset out of some horribly hackneyed screenplay parts. What could have been compelling, if done right, ends up looking great but feeling very, very hollow inside. For those hoping that the third time (or if you count off title rip-offs, forth) would be the charm, you’d better be ready for a dire disappoint. The only place this movie is legendary is in its own feeble mindset. 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

James Bond was the very image of British postwar cool and indeed the Bond stories were something of an assertion of confidence and the importance of Britain in the world at large following the dissolution of Empire. That would have meant nothing though without the suave leading men and cutting-edge gadgets that drove the film series’ popularity. Now Bond fans have a reason to rejoice. You can now have every single Bond movie ever made—including the recent Casino Royale—complete with a wealth of extras detailing every last element of the Bond universe, in one big box. Each film is restored and burns up the screen as never before. Perfect for indulging in all those Connery vs. Moore arguments.


 


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

Who hasn’t gazed around them, now and then, and fantisized the sudden demise of the entire human race? Whether impelled by a very foul mood—or the simple, apocolyptic speculation that forges every myth, fantasy, and society-binding religion—virtually every artistic expression has tangled with this concept, and we all know it at a primal level. Ironically, although Weisman will scare you enough to cause loss of sleep, at times, the overwhelming message is hope. One leaves this book with a greater appreciation for the preciousness of this world, and a deep desire to, in one’s own little way, leave the Earth in a little bit better shape, before one leaves it for good. Give this to the budding environmentalist, and the one who could use a bit of a nudge in that direction.


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

Three months before Otis Redding took Monterey Pop by storm, he and his buddies conquered Europe. Stax Records mounted its first European tour in the spring of ’67, and instantly created a passionate fanbase. Some of the earlier dates on the tour were released as live albums, but this April concert was taped for Norwegian TV, then sat in a vault for years. The black-and-white video is a joy to watch; the TV crew’s shot selection rotates nicely from artist close-up to audience reaction. But it is the performances that will ultimately amaze. The energy gets kicked up with Arthur Conley’s hot showmanship, sails through part of an Eddie Floyd song, and goes through the roof after a Sam and Dave set. Then Otis Redding comes on, and it appears neither the TV screen nor the stage nor his body can contain the joy he brings to every note.


Sam & Dave - When Something Is Wrong with My Baby



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