Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Movie Review: Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2012) and The Road Chip (2015)/Beasts Of No Nation (2015)

I have so little a genuine opinion on the Chipmunks that, for this review, I’m also going to squeeze in my thoughts on their last film as well; mainly because my reactions to either of them aren’t enough for a full review on their own. This is Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and The Road Chip.

The plot: [Chipwrecked] While on a cruise, the Chipmunks Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), Theodore (Jesse McCartney), and the Chippettes Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Eleanor (Amy Poehler) end up going overboard and marooned on a desert island. As they try and survive on the island, with the help of fellow castaway Zoe (Jenny Slate), Dave (Jason Lee) and Ian (David Cross) have also found their way onto the island.

The music, this time helmed by Devo front-man Mark Mothersbaugh, isn’t as annoyingly over-produced as the previous films. The covers are fewer this time around, with a couple of original pop songs included like LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem, but they are at least enjoyable here. More so than before, at the very least.

Rather than focusing so much on the music, this film seems to be making an active attempt at character growth, particularly for Alvin because there’s a reason that he is named in the band. Through a frankly absurd concept involving Simon and the effects of a venomous spider bite, we unfortunately don’t get Spider-Munk and instead get him turning into a faux-French explorer called Simone (now voiced by Alan Tudyk, not that you’d notice). Because of this, Alvin is forced to realize just how much he has been annoying the audience… I mean Dave, by proxy. Not that any of this actually pulls through as the writing and acting aren’t quite strong enough to make the idea work too well. However, because this shows that the writers are actually trying this time around, this automatically is the best of the series so far. Don’t read too heavily into that, though.

The comedy, while a marked improvement, still reaches desperate levels on more than a few occasions. Maybe it’s just more embarrassing watching this three years after the fact, but the internet meme reference jokes are especially painful to sit through: Honey badger, double rainbow, Charlie Sheen “winning”? This is dangerously close to Seltzerberg style humour, a comparison I most certainly do not make lightly. This isn’t helped by the presence of Zoe, who is crazed without being engaging, a combination that should not be possible.

All in all, I will admit to being surprised that this wasn’t completely awful, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good either. Credit where it’s due for attempting to give some character growth, the improved music quality and a couple of moments that legitimately made me laugh, but this only makes it better than its predecessors, not exactly a high mark to reach. This series may have a while yet before I can call it “good”, but it’s at least showing signs of improvement. It’s worse than Red Tails as, even with its standard George Lucas writing faults, it still made for a more entertaining watch overall. However, this film still showed at least some effort was made, which honestly made it work better than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The plot: [The Road Chip] As Dave gets closer to his girlfriend Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and the Chipmunks get closer to her vicious son Miles (Josh Green), Alvin and Miles realize that if the Dave and Samantha get married, they’ll be stuck with each other. Not wanting this to happening, they take a road trip to Miami, where Dave is producing music for pop star Ashley grey (Bella Thorne), to stop him from proposing.

After being pleased about the lack of LMFAO in the last film, imagine my chagrin at seeing RedFoo in the first scene of the film. Sometimes, it actively feels like a film is taunting me. Other than that, this continues the previous film’s path of downplaying the song covers and the music in general. While kind of strange, and ultimately making the idea of another Chipmunks movie redundant, the music is usually weak anyway so I won’t complain too much. That said, the music here is honestly a lot better than I was expecting. While a lot of the songs are bland and pretty forgettable, this film totally makes up for it in a single scene. Now, full disclosure here, the main reason I was dreading this film was because of how badly they butchered Uptown Funk in the trailer; if you can make that song sound bad, you’re in deep trouble. Then the actual scene with Uptown Funk happens in the film and, between the genuine energy on-screen and the brass-heavy instrumentation, I actually… enjoyed myself? Yeah, probably the last thing I was expecting to think while watching a Chipmunks film, but it happened. Based on that alone, the music checks out with me.

This is a road trip movie, so plot isn’t important in comparison to the set pieces that take place during it. Honestly, it’s just the same schtick from the last three films for most of it: Alvin causes mischief, Simon is the straight man and Theodore talks about food; set on shuffle for 90 minutes and you’re sorted. To shake things up at least a little, we have the initially sadistic Miles, whose personality slowly disappears the more he warms up to the Chipmunks, Bella Thorne as Ashley showing up in a couple of scenes (and not singing, despite playing a pop star) and barely featuring the Chippettes. Yeah, they’re hosting American Idol for most of the film, save for the obligatory musical number at the end, and completely absent from the events of the film. Means less flat characters to write for, so that ultimately ends up doing the film a service.

That also means that there is more room for Agent Suggs, who is easily the best part of the movie. Rather than just go through the film like he’s just doing it for the pay check like David Cross did, Tony Hale gives a Christopher Walken in The Country Bears performance and plays it dead straight. Thanks to how well he manages with his lines, he immediately raises the mood of every scene he’s in; he kind of makes the film worth watching just for him alone. Oh, and to see John Waters in a cameo where they name-drop Pink Flamingos. You know what, I’d normally question what kind of parents/kids it would take to get that reference, but I’ll let it pass because that was probably the funniest part of the entire film.

All in all, I can’t believe I’m about to say this but this was actually not that bad. The music, when we actually get it, is passable and even legitimately good in parts; good to see Mark Mothersbaugh start to redeem himself, given what else he’s been attached to lately. The jokes are only just above par for the series as a whole but, thanks to Agent Suggs carrying this film on his back in his scenes, I’d almost recommend this film just to see Tony Hale be entertainingly insane for every scene he’s in. Almost. It’s worse than Dumb & Dumber To, as this has nowhere near the kind of comedic timing or even intellect of that film. However, since the few good points about this film are legitimately good, this still fares better than the anti-musical Strange Magic.

Well, after our last encounter with straight-to-NetFlixfilms, I can safely say that I am rather sceptical about this. Then again, that’s like if the first movie I ever saw at the cinema was bad and I immediately thought every film shown there was bad. Of course, given my record for pessimism in my reviews, that might actually be the case for all I know. Anyway, tangent, we have a film about African child soldiers to deal with. Grab a stiff drink, ‘cause I think we’re all gonna need it. This is Beasts Of No Nation.

The plot: After his village and his family are lain waste by rebels, Agu (Abraham Attah) is brought into the fold of a child militia run by the Commandant (Idris Elba). Out of a thirst for revenge against the people who killed his loved ones, and as a means to secure foot and shelter for himself, Agu agrees to join the battalion. As his exposure to the horrors of the war increases, Agu begins to turn into something dangerous.

This is a film about child soldiers, and even for that subject matter this film is depressing. From the unfortunate circumstances that resulted in the death of his family, to his first meeting with the NDF to his action as part of the NDF, this film pulls no punches whatsoever. However, more so than any other war film I’ve seen this year, or probably ever, this film hits especially hard because not only is it shown through the actions of a child, it is shown through the eyes of a child. Abraham Attah is spellbinding as the focal character as, through his narration to God about his shame of his own actions, we see his absolutely soul-crushing transformation from an ordinary child into a Little Weapon. Probably the film’s definitive scene is that precise moment when Agu crosses that threshold and becomes the beast, fading through battlefield after battlefield with no real connection to the events or even himself. His body has become nothing but a tool, both for battle and for his commander’s satisfaction… yeah, that’s how dark this gets. What makes that transition feel even more tragic is because Elba does that good a job at portraying a charismatic commander, as well as a complete monster in his own right.

Something that’s definitely striking about the film is how the story feels tailored to be as non-specific as possible. We know that it’s set in Africa, but we’re never told explicitly where in Africa, and we know that Elba is playing the commander of this brigade of soldiers, but we aren’t told his name beyond his rank. As a result, the film makes the audience less attached to the specifics of the story and more to the events and the emotions felt during it. It tries to make this story more universal in a way. However, probably the most surprising way that this is conveyed is through the soundtrack. At the beginning, and in every few scenes after that, we hear young boys singing in Twi but it sounds closer to rapping. I want to call it “rapping” outright, but I don’t want my suburban white kid roots to mislead me this time round… but, if that is rapping, then that just adds to this intent. Rap’s earliest origins was as part of a vocal game played during the years of black slavery in the U.S., as a means of expression during a particularly dark time. Here, through what we hear from these kids, it gives a feeling of some form of convergent evolution that connects the African jungle and the urban jungle.

Since I just brought up slavery, I might as well try and justify why I like this film so much and yet I gave 12 Years A Slave such a hard time this year. It took me a while to really figure it out (or scramble to avoid being called a hypocrite, call it whatever you wish), but I think I’ve got it. In 12 Years A Slave, the cruelty that happened to Solomon was inflicted to him; he was simply a victim of a racist system that was designed to screw people like him over. Here, the cruelty that happens to Agu is inflicted by him; he becomes a perpetrator of the violence that lead him to the path he is on before too long. That more personal connection to the events, and portrayal of how much war has irrevocably changed him for the worst, is why this film honestly works better. There’s a scene near the end comprised of a single unbroken shot of Agu making his way from the trenches back to camp: He’s wading through mud, he passes by other soldier smoking ganja, he sees fallen comrades being lifted into mass graves; it is unsettling as hell to sit through. It is made so much worse because, even with everything that has happened to him, Agu still has the innocent thoughts of a child. It is because of all this that the film’s bulk strikes at the heart as well as it does, and also why the ending manages to affect the audience on the same level.

All in all, this is an incredibly depressing sit that earns every single salty tear it squeezes out of its audience. Its unrelenting depiction of war through the perspective of a child, bolstered by great performances from Attah and Elba et al., is engaging, frightening and even soothing when it desperately needs to be to create one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve sat through all year. Checking this out is worth a NetFlix subscription on its own, far as I’m concerned. It’s better than The Death Of Superman Lives as, even with how fascinating that film was, I genuinely wouldn’t feel right putting something that cuts this deep just below that. However, even with that effect in mind, Truth had moments that hit even harder than this film did for me.

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