Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

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Alvin and the Chipmunks
Dir. Tim Hill
Premiered December 13, 2007

You know that game where you describe a pop culture phenomenon to highlight how weird it is, and everyone is left wondering how it ever caught on? Alvin in the Chipmunks has to win every time, because it’s never stopped being weird.

In 1958, an upstart entertainer named David Seville (real name Ross Bagdasarian) recorded a Christmas novelty song and then sped it up so he could claim it was being sung by a trio of chipmunks. This isn’t the strange part– between Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys was this horrible period where rock and roll almost died as soon as it first showed up, and novelty songs were freakishly popular.

The weird thing is that Alvin and the Chipmunks kept going. Bagdassarian managed to keep his rights to the characters and his son wisely deployed them in the ‘80s when they became a piece of boomer nostalgia and could be introduced to a new generation. The nice thing about making entertainment for kids is that everything is new to them, so the market was evergreen for new records, cartoon series, and even an animated feature in 1987, which makes 2007’s live action film yet another instance of double-nostalgia.

True to form for such an underdtaking, Alvin and the Chipmunks is ostensibly an origin story, but doesn’t really explain anything. Even in their secluded woodland home, leader Alvin (Justin Long), token nerd Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and oafish Theodore (Jesse McCartney) speak, sing, and endlessly reference pop culture in the spirit of Shrek, yet the film’s universe is utterly mundane and grounded, which might work in a more absurdist comedy, but is meaningless in a movie with barely any jokes and no laughs.

The story begins as the Chipmunks’ tree is cut down to be used as a Christmas tree in the lobby of JETT Records, where struggling songwriter Dave Seville (Jason Lee) is trying to wow his record executive friend Ian (David Cross) with a hot new song. It’s also revealed that Dave also works in advertising, but only in a single unaccountable scene with no bearing on the rest of the movie.

After stowing away with a basket of muffins, the Chipmunks reveal themselves to Dave, who isn’t nearly as shocked by the existence of talking chipmunks as he is frustrated with their messy habits (including an instance of eating shit). Dave begins to warm to them when they reveal their talent for singing, and attempts to harness their skill to present Ian with the new sound he’s been looking for, but they get cold feet, and Dave finds the boys’ familial attachment offputting. Don’t worry though, this is just padding, as Alvin and company go to Ian themselves and get a hit song on the radio within hours. Naturally, Ian then takes the Chipmunks on a whirlwind tour of boy band excess, milking every ounce of life out of them until they wish to have Dave back.

Or so the plot dictates; nothing onscreen ever lands, because no one involved in the film seems to have cared. Each element of the movie seems to have been conceived separately in a vacuum and then executed by a uniformly indifferent cast and crew, which might be a first in this series.

Where Bagdassarian himself voiced the original Chipmunks, director Tim Hill and company were compelled to give the roles to more prominent actors with little to no voiceover experience, despite the fact that their voices are altered beyond the point of recognition– like George Clooney voicing a dog on South Park, except not a joke. But even this is a failure as there’s nary a household name to be found: Justin Long (previously seen in Live Free or Die Hard) was best known as “A Mac” from Apple computer commercials, Jesse McCartney had been a moderately successful child actor and singer-songwriter, and Matthew Gray Gubler had had only two credited roles before this.

And then there’s the special effects: not to sound like a broken record, the film’s use of CGI is atrocious. The chipmunks’ character design is an unnerving compromise between cartoonish expressiveness (owing more to early Dreamworks than the original cartoon), realistic rodent fur and body type, and nightmarish “relatable” human eyeballs. It’s often challenging to articulate the difference between good and bad CGI, but our protagonists present a refreshingly straightforward lesson in what can go wrong.

For his part, it’s not surprising that Jason Lee can’t interact with imaginary beings– we can’t all be Ewan McGregor, and the movie’s unusually static cinematography and blocking suggest that not even Hill knew where the Chipmunks would ultimately appear in the frame. But even when he doesn’t have to imagine, Lee gives one of the worst performances of his career, always projecting but steadfastly refusing to emote. When Bagdassarian’s Seville screamed “Alviiiiiin!” it was meant to recall a harried and probably abusive stage father. When Lee screams, it’s practically under his breath, and the supporting cast offers no help except perhaps David Cross, whose contempt for the project shines through in a vaguely entertaining manner.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film opens with the Chipmunks singing Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” itself a bland, unappealing pop cultural product that somehow reached inescapable popularity. Simon’s classic round glasses are replaced with narrow rectangular David Tennant-style frames. And in the fourth and final Pussycat Dolls reference of 2007, Alvin sings “Don’t Cha” in the shower.

How Did It Do?
Alvin and the Chipmunks grossed $361.3 million against a $60 million budget to become the 14th-biggest film of 2007 and to date has spawned four sequels– sorry, squeakuels. Critics unsurprisingly reviled the film, earning it a 27% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Philips said the movie “…goes in one eye and out the other…” so I look forward to quickly forgetting it.

Director Tim Hill started in the world of Nicktoons before making a career of critically-loathed nostalgia-driven adaptations that live action with animation, and unfortunately this isn’t the last we’ll see of him if I keep doing retrospectives.

Next Time: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

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Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

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Live Free or Die Hard
Dir. Len Wiseman
Premiered June 12, 2007

You may have noticed that when it comes to reviewing sequels or remakes, I go into a lot of depths about the properties leading up to the film being reviewed. Sometimes, like with Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s because understanding certain films’ qualities and flaws requires a deeper understanding of what they build on. It makes reviews easier to write by being able to compare and contrast. But just as often, I’ll give an overview of a franchise because I’ve never seen it before.

Not kidding, writing about 2007 alone has resulted in me watching six movies for the first time that have remakes and sequels from that year so far, and will result in at least five more (this will only get worse as I review more recent years). And yeah, before this week, I’d never seen any of the Die Hard movies. But while Live Free or Die Hard is not a worthy addition to the canon, I’m glad it led me to fill in a major hole in my own movie knowledge.

The word I would describe for the original Die Hard is “effective;” every detail in the movie has an important part to play, and it’s communicated with utmost professionalism. It also takes itself seriously enough to have weight with the audience, but a smirking sense of humor that keeps the whole thing from being a complete downer (which the book it was loosely based on deliberately is). It’s no wonder why people call it the best action movie ever made.

That sense of humor is important, because Die Hard, the story of an off-duty cop who stumbles into a life-threatening crisis and needs to save the day using only his wits, isn’t exactly conducive to a franchise. It’s like if your dad was Mad Max. And the first three movies never make John McClane (Bruce Willis) out to be superhuman, but neither do they wipe the slate clean for each installment.

It makes sense that Die Hard would break the taboo against fourth movies– it’s a pure action franchise with no pretensions to a mythos– but was still a surprise: giving a series a fourth installment was rare, a successful one was rarer still, and it had been a full twelve years since the last sequel.

Thus far, the quality of a Die Hard movie is directly proportional to the track record of its director, and that is bad news for anyone other than the unaccountable niche fanbase of the Underworld movies, whose creator Len Wiseman directs Live Free or Die Hard (though the opening credits call it Die Hard 4.0).

A gang of terrorists (led by Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q) hacks into the US infrastructure, killing any and all hackers in the US who might know how to stop them. They do this by hacking their computers to blow up the bombs inside all their rigs, which just happen to exist. Yes, while Live Free or Die Hard is up-to-date on the importance of computer programming and web security, its understanding of the subject is stuck firmly in 1995.

However, one hacker in Camden, New Jersey (Justin Long) just happens to be called in by now-detective McClane on behalf of the FBI. Why is a New York City cop being sent to pick up a suspect a hundred miles away? Why is any city cop doing so when it’s a Federal matter? Doesn’t matter. When McClane brings the hacker in for FBI’s cyber expert (Cliff Curtis), the terrorists strike, wiping out all of Washington and Wall Street’s data. But McClane and company see a chance to fight back when the baddies have to go manual.

It’s worth mentioning that the Die Hard franchise was originally the model for the TV series 24 before paragon of joylessness Kiefer Sutherland was cast as the lead, and one can’t help but mourn what might have been, not only because 24 is a dour, horribly-aged slog, but because this movie has learned all the wrong lessons from it. From the warm, tactile nature of the earlier films, we are plunged into a sterile, underlit, aquamarine-tinted bureaucratic fever dream; in which Bruce Willis plays a mean-spirited, uncharismatic lump claiming to be John McClane. And the villains? Well, Olyphant’s no Alan Rickman, or even a Jeremy Irons.

And that’s the thing: this movie is no fun. I know it was after 9/11, and even the dumbest action movies had to be more introspective to be taken seriously, but probably no actioner is less suited to this cultural shift as Die Hard. One of the things that made the original so groundbreaking is that McClane actually got hurt, frequently and significantly. Yet here, his scars are mental; he can walk off any injury so long as his heart stays broken. It’s sad, not in the way the movie intends, but rather that the legacy of an all-time classic has become so degraded.

A couple of days ago, I had an argument with a friend about Die Hard With a Vengeance. My friend thought it was a good movie, but not a good Die Hard. My response was that we were only three movies in, so who’s to say what a Die Hard movie is supposed to be? Well, it certainly isn’t this.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Farrell (Long) cracks wise about a time when Michael Jackson was “still black,” and later references Hurricane Katrina. Later, he annoys the bad guys by blasting them with pop-up ads.

How Did It Do?
Live Free or Die Hard grossed $383.5 million against a $110 million budget– you have to wonder where that went, because the CGI, sound design, green screen, wildly outdated stock footage, and not-even-trying California doubling are astonishingly careless. Even more astonishingly, critics gave it a pass, earning an 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Many commended the performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who had previously appeared with Willis in Grindhouse, as McClane’s daughter.

But the only review I care about is from The Office’s Michael Scott:

You know what, here’s the thing about Die Hard 4. Die Hard One, the original, John McClane was just this normal guy. You know, he’s just a normal New York City cop, who gets his feet cut, and gets beat up. But he’s an everyday guy. In Die Hard 4, he is jumping a motorcycle into a helicopter. In air. You know? He’s invincible. It just sort of lost what Die Hard was. It’s not Terminator.

At the very least, Live Free or Die Hard was spared the dishonor of being the worst Die Hard movie, because an even worse sequel came out in 2013. But that’s somebody else’s problem.

Next Time: Transformers