Review: Muppets Most Wanted

poster muppets2The Muppets used to be kind of a niche thing. You’d love them or you’d hate them. Whether the movies succeeded, or failed you could rest assured that muppets will be muppets for better or worse. The characters are nothing less than iconic. The personalities of Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and the rest are so defined that any fan with enough multi-colored socks could put on a fairly convincing play. At the very least, there would be no confusing who was who. That’s why its so surprising that professional writers failed to tap into the natural reservoir of character traits and humor and instead tried to rewrite the Muppets’ DNA.

When Jason Segel took hold of the property for the 2011 film, he brought his fan sensibility with him and revitalized the franchise by taking it back to it’s roots, while simultaneously updating the humor for the current film going crowd. The Muppets were more themselves than they had been in decades, and they were still able to keep up in the post The Hangover comedy era. Nicholas Stoller, whose writing contributions include Fun With Dick and Jane and Yes Man cowrote the script and returned for the sequel without Segel’s much needed perspective. James Bobin, the inexperienced director with only some episodes of Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Concords on his writing resume, returned to helm the ill fated project and cowrite the script as well.

It was a mess!  First off, the opening number announces that they are making a sequel.  self referential humor can be very funny if you have the tact, but cynically singing that the sequel is “never quite as good” sets coordinates for an approach that is determined to rise above this accepted truth and truly entertain the way only Muppets do.  Sadly, it is a foreshadowing of the utter hopelessness of the film.  Instead of a straight forward quest rife with gag opportunities and surprising celebrity cameos, The Muppets most Wanted is bogged down by a part heist/ part jail break plot that ineffectively parodies the genres and fails to let the Muppets be Muppets.  The action scenes were ill conceived and the songs were just –BLAH!

There is no reason to see the film if you like the Muppets.  They are mere stuffing in a vehicle that only serves its three stars: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell.  Dominic Badguy (Gervais) is sidekick to an escapee from a Russian prison who uses his likeness to Kermit in order to infiltrate the group and lead them on a European tour that coincides with a series of planned robberies.  The bits between Burrell and Sam (an Interpol and CIA agent respectively) were the closest to being sufficient, but sadly fell to the wayside.  Fey plays the warden of the prison where Kermit is held by mistake.  A bigger mistake is the assumed staying power of a gag that has tough inmates portrayed by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo prancing around in song and dance numbers.  The lack of skill and sentiment caused the bulk of the film’s humor to be either misplaced or misused, if not both at the same time.  The through line of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship was the only thing consistent with past Muppet ventures, the others are neglected and used only to further the ill conceived plot regardless of (or even in opposition to) their own inherent strengths.  The cameos, a muppet staple, amounted to such and such star appearing on screen for a couple of seconds.  The only real exceptions being, Usher playing an usher, and my favorite, Salma Hayek appearing as a guest on the show where none of the characters can be understood.

By the end of it I felt like the show not only lacked heart, it lacked genuine affection for the material and respect for the Muppet audience.  The sense of humor of the film seems to come at the expense of those who hoped to see a familiar style of comedy with some fresh surprises.  Their arrogance and laziness are at once incompatible and unexplainable.  There are some good laughs to be had here and there, but not enough to make this overwhelming disappointment worth the time.


Review: The Wolverine

This isn’t a review of the Blu-ray as I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but it’s recent release reminded me that I never reviewed the film, I really wanted to praise the film, but I had some minor issues with it that would seemingly negate my overall satisfaction, so at the time, I left it alone.  Here are my lasting impressions:

The Wolverine is the best Wolverine film so far. While that doesn’t say a whole lot, I think this time around actually delivers the best Wolverine centered film the proprietors of the X Men franchise are capable of offering. I would even call it their best X Men effort of all. James Mangold, director of Knight and Day, leads the action terrifically, almost from start to finish and Mark Bomback and cowriter Scott Frank’s (Minority Report) screenplay based on the 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller series is very strong.

Beginning during US atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki, Logan saves a man’s life and many years later is summoned back to Japan to meet the old man before he dies.  He is offered a chance to become mortal, but sinister schemes are at work, putting the weakened Wolverine to the test as he protects a young woman from a deadly band of Ninjas lead by the Silver Samurai.

Like the first Wolverine film, we get to see a lot of cool things, but the dexterity with which this installment is handled is enviable.  It’s far from the perfect thrills of the very best Marvel films to date, but it is highly enjoyable and basically a really good movie.  Hugh Jackman continues to be the ultimate portrayal of Logan and gives considerable range to the character.  The very comics like appearance of Viper was a deviation from the look and feel of other movies which take steps toward a more believable film world, and ultimately that sense of being true to the source material is both The Wolverine’s greatest attribute and it’s greatest failure.

As the film progresses, it feels a little bit like a series divided between battles, which I thought was kind of a cool touch.  The story had me engaged all the way until the final act, which was the least climactic of all of the action sequences despite the high stakes, because you already expect Wolverine to win and it wasn’t staged particularly well.  I enjoyed the Avengers like tie in at the end that teases X Men: Days of Future Past.  I have a love/hate relationship with this franchise, but The Wolverine is a solid “like.”

Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

gi poster ozLast night, I had the immense pleasure of full immersion into the merry old land of Oz the way it’s never been seen before.  Revealed by the vision of the great and powerful Sam Raimi and his master tinkers, from opening curtains it was clear that this was going to be a dazzling display that succeeds in recapturing the magic of the moment original audiences must have felt when first watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939.  Nothing beats the fun and anticipation of a wll crafted title sequence to get you started on your journey, especially when your companion on that journey is Danny Elfman, who has and still does do some of his very best work with Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan, Spiderman).  The score is immediately recognizable to any Elfman fan as classic Danny in his prime.  Ad to that the stunning black and white photography and you are locked in for the ride.

Oz the Great and Powerful is every inch made for a Real 3D experience and delivers the most colossal spectacular any team of Hollywood magicians can offer.  It’s no wonder that the ever-changing scenery and many elaborate sets are to be drunken in slowly as the epic adventure of a carnival con man drags him the yellow brick road toward possible redemption.  Aside from the stunning spectacle of magnificent scenery and Sam Raimi’s keen vision and incomparable sense of balance between fresh innovation and familiarity with the classic, the big seller for this film is James francos impeccable depiction of Oz.  Franco does for the character what RDJ does for Tony Stark and what Johnny Depp did for Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean; only he handles the character with such finesse and discipline that he creates a more three-dimensional character than anyone is likely to have seen on the silver screen.  The complexity of the man has so obviously been thoroughly explored by Raimi and Franco that he becomes such a flesh and blood human it seems astounding that he could ever be a wizard.  Franco’s depiction of Oz is such that he ceases, as an actor, to be a medium to the character, and fully becomes him in a way that every look and every utterance comes from the heart and soul of Oz himself.

The amazing story of the redemption of Oz (both the land and the man) starts out in Kansas, where we find our trickster little more than a petty thief with some theatrical flair and a weakness for the ladies.  The black and white photography is some of the crispest most beautiful I have ever seen and Raimi’s first action sequence of the film is harrowing, desperate, comical and brilliant, as is the predictable, but no less illuminating first glorious glimpse of the land of Oz in full color, mirroring of course the moment of Dorothy’s arrival 73 years ago.  As a stranger in a strange land,  Oz struggles with the opportunity to start fresh and the irresistible urge to take advantage, especially when the chips are down, but before he is even fully aware of his predicament, the choices he makes upon his arrival begin to seal his destiny and shape the people he meets.

It’s an epic journey full of great humor and powerful imagery that marks a monumental technical and artistic achievement.  Danny Elfman’s score is so perfectly in tune with the production and a must have, especially for fans of his work on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Peter Deming, Director of Photography, gets to play with every trick in his trunk and creates a seamless and believable atmosphere where fantasy knows no bounds.

The rest of the cast is terrific, but my favorite supporting performances come from Oz’s primary companions, played by Joey King and Zach Braff.  These characters lit up the screen and really played a part in Oz’s transformation as opposed to simply adding comic relief.

Oz the great and Powerful in Real 3D will envelope you in a world unlike any other, so real and so imaginary it is a sensation that is unique to cinema alone and yet only the highest of aims and the loftiest of dreams can harness it.  It provides sufficient enjoyment of these gifts yet never treads away from the story.  So you can ease on down the road with little urgency, but no less compulsion to move forward.  This is a great piece of art that introduces one of the greatest characters in cinema history to one of cinema’s oldest and most timeless worlds.

Movie Review: Winning Season

I needed a net-fix so I gave Winning Season a try solely because of Sam Rockwell.  I was fully prepared for the movie to be a blatant Bad News Bears Rip off so when it started out that way I didn’t pay any attention.  Surprisingly, The movie comes into its own fairly quickly and though Rockwell is certainly the strength of the film I found myself pretty interested  and actually enjoying the movie.

Sam Rockwell is readily introduced as a drunk who works nights as a busboy.  He is quickly reconnected to a former classmate/athlete who runs their Alma Mater and is desperate to find a new coach for the girls basketball team.  So, he takes the job, but hates it and doesn’t take the girls seriously.  Meanwhile, his daughter who plays basketball for another school, hates him.  So, the story pretty much writes itself after that, except watching Rockwell’s tenacity as a coach and his teams dedication to him even after he gets fired is really something, and the overall turnaround for the character and a well executed ending make it a worthy view.

First of all, I do give it full marks for story.  It could have very easily been a rehash of the same old sports movie routine and while it still had those common elements, its individuality outshines its derivative genre aspects.  That combined with Sam Rockwell holding it down in the lead really makes the movie worth watching.

It’s not perfect.  a lot of the acting from the girls is corny and forced.  Not great dialogue may be a factor, but the performances at times are reality-show-awkward.  The story is not particularly clever, but original enough to not just re-watch Coach Carter, or something.  Unless you want to have a battle of the Sams.  (Nick Fury against Justin Hammer?)  Thankfully, it’s not so overwhelmingly awful that the really entertaining parts can’t be enjoyed and overall I give it a solid B.

Review: The Amazing Spiderman

Fantastic?  Incredible?  I’d say that The Amazing Spiderman truly lives up to its name.  Besides earning points for best Stan Lee cameo ever, The Amazing Spiderman takes the cake as best Marvel based film of the year, beating the thoroughly enjoyable MIB 3 and the mildly disappointing Marvel’s The Avengers.

It turns out Marc Webb wasn’t just chosen for his name.  His sensibility brought Spidey to life in the best vision ever shown, live action or animated.  Borrowing heavily from Chris Nolan’s take on the Dark Knight while retaining Sam Raimi’s horror and comedic influence,  Webb created a world for spiderman that is genuine and exciting.  Andrew Garfield matches him bringing everything to the table to creat the perfect Spiderman.  Add to him, the gifted cast including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and Denis Leary and inspired staging and visual effects and you’ve got more than a blockbuster.  It’s a true classic.

In this take, which retells Spiderman’s origin, Peter Parker wants to know why his father, a secretive scientist mysteriously disappeared.  In the process of investigating the matter, he comes in contact with some of his father’s life’s work, a radioactive spider.  gene splicing is researched in the lab to find a way to use the advantages of certain animals to heal humans.  Dr. Conner, a former colleague of Peters Dad hopes to use reptile DNA to regenerate his lost forearm… but something goes terribly wrong.  Peter’s character is much more complex and satisfying this time around, making both good and bad choices, while remaining true to his perspective as a teen with a lot of questions.

James Horner sets the mood beautifully throughout the film with his masterful score and Alvin Sargent returns as co-screenwriter to Basic, The Losers and soon to be Robocop scribe James Vanderbilt.  The film was wonderfully paced and well-balanced thanks to the remarkable work they did pre and post production to build and enhance the character of this fine story. A+