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.

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The Wes Anderson Collection Kindel Edition 50% Off!

book wes anderson collection“The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits — the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience — is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered.”– Michael Chabon (introduction to the Wes Anderson Collection)

The Wes Anderson Collection, in the words of the author, is:

“a book-length conversation interspersed with critical essays, photos and artwork,” pertaining to non other than the controversial independent writer/director of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, after a career spanning nearly twenty years since the debut of his short film Bottlerocket.  With a feature length adaptation released two years later under the same name, Wes Anderson drew a line in the sand that continues to divide critics and fans of independent cinema alike.

Variety has excerpts from the book in which Wes describes the wealth of film knowledge from movie books he found in the three different libraries at the University of Texas in Austin, the influence of Charlie Brown, and the inspiration for Moonrise Kingdom.

The Wes Anderson Collection is available now in hardcover and Kindel Edition.

Influential Directors: Kevin Smith

I'd see movies, comedies, and I loved 'Animal House', I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

I’d see movies, comedies, and I loved ‘Animal House’, I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

Of all the directors past and present it’s difficult to come up with one more influential than the guy who motivated me to pull out my credit card and buy merchandise from his website, so intensely enamored was I with the world he had created: the world which spanned from Red Bank New Jersey, to sunny LA and nearly reached the red sun of Krypton.  True, as a director he didn’t stand out a whole lot in the beginning; but what really made his work sing was the poetry he put on the page.  His scripts were so eloquent and unorthodox that half his cast usually didn’t know how to deliver the lines.  The rest honed in on the nerve of the somewhat unnatural dialogue and were able to unlock performances that others would only hope to imitate in the years to come.

An instant fan after watching Clerks I not only began snatching up videos and theater tickets for Kevin Smith films, I went after soundtracks, scripts, t-shirts, action figures, even a lunch box.  There was something accessible about Kevin, particularly in the early years, that I just felt like, “Yeah, this guy gets it.”  In a way, I think of him as a modern day Shakespeare.  The intelligence of his scripts may be called into question due to subject matter, but the targeted range of his audience is possibly wider yet more precise than any other auteur.

I was exposed to Kevin Smith a little late.  I believe Chasing Amy had hit theaters by the time I caught Clerks on VHS at my BFFs house.  I was disappointed at first that it was in black and white.  When I saw the View Askew production logo, it made me feel like I was having a secret sleepover at Neverland Ranch.  Before long though I realized that I was watching something special and it allowed me to dream about making a low-budget picture of my own one day and becoming a massive success.  Clerks and the Kevin Smith movies that followed resonated so well with me and came along at such a point in my development as a writer, that he had a lot of impact on my own style of writing as I tried to figure out what that was and how to do it.  To this day, two of my favorite stories that I have developed over the years can’t escape their Clerks and Dogma Roots.

There is also something admirable about the way Smith throws himself into the stories he writes.  The way Holden in Chasing Amy parallels Smith at the time.  Enthusiastic fans that love Bluntman and Chronic (Jay and Silent Bob), Equate them to Bill and Ted, or Cheech and Chong rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Vladimir and Estragon and all Holden wants is to put something personal out there like he did with his first success.  The primary differeces being that Bluntman and Cronic was a commercial success, suppressing Holden’s artistic side, while Mallrats ironically became a commercial Flop in its theatrical run, sending Smith in search of what made him stand out with his creation Clerks.  Next, he tackled his own ideas about religion and sought to arrive at a philosophy that was honest and true.  In spite of that deeper side, he never hid from the possibility of commercial success and was able to tell substantial stories just as easily as he could walk away when there was a disagreement.  An indie filmmaker who can walk both sides of the fence is pretty rare, indeed.

Though he never quite garnered the acclaim that Tarantino has and his career has taken an entirely different path, he still stands out as one of the greatest yet easily overlooked filmmakers of our time.  For starters, He has “The Jersey Trilogy.” Which is more of a trilogy than some things now that are considered such.  I love how original Smith is, while paying homage to his favorite movies.  Mallrats, like Temple of Doom, is the most disliked yet also my favorite of the three.  Also like Temple of Doom, it takes place prior to its predecessor, chronologically speaking.  Mallrats also alludes to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as does the later Clerks 2.  The first, with the boys trying to outrun La Fours, and the latter with a go cart montage.  Randal Graves also quotes Sundance in Clerks, responding to Dante’s whines with “Bitch bitch bitch.”  More than mere pop culture references, which I believe were widely popularized in the nineties by Kevin Smith.  These homages show us a kid at play riffing on the films that inspired him and keeping them relevant and timeless while creating something new to inspire others.  One of my favorite movies is Jaws, and the way that the scar comparing scene between Quint and Hooper is duplicated in Chasing Amy is truly something to geek out over.  Hooper X of course is also a character in Chasing Amy and the leads in Mallrats are Brody and T.S. Quint.

After the Jersey Trilogy, Smith went on to make three more films featuring the Jay and Silent Bob characters, plaid by him and Jason Mewes, including Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, every one of them interconnected in the View Askewniverse as highlighted in the multitude of appearances in JASBSB.  Dogma was huge for me because it took on the topic of religion with an open, honest and artistically free approach, that allowed for a fully fictionalized depiction of Biblical characters and ideas, a sharp satirical look at the church, and a hopeful look at faith and the nature of God.  Of course you can’t do something like that without upsetting all kinds of people,, but he did it anyway, which is pretty cool.

Clerks has always been a big chunk of the parts that make the sum of Kevin Smith.  In between Clerks and Clerks 2 was Clerks the Animated Series.  I can’t confirm it, but I suspect the title is a play on Batman the Animated Series.  Though short lived it was a great attempt with beautiful art designs and a few really strong episodes.  My favorite of which intertwined the premise of The Last Starfighter with plots from The Bad News Bears and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Smith’s new AMC series Comic Book Men inserts some Clerks and Mallrats flare into a Pawn Stars type show set in his comics store Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank New Jersey.

After what was essentially six Jay and Silent Bob movies, rather than go back and re-master them all with CGI or get right to work on an episode VII, Smith made a second foray into unfamiliar territory.  The first had been Jersey Girl, which I enjoyed, the next, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, introduced Kevin to Seth Rogen. Prior to the encounter, Smith reportedly didn’t really smoke weed.  In fact, so little was his interest in bud during production that it aroused concern from Rogen.  That story along with many others such as the Superman debacle with Jon Peters and the highs and lows of directing Bruce Willis is another reason I am such a fan of Smith’s.  Whether it’s a movie, a Smodcast, or a Q and A, he is one of the best storytellers ever.  Get the man talking about an experience out of his life and he will we’ve you an epic tale of fantasy and delights.  He’s taken on Hollywood for better or worse and along with the experience and the retelling of those experiences it seemed as though Smith had burned out on film just as he reached his pinnacle with the newly debuted Red State.  His first horror film, Red State, really showed how much he had grown as a director, but also has him at the top of his game as a writer.  Though unexpected in the wake of an entire career of comedy, Smith’s storytelling prowess in his latest movie is a triumph and yet he vowed to retire.

Fortunately, a Smodcast about a fake classified ad (a man seeking a tenant who would dress up like a walrus in lieu of rent) led to a “what if” scenario that captured Smith’s imagination and lead him on a journey to write, finance and shoot a feature horror script in a matter of months.  The script has Justin Long and Michael Parks attached and has created a lot of buzz.  More importantly, however, it seems to have rekindled the passion of one of my favorite, most influential filmmakers.

Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

QT image

“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.