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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Review: The Internship

dvd the internshipThe Internship is a smart collaboration between Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Productions.  It’s intelligently crafted, to the minutest detail, making it yet another pleasurable viewing experience from the director of Date Night and Real Steel.  Worthy of ownership, it was perhaps an easily overlooked movie that might be disregarded as more of the same in a sea of mundane comedies.  With the familiar faces of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn headlining the film you may feel as though you’d seen it before and at the very least, the word fresh is not one that would creep into your preconceptions.

But Levy does with the natural talents of Wilson and Vaughn, what he did for Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and the collaboration turns out wonderfully shaped performances.  The finished product is a perfectly paced, lean comedy that takes advantage of each moment to generate and reinforce positive interest in the story.  The result for the viewer is an engaging experience with plenty of laughs and quotable dialogue that is very re-watchable.  The strength of the story is almost like that of a Pixar movie.  It’s not likely to bring a tear to anyone’s eye by any stretch of the imagination, but it is carefully plotted and the comedy is driven just as much by the ensemble of lovable misfits as it is by the circumstances.

We open up with Billy and Nick, a couple of great salesman getting psyched on the way to a crucial meeting with a client.  They are a confident team who know what they are doing, but the company is in trouble, so the pressure is on.  No time is wasted introducing these guys and getting the audience to empathize,  Within minutes they learn that the company is over and that they are out of jobs.  Rather than take another sales job that will allow them to continue to scrape by, the two decide to jump headlong into a new field created by the technology that rendered their skills obsolete.  They take an internship at Google, where a series of challenges are laid before a variety of teams in a winner takes all race for employment.  Since everyone is much younger and more educated, they avoid Billy and Nick like the plague leaving them to be scooped up with the rest of the losers after all the teams are chosen.  The hostile group of hopeless loners must act like a team in order to survive and find friendship along the way.  It’s not original.  It sounds a lot like Dodgeball if you think about it– or the more recent Monsters University–  But the genius of it is not in the originality of the plot.  All throughout it are elements of many classic comedies, and yet it stands alone as unique, because of what transpires between the bullet points.  It’s funny, it’s familiar, but it’s also new and has a strong identity of its own.  A couple of the best examples is the two or three key stages in the middle act that reveal a lot about the characters and energize the plot; and the sweet, underplayed subplots for Nick and Billy.

I think, what makes the movie work most is that it has heart under the surface, but the focus is always comedy.  There is a kind of slight of hand at play, that I think is mostly due to Levy’s role as director, but also the finely honed sense of comedy Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have their own reputations for.  It goes beyond the clash between cynicism and idealism in the fight for the American dream.  The Internship is sharply focused and deeply felt so that the plot becomes an exercise in fun and frivolity, with a firm spine to carry it through.

Simplicity=Complexity>Complicated

gi amazing 2I like to figure out what makes things work.  I don’t have a work desk cluttered with vacuum cleaner parts or anything, and I still think televisions are magic, but complicated things are like complicated ideas, which then become complicated movies.  I like to build things without the instructions before I realize I made a huge mistake and start over.  One thing that I find interesting about both movies and anything material that requires assembly is that the simpler it is, the fewer the parts and those parts tend to serve a dual purpose, functionality and style.  The more complicated, once you crack open the hood you find a big ugly mess of raw function.

I think that films are the same way.  Small films can be great fun.  A really enjoyable, but simple movie is never unimpressive.  Big, movies with lots of moving parts are very ambitious projects that not many can handle. It’s a problem that tends to be very unique to large properties, such as those based on comics, or blockbusters like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Spider Man 3, was pretty disliked and one of the biggest, but also most vague complaints about it was that “they” tried to do too much.  TDKR also got criticism for being overly complicated.  Every X Men movie, even  First Class, is notorious for jamming more characters than necessary into the picture.  Jon Favreau turned down returning to Iron Man 3 as director for various official reasons, but word early on was he was concerned about flooding the film with too many characters.  The pressure to overcomplicate these films comes from the studios who want to be able to market more action figures.  Joel Schumacher was under a lot of pressure from Warner Bros. to turn the Batman franchise into basically a feature-length commercial for Batman toys.

But what makes a movie go from a solid, provocative, and even admirable complexity to an overcomplicated tangled mess?  Iron Man 2 had dangerous potential to be convoluted and dizzying, but they had good mechanics.  The Dark Knight was the epitome of the kind of masterfully woven tapestry of story that Chris Nolan has become known for.  I think the key is functionality.

The Dark Knight had a theme that was continuously reiterated by the story’s central characters.  The theme was choice.  It was full of dichotomies:  Dark Knight/White Knight, Chaos/Order, Bruce Wayne’s inner dichotomy, Two Faces outer dichotomy, Batman’s struggle to reconcile freedom and justice, and Harvey’s resignation to chance determining his actions.  For all that is going on in the movie, everything taps into the same theme and reinforces the body as a whole.  In Iron Man 2 the theme was legacy.  It’s like a home base you can return to if things are getting out of hand.

If a movie is particularly large and hosts a number of sub-plots and a wide cast of characters you need to determine above all else, what the heart of the story is.  It can’t just be a simple heroes journey.  It must be thought about as a thesis, with each separate plot supporting it.  When you make a movie about a flawed hero overcoming obstacles and saving the day, it’s best to give him one nemesis for a tight well-rounded effective and exciting story.   You don’t want him facing a thief with superpowers, who’s trying to save his daughter, a former BFF dead set on vengeance, and a work rival who gets his hands on your symbiont costume and becomes the worst ever representation of Venom.  Spiderman 3 had three major villains and no heart.  Peter Parker’s struggle is explored to death and yet it still works in small doses.  It isn’t enough, however to support so many adversaries without a central theme that they can plug into.  It’s also a terrible waste of great villains.

The easier the movie can be summed up in one idea (better yet, one word), the easier it is to connect all of the characters to that idea so that they serve a unique function in telling your masterpiece.  If you try to give each character their own separate objective that does not reinforce the theme of the primary storyline the film becomes fragmented and crushed under its own weight.

The Amazing Spiderman was a great movie.  It’s a brilliant retelling of the origin story with terrific new vision.  It was also a pretty standard hero movie.  The upcoming sequel, following in the tradition of pretty much all hero movie sequels, has a cast list that looks like an unfinished brainstorm.  The talent is stellar and it isn’t necessarily bad news, but it isn’t looking great either.  Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper have all been cast in villains roles.  Foxx plays Electro (guess what he does) and Giamatti will be Rhino, which is an interesting choice, but I have no problem going with it.  Now as far as I can tell, Cooper is signed on to play Norman Osborn, who becomes the Green Goblin, but where Foxx and Giamatti are credited with characters names AND their supervillain names i see nothing actually saying Green Goblin will make an appearance.  That would be good.

It makes perfect sense to set Norman Osborn up as a main character as he runs Oscorp and likely has something to do with the mystery that Parker continues to unravel about his parents.  The Incredible Hulk pits Banner against the Abomination making his defeat the resolution while his real nemesis, General Ross, lives to fight another day.  Similarly, Loki conjures up the The Destroyer for Thor to battle and saves his best stuff for later.  Allowing a character to be introduced without giving them their own storyline to finish is like a delicious glass of Sam Adams, always a good decision.

Norman probably enlists Electro and/or Rhino as thugs.  that would be typical and raises no alarms to my mind.  Since there is no way such great talent is going to be squandered on roles like Toad and Sabortooth in the original X Men, I think it’s a good chance we are in for a nice ride.  Marc Webb is still directing, The Kurtzman/Ortiz writing team are big hitters scripting the story by James Vanderbilt who penned The Amazing Spiderman.  I would not expect a big thematically interwoven monument of a film, but provided Norman Osborn stays out of the green suit this could be a fascinating sequel.

Review: Amazing Spiderman