Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal

The Raid 2: Berandal
Dir. Gareth Evans

4.5 out of 5

Much like a three chord rock song, 2012's The Raid: Redemption satisfied action junkies with its brutalizing, back-to-basics simplicity.  Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans' throwback spectacle jettisoned nearly everything that might get in the way of flying fists and feet, tailoring the film to emphasize the virtuosity of his talented crew of stunt coordinators and Indonesian martial artists.  It wasn't subtle or complex (at least from a narrative standpoint), but it pushed all the right buttons for its audience.

If The Raid was Evans' "Satisfaction," then its sprawling sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal, is the director's Exile on Main Street.  It's nothing less than a modern action masterpiece, a film of dizzying ambition that just happens to measure its success in bruises and broken bones.  Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 again centers on Rama (Iko Uwais), a supercop who is recruited to infiltrate one of Jakarta's most dangerous criminal syndicates.  Rama's mission is to shadow Uco (Arifin Putra), the petulant son of veteran mob boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), gaining Uco's trust as he rises through the ranks from prison bodyguard to foot soldier to loyal confidant.

Rama's story, however, is simply a point of entry.  The Raid 2 marks a massive increase in scope over its predecessor, as Evans is comfortable leaving his hero to explore a teeming underworld of colorful characters and competing factions, most notably a rival crime lord (Alex Abbad) who draws Uco into a plot to provoke an all-out gang war.  It's amazing how effortlessly the filmmakers handle a much wider canvas, constantly upping the ante with each setpiece without losing the visceral impact of the violence.  While memorable affectations abound - like a deaf, dual hammer-wielding female assassin - Evans doesn't shy away from the consequences of deadly combat.  There's an impressive tactile sensation in the fight scenes, as well as unexpected doses of poignancy from some of the movie's deadliest characters, notably a scraggly enforcer (Yayan Ruhian) dealing with the domestic fallout of his profession.  (Indeed, few films explore the plight of the henchman like this one.)

In truth, The Raid 2 is still using a story to tell martial arts, instead of the other way around.  But the genius of the film is the way Evans manages to make the thinly sketched elements of an old-school crime saga feel fresh and exciting thanks to a keen understanding of the cast's abilities and a boatload of visual panache.  There's nothing about The Raid 2 that feels perfunctory despite its derivative plot.  The filmmakers approach every fight as a creative opportunity, relying on elaborate camera movement, inspired location choices, and even wry humor to keep the audience engaged.  More than just a martial arts epic based around the discipline du jour, The Raid 2 is a symphonic masterclass in action technique, with form and function merging to create sweet, bone-crunching music.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars
Dir. Rob Thomas

2.5 out of 5

"Fan service" is an unusually loaded term when it comes to Veronica Mars, the improbable movie adaptation of the cult teen detective drama of the last decade, which ran for three low-rated but critically-acclaimed seasons.  Stymied by a lack of studio funding, creator Rob Thomas appealed directly to the show's fanbase on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where thousands ponied up over $5 million to get the movie made.  That's a lot of investors to satisfy, and for the most part Veronica Mars is pitched directly to and does right by those diehards, without whom the film wouldn't exist at all.

Almost a decade after the show's conclusion, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a plucky law school grad in a happy relationship with college sweetheart Stosh "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell).  But while she's moved past her former life as a junior private detective in class-conscious Neptune, California, she can't resist a friend in trouble - specifically her old flame, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), a celebrity scion accused of murdering his pop star girlfriend.  Veronica drops everything and returns home to help Logan with his legal affairs.  This quickly escalates from helping him find a decent lawyer to getting personally involved in his case, all against the backdrop of her high school's ten-year reunion, conveniently providing access to all of Veronica's old friends and enemies.

But here is where the more common pejorative definition of "fan service" begins to apply to Veronica Mars.  Thomas has little incentive to shake things up, and instead attempts to cram in as many of the show's touchstones and characters while trying to construct a taut, tense mystery.  The result is a much more simplified version of Neptune, as familiar faces pop up as mile markers for the plot instead of the richly-conceived characters of old.   Still, seeing actors like Bell, Krysten Ritter, Ken Marino, and Ryan Hansen return to the roles that helped them kick-start their careers is a blast, and absorbing Thomas' rapid fire, pop culture-inflected dialogue is half the fun, even if the guffaw-to-groan ratio has slipped a bit.

With an attractive cast spitting snarky barbs at each other in a barely plausible and strikingly mature teenage world, Veronica Mars the show is a charmingly dated artifact of the mid-00s.  By adhering to this same formula in 2014, Veronica Mars the movie can't help but feel stuck in a frustrating yet oddly comforting rut.  It doesn't help that Thomas bites off more than he can chew by attempting to resolve the series' main love triangle, comment on the cycle of institutional injustice (via a half-baked police corruption subplot), and provide a satisfying conclusion to its self-contained mystery in one fell swoop.  It's a rushed, overstuffed mess that ditches Thomas' strong point of view in favor of catering to all potential audience desires - an approach that's overly cautious at best and hopelessly confused at worst, as when James Franco inexplicably cameos as himself to give Veronica one of her strongest leads.

Some stories just function better when spread out over the 20-plus hours of a TV season than crammed into 100 minutes of a feature film.  Fundamental differences in medium aside, however, I found the grassroots achievement of Veronica Mars tempered by the bittersweet emotions it evoked.  In witnessing how Veronica's world has remained unaltered, I was only more aware of the changes in my own.  That's the double-edged nature of nostalgia.  Veronica Mars may be an ultimately disappointing experience that vaguely approximates the show's glory days, but at least I can appreciate the way it reminds me of how Veronica and I used to be friends...a long time ago.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Dir. Carter

2 out of 5

From 2009 through 2012, James Franco played a recurring character, a villainous conceptual artist named “Franco,” on the soap opera General Hospital.  The character was inspired in part by the New York-based conceptual artist Carter (neé John Carter), who in 2008 cast Franco as himself in Erased James Franco.  Now, we have Maladies, another feature film written and directed by Carter in which Franco plays James, a former soap opera actor slowly experiencing a complete mental breakdown.  Thus, Maladies doubles as an empirical proof of the Transitive Law of James Franco, with the actor playing a fictional version of himself playing a fictional version of his director.

Set in New York City in the 1960s, Maladies is a deliberately idiosyncratic art project that couches its quirks in the language of the social problem film.  A year after quitting his soap opera gig, James is struggling to finish a novel despite the life coaching he receives from the dryly academic voice inside his head (Ken Scott).  He lives with his friend Catherine (Catherine Keener), an artist who occasionally dresses in drag and acts as a warm, motherly influence on James and his sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), a near-mute adult with the emotional maturity of a preteen.  Flitting around the trio like a nervous hummingbird is their neighbor, Delmar (David Strathairn), a repressed homosexual with a thinly veiled crush on James.

Maladies establishes the trappings of a standard period melodrama only to defy them, delaying any sense of narrative momentum to instead focus on the laundry list of neuroses that afflict its main characters.  James in particular is a doozy, a delusional dreamer prone to petulant emotional outbursts that are quelled only by the soothing hum of a telephone dial tone.  Afraid that his book will remain unfinished, leaving the world bereft of his creative genius, he convinces Catherine to enter into a kind of artistic living will – if either one of them dies, whatever work they had in progress with be completed by the other.  In some ways, that’s a admirable sentiment.  It’s also an arrogant one, especially in the hands of a the self-absorbed James, who suddenly insists upon writing his masterpiece in Braille (helpfully pointing out to Catherine that, according to their pact, she now also has to learn to read and write in Braille).

As a filmmaker, Carter has a muddled approach.  Though he composes his frames with great care and attention to detail, they’re seemingly shot and edited according to his quixotic whims.  That’s sort of the point, as Carter achieves his goal of filtering the audience’s experience through James’ unreliable, unstable psyche.  But it also marginalizes some of the film’s would-be strengths, such as the performances of Strathairn and Keener.  The latter is, as usual, a quiet revelation, particularly in a diner scene where she harangues her surrogate children as well as a nosy stranger (Alan Cumming) about the hypocrisy of categorizing her drag fetish as an affectation that is safely mocked while far more troubling behavior like James’ is treated as a serious condition to be confronted and understood.

Alas, Maladies seems only intermittently concerned with such thought-provoking ideas.  Carter is far more enamored with the metatexual world he’s constructed (the director eventually pops up in a cameo as an NYPD cop), dumping a bunch of DSM-approved symptoms into the mix and trusting Franco to assemble the pieces into something profound.  But that just doesn’t fly in a willfully obtuse movie that paradoxically yearns for comprehension and human connection.  It’s almost beautifully tragic (“People don’t understand how sensitive people are!” bemoans James) but Maladies registers as a 
frustrating exercise in experimental monotony – no mathematical proofs required.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1
Dir. Lars Von Trier

4 out of 5

How does Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier get away with even half the stuff in his self-proclaimed "Depression Trilogy"?  Is it because he means what he says, or is it because we know he's just trying to get a rise out of us?  Is Von Trier's current ideal A) investing every taboo and transgression with deep personal feeling, a la Melancholia, or B) trying to unbalance us and our preconceived notions of movies labeled as "art films," just because he can, as in Antichrist?

After watching Nymph()maniac: Volume 1, I get the feeling that best answer is C) a little bit of both.  Von Trier's ambitious two-part NC-17 opus is the biography of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed sex addict.  She begins the film lying bloodied in an alley when she's discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a kindly old gentleman with an encyclopedia's worth of esoteric knowledge about his many hobbies.  Joe pretty much knows about just one thing - sex - and proceeds to tell bits and pieces of her life story to her perpetually fascinated rescuer.

In the hands of another filmmaker, these vignettes might be told with the same abandon she displays in arranging her life around random sexual encounters.  Von Trier, however, takes a highly structured approach, setting up a breadcrumb trail of conversational triggers from a fly fishing lure on Seligman's wall to a dog-eared copy of Edgar Allen Poe stories on his bedside table.  It's as contrived as can be, turning every chapter of Joe's tale into a labored comparison of lust and lures, literature, or late Baroque composers.  Yet Nymph()maniac is also mesmerizing because of the push and pull between its explicit subject matter and its exceedingly arch tone, not to mention a framing device that recalls My Dinner With Andre more than Penthouse Forum.  (Seligman's dorky interjections are truly the secret ingredient of Von Trier's strange brew.)

The film's dispassionate attitude toward intercourse keeps a short leash on puerile thoughts, but it's also an important part of Joe's character.  Nymph()manic: Part 1 is focused entirely on her experiences as a young woman, as played by newcomer Stacy Martin.  Her wan, unsmiling performance complements the movie's chilly and mechanical vibe.  It's telling that the lone emotional outburst - which belongs to a deliciously sarcastic Uma Thurman as the cuckolded wife of one of Joe's lovers - is a great scene that nonetheless feels like it belongs in a different movie.

Nymph()maniac: Volume 1 is a mannered erotic contraption, its regimentation mirrored in Joe's sexual partners, particularly the bad penny Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), who by himself tends to shepherd Joe onto her next "level" of experience or, as part of a trio of men, helps provide a sexual wholeness that she likens to a musical polyphony.  Of course, Von Trier has no issues tearing down what he takes so long to build.  He also relishes his reputation as an enfant terrible - blaring a Rammstein song, cutting together an endless montage of phalli - to the point where it threatens to push the film into the realm of arthouse schlock.  It's entirely possible that the movie's second half will go farther down that path, but for now let's appreciate its author's willful and enthralling brand of cinema: a kind that potentially repels some audiences but certainly leaves no doubt about who is in control.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted
Dir. James Bobin
4 out of 5
A good place to start with the Muppets is to accept the fact that they're not just characters, but an eclectic performing troupe that endures in spite of its many divergent personalities.  They've been able to put their comic spin on genres as diverse as the meta-road movie (The Muppet Movie), the heist film (The Great Muppet Caper), two different period literary adaptations (The Muppet Christmas CarolMuppet Treasure Island), and even an anti-government conspiracy thriller (Muppets from Space).  The sooner you wrap your head around that, the easier it is to embrace the pleasures of Muppets Most Wanted, the cheeriest, zaniest, singing-and-dancing European caper/prison film ever to give top billing to an amphibian.
Muppets Most Wanted picks up immediately after the events depicted in 2011's The Muppets, as Kermit the Frog and friends grapple with the most difficult part of showbiz success: what to do next.  Heeding the advice of opportunistic manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), the Muppets embark on a European tour.  But unbeknownst to the performers, the tour is merely a front for the criminal operation of Badguy and Constantine, a dangerous jewel thief who happens to look exactly like Kermit save for the conspicuous mole on his right cheek.  A switcheroo is pulled, landing Kermit in a Siberian gulag run by domineering female warden Nadya (Tina Fey), while Constantine not-so-comfortably assumes the mantle of the Muppet Show ringleader to evade pursuing Interpol inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell).
The introduction of Kermit's crotchety doppelganger is a masterstroke and one of the movie's many nods to the cinematic traditions of yesteryear.  Muppets Most Wanted has a buoyant old-school vibe that connects with everything from Busby Berkeley musicals to the Pink Panther series to the Muppets' own vaudeville roots.  The delightfully silly, wordplay-ridden songs of Bret McKenzie (whose Flight of the Conchords co-star, Jemaine Clement, appears in one of the movie's many celebrity cameos) enliven the proceedings, from the bouncy opening number extolling the virtues of sequels to Constantine's show-stopping disco ballad about irresponsibly indulging the egos of the entire Muppet ensemble.
Freed from the immense pressure of relaunching a beloved franchise, returning director James Bobin creates a more confident, coherent, and true-to-character film.  With the heavy expositional lifting out of the way, Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller pack Muppets Most Wanted to the brim with free-flowing gags, in-jokes, and comedic bits designed to steal focus from the thinly-sketched plot.  But at least it's a plot that, unlike The Muppets, puts our puppet friends front and center.  The human co-stars nicely complement the action instead of overwhelming it, and the presence of Walter is more tolerable now that he's more of a team player than a Jason Segel surrogate/Muppet savior.  Like all superior Muppet projects, Muppets Most Wanted is a not-so-secret metaphor for collaboration and friendship, an appropriately optimistic romp through a rosy version of show business where anyone - even a pig, a bear, and a frog - can make it if they stick together.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rank and File #1: Muppet Movies

Art is not a competition...but it sure is more fun that way.  Welcome to a new column where I apply a rigorous methodology to a particular group of films, then just rank them based upon my capricious whims.  In honor of the upcoming Muppets Most Wanted, the inaugural edition of Rank and File takes a look at the history of Muppet movies.

The Arena

The 7 theatrically-released feature length films starring Jim Henson's Muppet characters.

The Combatants

In the late 1970s, the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational puppets in the entertainment business became bonafide TV stars thanks to The Muppet Show, a comedy/music/variety extravaganza that was the perfect showcase for Jim Henson's whimsical sense of humor and vaudevillian instincts.  In that sense The Muppet Movie (1979) was a huge risk.  It's notoriously difficult to translate popular sketch comedy into feature film success (ask Lorne Michaels).  Gags and character traits that play like gangbusters in three-minute bursts tend to immolate when magnified at feature length, much like the proverbial ant under the lens.

But in a minor miracle, Henson managed to create a cinematic framework that accommodates both the do-anything-for-a-laugh credo of The Muppet Show and broader narrative goals that accompany the dreams of Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the gang as they head toward their big break in Hollywood.  While celebrity cameos and fourth wall-breaking schtick are benchmarks of the Muppets' big-screen appeal, music is the true connective tissue here.  The Paul Williams-penned tunes, from "Movin' Right Along" to "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" to the indomitable "Rainbow Connection," give the film a complex emotional palette and melancholy tone that belies the nonstop torrent of jokes.  Sure, there's a fair bit of mugging and ostensibly major conflicts are blithely dismissed, but it's done with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  As Kermit admits to his nephew Robin, movies approximate life in the service of larger themes and goals, and The Muppet Movie's celebration of friendship, perseverance, and imagination makes a brilliant case for giving storytellers the leeway to make it up as they see fit.

For his follow-up, 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, Henson tried to embrace a more formal approach.  Though the opening number, "Hey, A Movie," again extols the wonderful artificiality of filmmaking, it also prepares the audience for a more conventional experience, explaining that Kermit, Fozzie, and the Great Gonzo will be playing investigative journalists trying to unravel the mystery behind a European jewel heist.

Yet Caper has difficulty sticking to that conceit.  After an initial 15 minutes that establish the ground rules of the plot, it takes nearly an hour to be set in motion by a villainous Charles Grodin, who frames Miss Piggy for stealing his famous sister's necklace so he can pilfer an even bigger bauble from a gallery.  In between is lots of filler, some good (like anything involving the wacky tenants of the Happiness Hotel), some dull, and most of it focused on the weakest portion of the Muppet mythos: the on-again, off-again relationship of Kermit and Miss Piggy.  The latter tends to get a worse rap than she deserves, but in Caper she's alternately domineering, delusional, and deranged; she's the ultimate psycho lover setting a very poor example in her quest to land her frog.  The inspired lunacy of the climax restores most of the film's initial energy, but there's a lot of uneven ground to cover before then.

It pains me to use the word "mediocre" to describe a production as technically complex and lovingly handmade as a Muppet movie, but it's apt when talking about The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).  With Henson focused on weirder, darker non-Muppet film projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth throughout the '80s, Frank Oz took the reins as the director for the Muppets' third feature.  Oz is arguably the second most important puppeteer of all time and has good instincts as a director.  Unfortunately, Manhattan's script, which Oz co-wrote with Caper scribes Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, is consistently the weakest link in a film that seems to have trouble justifying its own existence.

After a rocky introduction that involves the Muppets graduating from college together (riiiight), the first half of The Muppets Take Manhattan is not as poor as the film's overall reputation suggests.  Kermit leads his friends to New York City in the hopes of convincing a producer to mount their Broadway musical but, in a neat inversion of The Muppet Movie's conception of Hollywood as the easiest place in the world to find a job, the gang quickly discovers the difficulty of making it in show business.  Reduced to working a part-time job at a grubby diner, Kermit volunteers to stay behind and grind it out, transparently setting up a climactic third act reunion.

That's when things get really bizarre.  The movie crosses a line of decency and respect for its audience by thrusting Kermit into an unsettling sort-of romance with a perky human waitress (Juliana Donald), as well as saddling him a hokey bout of amnesia - caused when the beloved children's entertainment icon gets run over by a taxi - that turns him into a yuppie asshole.  As if that weren't enough, it then it veers into one of the oddest and most secretly disturbing endings for a mainstream family film: the recently revived Kermit performs in the opening night of the Muppets' Broadway musical, only to find that it's actually an elaborate ruse to shanghai him into a legally-binding wedding with Miss Piggy.  It's a moment teased so many times throughout the characters' history and it was probably bound to happen sometime...but did it have to be like this?

Other than launching the Muppet Babies cartoon in one of its few memorable sequences, The Muppets Take Manhattan left a bad aftertaste that acquired a more tragic dimension upon Jim Henson's death in 1990.  Born from an idea Henson had shortly before his passing (and shortly after he had sold his company to Disney), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) stands as a much more fitting swan song, though on paper, it sounds pretty iffy: a period literary adaptation with a highly structured plot that's the opposite of the shaggy, shambling vibe of the three previous Muppet films.  It also had to deal with the immense hole left by the departed Henson both as a filmmaker and a puppeteer.

In spite of the obstacles - or perhaps because of them - The Muppet Christmas Carol works beautifully on nearly every level: as a tribute to Henson's ineffable creative spirit (doubly poignant as it's directed by his son Brian); as a sweet and ingratiating holiday insta-classic; even as a surprisingly fresh and lively adaptation of Charles Dickens's picked-over novel.  Music is once again the secret weapon, with songwriter Paul Williams returning to the fold for the first time since The Muppet Movie.  However, the literary conceit gives the film a pleasing novelty, allowing Kermit to play a prominent role as Bob Cratchit, while Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are brought to the fore as co-narrators, providing just the right dose of zany Muppet antics.  It's also the first Muppet movie to eschew the traditional cavalcade of cameos, featuring a charismatic lead performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge, who earns brownie points for taking the job seriously.

The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to steer the Muppets on a more sentimental tack that dovetails nicely with Dickens's traditional (and, it should be said, mostly secular) celebration of the Christmas spirit.  In comparison, Muppet Treasure Island (1996) represents a return to the characters' anarchic roots, while attempting to preserve the formula that made Christmas Carol a success.  Director Brian Henson again relies on catchy original songs, a villainous turn by a hammy British actor (Tim Curry), and the assistance of Gonzo and Rizzo as narrators/comic relief.  It's also a high-water mark for production values in a Muppet movie, with elaborate sets, an impressively large cast of puppets, and an epic score by Hans Zimmer.

The grandiosity comes as a price, however.  Though it sounds silly, Muppet Treasure Island feels too actorly; it's the Muppets putting on a show as always, but without most of the self-awareness.  The filmmakers do a good job of molding Robert Louis Stevenson's characters into their Muppet versions, though inevitably some are more fitting than others - while Sam Eagle finally gets a meaty role as the strict first officer on the treasure-seeking voyage, mainstays like Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy almost have to be wedged in.  While not exactly on par with Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island still delivers the goods via lavish production numbers and clever running gags that keep the audience engaged throughout its extended running time.

The late '90s were an interesting time for the Muppets.  Despite the critical success of their literary forays, projects like the variety show reboot Muppets Tonight and the feature film Muppets from Space (1999) suggest a corporate directive to make the characters hipper and more appealing to a new generation of kids who would ostensibly be put to sleep by "Rainbow Connection."  It's telling that Muppets from Space focuses heavily on Gonzo, putting his funky, thrill-seeking 'tude front and center as he attempts to investigate his origins.  It's a little grating - and kind of unnecessary, given Gonzo's prior comfort with being classified as a "whatever" - but all a loving nod to the Muppets' outsider-misfit roots, particularly when Gonzo is kidnapped by a rogue government agent (Jeffrey Tambor) convinced that the strange blue creature is an extraterrestrial.

Lasting for all of 88 minutes, Muppets from Space is a peppy but ultimately shallow experience studded with low wattage cameos from the likes of David Arquette and Hulk Hogan.  The eyebrow-raising lack of original songs - a first for the Muppets - is mitigated by the inspired left-field choice to populate the soundtrack with '70s funk and R&B.  It gives the proceedings a loose-goosey spirit that softens the harsh reality of Gonzo's existential crisis, and backgrounds the handful of wily montages (like the Muppets completing their morning routines to the strains of "Brick House") that hold up as the funniest parts of the movie.    

While Muppets from Space was essentially a flawed rebranding, 2011’s The Muppets was a true generational shift, placing creative control in the hands of people who grew up with the characters.  Producer, co-writer, and star Jason Segel emerged as the face of the reboot, trumpeting his fondness for all things Muppet - a nice marketing idea that unfortunately doubles as the fulcrum of the film’s narrative.  In the movie, he plays brother of Walter, a brand-new puppet character and Muppet superfan tagging along with Segel and his fiancé (Amy Adams) on their anniversary trip to Los Angeles.  When Walter overhears a rich oil baron (Chris Cooper) detail his plans to demolish the run-down Muppet Studios, he takes it upon himself to reunite the Muppets for a telethon to save their old stomping grounds from destruction.

The Muppets is a starry-eyed tribute, a well-meaning if sometimes misguided movie.  At its best, it's a fun amalgamation of old and new, notably in Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie assuming the mantle of Paul Williams with his impishly clever original songs.  At its worst, however, The Muppets is a self-congratulatory hymn to Segel's clout in getting the movie made, as channeled through Walter.  He's an ok addition to the Muppet crew - kind of a Kermit lite - but Walter's story overwhelms the real stars until the movie shifts gears in the third act to stage a joyous re-creation of classic Muppet Show mayhem.  That's The Muppets in a nutshell: a little too halting and insecure, but ultimately worth the wait.

The Verdict

7. The Muppets Take Manhattan
6. The Great Muppet Caper
5. Muppets from Space
4. The Muppets
3. Muppet Treasure Island
2. The Muppet Movie
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson

4 out of 5

There's an argument to be made for The Grand Budapest Hotel as one of the best historical dramas in recent years, despite taking place in a fictional country (the lowly central European republic of Zubrowka) and featuring events that exist only in the imagination of filmmaker Wes Anderson.  Constructing a world that resembles the uncertain political miasma of interwar Europe, the auteur smartly realizes that the creation of history is not an aspiration but a buffeting force that pushes people to secure what they can for their own futures, and what is interpreted as academic fact by later generations was once the emotional stuff of individual lives.

Anderson establishes a deeply-felt chain of human connections in the first 10 minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, beginning with a teenager reading a book with the same title at the author's grave.  He quickly flashes back to the writer (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing how he became acquainted with the story of the Grand Budapest, a once-glittering mountain resort that had fallen into disrepair when he visited it as a younger man (Jude Law) and became acquainted with its kind but weary owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  Sensing a simpatico spirit, Moustafa invites the writer to dinner and proceeds to explain how he acquired the hotel and why he cannot bring himself to shut it down, even as repairs mount and guests dwindle.

The bulk of his story - and the film inself - takes place in 1932, when war is brewing and the young Zero (Tony Revolori) is employed as the Grand Budapest's lobby boy under the tutelage of head concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  Yet another Anderson character trying to impose stability on a world unmoored by messy things like emotions and politics, Gustave takes his mission of service seriously, even after he's falsely accused of poisoning a wealthy old widow (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) and thrown into jail.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially Anderson's whodunit movie, dressed up with the director's trademark visual fastidiousness.  There's a dramatic reading of a last will and testament, a butler (Mathieu Amalric) with a secret, and a priceless painting that's a winking parody of mystery MacGuffins.

The movie finds its rock in Fiennes, playing Gustave with the perfect blend of confidence, composure, and barely suppressed melancholy - Anderson's most complex and fascinating character since Steve Zizzou.  He shamelessly panders to the rich biddies who visit the Grand Budapest in droves to experience his "exceptional service."  He's also an effeminate dandy with a strong belief in chivalric codes of heroism, friendship, and justice.  The movie's only real weakness is that it periodically leaves Gustave's quest to exonerate himself to focus on Zero and his understated romance with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a talented young pastry chef, which comes across as tepid compared to the mayhem surrounding the couple.

The Grand Budapest Hotel again finds Anderson re-arranging all of his favorite tropes into yet another affecting story about how people or events or eras are defined (or misinterpreted) through their presentation.  By now I hope everyone realizes that Anderson is much more than a details-obsessed fussbucket, but it's always worth nothing where his worked-over set dressing conveys real meaning, whether it's the way the older Moustafa's insists on sleeping in the same staff quarters he inhabited as a young man, or Gustave's obsession with items - ivory-handled hairbrushes, fancy colognes, expensive pastries in decadent pink boxes - that support his cosmopolitan image.  But by breaking the spell of his own lovingly-crafted faux-nostalgia with the bawdy and brutally funny interjections of real life, Anderson reminds us that even as we preserve these constructs as our official version of history, there's often a deeper, more emotional story waiting to be uncovered.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Dir. Rob Minkoff

2.5 out of 5

Family films are essentially created to serve two masters, trying to strike the right balance between being an entertaining, easily digestible experience for children and something that winks enough at the parents in the audience to keep them from getting bored.  Family films based on a nostalgic pop-culture property like Mr. Peabody and Sherman - a new computer-animated movie based on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show segments featuring a time-traveling dog and his adopted son - take this another step further, trying to honor the spirit of the source material while updating it for a brand new audience.

This tension is felt immediately in Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which opens with the canine genius Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) explaining how he worked his way from humble origins to become an intellectual giant, before taking on the challenge of raising a human child named Sherman (Max Charles).  Together they go on adventures in the WABAC - pronounced "way back" - Machine, a time-traveling vehicle of Peabody's invention.  The basics are barely established before the duo gets zapped back to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror for a madcap action sequence that touches all the zany bases of the original cartoon.

Of course, if this was the original cartoon, the adventure probably probably would have ended there.  But Mr. Peabody and Sherman has 85 more minutes to fill, so director Rob Minkoff bides his time by introducing Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), a classmate of Sherman's who bullies him on the basis of his unorthodox parentage.  When Peabody hears of this, he demands that the two make amends, inviting Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for a dinner party.  It isn't long before the kids get into the WABAC, forcing Mr. Peabody to give chase and facilitate one rescue after another in a wild journey through space and time.

While the historical segments (there are also layovers in Renaissance Italy and during the Trojan War) generally do a good job of capturing the lightheartedly pedantic tone of the series, the movie is pitched overall as a family melodrama, which is slightly awkward given Mr. Peabody's dispassionate personality.  With a single notable exception - Peabody reminiscing about Sherman's early childhood in an affecting montage set to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" - it falls to the kids to deliver the warm fuzzies.  However, the filmmakers complicate this with constant creepy hints at a romantic tension between two seven-year-olds.  

Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a prime example of a movie trying hard to appeal to all segments of the audience, forgetting that consensus is typically the death of creativity.  Alternately clever, sappy, zany, and bland, the film rarely pauses long enough to develop its own unique voice, retreating into the safety of the standard CGI family film blueprint.  The visuals are richly detailed but also suffer from a lack of originality, eschewing the cartoon's cacophony of oddly angular lines for Dreamworks Animation's stifling house style.  Mr. Peabody and Sherman's climax perfectly encapsulates its "something for everyone" mission, a procession of cameos and time travel hibbety-gibbety that ultimately has little bearing on its predicable story arc.  But perhaps it's all part of the film's faintly educational message: when it comes to calibrating animated movies for maximum audience appeal, history truly does repeat itself.