Sunday, March 30, 2014

Throwing the Penalty Flag on Muppets Most Wanted

I am already on record as being a huge fan of the Muppets, going back to the early days of The Muppet Show. And I wasn’t shy about professing my love for the recent Muppets reboot (2011) starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, because it resurrected so much of the pure whimsy, joyful exuberance and gently caring spirit of the first and best Muppet film, 1979’s The Muppet Movie.

So how does the new film, Muppets Most Wanted, fare in comparison? Well, let’s just say that it’s a frog of a different color. Not a completely different color. Just a few shades off. After the opening number, MMW never quite rises to the level of its predecessor. It’s not that it can’t quite hit the high notes; it’s more like it’s not clear that they’re trying. Generally speaking though, it does meet the Muppet standard for entertainment value, and that means kids and adults alike will enjoy the film, in their own ways. Grown-ups will guffaw at the moments of parody, the playful pop-culture references and the quick one-liners, while kids will have fun watching the silly and colorful antics of the characters. It may not be the Muppets at their best, but it is them in their most familiar habitat.

One thing I confess I don’t understand about Muppets Most Wanted is the intentional decision by the filmmakers to loosely shadow the storyline of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). In The Muppets, the theme of reviving past greatness by getting the group back together again naturally lent itself to multiple parallels to the original, which was the story of Kermit and how he gathered the group together in the first place. MMW does something similar with its call-back film. Both are predicated on the Muppets venturing overseas and getting entangled in a major heist.

But why? The Muppets had something to say about reinvention and facing the future that actually builds upon the original, but that is not the case for this newest film. Both Muppets Most Wanted and The Great Muppet Caper are varieties of caper film, but there is no necessary link between them. So what’s the point? Why not set off in some new, different direction with MMW? The Great Muppet Caper wasn’t that great to begin with. Why use it as a model? And does this mean the next film is going to be The Muppets Take New Jersey?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tapping Out: Spinal Tap Turns 30

My career as a movie reviewer began in March, 1984. I had just managed to land the assignment to write a movie review for the next edition of my high school newspaper, “The Brophy Round-Up.” I don’t know how it happened, me only fifteen, still an underclassman. I had only written only one previous piece, a less-than-scintillating profile of Key Club, and now, here I was, getting a crack at the paper’s second-most-coveted gig (just behind music critic). True, being at an all-boys school, I couldn’t count on my status as the school’s official movie reviewer to attract girls, but still, it beat the crap out of covering cross-country racing.

I set out to make a statement with my first review; you know, start things off with a bang. If I knocked this one out of the park, I reasoned, they’d never be able to pry me out of the job. I’d become known as the movie mogul of Brophy College Preparatory. I would go down as the greatest film critic the school had ever seen. And this would be the review that started my inevitable rise to fame.

Brimming with ambition, I scanned the movie section in the New Times during seventh-hour Biology. Only three films were opening that weekend: Repo Man, Against All Odds, and This is Spinal Tap.

The obvious choice would have been Against All Odds, the Jeff Bridges/Rachel Ward flick. I spurned this idea, even though I liked Jeff Bridges in Tron, and really liked Rachel Ward in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, even if she was in black and white the whole time. Odds was a romance, and I knew I needed something more substantial than some piece of romantic fluff to properly begin my conquest. I needed something quirkier, edgier, less mainstream. So instead, when I arrived at the AMC Village Six multiplex that Friday night, I bought a ticket for Footloose.

What? Aren’t quirky, edgy, and less mainstream the first trio of adjectives that pop into your mind when you think of Footloose?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gettin' Smauggy With It: The Desolation of Smaug

Orcs gettin’ shot
Drilled by elves right on the spot
Chasin’ dwarves without a thought
You know they’re never gettin’ caught.
Like a Shaq free throw shot
This hobbit flick is all for naught
Cuz the action’s overwrought
And it’s fraught with extra plot.

That’s how I imagine Will Smith might rap-review Peter Jackson’s second film in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, if rapping movie reviews was his thing, which it isn’t, and if he shared my cinematic sensibilities, which he probably doesn’t.

Overwrought. That’s the key word I keep coming back to. I could add a few more: ostentatious, histrionic, superfluous, but I don’t know what those words mean. Here’s one I like:

Splurgy. That’s a good word too. This film has a certain enthusiastic spendthriftiness to it. It’s like the working stiff who wins the office pool, and then rushes home and announces, “Gather up the kids, honey. We’re all going to Golden Corral tonight!”
And possibly a severe bowel obstruction.

I suppose this is the kind of thing that can happen when a director as imaginative and ambitious as Mr. Jackson gets too much of everything he wants. As in:
Too much creative control
Too much perceived demand for more Middle-Earth movies
Too much money gladly handed over, strings detached
Too much film stock, or hard drive capacity, or whatever medium movies are made with these days.

Yet it’s hard to fault Mr. Jackson entirely for cranking out an overwrought, bloated product. After all, could you blame the proverbial kid in the candy store for eating himself into a blimp if he was given the key to the store with the words, “We’ll see you, oh, I don’t know…Tell you what, why don’t you let us know when you’re ready to come out?”

The man’s only human, and self-restraint is not high on most humans’ list of strong points. Self-restraint is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but in practice, well, check back later. The sample size is too small.

So what do I mean by an overwrought film, exactly? Well the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding in The Desolation of Smaug is the action sequences. So let’s taste the pudding, shall we?