Now here is a reboot to cheer for. The Muppets heralds the return of Jim Henson’s beloved furry creations resurrected from pop-culture irrelevance and lovingly restored to their former greatness in a vibrant comedy-musical.
Jason Segel in addition to co-writing and starring in the film served as executive producer and the project's resident evangelist. His choice of collaborators is inspired. Directing is James Bobin best known as the co-creator along with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords a show whose good-natured and yet slyly irreverent tone often recalled that of old Muppet Show episodes. (I’ve never quite recovered from its premature departure.) McKenzie served as music supervisor contributing several original songs to the soundtrack. Segel’s co-star Amy Adams is the rare breed of actress who can transition from playing a pugilistic potty-mouthed waitress (in The Fighter) to the role of an angelic schoolteacher with ease. And few actors portray cartoonish villainy with more verve than Oscar winner Chris Cooper.
The film opens with a montage introducing the character of Walter a Muppet raised in Smalltown USA who figures himself the first and only of his kind until he happens upon an old Muppet Show rerun after which he is inexorably transfixed. Together with his “brother ” Gary (Segel) and Gary’s fiancé Mary (Adams) he travels out to Los Angeles to meet his idols only to find their studio vacated and on the verge of being demolished by Tex Richman (Cooper) a sinister tycoon who covets the oil reserves beneath it.
The only way to save the studio naturally is a kick-ass variety show reuniting the Muppets long estranged after the demise of their television series. Kermit the Frog is now holed up in a sprawling Bel Air mansion which he once dreamed of sharing with his former flame Miss Piggy who has gone on to become Vogue’s “plus-size” editor in Paris. Consummate entertainer Fozzy Bear is slumming it in Reno with a tribute band dubbed the Moopets; Gonzo is consumed by his work as CEO of the plumbing company Gonzo’s Royal Flush; and Animal is seeking treatment at the Fresh Pathways anger management clinic.
Segel and company’s affection for the original Muppets property is clear so much so that some viewers may dismiss the film as a tedious exercise in nostalgia. Pay them no heed. Kermit and the crew are as fresh and funny as they were three decades ago and their anarchic brand of humor with young and old alike. The film suffers from an over-emphasis on its human characters (Gonzo’s miniscule screen time is particularly baffling) and McKenzie’s songwriting while more than adequate yields no memorable standouts in the vein of “Rainbow Connection” or “Mah Na Mah Na ” but these are minor quibbles. Only cynical curmudgeons like Statler and Waldorf would waste time finding fault with an experience this joyous.
In true straightforward comic-book style TMNT starts with a brief backstory (without the laborious explanation on why four turtles and a rat become human-like in the first place) and then launches into the heart of the movie. After the defeat of their old arch nemesis The Shredder the Turtles—fun-lovin’ Michelangelo (Mikey Kelly) tech guru Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) hotheaded Raphael (Nolan North) and pragmatic leader Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor)--have grown apart as a family. While Leo is off honing his craft the turtles no longer fight crime--except Raphael who still fights crime under the pseudonym Nightwatcher. Struggling to keep them together is their rat sensei Master Splinter (the late Mako). But strange things are brewing. Tech-industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) is amassing an army of ancient monsters to apparently take over the world. With the help of old allies April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans) the Turtles finally come together as brothers to fight the good fight and once again face the mysterious Foot Clan who have put their own ninja skills behind Winters' endeavors. As opposed to hiring just A-list actors TMNT is a nice eclectic mix of veteran voice-over artists who give the Turtles their voices and regular actors such as Gellar Stewart and Evans. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’s Ziyi Zhang also gets in on the action providing the voice of the Foot Clan leader Karai who was once an enemy of the Turtles but now sees the value in what they do. Of course there isn’t a Robin Williams or Ben Stiller to laugh with but Kelly is pretty funny as Michelangelo who has had to resort to entertaining kids at birthday parties as “Cowabunga Carl ” a clown-for-hire in a “fake” turtle suit. It will all depend on whether those ninja-fightin’ pizza-eatin’ giant turtles still have a monetary appeal but methinks a new TMNT movie franchise has been born. The comic book was created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman as a spoof to the superhero stories and quickly took off into merchandising heaven with a toy license and then a television series. The original 1990 live-action movie used state-of-the-art animatronics but somehow felt static and fake. Since the last TMNT movie in 1993 the whole Turtle phenomenon has sort of fallen off the radar at least in the U.S. so the time was ripe for a renovation. Using the innovative CGI we know and love this new TMNT--created by a team of animators from California and Hong Kong under the watchful direction of Kevin Munroe--gives the Turtles not to mention all the otherworldly monsters they have to fight a realistic look and feel. With this kind of freedom the film can focus on the action which is the best part of the TMNT lore. Though the demographics may skew male ages 8-11 (as well as those 8-to-11-year-old boys who loved it back in the day and are now grown men) TMNT is just your basic supercharged animated fun.
Near the end of the Tang Dynasty in 10th century China things are not well between the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his Empress (Gong Li). She serves more as an arm piece to him and begins to suspect that he is poisoning her to keep her subservient. The Emperor brings his son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to the palace and Jai is concerned for the Empress's health. She also seems to have some sort of hold on her stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) who just wants to run away with the palace doctor's daughter Chan (Li Man). With all the scheming and ulterior motives going back and forth it all hits the fan when the Emperor's convoy is attacked by assassins. From here secrets come to light through death and battle as the assassins force both sides' hands. The family relations and dynasty lore may be too complicated to understand in one viewing but that is often the case with these kinds of historical epics especially in a foreign language. Still the elements are beautiful to watch and once it becomes a war movie the threat of boredom is lifted. Curse of the Golden Flower offers traditional epic performances. Gong Li’s Empress may be bitter in servitude angry in conspiracy or pained with tragedy but it's all big dramatics. Few can do it better than Gong. The lavish emotional material is her forte and this is another tragic epic in which she can shine. Chow Yun-Fat does his stoic thing. What makes him the ultimate badass action hero also suits him well as a plotting monarch. Some range of issues face his character but he greets them with a strong even-keeled temper only breaking down in pivotal moments. The assassins serve as a singular character too. They move so gracefully as a single unit you don't even need to see who's under the masks to get the personality of this unstoppable killing machine. Other characters just serve as pawns in the plot. There's the whiny sissy son and lovelorn kids all convincing as they serve their purposes in Gong and Chow's chess game. Curse of the Golden Flower seems to be a culmination of all of director Zhang Yimou's work. It includes period drama with epic tragic themes and even more newfangled martial arts action since his last effort Hero. He also uses color schemes to reflect emotion. Superficial gold barely masks the palace corruption and forest greens welcome in the change brought by the assassins. Golden Flower does seems a tad melodramatic. But the Chinese language is based on subtle sound differences and going over the top may be the only way to convey it. It certainly works for a political intrigue family drama. The best parts of the film are the assassin attacks big but full of nuance. The dark figures flow gracefully through the scenes seeming to defy gravity but not in a Crouching Tiger sort of way. Their acrobatic antics are based on some level of physics at least as the film establishes the group. It's never just clanking swords there's always some careful tactics to enjoy. Combining so many aspects masterfully Curse of the Golden Flower could be Zhang's masterwork.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
As Phone Booth not-so-subtly points out most folks these days spend a great deal of time on the phone--so much so that the compulsion to answer even a random ringing phone is sometimes just too hard to pass up. Such is the fate of one Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) a smooth-talking PR rep who revels in his self-serving unethical existence. He prefers to wheel and deal on his cell phone while pacing the streets of New York but uses a public phone booth for the calls he doesn't want wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) to find out about like the special one he wants to make to Pam (Katie Holmes) a wannabe actress he's trying to get in the sack. Yet on this particular afternoon the pay phone rings--and being the phone junkie he is Stu answers it. Biiiig mistake. The caller turns out to be a serial killer with a sniper rifle who tells Stu he'll be shot dead if he hangs up the phone. Of course Stu thinks it's a sick joke at first but after the sniper kills someone near the booth Stu is suddenly thrust into a hellish game of cat and mouse with the unseen gunman. Eventually the police arrive led by senior officer Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) who first mistake Stu for the crazy shooter. Soon however Ramey his team Kelly and even Pam become ensnared in the sniper's web--and only Stu can save them by digging deep into his soul and coming clean ultimately outwitting the killer at his own game.
That this is pretty much a one-man show is a given--and Farrell bears the weight of it on his shoulders quite well. The Irish actor has a certain reckless-yet-oh-so-vulnerable approach towards his craft which he uses to full benefit in Phone Booth. Stu goes from cocky bravado to gut-wrenching defenselessness in one fell swoop and even though his character's dialogue gets heavy-handed about what a schmuck he has been Farrell manages to make it all believable. As the sniper Kiefer Sutherland is menacing and sardonic as he goads Stu into his confessions but the baddie never comes off as evil as you would like him to be. Of the supporting players only Whitaker stands out as the police captain who is thankfully a lot smarter than he first appears to be. Holmes and Mitchell on the other hand have the tedious tasks of playing "the women" and neither are able to rise above their thankless parts.
Phone Booth had some difficulties making it to the big screen. Originally From Hell's Allan and Albert Hughes were attached to direct with a varying list of A-list actors attached to star at different times including Will Smith and Jim Carrey. Eventually the film fell into director Joel Schumacher's lap in 2000 and (after Carrey dropped out) he cast newcomer Farrell with whom the director had just worked in Tigerland. Twentieth Century Fox at last was able to set a November 2002 release date--but then came the horrifying real-life events last October where two snipers in the Washington D.C. area randomly killed several people and the studio decided to postpone the release due to those sensitive circumstances. Now that the film is finally coming out the wait seems to have paid off since a) Farrell has become a bona-fide star in the meantime with The Recruit and Daredevil under his belt and b) Phone Booth is just as fresh and visually stimulating as if it was made yesterday. Schumacher shot the film in 10 days because he knew he had to pull out all the stops to sell the concept of having the action revolve around one guy standing in a phone booth. The result is an excellent fast-paced film which uses a split-screen style to tell the story--and keep the movie's--and the audience's--adrenaline pumping throughout.
Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is the most skilled martial artist in the region
yet after years of training and fighting he's ready to give it all up to
lead a new peaceful life. Only he's got two more challenges ahead of him:
love and a young mysterious thief with martial arts skills like he's never
seen. Before he can slip into retirement he attempts to make a deal with
the young thief: He'll become her master and polish her martial arts if
she'll turn from her evil ways.
Unlike most martial arts films this one is an equal-opportunity flick -
with the two female co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi doing the bulk
of the karate chopping. Their scenes are one of the many highlights
throughout this little gem which is told in the form of an ancient fantasy.
Fat's presence dominates the screen with his portrayal of a wise and highly
skilled martial artist who can deliver deadly damage to a foe with a single
finger jab. Ziyi's also delivers an impeccable performance of a character
who can be innocent at first glance but when provoked can unleash a flurry
of kicks jabs and tumbling acrobatics.
Ang Lee (The Ice Storm Eat Drink Man Woman) adds a very different film
to his impressive repertoire. Here he plays on his childhood fantasies in
Taiwan to create world of ancient martial artists who fly through the air
during their many fighting sequences. As corny as it may seem Lee's
character's supernatural abilities give these sequences an air of elegance
to the martial arts. And he's managed to skillfully blend the special
effects with a romantic subplot in China's beautifully spacious landscapes
of deserts and lush forests.