I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
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Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., March 19, 2000 - Rene Russo, the actress, didn't win any awards for her head-turning performance in "The Thomas Crown Affair." But tonight here at the Beverly Hilton, Rene Russo, the haircut, did. Welcome to the first-ever Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards, where the above-the-title stars take back seats to behind-the-scenes primping professionals.
Yes, it was the beauty folks' turn to make Oscar-like acceptance speeches and bask in the praise of thankful A-list celebrities who they've made look good, "day after day, year after year, facelift after facelift," as host Rita Rudner drolly put it.
"It's the American dream that I've heard so much about. It's happening to me right now," hair stylist Enzo Angileri said, accepting the so-called Georgie award for doing Russo's do in "Thomas Crown," named best contemporary hairstyling work.
Decades ago, hair and make-up people were treated like celebrities themselves. But the list of big names attending the awards ceremony showed that, while movie and TV beauticians may no longer make it into the gossip columns, they nonetheless are held in high esteem by those who do.
"It's an art form," said actor Billy Bob Thornton, an award presenter. As if to prove that point, Thornton showed up in full make-up (complete with oily gray hair) and costume (a Slim Whitman-meets-Colonel Sanders outfit) from "Waking Up In Reno," a film he's now shooting, in which he plays an aging country singer.
"A lot of people don't realize how much time we spend in make-up, how many hours we spend being literally transformed by these artists," he said.
Other name brands handing trophies included: Holly Hunter, Brendan Fraser (greeted by cat-calls from the audience), Ellen Burstyn, Mimi Rogers, and cast members from TV shows like "That 70's Show," "Freaks and Geeks," and "Providence." Before the event, crowds of fans and electronic lined the Beverly Hilton lobby as the stars rolled in.
Tony Curtis presented the lifetime achievement award to makeup artist Monty Westmore, who recently retired after a 50-plus-year career that included more than 100 films, ranging from "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" with Humphrey Bogart to the forthcoming "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with Jim Carrey.
Unlike the Oscars, which have been plagued by mishaps this year despite 72 years of experience, the Georgies basically survived their first go-round with almost no problems. Ballots were mailed out to the 1,100 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 706, who voted on the 17 different award categories. And the golden statuettes, which look vaguely Oscar-like, didn't disappear en route to the event.
But note the phrase: Almost no problems. Amid the celebration, two important items were missing: The champagne and sunglasses. The champagne ordered for the ceremonies never arrived, and was believed to have been delivered to another hotel. And the Calvin Klein shades that were to be supplied by the designer label and given out to the presenters, also were no-shows.
When informed of this caper, actress Christina Applegate (of "Jesse" fame) was understandably dejected.
"Was I supposed to get some glasses?" Applegate said. "Darn."
Here's a complete look at the night's winners:
Best Contemporary Makeup (Feature) Toni G and Will Huff "The General's Daughter."
Best Period Makeup (Feature) Leonard Engleman, "Tea With Mussolini."
Best Character Makeup (Feature) Kevin Yagher, Peter Owen, Elizabeth Tag and Paul Gooch, "Sleepy Hollow."
Best Effects Makeup (Feature) Greg Cannom and Wesley Wofford, "Bicentennial Man."
Best Contemporary Hair Styling (Feature) Enzo Angileri "The Thomas Crown Affair."
Best Period Hair Styling (Feature) Vivian McAteer, for Cher in "Tea With Mussolini." Television TELEVISION
Best Contemporary Makeup (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) James MacKinnon and Stephanie Fowler, "Thank You Providence," "Providence."
Best Period Makeup (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Cheri Montesanto-Medcalf, Kevin Westmore and LaVerne Basham, "Triangle," "The X-Files."
Best Character Makeup (Television) Jennifer Aspinall, Felicia Linsky and Ed French, Episode #507, "Mad TV."
Best Makeup Effects (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Kenny Myers, Todd A. McIntosh, Robin Beauxchesne, Douglas Noe, and Brigette Myre-Ellis, "Living Conditions," "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."
Best Period Makeup (For a Mini-Series or Movie of the Week) Sue Cabel, Matthew Mungle and Joe Hailey, "And The Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story."
Best Character Makeup (For a Mini-Series or Movie of the Week) Douglas Noe, for Cicely Tyson in "A Lesson Before Dying."
Best Contemporary Hair Styling (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Darrell Fielder, Jonathan Hanousak and Joy Zapata, "The Final Frontier," "Mad About You."
Best Period Hair Styling (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series -- Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Gabriella Pollino, Deborah Piper, Valerie Scott and Cindy Costello, "Prom Night," "That 70's Show."
Best Character Hair Styling (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Josee Normand, Charlotte Parker and Gloria Montemeyor, "Bride of Chaotica," "Star Trek Voyager."
Best Innovative Hair Styling (For a Single Episode of a Regular Series - Sitcom, Drama or Daytime) Josee Normand, Charlotte Parker and Gloria Montemeyor, "Dragon's Teeth," "Star Trek Voyager."
Best Period Hair Styling (For a Mini-Series or Movie of the Week) Marlene Williams and Tim Jones "And The Beat Goes On: The Sonny & Cher Story."