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.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
“Story” is a pejorative term when applied to The Comebacks. The entire concept of the film is basically an excuse to string together and spoof famous scenes from a variety of sports movies including Field of Dreams Bend It Like Beckham Seabiscuit Remember the Titans Rudy Invincible Stick It Drumline et al. David Koechner stars as Lambeau Fields the worst coach in the history of sports who takes one more stab at gridiron glory when he agrees to coach Heartland State University’s luckless football squad. Needless to say this assemblage of losers misfits and malcontents is turned into a winning team under Coach’s somewhat unorthodox tutelage. Unlike most coaches Fields encourages his players to cut class take drugs drink to excess and behave as badly as he does. It all culminates in the championship game (“The Toilet Bowl”) between Coach Fields’ Comebacks and the mighty Invincibles coached by Fields’ one-time friend-turned-rival Freddie Wiseman (Carl Weathers). Despite being down 35-0 at halftime the Comebacks...well you can guess the rest. The collective enthusiasm of the cast goes a long way toward keeping The Comebacks watchable. Koechner enjoying his first big-screen lead has a likable lunk-headed quality that makes Coach Fields an endearing idiot. Melora Hardin scores too as his neglected wife and Brooke Nevin is a looker as their rebellious teenage daughter who also happens to be a gymnastics wiz (Stick It anyone?). Weathers a one-time pro-football player before stardom (in Rocky beckoned) has a good time playing the duplicitous Coach Wiseman and some of the more memorable members of the Comebacks include Matthew Lawrence Jackie Long Noureen DeWulf and Robert Ri’chard. A lot of familiar faces turn up in cameo roles: Will Arnett Dax Shepard Jonathan Gries Kerri Kenney Jillian Grace Eric Christian Olsen Stacy Kiebler Frank Caliendo (doing his impressions of John Madden and Al Michaels) and Andy Dick whose role as the referee during the climactic football game isn’t big enough for him to be as truly annoying as he can be. (That’s a good thing.) Not surprisingly a number of real-life sports personalities turn up in cameos as well: Dennis Rodman (as a prison warden no less!) Michael Irvin Eric Dickerson Lawrence Taylor John Salley Chris Rose and Bill Buckner (reprising his infamous error from the 1986 World Series). Director Tom Brady not to be mistaken for the New England Patriots quarterback previously directed the 2002 Rob Schneider vehicle The Hot Chick. This is unquestionably an improvement. The Comebacks may be dumb--intentionally so--but it’s never dull. There are a good number of groans along with laughs but the film never really runs out of steam. The football scenes are surprisingly well-rendered and are realistic enough that they could easily have come from a straightforward football movie--without the punch lines of course. There’s a pretty even ratio between the gags that work and the ones that don’t and the film’s formula seems to be: When all else fails hit below the belt with repeated crotch jokes. Those looking for a sophisticated highbrow comedy should look elsewhere.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
Former NFL star quarterback Paul Crewe (Sandler) doesn't really like himself much these days. Unproven accusations of points shaving have sent Crewe into a downward spiral of drunkenness and self-destructive behavior. It all comes to a very bad end one night when he takes a wild joyride in his girlfriend's Bentley with cops in pursuit. Crewe is sent to a Texas penitentiary where he figures he'll just quietly ride out his time in hopes of leaving a changed man. The sadistic warden (James Cromwell) however has other plans for Crewe. He forces the quarterback to transform a diverse group of inmates into a football team so that they can play his elite semi-pro team of guards. You know to make the guards look good when they crush the convicts. What the warden doesn't expect is how far Crewe--with the help of fellow inmates Nate Scarborough (Burt Reynolds) and Caretaker (Rock)--takes his task. He recruits his unlikely but somewhat talented teammates with the promise that they'll get a chance to exact revenge on the guards during anything-goes bone-crushing showdown. This is Crewe's one chance to redeem himself. Can he do it? You can do it Paul!
Seems like when Adam Sandler puts his mind to it he really can't lose. And The Longest Yard proves to another perfect Sandler vehicle. As Paul Crewe the comedian returns to his sports roots (Happy Gilmore The Waterboy) and basically plays the same unassuming slightly sardonic straight man. Crewe though is perhaps a little less angry and more resigned about his circumstances. Sandler also displays a fairly convincing flair for quarterbacking. The thing is Sandler doesn't need to stretch to be successful. He tried it in Punch-Drunk Love--and actually pulled it off quite nicely I might add--but if he's making billions of dollars playing himself why mess with a good thing? It's who he surrounds himself with that counts. Reynolds who played Crewe in the 1974 original looks like he's just as pleased as punch to be there as he relive some glory days as the grizzled coach Scarborough. He even gets in a little playing time on the field. What fun for him. The always-hysterical Rock complements his longtime SNL pal to a tee and with his petite frame next to all these hulking men naturally delivers all the funniest lines ("I'll teach you anything just don't eat me!"). Hip-hopper Nelly in his acting debut brings a certain MTV quality to the proceedings (and has a few songs on the soundtrack). And as far as the rest of the cast of ex-football players and professional wrestlers well they are there for a reason.
The 1974 The Longest Yard is apparently one of Sandler's favorite films and it's easy to see why. First of all it has Burt Reynolds who is so cool as the beleaguered Crewe. Then there's the classic underdog theme in which the good guys are actually bad guys--they are all convicted felons--but who we see systematically beat down by the "Man." You want them to thrash the holy crap out of those mean and nasty guards. I mean cons are people too right? Plus there are some great football sequences. So Sandler along with his Happy Madison Productions decides to pay homage assembles another crack team--including director Peter Segal who worked with Sandler on 50 First Dates and Anger Management--and produces a very worthy remake. They stay close to the original material--comedy tinged with sentiment--but of course can't help but add the requisite Sandler-isms. Those over-the-top "isms"--the bathroom humor the lame prison-sex jokes Rob Schneider yelling "You can do it!" et al.--is what all die-hard Sandler fans want to see so I guess it's expected. It's just not my cup of tea.
Here's a story about two murderesses who backstab lie and cheat--plus sing and dance--in order to make themselves stand out in roaring 1920s Chicago a town full of legends. Honestly what more could you ask for in entertainment? Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a sensational nightclub duo with her sister blanks out and shoots her philandering husband after she catches him cheating on her--with said sister. She lives the high life in jail enjoying the perks as long as she pays for them given to her by the warden Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah). Velma also hires Chicago's slickest lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to keep her notorious murder case on the front page. Enter little Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) a wannabe singer/dancer who's entranced by Chicago's promise of fame and fortune and winds up on the row for offing her abusive lover because he lied to her about breaking her into show biz. Billy immediately recognizes enormous potential in Roxie's crime of passion and while postponing Velma's case turns Roxie into America's latest sweetheart. The press loves her and Roxie milks it for all it's worth convinced she'll be famous when it's all over. The jilted Velma however has other plans for little Miss Perfect and sets out to sabotage Roxie's case. The two women stop at nothing to top one another and claim their rightful place in the spotlight. Still maybe there is room for two on that stage after all.
Once again we see how Hollywood movie stars can sometimes do more than emote on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer wowed audiences when she sang her own songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nicole Kidman knocked 'em dead in Moulin Rouge. Now we have Zellweger Gere and Zeta-Jones singin' and struttin' their stuff in Chicago. The three do an admirable job handling the musical chores though Zellweger emerges as the best of the trio. Her dancing skills may need a little work but they're thankfully kept to a minimum and she certainly possesses the right amount of charisma to pull the whole musical thing off. Gere continually surprises you once you get over the fear that he's going to fall flat on his face. He even manages to pull off a tap-dancing number. Zeta-Jones who lobbied hard for the part of Velma makes her talent as a dancer evident but it's possible that Bebe Neuwirth (TV's Frasier) who originated the part in the recent Broadway revival may have fit the bill a little better. (The casting is reminiscent of the decision to give the big-screen lead in My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn instead of the Broadway show's star Julie Andrews.) And John C. Reilly miraculously shows some talent as a singer playing Roxie's husband Amos who supports his wife even after she cheated on him. Reilly adds this character to his list of schlub husbands this year (The Good Girl; The Hours).
Like last year's Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge Chicago's sleek production values may trumpet the triumphant return of the big-screen musical. Director Rob Marshall whose only other directorial credit is turning the musical Annie into a well-made television mini-series knows how to frame the musical numbers within the context of the story. As Roxie fantasizes about just how famous she is going to get the action segues into a dazzling solo in front of mirrors. Another standout is Queen Latifah's introductory song as Mama Morton where the scene switches between her drab warden walking through the jail and her buxom lounge siren working the audience. The film really comes alive though during the "murderess row" number where a series of jailed women explain exactly what they did to get where they are. But in this fantastic spectacle lies the main problem with the film. The scene sparkles because it incorporates real dancers women who obviously know how to dance the way Chicago's original creator/choreographer Bob Fosse intended them to dance. At this point in the film you almost wish you were watching Chicago live on stage where dancers do amazing choreography without the comfort of knowing their performance will be edited. Singing is the easy part; if musicals are truly going to make a comeback on screen Hollywood will have to go back to what it did in the '30s and '40s--groom professional dancers into movie stars. Fred Astaire where are you when we need you?
Chicago seems to be Catherine Zeta-Jones' kind of town.
The star of Traffic and The Mask of Zorro has begun early negotiations with director Rob Marshall to star in the Miramax adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Bob Fosse musical Chicago.
She may play the role of homicidal vaudevillian Velma, a role that was first played by on the stage Chita Rivera in 1977 and by Bebe Neuwirth in the award-winning revival, Variety reports.
Marshall, who is currently in New York casting the film for an early 2002 start, has his eyes on Hugh Jackman to play sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn, while Kathy Bates, who previously worked with Marshall in the ABC musical Annie, may play prison warden Mama Morton. Marshall also is auditioning actresses to play the role of Roxie, another of the show's murderers.
Chicago is one of the two musicals that Miramax is planning on bringing to the big screen. The company also is working with Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions to turn Rent into a film. Director Spike Lee is reportedly testing out the singing voices of potential cast members for the film.
Zeta-Jones can next be seen in the romantic comedy America's Sweethearts, starring Julia Roberts, John Cusack, and Billy Crystal, which opens on July 20.