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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Okay, it's a bold statement, but I stand by it: 1984 was the year that Top 40 radio achieved perfection. Spurred by the twin successes of MTV and Michael Jackson's Thriller, radio playlists were fully shaken out of the doldrums they'd been in since the disco slump of 1979. Colorful and photogenic British new wave and synth pop acts had been making slow inroads into the Billboard Top 40 since Gary Numan's "Cars" back in early 1980. But the UK pop stars of the day were making overt plays for the American airwaves, and established stateside artists ranging from Prince and Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel and Tina Turner were responding with some of their biggest-selling albums. And in the middle of it all, two newcomers named Cyndi Lauper and Madonna Ciccone were offering very different -- although equally interesting -- new takes on what it meant to be a female pop star. Here, in chronological order by the week they debuted on the chart, are a baker's dozen of 1984's biggest and best. We could have chosen at least as many more.
Tina Turner -- "Let's Stay Together" (chart debut February 18, reached #26)
In one of the first cases of a vintage R&B star being brought back by younger musicians, a thoroughly washed up Tina Turner was recruited by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of the electro-pop trio Heaven 17 to record vocals for a song by their side project the British Electric Foundation. That track led to a hit single with a stark but impassioned synth-driven take on the Al Green classic "Let's Stay Together." That single's U.K. chart success led Capitol Records to sign Turner to an album deal, resulting in the massive-selling Private Dancer LP. She had bigger songs later in the year, including the career-defining #1 "What's Love Got To Do With It," but this smaller hit still sounds the best.
Tracey Ullman -- "They Don't Know" (chart debut March 17, reached #8)
British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman later became a beloved TV figure (not least because she gifted us with The Simpsons), but this note-for-note cover of the late Kirsty MacColl's brilliant 1979 girl-group homage was the first we ever heard of either of these talented women. Literally: that explosive "BABY!" that slams home the final verse is MacColl's powerful voice, not Ullman's charming but thin instrument. And yes, that's Paul McCartney at the end: Ullman was co-starring in his big-budget vanity project Give My Regards To Broad Street when the video was filmed.
Billy Joel -- "The Longest Time" (chart debut April 7, reached #14)
After a string of albums that seemed like increasingly naked attempts to be taken seriously as a songwriter, Billy Joel made the best album of his career just by going back to the '50s R&B and pop singles that had been his first musical love. An Innocent Man had bigger hits, like "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl," but perhaps the best was this doo-wop homage that doubled as an atypically sincere love song for his then-new sweetheart Christie Brinkley. Both his later albums and the marriage went south, but whadaya gonna do? To their credit, Joel and his touring band were unafraid to look like complete ninnies in this silly video taking place at a high school reunion.
Madonna -- "Borderline" (chart debut April 14, reached #10)
After the dancefloor-centric singles "Everybody," "Burning Up" and "Holiday," Madonna proved her pop suss with this incredibly hooky single. It's as easy to move to as any of her other early tracks, but the beat was de-emphasized by the bell-like synth riffs and addictive synth-bass pulse. Brazilians call the sense of aggreeable melancholy on display here saudade, and it gives "Borderline" an elegance that her next couple of singles, "Lucky Star" (the video of which was extremely important to my 14-year-old self for obvious reasons) and "Like A Virgin," would lack.
Cyndi Lauper -- "Time After Time" (chart debut April 21, reached #1)
The goofy "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" made it seem like Cyndi Lauper was going to follow Nena's "99 Luftballoons" into the annals of one-hit-wonders, but this heartbreaking ballad made it clear that despite her perhaps-questionable fashion sense, she was a genuine talent. She's So Unusual was jam-packed with hits ranging from "She Bop," the most overt hit about female masturbation until DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself," to a gorgeously minimal cover of Jules Shear's "All Through the Night." But "Time After Time" was the only one awesome enough that no less than Miles Freakin' Davis recorded it.
Night Ranger -- "Sister Christian" (chart debut April 21, reached #5)
All together now: MOTORIN'! The archetypal power ballad, "Sister Christian" was the song that made it okay for girls to like poodle-haired dudes in spandex and mascara. Although this means Night Ranger were therefore partially responsible for some of the worst hits of the pre-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" era, the song's use in the supremely bizarre home invasion scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights almost makes up for "When I See You Smile" by Bad English.
Duran Duran -- "The Reflex" (chart debut April 28, reached #1)
The original mix of "The Reflex" that opened Duran Duran's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was kind of a botch, sluggish and overlong. For the single, the Durans enlisted Chic's Nile Rodgers (yes, the same dude who made Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" so awesome) to remix the song from top to bottom, and his tighter, punchier and more inventive take scored the band their first American #1 hit. As primitive as it seems now, this video looked positively state of the art in the spring of 1984. It was mildly controversial in the halls of Levelland Junior High, as I recall: the sequence that starts around 3:20 was rumored to suggest...um, y'know...it's a giant wave of white fluid hitting audience members in the face, you figure it out.
Bruce Springsteen -- "Dancing in the Dark" (chart debut May 26, reached #2)
Born in the USA was lavishly praised from nearly all corners critically, but living in a small west Texas town at the time, I distinctly remember a lot of Springsteen's biggest fans around me finding "Dancing in the Dark" an overt slap in the face. Powered by a nagging synth riff and a booming, Phil Collins-like four-on-the-floor snare, it sounded like a "f---y little disco song" to the "Born To Run"-loving jocks. I found his willingness to listen to recent musical trends rather encouraging, but I was mostly just into the video for the really cute girl he pulls out of the audience at the end, who a decade or so later turned out to be Courteney Cox.
Dan Hartman -- "I Can Dream About You" (chart debut June 2, reached #6)
A primo piece of Hall and Oates-style '80s blue-eyed soul from a writer-producer who'd had a minor disco-era hit called "Instant Replay," "I Can Dream About You" was somewhat notorious at the time for its video. Not the one above, which was rarely if ever shown on MTV, but the actual clip that MTV had in heavy rotation at the time, which is seen in the TV screens in this version. That clip was a scene from the now-forgotten teen-angst flick Streets of Fire, in which a doo-wop quartet (including future indie director Robert Townshend and Forrest Gump costar Mykelti Williamson) lip-syncs Hartman's vocal. To this day, there are probably people who adore this song who have no idea that it was sung by a baby-faced white guy with a really bad perm.
Prince and the Revolution -- "When Doves Cry" (chart debut June 9, reached #1)
Nearly three decades later, it can be hard to remember just how weird this song sounded when it first hit the airwaves with a burst of Hendrixian feedback and some mumbled chanting. As skeletal as it is undeniable (ever notice that it doesn't have a bass line?), "When Doves Cry" was the song that confirmed that Prince was even weirder, and even more talented, than we had thought. As a musician, anyway: Purple Rain is a strong contender for the coveted title of Worst Film With The Greatest Soundtrack.
John Waite -- "Missing You" (chart debut July 21, reached #1)
The thing about John Waite, who had been the leader of a short-lived rock band called The Babys before he went on to a solo career (and who later was the frontman of the aforementioned Bad English), is that there's this weirdly cynical vibe about him. You just can't believe a word the guy sings. Ironically, that's what makes the chorus "I ain't missing you at all" work as well as it does: a more empathetic singer wouldn't put across the paradox nearly so well.
Bananarama -- "Cruel Summer" (chart debut August 11, reached #9)
Back in the pre-internet 1980s, it sometimes took literally years for a British hit single to attract enough of an American audience to hit the U.S. charts. Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" was the "Blurred Lines" of the summer of 1983 in their native land, but unless you were the kind of person who haunted the import section of your local record shop, it was a little over a year later before it reached your ears. Even though it had been the opening track on the trio's self-titled second album, released in the spring of 1984, it hadn't been London Records' first choice for an American single off the album. That honor went to "Robert De Niro's Waiting," a bouncy little tune that underneath its happy-go-lucky surface appears to be about the post-traumatic stress of a sexual assault victim.
George Michael -- "Careless Whisper" (chart debut December 22, reached #1)
When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley started Wham!, the duo meant for their music to be a cynical commentary on Thatcherite economic policy. Seriously: go listen to their first single, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)." Or better yet, don't: it's absolute rubbish. When a song as fluffy as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is a huge improvement over your prior output, it's clear that you started from a bad, bad place. But that first American hit's follow-up "Careless Whisper" (released as a George Michael solo single everywhere but the US, where it was somewhat confusingly credited to "Wham! featuring George Michael") was the first indication of Michael's Elton John-like talent. And you can't fault that sax solo: it just encapsulates the 1980s, doesn't it?
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Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.