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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In Dream House – the new suspense thriller from Jim Sheridan (In America My Left Foot) – Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton a successful New York publisher who disavows his high-powered Manhattan lifestyle and relocates along with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters (Taylor and Claire Astin Geare) to a picturesque New England hamlet. Their new home a quaint fixer-upper bears imprints of the family that lived there previously: Old tools and other belongings are strewn about the basement a secret room abutting the children’s bedroom is filled with discarded toys. Will and Libby see the items as charming artifacts signs that their house has a history a soul.
The new neighborhood is not so bucolic as it seems. The children complain of a man peering in on them from the front yard – a suspicion confirmed when Will discovers footsteps in the snow the next day. If that weren’t ominous enough Will later learns that five years earlier his new home was the site of a grisly murder spree in which the previous owner Peter Ward was alleged to have killed his wife and two daughters. Acquitted due to a lack of evidence Ward spent a brief time at a psychiatric facility before being released. Could the shadowy figure glimpsed outside the window be Ward returning to the scene of the crime preparing to kill again?
At this point Dream House pulls off a whopper of a mid-game twist that effectively re-frames the entire narrative. (I won’t spoil it for you but if you want to know what it is just watch the trailer which rather stupidly gives it away.) Until now Sheridan has worked steadily to foster the guise of a relatively conventional haunted-house tale presenting a portrait of idyllic domesticity while simultaneously building an atmosphere of looming peril. After the story drops its bombshell the film morphs into a sort of supernatural murder mystery with Craig’s character scouring for clues within his own tortured psyche. Characters and scenes that might have been dismissible as red herrings – a neighbor (Naomi Watts) appears oddly stand-offish; her ex-husband (Martin Csokas) cartoonishly gruff; the town cops inexplicably apathetic – gain sudden relevance.
It’s a clever gambit; it is also patently absurd. A talented cast helps make the twist easier to swallow but the film’s second half sheds credulity seemingly by the frame at points devolving into schlock. Which in a different film might bode well for some silly fun but Sheridan aims for a restrained tone that seems more suitable for a somber character study than a flagrantly preposterous suspense thriller. As it is Dream House is neither thrilling nor suspenseful.
The latest scary news from the "Blair Witch" front is that the sequel will be seeking "unrecognizable talent," according to a casting note obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.
Specifically, "Blair Witch Project 2" is looking for five lead characters - two men and three women, ages 19-early 20s. The trade paper says a one-page breakdown on the film lists the characters thusly:
-- "Heather Arendt," a Chicagoan whose life philosophy is "when in doubt indulge"; -- "Nick Leavitt" and "Anna Casio," a couple of live-in lovers attending their senior year at Boston College; -- "Cotter Kaller," an irresponsible state college kid; -- "Domini Von Teer," the enigmatic outsider who favors black and a vague Gothic look.
No word if recognizable talent will be deigned eligible for the above roles -- provided they round up really good disguises.
"Blair Witch 2" is scheduled to begin shooting Feb. 23 on the East Coast, with a Fall 2000 release planned. (Think Halloween.) Despite all this activity, there's still no word on a script (or a screenwriter). Joe Berlinger, the documentary filmmaker behind "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost," will direct.
GETTING "UGLY"? They may be splitsville in real life, but in Hollywood, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow are seriously considering a reunion in "The Ugly Truth," a possible project for Warner Bros. and Disney about an unlucky-in-love woman (Paltrow, presumably) who receives a romantic sparkle from an obnoxious, sexist, sloppily dressed TV personality (paging Affleck?).
ON LOAN FROM HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE: 007 star Pierce Brosnan is set to sign up for the CIA as the headliner and producer of "Burnt Sienna," a movie based on an upcoming novel by "First Blood" author David Morrell. Today's Daily Variety says Brosnan will play a former Marine pilot who becomes an artist in Mexico, only to find his life threatened when he turns down an offer to paint the wife of an arms dealer. His character is described as a cross between James Bond and John Rambo.
WHAT A CROC: Car pitchman Paul Hogan is ready to return to the film franchise that made him a movie star - at least in the mid-1980s. According to the Reporter, Hogan, now 59, will say "G'day' in a third "Crocodile Dundee" flick, tentatively titled "Crocodile Dundee in Hollywood." No director yet. Hogan's wife and perennial co-star, Linda Kozlowski, will return as his, yes, perennial co-star. The last "Dundee" movie - that would be "Crocodile Dundee II" - was released in 1988.
IN THE 'DUST': Disaster prone Jan De Bont ("The Haunting," "Speed") has signed on to helm (and produce) "Dust" for Village Roadshow/Warner Bros The movie's based on a novel by Charles Pellegrino, who created the dinosaur-cloning theories behind Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park."
TRUCKIN' TO 'RENO': Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson are in final talks to put on their redneck boots alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Charlize Theron in "Waking Up in Reno," the Reporter says. Newcomer Jordan Brady will direct the film about Arkansas rednecks, infidelity and (of course) monster truck shows.