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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Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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When you're in high school it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman) whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under "Murphy's Law." Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals mixtapes and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths of course!) Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy shocking and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
In a battle of the actioners, the high-octane Cradle 2 the Grave, the only major release of the weekend, crushed reigning king Daredevil with a one-two punch of $17.1 million*, knocking the comic-book blockbuster off its throne.
The top box office winner for the last two weeks, Daredevil got pushed down to third place with only an $11 million take over the weekend, while the raucous comedy Old School, offering its own brand of flying testosterone, held its No. 2 spot for the second week with $13.9 million.
The romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days came in fourth with $10.1 million and Osca -nominee Chicago added a few more theaters to its belt, rounding out the top five with a respectable $8.1 million.
THE TOP TEN
Warner Bros. R-rated martial arts actioner Cradle 2 the Grave barreled into the weekend competition with an ESTIMATED $17.1 million in 2,625 theaters ($6,520 per theater).
The film follows a Taiwanese government agent and a master thief as they team up to hunt down some rare black diamonds before they land into the wrong hands.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, it stars DMX, Jet Li, Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
No strangers to impressive March openings, DMX and Li first starred together for director Bartkowiak in Romeo Must Die, which opened March 16, 2001, with a healthy $18.4 million, while Bartkowiak's Exit Wounds, also starring DMX and Steven Seagal, opened March 22, 2000, with $18 million.
DreamWorks' R-rated comedy Old School stayed at No. 2 for the second week with an ESTIMATED $13.9 million (-20%) in 2,742 theaters (+53 theaters; $5,069 per theater). The film, which revolves around three thirtysomething college buddies who decide to start their own off-campus fraternity, has made approximately $37.2 million so far.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it stars Luke Wilson, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
Losing the dare, 20th Century Fox's PG-13 Daredevil, slipped to third place with an ESTIMATED $11 million (-39%) in 3,234 theaters (-240 theaters; $3,401 per theater). But don't feel too sorry for this superhero; his film is well on the way to hitting the $100 million mark, its cume approximately $84.1 million.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the live-action comic book adaptation of a blind lawyer who moonlights as a superhero, stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Keeping things sweet, Paramount Pictures' PG-13 How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped a spot to No. 4 with an ESTIMATED $10.1 million (-13%) in 2,923 theaters ($3,467 per theater). Now in its fourth week, the romantic comedy about a journalist who has to do all the wrong things to lose a guy for a story has accumulated approximately $77.5 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
Miramax's PG-13 jazzy musical Chicago held on to fifth place with an ESTIMATED $8.1 million (-1%) in 2,447 theaters (+92 theaters; $3,322 per theater). Expanding once again in its tenth week, the Oscar-nominated film has made approximately $105.1 million, making it the 24th film released in 2002 to hit the $100 million mark--and with director Rob Marshall's recent Directors Guild of America win, it's only going to get better.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Falling two notches to sixth was Buena Vista's G-rated The Jungle Book 2, offering parents the only true kiddie entertainment for the weekend. It took in an ESTIMATED $6.8 million (-22%) in 2,814 theaters (-1 theaters; $2,416 per theater). Its cume is approximately $33.6 million.
Directed by Steven Trenbirth, the continuing adventures of Mowgli the jungle boy features the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Bob Joles and Tony Jay.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Buena Vista's own PG-13 martial arts flick Shanghai Knights stayed in seventh place with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-26%) in 2,515 theaters (-11 theaters; $1,909 per theater). In its fourth week, its cume is approximately $50.7 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
Universal's R-rated death penalty drama The Life of David Gale fell from sixth to eighth place with an ESTIMATED $4.3 million (-38%) in 2,003 theaters (+1 theater; $2,195 per theater). Debuting last weekend, the film about an anti-death penalty philosophy professor who finds himself on death row when his associate in the advocacy group Death Watch is murdered has made $13.4 million so far.
Directed by Alan Parker, the film stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet.
Warner Bros.' PG-13 Civil-War melodrama Gods and Generals, which debuted last weekend at No. 8, slipped one spot to No. 9 with an ESTIMATED $2.7 million (-40%) in 1,533 theaters ($1,817 per theater). Its cume is approximately $8.7 million.
Directed by Ron Maxwell, the film is an epic portrayal charting the early years of the Civil War in early 1861 through 1863, climaxing with the famous Battle of Chancellorsville, and stars Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall.
Rounding out the top ten list was Buena Vista's PG-13 rated The Recruit with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-24%) in 1,508 theaters (-170 theaters; $1,724 per theater). The CIA thriller's cume is approximately $48 million.
Directed by Roger Donaldson, it stars Al Pacino and Colin Farrell.
Gold Circle/IDP's R-rated cue-ball drama Poolhall Junkies hustled up some business, opening in a limited-release with an ESTIMATED $315,318 in 179 theaters ($1,762 per theater). The film follows a pool playin' whiz who tries hard to rise above his loser, hustling past--while still loving the game.
Written and directed by Mars Callahan, it stars Callahan, Christopher Walken, Chazz Palminteri and Alison Eastwood.
This weekend's top 12 films grossed $85.8 million, up 4.58% from last weekend's take of $82 million.
Last year's big winner was Paramount's We Were Soldiers with $20.2 million in 3,143 theaters ($6,431 per theater), followed by Miramax's 40 Days and 40 Nights at $12.2 million in 2,225 theaters ($5,496 per theater) and New Line Cinema's John Q at $8.5 million in 2,456 theaters ($3,466 per theater).
ABC Radio gossip columnist Matt Drudge will be silenced come December. Drudge's syndicated talk show was canceled strictly as a business decision made by Bob Callahan, president of ABC's broadcast operations, The Associated Press reports.
But Drudge says the decision was punishment for reporting on ABC's activities.
"I guess I was a bad Mouseketeer," Drudge said Monday, a reference to ABC's parent company, Walt Disney Co.
Drudge also said that he thought the timing was odd, considering he had been talking with ABC executives about expanding his show to weeknights. His show was broadcast Sunday evenings in 135 markets across the country, reaching an estimated 1.25 million listeners. The show will continue until his contract expires in December.
MORE ABC NEWS: ABC packed a one-two punch in the ratings Sunday, drawing large audiences with "The Miracle Worker," starring Pepsi pitch girl Hallie Kate Eisenberg, and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "Miracle" was the real star for the network, raking in the highest ratings for a "Wonderful World of Disney" production since it aired "Annie" in November 1999, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan averaged 17.4 million viewers in the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot. "Millionaire" kept up the pace with 25 million viewers as it kicked off its celebrity edition.
WB MOVIN' ON UP: Last year, many thought the WB network was out for the count in the ratings. Not this year, says the Reporter. After sliding 11 percent in the key 18-34 demographics, the little network that could is now up 20 percent, thanks to shows such as "7th Heaven,'' ``Charmed,'' and ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer.''
It's still a bit weak in the Friday through Sunday slots, but most of its midweek numbers are up, noticeably. Even men ages 18-34 are tuning in more to the WB. Those numbers are up 31 percent this season.