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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According to director John Krokidas, his feature debut Kill Your Darlings took nearly 11 years to bring to screen. After premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Friday afternoon, the slow cook appears to have only strengthened the film. If Darlings was released a decade earlier, it wouldn't have the impressive roster of Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, and Elizabeth Olsen to bring the vivid story of Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets to life. It's hard to imagine any other ensemble pulling it off.
Even after a string of other performances (including the gothic Woman in Black), the question still lingers whether Radcliffe will evolve past his lightning-scarred former character into a viable leading man. Kill Your Darlings puts the speculation to rest. Embodying the unrestrained Ginsberg in his early years, Radcliffe bears witness to the energy, chaos, love, and harsh truths that flow through the streets of '40s New York. When he's accepted by Columbia University to study poetry, he's exposed to the alternative underbelly of the city, courtesy of the smooth-talking devil on his shoulder, Lucien Carr (DeHaan). Through Carr, Ginsberg is introduced to a rebellious group of writers: the on-again-off-again lover David Kammerer (Hall), the drug connoisseur William Burroughs (Foster), and the star quarterback of the literary squad, Jack Kerouac (Huston). Together, they eventually form "The New Vision," a poetic task force whose sole mission is to destroy lesser works of rigid indecency (that is to say, Ogden Nash is in their crosshairs).
Krokidas takes full advantage of his setting, draping Kill Your Darlings in bold colors and compositions. The director knows when his scenes require a bit of swing — as Ginsberg and Carr delve deeper into the world of anti-establishment poetry, Krokidas' responds with stylish camera work and rhythmic editing. In a scene at the collective's Christopher Street jazz club hangout, Krokidas allows imagination to take hold of his realistic biopic. The effects of nitrous oxide seep in, the surrounding clientele come to a halt, and Carr and Ginsberg float around the room manipulating the frozen scene. When Ginsberg wakes up from his trip, it all makes perfect sense.
But Krokidas also knows when to let the talent do the talking. Radcliffe is a performer who can stay silent, expose the mind of a thinker through the subtlest of reactions. One moment sees the actor wound up by recreational drug use, and Radcliffe rises to the occasion by stripping down, running around a room, and eventually settling at a typewriter to bang out his first poem. DeHaan is his foil, always ready to unleash bravado; his Carr enlivens the world around him, making it easy to see why Ginsberg would have been so taken by him. If Radcliffe's performance puts skeptics to rest, DeHaan's proves he's at the top of Hollywood's young actor's pack. The duo's romantic relationship creates conflict over the course of the entire movie, eventually swelling to a burst of passion. The authenticity of the moment may surprise even the biggest diehard Harry Potter fans.
Kill Your Darlings has a rare vision behind it, and it's clear Radcliffe and DeHaan are in on the plan. The ups and downs never miss a beat, nor do they feel stricken to the form that Hollywood may normally take to bring a story of this nature to life. That feels like a cue from Ginsberg himself — as we see in the film, the poet's early days were filled with school lessons he threw to the wind (and flipped the bird to, naturally). His independent spirit runs through the veins of Darlings, a great Sundance pick that will no doubt find a home before year's end. And we'll still be talking about it then.
[Photo Credit: Benaroya Pictures]
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