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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Top Story: Mel Eyes Maccabees Flick
Mel Gibson, currently riding high with his religious film The Passion of the Christ, expressed interest in a film adaptation of the Maccabees' story, Reuters reports. The story of the Maccabees, and the oil that magically lasted eight nights when it should have lasted only one, took place 200 years before the events Gibson depicts in The Passion. Given how The Passion was received by many religious groups, especially Jewish organizations that found the film anti-Semitic, any film made by Gibson about the Maccabees would no doubt cause rancor once more. Said Gibson on an ABC radio show, "The Maccabees family stood up, and they made war. They stuck by their guns and they came out winning. It's like a Western." In response Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman commented, "The last thing we need in Jewish history is to convert our history into a Western."
Passion Sparks Marital Argument
Melissa and Sean Davidson of Statesboro, Ga., became so embroiled in their post-screening discussion of The Passion of the Christ that they were forced to call the police on one another, leading to mutual charges of simple battery, AP reports. Melissa suffered wounds to her arm and face, while Sean sustained a scissor wound and was left bereft of his shirt. The pair started fighting over the age-old theological question of whether God the Father was a real person or a figurative construct. Melissa, expressing a sentiment surely no one would disagree with, admitted that getting into the fight was "the dumbest thing we've ever done."
Sex Charges Against R. Kelly Dropped
All 12 charges against R&B singer R. Kelly, stemming from a videotaped incident in which he allegedly has sex with a fifteen-year-old girl, have been dropped by a Tampa, Fla., judge, AP reports. Last week a judge ruled that photographs depicting R. Kelly were seized illegally by detectives in the case. Rather than contest the ruling, prosecutors in the case opted to abandon their case against the recording artist. Kelly, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is still set to stand trial in Chicago on 14 counts of child pornography.
Stewart Asks Friends for Recommendation Letters
Martha Stewart, in an effort to win leniency when her sentence is handed down this June, is asking more than 100 friends to write of good experiences they've had with her in the past, AP reports. In the letter, dated Mar. 15, Stewart requests those writing letters to "…include any memorable experiences you have had with me to explain the basis of any expressed opinion(s)." Stewart was recently convicted of four felonies including obstructing justice and lying to the government about the sale of 3.928 shares of ImClone stock. Her broker Peter Bacanovic was also convicted.
Mercedes McCambridge Dies
Mercedes McCambridge, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her turn as Sadie Burke the bleak political drama All the King's Men and voiced the obscenities that spewed from Linda Blair's mouth in The Exorcist, passed away today at the age of 85. McCambridge was also featured in such classics as Giant, Touch of Evil, and A Farewell to Arms (for which she received a best supporting actress nomination). Director William Friedkin picked McCambridge to voice The Demon in The Exorcist due to her vocal skills which Orson Welles also praised, calling her "the world's greatest living radio actress," when they worked together during his early career in radio. In 1987 McCambridge suffered the loss of her son John, who killed himself after shooting his wife and children.
Hepburn Possessions To Be Auctioned
Some of Katharine Hepburn's most noteworthy possessions, including a signed photo of Humphrey Bogart and letters from lover Howard Hughes, will go on sale at Sotheby's auction house in June, AP reports. Also up for sale are the wedding gown she wore to her 1928 nuptials to Ludlow Ogden Smith and a lock of her baby hair. Hepburn, who lived to see Meryl Streep surpass her record for most Academy Award nominations (Hepburn was nominated 12 times and amassed four Oscars in her six-decade long career), died last year at the ripe old age of 96. Sales from the auction are expected to total $1 million.
Child Custody Case Against Jackson Denied
Lawyer Gloria Allred filed papers in a Los Angeles County court to have Michael Jackson's three children removed from his custody, but was turned down by county officials, The Straits Times reports. Allred, who does not represent the children, says she will now take the case to a juvenile court. Allred had previously filed a similar case against Jackson in Santa Barbara court last year before the singer relocated to Beverly Hills. Jackson will soon stand trial on seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts against a child under 14 and two counts of giving an intoxicating agent to a minor.
No Love for Real World in Philly
Looks like there will be no cheese-steak sandwich dinner for the latest housemates on MTV's seminal reality show The Real World, AP reports. The show, which changes location every season, stars "seven strangers picked to live in a house" and have their lives taped, was set to start taping in Philadelphia later next month before labor disputes nixed the plan. At issue were non-Union workers hired to spruce up Seaman's Church Institute in Philly's Old City, which was to serve as the living quarters for the septet. Union leaders in the City of Brotherly Love picketed outside the Institute prompting MTV to withdrawal its show from the city. "After considerable evaluation, we are disappointed to announce that Bunim/Murray productions has decided not to shoot The Real World in Philadelphia," a spokesperson for Bunim/Murray, the company that has produce