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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Georgia’s love life and career have hit a wall in America so she takes a trip to her ancestral home of Greece and gets a job as a tour guide on a rickety bus in Athens. Her insistence on spouting off endless historical facts tends to bore the tourists however and she becomes the least-popular guide and the target of a ruthless competitor. But as she navigates her way through the ruins of the country and her own life she manages to find new friends a new outlook and romance where she least expected it.
WHO’S IN IT?
It seemed only natural after the blockbuster success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (still the most profitable romantic comedy of all time) that its star Nia Vardalos would attempt a sequel. But after a failed attempt at a sitcom My Life in Ruins is about as close as she’s going to come. As Georgia a no-nonsense tour guide whose life is slowly transformed by the wonders of Greece Vardalos is right at home. She’s attractive likeable and could probably do this role in her sleep. As her unkempt bus driver who turns from a frog into a prince Alexis Georgoulis is the epitome of Greek geek. Getting the pole tourist position as Irv Richard Dreyfuss is warm and corny as a bad-joke-telling widower. The rest of the bus is intentionally paired off into various two-note stereotypes. Take your pick. There are obnoxious Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch) obnoxious Australians (Simon Gleeson and Natalie O’Donnell) obnoxious Brits (Ian Ogilvy and Caroline Goodall) with an obnoxious daughter (Sophie Stuckey) oversexed Spanish divorcees (Maria Botto and Maria Adanez) an old lady who steals stuff (Sheila Bernette) and a business guy who can’t stop texting (Brian Palermo). As Georgia’s scheming rival tour guide Alistair McGowan also plays it just the way we expect. No surprises with this group.
Despite the unimaginative sitcom-ish screenplay and Donald Petrie’s uninspired direction My Life in Ruins has two things going for it: Vardalos and Greece. Her fans will probably flock to the theater and once there they will be treated to a gorgeously-photographed tour of some of the country’s most spectacular sights including the rarely filmed (at least in mainstream movies) Acropolis.
Unfortunately the filmmakers rely all too heavily on the glories of Greece to get by. Perhaps with more effort there might have been a MOVIE to match. Sticking a bunch of stereotypes on a bus and hoping for nonstop hilarity just doesn’t cut it. Those looking for pure escapist fluff will probably have a good time watching My Life in Ruins but they’ll find more genuine laughs in a Greek tragedy.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If the bad economy is cutting summer vacation plans and you need a sightseeing fix a trip to the mall to see this big fat Greek tourism informercial might be just the ticket. For everyone else just hit the beach instead.
The romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days showed Shanghai Knights how to lose at the box office this weekend by taking in a winsome $24.1 million.* This makes it the third best February opener behind Hannibal and Scream 3.
Hannibal took in a head-spinning $58 million when it debuted in February of 2001, while Scream 3 wailed with a second all-time February best with $34.7 million in 2000.
How To Lose a Guy, which revolves around a writer for a fictitious magazine who agrees to write a firsthand account of all the things women do to drive men away sent the weekend favorite, Shanghai Knights, spinning, although the buddy comedy still managed to strong-arm a cavalier $19.7 million, beating predecessor Shanghai Noon's four-day $15.6 million opening take in May of 2000.
The third film to debut this weekend, the romantic comedy Deliver Us From Eva, opened sixth with a righteous $7 million.
Chicago's expansion propelled the musical into third place with $10.7 million in its seventh week of release, gaining two spots from last week's No. 5 position.
The CIA thriller The Recruit came in fourth place with $9.5 million, a significant drop from its No. 1 spot last week when it opened. The horror sequel Final Destination 2 also fell from grace in its second week of release, sliding from second to fifth place with a harmless $8.6 million.
Also losing gas in its second week, the motorcycle drama Biker Boyz barely passed the finish line with a wretched $4 million, ranking eighth. It debuted in the third spot last week.
The thriller Darkness Falls fell from sixth to ninth place in its third week with a not-so-scary $3.8 million, while The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers held on to tenth place in its eighth week of release with $3.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
Paramount Pictures' How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days opened with a winning ESTIMATED $24.1 million at 2,923 theaters. Its $8,245 per theater was the highest of any other film this week.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
The PG-13 rated film focuses on a writer for a woman's magazine whose assignment is to write a first-hand account of all the things women do to drive away men. The man she uses as her guinea pig, however, has just made a bet with his boss that he can make any girl fall in love with him in ten days.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated buddy actioner Shanghai Knights premiered in second place with an ESTIMATED $19.7 million take at 2,753 theaters ($7,181 per theater).
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
The martial arts pic is a sequel to 2000's Shanghai Noon. This time Wild West cowboys Chon Wang and Roy O'Bannon head to London to avenge the death of Chon's father.
Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago expanded to 1,218 theaters in its fifth week and danced into third place with an ESTIMATED $10.7 million (+52%) at 1,841 theaters ($5,824 per theater). Its cume is approximately $63.7 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Buena Vista's PG-13 CIA thriller The Recruit, last week's box office topper, dropped to fourth place in its second week, with an ESTIMATED $9.5 million (-42%) at 2,376 theaters ($3,998 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.1 million.
Directed by Roger Donaldson, it stars Al Pacino and Colin Farrell.
New Line's R rated thriller sequel Final Destination 2 fell three rungs to fifth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $8.6 million (-46%) at 2,834 theaters ($3,052 per theater). Its cume is approximately $28.1 million.
Directed by David Richard Ellis, it stars Ali Larter, A.J. Cook and Michael Landes.
Focus Feature's romantic comedy Deliver Us From Eva opened to a respectable ESTIMATED $7 million at 1,139 theaters. Its $6,216 per theater average was the second highest of any film playing this week.
Directed by Gary C. Hardwick, it stars LL Cool J and Gabrielle Union.
The R rated pic revolves around three men who plot to free themselves of their mates' unattached and controlling older sister Eva by paying a cash-strapped ladies' man to romance her.
Warner Bros.' PG rated comedy Kangaroo Jack placed seventh--down three spots from last week--in its fourth week of release with an ESTIMATED $5.8 million (-35%) at 2,848 theaters ($5,890 per theater). Its cume is approximately $52.8 million.
Directed by David McNally, it stars Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson and Estella Warren.
DreamWorks' PG-13 rated drama Biker Boyz fell five notches to eighth place in its second week of release with an ESTIMATED $4 million (-60%) at 1,769 theaters (+3 theaters; $2,261 per theater). Its cume is approximately $15.5 million.
Directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, it stars Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke and Orlando Jones.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated horror Darkness Falls fell from sixth to ninth spot in its third week with an ESTIMATED $3.8 million (-46%) at 2,456 theaters (-409theaters, $1,547 per theater). Its cume is approximately $26.7 million.
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, it stars Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield and Lee Cormie.
Rounding out the Top Ten was New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated fantasy sequel The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which dropped three slots in its eighth week with an ESTIMATED $3.3 million (-34%) at 1680 theaters (-495 theaters; $2,009 per theater). Its cume is approximately $320.7 million.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen.
The top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $103 million, up 10.08 percent from last weekend when they totaled $93.6 million.
The top 12 were up a significant 21.94 percent from last year when they totaled $84.5 million.
Last year, Warner's R rated Collateral Damage dominated the box office in its opening week with $15 million at 2,824 theaters ($5,332 per theater); Universal's opening week of Big Fat Liar was second with $11.5 million at 2,531 theaters ($4,565 per theater); and MGM's Rollerball, also in its debut week, came in third with $9 million at 2,762 theaters ($3,263 per theater).