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.
If this week’s new episode is any indication, 30 Rock is going to be pretty bittersweet from hereon out. It’s not that the subject matter of this first rejoinder back from winter hiatus is at all dire or particularly sentimental — in fact, it keeps perfectly in step with the show’s usual brand of raucous absurdity. But the ep, titled “Game Over,” forced us to bid a solemn farewell to three recurring characters who have stood fast as fan favorites since first gracing the nutjob world of Liz Lemon and company: Dr. Leo Spaceman, Devon Banks, and Len Wosniak.
Goodbye, Dr. Spaceman!
That morally bankrupt, mortifyingly incompetent physician (and pretty good dentist) known as Dr. Leo Spaceman (Chris Parnell), who has been tending to the ailments of the NBC staff for the past seven seasons, treats America to an extravagant series wrap in the opening tag of the episode, barging in on Liz in the middle of her appointment with another, presumably more qualified, medical professional. After basking in an acerbic, long overdue tongue-lashing from Liz over his derelict sensibilities and scattered knowhow, Spaceman is actually apprehended by a pair of police officers… informing him that he has just been named the United States’ Surgeon General. And so, as Leo is dragged out the door, offering only a meta proclamation of his character’s 30 Rock conclusion (“That’s a series wrap for Leo Spaceman!”), we are forced to bid adieu to the man who has treated Jack to so many a colorful pill, who has chuckled so giddily at the hard “k” sound in “kidney,” and who has promoted the use of crystal meth as a viable weight loss option.
Meanwhile, Liz is grappling with her decision to become a mother — each of her options seems to present a roadblock. If she tries to induce fertility and have the baby herself, she runs the risk of health problems for her child, due to her age. If she waits to adopt a newborn, she’ll be almost 50 before becoming a mother. And she fears that the choice to adopt an older child at the present time will present a whole separate set of challenges in the realm of parenting. But we’ll get back to all hubbub that after we focus on the more important issue at hand: saying goodbye to Devon Banks.
Jack’s arch nemesis. The only man with a business sense, unquenchable thirst for power, and Batmanian voicebox on par with those of Donaghy himself. Devon (Will Arnett) resurfaces in this episode when Jack actually calls upon him for help: in an effort to squash his top competitor for the position of KableTown CEO, Hank Hooper’s granddaughter Kaylie (Chloe Moretz, also back for a final swing this week), Jack joins forces with Devon to form the ultimate duo of dirty tricks. First, a bit of context:
Old-fashioned Hooper (Ken Howard), retiring as of his forthcoming 70th birthday (an event he holds sacred, as with each of his birthdays), wants to keep KableTown a family business. But Devon feeds Jack the sordid secret that Kaylie is actually the illegitimate child of Hooper’s daughter-in-law and the family pool boy, thus recanting her KableTown birthright. Jack machinates a plan to apprehend Kaylie’s DNA to prove her not the true child of Hank’s son, whom Devon reveals to be gay… but everything seems to backfire when Kaylie reveals that she and Devon have been working together all along, planting tall tales in Jack’s head in order to sway him into sending false accusations the way of Hank against his own granddaughter… but everything then unbackfires (frontfires? backices? goes swimmingly?) when Jack discloses his cognizance of the pair’s plan all along. He, in fact, was playing them, conning Kaylie and Devon into putting so much time into their devious ploy that they would in fact forget all about Hank’s birthday, thus losing his favor, which would fall duly in the lap of Jack… who, instead of false accusations about Kaylie, actually sent ol’ Hank a thoughtful birthday card. Donaghy, you’ve done it again.
But back to our farewell to Devon. Throughout the game of double agency, Devon employs all his old goldmines for comedy: desperate greed, childish competitiveness, and an apparent incapability to avoid making sexual innuendos while facing off with his archenemy. As with every one of his descents back into the dark cavern from which he sprouted, the farewell we bid to Devon this time around is not one that sees him off to happier locale. Having failed miserably, once more, in his warfare with Jack, we know not what the future will hold for young Banks: is he still living happily as a husband and father of three in Brooklyn? Or has his personal life fallen apart in light of his egomania? We’ll never know. But we’ll always have cold pizza to remember him by.
The least prominent of this episode’s recurring characters but perhaps the most recognizable of its guest actors is Len Wosniak (Steve Buscemi), Jack Donaghy’s bungling private eye whose personal life is always straddling the gutter. Jack brings Len on to aid his quest of defeat over Kaylie and Devon, knowing not that he would actually be unleashing Len onto the next chapter in his life. See, in going undercover as Kaylie’s female substitute teacher, Len discovers a happiness in this new identity like none he’s ever known. He feels free, he loves teaching, and he even gets engaged to a fellow instructor! It’s all-smooth sailing from hereon out for our pal Len, and we’re glad to see him off with such a bright future. No more clinging to the joys of free ice from the GE Building cafeteria or hats from his gym, or giving his gun to his pastor in times of the gloomies — things are going to be different now.
But back to Liz, who, as we must remember, is the main character of the show. See, it is surprisingly a conversation with none other than Tracy that answers her question about which option to explore in the vein of child rearing. When Tracy, who is now producing a film about Harriet Tubman with Octavia Spencer as the star, laments the perils of dealing with a difficult actor (Spencer, playing a loony version of herself, is twice the nutjob that Tracy is), Grizz and Dot Com help him realize that Liz was always the one to straighten him out when he got out of hand. Tracy forwards this message to Liz, recalling how she shaped him from a maniacal man-child into some semblance of a reasonable human being… and if she can do that with Tracy, she can do that with any kid. Thus, Liz phones Bev at the adoption agency (hey, Megan Mullally’s back, too!) to declare that she wants to adopt an older child right away!
But wait, shouldn't Liz talk to Criss about any of this? No? James Marsden’s not available this week? Yeah, okay, fine, just focus on Dr. Spaceman.
[Photo Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC (2)]
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Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a high school geek whip-smart at physics but inept at social graces. Nevertheless Casey's single and very determined mom (Joan Cusack) is happy with her performance especially as Casey is on the fast track to Harvard. But when an opportunity arises to do a physics report for a scholarship the teenager finds a chance to combine the two loves of her life: science and ice skating. Yep that's right. While studying the theory of relativity Casey also dreams of being a champion figure skater much to her mother's dismay. And to the girl's astonishment her calculations and experiments actually turn her into a prodigy. Casey hits the ice running and is soon training with champion-in-the-making Gen Harwood (Hayden Panettiere) and her famously tough coach and mother Tina (Kim Cattrall) getting a crash course in the glamour sweat and tears of competitive skating. Casey's eyes are opened to a brand new world and her life is completely changed. Well of course it is.
Starting out as a child actress in Harriet the Spy and TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer Michelle Trachtenberg possesses that certain doe-eyed innocence and a steely resolve that makes us root for Casey and her dreams from the very start. But you can see how the 19-year-old Trachtenberg would be itching to break out of the teeny bopper roles especially after recently showing off her chops in more racy fare as Eurotrip and HBO's Six Feet Under. Same goes for Panettiere who has done her fair share of family films including Racing Stripes. Time to move on girls. Cusack and Cattrall are effective playing two controlling mothers on the opposite end of the spectrum who actually have more in common than they think especially in how they deal with their strong-willed daughters. The real finds in Ice Princess however are the real-life competitive skaters-turned-actresses. They include Kirsten Olsen as the little "shrimp" dynamo Nikki and Juliana Cannarozzo as the punked-out Zoey who are not only fun to watch as skaters but handle the acting chores with aplomb.
It's not that I'm against such uplifting heartfelt Disney movies as Ice Princess and The Princess Diaries. Oh let's not forget the Disney-esque Raise Your Voice. They send out positive messages and provide good fun for the younger set. But it is getting so very tiresome to sit through them one after another. They blend together without much originality and spunk. In the case of Ice Princess the only true excitement comes from the actual figure skating. Under the guidance of British director Tim Fywell (I Capture the Castle) the girls look good on the ice. Both Panettiere and Trachtenberg had to train hard to get all those cool toe loops and salchows down--and it shows. It also didn't hurt that Olympians Michelle Kwan and Brian Boitano who make cameo appearances were on hand to lend a few pointers. But it's the same "Mom please let me be who I want to be!" theme and sugarcoated wholesomeness that makes Ice Princess more gag-worthy than anything else.