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.
Trimmed trees, roasted turkeys, and awkward forced interaction with less favorable relatives are not the only earmarks of this season. The other unwelcome “relatives” bombarding you at the end of each year are the best and worst of the year lists that crop up around the internet. These barometers for twelve months worth of cinema take the subjective nature of film and amplify the nebulous distinctions of best and worst. So what happens when a filmmaker alludes to the best and worst of their own filmography?
Recently, The Hollywood Reporter conducted an hour-long roundtable interview with some of cinema’s most formidable directors. In attendance were Gus Van Sant, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Tom Hooper, Ben Affleck, and Quentin Tarantino. During the discussion, which was largely dominated by Tarantino, the Django Unchained helmer made some unexpected remarks about his career, where he’d like it to end, and how it may be evaluated up to this point if he were to cease making films today.
“To me, it's all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography. Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn't so bad, all right? So if that's the worst I ever get, I'm good. But I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned. It's a grade point average.”
The problem that can arise with Quentin Tarantino in interviews is that his thought process is so frenzied that, at times, even he can’t keep up with himself. He’s not actually saying definitively that Death Proof is his worst movie (something he’s ashamed of), but rather voicing the imperative that he never allow himself to rest on his laurels and make a film of lower quality than this designated benchmark. It’s admittedly a finite distinction, but an important one. That being said, he does refer to it as a left-handed movie and possibly even — depending on whether his manic chain of logic remained on Death Proof in the next sentence — limp, flaccid movie.
There is something to be said for being self-effacing. Heaven knows nothing has the potential to sour a film fan on a great artist faster than that artist’s staunch and continual insistence that they are in fact great. But how exactly was Death Proof a left-handed movie? Labeling it as such speaks to the notion of his being hindered in some profound way during the production, and one wonders to what he is referring. Was it the fact that it was half of the Grindhouse anthology? Given the fact that the current cut of Django Unchained is running over three hours long, perhaps Quentin indeed felt stifled by his paltry 87-minute runtime.
Arguing whether or not Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s worst film is fruitless for multiple reasons. Again, we’re talking about an extremely subjective classification here. We’re also talking about a director with a total of roughly seven released feature films to his name; the count getting a bit ambiguous depending on the possible inclusion of Four Rooms and the reasonable consideration of Kill Bill Vol.1 and Vol. 2 as one film. Not to mention the fact that Tarantino’s batting average with both general audiences and critics is remarkably high. Therefore assigning Death Proof the notation as his “worst” movie is akin to picking the least succulent cut of meat at the finest of steak houses. However, there is a certain maligning of Death Proof that this writer feels is categorically unwarranted.
Fans of Quentin Tarantino have come to recognize and adore certain of his recurring quirks. Like many of us, he is a ravenous consumer of all things film and has been for many years. He builds his violent crime stories and embeds them with reverent flourishes of some of his favorite moments from cinema history. Death Proof epitomizes every chromosome in Tarantino’s DNA. His affinity for the most niche b-cinema is present not only in the references and subject matter, but this time around more overtly in the inserted scratches and intentionally poor editing. The jukebox at the Texas Chili parlor blasts reminder after reminder of his eclectic musical taste, and the dialogue is elaborate and engrossing even in its caustic simplicity. His penchant for reviving actors who have been long absent from the spotlight is also functioning with the casting of Kurt Russell.
Here’s where it tends to lose people. In many ways, Death Proof is Tarantino’s id. This film is his auteur soul ceding ground to his unfettered, jubilant inner geek. It’s his ultimate neo-drive-in flick. He dresses Russell up like an amalgam of some of the most exaggerated gear head characters of 1970s film and TV, and he makes one of his central characters a DJ so that the music cues are as diverse and bountiful as even in his much longer films. He literally builds a jukebox playlist. Also, the first half of Death Proof is his unabashed love letter to Austin, Texas; a place he reveres as much as, if not more than many of us who live here. Tarantino’s tendency to construct compelling and fiercely strong female characters is extrapolated into this no-frills, homage-heavy “girls who kick ass” conceit.
Death Proof may not seem as carefully sketched and painstakingly executed as Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, but that’s not to say it is bereft of artistic merit. The shot composition, especially in the latter half of the film, is stellar and draws from the likes of Italian giallo and German expressionism. Quentin makes the bold choice to cast stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman throughout Kill Bill as an actress in the second chapter and the gamble pays off in the form of an immensely endearing and supremely natural performance. This choice also affords him the opportunity to craft some of the most impressive and dizzying car stunts this side of a George Miller film. That entire chase/muscle car chariot race alone flies in the face of Death Proof’s marginalization.
So why would he indirectly, or maybe extremely directly depending on your decoding of his stream of consciousness, call Death Proof his worst? It is possible that these comments are symptomatic of his growing insecurity about his longevity as a quality filmmaker. Recently, in an interview with Playboy, he mentioned not wanting to reach a point where he is too old to enjoy the specific creative process to which he has become accustomed. He speaks of this during the roundtable as well, but in the Playboy article he actually quantifies it by suggesting ten films would represent a good stopping point. That would be, ostensibly, just two movies beyond Django Unchained. That sentiment is further supported by his comment about “grade point averages.”
He goes on to remark in this roundtable response that he’s tremendously terrified of failure. Perhaps that’s why the notion of even less-than-astronomical success is chalked up in his mind as a poor film. Whether his fear of failure or his desire to cash out before losing all his credit is a function of those who have enjoyed his caliber of success is a question for social psychologists. Regardless, fans of Death Proof certainly have cause to take issue with his overly modest under-selling of the movie. It’s clear that his years of acclaim have not engendered within him a sense of complacency — and that is something for which we can be thankful as the release date of Django Unchained approaches.
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]
Follow Brian Salisbury on Twitter @BriguySalisbury
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As Speed Racer (Warner Bros) wraps its 2nd weekend at the box office with a less-than-stellar $8.1M, it continues to deal with a crush of negative press. After a disappointing 10-day total of just less than $32M, it will be difficult for this film adaptation from the Wachowskis to survive the box office onslaught of Indiana Jones starting Thursday. Critics have given mixed-to-negative reviews (35% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes), but there is a segment of moviegoers who are especially satisfied with the movie: anime fans.
Zac Bertschy, the Executive Editor of the Anime News Network, says that the reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that anime fans “appreciate it for what it is.” With a number of anime-inspired projects in development in Hollywood, it will be interesting to see if Speed Racer’s chilly reception will have any effect.
“Only retro hipsters and Generation X remember Speed Racer,” Bertschy told me. “The attitude in the anime community was wait-and-see, but when the trailer was released people started getting excited”? He says that the bright colors, kinetic style, flat look and the fact that normal laws of physics do not apply all add up to a terrific live action approximation of anime. “This movie is very ambitious. They were trying for something really out-there. It was a big gamble.”
It is a gamble that the Wachowskis and Joel Silver are paying for now, but will other live action anime adaptations in development be hurt as well? Bertschy says that it is not fair to blame Speed Racer’s failure on its anime origins. “Anime is typically adult animation. The projects in development are completely different stories and none of them, except for Dragonball, are targeting the same family audience.”
Dragonball Z is easily the most popular anime series in the U.S. It was created by Akira Toriyama in the mid-1980s, and, after several failed attempts, a dubbed version of the show landed on the Cartoon Network in 1998. It has been running ever since, and Fox’s live-action film version of the show is set for release in April of next year. Produced by Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) and directed by James Wong (The X-Files, Final Destination), this movie will be aimed squarely at the kid set. Bertschy, whose Anime News Network is the #1 anime site in the world, says his readers have a “high level of skepticism” about Dragonball and that “expectations are very low.”
Fans are excited about the grown-up, live-action anime-inspired adaptations in various stages of development. These projects will likely feature the sort of hyper-stylized look and kinetic hyperactivity that are the hallmarks of great anime, and the projects are being championed by some of Hollywood’s greatest talent.
Ironically, Warner Bros is the studio behind two of the most-anticipated anime-style projects, but will they be gun shy after the Speed Racer experience? Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio is working on an ambitious live-action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira that will move the action from ‘Neo-Tokyo’ to ‘Neo-Manhattan.’ The plan is for two films with Ireland’s Ruairi Robinson set to make his directing debut. This is dystopian science fiction, which will likely have more of a Matrix trilogy look, and it is tentatively set for next summer. Akira has all the makings of a blockbuster franchise.
Also last fall, Warner Bros announced that they have acquired the film rights to Robotech with Tobey Maguire set to produce and star. This is a possible tentpole franchise about alien invasions of Earth and the robot technology designed to defeat the invaders. This big-budget picture is at least two years away.
After Oscar winner James Cameron’s Avatar is unleashed in December of 2009, the rumor is that he will turn his attentions to Battle Angel Alita. This Fox property is about a female cyborg with amnesia, but Cameron is notoriously deliberate, and it is hard to imagine seeing this one until at least 2010.
M. Night Shyamalan, whose The Happening will arrive in multiplexes June 13, has begun work on The Last Airbender, based on the popular Nickelodeon series. Technically, this proposed Paramount film is not anime, but it certainly has that anime flavor. It features a character who can control the elements, and this will reportedly be Shyamalan’s biggest budget film ever. Airbender is tentatively set for July 2010.
Finally, Steven Spielberg has been patiently “circling” Masamune Shirow’s classic Ghost in the Shell as a 3-D live-action feature. DreamWorks owns the rights to the futuristic police thriller and Avi Arad, who has successfully produced the three Spider-Man movies, the three X-Men movies, the two Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man and the upcoming Incredible Hulk, is attached to produce, and Jamie Moss (Street Kings) is reportedly working on the screenplay. No release date is projected yet.