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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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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In Dream House – the new suspense thriller from Jim Sheridan (In America My Left Foot) – Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton a successful New York publisher who disavows his high-powered Manhattan lifestyle and relocates along with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters (Taylor and Claire Astin Geare) to a picturesque New England hamlet. Their new home a quaint fixer-upper bears imprints of the family that lived there previously: Old tools and other belongings are strewn about the basement a secret room abutting the children’s bedroom is filled with discarded toys. Will and Libby see the items as charming artifacts signs that their house has a history a soul.
The new neighborhood is not so bucolic as it seems. The children complain of a man peering in on them from the front yard – a suspicion confirmed when Will discovers footsteps in the snow the next day. If that weren’t ominous enough Will later learns that five years earlier his new home was the site of a grisly murder spree in which the previous owner Peter Ward was alleged to have killed his wife and two daughters. Acquitted due to a lack of evidence Ward spent a brief time at a psychiatric facility before being released. Could the shadowy figure glimpsed outside the window be Ward returning to the scene of the crime preparing to kill again?
At this point Dream House pulls off a whopper of a mid-game twist that effectively re-frames the entire narrative. (I won’t spoil it for you but if you want to know what it is just watch the trailer which rather stupidly gives it away.) Until now Sheridan has worked steadily to foster the guise of a relatively conventional haunted-house tale presenting a portrait of idyllic domesticity while simultaneously building an atmosphere of looming peril. After the story drops its bombshell the film morphs into a sort of supernatural murder mystery with Craig’s character scouring for clues within his own tortured psyche. Characters and scenes that might have been dismissible as red herrings – a neighbor (Naomi Watts) appears oddly stand-offish; her ex-husband (Martin Csokas) cartoonishly gruff; the town cops inexplicably apathetic – gain sudden relevance.
It’s a clever gambit; it is also patently absurd. A talented cast helps make the twist easier to swallow but the film’s second half sheds credulity seemingly by the frame at points devolving into schlock. Which in a different film might bode well for some silly fun but Sheridan aims for a restrained tone that seems more suitable for a somber character study than a flagrantly preposterous suspense thriller. As it is Dream House is neither thrilling nor suspenseful.
Twilight’s contentious “Edward vs. Jacob” debate was finally settled at the close of 2009‘s New Moon the second episode of Stephenie Meyers’ supernatural teen harlequin saga when plaintive emo hottie Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) definitively rejected the advances of Taylor Lautner’s musclebound man-wolf in favor of Robert Pattinson’s brooding vampire.
Or so we thought. Twilight’s fateful love triangle is revived in earnest by Eclipse part three of the series and this time the implications are serious -- relatively speaking of course. Taking over the helm from New Moon director Chris Weitz is David Slade (30 Days of Night Hard Candy) who adds a hefty dose of action to Twilight’s trademark mix of soaring romance and manic melodrama making Eclipse the first film in the saga in which -- get this -- something actually happens.
Indeed action is a primary theme of Eclipse. Like most high school seniors Bella wants some; her pasty paramour Edward Cullen however remains stubbornly chaste and not just because the briefest exposure to his unbridled vampire lust would almost certainly kill his all-too-human sweetheart. You see chivalrous Edward hails “from a different era ” one in which the institution of marriage meant everything and a man took care to mount a proper courtship before marrying a girl nearly a century his junior. (He’s 109 years old.) He asks her to marry him; she agrees but only if he’ll turn her into a vampire first; he hesitates pondering the unalterable consequences; the matter is tabled and heavy petting resumes. (This exchange is repeated ad nauseam throughout the remainder of the film.)
The constant fawning and unwavering devotion from impossibly beautiful Edward aren’t enough to sate Bella’s thirst -- she needs validation like a vampire needs blood -- and so she uses the flimsiest of pretexts to re-insert herself into the life of Jacob Black the sensitive werewolf she previously shunned who dutifully plies her with his own declarations of undying love. (Jacob to his credit has developed enough game since we last saw him to qualify as a serious contender for Bella’s affections and is no longer the devoted doormat we saw in New Moon. He’s still a tool though.) Game on.
But Edward and Jacob aren’t the only ones with designs on Bella. (Seriously are there no other hot emo chicks in the greater Pacific Northwest?) A ginger-haired menace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has emerged one that will require Edward’s vampire clan and Jacob’s wolfpack tribe longtime enemies forever on the verge of a climactic battle (in which Bella will serve as the jeans-and-hoodie-clad Helen of Troy no doubt) to put aside their differences and unite against a common enemy. In order to ensure Bella’s safety Edward and Jacob must form an uneasy tag-team (no not that kind of tag team much as it would likely better serve to resolve matters) to keep Bella safe from harm.
With its amped-up action sharpened wit and darker horror flick-inspired atmospherics Eclipse boasts the broadest appeal of all the Twilight films thus far. But that doesn’t mean it’s good. Director Slade’s grasp of plot development borders on amateurish in this film; Eclipse often feels less like a movie than a weighty discourse on the pros and cons of vampiredom laid out in lengthy exhaustingly repetitive chunks of exposition and awkward campy flashbacks as just about every character in the film including Edward attempts to dissuade Bella from joining the ranks of the bloodsuckers.
But alas no force no matter how utterly rational its arguments will keep Bella from her destiny. Which obviously is Edward. Or is it? Eclipse goes to great pains to invent ways to perpetuate the film’s romantic rivalry inserting scenes like the one in which Bella on the verge of freezing to death in a tent high up in the mountains is saved when Jacob arrives to heroically spoon her body temperature back to its proper level. (Eclipse is being hyped as the first “guy-friendly” Twilight flick but no film which includes a climactic spooning scene can rightly claim such a distinction.) Edward meanwhile with his poor vampire circulation is powerless to help.
Who will win in the end? Will it be abs over eyes? Obviously it will take two more movies (at least!) to solve this kind of wrenching dilemma.
After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.