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 via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
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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It’s no secret that Entourage’s luster is a bit tarnished at this point, yet many of us continue to faithfully tune in to see what Vinnie Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his goons are up to. Now, they’re finally throwing in the towel with 8 final episodes, but just what is it about this show that kept us on the hook for those less-than-spectacular years? (Hint: It's not Vince.)
Drama’s Never-Ending Delusion and Pseudo-Wisdom
For some reason, seeing Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) try so hard and fail even harder time and time again is wildly entertaining, but the resolve with which he continues to pound the glitter-covered pavement in Hollywood and spew his unwarranted wisdom is what makes it so hilarious. Drama needs an acting gig, so what does he do? He tries to use SAG insurance to get calf implants after admiring Lamar Odom’s trunks. Drama is desperate to be in the new Brett Ratner flick, so what does he do? He fights tooth and nail for a role as the French bus driver. Drama finally gets a shot in Vince’s passion project, so what does he do? He insists the lead actress (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara) performed a sexual favor for him, angers her and the director in the process and loses the part. Also, the fact that Dillon is the real-life, less-successful brother to Matt Dillon doesn’t hurt.
Eric Constantly Getting the Beat-down
Eric (Kevin Connolly) was supposed to be the good guy, the underdog, the one we’re all rooting for. But somehow as the series went on, it was less fun to watch him succeed and more entertaining to watch him crash and burn – especially when the purveyor of pain is none other than Ari Gold. Those morning phone calls between Ari and E are something we look forward to, and yes, we don’t want E to really lose because that means Vince loses, but damn it’s wonderful to watch him squirm.
Turtle Gives The Average Dude Hope
We all love Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), but truth be told, in real life dudes like Turtle don’t always have the kind of luck he has. Sure, he struggles with it for the first few seasons, but then suddenly he owns a mega-successful business, is dating Jamie Lynn Sigler and fending off hot college coeds. He’s a regular Joe living the dream alongside his movie star compadre. You thought Kevin James was a lucky bastard on King of Queens? Turtle crushes that victory into tiny smithereens.
Ari’s Filthy, Filthy Mouth
Sure, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) makes comments about sexual conduct you might have thought weren't humanly possible. Sure, he’s so graphic sometimes his speeches would probably be more at home on Skinemax than HBO. Sure, he’s the most insensitive, offensive person to ever garner even a shred of our sympathy on national television. But no matter how uncomfortable he makes you, there is always something entirely appealing about his terrible, terrible personality. There’s something about Piven’s most famous character that makes you cheer him on and wish you had the cahones to say the despicable things he says. That mystical, inexplicable force is just one small piece of the puzzle that forces us to keep watching even when the story begins to suffer.
Feeling Like a Hollywood Insider
The most universal draw for the HBO series is probably the feeling of being on the inside of the Hollywood machine. We see the backhanded deals that go on behind the scenes of giant blockbuster movies. We watch Jeffrey Tambor beg and plead with Ari to get five seconds of his attention. We see Vince party with Jessica Alba. We watch Johnny Drama lose miserably against Tom Brady and Mark Wahlberg in a charity golf tournament. We see Matt Damon hounding Vin for a check for his charity. Despite its many misgivings, Entourage does give us a pseudo-look into the world we all secretly want to be a part of.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
More than a year has passed since the last Entourage episode (thanks, writers’ strike!), but in season five (premiering Sept. 7 at 10/9c on HBO) it feels like the boys never left. Which is a testament to Doug Ellin and Co.’s sorely underappreciated writing, because a lot has changed and, in fact, some of the boys have left.
Last we saw Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier), he was poised to become the toast of the Cannes Film Festival before his movie Medellin flopped miserably. Season five opens with film critic Richard Roeper simultaneously recapping Vince's Cannes demise and voicing his disgust with Medellin--which, by the way, was relegated to a straight-to-DVD release. Ouch!
Ever since, Vince has been in self-imposed exile on a Mexican beach inhabited by supermodel-ish servants who attend to his every need--a few of which aren’t sexual. He has also grown an I-don’t-give-a-f*** beard that’s reflective of his six months of inactivity.
Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), being the caring and loyal mooch, er, friend he is, has tagged along to watch after Vince--and pounce on any of his female leftovers.
Meanwhile, back in L.A., Vince is never far from the minds of his other entourage members, who have more or less gotten on with their lives since the Medellin debacle.
Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) is still the oldest cast member on his Edward Burns-created TV show, still vain as is humanly possible, and still dating Jacqueline, the Frenchwoman with whom he was caught frolicking on the beach in Cannes. They’re trying to make their intercontinental relationship work via Webcam, which is both difficult and hilarious for obvious reasons.
Then there's Eric (Kevin Connolly) and Ari (Jeremy Piven), who, despite their continued hatred for one another, have almost become interchangeable. Yes, sadly, E is a genuine “suit” nowadays with a fledgling talent-management company (and even a receptionist!) whose non-Vince client roster consists of one person: a rising actor named Charlie, played by Shad Moss, aka Bow Wow, aka Lil Bow Wow.
Early in the episode, Eric and Ari come across a script for Danger Beach, which they both agree is atrociously titled but would be perfect for Vinnie’s proverbial comeback movie. But there’s one problem: Vince is in full-on stubborn mode. (OK, two problems: That beard makes him unemployable!)
So E and Ari private-jet down to Mexico to persuade Vince to consider the movie, and Vince’s reluctance to accept the deal is mirrored by the movie industry's reluctance to accept him post-Medellin.
Thus season five exists in heretofore uncharted territory, whereby Vince is genuinely at the top of Tinsletown’s s**t list (or at the bottom of its in-demand list).
The themes of redemption and vulnerability are such a welcome change from one of constant invincibility--or more aptly put, inVince-ibility.
And while it’s a safe bet that Vince will at some point this season rise again to A-list status (that’s a guess, not a spoiler), it’s nice to see that he is, at least for now, not immune to the hot-cold dynamic that is Hollywood. Indeed, this might be Entourage’s peak in terms of realism.
Elsewhere, everyone’s favorite aspects of the show are still in place--including but not limited to Ari’s vulgar one-liners hurled at his beleaguered assistant Lloyd (Rex Lee), and the bevy of cameos and guest stars.
The latter is in full swing in the second episode, during which Tony Bennett and (Entourage exec producer) Mark Wahlberg have cameos, Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) and Carla Gugino reprise their roles, and Giovanni Ribisi and Lukas Haas become the latest guest stars.