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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus, talking about her new NBC series Watching Ellie, due to debut on Feb. 26:
"I think there's pressure -- regardless of the past successes or failures of any of my friends. I put pressure on myself. I really want the show to be good. I want to like it. Jason [Alexander] and Michael [Richards -- her two co-stars in Seinfeld, who each their own shows tank quickly] are very good friends of mine, and they're such amazingly talented people.
"I did talk to them on occasion when they were doing their work, and it's hard. It's hard to do anything well, whether it's in television or film, or making a car -- it's hard to make a good car. It's hard to do things well, period....But the main thing is just to have a good time. Not only do I want this show, of course, to be a success, I would also really like to enjoy the process. And so far I have."
The reaction of critics to Shallow Hal is about as extreme as the
changes in Gwyneth Paltrow's body size during the movie.
A.O. Scott in
the New York Times concludes that the Farrelly brothers have
"cunningly transform[ed] a series of fat jokes...into a tender fable
and a winning love story."
Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times
begins his review this way: "The Farrelly brothers' Shallow
Hal is the darndest thing. As unexpected as Yasser Arafat suddenly
breaking into a chorus of "My Yiddishe Mama," this staggeringly earnest,
wholly sentimental film about seeing beyond surface appearances comes
from filmmakers you'd hardly expect to persistently appeal to our better
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution concludes: that watching stars Jack Black and
Paltrow "is a wonderful case of good acting enhanced by good chemistry
enhanced by good writing and directing. The Farrelly brothers have done
themselves proud with this movie. They've shown us their inner beauty."
On the other hand, Gary Thompson in the Philadelphia Daily News
writes that the movie "delves with insane bravado into the treacherous
currents that swirl around beauty, weight, and women. It's a brave
attempt, and also a failure."
Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street
Journal has a much harsher judgment: "The jokes are mostly dismal;
the payoff is smarmy (it involves Jason Alexander as Hal's haplessly
lustful buddy); the direction is perfunctory; and the lead performances
are tentative at best."
Tom Maurstad in the Dallas Morning News
sees the film as something of a metaphor about the movie business
itself: "Hollywood making a movie that lectures audiences to judge
people on the content of their character and not the shape of their skin
is a joke. Unfortunately, as Shallow Hal proves, it's not a very
Check out the Hollywood.com review of Shallow Hal here!
The WB's young Superman series Smallville leapt two networks with a single bound in its premiere episode Tuesday night, producing the best ratings for a debuting show in the "fifth network's" history.
According to Nielsen Research, the hour-long premiere averaged a 6.7 rating and a 10 share, beating ABC's Spin City (5.2/8) and the new Jason Alexander sitcom Bob Patterson (4.9/7) and also besting the final episode of Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage on Fox (4.7/8).
The hour was won by CBS's new drama The Guardian, which delivered a 10.5/16 and edged out NBC's Frasier, which pulled a 10.0/15."
After suffering its worst Tuesday-night ratings results in 15 years last week, ABC quickly reacted Thursday by yanking the struggling Joan Cusack comedy Joan, shifting its new Jason Alexander sitcom Bob Patterson to Wednesday nights following Drew Carey (the network had been sharply criticized for launching it opposite NBC's Frasier), and slotting its hit drama NYPD Blue into the 9:00 hour.
The new Denis Leary comedy The Job, which had been set to air on Wednesdays, was put back on the shelf until midseason.
And it has indefinitely postponed any new episodes of the reality show The Mole.
ABC experienced its worst Tuesday-night ratings results this week since 1987, averaging a 6.5 rating and a 10 share -- representing just 7.9 million viewers.
"ABC didn't just edge out its previous Tuesday low of 9 million -- it blew past it," commented the Washington Post's TV writer, Lisa de Moraes. The network was particularly hard hit by a woeful 5.6/8 for its new comedy, Bob Patterson, starring Jason Alexander, a 30-percent drop from its already dismal premiere a week earlier. Steve Bochco's new drama Philly also got no brotherly love, falling to a 6.9/11 from last week's 7.6/12.
American Pie 2 confounded many analysts over the weekend by taking in $45.1 million in ticket sales despite an R rating that many theaters are meticulously enforcing. Analysts had predicted that the rating would prevent the core teen audience for the original film from seeing the sequel and thereby depress revenue. As it was, the film debuted as the most profitable debut ever for an R-rated comedy. [Still, analysts suspected that teens got in anyway. In an interview with Bloomberg News, industry analyst Art Rockwell remarked that the movie "hit its demographic perfectly. ... It's not a reviewer's film, but it's what the teen audience wanted to see."] Disney's ghost movie The Others debuted with an all-right $14.1 million for fourth place, while Warner's Osmosis Jones tanked with $5.3 million for seventh place. Rush Hour 2, last week's winner, followed recent trends as it lost more than half its opening-week gate, dropping to second place with $33.1 million. Sales for the top 12 films totaled $148.5 million, up 54 percent from the same weekend last year.
The top 10 films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):
1. American Pie 2, Universal, $45,117,985, (New); 2. Rush Hour 2, New Line, $33,117,312, ($133,525,381); 3. The Princess Diaries, Disney, $14,216,447, ($52,092,481); 4. The Others, Miramax/Dimension, $14,089,952, (New); 5. Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox, $13,302,881, ($148,717,365); 6. Jurassic Park III, Universal, $7,524,975, ($160,396,215); 7. Osmosis Jones, Warner Bros., $5,271,248, (New); 8. America's Sweethearts, Sony, $4,405,836, ($83,247,240); 9. Legally Blonde, MGM, $3,774,114, ($78,696,785); 10. Original Sin, MGM, $3,075,072, ($12,517,699).