“Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” Muppets Most Wanted

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I suppose Jim Henson’s Muppets are dusty, musty artifacts of the hippie dippy 1970s in which I grew up. However, they are artifacts for which I have much affection… and charity.

The latest effort by Disney (the current owners of the Muppet franchise) to reboot this sentimental throwback for a modern era’s more cynical tastes is Muppets Most Wanted. Does it work as a film? Not totally. But it reinforced for me as a film-goer that my predispositions seem to color my enjoyment of whatever I view.

Whether how unfairly I may have judged American Hustle or how generously I may have assessed Monuments Men, Muppets Most Wanted demonstrated for me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I walk into a film with prejudice to like (or loathe) it will impact how I judge the work.

So, be warned, I definitely had a corny, soft spot in my Gen X heart for this one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a slight improvement over its predecessor, 2011’s The Muppets, which I found cloyingly self-reverential and too cute by half. I suppose part of the blame rests with that film’s screenwriter Jason Segel who likely had too much adoration for the source material to modernize it in any discernible way.

In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted, the second installment in the Muppets film franchise(or actually eighth if you include all the Muppets’ cinematic output from the 70s on) has a darker, more lightly satirical edge, even spoofing Ingmar Bergman at one point. It shamelessly riffs on what is arguably the best Muppet film The Great Muppet Caper, with its refreshingly acerbic vibe (but alas no Diana Rigg this time around).

In essence, this edition in the Muppet saga is a road picture wherein the Muppets tour Europe;  and, unbeknownst to the scruffy band, head frog Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious jewel thief named Constantine (whose only physical difference is a black mole on his visage). Constantine’s plot to use these hapless performers as a comic distraction for his heists is abetted by a fairly wry, though disappointingly tame Ricky Gervais.

The movie is predictably episodic, but the various European locales allow for some silly sight gags and typical Muppet hijinks across Germany, England, Spain, Ireland, and Russia. Human cast member Ty Burrell fares best as an Inspector Clouseau knock-off. Tina Fey, as a gulag matron who falsely imprisons Kermit, never quite rises above the Herculean task (for her) that a faux Russian accent requires.

What saves the film ultimately is a very catchy musical score written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie (who won an Academy Award for the prior Muppet flick). I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever these dirty, scruffy puppets launched into song. In fact, I suspect the enterprise would have been markedly improved if sung throughout.

Also, as in any Muppet adventure, there is great joy for adults in the audience for the insane array of cameos – from Tom Hiddleston to Miranda Richardson, Christoph Waltz to Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci to Lady Gaga, Celine Dion to Chloe Grace Moretz.

I will always have warmth in my heart for The Muppets, a gang of felt creatures who helped teach my generation the importance of acceptance and kindness and understanding and tolerance. At one point, Fozzie and Walter exclaim of their best pal Kermit, “Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” For that reason alone, I hope Disney continues to crank out fair-to-middling films, spotlighting these characters who have never lost those precious Me Decade values from their over-stuffed DNA.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.