About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: Jacob’s Ladder

Tim Robbins stars as a postal worker having troubling visions of demons, and when he talks to his fellow ‘Nam buddies, he finds that they are having similar experiences. And then one of the veterans turns up dead. There is evidence to suggest that Robbins’ platoon were part of a secret military experiment involving hallucinogenic drugs that send people crazy. Meanwhile, Robbins is even questioning whether his life with girlfriend Elizabeth Pena is real or a dream, especially when we see him with his apparent wife, played by Patricia Kalember. Macaulay Culkin has a small but pivotal role as Robbins’ son (who in a way is the key to the point of the entire film), whilst Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Brent Hinkley, and Pruitt Taylor Vince are his war vet pals. Jason Alexander plays a lawyer who looks into the war vets’ case, and Matt Craven plays a mystery man who tries to contact Robbins, and Danny Aiello plays Robbins’ friendly and somewhat sage chiropractor.

Perhaps the ultimate ‘mind fuck’, this 1990 genre-hopper from director Adrian Lyne (“Flashdance”, “Fatal Attraction”) and writer Bruce Joel Rubin (Screenwriter of “Ghost”, writer-director of the underrated “My Life”) is highly unusual, and won’t be for everyone. It’s creepy, atmospheric, weird (the opener is terrific), and perhaps supernatural, without being what I’d term a horror film. It’s certainly far from perfect (the role played by Patricia Kalember is woefully underwritten for a start), and if released now, the ending probably wouldn’t be as much of surprise as it was for many in 1990.

I’d suggest the film was like if David Cronenberg had directed an adaptation of “Slaughterhouse Five”, except it’s a bit warmer than a Cronenberg film (though at the same time, it’s a completely separate entity of its own, very different to anything before or since). Tim Robbins is the key. He’s perfect in a film not so far removed from “Mystic River” on a certain level. In both films, at least on the surface, he’s a guy who went through some trauma that has left him disoriented and a bit fucked up. The supporting cast is really interesting in that everyone is slightly unsettling; Pruitt Taylor Vince and his darting eyes are never reassuring (I reckon if he ever claimed to have been anally probed by aliens, I’d totally believe him. He always looks wigged out), whilst Danny Aiello doesn’t seem like he’d have a light enough touch to be a chiropractor, if you ask me. I like Aiello as an actor, where the hell is he these days? He has his bombastic moments here, but he also shows great tenderness and sensitivity here. It’s a role that could’ve gotten seriously silly in the wrong hands, but Aiello makes it work. Jason Alexander has one of his best non-“Seinfeld” roles here too, though only appearing briefly. Director Lyne, meanwhile, seems especially enamoured with Elizabeth Pena, as in one scene he has her get dressed and undressed about five times. In one scene, her first scene in fact. Her tits aren’t to my personal taste (too small), but I admire a director with his priorities in check. She’s perfectly fine in the role, but I don’t find her attractive at all.

It’s extremely hard to continue this review without spoilers, because the big twist is the film’s chief point of interest and the merit of the film as a whole actually hinges largely on the ending, so read the rest later if you’re a newbie, ‘coz it’s a  ****SPOILER WARNING, Y’ALL**** Actually, if you’ve never seen “The Usual Suspects” and/or “The Life Before Her Eyes”, you might want to turn back, though I’ll try not to be explicit in spoiling those endings. I’m really surprised critic Roger Ebert liked this film and hated “The Usual Suspects”, because they both have a fairly similar ending, as does the more recent “The Life Before Her Eyes”. Some say the ending negates the entire film, and I can’t argue as strongly against that as in “The Usual Suspects”, but I never felt cheated here or “The Usual Suspects” (The answer with the latter film is technically right there for you to see almost immediately, so it isn’t a cheat). I’ll try to be as vague as possible, but I find the role of imagination involved in both this film and “The Usual Suspects” to be far more plausible than “The Life Before Her Eyes”. Perhaps it’s because in “The Usual Suspects” the motive behind the deception seemed plausible to me. The difference between this film and “The Life Before Her Eyes”, however, is the age of the protagonist. I can’t say much more than that, it’s just more plausible when it involves an adult like Robbins, because it’s not as much of a reach. Basically, I’m saying that this film manages to combine its two different layers (to use a vague term) together seamlessly, thus when the end comes along, it feels far more organic. I could never reconcile certain things with “The Life Before Her Eyes” due to far too many unanswered questions.

This is an interesting, twisty puzzle of a film, but thanks chiefly to Tim Robbins’ empathetic work, it also has an emotional resonance too. It’s not a perfect film (and I’m not a great fan of ‘head trip’ films), but it’s a consistently interesting one (no matter how many times you’ve seen it), even if it depends largely on its twist ending to make it really memorable.

Rating: B-

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Born to Raise Hell

Steven Seagal is an Interpol agent stationed in Romania to bust up drug syndicates. He takes on brutal gangster, club owner, and all-round Gypsy creep Darren Shahlavi, who has a strained partnership with Russian mobster Dan Badarau. The latter is a devout family man who has moral objections to the way Shahlavi conducts himself, especially when he puts Badarau’s family in harm’s way. D. Neil Mark plays Seagal’s American partner, whose wife has a baby on the way.


Not one of Steven Seagal’s best efforts of late (take that as you wish), this Lauro Chartrand (his directorial debut, after a career as a stuntman) action flick has little excitement and wastes the talents of Darren Shahlavi as one of the bad guys. Good news first: Seagal loops his own dialogue (some have a differing view on that, but it sounded fine to me). He actually wrote the damn screenplay, so if he didn’t like the dialogue he’d have no excuse then, so I’m glad he turned up for work that day. Actually, for the most part, this is his most lively performance in ages. He’s decent for a change, and looks to have eased off on the fake tan too. Unfortunately, Seagal also narrates the film. Flatly. He’s also playing an Interpol agent stationed in Romania, which whilst a new one for Seagal, isn’t exactly a good fit. Van Damme might’ve pulled such a character off, but Seagal? Uh-uh. He’d stand out like a sore thumb.


Worse still is the camera trickfuckery and editing nonsense favoured by director Chartrand, who comes off like Michael Oblowitz (director of Seagal’s worst films “The Foreigner” and “Out for a Kill”), but with a better handle on narrative cohesion. There’s some shaky cam in the fights, perhaps compensating for Seagal’s advancing age, but irritating nonetheless. In the first action scene it appears he can’t even do his aikido moves as fluidly anymore, so fancy editing and camera-shaking have to be used. The second fight scene in a restaurant is pretty good, and a more impactful display of aikido, but really brief. The final fight is wrist-snapping fun on the one hand, but disastrously one-sided on the other. Shahlavi gets absolutely no offence in. None. It’s a crap role that he plays with a crap accent and he doesn’t get to kick any arse in the film. Why was he even cast? Shahlavi made such a strong, forceful impression in “Ip Man 2” that his participation here is a complete and utter disappointment.


One plus over the usual Seagal film is that the film is set in Romania, instead of just being filmed there on the cheap for no other reason. So that’s a nice touch I’ll admit, and the lighting is pretty nice throughout, so that’s a plus too. Sadly the plot is a complete snore, and combined with a slow pace, a big baddie who doesn’t get to land a punch, and a hack editing job, there’s just not much of interest going on here. I also have to question the exploitation content in the film. Apparently strippers don’t bare their breasts in Romania, but they do when having sex with flabby American-accented Interpol agents. We do get some nudity later on in a nightclub, but it’s artsy, over-edited stuff that isn’t remotely enjoyable. The sex scene is actually creepy, slow-motion stuff that is shot in such a way that it looks like he’s raping the girl. Watch it and tell me I’m wrong.


It’s not one of Seagal’s stinkers, and his acting is surprisingly OK (Badarau is pretty awful in an otherwise interesting role), but the film is pretty average. It definitely isn’t up to the standard of the best of his direct-to-DVD films like “Into the Sun”, “Ruslan”, “Pistol Whipped”, “The Keeper”, and “Renegade Justice”/“Urban Justice”. Woeful title, too, as it has absolutely no bearing on anything in the film at all.


Rating: C

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: The People vs. George Lucas

A word of warning to begin: Given the nature of this film and my own perspective, this will be a kind of combination of a film review and a discussion of my own personal thoughts on the subject dealt with in the film, rather than just a straight-up review. So if I start to rant, well, deal with it. This is a subject I’m very passionate about, and this is the only way I can really tackle this film.

There can be little dispute that George Lucas is responsible for at least two (and in my opinion at least three, if not four) great “Star Wars” movies. For this, “Star Wars” fans should forever love him. However, “Star Wars” fans, especially the diehard ones, are a particular lot, who don’t much like their beloved franchise being fucked with. I’m a fan myself, so I understand at least some of the gripes people have with what Lucas has done in the decades since the original trilogy were released. This 2010 documentary from filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe pretty much documents all the criticisms in one 90 odd film full of hilarity, legitimate criticism and insight, and well, some petty nerd bullshit too. Heck, it even manages to find some affection and appreciation for what Lucas has given us over the years, warts, Jar-Jar, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” and all. It’s a must for “Star Wars” fans current and lapsed, and film buffs in general.

I suppose in any discussion about this film from a partisan point of view it’s important to let the reader know where one stands. So for the purposes of full disclosure, I was born the same year that “Empire Strikes Back” came out (1980), have the ‘original trilogy’ sitting at #3 on my Top 200 Films of All-Time list, “The Phantom Menace” sits at #5, and even the other two (“Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”) occupy #81 and #157. Yes, I’m one of the few people who will defend the prequels, even though they (especially the latter two) are inferior to the ‘original trilogy’. Inferior to those films or not, they’re still greater entertainments than those of other directors. They’re still “Star Wars”, after all. I’m not a fan of Jar Jar, but understand why George included him in the films. I wholeheartedly support a CGI Yoda, especially when he turns into a wuxia arse-kicker. The acting and dialogue in these films are a bit wooden, especially in the latter two, but let’s face it, Carrie Fisher wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy in the originals was she? I absolutely loathed General Grievous (still do), and I think all of us would really like to erase ‘Nooooooo!’ from our memories forever, but for every flaw in the prequels, the fact is, they’re still great entertainments, especially for the young. Do you remember entertainment, people? Do you remember you used to be young once? If you think “Attack of the Clones” is a genuinely bad film, you’ve clearly only ever seen about five films in your entire life. Hell, I’d suggest if you thought it was anything less than ‘good’ you’re cinematically undernourished as well. I’m also mindful that I was watching the prequels with different, far more mature eyes than when I first saw the originals, which I would then see over and over again throughout my thus far 32 years of life, something that I think a lot of so-called “Star Wars” fans have forgotten (And understandably so. You can’t possibly watch the films from the same perspective because you’re not the same as an adult as you were as a kid. It’s just a fact of life, nor is it easy to look back on the original trilogy that we love, and see some of the wooden acting for what it is). So while I found the anecdotes about fans seeing “The Phantom Menace” at midnight screenings and their subsequent disappointment to be interesting and amusing, I think a lot of these people weren’t looking at things the right way. Yes, the opening crawl seemed kinda jarring and unlike anything we’d seen in a “Star Wars” film, but for fuck’s sake, it’s an opening crawl. Get out of your mother’s basement and get a life, people (Yes, I live with my mother. Your point?). It’s entertainment. Great entertainment, actually.

I do not consider George Lucas to have raped my childhood in making these films, though it’s kinda fun to throw that line out there. I do, however, understand such criticisms of his tinkering with the ‘original trilogy’ over the years, and my review of “The Clone Wars” at Epinions.com was essentially a long, angry rant that ended with ‘Fuck you, George. I’m out!’. I might’ve even accused him of raping my childhood in that review, but I was seriously pissed at the time (and I really loved that episode of “South Park”). “The Clone Wars” was an appalling, shamefully bankrupt money-grubbing exercise. Being the hypocrite I am, I was one of (presumably) many cautiously pleased with the news that the series is set to be resurrected by Disney (This documentary, however, was released before that announcement was made). Why? Because it’s “Star Wars”, and I just plain love it.

So while my stance on George Lucas and his space opera saga might be slightly different from what is discussed in this documentary (I also liked “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, so bear that in mind too), I definitely understood a lot of the sentiments here. I even found it insightful, as I had never even considered what Lucas was really doing when tinkering with the FX in the Special Editions of his ‘original trilogy’. By replacing some of the FX work with up-to-date CGI, not only was he creating something rather jarring to many viewers (including me, to a certain extent), but he was also replacing the hard work (Oscar winning, I might add) of the original FX team. Considering Lucas didn’t even direct “Empire” and “Jedi”, he’s also tinkering with the work of two deceased directors, and that doesn’t quite sit right with me, especially for a filmmaker who once decried the colourisation of B&W films, from what I’ve heard.

Which brings us to the most interesting point in this documentary; Lucas’ stubborn insistence that “Star Wars” is his project to do whatever the fuck he wants to do with it, and no one else has any say whatsoever. Not the fans, certainly, given he has never really listened to us when we’ve raised concerns about wanting to see the original trilogy released on DVD, pre the 1997 Special Editions, something Lucas has never been willing to do. That’s the only part of the discussion where the ‘George Lucas raped my childhood’ line really holds any weight beyond being a cute, snarky line. You won’t hear me using that line in reference to the prequels, because even if you don’t like them, you don’t have to own copies of them, do you? And for the record, I could give a rat’s arse whether Han or Greedo shot first. The argument is getting pathetic guys, real pathetic. I do, however, have misgivings about Lucas tinkering with the earlier films to make them match up to his prequels. It’s a cute idea in theory, but it plays out awkwardly (I’m not even sure I could ever own a copy that features ‘Noooo!’. Having it in “Revenge of the Sith” is bad enough). It’s much easier to criticise Lucas for this frankly cold-hearted attitude (that “Star Wars” is his and his alone to do whatever he wants with it), in regards to him not releasing the original theatrical versions of the ‘original trilogy’. Basically, the guy’s been a bit of a prick in recent decades (I’ve heard he’s not always been supportive of fan-made “Star Wars” films either, because he can’t own or control it), and I, like many, don’t quite buy the studio’s line about no longer having the negatives to the original films, pre the 1997 updates. One interviewee in this film outright calls bullshit on it, in fact. Lucas’ stubborn insistence that it’s his vision and therefore he owns it, will forever dog him, even now that he has handed things over to Disney. I, like many, believe for the most part that once a film reaches audiences, it leaves the filmmaker’s hands and enters our realm. It’s no longer just George’s film, it’s ours too. That doesn’t mean he can’t alter the films to his liking, but Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”, “Alien”) and many others will tinker with their vision without completely denying the existence of the originals. George don’t roll like that, and he has probably lost many fans over it. I feel like George was that kid who always had to share his toys with a younger sibling, and so when he grew up and started making movies, he became possessive over them. Most of us are a pretty forgiving bunch, though. We’ll criticise the films, but you can bet most of us will be lining up for midnight screenings to whatever “Star Wars” film comes out next (Unless it’s a sequel to “The Clone Wars”. I will not endorse that).

The film, although mostly a critique on Lucas, does not entirely stack the deck against him. That said, it’s interesting that one of his best friends, Francis Ford Coppola even laments that Lucas’ artistic talents may be left untapped due to his obsession with a financially lucrative film franchise (This from a guy who spends more time sipping wine than making films, but nonetheless...) Everyone interviewed has at least some affection for the movies, if not the man whose imagination spawned them. Yes, they don’t like his recent attitudes or the prequels, but he made these three wonderful films. I’d even go so far as to suggest that since the ‘original trilogy’ are 99.99% the same films as they were on original release, anyone who completely dismisses their merits based solely on some pretty damn minor changes (Han is still a rogue, whether he shoots Greedo in self-defence or not, you morons!) is quite frankly not a true “Star Wars” fan. You’re just a petty geek. I also appreciated that some of the interviewees in the film were self-aware enough to make the suggestion that although it’s a tad simplistic to defend the prequels by saying “Star Wars” is kids stuff, there are many kids out there who didn’t grow up with the ‘original trilogy’ and to them, the prequels are awesome and they even love Jar-Jar Binks. And when people complain about the oversaturation of “Star Wars” merchandise, they quickly need to remind themselves that...well, they willingly bought it, after all.

So although the film has a deliberately antagonistic title to grab our attention, and although it certainly spends a good deal of the film complaining, it’s not an entirely hateful hatchet-job. It’s also frequently funny, interesting, insightful, affectionate, and entertaining. And a lot of what is said is pretty valid. Well, except for the attack on the Ewoks. How can people not love the Ewoks? I’ve never understood that one. You’re all heartless! Meanwhile, one of these days, I’m gonna have to track down that “Star Wars Holiday Special”. It looks stupendously awful.


Rating: B-

Review: Frenzy

Set in London, somewhat unappealing ne’er-do-well Jon Finch (think Oliver Reed with a mild hangover, but more conventionally handsome) is having a bad time of it. He loses his job at the pub (accused of imbibing on the job), is sleeping at a crummy hostel (where he needs to keep an eye on his wallet at all hours of the night), argues violently with his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), and when said ex-wife is strangled, becomes the prime suspect in the ‘Necktie Strangler’ case. Thing is, he’s innocent, we learn early on that an outwardly charming associate of his (Barry Foster- having a whale of a time) is framing him as he continues to murder pretty young lady after pretty young lady. Anna Massey plays Finch’s only true ally, with Clive Swift his chicken-livered old pal emasculated by bitchy Billie Whitelaw (who believes Finch a sadist because the divorce settlement included accusations of ‘extreme cruelty’, which Finch claims he and Leigh-Hunt made up to speed things along. Thus she won’t let Swift come forward as Finch’s alibi). Alec McCowen plays a copper on the case, whose comic dealings with his wannabe-gourmet wife Vivien Merchant are an amusing sidebar (If you find nothing amusing or oxymoronic about the phrase ‘British cuisine’, then these scenes will clearly not work for you). Jean Marsh plays a nerdy secretary, in a choice bit part.


1972 Alfred Hitchcock (“Strangers on a Train”, “North by Northwest”) film is considered by most to be his best work post-“Psycho”. Whatever one takes that statement to mean (hey, I liked “Topaz”, thank you very much!), it’s probably true enough, and a return to his popular ‘wrong man’ theme (think “The 39 Steps”, “Strangers on a Train” etc).


This seedy, nasty little ripper (so to speak) has terrific performances (Finch’s best, and scene-stealing work by Massey, Foster, McCowen, Whitelaw, and Marsh), wonderfully grubby characters (the hero’s a pig, the villain’s a smoothie), a randy sense of humour, and only the faintest whiff of déjà vu (a frantic ‘needle in a haystack’-like search is far too reminiscent of the ‘lighter down the drain’ bit from Hitch’s best film, “Strangers on a Train”), and only a touch overrated (Hey, it ain’t no “Torn Curtain” or “The Birds”, at least, so we can be thankful for that!).


Hitchcock at his nastiest (expect a rape and murder or two), naughtiest and blackest, it’s like “Carry On Ripper”! The screenplay is by Anthony Schaffer (“Sleuth”, “The Wicker Man”, “Absolution”, “Death on the Nile”) of all people, from a novel by Arthur LaBern.


Rating: B-

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: Metropolis

Set in a future city where hunched-over workers break their backs slaving away day and night in the subterranean levels of the city. Above ground are the affluent, including authoritarian Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), whose son Freder (Gustav Froelich) ventures below ground for the first time and receives quite the wake-up call. He also meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), who preaches peace and who wants to bring the city’s two divided classes of people together. Fredersen, of course, wants none of this and requests the aid of scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to build a robot clone of Maria to swing sentiment around in his favour. Rotwang, however, harbours deep resentment for Fredersen and decides to use the robot Maria to cause chaos to descend upon Fredersen’s city. Fritz Rasp plays the aptly named Thin Man, a spy in Fredersen’s employ.


We often hear that ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’, and I often find that people believe that since the release of “Jaws” and “Star Wars”, the big (and often empty) blockbuster has largely (excuse the pun there) become the norm. This 1927 Fritz Lang (“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”, “Man Hunt”, “Ministry of Fear”, “The Big Heat”) sci-fi fantasy proves that big, expensive, visual extravaganzas were being made as far back as the Silent Era. It’s also, on that level, an amazing film, just as “Jaws” and the “Star Wars” films are. I was actually shocked at just how visually impressive, grand-scale, and imaginative the film is. The visualisation of a future society is genuinely praiseworthy, though obviously the technology available to Lang at the time isn’t to the standard we have now. That didn’t bother me, though, because I was able to appreciate what I was seeing for the era in which it was made. It’s unlike any film from pre-1930s that I’ve ever seen (Not that the Silent Era is something I’m well-versed in, shamefully). Using forced perspective (to make things look grander than they actually are, ala “Citizen Kane” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), the set design is truly impressive, and I just love me some German Expressionism (And apparently so did Hitler, who was said to be a fan of the film), and the exaggerated sets here are very much in keeping with that.


 It’s also one of the most influential films of all-time, particularly in its visualisation of a futuristic city and its rather oppressive society (“Minority Report”, “The Matrix”, “Blade Runner”, “Brazil”, etc), not to mention the whole Mad Scientist deal and a giant robot that looks a tad like C3PO. That giant robot, however, has become an iconic figure in the public consciousness in its own right, even for people who haven’t seen or even heard of the film. The giant mechanical clock is an unforgettably oppressive image as well (excellently staged flood, too) in a film that spells its themes out in big, grand visuals. Production designers Otto Hunte (Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler”), Erich Kettlehut, and Karl Vollbrecht (“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”), are, along with cinematographer Karl Freund (“Camille”, “The Good Earth”, “A Guy Named Joe”) a big reason for the film being as memorable as it is. The film seems to have Orwell written all over it (and Aldous Huxley now that I think of it), except that it is ultimately attempting to be uplifting and of course it predates Orwell’s concept of ‘Big Brother’.


The film’s sappy conclusion is actually one of the weakest elements to the film. I don’t know if it was tacked-on to send everyone home happy, but that (and the entire love story, to an extent) didn’t really do much for me. It rang false in an otherwise prototypical depiction of bleak dystopian sci-fi (Not to mention being a cautionary tale of how the then-current notions of the industrialisation and mechanisation of society might lead to the lack of necessity for man, or at least a dehumanisation). Having said that, for 1927, this is some really lofty and imaginative stuff being tackled, so I’m impressed simply on that level even if it is flawed. But there’s no doubt that narrative isn’t the film’s strong suit (Lang’s “Ministry of Fear” and “The Big Heat” are better yarns, if not as visually wondrous or conceptually grand), even in the longer cuts of the film. In fact, the version I saw felt too long, even though further editing would make things incoherent. I can only imagine what the poor souls only exposed to the shorter edits (some around 90 minutes) must’ve made of the story. The use of title cards to help fill the gaps left by lost footage help, but I must admit, it’s still a little difficult to get a grasp on it at times. Maybe the novel by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou (Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse” films) is easier to follow, but as adapted by Lang and von Harbou herself, I did get lost from time to time. The fact that silent film actors were all seemingly made up to look exactly alike doesn’t help, either (Am I the only one who thinks this?). It’s also a bit hard to swallow the film’s robotic conceit, though it helps if you view it as fantasy, and one can’t really blame a film from the 1920s for not being as sophisticated in explaining fantastical elements in a truly palatable way. I also think that, overlong or not, longer cuts of the film would surely be superior to anything around 90 minutes, as I said earlier.


This is an extremely impressive film, and its visuals and worldview are effective enough so that you don’t really realise how silly the story is at times. Overall, it holds up remarkably well given its age, lost footage, wear and tear, and so on. All of the wear and tear is evident, but I would never hold that against the film. If nothing else, the film’s 1920s imagining of what the future would be like isn’t as irrelevant or silly as some films from much later decades. That’s a hell of an achievement (even if this is largely due to later books and films stealing from it, it’s still amazing). A must for any film buff, but sci-fi fans might want to give it a go, too.


Rating: B

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: The Muppets

Jason Segel plays Gary, brother to a Muppet named Walter. Yes, that’s biologically impossible, but it’s a movie after all. Anyway, both brothers have been life-long Muppet fans, and so when Gary takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a vacation to celebrate their ten-year anniversary, Gary allows Walter to tag along so they can visit the Muppet Studios. Mary...tolerates this. But when they get there, Walter overhears some bad news. Not only has the building been long neglected, but evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans on demolishing the studio to drill for oil. The only way to stop this from happening is for the Muppets to raise $10,000. Distressed, Walter and Gary visit Kermit at his Hollywood mansion to try and convince him to ‘get the band back together’. Unfortunately, the Muppets have long gone their separate ways, but eventually Kermit is persuaded and the gang head off in search of the rest of the...er...gang. Kermit is particularly reluctant to look up Miss Piggy, because...well, you know how those two are. Fozzy has sunk to the level of cashing in on the Muppets name by fronting a third-rate covers band/lounge act called The Moopets, Scooter works for Google, Animal is sponsored by Jack Black in Anger Management therapy, Miss Piggy is now the editor of a Paris fashion magazine (Emily Blunt is her secretary), Gonzo runs a huge plumbing business, Sam the Eagle is a Conservative TV show correspondent, and so on. Rashida Jones plays a TV exec who reluctantly allows the gang to stage a telethon so long as they can get a suitable celebrity guest host. This of course involves the kidnapping of Jack Black. Meanwhile, Waldorf and Statler as usual provide derisive commentary from above, Mary feels Gary has neglected her for his Muppet friends, and Walter frets over being asked by Kermit to fill some time on stage with a talent spot.

I was worried that the wave of nostalgia was going to be too strong for me to assess this film from director James Bobin (of that “Flight of the Conchords” show I’ll never watch) on the same level as any other film. I mean, who grew up on The Muppets and didn’t love them? If so, you’re just not man or Muppet (I was only a year old when their TV show finished, and yet they and that show are still a part of my life). But the film actually rubbed me the wrong way early on, and so I felt like I wouldn’t just get caught up in the nostalgia and forget about everything else. It certainly isn’t as memorable as “The Muppet Show”, “Muppet Christmas Carol” (my favourite Muppet movie of all-time) or even “Muppet Babies”. Besides, I actually hadn’t realised that most people considered Kermit and the Gang to be yesterday’s news. That’s if they’re even old enough to have heard of them at all. Apparently a whole generation has gone without a strong connection to these characters. I guess I just assumed these characters still appeared on TV in some form or another, and it wasn’t all that long ago that even I saw them in that frankly disappointing “Muppet Wizard of Oz”thing with Quentin Tarantino (and I still haven’t sat through all of “Muppets in Space”). 2005 in fact. What? That’s like yesterday to me. I watch “Muppet Christmas Carol” every Christmas, so whilst these characters have never been absent for me, perhaps that’s not the case for everyone. Or maybe the young ‘uns of today just have a shorter frame of reference than I do. But, it does indeed appear that the young‘uns of today haven’t been weaned on The Muppets outside of “Sesame Street”perhaps (That show’s still on, right?). Maybe hand puppets don’t cut it in this era of more sophisticated CGI entertainments. Still, the nostalgia thing didn’t quite work for me early on the way it was probably meant to. I mean, how could I believe it had been so long since the gang was together that Fozzy Bear now had his own third-rate Muppets Tribute Band called The Moopets? Dude, I’ve seen you and the others every few years for decades! Besides, the whole cash-driven (in perhaps more than one sense) plot could’ve easily been solved by Gonzo and Piggy supplying the funds themselves. Oops, I guess we’re not meant to think logically in a kids movie (Why not?). I did like that the plot somewhat resembled “The Blues Brothers”, however. That was cute, though it would’ve been even cuter of Frank Oz (the former Miss Piggy and co-star of “The Blues Brothers”)was still on board.

I also wasn’t quite buying the character of Walter. I kinda gather that he was meant to be Segel’s brother and a Muppet, but the whole identity crisis thing just isn’t very well explained. Does he identify with the Muppets because he is one? The fact that there are other Muppets outside of, well, the Muppets (for instance, Fozzy’s cover band The Moopets) helped sell it a bit, but I felt it would’ve been better if Segel’s brother was just a young human boy who wanted to be a Muppet because he was a Muppet at heart. Walter actuallybeing a Muppet and no one (except maybe Amy Adams) really making a big deal out of it just didn’t work for me, at least not at first. It seemed a little odd and Walter ain’t no Kermit the Frog (He is, however, more enjoyable than that lame faux-Rastafarian who hosted the unfortunate and best forgotten “Muppets Tonight”). Walter, however, is at least far more palatable than the embarrassing performance given by Chris Cooper as the film’s villain. Whether it’s failing to produce any laughs by saying lines like ‘Maniacal laugh...maniacal laugh’ (instead of him actually laughing maniacally), or delivering a painful rap, I felt very sorry for the Oscar winner. Some people aren’t good at comedy, and some people aren’t good at interacting with Muppets. Cooper is 0-2 there. At least Walter won me over by the end when he reveals his quite lovely hidden talent (Which I won’t spoil, but it’s almost as adorable as Amy Adams. Almost).

The songs also mostly didn’t work for me and highlighted a slight irritant I had with the film. However, it should first be noted that I generally hate musicals to begin with. Not only are the original songs (produced and largely penned by a shockingly Oscar-winning Bret McKenzie, also of “Flight of the Conchords”) terrible and unmemorable, but the way Segel and Adams perform them, they seem to be somewhat condescending and they don’t fit into a Muppet movie. They seem more like “Enchanted 2”, if anything and it makes one wish Frank Oz or someone at least a little less irreverent had directed it (The Muppets themselves are irreverent enough). Segel in particular mugs mercilessly in his musical moments, and it just had me wondering if the film wasn’t slightly laughing at The Muppets and their fans whilst also laughing with them. I could never quite shake that feeling early on, and outside of Waldorf and Statler, it’s not something I especially appreciated. Maybe it’s because the human characters played by Segel and Adams take up too much time that could’ve been better spent on The Muppets. Or maybe the fact that Segel (who played a puppet enthusiast in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), co-scripting with Nicholas Stoller (Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” alum) is a ‘fan’ of the Muppets rather than being a real part of the ‘family’ is the reason for the humour being a tad ‘off’. It didn’t exactly feel like a proper Muppet movie to me (And I think it’s too easy to blame Disney, who obtained the rights to the Muppet brand. Disney, whatever you might think of them, generally deliver quality entertainment).

I also lamented that several of the more beloved Muppets (Gonzo, Animal, and especially Rowlf and Rizzo the Rat) were underused. Poor Rizzo, who admittedly isn’t an original cast member, has a dialogue-free walk-on at most. I also wanted more Swedish Chef, damn it!

But y’know what? Eventually, none of these flaws really mattered (Well, I hate that ‘Mahna Mahna’ song passionately, but let’s not go there). Yes, they’re evident and the wave of nostalgia didn’t blind me to them, but at the same time, I had a big ‘ol smile on my face and good feeling in my tummy by the end of it. It may not be a great movie, but it’s ultimately a film very hard to dislike. It’s The Muppets, after all! And as much as Segel might’ve been hard to take at times (for a Muppets fanboy he came off a bit insincere and ego-driven to me), Amy Adams is still the loveliest screen presence in movies these days. She’s got ‘it’ (And has always reminded me of Prairie Dawn from “Sesame Street”. Am I alone in this?). Some of the film is downright hilarious, such as 80s Robot and his dispensing of TAB and New Coke, or the absolutely riotous version of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” clucked by an all-chick (literally) group that made me happier than just about anything else this month. They sounded just like him! (And because they were just clucking, who knows which version of the song they were performing?- Subversive humour isn’t an unknown entity to the Muppets) Hell, a walk-on by the one and only Mickey Rooney is enough to make you grin from ear to ear. Who doesn’t smile when they see The Mick these days? (Especially in a film where the plot involves saving the studio by putting on a show!) And whilst I might not encourage Chris Cooper to ever work with The Muppets again (ever!), there’s fun work by the exquisite Emily Blunt (another actress who has ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is), Rashida Jones, and a brilliant cameo by the one and only James Carville. Blunt’s role, in particular, is an amusing in-joke for anyone paying attention. Jones’s role, meanwhile, is important in getting across the idea that The Muppets might not be a right fit for our more cynical society today, in a film that is otherwise just as jocular and sunny as any other incarnation of The Muppets (Cooper doesn’t count, his villain is a buffoon). I’m still chuckling right now about the notion of Sam the Eagle as a Fox-like political news contributor. You always knew it was in the cards. And although “Man or Muppet” is one of the most undeserving Oscar-winning songs of all-time, it seemed kinda fitting to me for Jim Parsons to play the human representation of a Muppet (Irrelevant aside: Anyone else think Geraldo Rivera looks like a Muppet, by the way? No, he’s not in this, but he should be).

I also appreciated that, for perhaps the first-time ever, Miss Piggy was softened to the point of being generally pretty likeable. I usually find her funny, but frankly not terribly endearing and I don’t think the film (a nostalgic, feelgood one) needed her at her most Diva-esque. Oh, and Fozzy’s fart shoes are funny. They just are (Fozzy Moopet’s one line is even funnier, though. I think it’s the inappropriate voice the character is given). Whilst I wasn’t keen on the non-Muppet songs here, anytime the Muppets performed a song, the film was a joy to behold. In addition to the hilarious Cee-Lo cover, there’s also an amusing version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” done in barbershop quartet-style by Rowlf, Sam the Eagle, and most hilariously of all, Beaker. Meanwhile, anyone not smiling from ear to ear and bopping along to the theme from “The Muppet Show” just doesn’t know what fun is. Most affecting of all, however, is a trip down memory lane as Kermit (and, perhaps regrettably Miss Piggy too) performs the classic “Rainbow Connection”.That was the point at which this movie had truly won me over, warts and all. I’m sorry, but if that song doesn’t make you happy and sad all at once, you simply have no heart or soul. That’s just a magical, timeless song (I was also touched by a familiar shape formed out of fireworks at the end of the film, but Muppet purists might be angered by that shameless bit of cross-promotion. It’s your loss, though, it’s a cute moment).

This isn’t the best Muppet movie out there (and occasionally has a different feel to it), but it’s the best one since “Muppet Christmas Carol”,and whilst uneven and a little sloppy, the film is still frequently funny and the title characters’ charm ultimately won me over. A good Muppet movie proves ultimately to be more enjoyable than a lot of non-Muppet movies. They never really left my consciousness, but I hope they continue to appear in movies for generations to come.

Rating: B-