Month: March 2014

Ren’s Reviews: Muppets Most Wanted

 

For me, the Muppets encapsulate my childhood, teenagehood, and yes, even adulthood. I don’t think I’ll ever not love what the Muppets are all about. They’re about friendship, about laughter, about believing in yourself and others – so much so that you’re willing to be blown out of a canon, be thrown out of an airplane while stuck in a crate, or ride a bike while standing on one frog foot. I grew up watching the many stages of the Muppets – from the original movies, videotapes of 80s-era TV Christmas specials (I still watch A Muppet Family Christmas every year without fail), the ever-so-adorable Muppet Babies, to the 90s-era Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol, to the more forgettable and awkward Muppets Tonight (on TGIF!) and their take on Oz starring huge sensation Ashanti (remember her?), and finally to 2011’s fun ‘comeback’ in The Muppets. Some reincarnations are better than others, but the recent two films, including the newly released Muppets Most Wanted, take me back to the original vision created by Jim Henson so many decades ago.

Muppets Most Wanted provides another caper-themed story, but unlike 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, Ricky Gervais’ Dominic Badguy is pulling a fast one on Kermit and Co. The story follows the felt gang (via train because why not) as they go on a world tour after their success during their previous movie venture (The Muppets) and quickly poke fun at the zeitgeist of today’s sequel obsession. The movie takes us to Germany, Spain, Ireland, England, and lastly Russia where Kermit has been sent to the gulag in a case of mistaken identity with the world’s most dangerous and wanted frog, Constantine. For any Muppet aficionado, this plotline may feel reminiscent of The Muppets Take Manhattan when Kermit suffers from amnesia while the rest of the group tries to make him come to his senses.

Overall, the film successfully delivers charm, wit, and slapstick humor at once. It also delivers some great toe-tapping tunes. And if you know anything about the film, you’ll recognize song composer Bret McKenzie’s presence immediately, as many of the songs feel very Flight of the Conchords-y. My personal favorite, and the one that made me laugh the most, was the Constantine-led “I’ll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu),” sung to a skeptical Miss Piggy, which felt similar to Conchords’ disco-inspired “Something Special for the Ladies.” To make it more obvious, and awesome, Jemaine Clement makes an amusing cameo as a Russian prison inmate.

I also appreciated the European cultural and social references, even if teetering on the edge of being overly stereotypical. However, instead of these being a slight to a European way of life, such as Ty Burrell’s Frenchman immediately going on an eight-week paid vacation the moment his job was done, I felt that the movie was actually, albeit subtly, critiquing aspects of American culture (after all, director and co-writer James Bobin is English). Speaking of Ty Burrell, I found his Interpol officer, alongside CIA agent Sam the Eagle, incredibly entertaining and nuanced.

If you are even the slightest fan of the Muppets, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy this film. The movie did, however, remind me of the strange limbo that is the Muppet audience. Is this a film targeted for children? Or is it strictly for adults? The list of celebrity cameos would definitely make it seem the latter. I personally enjoyed the cameos, but I’m fairly certain that most kids don’t know who Tony Bennett, Danny Trejo, Christoph Waltz, or even Celine Dion are. Heck, do they even know Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, or Ty Burrell, the three main human stars of the film? With the exception of the Muppet Babies cartoon, I think the Muppets tend to target the adult demographic (without ever being too adult), yet their marketing strategies may point to other target demographics. I feel this is probably why the past Muppet efforts sometimes fall flat at the box office, proving that not only is it not easy being green, it’s also not easy making green. But I have no doubt that future film and television endeavors from the Muppets and the Jim Henson Company won’t continue to deliver the same charm, the same idiosyncratic musings on our cultures, and the same warm and fuzzy memories – literally and figuratively.

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Ren’s Reviews: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Disclaimer: Okay, so I’m a big fan of ‘going to the movies.’ I love almost everything about the experience. That being said, I also am easily annoyed by the lack of movie theater etiquette. If you pull your phone out to check the time, text, or god forbid to answer a phone call, I will give you the stink-eye. During the screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel there was a woman directly behind me laughing really, really loudly. I know, I shouldn’t judge how someone emotionally reacts to a movie, but it was more of an annoyance because I felt she was laughing at things that weren’t funny (case in point, laughing when other people weren’t). It was constant laughing and whispering to her friend, pointing out things like, hey that’s Bill Murray! and such. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. And whenever she let out a huge guffaw I felt her breath on the back of my neck since she was sitting up on the edge of her seat. I know this because I unapologetically gave her the stink-eye, yet to no avail.

I will admit that I am not an obsessive Wes Anderson fan. With the exception of never having seen Moonrise Kingdom or Fantastic Mr. Fox, I am pretty certain that I have seen all of his other feature films only once. Rushmore maybe twice. I find his films enjoyable and always offering something different – both in his form of storytelling and the overall look. His films look like how I remember all my favorite children’s books, particularly picture books, as they are made up of a series of beautifully composed and colorful tableaus. His love of looking at characters and scenes at direct angles, either straight-on or at a 90 degree angle, is something unique and not often seen. He also loves the use of whip pans, when instead of making use of an edit the camera instead quickly moves from one object to the next. All of these elements, while sometimes fun and quirky, have grown tiresome for me. Although it’s pretty obvious that these techniques are trademarks of Anderson’s filmmaking, I never really thought about it too much, which may be because I haven’t re-watched most of his films. Before seeing the film, a former film-student friend of mine discussed his frustration of these tropes. So when I got around to seeing the film it stood out to me even more. I don’t think that a director having a consistent style in one’s films is necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel I found its overuse distracting and substituting technique for substance. In that vein, I wasn’t very compelled by the film’s plot. There were times of great whimsy mixed with really dark, disturbing moments, which made the tone of the film feel inconsistent. Most of all, I never felt connected to any of the characters – in many ways Anderson’s characters come off as one-noted, even though they resemble caricatures. I personally enjoy stories that get inside the heads of the characters on screen, so this is not necessarily a slight to Anderson.

I did enjoy some elements of the film, especially Ralph Fiennes. It was a nice surprise to see him play a foul-mouthed, fast-talking concierge used to the highest standards of hotel management and lady’s nail varnish. I also liked Zero, the concierge in training, and his relationship with Fiennes’ Gustave. They were certainly charming moments that reveled in the hyperrealism of a bygone Europe, not to mention a fictional country with a fictional war. But overall, I couldn’t help but feel fatigued by Anderson’s tropes. I appreciate that he does something different from many other filmmakers, but I would also appreciate it if he would surprise us all by doing something completely unexpected next time around. And that may start by simply making a film with zero whip pans.