Ren’s Reviews

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.

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.

Home is Where the Hobbit Is…

Prior to seeing The Hobbit earlier this week, I had just finished re-watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy in anticipation for the prequel. And for anyone that may have had the (mis)fortune of reading this blog, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a big LOTR fan. The Fellowship of the Ring came out during my freshman year of high school, so the movies were a part of some pivotal developmental years, which I would ultimately like to think was for the better. I saw each film at least five times in the theater. I went to the midnight showings. I fell in love with all of the characters. Especially Aragorn.

Needless to say, I was pumped to see the movie, because I have to admit that the previews alone weren’t getting me as excited as I would have wished, and after starting to re-read The Hobbit, I was suddenly reminded why I love LOTR so much more – there’s only one prominent dwarf character in the trilogy. That may seem a bit harsh, but I just don’t find the dwarves all that compelling. And they’re just too darn hard to keep track of.

Now, I did have a few problems with the movie. Again, not only were there thirteen dwarves, but their looks were inconsistent. Maybe this has to do with each individual storyline as to why some of them had elaborate braids and long hair, and others…looked like men. My theory on the latter is that LOTR had eye candy. And let’s be honest here, dwarves aren’t your typical eye candy. So, Peter Jackson & Co. decided to throw in some handsome lads. Not that Martin Freeman isn’t a handsome lad – but when you transform The Office’s Tim into Bilbo Baggins he loses a certain allure. Another problem I had was with the execution of the main orc villain and how cartoony he looked. And his scenes were far too long.

However, I highly enjoyed the film, mostly because it brought me back into a fantasy world that I adore and it was fun to see familiar faces (and landscapes) again and being in on the inside jokes and references to LOTR. Of course, the absolute highlight of the film, and this is no spoiler, is the scene when Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time. I only wish this scene, of all scenes, would have been twice as long as all the others. But the scene was electric. Even though some audience members of the theater I was in were chuckling here and there in prior scenes, the introduction of Gollum made the entire audience come alive. People were laughing. I could feel the energy in the room, and the audience was eating it up and loving it – this was the moment people were waiting for. And the movie became a better movie from that point on.

There were also some moments that made me very emotional. In light of recent real events, I couldn’t help but tear up when Gandalf mentioned that the small things, the little acts of courage and thoughtfulness that Bilbo exudes, gives him hope in a world that can be so full of darkness and fear. And even though Bilbo loves the comforts of his home, his hearth, and has spent his entire life living inside of a hole in the ground, in the end he doesn’t let his own fears, and even complacency, get in the way from letting others have the very same right of having a place to call home. That said, I think we can all learn a great deal from this hairy-footed halfing.

What I’m Thankful For…

The recent holiday not only made me reflect on the things I’m thankful for (family, friends, my health, blah blah blah)…but two trips to the cinema made me especially thankful that is finally movie awards season once again. I was absolutely smitten by Silver Linings Playbook and LincolnSLP is pretty much The Fighter, minus all the boxing. So in other words, all the good parts about The Fighter (Not a coincidence – both are directed by David O. Russell). It focuses on a dysfunctional New England family, with Bradley Cooper leading the story as a guy having a bit of a mental breakdown following the dissolution of his marriage. Things get more complicated when Jennifer Lawrence enters the picture as a young troubled widow. They have great chemistry and the story, albeit predictable at moments, carries an overall light-hearted weight in the midst of some heavy subjects. Robert De Niro also impresses as the superstitious patriarch and the film manages to balance drama and comedy in an effective way. There’s even a great small role with Christ Tucker, and an even shorter appearance of Julia Stiles, that I loved. Most of all, I was really impressed and relieved by Bradley Cooper’s performance. I’ve been a fan of his since he played the near-perfect man Will Tippin on Alias, but have been disappointed by his continuous streak of playing d-bags (i.e. Wedding Crashers, The Hangover movies, He’s Just Not That Into You, etc.), so I’m glad to see him playing a more nuanced character here, and someone that we can actually root for. This might have made me more excited for the film, but I’m really hoping it makes the Academy’s list for Best Picture.

To continue that sentiment, I’m hoping the same for Lincoln. I feel like there’s been a slight digression of conversation about the film recently and I’m not sure why (is Life of Pi really that great?!). There was a part of me prior to seeing Lincoln that was worried it might feel too long, or worse, that I might get bored. But, I earned a bachelor’s degree in history, so the history nerd in me brushed up on some textbook readings on the era over Thanksgiving. By the time I walked into the theater, I was pumped. And it didn’t feel like it was two and a half hours. Nor was I ever bored. Not once. Instead, I was pulled in by this unique film, with its unusual rhythm, and by its honesty. I wasn’t sure how much of a biopic it was going to be – were we going to see Honest Abe’s youth in Kentucky, his famous debates with Douglas, or deviate into the aftermath of his assassination? But screenwriter Tony Kushner cleverly set the film in the weeks leading to the vote on the 13th Amendment and thus the end of the war. This made it a much more politically fueled and dramatic. Interestingly, the story used Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Thaddeus Stevens, a radical democrat, to better reflect our feelings towards slavery from a modern context, which I admired to an extent, but can also see from a storytelling perspective that the film needed him to be on the right side of history. Lincoln was against slavery, but more so politically in that it was a site of contention for the country. Stevens was seen as a radical then for actually believing that ALL men, women, and children are equal. We needed a character like Stevens to represent our views since Lincoln, although a reasonable and shrewd man, didn’t believe in equality with the same gusto that we might like to think he did. But I’m glad for this, for the film doesn’t shy away from making Lincoln more human, a man who manipulates words to his advantage and loves to tell a good story, and taking him off the pedestal that history has put him. Of course, without a doubt, Daniel Day-Lewis will and should win that Oscar. I was so enthralled by simply watching him. Same goes for Tommy Lee Jones, who had some lovely, emotional moments. Sally Fields was terrific too, and my man Jo Go-Lev was also superb. I was surprised and entertained by the many many familiar faces that kept popping up that I did not know were in the film – James Spader as a man named Bilbo? That one guy from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Independent movie superstar John Hawkes? That hot guy from Pushing Daisies? Adam from Girls as a Morse code specialist?? And Jared Harris of Mad Men as Ulysses S. Grant?!?! Mind blown.

Thank you, movies, for forever entertaining and surprising me.

Love,

Ren

Thrown for a Loop

Just got back from seeing Looper and my mind’s in a twist. There’s a great line in the film, from Bruce Willis’ character, Joe (well, also Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character too…ugh, see what I mean?), where he tells his younger self (you still with me?) to not dwell on the details of time travel. Well, I wish that were easier said than done. Now, there’s no easy way to fully understand the rules of time travel (I mean, we can’t since it doesn’t exist…yet), but the film certainly got me thinking, which is the first sign this flick is great, regardless of whether I can conquer the complexities and incongruities of time travel theory.

For every mindless movie that I see (and enjoy), the more I love to counteract that by watching what Netflix deems “cerebrial mind-bending inspiring revenge dramas,” or something along those lines. Actually, Looper falls into all those categories. Once you accept the “rules” of this alt-universe, the film ultimately gets to the bottom of how our lives are affected by choices. If only we could see into the future to see how our actions towards others, and ourselves, will affect our world, then maybe we would do things differently.

Of course, the reality is that we often don’t, if ever, live life with the perspective of hindsight. Thus, bad things happen. Sometimes as a result of a series of choices made by us, and sometimes by other variables that are out of our control, but are of course the result of someone else’s choices. Creating an endless loop. (See what I did there?) The film, directed by Rian Johnson (Director of Brick and the infamous Breaking Bad episode, “Fly”), executes these themes with aplomb through the mesmerizing performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, and an understated Bruce Willis, who also has some great moments with gunfire. JGL is mindbendingly brilliant as a younger Bruce. Watching him before his elder self appears on screen, his impersonation, with help from a few facial prosthetics, was otherwise impeccable, from his posture and voice, to his snarky subtlety. In fact, once the Willis appeared, I think JGL out-Bruced Bruce. How is that possible, you ask? Only the future will tell.

Your Fourth of July Movie Guide to Fun and Freedom: Let’s Go America All Over Everybody’s Ass

My guide of great summer movies to make your Fourth of July super special, and super patriotic. Because that’s how we Americans do.

The Sandlot

This is a quintessential film in my personal film library and of my childhood. It’s nostalgic to the core, and makes you feel like you had inadequate summers, unless you’re in the moment of watching it – then you feel like you’re one of the boys. Even if you’re a girl. There are just too many wonderful moments – the drowning fake-out, the dog chase through the 4th of July block party, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!,” the Beast, and so on. It still holds up every time, and now makes me wonder whatever happened to Patrick Renna, who seemed to be in every movie in 1993.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Will Ferrell is a Great American Hero (of Comedy). This isn’t my personal favorite movie of Ferrell’s, but it does contain some truly American themes: NASCAR, disillusionment, ignorance, rednecks. Those elements may not be mutually exclusive, but I do think, when you really look at it closely, the movie has got a much deeper commentary of America’s darker aspects of society. It speaks truth. Just look at the video of Walker and Texas Ranger below for evidence (jump to 5:01 for the kicker). And for the faithful Americans out there, it’s got a whole lotta Baby Jesus.

Jaws

Nothing says summer like the beach…and lots of bloodshed. Is it weird that Jaws makes me want to patrol the beaches and buy a boat? I guess that’s what a Spielberg film does to you…makes you believe you can do things that realistically you cannot – aka The American Dream! No, but really, Jaws is a masterpiece, a near-perfect orchestration of cinematography, suspense, and that freakin’ musical score. Thank you, John Williams – the great American maestro.

American Graffiti

Another trip down memory lane a la the 1960s, this is one of my all-time favorite films. Like The Sandlot, it makes you wish you had a summer night like the one here. For anyone that appreciates oldies, this is a soundtrack to live for – a compilation of fun gems. And it’s Harrison Ford’s first movie role, and George Lucas’ second feature film. So really, this film embodies the American Dream in nascent form. It also personifies the budding car culture and competitiveness that is innate to our society.

To Kill a Mockingbird

On a more serious note, To Kill a Mockingbird is not only the ultimate tearjerker, but this American classic is made of integrity. Another story about summers of childhood, its core is Atticus Finch, as he tries to do good and serve justice in an unjust world. It’s a reminder of an ugly history, but also a reminder that people are capable of acts of kindness and truth.

Independence Day

Ah the disaster movie. There’s nothing America loves more than reveling in the impending doom of a catastrophic meteor shower or alien invasion and consequently enjoying the accompanied kicking of ass that is sure to follow. I genuinely love this movie. It’s one of those movies I always find myself stopping to watch if I come across it channel surfing. It’s ridiculous, yes. But it has heart, patriotism, and it’s funny. Like, really funny. It’s even scary – yes, the part with the alien dissection gone horribly wrong – but the scariest part? When that dog almost gets engulfed in flames in the tunnel. It’s just too much! The cast is also great. It’s Bill Pullman’s second finest performance (behind Spaceballs, of course).  And that shot at the end when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum appear from within the smoke after destroying the alien motherload, strutting and smoking cigars like two badass mofo’s in the desert, it just makes you wanna say, “America…fuck yeah!”

Happy Fourth! Rock, Flag and Eagle!

My Week in Movies

Over the course of the last week I managed to see four films in the cinema and one outdoor screening of an 80s classic. And I also managed to lose a considerable amount of dough. But that’s ok, because I was only dissatisfied with one of the five films, and I’m guessing you’ll be surprised at which one.

First Stop: ROCK OF AGES

For me, this was a silly but ultimately entertaining romp. The irony is that this is the furthest thing from being rock ‘n’ roll – it’s musical pop to the extreme. In fact, watching the film made me think how the story would be more fun on stage…too bad I just missed my opportunity to see it in London. The two leads, Julianne Hough and  Diego Boneta, are pretty to look at, but it’s mostly the awkward and campy performances of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand and the anti-archetypical role of Tom Cruise that lure you into this strange bubble of rock in 1987 Los Angeles. And then Mary J. Blige pops up. Randomly. It’s no Singin’ in the Rain or Chicago, but I did enjoy some of the mash-ups of songs and it made me buy some classic 80s big hair rock songs on iTunes afterwards. So I guess the long con of the aging rockers worked. But I’m okay with that.

Second Stop: BRAVE

Sighhhh. All I can really say that this was a disappointment. I would have said it was a huge disappointment, but I can’t honestly say that it looked that appealing in the first place, certainly not as much as all the other Pixar films (with the exception of Cars 2). And that’s the problem. Once you attach Pixar to a film, you expect a certain quality, a certain flare, a certain je ne sais quoi. To me, with Brave being a princess story, it felt like a conventional Disney animated movie, even though, yes, it’s ‘unconventional’ in some ways. And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy (or did enjoy) all those Disney ‘princess movies’…I love them. But they feel more appropriate for the times they were made, and I understand that Brave is trying to be different, but the overall storyline felt like a copout since it was simply a weird story about a curse gone wrong. Plus, as was discussed with friends after seeing it, we all agreed that there was no clear antagonist and no real comic relief (two consistent features of Pixar films). Ultimately, I never connected with the characters and felt bored. I’m guessing that the multiple directors of the film have some reason to do with the underdeveloped story. I did, however, enjoy the opening short, La Luna. I’m hoping next year’s Monsters Inc. University will be a redeeming sequel after the last two misadventures.

Third Stop: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Well, I can safely guarantee that this was my favorite of the films seen this week, and possibly my favorite of the year so far. Firstly, it stars Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson from Parks & Recreation and New Girl, respectively, which in my opinion are two of the best comedies on TV right now. So it’s already got that going for it.  More importantly, this indie film is so understated, yet it involves time travel. What more do I need to say? It’s sweet, melancholic, and is about people finding their niche. Sounds cheesy, but it succeeds through its quiet and honest nature and its subtle humor. Check it out:

Fourth Stop: TOP GUN

This wasn’t Tom Cruise’s week. But it was a week of Tom Cruise for me. A local boutique hotel held a ‘dive-in’ screening of Top Gun by their pool, just in time for a patriotic showing before the holiday. This is a fun one to watch with a crowd – a crowd that is drinking, that is! I mean, there are so many iconic moments in this film, and at every one of them people cheered and/or sang along. The Danger Zone. Singing in the bar. Tighty whities. The need for speed. Volleyball in ill-fitted jeans. Taking people’s breath away. The list goes on…

Last Stop: MAGIC MIKE

Yes, I saw Magic Mike and I’m not ashamed. Some people were not fans, but I enjoyed it…and not only for the reasons you may think. Yes, there’s plenty of eye-candy onscreen, but at the end of the day it was an interesting film directed by Steven Soderbergh. I had completely forgotten that fact until his name came up on the credits at the end, and then it made perfect sense how he chose to construct the film. I immediately realized how similar in tone and aesthetics this was to his Erin Brockovich, and even somewhat similar in plot. There still could have been much more character development (for instance, why did we never actually see Mike making his custom furniture that he raved on about?) and the film does drag on in the second hour. I feel like some people were disappointed with the movie since it ended up being different than what they were wanting (aka a lighthearted stripper movie with minimal clothing…aka The Full Monty, but this time with a hottie, aka Channing Tatum). The movie certainly delivered the minimal clothing part, but was a lot darker than advertised. I think that made it a better story and it juxtaposed the fun atmosphere of the onstage performances with the seedy backstage reality. At the end of the day, we reconfirmed that Tatum has got some serious dance chops (Acting chops? Still up for grabs) and we were all disturbed by Matthew McConaughey’s tasselled thong.