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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
"The Wolf of Wall Street" Smiles, But Shows No Teeth
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is tremendously entertaining. When watching this movie in a theater, and you resist using the bathroom even after imbibing a medium Cherry Coke, you know it is the sign of exceptional storytelling.
This movie's narrative structure is similar to "Goodfellas" (1990) and "Boogie Nights" (1997) in that the first half of the film is fun to watch as you witness the rise of the antihero protagonist and the supporting players. Especially if you greatly dislike the protagonist and resent his rise to power, if the second half is hard to watch, you know you are seeing something good.
However, although the story arc is similar, it's not quite as great as the aforementioned films. Granted you witness great acting from almost everyone involved, and eye-opening moments.
Unfortunately, the movie never got past the excesses and to the true consequences of the protagonist's actions. Even then, the movie seemed to be mostly preoccupied with the high lives these stock-brokers were living, and virtually ignored the lives they ruined on their way to the top.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, an ambitious man who takes a job as a stockbroker on Wall Street. Unfortunately, despite having a dynamic mentor (played by a superb, scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey), it is 1987, and the stock market takes a plunge that puts him of work.
Soon afterwords, he takes a modest job in a boiler room selling penny stocks. It turns out that Belfort is not just good at selling these worthless intangibles: he's great at it.
Eventually, he starts his own company with shady children's furniture salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and other compatriots from the boiler room, where they employ the pump and dump scam to their advantage. When they amass enough money, they begin to give their firm a respectable name, Stratton Oakmont, and make money hand over fist using the same marauding techniques, only on a larger scale.
I'll be the first to admit that stock trading and the tribulations of Wall Street are very foreign to me. If I see a movie like "Wall Street", I don't know what the numbers scrolling across the NYSE mean. I could only rely on the faces of Michael Douglass or Charlie Sheen to know if the overall news was good or not.
To the film's credit, I could understand how Stratton Oakmont amassed their wealth. I can also understand the illegality of their trade, and I'm certain that most audience members with no Wall Street familiarity will not be lost.
Even if one hates these people for their avarice, and the immoral and reprehensible lives that they lead as a result of their accumulated fortune, one cannot deny how entertaining it is to watch these shenanigans. Their charades may not be appealing, especially when the Securities and Exchange Commission begins to take note of their activities, but they are still engrossing.
However, the party lasts a little too long at a running time of 180 minutes. This movie could have easily been cut back 40 minutes by taking out a party scene or two. Another scene where Belfort meets with corrupt Swiss banker Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) could also have been shortened significantly.
Plus, with these people living so high off their riches, it is impossible to believe that no one got hurt financially in the process. Belfort lived the high life (both figuratively because of his wealth, and literally because of his excessive drug use), but there had to have been lives that were ruined because of his schemes.
Still, as far as acting goes, DiCaprio himself owns this film, and it definitely is among his best performances. His breaking the fourth wall is done enough so that it is not redundant, and his motivational speeches to his firm members are incredibly over-the-top, but appropriately so given his character.
Jonah Hill was decent as Belfort's right hand man, although his performance sometimes became a little too comically inappropriate, as if he was playing the fat guy who falls on his face the same way he has done in lesser comedies (excluding "Superbad" (2007) and "21 Jump Street"). However, the scene where he nearly chokes to death when high on Quaalude was scary for me to watch.
That same scene, where Belfort is also dramatically debilitated from the same kind of Quaalude, received some laughs from the audience in my theater, but I didn't find the scene funny at all. It was one of the most memorable drug scenes I've seen in a mainstream movie, but like Uma Thurman's heroin overdose moment in "Pulp Fiction" (1994), and Julianne Moore's hyper, heartbreaking, high-on-cocaine "too many things" scene in "Boogie Nights" (1997), it made me never want to try drugs.
On top of stand-out performances by Margot Robbie as Belfort's trophy wife, Rob Reiner as Belfort's profane and no-nonsense father, and McConaughey's brief but memorable role, the ensemble cast succeeded for the most part in making greed look ugly. When the firm hits their chests and chant an innocuous but catchy quasi-tribal tune, they make true fools out of themselves, but are too busy conforming to care.
While "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a memorable movie, it doesn't quite reach the emotional depths of director Martin Scorsese's previous movies like "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas". In the latter film, when Henry Hill's life takes a turn for the worst, you can feel him crash and burn.
Here, Jordan Belfort eventually falls, but appears to hit a bed of roses. He story ends with consequences, but he just ends up not as wealthy as he used to be.
This movie leaves with the implication that Belfort lived his high life so well that the tab he had to pay wasn't all that steep. Somebody had to pay the rest of that bill, and probably did, but you wouldn't know it from seeing it here.
Confessions of a Porn Addict (2008)
If You Know It's A Mockumentary, You Might Enjoy It
So, "Confessions of a Porn Addict" is not a real documentary. I mention that fact in the beginning of this review because I didn't know that fact while I was watching it. It was only when I looked the film up later that its intent as a mockumentary came to my attention.
Did not knowing it was a mockumentary ruin my enjoyment of the film? Well, movies about people who struggle with addiction, particularly an addiction as complicated as sex addiction, are not entertaining to begin with. They can be fascinating, but definitely not enjoyable to watch.
For instance, Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" (2002) was a good film that started out as kind of fun, only to gradually decline in mood into a grim portrayal of a bleak and sad life that catches up to the protagonist. The film has no shortage of nudity, but a huge shortage of eroticism and excitement.
Simply put, there's nothing inherently funny about sex addiction. Its status as an actual addiction is the subject of hot debate within psychology circles, but those who succumb to it lead truly sad lives.
So if sex addiction is not funny, why make a mockumentary about it? Why make a film about a guy who spends most of his time in his apartment masturbating to hardcore porn to the point where he loses his girlfriend, his job, and a chance at a normal productive life, and pass it off as a comedy? What's the point?
I have read defenders of this film label this movie as "deadpan", and "of an acquired taste", which may be what the filmmakers intended. However, to me, this film was equivalent to a friend of mine telling me that he has cancer, and then telling me he was just kidding three days later.
If an actual friend told me this outright lie, I wouldn't laugh, nor would I be particularly offended. If anything, I would wonder what the point of lying to me was.
I watch these events unfold on the screen, and the last thing I want to do is laugh. I see Mark Tobias (Spencer Rice) going through stacks of porno DVDs and magazines, and want him to get help and declutter his apartment.
I see Mark go to a support group by the urging of his friends who are filming this documentary, and, after the group director suggests Mark literally lock his penis up in a cage and throw away the key, I want him to join another group. This bizarre solution to Mark's curbing his masturbation habit flies right in the face of the group's serenity prayer, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The group director's apparent not knowing the difference is ironic, but not funny.
I also see Mark's ex-girlfriend, Felice (Lindsey Connell), actually move to Los Angeles to star in pornographic films, presumably to spite Mark, and I think to myself, "Hey, that is one of those scenarios where truth is stranger than fiction". But in the end, it's not funny.
"Confessions of a Sex Addict" would have made an engrossing documentary if it were real. Showing someone's struggle to overcome an addiction more rooted in selfishness and self-indulgence than other addictions would not only have made a captivating, albeit grim, subject, and it could have been a tool to help others struggling with similar demons.
Instead, its mockumentary style and execution felt simultaneously inappropriate, inert, flaccid, and most of all, pointless. There's nothing wrong with making fun of a taboo subject, but it helps when the filmmakers actually know how to make it funny.
If You're Not Too Attached to Disney's "Sleeping Beauty", You'll Love "Maleficent"
Maleficent has always been my favorite Disney villain, which is even more ironic because "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) is one of my least favorite Disney animated films. Sure "Sleeping Beauty" was superbly animated, but I doubt I'm the only man who, while watching it on video as a boy, willingly fast-forwarded through the song "Once Upon A Dream".
The witch Maleficent made "Sleeping Beauty" worth watching for anyone with any hint of a rebellious streak. While the good characters went through the motions, Maleficent seemed to be the only character who actually had fun in her role.
That's why, when I heard Disney was making an animated film about the origins of that delightful, Gothic sorceress, and it was going to be live action, I was excited. I also can't think of any actress better suited to play Maleficent than Angelina Jolie.
Jolie portrays Maleficent in a cool, calculated way that is a lot of fun to watch. When Jolie plays bad, she plays it very well, as evidenced from her Oscar-winning supporting role in "Girl, Interrupted" (1999), and a few other roles.
While Jolie seldom disappoints in her role, and the impressive set design makes the film unspeakably exquisite, the story, while an original take on the Sleeping Beauty story, may disappoint some Disney purists. The Maleficent origin exposition is indeed a welcome, and surprising, addition to the story. The artistic liberties screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes with the "good guys" might take some Disney fans out of the movie.
I admit that going into the film, I expected "Maleficent" to follow Disney's adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty" a little more closely. Specifically, I presumed that the movie would approach Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" the same way the novel "Grendel" by John Gardner told the tale of Beowulf through the perspective of the antagonist.
In "Grendel", Gardner didn't change the story of Beowulf as it was told in the eponymous, Anglo-Saxon epic poem. The Grendel creature was granted good intentions in that story, but it didn't change the way the humans in the story reacted to him, and his ultimate death.
In "Maleficent", the original Disney story, and perhaps every other "Sleeping Beauty" adaptation, is changed significantly to make Maleficent less ruthless toward the princess Aurora, which may not be a welcome change for some. In the Disney animated movie, Maleficent places a curse on Aurora intending for her to die. In this movie, her words are changed significantly, almost giving Aurora a pass that feels too convenient.
Like in the 1959 cartoon, upon being placed under this curse, Aurora's king father sends her to live in the cabin with three magical fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple). They wear the same colors as their hand-drawn animated predecessors, but are far more comically inept. Perhaps too inept sometimes, as their fighting with one another feels as annoying as certain children throwing tantrums in stores.
Plus, Jolie's Maleficent knows where Aurora is raised by Day 1. Although it creates some amusing scenes (such as one where Maleficent makes it rain in the cabin), it may prompt a viewer to ask, "Why doesn't she just kill the kid if she's so close?" Disney purists who took comic relief from Aurora's father in the original Disney movie may be sorely disappointed by the turn of the king here who, in this movie, is named Stefan (Sharlto Copely, best known for "District 9" (2009)). I actually liked the back story where it's revealed that Stefan, before he was king, had a relationship with young Maleficent (played here captivatingly by Isobelle Molloy).
There's an intriguing love story between the two characters, but the fault lies in young Stefan growing apart from Maleficent. It's not bad (story-wise) that the growing apart happens, but rather that it is told by way of a narrator (Janet McTeer), not shown as needed to be.
Plus, the way in which Stefan, before he is king, lies to a dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) that he killed the sorceress in order to obtain the throne is far too similar to "Beowulf" (2007). Because Ray Winstone's eponymous protagonist also claimed to kill a beast who happened to be played by the same actress, I would not be surprised if either director Robert Zemeckis or screenwriters Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary sued for copyright infringement.
With all that said about the story, I can't say I was disappointed with the movie, or at least not the same way I was with Tim Burton's "Alice In Wonderland" (2010). Both had superb visual effects, were based on Disney animated classics, and were actually written by the same screenwriter.
Whereas "Alice In Wonderland" told a story that bore no resemblance to any of Lewis Carroll's stories despite having all the same characters, "Maleficent" at least got the general structure of "Sleeping Beauty" right. If he were alive today, Uncle Walt might not approve of the changes in the story and characters, but he would love what Jolie did with Maleficent, and would marvel at the set and character design.
The Walt Disney Company's enormously popular Disney Princess franchise has given them a solid footing in the girl's market. Making a film like "Maleficent", in spite of the title character being female, appears to be a far more sensible way to appeal to boys than merely coughing up money to buy other boy-approved franchises (i.e. Marvel comics, Star Wars).
Disney already wrote their checks, but developing and rebooting their darker characters is something they should keep doing. If "Maleficent" is financially successful, they could make some amazing films based on other villains that would make boys flock to theaters. I wouldn't be against seeing an Ursula movie, or one about Gaston, and that's just for starters.
Curly Sue (1991)
An Adorable Leading Lady In A Tentative Story
"Curly Sue" has the distinction of being John Hughes's last directorial effort. After an impressive catalog of modern-day classics with him at the director's chair, beginning with "Sixteen Candles" (1984) and ending (before this movie) with "Uncle Buck" (1989) and not one bad movie within that list, Hughes didn't quite make his winning streak complete with this film.
It's not that "Curly Sue" is a bad film. It isn't at all, actually. It's just a film with a noticeable identity crisis, and it's either that fact or its poor home video distribution over the years that has prevented it from being considered one of the quintessential John Hughes classics.
A movie about an precocious, cunning, homeless girl who hones her con-artist skills with the help of her deadbeat father invites itself to comedy. However, it seems as if Hughes focused more on the homeless aspect of Curly Sue, and the film felt more dramatic than it should have been.
That isn't so much the fault of the story as it is with the instrumental main title of the movie, composed by Groeges Delerue with an unforgettable leading clarinet solo. It's a beautiful piece, but one that gave the entire film a melancholy feeling right from the start that never felt quite fitting.
That is not to say I did not like the film, or that the film should have been a flat-out farce. It just did not have the same kind of balance of comedy and drama that the John Hughes-penned classic "Home Alone" (1990) had, and the previews for "Curly Sue" promised a comedy.
Fortunately, Alison Lohman was absolutely adorable as Curly Sue. Whether she was in rags or in skirts bought at Lord & Taylor, she exuded a charisma some adult actors take years to learn.
Lohman never utters a catchphrase, but she owned the movie. How she did not elevate to the same child star status as Macaulay Culkin is beyond me, although she fortunately did not end up like him either.
Jim Belushi, as Curly Sue's father, was pretty good, although I could not help but think that he was trying to emulate Bill Murray in this movie more so than any other he has done before and since. It is to his credit that he never attempted to play any of the kinds of characters his late older brother played, but he could have been more original here too.
I also enjoyed Kelly Lynch as Grey Ellison, a strong, independent attorney who ultimately gets conned into taking in Curly Sue and her father. Lynch plays a female protagonist refreshingly unlike many that populate romantic comedies, and its a character we rarely see in family movies even today.
I did take issue with the decisions Grey made with her career as the movie progressed and she grew more fond of Curly Sue. She started out with a lifestyle modern feminists could applaud, only to make an ultimate decision that one could say flies in feminists' faces.
There are some other areas in the movie where the main characters perform questionable actions, and the reactions of those around are equally improbable. One scene has Belushi's character repeatedly punching a rude maître d' in the face, only for the man to continue grovelling without even a blemish, or anyone else ever reacting to it.
There's another scene when Curly Sue explains how she got her nickname, which was not from her curly hair. It turns out another vagabond thought she looked like Curly from the Three Stooges, which doesn't make sense given how much hair Curly had. Plus, Curly's nickname was ironic, whereas Curly Sue's is fitting for obvious reasons.
The character of Curly Sue is not one for whom you are supposed to feel bad. She should be an iconic character about whom children, especially young girls, fantasize because of her freedom and her street smarts.
Unfortunately, the Delerue-composed theme music gave the film a more depressing tone from which it never recovered, not even during the funny parts. And when you feel bad for a girl based not on what she does on screen, but because of a piece of music that almost tells you how you should feel, who would want to look up to her?
The Other Woman (2014)
"The Other Woman" Needs To Just Dump The Guy Already
"The Other Woman" is a harmless film, but I think that's part of its problem. When a wife befriends her husband's well-intentioned and equally duped paramour, and teams up with her to exact revenge on him for philandering, it would help if the story had a little more bite to it.
The film has a few laughs, but its main problem lies in its consistent meandering around a solvable problem. The story inserts forced slapstick that has Leslie Mann & Cameron Diaz (mostly Mann) literally falling over themselves in a seemingly desperate attempt to add more time to this movie.
Anyone who has seen the preview for "The Other Woman" knows the story. Cameron Diaz is a lawyer who has the problems that every professional woman has in a Lifetime movie: she works too hard, she has a sassy secretary (Nikki Minaj) who tells her that to beleaguer that point for exposition's sake, and she's finally found the "perfect man" in Mark (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau).
After dating Mark for months, she decides to surprise him by arriving at his house in an outfit that will most definitely draw men to theaters. It comes as a surprise to no one that his wife Kate (Leslie Mann) answers the door, but I suppose you have to have something to get a plot like this going.
While the two points in the love triangle meeting isn't supposed to be a surprise except to these two women, there are supposed to be other spontaneous moments in the movie. Unfortunately, the movie lacks any truly unpredictable ones.
That problem is not entirely the fault of the screenwriter, relative newcomer Melissa Stack. I think the movie would have been a more refreshing surprise if the marketers had left the cheating man's third girlfriend, the voluptuous, too-good-to-be-true beach bunny Amber (Kate Upton), out of the advertising campaign entirely. I guess they thought Cameron Diaz wasn't enough of a reason to draw in male audience members, which makes me feel bad for her actually.
Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with Upton's acting in this movie. Granted she isn't given a lot to do, but she's believable enough when given dialogue.
As for Diaz, she can be funny, and has proved herself in other comedies ("There Something About Mary" (1998), "Being John Malkovich" (1999)) to be more than just a pin-up girl. I thought she tried too hard to be funny and edgy simultaneously in "Bad Teacher" (2011), but the $100 million that movie ultimately made may have proved me wrong.
Leslie Mann has more solid comedy credentials, as demonstrated in her husband Judd Apatow's films. In "The Other Woman", the scenes where she gets drunk with Diaz seem too desperate to echo her much more enlightened, and funnier, scene in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005).
It also seemed as if both Diaz & Mann were told by someone on the set, "When the laughs get low, run into something or just fall down." In 9 out of 10 scenes when either or both of them fell into something or out of somewhere, the sad trombone (wah wah waaaahhhh . . .) would have fit too conveniently.
However, the ways in which the three women exact revenge on Mark revealed the film's lack of originality. There are several ways, all of which audiences have seen in other movies, and most of which are brought up in one scene, and dropped in the next.
Seeing Mann put hair loss formula into her on-screen husband's shampoo bottle leads to one comic moment that is dropped entirely for the rest of the movie, like Daffy Duck getting shot in the face by Elmer Fudd. The difference between Daffy being fine in the next scene and Mark still having perfect hair is that "The Other Woman" is not a cartoon.
If you've seen "9 To 5" (1980), "She-Devil" (1990), "The First Wives Club" (1996), or even the remake of "The Longest Yard" (2005), you'll already know the methods of downfall these scorned women bring to Mark. The only difference is that in the previously-mentioned films, the methods were actually permanent.
The final climax that leads to Mark's downfall is one you knew was coming anyway. The story's meandering and stalling makes you wonder why Mann's character just doesn't go up to her husband and say, "I want a divorce".
It would help even more if Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau didn't make Mark such a bland character, making the audience neither feel the pain of his women's furies nor hate him for being a jerk. He just looks like a J. Crew model with the personality of the paper on which that model is printed.
If he was given a personality the same way Mann, Diaz, & Upton were, it would have been a better movie. It would have been a classic if these three likable women actually sat down and watched movies of similar formulas, then thought it better to exact their revenge in other ways.
"Transcendence" Raises More Questions Than It Answers
"Transcendence" is a very good looking film with an ensemble cast of terrific actors in it. It also has a great premise that can raise a multitude of philosophical questions, all of which would be intriguing if explored individually.
The problem with "Transcendence" is that it could have gone deeper into the concept of a human life form merging with technology, and what piece of humanity gets lost in the process. Instead, its story merely skims the surface of any possibility, and what's left is a surprisingly bland movie that could have been so much more.
The movie deals with artificial intelligence, as its main character, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), tells a lecture hall full of journalists and inquisitive minds about how he and his research team have created a computer that thinks for herself. One person in the audience asks argumentatively "Are you creating your own God?", to which Dr. Caster calmly replies, "Hasn't that been what humans have always done?"
This is where the movie is almost guaranteed to lose people. I never thought artificial intelligence had any theological intent. Computers were invented and advanced to make life easier, but I doubt any programmer (before or even today) had any intention of playing God.
The beginning of the film is also hard to follow because you mostly hear Johnny Depp talking, and you don't see what he and his team have created until after a member of an extremist vigilante group attempts to assassinate him. Because this is a movie, the audience needs to see what Dr. Caster has created, then welcome feedback (good, bad, or in the form of bullets) from other characters.
The movie gets interesting when you see the actual computer and hear her communicate with actual humans, like a fully-realized HAL-9000 ("2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)). Sure the computer is larger than the pre-Apple computers from the 1960's, but who cares? It talks to us!
The story becomes more intriguing when Dr. Caster becomes terminally ill from the bullet wound, and his grief-stricken wife and lab partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his memory and speech patterns into the super computer. After the real Dr. Caster dies, Evelyn soon discovers that her risky experiment worked, and that Will supposedly lives on in the computer.
As far as special effects go, it is very cool to see Johnny Depp get uploaded onto a screen. The special effects continue to perform wonders as Evelyn assists her computer husband in expanding near a God-forsaken, run down desert small town seemingly out of "The Last Picture Show" (1971).
You see this supercomputer gain more power through a vast network of satellite dishes posted through this desert. You see him practically perform miracle work on injured people, literally making lame men walk and blind men see.
The audience knows there is a catch to this messiah-like power when Dr. Caster is able to communicate with Evelyn not just through a computer screen, but through the people he has healed. It is even odder when it doesn't occur to Evelyn to run after hearing Johnny Depp's voice through another human being that is clearly not Johnny Depp.
Shortly after this scene, Dr. Caster's well-meaning collaborator Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) visits the desert facilities. When he discretely hands Evelyn a hand-written note that says "RUN FROM THIS PLACE", you wonder why that didn't occur to her earlier.
Some may see Depp's performance in this movie as monotone, which it is at least when he's one with the computer, but that's not the point. It could be scary to see him heal the sick, and potentially brain wash them, but it's not.
The lack of scares here comes not from Depp playing this role in autopilot, but instead directly from not knowing what this supercomputer is trying to do. It really isn't clear if the supercomputer is trying to take over the world, or even what he plans to do with it after he takes it over.
Plus, besides creepily taking over other people's minds, not to mention an entire town, it's not clear what evil, if any, he could potentially inflict on the world.
Another one of Dr. Caster's colleagues, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), was right to be suspicious about the computer's motives, and ultimately joins an extremist group led by Bree (Kate Mara). The group's motives aren't entirely clear here either. It would be one thing if they were against technology, but then again, they use a GPS tracking system to find Evelyn.
FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) briefly describes this group's motives, but only in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene. If a viewer finds herself wondering if her attention span is that short, she can take comfort in knowing the fault lies in poor, fleeting exposition.
The end result has two sides fighting against each other with impressive special effects, but no idea where either side stands. The movie could have gone with the theme that a being's ability to play God can be corrupting, but it seems so caught up in its wondrous computer effects to even attempt to extrapolate upon such a heavy topic.
"Transcendence" marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who was cinematographer for all of Christopher Nolan's most recent films (e.g. "Inception" (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy). Pfister has never been nominated for an Oscar, but his ability for great cinematography shows in this film.
Although Nolan serves as a producer for this movie, he could have given writer Jack Paglen's script a second look. With Nolan's revisions, "Transcendence" could have made the artificial intelligence world as intriguing as the subconscious world was in "Inception". Instead, "Transcendence" is a lot of gloss without any stabilization, and not even Morgan Freeman's smooth voice and insightful monologues can save such a potentially profound movie from its own plot holes.
Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
"Muppets Most Wanted" Left Me Wanting More
When I reviewed "The Muppets" (2011) upon its release, I was ecstatic about it. I loved the story, the songs, and everything the Muppets themselves did in the movie.
Most people who saw "The Muppets" who were not Muppet fans before seeing it enjoyed the film. Muppet fans themselves, in addition to loving the movie, could sense the heart and passion the filmmakers put into every aspect, and felt no doubt everyone involved in making "The Muppets" were Muppet fans themselves.
"Muppets Most Wanted" is the 8th Muppet movie, but the first one that is technically a sequel because it acknowledges the events that took place in its immediate predecessor. Many of those involved in "The Muppets" return in this sequel, including director and co-writer James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, songwriter (and Oscar-winner) Bret McKenzie, and all the Muppets including newcomer Walter . . . but something was missing.
As I watched the film, I could see all the Muppets were there, and it seemed like they were trying to perform "The Muppet Show" as well as they did in their previous film. There was a coherent story about a criminal mastermind who happened to look identical to Kermit the Frog, and exploits this coincidence to help him escape from prison.
I wanted this movie to make me laugh. I want to tell everyone that the Muppets are cool and funny again like I did back when I saw "The Muppets" . . . but I can't.
The problem may have had to do with the story, or at least the motivations of antagonist and Kermit-lookalike Constantine. With his partner in crime Dominic Badguy (pronounced BA-jee, & played by Ricky Gervais), he uses the Muppets' world tour as a front to rob European museums of their precious diamonds.
"The Great Muppet Caper" had a similar plot, but that movie was more clever because virtually all the Muppets in that movie parodied how overdone such a plot was. This movie doesn't even want to acknowledge the banality of that hackneyed plot line, or even consider why any modern audience would care about a jewel heist.
Also, whereas the songs were a major strength in "The Muppets", the song "We're Doing A Sequel" is the only one worth remembering. It's a promising, tongue-in-cheek song that acknowledges the stigma and symptoms of sequelitis, only to allow the whole film to fall victim to its own diagnosis.
Many of the other songs are surprisingly mundane, considering McKenzie wrote far more brilliant songs for "The Muppets". For example, the song "I'll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)" has lyrics that include "I can give you anything you want/Give you anything you need/I'll make your dreams come true/Give you anything you want".
You're waiting for a funny line, but McKenzie, for the first time in his songwriting career, never delivers one. Considering the hilarious, genre-bashing songs he made famous with Flight Of The Conchords, it feels as if he didn't even try.
Last but not least, everything "The Muppets" did right with celebrity cameos, "Muppets Most Wanted" did wrong. You see Christoph Waltz dancing the waltz, Salma Hayek getting on and off stage, Danny Trejo in prison, and Celine Dion just singing.
You don't see Gonzo doing a crazy stunt (you only hear him talking about it), Fozzie Bear telling a joke, or most of the Muppets doing what they do best. Even Lew Zealand forgets to throw a fish.
Of the human stars who actually have relevant roles, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell actually look like they're having fun. Ricky Gervais is surprisingly dull, being both unfunny enough to stand alongside the Muppets, and not menacing enough to be a villain.
The Muppets are the stars of this movie, not the humans. Somewhere in the making of this movie, the filmmakers left their love of the Muppets, and their desire to make them intriguing characters, by the door, and it shows by what you don't see the Muppets do.
"Muppets Most Wanted" has some laughs, but they are more like light chuckles with no feelings of joy or poignancy. The Muppets have already proved they can make a comeback, but this is not the movie that proves their staying power.
"Muppets Most Wanted" is by no means a terrible movie, but I hope the Muppets prove their worth in their next movie. I hope there is a next movie.
One last note: The Walt Disney Company has not yet released "The Muppet Show" Seasons 4 & 5 on DVD in addition to many other long-unavailable Muppet TV specials (e.g. "A Muppet Family Christmas" (1987)), yet has purchased Marvel Comics and the Star Wars franchise. Maybe the problem lies with Disney not caring enough about the Muppets.
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
Quintessential Christmas Movie . . . If You Can Get A Copy
"A Muppet Family Christmas" is not only the greatest Muppet Christmas TV special ever made, but it is also the greatest Muppet TV special bar none. Some may even consider it the greatest Christmas TV special ever made.
"A Muppet Family Christmas" is so delightful to watch that you may not find yourself caring that the special really doesn't have a plot. Most of the adult Muppets (i.e. the ones from "The Muppet Show" (1976-1981)) accompany Fozzie Bear to his mother's country house, and they spend the rest of the special settling in and getting ready for Christmas.
That's pretty much the extent of the story. What makes this special . . . well . . . special is when more Muppets appear and crowd the house. First, there are most of the "Sesame Street" Muppets who come a-caroling, only to later make themselves at home.
Later, the Fraggles from "Fraggle Rock" appear below Ma Bear's house. Oh yeah, and those Muppet fans who are relatively unfamiliar with "Fraggle Rock" may not notice that the human who intended to rent Ma Bear's house for the holiday is none other than Doc (Gerard Parkes), who brought his dog Sprocket with him.
Muppet fans who are familiar with all three Muppet universes (or at least two) will find some surprising poignancy in these different characters interacting. I especially treasured scenes like Bert & Ernie engaging in "small talk" with Doc, or the Swedish Chef trying in vain to cook Big Bird only to reconsider after receiving a special gift. I also laughed when Rowlf and Sprocket speaking "dog".
To fully enjoy this special, it helps if you know most of the Muppet characters beforehand, which is a prerequisite almost all children of the 1970's and 1980's fulfilled effortlessly. I imagine children born after 1990 will know the "Sesame Street" characters, but not the others as much. Undoubtedly, they will wonder why Elmo didn't get more screen time.
"A Muppet Family Christmas" was actually one of Jim Henson's favorite specials on which he worked, and was even described by Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones as "one of (Henson's) finest, and most under-appreciated, productions". It's under-appreciated for a good reason: it has rarely been seen on TV in years, and is out of print on VHS and DVD.
Also because of music royalty issues, and because the "Muppet Show" Muppets are owned by Disney, the "Sesame Street" Muppets are owned by Sesame Workshop, and "Fraggle Rock" is owned by HIT Entertainment, the best chances of seeing this special are unfortunately by spending $50+ on a DVD copy on eBay or Amazon.
A special like this one, which Muppet fans love and some have even worn out their old VHS copy they taped from TV, deserves to be seen perennially, and obtaining a copy of it should not be difficult. In fact, there is a Facebook group dedicated to getting the special the DVD release it deserves, and the page is already "liked" by several cult followers (Campaign for Eventual "Muppet Family Christmas" DVD Release).
This special is very much like the holiday season: craziness and chaos abound, but it is nothing that good company, song, and the comfort of love and companionship can't make worthwhile. Just like the holiday season is one to which people look forward, they may have to wait longer to own a copy of this movie. However, if you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on an uncut copy, consider yourself lucky.
When Mediocre Projects Happen to Great Performers
A TV special starring Lady Gaga and the Muppets packs a lot of promise, especially when the special is titled "Lady Gaga & The Muppets' Holiday Spectacular". If you notice the repetitiveness of that last sentence, it's to prove a point.
This special appeared to be less "Lady Gaga & the Muppets" and more "Lady Gaga featuring the Muppets". Consequently, even the word "Spectacular" in the show's title proved to be an excessive overstatement.
Lady Gaga is among the most polarizing pop stars today. People either like her or hate her, but no one can deny her talent, stage presence, or that certain X factor that relevant pop stars possess.
So this review would not be complete without this reviewer expressing how he feels about her. And truthfully, I like Lady Gaga. I think her songs are often times great, she owns every stage performance without a hint of gregariousness or desperation, and she was phenomenally great as host and musical guest of "Saturday Night Live" last month.
It just astonishes me that, while she worked so well alongside SNL cast members, the interactions between her and the Muppets were noticeably finite and pithy. Yes, Kermit sat alongside her as she sang a surprisingly touching rendition of her own "Gypsy", and there was a scene with her and the other Muppets brainstorming over a final act. There was also Miss Piggy's usual fame envy complete with karate chops.
However, when it came to many of the other musical numbers, the Muppets were noticeably absent. The exceptions were the songs where the major Muppet players seemingly rushed onto the scene near the end to lip sync the given song's final chorus.
Lady Gaga was right in toning down the sexuality of her musical numbers, wisely resulting in her performances of "Applause" in this special bearing little resemblance to her overtly carnal music video. You saw dance numbers mostly involving men in tuxedos, but no . . . well, Muppets!
Did the writers and choreographers of this special even see "The Muppet Show"? If they did, they could have, and should have, taken inspiration from famous episodes with Diana Ross performing "Love Hangover" alongside giant Muppet birds, or Raquel Welch dancing with a gargantuan black spider. Even Alice Cooper danced with Sweetums, Doglion, and other large Muppets when he sang "School's Out".
Sure, "The Muppet Show" left the airwaves over 30 years ago, but the box office success of "The Muppets" (2011) proved that people still had a soft spot in their heart for it. Plus, that movie succeeded because the Muppets were all doing things that were interesting and unique to their given personalities.
Here, they just pad Lady Gaga's stage appearances, and that's not enough. Especially because the special was partially intended to promote the upcoming movie "Muppets Most Wanted", the Muppets deserve better.
There's really no fault in Lady Gaga's song performances, especially her charming duets with Elton John, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and even RuPaul. However, if she's sharing top billing with the Muppets, they should be treated like co-headliners, not opening acts.
As a result, "Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular" could have been most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and Muppetational. Instead, it was . . . okay.
Church Ball (2006)
Hokey, Hackneyed, Holy "Hoosiers" . . . But Not Wholly Horrible
The title "Church Ball" alone will inevitably alienate millions, if not billions, of movie fans who are either not Mormon, not Christian, or simply hate going to church and seldom do unless forced to do so. On the bright side, once you get past this film's title, you get a light comedy that, to its credit, emboldens community involvement via teamwork and enthusiastic participation in a fun extracurricular activity, and never gets preachy. It's a great message for anyone, let alone the audience who was not scared away by the movie's name.
On the not-so-bright side, "Church Ball", as far as sports movies go, is so very, very predictable. It's plot involving a number of grossly untalented athletes chasing the impossible dream has been done to death, most notably in "Dodgeball" (2004).
Also, wasn't there a basketball movie about a tiny team of five players who come together against the odds and, with the help of one supremely talented basketball player who joins the roster at the last minute, go on to win the championship in the end? It's surprising that the makers of "Hoosiers" (1986) didn't sue these filmmakers for copyright infringement given these blatant similarities, but they probably didn't care either.
Truth be told, "Church Ball" is one overdone sports cliché after another. Even the film's tagline, "It's not how you play the game. It's whether you win or lose.", isn't all that clever. In fact, it was spoken verbatim by a character in ANOTHER movie with basketball as a crucial plot point, "Teen Wolf" (1985).
Even the main characters on the basketball team lack so much originality that they become stereotypes without any dimensions to them. Church accountant Gene Jensen (Clint Howard) may as well have had his character named "The Bookworm", Nadar Nazbarechov (Sina Amedson) could have been "The Foreign Guy", and Don Weaver (Chad Long) was mainly "The Unathletic Fat Guy".
One minor character could have called this team "A Ragtag Team of Misfits", but I don't remember. It wouldn't have surprised me if they did.
With all that said, I actually liked some of the other characters when they actively avoided the stereotype trap. Andrew Wilson (older brother of Owen & Luke) actually did well here as a decent family man whose amateur basketball talent makes him look like Larry Bird compared to the rest of the team. I also liked Amy Stewart as his wife. She was very likable, but the movie could have done without her "Oh, boys will be boys!" narration.
The late Gary Coleman also did what he could as the most unlikely person to be on the team for obvious reasons. However, when it's shown that he has three full-grown sons who happen to love playing basketball (and are good at it), no explanation whatsoever is given why they don't join the church ball team.
Fred Willard was probably the most surprising casting in this movie. With an estimated budget of only $1 million, it could not have been easy to get him.
However, Willard wasn't as funny here as he could have been. As Bishop Linderman, he plays the role as if he's comic relief, as he should, but doesn't really have anything funny to say.
His character's creating the play book for the team was clever, but it's never explained why his character doesn't coach the team himself, consequently leaving the burden to another player. Willard also wears an eye patch which keeps slipping off, revealing that there's nothing evidently wrong with his eye. I couldn't tell whether that was supposed to be the joke, or if that was a mistake the director didn't notice.
Another inconsistency involved the fate of the church basketball league itself. According to Bishop Linderman, the current season in the movie would be the last, and then they would shut down Church Ball for good without any explanation as to why.
If it was because of budget cuts, that would be understandable. However, they already have their own basketball court, not to mention active and enthusiastic participation by church members who could otherwise stay at home and watch TV, or go to a bar (Oops, I forgot! They're Mormon, but you know what I mean).
The fact that the movie didn't explain why church ball was shut down shows another lack of originality in plot execution. Fierce competition between basketball teams should (and does) supply enough conflict for a good story.
I have to credit "Church Ball" with being made on a shoestring budget with obviously good intentions. I especially liked the scenes between Wilson and former NBA great Thurl Bailey, which provided a decent amount of heart to an otherwise mediocre comedy. I just wish the rest of the film could have simply sunk the ball into the basket, instead of focusing on making their moves fancier than they needed to be.