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The Muppets (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.

The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.

It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.

The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.

The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.

Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!

Grade: B+


Horrible Bosses (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Let’s be honest, the premise of Horrible Bosses, a revenge-fantasy comedy that places three Average Joes at the center of an intricate plot to off their bosses a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Stranger’s on a Train could strike a chord with many casual moviegoers. Why? Because who HASN’T had a boss that has made their lives a living hell! It’s an amusing “What if?” that provides some minor laughs in the dead heat of the summer and a surprisingly small picture going toe to toe with films like Transformers, Harry Potter, and Captain America. But the film has a charming underdog persona that many can’t quite ignore (It also happens to feature an all-star cast!) and leaves you hoping it will be remembered once it’s long gone from theaters. I say this because the film walks the fine line between classic dark comedy and comedy-no-one-will-remember-in-a-year territory. I consider it a blue-collar comedy that pours it’s blood, sweat, and tears into all the shenanigans to make you laugh but sometimes it comes up a bit short. It’s a shame it might get lost in shuffle.

Every summer has a sleeper hit that audiences pass on via word of mouth. It ends up making a boatload of money and it usually turns out to be a comedy. We’ve already had a 50/50 summer when it comes to comedy and, frankly, comedy has been very uninteresting for quite a while. We had Bridesmaids which was a surprise smash and was a breath of fresh air. Two weeks later, the guys of the Hangover crashed the party and left everyone with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve also seen Bad Teacher, one that was heavily hyped but largely written off by many and Zookeeper, another dud chucked out by Happy Madison. Now we have the often witty, sometimes disappointing Horrible Bosses, in which three nice guys decide they’ve had enough of their tyrannical bosses and decide to off them for each other. By killing each other’s, they are spared a suspected motive by the police and they end getting off punishment free. It’s a bit of a tired premise and really isn’t that inspired of an idea, but it will resonate! Especially if you take the dry asides of Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), the screeching insanity of Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and smart-ass narcissism of Jason Sudeikis (SNL) and pair them up against the sadistic Kevin Spacey, man-eating Jennifer Aniston, and the under-used coke addict Colin Farrell.

The three amigos, Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day), and Kurt (Sudeikis) enlist the help of a professional killer in Mother Fucker Jones, played by the dead-pan Jamie Foxx. They slam their heads together and they embark on a bumbling journey to expel their demonoid bosses from planet earth. The usually sticky situations follow and they are mostly all amusing. They sneak around their intended victims homes, accidentally get high on cocaine, stupidly leave their DNA everywhere, and drool over a lingerie clad Aniston as she deep throats a popsicle, a banana, and a hot dog. It’s good to see a fresh line-up of comedians like we have here, but they seem a bit new to the scene, in all honesty. They try to ad-lib with the best of them but sometimes it’s a bit forced and amateur, especially from Day who relies on his bat-shit crazy persona he crafted for his character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He rattles off some winners and delivers some stink bombs that are intended to shock the audience into belly laughs. The most laughs come from Bateman, who delivers some zingers (One about fleeing to Canada will have you in stitches), Foxx who demonstrates extraordinary comedic timing (His explanation of how he got the name Mother Fucker will have you covering your mouth), and the largely ignored Colin Farrell, who delivers countless one liners that will leave you quoting for weeks (Wait until you see his outtakes!). Sudeikis fails to grab many of the chuckles and he passes himself off as a second rate Nick Swardson, who is funnier anyway. The casting could have been a bit stronger without his character. Spacey is clearly having fun but his character descends too far into downright evil territory. I know we are supposed to hate him but c’mon!! Aniston has some eyebrow-raising moments, mostly when she shows up almost nude in one particular scene and fires off more racy innuendos than any character in a Judd Apatow picture. She surprisingly churns out one of her better performances since Office Space. Julie Bowen (Modern Family) also shows up as Spacey’s wife but she is basically ignored in all the chaos.

There isn’t much to say in the way of Horrible Bosses. It’s charming even if it’s consistently raunchy and it’s hard to dislike it. There are clever gags and the film does not overstay it’s welcome by any stretch. It was a nice breather from all the explosions and superheroes that have been zipping around theaters. But I think that filmmakers could have poured a bit more time into this film. It’s a bit rough around the edges and appears rushed at times. You are left feeling that all the events that took place in the film were minor and insignificant. You want to rally behind it but sometimes it’s impossible to do just that. When all is said and done, it never really feels like these horrible bosses have had it stuck to them. Further, it falls short of the sleeper status that I thought would surely follow in its wake. Overall, it grasps at comedy greatness but comes up with comedy goodness. Don’t worry though; it will still have you chuckling to yourself as you punch the clock the next morning.

Grade: B-

Horrible Bosses is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

by Steve Habrat

By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.

I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.

Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.

Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.

What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.

I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-