Order of business #1 this holiday weekend was to watch the original The Muppet Movie to wash the taste of the new one with Kermit the Fraud out of my mouth. It was sublime in every way. Critics and audiences both loved The Muppets, but a direct comparison to the first and greatest only highlights where the first one is lacking. For starters, Paul Williams’ songs are actually memorable and sing-along-able. The jokes are better too. Yeah, they’re silly in that vaudevillian kind of way, but they make you smile even when they flop. The guest cameos were better in the original and better used. Elliot Gould vs. that guy from NBC’s Community! Come on! Most important of all, the original was the Muppets’ show all the way. The humans were always on the fringes to provide jokes and/or obstacles, but that’s it. No human lead characters. No human character arcs. No human romance. In the end, The Muppets had enough of the same ingredients to push the nostalgia button, but they were of inferior quality and in all the wrong proportions.

Ok. I’m done. I’m over it. I promise I won’t bring it up again. Movin’ right along…

Watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over the long weekend. Raiders remains a perfect action/adventure and no attempt to duplicate it has ever quite succeeded. I’ve always had a soft spot for the under-appreciated Temple of Doom, but watching it next to the first it really doesn’t hold up all that well. Short Round is somehow less annoying than he was when I was a teenager, but Kate Capshaw is still mostly terrible. The basic story and the milieu are interesting, but screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Howard the Duck) don’t add up to one Lawrence Kasdan. When Kasdan wrote a zinger, it zinged. Not so much with Huyck and Katz. Raiders of the Lost Ark feels like a movie made for adults that is also appropriate for kids. Though it’s darker in a way, Temple of Doom feels like a movie aimed at kids with some PG-13 violence layered on top. Lots of the action set pieces, including the mine car chase, are top shelf but the tone feels all wrong. That’s not to say that Temple of Doom should’ve just been more of the same. That’s where the likable but kind of boring Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade went wrong. It gave audiences what they wanted, but feels a little warmed over in retrospect.

I also rewatched 12 Angry Men the other night. Sidney Lumet takes a lot of shit in some quarters for not being flashy and for not showing a strong auteurist stamp, but the guy was great with his actors. Sure, 12 Angry Men is a little stagebound, but it’s a terrific cast and Lumet guides them just right. It holds up very well.

That’s all from my end. I spent a big chunk of the weekend tinkering with the blog layout. On the surface, the changes are pretty modest, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Whenever I mess around with the look, something always goes haywire in one browser or another, so if you see anything that doesn’t seem right, drop me a line. Include your browser, operating system and a screen image of what you’re seeing if you can manage it.

Anyway. Now it’s your turn. There’s a lot going on in theaters right now. Has anyone seen anything in the last week worth talking about? Lay it on me.

20 Responses to “Movin’ Right Along”

  1. I had a double billing of Take Shelter in theaters and Vertigo on DVD on Saturday. Vertigo, of course, is an old favorite that I haven’t seen in at least a year. Since I know most of the scenes and dialogue by heart, I started out paying half-attention to it while I chatted with someone online. By the first tower scene, I had been sucked in and had to put the laptop down for the rest of the movie. There’s really nothing new to be said about it; just a damn fine picture.

    I’m still sorting out my thoughts on Take Shelter. It’s a film that’s very of its time and the fear — fear of losing family, home and sanity — is palpable. It says a lot about our current environment in the U.S. without hitting any of its plot points directly on the nose. Michael Shannon was perfect for this role and he does a magnificent job selling this reasonable man’s reasonable fears. Even his breakdown at the Lions Club dinner — oh God, that’s a familiar milieu to me — seems pretty reasonable given the circumstances. By the time he’s locked himself in the storm shelter, you’re ready to stay down there with him.

    In that way, Jeff Nichols may have created the most realistic portrait of mental illness I’ve seen committed to film. It’s an insidious thing that seems to creep up on its victims and not only does it afflict that one person, but their entire family and community. Aside from the best friend’s behavior, the Lions Club dinner scene captures that isolation perfectly.

    So, after all the things Nichols did well, I’m left wondering about the ending and how it fits with all that came before it. It’s a suitable representation of how apocalyptic things are in the country and in this microcosm of a family. But I’m not sure what is gained by the wife’s expression of recognition — basically, “oh shit, he was right.”

    The ending serves as a satisfying ironic twist with a note of nihilism to send the audience home with, but I don’t think it served the overall narrative. After all the complexity that came before it, it felt like Nichols decided to play to the cheap seats.

  2. We finished Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire and are three episodes into season 2. The four central characters are all powerful in their own way and well acted. Of them, the conception of the Van Alden character is the least convincing by some way but Michael Shannon makes him compelling (even though somewhat over-the-top tormented nut-jobs are becoming his stock work). The supporting cast is consistently strong with the likes of Stuhlbarg, Williams, Mol, and Huston, and the production values have remained pleasingly cinematic. Nucky is a crook, but he has enough redeeming qualities to care about what befalls him (something I never felt with Tony Soprano), and they don’t give us many genuinely law-abiding characters to keep his criminality in focus, least of all the other politicians.

  3. WJ, there was a long disagreement in a previous Watercooler about the nature of the ending of Take Shelter with several folks being a little put off by it. After rewatching it a second time, I don’t take the ending to be literal at all. I don’t think it was intended as an “aha!” type twist. If anything I think it’s the wife’s dream. The storm is symbolizing the life of difficult they’re going to have ahead, whether it’s the kid’s deafness, the family economic situation and or the husband’s mental illness. While there may not really be an oil raining storm on the horizon, this family has plenty to cope with as it is, and there’s an acknowledgment at the end, that no matter what happens, they’re in it together and they’re going to deal with it together.

    Sartre, Nucky’s a better dresser than Tony Soprano too!
    Having said that, I haven’t seen more than the first couple of episodes of Season 1. HBO does not make it easy for non-subscribers to keep up and I refuse to get cable just for them. I guess I’ll just consider it something good to look forward to down the line.

  4. I am leaving the house in about 30 minutes to see what all this Muppet talk will amount to. I hear you Craig, and I am also a fan of the original, but I must say I am amazed at the overwhelming critical and audience adoration for this new film. As always the proof will be in the pudding

    The prestige movie season offered up what may well be the most distinguished week of the season, and by and large the results were most impressive. Two of the films seen (HUGO and A DANGEROUS METHOD) are likely Top 10 finishers, while at least two others are well regarded and can still place with a change of heart) and the silent Monday series at the Film Forum featured the classic BEN-HUR from 1925 with piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner.

    Lucille and I (and some of the kids for most of the screenings) watched:

    Hugo **** 1/2 (Wednesday evening) Edgewater multiplex

    A Dangerous Method **** 1/2 (Thursday night) Landmark Sunshine Cinemas

    The Artist **** (Friday evening) Angelika Film Center

    My Week with Marilyn *** 1/2 (Friday evening) Angelika Film Center

    House of Pleasures **** (Saturday night) IFC Film Center

    Ben-Hur (1925) **** 1/2 (Monday night) Film Forum

    The Muppets (Sunday night) Edgewater Multiplex

    Note: Will return late tonight with report on “Muppets”

    David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD defty weaves cerebral, literary and historical elements in a lushly-set and attractive film that takes full advantage of some excellent performances by Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortenson and Keira Knightley, while establishing a fascinating look at the relationship between Jun and Freud, in a film unlike anything the director has ever done, but not at all in a bad sense.

    George Melies was a French pioneer in the development of moving pictures and was a centerpiece in Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal winning “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a book that begged for the attention of director Martin Scorsese, who brings all kinds of wonderments and a loving homage to HUGO, a beautifully shot and adorned film about rediscovery. It’s an emotional powerhouse that opens spectacularly (much like Vidor’s THE CROWD’s famed early sequence) by having the camera race in through snow to capture the Eiffel Tower and then up the center standing dock between two trains to a large railway station and an overhead clock, finally to the face of a young boy behind it. Sure, midway through it is slightly padded, but overwhelmingly this is a film that celebrates childhood, resilience, and the power of love and acceptance, with the adult appreciation of silent cinema and the creative mind. It’s a triumph for Martin Scorsese.

    It would be hard to imagine that there is a better-trained dog than the one that appears in the French black and white “silent” film THE ARTIST, but that’s only one of many delights in what is mainly a charming and exhilarating film. True, it’s all surface glitz, and it never probes deeper in the silent movie phenomenon, but it’s a stylish, original work that may well be enhanced by repeat viewings. It will make stars out of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejon.

    Michelle Williams may not bring that voluptuous look to Marilyn Monroe, but she’s marvelous in the role in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. Kenneth Branagh as Olivier is admittedly mean-spirited, but he’s engaging still, and Eddie Redmayne is endearing. One might have hoped for more, but it’s still as entertaining and solid enough film.

    The French HOUSE OF PLEASURES enters the world of turn-of-the-century brothels, with some stark imagery, but it’s progressive too with split screens and a modern soundtrack, and narratively there are some arresting sequences in painting this phenomenon is wholly explicit terms.

    The silent BEN-HUR does not match the 1959 version for a host of reasons, but it’s still a landmark for the sets, lead performances and celebrated sequences. Having Steve Sterner provide the piano accompaniment was a real treat for this Monday series.

  5. If that’s the case, Craig, it would seem to undermine the structural integrity of the film. That would be the first time the wife’s perspective is chosen (or shown) over her husband’s. And the dream bears more than passing resemblance to Curtis’ previous dreams. And what would be the purpose of ending with the wife’s dream, other than to muddy the waters further? Is she also sliding toward madness? Is she giving in to her husband’s psychosis (something she clearly won’t do, based on the scene in the shelter)?

    For me, there are only two possibilities. It’s either a very cynical “real” twist or it’s Curtis’ latest dream, in which leaving the vicinity of the shelter spells doom for him and his family.

    Now that I’ve thought it out more, I kind of like the latter interpretation. It’s still somewhat deflating after all that came before it, but it also shows the walls he’s put up for himself. From what I remember of the final scene, it’s clear there is no escape for them. The wall of water is coming fast, the funnel clouds are right behind it and they’re right on the beach with no concrete structures (just the beach house) around them. It could signify his continuing reluctance to seek help or to acknowledge the existence of hope for his mental illness and his financial woes.

  6. On Thanksgiving we went to see Puss in Boots, which was enjoyable if forgettable. Then yesterday we saw The Descendants. Not a great movie and kind of predictable but it does pack its emotional punches and I enjoyed the work of the cast. Clooney did a good job and is always very watchable.

    Last night on PBS we caught Annie Get Your Gun, which I’d never seen before. Some great Irving Berlin songs but holy crap is it dated, and the racism is cringeworthy.

  7. Craig’s negative review of the new Muppets movie has produced some shocked reactions:


  8. I saw Hugo on Thursday and offered some thoughts on the review thread for that film. I liked it, but was a little underwhelmed by the first half. I’d agree with everyone else though that it ends well and is genuinely heartfelt.

    Saturday night we saw The Descendents in a packed theater. Not really anywhere near as funny as I expected, but I liked it. I think the film lacks the emotion I would have expected from it. It’s not a bad film and I honestly admire it for what it is, but it just wasn’t completely satisfying.

  9. I saw Hugo — loved it. Had no problem with the beginning sequences. Particularly liked Sacha Baron Cohen’s characterization and Kingsley playing different ages — he was especially adept at playing a young man full of creative energy and enthusiasm. I’d say Hugo is headed for multiple Oscar nominations, including Scorsese himself. I liked the theme that compared machines to the world: Machines have just enough parts to make them work but not any extra parts. So if the world is like a machine, everyone has a purpose in life.

    Also I caught up with Bridesmaids and was putt off by it. For me, the over-the-top humor didn’t blend well with the more serious tale of the Wiig character’s depression.

    Right now I’m fighting mad that my cable company (Comcast) has decided to move Turner Classic Movies from the “digital starter package” to the more expensive “preferred package.” Taking Robert Osborne away from me is sufficient grounds for a Facebook Cause.

  10. Thrilled to hear your reaction to HUGO Pierre.

    I saw THE MUPPET MOVIE late last night, and I must go with a four-star rating. It’s a spirited and infectious homage.

    Very saddened to hear of the passing of Ken Russell (1927-2011).

  11. Loved Hugo through and through. I’m with Pierre on that one.

    Did not love The Muppets, despite all my anticipation of it. I liked it better than Craig, but that’s not saying a lot. It more or less kicked in by the time the “show” started, and had a few great moments, and is certainly better kids’ entertainment than 90% of what’s out there, but it didn’t work for me. Too much of my time was spent with me staring at the screen bored, disappointed, skeptical, and unamused. They may have successfully rebooted the franchise, but I never stopped wearing my old Muppet boots. I’ll stick with my 70s Muppets, thank you very much.

  12. WJ it doesn’t have to be the wife’s dream. It works even if it’s Shannon’s. I kicked the tires no it being the wife’s dream to account for people freaking out that she was seeing the storm. It doesn’t have to be so literal as being a dream, rather a representation of a state of mind. After all she’s been through, she has every reason to be as fearful as her husband is.

    Sam we’ve already pretty much discussed your above lineup, though I will say wow, you didn’t waste any time this holiday, did you? It was a good week for movies and you found a couple that weren’t even on my radar.

    As for the Muppets Sam, well I can’t figure out how you were not revolted by the whole steaming mess. As Jennybee says, it’s definitely a lot better than the usual family entertainment, but that’s a pretty low bar. The Muppets were special in the 1970s before they were a Disneyfied commodity. This version felt slight above a direct to DVD sequel.

    But I said I was going to leave it alone. This is not the first time I’ve missed the boat on something everyone else agrees is the bee’s knees. I take solace in the fact that in a couple of weeks it will be entirely forgotten until the next one. (hee hee, Sartre)

    Glad to see the unanimous enthusiasm for Hugo though my opinion was more in line with Joel who was also underwhelmed by the opening. As I said elsewhere, I aim to give it another go. While it wasn’t at the top of the box office where it belonged, it also on less than half the number of screens as The Moopets.

    Joel, I join you in not being totally satisfied with Descendants. Good parts, particularly Clooney, but it just didn’t click for me, but Alison is right, it really did pack some emotional punch at times. I just wish it had been more sustained.

    Alison, I’ve never seen Annie Get Your Gun. It has to be the best name for a musical ever though.

    Pierre, sorry you didn’t go for Bridesmaids. Rather than a nice character piece ruined by crass comedy, I took it as a crass comedy elevated by also being a nice character piece and it worked. It probably helped I went into it expecting Hangover with Girls and was delighted to find it was so much more.

    Ah well, they can’t all be winners.

  13. Descendents Spoilers:
    I guess I need to clarify my comment on the lack of an emotional punch. I went to this with my significant other, who is usually very moved by sentiment in films. She just didn’t respond, which led me to believe that my lack of response was warranted. The only moment that really struck me was when the youngest daughter gets the news, and this was handled in such a cliche way that it felt manipulative (I guess I have to take back “nothing to criticize” comment). I think the most resonate moment of the film is when the Judy Greer character first offers her condolences and then notes her revulsion at the Mom character. But I still felt oddly non-plused by it, mainly because by the end of the film I really couldn’t stand the Mom character. I think if she had been slightly more fleshed out as an actual human being, maybe I would have cared that she died, but by the end of the movie I disliked her more than her oldest daughter did. There’s an honesty to his depiction of everything that I appreciate though, and I admire Payne for not letting the ending get too sentimental, but it didn’t really resonate with me. But then, neither did About Schmidt.

    It seemed to leave the packed theater I saw it with cold as well. There wasn’t a single joke that brought the house down.

  14. Craig, as you well know THE MUPPETS captivated just about everybody. I don’t say it is great, just a loving homage and re-boot that captures both nostalgia and the spirit of the original. I also lament the Disney takeover, though.

  15. Sam, see, that’s where we fundamentally disagree. I get that people like it and I’ll allow it’s a nice movie, but I think it totally misses the boat on the spirit of the original and rewatching the latter just confirmed that for me. Maybe it’s the same spirit in some of the later sequels, but I never really watched those.

    Joel the problem for me with Descendants was that the parts that were supposed to be funny kept trampling on stuff that should’ve been very emotional. I think Payne, rightfully, was trying to avoid being overly sentimental, but if you’re going to tell a story like that, I think it’s only fair to the material to let the emotions breathe a little bit instead of covering it up with funny bits from sitcom characters.

  16. By spirit I am referring to the endearment, innocence and simplicity of the original with a sensibility that denotes the passage of time. This new film reminds us of why we loved these characters in the first place, and seeing and hearing “The Rainbow Connection” done here was quite the emotional experience.

  17. Of the films I’ve seen recently, I saw Contagion, In Time and Melancholia.

    In Time: It’s not a terrible film, but it frustrated me because it had the potential to be greater based on its premise.

    Contagion had pretty good acting, but the premise was pretty much a retelling of the H1N1 outbreak. I hope for Ricky Gervais to poke fun at that (speaking of Gervais, I might come up soon with targets for him to make fun of).

    Melancholia was depressing, but I actually enjoyed the performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg. I know it’ll be unlikely for the film to get nominations at the Globes or Oscars, but I think Dunst may have a shot for nominations. And I lol’d with Kiefer Sutherland’s character dying.

    Gonna try and check out Puss In Boots soon and maybe The Muppets (might arrive here by Christmas), despite their advertising being everywhere like if it was Avatar. Or maybe I should go out and check “Un Cuento Chino”, starring Ricardo Darin.

  18. Sam, we’ll have to agree to disagree about how well the new film reminds us of the earlier one, but I’m sure we can agree to agree on how great the original is. That’s really the thought I’d like to leave this topic on. Even as a card-carrying adult, I sat there watching it yesterday grinning from ear to ear.

    Rodrigo, I like Contagion but find it hasn’t really stuck with me even after two viewings. Soderbergh was almost TOO careful to make it realistic, as you say it just kind of follows the thread of recent outbreaks but turns up the stakes quite a bit. Still, in individual moments I thought it was excellent. Damon was great and so was Winslet. I also liked the woman who played one of hte scientists, the woman who injected herself.

    Dunst was really great in Melancholia. Not an easy roll either. I’ll be surprised if she gets nominated, but at least she can be happy with a win at Cannes.

  19. Craig, it took me forever during Contagion to realize that scientist was played by Jennifer Ehle, who will forever be Elizabeth Bennet to Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy to me. She was excellent.

  20. I didn’t make that connection either! She was terrific, but I didn’t really appreciate her until the 2nd time around.

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