Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

It would help if the Muppets lost their French accent in this film.

There's lots of laughs in Muppets Most Wanted, their latest screen adventure, but boy, does this effort ever drag when Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell ever show up. More on them in a moment.

Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog, busts out of a Russian gulag. He's a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog. The bad guy's right-hand man, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), poses as a promoter to lure Kermit and company for a European tour. The plan is for Constantine to switch places with Kermit and use his troupe as pawns to eventually steal the Crown Jewels.

Kermit is hesitant to hit the road, but Dominic manipulates Fozzy, Rolph the Dog, Miss Piggy and the others into pressuring their leader to hit the road. Dominic promises the show's cast can do anything they want. Hey, is this a message about discipline for children in this film?

Kermit is picked up by police and shipped back to Russia. He's in a gulag watched over by commandant Nadya (Tina Fey). "You've got the wrong frog," he protests to no avail.

Meanwhile, the Muppets don't clue in that something's not quite right with Kermit, including his voice and inability to remember the names of most of the show's cast members. Shows become marathons with Miss Piggy opting to sing the hits of Celine Dion while Animal hankers for an extended drum solo. Kermit, so long refusing to commit to marriage with Miss Piggy, is more receptive when Constantine takes his place. He's trying to keep her happy, leading to one of the film's best songs, I'll Get What You Want, a disco effort complete with silver ball and Constantine sporting a white dress shirt and plenty of dry ice.

Sight gags, cameos - kudos to Salma Hayek for teaming up with The Great Gonzo for a running of the bulls bit on stage and physical humour offer lots of laughs.

But the pace deadens when police investigators Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) show up. Their bits are seldom funny. Napoleon's caricature of a stereotypical French goverment employee are tiresome. This subplot does not work.

Keep a pen and paper handy to track all the celebrity cameos. Didn't I see Ray Liotta in Muppets in Space too? I missed Lady Gaga. I'm no fan of Celine Dion, but her duet with Miss Piggy is a highlight here. Tony Bennett, Sean Combs, Frank Langella, Stanley Tucci, Christop Waltz are also along for the fun.

Wow. Almost 40 years have passed since The Muppets made their first film. Kermit and the gang can still put together a good night's entertainment with Muppets Most Wanted.

RATING: 7.5/10

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Winter's Bone (2010)

Brace yourself for this film.

This four-time Oscar nominated movie is unsettling, full of tension and dread about what happens next. There's little in the way of humour here. Winter's Bone is a stark drama/suspense feature.

Kudos to Jennifer Lawrence for her standout work as Ree, the de facto leader of the house where dad is missing and mom is not able to care for her three children. Lawrence is so many things in this film - defiant, scared, confused.

Her father has skipped a court date. His house was put up for bail. If he doesn't show soon, or Ree can prove he's dead, her family loses their home.

Pops ran with a rough crowd, manufacturing drugs. None of his associates are especially keen to talk about his whereabouts. Ree presses on because she knows losing the home will be devastate her mother and two younger siblings. This family in Missouri family is dirt poor.

Ree gets help from her father's brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a coke sniffing sibling with his own past run-ins with the law.

Some of this film's biggest chills come from Dale Dickey,as Merab, wife/partner/girlfriend of Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall). Merab is the kind of character that makes others wary, with the potential for violence ever present.

Winter's Bone received Academy Award nominations for best feature, lead actress, supporting actor and adapted screenplay.

Director Debra Granik has done great work here.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Dale Dickey is in the cast of Iron Man III.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Dead Zone (1983)

Too bad.

The Dead Zone has a lot of potential.

Great cast. Intriguing story. It's based on a book by bestselling author Stephen King. David Cronenberg directs.

For all those strengths, this 1983 release is still a disappointment done in largely by some over-the-top characters, strange behaviour and cramming in too much plot.

Teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is badly hurt in an automobile collision. He's in a coma for five years. The woman he wants to marry, Sarah (Brooke Adams), marries another man. Smith regains consciousness with the ability to see the future of others. He bristles at the suggestion he has a gift. Johnny, for all he's experienced, considers himself cursed.

Scores of people write him looking for help with their own lives. He retreats, refusing to leave his home as he tutors students.
Smith decides to act when he learns a candidate for the American senate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), will threaten humanity as he continues to succeed in politics.

Walken is great. There's some nice chemistry between him and Adams. There's some strong support work, especially from Herbert Lom as the doctor trying to help Smith and Sam Sullivan as Johnny's dad.

But a plot about Smith tackling a serial killer and a politician hellbent on destroying the world? Too much. In an interview on a DVD bonus, Cronenberg disagrees with suggestions Stillson is an over-the-top character. David, I disagree. Stillson is hard to take as a realistic character. There's no explanation why Sarah is involved with his political campaign. Is she helping because her husband is a diehard believer? Does she share Stillson's views. We don't know.

It's refreshing to see a film based on a King book with a minimum of blood and gore. Watching Johnny jolt every time he gets a vision is unsettling. But The Dead Zone carries some dead weight that prevents it from being a fine movie.

RATING: 6/10

FOR DISCUSSION: What do you make of the religious imagery in this film? When Johnny wakes up, there's a drawing of Jesus Christ on the wall. When he enters his family's home near the end of the film, a wall plaque reads in part "Christ is the head of this home."