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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 21 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 12
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Kermit & Company make a Most Wanted return
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MUPPETS MOST WANTED
Now playing


Reviewing Muppets Most Wanted is kind of easy. Do you like movies involving The Muppets? Does their family-friendly irreverence make you smile? Does just the thought of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy in action get you to do unintended cartwheels? Do Fozzie the Bear's jokes make you laugh even though they're the worst in recorded history? Could you watch The Great Gonzo reenact Spain's running of the bulls over and over and over and never grow tired of the vaudeville-style pratfalls?

If you've answered in the affirmative to even one of those questions, then seeing this sequel to 2011's The Muppets isn't so much foregone as it is a requirement.

For everyone else? Well, there's not a ton to say. You already have an opinion and a preference as far as how you like you family-centric entertainment. As wrong as your opinion might be (you had to know that was coming), I can't proclaim your thoughts invalid; and with that in mind, you should probably stop reading this recap of Jim Henson's troupe of characters' latest madcap adventure right here and now.

But for those of you who are Muppets fans, returning writer/director James Bobin and fellow screenwriter Nicholas Stoller continue on the same path they established with The Muppets, paying reverence to their characters' treasured past while also charting a confident and self-assured course into their futures. The gags, songs and set pieces they've conceived are right in tune with what they came up with in regards to the last film, while at the same time could have easily fit in during any random episode of 'The Muppet Show' itself.

All the same, if the 2011 effort was in most ways a thinly veiled remake/reimagining of 1979's The Muppet Movie, Muppets Most Wanted, intentionally or not (and I can't help but think the former), is in most regards nothing more than a riff on ideas first imagined in 1981's The Great Muppet Caper. Both films take the gang to Europe. Each finds them embroiled in an international mystery involving a jewel heist. The stories intertwine more than you might think, and while unlike The Great Muppet Caper this one truly is a continuation from the last effort (things starting immediately after the adventures in The Muppets comes to an end) otherwise their core elements are remarkably similar.

The core plot, admittedly not exactly of import, deals with a case of mistaken identity as criminal mastermind Constantine, a dead ringer for Kermit, escapes from a Siberian Gulag and trades places with the show-stopping amphibian in order to instigate a complex plan to steal Britain's Crown Jewels. The basic bits revolve around Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the rest of the gang's inability to tell the difference between their fearless leader and the evil baddie now in their midst as well as Kermit's time behind bars back in a frozen Siberian wasteland. Songs are sung, sight gags are unleashed and a cavalcade of cameos are made (by the likes of Christoph Waltz, Salma Hayek, Stanley Tucci, Ray Liotta, Chloë Grace Moretz, Usher, Danny Trejo and a whole host of others), while at the same time Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell are called upon to anchor things as far as the human being portions of the narrative are concerned.

There is some great stuff; that goes without saying. A musical set piece by Fey when Kermit is first brought to the Gulag is terrific, while a duet between Constantine and Gervais is filled with its fair share of chuckles. There are a handful of solid sight gags, most of them involving a musical showcase performed by the grizzled Siberian inmates (A Chorus Line has never looked or sounded quite like this), while the in-movie commentary is as sparkling and as self-effacing (and self-reflective) as ever. I smiled and chuckled more often than not, and as that's the point of all this mayhem and madness I can't say this sequel doesn't accomplish what it sets out to do.

Could it have been better? Yes! The original songs are by and large forgettable, none of them coming close to matching any of the ones from the last film (especially the Oscar-winning 'Man or Muppet'). The central scenario noticeably drags at the most inopportune of moments and the whole thing is too leisurely paced for its own good. Also, while Gervais is terrific other than a couple of noticeable exceptions, neither Fey nor Burrell are given enough to do to make themselves standout like I kept hoping they would.

Much like The Great Muppet Caper was an obvious, if still pleasant, step down from The Muppet Movie, the exact same can be said about Muppets Most Wanted as it pertains to The Muppets. Yet it is readily apparent Bobin and Stoller's affinity for the characters, as well as their reverence for all Jim Henson brilliantly accomplished, is all-encompassing, and even if their sequel isn't as good as their first effort there's still plenty to enjoy. It might not be easy being green, but falling in love with Kermit and his pals is as simple and as natural now as it has ever been, and unlike Waldorf (or, for that matter, Statler) I'm not going to start heckling for no other reason than the fact I can.


Dystopian Divergent boldly goes in a familiar direction
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I haven't read the trilogy by author Veronica Roth that inspired director Neil Burger's (The Illusionist, Limitless) Divergent, and to be perfectly truthful I have trouble believing I need to. Cut from the same cloth as numerous dystopian futuristic adventures set on a ravaged Earth where a teenage heroine rises from the ashes to right wrongs and bring long forgotten truths back into the light, there's a heavy dose of 'been there-done that' present throughout. As such - rightly or wrongly - it's easy to assume surprises or idiosyncratic nuances will be in short supply, the thought of picking up the books in order to discover whether or not that's true for myself not a strong one.

After watching Burger's film, scripted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), I can't say anything has changed as far as that goes. There's nothing about the story that feels fresh, little about it that struck me as original, and if this is Summit Entertainment's attempt to get their own box office behemoth on par with The Hunger Games, then the studio should prepare for disappointment.

But not a lot of it. Unlike other recent adaptations of Young Adult literary properties, most notably Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones (and, to a lesser extent, considering the age of the material, Ender's Game), Divergent still has the appearance of being something of a minor hit. The characters at the heart of all the madness and mayhem are relatively strong, the actors charged with bringing everything to life good ones and Burger is a solid enough director that he knows how to generate energy and suspense with the best of them.

There is potential for improvement as far as assumed future installments are concerned, and I can't say the thought of sitting through them when they are inevitably released is one I'm dreading. All the same, my pulse isn't racing at the thought, either.

Set in a world where civilization has crumbled and remaining bits of humanity have been split into five distinct factions based on a person's perceived personality, the Orwellian overtones are hardly subtle. Things revolve around the questioning Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), Tris for short, who discovers during her faction testing she doesn't belong to any single category and is thusly dubbed 'divergent,' a truth she is urged by her terrified tester Tori (Maggie Q) to keep secret.

Why? Divergents are being secretly eradicated, the intellectual faction, specifically their dogmatic leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), seeing them as a cancerous threat to societal prosperity and peace. Hiding amidst the warrior class hoping to join their ranks, Tris inadvertently discovers a horrifying conspiracy that puts everything she knows into question, not only her own life threatened, but that of her selfless, peace-loving parents Natalie (Ashely Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn) as well.

As with all these types of stories, there's a love story thrown into the mix, our heroine making gaga eyes at her commanding teacher-slash-drill sergeant Four (Theo James) immediately. She also gets to make best friends with a fellow newcomer, the forthright Christina (Zoë Kravitz), while the acerbic and petulant Peter (Miles Teller) goes out of his way to undermine Tris for his own nefarious reasons right from the start.

A lot of time is spent on world building, and considering everyone involved is hoping for a trilogy, this shouldn't come as too big of a surprise. Problem is, as none of this is novel or new, said world building is quite tedious at times, and adds a substantial amount of wasted space to the film's already overlong running time (just shy of 140 minutes). Burger does what he can to enliven the proceedings, precious moments of whimsy popping up here and there. But overall there is a dour tediousness to the various training montages and backdoor politicking that's unavoidably tiresome, my mind wandering on more than one occasion, wishing the filmmakers would just get on with it.

There is a bigger problem, though not so much with the overarching story itself - it's more or less fine, for what it is - but with the main threat central to this initial episode of the saga. Not only is it a little on the silly side, think 1984 dashed with healthy dose of THX 1138 as delivered by Machiavellian scientists and soldiers who might as well have 'Dastardly Villain' stamped upon their collective foreheads, but it also makes little logical sense. More than that, there is zero shock to how things ultimately turn out; and while the stage is set for future revelations, as well as eventual full-bore revolution, I don't hold out a lot of hope that that will turn out any more stirring than anything presented here proves to be.

I'm making this sound worse than it is. Woodley is strong, and I like how down to earth she is throughout. She's not your typical Hollywood beauty and as such she fits this world, this character, all the more marvelously, the actress slipping into the proceedings with authoritative ease. While facets of heroines as sacrosanct as Leia Organa to Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley to Katniss Everdeen, are apparent, overall Woodley manages to make Tris uniquely her own, giving her a believable universality easy to relate to and understand.

As for Burger, I do think he does a more than adequate job the majority of the time, certain sequences having a zip and a zest to them I responded to. There's a great, briefly euphoric sequence featuring Tris on a zipline traveling through the ruins of her city, while another snapshot between her and Jeanine chatting over an ominous cup of tea has a noticeable hint of menace that sent shudders up my spine.

Yet as nice as all of this might be, again I admit to having a hard time bringing myself to care. As good as a few of the individual elements are, as strong as the casting proves to be, the rudimentary over-familiarity of all that is transpiring is difficult to get past. The world Divergent depicts is hardly special or new, and while I am slightly curious to see what happens next, I can't say I'm enough so to proclaim I'd be all that bummed if the studio decided to forgo making the sequels and let things end with this.


Anderson's Budapest Hotel a comedic masterwork
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Now playing


I've said more than a handful of times in the past that the works of Wes Anderson are arguably made for certain palates, each motion picture a fanciful journey into a highly stylized world that acquired tastes adore, while everyone else scratches their collective chins wondering what all the fuss is about. Thing is, based on the director's past few efforts, most notably Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, I've started to heavily rethink those sentiments. As with most things, good is good, great is great and magnificent - well, magnificent sort of speaks for itself. I don't care what one's taste buds typically salivate over, if those two films don't have one's mouth watering in glee once they're finished, then I can't help but question whether they have any feeling left in them whatsoever.

Those sentiments of mine I feel are confirmed with the release of Anderson's eighth feature, the beguiling, effortlessly charming The Grand Budapest Hotel, a sensational comedy of errors, intrigue, mistaken identities, murder, love, camaraderie and friendship that's far more lyrically and emotionally complex than anticipated. Inspired by the writings of Viennese author Stefan Zweig (whom I've admittedly never read), coming from an ethos born of the carefree days of a pre-Production Code Hollywood of the 1930s (think Ernst Lubitsch, the man behind To Be or Not To Be, Ninotchka and Design for Living), the movie is a consistent charmer that's far more than the sum of its individual parts. The stuff bubbling beneath surface, the subtext augmenting even the most inconsequential seeming of scenes, everything bursts forth at the most unlikely of moments making the resulting motion picture as grandiloquent an effort as anything Anderson has ever constructed (including Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums).

The movie is set up as a series of flashbacks as told by a pair of loquacious narrators eager to get their thoughts into the open. The first is an aging author (Tom Wilkinson) who in younger days (Jude Law) stayed at the deteriorating, if still opulently decadent, Grand Budapest Hotel, making friends with the ragtag gaggle of aged guests as well as the sardonic, presumably lazy, unpredictably watchful concierge M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman).

It is his good fortune to also make the acquaintance of the resort's eccentric owner, the reclusive Mr. Moustafa, (F. Murray Abraham), the two hitting it off, agreeing to have dinner at which long held secrets will finally have all their mysteries revealed.

It is Moustafa who then tells the next, most important story, taking the author back to the days between the great wars when the Grand Budapest Hotel was a European hotspot all the influential movers and shakers called their home away from home. It is here where all-knowing, ever-watchful concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) made a name for himself, taking a teenage immigrant nicknamed Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing, teaching him the tricks of the trade.

Not that said tricks were meant to include a murder involving wealthy dowager countess Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton), her conniving son (Adrien Brody), his menacing aid (Willem Dafoe), a fastidious tax and probate lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), a fidgety butler (Mathieu Amalric), a sexily duplicitous maid (Léa Seydoux), a hardened prison inmate with a talent for crafting escape plans (Harvey Keitel), the by-the-book Captain of the Lutz Military Police (Edward Norton), a sweetly innocent baker with a Mexico-shaped birthmark (Saoirse Ronan) and the mysterious members of an elite concierge underground sect known The Society of the Crossed Keys (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Waris Ahluwalia, Wally Wolodarsky). At the end of the day, it's pretty convoluted, incredibly wacky stuff, a screwball farce of epic proportions revolving around memories of lost loves, unfulfilled dreams, coming of age benchmarks and melancholic remembrances of times gone by.

If all one is interested in is the artifice, then a great deal of what is going on will zip by sadly unnoticed, which is a pity because, much like Moonrise Kingdom, the things Anderson (as well as co-story writer Hugo Guinness) are exploring are much deeper, far more profound than they look out of the gate. There is a depth to this that goes beyond the Agatha Christie-like mystery, beyond bubbly comedic prison break escapades and starry-eyed coming of age romance. There is a wrought-iron backbone bracing this whacky, visually inventive lollapalooza, allowing for a depth of meaning and a level of emotional maturity that caught me entirely off guard.

Anchoring it all is Fiennes, delivering one of the best performances of his entire, award-worthy career. There is a melodious complexity to his portrayal that's intoxicating, the actor delicately dancing around traits of darkness and light revealing facets of a multifaceted personality that are never, ever, as they initially appear. Fiennes doesn't hold back, doesn't give in, allowing circumstance, necessity and moment to fuel his actions, but not to define who he is and what it is that he is all about.

The technical aspects are what we have come to expect from an Anderson enterprise, and from Robert D. Yeoman's (The Darjeeling Limited) sublime camerawork (in three different aspect ratios, no less), to Adam Stockhausen's (12 Years a Slave) ingenious production design, to Barney Pilling's (An Education) exquisite editing -every aspect is excellence incarnate. But the real superstar is composer Alexandre Desplat (Zero Dark Thirty), the frequent Anderson collaborator crafting a magnificent score that augments everything that's taking place, his themes and motifs superbly enchanting.

I'm done with saying the films of Wes Anderson are for acquired tastes. I'm finished making statements that they only appeal to certain kinds of viewers. The simple truth is, when you make a movie as marvelous and as wonderful as The Grand Budapest Hotel the only prerequisite to watching it is a fondness for great stories told with skill, confidence, intelligence and flair, which is exactly what we have here.






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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Kermit & Company make a Most Wanted return
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Dystopian Divergent boldly goes in a familiar direction
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Anderson's Budapest Hotel a comedic masterwork
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