Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Muppets

**** 
These guys need no introduction. Except perhaps: it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet the muppets on The Muppet Show tonight. And indeed this is exactly how we see them, putting on a show at The Muppet Theatre. The Muppets is a throwback to earlier more successful works (and that certainly includes the TV show), embracing all that worked before. Their last outing was 1999‘s Muppets from Space. This is far more pared-down and foregoes any unnecessary guff and gimmicks. It has resulted in a much purer work that has delighted both fans and critics around the world.

It starts with Gary (Jason Segel) growing up next to his brother Walter in Smalltown, USA. While it is noted there’s something different about Walter, nobody mentions the fact that he’s a muppet. Gary sets off on a romantic excursion to LA with Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their anniversary. They also bring Walter. On a guided tour of The Muppet Theatre they find that dastardly oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has discovered oil under the theatre. The only way to stop him from destroying the place is to reunite the Muppets and put on a telethon to save it.

The film is peppered with celebrity cameos but they are not given a chance to dominate. Some of them barely get a look in (let alone a line). The stars of this show are the muppets themselves. The key humans play it nicely opposite their fuzzy counterparts: Jason Segel delivers just the right balance of average Joe and wide-eyed wonder to make it work, while Amy Adams seems perfectly at home in another Disneyfied setting. The songs have a sensational energy to them. For this, credit should be given to director James Bobin, no stranger to a musical number having directed Flight of the Conchords, and to Bret McKenzie himself (of Conchords fame), who wrote the music. One of the songs, Man or Muppet has even been nominated for an Oscar.

While the film’s outlook is sweet and un-cynical, it’s a very knowing script, filled with self-reflexive humour. (Along with Nicholas Stoller, Jason Segel also takes a writing credit.) This adds to the film’s charm and makes for a peculiarly joyful film experience.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Everything Must Go

***
This sees Will Ferrell in straight mode as opposed to comedic. Well, straightish since there is a lot of comedic value to Everything Must Go. But that’s in a brilliantly-indie fashion.

Nick Halsey loses his job and his wife in the same day. He comes home to find himself locked out of the house with everything he owns laid out on his front lawn. He has a history of alcohol problems and the day’s events prompt him to fall off the wagon. He proceeds to camp out on said lawn, getting steadily drunk and having a yard sale of all his conveniently-dumped stuff.

Based on the Raymond Carver short story, Why Don’t You Dance, this is appealingly un-obvious subject matter for a movie. Director Dan Rush shows a light touch. He doesn’t hammer home any message and is not judgemental of Nick’s behaviour. He does show the consequences of that way of life but not in a heavy-handed way. Things get dark when it emerges the reason for Nick’s firing is because of an unexplained “incident” with a female colleague, which occurred during one of his blackouts. No, all is not sweetness and light in indieland. The mild-mannered Nick certainly has a ticking time bomb quality about him. He befriends Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a neglected kid from the neighbourhood to whom he passes on some of his business acumen. This odd couple relationship, for example, is a fun one but handled without any cutsieness.

Rebecca Hall gives yet another effective (American) performance. She displays undeniable allure as his pregnant neighbour deserted by her husband. Will Ferrell exudes pathos in a quiet, restrained performance. He also gives good drunk and not in a slurring, clich├ęd way.

The film is ultimately a little unfulfilling but it is distinctly original and has an endearing sweetness. It’s a good script (from the director also) and a strong debut. Sadly it didn’t fare too well at the box office – even with comedy behemoth Ferrell at its forefront. So sadly, I’m not sure what the future holds for Mr Rush.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Young Adult

****
Director Jason Reitman re-teams with writer Diablo Cody, with whom he made Juno. However, none of the warm fuzziness of that film can be found here. Young Adult is hard, cold and not the most pleasant of watches. Saying all that, it’s wickedly funny.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a ghost writer of a popular series of books for teens - the target market being ‘Young Adult’. She is lonely, unfulfilled, and has problems with alcohol. You might say she is sick. Her actions certainly are in this film. She receives an email announcement that her ex-boyfriend, the happily-married Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has become a father. She promptly decides that actually she and him belong together and sets out to get Buddy back. Her mission takes her back to Mercury, the small town in which she reigned as both Prom Queen and Queen Bitch. She strikes up an uneasy friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt) who was the victim of a vicious hate crime that left him disabled.

Dark stuff, huh. But Reitman has a knack for making gloomy subjects entertaining (the cigarette industry, teenage pregnancy, sacking employees) and with this he doesn’t disappoint. It’s also probably his darkest film to date. As with his previous work, this is smart, script-led film-making that is simultaneously realistic and hilarious. He also has some great visual flourishes without being flashy. The central performance from Theron is startlingly unsympathetic. You’d be hard pushed to find a less likeable lead. As the acid-tongued Mavis, stuck in the past and unwilling to move on, she is brilliant in the role. The rest of the cast is superb; notably Patrick Wilson who always seems on the verge of making it huge yet remains a quietly-respected screen presence, and Patton Oswalt is dryly funny.

It also paints a very believable picture of alcohol abuse. Mavis is not a homeless wino, she's a functioning alcoholic. Albeit a seriously dysfunctional one.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Moneyball

*** 
Nominated for no less than six Oscars I can see why the Academy warmed to this: Based on a true story. Tick. Plucky underdog. Tick. Triumph in the face of adversity. Tick. And also penned by not one but two Oscar-winning writers (Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian).

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. The team has a fraction of the budget of the bigger sides. One such team, the New York Yankees soundly beat them early on in the film. Beane hooks up with Yale graduate and player analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who has some progressive ideas about the game. The team they put together for the new season – within their budget - is a misfit bunch of cheap players. Together, these undervalued players, according to Brand’s numbers, have the means to beat teams with big expensive stars.

Good performances, sharp dialogue and assured direction hide some serious flaws in this film. The main problem is that it’s incredibly dull. (Beane has a superstition about watching games so, basically, he doesn’t.) A recurring line in the film is, “it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball” and I have to agree. It strikes me as an elegant sport and clearly one that is cinematic. So it’s a crying shame we see so little of it. Even when the team starts to win director Bennett Miller denies us any opportunity to relish the glory. Instead we see a lot of extreme close-ups of pixelated statistics, and interiors of the Oakland A’s dingy offices. The key players are underwritten and none of them seem to have any kind of character arc. While there are some good scenes – with authentic performers having authentic conversations – none of them are great. The script is completely style over substance. One example sees Beane and Brand buying and selling players as the transfer deadline approaches. It’s a fun scene: the dialogue is bandied around at Sorkian warp speed as they field a bunch of calls, and cut some killer deals in a short space of time. But they are discussing players we have barely been introduced to (that they are selling) and ones we have not yet heard of (that they are buying). It’s hard to get excited by any of this.

It is a fascinating story, though, and the subject matter should just about hold anyone’s attention. It’s not exactly bad but it is overrated. On paper the film is certainly Oscar bait but it is distinctly lacking in a number of areas. Its current omnipresence in awards races (over far worthier omissions) can only be explained by the pedigree of the talent involved.




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