Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Muppet Impossible: Life and Death Protocol

     Today we look at a revival of a classic family institution, a gritty war epic, and part 4 of an action franchise.  Hint, the one that sounds like I'll like it the least was my favorite.  I was just as surprised as you.

The Muppets - I grew up watching the Muppets and Sesame Street.  The Jim Henson studios and their creations will always hold a special place in my heart.  When I first heard that this film was going to be made in an effort to relaunch the characters for a new generation I winced a little.  I kept thinking of other efforts to relaunch the heroes of my youth in recent years and prepared myself for the worst (Batman doesn't count, he was also a hero of my grandfather's youth).  Now that I've seen the was definitely better than I feared, but not really all that I'd hoped.
     I have mad respect for Jason Segal as a comedic actor, and I think he shows promise as a writer, but perhaps making his hand the most accomplished in a three man writing/directing team was a poor choice when trying to revive iconic characters.  Somehow along the way, the movie became more about Segal's character (Gary), his girlfriend (Mary, played by Amy Adams), and a new Muppet named Walt (whose personality was a little too much of a general everyman by Muppet standards) than it was about the Muppets.  I did not object to these cast additions or find them poorly executed, but a movie called The Muppets should star Kermit and Miss Piggy. 
     The film attempted to pay homage to the first Muppet Movie but should have gone even farther making it about Kermit traveling around the country gathering the old gang in greater detail.  Show more of how the individual characters were coping in the modern world.  The original show was such a classic that appealed to kids and adults because it had puppets and silly humor coupled with subtle social satire presented in a "family friendly" manner without being condescending.  So, if you are going to try and relaunch the concept to the modern era, you need new characters and elements that make the Muppets current enough to offer the same sort of commentary and insight into the world of today.  A new member of the Electric Mayhem based on a more modern artist?  Sam the Eagle reborn as an AM talk radio pundit?  A celebutante Muppet?
     All that said, once the theme song rang in the actual revival of "The Muppet Show" I was seven years old at my grandparents house for a few minutes.  My nostalgia was the source of both my frustration and joy with this film.  I actually did enjoy it, I just wanted so badly to love it.  Available on DVD.  3 1/2 of 5*

Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol - I really had no great interest in watching this when I first heard about it.  The inclusion of Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner made it a tad more interesting, but still a fence straddler.  Then it came out and actually got a lot of positive attention (even talk of tech Oscars) and I decided I might as well check it out.  I'm really glad I did because it was a smart, exciting action movie with a real plot.  The performances and script were slightly campy, but only in the manner that the MI brand requires.  The action sequences were well orchestrated, the FX believable, and the super spy tech dazzling. I mean, there was no deep, thematic subtext, but it was definitely one of the best part fours I've ever seen, completely exceeding my expectations on all fronts. Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

City of Life and Death - I cannot claim any personal knowledge about the previous works of director/writer Chuan Lu, as this film was my first exposure either first hand or second hand.  I found myself impressed but with reservations.
     City of Life and death tells the story of the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanjing, China in 1937.  It is a brutally realistic (by all accounts and my impressions, but I'm certainly not an expert on early 20th century Chinese history) film that does not shy away from any of the horrors of war.  It is also an impressively well rounded representation, that plays an array of interlocking stories, involving a large and diverse cast of characters.  The script is well planned out, and leaves none of the various plots and subplots hanging.  It is very well shot, and is technically a very tight package all around.
     I only have two criticisms.  First, there were so many characters that it was difficult to develop them too far beyond the archetypes they represented.  There was the native Chinese university professor, who was accustomed to having an elevated status but eventually found herself to be just another Chinese woman to the invaders when her foreign colleagues were all recalled home.  Or the native attache to a German diplomatic official who betrays everything and everyone to try and protect his family.  I will give Lu credit that these characters are at least in conflicting situations that allow for drama, but we never really get to see who any of them are outside of these extraordinary circumstances.  Similarly structured films such as Magnolia and Short Cuts have benefited greatly by expanded running times.  Maybe that would have helped here.
     My only other complaint is that some of the acting is a little overblown and melodramatic, even given the extremely emotional circumstances that the characters found themselves in.  I was most impressed, acting-wise, was rising star Ye Liu, who said more with silence and stoicism than most of the cast could manage with histrionics.
     This film has a lot to say about both the best and the worst in human nature.  Loyalty, honor, sacrifice, cruelty, lust, and betrayal are all laid unapologetically bare over the course of this tale.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play  4 of 5*

And that's it for today.  Please feel free to post comments, good and bad, after any of my articles.  I want to know what people do and don't like about The Movie Frog so that I can make it as enjoyable and informative as possible.  Also, for more abbreviated versions of reviews, check me out on Twitter @themoviefrog.
                                                                                Till next we meet,

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