Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Muppets

The Muppet Show first aired on the 19th of January 1976 and ran for 5 seasons, taping 120 episodes before being cancelled. It's been off the air for 30 years now, but the franchise has spawned several feature length films. The latest installment, simply titled 'The Muppets', is a musical comedy romance starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel and Chris Cooper.

The plot of this film is both simple and dissociative. On one hand, it's about the urgent reunion of Jim Henson's beloved characters from the old Muppet Show, complete with opening dance number, special guest star, musical skits and back stage drama. On the other hand, it's about the dysfunctional adult relationship between Mary, Gary and Gary's "little" brother Walter. Mary and Gary have been dating for 10 years, but Gary still lives (and shares a pair of twin beds) with his brother Walter at a separate residence. On the superfluous third hand, it's a tale of betrayal and corporate greed as capitalist "Tex" Richman (Chris Cooper) secretly conspires with the Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf to tear down the old Muppet theater and drill for oil...in the middle of Hollywood.

I was only mildly a fan of the original series. Probably like many children, my enthusiasm for Kermit and friends peaked as a pre-teen and plummeted with the rapid onset of middle school and discovery of girls. It wasn't that the puppets or their eclectic list of guests had become infantile, it was the series's repetitive use of stale gags and lack of timely material. Watching Miss Piggy clobber somebody one more time isn't much more entertaining to me than listening to Sesame Street's Count von Count recite the numbers one through ten, but it is nostalgic.

The new Muppet movie is packed with nostalgia, frivolous cameos, unexplainable screen writing, and a defeatist attitude. The overall tone gives us the impression that Kermit's gone off his meds, evidenced by the frog's hermit lifestyle and electric fence he's erected around his home. Gary's little brother Walter, obsessed with the Muppet Show since a child (and a puppet himself), has little problem persuading Kermit to mount "one last" fund-raising performance and save the theater. However there's a catch: despite a story filled with superstar cameos, no one wants to guest host the show ... so they kidnap Jack Black.

Just out of curiosity, not because I really care:
  • Why no song and dance from Mr. Black? -- You go to the trouble of committing a class A-1 felony against the actor only to tie and gag him back stage. I'm disappointed that Tenacious D didn't get to jam with Animal.
  • Why were scenes of Kermit's incarceration deleted? -- If the producers were trying to spare children the image of an amphibian in handcuffs, there weren't many kids at the screening I attended--just saying.
  • Why was the ending was so contrived? -- Adding a nonsensical (and violent) twist to the last five minutes of a screenplay doesn't make for a clever plot point.

Bottom line is that the frog depressed me (more than usual). The bits and pieces of this film contained some entertaining scenes and musical numbers, but the script as a whole felt like that powder blue, polyester leisure suit my parents dressed me in as a child on Easter. Amy Adams is a beautiful and talented actress, and this movie has a PG rating. Nevertheless, if you've been dating Amy for the past 10 years and are still sharing a bedroom with your brother, there are some important questions you might want to ask yourself.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Cinerama
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Musical comedy romance
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Last Circus

Director-writer Alex de la Iglesia's most recent film opens with a machete wielding man in makeup. Padre-Payaso tonto (Father-Clown fool) is a "happy" circus clown who would rather not choose sides in the Spanish civil war. However, the year is 1937 and a right-wing authoritarian regime is about to take control of Madrid. Denied even a change of clothing, Father-Clown and his big top troupe are drafted to fight the nationalists while still in costume. After single-handedly slaughtering an entire platoon, the fool is captured by Franco's soldiers and imprisoned at a work camp … where he's later trampled to death by a horse.

The opening scenes set the tone for the rest of the film, a brutally absurd, grotesque collage of not-quite-comedic situations and insane acts. Leaping ahead to 1973, we're introduced to the movie's love triangle and three main characters. Sergio is a "happy" clown and star of his circus. He likes to beat his wife in diners and in front of co-workers. Natalia is Sergio's wife, a beautiful temptress and aerial contortionist, a girl who likes it rough. Javier is the "sad" clown. He has a lot of psychological baggage, and did I mention that he's the traumatized son of Padre-Payaso? The fact that Javier's job is to be publicly humiliated by Sergio at every performance is probably not in the best interest of society at large--something's liable to snap in Javier's fragile psyche, and it eventually does.

Javier's obsession with freeing Natalia from her abusive marriage plunges the circus into chaos. After savagely beating Sergio (almost to death) and disfiguring his face beyond the repair of even their skilled veterinarian, the ringmaster is forced to close the big top and open a go-go bar called "Kojak". That's right, the trapeze artists trade in their horses and elephants for a stage backed by giant mural of Telly Savalas.

Meanwhile, running naked through the countryside and hiding from the authorities, Javier is nurturing his psychoses and devouring uncooked deer meat. At one point he manages to fall in with a pack of scent hounds and spends time retrieving shot laden pheasants for one of Franco's hunting parties. But alas, Javier bites Franco's hand and is let go.

The sets and cinematography of The Last Circus are its strong points, they remind me more than a little of the 2008 film Il divo (the politics were foreign but it still managed to entertain with its carefully architected visuals). The image of Javier preparing for battle, bleaching his face with chemicals and using a hot iron to create the guise of rosy cheeks and red lips is both unsettling and bizarre. The screenplay itself does not make for a terribly interesting story, so don't expect an engrossing plot filled with complex characters, pretty much everyone in this story is selfish and insane.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish w/English subtitles
Genre: Horror drama comedy
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is a controversial figure. No one will deny that he's extremely wealthy and has succeeded in creating the most popular social networking site to date. Beyond the indisputable lies a fog of inseparable fiction and fact though. I don't know Mark, therefore I can't speak to his personal virtue or true intentions, but The Social Network paints him as a shallow, uncaring, unlikable, socially inept individual. We the audience are the jury, and we're asked to render a verdict based upon the arguments and first-hand accounts provided by the story's characters.

The story opens with Mark's juvenile, yet believable, response to a girlfriend dumping him over his condescending attitude towards her and her friends. In a knee-jerk reaction, Mark begins blogging hurtful gossip about his ex. At the same time (on the same night) he tosses back a few beers and throws together a web site that will allow users to comparatively rank the female students of Harvard. The Facemash site is so popular that its high traffic almost immediately crashes the Harvard network. Clearly, Mark's character craves recognition, but the way in which he attracts attention demonstrates an objectifying anger towards women (and the IT department).

Not long after, and without much surprise, Mark finds himself before the school's administrative board where he's accused of "breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the website, www.facemash.com." The same pattern of misbehaving-accusation-discipline continues for the remainder of the story.

We eventually discover the film to be a series of long flashbacks, chronicling the events from 2003 onward. In present day, Zuckerberg spends his time cooped up in a law office conference room listening to plaintiffs recount their grievances through past events. At times, it's nearly impossible to tell what case we're watching unfold. Changes in clothing and participant seating were the only ways I was able to tell that we'd moved forward or back in the timeline, and even then I wasn't sure in which direction.

With the exception of a few peripheral characters, nobody in this film is likeable. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) has a gift for narrating his characters' thoughts and delivers a convincing portrayal of someone with Asperger's syndrome (no, I'm not saying that Mark Zuckerberg suffers from that disease, everyone else on the Internet has speculated about that already).

One of the biggest annoyances in this movie for me is the name dropping of technology. I don't enjoy the over-stated, over-dramatization of insider terminology and technical mumbo-jumbo unless (maybe) it's tongue-in-cheek. The fact that you're registering your domain name with Network Solutions, or talking us through how you're using the wget command to download images of girls, or how you keep having to "break out" your favorite Perl script in order to crawl Harvard's college web sites is going to be lost on the majority of movie goers. More writers and directors should take a lesson from films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Lisbeth Salander doesn't cram what she's working on down our throats, but quietly lets us watch over her shoulder in case we're interested in what she's hacking and how she's going about it.

It's a great movie with a lot of good acting. Just remember, before taking everything you see or hear at face value, stop and consider that people are more often judged based on public opinion rather than facts or concrete evidence (even in a court of law). As one of the female lawyers puts it to Mark near the end of the screenplay, "I’ve been licensed to practice law for all of 20 months and I could get a jury to believe you planted the story about Eduardo and the chicken." Whether Eduardo was ever cruel to a chicken, we may never know, but now I've got you thinking about the possibility.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: DirecTV
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Biopic Drama
Rating: 3.75/5

Official Site
IMDB

P.S. The Winklevoss twins are a digital illusion.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Life in a Day

In 1937, a British anthropologist named Tom Harrisson, along with poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, collaborated to create the Mass Observation project. The project's goal was to record everyday life in Britain using a group of approximately 500 volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. These three men wanted to create an anthropology of their society, a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. "These diaries were then organized into books and articles with the intention of giving voice to people who weren't part of the "elite" and to show the intricacy and strangeness of the seemingly mundane," according to Life in a Day's director Kevin Macdonald.

Although the original motivation for making this film was to mark the fifth anniversary of YouTube, Macdonald admits that his inspiration was Harrison's project from the 1930's. The film's premise is simple. On July 24th, 2010, a date chosen "practically at random", people from 192 countries around the world were asked to take out their digital video cameras and answer three questions: "What do you love? What do you fear? What's in your pocket?" The videos were then uploaded to YouTube and edited together to produce a 95 minute documentary.

In terms of social relavence, producer Ridley Scott's documentary is a soft sell of life on earth. The movie is a pleasantly distracting piece of entertainment, however it's social sampling is not representative of our planet's inhabitants. It's a lopsided experiment in modern art, not a cinematic masterpiece. But what were you expecting? Afterall, instead of observing a population as a disinterested third party, Life in a Day is asking people to observe themselves and essentially report on what they think is important. The term 'narcissistic' comes up quite a bit in reviews and analyses of this film.

What's interesting to me is not the finished product, but the logistics and process by which the film was produced. There was no script and, aside from the temporal progression of morning to night and the answering of three questions, there wasn't much structure. In an interview prior to July 24th, Macdonald did sound like he already "knew" what kind of footage he'd be looking for, but would not comment for fear of prejudicing the camera operators.

Before watching this film, I was under the impression that all of the content was provided by YouTube users, but that is not the case. At least one set of footage (the Korean man riding his bicycle around the world) was donated by another filmmaker who happened to be in Nepal at the time. In order to obtain videos from the third world and places with no Internet access, producers spent £40,000 to purchase 400 HD cameras and mail them to 40 countries.

All told, the footage used in making Life in a Day ranges from extraordinary to ridiculous and mind numbing--I guess I don't get into watching someone film their elevator trip to and from the parking garage as much as some people. Noticeably in low supply were scenes of meals, work, and cats.

The musical score was also somewhat of an experiment. Written by British composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Matthew Herbert, the movie's soundtrack is fashioned from audio uploaded by users. People were asked to record four sounds: a single clap, a single note sung until running out of breathe, the taking and exhaling of a breathe, and (optionally) a favorite noise. I enjoyed William's and Herbert's compositions more than the photography.

The finished product premiered on January 27, 2011 at Sundance where it was streamed live over the Internet. This was also the closing night movie at SIFF 2011, but we skipped it in order to see a couple of other films (a good decision). But wait! the British are now making their own film called Britain in a Day. I like the BBC, maybe I will like their rendition of this experiment a little better.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: USA, UK
Language: Too-many-to-list w/English subtitles
Genre: Documentary
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB