189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

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066: The Muppets

I grew up with The Muppets. I was at the prime age to watch this brilliant television series when it was first broadcast. I remember being amazed at all the little details that Jim Henson’s muppeteers would put in their scenes. After the series was cancelled we were left with the movies that were sporadically released on home video. While The Muppet Christmas Carol was very funny, it never recaptured that theater experience you got from the original series.

The news that a new Muppet movie was in the works at Disney (now the owners of the Muppet brand) gave me some pause. There always was an edgy quality to the comedy and Disney-fying that would be devastating. Then it was revealed that the project was championed by none other than Jason Segel, a great comedic actor and, according to him, a huge fan of the original show. That eased my dread a bit. This is a guy who has his head in the right place and wouldn’t exploit The Muppets for personal gain.

Boy, was I glad when the positive reviews began pouring in. Jason Segel and director James Bobin had managed to create a movie that capitalized on the star power of The Muppets, but not take them for granted. In The Muppets we meet Walter. He is a puppet who looks a lot like a Muppet. In a beautiful opening montage we see how he and Jason Segel’s Gary grew up together, but when Walter sees The Muppet Show on TV for the first time all he wants is to go to Los Angeles and be part of that extraordinary group. One day he and Gary and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) take a trip to L.A. Once there Walter finds out the original Muppet Theater is in danger of being demolished on account of the greedy oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). The only way to save the theater is to get the Muppets back together again for one last show to raise the money. The problem is that The Muppets haven’t spoken to each other in years and have gone on to live their lives elsewhere.

It is this meta approach that makes The Muppets so special. Instead of presenting The Muppets as the successes they were, Segel and Bobin chose to show them at their weakest. Fozzy plays in a cheap coverband in Reno, Kermit never leaves his sizable mansion which he bought with Miss Piggy who is now a fashion editor in Paris, Animal is in anger management therapy, Gonzo sells toilets and the list goes on and on. Only Rowlf has nothing better to do. This concept alone delivers some heartbreaking and often painfully hilarious scenes. At the center you will always finds Walter, who is thrilled to meet The Muppets, but is also disappointed at the state they are in. We see Walter grow from an insecure puppet to an assertive Muppet during the course of the film.

There are two things that a Muppet can not do without: comedy and songs. And The Muppets has got both in spades. The comedy is as we remember it from the old shows: incredibly fast, often low-brow and that’s the way we like it. The Muppets are known for their quickfire comedy and the creative team was wise to recognize that. The songs start almost right away with the very pleasant “Life’s a happy song”, in which we see Walter, Gary and Mary dance all across Smalltown to the dismay of its inhabitants. It’s a catchy tune and it sets the tone for the movie. Not all the songs work as well as this one, though. There are some smaller songs that don’t really manage to get off the ground, like “Me Party” and “Let’s Talk About Me”. But on the other hand we get a beautiful rendition of ”The Rainbow Connection” and a new song called “Man or Muppet”, that would later win an Oscar.

I can heartily recommend The Muppets to everybody who has a beating heart. At the end even the biggest cynics will be clamoring for a return of The Muppet Show to television, a project that is probably better left untouched. I for one will be watching The Muppets for many years to come together with my dvd’s of the original show, which is still amazing.

> IMDb