Blu-Ray Round-Up: 12/23/13

The Great Muppet Caper

The Great Muppet Caper (Jim Henson, 1981)The Great Muppet Caper is one of the best comedies ever made. Period. This is an irrefutable fact.

While there might be some squabbling over what film featuring Jim Henson’s beloved Muppets is the best overall (with many tending towards the still great first outing and its decidedly heartier feel-good vibe), I have never wavered in my Sam the Eagle like belief that Muppet Caper has more jokes and gags that hit as hard and work as well except with the possible exception of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and even still I would give the edge to Henson’s work here. I simply cannot watch this film without the same fervor that some people reserve for Dumb and Dumber or Anchorman. I have nearly every word of the screenplay memorized – every song, every gag, even every silly visual joke – and I am ready, willing, and able to deploy them at a moment’s notice. Since childhood it has been like this, and the fact that I watch this flick twice a year (at least) without ever tiring of it speaks to its power. On a personal level, this film joins only A Nightmare on Elm Street, Casablanca, L.A. Confidential and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as one that I could never get sick of and will always be in the mood to watch regardless of temperament, workload, or time of year. If this film is on and you had something you wanted me to do, tough luck. Because The Muppets.

Henson takes over directorial duties for the first time (following a fruitful, but admittedly acrimonious relationship with Muppet Movie director Jim Frawley) to tell the story of Kermit the Frog, Fozzie the Bear, and Gonzo the Whatever as a trio of investigative reporters that go to London to redeem themselves after bungling coverage of an epic jewel heist that targeted a well known fashion designer (Diana Rigg). While there they meet a whackload of other Muppets, Kermit is duped into thinking Miss Piggy is actually Rigg, and they run afoul of master criminal Nicky Holiday (Charles Grodin) in a madcap comedic adventure.

From the opening commentary with the trio of buddies in a hot air balloon together to the ludicrously plotted climactic museum break-in, Henson delivers the Muppets in their purest form. Slightly naughtier than they are allowed to be on television (and with far more boundary pushing jokes and a potential land speed record for the number of times the fourth wall is broken over the course of a single film), Henson clearly studied the cinema of Mel Brooks and Preston Sturges before coming up with something that’s as equally off the wall as it is on point. It’s sublime, cameo filled silliness, and for my money one of the few examples of a perfect, unpretentious film. It has a grand ambition and it succeeds in following through.

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It’s just a shame that the Blu-Ray that has recently been released for it is kind of lacklustre. The first home video incarnation of the film in about a decade and the picture still hasn’t been cleaned up at all. It’s one thing to leave the grain in a film, and it’s another to have not touched it at all, and Great Muppet Caper looks about as good as it did on the DVD that came out previously from Disney. It might even be a bit more beat up. There are also only a pair of special features, and both are sing-along tracks.

I should also mention that The Great Muppet Caper is only available on Blu-Ray as a two-pack with Muppet Treasure Island, easily the weakest of all of the theatrically released Muppet films. Forgetting that a Muppet film should be fun and humorous, Treasure Island is dour, serious, and shockingly light on actual Muppet hijinks. It’s the rare example of a film that can’t even be enlivened by a great performance from Tim Curry in a villainous role or an admittedly awesome Hans Zimmer score. It’s simply ponderous and kind of useless. It also has a few more special features, all of which are ported from its previous DVD release (commentary from Brian Henson, Rizzo, and Gonzo, sing alongs, and a behind the scenes look), and the picture quality seems better than Muppet Caper probably because it isn’t as old.

But this should in no way dissuade you from picking up or at least seeing Great Muppet Caper. It really is one of the all time greats. Just getting the Blu-Ray (regardless of its quality) was a highlight of my holiday season. Serious collectors might want to wait a bit, but fans and those who have never seen it should grab one immediately.

Scrooged

Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988) – It’s kind of a bummer that Bill Murray was never fond of Scrooged. Constant conflicts with Lethal Weapon and The Goonies director Richard Donner over the comedic direction of the film’s screenplay (written by two of Murray’s best friends: Mitch Glazer and late SNL writer and controversial comic Michael O’ Donoghue) and a studio desperate to create the next Ghostbusters with Murray at the forefront led to him having a generally miserable outlook on the film over the years. In fact, if it wasn’t for the involvement of Glazer or O’Donoghue, he probably never would have done this 1980s metafictional satiric retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After the burn out from the first Ghostbusters juggernaut and the commercial failure of his first stab at serious acting in the W. Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor’s Edge, Murray was already in a state of blissful semi-retirement in Europe and starting to cultivate the more elusive and mysterious personality he has become known for.

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After production wrapped on Scrooged and the film was a moderate box office success (doubling its $32 million investment and admittedly scoring one of the best opening weekend of any film in 1988 over its American Thanksgiving debut) and Murray no longer had to play nice, he lambasted the film in a kind of Scrooge-like fashion. In an interview with Roger Ebert (who also didn’t like Scrooged) during a press tour for Quick Change he said he was saddened by how the script had been changed by Donner (who also produced) and the studio, and that he felt like he was being made to carry the entire production himself. He would also vow in other interviews to never work with Donner again.

Looking at the film, however troubled the production might have been, the end result is one of the most interesting, entertaining, and certainly the funniest retelling of the time honoured tale. Next to Brian Desmond Hurst’s Alastair Sim starring adaptation of the story in 1950 and the offbeat retelling of the story with the Muppets and Michael Caine, Scrooged most adequately captures Dickens’ themes of togetherness rising about greed and avarice around the holidays. Whatever the trouble with the film overall was to Murray, the ends justify the means.

Murray stars as Frank Cross, the cold hearted network chairman at IBC. The youngest executive to run a network in history, the pressure is on for him to deliver a holiday spectacular with a $40 million, multi-country gimmicky simulcast production of Scrooge. Self medicating his days away with snide sarcasm and a steady liquid diet of Stolichnaya and Tab, Frank treats everyone around him like dirt: his put upon secretary (Alfre Woodard), a programming director (Bobcat Golthwait) that he unceremoniously fires for disagreeing with him on a promo, and his clueless, market-share hungry boss (Robert Mitchum). In Dickensian fashion/the most justified karma possible, Frank is visited by the “golf course worm food” corpse of his old boss (William Forsythe) who tells him to expect visits from three ghosts to show him the past, present, and future repercussions of his nasty ways.

If there’s a problem with Scrooged, it’s that to a certain degree it’s overstuffed, but none of that’s really expressly the fault of Murray or Donner. As good as both Woodard and Golthwait are, the film has little use for two Bob Cratchit surrogates. A sweet love story between Frank and the do-gooder woman he abandoned for his job features a great interplay between Murray and Karen Allen, but it also doesn’t  need to be there. And a rivalry between Frank and a new guy brought in from LA to help run things on the Scrooge set (played by John Glover with some of his oiliest charm) is so underbaked that it should have just been cut entirely. Even the film’s admittedly hilarious opening scene with promos for other unconscionably trashy IBC holiday specials feels like a film that just keeps on adding too many layers.

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Yet that very messiness works in the film’s favour and helps to give it an unlikely endearing quality. The gags might not all seem connected to the same film, but in the same way this month’s Anchorman sequel attempts to craft a serious look at the state of television in the 1980s amid a series of sketches, Scrooged actually pulls off the tone far better. From Frank’s hilariously hyperbolic and hyper-violent promo for his opus to the fact that no one involved with the show-within-the-film even having a clue what A Christmas Story is about, Scrooged effectively skewers 80s greed without ever feeling too much like a product of its time. The dialogue (especially from Murray who clearly did a lot of off the cuff riffing here) consists of jokes that are funny in any era, not just the “me” decade. If anything, it’s aged a lot better than most of Murray’s films. Only in the last five minutes when Frank has to deliver a long winded, almost fourth wall breaking speech does it all threaten to come off the rails, but paradoxically it’s also the only part of the film that even remotely has any real Christmas cheer.

I know we wrote about this film last year around this time, but with the Blu-Ray now reissued at a cheaper price (still devoid of special features of any kind, but sporting a gorgeous transfer) I felt the need to chime in since there isn’t much of anything new on the Christmas movie front this year for home entertainment worth talking about. I get the suspicion that at some point Scrooged was poised to be the original Bad Santa in terms of its nasty comedic streak, and the film’s relative failure with critics who might not have understood this kind of humour upon its release means it kind of retains that. But it’s also the only holiday film I can think of that was made with the optimistic cynic in mind, making it one that I will gladly go back to year after year.

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) – Certainly groundbreaking in its time for blending live action filmmaking and animation, the musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins arrives in time for the holidays on Blu-Ray to coincide with the film’s 50th anniversary and the release of Disney’s heavily hyped fictionalized behind-the-scenes look Saving Mr. Banks. It’s every bit as charming (and overlong) as it has always been and with a glorious new visual transfer and sound mix.

There’s not a heck of a lot to say about the film that hasn’t already been said: Walt Disney spent a good twenty years trying to make the film a reality, going back and forth with Travers to secure the rights to a film the author never wanted to let go of in the first place. The Sherman Brothers would create one of the most memorable soundtracks in film history. The visuals would become iconic and game changing. Relative unknown actress Julie Andrews would become a superstar, and Dick Van Dyke would create one of his most beloved characters despite a Cockney accent often voted as one of the worst in film history. This tale of a nanny (Andrews) who comes to watch over a young brother and sister (Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber) in 1910 London for a pair of oblivious, working class parents (David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns) would become a TV and “the teacher doesn’t want to work today so let’s just throw on a movie” staple, and rightfully so. Despite its bloat, it’s a breezy, entertaining film that kids and adult can enjoy just as much.

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While the Blu-Ray offers up a vastly improved picture and sound options, the only new special feature (outside of some sing-along tracks) is a talk between actor Jason Schwartzman and composer Richard Sherman that’s only included to tie into Saving Mr. Banks. It’s genial enough, but not all that informative. It’s best to delve into the discs “classic’ special features from the the 40th anniversary DVD about a decade ago, which includes a commentary track from Andrews, Van Dyke, Dotrice, and the Shermans, along with almost three hours of featurettes that offer a much more well rounded picture of the film’s historical production than Saving Mr. Banks does. At least the disc is better in that respect, and collectors and fans would be wise to seek out this upgrade.

 THE LONE RANGER

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013)There’s a decidedly old school charm to The Lone Ranger that works in its favour most of the time, but it’s also such a maddeningly modern blockbuster that it left me feeling older for having watched it. Aside from some really great stuntwork in a pair of showstopping (if incredibly similar) action set pieces, an interesting take on the film’s titular cowboy, and a good look overall, The Lone Ranger gets bogged down thanks to a useless 149 minute running time and a cavalier, ironic, and wholly unwelcome revisionist history that thinks it’s progressive but is dumb as desert dirt.

District Attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) sets off for Texas to visit his big brother, hot shot lawman Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), who runs the show in a burgeoning hamlet soon to be connected to the rest of civilization thanks to the intestment of a wealthy railroader and silver baron (Tom Wilkinson) that’s really calling the shots. After a high profile outlaw escapes (William Fichtner), John is helpless to stop his brother from getting gunned down and he’s left for dead. Saved from being buzzard food by the native warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) and the intervention of a spirit horse that seems to think Reid will make a great, unkillable warrior, the uneasy friends realize they have a common enemy and set out to enact justice.

The biggest and most glaring problem with The Lone Ranger, and there are many despite moments that truly dazzle visually, is that agonizing running time that’s completely unwarranted for a story this threadbare. It’s admirable that Verbinski and trio of screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rosario, who both worked on the Verbinski created Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and Justin Haythe, who penned Snitch and Revolutionary Road) want to lend some depth to the titular masked man, but none of them have a clue how to pull that off.

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The first thirty minutes or so are an exemplary set up. Hammer really sells the idea that the Lone Ranger was really kind of a bookish, John Locke idolizing nerd and not the hero everyone thinks he was. Watching him bumble through his training and coming to terms with being the last person standing is fun, but it’s a fun that very quickly wears off since the film shifts the focus to anyone and everyone but him. The story isn’t remotely complex in terms of plotting and character, but much of what transpires after the opening has no bearing on the enjoyment of the climax. I’m sure there’s a way to make an epic out of a character known primarily for starring in brief serials, but this surely isn’t the best way it could have been done.

The villains get stabs at depth but Fichtner and Wilkinson can’t do much of anything to salvage what they’re given. They’re forced to resort to mugging for the camera, and while they’re good at it, the film’s drive to try and deepen their relationship and desire to forward some sort of half baked theory about the nature of brotherhood is unconscionably dull. It makes it easy to retroactively realize that pretty much every character in the film is given more interesting stuff to do than the Ranger does (including the under utilized Dale), but none of it adds up to much of anything at all.

That is, of course, except for some of the worst female characters in recent memory. First, and probably most prominent, is Ruth Wilson as Rebecca Reid, who really serves no other purpose than to scream and cower in terror whenever anything bad is happening. The second is Helena Bonham Carter (making her first appearance alongside Johnny Depp in a non-Tim Burton film) as a prostitute with an ivory leg that just so happens to be a gun. The former would be better served by just being tied to a set of train tracks and left for dead. It would almost be less offensive. The latter – besides no longer being an original idea thanks to Robert Rodriguez – is literally only used as a ludicrously implausible Chekov’s Gun.

Then there’s the matter of Johnny Depp playing a Native American character; that big white, spirit elephant in the room. For what it’s worth, I can see where the film wants to head with the character by making Tonto the real brains behind the operation and having him use everyone’s racism to fly under the radar and often unnoticed, and Depp is convincing enough of an actor to convey that. That really doesn’t make it any more excusable because there’s definitely a sense of “look at how clever were being” post-irony to every frame of the film featuring Tonto. If the film were titled Tonto and The Lone Ranger, it would make slightly more sense, but still be racially insensitive. This same tack applies to a relatively minor slave character (and from what I can recall probably the only African American in the film) who exists only to be talked down to before helping out the heroes by doing one big thing for them, supposedly excusing everything that came before it. It’s almost the “not racist” version of the “no homo” phenomenon from a few years back and there’s no way to sugar coat it. You’ll either block it out or it will irk you incredibly.

Aside from Hammer, who really does get a chance at a star making performance despite the film undercutting him, the real paycheques here are earned by the real craftsman behind the project: the stunt people, the production designers, the graphics artists, the drivers, etc. Every cent of the film’s astronomical budget is up there on screen, and for everything that I’ve said negatively about Verbinski – who has proven incapable of making any film at a reasonable length save for possibly Rango – he certainly knows how to shoot action well and create tension within an action sequence. The lumbering locomotives and galloping horses are all something to truly behold and will likely leave the biggest impression on audiences after the credits roll.

Also, there’s a quite a bit of gustiness being shown by Disney in releasing this under their own brand. They did release the dark and somewhat twisted Pirates films, but Lone Ranger is on a whole other level of violence with people getting gunned down and innocent bystanders being put in harms way at an alarming rate. This is a point that could be seen as a negative to some, but it’s actually one of the more interesting elements to the film. Again, Verbinski proves through his use of violence that he can create vibrant scenes and moments, but he can’t sustain it.

Put bluntly, this film is an ungodly 45 minutes too long, making any other faults almost unforgivable because they are impossible to escape from quickly, and it’s an immense let down after an opening thirty minute that promise a sort of child like glee that disappears for almost a full two hours after that.. Much like The Place Beyond the Pines earlier this year (which was a full 9 minutes shorter than this, told 3 stories, and was actually trying to be a sprawling art house crime epic), one could take a nap during the entire middle section of the film, wake up for the climax, and the will have missed absolutely nothing of consequence. That’s kind of sad because although the film comes with a needless framing device of Johnny Depp in old man make-up and bookended with two train chases as the big action beats, there’s some stuff worth watching in here. Someone just needs to sit Mr. Verbinski down and say that enough is enough.

The Blu-Ray looks and sounds amazing enough (especially during the action sequences at the beginning and end that are seemingly mixed with the express intention of pissing off neighbours), and the special features are adequate. Armie Hammer takes viewers on a personal look through a lot of the impressive location shoots for the film. There’s a really in-depth look at the film’s impressive train based stunts, and another featurette that looks at everyone in the cast having to go to “cowboy camp,” but anyone who wanted to hear from people other than Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer will probably be disappointed.

 Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (Thor Fruedenthal, 2013)I remembered almost nothing about the first Percy Jackson movie that came out as I approached the sequel. All I remembered was that I kind of liked it, but if quizzed on the plot or who was even in the film, I wouldn’t have known. I didn’t even remember that the first film was even successful enough to warrant a sequel carrying on the big screen adventures based on Rick Riordan’s popular young adult series of novels. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is more or less the same thing, but on a lower scale. It’s still pleasant enough family entertainment that won’t be remembered for very long, but won’t be regretted if watched.

Teenage Percy (Logan Lerman), son of Neptune God of the Sea, remains at the special camp in the woods designed to protect and train the demigod children of Olympians sired from humans. He’s having a few personal crises. He thinks he’s lost the shine that made him special and his questing abilities are called into question. His dad still won’t talk to him, and now he apparently has a Cyclops half-brother (Douglas Smith) who is really friendly, but looked down upon since he’s of feared heritage. When Percy’s previous nemesis Luke (Jake Able) turns out to not be dead after all, he sets out on a new quest (that he’s not technically assigned to thanks to a prophecy naming him directly) to retrieve the famed Golden Fleece with his friends Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson). Percy wants the Fleece to heal the tree that protects the camp from outside forces, while Luke wants to use it to resurrect the Titan God Kronos to crush the Olympians once and for all.

Director Thor Freudenthal (taking over from Chris Columbus) continues in the same sort of Harry Potter aping that made the books and the previous film such a success, and he’s clearly doing a lot more this time with a lot less at his disposal. The set pieces are kept to a strange minimum. The titular Sea of Monsters is glimpsed for maybe about three whole minutes before moving on to something else that could have been filmed cheaper on a sound stage. There’s even a portion where everyone seems to be hanging out on a really modest look yacht. There’s definitely a reason for them to be there, but it seems strangely out of place and somewhat cheap. And yet, it ends with an incredibly ingenious chase and fight sequence on board that’s actually the best part of the film. I haven’t read the books, but the ending at an abandoned amusement park on a far off island seems both a bit strange and still not exploited to its full potential.

It’s that kind of unpretentious charm and top notch work within those constraints that make the film absolutely charming, and the returning cast of primary characters bring a considerable amount of likeability. Lerman is still an engaging hero and one of the best young, working actors today. Daddario and Jackson get their moments to be the smart ones and they make the most of it. Smith’s sympathetic Cyclops is a fine addition. Abel does a great job being an arrogant villain everyone wants to boo off the screen. Levin Rambin steals the most scenes though as Percy’s chief rival and always sarcastic classmate Clarice. There aren’t too many adults hanging out this time except for plot exposition and brief comedic bits, but Stanley Tucci, Anthony Stewart Head, and Nathan Fillion (in a single scene and making the best possible Firefly reference) are welcome sights.

Sea of Monsters breezes by easily, and the fantasy is pretty easy to digest. Like the previous film, it’s slightly better than a time waster, but it probably won’t make very many lasting impressions. Ditto the Blu-Ray, which looks and sounds fine and carries a smattering of special features: mostly brief EPK styled interviews and a pretty neat, if all too brief, motion comic that fleshes out Tyson’s backstory.



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