Word has come down that Frank Oz and some of the other original muppeteers were unhappy with the film, but it’s hard to imagine a more honest and heartfelt tribute coming from Hollywood these days. Say what you will about the Segal-Stoller-Bobin version of The Muppet Show, it doesn’t feel at all like a Disney cash grab. (It’s also considerably more enjoyable than the Muppet book-movies of the nineties, like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island.) And while frankly it’s still a bit jarring to note the changes in Kermit’s inflections and facial expressions since Henson’s passing, if you just think of him as a James Bond figure, now recast as Steve Whitmire, there’s a lot to like in this production.
The movie begins with the Apatowish-feeling introduction of a new muppet, Walter (Peter Linz), and his brother Gary (Jason Segal), two all-American kids growing up in the heartland — Smalltown, to be exact. (I presume Walter was adopted.) For obvious reasons, Walter becomes obsessed with the Muppets at a very early age, and so, when planning a trip to the Big City of Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Gary — to Mary’s mild consternation — offers to bring his brother along so he can visit the Muppet Studios. So far, so good. But on that fateful visit, Walter discovers that a nefarious oil man, Tex Richman (a hilarious, hip-hoppin’ Chris Cooper), is planning to buy the now-bedraggled studio in two weeks and destroy it, in order to get his hands on all the precious black gold pooled underneath. (In fact, he’s cut a deal with those classic one-percenters, Statler and Waldorf. Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.)
Naturally, Walter, Gary, and Mary track down the one-and-only Kermit the Frog — now living alone in a massive mansion bought by the since-estranged Miss Piggy — and inform him of Richman’s evil plan. To save the studio, Walter explains (having seen the contract), the Muppets will need to raise ten million dollars in the next fortnight. How can they do that? I know, let’s put on a show! And so Kermit and the team travel the world (by map) to get the band back together. As it happens, Fozzie has been working the Reno circuit with a tribute act called the Moopets (Dave Grohl, in an Animal costume, on drums.) Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, Bunsen Honeydew’s at CERN, Sam the Eagle at FOX News. But what of the porcine goddess? Can Kermit et al procure the talents of Miss Piggy once again after all these years? And, being optimistic has-beens in a harder, crueler entertainment world (the #1 show these days is Punch Teacher, hosted by Ken Jeong) where are the Muppets going to find some much-needed star wattage for their telethon? Maybe Animal made some friends in rehab…
That’s the basic gist, and for the most part The Muppets moves along with pop, fizzle, and verve — There are one-liners and sight gags piled into every corner of this film, and they usually stay true to the original wry-but-well-meaning Muppet brand of humor. Oh, yes, and there’s musical numbers too, as befitting a new Muppet movie. (They’re contributed by the Ernie of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie, and, even without FotC director Bobin providing the visuals, they’re all very Conchordian. (Consider lines like “a very manly muppet.”) Speaking of the songs, I do have a small quibble in that the humans — Jason Segal and Amy Adams — do almost all of the singing in this film. Shouldn’t the Muppets be taking point on the musical numbers most of the time?
Of course, it’d be hard for any new song to approach the timelessness of “The Rainbow Connection,” — In fact, Kermit and the gang actually sing “The Rainbow Connection” here late in the third act — which brings me to my main issue with The Muppets: It’s a total hipster nostalgia-fest, and it effectively turns the Muppet gang into Rocky Balboa or The Expendables — old, forgotten warhorses out for one more curtain call. Why not just let the Muppets continue on in another grand adventure? Do Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny ever worry about their contemporary cachet? Instead, Segal and Stoller have adopted an Almost Famous framing device — Walter’s desire to fit in/hang with his now out-of-date idols — that is almost suffocating at times in its Internet-era emo-hipsterishness. I mean, I grew up on and love the Muppets too, but does this film really have to be about some uber-fan’s feelings about them?
I’ll confess, it wasn’t just that I found the nostalgia cloying at times. More troublesome is the fact that the overwrought nostalgia here is tied to the wrong era. Time and again, this movie makes The Muppets seems like icons of the eighties, which I suppose is when young Segal, Stoller — and I — were into them. Here, Kermit et al sing along to (groan) Starship’s “We Built This City,” released 1985. They get a definitively eighties montage sequence, that is set up as such. Kermit has Cyndi Lauper in his rolodex (and, to be fair, President Carter.) They even have an ’80’s robot — which they continually call ’80’s Robot — driving them around from place to place, and offering people New Coke and Tab to boot.
But the problem is, The Muppets aren’t really products of the eighties at all. They’re seventies creations (and, really, Archie Bunker notwithstanding, isn’t Jim Henson one of the quintessentially seventies television icons?) Following on the beginning of Sesame Street in 1969, the Muppets appeared here and there throughout the early decade — including on Saturday Night Live — and got their own show in 1976, which ran until 1981. For that matter, The Muppet Movie came out in 1979. In 1984 — at best a year or two after what we now think of as “the eighties” coalesced — The Muppets Take Manhattan came out, effectively ending the Muppets’ participation in the decade (the exception being The Muppet Babies animated Saturday morning cartoon, whose theme song is still lodged in my head after all these years.)
The point being, The Muppets not only trafficks too much in nostalgia for my liking. It trafficks in a misplaced nostalgia that has more to do with the generation of the writers than with the actual Muppets themselves. Don’t get me wrong — Segal and Stoller do a lot right, this a very enjoyable evening at the movies, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to leave with a smile on your face. But the rewriting of history rankles — When you get right down to it, Generation Y shouldn’t misappropriate the legacy of Kermit and the gang any more than Tex Richman. Let the Muppets live their own time.
Who is this old man, and how his fate bound up with Hugo’s? That is the question that drives this historical fairy tale (formerly Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) What follows is a child’s adventure story, a fantastic and whimsical tale of movie history bound up in the love of film itself, and an exercise in 3D innovation forged by a master craftsman with clockwork precision and…ok, let’s take a breath here. At the risk of opening myself to charges of pearls before swine, can I actually just confess to being a little bored by Hugo?
Mind you, I’m not happy about it: I love movies, i like historical fantasy. By the syllogistic principle, I should adore a historical fable about loving movies. In addition Hugo is an exceedingly well-made entertainment, and I presume it works reasonably well as a family film for Potter-inclined children of a certain age and temperament. (Although, frankly, I could imagine a lot of kids being bored too.) And every time some new character popped into the story, it was almost always an actor or actress — Chloe Moretz, Ray Winstone, Michael Stuhlbarg — that I’m fond of watching. But it’s a plain fact that, however entrancing Scorsese’s second- and third-act invocations of Georges Melies — the cinema’s first imagineer, as it were — I watched Hugo feeling mostly disengaged from it.
In the interests of full disclosure, while thinking over the reasons for how this clinical distance might’ve happened, it occurred to me after the fact that I have felt much the same about almost every other one of Martin Scorsese’s films. I’m not saying the man’s a hack or anything — He’s clearly an exceptional craftsman and a deservedly historic figure among American directors. But from his early classics (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, all of which I saw on VCR years after they came out) to Goodfellas (which, to be fair, I caught after The Sopranos) to his recent run of films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Departed), I’ve had almost the same reaction in the end to every one of his films: Well that was well-put-together, but not very emotionally engaging. (The one major exception here, and my favorite Scorsese movie, is The Last Temptation of Christ, although I also quite like Casino and The King of Comedy. Update: And Kundun, After Hours, and The Age of Innocence as well, now that I think more on it.)
The other issue at work here is the issue of the Third Dimension. Over the course of its run, Hugo — a movie which eventually discusses the earliest days of the cinema — not very subtly makes a case that we are witnessing a similar birth of a new art form right now, with 3D technology. (After showing us the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 film of an arriving train, which scared audiences untrained in film-watching into thinking they’d be run over, Scorsese recreates the scene at the Gare Montparnasse using 2011’s finest 3D tech.) Now, I know that saying things like “3D movies are just a fad” is exactly the type of statement that will leave one ripe for ridicule down the road. (re: “Talkies will never catch on,” or “Why would we ever need color?“) Buuuuut…I’m still not entirely sure the current 3D boom is anything more than a fad.
Here’s the thing: I’m glad visionary directors like Scorsese, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson are pushing the envelope and the technology on 3D. (For what it’s worth, Cameron says Hugo is the best 3D photography he’s ever seen. I’ll reserve full judgment until I’ve seen The Hobbit at 48 frames per second.) At the same time, it seems to me that, at least at present, 3D is mainly being used as a way to push audiences to continue seeing films on the big screen instead of watching them at home. In other words, it’s a filler technology being used to paper over the gaps at a transitional time for the medium, and its recent embrace has more to do with the business of movies than the art of them.
So, my skepticism about 3D at the moment isn’t really about being a Luddite. If anything, the technology isn’t advanced enough yet. When audiences can see the effect without wearing the damnable headache-inducing glasses, or we move past screen projection to full three-dimensional projection, not unlike the holograms in Star Wars, then I might start to agree we’re in Lumiere or Melies territory. But making movies look vaguely and unnecessarily like pop-up books, or having a ginormous Sasha Baron Cohen head jump out at you rather than the usual arrows and projectiles or whatnot, is not really a game-changing use of the medium, and it seems a bit hubristic to suggest so.
I still submit that the most groundbreaking use of 3D I’ve ever witnessed was in the concert film U2 3D, which layered completely separate images into one field of vision, and thus suggested an entirely new form of cinema syntax. Unfortunately, neither Cameron nor Scorsese have opted to explore that route as of yet. Instead, Scorsese has given us here a fine example of how standard story-telling can be slightly enhanced by 3D. I just wish it wasn’t so ponderous at times. Your mileage may vary, of course, but when I was having reactions during the movie like, “Oh Lord, we’re about to get another ten minutes of Sasha Baron Cohen playing the martinet,” that is just not a good sign.
After a brief pre-credit moment of zen with the woman (Patricia Hastie) whose boating accident is the crux of the story, we meet Matt King (George Clooney, very good), a Honolulu attorney with a lot on his plate. His wife is still in a coma several weeks after the incident, and her condition isn’t improving. His younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is more than he knows how to handle (he’s “the backup parent”), and his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, a real find) is fast becoming a reprobate at a boarding school on the Big Island. The beautiful parcel of Kauai land his (haole) family has owned for generations is up for sale, and he alone has to choose a buyer — a decision all of his many cousins are watching with keen interest. And, it soon comes out, the woman he has spent his life with, and who he must now help his family and friends say farewell to, has been having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), and was, in fact, planning to leave him. Life in a Hawaiian paradise? “Paradise,” King tells us in a voiceover early on, “can go f**k itself.”
Like Schmidt and Sideways, most of the rest of the film involves a road trip journey of self-discovery — this time to beautiful Kauai (where, if you’ve ever visited there, Princeville and downtown Hanalei both get their druthers.) Along for the ride is Alexandra’s amiable, dim-witted boyfriend (Nick Krause), and at various times we meet Matt’s take-no-guff father-in-law (Robert Forster), beachbum cousin (Beau Bridges), and the Other Man’s sweet, unknowing wife (Judy Greer). But, unlike say, About Schmidt, where Dermot Mulroney and his family of rednecks were mostly just joke fodder, The Descendants is less sneering and more open-hearted toward its cast of extended characters (even Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man, who shows up as the husband-half of the Kings’ couple-friends.)
Along with best adapted screenplay — this is based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings — I would also expect The Descendants to garner Oscar nods for the very naturalistic Woodley and another for Clooney, who maintains his record of quality here. (Does any leading man have a better one? Even his bad films — The Good German, say — are usually interesting failures.) We’ve already seen Clooney suffer existential crises the past two years in Up in the Air and The American, but this one also stands on its own. His King isn’t the hyper-competent individual of those other two films — He’s just a well-meaning guy, who’s been distracted from his life for too long, trying to make the best of a bad hand.
In very related news, a possible description of the first six minutes has leaked. Very spoilerish if true, and it might be: Given that this prologue is hitting theaters in a month (before MI: Ghost Protocol), it seems around the time that this might leak. And it accords with the teaser, explains that time jump, and includes Bane’s most famous moment…Gonna have to update those medical records. (Last link via LMG.)
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
At the same time, I found Ides‘ depiction of contemporary politics to be totally theatrical and unrealistic, and its messaging rather muddled. (For a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie that does get politics right, despite its occasional Sorkinisms, check out Charlie Wilson’s War.) The basic conceit here is All the King’s Men, basically (or, if you’re new-school, Primary Colors) — No man is a hero to his valet and all that, especially in politics. But by having the feet of clay of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, here be (yawn…oh, and major spoiler, I guess), in the parlance of politics, a “bimbo eruption,” Ides not only makes itself seem relentlessly dated. It seems to flinch from the problems in contemporary politics that people are actually and justifiably cynical about.
So, now that I’ve spoiled one of the major “twists,” let me roll it back for a moment. It’s the final days of the Ohio Democratic primary, and Governor Morris is in a neck-and-neck race with Senator Ted Pullman of Arkansas (Michael Mantell, not a factor here.) Running the respective campaigns are Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — although, don’t get your hopes up, they have maybe 30 seconds of time together.The kingmaker of the entire race could well be Senator Thompson of North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright), who has recently dropped out and has delegates to spare — although, again, don’t get your hopes up, Wright is here for maybe five minutes tops. And the ace in the hole is Morris’ wunderkind campaign aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). He does…messaging? Voter outreach? It’s totally unclear, and we never see him do anything important. But the film depends on him being considered an amazing and indispensable political genius, so let’s presume he is. (Yes, yes, more Gosling haterade. He’s actually fine here, FWIW.)
In any case, Meyers is apparently such an earth-shattering asset that, one day, the opposition (Giamatti) asks to do lunch in a possible bid to get him to switch sides. But when word of this (totally innocuous) barroom meet leaks to an enterprising NYT reporter (Marisa Tomei), the story threatens to tank Meyers’ relationship with his boss (ok, maybe) and develop into a full-blown, campaign-sinking media sensation (Really? Why? They’re both Dems. And are all Ohio voters meant to be such political junkies that they would devote extreme import to an aide on one campaign having lunch with another? This is an inside-the-Beltway, Lloyd Grove tidbit at best.) And then there’s the complicating matter of Meyers’ new fling, a young and exceedingly friendly campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). What was it Chekhov said about comely interns in the first act of a political play…?
So you can basically tell where The Ides of March is going from relatively early on. (If not, every Obama-esque utterance by Morris, who’s a pro-gay-marriage, secular humanist liberal dream candidate, also gives the game away. There’s gotta be something up the man’s sleeve or there’s no movie.) Still, I admired some of Ides‘ visual conceits — for example, having the climactic, idealism-deflating tete-a-tete occur in a hotel kitchen. (In US politics, really horrible idealism-deflating things have happened in hotel kitchens.) And, thanks to its actors and crisp direction, the film mostly sustains an impressive dramatic heft even when the story seems more than a little implausible.
But here’s the trick [back to the big spoiler, if you want out]: So Governor Mike Morris, as its happens, has a failing for the interns. To which I say…Honestly, who cares? This is the sort of thing that destroys your political idealism? We had an impeachment crisis over exactly this issue, and 60% of America shrugged and backed the president at the time. And, ten years after the Bill Clinton era, the sin of his administration that rankles isn’t his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky — It was the final removal of Glass-Steagal, which helped pave the way for the (unpunished) economy-imploding blowout of our times. Similarly,the thousands hitting the bricks for #OWS in various cities right now don’t particularly care who Obama, or anyone else in Washington, is screwing at any given time. They care who they’re screwing over.
And, in the end, the intern problem here is only the icing on the cake. The Ides of March is a film that’s almost entirely about the process of politics — scoops and polls and leaks, campaign managers and endorsements. It has almost nothing to say about the actual content of politics — jobs and schools and taxes. I don’t even remember, other than the aforementioned litany of hot-button cultural issues, any actual, honest-to-goodness questions of political import coming up. One of the main reasons, I’d argue, why the American people are sick-to-death of politics and politicians today, is all the useless, inside-baseball, endless-horse-race media coverage, when all folks really want is a good, well-paying job and a decent school in the neighborhood. In this respect and despite its good intentions, Ides is less a diagnosis of the disease afflicting the body politic and more just another manifestation of the symptoms.
From recently in the NYT, Christopher McDougall makes the case for barefoot and minimalist running. YMMV of course, but at least for me, I’ve felt less injury prone since making the switch a few months ago. “‘Barefoot-style’ shoes are now a $1.7 billion industry. But simply putting something different on your feet doesn’t make you a gliding Tarahumara. The ‘one best way’ isn’t about footwear. It’s about form. Learn to run gently, and you can wear anything. Fail to do so, and no shoe — or lack of shoe — will make a difference.”