Monthly Archives: March 2014

Puppet Power

Jim Henson’s creations still serving up ‘entertainment for everybody’

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Muppets Most Wanted

Ricky Gervais, Tiny Fey & Ty Burrell

Directed by James Bobin

PG, 107 min.

 

The Muppets have been around since 1955, and their creator and longtime driving force, Jim Henson, the puppeteer who brought them from TV’s Sesame Street to Hollywood and beyond, died in 1990. But Henson’s original idea that his Muppets offer “entertainment for everybody” is still very much alive and well.

The troupe’s eighth movie is yet another family-friendly, something-for-everyone affair, a rollicking roundup of trademark put-on-a-show shtick, gonzo sketch comedy, toe-tapping musical numbers and a zany bombardment of guests. As always, the felt-and-foam antics of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other familiar Muppet cast are bolstered by a parade of Hollywood pop-ins, which helps freshen up some of the vaudeville-style gags.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Tina Fey plays a Siberian prison warden with a penchant for song-and-dance.

The cameos come fast, and often last only for an instant—step out to the lobby even for a moment and you could easily miss Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Zach Galifianakis, Saorise Ronan, Salma Hayak, Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci, Chloë Grace Morentz, Josh Grobin, Celine Dion or a number of others who all seem eager for even a small part of the fun and a moment in the Muppet sunshine. Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell have more substantial roles in the story, which concerns a nefarious Kermit look-alike who infiltrates the ensemble, beginning a trans-European crime spree and sending everyone’s favorite show-biz amphibian away into shivery Siberian exile.

Of course it sounds preposterous. But you do understand we’re talking about a bunch of talking, singing, dancing puppet animals…right?

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Still the Champ

‘Rocky’ six-pack proves palooka’s staying power

Rocky Heavyweight Collection

Rocky Heavyweight Collection

Blu-ray $59.99 (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

 

You can’t keep Hollywood’s most iconic palooka down, and he certainly goes the distance in this roundup of all six Rocky movies, from Sylvester Stallone’s original underdog saga that got it all started (1976) to his out-of-retirement comeback in Rocky Balboa (2006). A generous array of extras makes this a true knockout for fans of the franchise: commentary from Stallone; the actor’s appearance on a 1976 episode of Dinah!; a three-part making-of documentary; multiple behind-the-scenes features; a tribute to actor Burgess Meredith; and an interview with cigar-chomping boxing writer and sports historian Bert Sugar.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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‘Road’ to Superstardom

Elton John’s 1973 breakthrough repackaged with loads of extras

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Elton John

CD $55.90 (Universal Music/Island)

 

In today’s era of digital downloads, music collections “in the cloud” and audio streaming, it must seem like ancient history to reflect on a time from 1973 when this monumental double-disc breakthrough album—which catapulted the piano-pounding singer-songwriter into superstardom—sold 31 million copies on vinyl. In addition to re-mastered versions of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classics “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting,” this deluxe edition also includes a 100-page illustrated book, a live-in-concert CD and documentary film from 1973, and an all-new tribute CD with cover versions of nine of the album’s signature songs by artists including The Band Perry, the Zac Brown Band, Fall Out Boy and Ed Sheeran.

 —Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Old Testament Twosome

Oscar-winning 1949 relic gets new Blu-ray shine

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

Blu-ray $22.98 (Paramount Home Media)

 

Available for the first time on hi-def Blu-ray, this 1949 epic tale one of the Old Testament’s most famous couples won two Academy Awards (for art direction and costumes) and starred Victor Mature and Hedy Lamar as the fabled Israelite strongman and the beautiful temptress who betrayed him—and gave him the most famous haircut in history. See: Samson subdue a lion! See: Samson slay an army of Philistines! See: Samson bring down the the temple! And see: Angela Lansbury as Delilah’s older sister, four decades before Murder, She Wrote!

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Smells Like Teen Spirit

Young audiences can SO relate to the future-shock emotions of ‘Divergent’

 

DIVERGENT

Shailene Woodley and Theo James star in the first movie from author Veronica Roth’s futuristic trilogy.

Divergent

Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd & Kate Winslet

Directed by Neal Burger

PG-13, 139 min.

 

This latest vision of a totalitarian, dystopian future comes by way of author Veronica Roth, whose popular young adult novels are now Hollywood’s latest hopes to cash in with the audience—and payday—of The Hunger Games and Twilight franchises.

Divergent, the first in Roth’s trilogy of best-sellers, centers on teenagers who are tested and sorted into one of five groups, or factions, when they turn 16. The classification locks them into irreversible courses to become selfless public servants; brainy scholars and scientists; pacifist farmers; warrior protectors; or truth-seeking lawmakers.

Born into the public-service group, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) “tests” with evidence of more than one faction: Uh-oh, she’s a “divergent,” and being more than one thing is considered bad—and dangerous. She’s a mutation that threatens the social order.

DIVERGENT

Zoe Kravitz (left) and Shailene Woodley portray new initiates to the warrior-like Dauntless “faction” who begin their training with a bold leap from a moving train.

Beatrice bucks her test results, gives a parting glance to her crestfallen mom (Ashley Judd) and runs off (literally) to join the fearless “warrior” group, Dauntless. She shortens her name to Tris and falls for her mentor/instructor, Four (Theo James), who becomes her partner in uncovering a diabolical scheme by the cold, calculating head of the intellectual Erudite group (Kate Winslet) that could spell doom for Tris and her kind.

It’s easy to see how this story has a built-in appeal to young audiences. Teenagers can certainly relate to its young characters leaving home, trying to figure out who they are, facing major decisions about their futures, and rebelling against forces conspiring to steer them places they may not want to go.

The plot is rather dense, often clumsy and clunky, and the whole thing could stand to be about 25 minutes shorter. Director Neal Burger can’t quite seem to get out from under the long shadow of The Hunger Games, which looms large.

DIVERGENTBut Woodley is a delight to watch; her face can convey a spectrum of emotion—delight, bemusement, betrayal, regret—with only the slightest movement, a subtle shift in her eyes or a morph of her lips. She’s also now become a capable action-adventure star. The camera also loves James, and the romantic heat between the two of them will melt away a lot of the shortcomings in Divergent as far as its sizeable target audience is concerned.

“We need to keep moving,” says Four in the final scene, as he and Tris leap onto a speeding train, heading toward the sun and tomorrow. Keep moving, indeed, and all aboard: The Divergent sequel, Insurgent, begins production in May.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Folk Odyssey

Coen Brothers capture ’60s vibe in tale of struggling singer

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

Blu-ray $35.99, DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

The Coen Brothers’ darkly comic odyssey about a Greenwich Village folk singer in the early 1960s struggling against odds that seem hopelessly stacked against him—and mostly because of him—hums along to a terrific, bountiful authentic soundtrack by producer T Bone Burnett, the cast (which includes Oscar Isacc, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), Marcus Mumford and other performers. Bonus features include a 40-minute making-of documentary, which includes interviews with the cast, directors and musicians, and a look at how the moviemakers created a folk scene of half a century ago in modern-day New York City.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Fading Away

Is handwriting the next victim of modern technology?

The Missing Ink

The Missing Ink

By Philip Hensher

Hardcover, 288 pages ($15, Faber & Faber; Kindle edition $8.89)

Is cursive writing becoming a relic of yesteryear? This lively, enlightening look at the history of handwriting is both a celebration of the physical act of putting pen to paper and a spotlight on the many ways the (hand)written word has accompanied—and advanced—the development of civilization itself. From thank-you notes to dairy entries, postcards, love letters, signatures, ink pens, and “chewable” wooden pencils, the author counts the cost of everything we stand to lose if “old-fashioned” handwriting becomes just another antiquated technology.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Musical Mecca

Documentary spotlights magic of Muscle Shoals sound

Muscle Shoals

Muscle Shoals

Blu-ray $29.98 / DVD $26.98 (Magnolia Home Entertainment)

Is it something in the water? On the Tennessee River in Alabama is one of the South’s musical treasures, a near-mystical place where some of the most vital music of all time has its roots. This rousing documentary examines the “Muscle Shoals” sound and its creator, producer Rick Hall, who brought black and white musicians together at his recording studios (often with Hall’s famed staff musicians, the Swampers) to make records with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Carrie Underwood and many others singing stars.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Vrooom For Improvement

Disney’s video-game-based racing movie coasts on other films’ fumes 

NEED FOR SPEED

Need For Speed

Starring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper & Imogene Poots

Directed by Scott Waugh

PG-13, 132 min.

“This ain’t just about racing,” says one of the characters in Need For Speed in a conversation that scrapes momentarily up against something other than what the rest of the movie is all about.

OK, if want to be picky, you might also say it’s about love, rivalry and retribution, and the Cinderella story of a young mechanic, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul of TV’s Breaking Bad), out to save his family business and clear his name.

NEED FOR SPEED

Aaron Paul plays mechanic-racer Tobey Marshall.

But let’s cut the crap—it’s really about racing. It’s the movie version of a popular video-game about fast cars and the adrenaline junkies who push them beyond limits any sane person would consider normal.

There’s a suped-up, 900-hp 2015 Mustang GT, a Lamborghini, a McLaren and several other exotic pieces of world-class automotive muscle. There are also airplanes, helicopters, goons with guns, and things going on road, off road, into the air, and in one memorable scene, over the side of a deliriously high desert cliff.

If all that gets your saliva glands glistening, well, this big, grinding gear-fest is for made for you. The folks at Disney are hoping you won’t notice that this low-star-wattage clone of the wildly successful Fast & Furious franchise is mostly running on empty, coasting on fumes from other, better movies.

And Disney surely must be turning a big blind mouse-eye to the fact that everything in it glorifies an illegal, dangerous activity, and that even its “good guys” show no regard for the lives of the innocent bystanders they imperil, whether they’re plowing around a poky school bus full of kids or smashing into a homeless man’s shopping cart as he pushes it across a city street—then laughing about it.

The only time you see anyone even buckle up a seat belt, it’s also also used as a punchline. Safety, yeah—ain’t it a hoot?

NEED FOR SPEED

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton plays the manic promoter of an invitation-only, secret-location race to which only the best drivers get invited. Tobey’s foil is a stinking rich piece of car-collecting Euro-trash (Dominiqic Cooper). There’s a token female (Imogene Poots), who gives her subplot a whiff of Smokey and the Bandit.

In fact, director Scott Waugh tips his hat several times to car movies of the ’70s, and viewers who are inclined can pass the time between vroom-vrooms connecting the tire tracks to American Graffiti, Bullet, Two Lane Blacktop, Duel and other iconic flicks about the rubber hitting the road.

The plot is about as thin as the wisp of air between vehicles swishing past each other on a narrow highway, and the actors say empty-headed things like “I’m never gonna stop,” “You are out of your mind—and I love it!” and “We’ll settle this behind the wheel.”

But blah, blah, blah. People who go to see this movie are going to go for the cars, the rush, the roar, and the fact that this is real metal, real roads and real stunts, with a minimum of added special effects.

Anyone who doesn’t have quite the same compelling “need for speed” can just putter along in a slower, safer, saner lane—and pray that you don’t get flattened by some revved-up grease monkeys like the ones in this movie.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Con-Fabulous

Swirling scandal saga based on real events from the 1970s

American Hustle

Blu-ray $40.99, DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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Director David O. Russell’s sprawling, swirling ‘70s saga, nominated for 10 Academy Awards, is a tale of con artists, FBI agents, a fake oil sheik, real gangsters, crooked politicians and others hustling to make it or break it against the backdrop of a real-life American scandal. The fabulous ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner keeps the show rolling; the colorful clothes and disco-era hairstyles are dy-no-mite; and the soundtrack rocks with tuneful tracks of the era. Extras include a making-of documentary with the filmmakers and cast, plus deleted and extended scenes.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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