The Muppets

[4.5 stars] The Muppets (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link]

We made a rare trip to the movie theater to see how some old friends were holding up. I'm happy to report: pretty well.

Like all the Muppets genre, the movie is set in an interesting parallel universe where humans live in peaceful coexistence with a separate species of odd, but intelligent and (literally) colorful creatures. They are seemingly fabric-based life forms. Some are ordinary animals (frogs, pigs, bears, dogs, even humans); others not. They neither age nor grow. They are (ortunately for lab assistant Beaker) seemingly indestructible. Maybe immortal? That would be nice.

Also, in this parallel universe, the inhabitants break into song-and-dance numbers every so often. (Although that happens in human-only movies too. So maybe that's a third universe.)

The story here involves two brothers: fabric-based Walter and fleshy Gary. (I'm not quite sure how that works either.) They grow up together—well, only Gary grows—in a dinky town. Walter is loved, but becomes deeply aware of his differentness. His only connection to his cloth brethren is in watching The Muppet Show; understandably, he's a huge fan.

Flash-forward to the present day: Gary and Walter plan a trip to L.A. to visit the fabled Muppets Theater, with Gary's beautiful girlfriend Mary. They find, instead, a decaying monument to a group that's no longer popular. Worse, a shady baron, Tex Richman, is plotting to acquire the theater and drill for oil! Walter, Gary, and Mary resolve to reunite the Muppets for a last desperate try to save their old building and regain their popularity.

It's a lot of fun, I had a great time, and I hate to quibble, but… well, actually come to think, I must not hate quibbling since I do it so much, but: for a long-time fan, it's clear that neither Jim Henson or Frank Oz are prime movers here. The differences aren't bad, but they're there.

The human actors range from "pretty good" to "darn wonderful". Mary is played by Amy Adams, and it's a pity that there aren't more roles available for "beautiful musical comedy heroine", because she was born to do that kind of thing. Jason Segal as Gary displays previously-unseen singing and dancing skills, and turns out to be pretty good in a non-filthy comedy role. (He was also key in getting the movie made in the first place.) Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper is wonderful as Tex, and he seems to have had a great time. There are a pile of human cameos, some shockingly good.

During one musical number, I thought: hey, this sounds like something from Flight of the Conchords. As it turns out, a number of the movie songs were written by Bret McKenzie, one of the guys. And the are a lot of other commonalities.

Last Modified 2012-09-24 11:08 AM EDT

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

[2.5 stars] Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link]

Have I mentioned? Mrs. Salad loooves Johnny Depp. So we have to watch his movies, eventually.

Mr. Depp returns for his fourth paycheck as Captain Jack Sparrow, the permanently inebriated pirate. Also returning from previous episodes are Geoffrey Rush as semi-reformed pirate Barbossa, and Kevin McNally as pirate-flunky Gibbs. Also that damned monkey has a brief cameo. But Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are absent.

The major new additions this time around are Ian McShane as the legendary Blackbeard, and Penélope Cruz as Angelica, who may or may not be his daughter. Everyone is caught up in the search for the legendary Fountain of Youth. There are mermaids, not all of them nice like Ariel. A lot of double-crossing and threatening behavior; but I found it difficult to follow exactly why people were doing what they were doing. Gorgeous scenery. But a lot of it takes place in the dark—I think it's easier to do special effects in the dark.

It got me thinking about why I liked the first Pirates movie so much more than its sequels. Probably because the primary plot involved interesting and sympathetic characters in peril: Will and Elizabeth. Ever since then, not so much.

Last Modified 2012-09-24 11:09 AM EDT

Fire in Babylon

[1.0 stars] Fire in Babylon (2010) on IMDb

[Amazon Link]

I should mention, in case it's not absolutely clear, that those star ratings for the movies I watch are entirely based on my personal reaction. The correlation between a movie's objective quality and my personal reaction is not tight.

This is one example. Fire in Babylon is (supposedly) a high-quality documentary, nominated for a British Independent Film Award. The critics loved it (an 87% score at Rotten Tomatoes). But I could barely keep my eyes open. I'm not sure I did keep my eyes open.

Problem number one: it's a documentary about cricket. This is widely thought of as a "sport", although I've always kind of suspected that it's instead a widespread elaborate hoax that the people involved are pulling on the rest of us. (Kind of like the French "language".) The movie did nothing to increase my appreciation of cricket. It was incomprehensible before, and is incomprehensible now. Brief clips of the game are scattered throughout the documentary, but most of them seemed to be the same: a guy throwing a cricket ball at another guy's chin.

It's about the West Indies cricket team of the 70s-80s, the team comprised of players from multiple nations; they competed and won against other teams from other countries. This was a big deal, we're told. And that's mainly the thing: we're told. The documentary is big on talking heads. And reggae. And, just sayin', I think some of these guys are heavily into the ganja.

The racial bit is played up, because all the West Indies players were black. There's also an anti-imperialism theme, because the West Indies are ex-colonies. This is tedious. We're talking about stuff that happened 40 years after Jesse Owens kicked Nazi butt in the 1936 Olympics. 30 years after Jackie Robinson and Woody Strode. It's somehow a big deal that black athletes finally made their mark in cricket? Well, I guess to some people it was.

Last Modified 2012-09-24 11:07 AM EDT