THE MUPPETS (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on November 30th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Thursday November 10, 2011 at the Regal Fenway Stadium, Boston, MA.

Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and The Muppets.

I love the Muppets. When I was in preschool I was too preoccupied with SPEED RACER and JOHNNY QUEST to notice SESAME STREET. I was aware of SESAME STREET, but I didn’t watch it. My first real connection to Jim Henson’s characters came when I entered the first grade, and they entered prime time. Eventually I grew to appreciate the Disneyesque optimism of SESAME STREET, but I always preferred the Looney Tunes rambunctiousness of THE MUPPET SHOW. Because I love the Muppets, I hold them to a higher standard than entertainment for which I have less of an affinity; happily their first feature film in twelve years is worthy of that standard.

The script for the new film apparently had an extensive development period. It helps to have writers who are true believers in the world Jim Henson created a generation or two ago. It helps even more that one of those writers is an established television star who also has a string of mostly very successful films to his credit. Jason Segel‘s puppeteer character in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which he also wrote, hinted at his affinity for The Muppets. If someone loved the work of Robert E. Howard and John Buscema as much as Segel clearly loves Henson’s work, this summer’s revival of CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have been an amazing movie.

The core story of THE MUPPETS is shrewdly cobbled together from several archetypes of both cinematic style and classic story telling. Segel’s character Gary has a brother named Walter who is straight out of BILLY ELLIOT or RUDY. Walter so loves the Muppets that the greatest possible joy he could imagine is the chance that he might one day meet them. What separates Walter from Billy Elliot and Rudy Ruettiger, and indeed from Gary, is that Walter actually is a Muppet! This is part of what makes Muppet films unique: even as they embrace archetypes, like the underdog runt searching for his place in the world, they turn them on their head and subvert them to the Muppets’ own rules. In this story a human man and a Muppet can be brothers — and no one notices this as odd!

A staple element of ensemble buddy movies ranging from Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean up to, well, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the reunion of old friends for a new purpose. It worked in THE WILD BUNCH, it worked when Jake & Elwood Blues got the band back together, and it works for Kermit. In fact, it works doubly so for Kermit. Kermit’s quest to round up his stray friends propels this basic story of the Muppets’ rallying to save their old theater from their 70’s variety show days. The reunion angle simultaneously allows for the introduction of the Muppets to audiences too young to recall their last theatrical entry while addressing themes of aging and imposed obsolescence that resonate with anyone old enough to have watched the original primetime airings of THE MUPPET SHOW. Reminiscent of how Kal-El must have felt upon reading Lois Lane’s editorial on a world without Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS, this film finds Kermit realizing that television has knocked the Muppets to the rock bottom of the hip-n-trendy scale. Kermit’s reunion with Miss Piggy culminates in a stroll through Paris, poignantly acknowledging that Muppets have to work as hard as humans to make love and friendship last, in a scene that would seem very much at home in a Woody Allen film. Each of these moments manage both the easy fix of keeping the pace moving, and the difficult trick of perfectly nailing the tone for each scene to keep audiences of all ages engaged.

All of this classic film structure aside, it’s wonderful to see the Muppets have not lost their touch for lunacy. They were expert practitioners of metafiction before that term was applied to film or television. Probably the best example of this is the song “Man or Muppet,” sung by Gary and Walter. As the man and Muppet brothers explore their existential void in the song, they cross into each others crisis, and transcend the film in a sequence reminiscent of some of the more groundbreaking 80’s music videos. Segel’s over the top Meatloaf-esque operatic wailing both parodies heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs and gives this oddball tune a ring of truth. I saw this movie in a screening geared toward college students. The general mumbling and rampant texting around me during this scene left the impression that this audience was more laughing at this moment than with it. This was a sequence worthy of The Marx Bros or Mel Brooks, but unless you are schooled in Groucho and Mongo, the absurd hilarity and sincere subtext of this song will not fully resonate.

Rumors on the internets about a “surprise cameo” were apparently referring to a moment in “Man or Muppet,” though the entire movie is laden with cameos, from Mickey Rooney to Rico Rodriguez. I’m glad that these cameos were not strictly reserved for celebrities, but also for lesser known characters from the Muppet universe. Personally I was a big fan of MUPPETS TONIGHT, the mid 90’s attempt to revitalize the Muppets on primetime TV. One of the characters from that revival, the dimwitted and overly confident lounge singer Johnny Fiama, appears during this song as Jason Segel’s Muppet doppleganger. The only thing that could have made Johnny’s appearance better would be if they found room for his angry monkey bodyguard Sal Minella; here’s hoping there’s room for Sal & Johnny in the next Muppet movie!

I’m a fan of divisive movies; I’ll always prefer a movie that folks either love or hate, even if I’m among those who hate it, to a movie that we are all equally ambivalent about. If you follow the IMDb message boards, you’ll see that THE MUPPETS has no shortage of detractors who bemoan nearly every Muppet effort since the passing of Jim Henson. I’m also a die hard STAR TREK fan; just as I acknowledge that the primary mission of the most recent STAR TREK film was to acquire a new generation of fans, such is the case with this film. My audience full of college kids texting each other were mostly born after Jim Henson died. If you grew up wit THE MUPPET SHOW on TV like I did, you’ve already had your fair share of Muppet films. These are the classic Muppets for a new generation, and they accomplish that job with characteristic style and surprising grace. THE MUPPETS will not change your life or make you a better person, but it just might open your kids’ minds the way SESAME STREET and THE MUPPET SHOW did yours.

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DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on November 20th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.

24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.

Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!

AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.

I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.

Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.

A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** — Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***

To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.

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