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Column Wed Nov 23 2011

The Muppets, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey & The Last Rites of Joe May

The Muppets

At this point, another review of The Muppets seems superfluous, but hell, the movie is so damn good, it can't really hurt. I'll admit, I held my breath when I saw the "Smalltown, USA" sign, marking the community where Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Stoller) and his pal Walter (the film's new Muppet character) grew up together as huge fans of the Muppet TV show. That little detail seemed a little too quaint, but it took about five minutes and one catchy tune to win me over. Segel and Stoller are such devoted fans that they know what about the Muppets is sacred ground and what they can play and tinker with a little bit.

Gary has been dating Mary (Amy Adams, displaying the same kind of graceful playfulness she did in Enchanted), and for her birthday, the couple are going to take a trip to Los Angeles to tour studios, search for celebrities, and maybe, just maybe, seek out the old Muppet Theater. Much to Mary's chagrin, Walter is along for the ride. When the three of them arrive at the theater, they find it run down and largely off limits. They find out that unless the come up with $10 million very soon, the Muppets will lose the lease to greedy oilman Tex Richman (the snake-like Chris Cooper, chewing up yards of scenery). Walter, Gary and Mary decide to reunite the scattered Muppets players for a big telethon event to help save the theater and rekindle the old magic.

It's this journey from Muppet to Muppet that was one of my favorite elements of the movie, finding out how each character turned out, and some of it is not pretty but all of it is very funny. Perhaps no Muppet fate seems more predestined than seeing Fozzie Bear in Reno doing stand-up and singing in a Muppet tribute band called The Moopets. Almost too good to be true, Miss Piggy is now the plus-size fashion editor for Paris Vogue; Gonzo became a wildly successful plumbing executive; and Animal is forced to stay away from the drums as part of his anger management therapy.

But The Muppets is so much more than a joyous nostalgia trip. It's a sweet and perfect reminder that friendship trumps everything, and with the right group of friends, you can accomplish anything. Sure the celebrity cameos are great fun, the musical numbers are exceptional as Segel evokes the simple yet touching spirit of Paul Williams (I know he's not dead) and others who wrote some of those great numbers from previous Muppet movies. Segel has been given the absolute greatest gift imaginable: the chance to bring his heroes back to prominence, and he pulls it off without turning it into a movie that is too much about him or other humans. The Muppets is a film about connection, or more specifically, re-connection--with old friends, with your childhood, with imagination, with the part of you that existed before cynicism entered your life.

As much as kids will probably love the hell out of this movie, I will go to my grave maintaining that Segel, Stoller and director James Bobin (a veteran behind the camera of "Flight of the Conchords" and "Da Ali G Show," both the British and American versions) made this movie for adults who grew up loving the old "Muppet Show" and other Jim Henson projects from "Sesame Street" to The Dark Crystal to "Jim Henson's The Storyteller." People can point to Spielberg or Lucas as the architects of their childhood, but for me it was Henson and his army of Muppeteers. The movie is a wet, sloppy kiss aimed right at those creative masters whose felt creations came to life effortlessly.

Segel is smart enough to couch this tribute in a decent story loaded with fun supporting actors, but he knows that without the emphasis being on the Muppets themselves, this movie wouldn't mean anything. Every once in a while, something that should be perfect turns out to be exactly that. Please let Disney put Segel in charge of its Muppets franchise that it largely ignored since it purchased it years ago. He gets it, and he might not always get it as right as he does with The Muppets, but he'll die trying. I'd almost forgotten what passion for ones work looks like; thanks for the gentle reminder, Mr. Segel.


Maybe I'm blissfully ignorant, but I wasn't aware that Martin Scorsese's latest (and utterly different from anything he's done before) film Hugo had any kind of surprise or twist in its plot. Granted, the trailers and commercials don't really emphasize the fact that much of this film is about a pair of young friends, Hugo (relative newcomer Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), discovering the fantastical, remarkable-to-this-day cinematic creations of innovative French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). If anything, the real shocks about Hugo have more to do with just how creative Scorsese gets in his first-time use of 3D, making it an essential part of the storytelling rather than simply a gimmick.

As the film opens, Hugo's watch-repairing father (Jude Law) is killed in a mysterious museum fire, and the boy is sent to live with his drunk uncle (Ray Winstone), who maintains the clocks in a Paris train station, opening the film up to some incredible production design set pieces in which Hugo runs and crawls around through the catacombs behind the walls of the station where the many clocks' inner workings are housed. Scorsese's camera is a fluid being that seems to defy gravity and physics to follow Hugo up, down and around tight spaces. Yes, some of the shots are clearly CG enhanced, but that doesn't make the effect any less impressive.

Hugo's uncle vanishes, leaving the boy in charge of clock maintenance, unbeknownst to the station's chief inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen, a wounded WWI veteran with a squeaky brace on this leg and a generally sour attitude toward street urchins. Hugo befriends George (Kingsley), the proprietor of small toy shop in the station, who also happens to be (along with his wife, played by Helen McCrory) the guardian of Isablle, a girl in search of an adventure. In Hugo's case, the adventure begins with an automaton, a sort of robot his father discovered at the museum that seems to run on watch gears and can only be be activated by a key that Isabelle just happens to possess. The pair also become friendly with book shop owner played by Christopher Lee, and I only bring this up because any chance to see Lee on the big screen is worth mentioning.

The first half of the two-hour Hugo wanders a bit. Scorsese spends more time than necessary introducing us to various regulars at the train station, including a flowershop owner played by Emily Mortimer, whom the inspector fancies a bit. There's also an older couple (Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths) that have a mostly silent series of exchanges as they adorably attempt to court. However, these little side stories take up a great deal of time, especially in the opening hour, and as dazzling as Scorsese's visuals are, the time moves slowly. That being said, once the automaton is set into motion and the direction of the film becomes clear (the two are tied together), Hugo becomes something truly incredible.

It would short change the film not to mention what the best moments are, but in the spirit of keeping certain plot elements something of a surprise, I'll warn you that semi-spoilery stuff is approaching. What truly dazzled me about Hugo were the countless recreations of Georges Méliès at work creating some of his most famous films, including his 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon. If you're at all familiar with the filmmaker's history and works, these are the moments that will likely bring tears to your eyes; if not, you still get this wonderful sense of history and an almost spiritual drive in Méliès to create and be original and imaginative. The joy in his eyes as he sees new outlandish costumes or devises (or more accurately, invents) special effects for his fantasy sequences cannot be denied.

I especially liked the way Scorsese not only celebrates one of the creators of modern film but those who admire and write about film (who I guess would include Brian Selznick, who wrote the book this story is based on, and screenwriter John Logan). I was genuinely taken by the appearance of Michael Stuhbard as Rene Tabard, a film writer whose book on early silent films is the impetus for the kids to discover that the toy maker is actually Méliès. Tabard's passion for film history should ring of chord of recognition in many devoted movie lovers, and it's no wonder that Scorsese clearly loves the character.

In many ways, the Méliès portions of Hugo remind me of Scorsese's documentary/memoir A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, only in this case it's French movies and rather than simply showing clips of his favorite films, he recreates them. The result is just as personal a movie as any of Scorsese's works about Italian-American gangsters. Hugo is both a technical and emotional achievement, a gorgeous movie that I can see every age audience member getting something different from. Younger viewers will enjoy the 3D wizardry and adventure story, while older coots like myself will get dizzy from the director's celebratory approach to discussing some of the oldest cinema in existence. I loved it even during its slower sections, and it's tough to image anyone who loves movies not embracing Hugo.

My Week with Marilyn

Even if it's not 100 percent true, the story of 23-year-old third assistant director Colin Clark and iconic movie star Marilyn Monroe circa 1956 is fascinating. Clark (played here by Eddie Redmayne) worked for Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, who absolutely nails Olivier's cadence, if not his look) during the tumultuous filming of the Olivier-Monroe comedy The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios, during which, according to his memoir of the period, Clark and Monroe (the breathtakingly good Michelle Williams) shared a close friendship and weeklong love affair.

Known primarily for his work in television, director Simon Curtis plots his tale simply and to the point, dropping in famous names who appeared in and around the production (as he should) and giving us a clear picture of just how Monroe's schedule--or lack thereof--put the production two weeks behind after one day of shooting. Her reliance on her possessive acting coach, lack of confidence in the face of Olivier's greatness, a new and already troubled marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and a constant cocktail of drugs and alcohol that kept her in bed for prolonged stretches formed the perfect storm for disaster; and the film makes the case that her strong friendship with Clark helped to settle her, allowing for a funny and charming performance. But My Week with Marilyn is about the journey, not the destination.

It's impossible to discuss this film without wanting to obsess on the uncanny performance Williams brings to Monroe. The voice, the walk, the facial expressions, they're all there. And while Williams ability to mimic Monroe is flawless, the more impressive sections of the movie are those where she reveals the conflicted nature of Monroe as a human being. She wants to be a "normal girl" and a good housewife to her new husband, but when the British paparazzi or fans swarm around her, she puts on the act and is helpless to stop playing Marilyn. Any male viewer of this film is likely going to fall in love and want to take care of this damaged woman.

As a lover of behind-the-scenes dramas, I was drooling over the recreations of Olivier's movie. Judie Dench plays Dame Sybil Thorndike, one of the stars of the film who never misses an opportunity to come to Monroe's defense or boost her confidence as Olivier verbally batters her for Marilyn's behavior on set. Also on hand are Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper as two of Monroe's army of handlers, and Harry Potter's Emma Watson is around as a worker in the costume department, who begins dating Clark shortly before Hurricane Marilyn enters the picture. I was especially taken with Julia Ormond's portrayal as Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh, the then-40-something actress who was very aware of her husband's obsession with Monroe.

My Week with Marilyn moves briskly and is over before you know it, having filled the screen with funny, moody and occasionally traumatic moments centered around Marilyn's manic-depressive swings that are endlessly captivating. The film makes the point that the film Monroe made after this one was Some Like It Hot, implying that getting through the traumatic events of working with Olivier prepared her for arguably her finest performance. I'd go along with that, but you don't have to to enjoy the heck out of this movie. Come for the undeniably great performances, but stay to learn about this curious little corner of film history. Both reasons are good ones. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

Director Jerome Salle's best known work prior to his latest film The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch was a movie called Anthony Zimmer, which was adapted recently into the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie film The Tourist. Take that for what it's worth. I can at least promise you that Heir Apparent is better than The Tourist, by a lot. This new film is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink action film about the exciting world of international business.

Billionaire corporation head of the W Group, Nerio Winch, is killed, and it is only shortly after his death that the other members of the company's board of direction discover that he had an adopted son, Largo (Tomer Sisley), who seems to have become a thrill-seeking daredevil/crime-fighter/professional extreme sports dude, who never really knew his real or adopted father. But when Nerio leaves control of his company to his mystery heir, the temporary head of W Group (Kristen Scott Thomas) uses the company's vast resources to locate him, as do many of Nerio's enemies, who want to young man dead so they can buy up control of W Group. I told you finance was a non-stop thrill ride.

But the truth is for all the nonsense business talk and scene of luxury conference rooms and men in fancy suits riding in expensive cars, The Heir Apparent is an action movie of a fairly high order. I don't think I've ever seen Sisley in another film before, but he's a terrific leading man and action star, who finds himself in the crosshairs of drug dealers, guns for hire, and a host of friends who become enemies and enemies that actually want to keep him alive. It's confusing, unnecessarily dense, and sometimes dry material, but when the shooting, chasing, and exploding kicks in, it's pretty great. And apparently a sequel (with Sharon Stone in the cast) has already been made with a new director. There's definitely something worthy about this uneven film, and you could do a whole lot worse in the action department these days. Don't try to follow the plot; just give yourself over to the brutality. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration, and probably have a great time.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

I'm not sure if this great documentary is opening in other cities this weekend, but I'm guessing the proximity of its release in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong engagement being the same week as The Muppets release is no coincidence. And these two extraordinary works would make the greatest of double features. Riding high on the festival circuit since January's Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Special Jury Prize: Documentary), Being Elmo is a remarkable profile of Kevin Clash, the "Muppeteer" who created and continues to carry the torch of Elmo, the beloved "Sesame Street" character. Clash grew up in Baltimore, designed and built his own puppets, and taught himself puppeteering as a teenager, becoming a local celebrity before getting the opportunity to visit the Muppet creature shop in New York.

The film tracks Clash's journey from working for Jim Henson to creating the voice and personality of Elmo (after another Muppeteer essentially gave up on the character) to how his devotion to his work and the character cost him his marriage and forced him to miss much of his own daughter's childhood. Being Elmo is no "everything-is-great" look at the job, made all the more grueling by the fact that Clash refuses to let any other puppeteer perform as Elmo. Director Constance Marks captures not just the entertainer but also the man and all his flaws and sacrifices.

But what is truly extraordinary is just how much material there is of Clash as a kid working out how to better perform with and build his puppets, working alongside the legendary Henson team, and passing on his knowledge and wisdom to the next generation, much like the original generation of Muppeteers did with him. I can't imagine a human being on this planet not being moved and thoroughly entertained by this in-depth look at an artist who never stop refining his craft. Once you've experienced The Muppets, your craving for more of the same should guide you right to this film.

The Last Rites of Joe May

Originally shown in Chicago as the Opening Night offering of the Chicago Film Festival, the slight but still moving The Last Rites of Joe May from director Joe Maggio. This is a local production in every way, from its West Town locations to a cast of largely Chicago actors, including Steppenwolf Theater ensemble members Gary Cole and Dennis Farina, who plays the title character, a low-level made man who has a heart attack, spends a couple weeks in the hospital, and when he comes out, everyone thinks he died and his apartment has been cleaned out.

With only a few dollars in his pockets, Joe goes begging the local mob boss (Cole) for work, and is treated like dirt by everyone in the organization. He manages to find a place to live with a single mother (Jamie Anne Allman from AMC's "The Killing") and her young daughter, who have escaped an abusive relationship and are happy to share the rent.

Joe May captures its characters down-on-their-luck lives perfectly, from the grey skies that hover over Chicago when it's cold to the dingy places these people live and work. Maggio has a good eye for detail and does a great job with Farina in crafting a dialed-back performance, as a sadder version of the many gangster characters he's played over the years. There isn't much by way of plot here, but Joe May is above all else a character study of a desperate man looking to make one last big score to keep his head above water. In one of the most troubling scenes in the movie, Joe goes to visit his estranged son, whom he wants to reconnect with after his brush with death. But the son wants none of it, and verbally dresses down his absentee father as only an abandoned son can. It's a rough scene to watch, but the authenticity is undeniable.

Farina so rarely gets to take center stage, and I'm sure he feels no shame being a premiere character actor. It's always great to see what a performer who has made a nice living playing a particular type of character can do when given the right part, and Joe May is that kind of part. The movie was produced by Steppenwolf Films, which I hope gets the chance to make more works of this caliber. It opens Friday for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

To read my exclusive interviews with The Last Rites of Joe May stars Dennis Farina and Gary Cole, go to Ain't It Cool News.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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