Like most of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jason Segel was a big fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Unlike most of us, he became a successful actor, who could convince Disney to let him write and star in a new movie about the beloved icons.
He does everyone proud with The Muppets, introducing a new generation to the dormant franchise without skimping on the nostalgia. Segel plays Gary, a small-town boy with a pretty girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a brother named Walter who’s a little … different, as in noseless and made of felt. When Walter tags along on Gary and Mary’s vacation in Los Angeles, he not only discovers his true identity as a Muppet, he leads an effort to save the gang’s old theatre from demolition by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper).
This involves rounding up Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest, and convincing them to reunite for a fundraiser. It’s not exactly an original premise, but it is very much in line with the “let’s put on a show” Muppets ethos. It also plugs directly into the brains of longtime fans, which are equally excited to bring back these characters and their sweet, clever humor.
Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin (along with Bobin’s Flight of the Conchords cohort, Bret McKenzie) understand and respect what Henson created, adding appropriate touches of their own. They’re better with the Muppet characters than the human ones (I never much cared about Gary and Mary, honestly), but that’s part of the appeal, too. Anyone can grab a banjo and sing “The Rainbow Connection,” but only Kermit can reduce jaded Gen-Xers to tears.
Extras: Lots of typical DVD features (gag reel, making-of, screen tests, etc.), which treat the Muppets as real actors, as well they should; a commentary track by Segel, Bobin and Stoller; an extended version of Cooper’s infamous (and very funny) rap number. (PG) Rating: 4 —LL
Into the Abyss
IGerman director Werner Herzog starts off his new documentary Into the Abyss by bluntly admitting that he opposes the death penalty, but his engrossing examination of a real life triple murder demonstrates that evil doesn’t reside only on death row.
In 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were involved with the deaths of three people. One elderly woman died simply because Perry and Burkett wanted to steal her car. Herzog has candid, genial interviews with both men, but he doesn’t let them off the hook for the crime.
That’s a good thing, because the exact identity of the shooter in these crimes has never been established. Perry, who was executed during the making of the film, claims Burkett, who will probably die in prison, fired the fatal shots. Burkett says it was Perry. All the other witnesses are dead.
Herzog wisely makes no effort to sugarcoat the crime. His take on the situation is as “fair and balanced” as certain news organizations claim to be. He has compassionate discussions with the survivors’ families.
He also talks with the cops who investigated the case and people who knew both the perpetrators and the victims, and tries with the audience to discover why these men when killed for such paltry stakes.
Into the Abyss is worth renting simply to learn what ultimately happened to the car at the center of the crime. It might make you as misanthropic as Herzog’s detractors claim him to be.
That said, Herzog, who has strong opinions, pretty much lets the story tell itself. His Teutonic accent is noticeably missing except during the interviews. As a result, he’s made one of his most gripping films. Considering the fact that he’s made such classics as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo that’s saying something.
Extras: Just the trailer. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 —DL
Was J. Edgar Hoover a closeted, cross-dressing gay man? That seems to be the only question anyone cares to ask about him anymore, and even Clint Eastwood can’t resist making it a big part of his 2011 biopic. He also wants to portray Hoover’s professional accomplishments, but can’t seem to decide which is more important.
The challenge comes from Hoover’s very private personality. Most of his work for the FBI is public record, and J. Edgar is at its best when it shows the energy and innovation he brought to the bureau in its early years. Even as he ages, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance has the obsessive drive that marked Hoover’s rise to the top, as well as his eventual fall from grace.
It’s the portrayal of his personal life that crashes the movie. Rumors have long swirled around Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, played gracefully by Armie Hammer. He was also close to his assistant, Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts), and the three form a strange professional/love triangle. When you add Judi Dench as Hoover’s domineering mother, you have a perfect recipe for the kind of shallow pop psychoanalysis that Eastwood usually avoids.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote such a solid script for Milk, has no idea how to structure this story or what to do with all the behind-closed-doors speculation. It would have been much more interesting if Black and Eastwood had made Hoover’s secretiveness a plot point unto itself. This was a man who believed he had a patriotic duty to pry into the lives of others, but who guarded his own life so carefully no one really knows anything about him. That’s the kind of complexity that makes for a fascinating biography, but it requires acknowledging that your central character is an enigma.
J. Edgar takes the easy way out, filling in those interesting blank spaces with tired, formulaic melodrama.
Extras: A short documentary on Hoover’s life and career, especially as it relates to the movie. (R) Rating: 3 —LL
Titanic: The Complete Story
TThis two-disc collection actually features two different History Channel documentaries about the April 15, 1912 disaster. The first disc has the stronger material with “Death of a Dream” and “The Legend Lives On” from 1994. It’s probably a good thing that film was completed by Melissa Jo Peltier before James Cameron’s Oscar-winning behemoth because it includes some fascinating insights in the disaster from people who were on board during the disastrous voyage.
Sensitively narrated by David McCallum, who starred in the Titanic-themed movie A Night to Remember, Peltier’s film includes just about every available expert (including A Night to Remember author Walter Lord and Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered the exact location of the wreck).
While the first installment, “Death of a Dream,” focuses on the iceberg collision itself, “The Legend Lives On” expertly deals with how the incident became part of the public consciousness. Some hearings in the Senate and the British Parliament make for fascinating drama as well. We also learn that the captain of another ship wound up being scapegoated for not responding to the doomed Titanic’s distress calls.
It’s fitting that Peltier’s film runs as long as Cameron’s. She even includes shots of some of the tools that were used to build the ship!
The 2007 offering “Titanic’s Achilles Heel,” which is the only offering on the second disk, follows a team that tries to discover if a design flaw in Titanic exacerbated the damage that the iceberg had done to her. Two exploratory divers and a naval architect try to discover if a poorly designed part called an expansion joint malfunctioned.
This may sound esoteric, but it’s not a petty concern. If the ship had stayed afloat for a few hours more, 1,500 people might have lived. A badly designed expansion joint might have caused the ship to sink more quickly.
The results aren’t all that earth shattering, but they are a little chilling. Nature makes even good designs irrelevant.
Extras: A timeline of the disaster. N/R) Rating: 3.5 —DL