November 30, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

REALITY CHECK: There are now generations of children who haven’t been properly exposed to the special brand of adorable anarchy that is the Muppets. This is a crime.

Apparently, actor Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) felt the same way. Drawing on his fond childhood memories of the original Muppet movies and The Muppet Show, he championed a new feature film for his formerly famous felt friends (fun fact: I love alliteration). That film, simply titled The Muppets, opened over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The premise is inspiring, and has one foot in pseudo-reality: The Muppets disbanded years ago, and no one has heard from (or cared about) them since. But this may change as Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the gang reunite to throw a telethon to save the Muppet Theater from being demolished by a greedy oil tycoon, Tex Richman (a perfectly evil Chris Cooper). Leading the charge are two brothers: human Gary (Segel) and his Muppet brother Walter (voice of Peter Linz), who dreams of one day being an official member of the Muppets himself.


In creating The Muppets, Segel (who co-wrote the script) and director James Bobin had two daunting tasks: 1) Satisfy the nostalgia of Gen X-ers raised on the original Muppet movies and The Muppet Show; 2) Hook the current generation of children who only know Muppets from the benign edutainment of Sesame Street.

Did they succeed? Regarding the latter, time will tell if there’s room today among kids’ fast-paced, CGI-laden entertainment for a bunch of felt characters who haven’t been big since the Reagan administration. But for parents who were raised on Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy’s antics, The Muppets hits all the sweet spots of nostalgia. If you’re a Gen X-er (like yours truly), you’ll feel like a kid again as the film shows clips of the old Muppet Show, pans past framed pictures of former guest hosts, and hauls out a new yet faithful rendition of “The Rainbow Connection,” the signature song from the original Muppet Movie.

Like the Muppet films that preceded it, the humor in The Muppets is very self-aware. Clever bits include traveling “by map” to get places faster, and the Muppets agreeing that a montage would be the best use of time for rounding up the remaining members of their gang to save the theater.

The Muppets works best when the humans don’t get in the way. Yes, there are human villains and a slew of celebrity cameos in the original trilogy of Muppet films (The Muppet Movie, Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan). But the Muppets didn’t share the main storylines in those films with anyone who wasn’t a fellow felt creation. While it’s understandable Segel would want to write himself into his dream project, you wonder how much leaner the film might have been had he relegated himself to a cameo or supporting role.

The Muppets’ original musical numbers by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie are good, the standouts being the big opener “Life’s a Happy Song” and the hysterically overwrought “Man or Muppet.” However, the licensed soundtrack choices are trite and uninspired, including tired anthems such as “Back in Black,” “Bad to the Bone,” and “We Built This City.”

Another area that’s anemic is the lackluster roster of celebrity cameos, which in past Muppet films has been populated either by current A-listers or Hollywood royalty. To compare: The original Muppet Movie has Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Orson Welles. With The Muppets, we get Emily Blunt, Judd Hirsch, Ken Jeong, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and the kid from ABC’s Modern Family. (One plus: Neil Patrick Harris’ cameo is both fleeting and funny.) You also have to wonder if kids who watch The Muppets generations from now will know or remember Jack Black (Kung Fu Panda 2), the “celebrity host” (emphasis on the air quotes) that the Muppets get to emcee the telethon.

Soundtrack and celebrities aside, nearly everything about The Muppets feels right. It’s fun to watch, and it exposes today’s kids to the joys of Muppet mayhem. After a rousing finale, the audience in our theater applauded. And as we left the theater, I was happy.

But once we got home, the cinematic equivalent of buyer’s remorse set in. Did Segel and Bobin just use a large chunk of Muppets nostalgia to make their movie work? Aside from some new, uneven musical numbers, what did they bring to the Muppet legacy to re-establish it, as was surely the plan with this project?

Look at it this way: Midway through The Muppets, Miss Piggy declares they’re going to get a celebrity host for their telethon “by any means necessary.” The same goes for the film itself. If it means nostalgically hijacking the Muppet memories of Gen X-ers to get a new generation of kids to know, cherish, and bond with Kermit and company, fine. Whatever it takes. The truth is, as you’re watching those memories unfold on screen, you won’t care. You’ll just be happy to see the Muppets again – and that today’s generation of kids can now discover what they’ve been missing.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
They loved The Muppets, laughing frequently and eating up the antics. Some of the plot logistics may have gone over their heads, but it didn’t faze the fun they were having – though Jack-Jack was quick to point out, upon Fozzie demonstrating his “fart shoes:” “See, that’s why it’s rated PG.”

Is it suitable for your kids?
The Muppets is rated PG for mild rude humor, aka the aforementioned fart shoes. Aside from those shoes, a comical fistfight breaking out at a relaxation center, and some menacing by Cooper’s Tex Richman, there’s nothing terribly inappropriate for kids.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Absolutely. And she should. Despite its minor flaws, she’ll love The Muppets. See it as a family; if you don’t have kids, see it as a couple. It’s worth it.

"Wow, there it is...where all the Oompa-Loompas make Everlasting Gobstoppers..."
"Uh, Gary, you're thinking of a different place..."

The Muppets
* Director: James Bobin
* Screenwriters: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller
* Stars: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Jack Black
* MPAA Rating: PG

Rent The Muppets from Netflix >>

November 12, 2011

The Golden Blaze (2005)

FOR HOW MUCH NETFLIX crows about its Just For Kids section, their selection of animated G-rated movies made for children above the pre-school level is anemic, to put it lightly.

But after several attempts to find just the right family film suitable for both Dash and Jack-Jack, one seemed to keep popping up: the relatively unknown 2005 release The Golden Blaze.

Bullied schoolboy Jason (Khleo Thomas) has his world turned around when his dad, fumbling scientist Mr. Fletcher (Blair Underwood), accidentally gains superpowers much like Jason’s comic book hero, The Golden Blaze. However, the town’s Trump-like business tycoon, Thomas Tatum (Michael Clarke Duncan), was also affected by the accident – slowly turning him into The Golden Blaze’s arch-nemesis, Quake.


The Golden Blaze sets itself apart from recent animated films in several ways, the first being director Bryon E. Carson’s choice of Flash animation (a la The Chosen One) versus CGI or 2D. True, it may have been a budgetary choice, but it immediately sets the film apart in today’s crowded animation market.

The plot is also unique, yet also so obvious it’s hard to believe no other superhero or family film hadn’t done it before. Watching Jason give his dad tips and lessons on how to wield his newfound powers provides many funny moments, but it also serves as a way for them to bond as father and son in a much less awkward way than before.

They say that a superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and The Golden Blaze delivers with Thomas Tatum, who eventually becomes the villainous Quake. He’s probably the best-written character, with a story arc and dialogue worthy of any mainstream or live-action superhero film.

Other strong points: The Golden Blaze’s action sequences come at a pretty steady clip, but stop short of becoming relentless. And it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie featuring a predominately African-American cast – including Thomas, Underwood, Duncan, and Sanaa Lathan (The Cleveland Show), as well as Neil Patrick Harris (A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas) as a sarcastic comic book store owner – giving much-needed diversity to a genre usually populated by eccentric white billionaires with daddy issues.

It’s no surprise that The Golden Blaze won the 2005 Children’s Jury Award for Best Animated Feature Film at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. It hits all the marks for a kid audience: an animated superhero film about a boy who’s dad becomes a superhero, and the two grow closer because of it. But The Golden Blaze also does an effective job of addressing the struggles boys and dads can have when they realize neither one of them is perfect.

It’s the world’s worst-kept secret that every dad wants his kids to see him as a superhero, even if he’s not invincible. And in the highly entertaining Golden Blaze, that’s exactly what Mr. Fletcher wants from Jason: to love him for the man he is, not the superhero he’s become. And along the way, Mr. Fletcher is reminded that with great power comes great responsibility – not just as a superhero for the town, but as a father for his son.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
The boys were a little apprehensive at first, trying to adjust to The Golden Blaze’s unique animation style, but they quickly ate it up – enjoying the action and laughing often. The fact that the plot centered around superheroes and villains, and a boy’s role in it all, surely helped.

Is it suitable for your kids?
The Golden Blaze is rated G, but it does have a bit of questionable content for very young viewers. There’s a solid amount of comic book violence (punching, hurling, etc.), and Jason is bullied by several boys, including Thomas Tatum’s son Leon (Rickey D’Shon Collins), who verbally harasses Jason and punches him once in the face off-screen (you hear the thud, followed by Jason sporting a black eye). In terms of language, someone calls a fellow kid a “dodo head,” and Jason and Leon each utter “this sucks” once. Looking back, The Golden Blaze may have been a bit inappropriate for someone Jack-Jack’s age (6), but more suited for older kids and tweens.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
The Golden Blaze seems more like a film for dads and sons to watch together, but there’s no reason the whole family can’t enjoy it – FilmMother included.

Behold their awesome powers of...bowling? Skee Ball?
Bocce? Intergalactic soccer?

The Golden Blaze
* Director: Bryon E. Carson
* Screenwriter: Archie Gips
* Stars: Blair Underwood, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sanaa Lathan, Neil Patrick Harris, Khleo Thomas, Rickey D’Shon Collins
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy The Golden Blaze (DVD) at >>
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November 7, 2011

Gumby: The Movie (1995)

LAST MONTH would have been Gumby creator Art Clokey’s 90th birthday (he passed away in 2010). Google even honored Clokey’s birthday with an interactive Gumby-themed homepage logo:

Dash and Jack-Jack loved what Google did and, since they had never heard of Gumby, started asking questions about him and his friends. It was the perfect opportunity to show them Gumby: The Movie, which I had just put in my Netflix Instant queue a few weeks earlier.

Gumby’s band, the Clayboys, decide to throw a benefit concert to raise money for local farm owners who are losing their farms, thanks for the evil Blockheads who run the local mortgage loan company. But when the Clayboys perform, Gumby’s dog Lowbelly cries tears that turn into valuable pearls – prompting the greedy Blockheads to kidnap Lowbelly and keep the pearls for themselves. In addition, they start kidnapping Gumby, Pokey, Pickle, Goo, and all the Clayboys and replacing them with robot look-alikes.


Everything about Gumby: The Movie the simple plot, the animation, the innocence of the characters – is a refreshing trip back in time for kids’ filmmaking. Granted, 1995 wasn’t that long ago, but Clokey (who directed the film) embodies everything that made his earlier Gumby series so endearing to generations of children. The ability of Gumby and his friends to enter storybooks and live the adventures within (farms, science laboratories, medieval times, etc.) adds to the magic.

That’s not to say Gumby, Pokey, and the gang only do it old school. Gumby’s band, the Clayboys, bring the rawk – jamming to the most hard rock/metal tunes ever shredded by animated lumps of clay.

Clokey’s “claymation” style of animation is pleasantly nostalgic, and the performances – aside from the Clayboys’ rockin’ numbers – are downright tame compared to today’s animated films.

The action in Gumby: The Movie does pick up in the second half, as Gumby and his evil robot twin chase and fight each other through different stories, even jumping into a few “videocassettes” (well, the film was made in the ‘90s). A couple of sequences even have subtle winks to Return of the Jedi and Terminator 2.

Nothing is heart-poundingly exciting or outrageously hilarious in Gumby: The Movie, but it gives kids and their parents a simple, enjoyable, fun family film that does Gumby – and Clokey’s legacy – proud.

aka Gumby 1.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
Since Dash and Jack-Jack have been raised on CGI and 2D animation, I had concerns they’d be jaded about the simplistic, occasionally crude claymation style of Gumby: The Movie. So I was happily surprised that they were glued to the screen for the entire film, even during the quieter moments – though at times, Jack-Jack was a bit confused (frankly, so was I) as to who were the “good” Gumby & Friends and who were the robots.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Gumby: The Movie is rated G and contains nothing overtly offensive. The robot dog falls in manure, and at one point Gumby and his evil robot twin fight each other with light sabers (leading to one of them losing a hand and the other getting sliced into pieces), but it’s not done violently or traumatically. Children of any age should be fine watching the film.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she watched Gumby as a child, Gumby: The Movie could definitely be a fun, nostalgic trip for her.

*Sigh* Where do you run the swipe key on these doors?

Gumby: The Movie
* Director: Art Clokey
* Screenwriters: Art Clokey, Gloria Clokey
* Stars: Charles Farrington, Art Clokey, Gloria Clokey, Manny La Carruba, Alice Young, Janet McDuff, Patti Morse, Bonnie Rudolph, David Ozzie Ahlers
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy Gumby: The Movie (DVD) at >>
Rent Gumby: The Movie from Netflix >>

November 1, 2011

The Other F Word (2011)

BEFORE BECOMING A FATHER, you have your own set of priorities, ideologies, and views of the world. But when children enter your life, you have to make a seismic shift in how you live. And let’s be honest: It’s hard for the average man to stop being so selfish and start giving all his focus, love, and attention to the new child in his life.

But what if you weren’t the average man before fatherhood? What if you were a hardcore punk rocker with no responsibilities, complete disrespect of authority, and lived life day to day on your terms? How hard is it to go from barely caring about your own well-being to being unconditionally protective of a life you created?

Featuring interviews with dozens of punk rock’s leading men, including Jim Lindberg (Pennywise), Mark Hoppus (Blink 182), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Tony Adolescent (The Adolescents), and Lars Frederiksen (Rancid), The Other F Word documents what happens when society’s ultimate anti-authoritarians become its ultimate authorities: dads.


The dads in director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ The Other F Word largely fall into one group – the dad who successfully balances parenthood and punk – yet there are a couple of examples at far ends of the spectrum: Ron “Chavo” Reyes, former lead singer of Black Flag (one the most violent and influential U.S. punk bands), is now the most domesticated, while Fat Mike of NOFX is the most resistant in terms of giving up the punk lifestyle (now in his forties, he still gets completely sloshed before every show).

It’s intriguing to see how becoming a dad makes these punkers think deeply about their own fathers, the majority of whom were pretty poor role models. The examples of bad childhoods described by Nevins’ subjects in strung-together segments are depressing – at times heartbreaking – but they also serve as testaments to how hard, and how successfully, these guys have worked to be better fathers than their own.

Not only do the traumas of their childhoods still affect these punk dads (Everclear’s Art Alexakis is amazingly frank about his many abuses), but tragedies involving their own children haunt them as well (the toughest to watch: Tony Adolescent describing holding his stillborn daughter and U.S. Bombs’ Duane Peters discussing his son’s death in a violent car crash).

While the dads in The Other F Word may have varying methods of parenthood, discipline, and responsibility, not one of their children is neglected – in fact, they appear to be loved very much. We also see never see any of the dads openly struggling to be a responsible grown-up or the father they never had. In other words, there’s no sustainable tension or conflict surrounding the subjects or the subject matter – and that’s the film’s one notable flaw. Obviously, no one wants to see a child mistreated, abused, or abandoned; but in a warped way, it’s almost a detriment to the film that none of Nevins’ subjects is a failure as a father.

Can the sins of the father be avoided by the sons? Judging from the subjects of The Other F Word, the answer is yes. And to a certain extent, it hurts the film – ultimately making it interesting to watch, but not compelling.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Despite being about fatherhood and parenting, The Other F Word features many trademarks of the punk lifestyle: loads of profanities (sometimes in front of the young children), inappropriate sayings on clothing and gear, and alcohol consumption (with a few of the punk dads appearing drunk onstage).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Possibly/probably. If she has an interest in (or history with) the punk lifestyle, she may want to see how these guys are making the adjustment from punk to papa.

Hey! You shouldn’t start a sentence with a preposition…
uh, but in your case, I’ll make an exception.

The Other F Word
* Director: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins
* Screenwriter: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins
* Stars: Jim Lindberg, Mark Hoppus, Flea, Tim McIlrath, Tony Adolescent, Lars Frederiksen, Tony Hawk
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Rent The Other F Word from Netflix >>


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