Friday, March 28, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted / Return to Nuke 'Em High Volume 1

One's a Disney-produced family musical comedy starring puppets, and the other...well, ain't

Walt Disney and Troma are pretty much opposite sides of the same coin. Both companies are veritable pop cultural industries, forged from the minds of ahead-of-their-time (and perhaps just a bit full of themselves) film and business visionaries. Both companies pride themselves on being American institutions; not just film production firms, but distributors and producers of American culture itself. And both companies, of course, are responsible for the creation of countless iconic characters, ranging from lawsuit-happy, big-eared omnipresent mice to a toxic waste spawned janitor vigilante with a penchant for bloody vengeance and boning blind chicks. How the latter was able to parlay that into a short-lived Saturday morning television series, the world may never truly know.

Then again, Walt Disney is a Fortune 500 company with bi-coastal U.S. theme parks, while Troma is more or less run out of the backroom of a McDonalds in Queens. As similar as the companies are, their differences are just a tad more detectable, however, and nothing demonstrates those discrepancies more than their respective latest releases; "Muppets Most Wanted" and "Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1." 

Strangely enough, both films are, in essence, the exact same experiments, with both companies attempting to relaunch two of their respective, domestic box-office-proven cash cows: sure, one may be about cutesy creatures that break out into Broadway numbers at the drop of the hat while the other may be about irradiated teenage junkies who rape and murder their way through suburbia, but at the end of the day? We're pretty much talkin' the exact same kinda' movie here...basically

Muppets Most Wanted
Director: James Bobin

I really, really enjoyed 2011's "The Muppets," which was a rare franchise reboot/updating that managed to restart a franchise without completely obliterating its core roots. Yeah, it had a few fart jokes and some groan-inducing self-reflexive humor in it, but it also had some genuinely heartstring-plucking moments; that, and I still think Fozzie Bear deserved at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year. 

"Muppets Most Wanted," however, is a huge step down from 2011's do-over. It's not a terrible film, but it's definitely a movie with far less vim than its predecessor; indeed, the absolute best "joke" in the entire movie occurs within the first ten minutes, with the Muppets crew singing a song (complete with an Ingmar Bergman reference, if you can believe it) about how sequels are almost always disappointing. Sadly, as the film chugs along, that "joke" actually becomes more of a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

To begin, pretty much the entire human cast from the first film is gone; while Jason Segel and Amy Adams' trying courtship served as the semi-sincere bedrock of the first film, there's really nothing in "Most Wanted" that carries the same sort of weight. Similarly, the cameos in this one are extremely disappointing; a five second scene of Puff Daddy playing cards and that chick from "Kick Ass" just standing there is the best you guys could do this time around? 

There's a lot more emphasis on the puppets themselves in this one, which is actually a negative, since most of the characters are rather one-dimensional. That, and the obvious is never really skirted here; namely, the fact that it's really, really hard to empathize with the celluloid "plight" of pieces of felt. 

The plot is as follows: immediately after the last movie ends, the Muppets are confronted by Ricky Gervais, who plays a sleazy talent agent/cat burglar who convinces them to go on a world tour. Of course, the tour is nothing more than a front for Gervais to scout out clues to finding some long-last pirate gold or something, and as expected, the Muppets are none-the-wiser to his scheme. To help aid him in his nefarious quest, Gervais recruits an evil Russian frog named Vladimir Constantine, whom sans an idiosyncratic mole, bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Jim Henson-designed amphibian. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens next -- the evil frog takes Kermit's place, "Ernest Goes to Jail" style, while Miss Piggy's main squeeze is exiled to Siberia, where he's forced to watch the likes of Tina Fey, Machete and the dude from "Goodfellas" chew the scenery until their gums bleed. 

Eventually the Muppets wise up to Gervais's evil doings (thanks in no small part to the assistance of a guacamole-loaded Subway sandwich, if you can believe it), and Kermit has to race against the clock to save Miss Piggy from wedding Constantine, who wants to blow up the Tower of London so he can retrieve the Crown Jewels or something. Be forewarned, however, that the film's last act contains two of the most terrifying scenes in recent mainstream movie history: the emergence of these absolutely hideous "baby" Muppets that could serve as The Garbage Pail Kids' distant cousins and even more stomach-churning: a Miss Piggy duet with Celine goddamn Dion

Ultimately, what surprised me most about the film was its inherent dullness, as if the producers themselves thought that every second of shooting the film was a chore. The plot drags on rather predictably, and the script throws in very few curve balls; hell, at times, it even feels as if the puppets themselves are phoning in their performances. If the 2011 film was a cheery blur, "Most Wanted," then, is the equivalent of watching janitors emotionlessly scrape bubblegum off a brick wall for an hour and a half. 

For the most part, the song and dance numbers are decent, but nothing on par with the tunes from the previous movie. And while there are some humorous bits here and there, once again, the film, holistically, is nowhere near as funny -- or intelligent -- as the 2011 flick. For that matter, the "Monsters University" short before the feature was an all-around superior offering to the cinematic main course; then again, anything that grants unto the masses the gift of more Art isn't going to receive anything less than glowing admiration from me. 

As previously stated, it's not that "Most Wanted" is a bad movie, per se, it's just that it feels so unbearably plain and forced; at best, this one is nothing more than a reheat of a reheated meal, and by the way? Somebody forget to plug in the microwave before hitting the "start" button, too.


Two Tofu Dogs out of Four

Well, Disney's latest attempt to catch lighting in a Pepsi bottle twice had some less than stellar results; turning our attention towards the House that Toxie Built, can Troma do a better job of reluanching one of its time-tested warhorses? Well, there's only one way to find out, of course...

I'm as shocked as you are that it didn't get an Oscar nod this year!

Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1
Director: Lloyd Kaufman 

It's hard to believe that we've gone nearly eight years without a proper, flagship Troma movie coming down the (sewer?) pipes. Indeed, quite a bit has transpired in the world around us since the 2006 release of "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead" (itself, easily the best anti-consumerist, pro-vegetarianism, musical-love-story-barfola-zombie movie of the 2000s), so perhaps its not all that surprising that "Return to Nuke 'Em High, Volume 1" is pretty much all over the map, thematically.

If you're unfamiliar with Troma's "Nuke 'Em High" trilogy, they're not really prerequisites at all heading into "Return," a sorta'-but-not-quite-remake/reboot of the "venerable" teen-sex-anti-nuclear-shock-comedy series, which I believe were shown on a perpetual loop on the USA network every Saturday night for a good part of the mid-1990s.

The storyline in "Return" -- which has been broken up into two films, "Matrix"/"Kill Bill"/Lars Von Trier-style -- is pretty straightforward. A Final Cut pro-worthy opening vignette with V.O. from Stan Lee(!) informs us that since it's no longer "cool" to criticize nuclear energy, the former owners of Tromaville, New Jeresy's nuclear power plant have switched businesses to "organic" foodstuffs, but wouldn't you know it, all of those tacos they just shipped out to the local high school just so happen to be irradiated with toxic slop. Before long, the dorky glee club is turning into punkola 1980s vomit rocker delinquents and the Rush Limbaugh-esque principal is trying his darndest to cover up all of those pesky, cafeteria-related exploded heads -- which, of course, he attributes to the drama club putting on a performance of "Death of a Salesman" in the style of Christopher Nolan.

The cast in this one is your usual assortment of hyper-stylized Troma stereotypes. The main protagonist of the film is a wealthy blonde girl, who spends half of the movie trying to locate her lost duck (which, in typical Lloyd Kaufman fashion, receives "top billing" as an actor.) She strikes up a confrontational relationship with a socially conscientious student blogger, which quickly turns quite sexy -- that is, until they start having post-coitus "nightmares" about growing enormous Johnsons and spraying acidic breast milk all over the town's nuclear-spawned punk mutant biker gangs. Other standouts include an African-American student who believes the producers of "The Hurt Locker" are out to get him for illegally downloading their movie, a borderline retarded jock who feels sexually conflicted after feeling up a tranny and a super-nerd (who looks JUST LIKE "The Amazing Atheist"), who thinks references to Joel Schumacher movies are great ways to pick up chicks.

As stated earlier, the film feels just a wee bit directionless, but the pell-mell nature of the flick isn't really a negative in the slightest. One minute, you've got jokes about CNN not covering school shootings anymore due to their commonness and the next, you've got some wacky-ass vignettes about corporate (ir)responsibility, characterized by Lloyd Kaufman confusing a glass of milk for a cell phone. And, as expected, the scatter-shot plot is buttressed by a healthy helping of gore, gunge and completely needless nudity -- not content with just ONE self-loving scene, the film is home to THREE, count 'em THREE, masturbatory sequences.

As a Troma film -- with all of the lame jokes and goopy special effects and up-close nipple shots -- you really can't be disappointed by "Return," but I was expecting a bit more focused social commentary in this one. Sure, there are a few potshots at the selfie generation, with characters literally speaking in hashtags and dancing merrily while some pedo-bearded crud rockers yelps "I'm gonna' kill myself tonight" at a house party, but for those expecting a Harmony Korine-quality indictment of today's hyper-pastel youth, you'll probably be disappointed by the contents herein.

On the whole, "Return" isn't quite on par with Troma classics like "Terror Firmer" and "Citizen Toxie," but it's a hell of a lot of fun, regardless. It's got all of the sleaze and slop and trash you'd possibly want from a visionary/foot fetishist like Uncle Lloyd, and needless to say, "Volume One" has me mighty interested in what "Volume Two" has in store for us.

Oh, and that's not to say that this film isn't a little educational, either, as I, for one, had no idea that the Affordable Care Act didn't cover "duck-rape" as a pre-existing medical condition until viewing this motion picture.


Two and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four


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