Muppets caper delights

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 19, 2014
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Ricky Gervais, left, convinces the Muppets to make his character, Dominic Badguy, their tour manager.

Owls Head — Muppets Most Wanted: The Unnecessarily Extended Edition (Disney Blu-ray, PG, 107 min.). The eighth Muppet film overall picks up literally just were the last one ended. Then comes the first of several delightful musical production numbers, this one "We're Doing a Sequel," and the viewer is totally captivated already.

Meanwhile, to set the film's plot in motion, Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog," escapes from a gulag in Siberia. It is no surprise that Constantine is a perfect look-alike for Kermit, except for his black mole, which he soon covers with green paint. Ricky Gervais plays Dominic Badguy, the Muppets new tour manager, but he also is Constantine's Number 2 and manages to get Kermit captured and mistaken for Constantine in Berlin. While Kermit is incarcerated in Siberia and has to deal with guard Nadya (Tina Fey), Dominic, posing as Kermit (despite his heavy Russian accent), joins the tour, with he and Dominic doing robberies during each show, with the ultimate goal to steal the Crown Jewels of England. On the domestic front, Miss Piggy is planning marriage to Kermit, who has not even proposed yet. Ultimately, Constantine does propose and the wedding is to be at the Tower of London, where the Crown Jewels are stored. Investigating the thefts are Sam Eagle and Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell).

Among the many fun moments are Nadya singing her "Big House" song, and Kermit having the gulag prisoners perform "I Hope I Get It" from "A Chorus Line." Another great production number is "(How Can) Something So Right (Feel So Wrong)," with Miss Piggy's idol, Celine Dion, joining in on the chorus. Dion is just one of the cameos here; look for Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Christoph Waltz, Usher (hilariously as an usher), Salma Hayek and Tom Hiddleston, among others.

While the film is terrific, the extras are less satisfying. There are two other versions of the film: an extended version with 12 more minutes; and the tongue-in-cheek Statler & Waldorf cut, which is only two minutes long. A 10-minute blooper reel is billed as "the longer longest blooper reel in Muppets history," and there is a music video for Fey's gulag prison song, "I'll Get You What You Want," done by Bret McKenzie. Finally, Rizzo, posing as a fan, request more onscreen time for Rizzo (of course). There is a standard DVD version as well. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 141 min.). Much of this movie I really enjoyed, especially as it focused on the on-and-off relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), aka Spider-Man, and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), but the film feels bloated at times, and there is one or two too many endings. I loved how, watching in 3D, you actually felt you were swinging through the city with Spider-Man, but the "first" ending was shocking to me and left a very bad taste. (I actually felt betrayed by director Marc Webb: he also helmed the previous film.)

A new villain who emerges is Electro (Jamie Foxx), whose twisted hero worship of Spider-Man creates a jealousy that results in chaos -- and seems a bit arbitrary. Peter's old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) suddenly shows up, and he too becomes Spider-Man's enemy as the Green Goblin. And in sort of an afterward, Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) is loose as the Rhino. Peter's backstory is beefed up as well (Campbell Scott plays Peter's father in flashbacks), although made a bit of a treasure hunt.

The standard DVD has four deleted scenes with commentary by director Webb, while the Blu-ray edition adds nine more. Both versions have audio commentary by producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad and writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner, but only the Blu-ray has a superb, six-part documentary (104 min.) that goes into detail on the making of the film. Segments include the filmmakers and cast discussing their approach to the sequel; filming in New York City; the development of the film's three foes; make-up and costuming for the transformations of Foxx and DeHaan into Electro and Green Goblin; how the web-slinging and flying effects were achieved; and a look at the music and how composer Hans Zimmer worked with Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger and others. There also is an Alicia Keys music video. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Batman: Assault on Arkham (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 76 min.). This DC Universe original animated movie, based on the best-selling video game franchise, really pushes its PG-13 rating, both in rather extreme violence (including an electrified low blow delivered by Batman) and in the beginning of a sex scene (!). The emphasis is on the Suicide Squad -- Killer Frost, Black Spider, King Shark, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn and Deadshot -- rather than Batman, and things are kind of boring until Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Troy Baker) show up.

The film opens with Batman preventing the Riddler's (Matthew Gray Gubler) capture; apparently he knows how to diffuse a bomb the Joker has hidden. Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder), the head of Task Force X (aka the Suicide Squad), assembles her team of bad guys who are either coerced into serving or do so for reduced prison time. Deadshot (Neal McDonough) is the supposed leader, but Harley Quinn (Hynden Walsh) is the loose cannon, especially when she uses their mission to free the Joker from Arkham Asylum. (The two are longtime girlfriend and boyfriend.) Harley Quinn outshines just about everyone, except Deadshot. Her best line is: "Anyone who throws boomerangs has some real issues letting go."

Bonus features include audio commentary by DC Comics Animation creative director Mike Carlin, writer Heath Corson and executive producer James Tucker; a fine sneak peak at the next animated film, "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis," featuring Aquaman and his origin (9:10); an extended look at Harley Quinn with Quinn co-creator Paul Dini and others (13:50); and a 27-minute documentary  (exclusive to Blu-ray) on the strange, demonic history of Arkham Asylum. The Blu-ray also has four episodes (91 min. total) from the DC Comics Vault, while the standard version only has two. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Need for Speed (Touchstone, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 130 min.). Basically, despite also being based on a best-selling video game series, "Need for Speed" is a "Fast and Furious" wannabe, saddled with clichés and needless action sequences. However, what it does well is an amazing series of cars flipping over, often with the camera's viewpoint from inside the car.

Aaron Paul plays Tobey Marshall, who is basically hoodwinked by old foe/rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), now an ex-NASCAR driver, into some highly illegal and stupid conduct that results in a tragedy one can see coming a mile away (bad pun not intended).Tobey and his crew fix up Dino's racing Mustang for a quarter of the profit, but then bets all the profit on a race in European cars (Agaras) that are not legal here because they can do extreme speeds. Dakota Johnson plays Anita, the woman who has a history both men and whose little brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) decides to race the third European car.

Nearly a third of the way in, the film jumps forward two years, with Tobey leaving prison. So what is the first thing he does, he decides to break parole and drive all the way across the country to participate in the private De Leon race, staged by radio host Monarch (Michael Keaton). Even more stupid, Tobey gets the police chasing him before he ever leaves the city. Then again, once he reaches Chicago, Tobey again antagonizes the local police and more chasing results.

The movie has no mind; it is all action and adrenaline. That said, the second half is much better than the first. The best car chase takes place in the Badlands. It is much simpler and the possible consequences feel more real. Another plus is that most of the car stunts are practical and not computer-generated. Director Scott Waugh, who is a former stuntman and whose father was a famous film stuntman.

Bonus features include audio commentary by Waugh and actor Paul; a 10-minute look at the cars used in the film; a 12-minute look at three generations of Gilberts who worked on the film, as well as Waugh's father; looks at traveling with the cars to locations and the film score; four short deleted scenes; and two minutes of outtakes. Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 3 stars

Swelter (Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 100 min.). Written and directed by Keith Palmer ("Mob Rules"), this is a modern day western that goes nowhere. The only enjoyable part was seeing Grant Bowler (TV's "Defiance") as a lead character in a film. He plays the just-broken-out-of-prison Cole, who is seeking the missing $10 million from a Las Vegas robbery the so-called Rat Pack (they wore masks of the real Rat Pack members) committed 10 years ago. Four of the robbers were arrested; the fifth was thought dead from a bullet in the head. Strangely enough, he not only survived, but became Sheriff Bishop (Lennie James) of the small town of Baker, Nevada. Bishop has no memory of his criminal past, and still has a bullet fragment lodged in his brain that Doc (Alfred Molina) dared not remove.

The initial body count is high here: seven dead guards during the breakout and four dead policeman at a road stop, but once Cole and his gang arrive in Baker, things slow down, and the play out of the inevitable confrontations are just not that interesting. Jean-Claude Van Damme has a small role as one of the Rat Pack, but nearly no dialogue. The only bonus features are 57 minutes on interviews with Van Damme, Palmer, Bowler, Josh Henderson (he plays Rat Packer Boyd), James and Molina. Grade: film 1.75 stars; extras 2 stars

The Marx Brothers TV Collection (Shout! Factory, 3 DVDs, NR, 630 min.). The Marx Brothers' last movie, "Love Happy," premiered in 1949, when Groucho was 59, Harpo 61 and Chico 62. The brothers then started to move into television. Chico's show, "The College Bowl," premiered three days before Groucho's "You Bet Your Life" made the leap from radio to television. (Chico's show lasted 26 weeks, while Groucho's lasted until spring 1961.) Harpo, sticking to his non-speaking persona, started making guest TV appearances in 1951. Early live television usually was not preserved, unless it was in the form of kinescopes -- films shot off a television monitor. Most of the pieces here date from 1951 to 1965, with a handful of later Groucho appearances also included.

First up, with Ronald Reagan hosting, is "The General Electric Theater" production of "The Incredible Jewel Robbery," which essential is a silent two-reel comedy with Harpo and Chico. Groucho does appear, but not under his name due to his contract at the time. Another highlight is a 1955 "Jack Benny Program," with Benny appearing on "You Bet Your Life" in disguise to win $3,000. There are plenty of laughs. Disc one also has the final episode of Chico's "The College Bowl." On disc two, there is Harpo playing Red Skelton's inept guardian angel on the premiere of "The Red Skelton Hour." Groucho's only dramatic performance on television came in "The Hold Out" on "The General Electric Theater" in 1962. In it, he plays a father who opposes his teenaged daughter's (Brooke Hayward) marriage to potential son-in-law Dennis Hopper. The collection includes Harpo playing "Celebrity Golf" with Sam Snead, Chico playing "Championship Bridge with Charles Goren," and Groucho playing "Celebrity Billiards" with Minnesota Fats. Harpo plays an umpire on "The Martha Raye Show" with Brooklyn Dodgers Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, and New York Giants Wes Westrum, Jim Hearn and Dusty Rhodes. There also are short films, commercials and "The Marx Brothers Home Movie Collection. Grade: collection 3.5 stars

Baseball's Seasons: The 1980s (2009-2013, A&E/Lionsgate, 3 DVDs, 462 min.). This collection contains 10 episodes of "Baseball's Seasons," produced by Major League Baseball Productions and shown on MLB Network. Among the subjects covered are Ricky Henderson and Tim Raines stealing bases at a historic pace; the Bash Brothers knocking home runs out of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (plus the earthquake); the controversial Bad Boys of the 1986 Mets; and Kirk Gibson's World Series home run.

The Essential Jacques Demy (France, 1961-1982, Criterion, 6 Blu-ray + 7 DVDs dual format, 573 min. + extras). This box set contains six films by French director Demy. Although part of the New Wave, he went for emotional storytelling instead of formalism. Fate and coincidence play a large part in his films and characters from one film appear in another. Special emphasis is always placed on visual and sound design, camera work and music. In fact, two of the most delightful films here, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort" are both musicals.

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" features a beautiful score by Michel Legrand and is a homage to the Hollywood musical It starts Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as young star-crossed lovers, hindered by both her mother, who owns an umbrella shop that is in financial difficulty, and the Army, which drafts him for two years. All the dialogue in the film is sung. The film also is notable for its use of light and color, often looking like a painting. Jean Rabier was the cinematographer. Extras include a 55-minute documentary from 2008 on the film's production; a new interview with film scholar Rodney Hill (23 min.); an archival interview with Demy and Legrand (12 min. from 1964); and audio excerpts of separate interviews with Deneuve and Legrand. Grade: film 5 stars

Coming three years later, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" also was a collaboration with Legrand. Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac plays sisters who dream of meeting their ideal man. Gene Kelly plays a famous Hollywood composer, whose friend Simon (Michel Piccoli) has returned to Rochefort to open a music store. George Chakiris ("West Side Story") and Grover Dale play two carnies. The film is longer and the story is more complicated than in "Umbrellas." There also are elaborate dance numbers linked by brief spoken interludes. "Umbrellas" also featured the cast singing their own numbers, while here, all but one actress are dubbed. The music score was nominated for an Oscar. Extras include a 1966 archival interview with Demy and Legrand discussing the music (11 min.); an interview with costume designer Jacqueline Moreau (26 min.); part of a 1966 documentary about the film (35 min.) from Belgian television; and a 67-minute documentary on the film's production. Grade: film 5 stars

The set begins with "Lola," starring Anouk Aimee as a cabaret dancer with a 7-year-old son. She is one of several seekers of love, whose fates are intertwined. Lola is seen through the eyes of three different characters. At the time he composed the score, Legrand was a virtual unknown. The film's original negative no longer exists. Extras include two audio interviews with Aimee; a video interview with Agnes Varda, who composed Lola's song; and four early Demy short films. Grade: film 3.5 stars

"Bay of Angels" stars Claude Mann as Jean, a young bank clerk with a boring life, until he accompanies a compulsive gambler to a famous casino and wins 500,000 francs. Days later in Nice, he goes to another casino and meets an older woman (Jeanne Moreau as Jackie). Soon, Jean is making mistake after mistake to please the woman he loves. Extras for Demy's second film include a 1962 interview with Demy (14 min.); and a new interview with journalist Marie Colmant, author of the book "Jacques Demy," on the director's love of outcasts (11 min.). Grade: film 4 stars

In "Donkey Skin," a powerful king (Jean Marais) promises his dying queen (Catherine Deneuve) that he will only marry someone more beautiful than her. Deneuve also plays the daughter of one of the king's ministers, who panics when the king wants to marry her and runs off to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig). Eventually, the terrified princess runs away from the castle, wearing the stinky skin of the king's favorite magic donkey. The film is an adaptation of Charles Perrault's popular fairy tale "Peau d'ane." Portions of the dialogue are sung by the actors. Extras include a TV interview with Demy, Deneuve and Marais discussing the original fairy tale (12 min.); a look at different illustrated editions of the fairy tale (12 min.); a four-person discussion of the film (17 min.); and a collection of excerpted audio recordings from 1971 in which Demy discusses his directing methods, his collaborations with Legrand and Deneuve, and his passion for cinema (43 min.). Grade: film 4 stars

The final film in the collection is "Une Chambre en Ville," which is set in Nantes in the 1950s. (Nantes is where Demy grew up.) Danielle Darrieux plays a lonely baroness who lives with her renter, a feisty shipyard worker (Richard Berry). The film follows these two and other disillusioned characters during a massive strike that paralyzes the city. Once again, all the dialogue is sung. For the first time in this set, the composer is not Legrand, but rather Michel Colombier. Extras include Agnes Varda's 1995 documentary, "The World of Jacques Demy" (92 min.); the visual essay, "Jacques Demy, A to Z" (62 min.); and a 1987 Q&A with Demy from the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankyla, Finland (17 min.). The accompanying booklet has essays by critics Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne E. Duggan and Geoff Andrew. Grade: film 3.75 stars; overall extras 3.75 stars

Grace Kelly Collection (1953-1955, Warner, 7 DVDs, NR or PG). Kelly movie career only spanned five years and 11 films, before she became the Princess Consort of Monaco. This collection of six films includes three of my all-time favorites: "Dial M For Murder" and "To Catch a Thief," both directed by Alfred Hitchcock (she also appeared in his "Rear Window"), and the musical "High Society," with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong (wonderful songs by Cole Porter). In the latter, Kelly plays socialite Tracy Lord, who is about to marry for a second time when her first husband (Crosby) shows up for the pre-wedding festivities.

After Kelly appeared with Gary Cooper in "High Noon," she starred opposite Clark Gable in this set's "Mogambo," and was nominated for an Academy Award. She did win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in "The Country Girl," included here. "Mogambo," a remake of 1932's "Red Dust," was directed by John Ford and shot in Africa. Ava Gardner co-stars as a Broadway showgirl who is her rival. "The Country Girl," which garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, is based on Clifford Odetts' play. Crosby plays an alcoholic singer/actor set to star in a new Broadway play. Kelly plays his wife, herself a former alcoholic.

The other film in the set is "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," an adaptation of James Michener's best-seller. Kelly plays the wife of Navy Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden), who is ordered back for another tour of duty in the Korean War. Among the set's extras are "Hitchcock and Dial M and 3D"; "Cole Porter in Hollywood: True Love"; and, for "To Catch a Thief," audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau, as well as brief looks at the writing, casting, making of the film, and a look at Edith Head's years at Paramount. A bonus disc is the documentary, "Princess Grace de Monaco" A Moment in Time," which includes Pierre Salinger's interview with Kelly, her last interview before her 1982 death from a car accident. The set also has art cards, photos and memorabilia. Grade set: 4.5 stars

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