As the title to critic Jonathon Rosenbaum’s newest collection of writings instructs: Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.
As though the holiday season weren’t already a minefield for nostalgia traps, three of the big releases this weekend dive headfirst into the moviegoing comforts of the past.
Not that all three — The Muppets, Hugo and My Week with Marilyn — wind up fully endorsing the bygone years of cinema, but there’s no denying their main appeal is old school movie magic.
To that end, of the three, it’s The Muppets that’s the most hard-bitten. It’s been well over a decade since they’ve appeared in theaters (stinking up the joint in the wretched 1999 Muppets from Space), and almost everyone who grew up with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie is … well, all grown up.
That’s the premise of this crypto-sequel/reboot, which was fostered to the screen by How I Met Your Mother‘s Jason Segel and other various members of the “Six Degrees of Judd Apatow” universe.
Segel plays Gary, a grown-up boy whose brother Walter grew up idolizing the Muppets because he is, himself, a Muppet, at least in form if not family.
When the brothers and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy “Chanhassen Dinner Theaters” Adams) bounce to Hollywood for a field trip, they are shocked to find that the Muppets’ theater and studio backlot have fallen into disrepair. The world has forgotten the adorable felt-built vaudevillians, and soon their property will be taken over by a clichéd corporate villain bent on drilling for oil. (Chris Cooper relishes his role as “Tex Richman,” all but twirling a ‘stache as he reveals each sneering plot point.)
It’s up to the star-struck Walter to convince Kermit and company to band together once again to save their own legacy, which means staging a telethon to raise the $10 million they need to keep Richman at bay.
Now, the Muppets have been meta from the very beginning — the entirety of 1979’s The Muppet Movie shows Jim Henson’s puppets all gathered in a Hollywood screening room to watch the final cut of their debut movie (a movie that, at one point, snaps in half right on the screen).
But this time around, Segel and his collaborators do more than their due diligence in breaking the fourth-wall and selling the movie as its own act of self-fulfilling prophecy, right down to the Waldorf & Statler dropping in simply to make fun of the movie’s corny plot points. (If the movie fails to break $10 million at the box-office this holiday weekend, well, the movie has a joke about that built in already.)
So is it a return to form for the Muppets? Well, I regret to report the focus on Segel, Adams and the featureless new Muppet Walter prove an almost insurmountable roadblock, and every minute the movie spends on them and not, say, Gonzo, Beeker or Animal is frustrating.
(Though, as an aside, I was grateful for the addition of the Moopets and their ringleader, Miss Poogy. Observe.)
Kids who aren’t familiar with the Muppets will probably laugh often enough, but the movie’s clear aim is at the adults, who will find themselves fighting tears when Kermit reprises “The Rainbow Connection.”
In contrast, I fear it will be the kids fighting tears during Martin Scorsese’s somewhat reckless, $170 million love letter to cinephila Hugo. And they will be tears of boredom.
And that thought almost makes me want to cry a little bit, too, because I’d be more inclined to say this is one of the movie-loving director’s most “personal” movies if he weren’t already the sort of director whose every latest movie gets called “one of his most personal movies.”
Ungainly and oddly paced, with very little dramatic tension, Hugo is a genuine oddball. It’s a family film for anyone who has ever taken a film studies course. That is to say, people without families.
Scorsese’s movie is, on the surface, about a young orphaned boy who takes care of the many clocks at a bustling Parisian train station and spends his spare time rebuilding a mechanical boy who, it would seem, is programmed to write out a message Hugo hopes will be from his dead father.
But what it’s really about is the mysterious toy shop owner in the train station’s lobby who, as it turns out, is Georges Melies.
Name doesn’t ring a bell? Unless you’re one of those film school geeks like me, it probably doesn’t. But he’s considered one of the founding fathers of cinema, the director whose works like A Trip to the Moon brought fantasy to the still-gestating art form of cinema.
Unlike Hugo’s iron boy, the pieces of Hugo don’t seem to really fit together in any traditionally satisfying way. As a kids’ fantasy, it’s often inert. As a tribute to movies, it’s easily distracted.
But the few times Scorsese gives himself over to depictions of Melies in his heyday, orchestrating cinematic shaman tricks, the movie soars.
The danger of nostalgia is that it can overcome, enveloping those afflicted until they can’t function in the here and now.
That seems to be the main problem with the initially intoxicating but ultimately wispy My Week with Marilyn, which ensnares itself in the world of late ’50s filmmaking. In a way, it’s sort of about how one of the arguable last old school starlets tried (and failed) to navigate her way through the waning years of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Monroe’s decision to shoot a picture in England for Sir Laurence Olivier (indulging himself with a directorial gig) feels like a shot toward neo-independent cred, but her own nagging inadequacies, drug addictions and tendency to surround herself by the sort of people that enable her to behave badly on set all threaten to torpedo Olivier’s project.
Not to mention the fact that Colin Clark, a comely young buck serving as Olivier’s third assistant director (a glorified gopher), is also jeopardizing Olivier’s sideline mission to sample Monroe’s, um, charms.
With Michelle Williams fully embodying Monroe’s flirtatious persona, Kenneth Branaugh gnawing scenery as Olivier, and cameo appearances by Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller and Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh (then Olivier’s wife, though not for much longer), My Week with Marilyn should be an autograph hound’s delight. But somewhere along the way, it gets tripped up by its own bald ambition: to be an Oscar vehicle for Williams.