At the Movies: The Muppets, The Descendants, Hugo

Looking for something to watch this holiday weekend besides football? Here’s a trio of movies that are worth your time.

The Muppets

It’s time to raise the curtain, light the lights and have some laughs with everyone’s favorite don’t-call-them-puppets. Despite the absence of their two key creators — Jim Henson and Frank Oz — the Muppets are back and, while not better than ever, they’re still pretty good.

“The Muppets” centers on the story of — not Kermit the Frog or Fozzie or Miss Piggy — but new guy Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). Walter is a Muppet born in the human world. His best friend is brother Gary (Jason Segel).

While Gary keeps growing and getting bigger, Walter’s development is standing still. The fact that he appears to be made out of felt doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Walter starts to question his lot in life when one night he happens upon “The Muppet Show.” Walter becomes obsessed with all things Muppet. After the show’s run ends its stars disappear from the public eye but Walter still dreams of some day meeting Kermit and company.

Gary and his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a trip to Hollywood and invite Walter along. During a visit to the dilapidated Muppet Theater, Walter learns of a scheme by wealthy businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to buy the theater and demolish it to get at the oil underneath.

In order to save the theater, Walter, Gary and Mary must find Kermit and get the gang back together so they can put on a telethon to raise the money needed to keep the place out of Richman’s hands.

“The Muppets” follows a familiar formula but does so with typical Muppet irreverence. There are cheesy song-and-dance numbers, a lot of fourth-wall breaking and numerous celebrity cameos. The question is raised of whether the Muppets are too old-fashioned for this modern world. The answer, as you might expect from a movie called “The Muppets,” is a resounding “no.”

The film has its flaws, namely the Gary-and-Mary subplot. The Muppets really don’t need human co-stars. Cameos and small roles are all we need of people in a Muppet movie. Plus, all that Gary/Mary/Walter time didn’t give other Muppets a moment in the spotlight.

Did it work for me?  The Muppets have still got it.

The Descendants

“The Descendants” is the latest film from director Alexander Payne, whose previous works include “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” If you’re familiar with those works you know Payne specializes in quirky character-centric stories featuring equal doses of comedy and drama. His latest is no exception.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, an attorney whose family owns large tracts of land in the Hawaiian islands. In accordance with local law, Matt’s family must sell off their holdings within seven years. He is in charge of sifting through the various offers.

 Matt has two daughters — Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) — and is in a marriage that has seen better days. Matt’s hopes for improving his marriage are shattered when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is seriously injured in a boating accident.

Elizabeth’s will forbids life support, so when the doctors determine that she will not be coming out of a coma, Matt is faced with telling friends and family that she is soon going to die. Shortly after being told of her mother’s impending death, Alexandra confesses that she caught Elizabeth having an affair. Matt becomes obsessed with learning who the other man’s identity, but finding out could have wide-reaching consequences.

“The Descendants” is a low-key affair with gorgeous scenery and a smart, captivating script. Clooney and Woodley make a terrific father/daughter team and Robert Forster plays a memorable part as Elizabeth’s father.

Did it work for me? “The Descendants” manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. It’s probably too offbeat to have mass appeal, but if you liked Payne’s other work this is in the same vein.

Hugo

Finally. Someone besides James Cameron has figured out how to make a decent live-action film in 3D. Of course, it would be Martin Scorsese, one of the great directors of the modern age.

One doesn’t ordinarily think of family films when thinking of Scorsese, but here he’s crafted a magical, old-fashioned tale that manages to be a charming adventure as well as a love letter to the cinema.

Based on Brian Selznick’s novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the story is set in a Paris train station in the 1930s. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives a secret life inside the walls of the station. His uncle brought him there after his father’s (Jude Law) death to help keep the clocks running.

When his uncle (Ray Winstone) disappears, Hugo continues with his work, stealing food to survive. He also steals gears and wire and whatever he needs for a pet project: Rebuilding a mysterious automaton that his father found in a museum.

One day Hugo runs afoul of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who owns a toy shop in the train station, but then he’s befriended by Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together, Hugo and Isabelle embark on a fanciful journey of discovery.

“Hugo” is filled to the brim with elaborate sets, gorgeous visuals and colorful characters. And for once the 3D is worth spending the extra money. The movie would probably play fine without the third dimension, but it certainly enhances the experience.

Did it work for me? “Hugo” is worth the price of admission for the visuals alone, but the story and talent involved lift it up and make it something special.

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One response to “At the Movies: The Muppets, The Descendants, Hugo

  1. In About Schmidt, the Jack Nicholson character also discovers after his wife has died that she had an affair. While Payne does not make the same movie over and over again, he does sometimes revisit the same thematic territory, which is interesting.

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