Friday, April 18, 2014

FILM REVIEW: CESAR'S LAST FAST

A scene from Cesar's Last Fast.  Photo Credit: Robin Becker.
Starving for justice

By John Esther

For the second time in three weeks, a film about the life and times of the American human rights activist, Cesar Chavez, will receive a theatrical release. The first one was director Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez, a hitherto underappreciated film – at least at the box office. Now we have Cesar’s Last Fast.

Inspired by both his Catholic upbringing and the teachings of Indian human rights activist,  Mahatma Gandhi, Chavez conducted several fasts throughout his life.

Hardly a diet scheme, Chavez’s fasting was a response to the injustices farm workers, primarily in Central Valley California, endured. Already subject to unfair labor practices, unlawful imprisonment and, in a few cases, murder, new farming procedures implemented in the 1980s were subjecting farmworkers to carcinogenic pesticides.  These pesticides affected children most of all.

In response, the 61-year-old Chavez adopted a water-only fast. The fasting protest attracted media attention, especially after it past the 30-day mark and Chavez was reaching the point of no return. By the way, his return was quite an event.

Unlike Luna’s Cesar Chavez, director Richard Ray Perez (Unprecedented) takes an irreproachable attitude toward his subject. Perez was able to gain access to Chavez’s family, his coworkers and some precious archival footage and amateur video from Chavez’s press secretary, Lorena Parlee (who died in 2006 from breast cancer). Was it cause and effect?

Picked up at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Cesar Chavez is an inspiring testimony to one of this nation’s heroes.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

FILM REVIEW: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Only Lovers Left Alive. 
Oh so tragically hipster

By John Esther

The latest film by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth; Dead Man and Broken Flowers), Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of Adam (Tom Hiddleston), an eccentric musician living a life of exclusion in Detroit and his much older wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), a world weary woman hanging out in Tangiers. When Eve discovers Adam is sad, she gets on the next overnight flight to the United States and the two lovers once again rejoice, make love, listen to music of a bygone era and consume human blood together. 

Yes, Adam and Eve are vampires. So is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the real writer of William Shakespeare’s works. But they are not your typical vampires. They read, they feel, they create and they are too civilized to roam the streets searching for victims to sick their fangs into. Besides human blood today is too polluted. Adam and Eve remain in the last remnants of paradise by purchasing the purest blood money can buy.

Layered with nuance, feeling, memory and metaphor, Only Lovers Left Alive is a mediation on the futile persistence of immortality, that lovers and friends will always come and go and what it means, in terms of privilege and power, to be a pureblood. Or it could just be Jarmusch’s attempt to bring to life the coolest couple of cinema ever. My Radiohead, are these vampires not hipsters to the nth power?

FILM REVIEW: THE RAILWAY MAN

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) in The Railway Man.
Getting there from here

By John Esther

In the early 1980s, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a lonely, tormented man who continues to study Britain's railway system. He has always loved trains, despite the pain this love for trains brought him during WWII when he and his fellow British soldiers surrendered to Japanese soldiers in Singapore, 1942, and were brought to the Thai/Burma border and ordered to build the "Death Railway."

During another yet seemingly ordinary ride on the train, Lomax meets Canadian nurse Pattie Wallace (Nicole Kidman) and the two have such a remarkable conversation, Eric, at last, falls in love. The two get married.

However, it soon becomes very clear to Mrs. Lomax that her husband has psychological problems stemming from the great war. With the help of Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard), a fellow POW of Eric's, Patti is determined to help her husband.

Based on Lomax's book, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and the screenplay written by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film deals with some of the uglier aspects of war, namely how torture can be justified by the upper echelons of government through twisted language that winds it way down the chain of command. Indeed, the use of language plays many roles in The Railway Man.

While in The Railway Man, the film deals with a British officer (Jeremy Irvine) and a Japanese-English translator Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) who tortures the young Eric through such techniques as waterboarding, as an American, one can only anticipate the day when filmmakers illustrate (further) the torturous events at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and those who are and were on the wrong side of history.

In the meantime, The Railway Man is not only a germane warning to current U.S. policy, it is also one of the better films to come out so far this year.

"So many dead." "No, so many murdered."

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

FILM REVIEW: 10 RULES FOR SLEEPING AROUND

Vince (Jesse Bradford), Cameron (Virginia Williams), Kate (Tammin Sursok) and Ben (Chris Marquette) in 10 Rules for Sleeping Around. 
Screw comedy

By John Esther

Vagina voracious Vince (Jesse Bradford) and conspicuous consumer Cameron (Virginia Williams) have what they call an "open" marriage. This means they can have other sex partners as long as they follow the "10 Rules for Sleeping Around." (Deplorably, none of these 10 rules promote safe sex.)

Vince and Cameron's best friends, cautious Kate (Tammin Sursok) and bummer Ben (Chris Marquette), are not married yet, but sexy times have been a bit slow, so Cameron and Vince offer them advice. Vince suggests Ben ask Kate for a threesome with another woman and Cameron suggests Kate get a pole...vaulter from Kate's past. 

Thanks to a series of events, every one of these New Yorker's has her or his theories, desires and commitment put to the test out in the Hamptons during the biggest party of the year, held by "I F#cked Everybody" author, Jeffrey Fields (Michael Mckean). Let the mayhem ensue. 

Somewhere between Sex and the City's banality and Three's Company misunderstandings, writer-director Leslie Greif's 10 Rules for Sleeping Around comes off as really bad television. About 10 minutes into this 94-minute movie I wanted it to be over. The acting is almost always in overdrive, the writing is on par with the worst you would find in any TV situation comedy and the reactionary gender stereotypes are tedious and cliched. Apparently, repressed sexuality is really what young people want. 

Hopefully the actors were paid well. It must be difficult for an actor when your director says you have to go out of character to get laughs. However, hysterical behavior is not necessarily comical. Notably, Kate's "spanking" scene with her lifestyle coach, Owen (Bryan Callen), is downright embarrassing. 

As a result nearly everyone in the movie is unconvincing and very annoying, especially Hugh (Reid Ewing), a virgin who refers to women in their late 20s as cougars. For his part, Hugh gets to scream a lot, run around naked and have a dog lick his butt. For Christ's sakes! 

The only two likable characters in 10 Rules for Sleeping Around are Nikki (Jamie Renee Smith) and Jaymee (Molly McCook). The "Jersey Shore" duo may be a bit crass, but they are comfortable with their freedom, sexuality and themselves.  

Fortunately, not all was lost. I did laugh four times during 10 Rules for Sleeping Around. But that hardly makes up for the pain during the rest of the time. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE UNKNOWN KNOWN

Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. 
Spin Rummy

By Ed Rampell

Along with Michael Moore, Errol Morris is arguably America’s preeminent documentarian. Morris’ recent nonfiction films include 2003’s Academy Award winning, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and 2008’s Berlin International Film Festival Jury Grand Prize winner, Standard Operating Procedure

The former sought to explain why America went “down the same rabbit hole again” (as Morris put it during his Oscar acceptance speech) by invading Iraq through an investigation of the so-called “Mac the Knife,” who was U.S. Secretary of Defense during much of the Vietnam War. The second doc examined torture committed by Americans at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Morris’ latest documentary, The Unknown Known, is a sort of cinematic synthesis and updating of the two, as the master moviemaker focuses his “Interrotron” on Donald Rumsfeld, the man who was Defense Secretary during the Iraq War and is suspected of sharing responsibility for torturing prisoners from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. The Interrotron is a recording device somewhat similar to a teleprompter that enables the interview subject to appear to be making direct eye contact with the interviewer, and hence with the audience. The term, which was coined by Morris’ wife, producer Julia Sheehan, enhances the “first person” and “fly on the wall” nature of Q&As while suggesting the words “interrogation,” “interview” and -- appropriately, in Rumsfeld’s case -- “terror.”

The Unknown Known follows Rumsfeld, the Don Corleone of elite Republican politics, through his career as a four-term Congressman in the 1960s to his stints as a behind-the-scenes strings puller in the administrations of presidents Nixon and Ford, serving the latter as America’s youngest Secretary of Defense. The documentary focuses on Rumsfeld’s return to that post (by then as America’s oldest Defense Secretary) during George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency at the behest of his longtime crony, Dick Cheney. In this doc “The Unknown” becomes “Known” largely through the 20,000 memos the verbose Rumsfeld -- a psychopathic egotist way too fond of hearing the sound of his own voice -- circulated during his six years as Bush’s Pentagon hit man. Building upon what the ex-Defense Secretary dubs “snowflakes,” Morris once again goes down the rabbit hole as he follows Rumsfeld’s arrogant paper trail and creates one of the documentary’s central cinematic metaphors.

Morris is at his best when he uses filmmaking’s audio-visual language to express ideas and break the tedium of talking heads on the big screen. In 1988’s The Thin Blue Line about a Texan wrongfully convicted of murder Morris memorably, inventively enlivened the action with a slow motion crime scene reenactment featuring a flying milkshake, which provided a vital clue for the case. In The Unknown Known Morris cinematically opens up the screen with beautiful black and white time lapse cinematography of Washington, D.C. and repeatedly uses the snowflake theme to make his case against Rumsfeld and his snow job, as Rummy reads many of his memos aloud. At one point Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” plays on the soundtrack. Another visual metaphor Morris deploys is images of the ocean, perhaps to give form to the gabby Rumsfeld’s sea of words.

Morris’ cleverest use of cinematic symbolism, however, is aural, as he overlays one track of Rumsfeld speaking over another, thereby creating the impression that the Pentagon top banana was, literally, a double talker. For instance, to sidestep the Geneva Conventions Rumsfeld refers to “detainees” instead of “prisoners of war.” Morris includes a canny clip of the 2002 press conference wherein Rumsfeld rather infamously said this about the lack of hard evidence regarding Iraq’s purported WMDs: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns: that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” The title of Morris’ film is derived from this convoluted quote, which is clearly classic Orwellian “doublespeak.” (The doc’s droll, tongue in cheeky tagline is: “What you didn’t know you didn’t know.”)

At other times Morris cannily cuts from a lie Rumsfeld tells the Interrotron to footage of a previous statement by him, in order to point out self-serving contradictions. Sometimes Rummy spars with his electronic interrogator, taking issue with Morris’ use of the word “obsession” to describe his fixation on Iraq, retorting: “You like the word ‘obsession.’” At other times Rumsfeld critics may feel that the interrogator isn’t as hard hitting as he could be with the elusive subject -- Morris’ disdain for his subject has actually been far more visceral and palpable in the interviews he has given since completing his doc.

For instance, Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam Hussein on Dec. 20, 1983 as the Reagan regime’s special envoy to Western Asia is revisited, but Morris doesn’t press Rummy on his shaking hands and dickering with the dictator who was at the time using chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians -- while the Bush regime used Iraq’s purported Weapons of Mass Destruction and Baghdad’s prior use of WMDs as a pretext for war. Rumsfeld, who was among the top purveyors of disinformation about Saddam’s WMDs, is predictably weasel-y when confronted about his lies regarding this matter (as he is regarding U.S. torture). When Rumsfeld ruminates upon Tariq Aziz, expressing a desire to meet with Saddam’s former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Morris inserts an image of written words dropping into a black pit.

Discussing Gitmo, Bagram and whether or not it was better for the U.S. to have not invaded Iraq Rumsfeld tellingly says “Time will tell,” justifying Bush administration actions by pointing out that under Pres. Obama many Bush policies are “all still there.”

Rumsfeld jokingly calls his interrogator’s final question “vicious,” as Morris inquires: “Why are you talking to me?” Rumsfeld replies: “I’ll be damned if I know.” This reviewer suspects that in addition to trying to burnish his image and put his spin on history, a main reason why Rumsfeld agreed to be interviewed for The Unknown Known is in order to sell copies of his latest book. And to once again have the pleasure of hearing the sound of his own voice, as this would-be master of the universe discussed for 33 hours his favorite topic: Donald Rumsfeld.

In any case, a better question for this man who helped lead this country into a completely unnecessary war that led to the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands and an incalculable loss of tax dollars contributing to the bankrupting of America is: Why are you smiling? Throughout the documentary Rumsfeld is jocular, even gleeful -- he is seen grinning in Participant Media’s picture promoting the film at the socially aware production company’s website. Inquiring minds would like to know why?

This reviewer suspects that Donald Rumsfeld is happy because he was never charged with, let alone convicted of, committing war crimes, and walks around a free, very rich man. Let’s hope Rumsfeld is charged with crimes against humanity and brought before a 21st century Nuremberg tribunal -- and that smirk is forever wiped off of his face. The reason why Rumsfeld and his fellow war criminals are allowed to walk around free is an unknown known.







  











Thursday, March 27, 2014

FILM REVIEW: CESAR CHAVEZ

A scene from Cesar Chavez.
Sí lo hicieron!

By John Esther

It has been a long time coming, but finally somebody has made a theatrical film about Cesar Chavez. And it is my favorite 2014 film, so far. 

Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, Chavez grew up knowing what it was like to be exploited. After the Chavez's lost their home during the Depression, they worked in the fields for very little compensation. As all hands were needed in the field, Chavez did not attend school past the 7th grade.


After serving two years in the Navy, Chavez returned to the fields. From there he quickly rose through the ranks of the American labor movement working for the CSO (Community Service Organization), a humans rights organization which encouraged Latinos to register to vote.


In the early 1960s Chavez started focusing on the farm workers of Central California. While the workers of the United States had gained considerable rights since the 1930s, the Latino (and Filipino) workers who mined the agricultural crops in Salinas, Fresno, etc., were left behind to toil in working conditions too similar to those found in the recent film, 12 Years a Slave -- which took place 100 years prior to the time of Cesar Chavez.

To any person with an ounce of tenderness, this was unacceptable. But anger and indignation were hardly enough to start an organized labor movement. The poor workers were scared and rightfully so. They could be fired, deported, beaten and, in a few cases, killed, without any legal recourse. Even if the workers were not afraid, white people, who were raised racist, were afraid of the Other. Any attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the dominant race had to be done through peaceful resistance. 


So in the early 1960s Cesar (Michael Peña) and Helen (America Ferrara) packed up their kids and drove toward the fields of Central Valley, California (in a scene which may be amusing to racists) and began to organize the men, women and children who were being exploited by unbridled capitalism. (If you want to see what the U.S. would look like without a federal minimum wage, see Cesar Chavez.)



Helen (America Ferrara) and Cesar (Michael Peña) in Cesar Chavez.

Fortunately, this is where the film begins. Rather than dwell on Cesar's childhood and other phenomena as to what motivated Cesar, his lack of education, his service in the Navy, etc., -- although we do get pieces of the puzzle along the way -- the film focuses on Cesar's brilliant non-violent organizing skills and the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, AKA the United Farm Workers (UFW). Moreover, to focus solely on Cesar's biography would betray the film's underlying message: Cesar could not have made the kind of history attributed to him without the help of countless others (see War and Peace).  

Rather than offer the typical Hollywood hagiography (see Noah) about how one man changes the course of history, director Diego Luna, along with co-writers Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, illustrate that great change comes from the multitude of players involved in any movement. 


Helen Chavez. A woman of fierce convictions, Helen was no stranger to radical protest and getting her hands good and dirty. She may have been the mother of eight children, but Helen was not going to submit to any Latino machismo ideas about taking a backseat -- domestically or politically. (Pardon me: The scene in Cesar Chavez where Helen deliberately gets arrested for defiantly yelling the banned word, "Huelga" or "Strike" may be the hottest scene of any woman in film this year. A woman who does not "know her place" is extremely attractive.) 


Cesar Chavez also takes the time and effort to illustrate the contributions of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). Not only was she a force in working class solidarity, but sisterhood solidarity as well. The UFW would never have succeeded without the participation of so many brave women.


Then there was Gilbert Padilla (Yancy Arias), the UFW area director, who provided structure by establishing service centers where people could convene, organize and strategize. Then there was Cesar's younger brother, Richard Chavez (Jacob Vargas), who had his older brother's back and counseled wisely when Cesar's emotions got the better of him. They and others, from here to Europe, created the solidarity necessary for positive change.


Indeed, Luna and film editors Douglas Crise and Miguel Schverdfinger take the appropriate efforts to show the numerous faces of a movement. A movement by "an army of boycotters" that sparked a statewide, then nationwide, then worldwide boycott of table grapes. 


To the film's credit, it also reminds us what an extraordinary politician, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes) was to the working class. Kennedy actually visited the epicenter of the strike and boycott, talking to the people and challenging the belligerent local authorities to read the U.S. Constitution. His behavior was a stark contrast to then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, who called the grape boycott "immoral" and the collaboration of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (who was born in California), to get the military to subsidize the grape growers in order to break the proletarian defiance. 


Cesar may have been the auteur of the crew, but as any organizer or filmmaker knows, the ultimate vision of a successful movement, whether it is for the rights of the worker or a film, is the work of many visionaries, and not solely the performance of its spokesperson or director. 


The film also reminds us that whatever fruits Chavez enjoyed on a professional and personal level came at the cost of a parental one. As the eldest son of America's most reviled Mexican American, Fernando Chavez (Eli Vargas) was bullied at his predominately-white school while being ignored by a father too busy working outside the home. Fernando was too immature to understand the sacrifices his father was making for the good of the nation. Fernando needed a father, not a martyr. 


Ultimately, they both got what they wanted and lost what they had. 


Riveting, inspiring, agitating and fortifying, smartly directed, very well acted, and demonstrating a sophisticated attention to detail, Cesar Chavez is a film worthy of its subject. 


This Monday marks the 87th anniversary of Cesar's birthday, an official holiday in California, Colorado and Texas. If you want to honor the man and the movement by patronizing an excellent educational experience illustrating Latino-American history, organized labor history and California history, your opportunity has arrived.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE RAID 2

A scene from The Raid 2. 
Spray cans of whoop ass

By John Esther

Three years after the 2011 film, The Raid: Redemption, writer-director Gareth Evans returns with the highly anticipated, vehemently violent sequel, The Raid 2. 

Essentially commencing where The Raid: Redemption finished, the sequel finds the protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais) going undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate and bring everybody down, especially the crooked cops at the top. 

As Rama falls deeper and deeper into his undercover role, he begins to lose his senses of what is right and wrong, incrementally becoming more punitive toward his aggressors. Of course, in a society where cops and government officials are as crooked as the gangsters, who can tell what is right and wrong? The only thing to know for sure is how to survive and fight another day.

As gratuitously violent as any insane person would want it to be, The Raid 2 makes the balletic violence in 300: Rise of an Empire and the ejaculatory explosions in Need for Speed look like bloody adolescent-minded masturbation (even more so than before). Here in The Raid 2, faces are bludgeoned, legs are snapped, heads are smashed, arms are amputated, etc., via baseball bats to the head, hammers to the throat, knives to the chest, etc. There is also a lot of death-by-furniture. Only the insecure need a gun to fight here in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

For a while the martial arts choreography make the violence somewhat entertaining, or thrilling at least. Perhaps it is psychologically appealing? There is something deeply existential about seeing Rama trapped in a situation, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and then watch him think, or respond, using his mental and physical skills, his way out of the situation. Who does not wish he or she could master the environment like Rama?

However, after a while, the violence becomes a means unto itself in this 150-minute film. Each fight becomes prolonged and belligerent, thrusting the earlier thrills of the film into plotting mechanics as Rama must work his way through a game of death until all evildoers are vanquished. Ultimately, the martial artistic choreography becomes bloodthirsty pornography. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

FILM REVIEW: HAPPY CAMP

A scene from Happy Camp.
Sad stay

By John Esther

Sometime during the 75-minute film, Teddy (Teddy Gilmore) jokes, “What is does the local economy and Bigfoot have in common? There is no evidence either exists.” 

Well, thanks to director Josh Anthony’s ugly, deceiving “found footage” portrayal of Happy Camp, California, what do you expect? 

The film begins by declaring that over the past 25 years 627 people have gone missing in Happy Camp, the highest in the country. I could find no evidence to even remotely support that claim. 

(My wife and I actually drove through Happy Camp last year. We encountered wild horses on State Route 96.)

And that is just one of the film’s problems. Some of the writing is weak and the so-called payoff is cheesy -- and it would do nothing to promote tourism in Happy Camp. I will say Michael Barbuto’s performance as the character, Michael Tanner, the guy who returns to his hometown to uncover a childhood tragedy, is quite good and the other two male actors -- Gilmore and Anthony -- are pretty good, but that is about it. 

Happy Camp will be released on various non-theatrical platforms this Tuesday. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE MISSING PICTURE

A scene from The Missing Picture.
Phnom Penh, mon amour

By John Esther

One of my favorite films of 2013, writer-director Rithy Pahn film is finally getting a proper release in the United States. 

On April 17, 1975, the 13-year-old Panh, his family and others were evacuated from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to the countryside where they could finally learn what it meant to be loyal to the Khmer Rouge. A pseudo-communist regime, the Khmer Rouge was anti-bourgeois in the extreme. While they shared a similar distaste for middle-class materialism that many left-wing groups did, they took it to the extreme and out of context. All comfort was anti-revolutionary. 

More importantly, as a peasant uprising run amok, the Khmer Rouge was horribly anti-intellectual. Learning beyond man as a tool for the agrarian socialist revolution was subversive and must be eliminated by any means necessary. According to the Khmer Rouge, and their leader Pol Pot, who was actually an educated person, people of culture, humanities, the arts, music, literature, etc., were better off dead. The supposed left had become extremely right. 

This would be one of the lessons Panh would learn over the next four years as nearly all of his family perished one way or another. And to his credit, he emphasizes how deadly a mistrust of the intellect existed in the country.

Since nearly everything was destroyed during those years, Pahn recreated his childhood memories through the use of figurines. A painstaking endeavor, Pahn uses hundreds of figurines set in elaborate dioramas to convey his characters and extras.

The result is a stunning mediation on loss and memory, with no shortage of anger to boost the narrative.

Paradoxically, this was Cambodia’s Oscar entry for this year’s Oscars in the Best Film in a Foreign Language category, but it lost to Italy’s much happier, bourgeois-friendly and inferior film, The Great Beauty.

FILM REVIEW: MUPPETS MOST WANTED

A scene from Muppets Most Wanted. 
Bounty-full fun

By John Esther

Picking up where The Muppets in 2011 ended, Muppets Most Wanted sees the gang touring across Europe, thanks to their new co-manager, Dominic Badguy (pronounced "bad gee"), played by Ricky Gervais. 

Immediately, we suspect Dominic has alternative motives for taking the "weirdo" troupe to Europe, but the Muppets are a trusting bunch and do not notice any of the obvious clues. Besides, Dominic's carefree managerial style is a welcome change from the sternness of their leader, Kermit (voice by Steve Whitmore). Now the Muppets can go crazy on the stage!

Our mistrust of Dominic is confirmed when we discover he is in cahoots with Constantine (voice by Steve Vogel), the world's most dangerous frog and number one criminal. Constantine has just escaped from a gulag in Siberia. Iti s time for a little switch between Constantine and Kermit.  

Soon Constantine and Dominic, AKA The Lemur -- the world's number two criminal -- are co-managing the Muppets tour and robbing museums near the shows' venues while Kermit dwells alone in the Gulag under the iron fist of Nadya (Tina Fey).

Despite Constantine's accent and abrasive attitude, none of the Muppets suspect he is a fraud except, one of my favorite Muppets, Animal (voice by Eric Jacobson). Meanwhile, it becomes apparent to Nadya that Kermit is not Constantine, but that will not set him free. There is an upcoming show for the gulag guards and somebody has to manage the song and dance of such fellow prisoners as Big Papa (Ray Liotta), Prison King (Jermaine Clement) and Danny Trejo.  

While I have not seen all of the Muppet movies, I have seen most of them, and this one is probably my favorite. Co-written and directed by James Bobin, unlike his The Muppets, featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel, Muppets Most Wanted focuses on the non-human characters while adding a notable new one, Constantine, and bringing back ones from previous Muppet movies -- at least for a cameo. 

The original songs here by music supervisor/songwriter Bret McKenzie are pretty good. Do not be surprised if kids under 13 will be singing Constantine's "I'll Get You Want You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)" -- if the kids can follow the Jabberwocky-like lyrics. On another hoof, the duet between Miss Piggy (voice by Jacobson) and her Piggy Fairy Grandmother (Celine Dion) is rather creepy. 

Although the movie has bountiful good jokes, entertainment, song and dance for people of many ages, the biggest thing going against Muppets Most Wanted is the tiresome anti-European jokes about small cars, long holidays, etc. Yeah, because a car's superior MPG and worker benefits are a joke. 


And as far as the typical Muppets cameos go: yes, they are here in abundance. Some of their roles are much better -- like the ones offered to Saoirse Ronan (probably my favorite), Christoph Waltz (doing a waltz with Sweetums), Josh Groban, James McAvoy, Frank Langella, Miranda Richardson and Salma Hayek -- than the ones offered to the likes or performed by Tony Bennett, Sean Combs, Lady Gaga, and Stanley Tucci.