Bendjelloul, Bobin, Boone, Lee, Stiller

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014). Once the cinematic franchise is revived, the next task is to prove it can be prolonged and maintained. Muppets Most Wanted is agreeable but oddly inconsequential. Lacking the fanboy passion that Jason Segel seemed to inject into The Muppets all by his lonesome, this new installment is drab and prone to drifting. The plot manages to evoke The Great Muppet Caper, the original Muppet sequel, while also playing around with a mistaken identity gimmick that takes full advantage of the pliability of the characters’ identity. Yes, it’s amusing at times, and the celebrity “guest stars” are game (especially Tina Fey as a Russian gulag guard whose main priority is staging a great follies show for the inmates). That’s not enough though to truly provide purpose. The Muppets are stuck in the same low, idling gear that has been their domain for too much of their shared film career.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012). Ang Lee admirably commits to this adaptation of Yann Martel’s smash hit novel, embracing the very parts of it — the stillness, the existential ache, the horrid beauty of nature, the fable-like qualities — that would have sent most directors fleeing from it. If Lee acquiesces too readily to the painterly phoniness of the heavy CGI effects of telling the story of a shipwreck survivor (Suraj Sharma) sharing his life raft with a small batch of wild animals, most notably a powerful, fierce tiger, at least the film operates with a distinctive and bold visual palette. It doesn’t particularly work for me — I think Lee drifts too far from the keen attention to the nuances of beset humanity that mark his best work — but I can see how some could reasonably turn themselves over willingly to the lushness of the imagery. The film is nearly rescued fully by the caring, world-weary work of Irrfan Khan, telling the story. Unfortunately, he’s countered by Rafe Spall, as the writer taking the tale in for his book, delivering one of the most wooden performances I’ve seen in a major film for a good long time.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013). This is one of those projects that kicked around for an awfully long time before Stiller adopted it as a passion project, believing with all his heart that it was the movie that would finally establish him as a real director, which has long been his goal. Stiller also plays the title role, a nebbishy fellow who works in the photo department of the struggling modern version of Life magazine. He finds his inner wherewithal in pursuit of a missing frame by the magazine’s star photographer (Sean Penn). Stiller has a clear panache with the camera, but he can never quite decide what he wants this film to be. Is it meant to be sweetly sentimental or just another launching band for broadly satiric character comedy. I’m as excited as anyone to see a parodic takedown of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it sits awkwardly against the more serious segments of the film, which are, quite honestly, more effective. This was positioned as Stiller’s stab at respectability (there was even a New Yorker profile about him in the lead-up to the film’s release). There’s enough that strong and interesting here that hints he may have actually accomplished something of note if he’d allowed himself to fully forgo the safety net of easy comedy.

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). This documentary about Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose albums in the nineteen-sixties and seventies were largely ignored at home but became enormous hits abroad without his knowledge, is warm and smartly constructed. Bendjelloul extracts maximum pathos and emotion from the story. Even if it feels forced when the director attempts to preserve a sense of mystery about Rodriguez’s current existence — for too much of its running time, the film is positioned to blindly pretend there’s potential validity to fan confusion over whether or not the performer is even still alive — the various manipulations of the film heighten the emotional potency of the eventual triumph awaiting in South Africa, where Rodriguez is greeted like it’s the second coming of Elvis Presley.

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014). There are no shortage of intense feelings surrounding John Green’s bestselling 2012 novel about a teenaged girl struggling with cancer who enters into a naturally fraught romance. Boone handles the story admirably, albeit with a touch of understandable reticence. It’s safer to preserve the fundamentals of the story than to push a little harder to come up with something more daring and cinematic. That doesn’t make this film version bad. It’s just a little tame. It does have one unassailable strength in the lead performance by Shailene Woodley, who captures the intense whirl of a character suffering from pending mortality and a body that betrays her in the face of the simplest tasks while still trying to hang of to some sliver of experiencing life as a regular teenager.

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