The Muppets (James Bobbin, 2011)

I’ve never been all too familiar with Jim Henson’s array of puppets. Sure, they’ve always been around, popping up from time to time, whether it be a random appearance on The Simpsons (in the Troy McClure vehicle, Muppets Go Medieval) or the vaguest recollection of watching Muppet Treasure Island as a kid. But they weren’t a staple of my cultural consumption.  That was not the case for a lot of the audience that I watched The Muppets with on opening day, as they brought an infectious enthusiasm to the whole picture. So perhaps it is most impressive that in spite of having very little experience with The Muppets, I found the viewing experience to be one of utter delight.

There are varying factors that contribute to the film’s success, least of which happens to be the film’s central Muppet character. Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) is the everyman, erm.. muppet, who lives with his brother Gary (Jason Segal, who also cowrote the film). Walter idolizes Kermit the Frog, and jumps at the opportunity to visit him at Muppet studios in Hollywood. He ends up becoming quite the third wheel to Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), as Walter needs the couple’s help in gathering the Muppet gang back together to throw on one last show.

Walter’s a vanilla character when compared to the rest of the Muppet clan, making his exploits seem less than concerning (he really is more of a catalyst for change than a full-fledged character, even in the Muppet sense). But despite slighting one of the film’s central characters, the film functions on the sheer sincerity on display. Jason Segal and writer/director James Bobbin treat the Muppet characters with genuine affection while addressing the puppet’s waning popularity. The film is very self-aware, to the point that Fozzie Bear acknowledges budgetary constraints when viewing an explosion. Hecklers Statler and Waldorf even go as far as shouting plot point in a critical scene.  But it’s never a grating quality of the film. Instead, it’s very innocent and playful, effectively etching a smile onto the audience’s face. If the film manages to succeed in one aspect from beginning to end, it’s that it sets out to create a cheerful tone and carries it along throughout the film without missing a beat.

With Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) contributing various songs (including the hilarious Man or Muppet number) and a slew of celebrity cameos, The Muppets is simply a delight. It’s the sort of picture that was obviously crafted by people who admire Henson’s characters, and simply want to tell a fun and endearing yarn.

Rating: 8/10

Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation