For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!

The Muppets


The Muppets

Walter, Amy Adams and Jason Segel have stars in their eyes.

(2011) Family (Disney) Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Walter, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Alan Arkin, Mickey Rooney, Whoopie Goldberg, Jim Parsons. Directed by James Bobin

 

Cultural icons carry their own baggage with them. Because they fill a niche in our society, we associate them with particular characteristics – be it the fanboy nerdiness of Star Wars or the catty kitsch of RuPaul. The Muppets, however, are an entirely different story.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s the Muppets were electronic babysitters to the country. Kids of that era (Da Queen among them) were glued to the set. Parents of kids growing up during that era also got to know the lovable felt and fur creations and were amazed to discover that the scripts weren’t necessarily dumbed down and made so kid-centric that parents couldn’t enjoy them. Everybody could and that was the secret to their success.

Times changed and tastes changed. Disney bought the rights to the characters and up until now have mostly used them in their theme parks (which surprisingly isn’t referenced in the movie – I would have thought it a perfect opportunity for the Mouse to pimp their parks a bit). However, Segel – a huge fan of the series – pitched a movie to Disney that would possibly resurrect the franchise and the execs there agreed – the time was ripe for a return of the Muppets.

It is fitting that Mickey Rooney turns up in a cameo during the opening musical number; there is a “let’s put on a show” vibe here that Rooney was famous for in his classic films with Judy Garland.  The plot here is fiendishly simple; Tex Richman (Cooper), a nefarious oil baron, has purchased the old Muppet Theater for the purpose of drilling for oil deposits located beneath it. Gary (Segel), and his brother Walter (voiced by Steve Linz) stumble upon the plot while vacationing in Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Adams) and touring the dilapidated Muppets studio. Walter, you see, is a Muppet-wannabe, a huge fan of the show who yearns to be a Muppet himself, even though he is a Muppet – it’s all so confusing in text but trust me, it makes sense when your butt is in the seat.

The Muppets have scattered to the four winds; Fozzy is in Reno playing in a rundown casino in a tribute act called the Moopets. Miss Piggy is in Paris as the plus-size editor of Vogue. Gonzo is a plumbing magnate and Animal is in Santa Barbara taking self-control classes with Jack Black. Kermit, the glue who always held the gang together, is living quietly in Los Angeles in the house he built for him and Piggy whose relationship has since fallen apart.

They have to raise $10 million (I can almost hear Dr. Evil intoning “ten millllllllllllion dollars” while putting pinky to lip) in order to save the theater. They decide a telethon is in order; trouble is, no network will put it on since the Muppets are no longer the stars they once were. They have gone the way of Fran Drescher, Emmanuel Lewis and ALF.

There are tons of celebrity cameos (a kind of Muppet tradition) and clever musical numbers, as well as a few gentle pop culture spoofs. Segel is properly reverent towards the Muppets (he co-wrote the script) but throws in enough “we’re has-been” references for it to start to get old. Believe me, we get it.

The movie is charming and has enough in-jokes to both the series and the movies that followed to keep rabid fans of the show, who are now in their 30s and 40s like cats in a cream factory. Those too young or too old to have been grabbed by the Muppets may find some references zinging over their heads (as I did – I’m definitely in the “too old” category) but Kermit, Piggy and company are all such major cultural figures from that era that it isn’t hard to pick up on most of the cultural references. In other words, you don’t have to be a fan to love the show.

As for the more modern kids, of course they’re going to love them. Some might grouse that Elmo doesn’t show up (the producers wanted him to, but Elmo still belongs to Sesame Street and even though the Muppets and the Sesame Street characters are related they are still legally separate) but for the most part, they’ll be satisfied with the wacky kid-friendly characters of the show that are still around. I found myself charmed by the movie and I wasn’t even the target audience.

While the late Jim Henson only appears in a couple of photographs in Kermit’s office and elsewhere, he would have approved I think (although former Muppet performer Frank Oz grumbled publically about fart jokes – I don’t recall seeing any but admittedly I might have overlooked it). I think I can safely say that this is a worthy addition to the Muppet legacy.

REASONS TO GO: There are a ton of “Muppet Show” in-jokes. Heartwarming, charming and generally goofy.

REASONS TO STAY: If you have an issue with Muppets, this isn’t going to improve your perception of them.

FAMILY VALUES: While the parental advisories warn against mild rude humor, in truth there is nothing here I would hesitate to expose a small child to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt plays Miss Piggy’s receptionist/assistant at Vogue in Paris; she played a very similar role in The Devil Wears Prada.

HOME OR THEATER: Kids will want to see this on the big screen and you will too.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Descendants