Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Muppets from Space (1999)


    The Muppets Take Manhattan
    (1984)

    2018 #48
    Frank Oz | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Muppets Take Manhattan

    Apparently (so I read somewhere) at the time this was intended to be the end of the Muppets — the performers were fed up and wanted to move on to other things, and they conceived this third movie as a capstone on the whole affair. That seems inconceivable now — I mean, just how much Muppet stuff has followed it? To date, five more movies, at least two TV series I can immediately think of, plus other specials, countless guest appearances, a theme park attraction…

    I think that tiredness shows through in the finished product. Or maybe it’s just the changing attitudes — they’d just made The Dark Crystal, which maybe indicates they had a hankering for more serious fare. Supposedly the first draft was dismissed by director Frank Oz as being “way too over jokey”, which is surely a terrible criticism of a Muppet screenplay, but Jim Henson encouraged him to tinker with it to emphasise the characters and their relationships. This was partly in response to The Great Muppet Caper, a particularly wacky effort that hadn’t done well at the box office, so they were toning it down.

    Well, I regard the Muppets as primarily comedy characters, and so it’s no wonder this one seems to miss the mark. There’s some occasional funny stuff, the odd good skit, but mostly Take Manhattan just kinda plods along. Personally I thought Caper was a bit of a poor sequel, but this is less good again. It straight up lacks some of the things that make the Muppets so memorable — there isn’t a single fourth wall break, for instance. There’s all together too much focus on plot, even though it’s a very thin one, and the gang spend most of the movie split up, meaning it lacks their camaraderie. So much for focusing on the relationships!

    Muppets in Manhattan

    There are still celebrity cameos, at least, though I feel they’ve aged particularly poorly. Well, there’s Joan Rivers (even if her younger self is always unrecognisable to those of us who mainly knew her in later made-of-plastic years), Elliot Gould, and Liza Minelli, so it’s not all bad. Other than that, the credits explicitly name who the cameos are, but I didn’t even recognise half the names. In fact, the best one is some other Henson puppets: the cast of Sesame Street! Though the presence of puppets isn’t always welcome: a furious Miss Piggy rollerskating after a mugger, filmed in wide shots that I can only assume feature a human in a Miss Piggy suit, is the stuff of nightmares.

    Nonetheless, I shall give The Muppets Take Manhattan a 3 — just. That’s the same as I gave Muppet Caper, which is a shame (that film was more of a 3.5 whereas this is a 2.5), but it’s not so bad that I can give it an outright 2. It’s middling. It’s fans-only, I guess. Some bits work, some bits are good, but overall it’s not quite there as a Muppet movie.

    3 out of 5

    Muppets from Space
    (1999)

    2018 #75
    Tim Hill | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppets from Space

    I’m afraid things aren’t going to pick up here: Muppets from Space is the lowest rated Muppet movie on IMDb. Personally, it would not be my pick for the worst film starring our felty friends… but it’s not that great, either.

    Hailing from the same era that gave us the likes of Independence Day (which gets directly spoofed), Men in Black (some of them show up), and The Phantom Menace (no references that I could detect, but they came out the same year, so…), you can see why the Muppet movie makers would’ve been inspired to move into the sci-fi realm. The plot concerns finally explaining just what Gonzo is, which is not only unnecessary but feels kind of against the spirit of the thing — no one knows what he is, there’s only one of him, that’s kind of the joke. Well, not after this film…

    Related to that, there’s almost a good thematic thing about belonging, and who your real family is or can be, but it’s only loosely nodded at early on before sort of popping up right at the end, without enough building blocks in between to really make it work as a payoff. But we don’t come to the Muppets for the themes, we come for the gags, and in that respect From Space is… fine. Well, I mean, it’s not really all that funny… or interesting… It just kind of toddles along until an underwhelming ending (it would’ve been better if (spoilers!) it turned out the aliens weren’t Gonzo’s people, thereby leaving what he is a mystery). And there’s a Dawson’s Creek cameo, because they were filming in the studio next door, which obviously feels terribly dated now, but that’s how these things always go I guess.

    So, I didn’t actively dislike it in the way I did Muppets Most Wanted (that’s why I’m giving it a 3 rather than a 2), but that might be the kindest thing I can say about it. Like Muppets Take Manhattan, it sits firmly in the middle of the field — not expressly unlikeable, if you enjoy the Muppets, but with nothing to elevate it.

    3 out of 5

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  • La La Land (2016)

    2018 #10
    Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

    La La Land

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    14 nominations — 6 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

    Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

    For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

    Watching the best picture...

    La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

    Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

    Finale

    Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

    5 out of 5

    The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

    Muppet Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which sees Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Sing Street placed 7th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • Moana (2016)

    2017 #85
    Ron Clements & John Musker | 103 mins | TV (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Moana

    The latest entry in Disney’s animated canon (the 56th), Moana is another princess-starring musical — that genre fully back in vogue for animated movies since the success of Frozen, I guess. The twist (if you can call it that, because the film thankfully doesn’t belabour the point) is that this isn’t another European-style princess fairytale, but rather one inspired by Polynesian culture, with songs co-written by That Guy From Hamilton.

    Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief whose tribe never venture far from their island’s waters, despite the sea calling to Moana — literally, as it turns out, because when the island’s crops begin to wither, the sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore a MacGuffin and make everything a-okay again. Along the way, there are moral lessons about being adventurous and stuff.

    Although the cultural setting is notably different to Disney’s usual stomping ground — and, don’t get me wrong, that diversity is something to be applauded, both for putting different kinds of heroes on screen and for giving us all something fresh — Moana is executed with Disney’s customary slickness. It looks fantastic, especially in 3D, where the ocean stretches forever into the screen, and there’s a musical sequence with 2D backgrounds that, ironically, is one of the best extra-dimensional bits because of what it does with said backgrounds. The songs are a toe-tapping treat too, with Moana’s big number, How Far I’ll Go, a more likeable earworm than certain other Disney songs about going; a David Bowie-inspired villain’s song, Shiny; and, my personal favourite, a comedy number sung by the Rock called You’re Welcome (this being the one with the 2D-that-looks-fab-in-3D animation).

    Maui and Moana

    Surprisingly for a Disney princess film, there’s a superb action sequence in the middle, a rope-swinging sea battle against… miniature… pirate… coconut… things… er, I guess…? Anyway, it may actually be one of my favourite action scenes of the year, which is not what you generally find in a Disney musical. The big action scene at the end is perhaps slightly less effective as it strives hard to be an epic climax, but I think that’s nitpicking — it’s conceptually strong, with another positive underlying message. A bigger problem is the character of the sea: it chooses Moana for the quest, which arguably takes away some of her agency (the film fights to seem like it’s giving it back to her), and regularly turns up as a mini deus ex machina every time the characters need a hand.

    That said, while I can observe those issues from an objective and critically-minded point of view, they didn’t actually bother me all that much. If you just (ahem) let it go, Moana is a ceaselessly likeable, consistently entertaining musical adventure. Along with Frozen and Zootropolis, it suggests Disney have hit a real stride right now that hopefully they can continue to build on.

    4 out of 5

    Moana is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    It placed 16th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Tokyo Tribe (2014)

    2016 #149
    Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

    Tokyo Tribe

    Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

    Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

    When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

    I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

    4 out of 5

    Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

    2017 #31
    Mel Brooks | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | PG / PG-13

    Robin Hood: Men in Tights

    Master movie spoofer Mel Brooks’ penultimate work as director was this riff on the Robin Hood legend, in particular the version seen in Prince of Thieves.

    Although generally regarded as one of Brooks’ lesser movies, its deeply silly style tickles, and also means you don’t have to have seen Prince of Thieves (or remember it) to get most of the jokes. Cary Elwes is on point as the dashing hero, while Roger Rees successfully spoofs the unspoofable with a version of Alan Rickman’s villain. Instead of Nottingham he’s the Sheriff of Rottingham, a pun that indicates the film’s humour level.

    3 out of 5

    Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

    aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

    2016 #112
    Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

    Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

    I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

    Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

    And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

    Terrible meal

    The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

    So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

    As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

    Terrible face

    Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

    3 out of 5

    Team America: World Police (2004)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #89

    Freedom Hangs by a Thread

    Country: USA & Germany
    Language: English, French, Klingon, Korean & Arabic
    Runtime: 98 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R (cut)

    Original Release: 15th October 2004 (USA)
    UK Release: 14th January 2005
    First Seen: cinema, 2005

    Stars
    Trey Parker (BASEketball, Despicable Me 3)
    Matt Stone (BASEketball, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)
    Kristen Miller (Cherry Falls, Puff, Puff, Pass)
    Masasa (Kingdom Come, Angels & Demons)
    Daran Norris (Comic Book: The Movie, Veronica Mars)

    Director
    Trey Parker (Orgazmo, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)

    Screenwriters
    Trey Parker (Cannibal! The Musical, The Book of Mormon)
    Matt Stone (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, The Book of Mormon)
    Pam Brady (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Hot Rod)

    The Story
    Global paramilitary protectors Team America: World Police must battle both the machinations of terrorists and the criticism of Hollywood actors.

    Our Heroes
    Gary Johnston is just a Broadway actor, until he’s recruited into counter-terrorism force Team America: World Police to use his acting skills to save the world. The rest of the team include its boss, Spottswoode; Lisa, a psychologist; Sarah, who thinks she’s psychic; Joe, an all-American jock; and Chris, a martial artist with a hatred of actors — like Gary! There’s also their supercomputer, I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E., which stands for… um…

    Our Villains
    Kim Jong-il, the lonely leader of North Korea, and his threats to global security. His positions is strengthened by those liberal FAGs — that’d be the Film Actors Guild.

    Best Supporting Character
    Matt Damon!


    Memorable Quote
    “We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong-il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes — assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way, but the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is that sometimes they fuck too much, or fuck when it isn’t appropriate — and it takes a pussy to show ’em that. But sometimes pussies get so full of shit that they become assholes themselves, because pussies are only an inch-and-a-half away from assholes. I don’t know much in this crazy, crazy world, but I do know that if you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we are going to have our dicks and our pussies all covered in shit.” — Gary

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “Matt Damon.” — Matt Damon

    Memorable Scene
    Puppets having sex. Sex, by puppets. Sexing puppets. Puppet sex.

    Best Song
    The titular refrain (“America! Fuck yeah!”) is perhaps the most memorable, though it has strong competition from Kim Jong-il’s I’m So Ronery, but my favourite song has always been the in-jokey, film-fan-y Montage. I certainly laughed far louder than anyone else in the cinema, anyway.

    Technical Wizardry
    Puppets! Considering the Gerry Anderson shows they’re emulating took multiple iterations and years of work to really perfect, Team America does a remarkable job out of the gate — and isn’t adverse to some puppet-based humour either, naturally.

    Making of
    Originally the Matt Damon character had a proper speaking part, because he’s a pretty intelligent guy really and Parker and Stone knew that. But then the puppet came out looking a bit, shall we say, ‘special’. With no time to remake it, they decided to have the character live up to how he looked: only capable of saying his own name. So it’s less a grand piece of satire on the self-involvement of Hollywood lefties, more an in-joke.

    Awards
    1 Empire Award (Comedy)
    1 MTV Movie Awards nomination (Action Sequence for “the desert terrorist assault”)

    What the Critics Said
    “it’s hard not to guffaw with glee at the gross libelling and on-screen dismemberment of an array of ‘aware’ Hollywood stars (albeit in puppet form) and in which George W Bush’s war on terror is rendered in risible sub-‘Supermarionation’ form. The whole thing plays like Thunderbirds Goes to Hell and will doubtless offend all those numskulls who complained about the BBC’s transmission of Jerry Springer: The Opera. For that alone, it gets my vote.” — Mark Kermode, New Statesman

    Score: 77%

    What the Public Say
    “The idea of the puppets in the first place is very clever, because when you make everything a puppet, everything becomes funnier. I think that the puppets themselves work so well because the creators knew their strengths and weaknesses. The puppets they use are pretty detailed and can do a lot of different kinds of movements. The team use these functions of the puppets for simpler actions (moving limbs and heads and so on) and make it look realistic. But how do you make a fistfight between two puppets look realistic? You don’t, just make some very basic and crude movements and the joke basically tells itself.” — Felix, FelixMovieThoughts

    Verdict

    The guys behind South Park spoof Michael Bay-style action movies — and by extension right-wing America’s view of its place in the world — through the medium of Thunderbirds-style puppets, which just heightens the ridiculousness. It’s a neat mix of clever satire and baser laughs, bolstered by surprisingly listenable musical numbers. It’s not always clever, and it’s never big (they’re puppets!), but it is funny.

    #90 will be… following yonder star.

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016)

    2016 #165
    Kenny Ortega | 88 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp AgainWhen this TV movie kicks off with Ivy Levan sashaying her way around a cinema while she mimes to a pre-recorded and over-produced backing track of Science Fiction/Double Feature, full of licks and runs and finding four notes to hit where there used to be one, like a desperate X Factor wannabe who has no concept of the meaning of the lyrics she’s warbling but is ever so desperate to show she can saaang (that’s like singing but with added Cool), you get a pretty fair idea of the terrible experience about to be unleashed upon you by the not-so-catchily titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. That’s to say it’s been modernised, Americanised, and sanitised.

    If you know the original then you know the plot, and if you don’t know the original then you have no business watching this so-called tribute version, which premiered on Fox in the US last week and makes its way to the UK on Sky Cinema from today. “Tribute” is the latest word someone has co-opted to avoid saying “remake”, a marketing strategy that was presumably settled upon after they realised they’d produced a witless, regressive clone of material that, though over 40 years old, is still more subversive and boundary-pushing than this plastic Disneyfied tosh.

    Sweet transgender womanThe interpretation of the songs is appalling. The recordings are all overworked, full of needless warbles and added “oohs”. They’ve been modernised in such a way that, when current popular fads for over-singing things (“licks” or “runs” or whatever else they call them) have passed — as they surely will — these new versions will sound even more dated than the already-40-year-old originals, which have a certain timelessness. The lyrics are sung with the same amount of attention to what they mean as you get from a computer’s text-to-speech function, including or echoing parts of the original without understanding why they’re there or what function they perform; or if it does know the function, it doesn’t know how to replicate it.

    To say its performances are like a bad am-dram production would be an insult to am-drammers everywhere. Almost everyone is miscast. It was, perhaps, a nice touch to include Tim Curry, but his limited scenes are uncomfortable to watch because it’s painfully obvious that the poor man is still labouring under the aftereffects of his stroke. As Brad, Ryan McCartan overacts as if he thinks that’s the whole point. Reeve Carney makes Riff Raff a leering creep, and his needless affected British accent is awful. As Magenta, Christina Miian’s is worse. As Frank, Laverne Cox’s imitative mid-Atlantic twang is even worse again. Why did they do it?! Presumably because, as I said, it’s all a thoughtless copy of the original.

    The casting of a transgender woman as a transvestite is its own kettle of worms — either she’s a woman doing radical things like fancying men and being jealous of another woman stealing her guy, or you’re saying she’s not actually a woman but still a man and… well, like I say, it’s a mess. A commenter on the A.V. Club’s review summed up the cumulative effect quite succinctly: “Fox was actually able to pull off a pretty conservative casting choice while appearing uber progressive… By casting Cox, who identifies as female, in the role of Frank-N-Furter the seduction scenes actually became far less risqué”.

    Well, it's certainly been warpedEverything is blunted further by Kenny Ortega’s ineffective direction. The camerawork is flat and uninteresting, the shot choices unimaginative. Some of the choreography looks interesting — it’s certainly more elaborate than in the original film — but the camerawork seems to be actively trying to obscure it. The editor must have struggled, unable to generate any additional excitement due to a shortage of options. At times it looks as if it was filmed live, under which circumstances its weaknesses might be understandable, if not excusable… but it wasn’t.

    Occasionally there are cutaways to a cinema audience — not a real one, but a gaggle of extras, sat in a theatre watching what we’re watching. These moments are pathetic and pointless. I get that it’s meant to be a nod to the interactive midnight showings that have made Rocky Horror the phenomenon it is, but they demonstrate none of the wit or verve that make those screenings so popular. Plus the original film is good entertainment even without such intrusions; this isn’t. You might think that makes the asides necessary to liven it up, but there are so few of them, and they’re so lacking in imagination, or any discernible content whatsoever, that they just feel like they’re dragging the experience out even further.

    Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. There’s one new gag in the dinner scene that’s actually pretty funny. It’s delivered by Faye Marsay lookalike Annaleigh Ashford, who makes a good fist of Columbia. Rounding out the leads, Victoria Justice has all the necessary charms to make a pretty fair Janet. Victoria Justice's omnipresent cleavage. May also be omnipotent.I refer partly to her omnipresent cleavage, but also her acting. It’s not great by any means, but she’s suitably sweet and twee at the start, then manages to sell Janet’s near-instantaneous transformation from uptight goody-two-shoes to sex-mad strumpet using just a handful of expressions and line deliveries in the slight gap her character has between Over at the Frankenstein Place and Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me. The latter is one of the film’s rare highlights, for various reasons. One of those is actually Staz Nair as Rocky — undoubtedly the least challenging role in the piece, but at least he gets it right, and his musclebound chest counterbalances Justice’s for those of the other persuasion. The only downside are his tattoos: he was supposedly just grown in a tank, how does he have tattoos?!

    More than the ’75 film, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again brings to mind the 2010 episode of Glee that essayed the same musical. If you suffered through The Rocky Horror Glee Show, as I did, you’ll know it was a travesty. Is this even worse? Well, that’s a bit like someone forcing you to eat a dog shit and a cat shit before asking you which tasted nicer. That’s a little unfair: the Glee version was meritless; this one has a couple of minor plus points — so maybe it’s like someone making you eat a very small shit while occasionally showing you a picture of a sexy half-naked person. But unless someone forces you to choose between only this and Glee, there’s no earthly reason to do this particular Time Warp again.

    1 out of 5

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 12:25pm and 8pm.

    It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.