The 100-Week Roundup V

Like last time, these five films are connected not only by when I watched them (July 2018), but also by a shared star rating.

Incidentally, it’s about to be a busy time for these 100-week roundups — there should be one every week for the next few weeks to keep up with my backlog. (As time goes on, such frequency may become commonplace.)

In this week’s roundup…

  • Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
  • Blade of the Immortal (2017)
  • Cash on Demand (1961)
  • Free Enterprise (1998)
  • Iron Monkey (1993)


    Muppet Treasure Island
    (1996)

    2018 #147
    Brian Henson | 96 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppet Treasure Island

    Following the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the little felt fellas turned their attention to another classic of Victorian English literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s piratical adventure Treasure Island. For my money, the result is even better — it’s so good that it made me want to finally read the novel, or at least watch a ‘proper’ adaptation. (Two years later, I’ve done neither. Typical.)

    Why Muppet Treasure Island doesn’t attract the same level of love that’s reserved for their Christmas Carol is beyond me, because it’s really a lot of fun. I’m predisposed to enjoy piratical movies, for whatever reason, so perhaps it appeals to me more than average; but even allowing for such bias, I think this is one of the more enjoyable Muppet movies — if I were to rank them, it would be a toss up between this and the 2011 reboot for first place.

    The best bit is definitely the songs, which are properly good. It helps when you’ve got the likes of Tim Curry to sing them, of course. They’re not all the kind of outright comedy numbers you’d expect, either: the opener, Shiver Me Timbers, is quite dark, in fact. They’re supported by a score by Hans Zimmer, which with hindsight sounds like a dry run for Pirates of the Caribbean. There are seven songs in all, and only one that I didn’t really like, which I’d regard as a good hit rate for a musical.

    To top it off, the film ends with a Muppet sword fight. Really, what more could you want?

    4 out of 5

    Muppet Treasure Island placed 17th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Blade of the Immortal
    (2017)

    aka Mugen no jûnin

    2018 #148
    Takashi Miike | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan, UK & South Korea / Japanese | 18 / R

    Blade of the Immortal

    Billed as the 100th film directed by Takashi Miike (which it isn’t, but hey), Blade of the Immortal is actually the first one I’ve seen by the (in)famous director. Based on a manga series, it’s about a samurai who’s rendered immortal to serve penance for his crimes, and the young woman who engages him as a bodyguard to avenge her murdered family.

    It’s a bit episodic at first, as our (anti)hero battles through the villains’ top swordsmen one by one, but that means there’s a regular feed of action sequences between the two bookends that are highlighted in the promotion: how he fights 100 men at the beginning, and 300 men for the climax. That last half-hour is an epic flurry of violence, by the end of which rivers of blood flow — literally.

    Aside from the combat, dramatically and thematically a lot of it is about the difference between good and bad, hero and villain; how, really, there’s not so much difference after all — sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective. It could’ve gone for a more streamlined, straightforward revenge narrative, but it throws many characters into the mix with attendant thematic points, which do lend more texture. Or, if you don’t fancy thinking about that stuff, there’s just a lot of really good fight scenes.

    4 out of 5

    Cash on Demand
    (1961)

    2018 #154
    Quentin Lawrence | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | UK / English | PG

    Cash on Demand

    This Brit-noir came to my attention thanks to the ghost of 82’s review after Indicator included it in one of their Hammer sets (though I caught it on TV). It’s basically a real-time single location thriller (so right up my street) starring Peter Cushing as a bank manager faced with a clever robber — far from a showy heist, this is a calm, almost sedentary robbery… which ultimately gives way to a furious bevy of twists and counter-twists in the film’s closing minutes.

    It’s led by an excellent performance from Cushing, who convinces entirely as an uptight jobsworth brought low by the stress he must endure, which reveals his true character. The film’s focus is on the ringer he goes through thanks to the heist, rather than on clever details of the heist itself — certain plot points are never explained, but it doesn’t matter because this isn’t about the robbery, it’s about how the robbery affects Cushing. To that end, he’s also nicely contrasted with André Morell as the affable thief, particularly as the pair spend much of the film in extended two-handers. Quentin Lawrence’s direction is unflashy but effective, allowing their performances to shine. It’s almost televisual, though with more setups than anything studio-bound of that era would’ve allowed. No surprise, then, that he only directed a handful of films, mostly plying his trade in ’60s and ’70s TV series.

    I do wonder if we could have spent more time with the rest of the bank’s staff, who remain unaware a robbery is taking place. As it stands, they’re all established at the beginning, but then mostly pushed aside until near the end, when they conduct their own investigation for all of two scenes. What if that was expanded into a proper B-plot through the movie? I think it could make the film even better by adding the potential for even more tension. Perhaps it could withstand an expanded remake…

    4 out of 5

    Free Enterprise
    (1998)

    2018 #158
    Robert Meyer Burnett | 109 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Free Enterprise

    Relationship/sex comedy meets geek reference-athon in this ’90s indie that plays like Swingers meets Clerks (he says never having seen Clerks, so that’s just an assumption of what it’s like).

    It slots into what seems like a very ’90s subgenre: the “young film-loving people trying to break into Hollywood” thing. I’m sure there are lots of societal and industrial reasons why there were so many movies in that vein produced in the ’90s. It also comes with the era’s schtick of dialogue loaded to the nines with pop culture references. It’s perhaps an overfamiliar style now, but here it’s at least quite witty and well performed.

    Indeed, this is so a ’90s indie all-round — you know, like the early Tarantinos, and everyone who copied his dialogue’s voice, that kind of thing. If that’s not your bag, you’ll hate Free Enterprise. But if you enjoy that style of film, and if you love geek culture too, well, this was made for you. Literally, I should think. It certainly felt made for me, and I’m not even a Trekkie. To laypeople, it might just look like “Swingers with geek references”, or conversely (to use that old stereotype of geeks), “my life but with sex”.

    So, to give it a 4-star rating feels like a very personal reaction — I think you’ve got to hit the right confluence of interests to get the maximum enjoyment out of this movie. But if you do, it’s really rather good.

    4 out of 5

    Iron Monkey
    (1993)

    aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau

    2018 #160
    Yuen Woo-ping | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

    Iron Monkey

    Back around the time I was first getting interested in Asian action cinema — when the Hong Kong Legends DVD label was doing sterling work bringing so many titles to the UK market in extras-packed editions — Iron Monkey was fêted as an absolute modern classic. I think it was one of the first to get a two-disc special edition from HKL too, as if to emphasise its importance. But I never got round to watching it, and so now it perhaps came overburdened with expectation. I found it to be a mix of impressively choreographed action, goofy humour, and a rather slight plot.

    The fights are definitely the star; without those, it’s no great shakes. But then, what do you come to this kind of movie for? It’s definitely one I need to revisit and reassess. (And as it’s been two years now, maybe it’s about time I did…)

    4 out of 5

  • 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

  • Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

    2016 #41
    James Bobin | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    After the success of their 2011 revival, this sequel sees the Muppets embark on a world tour at the behest of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Meanwhile, Kermit is mistaken for a master criminal and sent to a gulag run by Tina Fey.

    As irreverent and cameo-filled as ever (so many famous people, you won’t even know who some are!), something just doesn’t work this time — it’s neither as funny nor as charming as their last outing.

    With the recent TV series receiving mediocre reviews too, it looks like they’ve killed off the Muppet renaissance as soon as it started. Shame.

    2 out of 5

    For more quick reviews like this, look here.

    The Muppets (2011)

    2013 #18
    James Bobin | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    The MuppetsHow I Met Your Mother’s Jason Segel (I believe he’s also in some movies from that Judd Apatow chap) co-writes, exec-produces and stars in this revival for the once-beloved puppet-y puppets.

    Art mirrors life in the story: the Muppets have been all but forgotten, their old studios fallen into ruin, but when Segel’s brother (who happens to be a Muppet) overhears an evil developer planning to knock them down for good, they set about getting the old Muppets back together for a last-hurrah TV special to save their studio, and in the process restore their popularity. I say “art mirrors life”, because this is the first Muppet movie for twelve years, and it seemed to result in a wave of nostalgia and appreciation for the puppets (including a forthcoming sequel).

    Segel — alongside British director James Bobin — has created a film that embraces the Muppets’ anarchic nature and old-fashioned entertainment style, while also integrating them into the modern world, to one degree or another. Things like the small-town roots of Segel, his brother and girlfriend (Amy Adams) are consciously dated, based in a movie-reality rather than the real-world, where the whole town might break into a song-and-dance number… but they know they’ve just done a song-and-dance number. Such breaks of the fourth wall abound, and constitute most of the film’s best bits.

    Between a straightforward ‘get the band back together’ plot, some standard subplots about acceptance and growing up, and a host of celebrity cameos, it’s tempting to say the film must have written itself; A bird, a plane, or a Muppet?but the skill lies in making it all seem so effortless, when I’m sure it was anything but. There’s an awful lot going on for such a simple tale, which keeps things moving and means the next delight is never more than a few moments away, be it a surprise cameo, a witty film spoof, or one of the entertaining songs (one, Man or Muppet, managed to get an Oscar. I didn’t even think it was the best.)

    Some viewers and critics seem to have fallen head-over-heels for this Muppet reboot. It’s not that good. But it is an entertainingly irreverent hour-and-a-half-and-then-some, just as likely to win new fans as please old ones.

    4 out of 5