Monday, 22 December 2014

Top 10 Muppet Movie Moments

As Homer Simpson once sagely said, a Muppet is "not quite a mop, not quite a puppet". But after seven film outings, Jim Henson's fun creations are one of the most successful entertainment franchises in the world. Everyone seems to love the Muppets. Here is a countdown of their best cinema cuttings:

10 Marley and Marley (Muppets Christmas Carol)

Two heads are better than one when it comes to adapting Dickens. Statler and Waldorf scare the Ebenezer out of Michael Caine's Scrooge with their spooky song. The moment when their face appears in the doorknob is sure to frighten the little ones while older fans will be pleased by the lyrics. Not a humbug in sight.

9 My badge is bigger (Muppets Most Wanted)

Ty Burrell and Sam the eagle clash in the funniest Euro-cop partnership since Clousseau and Cato. But who's badge is bigger? The Muppets are arguably at their best with simple visual gags and this is the best of the offerings from their most recent and underrated film, under the direction of James Bobin.

8 The Admiral Benbow (Muppets Treasure Island)

Another Victorian literary titan was tackled after the success of the Muppets' winter warmer in the mid 1990s.  Their take on Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling adventure introduces the opening setting of Jim Hawkins and Gonzo's Admiral Benbow Inn with gusto. Billy Connolly plays the drunken Billy Bones alongside a young Kevin Bishop and a mischievous moving moose head displayed on the wall. And if that sounds odd, well, you haven't quite grasped the Muppets ethos yet.

7 Happiness Hotel (The Great Muppet Caper)

It has been many years since I last saw the second feature film in the series, set in London during a crime spree by a slick diamond thief. The Happiness Hotel is one of the few moments I can remember with any clarity. As Fozzy says, "If that is the Happiness Hotel, I'd hate to see the sad one."
6 Brick House (Muppets from Space)

When the full Muppet gang live in their own house, all manner of antics go on during the course of an everyday morning routine. To the tune of a funky Motown hit, Kermit and his pals prepare for breakfast in a brilliant expositional sequence.

5 Bear eyes (Muppets from Space)

Another bog standard visual joke executed to perfection. Bobo the bear is a scene stealer for most of this juvenile spoof of the X-Files. Whenever I see it, the laughter is impossible to hold back.

4 Muppet or a man (The Muppets)

Brett Mckenzie's score from 2011 won an Academy Award. Yes, that's right; the Muppets are Oscar winners. Unrecognised greats such as Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Marilyn Monroe can only look on with jealousy. On the evidence of this funny but poignant song, in addition to another mention later in this list, the award was undoubtedly deserved.

3 Hey, wait for me! (The Muppet Movie)

His name remains a mystery (to me, at least) and his appearances are always fleeting. Nevertheless, the big, hairy helper grabs a hilarious recurring gag in the original cinematic debut of Henson's characters when he chases their cruising car across America. For all its silliness, I absolutely love it.

2 Pictures in my head (The Muppets)

As seen in my quick countdown, musical numbers are one of the Muppets' most bankable features. In this heartbreaking sonnet from James Bobin's 2011 comeback script, Kermit reminisces about the gang's glory days on the small screen. Having the paintings come to life was a touch of genius, especially that of the Swedish chef and his beloved chicken. Be honest, how many of you watched this with tears in your eyes?

1 Ghost of Christmas Present (Muppets Christmas Carol)

Its that time of year again! The highlight of all highlights, the gem which inspired this entire list, proves that anything - and I mean anything - can be improved by the inclusion of the Muppets. When the affable, ebullient and ever-likable ghost of Christmas present visits Scrooge to warm his curmudgeonly heart, he runs amok in a gloriously picturesque city scape of Dickensian London. Sing along with me, if you know the words, "wherever you find love...It feels like Christmas, it feels like Christmas, hohoho!" If only he actually existed, the world would be such a happy place.


Friday, 19 December 2014

The Hobbit and The Hunger Games: Which is Better?

Both The Hobbit and The Hunger Games have been the box office highlights of the winter over the past three years, with last year’s instalments finishing as the fourth and fifth highest grossing films of 2013 respectively. The Battle of the Five Armies and Mockingjay: Part 1 have both once again been very successful this year - but which is better? We break both films down to their basic components.


Is there any hero in current Hollywood franchises as compelling and as convincing as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen? The cocksure Marvel superheroes all possess plenty of charisma and can be great fun to watch, but none of them are as humane nor identifiable as the reluctant hero Katniss.

Three films into the series and the supporting characters are similarly fleshed out, while some of the best character actors in the business (Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman) ensure that the film remains a compelling spectacle whoever is on screen.

There’s plenty of talent on Five Armies’ cast list too, but is ill-served by near-unanimously two-dimensional characters. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen buck the trend with their always watchable characters Bilbo and Gandalf, but are both in this final instalment almost completely side-lined.


Virtually every line in Mockingjay expands its dystopian universe and deepens the political allegory at the heart of the film, giving us a rich and detailed picture of a society struggling against a repressive regime. Pretty much every line of Battle of the Five Armies is exposition.

Both films are structured around battles, but whereas that of Five Armies is exclusively of the swords-and-shields kind and all for the sake of a mountain full of gold, Mockingjay dramatises a far more subtle and fascinating war of propaganda, and the struggle to breakdown the aura of fear that helps protect the suppressive state.
Special Effects

The raison d’etre of The Hobbit films seems to be to showcase the best CGI has to offer, and in the case of Smaug the results are spectacular. But the monumental dragon is only in Five Armies for a few minutes, after which follows a procession of forgettable creatures and exhausting fights.

The perfectly choreographed moves of each of the armies may be impressive, but ultimately looks like little more than thousands of computer pixels moving perfectly in unison, rather than real characters doing real things. Mockingjay may not feature any ground-breaking special effects, but whenever there is a CGI explosion it at least feels as though something is at stake and that real people are in peril.

Actually being about something

Mockingjay looks at the struggle for revolution at both a societal and intimate level, and contains such themes as the sacrifices necessary for freedom, how the masses can be unified and inspired by a hero, what it’s like to be that hero, how an all-powerful state manipulates via the media, and not forgetting the intricacies of a romantic love triangle.

Five Armies isn't really about anything. All plot strands are only there in order to converge in the lengthy battle sequence that give its name to the title, which adds up to one of the more vacuous experiences at the cinema this year. Any past notion of the story being about how the biggest things can be achieved by the smallest people has long disappeared under a rubble of excessive computer-generated destruction.

So it’s a resounding victory for the Mockingjay, which does better in every department. Hopefully Hollywood will realise that it is new, fresh premises like this that make the best blockbusters, and won't continue to be so reliant on rebooting tired old franchises in the future. 


Monday, 15 December 2014

St. Vincent

Murray Mint

The cult of Bill Murray shows no signs of abating. Walk on parts in Wes Anderson films are greeted with hoots of joy, his face adorns the galactic corners of geeky cyberspace, and the comedian holds the record for playing himself the most times in movies (four). Considering, however, how rarely his sardonic routine differs, you might say he has been playing Bill Murray all along. No matter how many times the star of Ghostbusters repeats the same deadpan expression, it seems he never loses his appeal.

With St. Vincent, familiar ground is tread in a tidy, undemanding piece of independent cinema. Without necessarily falling in love with its quiet tone, I was struck by its tale of a boy finding an unconventional role model in his grouchy old neighbour. For £4 on a Saturday afternoon in the lovely auditorium of the Watershed in Bristol, I do not have any room for complaint.

When a struggling mother and son (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher) move into a new home, they are confronted by the crass misanthrope next door (Murray). As an emergency measure, the young boy is taken under Vincent's wing as an impromptu babysitter arrangement. Despite plenty of upheavals - not least the eponymous character's destructive behaviour and drinking - the two form an unlikely bond.

As a story without obvious comedy or dramatic potential, St. Vincent was always going to be a tough sell. Nevertheless, modest box office figures should not deter any Murray aficionados from giving it a watch. It may not possess the kooky confidence of Broken Flowers or Rushmore, but with some delicious supporting performances from McCarthy and the newcomer Lieberher, there is still much indie sensitivity to savour.

Although Naomi Watts is well-cast in the role, the character of Daka - a heavily pregnant Russian prostitute - was perhaps misjudged. She provides most of the funnier moments but does not quite fit with the ongoing homely tone. I have a niggling thought in the back of my mind that a sizable chunk of her screentime would have been better served by carving more from McCarthy's uncharacteristically restrained performance as the lonely mother. Then again, that might totally uneven the balance of the narrative, especially when Watts does such a successful job.

Ultimately though, there is only one star of the show. The irrepressible Murray is never pushed outside of his comfort zone but his cantankerous antics still raise a smile.


Monday, 8 December 2014

The Imitation Game

Benedict at Bletchley

Oscar bait rarely arrives in a more worthy or sentimental package. Of all war stories, that of code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing is perhaps the most unusual. In his competent performance as the precocious prodigy, Benedict Cumberbatch implores the Academy to recognise this most plucky and tragic of tales from modern history. Current rumours suggest that the LA glitterati might be besotted by this very British fare of a maverick genius. As of yet, however, few commentators seem to have noticed how strikingly similar it is to the BBC's Sherlock.

Without getting overly excited, The Imitation Game is a deserving film which carries an awful lot of emotional baggage. As a closet homosexual, Turing was treated appallingly by the British authorities when, in fact, he should have been celebrated as a national hero. Sadly for this unconventional man, his greatest triumphs were carried out in total secrecy, ruining any hope of proper recognition during his own lifetime. At least with this cinematic venture, the British public can say they have finally 'done right' by one of its greatest minds.

Although fluttering between its subject's youth and final years, this straightforward biopic primarily focusses on Bletchley Park and the extraordinary work which was accomplished there. It was in this unassuming locale that the allegedly 'unbreakable' German Enigma code was deciphered by Turing's computerised machine. By breaking the codes, Britain turned the tide of the war in its favour, laying the death knell of the Third Reich in the process.

Despite collecting a cast of esteemed screen actors, such as Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley and Mark Strong, the story fails to acknowledge the contribution of other characters in the painstaking work at GCHQ. We are given the impression that Turing worked alone - facing stark hostility amongst his peers - to achieve a unique brilliance against the odds. With that in mind, the theme of teamwork which the film tries to convey falls down, fulfilling nothing more than a tokenistic nod to the collaboration which made Britain's codebreaking effort so effective.

In a similar vein, this perennial focus on the individual distracts from the unique environment of wartime Bletchley. For a more insightful take on the culture within this hectic, thriving and suffocatingly secretive hubbub of nerdy endeavour, you would be better off reading Robert Harris' novel Engima.

Nevertheless, Turing remains a fascinating figure. Indeed, as time and attitudes continue to progress, he should become a more significant inspiration in people's minds. Cumberbatch captures his uneasy, asperger-like sensibilities, portraying him as a lost but ultimately likable soul. Oscar or no Oscar, his depiction is a cause for applause, if not quite wholesome adulation.


Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Top 10 Film Titles

What’s in a name? If the hype surrounding yesterday’s announcement of the new Bond film title as ‘Spectre’ is anything to go by, quite a lot. Here are ten of the best in film history:

10 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
There are plenty of mysterious sounding long names for films, but none that flow quite as nicely as this one. In fact, such is its quality that it could have been written by Shakespeare; with ten syllables and a bouncing rhythm, it is, like the work of the Bard, written in Iambic pentameter. Then there’s its meaning, which increases in profundity as the film explores its themes of memory and happiness.

9 À bout de souffle
Known in English as Breathless, a more accurate translation would be ‘Out of Breath’. That’s certainly an accurate way of describing the experience of watching Jean Luc Godard’s seminal French New Wave film, which thrills and exhausts with its manic editing and radical dismissal of conventionality. No film since has delivered as successfully on its promise of taking your breath away.

8 Dude, Where’s My Car?
Proof that great names don’t necessarily have to come from great films. In four small words Dude, Where’s My Car? manages to perfectly evoke the kind of dense, nonchalant attitudes and speech patterns of the characters in stoner comedies, while at the same time establishing the scenario from which the rest of the plot will unfold. Kudos also to the planned title for the unmade sequel, Seriously Dude, Where’s My Car?

7 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
43 years on and the title of Melvin Van Peebles’s hugely influential film remains as bracing as ever. Its brazen disregard for the limitations of correct spelling reflected the independent and rebellious spirit of the movie itself, which gave black people a voice in an industry that was dominated by white men.  

6 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The title of Andrew Dominik’s 2007 Western may at first sight come across as over-the-top and a bit silly, but by the end credits it becomes clear that this was the intention. The film is about the making of myths and how certain individuals are mythologised and others villainised, and how however much the sympathetic on-screen protagonist tries, he is doomed to be forever remembered as the 'Coward Robert Ford’.

5 Rebel Without a Cause
Although the phrase ‘rebel without a cause’ had been coined a decade earlier by author and psychologist Robert M. Linder, the choice to name Nicholas Rey’s groundbreaking 1955 film after it was inspired. This was a film title that came to represent not only a generation, but several subsequent generations of teenagers up until today. The rebel in question was James Dean, who did more than anyone to define what the idea of a ‘teenager’ - a word only invented as recently as the 1950s - was to be.

4 Ladri di biciclette
How you translate the misleadingly simple sounding title of this famous Italian film significantly alters how is it interpreted; is it The Bicycle Thief, about the individual that steals the protagonist's bike, or is it The Bicycle Thieves, about more widespread crime? Either way, the devastating moment at the end when the protagonist succumbs to desperation and himself steals a bike flips the title on its head, and prompts us to reconsider who exactly it is referring to.

3 Aliens
Never has one letter said so much. Whereas Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror Alien was characterised by slow-building tension and a minimalistic approach, the sequel Aliens - as you’d expect from a James Cameron film - was all about action and excess. Adding multiple Xenomorphs to the first film’s sole antagonist did dilute the creature’s invincibility, but made for a thrilling spectacle nonetheless.

2 Snakes on a Plane
Half the job of making a successful B-movie is coming up with a name that will instantly amuse and attract the target audience. Hence the plethora of titles like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Surf Nazis Must Die. But never has the public’s imagination been so captured as it was by the brilliantly concise Snakes on a Plane, which became an internet sensation in the run-in to the the film’s release. Aside from giving us what is perhaps the greatest title drop of all time (see video above) the eventual film was a disappointment, but its name remains a classic. 

1 The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Even people who have not seen the film will have heard of the now commonly-used phrase. Its genius lies in the expansion of moral codes to go beyond the simple good-bad dichotomy and introduce a third dimension - ugliness, and therefore also its opposite, beauty. Although the film’s characters are given names as simplistic as ‘The Good’ and ‘The Bad’, the presence of ‘The Ugly’ prompts us to reconsider what is usually meant by such adjectives. The film does, after all, and in contrast to more traditional westerns, take aesthetic beauty a lot more seriously than codes of morality.

A special mention also to Sergio Leone’s other great film title, the fairy-tale evoking Once Upon a Time in the West, which has inspired many copycats.