Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of the Year: Critics are wrong about Daddy's Home

Daddy's Home from Paramount Pictures is now in theatres

2015 has been a good year for movies: Star Wars, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Intern, The Good Dinosaur, Spectre. Hollywood did a few things right, and I have been privileged to the results of their work.

Before the year ended, I felt the need to return to my long dormant blog with a few comments on Paramount Pictures’ Daddy’s Home, the family comedy now in theatres starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. The film follows the attempts of Ferrell as a step-Dad who’s trying to win a place in his new kids’ heart, competing with their much hipper real Dad (Wahlberg). It definitely exceeded my expectations. Based on its trailer, I described the film as “pleasant enough to be watchable” in a piece for the LA Times HS Insider. After viewing the actual film, I must correct my statement: it’s one of the best family comedies I’ve seen.

That’s a bold statement, and certainly only older kids and up should watch the film, thanks to its crude humor. But it was an exemplary family comedy nonetheless. It was about family, which always has a touching aspect about it, and it was funny. Now you will have to watch it and judge for yourself if it succeeded in those two fundamental aspects.

I’m in disagreement with a lot of critics, but this isn’t the first time. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus says that, among other things that it “lacks enough guts or imagination to explore the satirical possibilities of its premise.”

First off, the movie is very funny. The characters are well-conceptualized in their variations, the scenarios over-the-top, and the witty commentary on parenting and the horrid ride of public education elegantly executed. Ferrell and Wahlberg definitely do a stellar job of playing off each other--you feel for Ferrell, but Wahlberg puts up a good fight. And the film has guts. While some of the scenes might make audience members a little uncomfortable, often enough that’s part of the film’s genius.

I’m not sure what Rotten Tomatoes means about it lacking imagination. I’m not sure they do either; this is a film that knows what it is: a comedy that understands that working to achieve the best in entertainment value is an end in itself.

Often what critics mean when they call a film simplistic is that it doesn’t address race, class, gender and the evils of prioritizing financial success as a family man. Indeed, Ferrell’s character isn’t rich, but the fact that he’s financially stable is viewed as a positive. Furthermore, the film pokes fun at the “race card” and, to make it even more politically incorrect, champions standing up for yourself—in the family-appropriate manner of dancing. Of course all of this only adds to the overall package of laughs—and the nice thing about it is that all the characters grow, overcoming some of the cynicism around them.

Daddy’s Home is witty and a lot of fun. If you haven’t yet seen it, make it a new year’s resolution to do so.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Worthy New Sound of Music Delights in Downtown LA

by Robert Mack

The Ahmanson’s joyous new production of The Sound of Music is a good bit of medicine for Los Angeles. Broadway veteran director Jack O’Brian delivered something now considered unusual: a work that touches thought-provoking themes without making the whole evening depressing.

The time is the late 1930s, and odd-ball, music worshipping, beauty-loving Sister Maria (Kirsten Anderson) can’t seem to swing with her abbey’s pious ways. So, Mother Abbess (Ashley Brown) sends her to fulfill a governess position to widower Captain Von Trapp’s (Ben Davis) seven eclectic youngsters. Little does she know that the Von Trapp’s home isn’t much less strict than the dimly-lit abbey.

Rejecting Von Trapp’s military child-rearing philosophy, she teaches the children to sing, helps them through their worries, hormones and generally shows them there’s more to life than responding to whistles.

Guess what? Von Trapp fancies her as well, so he eventually marries the would-be nun. But in the midst of the exuberance, the Nazi threat emerges from Berlin, leaving the Von Trapp family left to decide its greatest values.

Anderson, a Pace University sophomore, has a very nice voice, but can’t match the tremendous majesty of Julie Andrews in the 1965 film. Still, seeming to understand the character, she was bright, energetic, and well portrayed Maria’s conflicting sense of duty and free spirit. Ben Davis wore a beard as Captain Von Trapp. He too was believable and seemed to understand O’Brian’s vision to not dumb the show down.

Brown’s hymn-singing voice was actually breath-taking, while Teri Hanson as Elsa, Von Trapp’s fiancĂ©e, was more heinous than her nicer London West End 2006 counterpart. That’s nothing to complain about.

Erwin Foard as Max Deitweiller was the evening’s most colorful character. Portrayed unapologetically as an anti-hero, his best line was his self-designation as “lovable,” and it received boisterous laughter from the audience.

Recalling the successful 2006 London Palladium production, one can note the differences in their strong points. In America, the Von Trapp children (while portrayed by the best America has to offer in young talent) over-enunciate their T’s while dropping the english accent and moving into Americanized drama a moment later. Liesl (Paige Silvestor) initially came off not as sweet and curious about the world she’s soon to enter, but a slightly narcissistic teenager. She grew up later in the show, which was nice to see. Also, contrary to the London production, Rolf (Dan Tracy) was underutilized.  Still, Svea Johnson as Brigitta was spunky.

At the Ahmanson (unlike the much larger London Palladium theatre), towering Nazi flags could not descend from every corner of the house and envelope a struck audience.
But these are little things when judged by itself, for the show has much to offer. It’s more open in its themes than the film (now in its 50th Anniversary), ultimately following a struggle to claim character’s dearest values. The revealing of Mother Abbey’s youth, Maria’s relationship with the church, and Von Trapp’s neglect of household joy are all examples.
At the end of the second act, Maria peeling off her religious scarf was fantastic.

When the characters claim their identity, their values are put to the test. Max and others urge Von Trapp to remain passive at the Nazi invasion. They even sing a whole Chamberlain-like tune about compromising. But Von Trapp makes sure that his family does not cave in a heroic statement of the value of freedom and love of life.

While O’Brian has actually stated that he wouldn’t mind shocking people a little, this is not some boorish “message” outing. With purity, splendor, and fabulous music, Los Angeles must not let this show go without applause.

The Sound of Music plays at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through October 31st. Prices range from $50 to $150. Address: 135 N, Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012

*Originally published in the October 15th edition of Chadwick School’s The Mainsheet.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Causation for the Collectization of a Society

by Robert Mack
The following essay was a finalist in the 2015 Ayn Rand Institute Anthem Essay Contest.
In the founding of the Soviet Union, men were moved by the cry of collectivism—the subjugation of the individual to the collective, the community, the tribe - and the creation of a state that would “encourage” that doctrine.  Touted by leading intellectuals as the greatest utopian premise ever conceived, the collectivist ideology and its movement ultimately led to the slaughter of millions. All this was led to by the idea that man cannot take care of himself and must depend on the community. This idea is propagated by a select group of gun-holders proceeding to create a totalitarian state that results in mass inequality before the law. That’s the concrete. More abstractly, what about everyone simply belonging in a collective? Take away the obvious drawbacks with statist systems, and some may argue that is surely still the ideal. In Anthem, Ayn Rand reveals the literal consequences of the abstract collectivistic ideology—one in which men accept it under the illusion of bringing a higher good to mankind, even if it means the acceptance of suffering as the norm. In her novella, Equality 7-2521 lives in such a society as an outcast, yearning to pursue happiness, and ultimately breaks free of the bonds that hold him there. In the process, Rand displays how the altruist and collectivist doctrine robs man of the self-esteem needed to think for one’s self and pursue their own happiness – and ultimately how it turns men into mindless robots squandering in a love-less society.

            In Anthem, men in Equality’s world give up the pursuit of happiness in the name of the altruist/collectivist doctrine, despite its consequences. This philosophy is unearthed in the common chant of men in Equality’s world: “We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State” (21). The “We” refers to individual entities universally proclaimed as subservient to the group. According to this chant, it is by the collective’s grace that a man can exist. If men owe their existence to the group, then they are its property and as such must not break away. To think or to behave differently is to rob the group of an achievement that is rightfully theirs. The highest expression of this rule of the collective comes in the form of the state—the moral authority earned from the ability to make concrete disobedience to the altruist/collectivist doctrine punishable as an action of thievery.

The constant implementation of this philosophy in Equality’s world brings a depressed population to cower in low self-esteem. As Rand describes, “The heads of our brothers are bowed. The eyes of our brothers are dull…the shoulders of our brothers are hunched, and their muscles are drawn , as if their bodies were shrinking and wished to be kept out of sight. And a word steals into our mind as we look upon our brothers, and that word is fear” (46). These men’s physiques are contorted in ways that suggest a lifestyle lacking in laughter, joy and achievement. Their bowed heads and “hunched” shoulders suggest a fixation with the ground, as if too ashamed to rise up and soar to the fullest extent of their ability, too ashamed to admit they are not themselves a part of the ground. It is as if they are ashamed to admit that even their bodies are somehow separate human beings. Their eyes “are dull” with fatigue and disinterest in the reality that forms their prison; their sense of life has been zapped with nothing left to light the world for them. Rand shows how holding the collective as the standard of value breeds in men an unhappy, diminished society. If the collective is what an entire life’s effort is targeted towards, natural deep-seeded disappointment will follow. There is no actual “society” as a valuing entity, only the individuals that make it up. If the individual’s interest is not attended to, the picture of society will be bleak. As a result of the collectivist chants telling how individual lives are secondary, men of Equality’s society are devoid of self-esteem – and so don’t even bother to rebel.

Through the lens of Equality, the rational contemplation that individualism requires is over-run by this altruist/collectivist doctrine. In his youth, Equality found that he had a curse - he was better than others. “This is a great sin to be born with a head that is too quick. It is not good to be different than our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them” (21). Such difference is discouraged as a corollary of the society’s condemnation of superiority. Since all men live for their brothers, the surpassing of one particular man in any way is an act of thievery. Equality says that he is more intelligent than his brothers, which is particularly dangerous. With the mind as the entity that says “I am I,” it is possibly man’s most individualistic attribute because one such mind cannot be replicated. On his vying for knowledge, Equality says, “We think that they are mysteries in the sky and under the water and in the plants which grow. But the Council of Scholars has said that there are no mysteries and the Council of Scholars knows all things” (23). Equality wants to know the nature of things and to determine reality, but "authorities" in his society notably discourage inquiry by on such subjects. If one questions current knowledge about science, one has the capacity to question the ideas of government, which would threaten the entire totalitarian system. But even more fundamentally, the mere act of thinking for yourself clashes with the core of collectivism. Authorities therefore indoctrinate men with collectivist ideas through tribal chants, and strongly discourage any further thinking about the world.

Authorities in Equality’s world indoctrinate men with ideas that discourage self-esteem, and in the process discourage active thinking among men. From the dirty streets of Soviet Russia to the terrifying prison that was East Berlin, humanity has a long and bloodied history of sacrificing the individual to the collective. In Anthem, man was taught that having self-esteem was evil and that one’s life should be rightly sacrificed to the collective. Within the last few hundred years, select societies have made significant strides in sanctifying the sovereignty of the individual. These strides are more important than we sometimes give them credit for, and we should not forget why.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Germany's Tom Sawyer Film An Unexpected Delight

In my opinion, no American child should be deprived of Mark Twain’s immortal story, Tom Sawyer. It’s a heavenly depiction of childhood and adolescence at its grandest form. I was surprised to find that what I had always considered a distinctly American tale had caught the attention of the German cinema crowd. Well, why not? We use the Grimm fairy tales all the time in our own movies. Tom Sawyer (2011) showed us the story actually better than most other adaptations I’ve seen. It is highlighted through a cast who work well with each other, as well as scrumptious, sublime story telling that is not overdone but emotionally fulfilling and accessible to an audience, who won’t be disappointed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar to the immortalized adventures of one of the most famous lads ever to get himself into a heap of trouble, Tom lives with his Aunt Polly and Sid, his half-brother, in the fictional town of St. Petersburg near the Mississippi River. Tom is a clever one who cleverly ropes kids into appreciating the nonexistent “joys” of painting a very long fence, and hangs out with Huck Finn, a classic dropout and freewheeling social outcast. Yet, they are good friends who trust and support one another.

Their friendship, however, is put to the test when they witness a murder and swear not breathe a word about the bloody affair to anyone, which Tom eventually does against his friend’s will. This leads Tom on a number of adventures and misadventures that turn to Becky Thatcher, the mayor’s daughter and the girl Tom fancies.

The film is character driven and brilliantly aware of itself. Aunt Polly and Becky were displayed not as whimpering, characterless numbskulls whose laughable stupidity drags through the film and who can do no more but smile throughout the entire picture as if somehow proud of their dentistry, but as strong-willed, and somewhat commanding feminine characters. It was particularly delightful to watch them when the mighty Tom Sawyer himself had blatantly no means of escaping their will. A number of viewers in the theatre were actually delighted when Aunt Polly gave Tom a rather decent slap in the jaw when discovering he lived. There were other such moments when Tom Sawyer was out shown by the opposite sex. Indeed, Tom adventured more with Huck; less stressful. 

Tom and Becky

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the greatest coming-of-age stories one will ever come across. From his experiences with Becky, to his adventures with Huck, Tom is shown always in the mode of a hidden confusion. There is one moment when having won Becky through a hideous beating, he is invited to her wealth-laden backyard, which is as elaborate in decoration as is Becky in ideas. Though he feels high and mighty for a time, this quickly erodes to make way for a nervous wreck. So once Becky comes on a bit too strong for him, he says a whimpery good bye and runs of to play with Huck, showing that perhaps he is not as grown up as his courage might have some to believe. 

Tom and Becky were played fittingly by Louis Hoffman and Magali Greif, respectively. The two conveyed classic characters perfectly, though Hoffman didn't always seem dirty enough, but Leon Seidel portrayed a slightly poochier-than-I-expected-looking Huck. That being said, the three child actors carried the show amiably and to great content, which is crucial in this type of movie.

Though Tom and Huck Finn are, though the best of adventuring friends, at times at odds, when Tom does find himself wanting to spend more time with Becky. Huck, a social outcast, feels then rejected and finds himself resenting his maturing friend. The film displays beautifully this relationship how their difference is social status triggers tension and a gradual split (though amends are eventually made). To elaborate, Huck’s dad is a drunk, mentioned quite emotionally by Huckleberry in the film, and a hideous influence to the unlearned child. This differs Huck from Tom, who has Aunt Polly to care for him and see that he is educated. Huck, because he doesn’t go to school, is a far more independent and indeed lonely youngster. He depends on his friendship with Tom. The actor who played this character played him as such, he was not unnecessarily cocky but just…lonely. Of course Tom’s betrayal of Huck’s wishes when telling on Injun Joe is another slap in the face.
The tension was well played out and was never as cheesy as some lesser versions.

                                                                Furmann as Injun Joe
Benno Furmann plays a creepy, and complex, Injun Joe. The bit where he falls for Aunt Polly is heartbreakingly genuine, and not found in many film versions. It is out of pity and unbigoted goodness of heart that she befriends him. Well, he found a friend a little too late. Tom's conflicting feelings about Injun Joe (having seen him murder a man), are played out well with stellar performances by other characters and a well-conceived nightmare sequence involving Injun Joe and Aunt Polly. Injun Joe, however is finally revealed as a Mephistophelean character and is defeated by Tom in a well-rounded and believable climax that does justice to the rest of the film.

Though the film will be unavailable to the majority of American society, it is most certainly a memorable adaptation well worth writing about. Though I have enjoyed writing to you about this picture, I did have more fun watching it. It’s an emotionally satisfying, fulfilling adventurous and witty motion picture that fathoms an excellent reason to learn German!

At this moment, thinking of the film, my new book version of Tom Sawyer is by my side waiting for me to revisit a longtime favorite. I’ll probably read all night long.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza Makes Rare Defence for Country in America: Imagine a World Without Her

Immigrant and conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza has deep affection for the USA. And in his new movie, America: Imagine a World without Her, presents good reasons for it.
Still, it’s an uphill climb to get the message across.

Based on his wildly popular book of the same name, D’Souza solidly identifies the claims against America in war, capitalism, and racism and debunks the heck out of them. As we see Washington get shot on the battlefield of the revolutionary war in a spooky alternative universe, the question emerges: what would the world be like without America.

He first interviews and presents the attackers  rather frightening case, making many patriots in the audience nervous, before taking a step back and examining the validity of their arguments in greater detail. 
Communists and leftists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Eric Dyson, Saul Alinsky followers and Ward Churchill and further prominent activists are interviewed. Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, and many notable others in academia then take on their arguments, reducing them to pulpy orange juice.
Via TV clips, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity, and bomb-happy Bill Ayers also make appearances.
         D'Souza battling communist Bill Ayers on The Kelly File. Image from Fox News

D’Souza made a name for himself when he made the film 2016: Obama’s America. It became the second highest grossing political documentary after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
Impressively, his new endeavor has become the seventh-highest grossing political documentary, joining a list of predominantly liberal films.
Yet critics that bowed their heads in reverence to Moore, condemned D’Souza’s film. claimed that “it plods along with all the verve of a PowerPoint presentation”, calling it the historical recreations “cheesy” and the interviews “over edited”. Jim Gaines of Reuters went so far as to tell people to even go see the film.
It’s no wonder its Rotten Tomatoes approval rating is around 9%.
Critics were indeed swift to dismiss the film, but actual audiences housed very different opinions.
According to Metacritic, a well-regarded website which ranks audiences approval of the films, the film comes in as an A+. 
Few films receive an A+ on Metacritic, making America one of the highest ranked movie events of the year.
It is also the highest grossing documentary of the year so far.
So much for the reliability of the mainstream, albeit liberal, press.

In addressing these critics concerns, I will start with the allegation that it’s a mere PowerPoint presentation.

It used bullet points to list the concerns some folks store of America. If that’s a little PowerPointy, so what? It made things nonetheless fascinating. Plus, it’s a documentary. What do you expect, ballet? Tinkerbell?
Washington as depicted in film

The historical recreations served their purpose as powerful, realistic bits of filmmaking and to say that they were cheesy is voicing one's mere disdain for a good history lesson made interesting with music and effects.

In context, the left has never much approved of actual history lessons. If they did, this film would never have had to be made.

First implies boredom through a hideous high-schoolish image of a sluggish, pretentious PowerPoint presentation, then they condemn the film for being powerfully cinematic.

If you want to see a longer, uncut interview or debate, switch on your TV or attend a Ford Hall Forum event.

This is a movie. The filmmaker’s job is to present a good product interestingly and economically. The editing accomplished just that. It was a job well done.

On another note, I may be mistaken, but the craft of a mainstream critic to give his personal, expert analysis on what makes a film strong or weak, providing the reader insight on what might or might not be good to see. The critic does not act as a century guard commanding people to see or not see a film.

Producer Gerald Molen (Schindler's List) said he had never before encountered anything like a critic such as Gaines heeding moviegoers to isolate the film.

Gaines perhaps should be reminded that he is far from a traffic light, commanding viewers not to see one film or the other, but a source of reference for judgment.

That is all.
   Former Reagan Policy Analyst and filmmaker, Dinesh D'Souza. Image from Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Largely excellent arguments crafted by D'Souza make the film one of the most informative documentaries around.

I do agree with one reviewer that a bit more confrontation and debating between the two sides and their arguments would have been nice. But again, a filmmaker does have to be economical though and some perfectly good movies--a few of the Harry Potter films—have been attacked for being too long.

Again, keeping things economical is important, as any professional filmmaker will tell you.

Upon dealing with the allegations, the film deals with whose propping up these ludicrous statements regarding anti-American exceptionalism.
It deals with the leftist agenda, used by President Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and its gradual plan to downturn America.

The information revealed is startling and perhaps somewhat terrifying.

Those who are open to an alternate picture of America and who begin to lodge a deep understanding of the USA will certainly tear up at the end when the puzzle comes together and we step back to cast our glance upon a most ugly image. Tears of happiness, however, flood the theatre upon the ending rendition of the American anthem.

In the film, D’Souza does go over his conviction for violation of (rather idiotic) campaign finance laws and openly, humbly declares his mistake. A far cry from a certain gentleman in the White House, he does lay his cards on the table.

Cinematically, the film was visually stunning, engaging, and adhered to a high standard of storytelling as any good film should. It's an intellectual thriller.

Content-wise, this movie is nothing short of eye opening.

With the producers of Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park backing it, and the highest quality of documentary filmmaking, this conservative film represents a prestigious tier of filmmaking in a predominantly leftist field.

Despite unearned bashing from critics the film has been enormously favorable with audiences and has booted out a Moore film as seventh highest grossing political documentary of all time.


A dramatic plea for justice, the film is a worthwhile summer adventure.

Text copyright by Robert Steven Mack. All rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review-Secret Agent 44: Who Stole Air Force One?

By Robert Steven Mack

A recent children’s spy book, Secret Agent 44: Who Stole Air Force One, from author Dow Kump proves itself a playful, adventurous, and most engaging affair.
            This relatively unknown author first came to my own attention quite a few years ago when I was wandering the isles of my library's book store.
            A book with a space shuttle pictured on the front caught my eye. The book itself had been tossed in the corner. Project 00 was luring me to its side.
            The cover art looked a bit like one of those early/mid-2000s video game.
            There wasn’t much in the book store then, and after all how bad could a book with a picture of a space shuttle be? As a matter of fact those products are usually the best—anyone remember The Magic School Bus?
            The book turned out to be an amusing, well-written adventure…and the author's name was inscribed in the front.
            His new book is more aimed at readers in the second and third grade according to Kump’s website.
            It shared with his previous book the familiar video game-esque cover art.
            Kump seems to have a knack for taking the wildest, dearest boyhood fantasies and turn them into a wholesome young reader’s delight:
            12 year old Charlie Richmond dreams of walking in his Dad’s shoes as one of the greatest spies of all time.
            Richmond trains himself, innovates new gadgetry, and sets his sights on a particular mission to accomplish, only to bungle and make a disappointing slop of it.
            However, his understanding mother encourages him to pick himself up, dust himself off, and continue to reach relentlessly for his dream.
            Richmond only finds himself in the middle of further mishaps.
            When the powerful and undeniably cool Air Force One disappears, Richmond goes after the crooks in charge.
            The thieves, two dim-witted magicians have obtained a dangerous device that transports any object from one location, plopping them roughly in another.
            Upon finding the large aircraft, he sets up camp inside the machine and develops an elaborate scheme to thwart the magicians by using wit and gadgetry.

            His father and his team espionage swingers find Richmond, and the two teams end up battling two evil magicians while the plane is in flight and trying to land it in a football stadium.
            Kump believes in attaching themes to his books. For Project-00, it was “nothing great happens without determination,” and for Secret Agent 44, it reads “follow you dreams,” according to his website.
            The book was atypical only in its enduring, somewhat attractive outlandishness, perfect for young children—as well as those who perhaps still wish they were young children.
            Richmond was decently fleshed out, though his brother was formulaically reminiscent of the elder sibling in his previous book, though I don’t think readers will mind.
            The writing is clear and solid and formulated for a child’s accessibility.
            Some children may find the message of the book cheesy and too mushy for their likening. Those youngsters never bother to read anyway.
            I would commend Kump on his delivering a valuable message; it’s what more books should be engaging in. It’s this, and the author’s magnificent imagination to match a child’s mind that make this book worthwhile.
            It’s Leave it to Beaver, but with the James Bond/Alex Rider excitement. In short, that adds up to something recognizably Disney-esque.
            As a matter of fact, it would be a fun candidate for a Disney movie: a fun sibling relationship, two bumbling crooks, excellent message of following your dream, as well as the importance of family, a brave, determined and certainly innovative main character, and a dozen Shirley Temple’s worth of action.
The best part might be the sequence when Richmond rains gadgetry and pitfalls onto the crook magicians, almost like something from Home Alone.
It’s rather fun to visualize, even for someone who’s past the reading target such as myself.
Kump has transcended his imagination with a captivating young read, held at its core by one of the finest messages one can offer the young, determined mind of any age: Follow your dreams!
The book can be found online at Amazon or at the author’s website. My recommendation is to obtain the book for your elementary school student.
Chances are, it’ll do much for them than anything they’ll read in school.
Copyright 2014 by Robert Steven Mack, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted: A film review from Robert Steven Mack

Greetings ladies and gentlemen! Spread the word: I’m back...and loving it! Today, I shall be offering my few cents on a new movie event that struck theaters a few weeks ago: Muppets Most Wanted. Speaking of comebacks!

So, it turns out their last film succeeded in rebuilding Jim Henson’s rather iconic franchise...with a twenty-first century look. Kermit. Fozzie. A vain female pig. A whatever. In the The Muppets (2011), we had the opportunity to get to know these characters better than ever before. What it thrived on was an intense emotional touch, a treat for sentimental old fools such as myself who appreciate the Muppets' past glory.

So what about this new one, Muppets Most Wanted? As Kermit sings in the opening, the sequel is never quite as good as the original. Most people seem quite attached to that theory. Many have affirmed that the film is solid yet expressed their view toward its inferiority. Do I agree?

Well, their last film has wrapped, and the Muppets are unsure of how to continue. What to do? Go on a world tour, many start to chant. Enter Dominic “the Lemur” Badguy (Ricky Gervais), a villain ranked # 2 worldwide, posing as a potential agent for the Muppets, who plans to use the Muppets to steal the crown jewels of England. His partner in crime is a wanted Russian criminal, Constantine, who - except for a distinctive wart on his face - oddly resembles Kermit.

Kermit is pensive at first about sharing his leadership role with Dominic, but finally gives in after persuasion from the other Muppets. After making some risky investments that appear to pay off, the Muppets begin to respect Dominic more than Kermit himself.

Planning their first performance at the grand opera house later that night, Kermit walks through the uglier parts of Berlin when confronted with Constantine, who plants a wart on Kermits face and disguises himself as his nicer counterpart. Kermit is promptly dragged to the Russian Gulag under the belief he is the world’s #1 criminal.

The new Kermit, a tricky character, is a lot less strict with the Muppets than the old one. He even proposes to Miss Piggy while in Dublin, Ireland, their third stop after Madrid, Spain.

Meanwhile, Sam the Eagle, a CIA Agent, and his Interpol counterpart, played by Ty Burrell, together pursue heists in all the places the Muppets performed-all part of the two ingenious criminals plan. Kermit, while at the Gulag, meets up with Nadya (Tina Fey), a strict, yet love-sick prison guard.

Walter, Fonzie, and Animal figure out Constantine’s true identity and escape to the Gulag to save Kermit, before the still fooled Miss Piggy marries her conniving “lover” in London.

The previous film, though humorous, benefited the most from its bittersweet emotional edge. This film lacked that, but made up for it in its thoughtful characters and comedy. 

In the 2011 movie, the human characters came off at times as flat and obtrusive. In the Muppets Most Wanted, Ty Burrell, Ricky Gervais, and Tina Fey were given good parts and executed them extremely well. The human performers came off as truly beneficial to a Muppet movie as never before in the history of their theatrical releases. They added to the film, and you believed the Muppets were real when they interacted with such well-formed and interesting characters. Tina Fey was marvelous as a prison guard: I could feel her conflicted feelings for Kermit as a prisoner and as her crush came off very nicely. Gervais was nothing short of hilarious as the villainous criminal who scoffs at being inferior to his partner, a frog. And Ty Burrell was whimsical in portraying along with Sam the Eagle, how two competitive government agencies -  CIA and INTERPOL- can manage to get along in the most gratifying way.

“The Rainbow Connection”, “Pictures in My Head”, and “Man or a Puppet” from The Muppets highlights an astounding range of musical moments that are not easy to live up to. The three I mentioned highlight the heartwarming sentimentality and emotional self-discovery basis on which the first film thrived. So what about the songs, you rightfully ask of Muppets Most Wanted?  I can’t complain. The score was a lot of fun and charmingly inventive! Nothing dragged.

“The Big House” with Tina Fey and her band of merry prisoners was catchy and seemed a bit of an irreverent, poetic addition to the film in an upbeat, foot-tapping way. Good fun. "Interrogation Song” was also so comically silly and likeable; I’ve still got it buzzing away in my head.

“I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)” sung by Constantine to Piggy was not exactly silly and seemed like a more traditional Muppet presentation. But I loved it. It was perfect.

“We’re doing a Sequel” was a fittingly grand opening, Muppet-style that allowed the film to poke fun on itself just a little.

“Something So Right” was the film’s one emotional song with an odd, irreverent appearance from Celine Dion. It was funny, but also a testament to how the film ends up identifying itself as a comedy. Piggy sings about her wedding to Constantine and how she feels upset for a reason she cannot identify. Well-written and worthy of decent praise, the song still lacks the immense power of “Man or Muppet” or “Pictures In My Head”, some high points of the last film. Muppets Most Wanted, however, does not have any high points. It runs smoothly from start to finish devoid of bumps. This song therefore, cannot be put down. It was excellent and fit perfectly.

Last, but definitely not least for the film’s original songs, “I’m Number One” features Constantine crooning and Dominic lamenting over the fact that Constantine has surpassed Dominic, or “the Lemur” in the international rankings of dangerous criminals. It might be my favorite. It’s absolutely hilarious. Period. It’s a lovable piece of work that includes tap-dancing, cool, painful jumps, and a marvelous bit of text to use whenever competition with your rivals has reached a triumphant climax.

The finale of the film is a reprise of “Together Again” from Muppets Take Manhattan, one of my other favorite Muppet films, and is a suitable ending to the film. The film’s songs are comfortable and blend in perfectly with the rest of the material.

The comedy in this film is more intelligent than both other Muppet films and today’s formula family film. The jokes about Ty Burrell’s constant vacations as an agent were amusing. The songs of course were not without wit. “The Big House”, “I’m Number One”, and “We’re Doing a Sequel” are terrific examples.

I enjoyed seeing the different locations and the spy theme worked a lot better than the Muppets previous attempt in The Great Muppet Caper (1981), not a bad film, but not as good as this.

The film is accessible to everyone. There is humor for adults and children and alike and were sewn together seamlessly in the film. It’s good, family entertainment that utterly fails in being categorized as “bland and uninteresting”, as Grandpa Simpson would put it.

Going around the world and encountering criminals is not a new road. Remember Cars 2? I originally thought that would make the film a bit bland. Watching it, I discovered significant error in that presumption. The film is witty and original in ways that renders such a deeming irrelevant.

Apparently the film was inspired by The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Pink Panther and The Thomas Crown Affair. These inspirations were identifiable, yet loose. The film stands alone.

The Muppets film is a sentimental, character-driven, and also not unintelligent-though in a different manner-blazing tribute to the past. This film goes in a different direction: a feel-good comedy with plenty of fun and adventure. A wise move indeed. To re-iterate, its comedy is the best of all the Muppet films. It’s not without a heart, but its aim is fun and adventure. From beginning to the very last few seconds, the film rolls along briskly and admirably. The Muppets are off and running. It has been confirmed. If they continue on this path, we can certainly expect great things from them in the future.

copyright 2014 by Robert Steven Mack