Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Lowdown: The final episode of the Millennium Trilogy, concluding the story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Review:
Hot on the heels of The Girl Who Played with Fire came The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the final episode of the 2009 Swedish made story that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We actually watched it in its mini series incarnation, which meant that this last episode came in the shape of two 90 minutes episodes, but never mind that; the point is that the previous episode was so good we had to watch the whole thing through, and quickly.
Our story starts off exactly where we were left before. The severely injured Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) spends the bulk of this one in hospital, the same hospital that also hosts her severely injured father. While the two recover, a group of now ageing spooks working for a top secret government agency realise Lisbeth's actions could uncover their not so lawful adventures. They thus decide to eliminate the evidence while utilising the hospital's complete lack of security and the police's incompetence. Their attempt brings back journalist Michael (Michael Nyqvist) to the scene, as he attempts to both help Lisbeth make it alive and seal the deal on his human trafficking story. Obviously, the spooks fight back with everything they have; where bullets won't do, power and psychologists might. And there, in the background, also lies the shadow of Lisbeth's brother.
The similarities between Hornets' Nest and the real life spooks of the NSA, GCHQ & Co, as recently exposed by Edward Snowden, is striking. Here is yet another story of a top secret organisation that's using the power it had gathered and the shroud of secrecy around it to perform evil deeds. Often, while watching Hornets' Nest, we asked ourselves whether what we see makes sense; but then we quickly recalled some parallel from the Snowden story to remind ourselves the truth can be astonishingly scary.
Hornets' Nest turns out to be significantly different from Fire (which, on its turn, proved quite different to Dragon Tattoo). Whereas Fire was a very fast developing story unwrapped before our eyes, Hornets' Nest feels more like a John le Carré espionage thriller: slower, more calculated, more mature. There is none of the visceral sex from previous episodes; instead we have ourselves a movie that culminates in a court drama. However, different as the style may be, Hornets' Nest proves just as good and just as thrilling; just differently so.
Which brought me to notice just how great the entire trilogy was. Variety has a lot to do with it: variety in style, in story type, in pace, and even in characters (in the first movie Lisbeth played a relatively minor, supportive, role). Each of the episodes is good on its own, but through the variety the synergy between them the overarching story is amazingly exciting.
That observations concerning the synergy is interesting, because the Millennium Trilogy is a cross between a cinema movie and a TV series. Indeed, it is both at the same time. However, by utilising the best of both worlds it manages to provide a superior product to what we normally get on the big screen. Which, in turn, explains why contemporary TV series have gained the potential to be far superior to movies: through the Internet changing our viewing habits from the dedicated weekly slot to watching any time, any way, the TV series no longer has to entice us to come back next week. Instead, it can focus on quality delivery while making the most of the extra time it got on its hand, when compared to a movie, to provide a better product. Better character development is a fine example.
Write it down as another achievement for the Internet.
Best scene: I really, really, liked the very final scene's encounter. I won't spoil it for you, but I will just say that the awkward encounter portrayed there is so very much me.
Overall: Another 4 out of 5 crabs for this episode in the series. However, when looked upon as a whole, I consider the Millennium Trilogy much better than that; as a whole, I would say it is a 5 crabs affair.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Lowdown: The girl and the journalist from the previous episode find themselves personally involved in a human trafficking affair.
Review:
Watching the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo whet our appetites. We wanted more of that original version (and not just because the Americans only provided us with the first episode thus far). Thus we went for the second episode of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the Swedish manifestation starring Noomi Rapace (the girl) and Michael Nyqvist (the journalist). It seems as if this particular trilogy was produced as a TV mini series that was later released as a movie; this time around, we chose to watch the longer mini series version, made of two 90 minutes episodes. It appears the movie version is a bit less than an hour shorter.
The Girl Who Played with Fire portrays a very complex array of human actors who (surprise!) happen to all be connected to one another. Journalist Michael, now back to his normal life, gets involved in human trafficking investigations held by a fellow investigative journalist his magazine engages with. In parallel, our tattooed girl Lisbeth, now a millionaire, comes back to Stockholm and buys herself a beautiful apartment. She doesn't stop there: she meets the guy who raped her in the previous movie and threatens him with his own gun, a gun that is later found to have been used to commit a murder related to the same human trafficking affair that Michael is investigating. With Lisbeth's prints on the gun, she becomes the prime suspect and a public figure through "wanted" police ads.
Michael does not believe Lisbeth to be the killer and starts investigating the matter. Lisbeth does her own hacking to investigate the matter, too. It does not take long before paths get crossed and the personal nature of the murder mystery at hand is revealed.
The story behind The Girl Who Played with Fire is quite intriguing. However, it is so complex and convoluted that, while every step of the puzzle seems to make sense, it gets quite hard to follow. I enjoyed watching this one, but do not ask me to explain all the various plot twists. Especially not after three hours of constant twists.
Instead, take this one as an adults' version of The Da Vinci Code. By adult, I mean that this one seems much more authentic and serious by virtue of it putting its emphasis on the human side of things rather than the occult. And yes, I also imply that The Girl Who Played with Fire is much more explicit, particularly in its portrayal of sex. Forget American political correctness when you watch this Swedish version.
It's not only political incorrectness that differentiates The Girl Who Played with Fire from similar American productions. I think it's more than the longish duration of this one, but the characters here - even the more minor ones - get properly developed. Forget the stereotypical affair that passes for characterisation in most Hollywood productions! Even the relatively poor Swedish production values help, giving The Girl Who Played with Fire an aura of genuine authenticity that is often missing from the slick and artificial American productions (yes, even from the better ones like the aforementioned David Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Three hours later, I was deep into this sad portrayal of a world where old men exploit young women. Similarities to Australian politics aside, I have to admit there is more than just a hint of reality in this observation. The Girl Who Played with Fire does not hesitate to point fingers at some of society's worse aspects. I hope it is this finger pointing that earned the books the popularity they have, but somehow I suspect it's more to do with the sex. Regardless, I will admit to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience,  an experience that left me looking forward to the third and final part of the trilogy.
Overall: Another ace in the sleeve of "foreign" cinema. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Lowdown: Tom Cruise & Co look for excuses to perform highly improbable action scenes. 
Review: 
By now you'd be excused for not knowing Mission: Impossible once stood for a TV series. I know, because even I am too young to remember that one. No, for the majority of us MI stands for a series of Tom Cruise films. The question, however, is whether this series of films needed a fourth episode. As in, the first was a 1996 Brian De Palma creation that may have not knocked me off my seat but genuinely managed to produce some iconic scenes. I'm talking, of course, of Cruise quietly dangling off a wire as he raids a safe. Then (2000) came the utterly different second MI movie, a movie that marked John Woo's official entry into Hollywood. 
But then (2006) came the third MI movie. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything special, either; it was just another extreme, special effects laden, action movie. I reckoned that would be the end of it, but obviously Cruise disagreed with me. Thus 15 years after the first in the series, he chose to come back for a fourth episode: Ghost Protocol. An episode that is sadly more like the third than the first two. 
I can provide you with an outline of the plot, but seriously - this is all about giving Cruise and his mates an opportunity to perform high risk stunts. This time the excuse is the prevention of a nuclear holocaust, and this time Cruise's team is joined by Jeremy Renner, but that is pretty much it as far as innovation is concerned. We start off with a major jail break in Russia, move on to a heist at the Red Square, continue with Cruise climbing Dubai's tallest building in the world (the Burj Khalifa) armed only with special gloves, and climax in an Indian caper. It's all very James Bond like, very posh. It's all very artificial. Yet it is still exciting, in that cheap kind of way. 
If there is a lesson to take home from Ghost Protocol, it's to do with covert activities not making sense. They don't make sense because the plot never even tries to make sense; they don't make because, in hindsight, none of the activities Cruise & Co embark upon actually amount to promote the cause of humanity; and, last but not least, it is Cruise's own actions that supply the baddies with the ammunition that brings the whole planet to near cataclysm at this movie's climax. Perhaps Ghost Protocol was meant to act as a warning against espionage services, like the NSA, running unchecked? I sort of doubt it. 
Best scene: There is a scene where Cruise's team impersonates the baddies to meet two groups of them at the same time, with one meeting affecting the other in real time. There is high potential for artistic cinema with this one, and granted - the scene is well made. However, it is definitely not Brian De Palma grade; De Plama would have clearly created another iconic scene out of this one, whereas Ghost Protocol's is doomed to be forgotten. 
Overall: I did not suffer watching Ghost Protocol, but I could not ignore the total absence of depth either. 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Her

Lowdown: A man falls in love with a virtual artificial intelligence.
Review:
I was looking forward to watching Her, considering it to have the potential to be one of this year's best movies. I mean, a film about a guy falling in love with a virtual entity? In many respects, I see that type of scenario as humanity's future.
And the director, Spike Jonze. The guy who brought us Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. If anyone knows how to make a movie out of this mess that will appeal to smarts, rather than try to tantalise with special effects, it's him.
But then I saw Her and realised that instead of another quality Adaptation I was watching another bore-fest like Where the Wild Things Are.
Set in some near future, Her is a movie that is much more focused on its central character, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), than the vast majority of all other movies I have seen. Our Theodore is now divorced of wife Catherine (a Rooney Mara looking decidedly different to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), although he wishes he wasn't. He spends his days at his office, writing letters for other people, but doesn't really know what to do with himself outside of work. In order to fall asleep, for example, he asks his smartphone to find him a willing partner for some virtual sex. And yes, this can get weird.
Things change when a new person enters Theodore's life: the new breakthrough artificial intelligence operating system he communicates with through his smartphone, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Slowly but surely, he falls for Siri, sorry, Samantha (and Samantha falls for him). Obviously, the Apples of this world do not manufacture one gadget only; the same phenomenon applies to others around him and affects people around him. People like Theodore's real life friend Amy (an Amy Adams that seems to boldly go without makeup, or at least as without makeup as one can be on a movie set).
Her definitely has the style. It portrays its vision of a future through a certain set of colors, looks, costumes and makeup (mustachios are predicted to be popular). Then there is the focus on Phoenix, who has to act against a virtual entity - that is, he's acting with no one by his side for the bulk of this movie. I have to say that Phoenix musters this challenge without missing a beat.
Alas, Her the movie does not muster its challenge. It is far too slow and far too focused in its artistic style. So much so that when meaningful events happened, and eventually they do, I was just too tired.
I will note that Her is pessimistic about the success of a relationship between a person and a virtual entity. Even Mass Effect tends to agree: in there, Joker only falls for EDI when she manifests herself in a physical body. Her's sequel, therefore, should focus on a humanoid robot's love affair with a person.
Interesting scene: How does one shoot a scene of virtual sex between a man and a virtual AI? Jonze's solution is to switch things off and provide us with a fairly lengthy blackness for the duration of the sexual climax. Pretty daring, I would say, although it certainly attracts attention away from the portrayed events and into the director's particular style.
Overall: As much as I find its subject matter interesting, I also found Her to be way too boring to recommend. I really wanted to rate Her higher for its deep discussion of a subject matter I find very interesting. Ultimately, though, I feel I have to rate it at 2 out of 5 crabs full of unfulfilled expectations.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Lowdown: An end of the world road trip has an unlikely man and woman pairing becoming friends.
Review:
What would you do if you knew with absolute certainty that the end of the world is coming? The wife of Dodge (Steve Carell) had a pretty good idea: she left her husband, an insurance worker, to be on his own. She's not alone, with the whole planet busy deciding what to do with itself: loot, have sex, or perhaps drink to death? There are a whole lot of options when one knows one does not have to pay the consequences for one's actions. One can even choose to become a bad parent without any conscious issues.
But Dodge doesn't feel that way, which is how we get to have a movie called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Like everybody else, Dodge knows the planet has three weeks till it's knocked dead by an asteroid. At first he does not know how to deal with the cataclysm; he continues to show up to his now useless work (at least he gets promoted!). Then he learns that his neighbour, Penny (Keira Knightley) is holding on to some of his post, including a letter from an old sweetheart proclaiming him as the love of her life. Dodge has to set things right - he has to meet this sweetheart before the end. And Penny, she feels guilty, so she joins Dodge even though her biggest wish is to be with her family in the UK. Thus we have ourselves a road trip with a time limit to fill up a short hour and a half with.
We also have ourselves a decent romantic comedy. A romantic comedy that is also a road trip movie that is also filled to the brim with darker themes coming directly off the shelf of The Last Policeman. Indeed, the latter - a morbid detective story - is incredibly similar in character and events to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
I thought the setting was well used in order to emphasise the core love story. It is always nice to see science fiction motifs being used in order to portray a story that has been told a million times before under a new light. And talking about new light, it felt good to witness Steve Carell act out a proper character as opposed to the usual idiotic and flat characters he usually ends up with. Then again, Knightley has this habit of annoying without fail: there is always this aura of artificiality about her.
Overall: A nice comedy of worthy themes. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lowdown: An American version of the Swedish original.
Review:
You are not mistaken: this is the second time I review a movie called "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on this blog. The first was of the 2009 original Swedish movie (which, it seems, was actually intended as a TV mini series, but never mind that); and now I'm onto the 2011 version of the movie bearing the same name, this time an American production. A heavily invested American production, if I may add, featuring talents such as director David Fincher and actor Danial "my name is Bond" Craig.
I will cut to the chase. I have a big problem with the American version: it is, in almost every respect, a one to one copy of the original. so much so I will not bother discussing plot or anything similar; just read my old review if you're interested. As I was watching this new version, I was wondering whether there will be a breakaway in one form or another at one point or another that will make me feel as if I am watching a new film. That, however, never happened. I spent another two and a half hours of my life watching the same film again, only that this time it spoke English.
If you insist, there were a couple differences. I would say the only improvement in quality came through the music, composed by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. The second difference? It soon becomes obvious that this production has a much larger budget than the original. Is that a guarantee for a better film? As one can clearly see, no.
I therefore had to point my attention elsewhere, and that attention went in the direction of the film's antihero heroine. I found it interesting to note how the movie "uglified" the character, as opposed to the normal habit of trying to make the stars look as glamorous as possible. Afterwards I went looking on the Internet to find more about the actress, Rooney Mara; I have to say I was unable to recognise her at all. I also have to say the "real" person, or at least the person staring at me through obviously well choreographed publicity photos, was a very good looking one.
Overall:
Look, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a pretty good thriller. There can be no denying that; it is worth 4 out of 5 crabs. However, that does not change the fact it has zero reasons to exist in the first place, being a movie with absolute zero to add.
So do yourself a favour and watch the original instead. For a start, it is original; second, you might learn a word or two of Swedish.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Raspberry Pi User Guide by Eben Upton & Gareth Halfacree

Lowdown: An introduction to the Raspberry Pi, its world and its uses.
Review:
Back in the hectic days of summer school holidays, our household - in its wisdom, but probably through desperation - turned into the physical world for entertainment. We played with marble runs, remote control cars, remote control helicopters, slot cars, and we were hungry for more. One potential approach to satisfying this hunger was to start making stuff of our own. And if making is what we're after, and messing around with computers is in our genes, then perhaps we should be giving the Raspberry Pi some attention? Thus I ended up evaluating this idea through this book, the Raspberry Pi User Guide. 
In this reviewer's opinion, the user guide at hand does an excellent job introducing the newbie to the Pi. It starts by providing an overview of existing models' hardware. Then it moved to providing an introduction to the dominant operating systems running the cards, specifically the relevant Linux distributions. I suspect that for most users this would be their first exposure ever to Linux; as a veteran I can say the book's tour is not bad at all. Sure, it's dry, but it's effective in providing the must haves and then taking readers a step further. 
It is then that the book steps up a gear into discussions of potential uses for the Raspberry Pi. There's a chapter on using the Pi as a media centre; another on using it as a web server. Last, but not least, the book introduces its reader to the crown jewels by providing a basic guide for using the Pi to control other hardware devices, maker style. I think it is fair to say that no reader should expect to find the answers to everything in this book; it is probably much wiser to pick up a book specialising on one's specific focus point instead. However, as an introduction to the Pi and what it can do, The Raspberry Pi User Guide is probably as good as it can get. 
Back to me and my making fever: am I going to get a Raspberry Pi based on what I read in the book? My answer is no, at least not at this stage. The main reason is that I don't really need the Pi: I already have a netbook and a laptop running Linux that I can go crazy with at will, and because these run Ubuntu (as opposed to the Pi's ARM based distributions) I have much more computing power at hand to go crazy with. It's not the Pi that I need, it's time to mess with my existing hardware that I'm short on. As far as media servers go, the Pi could do a nice job but it is also limited in comparison to what I can achieve with my existing Apple [sadly, closed source] ecosystem environment. 
Note I'm not saying "never" to the Raspberry Pi. I might use it for server duties, capitalising on its low power consumption (although I would probably prefer a cheap netbook; they come with a display). Eventually, I might decide I do want to make myself something creative and use the Raspberry Pi to base it around. A drone, perhaps, or a 3D printer. The point is, The Raspberry Pi User Guide did its job - it introduced me to the possibilities, and now it's up to me to pick up the challenge. 
Overall: An effective all around view of the Raspberry Pi. 3.5 out of 5 crabs. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Valentine's Day

Lowdown: A Hollywood interpretation of the Love Actually formula.
Review:
Ample evidence suggests the toughest challenge movies face is identifying good ideas to base them on. When someone does find such an idea, you can bet your million dollars on Hollywood, the same Hollywood that complains its movies are being copied, copying the idea.
Case in point: Love Actually, the British original from 2003, and Valentine's Day, the American take on the formula from 2010. The former proved a landmark movie, and in my opinion an excellent one too; the latter? Not so much.
Like the original, Valentine's Day is made of a collection of [love] stories that, at one stage or another, prove to be intertwined to one extent or another. The core story, perhaps, is that of the owner of a flower business (Ashton Kutcher), whose adventures we follow throughout that special date on the calendar that is otherwise known as Valentine's Day. He starts his day proposing to his girlfriend (Jessica Alba), who accepts but rather reluctantly. Her reluctance is the driver for the bulk of the rest of the film.
Thus we are exposed to glimpses of other people's Valentine's Day stories. These include that of the florist's best friend (Jennifer Garner), who is seeing a doctor that turns out to be married (Patrick Dempsey); a guy abroad a flight (Bradley Cooper) who chats with the soldier returning home that sits next to him (Julia Roberts); a TV sports reporter asked to cover Valentine's Day stories for the day (Jamie Foxx); and many more. The formula is simple to figure out: take a famous star, put them in some sort of a romanic entanglement we've seen many times before, mix with the rest of the stories, and shake well.
Alas, the result is not half as good as the cast list may suggest. Sure, it has the names, but it doesn't have the character; with the short screen time each get, the challenge of developing proper round characters proves too hard for Valentine's Day. What we end up with are cliches, often annoying ones. Another thing we end up with is the usual pile of Hollywood conservative values manure, best demonstrated through the positive portrayal of kids withholding on sex (till after they're married?).
Only one of the love stories offers a bit of interest, and that's the one between the aforementioned Foxx and Jessica Biel. The rest is rather pathetic, and with a two hour long affair it's all quite boring, too. In other words, through the act of copying a "foreign" movie Hollywood is left showing off the bulk of its vulnerabilities.
Best scene: Somewhere in the end credits there appears one Steve Irwin, credited with "24 frame" something. Yes, that was the most interesting part of the movie by far.
Overall: A sad indictment of contemporary, originality deprived, Hollywood. Valentine's Day lies somewhere between 1.5 and 2 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The English Teacher

Lowdown: A single English teacher gets in too deep when school produces her ex student's play.
Review:
Not all movies need to hit me in the face for me to like them. The English Teacher is a case in point: it never strikes as the world's finest movie, but it delivers sophisticated comedy/drama in a short and concise manner. Even better, it features some very good acting.
Our hero, the English teacher, is Linda (Julianne Moore). A Philadelphian, Linda is that sort of a person that never found a suitable mate and after a while simply gave up on the idea. Instead, the focus of her entire life is her high school job. Alas, as one can expect from high school kids, the pupils do not necessarily see eye to eye with the teacher when it comes to appreciating lessons' subject matter.
A catalyst for change comes in the shape of Jason (Michael Angarano), an ex student of Linda who went on to study literature in New York but is now back home. Jason considers his thus far short career a failure, and is about to follow the path his doctor father (Greg Kinnear) paved for him and become a lawyer instead. Jason's only legacy from his previous life is a play he wrote, which Linda immediately falls in love with. With the help of the school's drama teacher (Nathan Lane) Linda gets the play approved by the school principle. A full blown school production follows, and soon Linda will find that she fell for more than a play.
There is nothing we haven't seen before in The English Teacher, yet the affair does not feel pre-chewed. I actually found it quite fresh, probably through the aid of Moore's trademark superb acting. There is some insight to be had about the value of literature in our lives but also the value of looking life through a realist's eye. Present, too, are hints at how hard it is to be a woman in a world where women are judged to a different, harsher, scale than man. Most of all, there is a nice love triangle comedy thing going on here that never overtakes common sense.
Overall: I'll go on a limb here and say that despite the small time aspirations of this title, I liked it 3.5 out of 5 crabs much. Not every movie has to be serious or full of depth; I like to show my appreciation when a movie designed to entertain also happens to be a good film.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Family

Lowdown: An American gangster's family life as it hides in French witness protection.
Review:
The Family is a weird movie.
It revolves around an idea with great potential. It has great names, like Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones. Some of its cast have met before, like - say - on the set of Stardust. And as director, it's got a very famous name behind it: Luc Besson. So why is it that The Family falls flat on its face? How come a movie such as this, with all of its heavyweight potential, feels like it doesn't know what it is trying to tell us?
The core idea is not far enough from that of the TV series Lilyhammer: an American gangster turned snitch, De Niro, is hiding in France under some sort of a witness protection program. That program, supervised by Lee Jones, has De Niro and family - including wife Pfeiffer and teenage son and daughter - move frequently across France as it seeks shelter from the gangster killers always on its tail.
As The Family starts, we witness our family arrive at a particularly boring section of Normandy. We see the parents as they assimilate (or not) into their new town; we watch the kids as they stand out like Americans in France at their new school; and we also watch as the baddie gangsters close in on our family. There are many story threads here, with all family members receiving attention, but that attention comes at the price of loss of focus. Perhaps the only common thread in all the stories is how the gangster mentality always seems to prevail with our family members? Or the frequent jokes on behalf of the French?
The Family feels like some sort of an "ode to gangsters of days gone by". It does seem to be set during the nineties, it includes a De Niro watching himself in Goodfellas, and in the credits list there is the name of one Martin Scorsese. Alas, with all the good intentions, The Family simply lacks cohesiveness. Even the action at its end is not enough to save it from the doom of mediocrity.
If I am allowed to offer my hypothesis as to the source of all problems in The Family, I would simply point my finger at Besson. The problems The Family is suffering from repeat in other movies of his, even in The Fifth Element. Sure, the latter is good entertainment; however, it is most definitely also a collection of great ideas (and also copied ideas, but let's ignore that for now), most of which are left far from full exploitation. The Family simply takes things a step further.
Overall: No wonder most families are dysfunctional. 2 out of 5 stars.

Muppets Most Wanted

Lowdown: Kermit the frog is replaced by an evil criminal during a tour of Europe.
Review:
Two years ago we had a Muppets revival with The Muppets hitting the big screen, a cute but overall meh grade film. And now it is time for our Muppets to suffer the wrath of the sequel!
When contemplating a sequel, the moviemakers need to decide what to keep and what to change. In the case of Muppets Most Wanted, the path they chose is very clear: keep the formula as it is, as in have tons of cameos mixed with Muppets performances. The change? As the movie tells us in its very beginning, the chosen theme that provides the excuse for this movie is the Muppets touring Europe. Problem is, they get the idea from the movie's bad guy, their new agent - Dominic (Ricky Gervais).
Dominic's plot is simple: replace Kermit with an evil but incredibly similar looking frog criminal; tour Europe with this villain, under the cover of the Muppets' shows; and rob stuff while the Muppets are performing. As for Kermit? Send him to the Siberian jail his lookalike villain came from, where well disciplined guards will keep him locked. Guards headed by Nadia (Tina Fey).
When the robberies start, Europe's Interpol sends its detective (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) to investigate, while the USA sends CIA agent/Muppet Sam the Eagle. From then on, chaos ensues.
I have to say: even though this is a sequel, I liked Muppets Most Wanted much more than I did The Muppets. You may argue it is less original, but I will argue neither is that original in the first place; the real original is the TV show from decades past. The reason for this movie's superiority, if you ask me, is that this time around we are not focused on a would be Muppet we've never seen before; this time around it's all about either the Muppets we love, one of the key [excellent] human characters, or the cameos. All three categories work to create a film that may start slow but certainly picks up the pace at its second half. I'll put it this way: this is certainly my all time favourite Muppet movie (disclaimer: unlike the original TV show, none of the Muppet movies were ever stellar hits).
Sort of a related note:
One thing I would like to comment on is the ongoing thread of jokes on the differences between Europe and the USA, as provided by the collision between our Interpol and CIA detectives. The odd thing about it is that many of the jokes are meant to degrade Europe, but actually hit back at the USA.
First there is this whole thing we're supposed to take for granted, where the CIA agent has equal jurisdiction in Europe as the European detective. Imagine how Americans would react if European police people start policing them at home?
Next there is a joke about Europeans drinking their espresso out of tiny cups, while Americans drink jugs of coffee. Me, I love my espresso and I cannot fathom how Americans like the tasteless coffee labeled jerrycans that they get at their Starbucks. Then we have Americans mocking Europeans for taking weeks of paid leave during peak summer - sorry, are you jealous? I didn't realise Americans love working that much.
And last, but not least, I will note the joke on badly made European cars: last I recall, things are actually the other way around. It's the American cars that are badly made, and it's the European cars that everyone covets. BMW? Porsche? Ferrari, anyone? I never heard anyone outside the USA say something like "oh, how I want that Oldsmobile".
I guess this running theme says something about how Americans see themselves and how they see the world. The problem is that neither of the two are particularly encouraging.
Overall: A fine-fun effort, which I probably enjoyed more than the 3 crabs out of 5 I'm giving it.