10 Things More Worthy of Your Attention Than Monty the Fucking Penguin

Christmas, so they say, comes earlier every year. In the past, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year's chief harbinger was big fat Santa, chugging a bottle of Coca Cola, riding in lightbulbs and CGI on the side of a van, heralding the festive year with a mouthful of fizzy sugar and rotted teeth. Cola's Santa may be mildly annoying and has forever tainted our jolly green English Father Christmas, but at least his adverts only last about sixty seconds and never aspired to, you know, real cinema. 

Recently, however, the rules have changed. The past few years have seen the rise of the John Lewis Christmas advert and its imitators - all cloying children and covers of The Smiths, a bunny and a bear, and, as of 2014, Monty the Fucking Penguin. Cutesy, heart string-tugging affairs with actual stories, carefully chosen music (this year being a cover of a John Lennon song) and cuddly central characters that make softies like you and I go 'aww, look at that penguin!' Who doesn't like penguins?  

Unrelated photo.

And so, in a matter of years, the John Lewis Christmas advert has become event television. Like Doctor Who, except earlier. This year has seen TV continuity announcers actually promote the advert as though it's, you know, real cinema. Tears are shed, hearts have been melted and Monty the Fucking Penguin is a bona fide Christmas icon. Harmless, eh?

Well, no, actually. Adverts are not cinema, and if we continue to treat them as such, we're likely to end up living in a dystopian future in which the John Lewis advert of 2020 wins that year's Oscar for Best Story. Best acting? Why, that'd be Sainsbury's, of course. Not one to be left out, the supermarket has produced their own masterpiece; an epic war story about Christmas Eve in the trenches. Granted, they are using their cutesy little chocolate bars to raise money for charity, but you're highly encouraged to buy a ready-cooked chicken or some mince pies while you're there. These massive corporations have told us that their telly adverts are part of the Christmas Experience - that the latest adverts are big, unmissable events - and we've bought it, just like we buy their expensive baubles and bland foodstuffs. 

You can't criticise any of it though; because that automatically makes you a Scrooge cunt or an emotionless Spock; because the penguin is cute; because most mainstream movie releases these days are such facile bullshit that TV adverts actually seem like a valid alternative anyway; because most mainstream movie releases these days are also manufactured and put together like the product they are; because if you dare criticise Our Boys or the military then you're probably an Al Qaeda lefty cunt; because shut up, stop taking it so seriously and get your Christmas shopping done, dummy.

With that in mind, a list! Ten alternatives to the John Lewis and Sainsbury's adverts. Not all are guaranteed to make you cry, but at least you won't be contributing to the downfall of our society's collective intelligence and cultural integrity by blubbing over a TV advert cooked up around a table in a John Lewis/Sainsbury's boardroom.

To penguins and dead soldiers!

10. Mr. Popper's Penguins

I know, I know. Any argument which opens with the gambit 'watch Mr. Popper's Penguins' is doomed from the start. Only slightly less manufactured and cynical than a television advert, but at least it has Jim Carrey in it, plus penguins - I would assume. I have never actually seen Mr. Popper's Penguins and (spoiler) probably never will. But I'll be not watching it with less passion than I will be in my not shopping in John Lewis' or not praising Sainsbury's for caring so much about soldiers. Carrey's buffoonery may not be held in such high regard as it once was, but this is the man who brought us The Mask, Ace Ventura and Batman Forever (shut up, I like it). What have John Lewis ever done for you? Sold you some overpriced cutlery, that one time? 

9. March of the Penguins

Morgan Freeman. Penguins. Not trying to sell its audience anything but an abiding love of penguins and really cold climes. It may have daftly attached human properties to its subjects, but at least you won't walk away with the curious urge to buy an overly expensive cocktail mixer afterwards.

8. Forrest Gump 

The first of two Tom Hanks movies on this list. Now, I am not a fan of Tom Hanks movies in general - or much of Forrest Gump - but if you're talking war films that make me sad (Come and See doesn't count, as I will curl up into a ball and start crying if I so much as think about that movie), then you don't get much better than the saga of Lieutenant Dan. It's a performance which makes Tom Hanks' oblivious dipshittery seem sort of charming and leaves the viewer feeling for the plight of the armed forces without feeling obligated to go out and buy a cynically-flavoured chocolate bar afterwards.

7. A Will Smith Movie

Some of the best plotted adverts ever made. I walked out of I, Robot, straight into Schuh and bought a pair of Converse. If I gave a fuck about cars, I'd probably drive an Audi. Nobody makes adverts like Will Smith. Except Will Smith is too big a star to make lowly adverts, so Hollywood has to spend a fortune on CGI and co-stars (except Martin Lawrence, who will probably turn up for a hot meal and copy of Reader's Wives), just so as to get Big Will flogging Converse, Audis and robots. Even better, some of it is even capable of achieving real emotion - just ask anyone who ever watched the fucking traumatic I Am Legend dog scene.

6. Pingu

The only penguin worth giving a shit about. Monty? Little bastard will spend the whole night whispering sweet John Lewis nothings in your ear, snidely convincing your subconscious that you really, really want a toaster. Pingu, on the other hand, makes a great drinking buddy (although you may want to put some newspaper down) and his honk is bloody adorable.

5. Saving Private Ryan

Poor Steven Spielberg; all that time, money and talent spent putting together one of the biggest war movies ever made, only for a four minute television advert by a bread salesman to come along and steal all of the sniffles. I realise that not everyone has 169 minutes per advert break to sit and watch a gritty, hard-going Tom Hanks movie, but if you've given Sainsbury's propaganda the time of day, you owe it to yourself - nay, to Steven Spielberg - to watch this at least once. It won't earn you any Nectar points though, sorry.

4. Happy Feet

There's a reason John Lewis have gone for a cover of John Lennon's other song about love - the anti-consumerist streak of 'All You Need is Love' doesn't exactly go hand in hand with shopping at Classy Primark. If you really must get your fix of musical penguins, then Happy Feet is the way forward. Worth it for Brittany Murphy covering Queen's 'Somebody to Love', you'll come for the cute penguins but stay for the soundtrack. Crucially, you won't find yourself accidentally dancing first foot forward into a giant department store either. There is a sequel, but it's not as good. Still better than a fucking television advert though.  

3. Blackadder Goes Forth: You know the episode...

The fourth series of the BBC's Blackadder (goes forth, geddit) transcended its sitcom format with what might be the most heart-breaking final episode of a TV programme of all time, ever. There are no jokes to the episode's final moments, and none here either - Blackadder Goes Forth is television's finest tribute to the fallen of WWI. The Sainsbury's advert is a Sainsbury's advert.

2. Batman Returns

Phew. And now, on a lighter note, back to the penguins. As televison-watchers everywhere rediscover a love of penguins through John Lewis commercials and FOX's Gotham, I'd like to (re)submit cinema's finest ever Penguin for your consideration. Even better - Batman Returns is a Christmas film too. So you've no excuse. Unless, of course, your excuse is 'I prefer TV adverts to classic movies.' In which case [insert Futurama 'I don't want to live on this planet anymore' meme here]

1. The Skittles Advert

Because if you're going to fawn mindlessly over an advert, it might as well be The Greatest Television Advert of All Time (yeah, I went there, pretentious Guinness surf horses). Whatever you want from your television adverts, this piece of Skittles cinema provides in spades. It's the tale of King Midas updated for our modern generation, but with even more pathos. Even better, a packet of Skittles only costs about 60p, whereas buying into that cynical John Lewis bullshit will literally cost you your soul.

I am not, nor ever have been employed by Skittles. Honest. I do work for Starburst though.

Cheap Thrills

Director: EL Katz (2013)
Starring: Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Ethan Embry
Find it: IMDB

Essentially, the movie adaptation of that stupid game you and your dipshit buddies used to play where you'd stand around asking each other questions like "how much would somebody have to pay you to chop off a finger?" and other such deep, existential dilemmas. This film is what happens when you throw Champ Kind from off've Anchorman and a serious amount of money into the mix.

In Cheap Thrills, down-on-his-luck dad Craig (Healy) hits a gloomy dive bar in order to drown his sorrows. There he runs into old friend Vince (Embry - looking a lot like Tom Hardy) and heavy drinking commences. There they encounter rich couple Colin (Koechner) and Violet (Paxton), out celebrating the latter's birthday. As you might expect from a drinking session with a man who resembles The Rich Texan from The Simpsons, a quiet night in the pub is not on the cards.

I had heard good things of Cheap Thrills, but still I approached with caution. After suffering through umpteen-or-so movies called Truth or Dare (or some variation thereof), I must admit to fatigue when it comes to films about people being forced to sit around mutilating themselves each other for some weird bastard's sadistic pleasure. Thankfully, Cheap Thrills is not that movie. Make no mistake, people do sit around mutilating themselves and each other for another's sadistic pleasure, but the story is infused with much more wit and energy than you'd get from any film called, say, Truth or Dare. 

Perfectly cast, frequently hilarious and even more frequently nasty, it delights in subverting expectations at every turn. To go into too much detail would be to spoil the fun - the highlights of which involves a dog, trying to take a shit and a crucial photo of David Koechner on the mantelpiece. Best of all, nobody is 'forced' to do anything. I had expected a scene in which Champ Kind pulls a gun and tells our heroes that "no-one can leave. Now cut off a testicle" - but it never comes. A lesser film would have the action descend into a nonsensical gorefest, but Cheap Thrills does a great job of handling its own logic and 'rules'. It's consistent, which is underrated, in this day and age.

A barnstorming bruiser of a movie, Cheap Thrills is tremendous fun. To employ the laziest of movie reviewing cliches, it's a film that does exactly what it says on the tin.    

Magic Magic

Director: Sebastian Silva (2013)
Starring: Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Emily Browning
Find it: IMDB

Mumblecore turtleneck hipster icon Michael Cera stars in this psychological horror film, driving poor Juno Temple around the twist over the course of what will surely turn out to be the worst holiday of her life. Visiting her cousin in Chile, the nervous young Alicia (Temple) is abandoned among a group of people she barely knows in a claustrophobic, remote country house.

Not-so-gradually, the already bewildered Alicia begins to lose her mind, bullied by the aloof Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and harassed by sleazy, weird Brink (Cera). Add to that a terrible bout of insomnia, definite mental health issues and chronic moodiness, and we're left with the most uncomfortable holiday since that one time I was trapped on a fucking houseboat with a cretin who identified himself as a standup comedian. Temple does a good job with a thankless role, but it's Cera who will win the lion's share of the applause. And rightly so; he's magnificently malicious in it, like a more drawn-out version of his role in This is the End.

Everything else is so purposefully odd that it almost hurts. This is horror for the mumblecore crowd - a darker version of Youth in Revolt. Sadly, Cera didn't bring the moustache back for this one, although he does rock a series of great jumpers. Browning is less effective as cousin Sarah, surrounded by terrible people and having little to do but look tired and react resignedly to her friends' shitty behaviour. Augustin Silva is cool as the only guy in the group who's not an unbearable arsehole, but that just makes his decision to hang around people who are seem all the more conspicuous.

Not being the sort of horror movie with ghosts or chainsaws or even horror, Magic Magic jumps to a Kill List change of pace in the third act, but it's no game changer. Those who hate the film will likely hate it even more, while those who were enjoying it will support its arty dive into nonsense.

Magic Magic is a convincing portrayal of a girl suffering a mental breakdown while surounded by shitheads and Michael Cera. It's grim and dirty in all the right ways and has a great villain in Michael Cera (as far as anyone can be anything in this sort of thing) but remains about as enjoyable as holidaying with a gang of bickering hipster numpties could ever be.

Which is to say, 'not very'.


Director: Riley Stearns (2014)
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick
Find it: IMDB

A more serious version of that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer joins a cult and has to be de-programmed by Marge and Reverend Lovejoy. Well, slightly more serious anyway. Starring the always awesome Mary Elizabeth Winstead and That Guy actor Leland Orser, Faults is actually very funny also.

Their daughter apparently brainwashed by a mysterious cult named 'Faults', a pair of worried parents enlist disgraced cult expert and de-programmer Ansel (Orser) to help the girl see sense. Grabbed from the street, tied up and thrown in the back of a van, Claire (Winstead) is smuggled away to a quiet motel room where Ansel plans to spend the next few days undoing Faults' influence. We're soon left wondering, however, just who is in charge around here. Hint: probably not Ansel.

Faultlessly (geddit) acted, well-written and enjoyably surreal in places, Stearns' directorial debut is a fine piece of darkly humorous food for thought. Its work with Ansel is particularly impressive; a character who starts off reprehensible and pathetic before transforming before us into a figure both sympathetic and oddly likeable. Very well done to Winstead too, giving a subtle and nuanced performance which manages to be believable both in vulnerability and later strength. Lance Reddick also appears periodically, serving to boost the cool quotient even more.

Playing at Film4 Frightfest, Faults was one of the festival's more interesting releases - not horror, nor even really a thriller, with minimal violence and gore, it nevertheless emerged as one of the weekend's best. Sure, it's a little slow and even mildly predictable in places, but we can forgive its minor faults (get it!) when everything else is so well done.