Muppets Take Siberia

Two Kermits and a bunch of cool cameos make for two-thirds of a good movie

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

muppet

Muppets Most Wanted
Galaxy, Southland
3 out of 5

Muppets movies have often been a dicey proposition. Before Jason Segel and Disney rescued Jim Henson’s celebrated creatures from oblivion, the Muppets had several duds to account for.

Why? Because for a Muppet film to work, it’s got to combine comedy and sentimentality to perfection — a pretty tough task considering the stars are puppets, and good chunks of the plot are delivered through elaborate musical numbers. There’s only one time it really worked: the delightful Muppets Take Manhattan. (“Together Again”, “Saying Goodbye”, “You Can’t Take No for an Answer”, all in the same movie!)

In Muppets Most Wanted, an attempt to force emotion in an otherwise strong comedic outing almost ruins the fun, which is laid out in spades during the first two thirds of the film. Perhaps not coincidentally, the movie goes downhill the moment Walter (the newest Muppet) begins to drive the plot.

The sequel opens just seconds after the massive musical number that concluded the previous film. The Muppets are back: but now what? A shady artistic impresario (Ricky Gervais) claims to have the answer — a tour around Europe. But the Muppets’ new manager is actually an accomplice of Constantine, Europe’s most dangerous criminal. Constantine has just escaped from a gulag in Siberia, and plans to steal Britain’s crown jewels. Conveniently, the felon looks just like Kermit, except with a prominent mole on the corner of his mouth.

It doesn’t take long for the bad guys to alienate Kermit from his fickle friends. The frog lands in Siberia in place of Constantine (Tina Fey is the head guard), while the jewel thief finds himself on centre stage — and about to get hitched to Miss Piggy.

At least the setup of Muppets Most Wanted is a home run. The tightly-wound Ricky Gervais is the perfect foil for the anarchic group, and Constantine is a brilliant creation — a tactless baddy with a knack for manipulation. (His Ricky Martin-like wooing of Miss Piggy is the movie’s highlight.) The cameos are also on point: there’s an off-handed brilliance in casting Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta as hardened gulag prisoners and then subverting expectations. If last time the special guest stars were few (and not that special), Muppets Most Wanted is full of award-winners and A-listers.

But the rollicking fun comes to an abrupt end an hour into the movie, when Kermit realizes his friends have been deceived quite easily by Constantine and nobody is looking for him. The only one not to fall for it? Walter, the Muppet who was shoehorned into the troupe three years ago. The problem with Walter is that he’s like another Kermit minus the charm, stealing time from more entertaining characters like Rowlf.

But Walter is only part of the problem: the ending is a mess — even by Muppets standards — and resentful Kermit isn’t near as fun as happy Kermit. The regulatory “big gloom” (when everything seems to go wrong) isn’t earned, and it mostly feels like just an excuse to get Celine Dion to do a love song.

Titanic, this ain’t.

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Tim’s Vermeer
April 10-13, RPL Film Theatre
3 out of 5

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was an outlier. In an era in which Baroque Art was king, Vermeer’s work was closer to photo-realism than to the exuberance that characterized the period.

As an artist, Vermeer wasn’t particularly prolific: Only 34 paintings have been attributed to him. Although it has never been proved, there is enough evidence to indicate his technique was unconventional, perhaps mechanical.

Software and hardware inventor Tim Jamison set up to prove the theory that Vermeer used lenses and mirrors to recreate an image over the canvas. With that goal, Jamison built his own camera obscura and staged the painting “The Music Lesson” in his own garage. Jamison used only technology that existed in the 17th century to reverse-engineer Vermeer’s process.

Magicians Penn and Teller step outside their zone of comfort to follow Jamison’s obsession until its completion. It doesn’t hurt the subject is amiable.

Interestingly, the strongest scene has little to do with Jamison’s efforts, but his emotional reaction when he’s allowed to study “The Music Lesson” (part of Buckingham Palace’s private collection) for half an hour.

The topic is very specific and unless the audience has artistic inclinations, it may feel like watching paint dry (at 90  minutes, it’s a bit of a stretch). Nonetheless, Tim’s Vermeer offers quality lessons in how to observe a painting to get the most of it. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

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Oculus
Opens April 11
3 out of 5

Oculus is the rare horror film set to reach theatres based on its own merits. Snatched for distribution during the latest Toronto Film Festival, the flick features no stars (Katee Sackhoff is the closest to one, and she is so 2006), a complex narrative and little regard for the conventions of the genre.

But Oculus is not one of those cheapo found-footage movies: This is a pristine, full fledged enterprise with some powerful visuals.

Granted, the premise is not terribly original: As young boy, Tim is sent to a mental hospital following the violent deaths of his parents. The kid swears it wasn’t his fault, and blames a possessed old mirror for the murders. Ten years later, Tim is set free and all he wants to do is forget it ever happened. Not so his OCD sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who’s Amy Pond), who wants to clear up the family name. Tim and Kaylie reenact the events from a decade ago —mirror included — in an evening of flashbacks, mind tricks and, yes, a truly dastardly antique.

Oculus’ main achievement is muddying the lines between past and present, illusion and reality. Just as the protagonists, the audience becomes submerged in the nightmare without losing grip on the narrative. The young actors are likeable enough, but Katee Sakhoff and Rory Cochrane (CSI: Miami) are the ones who carry the bulk of the movie as the unraveling parents.

The mirror gimmick pays off consistently, not a small feat since it’s a fiction staple since Through the Looking Glass. While the outcome is relatively cold, the ambition alone places Oculus above average. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2014-04-03