* * * *
Cert U, 109 mins
There have been nine Muppet films, some more memorable than others. Muppets From Space, anyone?
But this is the best of the lot. Coming six years after their disappointing TV take on the Wizard of Oz, and 14 years after their last full TV series, it’s a great opportunity to wallow in nostalgia as the clever puppets are back on form.
The plot surrounds Walter, a Muppet who grows up in a human family – this is completely normal – with Gary (Jason Segal) as his brother.
They are huge fans of the Muppet Show, so when Gary takes him on holiday to LA, along with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), the Muppet studios is their first port of call.
They are sad to see it looking so dilapidated. Then Walter overhears a dastardly plan by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the studios and drill for oil.
They find Kermit, who says the only way to raise the $10 million needed to save the studio is to reunite the Muppets and put on a fund-raising TV show.
The Muppets haven’t seen each other for years and are scattered far and wide. Fozzie is in Reno, singing in tribute band The Moopets. Gonzo is a plumbing magnate while Animal is having anger management therapy with Jack Black.
Miss Piggy is a fashion editor in Paris, with Emily Blunt as her assistant in a witty reference to The Devil Wears Prada.
In fact, the best thing about The Muppets is how slyly self-knowing it is, with the characters mentioning the budget and how they have to have a montage.
There are some amusing song and dance numbers – Am I A Man or a Muppet? is clever, as are chickens clucking along to Cee Lo Green’s Forget You – and Walter is adorable. You’ll laugh out loud, a lot.
Look out for some surprise celebrity cameos like Whoopi Goldberg.
Some of the voices of the Muppets don’t sound quite right, as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal are no longer provided by the legendary Frank Oz.
I also wonder whether kids will enjoy this film quite as much as their parents. They’ll probably have more fun with the brilliant Toy Story short which precedes it.
But The Muppets is still highly entertaining fun for all the family. RL
THE WOMAN IN BLACK
* * * *
Cert 12A, 95 mins
Daniel Radcliffe has been determined to shake off the shackles of playing schoolboys since his voice broke and he was old enough to start wielding a razor with any kind of meaningful intent.
By 17 he had already grown a moustache for My Boy Jack and stripped off nightly on stage for Equus.
But in The Woman in Black he outdoes himself. As young solicitor Arthur Kipps, he has met, married and buried the love of his life, fathered a child and established a career, albeit a failing one, before the start of the film.
Hollowed out by loss and haunted by the bloody death in childbirth of his wife, he is failing to hide his despair from his child, who draws pictures of him as a frowny-faced stick man, or his employers, who pack him off to sort out the affairs of a deceased client as a last chance to hang onto his job.
The sinister tone of Women in Black had already been set by the opening credits, when a children’s tea party ends in a moment of inexplicable horror.
The mood does not lighten from there, with Arthur arriving in a rain-lashed and isolated Yorkshire village to looks of suspicion from the locals and entreaties to board the next train back to London.
Only progressive landowner Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) seems willing to help Arthur as an exercise in paper shuffling evolves into a chilling quest to uncover the mystery behind the curse striking every family in the village, and the identity of the funereal figure he keeps catching glimpses of.
This is the fourth film release of the newly-revived Hammer productions and it has the feel of the brand’s earlier work, relying on a pervasive sense of foreboding and the short, sharp shock of seeing something frightful, rather than rivers of blood and gore and the excesses of the special effects department.
Director James Watkins, who dabbled effectively in a more contemporary menace in Eden Lake, unsettles his audience with every trick bar sitting behind them in the cinema and going “BOO”, marooning the lawyer in a crumbling house cut off by time and tide, filling it with a collection of wind-up dolls and animals bought from the Victorian branch of Toys ‘R’ Scary and gradually plunging corridors into darkness as something wicked comes Arthur’s way.
Daniel has chosen wisely for his first post-Potter screen project. Not the most natural of actors, he manages to harness his nervous energy in preference for looking haunted and horror struck.
Ciarán, who appeared with him in the final film in the franchise, is a rock of support not only to him but also to Janet McTeer as Sam’s grief-maddened wife, who stops short of actually chewing the scenery in favour of gouging at it with the silverware.
Fans of the book and the play may question some of the changes that scriptwriter Jane Goldman has made, including to the ending. But the author, Susan Hill, has pronounced herself content with it and those who come fresh to The Woman in Black are likely to find themselves agreeably unnerved by the end. AJ
JACK AND JILL
Cert PG, 91 mins
The last time Al Pacino had a major release was in 2008, when starring in the execrable Righteous Kill alongside Robert De Niro saw them both trounced at the global box office by Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.
Since then, the Sandlerman has notched up another $300 million worth of ‘hits’ with Bedtime Stories, Funny People, Grown Ups and Just Go With It, while the Godfather star has been off the radar.
Clearly, Pacino thought ‘if you can’t beat him, join him’, judging by his willingness to appear in a movie with two Adam Sandlers – one in trousers, the other in a loud frock.
All right, so all pension pots have been hit recently and, yes, the cost of celebrity dentistry and barnet beautification must be sky high.
But surely 71-year-old Pacino didn’t need to stoop this low in search of a few dollars more.
It’s not that he doesn’t try to put in a shift as Himself – he’s actually better here than in some of his other movies – but when all around you are losing their heads, where’s the fun?
No wonder Pacino is all set for a silver screen version of King Lear in 2012... he’s already been training for the madness.
Although Jack and Jill has been rated PG, it features an unpleasant ‘broken bottle for someone’s face’ routine and a wholly predictable, not-so-royal flush of toilet gags (perhaps because leading man Sandler has the initials A.R.S.).
Having just had a stand-up row with his loudmouthed sister Jill (also Sandler), advertising executive Jack takes his anger out on an innocent third party, like so many cowardly yobs do today, by throwing popcorn over a cinemagoer sitting in front of him.
Jack and Jill has odd little moments which suggest that all concerned could be making something much more worthwhile.
And, to their credit, both Sandler and his eight-times filmmaking partner Dennis Dugan are bright enough to know that a) 90 minutes of this nonsense is more than enough and b) you don’t require fat suits and time-expensive make-up a la Big Momma / Nutty Professor to deliver a bog-standard film at this level.
All you really need is a fan-base guarantee of easily-pleased punters. GY
* * *
Cert 12A, 83 mins
Three high schoolers go down a hole in the ground and re-emerge with superpowers. And, as is so often the case with superhero stories, with power comes responsibility.
Cue a quick, Gremlins-style introduction of three self-styled rules to abide by and Steve (Michael B Jordan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Andrew (Dane DeHaan) are on their own as they try to cope with who they’ve become.
More worthy of a borderline 15-certicate than a 12A, it’s easy to see why this film has attracted a following given its topical themes.
There’s people filming themselves a la Paranormal Activity etc; others being hit with little justification (Goon / Real Steal) and inventive special effects which, like anything made by Gerry Anderson, are appropriate for director Josh Trank’s budget.
Like Polanski’s Carnage, which has weighed in at just 79 minutes, the 83-minute running time here could help to herald a new age of short, sharp movies.
With far too many uses of the word ‘hey’ in the script, some of the ‘dialogue’ is tediously repetitive in the extreme, but the teenage target audience will probably just see it as normal behaviour.
And this might well be their movie of the month. GY
* * * *
Cert 15, 96 mins
Singapore’s (failed) submission for one of 2012’s best foreign film Oscar nominations, this Japanese language manga film is a stunning tribute to the skills, life and short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
Now 76, the photographer and artist pioneered a ‘gekiga’ style of manga, which took the art of drawing stories in a distinctly non-Disney direction. The storyboard stillness of the pre-credits drawings is worth the admission alone.
And the main feature begins with such a tremendous sense of purpose that perhaps it’s the strength of its post-Hiroshima / American guilt reflection which cost the film its chance of being shortlisted for a tilt at the Oscar.
Based on an autobiography of more than 800 pages, inter-cut with a mixture of reputations and facts through five post-war Japanese stories, Tatsumi has too many diverse stories for its own good.
The sexual content regrettably lifts it above the kind of 12A certificate which might have ensured the rest of the film could have been instructive for young teenagers with an appetite for darker adult themes.
One of Tatsumi’s starkest messages is that ‘the more people flock together, the less united we are, the more alienated we become’.
Much better to learn lessons like that in school from director Eric Khoo than to embark on the wrong career through ignorance and/or laziness.
More universally still, as even Apple chief Steve Jobs recently discovered, is the cruel message that: ‘Time waits for no man. It doesn’t matter if you are a genius or an ordinary soul’.
Showing at the Warwick Arts Centre on Wednesday and Thursday, February 15-16. GY