Friday 15 December 2017

no stuffing in magic muppets

THE MUPPETS Comedy. Starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones and the voices of Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson. Directed by James Bobin. Cert General

TWELVE years after they last appeared on a cinema screen, the decision to give the green light to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets seemed an odd one. Sure, film companies have been raiding unlikely sources for ideas for the past decade, but the Muppets' peak came with their iconic ITV show which ran from 1976 until 1981. Would nostalgia be enough to woo back original fans and could a new generation grasp the amiable anarchy of these puppet pranksters?

Well, less than 10 minutes after the curtain has gone up, all doubts about the viability of The Muppets has vanished. Perfectly set up by a wonderful Toy Story short, the opening brings us the daft scenario of Gary (Jason Segel) heading off to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and his puppet-mad brother Walter in tow. The trio leave Smalltown to the strains of a lavish, Oliver!-style song-and-dance number. If you're not grinning like an idiot by that stage then you deserve to spend eternity with Adam Sandler movies on a permanent loop.

The story is simple enough: the Muppet Theatre is decrepit and coveted by evil businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) for the oil which lies beneath, so Gary approaches Kermit to get the old gang back together to perform a show and save the venue. There are great gags aplenty as they reunite the members, what with Fozzie Bear stuck in Reno with a Muppets tribute act called the Moppets, drummer Animal in anger management therapy and Miss Piggy living in Paris as an editor for Vogue. It works a treat.

Great credit must go to Jason Segal, who co-wrote the screenplay, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper for the zest they bring to their parts and to Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords for great original songs, one of which, Man or Muppet?, is a classic showstopper. The Muppets stays just the right side of being too knowing and doesn't let itself become weighed down by too many celebrity cameos, leaving the Muppets themselves slap-bang in the centre of a joyous, marvellous movie. HHHHI

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Horror. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by James Watkins. Cert 12A

For his first post-Harry Potter role, Daniel Radcliffe has wisely chosen this adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 best-seller, which has subsequently become London's longest-running stage play since The Mousetrap. A good old-fashioned ghost story with a built-in audience recognition factor, The Woman in Black is a pretty safe bet and Radcliffe does a fine job in the central part.

Set in Edwardian England, he plays Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor and widowed father of a five-year-old son who's sent to a creepy village in the North-East to settle the estate of an eccentric widow whose young son perished in a tragic accident many years previously.

Director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman don't stint on tried and trusted haunted house tactics, making the most of suspicious villagers, creaking floorboards, close-ups of scary toys and hints of dark secrets from the past to create an atmosphere of creeping dread which culminates in a chilling climax. Recommended for a clammy-palmed night out. HHHII

A DANGEROUS METHOD Drama. Starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassell. Directed by David Cronenberg. Cert 15A

What in the name of God is Keira Knightley doing with her chin? For the first 20 minutes or so of A Dangerous Method it's difficult to concentrate on the basics of the story of the early days of psycho-analysis due to Ms K's jaw-jutting and eye-rolling as hysterical, sexually addled psychiatric patient Sabina Spielrein.

Eventually she calms down somewhat and we've a handsome-looking adaptation of a stageplay in which Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his sometime mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) have their friendship riven due to the former's love affair with Sabina.

This might initially seem a strange fit for Cronenberg, Canada's master of 'body horror', but the theme of medical pioneers falling out because of a woman isn't too far off his own Dead Ringers, albeit with much nicer scenery and an absence of 'instruments for operating on mutant women'.

The three leads are all very strong, with Fassbender in particular cementing his A-list status as the conflicted Jung. HHHII

THE VOW Romantic drama. Starring Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange. Directed by Michael Sucsy. Cert 12A)

THIS is a 'weepie of the week' effort. Here we have Rachel McAdams recovering from a car accident only to discover that she has no recollection of her husband (Channing Tatum).

Can he get her to love him all over again in the face of her parents' opposition? Have a guess. HHIII

BIG MIRACLE Drama Starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Ted Danson. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Cert General

The plight of three grey whales trapped under the ice in Alaska in 1988 provides the basis for this efficient kiddies' film, in which an unlikely coalition of Greenpeace, Inuit hunters, the world's media, Big Oil, the US government and the Soviet Union all came together for one big feelgood fest.

Undemanding if quite hectoring at times, particularly when Drew Barrymore's Greenpeace activist is allowed the opportunity to speak. Which is a lot. HHIII

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