A new film from entertainer illusionists Penn (who produces) and Teller (who directs) deals with a kind of magic that is, itself, oddly entertaining. Tim’s Vermeer (B+) is likely the finest movie ever made about watching paint dry. It chronicles the five-year period when Tim Jenison, an inventor friend of the Vegas magicians who also pioneered computer video software, tried to paint a replication of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison, who serves as an executive producer on the film about his ambitious art experiment, had never painted before the undertaking. His process is mad and amusing, showcased in a documentary as effortlessly watchable as Jenison’s efforts were trying and painful.
Johannes Vermeer is widely considered one of history’s preeminent painters, despite having no record of artistic training. For centuries, art historians have wondered how the 17th-century Dutchman could capture the light and colour of the world in his oil paintings. His works reflected life with startling accuracy. Unlike other Renaissance artists, there are no lines for practice underneath the final sheen. Vermeer’s works have reflections of light that the camera can pick up, but the human retina could not, which led scholars to conclude that he must have used a camera obscura. (The camera obscura is something art and film students will recognize: it projected an image onto a blank surface and was a precursor for the camera.)
Jenison tries his steady hand at replicating The Music Lesson using the same device, as a way to explore this art history debate. He vows to use the materials as if he were Vermeer, even going so far as to build a room in his San Antonio warehouse that is the mirror image of that artwork – a process that takes seven months of careful construction. Jenison even melts and polishes glass to make the lens for the camera obscura, and grinds and mixes pigment to make oil paint for his easel.
He paints The Music Lesson the way the camera sees it, hoping to answer one of the art world’s most provocative questions. Art historians have criticized this optical method technique as “cheating art,” even if the process of copying the image from the camera obscura is painstaking. Jenison explains, “It is not cheating because it is hard.” Jenison may seem like a strange choice to explore the allied aims of art and technology; however, he won an Emmy for his work with CG visual effects and 3D graphics. Therefore, he is the perfect workhorse for this exquisite experiment.
Jenison looks like Orson Welles when the famed director was aging, except he is nowhere as bloated. He also boasts that filmmaker’s perfectionism, although unlike Welles, he speaks at a volume close to a whisper. Like Penn and Teller’s act, Tim’s Vermeer is marvelous and sometimes funny. Jenison and his two bawdier directors explain this tricky process and the provocative story behind his goal with clarity and ease. There is also amusing juxtaposition watching Jenison move closer to his artistic aims as his goodwill descends to unbearable sourness. That is what meticulous artistry – or is it craftsmanship, as theorists have argued – will do to you. Simply, it is magic.
When Muppet fans Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin collaborated on the 2011 reboot, it was meant to be a fuzzy trip down memory lane with the funny, felt creations from Jim Henson’s workshop. That film was more successful as carefully curated nostalgia, playing the music and lighting the lights to present the moments that fans of The Muppets had craved to see on the big screen once again. However, the zany shtick, as clever and charming as it was in that film, was too infrequent. The Muppets was more interested in spending time with the human characters than the felt-made ones.
Two-and-a-half years later, Muppets Most Wanted (B-) is not much of an improvement, although Bobin and co-writer Stoller capture the loose, frantic silliness that can charm kids and kids-at-heart with more confidence. The plot may be more derivative and the jokes over-reliant on pop culture references (and random cameos from a barrage of B-list celebrities – did we really need Celine Dion and Josh Groban?), but there is enough finesse to the fun to refrain from complaints by balcony curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf.
The film begins mere seconds from the end of the 2011 feature, with Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire), Missy Piggy (Eric Jacobson) and the gang still celebrating on Hollywood Boulevard. However, the cameras are still rolling and the Muppets soon realize that they are doing a sequel; therefore, in the film’s first (and finest) meta-textual joke, they sing about the kind of sequel they want to make. With The Muppets owned by a Hollywood property (Disney) eager to earn bigger international grosses, Kermit and the gang head on a world tour with a new showcase of talents. Their tour manager, Dominic Badguy – pronounced “Bad-jee” and played by Ricky Gervais – tries to package the felt creatures into quick dollar-making machines (a curiously accurate criticism of show business). Gervais’ dry humour works surprisingly well as a foil to the Muppets’ zaniness.
However, the world’s most wanted frog, Constantine (Matt Vogel), escapes from a Russian gulag. A dead ringer for Kermit, although with a black mole above his lip, Constantine switches place with Kermit and banishes the frog M.C. to a Serbian prison. Despite a poor pronunciation of “Kermit” due to his Eastern European dialect, the criminal mastermind takes control over the revamped Muppet Show. With second-in-command Badguy at his side, Constantine uses the tour as a cover to swipe artwork from museums next to the theatres.
Muppets Most Wanted is endearing and energetic for its nearly two-hour running time, even if the songs – courtesy of Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” two years ago – are not as sunny or sharp. Gervais, alongside stars Ty Burrell (as a clueless Interpol investigator with a wet Clouseau accent) and Tina Fey (a nice, if not menacing presence as the Gulag’s top guard), add a goofy sense of joy to the proceedings. Unlike the last film and to our benefit, the actors do not upstage the Muppets. The humans are the faithful supporting parts, but the majority of the laughs come from Kermit and company.
Like The Muppets, the sequel is still focused on garnering the most laughs from winking at the audience through self-referential humour than from the loopy physicality and verbal candor we expect from Kermit and company. The cultural references are a hoot – moving from Ingmar Bergman to The Silence of the Lambs, with a clever homage to the mirror scene from Duck Soup to boot – but also so frequent that it begrudges one to think that the basis for so much of this film’s humour is parodies of other movies.
Muppets Most Wanted is funnier and filled with faster, more madcap shenanigans, although it is not as fuzzy as its predecessor. Meanwhile, it does flip one of the predictions from the tongue-in-cheek song at the start about making a sequel: that the second is never as good as the first. This time, it is right on par.
Two more of my reviews are now up on entertainment news outlet We Got This Covered. Need for Speed (C-) is a derivative and preposterous racing thriller – a shame given a good performance from star Aaron Paul and Scott Waugh’s smart action direction. Meanwhile, fans of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy should seek out Roger Michell’s Paris-set drama Le Week-End (B+), starring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as an elderly couple sojourning to Paris to rekindle their marriage. You can check out those reviews here and here.