“Muppets Most Wanted”: The frog who knew too much

Film Review Muppets Most Wanted

“Muppets Most Wanted” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. PG, 1:52, three stars out of four.

Any movie that starts off with a musical number that parodies both Busby Berkeley and “The Seventh Seal” is getting off on the right foot. And, from that high-energy opening song, which ironically is about how sequels never live up to the original, “Muppets Most Wanted” is a lot of fun for both kids and their parents.

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Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “Rat Pack Rat”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale March 8, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

Rat Pack Rat: Todd Rohal Selects” (Monday, April 7, 6:15 p.m, Sundance Cinemas)

There are over 140 films in this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, but I can’t imagine more than a handful are stranger than Todd Rohal’s darkly funny short film “Rat Pack Rat,”  which takes the symbiotic relationship between a celebrity and his audience to grotesque extremes.

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“Stranger by the Lake”: Where the bodies are naked and the motives concealed

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“Stranger By the Lake” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, (contains explicit sexual content), 1:37, three and a half stars out of four.

“I’m not sure it’s allowed here.” “It’s not allowed anywhere.”

The sliver of  beach in rural France is an idyll for gay men, both closeted and open. They come, remove their clothes, stretch out in the sand, or go for a swim. Little is said on the beach. But, eventually, most of them go up into the woods for a stroll, and find each other there.

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Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “Actress”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale March 8, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

Actress” (Thursday, April 3, 6:30 p.m., UW Elvehjem, and 2:15 p.m. Friday, April 4, Sundance Cinemas)

Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section had a great story on the new wave of documentaries than eschew the notion that documentary filmmakers have to be cinematic Joe Fridays, sticking to “just the facts ma’am.” Such films find innovative ways to tell stories and to play along the border between fact and fiction, since deeper personal truths often reside in that gray area.

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Blu-ray review: “A Brief History of Time: The Criterion Collection”

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In the 1980s, there was one nonfiction book that seemingly could be found on every bookshelf, mixed in with the Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy novels, and that was Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” Hawking’s theories of the origins of the universe and of black holes, combined with his personal story of being confined to a wheelchair, communicating one letter at a time through an electric clicker, were compelling stuff, even if most of it went way over the average Stephen King reader’s head.

They did not seem like compelling material for a movie, but UW grad Errol Morris, fresh off the success of “A Thin Blue Line,” threw himself into the project. The resulting film, 1991’s “A Brief History of Time,” is very much a Morris film rather than a Hawking film, which may be part of the reason it’s been unseen for so many years. But, as Morris told the Dissolve, he finally was able to buy back the rights to the film a few years ago, and went to Criterion with the hopes of finally getting it a proper release.

Morris recoiled at the idea of making a cinematic physics lecture — which was what Hawking wanted — instead wanting to make a film that combined science and biography, that drew poetic connections between the concept of far-flung black holes emitting radiation, and the sight of Hawking, his only connection with the wider world through that little clicker, one letter at a  time.

The film includes plenty of the playful visual touches that Morris has become known for in his documentaries, such as a cameo by a live chicken and footage from the 1979 Disney film “The Black Hole.” Also, if there seems something a little off about the talking-heads interviews with Morris’ family and colleagues, it’s because Morris built artificial sets that resembled research labs and drawing rooms for them to sit in, rather than interviewing them in their own drawing rooms and offices. Even Hawking is filmed on a soundstage that closely resembles his own office, right down to the Marilyn Monroe posters on the wall. (Morris has a great story on the 30-minute interview included with the Criterion disc in which he asked Hawking about his Marilyn fixation.)

Morris has never been interested in the idea of documentary film as “truth,” and seems to flaunt the untruthiness of things like stage sets and random chickens. But that’s all in service of getting to another truth that a conventional documentary (one that so easily could have been made of Hawking) might have missed.

Morris said Hawking fought him on including elements of his personal life in the film, and in fact Hawking was going through a messy divorce at the time, making Morris’ job even harder. Hawking wanted a movie about the science, but Morris, who called the book a “work of literature,” always insisted “that’s not the book you wrote.” The resulting film does work as a primer on Hawking’s theories, but also works even better as a glimpse inside the man who dreamed them up.

Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “The Dance of Reality”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale March 8, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

The Dance of Reality” (Wednesday, April 9, 6 p.m, Sundance Cinemas)

“If you are great, then ‘Il Topo’ is great. If you are limited, then ‘Il Topo’ is limited.”

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Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “The Rocket”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale March 8, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

Today, my friend Sean Weitner (@sweaternnine) weighs in on the crowd-pleasing foreign film “The Rocket” (3:30 p.m. Saturday, Union South Marquee, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sundance Cinemas):

It’s little wonder that “The Rocket” has won the audience award at multiple festivals, because it’s struck fresh from the “festival award winner” template. Plucky young Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is ousted from his indigenous village by Progress, deposited with his family in a truly impoverished shantytown, befriended by outcasts including a dancing machine dubbed James Brown (Thep Phongam), and forced to compete in a local rocket-building festival in order to win the cash prize that will stop his family’s downward mobility slide.

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Instant Gratification: “Gattaca” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

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Pick of the week: “Gattaca — Every time Andrew Niccol makes another movie, I hope that he’s made another film worthy of his 1997 sci-fi classic, set in a modern society where your life is predetermined by your genetics. It’s a great combination of style, ideas and action — a formula Niccol has never been able to replicate (“In Time”?)

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Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “The Amazing Catfish”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale last Saturday, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

The Amazing Catfish” (Friday, April 4, 2:30 p.m., UW-Elvehjem)

During the first scene of “The Amazing Catfish,” where we see a young woman carefully separating the purple Froot Loops out from her cereal bowl, I feared that “The Amazing Catfish” would be an unbearable quirkfest. Instead, first-time director Claudia Saint-Luce has made a highly bearable quirkfest, a gently moving and funny tale of strangers connecting in the face of tragedy.

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22 sellouts so far at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival

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I’ll update this list of sold-out films at the Wisconsin Film Festival every few days or so. Remember that “sold out” means advance tickets are gone, but some rush tickets will likely be available at the venue on the day of the show. Visit wifilmfest.org for tickets and more information.

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