The Happytime Murdered…well, Wounded

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A wonderful thing about the stage show Puppet Up! is that like all good improv shows, the lights go up, then good or bad, the sketch happens, and then the lights come down.

There is a window for the jokes to live or die, for the story to succeed or fail, for the characters to evolve or not.

And then the window closes, and we move on to the next sketch.

The Happytime Murders is what happens when that window refuses to close, or at least takes 91 minutes to close.

The plot is classic film noir. [NO SPOILERS]

The world is modern day Los Angeles, but it is now populated by humans and puppets, only the puppets are considered second-class citizen. The story centres on the exploits of Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), washed up cop and now puppet private eye, and a sudden killing spree that forces Phil to work with his old human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

Old wounds run deep. Pain and distrust drips from the walls.

And then there’s this dame with a body that literally just won’t quit.

Now, atop that film noir scaffold, you can layer…no, trowel…no, backhoe 1000 sex jokes, puppets saying “fuck” every few seconds, and a rather unnerving cowsturbation moment and you have The Happytime Murders.

There is no doubt that Henson Alternative can do puppetry, and this film is ALL about the puppetry.

[Disclosure/Bragging: I personally know some of the puppeteers who worked on this film. (See Puppet Up! visits Toronto)]

The skill with which this movie was made is astounding, particularly if you watch the behind-the-scene videos on YouTube. These are seriously talented and amazingly funny people.

It was obvious in Puppet Up! It is obvious in The Happytime Murders.

As expected, the human actors simply cannot keep up with their frenzied felted friends. Even Melissa McCarthy at her Melissa McCarthy-est cannot compete on screen with these little monsters…seriously, she might as well have been Jenny McCarthy. (Note: Not intended as a slight on MM.)

The lone human performer who stood out and more than held her own was the delightful Maya Rudolph. I have always had my suspicions about that lady…that she is not fully human…this performance may have proven me right.

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So, if the puppetry was so brilliant, why didn’t this work for me?

Aside from lights cutting scenes off, the one thing that Puppet Up! has that the movie doesn’t is an emcee (ringmaster? Nurse Ratchet?) of the stage show.

As funny as the emcee is as a performer, he grounds the show. He keeps the performance from getting crazy…well, crazier…well, stupid. And he serves as a connection to the audience, joining us in our confusion or surprise.

 

There was no such grounding force in the movie, literally or metaphorically. There was little to emotionally connect us to the characters, and what little that was there was quickly swallowed by the next fellatio joke.

Speaking of which, where was the cleverness and the wit, the cutting satire and insightful playfulness that we routinely see in Henson outings and even in the raunchiest of Puppet Up! sketches?

From a comedy perspective, they took the best of The Muppet Show and rewrote it with the worst of Beavis & Butthead and Dude, Where’s My Car?

I’m not trying to point a finger of blame as I’m not sure blame is necessary or relevant. It was an experiment, and not all experiments are successful.

To that end, I hope there are more outings with these characters—again, particularly when you see what is possible from these talented people—I just hope in future efforts, they simply let the characters be real and don’t feel that they need to center all of the humour on their puppetness.

Otherwise, it is a felted minstrel show, and there would be the greatest irony in the world given the central conceit of The Happytime Murders.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

The Commuter shoulda stayed home (a review)

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Liam Neeson is a special actor with a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, few of those skills are on display in The Commuter, his latest outing.

A thriller with few thrills, The Commuter tells us the story of a really unusual day in the life of insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) who meets a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) during his commute home one evening. She presents him with an opportunity to make $100K if he takes on one little assignment, identifying someone who seems out of place.

Despite being an ex-cop and an intelligent person, Michael takes on the task, which quickly spirals out of control (else we have no movie) and the body count ratchets up. For most of the movie, we then watch an agitated Michael run, walk, crawl, slide and sidle up and down the commuter train, examining and re-examining the same passengers.

To tell you any more would be to present spoilers, but truthfully, this movie really can’t have any because the plot is largely telegraphed.

If you’ve seen Taken, you’ve seen this movie…and Taken was much better.

Forget driving a truck, you could drive a whole network of Amtrak trains through the plot holes in this story, which begins implausibly, becomes ridiculous and then gets downright silly. Had a dragon or demonic nun suddenly appeared, they would not have been out of place in this film.

I add demonic nun, by the way, because it seems there is a clause in Vera Farmiga’s contract that stipulates she must only appear in movies with her The Conjuring series co-star Patrick Wilson. I think it has something to do with the two actors having the dynamic range of granite countertops.

Commuter conjuring cast

At several points in the movie, Neeson’s Michael makes reference to his advancing age (he is 60 years old here), and all I kept thinking was “yes, and you should know better”. Despite no outward sign of an exercise regimen—“It’s either walk up and down the aisle or take up yoga.”—this character has the fighting skills of a Navy Seal half his age rather than what might be expected from a decade-long retired NYPD officer.

More broadly, if we ignore the general stupidity of the plot, this movie is a wonderful example of why it is so difficult to effectively tell a self-contained story; a story that takes place within a confined space over a defined period of time. Effectively, after the first few laps through the train, we’ve run out of new things to try.

I’ve tried talking to people. I’ve tried punching people. Now what? More of same, I guess, for the next 45 minutes.

In writing parlance, this is called “running in place” or “repeating beats”; a repetition of actions until complete boredom or a novel insight sets in. Without ham-fistedly introducing “screenwriter ex machina”, what is the poor protagonist to do?

We accept this challenge more easily in a film like Taken if only because the writer gives us new locations and different implementations of kicking ass. We get visual variety even if the actual action is effectively the same.

Confine characters to a single set, however, and that visual variety is eliminated. The plot repetition becomes more glaringly obvious.

There is a reason that most confined space films are shorts. It is truly challenging to reveal anything novel after more than 20 minutes.

If you’re heading out to the movies and this is your best option, stay on the train…and don’t talk to strangers.

Commuter Farmiga-Neeson

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

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I would not have blinked had one of the characters in Thor: Ragnarok suddenly broken into song, bellowing “Kill the wabbit!”, because this movie was a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon devoid only of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

And I enjoyed it, exactly for that.

Unlike previous Thor outings that tried to delve into the frat boy-cum-reluctant prince (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) and then dueling brothers (add in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), this third treatise tossed aside any pretense at character development and plot, replacing it with 2+ hours of slapstick and one-liners designed to tickle the 12-year-old boy in all of us, regardless of gender.

By design, this movie was stupid and silly and wocka-wocka, and in that, it worked on all cylinders.

At best, the plot was a series of expositional “what you need to know now” moments that extended the sibling rivalry to include a supremely ambitious sister (Cate Blanchett aka Hela, God of Death) who felt slighted by Dad (Anthony Hopkin’s aging Odin).

Interwoven with this story was a side-plot that attempted to quantify whose dick was bigger: Thor’s or Hulk’s. Not surprisingly, the biggest dick actually belonged to alcoholic side-kick and fallen warrior Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson).

Despite the carnage—LOTS of people get brutally wiped out, so not sure if this is kiddie fare—the movie was downright fluffy and vapid, and your memory of it will likely evaporate by the time you get home. That said, the process of watching the film is fun, and one or two elements come to light (NO SPOILERS) that you know will feature in an upcoming Avengers saga.

And while we wait for that film, I suggest you YouTube What’s Opera, Doc?

IT happens (review)

IT-2017-PennywiseI have never read a Stephen King story and did not see the previous incarnation of the movie, so I saw IT: Chapter One with almost as open a mind as anyone can have. That said, I do not like horror in general and am easily startled, so I saw the film with some trepidation.

Fortunately, I did not need to worry as IT was a horror in genre only and had zero moments that startled. Rather, IT was a coming-of-age story better described as graphic young adult (YA) with all the attendant overwrought melodrama.

Without giving much away, the story revolves around the disappearance of a number of kids in small town Anywhere, U.S.A. With a growing group of friends, the brother of one of the missing kids look for clues to the disappearances, only to be haunted by a malevolent clown called Pennywise.

Although the evil clown is the titular IT, the movie is more about the bond that forms between the kids and the slow realization that they are stronger as a group than on their own.

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The demon-battling Loser’s Club make this more YA than horror

For me, this is where the movie could have been so much better, because the bigger evils in town were the day-to-day horrors these kids faced, forces as malevolent as Pennywise but insanely more powerful for all their normalcy. If anything, the clown was simply a metaphor.

To their credit, the child actors brought depth to the otherwise trope preteen outsiders—the skinny kid, the chubby kid, the African-American kid, the loner girl, the bespectacled smart-ass nerd, the Jewy kid and the whiner—and their connections felt real. It also helped that they had some really funny lines to take the piss out of each other.

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Clown horror weakened by everyday malevolence of kids’ lives

But this is where the film was more YA than horror. Rather than probe deeply into issues of bullying, sexual predation, grief management or drug-doping kids into docility, the film instead tapped into its inner Goonies, almost completely removing the horror.

A decently constructed film, performed well, the thing you need to fear the least is turning out the lights when you go to bed.

IT is just not that into you.

Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Sandwiches work-in-progress at Leslieville Pumps

Pulled pork

Solid sandwich in search of more flavour

Finally managed to visit Leslieville Pumps General Store & Kitchen today for lunch with a friend, situated conveniently at the corner of Queen Street East and Carlaw Avenue in Toronto’s east end and readily accessible by two major transit routes.

A friendly little place where everyone makes an effort to call you by your name after you place a food order, the whole vibe is “welcome, hope you have a good time.” The seating areas both inside and out are kept quite clean, and the folksy decoration fits nicely with the increasingly eclectic Leslieville community that surrounds it.

I ordered the pulled pork sandwich (topped with cole slaw), the classic poutine and a semi-sweet iced tea. My friend ordered the BLT sandwich, deep-fried pickles and iced tea, as well.

Almost full marks on the pulled pork sandwich. They did not scrimp on the meat or overwhelm the pulled pork with so much BBQ sauce as to create a huge mess, and the coleslaw had a nice crunch and added a lovely contrast to the meat. Where they need to improve the sandwich is in the spice of the BBQ sauce, which never really stood out to me. It simply moistened the already juicy meat rather than enhanced or added flavor.

My friend’s BLT was completely underwhelming, unfortunately. Truthfully, there is little to say about this sandwich other than if you want a BLT for lunch, head directly across the street to Rashers, a small restaurant that specializes in all things bacon.

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Rashers Beer BLT vastly superior to Leslieville Pumps BLT

Fortunately for my friend, the blasé BLT was offset by the deep-fried pickles, which were nicely coated with a crunchy crust that wasn’t the least bit greasy. And the pickles themselves stood up to the frying nicely, still providing quite the crunch.

The poutine had ups and downs, but ended up being nothing special. The fries were quite good, not particularly greasy and maintaining a very woody potato flavour. The cheese curds—two varieties, in fact—were okay, adding that stringy quality for which poutine is known, but not adding much flavour to the mix. And the gravy was only slightly better than hydrated beef Bovril cubes, so runny that it largely just pooled in the bottom of the container rather than mingling with the fries and curds.

And finally, the semi-sweet iced tea. Let it be known that I like my iced tea unsweetened, so I knew I might have some issues. I was not ready, however, for something that tasted like it came out of a Lipton Iced Tea can. My dining companion—born and raised in the Southern United States—assures me that the tea was indeed brewed rather than the processed stuff, and is simply suffering from the addition of lemonade. Not a fan.

The $34 meal managed to fill us up, but didn’t leave us terribly satisfied. There was enough merit in the pulled pork and deep-fried pickles, however, for me to be willing to try other dishes on another day.