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.

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.

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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.

Valerian – Movie of 1000 disappointments

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I am told that Luc Besson is a great filmmaker, with credits like The Fifth Element, Leon, La Femme Nikita. Unfortunately, the only Besson movie I had seen to date was Lucy (my review), and so I was a bit reluctant heading out to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a graphic novel, the movie tells the story of two young military operatives—Valerian and Laureline—sent on a mission to recover an eternal replicator (too hard to explain), but who get embroiled in an ever-shifting landscape of political and military intrigue that may involve an extinct alien race.

Woven throughout this action-adventure-mystery-thriller is a hormone-riddled romance between the leads that is so execrable that Harlequin and most YA publishers would turn it away.

I walked into this movie expecting almost nothing in terms of story; Lucy lessons learned. And that is precisely what I got.

The story is pretty easy to follow, but gives you little reason to follow it.

The action sequences aren’t particularly thrilling, and the dialogue is cliché if not outright ham-fisted. That said, I am sure the scripts were printed on very nice paper…maybe with watermarks and all that.

But whereas I had few expectations of the story, I held out some hope of being dazzled by visuals of alien worlds.

To its credit, the movie started that way, presenting us with the alien paradise of Mül, a pastel portrait straight out of a 70s acid trip.

Mul

Once we leave the wonder-world though—primarily to the space station/ark known as Alpha—the sets quickly degenerate to things we’ve seen a million times in other films.

Each of the visuals is as two-dimensional as the screen onto which they are projected, offering zero depth to the two-dimensional characters that flit across the screen like dying fish. The irony of seeing this movie in 3D is not lost on me.

So, no story and no stunning visuals, but the actors, am I right? Wrong.

I cannot put the blame completely on the actors, but they certainly earned some of it, as pretty much no one was able to imbue the wooden script with any emotion or pathos.

Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne‘s Laureline had zero chemistry, and so every attempt at love-making or wit fell flat. And if anything, Valerian comes across as a petulant child with multiple personality disorder.

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One of these is a sedative. The other is a plant.

No sooner does he completely thwart the military hierarchy with his own brand of pseudo-macho anarchy and independence than he delivers a grandiloquent lecture to Laureline about being a soldier who follows a code.

One of my friends suggested that Valerian should have been a film series to allow for better world building and character development. I can’t say that he’s wrong.

That said, if you asked me to watch even ten minutes more of this movie, I’d laugh in your face.

 

Manifestly faulty Manifesto

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I had my reservations before purchasing a ticket for Manifesto, a film that seeks to manifest the great thinkers and philosophers of the modern age through the mouths of 13 archetypal characters. I mean, how can you go wrong with a 90-minute Learning Annex lecture?

Honestly, the selling point for me was Cate Blanchett playing all 13 roles.

As we waited for the film to begin, the Nashville Film Festival host (emcee?) gushed about his chills on seeing the film at Sundance. My first clue that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

He then laid his bet that Cate was a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Put your money down now and plan that dream vacation.

Then the lights went down, the film illuminated the screen, and 13 Shakespearean soliloquys rolled out. Except, these thinkers were not Shakespeare and even Shakespeare put his soliloquys within the context of a narrative; something completely lacking here.

There was so little context for any of these scenes that I have no idea, no memory of any of the speeches less than 24 hours later.

Although the Great Cate did manage to inhabit her many and varied characters—vapid news host, drunk punk rocker, deranged homeless man, etc.—dissolved in my brain as quickly as she spoke the words.

Many Cates

There was humour. We laughed at the odd comment—mostly non-sequiturs—and tittered like children when the gentile sacred mouth of Ms. Blanchett uttered words like “shit” and “fuck”, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than a philosophy major could name 10 of the 13 thinkers reflected.

This was less Art Film than Performance Art, and ironically, it may have suffered from the transformations by Blanchett, whose visual distraction allowed my ear to remain confused. Perhaps with a lesser performer, the words would have had a fighting chance.

Was Blanchett’s transformation enough for that Oscar nod? Unlikely, as the complete lack of over-arching narrative will keep it off most Academy lists.

This is truly a festival film, where manifestos and pointlessness not only thrive but are lauded for their unintelligibility by audiences afraid to not “get it.”

[How’s that for inverse snobbery?]

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In some ways, Manifesto is reminiscent of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was also a series of pointed commentaries on modern society, all performed by the same artist.

Where Tomlin went right was in presenting each commentary within a powerful story of a nuanced character with a unique perspective. Manifesto, sadly, chose a verbal sledgehammer over story, eliminating any opportunity for nuance no matter how well Blanchett performed the characters.

A damned shame, really, as she lived up to her billing. If only Academy voters could see it through all the rest.

Free Fire still too expensive

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It seems I am cursed to see the lesser works of great film artists. Such was the case last night as my friends and I discussed Ben Wheatley’s latest release.

My friends spent much of the evening telling me how much I should have seen High Rise and Kill List. Sadly, we saw Free Fire, a 90-minute exploration of how many bullets the human body can take…seriously, that is the movie.

In 1976 or so, IRA terrorists arrive at a derelict warehouse to buy guns, but things suddenly go wrong and a shootout ensues. The End.

Lots of shooting. Lots of bleeding. Lots of “witty” banter. For 90 minutes.

This is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly if all we saw was the Mexican stand-off.

It is every Quentin Tarantino film without the Shakespearean nuance for which Tarantino is known (*sarcasm*).

It is Bugs and Daffy arguing over whether it is rabbit season or duck season.

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And like a young child’s game of Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians—or whatever other culturally and socially incentive games the kids get up to these days—no one really suffers for the ballistic barrage that enters their bodies. This might as well have been paint ball.

I am told Ben Wheatley (writer and director here) is a very creative artist, whose earlier works bordered on the metaphysical. Free Fire didn’t manage physics, let alone metaphysics.

The entire film was one beat repeated over and over and over again, much like this review.

Running out of shooters or bullets? Let’s simply insert a couple of new shooters. Wow, that was so much fun, let’s do it again.

The movie had a really good cast, including the likes of Brie Larson (The Room), Sharlto Copley (District Nine), Armie Hammer (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Cillian Murphy (you know; the guy that was in that movie).

And there were a few funny one-liners (whatever they made, nobody wants to buy it anymore).

But let me save you $13 and simply suggest you watch the trailer 37 times.

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The only stars of the movie