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.

Creativity unfettered

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Thank you for showing me that there’s a place for all of my thoughts & feelings to go. I was overwhelmed by emotion for almost the entirety of our class.

— Student

The urge to create is a powerful one. It can be so all-consuming that it overwhelms our senses.

At the same time, so few of us are born equipped to know where to begin with these feelings, how to convert that urge into positive, constructive energy. And if left untapped, we are prone to quell the noise, contain the chaos, if only to move forward with our lives in ways that we do understand, in ways socially acceptable.

I truly believe that all of us are born with this urge to create, and that it is as much the environment into which we are born and grow as it is our innate interests that determines what happens next.

For the many, the need to conform, the need to be good citizens, the need to normalize—often initiated by outside forces—leads them to confine those urges in a tightly packed container, left on a dark shelf deep in the lost recesses of their psyches.

For the few, however, those whose urges refuse to be contained, where the pressure to normalize is not so severe, creation is given voice, whether from the earliest days or later in life. Timid hesitant steps of interest give way to running vaults of passion, and creation floods ourselves and our worlds.

I am one of those lucky few; someone whose passions have been supported and nurtured from my earliest days. The hesitations and uncertainties of my past were largely self-imposed and have long since been removed and forgotten.

The need to create and to seek creation consumes and replenishes me. My world is one of possibility and opportunity; and if it is limited, it is only by my time here.

If I have been given the opportunity to act as nurturer and supporter to others—through teaching, social contacts, simple engagement with my universe—then I accept and welcome that function both enthusiastically and humbly. In the exercise, I receive as much and likely more than I could ever hope to give.

The urge to create is a powerful one. But it is nothing compared to the act of creation.

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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.

My thanks to Pexels for the free stock photos.

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.

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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.

 

You suck (How awesome is that?)

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You suck. It’s true. No need to be embarrassed.

I suck, too; quite regularly, in fact. Possibly unlike you, however, I revel in that fact.

In almost any facet of life, when we are called upon to do something, many of us have concerns that we might not be up to the task, that we suck.

Depending on the task, the individual, the timing and innumerable other factors, this fear may give only the slightest pause or it may result in complete catatonia, leaving us bereft of the will to do anything let alone the requested task.

And I think this fear of suckage—yep, just made that word up—is perhaps the greatest in creatives as it is in creativity that we face our harshest critic: ourselves.

I have myself, and seen others, stare at a blank page, completely immobilized, incapable of the first squiggle that would start the creative process.

At best, we’re trying to consider every starting concept in our heads, lest our suckage be recorded for posterity and later ridicule. But just as often, it is blank-screen paralysis, our thoughts as immobile as our body.

I’m here to tell you that they are just negative manifestations of a positive experience.

In many ways, sucking is not only normal, it is also wonderful.

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When I teach screenwriting, I start every lecture with the same question:

“Who sucked this week?”

And at least until the students have adjusted to the question, mine is the first hand that goes up.

You cannot help but suck at something until you don’t, and the timeline of skill is different for every individual and every task.

But actually sucking—as opposed to the fear of sucking—means you are trying. You are making an effort to push through your personal suckage, and that is amazing and wonderful.

Even the fear of suckage is a good sign, if not a good feeling, because it is an indication of how important the assignment is to you. If it wasn’t important to you, you wouldn’t care if you sucked.

So suck. Jump in with both feet, ignoring as best you can that little voice that warns you of doom should you suck.

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Take the next step, and then the one after that

For one thing, even once you have developed great skill in a field or activity, you will still have occasion to suck.

With apologies to the magnificent screenwriter Terry Rossio, for every Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean, there is the odd Lone Ranger.

For every record-breaking season, Wayne Gretzky missed an open net on occasion.

No professional photographer keeps every shot she takes, nor painter every painting, nor songwriter every lyric or note.

You are going to suck.

The silver lining, however, is that the more you suck now, the less likely you are to suck later.

God knows I still do. And I’m very happy about that.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling and maybe gain insights from my years of suckage, visit:

So, What’s Your Story (web site)

So, What’s Your Story (Facebook)

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Obnoxiously happy

 

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Dear World,

My apologies if my happiness has gotten a tad obnoxious of late, but my life is blessed in so many ways that I simply cannot keep the joy inside, nor truthfully do I wish to.

Alongside the wonderful gifts I am given every day, I am routinely presented with insane opportunities to express and explore the passions that light up my soul, whether it is writing or photography or sharing knowledge.

But beyond even that, I sit in complete awe at the wondrous passions of the people around me; people with amazing visions of who they are and how the world can be.

I know painters and actors and writers and musicians; parents and partners and children and pets; athletes and industrialists and service workers and technicians. And every single one of those people bring me insane joy simply by following their own passions, whether within their titles or not, and allowing me to be witness and in some cases, participant.

Even watching perfect strangers experience their worlds, or Nature express itself from day to day, brings a beauty and elegance that I simply did not choose to see in my former life but do now.

So how can my heart not burst forth, my spirit soar and the laughter ring forth?

I am both a newborn child seeing things for the first time and an ageless ancient finally understanding the patterns that have always splayed out before my once dulled eyes.

That is my joy. That is my happiness. That is my love.

And unasked, that is what I share with the world.

Rogue One clearly satisfies (no spoilers)

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The latest in the Star Wars galaxy of offerings launched last night to rousing applause, and I was there, in the audience, wearing my 3D goggles.

What did I think of the movie? I’m not really sure that it matters.

Like so many movie franchises out there, if you have bought into the Star Wars series, you are going to see this movie and there is damned little that any number of reviewers could say to dissuade you from that. Personally, I have been invested in this cultural icon since it first launched almost 40 years ago.

So, what is the point of reviewing the movie? None, other than an effort to satisfy my own self-importance.

This was a good movie that opens slowly, offers little in the way of character development, fulfills all of the expected (demanded?) tropes of battles and mentors and silly robots, and essentially adds nothing to the canon of Hollywood history or the art of filmmaking. I don’t know that the movie ever had the opportunity to be great, but if it did, it certainly walked the other way.

That said, the audience applauded or cheered several times throughout the movie, and I think it is fair to say that pretty much everyone left the theatre satisfied with their experience.

And there is my problem with the series, as much as the movie: satisfied.

[Hereafter, I will talk more about specifics within the movie, so you may wish to stop reading now. I will avoid spoilers, speaking more in generalities out of respect for movie-goers.]

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Ep IV and V changed movies forever. Everything else was merely adequate.

Movies have evolved extensively since the launch of A New Hope in 1977, especially in the area of special effects. With franchises like Alien and Star Trek getting complete reboots, comic book universes unfolding in myriad interwoven ways, and standalones like Interstellar and Inception dazzling the eye, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual movies to stand out from the crowd, to chart new ground.

If for no other reason, this is why I raved about the recently released Arrival (my review), which stands apart not through its special effects, but rather the execution of its central theme. There is great intelligence behind a beautiful film.

When A New Hope arrived on the scene, it changed the game of movie-making by bringing the scale of a biblical epic to hokey old Westerns and WWI dog fight movies. If Jaws initiated the summer blockbuster craze, A New Hope solidified the idea. And if that’s where it stopped, this crazed then-teenager would have been quite satisfied.

But then came The Empire Strikes Back, which somehow managed to make A New Hope look hokey and dated, although I still contend that the first movie had a better, more complete story. For a young movie goer, The Empire Strikes Back was like riding in a bullet train only to have someone throw on after-burners; it was a whole new level of acceleration that pinned me to my seat.

That feeling has never been duplicated by a Star Wars movie since.

[In fairness, there is one interesting technical achievement in Rogue One, but to describe it would be to spoil a couple of moments in this film.]

Hollywood, instead, has caught up and moved past the franchise. And perhaps even more broadly, entertainment has surpassed even Hollywood in the form of immersive video games, which I do not play.

For its part, the Star Wars universe struggles to achieve the bar, if it really even tries. And each successive movie feels like it was designed with a check list of tropes George Lucas did not invent, but that he executed perfectly in the early films.

Thus, for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is completely adequate.

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Adequate to their task, offering little more

Character development has largely been dispensed with. As the movie opens, we are presented with a seminal moment in the life of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the central character of this movie, and then we catapult ahead 10+ years to find her in imprisoned, where our adventure begins. And with the exception of the odd note dropped into the dialogue, we have no idea what happened in those lost years.

The same is true for almost all of the other characters. Each offers the briefest allusions to why they have arrived in this place at this time, but there is little to hold onto as the story careens forward. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has done some bad things in the name of the Rebellion. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) clings to his belief in the Force like a child clutching a blanket, while his partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) scoffs good-naturedly, mourning his lost faith.

And I have to say that I have no idea why rebel renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is even in this movie. If his subplot had been written around, the story would not have suffered one iota. Like so many other movie franchises these days, I will put this choice down to something in the cartoon, novel or comic book series.

Perhaps this reveals something about me, but much as I did with Prometheus, I found the robot character to be the most evolved. In Rogue One, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) stole the show, having the best lines of dialogue and routinely offering broader perspective on the chaotic stumblings of the inferior humans around him.

And as with the original movies, the villains proved the most exciting element of the story.

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Mendelson’s Krennic brings life and depth to this movie

Somehow, the writers and director managed to make Darth Vader even more imposing than he was in any of the other movies. This was something between the uncontrolled fury of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith and Lord Vader’s iron control in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, Vader was a cold-hearted menace who toyed with his food as time allowed, but was also happy to get his light saber dirty.

And then we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelson), the man charged with the construction of the Death Star and who, but for an inability to tap into the Force, might have made a delicious challenger to Darth Vader. If they do more parallel timeline movies in the future, I would love to see the evolution of this character.

Aside from these few characters, however, the movie was merely passable as a Star Wars film. The plot was straightforward, if a little padded in places, with well-choreographed battles and requisite deaths (no spoilers).

And there must be at least 837 easter eggs in this movie, tiny moments that tie in to the other movies in the series, and as my friend Danny tells me, into the cartoons, as well. While a younger me might have been enthralled by these inserts, the present day me found them distracting, particularly as they almost always served no purpose to the plot and jerked me out of the story as I realized, “Hey, those are the guys from…” (no spoilers).

But as I said at the beginning, none of this likely matters to you if you are a Star Wars fan. You will see this movie, enjoying some parts and complaining about others. It is just what Star Wars has become…and I find that a little sad.

Cheadle reaches Miles Ahead – a review

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I don’t know much about jazz other than to say that almost everyone who has ever been considered a giant in the genre spent a lot of time facing very dark demons; demons so dark as to put rock & rollers to shame. Such was the case with Miles Davis.

In a quadruple-threat performance as writer, director, producer and star, Don Cheadle has created an interesting film that touches on a brief period in the jazz icon’s life through a never-ending series of timeline jumps that takes a little bit to get into.

The main plot of Miles Ahead revolves around a Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) looking to get a glimpse into Miles Davis, who five years earlier, went into seclusion to nurse his drug addiction and failing muse. Desperate for a story, Braden inadvertently allows a scheming manager of another jazz performer to steal a tape of Miles’ comeback music, sending Braden and Davis on a chase caper worthy of the Scooby Doo gang.

Interspersed throughout this caper, Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman weave flashbacks of Davis’s relationship with dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Through whispered voices, they seem to suggest Davis might have suffered mental illness, and they show the musician’s slide into drug addiction through pain medication taken for a degenerative hip disorder.

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As a director, it seems Miles Ahead is Cheadle’s attempt at creating jazz in a visual form.

Scenes bounce back and forth. Visions flit through Davis’s mind. There is almost an ad lib feel to the performances as the actors seem to react rather than perform. And yet, once the piece gets moving, it feels whole.

That said, this is but the briefest of songs in a larger repertoire that was Davis’s life, and in many ways, I wanted to understand better what was behind the great artist’s fall from grace. As such, the movie feels very light despite its heavy subject matter and in several scenes, degenerates to slapstick cops-and-robbers. As biopics go, this is not Ray or Ali.

The choppiness of the scenes and lightness of plot also means that we never really get a good sense of most of the characters or the actors’ performances.

McGregor’s Braden doesn’t act, so much as mug from scene to scene, reacting to the antics of Cheadle’s Davis and the chaos that swirls around him. In fact, the one decision he does make—trying to steal the tapes himself—is a colossal failure and about the last decision he makes.

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Similarly, Corinealdi’s Taylor largely remains a mystery to the audience. A creative spirit in her own right when she first meets Davis, she quickly falls into the role of cheated-upon wife who struggles to cope with a brilliant husband who is rapidly falling apart. The arguments could easily have been lifted from Ray, and for all I know, were lifted from Get On Up, the James Brown biopic also penned by Baigelman.

For his part, Cheadle eats up the screen with his portrayal of Davis at two very different times in his life. There were times when I almost couldn’t tell you that this was the same actor in each role.

The Davis of the 1960s is Cheadle as we know him; a cool customer who possesses the room in which he stands. The fallen Davis of the 1970s, however, is an entirely different creature, prone to lash out rather than control with a stare. And full marks to the make-up team for the physical transformation into the older Davis.

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This movie won’t be for everyone, and in fact, I have no idea who it is for.

There isn’t enough music for the jazz fans. Not enough character depth for the serious drama fans. And it feels too dated for those interested in amusing drug-laced comedies.

And yet, it works.

And for a budget of less than half-a-million, why wouldn’t Cheadle at least try?

I’m glad he did.

See also:

Miles Ahead (Angelica Jade Bastien)

Ode to a Jazz Giant (The Guardian)

Miles Ahead (Rolling Stone)