Monthly Archives: August 2018

Puppets Behaving Badly

Melissa McCarthy Stars in Raunchy Novelty Comedy 

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The Happytime Murders
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks & Bill Barretta
Directed by Brian Henson
R

Hey kids, wanna see a puppet show?

Well, stay away from this one—a crude, lewd comedy for grown-ups in which puppets smoke, drink, curse, snort drugs, visit porno shops and have sex.

Just like real people!

In The Happytime Murders, puppets and people coexist; but puppets are regarded as second-class citizens, and the “socks” are mostly segregated from the “meat bags.” The movie follows puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (voiced and animated by puppeteer Bill Barretta) as he investigates the mounting homicides among the former cast members of a 1980s puppet TV series, The Happytime Gang.

Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime MurdersPhil’s work brings him back in contact with his former LAPD partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Several years ago, during their time together on the force, they were L.A.’s first human/cop team—and then an unfortunate on-the-job incident made them the last, and cost Phil his badge.

This all sounds like rather serious stuff, and it is—the movie’s basic framework follows traditional, familiar buddy-cop, film-noir formulas, and that’s its comedic setup. Then it puts puppets into it—puppets doing, and saying, the kind of raw, raunchy things “people” would say in R-rated, buddy-cop comedy-action movies.

As Phillips and Edwards weave their way into the city’s seedy puppet underbelly in search of a serial killer, they find a trail of puppet violence—puppets torn apart by dogs, or blasted into fluff by shotgun blasts—and encounter a spectrum of colorfully coarse characters. In the porno shop, Phil sees an octopus pleasuring a cow, and a dominatrix Dalmatian with a guy dressed as a fireman. Druggie puppets addicted to sugar snort pure sucrose in a “smack house.” A sexual tryst between two puppets ends in a…well, let’s just say you may never look at Silly String the same way again.

Elizabeth Banks stars in The Happytime Murders

Elizabeth Banks

Joel McHale plays an uptight FBI agent. Elizabeth Banks is an exotic dancer, and the only non-puppet former member of the Happytime TV cast. Maya Rudolph is Phil’s longtime assistant. Leslie David Baker (Stanley from TV’s The Office) is continually flustered as Edwards’ police lieutenant. Watch for McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, in a quick cameo.

It’s grim and grimy…but it’s also twistedly funny, full of quips, a parade of puppet oddities, crisp one-liners and some caustic comedic sight gags. (Despite the talents of its capable cast, not every joke works, and a couple land with deadening thuds.) Director Brian Henson, the son of late puppeteering pioneer Jim Henson, certainly knows his stuff; he came out of Muppet land and directed the G-rated Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island flicks.

The Happytime MurdersThe movie comes from an “adult” offshoot of the Henson production company, Henson Alternative. The film’s production company was sued, unsuccessfully, earlier this year, by the producers of Sesame Street, to stop The Happytime Murders from using the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.”

No one should worry about anyone being confused about that; the freakish, four-letter funk of Happytime is a long way from the sunshine and smiles of Sesame Street. But the puppeteering expertise is certainly there, as you’ll see in the end-credits montage, which reveals some of the behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic. And many of the film’s richly experienced puppeteers—including the director and Barretta—have pedigrees that extend, in fact, all the way back through The Muppets and Sesame Street.

There are several words you might use to describe what you see. Shocking, tasteless and disgusting could be among them. On the other hand, you might think it’s hilarious, wickedly original and crazily quirky. Comedy is like that, especially when it dares to push toward the edges; some people are going to get pushed off.

But I’m hanging on. I dug the dirty jokes, off-kilter humor and subversive spin on a crazy world with puppets and humans trying to make their way together. It may not be for everybody now, but give it time, and I predict this nasty, naughty novelty will eventually keep adding to its crowd of dig-it devotees.

In theaters Aug. 24, 2018

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Asian Invasion

Constance Wu Headlines All-Asian Cast in Can’t-Miss Summer Rom-Com

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Crazy Rich Asians
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding & Michelle Yeoh
Directed by Jon M. Chu
PG-13

This splendid, wildly sumptuous wedding-themed romantic comedy is, as the saying goes, something old, something new.

It’s as old as a fairy tale and as new as the history it’s making, as the first major Hollywood movie in more than 25 years with an all-Asian cast. And it’s got all the ingredients to be the big date-movie comedy of the summer—waves upon waves of humor and heart, gorgeous characters, a fabulous setting and a story that resonates across time and place.

Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel centers around Rachel (Constance Wu, fresh off TV’s Fresh Off the Boat), an economics professor at NYU. Her history-teacher boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), wants her to return with him to Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend.

It’ll be a great way for Rachel to meet his family and see his home turf, Nick says.

Rachel has no idea that Nick’s family is practically royalty in Singapore, where they’re a real-estate dynasty that owns much of the island republic. They are insanely wealthy, crazy-rich.

Raised by a single mother, Rachel is stunned to find out that Nick is basically “the Prince William of Asia.” The movie unfolds as she (and the audience) gets to know her Prince Charming’s relatives and friends—and gets her bearings among the ultrarich and famous.

Crazy Rich Asians

Yeoh, Golding & Wu

But she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (the great Michelle Yeoh, best remembered from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and as the “Bond girl” in Tomorrow Never Dies) not only puts the chill on Rachel, she openly disapproves. American-born Rachel is Chinese-American, not fully Chinese—and Eleanor tells her she’ll never be good enough for her son. And Nick’s scheming ex-girlfriends and jealous wannabes all want to send the “commoner” packing.

Do Nick and Rachel stand a chance, with the odds—and the force of his family—stacked against them? Don’t count the commoner out.

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Awkwafina & Wu

Thank goodness Rachel can turn for support to an old college friend, Peik Lin, who’s played with spritely glee by rapper-actress Awkwafina (from Ocean’s 8), who becomes her comedic sidekick, consultant and advisor.

The movie is a swirl of supporting characters, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Gemma Chan (from AMC’s TV series Humans) is Astrid, Nick’s beautiful, big-hearted cousin, whose mega-money can’t cover the cracks in her own crumbling marriage. Ken Jeong (from the Hangover movies and TV’s Dr. Ken) plays Peik Lin’s father, whose family’s “newer” affluence is a crass comedic clash with the older, much more established wealth of Nick’s family. Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley), plays one of Nick’s old classmates, throwing a randy bachelor party that defines toxic male excess.

But at this core of any Cinderella story is, of course, Cinderella. And Wu is terrific in her first leading movie role, bringing the audience along for every magical moment of feisty Rachel’s emotional journey. She’s now officially a movie star.

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The movie is a sensory feast, a buffet of couture, customs, cuisine and mind-boggling over-the-top opulence. Wanna see a $40 million wedding? Hear a Madonna song sung in Cantonese? Sit in on a dumpling-making session? Go on a wild island shopping spree? It’s like being suddenly transported to the other side of the world in a frothy, fizzy explosion—and exploration—of culture, history and impossibly high-rolling lifestyle. There are themes of family, friendship and tradition woven into a heartwarming love story about belonging, assimilating and accepting.

A celebratory tale of two cultures coming together, it’s a fresh twist on a familiar rom-com format, set in an exotic place that few Americans have ever been, featuring a cast that signals a major milestone for Asians and Asian-Americans—who rarely see themselves depicted on screen in such a positive, diverse, non-stereotypical way.

In the movie, we’re told that Nick’s wedding, whenever it happens, would be the “event of the century.” Crazy Rich Asians is a major movie event of the summer. You’d be crazy to miss it.

In theaters Aug. 15, 2018

Up From the Depths

Jason Statham wrangles a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese

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The Meg
Starring Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Bingbing Li & Ruby Rose
Directed by John Turteltaub
PG-13

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said stunned Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) when he got his first glimpse of the shark in Jaws back in 1975.

A much bigger boat, indeed, is what’s needed in The Meg, about a much, much, much bigger shark—a prehistoric behemoth, nearly 100 feet long, that could swallow up the great white from Jaws like a sliver of sushi.

Based on Steve Alten’s 1997 science-fiction novel about the discovery of a “living fossil” in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the movie is built around British action star Jason Statham as rugged rescue diver Jonas Taylor, called back into duty when the Megaladon—long believed to be extinct—rises from the depths to terrorize the seas.

Turns out Taylor has met Megaladon before—and it made him vow to never go in the water again…

Director Jon Turteltaub came up through the Disney system, most notably with National Treasure and its sequel, Book of Secrets. He’s got a light, breezy touch—golly-whopping action and effects; easy on the violence; a wholesome sprinkle of romance and flirtation; B-movie quips and banter; and laughs to go along with the gasps. The Meg is nothing that will make anyone’s year-end awards list, but it’s certainly a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese.

In addition to Statham, the movie features a cast of international players from all over the globe. A co-production between American and Chinese companies, it was obviously made with plans to extend its box-office “bite” far beyond the territorial waters of the United States.

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Bingbing Li

Chinese actress Bingbing Li plays an oceanic researcher with a precocious young daughter (the scene-stealing newcomer Shuya Sophia Cai) and a supportive scientist father (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao). Australian Robert Taylor (star of TV’s Longmire) plays a doctor. There are two other Aussies, model-turned-actress Ruby Rose and Jessica McNamee (she was tennis player Margaret Court in the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes), Japan’s Masi Oka (Max on Hawaii Five-0), and New Zealand’s Cliff Curtis (Travis on Fear the Walking Dead). You might recognize Page Kennedy (Gerald from TV’s Rush Hour). Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight from TV’s The Office, plays an American billionaire who doesn’t want the Meg jeopardizing his research investment.

But the biggest star, so to speak, is the shark. The Meg is a real beast, a computer-generated colossus the size of a battleship, and the movie has some serious fun when it finally goes on the loose. If you think seeing a shark fin in the water is scary, wait until you see one as tall as a house slicing through the chop. If you gasped when the shark in Jaws leapt out of the water, just wait until…well, just wait.

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The legacy of Jaws looms large over any shark flick, and The Meg certainly gives Steven Spielberg’s 1975 opus a big tip of its enormous fin. That’s particularly true for a big—there’s that word again—beach scene, when the Meg cruises China’s Sanya Bay packed with hundreds of frolickers enjoying the surf, sand and sun. Who’ll become chum? The tubby kid with the popsicle? The little dog that fell overboard? The doofus running in the water ball? Those horndog boys wooing the raft of bikini-clad girls?

Oh, the dread! The horror! The shark show!

And what a shark show it is, with high-tech underwater gizmos meeting elemental, old-school vendettas and legends and lore from the bowels of the Earth and, well, practically the beginning of time. When Statham’s character, Jonas—it’s hard to miss how close that name is to Jonah, who, you know, got famously swallowed by a whale—goes mano-a-mano with his nemesis, he’s going full Moby Dick, harpoon and Ahab and all.

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Shuya Sophia Cal and Statham

The plot can barely stay afloat, logic flies all over the place and character development is as shallow as the ocean is deep. And the movie seems kind of stuck in a PG-13 limbo, between what could have been a gutsier, bloodier, gonzo R rating, and a more Disney-fied, hokier, jokier, family-friendly adventure. (There’s even a subtle Finding Nemo reference.) It ends up feeling rather neutered, like something awesome, powerful and truly terrifying has been throttled back, tamped down and packaged as mass entertainment for wide consumption.

Which, of course, is exactly what it is.

“That thing is the devil!” one character says, watching anxiously as the Meg trails his watercraft. Hardly. But The Meg is one hellishly huge fish fix for pop-culture shark fans. TV’s “Shark Week” is over. Summer’s coming to a close. So c’mon in—the water’s not exactly fin-tastic, but it sure does make a massive movie splash.

In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

Black Dynamite

Incendiary history lesson exposes ugly truths about racism in America

BlacKkKlansmanBlacKkKlansman
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver & Laura Harrier
Directed by Spike Lee
R
In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

That’s not a typo—there’s an extra “k” in there, between “Black” and “Klansman.”

Director Spike Lee’s new movie, his 30th feature film, is the wildly true tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK, in the 1970s.

Lee has never pulled punches with his films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing. You never leave one of his movies wondering where he’s coming from, what he means, or what you’re supposed to think.

BlacKkKlansman is a straight-up, fire-breathing story about the long, painful scar of racism in America.

John David Washington (he’s the son of actor Denzel Washington) plays Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first police detective “of color” in Colorado Springs in 1972.

Working his way out of the file room, rookie Stallworth soon lands a much more interesting assignment. Cold-calling a recruitment ad in back of the local newspaper for the Klan, he impersonates a white racist on the phone and sets up a meeting to learn more about how he can join.

Of course, this presents a problem—since Stallworth is black. So the police chief (Robert John Burke, from TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) pairs him with another, more seasoned—white—detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the two of them become “one.” Flip will be the fake Ron that actually meets the Klan in person; the real Ron will continue to cultivate sources over the phone, take photos and gather intel.

So, if you’re keeping score: Stallworth is black, Zimmerman is Jewish, and they “doubly disguise” themselves to dupe the most dangerously racist organization in America—from the inside.

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John David Washington and Laura Harrier

It sounds crazy and absurd, but it all really happened—as told in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir (Black Klansman) on which the movie is based. Lee sets everything up with juicy, funky, ’70s retro detail, and there are touches of humor and sweetness and light to leaven the toxic bigotry at the dark heart of the story, especially in scenes between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier, who played high-schooler Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming), the passionate local soul sister and civil rights organizer who has no idea he’s really an undercover cop.

The movie really kicks into gear when Flip meets the Klan—or “The Organization,” as they prefer to call it. Walter (Ryan Eggold, Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) is the local leader, reminding attendees at a weekly meeting that, for the next cross burnings, “the highest hills get the most eyes.” As the sloth-like Ivanhoe, Paul Walter Hauser lets it slip that he actually likes Sammy Davis Jr., because he can dance. Nicholas Turturro plays an explosives expert, brought in covertly for a special occasion. Felix (Finnish actor Jasper Pååkkönen, who plays Hafdan the Black on Vikings) smells a rat—or more specifically, a Jew.

BlacKkKlansman

Topher Grace

There are some tense moments when Felix tries to hook Flip up to a “Jew” detector polygraph, and when Flip and Ron risk exposure by bumbling facts of their fabricated story. Everything builds to an explosive climax, an event with a young Klan Grand Wizard-to-be David Duke (Topher Grace) at which both the real Ron and the fake Ron/Flip are present.

Alec Baldwin opens the film as a racist “intellectual” raging about the “mongrel race” of “black beasts” and “Jewish-controlled puppets” on the Supreme Court. Toward the end of the movie, musical legend Harry Belafonte plays a speaker addressing a rapt civil rights rally crowd, telling the true story of Jesse Washington, a young black man who was horrifically lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of raping a white woman.

Corey Hawkins (Eric Carter on TV’s 24: Legacy) galvanizes an audience as black activist Stokely Carmichael, nè Kwame Ture, forcefully reminding them that Uncle Sam wants to send young black men to fight and die in Viet Nam, while cops are shooting them (“in the back!”) in the streets.

The movie is set in the early 1970s, but make no mistake—director Lee draws a scalding, shameful timeline from America’s past to its present. He uses clips from director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a seminal but controversial and wildly racist film, one that glorified the origin of the Klan and demonized blacks—and Gone With the Wind, which hyper-romanticized the downfall of South and slavery, all to the wistful tune of Dixie.

Lee incorporates footage of the deadly 2017 white nationalists rally in Charlottesburg, Va. (“Jews will not replace us!”), and a clip of modern-day David Duke aligning himself with President Trump, who proclaimed that there were “good people” on both sides of the event.

And when Duke rallies his faithful with the phrase “America first,” it rings as a harrowing reminder of where audiences have heard it most recently elsewhere—used by the current Commander in Chief as his mantra in his inaugural address, and repeated as his diplomatic policy.

One of the movie’s producers is Jordan Peele. You might recall that he was the director of last year’s Get Out, in which a young black man finds himself trapped in a racist nightmare. BlacKkKlansman is about a nightmare of another kind, an ugly national one, in which America has been mired, one way or another, since its beginning.

BlacKkKlansmanIn one scene, Flip and Ron discuss their differences about their assignment. “For you, it’s a crusade—for me, it’s a job,” Flip tells him. Ron counters by pressing Flip about his Jewish background, about why what he’s seeing and hearing, in the actual physical presence of such hateful spew from such noxious characters, doesn’t bug him.

“Why you actin’,” Ron asks him, “like you ain’t got no skin in the game?”

That’s a question Lee’s powerful, potent gut-punch of a movie asks us all, no matter what color our skin might be.