Movie reviews: 'The Happytime Murders' least funny comedy this year
Published Friday, August 24, 2018 5:00AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 24, 2018 5:14AM EDT
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: 1 STAR
Make no mistake, “The Happytime Murders” is not a Muppet movie. Sure, the puppets look like they just wandered in from “Sesame Street,” but the latest Melissa McCarthy film takes place a few blocks away in a much worse part of town.
Set in a Los Angeles where humans and puppets co-exist—imagine “Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s” Toontown with hand puppets—“The Happytime Murders” is an R-rated comedy that sees the felt cast members of '80s children's TV show “The Happytime Gang” systematically murdered by a mysterious killer.
Next on the hit list is Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), a burlesque dancer who was the “The Happytime Gang’s” sole human cast member. She’s also the ex-girlfriend of Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), the first puppet to join the LAPD.
After a scandal pushed him off the force he became a private investigator but when his older brother and “The Happytime Gang” actor, Larry (Victor Yerrid), is offed, and with Jenny in danger, he teams up with his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to find the puppet serial killer. “If it gets crazy,” he says, “I’m going to get crazy.”
Repeat after me, “The Happytime Murders” is not a movie for kids.
With the first F-bomb less than thirty seconds in, the tone is set early. By the time we get to the puppet porn shoot and McCarthy snorting ecstasy with down-on their-luck puppets it’s abundantly clear this isn’t your father’s Muppet movie.
Trouble is, I’m not sure who it is for. The idea of a raunchy puppet flick isn’t new, “Meet the Feebles,” “Team America” and others have put the ‘R’ in marionette with great success but they did it with wit as well as in-your-face vulgarity.
In “The Happytime Murders,” easily the least funny comedy to hit screens this year, the laugh lines mostly get laughs because we’re not used to seeing puppets in… er… ahhh… compromising positions. Watching McCarthy and Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil’s love struck secretary Bubbles, flounder in a sea of felt and unfunny “gags,” is almost as sad as seeing the vaunted Henson name in the opening credits.
You know when someone constantly swears just for the sake of swearing? That’s shock value. “The Happytime Murders” is all shock, very little value.
PAPILLON: 2 ½ STARS
The remounted “Papillon,” starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the roles made famous by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann in the original, maintains the brutality of the 1973 film but plays more like a buddy flick than the resilience-of-the-human-spirit epic it should have been.
Based on the "75 percent true" tale of Henri Charrière, a safecracker nicknamed Papillon, the 1930’s era story sees him sent to a hellhole jungle penal colony in French Guyana for a crime he didn’t commit. Sentenced to life in prison with hard labour on Devil's Island, he begins to plot his escape as soon as he arrives, despite the fact that no one has ever successfully fled the island.
To assist and finance his plan he offers protection to Louis Dega (Malek), a spindly, wealthy, white-collar criminal with a relative fortune hidden in a place where the sun don’t shine. Faced with abominable conditions and dictatorial prison guards the pair, along with a couple of others, stages a daring run at freedom.
Leaner and meaner than the original the reboot nonetheless hews fairly closely to the 1973 screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Dalton Trumbo. Some grisly scenes featuring crocodiles and lepers have been blue-pencilled but the basic idea of the bond between the two men in the face of unimaginable adversity remains.
Hunnam and Malek make a good team—with Malek even giving the Degas character more inner life than Hoffmann managed—but the movie itself doesn’t contain the same sense of struggle. Certainly there is violence, Hunnam is frequently covered in blood, mud or worse, but the previous film was grittier, less refined. Dialogue was sparse—in the new one Hunnam and Malek chatter like school kids throughout—and there was a sense of hopelessness that fuelled the need for escape. Here their mission feels pat, like a typical prison drama. It’s less meaningful, simply a run from the violence and horrors of their incarceration, and not a spiritual journey.
“Papillon” gets much right and features nice performances from the leads but feels like an unnecessary revamping of the story.
LITTLE ITALY: 1 STAR
“Little Italy,” a new rom com starring Hayden Christensen and Emma Roberts, is good hearted enough but feels like it arrived via a marinara sauce splattered time capsule from 1985.
Leo Campo (Christensen) and Nikki Angioli (Roberts) were inseparable while growing up in Toronto’s Little Italy. “To us Little Italy wasn’t just a few blocks, it was our whole world.” Their families were tight, working side by side at the Napoli Pizza Parlour until the Great Pizza War erupted, causing a split that saw the pizza place sliced down the middle, cleaved into two separate businesses. Years pass. “It’s Little Italy’s oldest food fight.” Nikki moves to England to study the culinary arts while Leo stays home, working with his father.
Five years later Nikki returns home to renew her English work visa and is drawn back into the world she thought she had left behind. My Nikki is coming home today,” says mother Dora (Alyssa Milano). “Now we have to find her a husband so she’ll stay.” Will there be amore? Will the moon hit her eye like a big pizza pie or will she return to her cooking career in London?
“Little Italy” is an “I’m not yelling I’m Italian” style rom com. Desperate to establish the flavour of Little Italy it parades stereotypes across the screen speaking in loud exaggerated Italian accents. It’s annoying but it is all played for laughs, tempered with the easy sentimentality of the most rote of rom coms.
Director Donald Petrie, whose “Mystic Pizza” made a superstar out of Roberts’s Aunt Julia, never finds the balance between the slapstick, romance and cliché. Sometimes it feels like sketch comedy, other times like every rom com you’ve ever seen. Either way, it never feels original or particularly likeable. Top it off with a been-there-done-that run to the airport climax that would likely get everyone involved, if this is anything like real life, arrested and you have a movie that is all about love that is anything but loveable.
CROWN AND ANCHOR: 3 ½ STARS
“Crown and Anchor,” co-written by and starring “Arrow” actor Michael Rowe, is billing itself as a “punk rock drama.” Shot on location in St. John’s Newfoundland, the crime drama embodies punk’s DIY ethic but don’t expect thrash and trash.
To stretch the musical analogy one step further, this well measured movie has more to do with the introspective stripped-down sounds of a band like Television than the loud ‘n fast rush of The Ramones. In other words, it’s like punk with guitar solos.
Rowe plays police officer James Downey, a disciplined man who fled Newfoundland years before to get away from his abusive alcoholic father Gus (Stephen McHattie). Returning for his mother’s funeral he must confront the past he left behind. Gus is safely tucked away behind bars but cousin Danny (Matt Wells) is loose, desperate for money and wallowing in booze and drugs. He’s also involved with some very bad people. Thrown back into the kind of family drama that forced him to leave the island years before, Downey stays put confront the past and present.
Don’t expect a tourism board approved view of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Crown and Anchor” is all about the dark corners. The echoes of the grief, tragedy and violence of James and Danny’s lives reverberate throughout. Director Andrew Rowe is unflinching and uncompromising in his presentation of the underbelly of St. John’s life.
Shot in long takes, often in uninterrupted close ups, “Crown and Anchor” showcases its strong performances. The leads, along with Natalie Brown as Danny’s wife Jessica and Robert Joy, bring authenticity to roles that could have veered into caricature.
“Crown and Anchor” is a slow burn. It takes its time getting where it is going, building tension with long scenes. Rowe gives his scenes room, allowing them to marinade. It’s old school indie, but in our era of frenetic editing it feels fresh and new.
BREATH: 3 ½ STARS
“Breath,” directed by “The Mentalist” star Simon Baker in his helming debut, is a coming-of-age tale about two boys who learn about life and love through surfing is specific in its subject but universal in its themes.
Bruce and Ivan, a.k.a. Pikelet and Loonie (Samson Coulter and Ben Spence) are teenagers growing up in remote 1970s western Australian. Desperate for adventure they form an unlikely friendship with Sando (Baker), a former surfing star who now mentors young athletes. Sando is spiritual surfer who not only teaches the kids about how to glide across the water but also how to live their lives. Their idyllic life lessons are threatened when Pikelet has a brief affair with Sando’s wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki).
“Breath” is an enjoyably but languidly paced film that captures the slower pace of life in 1970s Australia. Baker displays a connection to the material, allowing the story to play out in its own time. The affair subplot dips into melodrama but the rest of the film is an evocative portrait of the time and place.
On a technical note, the cinematography—credited to “water cinematographer” Rick Rifici—adds much visual flair to the storytelling.
MADELINE’S MADELINE: 2 ½ STARS
“Madeline’s Madeline” begins with a nursed telling the audience, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor.” That sets up the tone for what is to come, a boldly dissociative study of creativity and identity told through the lens of a sixteen year old girl.
The film essays the main people in Madeline’s (Helena Howard) life, with her mother Regina (Miranda July), acting teacher and maternal figure Evangeline (Molly Parker) and, finally, herself as she prepares to be part of an avant grade theatre production.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is a bold film. Madeline’s experiences, both real and imagined, merge creating a dreamy, unsettling pastiche of real life. She is a complicated character, beautifully played by newcomer Howard, with a multi-faceted personality that may be the result of mental illness or in expression of her creative spirit or her troubled relationship with Regina. Director Josephine Decker sets the stage, employing frenetic editing, overwhelming sound design and other experimental film techniques to place the viewer in Madeline’s headspace.
“Madeline’s Madeline” may prove too challenging, too psychedelic for casual viewing. Howard is a powerhouse, careening through the film untethered to the realities of narrative form but the oblique storytelling does the viewer no favours.