Tag Archives: D-

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

Producer: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid and Michael McDonald
Studio: STXfilms

D-

One has to wonder what the late Jim Henson would think of his son Brian’s decision to take the family business into hard-R territory via a division called Henson Alternative. But whether he would have approved of the attempt or not, his boy’s initial effort along those lines is definitely a pseudo-Muppet movie that, while being way too raunchy for kids, has little to offer to adults, either. “The Happytime Murders” is a debacle of “Howard the Duck” proportions.

The premise is curiously reminiscent of Netflix’s recent bomb “Bright.” Los Angeles is once again a place divided in population terms, except that the downtrodden minority this time around consists of puppets rather than orcs. As in the earlier movie, however, one of the critters did successfully break the barrier against puppets serving on the LAPD—Phil Phillips (voiced and operated by Bill Barretta).

Phil’s stint on the force ended in ignominy, though, when he failed to rescue his human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who was being held hostage by a puppet criminal. Phil’s shot went wild, killing a hapless puppet walking with his daughter on the street. Edwards was wounded too, and in a panic Phil took her to a hospital exclusive to his own species, where she was fitted with a puppet liver. That explains why she has a craving for sugar, and is so contemptuous of Phil, who was deemed unwilling to shoot other of his kind and removed from the department.

Now Phil is a private eye in cynical Sam Spade mode, and he takes on the case of Sandra White (Dorien Davies), an extra-sultry femme fatale who’s being blackmailed. The investigation takes him to a puppet sex shop, where a masked intruder kills a bunch of workers and customers, including Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), who was once a regular on “The Happytime Gang,” a popular TV show that a bevy of the furry critters shared with a single human, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who was also once Phil’s girlfriend.

When Connie arrives to take charge of the crime scene, she brusquely dismisses him until another killing occurs—of Phil’s own brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), who played a cop on “Happytime.” Accepting Phil’s hypothesis that the culprit is targeting cast members, LAPD Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), a crusty old school cop, orders Connie and Phil to work together on the case. As they do so and corpses (or more accurately bits of fabric) pile up, of course, the animosity between them two melts away. Ultimately the identity of the villain and the motive behind the killings are revealed.

On the one hand “The Happytime Murders” is a spoof of pulp-based movies like “The Maltese Falcon,” much as earlier Muppet features from the Henson stable took on took on other genres or just remade classics like “A Christmas Carol” or “Treasure Island.” While all of them were family-oriented, however, this one is most defiantly not. It revels in vulgarity, whether it be in the non-stop dropping of F-bombs, the casual nastiness as puppet characters are beaten, torn apart or kicked around, or—most significantly—scenes that would, if played by human actors, be the stuff of X-rate porn. The most extreme example is a long sequence in which Phil and Sandra engage in an impromptu bout of steamy sex in his office as Banning, an officious FBI agent (Joel McHale) and Phil’s secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) embarrassedly listen to the action—a lot of white Silly String explodes in all directions as Phil reaches the point of no control. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, as it were.

One’s ability to enjoy this will depend on whether you find grossness for the sake of grossness any more tolerable when it’s enacted by Muppets rather than human beings. If you’re a big fan of Apatow-style comic raunchiness and its inferior imitators, of course, this might be to your taste (or lack thereof); but Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” movies, among others, played much the same tune as this one on a smaller scale, and Henson’s doesn’t mark any improvement on them.

Certainly the movie has little else going for it: the plot is as dopey as anything on the old Muppet Show, and the dialogue drips with the sort of goofy malapropism and parody the series specialized in, but it all seems drearily uninspired this time around. McCarthy offers another of her frantic, frenzied, deeply unfunny turns, and Banks is pretty much wasted, although Rudolph manages to get a few laughs as Phil’s absurdly loyal secretary.

There is, however, a lot of technical dexterity behind the work of animating the puppets and ensuring that the interaction between them and the human actors is smooth and seamless; footage during the prolonged final credits testifies to the efforts of the puppeteers and crew in choreographing things. Praise is certainly due the Henson factory and cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen for putting it all together so skillfully.

It’s a pity their talents weren’t in the service of better material.

SLENDER MAN

Producer: Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt, William Sherak, Robyn Meisinger and Sarah Snow
Director: Sylvain White
Writer: David Birke
Stars: Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, Taylor Richardson, Annalise Basso, Javier Botet, Alex Fitzalan and Kevin Chapman
Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Screen Gems

D-

The Internet bogeyman who actually inspired a couple of impressionable twelve-year old Wisconsin girls to attempt to kill a friend in 2014 comes to your favorite multiplex, but his appearance is more likely to engender hostility in you against the makers of “Slender Man” than toward anybody you know. There were more chills in a single frame of “The Babadook” than in this entire dreary movie.

Slender Man first showed up in 2009 on the website SomethingAwful.com in a post by one Eric Knudsen, aka Victor Surge. The spooky figure—a tall, dark, faceless creature with long, spindly fingers that was inserted into many contexts—became a popular web presence, often depicted as stalking and kidnapping children. From this foundation David Birke has contrived a plot about four high-school girls—Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) and Katie (Annalise Basso)—who in effect summon up the fearsome fellow by uploading a video from the net—all it takes is Google, apparently—in which he appears. (Why? Because the guys are holding their own Slender Man party, girls not invited.) That apparently constitutes an invitation for him to come after them.

One says “apparently” because the rules about how Slender Man can operate are never made very clear, or to be more accurate, the movie seems to be making them up as it goes along. Not that it matters much, of course; the important thing is that the concept gives this creepy entity an opportunity to pursue the quartet of increasingly frantic girls, one by one. First Katie disappears on a school field trip, and then Chloe goes berserk. That leaves Wren and Hallie to try to get them back from the bogeyman that the former, after a bit of research, comes to believe is some sort of “bioelectrical” entity. But what is implied at the end of the movie is that whatever his makeup, he encases his victims in the trunks of trees, using branchlike tendrils to grab them up.

That, at least, is what seems to be happening, although “Slender Man” is so sloppily directed (by Sylvain White), murkily shot (by Luca Del Puppo) and haltingly edited (by Jake York) that it’s not always possible to discern what’s going on. There are lots of sequences that turn out to be hysterical nightmares, a couple of set pieces (one in a library, another in a hospital) that are creepily but pointlessly bizarre, and plenty of expository filler, much of it derived online from a chat room user named Alleeycat93, which one might not take to be a completely reliable source. There’s also a subplot involving a handsome jock (Alex Fitzalan) that literally goes nowhere, and another focused on Hallie’s younger sister (Taylor Richardson) that, as far as one can tell, makes no sense at all but does allow for the effects team to add a few more jump scares to the picture, accompanied of course but sudden bursts of noise on the soundtrack provided by Brandon Campbell and Ramin Djawadi.

As usual in such fare, the acting is pretty perfunctory. King and Telles have the most to do and go through their paces with grim determination, but in the end the basic function for all the girls is to scream a lot, a task they accomplish at a very high decibel level.

To be fair, the Slender Man figure could lend itself to some evocative images on screen, but here—especially when he turns into a human-like fellow played by Javier Botet, he looks rather silly (though not so ridiculous as the giant wooden spider he morphs into near the close). If you really want to be frightened by the emaciated giant, try to check out the 2017 HBO documentary “Beware the Slenderman,” which dealt with the 2014 Wisconsin case. It shows that the real horror lies not in the Internet-based Freddy Krueger clone Birke has created, but in the murderous impulse the original figure could instill in impressionable children. Now that’s scary in a way this cookie-cutter movie is not.