Saturday, August 25, 2018


What a bad couple weeks to be a fan of puppet movies. This weekend brings theaters Brian Henson's colossally misguided The Happytime Murders, which is not merely outrageously vulgar, but deeply, unpleasantly unfunny. It's bad enough that it's a cringingly empty provocation -- with Muppet-y designs swearing, doing drugs, and making all manner of explicit sexual reference as if that's enough of a joke in and of itself -- but that it's coming from inside the Henson family makes it especially painful. I won't go so far as to accuse the son of betraying the father, but it does seem out of character with Jim Henson's project. Sure, a Muppet Show pilot was titled "Sex and Violence," but that had more to do with the time's wry, dry Smothers brothers/Tom Lehrer tone. Besides, this isn't even close to that. Long gone are even the days when Jim Henson's son was making silly/tony literary adaptations with Muppet casts interacting amongst great thespians giving it their all (Michael Caine in Muppet Christmas Carol and Tim Curry in Muppet Treasure Island). Now Brian Henson has stooped to this grimly stupid passion project -- a hard-R Who Framed Roger Rabbit riff for the felt-and-googly-eye set. Here Melissa McCarthy (with yet another in her increasingly long line of disappointing choices) plays the Bob Hoskins human partner to a sour blue P.I. puppet (performed by longtime Muppeteer Bill Baretta). In flat, thin scenes stumbling out in dull procession, they're trying to solve the mystery of a serial killer targeting the puppet cast of a 90's sitcom (though weirdly one flashback to its set is scored to LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It," so figure that out). The gags limp to obvious gross punchlines, the mystery rarely rises to the level of diverting, and not even brief appearances by usually funny humans like Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker, and Joel McHale can jerk laughs from the listless scenes. Would that the potentially fine premise rise to the vastly superior cleverness of the family friendly material from which it attempts to borrow affection for purposelessly smutty purposes. When I wasn't disengaged or disgusted, I mostly felt sadness that, four years after the great Muppets Most Wanted, Disney can't figure out how to keep making Muppet movies, but this fleet of producers could get this dreck financed and released. 

Even worse, however, is Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Somehow it's a shorter distance to fall -- the 1989 direct-to-VHS original has a certain cheap dreamy appeal, but is certainly nowhere near good -- and yet the movie is still more disappointing. The umpteenth in the long series, and a remake of sorts, is a clumsy, staggeringly inept little horror movie with some chunky gore prosthetic effects and very little else. Characters (even those played by the recognizable, and usually enjoyable, likes of Thomas Lennon, Barbara Crampton, and Charlyne Yi) are haphazardly introduced, the ensemble erratically grown, the gross-out deaths oddly paced. The sound design is thin and often cavernous. The music is a halting, choppy synths and MIDI chirp. Like Happytime Murders, its entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to provoke, and it proceeds to do so in nasty yet fruitless ways. The plot concerns a Nazi puppet-maker (Udo Kier) who creates an army of little toys who come to life and kill those he dislikes. The extended kill-fest the movie largely becomes involves the puppets attacking a hotel, invading room after room to kill Jewish, gay, gypsy, and black people. It's disgusting -- complete with burning yarmulke and a violated pregnant woman -- but also thinks that's the beginning and end of its point. It conjures this upsetting material for nothing more than a showcase for the makeup team's oozing burns, loosened heads, and deep gashes. It skips past any possible satiric point and, in its eagerness to skip everything approaching fundamental competent filmmaking, hits long stretches of boredom punctuated by the longest, vilest orgy of useless violence horror has seen in a while. To think it's scripted (but not directed) by S. Craig Zahler, whose 2015 horror western Bone Tomahawk made him one of genre's newest best hopes. This movie is enough to make one think gloomy thoughts about why all involved thought this was worth making.

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