Category Archives: Reel Views

Reel Views

The Happytime Murders

It’s difficult to imagine how a comedy as abysmal as The Happytime Murders actually makes it to a theatrical release. First announced by The Jim Henson Company in 2008 and originally slated to begin shooting in January 2011, the long delayed project went through multiple distributors and underwent major casting shake-ups before finally gracing theaters nationwide this past weekend. Troubled productions don’t always result in terrible movies but sometimes, the worst case scenario comes to pass and it’s almost painful to think about how much time and money went into making something this unspeakably awful.

The film takes place in an alternate version of Los Angeles in which conscious puppets co-exist with humans but are treated as second-class citizens and pushed to the fringes of society. The story centers around puppet private eye Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) as he tracks a killing spree that involves members of a past sitcom called The Happytime Gang, including Phillips’ ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). When the LAPD gets involved, Phillips teams up with his previous partner from the force Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to unravel the mystery behind the connected murders.

With its hard-boiled detective story and overly profane dialogue, The Happytime Murders clearly aspires to be a combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Broadway musical Avenue Q, but it’s not nearly as inventive as the former nor as clever as the latter. Given how stale the concept is, it’s not likely that a comedy about potty-mouthed puppets would have yielded great results in any scenario but it doesn’t help that the jokes are as brutally repetitive and aggressively witless as they are here. There’s a certain quiet that tends to accompany terrible comedies like this one, a hush that falls over the audience in the absence of humor, and the silence was near-deafening during my particular screening.

It’s one thing for all of the puppet-based gags to be derivative and sophomoric but I’d like to think that the human cast would somehow be able to elevate this material. Sadly, the load is too leaden to lift, as talented performers like Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale are stuck with some seriously lame banter that wouldn’t even pass on a third-rate sitcom much less a feature film. Even Melissa McCarthy, who has seemingly starred in dozens of these types of R-rated comedies since her breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids, looks particularly exasperated this time around and doesn’t even try to make the most of her already limited range.

But what makes this unfunny abomination that much more unbearable is the knowledge that director Brian Henson, who helmed Muppet classics like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, worked so hard to see this to completion. He and his crew of puppeteers clearly put loads of effort into bringing life to the 125 puppets that are seen in the film and it’s depressing that their talents were wasted for something that’s so spectacularly unworthy of them. The end credits even bring this point home as they showcase scenes from the film before the performers were digitally removed and we see just how much of their dedication was wasted. The Happytime Murders is brought to you by the letter “L” for lazy, limp and lousy.

Score – .5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Operation Finale, starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, tells the true story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli spies in 1960 Argentina.
Kin, starring Jack Reynor and James Franco, is a sci-fi action adventure about a pair of brothers on the run from alien soldiers after they discover an extraterrestrial weapon.
Also expanding to local theaters is Searching, starring John Cho and Debra Messing, which is a thriller shown entirely from the point-of-view of smartphones and computer screens.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

BlacKkKlansman

Those who have followed the work of Spike Lee during his 30-plus year career know that he’s not a director who shies away from potential controversy when addressing important political and social issues of the time. His latest Joint, BlacKkKlansman, proves that old age hasn’t extinguished the fire that has been burning in Lee since his monumental early films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. This time out, he’s telling a slightly more conventional tale based on a true story with a more intentional inclusion of humor throughout and while the results are varied, the conversations that they will inevitably inspire are worth the experience.

Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the film stars John David Washington (his father Denzel has appeared in 4 of Spike’s past films) as Ron Stallworth, an ambitious young detective who seeks to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. To do this, he talks with its members over the phone and sends fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to their meetings under the guise that they are one and the same. Their investigation leads the pair to the very top of the organization and its Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs to witness “Stallworth”‘s induction into the KKK.

After a prologue of sorts, things get off to a good start as we witness the beginnings of Stallworth’s career in the police department and his first phone call to the KKK but around the hour mark, the film starts to stall and become repetitive. There’s meant to be a constant tension that Zimmerman will eventually be discovered by the group to be an undercover cop and it’s effective to a point but the cat-and-mouse element doesn’t develop enough as the story goes along. The script, penned by Lee along with three other writers, feels oddly light on incident and makes the big mistake of sidelining its most interesting character (Stallworth) during a large portion of the climax.

I don’t believe I’ve seen Washington in any other films before but his performance here as Stallworth will no doubt score him more screen roles in the future. I’m sure it helps that confidence and charisma run deep in the family but he also brings some playful humor and layers of irony to his performance that make him a very easy character to root for. Additionally, Driver continues his hot streak of selecting challenging roles that make the best of his range and make him that much harder to typecast. Other actors like Corey Hawkins, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Harry Belafonte make memorable impressions, even in their limited screen time.

Lee is no stranger to working with provocative material and he often finds the right tone of humor within beats of this story but the pacing overall feels too languid for the type of narrative that he sets up early on. This, however, is not the case with the concluding 5 minutes of the movie, which are bound to leave most audiences shaken as they leave the theater. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t mirror the sense of urgency that’s found in the film’s incendiary ending. BlacKkKlansman could have also benefited greatly from a re-write or two and some more judicious editing but as is, it’s a thought-provoking if messy entry in Lee’s oeuvre.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Happytime Murders, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks, is an R-rated crime comedy that takes place in a world where humans and sentient puppets co-exist.
Beautifully Broken, starring Benjamin Onyango and Scott William Winters, tells the true story of three families from different parts of the world struggling to find hope amongst genocide and war.
Also being re-released into theaters for a week-long engagement is the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Fans can see it in local IMAX theaters from August 23rd to August 30th ahead of its 70mm presentation at Indiana State Museum’s IMAX beginning September 7th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eighth Grade

15-year-old Elsie Fisher gives one of the year’s best performances in Eighth Grade, the simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming new film written and directed by 27-year-old stand-up comedian Bo Burnham. Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a kind and reserved teenaged girl (she’s awarded the “Most Quiet” superlative by her classmates) trying her best to make it through the final week of her painful middle school experience. Doing their best to help her through the transition are Kayla’s single father Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, and her high school friend Olivia, played by Emily Robinson, who are sometimes no match for the seemingly insurmountable anxieties and insecurities that Kayla faces on a day-to-day basis.

Burnham has crafted an often cringe-inducing but wholly empathetic portrait of teenage life that at once feels specific to the current generation of youngsters but also touches on universal themes that every adult can relate to as well. This is a film of quiet wisdom about how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, especially during the hormone-charged teenage years, but also reflects on how time can change how we view ourselves. Most films about kids of this age tend to come from the perspective of the adults around them; not only does Eighth Grade feel like it’s told entirely through the lens of Kayla’s world but it also tends to loosen its focus around all of the other adults in the story with the exception of her father.

One aspect of teenage life that this film tackles better than any coming-of-age story that I’ve ever seen is the role that social media plays into how kids of this generation view themselves and the world around them. Filmmakers often skirt around social media, perhaps with the fear that including it in their work will date the material too much. However, Burnham not only embraces these platforms but incorporates them into the narrative in a way that feels completely organic to this character and her experience. A prime example is the way that Kayla uses YouTube to create short self-help videos on topics like How To Be Yourself and How To Put Yourself Out There, even though these videos only tend to average a handful of Views.

There’s a meta bit of irony to that detail, as director Bo Burnham made his career from the millions of YouTube Views he received on videos of funny songs that he started to record at the age of 15. From this almost instant popularity, he transitioned to stand-up comedy and brought his cutting, clever sense of humor to the stage (his two most recent specials what. and Make Happy are both currently on Netflix and highly recommended). What’s remarkable about Eighth Grade is how Burnham avoids what I’m sure was a temptation to over-write this script, which favors sharply-realized scenarios over sharp-tongued dialogue that fits much better inside this sensitive portrayal of early adolescence.

At the center of everything is Elsie Fisher’s work as Kayla Day, which is the type of performance that often gets overlooked by those who claim an actor is just “playing themselves.” Sporting chin acne and often unflattering apparel, Fisher lays everything bare here but also brings loads of charm and sweetness to the role that makes it effortless for us to get caught up in her story and her struggles. Together with Burnham, she has crafted a film with radiates with compassion and honesty during a time when both seem to be in depressingly short supply.

Note: the MPAA slapped this film with an “R” rating over a few instances of the F-word and some relatively mild sexual content. Parents: please don’t let this deter you from taking your kids to see this film. It’s more than worthy of your time and attention.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, is a romantic comedy based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.
Alpha, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, follows a young man and his wolf companion as they fight the brutal elements during the stone age.
Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich, pits a CIA task force against a terrorist group seeking to extract a highly-prized asset.
Also, Cinema Center will be screening The Death of Stalin, the hilarious political satire starring Steve Buscemi and Arrested Development‘s Jeffrey Tambor, which is still my favorite film of the year so far.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

For 22 years now, the Mission: Impossible franchise has distinguished itself among its peers in the action genre by crafting increasingly audacious setpieces that favor dazzling stunt work above computer-generated effects. From the jaw-dropping Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol, during which our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) scales the largest building in the world, to the opening of Rogue Nation that depicts Hunt hanging off the side of a cargo plane during takeoff, these stunts all revolve around the intense dedication of its main star. That dedication is in full effect for Fallout, the sixth entry in the ever-impressive action series that features at least one or two sequences destined to become new favorites for fans and newcomers alike.

Taking place 2 years after 2015’s Rogue Nation, Fallout rejoins Hunt with his IMF (Impossible Mission Force) teammates Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) as they attempt to intercept three plutonium cores but are foiled by a shadowy group codenamed The Apostles. Upon hearing of the botched mission, CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) directs one of her agents named Walker (Henry Cavill) to monitor Hunt and his team as they work to recover the stolen material. As the plotline progresses, characters from previous films including Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and others that are best left un-spoiled, are woven into the narrative.

As things become more convoluted and the inevitable double-crossing begins, it’s probably best not to get hung up on the specifics of the plot and instead, just take in the often breath-taking sights and sounds that this film has to offer. Two scenes in particular, including a HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump above the Grand Palais in Paris and an extended aerial helicopter chase that features Cruise actually piloting the aircraft, will no doubt leave audiences speechless. More and more films are being released in IMAX these days, often unnecessarily, but Mission: Impossible remains one of the only tentpole series to truly make the most of all the format has to offer.

Fallout is unique to the franchise in at least two ways: it is the first time that the same director (in this case, Christopher McQuarrie) has directed back-to-back films in the series and it also boasts the shortest gap in production time between two films (3 years, while past sequels have taken 4-6 years to develop.) Unfortunately, both aspects seemingly contribute to my main criticisms of this entry, which is that it suffers in comparison by the high bar McQuarrie set for himself in the series-best Rogue Nation and it’s hamstrung by an under-developed script that would have benefited from a revision or two. The screenplay is rarely the centerpiece of any M:I film (most action films, really) but absence of fun character moments and memorably one-liners drags the film below a few of its predecessors.

Still, this film succeeds on the strength of its visceral action sequences and it cannot be understated just how much these films benefit from the insane commitment of Tom Cruise. At 56 years old, he’s attempting stunts that action stars half his age wouldn’t give a moment’s consideration. In the instance of this film, he’s even suffering the consequences of those choices, evidenced by an ankle break that he suffered while jumping across rooftops in a high-speed foot chase. It’s difficult to know just how many more of these films Cruise has left in him, especially considering that he could potentially be in his 60s for the next entry, but if Fallout does end up being the concluding chapter in the Cruise era of Mission: Impossible franchise, it would be a fitting high note for an exceptional series.

Score – 3.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup