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Dirty Puppets, Saucy Hollywood and Great Escapes in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Dirty Puppets, Saucy Hollywood and Great Escapes in TheatersPhoto still of Happytime Murders, via IMDb.
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Mostly middling August continues its slow trickle to the autumn awards season with some deranged puppet humor, a decent remake and a pretty fascinating documentary about the naughtier side of early Hollywood.

The Happytime Murders

by Hope Madden

Do you like Melissa McCarthy? Foul language?

How do you feel about puppet ejaculate?

You should probably be comfortable with at least two of the three if you’re considering seeing The Happytime Murders.

In a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vein, The Happytime Murders serves up a noir that exists in a town where flesh-and-blood humans co-exist with fantasy – in this case, puppets. Not Kermit, though. Not Big Bird, either.

No, like most noirs, the film lives on the seedier side of town, so we meet puppets with problems—sex addicts, porno freaks, folks with a mean jones for a sugar fix. The type of cat who’d perform a Continental Hot Sock for just 50 cents.

Continental Hot Sock—how great is that name?

Disgraced cop turned private investigator Phil Philips (Bill Barretta, longtime Muppet voice of Pepe the King Prawn, Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef and others) re-teams with his old partner, Det. Edwards (McCarthy), to solve a string of puppet murders.

The case smells like rotten cotton.

McCarthy interacts as believably with puppets as she ever did with Sandra Bullock, and Todd Berger’s script takes excellent advantage of her whip-smart profanity maneuvering.

Not every joke lands. In fact, too many fall entirely flat and far too much time is spent cursing simply to curse. But there are also some spit-take laughs. McCarthy delivers several, and the always glorious Maya Rudolph is responsible for many others.

There is an underlying commentary in Happytime Murders that can be read as a take on systemic racism, or as a note on the underappreciation of puppetry as an art form. Or both? Systemic racism as a metaphor for marginalized puppeteers feels a little tone deaf, but the filmmakers aren’t trying to make the audience comfortable, and Happytime Murders is not one for nuance.

The film is raunchy. It amounts to 90 minutes of profane, DNA-spewing nastiness with very little story to redeem it. I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

Director and puppeteer royalty Brian Henson, son of Jim and filmmaker behind The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, spares no one as he spits in the eye of the family film that’s been his family legacy.

Actually, that may not be spit.

Grade: B-

Papillon

by George Wolf

Don’t expect wholesale changes to the classic survival tale from 1973. Instead, Danish director Michael Noer makes a subtle shift in tone, moving the focus away from the physical, and more toward the mental, philosophical and spiritual toll levied by years in a brutal penal colony.

Like the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman original, this new Papillon is based on Henri Charriere’s book detailing his ordeal in a French Guyana prison camp, a sentence that began in the 1930s. Though the questionable authenticity of many of the book’s details earned it a “biographical novel” classification, Henri’s tale of primal struggle still commands attention.

As Henri (nicknamed “Papillon” after his butterfly tattoo), Charlie Hunnam finds McQueen’s big shoes a surprisingly comfortable fit. Digging deeper than he has to date, Hunnam turns in a fiercely committed performance that caters to Noer’s vision of an outside/in character arc.

Rami Malek is even better as the soft-spoken Louis, a wealthy counterfeiter who leans on the bruising Henri to provide safe haven from the savagery of other inmates. Keeping the basics of Hoffman’s characterization, Malek adds his own shading for a compelling take on a man drawn to his friend for the defiant commitment lacking within himself.

Noer sets a compelling contrast between two worlds, both visually impressive. The prison interiors are draped in blood, sweat and dark despair, while the colorful, expansive vistas just outside taunt the inmates with constant reminders of a freedom they are not likely to taste again.

The parts are all here and competently assembled, but the punch of the bigger themes Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Contraband) are aiming for never land flush. The ordeal is tense, brutal and sometimes pulse-pounding, but this new Papillon can’t fully expose the nerve it was digging for.

Beyond physical toughness, what was it that drove Henri to merely bend where other men were breaking?

We get some fine glimpses, but none with depth enough to truly transcend the journey.

Grade: B-

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

by Brandon Thomas

Hollywood has always been about vanity, secrets and fiction. It’s an industry filled with people who make a living pretending to be someone else. Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood tells a tale of men and women who led fictional personal lives too.

After his service in World War II, Midwest transplant Scotty Bowers lands a job at a busy gas station on Hollywood Blvd. It’s here where Scotty meets his first secretly gay Hollywood celebrity: Walter Pidgeon (Forbidden Planet). This meeting—and subsequent sexual encounter—opens Bowers’s eyes to a large community of closeted gay actors and actresses. He wants to give them a place to meet one another…and to make a buck in the process. Through his likability and ability to find sexy, young men and women, Bowers cements his place among the Hollywood elite.

During his tenure as “Pimp to the Stars,” Bowers finds himself setting up rendezvous for more than just famous actors and directors, as business tycoons also knew of his reputation. Bowers also attracts the attention of British royalty. Through it all, Scotty Bowers claims to only want one thing: to make people happy.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood could’ve easily turned into one big tell-all (and there are some revelations that I didn’t know), but director Matt Tyrnauer wisely keeps the focus squarely on Bowers himself. Scotty Bowers isn’t the flamboyant center of attention you’d expect. Instead, we’re shown a 95-year-old hoarder who spends most of his free time cruising the streets looking for junk he can load into one of his many homes.

The film wisely doesn’t rely on talking heads to fill in the gaps of the story. There’s the occasional interview with a Hollywood player like Peter Bart (former editor of Variety) or one of Scotty’s “boys,” but the bulk of the movie is composed of Scotty’s interactions with these people. Tyrnauer strives to show how Bowers continues to make connections with people, even though gay culture in Hollywood has become mainstream.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a celebration of sexual freedom. The feel-good nature of the film is a byproduct of who Bowers is as a person. He claims he only wanted to make people happy—and he meant it.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:
Beautifully Broken (PG13)
Go Brother (NR)
Never Goin Back (R)
Puzzle (R)
Support the Girls (R)
Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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