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Friday
Dec142018

THE SCREEN-SPACE YEAR-IN-REVIEW: THE BEST (& WORST) FILMS OF 2018

I decided late in 2017 that the New Year theme was going to be ‘change’. I was going to lose weight (didn’t happen); watch less/play more sport (got my diving licence, so that’s something); and, most importantly, turn my back on the alpha male heroic arc that has dominated film narratives since…well, forever. So I'm proud to say six of my Top 10 films headline female actors, eight if you count co-lead roles (amongst them, below, from left; Zoe Kazan in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Helena Howard in Madeline's Madeline, and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade).

I admit to swimming against the current on Black Panther (I understand its importance, but…no, sorry) and Roma (gorgeous pictures do not a story make) and at time of writing, I’ve not seen award season frontrunners Vice and The Favourite (both out December 26 in Oz). Finally, apologies to Phantom Thread and I, Tonya, which I saw very late last year and which came out very early this year, slipping between the 'list-crack'. I only hope that the reputations of all involved with those fine films are not sullied by their careless omission from a Screen-Space list…

THE BEST FILMS OF 2018

10. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (Dir: Bryan Singer; USA, 134 min) Detractors went after it for sugarcoating the man's homosexuality and a rather conventional structure, but Bryan Singer’s adrenalized celebration of Freddie Mercury and the music he created with Queen was finely tuned for maximum crowd pleasure – like Freddie (brought back to life by the wonderful Rami Malek). Like the great myth-building musical biopics of yore (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954; Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980; La Bamba, 1987), Singer’s exuberant song’n’dance act acknowledges the darkness but shines its spotlight on the talent. 

9. PROTECTION (Dirs: Phillip Crawford, Gemma Parsons; Australia, 91 min) Shot by kids mostly under 12 living in subsidised housing in the Illawarra/South Coast region of NSW, Protection conveys fear, hope, sadness and joy in a manner few films ever have. Directors Phillip Crawford and Gemma Parsons were on hand to assist and ultimately corral the footage, but Protection remains purely the vision of ordinary children with vivid imaginations and profound insights into the community and friendships that binds them.

8. MADELINE’S MADELINE (Dir: Josephine Decker; USA, 93 min) Josephine Decker’s coming-of-age drama takes no easy paths – Madeline (Helena Howard) lives on the razor’s edge of teen sanity, hoping a stint in experimental theatre under director Evangeline (Molly Parker), will help her deal with an increasingly erratic mom, Regina (Miranda July). The often non-linear narrative and visual histrionics will drive some to distraction; for others, it will be exhilaratingly abstract and achingly emotional. Howard may be the acting find of 2018. 

7. LETO (SUMMER; Dir: Kirill Serebrennikov; Russia, 126 min) “There is a sprawling sense of time and place to Leto…yet there is not a frame of the film one would want to see excised. The anti-establishment themes and love-conquers-all story beats inherent to the rock/pop biopic genre have been previously explored in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), but rarely with such heartfelt melancholy, pained romanticism and evocative rendering of time and place.” Read the full SCREEN-SPACE review here.

6. (Dir: Johann Lurf; Austria, 99 min) A master of montage storytelling, Johann Lurf has edited celluloid visions of the night sky and galaxies stretching into deep space from 550 films, creating a record of how directors have pictured the universe since cinema began. No actors and only incidental sound and dialogue as it fits the Austrian’s constructural parameters, ★ is both a breathtaking technical marvel and deeply emotional journey for science-fiction purists. Read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with director Johann Lurf here.

5. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Dirs: Joel & Ethan Coen; USA, 133 min) Playing like a greatest hits package of Coen Bros film styles filtered through their adoration of the western genre, …Buster Scruggs captures Joel and Ethan perfectly melding their consummate craftsmanship with their love for classical American cinema. The mid-section story, ‘The Girl Who Got Rattled’ with Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, is the most perfect part of a near perfect movie. (Yes, it’s a Netflix film, but it played Cannes first, so watch yer mouth, stranger). 

4. PROSPECT (Dirs: Christopher Caldwell, Zeek Earl; USA, 98 min) Lo-fi tech, pulpy flavoursome dialogue, a dirt-encrusted Star Wars-like aesthetic and a complex surrogate daddy/daughter central relationship are just some of the elements that made Prospect the most engrossing sci-fi thriller of 2018. In a year peppered with breakout star performances from young actresses, Sophie Thatcher as the hard-bitten prospector’s daughter Cee is a revelation. Read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with the actress and her directors here.

3. LUZ (Dir: Tilman Singer; Germany, 70 min) It was just to be the thesis submission for film school grad Tilman Singer (hence the 70 min running time), but word soon spread that his chilling horror vision Luz was something special. Through hypnosis, a young cabbie (Luana Velis) recalls the events that led her to a stark meeting room in an undermanned police station. Shot on 16mm and skimming between realities past, present and supernatural, Luz is a bewildering, unique nightmare of a film.

2. CLIMAX (Dir: Gaspar Noé; French | Belgium, 95 min) The old high-school prom “Someone spiked the punch!” dilemma gets the Gaspar Noé spin in Climax; the punch is sangria, the prom is a dance troupe rehearsal peopled by international hotties and the spike is LSD. Frankly, everything seems on acid in this film, even before the sangria is served; the opening dance number, a single-take marvel of twisted limbs and swirling cameras that positively lifts you off your seat, sets the tone and things amp up from there. In his best film since Irreversible, Noé crafts a hallucinogenic descent into drug-induced psychosis, fuelled by the disintegration of social, sexual and moral mores. Enjoy…

1. EIGHTH GRADE (Dir: Bo Burnham; USA, 93 min) Elsie Fisher (hand her the Oscar, please) plays Kayla, a schlubby, pimply, sullen nobody/everybody who springs to life as the star of her own upbeat YouTube show. She espouses life lessons to her audience yet struggles to apply them in her own school or domestic reality. Bo Burnham’s heartbreaking, often harrowing drama has been compared to Todd Solondz’s misanthropic masterpiece Welcome to The Dollhouse, but there is a singular central hopefulness to Kayla’s journey that demands you never lose faith in her; her arc is the most real and affecting in a year of cinema.

     

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: FIRST REFORMED; TULLY; A STAR IS BORN; FIRST LIGHT; COLD WAR; ANNA’S WAR; BLACKKKLANSMAN; AMERICAN ANIMALS; JURASSIC WORLD: FINAL KINGDOM; TRAUMA; MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT; LOVE, SIMON; SUPA MODO; STUCK; MEKTOUB, MY LOVE; CARRIBERRIE; ALPHA.

AND THE WORST…:

5. UNSANE (Dir: Steven Soderbergh; USA, 98 min; pictured, right) and 4. THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB (Dir: Fede Alvarez; USA | UK, 117 min) After TV success in The Crown, Claire Foy was poised for breakout success. Soderbergh’s gimmicky B-clunker Unsane (“Shot on an iPhone!” boasted the marketing) and the DOA franchise reboot The Girl in The Spider’s Web put the brakes on that momentum. She was good in First Man, but it tanked. Tough year for the young starlet.

3. THE PREDATOR (Dir: Shane Black; USA, 107 min) Hopes were high when alumni Shane Black opted back into the Predator franchise, the studio determined to resurrect the series after one too many crappy sequels. Post-production tinkering, tonal clashes and idiotic plotting resulted…in another crappy sequel.

2. OCCUPATION (Dir: Luke Sparke; Australia, 119 min) Overlong, overwrought, overbaked local grab at ID-4 level spectacle, Luke Sparke’s alien invasion malarkey is a fatal miscalculation of the Australian sector’s ability to pull off an effects-heavy actioner. The rubber-suited alien’s attack on a country football match aside, there isn’t an original or coherent thought in the entire shrill, shrieking mess, despite more cornball subplots and clichéd characters than a season of Neighbours. 

1. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (Dir: Brian Henson; USA, 91 min) About 10 minutes into Brian (son of Jim) Henson’s scummy alternate-LA puppet-private-eye dirge, the audience vibe had changed. We had already moved past the “Oh, this isn’t funny at all” stage, and were beginning to realise that, with 80-odd minutes to go, this Melissa McCarthy vehicle (what was she thinking?) was actually becoming grotesquely unwatchable. And, no, not even bong-pulling fratboys will dig it; no weed is that good.

DISHONOURABLE MENTIONS: THE NUTCRACKER & THE FOUR REALMS; FIFTY SHADES FREED; ELLIPSIS; A WRINKLE IN TIME; PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING; THE MEG.

Monday
Nov262018

HEAVY METAL, ALIEN ROMANCE AND KILLER FAIRIES AMONGST MONSTER FEST HONOREES

A Norwegian death-metal tragi-comedy, a romantic millennial riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a sexy Aussie revenge-noir were the eclectic feature film honourees at Monster Fest 2018. The four-day event closed out its 7th season at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova last night, with an awards ceremony/after party that maintained the high spirits and horror community camaraderie that have become synonymous with Australia’s premiere horror film celebration.

A raucous true-life account of the toxic dynamic within an Oslo rock group, Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos was the popular winner of the Golden Monster Award. Featuring a charismatic lead turn by Rory Culkin (pictured, above) as founder of the group Mayhem, whose legacy included genre-defining music, acts of domestic terrorism and murder, the announcement of the film’s win was met with a collective roar of approval from the large crowd, many of whom were metal aficionados energized by just having seen the Closing Night film.

Best International Film was awarded to Jason Stone’s First Light, an alien abduction-themed love story starring Stefanie Scott (pictured, right) as a teenager who returns imbued with special powers and Théodore Pellerin as the love-struck boy who helps her flee. Adapting story beats from Spielberg’s classic UFO tale, Stone deftly melds sci-fi elements, teen romance innocence, blue-collar suburban life and indie sector cool into a deeply affecting fantasy-drama.

David Barker’s Pimped, a dark dramatic thriller in which an act of sexual deception leads to fatal complications, earned the Best Australian Film trophy in a very closely contested category. So tight was the race for the top honour, feature judges Jon Nilsen, Film and Content executive from Event Cinemas, and SCREEN-SPACE managing editor Simon Foster awarded director Robbie Studsor a Special Jury Prize ‘for Artistry and Vision’ for his surreal Perth-shot Oz-noir thriller, Burning Kiss.

Not for the first time in his career, Lars Von Trier proved a divisive influence, with judges split over the worth of his serial killer epic, The House That Jack Built. It would ultimately earn the Dane the Best Director trophy, in a field that also featured S.Craig Zahler for his own controversy-rousing pic Dragged Across Concrete, and Gregory Plotkin for the stylish, crowd-pleasing ‘80s slasher homage Hell Fest. (Pictured, below; Von Trier, centre, with his cast at Cannes, 2018).   

Monster Fest’s commitment to the short form horror narrative was reinforced with a further four award categories honouring truncated terror stories, judged by the team behind the popular Plato’s Cave film show on Melbourne’s 3RRR 102.7 FM. The Best Victorian Short went to Feast on the Young, a dark-hearted ‘woodland nymph’ folk tale from Victorian College of the Arts graduate, Katia Mankuso; the Best Australian Short was won by Joshua Long for his colonial-era creepshow, Post Mortem Mary; and, Santiago Menghini’s kitchen-set nightmare Milk earned Best International Short. Taking the fan-favorite honours for Best Overall Short Film was the Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre, a timely piece of MeToo-inspired pitch-black satire from Finnish filmmaker Ilja Rautsi.

The final award handed out was the Trasharama Golden Lomax, presented by the reliably 'engaging' raconteur Dick Dale, programmer of the iconic 'extreme shorts' program; it was bestowed upon US filmmaker Brian Lonano's BFF Girls. Awarded earlier during the festival was the Best Student Short, which was won by Neuroplug by Deakin University student Caleb Turland. 

 

Thursday
Oct182018

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTORS WHO CHANGED THE SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSE

2018 SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL: Despite a recent run of films that include Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours (2013), Hugh Sullivan's The Infinite Man (2014), The Spierig Brothers' Predestination (2014) and Luke Sparke's Occupation (2018), Australia isn’t traditionally known for its science fiction movies (The Time Guardian...anyone?), but there have been a number of Australian directors who have not just been world class at the genre, but helped to re-define it.


With the 5th annual SciFi Film Festival about to launch in Sydney (featuring no less than six new works from Aussie filmmaking talent), guest contributor STEPHEN VAGG looks at five local filmmakers who have glimpsed the future...

Jim Sharman with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): In the early 70s there were few hotter theatre directors than Jim Sharman – he was a twenty-something wunderkind whose CV included acclaimed productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. Sharman reprised his theatre work with the 1975 feature film adaptation, adding …Picture to the moniker but maintaining the raucous, anarchic energy of the stage production (pictured, right; Sharman, right, directing Tim Curry). A famous box office disappointment before becoming the most cult-y cult picture of all time, its combination of kitsch, gender fluidity, sexuality, camp and tunes spawned countless imitators and created some of the most devoted fans in cinema history. While Rocky Horror was the world of many, notably Richard O’Brien, Sharman’s stamp was all over it. It wasn’t Sharman’s only venture into sci fi; in Australia he also made Shirley Thompson vs The Aliens (1972), arguably the first local science fiction film (unless you count On the Beach, 1959 or Summer of Secrets, 1976). Despite Rocky Horror being a game changer, Sharman hasn’t made a feature since the dire reception afforded the film’s sequel, Shock Treatment, in 1981.

Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Picnic doesn’t have a reputation as a science fiction film – people generally consider if more of a mystery or period drama.  And yet, it’s a mystery that’s never solved about an event that never happened. Natalie Dormer, star of the recent mini series remake, calls the story science fiction… and the unpublished final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel is definitely science fiction. What no one denies is the film’s influence – it has affected countless other works dealing with death, femininity and adolescent sexuality, notably the themes of Sofia Coppola's finest work. Weir’s earlier The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is also kind-of-sci-fi, which seems to have directly influenced the design for Death Race 2000 (1975). It’s strange Weir (pictured, above; Weir with actress Rachel Roberts) doesn’t work in this area more often, especially considering two of his best films were science fiction-esque, The Last Wave (1977) and The Truman Show (1998).

George Miller with Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): The Mad Max series can’t really claim to have invented the post apocalyptic road movie – that was already present in films like Damnation Alley (1976) and Deathsport (1978) – but those films remain that genre’s touchstone. Brilliantly transplanting Western tropes to a futuristic setting, they redefined the sci fi action film, especially Mad Max 2, and set new standards for world building and chase sequences which, to be honest, are still rarely matched, except by Miller himself in the most recent Mad Max Fury Road (2015). You can see the influence of Miller and Max on countless other films, books, TV series, video games, comic books, rock bands, directors… they revolutionised a genre.

Russell Mulcahy with Highlander (1986): In the mid 80s Russell Mulcahy was probably the most famous video clip director in the world thanks to his ground-breaking work with the likes of Duran Duran, Elton John, Spandau Ballet and Billy Joel, among many others (Ed: he directed the first video ever played on MTV, The Buggles’ 'Video Killed the Radio Star'). He made his feature debut with the visually stunning Razorback (1984) then followed it with this fascinating swashbuckler-sci-fi-fantasy-time-travel hybrid, starring Christopher Lambert (the US-born, Swiss-raised Parisian playing Scottish) and Sean Connery (the world’s most famous Scot…playing Spanish). The film was a box office disappointment at the time but became a major cult success, leading to a franchise of sequels (Mulcahy returned to helm the much-derided #2 in 1991)  and TV spin offs. Mulcahy backed away from sci-fi during his busy Hollywood heyday (Ricochet, 1991; Blue Ice, 1992; The Real McCoy, 1993; The Shadow, 1994), only to return to the genre in 2007 with Resident Evil: Extinction. (Pictured, above; Mulcahy, left, on-set with Connery).

Alex Proyas with The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998): Proyas’ talent was clear from his early video clips (amongst them the Crowded House classics 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' and 'Better be Home Soon') and his debut feature, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1988), but he was not that well known to wide cinema audiences until he made The Crow (1994), a visually dazzling work overshadowed by the tragedy of Brandon Lee’s death. Proyas confirmed his promise with the stunning Dark City (1998), which helped define “emo sci fi” of the ‘90s and ‘00s, including the films of Christopher Nolan and the Aussie-shot The Matrix (1999). He scored big with the Will Smith sci-fi starrer I, Robot (2004), but stumbled with his genre follow-ups (Knowing, 2009, with Nicholas Cage; the ill-fated Gods of Egypt, 2016). Perhaps weighted down by the studio restrictions that ironically come with big budgets (his unfilmed project Paradise Lost is one of the greatest “if only” films of Australian cinema), Proyas is still young enough to come up with a few more classic films.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published.

Saturday
Sep082018

THE BURT REYNOLDS 'COLD STREAK'

Burt had one of the all-time great (bad?) 'cold streaks' – films that either disappointed or plain out underperformed. Guest coloumnist STEPHEN VAGG ponders, "What happened...?"

In 1982 Burt Reynolds was flying high. He’d been the number one box office attraction in the US for five years running. He was big enough to turn director (Gator) and stay director (The End; Sharky’s Machine), he had a powerful franchise behind him (Smokey and the Bandit), he was branching out into romantic comedies (Best Friends, Paternity) and musicals (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). It seemed the public would follow him anywhere.

Within a few years it was over – he’d ceased to be a major star. By the late 1980s, Burt was back to being a TV star again on B.L. Stryker; a few years after that he was mostly to be found in straight-to-video flicks. Until the end of Burt’s life people would talk about him having a “comeback” – but while there were great moments (Citizen Ruth, Boogie Nights), he never regained his former status.

Now these things happen in every actor’s career – indeed Burt survived a large number of turkeys and disasters before he became a huge star: big budget flops (Lucky Lady, At Long Last Love), films where directors were fired during production (Rough Cut) or people died during production (The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Shark!, pictured above). He’d always managed to bounce back. But from 1983 onwards, he didn’t.

Let’s look at the films in question:

Stroker Ace (1983; pictured, top) – Burt famously turned down a role in Terms of Endearment to do this; Jack Nicholson stepped in, and won a Best Supporting Oscar, while Stroker Ace flopped. In Burt’s defence, this would’ve seemed the surer commercial bet – it was an action comedy involving cars directed by Hal Needham, a combination which had been successful four times previously (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, The Cannonball Run). Not this time, though. Burt’s luck had changed.

The Man Who Loved Women (1983) – this would have seemed a safe-ish bet. A remake of the 1977 Francois Truffaut film, directed by Blake Edwards, who was coming off Victor-Victoria and many other acclaimed romantic comedies. But critics were mean and the public stayed away in droves.

Cannonball Run II (1984; pictured, right) – another seemingly safe choice, an all-star sequel to one of Burt’s biggest hits. And it wasn’t an out-and-out flop at the box office but it was a disappointment, making half of what the original did.  Like Stroker Ace, Cannonball II simply wasn’t a very good film – it felt lazy and greedy. The original Smokey and Cannonball films had a good heart – this doesn’t. The public sensed it and stayed away. So Burt decided to go into something even more sure-fire…

City Heat (1984) – what could be more successful than teaming Burt with Clint Eastwood in an action buddy comedy? And indeed the film made some money… but not as much as everyone thought it would. Production was plagued with difficulties – original director (and writer) Blake Edwards was forced off the project by Clint, and Burt was injured during filming, causing him to lose a lot of weight and rumours to start that the actor had AIDS.

Stick (1985) –Burt returned to directing, and picked some strong source material, an Elmore Leonard novel. Burt liked what he did with his rough cut but says Universal forced him to reshoot the second half. The resulting film flopped commercially and critically. Burt would go on to direct three more movies, but none with much acclaim.

Heat (1986) – Based on another strong source material – a novel and script by William Goldman – and Burt is genuinely good in the lead role. If original director Robert Altman had stayed on the project who knows what might have happened? But Altman quit after disagreements with Goldman; he was replaced by Dick Richards, who Burt ended up punching out, and was replaced in turn by Jarry Jameson. Two more directors worked on the film (or three, depending on your sources). The resulting film was a mess and flopped. It was remade with Jason Statham as Wild Card.

Malone (1987; pictured, right) – Burt does more action, in this so-so thriller directed by someone called Harley Cokeliss. In an era of Arnie, Sly, Jean Claude and Seagal, no one cared. The failure of this film may explain why Burt turned down Die Hard – because who knew that Die Hard was going to turn into, well, Die Hard?

Rent-a-Cop (1987) – Burt teams with another 70s legend, Liza Minnelli, in a comedy crime film. Another flop which no one seems to like.

Switching Channels (1988) – a lot of people thought this would turn things around for Burt. A good director (Ted Kotcheff), excellent source material (The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur), superb co stars (Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve). And Burt received some good reviews. But he feuded with Turner, and the resulting film was a box office disappointment.

Physical Evidence (1989) – this was originally written to be a sequel to Jagged Edge with Glenn Close and Robert Loggia but was rewritten – Burt stepped into the part originally meant for Loggia and Theresa Russell was a version of Glenn Close. For some reason they picked Michael Crichton to direct, despite it not being based on one of his novels or having any sci fi/technical angle. Burt actually isn’t bad but he has nil chemistry with Russell and the film was little seen.

Breaking In (1989) – Burt has a strong director (Bill Forsyth), excellent script (by John Sayles) and gives a very good performance as a small time crook which earned him some of his best ever reviews… and it’s a really sweet movie… but no one turned up to see it. (Pictured, below; co-star Casey Siemaszko, l, and director Bill Forsyth with Reynolds)

The scary thing about these films is you can see why Burt made them. They would’ve seemed safe bets on paper: remakes, sequels, buddy comedies, scripts by William Goldman and John Sayles, adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, directors with strong commercial track records. None of the projects were crazy, weird, artistic choices – they were aimed at being broad crowd pleasers. And crowds weren’t pleased because, as Goldman once wrote at the peak of Burt’s fame, “no one knows anything”.

Maybe Burt could’ve turned it around with Terms of Endearment. It’s a shame he didn’t do The Emerald Forest with John Boorman – the two men had worked together magnificently in Deliverance, and Burt would’ve been perfect in the lead role. (Editor's Note: in addition to Die Hard, he also admits to passing on 'James Bond' as Sean Connery's replacement, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Star Wars and Pretty Woman.)  

Mind you, there is the possibility that Burt didn’t have much taste. After Boogie Nights he turned down a role in Magnolia because he didn’t like PT Anderson. His financial demands led to the premature cancellation of his hit sitcom, Evening Shade. He surely could’ve picked better projects in the last thirty years of his life.

Still, it was an admirable career. Anyone whose credits include Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine, Boogie Nights and Hooper, just for starers, deserves our admiration and respect.

R.I.P. Burt.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published. 

Saturday
Aug252018

SO WE'VE SETTLED ON THE WORST FILM OF THE YEAR THEN...?

The trailer primed the target demo (are ‘college stoners’ still a thing?) for The Happytime Murders to be the laugh-riot comedy experience of the year. Well, the reviews are in and…um, it isn’t.

Directed by heir to the Muppet throne Brian Henson (pictured, below) as the first bigscreen volley of his adult-skewing Henson Alternative corporate off-shoot, The Happytime Murders works over old-school private-eye tropes against the backdrop of an imagined LA where humans and puppets share a fragile co-existence; the film opens with a couple of moments of anti-puppet prejudice, suggesting a social commentary on racism may have once been on the cards (doesn’t happen). The script is the sophomore effort from Todd Berger, a part-time actor who earlier this year saw his debut feature Cover Versions (which he also directed) premiere DOA.  

The central character is grumpy gumshoe Phil Phillips, a visually uninteresting protagonist voiced by veteran ‘teer Bill Barretta, who is matched up with Melissa McCarthy (who shoulders some blame, having confirmed in a SlashFilm interview that she did a pass on the script after signing on) to solve a series of murders relating to…stuff, who cares? There is a nympho puppet and a lot of drug-addled puppets, meaning there’s lots of ‘hilarious’ puppet sex and puppet drug-taking. There is Elizabeth Banks working hard with no material, Joel McHale bringing nothing and Maya Rudoplh doing her best, but that’s it really.

Any hope that this might be an R-rated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (or even this years Ted, because we need more films like Ted) quickly faded when reviews began to drop. One of the first to wield the hate-pen was Anthony O’Connor’s diatribe for the Australian site FilmInk, in which he lyrically states that watching the film is akin to, “being shot in the face with an icy cold blast of humour-retardant chemicals.”

International critics began to muster their best worst opinions. The gentlest barbs came from NPR’s Scott Tobias (“…the pace sags like Kermit’s limbs”); ReelViews’ James Berardinelli (“Everything about the movie is stunted…”); CNN.com’s Brian Lowry (…the puerile humour yields diminishing returns”); and, US Weekly’s Mara Reinstein (“…a witless comedy with poorly executed ideas…”). The nicest thing Variety's Andrew Barker said was the film resembled an, "adolescent YouTube sketch."

A heavier arsenal of negative commentary was launched by Johnny Oleksinski of The New York Post, who called it a “cliché-ridden, laughless bore” under the headline "...the most miserable puppet show ever"; Simon Miraudo of Student Edge surmised, “This is the worst thing any of the actors have been affiliated with.”; Derek Smith at Slant labeled it a, “relentless onslaught of puerile awfulness.” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune nailed it, declaring, “The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie, minus one joke.”

Henson’s derided film has stumbled to a frankly astonishing 22% on Rotten Tomatoes at press time. The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Schreck backed it, saying, “It’s more than funny enough…”, while Aussie Matt Neal of ABC Radio called it an “ambitious cult-classic-in-waiting.” Advocates will point out it’s not even the worst reviewed film of the week, let alone the year; hitting Australian cinemas is Slender Man, an anaemic horror effort that has somehow conjured a 9% RT rating.

Ok, sure, but what seems to be the main theme of the wave of dud reviews is that The Happytime Murders is arguably 2018’s greatest floundering of talent and opportunity. Henson and his creative team weren’t re-inventing the wheel; bad taste puppet/people comedies have worked before, notably Peter Jackson’s cult classic Meet the Feebles. Everything was in place to suggest this could have worked too, if the slightest bit of inspiration, energy and ambition had been employed. It wasn’t, leaving a piss-weak puppet-noir bore made worse by crass, cringe-worthy crudity.