The Happytime Murders: Spoiler-Free Review

Remember when some people freaked out because the 2015 Muppet show was going to be more “adult” and we didn’t exactly know what that meant?

Those same people may be in danger of having a conniption after watching The Happytime Murders.

Back when we were all panicking/celebrating the upcoming Muppet show, there was an argument I made in regards to how the adult aspects could be handled by discussing the idea of ‘clever funny’. Basically, I said that this angle could be useful for giving the characters a chance to regain some dimension after years of recasting and being thrown around from project to project. I’ve always called Jim Henson’s brand of humour for the Muppets ‘clever funny’, because along with all the zaniness, music and explosions, there was a deeper meaning that ran through everything that gave the characters a sense of realism and life they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Am I going to compare The Happytime Murders to the Muppets? No.

Am I going to judge it as a Henson production? Hell yes. Henson Alternative may just be that: alternative, but it still falls under the umbrella of The Jim Henson Company and therefore I will treat it the same way I have for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth- with a grain of salt.

Right off the bat, one positive thing about the film is that the puppetry is outstanding and no featured puppeteer fell flat in their performance. I’ve never seen so many full-body shots and walking puppets before in any production similar and all of it is flawless. It caught me off guard a couple of times and I could’ve sworn that Phil Phillips was a short guy in a costume, ala how they did Jen the Gelfing, as Phil ran down a hallway or across the tarmac.

Nope! Just extraordinarily coordinated puppeteers doing what they do best.

Bill Barretta was right on form in the lead role and while I feared it was going to be a waste of his talents, there were a few moments where it was refreshing to see him step outside of the PG-rated sphere of his Muppet characters. It makes me hope to see more of him going solo in the spotlight more often in the future. Phil Phillips is a very stocky, solid puppet to work with, so the variety of expression which Bill got out of him was a fantastic effort. The fact that Phil also happens to be a free-handed puppet would have helped sustain a more off-the-cuff performance as well (not to mention probably helpful when it came to toting a gun or two).

Surprisingly, I must admit I enjoyed the chemistry between Phil Phillips and Melissa McCarthy as Connie Edwards. The audience is given just enough history to understand their dynamic and once you find out what broke them up, you’re kind of eager to see them resolve their differences. I’m not in the business of spoiling this movie for anyone who has a genuine interest in watching it, despite my reservations against it, so I won’t say much more other than for all the movie’s flaws, the two main characters are rather well conceived.

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It’s the rest of the film that has me banging my head against the wall.

The whole reason I brought up the concept of ‘clever funny’ is because that, apart from a few rare moments, that is what this movie has a severe lack of. You come to expect it from the trailer alone, that the blue humour will take up the majority of the run-time, but there was still a tiny glimmer of hope in my funny bone that we’d end up with something risque, but with a strong moral undertones and values the audience could relate to and process as the story went along.

The story is there, but barely scratches the surface of having any true depth. There is the racial issue of puppets being treated like second-class citizens, reduced to becoming society’s drug addicts, prostitutes and day-to-day criminals because there is no other options for them in a world full of bigoted, prejudiced humans. That alone could have been a movie in itself, but it’s wasted on jokes and half-hearted inner-conflicts from the two leads.  Gender roles, substance abuse, sexuality, the tragedy of fallen stardom, all very enticing subjects which get brushed off for silly-string cum-shots and carrot-shaped dildos.

Both of which, by the way, would actually be funny if they weren’t just small bits in a never-ending string of gags which scream ‘Wowie! Bet you’ve never seen a puppet do that before! Have you? I bet you haven’t! Shocking, isn’t it? Are you shocked? Are you? Is it funny? It’s funny isn’t it? Are you laughing? I bet you’re laughing!’

Crude jokes for laughs is just like eating chilli if you have a weak stomach; far more effective in moderation and less likely to end up on the crapper in the aftermath.

I suppose I could talk about the cinematography and soundtrack, but there’s not much more to say than the music was bland and typical of a buddy-cop film and the cinematography is pretty much the same as you would get from any Muppet or Sesame-based production.

In fear of going into a tangent, I will end this review with the following thought: the biggest disappointment is not that this movie exists, but that a far greater and more respectable movie could have existed in its place. The Jim Henson Company has delivered some incredible productions over the years and while I respect Brian Henson’s decision to try a new angle, perhaps this wasn’t the wisest direction to go in.

Perhaps someday we’ll get the amazing and intelligently funny, film noir puppet thriller I know a lot of us were truly hoping for.

On another note: 

IGN actually has an interesting take on the film I hadn’t considered. Perhaps you’ll find it as thought-provoking as I did. I don’t particularly agree that this was the angle Henson was going for, but check it out anyway.

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Is It Okay to Be Picky About Film Choices?

At the beginning of this year, I gave myself the challenge to expand my horizons past the Muppets, anything Jim Henson-related, Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was the year to live up to the stereotype embodied by my fellow Literature and Film Studies students by making myself more “cultured”.

…It’s been 7 months and I have failed spectacularly. Is that such a bad thing though?

I have in fact been leaving my comfort zone, however, it’s been obligatory, fulfilling a requirement for my courses to read certain books or watch certain films. I didn’t ever expect to find myself watching a movie like The Pianist, but here we are. Films that are deliberately sad are films that I tend to avoid like the plague. Although I must admit, there have been times when I have been caught off guard (I still haven’t forgiven the Russo brothers for making me watch Peter Parker disintegrate right in front of my eyes).

Take today as an example of why I’ve been lazy in achieving my New Years resolution. Thursdays are generally quite slow for me, so I took a look to see what was on at the cinema to waste a few hours. Amongst run-by-the-numbers action films like Skyscraper and the Jurassic World sequel was a New Zealand based film called The Breaker-Upperers. Over the years there have been a few NZ films I have generally enjoyed, Whale Rider, Hunt for the Wilder-People and The Piano (not to be confused with the afore-mentioned The Pianist), among them. The title itself wasn’t enough to entice me, but then, looking at the provided information, I saw that Taika Watiti had been involved as Executive Producer.

Click. Off to the cinema, I go! Surely something produced by the director of Thor: Ragnarok, by far my favourite MCU film, would be something I could enjoy, right?

The resulting answer is: Meh.

It was by no means a bad film, it just wasn’t to my sense of humour. Just because a comedy doesn’t make me laugh doesn’t mean it won’t make others let out a few guffaws. It’s odd though because the same, blunt, deadpan, obvious-route form of humour was used religiously by Taika in his take on Thor and I laughed to the point that I was wheezing and clapping like a seal. Perhaps it was the level of crudeness to which The Breaker-Upperers went that completely disconnected me from the film. Isn’t that the most important part of the relationship between the film and its audience? The connection?

Connection means everything to me when it comes to film. I connect to The Muppets because they were my gateway drug to comedy and my passion for the production aspect of the film industry. Furthermore, they are my connection to my inner-child; it’s whenever I watch one of their productions that I feel the most comfortable within my own being, something I have explained more comprehensively in a previous article. I connect to animated films due to my astonishment at how wonderfully the technology allows art to imitate life, just getting even better as the years go on.

The MCU caters perfectly to my love for complex stories that take place over several films/ various mediums. However, even in this, I am still quite selective. I didn’t even like superheroes until I fell in fangirl-love with Tony Stark upon my initial watching of The Avengers. He’s proven to be an awesome character to keep track of, his character arc over several movies staying consistent and making for great pay-offs when he finds himself in life-altering positions. I could never get that if I were to pursue a franchise like The Maze Runner series. The premise, settings and whole angsty-teenagers-against-the-dystopian-society thing just does not do it for me.

When I get hounded by my Film Studies tutors to try and watch all types of genres from all points of history from all over the world, I wholeheartedly agree. There are certain films I will need to be acquainted with, whether for their historical importance or influence upon the industry. It is within my ambitions to become a paid film-critic; to not know film history and recognise the game-changers would be to leave myself at a poor disadvantage in what is a highly charged field of work.

But at the same time, I reserve the right to be as picky as I want. If I happen to write a million articles about the benefits of living by Jim Henson’s philosophy in his films, then I will do just that. It’s not a bad topic, after all, Jim was a very thoughtful and wise man, much to learn. We all have our preferences in a variety of areas in our lives. Our film tastes shouldn’t be treated any differently.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve seen a film and you say no because it didn’t interest you, and they respond with, “WHAT?!?! How can you not be interested, you’re insane!!!” Ignore them. Seriously, just wave it off and change the subject. If it doesn’t catch your fancy, then so be it.

You never know, it might do so at a different stage in your life. The beautiful thing about a film is that it can bring you in by digging into your core, connecting itself to what makes you who you are and resonating with you through its themes, narrative and mise-en-scene, among other things. Just do you. The right films will be there, waiting for you to discover their brilliance in your own time.

A Kinda-Rant: Can Someone Give Tony Stark a Referral?

Look, I’m not a psychologist or anyone with any type of expertise in mental health. What I am is a film student who is currently being taught to pick up the intricacies of storytelling in this particular medium. While I’m able to read between the lines of the script, I’m generally more accurate in my reading of character arcs and motivations.

After doing a mini-marathon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), something became blatantly clear to me:

Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, is in desperate need of help, but nobody around him seems to understand or care.

Before I decided to write this post, I went searching around to see if others have also taken this into account and I’m pleased to say that Marvel fans all over have reached the same conclusion.

Too bad the rest of the Avengers are blind to it.

This article from HubPages explains Tony’s PTSD better than I ever could and this one from Polygon sums up how and why his condition came to be. With these elements already covered, I’m given leeway to approach the topic from the view of an empathetic fan who just wants somebody from within the MCU to actually sit down with Tony and hold some type of intervention.

70% of the disasters in Tony’s life stemmed from his own decisions and mistakes, from trusting Obadiah Stane, to Ultron, to the weapon he designed that ended up placing that shrapnel in his chest in the first place. I suppose it’s understandable that those Marvel enthusiasts that brush Tony off see him as an idiotic, selfish bastard, but from what I’ve assessed, they’re missing the bigger picture by a wide margin.

It’s pretty obvious that I was on Team Iron Man during Captain America: Civil War. I could understand Cap’s side of things, not wanting politics and government policy to draw the line between life and death for the world’s civilians. While I didn’t particularly agree with Tony’s support of the Accords, I could tell this was the accumulation of trauma and general-if you’ll excuse the phrase- ‘bullshit’.

I’ve watched this guy become ironically injured from from one of his own bombs, kidnapped, operated on while still awake, tortured while still recovering from said injury, have a magnet installed in his chest and then watch his fellow captive die as they tried to escape-

All within the first 45 minutes of the first Iron Man film! That’s not including being betrayed by his trusted business partner who had arranged for his kidnapping and murder in the first place.

Iron Man 2 had Tony confronting his death via palladium poisoning, leading him down a reckless path that causes his world to collapse around him. Despite his actions, it’s not until Iron Man 3 that we witness Tony truly falling apart. The events of Avengers really knocked it out of him. Nightmares, onset insomnia, strange eating patterns and nasty anxiety attacks follow his selfless nuke-disposal act. Yes, the other Avengers have suffered greatly in their own way, but while Tony may have incomparable intelligence, his mind is becoming more and more incapable of dealing with his hero lifestyle.

What really bothers me is the lack of concern shown from anyone aside from Pepper, Rhodey and that kid from the third film. This dangerous type of hero-complex should be setting off alarm bells everywhere and yet, when Tony was having grandiose visions of wrapping the world in Iron bubble wrap or standing up for his belief in the Accords, not a single person caught on that these ideas and feelings was coming from someone who was at risk of falling apart at any second. And if they actually had but didn’t act on it, the events of Ultron and Civil War are on their heads just as much as Tony’s.

Tony is still as full of wit and genius as he has ever been, but it comes at the cost of mentally building up walls to conceal matters that have caused personal damage. My heart broke at the end of Civil War when he finally discovered what occurred during the events of his parent’s death. Tony snapped. Was it reasonable to attack Bucky when he knew perfectly well the latter was brainwashed? Of course not, but at the same time, anyone who says that Cap had the right to keep such awful information from his colleague and friend is kidding themselves.

Is this the face of someone taking devastating news under stride with a healthy mindset?

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There’s no mistaking that Tony would have been hellbent on capturing Bucky if Cap had decided to tell him upfront, but despite his stubbornness, Tony isn’t unreasonable. In more relaxed circumstances, I believe Tony would have been furious at first, make moves to capture and destroy Bucky, but with persuasion (and perhaps a knock to the head), there would be calmness after the storm of emotions. Tensions would run high and it’s more than likely Tony would still confront Bucky about it. However, would Tony attack him with the same viciousness as he did in Civil War?

No. Absolutely not.

Tony has proven himself to be a danger to himself and others. The people around him recognise this and yet they do absolutely nothing but point fingers at him and blame him for creating problems that could have been prevented if they had helped him realise his mental health was getting in the way of his rationality. His joking around and constant building of Iron Man suits are defence mechanisms- a clear facade. Why is that so hard to decipher?

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I’ve given up on the other Avengers and my hopes now lie in Peter Parker’s entrance into the MCU. As Spider-Man joins Iron Man for Infinity War (and perhaps beyond?), what I’m hoping to see is Peter using his fresh eyes and sweet nature to break through Tony’s defences and encourage him to, at the very least, open up. The two have a lot in common. Both are intelligent, lost their parents and relatives to devastating events and came across their hero-personas through circumstances that were beyond their control.

Tony struggles to connect with other adults, but as we’ve seen with Harley and then Peter, he is reluctantly good with the younger generations. His appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming was refreshing. Seeing him play father-figure to the budding hero was startling at first, then wound up making a lot of sense. Like I just said, Tony and Peter are similar were it counts and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony considers Peter to be someone he could lead away from himself. Someone Tony can live through by encouraging a far more noble and sensible path.

This clip below from Homecoming is essential to my argument. Tony is trying so hard to get into Peter’s head that his actions have real consequences. The mistakes Tony made simply cannot be repeated by someone so young. Tony is not a role model, he is a living tale of caution that should be heeded at all costs.

Tony understands this and this is what gives me hope that taking up a surrogate-father role could benefit him in the long run.

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There is a lot of potential here to bring Tony’s character arc onto a far brighter path and I sincerely hope this is the type of direction the MCU will take him before Robert Downey Jr’s final contract runs out.

I’ve always been partial to characters that are more flawed than perfect. Tony appeals to me beyond anyone else in the MCU because he is the most human of them all. He has no biological enhancements to keep him from physical harm, no inherited will of steel to prevent him from falling within himself. The mistakes he makes can’t be delegated to others to solve, he must deal with it himself and then try to do better the next time. It’s not often that a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist can be so relatable, is it?

Say what you want about him. Tony deserves better. Far better than the treatment he’s been receiving from those he once trusted the most.

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The Dark Crystal: A Reluctant Review (Part 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of my The Dark Crystal review. Last week, I discussed a few key points I had been pondering about the story, most of which were unfortunately negative. But today, let’s take a closer look at the film’s key strengths, of course being the visuals and soundtrack. This is a Jim Henson Company film after all.

I’ve heard many fans and reviewers call this film a ’20 million-dollar art project’ (the film actually cost 15 million, but who’s counting?) and I must agree with this, but only on a certain level. Something incredibly important to understand is that Thra was created before a plot was even considered, which unfortunately left the story lacking depth in the final product. But I’ve already discussed that, so let’s push it aside. When Jim first met with renowned faerie artist Brian Froud in 1977, his ambition was to use Brian’s illustrations as a basis for creating and advancing puppetry in a way that had never been done before. It was as much about creating a new way to imagine as it was embracing a new way of film-making.

For an in-depth recount of the history, I recommend Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones or the up-and-coming The Dark Crystal: Ultimate Visual History by Caseen Gains, currently available for pre-order.

The Technology:

In the years of pre-production, Faz Fazakas and the team that would become the newly established Creature Shop pushed the technology of the day to the limit. The Dark Crystal certainly wasn’t the first film to advance animatronics, but it did create new, highly effective techniques to bring complex creatures to life, most of which have been refined as time goes on. Unfortunately, there is no sound for this video and no date is given, but here is some incredible footage of several of the characters in their earlier stages. You can already see the development of new techniques in puppetry and it’s amazing to think of what these Creatures started as and what they ended up becoming.

 

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Take a look at this photo, which I believe is a behind-the-scenes shot of SkekTek being driven towards his death by the trapped animals and Podlings in the Chamber of Life. It’s a great example of just how many performers were needed for any given scene, along with demonstrating how traditional and technological puppetry were mixed throughout the film. When you pull back the camera and see what’s happening underneath, it gives you a greater appreciation for the final result.

For a quick character study, I’ll use SkekTek. I could use Chamberlain, but SkekTek is less prominent, which will help to demonstrate my point. Going back and watching the film multiple times, I can’t help but notice more of SkekTek’s quirks and mannerisms. The other Skeksis are certainly interesting to watch as well, but after finding out about SkekTek’s mechanical leg on the official website, I was stunned to see him limping around the Castle. His leg is never mentioned in the film, but if you watch him closely, SkekTek is dragging one of his legs, which is accompanied by the sound of metallic scraping. The level of detail placed on these characters is ridiculous, but they did it anyway. From the costuming, to the metallic arm and tubes running around where his jugular should be, SkekTek is a character with untapped potential who could star in his own story.

(It’s not like I’m hoping for SkekTek to be the main antagonist in Age of Resistance or anything….right?)

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Allow me to touch on the conclusion I made at the end of my Age of Resistance article; in the end, it all comes back to the people who put this together. Creatures like the Landstriders wouldn’t have been created without the performers, Creature Shop builders and Brian Froud coming together to collaborate. What we are left with in the end are out-of-this world creatures who look and feel believable, some of which you wish were in fact real.

Because, come on, as if you wouldn’t want to attend a Podling party!

Thra as a Living World

Why talk about the world-building when it is much more effective to show you? Just to throw another video your way, watch this short clip of the camera panning through what I think is meant to be Sog, based on what is described in Shadows of the Dark Crystal. 

There is a distinct sense of everything in Thra being alive in this scene. What looks solid may be squeezable and what seems still will jump and move at the first sight of danger. This plays to a recurring theme in Henson productions, where the universe and everything in it plays an integral role. If one element were to disappear, even the most seemingly insignificant aspect, there could be dire consequences. Fraggle Rock, which came almost directly after this film, broke this idea down and silently explained it to the point where even the most stupid of us could understand it. My hope with Age of Resistance coming up is that they incorporate the idea into Thra in a more obvious way.

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If you were to show this screenshot to someone who has never seen The Dark Crystal before and ask them how the background was created, how do you think they would answer? Give them no context, don’t tell them when the film is made or that all the characters are puppets. There’s a good chance they’ll say CGI, not matte paintings forced into perspective on camera. The backdrops are gorgeous throughout the film, creating a similar environment that was achieved by filming the Narnia films in New Zealand, yet completely different.

The Soundtrack:

Is haunting, brooding and truly otherworldly. I’m by no means a music buff, but even I can detect genius as it reaches my ears. Trevor Jones has tragically been left in the dust as far as fair recognition is concerned. From the very first tremble of the Overture, the music clutches onto your hand with a sharp-nailed grip and leads you into Thra whether you want to or not. Much like a Skeksis holding onto a reluctant Gelfling.

Take a listen for yourself :

A decent soundtrack is capable of complimenting the visuals, but in The Dark Crystal’s case, Trevor Jones’ masterpiece enhances it. Not that the visuals need much peppering-up, but the music seems to fill the occasional lack of emotional stimulus. Only the sometimes-weak dialogue seems to clash, taking away what the music is trying to accomplish. For instance, Jen’s moment of self-reassurance before he leaves the safety of the valley. This isn’t a huge issue, just something I can’t help but nit-pick every time I watch it.

So, what do we all take from this? The Dark Crystal is stuck between two categories and doesn’t have the pull necessary to comfortably place itself into either. It can’t settle down into the ‘under-appreciated brilliant films with a compelling story’ category, because the story itself is weak, but it doesn’t fall into the ‘films that are so bad, they’re good’ section due to the final product being so incredible. I’m willing to give the film its own little niche, the ‘Yeah, the story is terrible, but look what they accomplished!’ section.

Despite all my nit-picking and whining, this is still in my Top 5 films of all time, a place I can’t see it being bumped out of anytime soon.

4 1/2 Crystal of Truths out of 5

The Dark Crystal: A Reluctant Review (Part 1)

Last week, I touched upon my initial indifference to one of Jim Henson’s most prized masterpieces. I told of my journey from watching the film out of obligation to finally realising its full potential. It’s the people behind the film that gradually drew me into the Land of Thra, a place I intend to explore until I arrive at its furthest reaches.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make reviewing the film any easier. For all that I love about it, there are still certain problems I can’t help but harp on. As a student of literature in university, I’ve been learning to dissect and analyse different aspects of a story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is being told through film, song, or in a book, it all crosses over in the end.

It all starts off on a strong note. The narrator introduces the audience to two distinct species of ancient power, complete opposites, who are facing the loss of their leaders. It’s a simple enough introduction to the Skeksis and urRu and immediately foreshadows the reveal of the UrSkek division. You get a nice glimpse into the cultures and practices of the two Halves before joining Jen at his pond. All of this is a strong example of world building, and it’s unfortunate that the plot immediately drops in quality once the who, what and where has been established.

For want of not turning this into a thesis, I’m going to break this down and discuss a few key areas I’d like to touch upon.

urSu the Wise:

Once we’ve joined Jen and fellow him to the lodgings of his wise master, urSu, we immediately run into my first little annoyance. urSu appeared to have suffered from what I like to call the ‘Professor Dumbledore Complex’, the incessant and incredibly stupid need wise mentors sometimes feel to keep uncomfortable-yet-vital truths from their prophesised pupils. Jen isn’t informed about his all-important mission until urSu is on his deathbed, leaving Jen completely unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed. I suppose this setback makes Jen a more compelling underdog hero, but urSu’s lack of foresight is something I find very hard to brush off.

If Jen had been educated on the mission to heal the Crystal of Truth at a much earlier stage, I believe the journey could have been far less hazardous. There could have been a plan in place, Jen could have been taken to the Podlings to be trained in bolas and other useful skills and for all I know, Aughra could have been contacted far earlier in regards to the Crystal shard. Would it make for a less compelling story? I don’t think so. There would still be the surprise discovery of Kira and the threat of the Skeksis to contend with. Imagine watching Kira and Jen learning more about themselves and their history through their experiences on their journey. There are elements of this in the film, but they barely breach the surface, only touching on the prophecy and remarking on how little they know.

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Song of the Crystal Shard

I recently watched Odd1sout’s entertaining review of The Dark Crystal, where he touched upon something I hadn’t even taken into consideration. Why was Jen able to figure out which of the crystal shards was the correct one so quickly in the Observatory? Despite being under immense pressure from both Aughra and the Garthim, Jen seemed to know to pull out his flute and play it. After reading Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J.M Lee, I’m now aware that some Gelfings can sense the Song of Thra. The Crystal Shard merely reacted to Jen’s music in the same way it would to Thra’s Song, trying to channel it. Now that we can answer this question due to the information we have, it’s all fine and good, but it’s a still a problem.

If The Dark Crystal had been left as a stand-alone film, it’s little moments like this that could have discredited it. There are likely people out there who have watched the film, with no intention of exploring Thra any further, who will be left confused. A strongly scripted film should not need a For Dummies book to go alongside it just to fill in the blanks.

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Jen is the Chosen One?

This goes back to the problem I had with urSu leaving what could be Thra’s last hope in the dark. I can’t help but compare Jen to a character that was created years later, Harry Potter. Both are young, orphaned and vulnerable protagonists with big responsibilities being thrust upon their shoulders, but of the two, Harry is a far stronger candidate. The readers get to experience Harry’s transition from a curious, wide-eyed child into a young man who decides to take matters into his own hands. Harry uses his initiative and seeks out his own path in a destiny that had been dictated to him by outside forces. Jen, on the other hand, simply goes through the motions and it could not be more clear that he hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s doing. I’m not calling Jen an idiot by any means. urSu unquestioningly educated Jen on the basics, but clearly nothing of actual importance that he would need for the future.

And then, there’s Kira.

Who would you be most likely to choose as a Chosen One? The naïve gelfling who was raised amongst ancient creatures who deprived him of any important knowledge, or the gelfling raised by Podlings who is the forward thinking, Thra-equivalent of street-wise? Kira outpaces Jen in multiple areas. She can throw a bola, is aware of her abilities as a gelfling, has knowledge of the Skeksis and their inventions and possesses a basic understanding of Thra’s history and geography. Keeping all that in mind, Kira is often the driving force behind Jen’s determination to keep going. Without her resourcefulness, Jen would have likely been killed long before he reached the Castle of the Crystal. I suppose you could be poetic about it and claim that they are both a part of each other, their souls are bound to Thra’s song, so therefore they make up the ‘Chosen One’.

But even I think that’s stretching things a bit.

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Chamberlain’s Big Adventure

All things considered, skekSil being kicked out of the Castle after his embarrassing loss against skekUng was beneficial for both him and the plot. Without skekSil taking up the role of lead antagonist, we as the audience would have become disconnected from the Skeksis while following Jen and Kira as they travel. skekSil also provided insight into an individual Skeksis mindset, his greed and cunning demonstrating why the Skeksis are to be feared. As a stand-alone villain, the Chamberlain is a character who is very hard to hate. You know he’s only looking out for himself and every intention he has is malicious, but he gives the two Gelflings something to think about and adds to the immense pressure they already have on their backs. For a film whose story becomes very thin around the middle, that’s always a good thing.

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A Satisfying, If Anti-Climactic Ending.

I’ve come across quite a few people griping about how The Dark Crystal closes off the story. Apparently, having the Skeksis and urRu reunite and reformed into the urSkeks, only to leave Jen and Kira in charge of the healed Crystal of Truth is quite unsatisfying. I disagree. If people were expecting intense action scenes from a 1983 film consisting of puppetry and special effects, they are kidding themselves. It hits all the right notes without all the dramatis.

Who exactly was going to engage the Skeksis in combat to get the Shard to the Crystal? Only the Mystics could be strong enough, yet they can barely shuffle themselves across the room. My only gripe with the ending is that Jen should have realised that Kira had the best shot of cleanly healing the Crystal. Kira would have been able to leap and glide over to the Crystal in the event that the Gelflings had made their way to the upper floors of the Chamber. I don’t mean at the last-minute either, I’m talking about long before they even reached the Castle. Again, it’s the lack of planning ahead by a protagonist who isn’t very proficient on his feet that bothers me.

But that’s just me nit-picking. Like I said, I’m satisfied with the ending provided. The prophesy is fulfilled, the Crystal is healed, Thra is rejuvenated and Kira gets to live on despite being fatally stabbed. Besides, not every fantasy adventure needs an over-the-top climax to reach its conclusion. The most important aspect is the journey, how the characters get to where they are going to reach the ultimate conflict. Jen and Kira did what they needed to do and it paid off, allowing them to witness Thra entering a new golden age.

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Coming in Part 2:

So, that was my analysis of the story, but what about the visuals and sound?  I realise the first half of the review has been mainly negative, but I promise there is a heap of praise and optimism coming this way as I tackle the behind-the-scenes aspects of this film for next week.

Until then, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. I’d love to read your ideas about The Dark Crystal and the strength of its storytelling!

Super Quick Reviews: Amelie (2001)

Produced by: Jean-Marc Deschamps and Claudie Ossard

Directed by: Jean-

and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Music: Yann Tiersen

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel

Narrated by: Andre Dussollier

Starring: Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz

Synopsis Amelie Poulain, a sheltered and inquisitive child, grows into an eccentric young woman who appreciates the smaller things in life. After she discovers a child’s lost treasure box behind a tile in her apartment, she sets off to find the owner, un-expectantly beginning a journey in helping the people she sees each-and-every Pierre Jeunet

Screenplay by: Guillaume Laurent

Story by: Guillaume Laurent day while dealing with the misfortunes of her own life.

Growing up in regional Australia, I didn’t have a very multicultural childhood, especially when it came to non-American foreign films, so it’s a nice thought to think that Amelie still managed to become one of my favourite films.  I don’t watch it very often, so when I do go back to the film, it’s always a huge pleasure. Originally, I had thought that having to watch the film in French with English subtitles would be off-putting, but it adds to the experience, emphasizing that I’m delving into a life that is very unlike my own.

Character/Casting: I don’t have much to say due to my thoughts being quite positive. Audrey Tautou is positively charming, quite able to pull off portraying a character that never truly grew up due to her unconventional childhood. The rest of the cast all play their part in creating the off-kilter world Amelie immerses herself in beautifully. Even the characters who take up the least screen-time manage to grasp your attention.

The Plot: The film is a slice-of-life adventure with a hint of romance and a quirky and imaginative flair. It’s not too often that a story that consists of such small stakes can be so much fun. Amelie’s journey to a fulfilling and satisfying life while helping to enlighten the lives of others is a refreshing take on an old troupe. While romance in film generally bores me to tears, Amelie and Nino’s search for each other is endearing, as they are trying to meet in the middle of their chaotic lives, both knowing they need each other, but not quite sure how to get there. It is clear Jean-Pierre Jeunet was clearly having fun with bringing his unique story-telling technique to fruition.

Highlight: The narrator was clearly intended to be a character all on his own, having more of a presence then some of the on-screen characters. While providing exposition, the narrator embodies the spirit and mindset of Amelie herself, allowing the audience to capture her essence. Not to mention he has some of the best dialogue in the film, always cracking me up with very viewing.

Low-light: For once in my life, I can’t think of anything negative that truly stands out. The only problem I have while watching the film is the subtitles not quite matching what I suspect is being said, as it brings me out of the story.

4 and a ½ skipping stones out of 5

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Super Quick Reviews: Beauty and the Beast

Based on: Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s adaptation of the original tale.

Directed by: Bill Condon

Screenplay by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos

Music by: Alan Menken

Cinematography: Tobias A. Schlissler

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson.

Okay, look, if you were expecting one of my long rambling articles for this film review, it wasn’t necessary due to the Walker brothers from Channel Awesome and JD Hansel beating me to the punch. Especially where the story is concerned. Anything I could say here would just be beating at a dead horse. However, there are still a few things to which I’d like to give my own take.

Best Casting: While not the bumbling, eccentric old man we all remember, I quite enjoyed Kevin Kline as Maurice. Kevin stands apart from the rest of the cast, playing his part in an understated way, just giving enough to the character to make him likable and able to provide a few chuckles here and there. His chemistry with Emma Watson as Belle is easily the most genuine, neither having to play off CGI characters whenever they share their screentime.

Best Song: The Mob Song would have to be the most intensive, attention-grabbing 4-5 minutes in the entirety of the run-time. Luke Evans as Gaston is menacing and dangerous, despite lacking that iconic operatic bass provided by Richard White in the original. This in turn is echoed by the villagers as they march towards the castle. The film truly turns darker in these few minutes and sets up the final act while giving the audience a sense of expectation.

The Score: While the singing was mostly sub-par, the music itself was sensational. Alan Menken clearly wanted to outdo himself the second time around, a venture that payed off tremendously. The score brings intensity, mystique, joy and certainly intrigue when needed. There’s a lot to be said when a film could potentially fail if the music doesn’t grab the audience by the heartstrings. The orchestra certainly acted as this film’s crutch on which to lean.

Major Highlight: That one villager who discovered his feminine side quite to be quite natural and fulfilling.  

Major Low-light: Introducing the enchanted book was completely unnecessary. Why include something that has the potential to change the entire course of the film if you’re just going to use it as an exposition-dumping device?

Missed Opportunity: Josh Gad deserved a lot more screen-time then he was given. His performance is clever, inviting, understated and rather amusing. LeFou was originally developed as a caricature of the ultimate ‘yes-man’, but in this remake, Josh and the writers bring actual motive to the character. And yet, sadly he isn’t used to his new potential. LeFou appears to be rather intelligent with the skills of a resourceful business man, even developing a guilty conscious as Gaston starts to cause havoc. But where do the writers take this character arc? Essentially nowhere. The subplot of LeFou secretly desiring Gaston should have motivated his actions instead of hindering them. Imagine how much more intriguing he would have been if LeFou had betrayed the man he loved by admitting that Gaston did in fact try to leave Maurice to the wolves? Missed opportunities seem to be the theme of this remake.

And One More Thing: My biggest disappointment with this film occurred during the castle battle scene between the enchanted objects and the villagers. In the 1991 animated version, my favourite moment is Cogsworth sliding down the banister, laughing maniacally in the way only David Ogden Stiers can, ready and willing to prick a few villagers in the tush. Here, mostly thanks to his restrictive design, Cogsworth proves to be a coward and needs to be rescued. Just one more moment to add to the ‘why did they even bother trying?’ pile for this film.

2/5 Enchanted Roses

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Waving Off Nostalgia: Brother Bear (2003)

Looking back at one of my childhood favourites.

Directed by: Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker

Produced by: Chuck Williams

Written by: Tab Murphy, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman

Voice Talent: Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Rock Moranis, Dave Thomas, Jason Raize and D.B Sweeney

Narration by: Harold Gould

Music by: Mark Mancina and Phil Collins

Synopsis: An Inuit boy named Kenai, eager to the recognised as a man, is transformed into a bear after killing a bear in a foolish and misinformed act of revenge for the death of his eldest brother Sitka. To become human again, he is sent by his tribe’s Shaman on a journey to the mountain where the light of the Spirits touch the earth. Along the way, he must learn to see through another’s eyes, feel through another’s heart, and discover the meaning of brotherhood. Luckily for Kenai, a small, upbeat, misplaced bear cub named Koda, might just be the perfect candidate to show him how.

I remember seeing Brother Bear at the cinema in my hometown at the age of 7 with my mum and older brother during the summer holidays. While I can’t recall much about the actual first viewing, I have a distinct feeling that my brother and I walked back out of the cinema with two very different opinions. He found it to be very boring. I on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of it!

As a kid, there was a part of me that really wanted to believe in the Spirits of the Earth, whether it was the Spirits of the Australian Dreamtime, or the manipulators of the Native American ethereal plane. So you can imagine why an animated film consisting of such a thing appealed to me as a viewer. There was something comforting about ‘knowing’ that there were beings all around me, protecting and guiding me through life’s trials and tribulations. Do I believe in all of that now? No, not really, but I can still remember that feeling of security, even wishing that it could come back to me as easily as it used to.

So, do I still hold the film to the same standards now in 2017 as I did back in 2003? Let’s take a closer look by starting with my favourite aspect of any Disney film:

The Music

While it wasn’t the first time I had heard any of his work, Brother Bear was the first time I had ever paid attention to Phil Collins as a songwriter and musician. Phil acts like a second narrator, telling the emotion of the story rather than simply giving exposition. The soundtrack for Brother Bear is awesome, with two songs in particular making it into my Top 20 Disney Songs list. The first of which is ‘On My Way’, a very upbeat travelling song that seems to promise nothing but great times ahead. It gives you that kind of optimism you want when starting a new adventure. I still have it on my iPod playlist for that very reason. The second song is ‘No Way Out’, a complete opposite of ‘On My Way’ on a scale of emotion. I consider this song to be a replacement for the typical Disney villain song, considering Kenai himself committed the murder. Instead of having the villain singing about what he has planned, you get a sorrowful, mislead, would-be-vengeful character who just wants to make everything right again.

More often than not, even if I have lost interest in a film, the soundtrack still has the potential to remain relevant and enjoyable. You can bet I’ll be singing about spending time with my fellow bears at the Salmon Run for a long time to come.

The Story

As a child, how efficiently a story was told never really mattered to me. As long as everything made sense, I was fine with a few inconsistencies and blunders, mainly due to the fact that I would never have recognised them in the first place. Brother Bear was always pleasant and easy enough to watch, with just enough depth to make a child think a little deeper about the world around them. Brother Bear seems to be for boys what Lilo and Stitch became for girls, a reminder that your brother/sister is someone you can learn from and depend on, even if they do get on your nerves most of the time. Denahi’s story arc reflects this just as much as Kenai’s, facing all the hardships that comes with trying to avenge a fallen brother despite thinking that Kenai had been killed as a result of doing just that.

And what about Koda’s place in Kenai’s journey to discovering how to be a man? Yes, Koda gives Kenai a chance to play big brother, but he also assists him in learning to become a well-adjusted and contributing member of society by learning to empathise with others. Understanding this wasn’t difficult as a child, but now I’m able to actually put into words what I was absorbing by watching these characters go through and battle against the motions.

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Aside from the morals, there’s not much I can complain about when it comes to the telling of the story itself. The film is pretty well-paced, aside from one of two scenes that probably could have had a couple of seconds cut from them. The plot hits hard exactly where it needs to, such as Sitka’s death or Kenai revealing to Koda the truth about his mother’s death, and allows the audience have moments to cool down and process what is going on. The climax of the film is rather predictable, but still resolves everything in a way that pleases the audience because it simply seems the way it’s meant to be.

Brother Bear is one of Disney’s more underrated animated features. As a kid, I couldn’t grasp the reason why…and to be honest, I still don’t. There’s nothing in the storytelling that stands out as problematic, the animation is fantastic, the soundtrack is great and the characters give a freshly blunt take on the ‘kid who wants to be seen as a man’ trope. I don’t love it in quite the same way I used to, but you can bet I’ll be encouraging my younger relatives to give it a go.

As a Kid: 4 ½ Salmon Heads Out of 5

As an Adult: 3 ½ Salmon Heads Out of 5

brothers-forever

Super Quick Reviews: Into the Woods (2014)

(Super) Quick Reviews: Into the Woods (2014)

Genre: Fantasy/Musical

Based On: Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine

Director: Rob Marshall

Screenplay by: James Lapine

Cinematographer: Dion Smith

Composer: Stephen Sondheim

Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and Johnny Depp

Synopsis: When a witch reveals she placed a baby-preventing curse on the household of The Baker and His Wife, she gives them a chance to have the spell removed. As they set off to find the Cow as White as Milk, The Cape as Red as Blood, The Hair as Yellow as Corn and the Slipper as Pure as Gold before the blue moon, they stumble across other fairy-tale characters in the middle of their own adventures. Inadvertently, each and every one of them find their stories intertwining, with the Woods as the stage.

I’ve never seen the original staged-musical, but even then, I still can’t help but think that the plot is rather squished into a feature film format. There were some scenes which were obviously rushed for time and the plot sometimes leaves some blaring holes. Other than that, there’s certainly nothing to dislike about it. The casting was well executed (Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp in particular), allowing for fresh and fun performances throughout. I particularly enjoyed the cinematography, not a single boring shot in the entire film. It couldn’t have been easy to work with such earth-oriented settings, but the warmth and coldness of the forest was portrayed rather well.

Highlight: ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ had a wonderful concept behind it, with Anna Kendrick as Cinderella contemplating what she really wanted while time simply stops. Wouldn’t we all like time to pause for a moment when we have important decisions to make? It’s a great idea and a huge pleasure to watch.

Lowlight: While I realise they were going for perception-through-obscurity, it was a shame they didn’t give Frances de la Tour more screentime as the Giant.

The music was masterfully performed and the songs themselves were fun, but I couldn’t call it my favourite musical. A solid effort in any case.

3/5 Golden Slippers

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The Polar Express (2004)

“But sometimes seeing is believing. And sometimes, the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”- The Conductor

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr

Cinematography: Don Burgess, Robert Presley

Starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Eddie Deezen and Michael Jeter

dream-gift

All I wanted for Christmas was the bell from Santa’s Sleigh-

That’s all I wanted. To have that bell in my hand, to hold it next to my ear and to softly jingle it. I wanted to hear its beautiful chime and to believe once again, to know everything I had seemingly come to know about Christmas to be true.

The Plot: Multiple Personalities?

Okay, I’ll admit that everything I’m about to write comes purely from my own speculation. I hope you weren’t expecting a play-by-play review because this certainly ain’t it!

As The Polar Express makes its way from Hero Kid’s home to the North Pole, nearly everyone he encounters is a shadow or a prediction of himself. This was considered at first because they were all performed by Tom Hanks, so I automatically assumed there was some kind of connection. But after a while, I realised that simply seeing Santa Claus would never be enough for Hero Boy to grow as a character. The first personality he comes across is the Conductor. You’d think that someone who is so punctual, logical and level-headed wouldn’t be capable of believing in Santa after his childhood ends. Yet here he is helping children overcome their lapses of belief with his own brand of whimsy. Hero Boy has a very similar personality. That sense of self-wielded magic the Conductor possesses is something Hero Boy never thought he himself could have. So when he sees it in someone else, Hero Boy begins to open his eyes, even if it’s just a little bit. What else could have prompted Hero Boy to get on the roof of a fast-tracked train just to ensure a fellow passenger got her ticket?

Of course, on the roof we encounter the Hobo. I like to think of him as a Jacob Marley-type figure for Hero Boy, a type of warning for what would happen if Hero Boy continued to maul over and obsess about Santa Claus and the existence of magic. The Hobo isn’t poor because of a lack of money, he’s poor because he stripped himself of belief and filled his heart with cynicism. It’s no wonder the Hobo can never leave the train. A part of me believes that he was once a passenger on the train, but got so scared of what he didn’t know that he threw himself off board, only to be caught by the train’s magic and became trapped. He never learned his lesson, so he could never go home. The Hobo knew Hero Boy could have the same fate, so he quietly urged the kid in the right direction. Luckily, Hero Boy took the hint.

And finally we come to Santa Claus. Maybe Santa isn’t a ‘shadow’ of Hero Boy, but he certainly is the instigator of the next part of Hero Boy’s Journey. Upon seeing Santa, Hero Boy now believes, but that’s still not enough. He needs to continue to grow, and it certainly can’t hurt to have a reminder, so Santa lets him have a bell for the First Present of Christmas. I’ll talk more about the bell later.

I also find it interesting that we never learn the kid’s actual names, apart from Billy. The main kid is simply known as Hero Boy, there’s the Hero Girl, and the annoying kid is The Know-It-All Kid. From a both literary and film-making standpoint, I could guess that this is a case of the writers and director wanting the audience to be able to apply themselves to the characters. Names can sometimes get in the way when you want to relate yourself to a character you feel represents a certain part of you. I’m sure there’s a good reason why Billy got his named mentioned, other than to further along the plot when he finds and wants to follow his present towards the sleigh. If there is a reason, I certainly haven’t found it.

And just to quickly comment on the Know-It-All kid, as annoying as he was, I’m certainly glad he was there. He wasn’t exactly a parallel to Hero Boy, but he was still a good example for what can happen if you allow logic and knowledge to fuel your obnoxiousness. If any kid deserved to have the First Present of Christmas, it definitely wasn’t him!

The Music:

Alan Silvestri has composed the soundtrack for some of my favourite films, especially Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the music for this film is sensational. A mark of any good composer is the ability to work the music with the scene without undermining what is actually happening at the time. What I really enjoy about the score in this film is that the music only shows up for when it’s really needed. Transitional scenes and emotional moments are accompanied, but the film trusts itself enough to allow the dialogue to tell the story without assistance from non-diegetic noise.

I love ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’. The accompanying music score and visuals is absolutely beautiful! Definitely the best moment of the film for me. In primary school, I actually hung back after music class once so I could sing it to our music teacher because I loved it so much. Of course, this was back when I believed I could actually sing, so I may have to apologise if I ever see her again! The Hot Chocolate scene was also a bit of fun, even if it was just a way of experimenting with motion-capture. It’s one of many songs that get stuck in my head for days after watching the film.

Behind-The-Scenes:

Now, I really haven’t looked much into motion-capture, which is odd because I like to call myself a bit of a film nut. This was the first film I ever watched that used mo-cap and I’d be lying if I said I liked the final look of it. The quieter scenes look as realistic as early 2000’s technology would allow it, but others are quite off-putting. The entire scene of the roof of the train threw me out of the film’s illusion. I wish I could describe exactly why, but it’s a little hard to explain. Despite all of that, you can bet I would go and see it in IMAX if they were ever to re-release it into the cinemas! The train-roller coaster debacle would be super cool!

 

In Conclusion: Hearing the Bell

As I stated earlier, there’s nothing more I wanted for Christmas than that bell! Apparently my parents even went searching for one for a few years, never finding a bell that even came close. I’m grateful to them for trying to make my dream come true. Even now a part of me still wants the bell, but in more of a corny, symbolic, emotional kind of way. In my last post, I came off as very bitter, perhaps in the same way Hero Boy would’ve acted had he not decided to hop onto the Polar Express and taken a chance.

This film can act as a remainder to Bah-Humbug personalities like myself that maybe you shouldn’t take Christmas too literally. The Christmas Spirit isn’t something you have to earn, just sit back and allow it to find you. Go on the journey you need to take, no matter how long the trail may be. You’ll never know where it may come from.

And with that corny Christmas message, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, or whatever you happen to celebrate this time of year! This is my last post until the first week of January, so Happy New Year as well! See you again in 2017!

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