The Happytime Murders (2018)

US, China / 91 minutes / color / STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers, Black Bear, TMP, On the Day, Henson Alternative, Jim Henson Company Dir: Brian Henson Pr: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes Scr: Todd Berger Story: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson Cine: Mitchell Amundsen Puppetry: Kevin Clash (Puppet Captain), Dorien Davies, Alice Dinnean, Jayden Libran, Drew Massey, Ten Michaels, Colleen Smith, Allan Trautman, Victor Yerrid Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Cynthy Wu, Michael McDonald Voice cast: Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Victor Yerrid, Drew Massey, Allan Trautman.

Owing far more of a conceptual debt to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988) than it might care to admit, The Happytime Murders is set in an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets live alongside each other, although with puppets being generally discriminated against and treated as lesser beings. While its precursor, which specifically references the real-life circumstances underpinning CHINATOWN (1974), is open to reading as a piece of neonoir, albeit a decidedly oddball one, The Happytime Murders is more of a gambol through the clichés, including noirish ones, of the Hollywood school of crime movies, including erotic thrillers and other direct-to-video effusions. (There’s also the occasional direct reference to well known cinematic precursors, such as to Sharon Stone’s sartorial revelation in 1992’s BASIC INSTINCT.)

Phil, voiced by Bill Barretta

A dozen years ago Phil Philips (voiced by Barretta) was the only puppet cop in the LAPD, partnered with Continue reading

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book: Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss

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I would probably have loved this had I listened to an audiobook version (not that I ever do listen to audiobooks, but this is just a hypothetical, you understand). As it was, I read the book in the print version and so had to cope with the author’s idiosyncratic ideas on punctuation, which meant that the main emotion I felt toward a tale that could have been right up my street was irritation.

There are good reasons why people use quotation marks. There are good reasons why they use paragraph breaks for alternating lines of dialogue. Failing to use either of these stratagems simply makes the text less clear, and for no purpose that I could ascertain — or even guess at.

So, the plot in a nutshell. Teenager Silvie is taken with her family, a bunch of students and an archaeology professor to spend a fortnight living in the Northumbrian countryside as the Iron Age population there, the bog people, might have done. Most of these happy campers make greater or lesser compromises with the ideal — the local Spar does good business selling junk food to people in coarse-woven tunics — but they do indeed largely subsist on vegetables foraged from the wilds, mussels, fish, snared rabbits, and so on.

The person who abides by the commitment with absolute conviction is Silvie’s amateur-archaeologist father, who’s as vile a character as you could hope not to meet. Forever enraged about something, Dad Continue reading

book: Criminal Damage (1992) by Margaret Yorke

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Margaret Yorke’s work is an acquired taste that I never fully acquired, and so, when I saw this novel for sale (with its fabulous cover, by Merrit Deckle), I thought I should revisit her to see if my tastes might have changed after a gap of very many years. The answer is sort of yes . . . and no. I enjoyed Criminal Damage quite a lot, but at the same time I felt it was rather slight, as if it didn’t really have a novel’s worth of things to say. There’s a late revelation that I think is intended to blow our socks off, but I’d picked up the occasional hints earlier and was expecting something of this sort.

*user swiftly checks* Yep: socks still on.

The widowed Mrs. Newton never stays in one place too long, shifting from house to house in order to Continue reading

Skumtimmen (2013)

vt Echoes from the Dead

Sweden / 98 minutes / color / Sveriges Television, Nouvago, 5ta Avenida, Svenska Filminsitutet, Nordisk, Yellow Bird, Fundament Dir: Daniel Alfredson Pr: Søren Stærmose, Lars Pettersson Scr: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Story: Skumtimmen (2007; vt Echoes from the Dead) by Johan Theorin Cine: Fredrik Bäckar Cast: Lena Endre, Tord Peterson, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Iggy Malmborg, Felix Engström, Martin Alfredson Jofs, Johan Sundberg, Eva Fritjofson, Maria af Malmborg Linnman, Magnus Roosman, Stefan Gödicke, Jan Tiselius, Jessica Liedberg, Ted Åström, Håkon Svenson, Philomène Grandin, Lise Edman, Björn Andersson, Karl-Fredrik Nilsson, Marko Ivkovich, Max Felder, Godehard Giese.

A couple of weeks ago I reread the 2007 Johan Theorin novel upon which this movie is based, Echoes from the Dead (in its English translation by Marlaine Delargy). It’s unusual these days for me to reread books, especially ones that I read the first time only five years ago. What happened was that, having recently read and absolutely adored the second novel in Theorin’s “Öland” trilogy, The Darkest Room, I determined to read the first, so set up a library order for it a few months hence. When it arrived I plunged into it without thinking, only to realize within a few pages that, of course, I’d read it before. Also, though, I recalled how much I’d enjoyed it, so for once I opted to keep on reading.

It was a good decision. I enjoyed it even more the second time.

Lena Endre as Julia Davidsson

Anyway, here’s the bulk of what I wrote on Goodreads about the book back in July 2014:

A still-grieving mother, Julia, comes home to a remote Swedish island, Öland, in hopes of finding out what happened there twenty years ago to her little son, Jens, who disappeared in the fog one day and was never found. Her rickety old father, Gerlof, the stubbornest resident in the old folks’ home where he now lives, has been sent a sandal that looks like one of the pair Jens was wearing the day he vanished. After one of Gerlof’s equally antiquated friends is murdered, Gerlof and his friends redouble their efforts to find out what went on—and what’s still going on. Julia, initially reluctant, starts to become diligent in the quest as well, aided by a growing affection for local cop Lennart. Everything seems to center on the fate of Nils Kant, a spoilt child of privilege who, at the end of the war, murdered two German soldiers and a policeman, thereafter fleeing to South America, where he died. Or did he?

The latter stages of this book—including a denouement that completely bowled me over—are riveting stuff, and there’s some wonderfully suspenseful material earlier on, too. I also liked very much the integration of past events with present ones; there’s a real sense of story in the text. . . . [D]efinitely worth reading.

That outline of the book’s setup is pretty close to the movie’s setup too. However, Continue reading

book: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (20009; trans 2018 Antonia Lloyd-Jones) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Tokarczuk received the Nobel Literature Prize the other day, and so I scuttled along to my local library to borrow this book, which was the only one of hers they had. For once the dearth of an author’s books was actually rather cheering: Tokarczuk’s English-language translation have appeared only from pretty minor houses, and it’s always pleasing when the bravery of these financial minnows is rewarded. An earlier novel, Flights, won the Man Booker International Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the Translated Literature division. Of course, now that she’s won the Nobel I guess those little guys who backed her when the going was tough will get squeezed out by the bigger players with the fatter checkbooks. That pleases me for Tokarczuk; at the same time . . .

The cover blurb describes this as a “thriller cum fairy tale,” which sounds good but doesn’t seem to me in any way accurate. It’s one of those novels that I don’t think should be — and certainly don’t need to be — slotted into any glib genre category. You could reasonably call this a murder mystery, because the overall plot of the book does match that template; but I’d suggest such a description would rather miss the point.

In a remote Polish village, somewhere in the hills near the Czech border, live the elderly Janina (who hates her own name), our narrator, and her two equally elderly neighbors; there are other residents during Continue reading

book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid

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I picked up this shortish book on impulse recently and am very glad I did so. It was only when I got it home that I noticed (duh) that it had been shortlisted for the Man Booker back in the day — presumably 2007 or 2008. Somewhat to my shame, I found myself wondering if spotting the relevant line on the cover might have made it more or less likely that I bought the book: my (limited) experience with Booker winners has been I think generally favorable, but mixed.

Changez, a young Pakistani man, sits down at a market cafe in Lahore with an unnamed American visitor whose motivations seem from the outset a little shifty. In a single monologue, Changez tells the visitor over a period of hours about how, Continue reading

Section des Disparus (1956)

vt Seccion Desaparecidos; vt Of Missing Persons
France, Argentina / 80 minutes / bw / Guaranteed, CICC, Borderie, Discifilm Dir: Pierre Chenal Pr: Jaime Cabouli, Raymond Borderie Scr: Pierre Chenal, Domingo Di Núbila, Agustín Cuzzani Story: Of Missing Persons (1950) by David Goodis Cine: Américo Hoss Kamenzinia Cast: Nicole Maurey, Maurice Ronet, Inda Ledesma, Ubaldo Martínez, Élida Dey, Jose Comellas, Pedro Pompilio, André Norevó, Guillermo Battaglia, Luis Otero, Dorita Vernet, Marisa Núñez, Amalia Bernabé, Jorge Villoldo, Alberto Bacigaluppi, Nelly Lagos, Enrique Brown, Raúl Deval, Félix Tortorelli, Enrique A. Quiles.

Since Section des Disparus is based on a David Goodis novel, I cannot imagine how I managed to miss this splendid piece of Argentine/French noir from my A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir.

Lawyer and philandering shit Jean Milford (Ronet) has been fooling around with Diana Lander (Maurey)—who seems to be one of those burlesque showgirls who does not in fact show—on the basis that, so he tells her, he’d marry her on the spot were it not for his snooty, status-conscious family.

Nicole Maurey as Diana

The real reason for his reluctance is that he’s already married—to Continue reading

book: The Chalk Man (2018) by C.J. Tudor

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Set partly in 1986 and partly in 2016, this sees reclusive schoolteacher Ed Adams reminisce about the events of the summer and fall when he was twelve and ran around the small town of Anderbury, not far from Bournemouth, with his little gang of pals: Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey (whom no one really likes, but he’s a friend anyway) and the tomboy Nicky, for whom Eddie, as he then was, nurtured a secret passion.

And what a year it was! There was the dreadful accident at the carnival, where a teenager, Elisa, was hideously injured and Eddie and the new English teacher, Mr. Halloran, an albino (or Chalk Man), were the heroes who saved her leg and her life, although they couldn’t save her face. There were the right-to-lifers, stirred up by Continue reading

wildly o/t book: Finn Family Moomintroll (1948; trans 1958 Elizabeth Portch) by Tove Jansson

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This is actually a reread for me. However, since I romped through all the Moomin books when I was about ten or twelve, I don’t think it really counts as such. That said, I was astonished by how much I remembered from well over a half-century ago. (My wife suggests I may have read it to my daughter when she was small, but I don’t recall doing so — shame on me for this failure of parenting! — and, even if I did, that would still have been, ahem, a respectable number of years ago.)

Moomintroll, Snufkin and Sniff find a stovepipe hat on a mountaintop and bring it home. What they don’t realize is that it belongs to the Hobgoblin, which means that anything put inside it, from a set of false teeth to Moomintroll himself, changes into something completely different — and unpredictably so: you have no way of knowing what the result of the transition will be.

This is the pretext for Continue reading

Devil’s Bait (1959)

UK / 56 minutes / bw / Independent Artists, Rank Dir: Peter Graham Scott Pr: Julian Wintle, Leslie Parkyn Scr: Peter Johnston, Diana K. Watson Cine: Michael Reed Cast: Geoffrey Keen, Jane Hylton, Gordon Jackson, Dermot Kelly, Shirley Lawrence, Eileen Moore, Molly Urquhart, Rupert Davies, Gillian Vaughan, Barbara Archer, Timothy Bateson, Noël Hood, Vivienne Bennett, Jack Stewart, John Abineri, Robert Crewdson, Tom Naylor, David Blake Kelly.

An extremely minor British B-movie that somehow manages—perhaps in part because of its excellent cast—to defy expectations and become, by its end, a remarkably effective piece of suspense.

That’s not what you’d think, though, if you watched only the opening act, which is played almost entirely for comedy, complete with a drunken Irishman and a tight-fisted Scots landlady.

In a provincial small town, baker Joe Frisby (Keen) is being troubled by rats in his flour store, and foolishly calls upon tippling, flaky part-time pest exterminator Alfred Love (Kelly). Despite the laws against using poisons in a food establishment, Love spreads potassium cyanide in his bait, then goes off to the pub to drink his fee.

Jane Hylton as Ellen and Geoffrey Keen as Joe

So much for the comedy. Things turn abruptly darker when Continue reading