Tag Archives: Puppetry

CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (2019)

Recommended

CREATED BY: Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews

FEATURING: Nathalie Emmanuel, , Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, , Donna Kimball

PLOT: For over 1,000 trine the Skeksis have ruled over Thra, and its Crystal of Truth, corrupting them both in their quest for immortality; Aughra, the guardian and incarnation of Thra’s spirit, emerges from a cosmic slumber when she hears the planet crying out, and goes about her way to save her world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though Thra is teeming with bizarre creatures, wondrous magic, and sinister devices, this is an epic fantasy, and we expect those sorts of things. That said, the creativity and scope here are nothing short of monumental.

COMMENTS: Pity the poor Skeksis: all they ever wanted was to live forever. That’s about as much empathy as I can muster for them having watched (decades ago) the original Dark Crystal and (days ago) the Netflix series, Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance. Thinking myself on a deadline that proved to be non-existent, I binged all ten hours over the course of a day without interruption. That alone, I feel, speaks to its quality. It appears that the prequel is at least partly based on print material made since the original movie. Still, it was fresh to me, but not entirely unfamiliar. Working with puppets, as Henson & Co. did for the first go-around, The Age of Resistance maintains the timeless feel of that movie I watched over and over as a child.

Cramming ten hours of epic fantasy plot into one paragraph is beyond my ability; suffice it to say, The Age of Resistance brings the modern viewer as much of the Skeksis, Aughra, and Gelflings as one could ever want. After opening narration hinting at the Skeksis’ origins and explaining the socio-ecological history of the planet Thra, it dives into some (very well executed) fantasy character-introduction, follows that up with some (very well executed) quests and side stories, before finishing with a (very well executed) climax and final confrontation between the Gelfling heroes and the Skeksis overlords. Of course, how “final” the confrontation is, to anyone familiar with the broader story, is doubtful; judging from the show’s byline and the beginning of The Dark Crystal movie, this series finishes at what I shall dub “peak Gelfling”. The story’s coda sets things up for the staggeringly dark chapter in Thra’s history that is (hopefully) doubtless to come.

But the show! My word, I had forgotten how impressive things could be when the Henson name is slapped thereupon. Thra’s ecosystem bubbles over (sometimes literally) with all manner of exotic creatures: woodland faeries that fly and spin along air currents, deadly carnivorous plant tendrils called “gobblers”, paper-eating library imps, and of course the landstriders and “fizzgigs“. The humanoid characters fill out the perquisites for fantasy adventuring yarns: the troubled soldier, the bookish princess, the knight-errant with humble origins. Obviously there are technical limits to emoting when we’re talking puppets (particularly, it seems, when talking Gelfling puppets), but the combination of voice acting (Mark Hamill and Simon Pegg are a real treat) and the puppeteers—each responsible for their own character (my apologies to those under-credited virtuosos)—made the whole world, at least by a few hours in, seem real, in its own special way.

My main criticism with a lot of fantasy I’ve seen and read (including that which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed) is the conflict seems to boil down to “infinite skill” (the good guys) versus “infinite resources” (the bad guys). Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance does not suffer from this distillation. The Skeksis are pure sociopathic evil doused in cunning (they’ve been running the show for a millennia); the Gelfling (and their various allies) have passion, surely, and some have skill. But it never comes across as a close fight. Indeed, there was a pall over the whole affair as I knew what was coming. The Age of Resistance‘s narrative arc stops before that dark period, so things  end on a hopeful note. But for those in the know, the Gelflings have much more to fear than any “winter” coming; their story is primed for genocide, and you can’t say that about many PG adventure shows.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…quite simply, one of the all-time great fantasy epics, as well as the masterwork of puppetry most closely aligned with Jim Henson’s humanistic philosophy… Despite being rated TV-PG, ‘Age of Resistance’ never flinches when tackling the harrowing aspects of its subject matter. It is chockfull of nightmarish imagery guaranteed to frighten some young viewers and fascinate many others. Part of what appealed to those who grew up with The Dark Crystal was its sense of danger and conspicuous lack of sentimentality, giving kids the sense that they were embarking on territory more adult than the reassuring fairy tales of Disney.” –Matt Fagerholm, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LET MY PUPPETS COME (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Gerard Damiano

FEATURING:  Al Goldstein, , Viju Krem, Gerard Damiano

PLOT: A board room full of executives get into deep debt to a mobster named “Mr. Big,” so they decide to create a porno to earn the dough.

Still from Let My Puppets Come (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: After the shock of “puppet porn,” this movie runs out of steam really, really fast. It leaps off the platform of its premise and tumbles down the pit of mediocrity before it ever reaches for the trapeze swing to True Weirdness.

COMMENTS: A puppet porno, all mine to review? I cackled and sharpened my barbs. I prepared all my smart-ass observations: “When a puppet gets pregnant, why doesn’t the fetus fall out?” and “Technically, doesn’t all puppet sex count as a hand job?” and “How do you stay lubricated when you’re covered in felt?” Then I never got to use them, because this movie was just tragically unlucky. I don’t want to mock it, I want to treat it to an ice cream cone and pat it on the head and tell it “There there, it just wasn’t your time.” I rank “Making Puppets Edgy” right up there with “Perpetual Motion” and “Squaring The Circle” in the category of “Things That Never Work But People Never Stop Trying.” Between Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, the puppetry tag on this site alone goes on for three pages, which is two and a half pages longer than anybody needed. So of course you expect Let My Puppets Come to be a Feebles rip-off, until you find out that Puppets was, hot damn, the very first adult puppet movie! No really, wiki and weep. It even predated The Muppet Show, which debuted in September of that year. When you consider all this and view the movie in the context of 1976—Patty Hearst was on trial, Apple Computer was just founded, was still alive—Let My Puppets Come gets 100x bigger balls. Neutered ones, sadly.

The plot is a loose framework wherein three (puppet) business executives doing business things receive a telegram delivering bad business news: they owe a half million bucks to a mobster, “Mr. Big,” with no way to scare up the funds. The telegram delivery boy has a swell idea: make a groovy porn flick! The group speculates on what kinds of stories they want to do, with swirly transitions to fantasies. That’s the first thing to know about this movie: it’s a loosely connected series of sketches, even down to parodies of popular TV commercials of the time (a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, released the very next year). The structure makes it sleepy, despite the very first sex scene being between a puppet woman and her puppet dog, who seals the deal by reassuring her “I have all my shots.” (Hey, you bought a ticket to a puppet porn, it’s a little late to pretend you have standards now.) We swim along through more sketches, like a massage parlor and the canonical nurse-on-patient fantasy, all the porn standards. The gents frolic off to make their movie, recruiting from an adult toy shop clerk just so we can gawk at all the kinky novelties. There’s a Diana Ross stand-in, a Pinocchio stand-in, and a rip-off of the puppet character Madame.

All these scenes amount to exactly one lame joke each. A couple of them are funny, more of them are a groan, and the rest just die before they hit the floor. There’s random songs tossed in and multiple parodies of contemporary pop culture. The puppet sex is mostly puppet blowjobs, which take the form of clumsy duels between inflexible clam-shell lips and wobbly foam willies. I lost count after the third time the “William Tell Overture” was played over a sex scene to make it “funny.” There’s also original songs, all pleasant enough, but none of them show-stoppers. You get so used to looking at foam actors that when a real live go-go stripper shimmies onto the screen, it takes you a while to work out what’s wrong with her before it dawns on you that she’s made out of meat. In making a movie about characters making a porn movie, director Gerard Damiano gets in some good therapeutic role-playing to recover from the scandals around his infamous Deep Throat (1972). This extends right to the puppet directors being thrown into puppet jail for obscenity charges.  Damiano tastefully cuts his pillow-sobbing short to allow the movie an ending, which brings out Luis de Jesus as “Mr. Big,” and then wastes him.

Let My Puppets Come is not without its tacky, corny charm, but it’s a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. I am a proud supporter of pansexual freedom, and a dirty old pervert too, so I wanted to like this movie more. The puppetry is on-point, at least. Good puppetry takes time to film, which makes it all the sadder to see it go to waste. This movie is left without an audience. It’s too silly for Vanillas to consider sexy, and doesn’t get nearly freaky enough to arouse the kinky, despite the puppet-on-human spanking scene. It isn’t funny enough to work as a comedy, doesn’t have enough songs to qualify as a musical, and isn’t even campy enough to get a cult following when the opportunity is practically handed to it. The poor thing is so ambitious that it sabotages its own mission. Had Let My Puppets Come just relaxed and been happy with what it is, it could have been a cult classic.

For the record: There’s various cuts of the film with time-spans ranging from 40-75 minutes. The full, uncut version is now available on a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which means you’ll no longer have to resort to the low-res pirated version on PornHub (which is how I originally saw it). I love my career.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for [Damiano’s] 1976 feature film Let My Puppets Come, an XXX film where the main characters are puppets…. truly one of XXX cinema’s most unique films.”–Cliff Wood, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

Brian Henson has daddy issues, continues to commit career suicide, and The Happytime Murders may be the worst movie of the decade. For those in a hurry, you can go now. I wouldn’t blame you one damned but if you did. For the rest of my fellow masochists, I’ll elaborate, and make it mercifully briefer than this movie’s torturous 90 minute running time.

Still from The Happytime Murders (2018)The first time I read about The Happytime Murders, the description was a single sentence that went something like: “A movie about a serial killer who preys on Muppets.” My initial thought was, that premise is so weird, how can it go wrong?

Oh, it went wrong. Apparently Brian Henson feels that he doesn’t measure up to daddy, so much so that he’s gone the distance to butcher his pop’s legacy and intentionally produce something so wretched as to provoke Jim’s ghost. I hope it worked, because nothing else did in this mess, which is essentially the Muppets go Porkys with a few murders and fish-out-of-water Melissa thrown in. At least Porkys had a few (very) strained laughs, and Melissa’s previous “blockbuster,” the Back to School ripoff terribly directed by hubby is, comparatively, an endurable fun fest. Meet the Feebles (1989) this is not. Congrats should possibly go to Ben now that Henson has now replaced you as your wife’s worst director. However, since Ben is this film’s producer….

Henson has no idea what to do with his premise, and resorts to gags like Muppet sperm (silly string) and S&M puppet porn parlors. McCarthy is not only back to fat jokes, but after a confused Muppet offers her oral sex, she quips “I wish I had a d**k for you to suck.” Yuk. Yuk.

But see, she’s kind of a Muppet herself because, after being wounded in a sort of backstory shootout, it turns out she received a liver transplant from a dead Muppet, and the reason for that revelation? If you find out, don’t bother to share.

There’s a paper-thin satire on film noir detectives and a half-assed, insincere allegory of puppets as abused and oppressed minorities; which is blatantly condescending, as is the endless barrage of caricatures and stereotypes.

McCarthy is essentially rehashing her crude cop from Paul Feig’s The Heat (2013) and doing it much more poorly here. She clearly cannot distinguish between a good script and a bad script, and since audiences seem to tend to think that the actors just make up movies as they go along, McCarthy will take the lion’s share of the blame. Henson, who clearly was planning this as the initial entry in a new franchise, forgot the old adage about first impressions. With both critics and audiences in rare agreement, The Happytime Murders tanked on its opening weekend. It deserved to. The credit bloopers suggest the cast and crew had a blast making it. That fun is not at all in the movie, and everyone involved knew it.

Hands down, 2018 is the worst summer of movies I can recall.

LIST CANDIDATE: HITLER LIVES! (2017)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Stuart Rowsell

FEATURING: Morte, Jay Katz, Chris Sadrinna

PLOT: The deteriorating, practically zombified body of Adolf Hitler shuffles around a bunker deep underground, his nightmares and visions of past associates interrupted only by visits from a faithful henchman and his telecommunications with Dr. Mengele, who has unsettling plans to permanently immortalize the erstwhile Führer.

Still from Hitler Lives! (2017)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hitler Lives! is definitely weird, with hallucinated marionette memories, decomposing visuals mimicking the decomposing Hitler, and an ending that cannot be un-watched (much like most of the movie). The lack of polish, although sometimes smacking of amateurism, is stylistically effective; kind of like if Jörg Buttgereit started a movie promised a tiny budget, but instead was given no budget.

COMMENTS: Wikipedia tells us that “Adelaide is the capital city of the state of South Australia, and the fifth-most populous city of Australia. In June 2016, Adelaide had an estimated resident population of 1,324,279.” What that opening blurb does not mention is that one of those 1.3 million people was none other than Adolf Hitler. Perhaps that is unsurprising, as the former dictator was busy slowly decomposing in an underground bunker in 2016. That, in brief, is the premise of Stuart Rowsell’s zero-budget trash horror weirdness, Hitler Lives! In a string of un-unseeable scenes taking place over an unclear amount of time, we get to watch, in horror spiced with disgust, as Hitler shuffles around in mostly solitary agony.

Beginning topside, two construction workers zip down into a tunnel as one of them regales the other with an anecdote about his grandfather helping to transport Adolf Hitler from the Antarctic hideaway to which he escaped after Germany’s fall. The colleague meets the once powerful demagogue, who is now scarcely able to move and hooked up to some ominous, boiler-looking device. After the worker is killed to fuel the boiler, things get grislier as Hitler hallucinates, hacks, stumbles around, and is increasingly distressed about Doctor Mengele’s new plan for their immortality.

So, we’ve got a few standard items here: Hitler did not die at the end of World War II; weird science has come to the Führer’s rescue; and at least one Nazi ended up in Argentina (Dr. Mengele). Director Stuart Rowsell, a special effects man by trade, twists those tropes into perhaps the least palatable presentation possible. Dorff’s doomed colleague immediately smells gangrene upon entering the bunker, and we almost can, too. The atmosphere on-screen is stifling, and the visuals look as decayed and dripping as Adolf’s rotting body. A video screen displays constant Nazi propaganda, and Hitler’s wistful musings about Wagner and success are constantly interrupted by creepy, strangely-voiced marionettes of his past henchmen (Göring, von Ribbentrop, and Hess are among the Nazi superstars we see puppetized) as well as unnerving videophone calls from Doctor Mengele. And did I mention aliens? They appear very briefly, but allow for what is one of the most… memorable endings I’ve endured in a while.

As you saw at the top of this review: Beware. We’re running precipitously low on slots, but as much as it was a trial at times, Hitler Lives! has earned, through slime, ickiness, outlandishness, and puppetry, serious consideration for Certified status. I’ve mentioned it had no budget, which is a bit of a lie: a whopping 150,000 Australian dollars were funneled into this. Impressively small change, yes, particularly considering how thoroughly real (in its surreal, unsettling way) Hitler Lives! feels. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all, however—and I say this with considerable reservation—is that by the end, the movie somehow makes the viewer pity the walking corpse on display. This feeling dissipates quickly once one leaves the rancid bunker, but the fact that human sentiment could be so upended for 80 minutes is impressive.

THE DIRECTOR SAYS:

“…the film was never stage managed for the mainstream – it was designed and written for the alternative fringe of the ‘strange film’ loving audience …. so the film is what it is – a messed up surreal trash exploitation film made on a limited budget of next to zero, that only ‘the audience of the weird’ and strange film could understand and enjoy!

Hitler Lives! was made for the weirdest audience that exists.

Hitler Lives! is available to watch on USA Streaming websites such as iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, XBox and Google Play …. visit www.hitlerlives.com for updates on more VOD/Streaming … as of yet there is no official DVD/Blu Ray release – maybe there will be a release in a year or so, depending on interest and demand…”–Stuart Rowsell

297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

Braindead and Meet the Feebles…were wisely overlooked by the Academy…”– Peter Jackson, accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mark Hadlow, Donna Akersten, Peter Vere-Jones, Stuart Devenie, Bryan Sergent

PLOT: A group of puppets, “the Feebles,” prepare for their first live TV broadcast. Unfortunately fragile egos, double-dealings, accidental killings, pornographic sidelines, rohypnol-aided assault, and drug and sex addictions plague their rehearsals. This ain’t no kid’s film.

Still from Meet the Feebles (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jackson’s second film after 1987’s surprise low-budget hit Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles was originally conceived as a TV series until Japanese investors convinced Jackson to transform it into a feature. It was then hastily re-written and shot in twelve weeks.
  • The dialogue was recorded before filming began.
  • The film went over budget and over-schedule, forcing Jackson and crew to submit what they had so far to satisfy the New Zealand Film Commission, and then film a remaining scene (the Vietnam flashback) by breaking into the Studio at night. This sequence was then submitted as a separate film to the NZFC entitled “The Frogs of War.”
  • Won Best Contribution to Design for Cameron Chittock, for the puppets at the 1990 New Zealand Film Awards.
  • Bryan Pike’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big finale where Heidi massacres fellow cast members with a machine gun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chicken/elephant baby; heroin-injecting flashback frog; “Sodomy” massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are no human beings in front of the camera whatsoever (with the exception of Abi, a human-esque contortionist puppet), only a lusty rabble of puppet misfits all clamoring for television stardom. Somewhere between “Avenue Q” and “The Muppets” lies this unseemly purgatory of puppet scheming, murder and mayhem.


Meet the Feebles opening theme song

COMMENTS: Like Dead Alive (1992), Meet the Feebles is another Continue reading 297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

SATURDAY SHORT: LITTLE FANG (2014)

Animal Collective’s frontman Avey Tare has formed a side project (as each of the band members tend to do) and released this single to promote their album “Enter the Slasher House” which is scheduled to be released early next month. Just a quick watch, and you’ll see why we thought it appropriate for a weird movie site.