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Puppets in L.A. 

And hip-hop opera in Oakland

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The Happytime Murders

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. So they've got this this LA detective noir filled with violence and drugs and sex, enacted by puppets — Henson puppets, no less! — and Melissa McCarthy? That's gold, by my lights. Or at least it should be; it's just that somebody has to do the hard work to take a fun, one-line idea — which, if we're being honest, could have been produced during a dorm room smoke sesh — and turn it into a feature length movie, ideally one with a nuanced plot, dynamic characters and a modicum of style. I won't say The Happytime Murders failed in that transition. But what it is suggests what it might have been more than it satisfies. And in suggesting that greater shadow self, a darker, more evolved iteration, the movie sets up an impossible comparison to an imagined ideal. The Happytime Murders is a lot of fun: The puppetry is unparalleled, the script is funny, coarse and liberally seasoned with expletives. But it also introduces a number of ideas hinting at something tougher and more substantial under the fuzzy skin that go unexplored. I found myself wondering what crueler, more illuminating truths could have been told. I should have taken the movie by its own merits but there is so much early-draft promise in it that I struggled and failed to combat the distraction,

Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta), once the only puppet officer in the LAPD, now runs a semi-squalid private investigation service. He struggles with the anti-puppet prejudice he sees every day on the streets and with the bad shooting that got him bounced from the department. When a sex-bomb client sidles into his office, seeking relief from a blackmailer, Phil takes the case. His investigation immediately finds him at the center of a series of gruesome puppet murders. Paired reluctantly with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy), Phil soon realizes the killer is targeting The Happytime Gang, the cast of a decades old children's' program, Phil's brother Larry Shenanigans among them. The body count rises as Connie and Phil draw closer to the killer, relitigating the past and rebuilding their relationship all the while.

Granted, I'm so saturated with the LA of Chandler, MacDonald and Ellroy that the mere suggestion of a detective in the City of Angels triggers an inescapable aesthetic flood, a composite world of impossible beauty and filth and man's inhumanity to man, that The Happytime Murders would have to have been directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by Roger Deakins to stand a chance. But it wasn't. It was competently directed by Brian Henson, and it has its own visual style, albeit a straightforward, no shadows/no surprises one. And in that style and storytelling, lies another problem. The movie makes tacit and explicit reference to a vast catalog of noir's stylistic tropes and benchmarks that it doesn't service. And the script lays a framework of race-hate and assimilation early on — Phil's brother has had his skin lightened and his nose narrowed; Connie has a transplanted puppet liver that has contributed to her sugar dependency — that is abandoned in favor of humorous but sophomoric and ultimately unsatisfying sex jokes later. From a promising premise comes a middling result. R. 91M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

BLINDSPOTTING. As I watched this, the thought occurred to me that I shouldn't even review it. It brought me such satisfaction, such hope, that on some level I feel that I can only demean it by explication. And so this is the disclaimer: Blindspotting is better than I may make it seem.

Collin (Daveed Diggs) has been keeping his head down and satisfying the terms of his probation. He works with his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) at a moving company, where his will-they-or-won't-they ex Val (Janina Gavankar) is their immediate superior. One night at a stoplight, he watches a white cop (Ethan Embry) kill a black man (Travis Parker) in the street. With three days left before he's free, Collin's compartmentalized life starts to spin into chaos and allegory.

Co-written by Diggs and Casal, directed by Carlos López Estrada, Blindspotting uses a deceptively simple premise to tell a thoughtful, hilarious, heartbreaking story about contemporary America, race, masculinity and economic disparity. It rises to hip-hop opera, street style elevated to high art by the depth and honesty of its emotion and the raw authenticity of its storytelling. It is also, vitally, a complex love letter to an Oakland that was and may never be again. It's the most striking, unique movie I've seen this year. R. 95M. MINOR.

— John J. Bennett

See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Previews

KIN. A boy (Myles Truitt) finds a possibly alien weapon and uses it to fend off his ex-con brother's (Jack Reynor) debtors and the pair's faceless pursuers. PG13. 102M. BROADWAY.

OPERATION FINALE. Fifteen years after World War II, an Israeli agent hunts down a Nazi in Argentina. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY.

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN. Joe Cole stars as an English boxer trying to Muay Thai his way out of Thai prison. Based on a true story. R. 116M. MINOR.

PUZZLE. An unhappy housewife (Kelly McDonald) finds herself when she dives into the world of competitive jigsaw puzzlers and bonds with a fellow enthusiast (Irrfan Khan). R. 103M. MINOR.

AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). Small-town drama back when Harrison Ford was more Daddy-o than Granddaddy. PG. 101M. BROADWAY.

Continuing

ALPHA. Dramatization of an Ice Age hunter who teams up with a wolf to survive. PG13. 96M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Tiny Paul Rudd tackles big problems with his new, flying partner (Evangeline Lilly). A less portentous Marvel movie than we've seen of late. PG-13. 125M. BROADWAY.

BLACKKKLANSMAN. Spike Lee's true-story drama about an African American cop (John David Washington) infiltrating the Klan is a crackling tale of intrigue, a character study and a painfully relevant look at a bygone era. R. 135M. BROADWAY, MINOR.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Pooh gets real with Ewan McGregor as the boy from the books. PG. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS. A joyful, glamorous rom-com starring Constance Wu in full movie-star mode and Michelle Yeoh staring us all down. With Henry Golding and Awkwafina. PG13. 120M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

EIGHTH GRADE. Elsie Fisher plays a girl struggling through the final days of junior high in director Bo Burnham's film, capturing the terror, intensity and immediacy of adolescence with rawness and compassion. 93M. MINOR.

HOTEL TRANSLYVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION. Monsters on a cruise in this animated sequel. PG. 97m. BROADWAY.

THE INCREDIBLES 2. This fun, clever and funny sequel is worth the wait, with the returning cast and the right villains for our times. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter. PG. 118m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE KING. Road-trip documentary by Eugene Jarecki exploring the legacy of Elvis and America's crumbling democracy. R. 147M. MINIPLEX.

THE MEG. Jason Statham lands a big one with this brisk giant shark movie with better effects and performances than expected. You're gonna need a bigger popcorn. PG13. 113M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MILE 22. Mark Wahlberg frowns into more gunsights as he transports a cop who knows too much for the CIA in this Peter Berg action movie. R. 95M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT. A lean, engaging return for the MI team, led by Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. Excellent stunts, fights and effects raise the bar in this sixth and best installment of the franchise. PG13. 147M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE SLENDER MAN. Teen girls summon the internet-driven urban legend to rescue their friend. PG13. 93M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS. An engrossing, frustrating documentary about triplets separated at birth, whose happy reunion is blighted by questions surrounding their adoptions. PG13. 147M. MINIPLEX.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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John J. Bennett

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