Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Meet the Feebles: Today's Post is Brought to You by the Letters N and C and the Number 17.

(OK, so it's actually rated R, but the joke didn't work as well there. Humor me.) (Editors note: Speaking of NC17, are you ever doing Showgirls?)

Ever get one of those ideas that come out of the blue? Cause that was what prompted this article.

I didn't want to dive right on into the holiday stuff, so I was trying to find something else for this. The idea hit me earlier this week - this Friday marks the second part of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit (I do have another article for that, but that will come later.) So, with Jackson continuing to run with his new MO of big-budget epic, why not take a cue from what I did with Edgar Wright earlier this year and dig up one of his earlier pieces? While this wasn't Jackson's first, I'm gonna be honest - I REALLY couldn't pass up the opportunity for reviewing this movie. That said, Bad Taste will likely turn up here sooner or later.

Before I go on, I'd just like to say one more general note on Jackson - while I liked his work on the Lord of the Rings movies, there's a part of me that would really, really, REALLY love to see him make a return to his old splatterhouse roots. Remember how Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell allowed him to go back to the slapstick horror that he made his early bones on? I'd love to see Jackson let his insane/vulgar side out to play again, especially with the new connections he has to abuse and exploit.

Both the insane and the vulgar are out in full force on this project: Jackson and a team of writers, including longtime collaborator Fran Walsh, offer up a vision of Jim Henson through a mirror darkly. Right from the film's opening song number, we're plunged headlong into the world of the Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour - a Muppet Show equivalent, all run by puppets. Of course, before the lawyers have time to sharpen their knives, the differences begin - the verbal abuse the director heaps on his cast winds up actually being the lightest of dark sides this show suffers from. Guiding us into this felt-covered heart of darkness is young Robert (voiced by Mark Hadlow), a naive little hedgehog with stars in his eyes about being able to work with the Feebles- even if it's just as a chorus member. Robert is kind, supportive, shy, and affected by an endearingly innocent speech impediment: in short, his innocence is marked for death the second he shows up with his gear. Beyond Robert's loss of innocence, we learn that the Feebles cast are plagued with almost every conceivable 'behind the scenes' problem imaginable, along with some new ones: the show's manager, Bletch, is cheating on the show's star (who, on finding this out, goes into a pretty far-flung spiral, culminating in a bloody rampage,) one of the cast learns his constant bed-hopping may have garnered him an STD (it's never named, but the fact they call it 'The Big One' makes the implication pretty clear,) another finds himself slapped with a paternity charge (in all fairness, the child DOES have his eyes...among other things,) another cast member is a shattered wreck from his time in Vietnam - and given his act involves knife-throwing, I'll let you guess where this is heading. On top of all this, the studio is being used as a cover for filming underground porn, and Bletch has been buying drugs to sell to his cast. That's just on a short summary, mind you. The fact that Robert isn't the only innocent in this cast is actually rather stunning, all things considered.

It's also rather surprising that his experience on the show doesn't drive the poor little guy to suicide, but I digress.

As you can guess from a summary like that, this definitely isn't a movie for everyone. It's crass, it's vulgar, and at points, it's fairly gross. That said, if you have a sick enough sense of humor (I'll own up to that) it's also funny as Hell. Part of what makes this work is the fact that its concept, despite having some parallels in that Henson analogy, is still its own setting. There's no sense of missing the joke cause you don't catch the specific references. It's all here - in all its wonderfully psychotic glory.

Cause everyone loves puppets, right?

One of the other strengths of the movie, and another odd one, is the fact that, for a variety show doomed to all the vices and lunacies of its cast - this movie actually has some catchy music. It's certainly not gonna be remembered on any of the greatest soundtracks of all time, mind you, but Peter Dasent, Michelle Scullion, and Jay Snowfield keep the film running with a bizarre spread of song numbers that further help maintain the movie's momentum. From the above mentioned song-number, to its last big number (described more below) that segues into a piece referred to as the Massacre Suite, there's a surprising range of both good instrumental tracks and song numbers that further reflect on the full-blown madness that inhabits so much of this movie. They're the kind of tunes you won't expect to have creep back into your head, but every so often, they will to be met with a muttered "Goddammit, REALLY?" Which is a unique ability in its own right as songwriting goes.

If there's one thing I'd say is a consistent between the Peter Jackson of then and the Peter Jackson of now- this is a bit odd to say- it's ambition. No, I'm serious. In its own weird way, I would still consider this to be a fairly ambitious movie. True, it's not on the same scope as Jackson's later big budget efforts. Still, he and his team take a concept here that had been joked about before, and still find creative ways to up the ante. They do so both in terms of just how outlandish the jokes can get - the film's climax starts with a bloody gun rampage set to the show's director performing his own song - in which he dramatically extols on the merits of sodomy...yeah... -  and how fully the movie commits itself to its all puppet conceit. In the latter case, probably the finest example of this comes with the knife-throwing frog Wynyard. When he explains his need for drugs, we're treated to an entire flashback that plays on just about every Vietnam movie trope imaginable, with particular emphasis paid toward The Deer Hunter. Again, all while played out entirely with puppets. This sequence is like watching a Muppet Show sketch guest-written by John Milius, and it's that bizarre mix of both serious 'war is Hell' tropes and the goofier elements the puppets bring that make the whole joke work so well. Further, there are no 'normal' humans in the cast, as we often see in the Muppet films - there's a human contortionist in the show, but he's still a puppet, sort of like the lost Indian cousin of Bunsen Honeydew - so the film remains fully immersed in the joke. This is arguably the biggest 'sink or swim' factor that will determine how you feel about this movie. Yes, more than the crude subject matter, if you can ride with the entire conceit that all of the vulgarity and dark comedy of the soul is being acted out by puppets with decidedly much more human perversions and substance abuse problems, then you're already halfway there on whether or not this movie will work for you.

Yep...war is Hell like that...

This is a tough film to really give a completely solid read on for everyone. Personally, as said above, I think it's funny as Hell. It's incredibly crude, completely out of its mind, almost daring itself to come up with newer and more disturbing ways to top itself in terms of shock value, and this is one of those rare occasions where that actually works in its favor. If you're not sure if you can ride with that level of crudeness or puppets, and if you find yourself easily quote the late Alec Guinness: "Watch your step. This place can be a little rough." If you think you're up for the challenge though, then by all means, get yourself a seat for the greatest (and last) performance of the Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour. A task much easier to do now than it used to be, I might add (for a long time, this movie wasn't available in the US, though that has since been changed in recent years.) Oh, and a friendly warning to those of you in the first few rows - you will get wet, and all the necessary booster shots will be available in the lobby for after.

Well, this marks the end of the first part of this week's...I guess you could call them theme posts. The next will take less time, in part cause that's already been half-written out for a while before this. It's more now's been a good excuse to unleash it.

Till then!

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