THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppet Christmas Carol

1 June, 2019 at 8:09 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A “Muppet” movie is made where the primary character dynamic is between Tim Curry and young actor Kevin Bishop. Because it’s a Muppet movie. With Muppets.

RIZZO: I guess the human beings want to hang out together.  Huhn.

In the opening commentary for Muppet Treasure Island, director Brian Henson talked about the complexity of the opening pan, and the way it transitioned into the studio set, but that he’d opened Muppet Christmas Carol the same way. I gave him a little stick for the mild — very mild — grandiosity of the claim, as it didn’t seem to be a major stylistic flourish. However, in watching the opening here, I see why he wanted to recapture the idea, and even kick it up a notch by using a helicopter to incorporate real ocean and island footage. It works very well, in that it’s a slow, graceful pan over a model village of London rooftops, and despite being a solid two minutes in length, it’s not boring. Which is surprising, but a testament to the craftsmanship of the model.

TITLE CARD: The Muppet Christmas Carol

And maybe that’s part of what gets lost in the Treasure Island recreation. The giant pan over rocks and water should convey natural beauty, but instead captures the audience abstraction of distance. It doesn’t explode with natural splendor, it just is. In contrast, the the rooftops and chimney pots in Christmas Carol are close to the camera, and noticeable in their detail, and so even in the moments between credits, there is atmosphere and hand-built care to absorb.

The vibrant camera work continues during the opening number, “There Goes Mr. Scrooge”, which employs both interesting visual angles and inventive compositions for the Muppet interactions and framing. The song is a really good mix of the Dickensian language and front-loading the themes of the larger work, and the tune is fun and catchy. Paul Williams, notably the writer of some of stone-cold Muppet classics, brings some enjoyable playfulness to the opening. The only odd thing that struck me is that the beginning scenes do the typical thing of establishing a world in which Muppets and humans work and live alongside each other, but only the Muppets sing in the song. This becomes particularly apparent as the camera allows Caine to swish and stride through the streets, that while there are occasional other humans in shot, all non-felt people are noticeably silent.

This establishes the three pillars of the production: Michael Caine as Scrooge, the Muppets teetering between comedy and pathos, and the original content from the novel. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppet Treasure Island

25 May, 2019 at 8:39 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Gonzo can never refer to himself as a “Whatever” ever again. Except I don’t think we ever learned what his people are called… And I remain disappointed that there wasn’t an explicit reference to Koozebane anywhere in the film.

TITLE CARD: Muppet Treasure Island

The film opens with a long slow pan over physical mountains on location and seamlessly wipes to a studio lot that allows a mixture of Muppets and men to interact in song-styled backstory as narrated by Billy Connolly. There’s quite a bit going on here, according to director Brian Henson on the commentary track. He mentioned that this complicated melding of a composite helicopter pan with an on-set dolly pan was the same technique he used to open Muppet Christmas Carol, thus allowing us to infer that he feels it should be either a signature move for him as director or for Muppet movies under his watch. What’s interesting is that Henson is successful enough at the technical melding of the elements that it looks smooth and therefore feels… underwhelming? It should feel spectacular, but instead it just feels like a jumble.

While well done, it’s not showy enough to be impressive, which is a metaphor for the entire movie and perhaps the existence of the Muppets at large. We’ll return to the bicycles alluded to in this series’ intro post to see how full-body Muppets in space — like Gonzo on his tractor in Muppets in Space — are a technical achievement that becomes sufficient normal that audiences, instead of saying, “Wow, how’d they do that!”, are more likely to think, “Oof, we should not be able to see Fozzie’s legs.” Trick photography, well-constructed sets, Muppeteers stuffed into underwater tanks, and multiple stunt Muppets employed through careful cuts are all employed to take the characters from their artificial Muppet Theatre random half-height walls and place them in the Real World. And when it’s done well, it’s almost invisible. And perhaps that invisibility helps reduce the amount of craftsmanship involved.

Sweetums, Kermit, and Rita Moreno in the 'Talk Spot'Degrees of invisible craftsmanship are relative, though, when it comes to fake animals and singing foam statuary. It is acceptable to have the singing statues in the opening number look like Muppet statues, rather than have them be, say, photo-realistic stone idols that magically, seamlessly have flapping mouths. The former is part and parcel of what an audience accepts when it attends something with the Muppet trademark attached. The latter hypothetical scenario would also require realistic acting on everyone’s part, and would involved far fewer flagrant demolishing of the fourth wall.

Because the nominal stars of this film — in addition to the novel’s traditional human lead, Jim Hawkins — are Gonzo and Rizzo playing their twentieth-century selves. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets From Space

18 May, 2019 at 8:44 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A beloved cast of pigs and frogs and dogs and bears and whatevers apparently wasn’t relatable enough, so a brand-new humanoid Muppet was created to save us all. What is this, Sesame Street?*

TITLE CARD: Muppets From Space

Well, not to make another entry focused primarily on music, but I feel obligated to begin by recanting my previous position that The Muppets was the first needle-drop Muppets soundtrack. Boy, was I wrong. The Muppets from Space soundtrack is a jukebox playlist that is as funky as it is dissonantly idiosyncratic. After the standard space-referenced star-field credit sequence, we arrive in a dream sequence where Gonzo is prevented from getting on the ark by F. Murray Abraham’s Noah. This is followed by the film’s opening number, a sequence of how long a wait it is to use the bathroom in the morning in the Muppets’ communal house. It’s a mildly amusing bit, gentle in its mundanity, but mystifyingly set to “Brick House” by the Commodores.

Personally, I have never been completely sure how, precisely, this song has been complimentary to its subject. Sure, “she’s mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out“, but you’re still eliding the expression “she’s built like a brick shit-house”, which is a kind of sturdy, fecal association that one doesn’t necessarily associate with elegance, let alone with a sense of community. What is this song doing here with this scene? Did someone do a word search for songs associated with bathrooms and this was the only result that truly kicks it?

The Crooked Beak StoryProbably not, because the soul/funk timbre of the soundtrack continues beyond this intro. It’s a lovely, strange series of needle drops that never particularly gels with the theme or the content of the film. Despite the fact that the concept seems to have come from an initiative by director Tim Hill, I couldn’t find any connective tissue between this soundtrack and the message, lensing, or theme of the movie. The film ends with — Spoiler Alert! — Gonzo’s extraterrestrial bretheren arriving and singing a cover of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, but an alien funk performance does not necessarily justify an entire audio soundscape with no other connective tissue. My bemusement with the “compliment” of the lyrics aside, “Brick House” is a great song, as is the later use James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” for Gonzo’s The Straight Story-esque journey to the television station, which also doesn’t really work but fakes it admirably.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets

11 May, 2019 at 8:38 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Three years after this, the next film picks up mere seconds after this film’s conclusion, and dueling Kermits vie for control of the troupe in a trope-filled trip across Europe.

TITLE CARD: The Muppets (2011)

Well, it’s a small thing, but the second The Muppets begins, with the above title card floating in a hazy 4:3 aspect ratio in the middle of a wide screen, this film marks itself as separate from all other Muppet films: by unadorned use of pop music. The Muppet Show was, of course, no stranger to either use of or focus on a contemporary hit or a died-in-the-wool radio classic, let alone folk songs or ballads. But while covers and musical guests filled out the television shows, the films have always seemed to eschew anything except original music. The Muppets has its fair share of original songs, but the very first impression is one of nostalgia, deliberately evoked by Paul Simon’s ’72 release “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. For a film that’s about creating a bridge between the current generation and the previous, culminating in a demonstration that the fans of the Muppets never really went away, it’s a clear (possibly manipulative) way of evoking the past. This is undercut only by the fact that young people may not actually connect with a chipper playground tune by half of a sixties folk-duo, and not-young people, like me, may have the song already firmly and inexorably assigned in their heads to the Royal Tenenbaums montage.

About a third of the way through the film, we have a second pop needle-drop, with the accumulated Muppets rebuilding the dilapidated Muppet Studios to a montage of Starship’s “We Built This City”, a tune I still vividly associate with watching animation from Kidd Video one Saturday morning in 1985. It’s a strange choice, in that apparently it’s a song that has largely been reduced to the internet’s lazy choice for “worst song ever” (an achievement I usually still reserve for Dave Barry’s choice of “MacArthur Park”), and again therefore doesn’t seem like the likeliest of affecting bridges between the old generation and the new.

The next two homages feel more appropriate: two skits in the Muppet Telethon do a good job of capturing the kind of viral reappropriation the Muppets had excelled at in 2008 and 2009. The first is the eyebrow raising of Camilla and the chickens covering Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” — a very strange thing to see as the title of an entry in the Muppet Wikia pages — which is fun in that since the entire song is performed in Chicken, the existence of profanity is skated over, but still feels like an edgy choice for a Disney production. Similarly, the necessity of kids having to ask their parents, “Hey, what’s a “libido”?” is handily evaded by having Beaker sing and therefore garble that particular word in the barbershop quartet cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, mee mee mee mo(Both these songs, by the way, are performed in abbreviated versions in the film’s montage of the telethon numbers, but get full, extended versions on the soundtrack. I gambled the the $1.29 each on iTunes, and it turns out I much prefer the full-length editions. “Teen Spirit” removes all of the Jack Black, thus emphasizing the barbershop quartet harmonies, and “Cluck You” enjoyably pushes its simple punchline to a full two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.)

It’s a curious blend of Muppet Show technique with Muppet Movie expectations, culminating in a cast-wide rendition of “Rainbow Connection”, perhaps the Muppets’ most famous contribution to pop culture. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets Most Wanted

4 May, 2019 at 9:04 am (film, muppets)

Title card: Muppets Most Wanted

The second of the pure-Disney release Muppet films and the most recent theatrical Muppet Movie, we begin our peeling back of the Muppet onion with a great opening: the ending of the previous film. I’m not often a fan of “five minutes later” continuity (one of my main problems with The Incredibles 2), as it tends to mean that characters are plunged back into the waters of conflict after we’ve just reached some sort of catharsis and reconciliation, even if it was actually several years ago from the audience’s perspective. However, it’s hard not to be charmed by the audacity of beginning a film with fireworks and a “The End” card. (Especially as that’s the opening of my own unfinished screenplay…)

The film then charges into choppy waters. The very first scene is promising, in that it establishes that the end of the previous movie is the end of the filming of that movie, tapping into a conceit that is long rumored to be a key aspect of Muppet Movie-making: that all of the Muppet movies after The Muppet Movie are the movies that the Muppets made as part of their deal with Lew Grade. (Listen to film nerd and Muppet fan Griffin Newman speak on this as a guest on the No Excuses podcast.) The Muppet Movie is, after all, a screening of the Muppets watching “The Muppet Movie”, an “approximately how it happened” biopic of how The Muppets really got started. It’s an A Star Is Born narrative with the Muppets playing themselves, and most of the rest of the films are supposed to be films of the Muppets continuing to play the Muppets in various scenarios. The Great Muppet Caper perhaps does this metafiction best, with The Muppets Take Manhattan blurring the line the worst, but providing an explanation as to how Kermit and Piggy get married at the end of that film and yet remain romantically separated for the rest of their careers.

So this first scene starts in line with the metafictional expectations of certain Muppet fans — so far, so strong — but then immediately wrong-foots itself by launching into a backlot song-and-dance number. The song is moderately catchy but a little flat. I found the Hollywood backlot stuff confusing, as I didn’t click with the decision the grips and wardrobe people performing in a vaguely ’40s atmosphere, which serves as homage, but adds little else. The main problem is that the dancing line of the main Muppet cast is stiff, and lacks depth or interesting choreography, and the stilted Singing in the Rain antics of the humans does not make up for it, especially as the action is so obviously segregated on two planes. The film satire montage is fun, but both it and the retro heart of dance number seem to essentially misjudge the audience.

Thank goodness for the insane cut to Constantine: The World’s Most Dangerous Frog.

CONSTANTINE: The World's Most Dangerous Frog

“It’s like ’83 all over again. Out of the shadows and, ‘All right, squire?
Trust me.’ and gone before you know it. Christ, that was a laugh…”

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Someday We’ll Find It: THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN

21 April, 2019 at 9:12 pm (clerical, film, muppets)

After the moderate success (read: I believe I still haven’t written at all about The Constant Gardener and my thoughts about Tinker, Tailor, Commissioner, Gordon are still conflicted and incomplete) of my series leading up to the release of the largely unheralded le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor, I dabbled with the idea of blogging about each of the Oceans movies leading up to the release of Ocean’s Eight in 2018. The plan was to write about the Rat Pack original, the Clooney trilogy, and then Logan Lucky (aka “Ocean’s 7-11”) during the weeks leading up to number-one-with-a-Bullock release on June 8. (There was even a plan to cap it off the next week with a review of The Deep End of the Ocean full of complaints about how they totally violated the spirit of the franchise. It was going to be absurd, and may actually have stretched successfully to funny. We’ll never know.) It would have been a more manageable project with only six films, versus nine intended le Carré entries.

I have little memory of how I dropped that particular ball last year, but looking back on my calendar, it seems I watched the original Ocean’s 11, took some notes about some research I needed to do — including finding that elusive article about how the Soderbergh Eleven was picketed by men in Rat Pack cosplay, protesting that it was being remade* — and then I was overwhelmed by two twentieth reunions, supervising a TedX event, and family visiting from out of town. Real life sometimes gets in the way of even a dedicated commitment to pursuing an existence of entertainment.

So that plan was shelved, barring the slim possibility of a Bullock/Blanchett Ocean’s Nine. But then I noticed recently that we were coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the theatrical release of The Muppet Movie on June 22, 1979. This seemed like a good opportunity to do a countdown to that event, reviewing the other theatrically-released Muppet films that spun out of that original, ahem, leap to the big screen.

What insights do I hope to gain by watching the theatrical Muppet films in reverse order? Is this a kind of return-to-basics, purity test, where I strip away all of the hullabaloo and see, progressively, what about the characters the audience wasn’t expected to take for granted? Is it a paean to primitivism, as the films in reverse chronology lose more and more special effects and trickery and revert to basic, essential puppeteering?

Maybe. Mostly, it will give me a chance to watch the newer films without comparing them to the earlier films I know best. I’ve watched The Muppet Movie easily a dozen times, and Great Muppet Caper half that. From there, my drop-off of exposure is precipitous, so much so that I haven’t ever seen the two post-Henson “storybook” adaptations. While Muppet Christmas Carol has become a staple in many of my peers’ holiday households, I’ve only ever seen the occasional clip from the film. So this will give me an opportunity to visit and revisit the films without the memory of my childhood ringing immediately in my ears, and perhaps therefore judge the films on their own merits.

BlogalongaMuppets

May 4 — Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
May 11 — The Muppets (2011)
May 18 — Muppets From Space (1999)
May 25 — Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
June 1 — The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
June 8 — Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
June 15 — The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
June 22 — The Muppet Movie (1979)

 

Related Links:
+ A YouTube clip of the scene from the above screencap.
+ Review of the Kermit’s 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Muppet Movie.
+ A pretty good Vox longread about the issues surrounding Kermit’s character, cultural footprint, and the firing of Steve Whitmire in 2017.
+ *EDIT: Hot damn, I found a paper print-out of the article from 2001 in a box, which allowed me to trace down the Salon article about protesting Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. Yes, I am that guy who has paper copies of old articles in boxes, but it’s hard to argue with the lucky result.

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Today in Charade: Stanley Donen

23 February, 2019 at 3:43 pm (charade, film)

Stanley Donen speaks with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn behind the scenes of Charade.Coming hot on the heels of the announcement of the death of actor Albert Finney, we discover today that his director of Two For the Road, Stanley Donen, has died.

It’s been a long time since I watched 2ftR (as no one is calling it), and I had intended to give it a rewatch after learning of Finney’s passing. My main memory of it is that it did an amazing and convincing job of making the actors seem young at the beginning and older over the course of the film — no mean feat considering we had watched co-star Audrey Hepburn age onscreen over the previous decade and a half. I also was bemused by some of the late-sixties mod styles of clothes and automobiles, and overall enjoyed the push-pull of the evolving and maturing relationship between the characters. I didn’t know how to place the film in Donen’s opus, as it wasn’t as comic as most of his works with which I was familiar. Even his pictures that bent serious did so within genre conventions, so while I felt I knew how to evaluate Arabesque or even Blame it on Rio, 2ftR had been hard to pigeonhole.

In the end, I decided to watch Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express, which I’d never witnessed, and put off Road for a future day in which I was feeling maudlin about relationships. It seemed easier than opening up the can of worms that I was really avoiding: that all the film buffs I know have a deep, classic appreciation for Donen as choreographer-turned-director, and I do not. So as someone who still largely eschews musicals, my trying to figure out where that film fit amongst Donen’s work would be impossible. Because most of his work still eludes me. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Multiverse’s Tiniest Violin

23 December, 2018 at 7:31 pm (gameplay)

A few weeks ago I was at work, killing time, and I pulled out the defunct, previous model phone that I keep for two reasons: as a decoy, in case I get robbed, and for mobile gaming. I’m crap at games, generally, but find that games on the Free-to-Play model are simple enough that they match my natural level of ability. And since I strive mightily not to spend any money on F2P gameplay and see how well I can do if I am patient, I tend to spend about ten to fifteen minutes a day gaming, which suits my lifestyle.

I get a reasonable amount of crap around the office for having the two phones, and was unsurprised when they garnered a little attention from a colleague, who asked what I was doing. When I said I was playing a video game, she reacted strongly, telling me to delete it immediately. When I protested, telling her that it was a cheerful distraction and that I only played for the tiniest amount of time each day, she was steadfast: “Any amount of time is too much,” she said, “because those games make you want to play more and more. Delete it!” she warned me again.

Considering that she and I were going to be co-hosting a field trip in a few months, I spent a little time weighing her words. Two weeks in France was a perfectly normal amount of time to stop playing a video game to which I claim to have only the barest of attachment. But at the same time, such games are wonderful in airports terminals and other periods of interminable delay. However, if that was going to be her reaction, then it would probably be the better part of valor to just free up the hard drive space before the trip rolled around, and then see how I felt about restarting or not once we returned.

Turns out, the decision was made for me. TinyCo. has announced that they are shuttering Marvel: Avengers Academy on February 4th.

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Today in Charade: A Spanking! A Spanking!

16 December, 2018 at 10:27 pm (charade)

CHARADE: How would you like a spanking?

Despite the title and the pervasive references to comedies in today’s Today in Charade feature, I’m not making light of this topic. In the ongoing saga of how much CBS apparently needs to change its workplace attitudes, the business section of the New York Times has devoted significant column inches to detailing the recorded circumstances that led Eliza Dushku to seek arbitration about her employment on the show Bull. There is some blurriness about ultimate responsibility and whether Dushku was fired for reporting his behavior — I don’t know the man, but I would be a mixture of disappointed and unsurprised if the former head of Moonlighting, a show all about gender roles and subsequent tensions, was blind to an atmosphere of casual discrimination — but Bull‘s star, Michael Weatherly, does not come across at all well.

Putting aside any easy assumptions one could reach about the gendered expectations of a show that cast a thirty-seven year old woman as the eventual romantic partner of a fifty year old man — a few hours after I started writing this, Vulture did that for me with a pretty salient summary of the pervasive entitled male perspective CBS’s shows embody and perpetuate — one can probably safely assume that Bull‘s characters engaged in romantic persiflage. I’ve never seen the show, but the Times‘ description of the show’s strapline and that the relationship between the characters was “flirty” conjures a reliable trope in terms of tone and scope. That the lead in the show would also, therefore lean in to keeping that fun, smarmy atmosphere that is part of the product alive in between takes and behind the scenes also both fails to surprise and disappoints.

Weatherly, in the Times transcripts, refers to three specific instances where sexual innuendo came about because of improv on his part. Twice, he specifically refers to the improvised innuendo as “ad-libbing” on his part, and while the third time doesn’t use that exact phrase, it is specifically couched within a moment when he was trying to jokingly improve a line of dialogue on the fly. In this last instance, he says, “[I]n retrospect, [it] was not a good idea.”

You think? Read the rest of this entry »

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IMDBLR: I’d Just Like To Thank The Academy

22 August, 2018 at 11:55 pm (film, imdblr)

It’s been more than four years since I last sat down and catalogued my contributions to the credits of movies made with the assistance of crowdfunding platforms. This is, in part, because my commitment to ego-blogging wanes considerably with age, but also because Kickstarter is a slow and patient process. The first project I ever backed is still years from completion, and while I’ve received my backer party favors for believing that Detroit deserves a Robocop statue, it’s taken Detroit quite some time to find it a proper home. So films that I excitedly send off my support for don’t always turn around and fly into my mailbox as quickly as my donation flew out of my inbox. So to speak.

But I do enjoy the process of opening up the old Kickstarter account and checking in to see how many projects have actually finished up. Many of them have done the Robocop route of sending out rewards to contributors, but haven’t yet been able to finish wrapping up the project those rewards represent. And with film projects, that’s rarely surprising. Films seem to regularly cost more than expected, and so frequently one of the Kickstarter “prizes” for backing a project is a digital download or stream of the finished video. When this is the case, I leave the little “Got it!” box unchecked in a fit of pique, even if I have accounted for all the sparkly physical gewgaws and whatsits that were promised.

All of which is to excuse my lack of urgency in checking up on how many times I’ve appeared in the credits. But let’s not only make this about me. Let see how often and in what way crowdfunding is acknowledged in the credits of films…

 

WISH I WAS HERE (Raised its minimum funds on May 24, 2013, released on July 25, 2014)

WISH I WAS HERE -- Title Screen

WISH I WAS HERE -- Kickstarter Credit
Availability to be in the credits: Originally, pledgers at the $200 level were going to have their names be graffiti in a scene in the film. If memory serves, the select backers listed in the credits were those people, as the scene didn’t scan sufficently.
Expectation of me being in the credits: None. I backed at the Special Q&A in Boston level.
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