Category Archives: History

The Muppets

The Muppets have always been a big inspiration to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show, the 9 episodes of The Jim Henson Hour that aired before it was cancelled, the movies, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and countless other productions. Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorite movies ever, and a yearly staple, as is the classic “A Christmas Together” album with John Denver.

This special that was made for The Jim Henson hour but didn’t air until much later on Nickelodeon was one of the first “behind-the-scenes” videos (now a ubiquitous DVD feature) of any kind I had ever seen, and I found it endlessly fascinating. I watched it every time that I came across it on TV. I might venture to say that it has had a profound impact on where my life has taken me.

I’ve taken puppeteering and puppet-building classes, walked around the Muppet Studio in L.A., briefly met some of the current puppeteers, and last year got to make a piece of puppet magic myself.

‘The Muppets’ seems to have stolen our puppet mount-cam idea without either us or them knowing it.

But enough about me. The reason that I’m throwing this out there is that there are other people out there like me. I would venture to say that I’m at the tail end of this multi-generational fascination with these characters. The last great piece of entertainment produced with Kermit, Fozzie, etc., was Chrismas Carol in 1992, nearly 20 years ago.

The Muppets have languished in the years since then, through various changes in ownership and stewardship. There have been two mediocre theatrical movies (the last one still a lengthy 12 years ago), a failed TV variety show, a Christmas special that had its moments, another horrific Christmas special, and the terrible Wizard of Oz adaptation.

This lengthy period of brand failure is exactly what the new movie is commenting on, and it does so in such a marvelous way that all cause for concern about how it treats the franchise’s history should be thrown out the window.

Briefly, the movie’s about a two superfans (Jason Segel and Walter, a new muppet performed fantastically by Peter Linz) who travel from Smalltown, USA to L.A. with Segel’s character’s girlfriend (Amy Adams) and visit the Muppet studios, finding it decrepit and more-or-less closed. Walter finds out that an evil corporation has taken control over the studio, theatre and Muppets name and plans to run all of them into the ground. It’s up to the three of them to get everyone back together to save the Muppets legacy. To say that this bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs with the company is quite the understatement.

I watched the original Muppet Movie the night before seeing this, and I’d recommend you do the same. In addition to being able to recognize a few callback references to the original movie, rewatching “The Muppet Movie” puts things in the new film in such an interesting mindset. Kermit was once an idealistic leader, inspiring friends to uproot their lives and travel to Hollywood to become “rich and famous”. Now though, all these years later, Kermit has become sort of an out-of-touch recluse, living in a mansion with only his 1980s robot butler to keep him company. Any object that could remind him of the past, and the never-detailed, but often inferred event that caused them all to split up, is draped off. (As a side note, I would love to see this dark chapter in the Muppets history. It would be the most depressing scene ever — even more than this and the [i'm not kidding] attempted suicide scene that came immediately before it, which I can’t find now — but it would be so compelling. Side side note: this is the world where Kermit was never born.) He’s not cynical or bitter — Kermit could never be that — but he’s deeply saddened by how much he believes he let everyone down, which is a burden he’s put on himself since the first movie. Now, years after the split, he views his life’s work as a failure and sees getting everyone together as a fool’s errand, but is talked into it.

The rest of the movie parallels the original’s structure, in the “getting the band back together” sense, but it’s almost a flipped perspective. Instead of it being about the hope of becoming entertainers and being able to make people happy, it’s about the notion of losing your friends to infighting, and your legacy to years of inactivity and a company bent on ruining your name and replacing you with other people/characters. While Walter brings new energy and hopeful naivety, the rest of the Muppets seem like old souls. They’ve aged in spirit and seem a little weary. Fozzy looks a little grey. Everyone else has moved on with their lives, and it’s quite the effectively sad portion of the movie.

But the movie is greatly funny. The music is mostly fantastic, especially if you like Flight of the Conchords, whose Bret McKenzie wrote four original songs (and a reprise), and served as Music Supervisor. I didn’t really care for the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy splitscreen duet, but the Jason Segel/Walter duet, “Man or Muppet” is both catchy and hilarious. The direction (by “Conchords” TV show co-creator and director) is great, with extremely minimal CG work and many, many “How’d they do that?” moments. Segel and Adams are cute and bring great likeable human energy, even if their story feels a bit too much in the forefront.

The Muppet performers don’t seem to miss a beat at all. Considering the only original performer still involved is Gonzo originator Dave Goelz, it’s amazing that all of these characters can still “live” and “breathe” when being performed by other people. It has taken me a number of years to get used to Steve Whitmire’s slightly higher-pitched Kermit, but the range of emotion he was able to wring out of that puppet was remarkable. Eric Jacobson (Fozzy, Piggy, Animal, Sam Eagle) and Bill Barretta (Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo, Pepe, Swedish Chef) are incredible apers of the original Frank Oz and Henson voices and master puppeteers to boot. There is really no difference in the Muppet characters noticeable enough to be a distraction, as in some past productions.

The woman sitting in front of me at the screening and her hippie husband left the theatre complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the franchise. Granted, she was also complaining prior to the movie about bottled water being a scam, but she does have a valid point about the movie, to a limited extent. Yes, everything is slick, polished, and sanitized. There are overhead shots of the Muppet Theatre (Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard El Capitan Theatre repurposed for the exteriors) that show a “Cars 2” billboard prominently in the background. The three new principal roles (Segel’s “Gary”, Adams’ “Mary”, and Walter) do get a little bit too much focus.

But here is why all of those complaints are wrong. Every joke or type of joke in this movie that seemed out of place actually had a precedent set for it in some prior movie or project: breaking the fourth wall, presenting a popular song in a ridiculous way (the muppet show did this every week), the over-top bad guy bent on bringing them down (Chris Cooper, doing a great job in limited screentime), even the ridiculous method by which they travel long distances.

No matter what Frank Oz says, I don’t feel that the characters were ever disrespected, with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later. In fact, I’d say the opposite. The newer characters were either never used (Clifford, Johnny Fiama and Sal Manella were completely absent), or, like Pepe, were pushed to the background entirely. Even lesser-known, older characters like Uncle Deadly, and Wayne and Wanda make appearances.

Oz points to the ubiquitous “fart shoes” joke in the ads as something Fozzie would never do, but in the context of the movie, I think it works. The characters are out of touch and desperate to figure out what people want, and I don’t think Fozzie is below pandering for a laugh. I’d say this movie is truer to the characters than the “World Where Kermit was Never Born” business.

Gary, Mary, and Walter serve as an audience proxy for younger people unfamiliar with “The Muppet Show”. And without Segel’s Gary and Walter there is no real impetus for the characters to reconcile at all, in a not-so-subtle parallel to real-life. Walter and Gary’s storylines are also so simple that they work without being too off-putting, and they’ve found great ways to parallel other character’s stories (the two duets for example).

For me though, and this comes as a side-note, and probably just a personal gripe, but considering he’s the only original performer left, Dave Goelz didn’t have much for Gonzo to do.

I know the last movie, way back when, focused on him entirely, but in re-watching material recently, I’ve realized the hidden layer of soul and sadness that Gonzo can bring, that few others have. The emotion that comes across in this song…

… is something that Miss Piggy and Fozzy are never tasked with. Most of the other characters are just one dimensional, though Rowlf has on occasion brought the emotion in his Muppet Show performances. Because of this, Kermit is left to carry that burden, but his sadness comes from his failures to live up to his ridiculously high expectations of himself as the leader and guy who manages these ridiculous personalities. Gonzo’s pathos has always stemmed from not fitting in, being weird, and not knowing exactly what he is.

Since these characteristics are basically the entirety of Walter’s personality, and his character arc, this brooding side of Gonzo gets pushed to the backburner, and even his comical side does as well. I’d be interested to see his number of lines compared to other characters. I get that not everyone can be properly serviced, but as a member of what I consider to be the core four characters, he feels like an afterthought. You can sense the regret in Fozzie and Piggy, but Gonzo has just seemed to move on. And this overlooking of him is even sadder considering Goelz is the longest-tenured performer here.

I have some mixed feelings about the end, but I have to talk about it in vague ideas. Basically, I feel like it glosses over a majorly important plot point, but the way in which it does this seems to render it fairly unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It sort of takes their literal goal and says their figurative one is more important, which is a great idea, but leaves the main plot as almost a side story.

On the whole though, I felt every emotion I was supposed to, including my normal disinterest in Miss Piggy. I welled up a few times, laughed a lot, and left with a smile on my face, and no feelings of contempt in my heart. I never once thought that they ruined a good thing here, and that’s all I could ask for.

The crux of this movie is whether or not The Muppets are a viable entertainment in today’s pop culture landscape, and I’d say that with the right material (and this is great material… mostly fleece and foam… wocka, wocka), they can be. Let’s hope that the kids that are getting their first taste of these characters feel the same way.

****½

2010 Eagles UniDictions (uniform + predictions) – Week 1 – Packers

This has been cross-posted on crossingbroad.com, a great destination for Philadelphia sports news.

Mainweek1

Being that all predictions for the NFL season thus far are based on a combination of  last year’s results and four pre-season games (The NFL Pre-Season — The four weeks when your friends with season tickets slightly regret their purchase!), we might as well base our predictions on something more arbitrary with little bearing on the actual game*.  Uniforms. 

[*I think some coach or player was once quoted as saying "look good, play good," so creative interpretation of the rules of English grammar aside, I'll leave it at "little bearing" instead of "no bearing."] 

 The big news for this game is that the Eagles will be wearing their 1960 throwbacks.  As detailed at great length previously, I don’t like them.  Classic, accurate, but too plain.  The presence of Kelly Green should appease the loud “bring back the Cunningham-era jersey” people who don’t realize that the throwbacks are not the same as the “Cunningham-era” uniforms (white vs. silver paints, Eagle logo on shoulder, stroke around the numbers, helmet wing details, etc.).  So at the minimum, it takes away their ability to complain about the uniforms, giving more time to complain about things that matter.  Like Kevin Kolb.

With the Eagles wearing green jerseys, this puts the Packers in their White Jersey/Yellow Pants combination.  I don’t think it’s the best combination in the NFL (undecided on that one at the moment), but it’s everything the Eagles throwback is….except it’s not boring.  Something as simple as shoulder striping really makes the look of the “classic” NFL uniform template work well (think of the Bears and the Browns).

The UniDiction

Either 2, 3, 6, or 7 points awarded for each category (safety, field goal, touchdown, touchdown+point after, of course)

Helmet

Eagles: 3 — a white (or black) stroke around the wings would really help.  Really, the design looks unfinished.  A plain green helmet, though historically inaccurate, would look better.

Packers: 7 — there’s absolutely nothing I would change

Jersey

Eagles: 2 — Championship aside, this isn’t one of the Eagles’ better looks.  It’s just green with white numbers!

Packers: 6 — missed PAT because their Green jersey + yellow pants combination is one of the defining images of the NFL.

Pants + Socks

Eagles: 6 — the two green stripes on the white pants definitely add something, and the white stripe on the green section of the socks avoids the “endless field of green” effect seen on the jerseys.  That said, one thick vertical stripe would look better on the pants.

Packers: 7 — the contrast-color/white/contrast-color triple stripe on the pants is nice touch, and the two-tone socks (without anything breaking-up the solid color) work because they would look too busy with a stripe, being that there are plenty of stripes elsewhere.

 Intangibles

Eagles: 7 — authenticity counts and the fan base really likes them.

Packers: 6 — Points awarded for using yellow in their color scheme.  Missed PAT due to the management thinking a uniform from an era with completely different equipment would translate to the 21st century.

Final Score

Eagles 18

Packers 26

Hmm… I may need to adjust my scoring system to add up to numbers which look like real “football scores.”  And so it can go above 28… 

Also of interest, UniWatch (Paul Lukas) on Page 2 posted his 2010 overview of all NFL uniform changes yesterday.  Definitely a must read.

****

The match-up itself gets four stars. Both teams will be wearing “classic” uniforms, and both teams’ colors complement each other.

The LOST Finale as a Meta-Metaphor for the Death of a Series

I wonder if the “Man of Science/Man of Faith” argument could be extrapolated to refer to the skeptics vs. those who had faith in the writers.

“Lost” (pun intended) in the hubbub of last night’s “polar”-izing finale, buried beneath the mystical corks, and cliffhanger fights; airplane escapes and journeys into the afterlife together, is a metaphor that I have yet to see in any of today’s recaps, though I have purposely waited to read Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s EW column for fear of it being the only one to taint my idea with his. Most of the disagreement over whether it was a satisfactory conclusion stands between the two camps of fans: people who wanted more “answers” to mysteries of the island (Jacob’s Cabin, The Hurley Bird, Walt and Aaron being ‘Special’, or even why there’s a giant cork in the island to begin with), and the ones who were more interested in where characters’ stories ended. There are those people (NY Times and NY Post, I’m looking at you) who didn’t understand things that were plainly spoken (“What happened was REAL”), but I tend to throw them out, because they obviously haven’t put enough thought into it.

In case there’s confusion, a brief recap of the important points. The entire season we’ve been given what the show’s writers endearingly call the “flash-sideways”. Instead of mixing in the main narrative with flashes of what has happened (flashback), or what will happen in the future (flash-forward) like they’ve done throughout the series (though the term “future” is relative, and makes my brain hurt), they’ve shown us the same characters we’ve known, in a time that we’ve already seen, now in a world whose relationship to the island universe is unknown. Now, the characters are different though, taking us back to the mindsets and issues they were dealing with in the first season, before all of the crazy island adventures changed, and in most cases, killed them. The characters, while having the same hearts and basic characteristics as the ones we’ve come to know, are altered a little bit, but dealing, in essence, with the same baggage as they did in the real world. Much of the enjoyment of this sixth and final season, just as in the first, lies in discovering who these people are in this world and realizing just how much different they are than the characters we grew to know. The only complication of this narrative device is that since we, the viewer, are incapable of coming to an understanding that both of these universes can simultaneously exist, we have to find a way in our own minds to reconcile the two together. “Which one isn’t real?”, or “Which one will become real?” we ask, because we can’t imagine how both of them can exist and still have meaning. My guess early in the season was that each one of them carried the same amount of weight and that the finale would create duel endings (not reconciling these universes), one happy, and one where everyone died. This would leave the viewer to have to decide for himself which one was real or if both were. I was wrong.

The way they were reconciled was by having each character in this “sideways” universe realize that it wasn’t real; that everyone there had died and that it was a holding place for them to move on to “what comes after death”. Everything on the island had happened. Some people died in the course of the show’s run; some lived full lives After Jack Shepherd (A.J.S.). But there they all were, waiting to move on as one group, changing Jack’s “Live together or die alone” mantra to one of “Live together AND DIE TOGETHER”. Their hurdle to enlightenment and realization of where they were in this universe was letting go of petty issues, guilt, fear, atonement, and instead, embracing the love of others. The Island, and the time spent on it were the most important parts of these people’s lives, and all that came before it was just a prelude and backstory. The relationships forged lasted beyond the characters lifetimes and stayed in the collective unconscious until they were ready to “let go”. Once this was understood, they could all go together towards that slightly cheesy white light, to whatever lay beyond. It was a mostly beautiful, and, at the time, slightly sappy ending, that I ate up wholly, reuniting characters but not compromising by bringing them back to life. Dead is Dead. And it seems as though they successfully put to bed the themes of death and love that hearken all the way back to when the first character, Boone, bit the dust as John Locke’s sacrifice to the hatch.

Before the finale, someone at my place remarked about how more than eighty percent of the characters ever introduced on the show have been killed off, and after last night’s episode, I realized that these deaths weren’t merely part of ratings boosting, or shock value, or plot progression, but they were there to bring about discussion on the theme of death. Anyone can go at any time. That’s a phrase I’ve heard the writers say they’ve wanted to impart on our minds for the entire run of the show. They were going to go so far as to potentially kill Jack in the first episode, originally. If you think about it, there’s probably a whole section that I could write about how the smoke monster/man in black was the antagonist because he couldn’t come to terms with his own anger at his death. Sure he wanted to move on (get off the island), but he couldn’t let go of the pain of the past, and parental issues and learn to accept his life for what it was and love. Jacob, as well, stayed around the island, in spirit form, until he was able to let go of his island protector-ship spurned by his guilt over his brother’s death. Michael was trapped as a spirit on the island forever because he couldn’t get past his misdeeds. But this is all discussion for some other time.

What I’m interested in here is the idea of how the show deals with the topic of death, as it relates to the actual death of the show itself. Wow! THAT IS META! Let me clarify that sentence: In the episode, characters are struggling to deal with the idea that their lives are actually over, and they must move on to the next phase together by letting go and embracing a community of love. Hell, the first scene is a coffin coming out of an airplane and the last is a wake/funeral; if that’s not metaphor material, nothing is. In fact, I’d venture to say double metaphor: death of the characters themselves (aside from the specific Christian Shepherd, as the surface example) AND death of the show. Imagine, if you will, that instead of Christian, inside of this casket is a show that has grown with us over the past six years, one that has become our friend, safe haven, source of philosophical debate and stability in a constantly changing world. Imagine that the fan community for the show, one that brings people together in discussion and love, and one that fills living rooms with ten people or more (or less) per week to share in this joint experience is the crowd of characters in pews embracing each other, joyful, weeping, and filled with human emotions. Last night’s episode wasn’t just about characters accepting death and letting the minutiae go, it was about us as fans of the show learning to do the same. But with this show, unlike most, we had to go together. We had to let go of all the unresolved plot points from four years ago and accept that it had ended. And fill the world with love for it and each other. And last night, and this morning, the internet pretty much exploded, with people who loved it, who will remember the good times and cherish it forever in the “what comes after”, and with those who felt burned, angry about the small things, and may never be able to find peace in the resolution. They’ll be haters, but they’ll be stuck in their “waiting room”, ready to be enlightened when they let their cynicism go.

The more I think about it, the more I realize they been trying to prepare us for this the entire season. Obviously, they knew the show was going to die. The entire flash sideways as a denouement not only works in the context of the characters dying, but for the show itself. While the characters were all set up with different life scenarios and what-ifs, many of them better versions of themselves dealing with the same problems, so was the ENTIRE PREMISE of the show itself. “What would happen if Hurley became a successful businessman, or Sayid could protect Nadia, or Sawyer could actually put away criminals instead of being one?” becomes “What if this horrific plane crash never happened?” What would a self-actualized, but slightly askew version of the first season flashback storytelling look like? How would it mirror (oh snap!) the beloved first season that served as the birth of these characters? In the exact same way as the characters went through this season’s sideways stories, not knowing what their place was, we ventured along the same way, only to be enlightened at the end, and able to see these stories for what they were: a waiting room, there to bring us back together with our deceased friends and help us move on to the place after as a group, a “fandom” if that doesn’t sound too nerdy. Bless you LOST, for the friendships you’ve helped create and strengthen over the past six years will surely be enough to carry us over to whatever comes next. I’ve let go.

****½
I think this metaphor pretty much works, but I’m sure there are a few holes you can punch here and there, and I didn’t mean to come off as preachy in more than an “it’s okay to move on” way.

As for the finale itself…
****½
Learning to let go of the minor things, the mysteries, and go back to my first season mindset, where all I cared about were the characters, this was a total success for me. Sure there weren’t “answers”, but that’s life. I’m dealing. The foam rocks falling seemed a little cheesy though, for the -.5 star. Seeya in another life, Brotha.

Cloverfield

Pirated video that shows clearly what the monster really is.

It’s been a while since we’ve posted… I know.

To put it simply, Cloverfield is effin’ scary. I would venture as far as to say that it was the most viscerally affecting movie I’ve seen since Children of Men. This isn’t just a monster movie; it’s a movie, that, like The Mist and I Am Legend before it, plays on our greatest unthought-of fear, that something so disastrous could happen that all manner of government protection would be rendered moot. Mass chaos with no way out, and nothing to keep you alive but your own strength of will in circumstances that you’d never imagine yourself in. Cloverfield is so effective at what it sets out to do, reminding us that our modern “civilized” society is one catastrophic event away from being reduced to nothing more than bickering people who’ve been taken over by primitive “fight or flight” survival instincts.

The way the reviewers have talked about it, I’m sure you’ve all heard complaints ad nauseum about the “lack of story”, the “unlikeablility” of characters, the illogical choices made by certain people, and that it didn’t make sense for someone to keep recording through the whole thing. Honestly, I didn’t care about any of those things at all, and it’s a testament to how involving the movie is that I only once stopped to think about the fact that a camera battery wouldn’t last as long it does, and only one other time to think about how long it would take them to walk in a subway tunnel the distance that they said they did. Despite the rich, hipster vibe that the characters exuded, I didn’t really find them all that grating, even though it was basically as if Godzilla interrupted an episode of Felicity (with good reason; both the executive producer and the director were co-creators of that show). If they indeed go ahead with a sequel to be shot in the same style, telling a different story from the same night, I would love to see people from the opposite end of the spectrum and how they managed, how different their priorities were, and just how they would differ in their actions in general.

More often than not though, I found myself sitting in my chair, with my mouth wide open, totally enraptured by what was going on. Would I too be able to climb across a roof of a forty-story building that was leaning at a sixty degree angle from the ground, only being held up by the building next to it? Would I have gone back to save someone from a giant killer spider-crab in a pitch black subway tunnel? Why was this monster movie the first one that ever made me question the lengths I would go to survive? As intense as it was, The Mist, never made me feel this way, despite the fact that the subject material was quite similar. In my opinion, it goes to media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s statement from his book “Understanding Media:Extensions of Man“, that “The Medium is the Message”. To put a very long and convoluted series of the oftentimes contradictory thoughts by a raving Canadian lunatic into a simplistic summary, the method by which a message is sent from one person to another is oftentimes more important to the delivery than the message itself. The best example of this is the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate where the majority of radio listeners seemed to think that Nixon had won, while the television viewers, able to see Nixon’s body language, sweating, and poor make-up job, were convinced that Kennedy won. On a side note, I always wondered if the people who did that study took into account the differences in politics between the people who listened and people who watched, and if that played into their answers to the question.

How this idea of medium applies to Cloverfield is that we’ve been programmed with the language of film over the past one-hundred years. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we’ve come to expect a certain syntax. We don’t notice it though, until a reverse angle of a shot doesn’t match, or an edit isn’t smooth. The Mist lives by these rules, and the whole time it tries to invoke this question of “what happens when the world goes to hell?”, while also playing it like a 1950s B-horror movie creature feature. Issues with the unfocused nature of the plot set aside, it’s the fact that the movie’s presented in the language of Film that makes you step back and realize how preposterous the story really is.

Ironically, it’s the movie inspired by the crude and incredibly repetitive Godzilla series that has effectively transcended this medium and broken out of the box, leaving genuine lasting emotion. The same way that we’ve been trained to understand that movies aren’t real and that we shouldn’t feel anguish when Jason Vorhees, “an unstoppable killing machine“, hacks someone up with a machete, we’ve been trained to recognize video as infallible. Which affects you more: watching an alien pop out of someone’s chest killing them in a movie, or watching a video of a skateboarder falling fifty feet to a hard wooden surface and seeing his shoes explode, but then being able to walk off, relatively unharmed? We haven’t yet learned to apply the same reality filters to video that we currently do to film, and this is what Cloverfield exploits.

No matter how many times you try to tell yourself this movie isn’t real, the medium that the message is delivered in contradicts your thoughts and plays to your instincts. What would happen if you took this movie over to undeveloped parts of Africa (as McLuhan puts it, a place where people have not been “immunized” to this medium) or if someone years down the line saw this without the context to put it in? It’s very likely that they might think it actually happened, especially if they’ve seen the 2001 attack footage. Critics (used literally, not film critics) of the movie have been saying that it exploits September 11th imagery, but I would argue that it successfully uses those scenes we have committed to memory to scare us in a very real way, much more than any slasher flick or monster movie has done before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been spending a large amount of time in the area that was directly affected in the movie. It’s more likely that I was less able to discern the difference between the two because when the twin towers fell I was watching it on a movie screen in a film auditorium. Watching Cloverfield, it was hard not to think back to this moment and relate the two, drawing all that emotion out.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the whole thing is the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’ve walked over a few times. It may very well be the most frightening destruction of a major landmark ever to be created in a movie, far scarier than anything in the modern classic Independence Day or its red-headed step-brother The Day After Tomorrow, completely because of its realism and the point of view of the person delivering the message.

Here’s where the debate rages though. Should a movie be judged on how effective it is at making you feel a certain way, or on the quality of story and characters? If it uses the story and characters as well as technically impressive work to achieve this emotional effect (such as in I Am Legend), then it’s obvious that it’s a good movie. What happens though, when the two aren’t mutually exclusive, when character development and a tight story take second chair to exceptional method and incredibly well-realized scenes? Is it still a good movie? This isn’t to say that Cloverfield offered no cohesive story or successful characterizations (the realism in the actors’ portrayals ” not so much film acting, but moreso being in the situation with a natural intensity that you would expect of someone living out this unthinkable scenario”"certainly drives the moments and carries the film as much as the technique), but it’s a chase movie in the most basic sense. Something’s attacking, nobody knows what it is, but we’re running from it. There’s really nothing more to it than that, and I would be hard-pressed to say the movie had an effective story to tell, instead opting to give you a few character dynamics and letting them provide the motivation for an hour’s worth of recorded events. I’ve heard completely mixed reviews from friends and film critics in regards to this movie, and it seems as though this question of how to judge is where the basic disagreement lies. For me, the movie was incredibly effective at what it set out to do, and was plenty enjoyable from start to finish (and I loved the epic “Cloverfield Theme” that scored the credits) and that’s all I can ask for in a threatrical experience.

One last thing. If in my diatribe about the presentation of the movie I left out the success of The Blair Witch Project, which this movie couldn’t have come about without, it was because that was not a successful movie. Where the difference between the two films lies is that while The Blair Witch created a very real found-footage aura, it was overly-long and for the most part, boring and whiny. Think about it. The bulk of the movie was about kids wandering around the woods and arguing with each other. It took on the found-footage medium and while it succeeded at creating a realistic portrayal of what one might look like (as in “normal people are generally boring and spend a lot of time fighting and talking about nothing at all”), it completely failed as entertainment for all but about 15 minutes. It had a few interesting story elements, but needed to pad out its runtime with lame characterizations and nothing really happening. It was also completely visually uninteresting, giving you nothing to fall back on when you got tired of all the complaining going on onscreen. Cloverfield takes a look at the mistakes of this film and basically imports action movie beats into the style in order to fix its problems, never stopping to let us take a breath or think about all the implausibilities. The people behind this movie have brilliantly created a hybrid “found-footage/blockbuster action movie” medium, and by doing this, it skews our perception of its events, leaving our common sense to duke it out with our basic media instincts, and that is why it truly succeeds.

****½

Cloverfield is not only a genre-redefining movie, but a medium redefining movie that uses the language of video and film together to confuse our perception of events. You know it isn’t real, but once it wraps you up in its swift pace, that notion leaves your mind, making the horror of the scenario all the more genuine. The entire group of people involved were committed to making you believe that this had really happened, and they succeeded admirably at doing it. Now next time, give us some better characters and a more plausible story arc for them.

While I’m at it….

The Mist
*½
I really wanted to love it, but it completely tears itself in two directions, trying to be a giant killer insect horror movie, and a bold statement on how far our civility falls when we’re presented with dire circumstances. Not only that but characters are either underused (Andre Braugher) or completely over-the-top crazy (Marcia Gay Harden), and though Tom Jane gives a strong performance (before he brings it on a little too strong at the end) he can’t keep down all my hatred for the main antagonist, the crazy religious nut-job who wants everyone to repent or die. If it’s supposed to be allegory, it takes a very ham-fisted approach that really turned me off. Subtlety isn’t this movie’s strong point. Visually, it’s spectacular, but unfortunately a great premise is undermined by story issues, probably stemming from the source material. Much like most of the movie, the end sort of rips off of “Night of the Living Dead” in its painful irony, though it may have one of the best “downer” endings I’ve seen in a long time.

I Am Legend
****
Visually, the most realistically drastic transformation of any actual location that I’ve ever seen put to film, I Am Legend decides to “show” us, and not “tell” us about the collapse of humanity, unlike The Mist . By that I mean that while the previous movie spends its time preaching to you about how everyone will turn on one another to survive, this movie shows the result of that, in a devastatingly real fashion. You are left to create your own account of how it all went down, only giving us brief glimpses into society’s fall in flashbacks that serve more to develop Will Smith’s character’s personal story. It was completely refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t give you every detail and leaves some things open to the imagination. Will Smith’s character and portrayal are perfectly subtle in the ways that his past, his loneliness, and his obsession with curing the sick have taken its toll on his sanity, but the critics are correct that unfortunately all of this strong set-up seems to devolve with about twenty-five minutes left into some more action-oriented, less suspenseful version of Signs, right down to the “oh, it all makes sense now, God has a plan for me” revelation. I Am Legend is a completely haunting vision of what life would be like if you were the last person on earth, Zombie storylines aside.

The Concept of Prehistoric Park

This might be my last traditional review of the year, considering we’re nearing the end of 2006. In this last month of the year, everybody likes to see best and worst of the year lists, so be prepared to be bombarded with those for the next few weeks, culminating with my Top 10 Lists of the Year. Ooooh meta-humor.


Ahhh the good old days when TV about Dinosaurs was relegated to them hitting each other with frying pans. If only Prehistoric Park had a little more of that.

Imagine, if you will, if Jurassic Park were a TV show. Wouldn’t that be exciting? Dinosaurs running around, tearing up each other and people, and all kinds of exciting action week after week. You could have park rangers dealing with all of the problems of running a park for dinosaurs, getting eaten while trying to feed them. I can’t really think of any good storylines, but this is dinosaurs and people in the same environment! This is like the holy grail of excitement… unless you count the Flintstones, and that horrible movie “Carnosaur“… god that was bad

So when I heard about this show, Prehistoric Park, that’s on Animal Planet (originally, it was made for British television, but I would bet that they had a deal with American TV before it was made for funding purposes), I just had to check it out. I was completely let down. There I am with my bowl of popcorn and my dino-pajamas, waiting to see an action-packed hour of dino-tainment, and I’m bored to tears. Why?

Well, “Prehistoric Park” is a documentary about an animal preserve where the curator goes back in time through some sort of timecube or stargate:atlantis or something and brings the dinosaurs back to his park, where he doesn’t do anything except keep them in pens and watch their health. That’s not entirely true. The last episode had a large “plot” involving saber-toothed tiger husbandry. You heard me. As a documentary on this completely real place, and the fact that it’s been made for educational purposes, obviously the main point is to tell us all about the behavior of these dinosaurs and how to medically and behaviorally care for them. And that’s about as exciting, as say, a documentary on real tiger husbandry, and who would really care about that?

I’ve boiled the conceptual problems down to three areas: First of all, since this park is entirely real (it is a documentary after all) are we to believe that these people have never seen or heard of Jurassic Park? You would think that if you were planning a dinosaur island theme park, Jurassic Park would probably be the first place you would look to do research. And you would realize that no matter how safely you think your T-Rex is kept, it’s not. Rule number 1 about having an island dinosaur preserve” No T-Rexes. Even if you have your giant electrical fences or in the case of Prehistoric Park, just giant wooden fences,he T-Rex is gonna get out. If we learned one thing from “The Lost World“, it’s that San Diego is not prepared for a T-Rex attack. (granted, that was pre-9/11, but I seriously doubt that the D.H.S. has a plan for dinosaur attacks). I understand that it’s very unlikely and that The Lost World was a movie, but this is a documentary, so you’d think these Palienticians would be more responsible. They’re just as bad as Cartographers

Secondly, haven’t they ever seen a time-travel movie? In fact there was one that came out about a year or so ago called “A Sound of Thunder” that dealt specifically to going back to the time of dinosaurs and hunting them. When the wrong ones ended up shot, the future (present) was entirely changed. Who knows, they could be abducting the dinosaur that brought their great-great-great etc grandparents together creating a eggs. Everything in this show is presented so seriously that we automatically take every single word for fact. It’s like if the croc hunter went after velociraptors instead of stingrays”. well the result would still be the same either way. Anyway, they could really tell us anything about dinosaurs (say they all wore blue hats, drank horse urine, and were the largest exporter of human pubis in the world) and we’d believe them.

I always liked learning about dinosaurs because there were so many different kinds, all with their own special features and fighting styles. I wanted to see them fight each other and stuff like all kids do. This show totally de-mystifies the whole dinosaur idea, basically showing us the medical side of running a dinosaur theme park, and unless you’re one of the few people who are interested in paleo-veteranary-zoology you’ll be as completely bored as I was.

*
The concept of “Prehistoric Park” gets one star due to having a good idea to start off with and completely wasting it. This show is like watching people oil and polish Transformers instead of letting them do what they do best: shoot laser beams.

“Rewriting History”, or “Pluto no longer a planet and Yogi stops smoking”

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Just when you though I wouldn’t be able to find a picture to go with these two topics…. BAM!

A few days ago I read that Turner is going back through their catalogue of old Hanna Barbara cartoons to remove all intimations of smoking. First of all, I’m not really sure how they’re going to do this. I undestand that if they can take the cops’ guns away in ET and replace them with walkie talkies, they can pretty much do anything, and with 5 color animations they can do it easier I’d assume. But the question isn’t the technical ability. The question is the context of the situations and how they’re going to make them make sense to people. Granted there is a valid point with making sure that kids aren’t starting to smoke because they see Quickdraw McGraw or Snagglepuss doing it. After all, I’m sure the only reason that kids buy Fruity Pebbles is because Fred Flintstone does, right? But should the works of the past be censored because of semi-questionable content? Disney will NEVER let Song of the South see the light of day because of some supposed racial issues with the movie. But how are we supposed to remember what things were like when these cartoons were made, unless we’re able to see them. Being a gatekeeper is one thing, but erasing history is another. And who are all these kids who are watching Hanna Barbara cartoons anyway? It’s not like you can even watch these cartoons unless you have the Boomerang channel which may not even exist anymore. Kids today are more interested in watching fake anime and Pokeymans than anything else. Where are the robots that change into things? Or the magical cats from far off planets? I’m getting away from my point.

Today they discovered that Pluto isn’t a planet. Once and for all. The thing is, these are planetarians saying this. I would expect these sort of mistakes from a cartographer (the study of uncharted lands), but these people are studying something more important, the whole solar system. What are we all supposed to do? Go back to the science books that we had during that brief period when Pluto wasn’t a planet last time? Actually, knowing my school district, they probably still use those books. Next thing you know, we’re going to be told we never had to wear those stupid glasses to look at an eclipse… like these “cool kids“. Seriously, I could understand the decision if it really meant something. But what’s the point of this change, except to make trouble for anyone who’s ever learned that Pluto is a planet. Whoever was pushing for this is on notice!

People should really worry about changing things that matter to the masses, or will cause trouble if they’re not changed. In the case of the cartoons, censoring for kids is one thing, but not allowing people to ever see these cartoons the way they were originally made is a disservice to the people who made them in the first place. Kids should listen to their parents and not cartoons anyway.