Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Muppets: A Review of Muppet Domination

The Hollywood of today seems replete with nostalgia-driven projects conceived to separate the children of the 70’s and 80’s from their hard earned (and sometimes, yet-to-be-earned) dollars. We saw the Transformers land on Earth again a few years ago and three movies later…they still haven’t left. The Smurfs invaded New York this past summer and are poised to crank out a few sequels from their mushroom sized studios over the next few years. One would almost expect to see Voltron and He-Man battling it out at the box office next summer…and that may very well happen. Considering the steady stream of re-makes, re-releases, and re-imaginings that seem to always be coming to a theatre near you, it can be difficult to have enthusiasm about another 70’s/80’s theatrical resurrection like the recently released film, The Muppets. However, any cynicism, skepticism, and pessimism one may have is thoroughly washed away by the time you exit the theater after watching this touching and fun reboot of the Muppet franchise.

Jim Henson’s untimely death at the age of 53 in 1990 doomed the Muppets franchise to over a decade of limbo. While Henson’s Sesame Street venture continued to develop and prosper, the Muppets faded away after the 1999 “Muppets from Space” film. Disney acquired the Muppet brand in 2004 and it seemed that the Muppets were in perfect four-fingered, white gloved hands. However, aside from the “Muppet*Vision 3D” attraction in Walt Disney World’s Disney Studios theme park (which pre-dated Disney’s acquisition of the Muppet brand), “the Mouse” did little to help “the Frog” and his felt-covered friends for many years.

Enter lifelong Muppet-fan Jason Segel, who in 2008, petitioned Disney to launch a film project that would revitalize the franchise. Along with his writing partner, producer/director Nicholas Stoller, Segel penned a script that finds the present day Muppets disbanded and rendered irrelevant in a cynical and calloused world where television’s most popular show is Punch Teacher, a program that features school children laying the smackdown on their educators. The story introduces the new Muppet character Walter, who is inseparable from his human brother Gary, played by Segel. Walter idolizes the Muppets and is thrilled when he is invited to join Gary and his girlfriend Mary (portrayed sweet as pie by Amy Adams) on a trip to California, where he longs to visit the legendary Muppet Theatre. The three arrive to find the theatre in shambles and on the verge of being purchased by slimy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Richman secretly intends to demolish the theater and drill for the oil that he believes lies beneath.

Walter and friends set out to find Kermit the Frog to inform him of Richman’s evil plot. After some persuading, Kermit makes up his mind to save the Muppet Theatre by putting on a telethon show with the old gang, with the goal of raising the ten million dollars that will keep the theatre out of Richman’s devious little hands. Kermit, Walter, Gary, and Mary embark on a journey to reunite the Muppets, renovate the theatre, and produce a show that can raise the necessary money. Along the way, they mend a failed relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit, kidnap Jack Black to be the telethon’s celebrity host, plan, rehearse, and perform the first Muppet Show in over a decade, and save the strained relationship between Gary and Mary (whose patience has worn thin after ten years of sharing her boyfriend with his brother Walter).
In the end, the Muppets and their new friends are unable to raise the necessary money and are on the verge of losing their theater and the Muppet name, which Richman plans to market using a troupe of hardcore, grizzled, lounge performers called “The Moopets.” However, Kermit realizes that although they have lost the battle with Richman, they have found something much more valuable…each other. The furry friends concede their defeat to Tex Richman and leave the Muppet Theatre for the last time, together. They may have lost, but they leave secure in the knowledge that that they tried their best and they know deep down that this is what is truly important. Kermit and friends exit the theatre to find Hollywood Boulevard teeming with newfound and rekindled Muppet fans, all cheering their reunited heroes. In the end, even Tex Richman turns over a new leaf, thanks in no small part to an inadvertent bowling ball to the head courtesy of Gonzo, and all end well as Tex allows the Muppets to keep the theater and the act that they made famous.

The warmhearted, good natured story of friendship, love, and dedication amongst friends, brothers, couples (even those of an interspecies variety), and performers and fans is just one of the reasons that enables this film to exceed expectations. There is a warmth and sincerity that permeates the storyline, even though the majority of the main characters are nothing more than cloth, felt, and yarn. It is this ability to infuse emotion into lifeless puppets and to build and develop characters that can perform believably beside flesh and blood talent that was the core of Jim Henson’s genius. Fortunately, that is not lost in this film, although it is over two decades removed from Henson’s death. The success of the Muppets and their predecessors on Sesame Street lies in the ability of the performers to connect emotionally with their audience and to blur the line between performance and reality.

Several brilliantly crafted musical numbers also contribute to making this film truly fun for all ages. The tongue-in-cheek opening number “Life’s a Happy Song” and the introspective satirical ballad “Muppet or Man,” alone make The Muppets worth the price of admission. In fact, some of the film’s most entertaining moments occur during these elaborate song and dance production numbers that are well performed, yet so comically cheesy that the viewer is left salivating for a cracker. One of the shining moments early on in the film occurs as a musical dance number concludes with the main characters boarding a bus for Los Angeles, leaving behind the back-up dancers who exhale and collapse in exhaustion gratefully exclaiming, “Thank God they’re gone!” It is that innocent, yet intelligent and honest humor that is the hallmark of the Muppets and it has been carried forward in their return to the big screen.  

On a slightly more negative note, it has been reported that some founding Muppet alumni most notably Frank Oz (whose voice work is excruciatingly absent from the film), were critical of the project and the fact that it was placed in the hands of Muppet outsider Segel. There was concern that the film would be more a “Jason Segel movie than a Muppet movie” and that the story would not be true to the original Muppet characters. Although I disagree with this notion, I was troubled by the absence of Oz, whose numerous characters (Grover, Bert, Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, and of course, Yoda) were the voice of my generation.

Disney rolled the dice in their attempt to bring the Muppets back from their long hiatus. Our society has changed greatly since the Muppets last graced the big screen. Much of our entertainment these days is based on cutthroat competition and the audience’s insatiable desire to mock the inferior. The ability to humiliate has surpassed the ability to entertain as the key factor in determining what good entertainment is, these days. Like in the movie, one could argue that the Muppets brand of entertainment is no longer relevant in a society where Punch Teacher could very well be an actual prime time success.

Yet The Muppets proves that there is still a place in Hollywood for pure, unadulterated, feel-good entertainment. The film successfully reboots the franchise, but deserves credit for far more than this. It does not simply slap Jim Henson’s iconic puppets back on the big screen and into the pop culture landscape. That feat, in and of itself, would be simple. What is more impressive is that the film captures the essence of what we all loved about the Muppets years ago. At their core, the characters are pure of heart. They are imperfect misfits and their performances always seemed on the verge of imploding, but they always banded together and gave their all to put on a good show. That is something that will never be irrelevant in my book. So let’s pretend it’s 1979 again and let’s start the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to get things started on the Muppet Show tonight!  

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: George Harrison: Living in the Material World - Part 2

Of course, no documentary on George Harrison would be complete without addressing his well-publicized, lifelong quest for spirituality and Scorsese devotes ample time to this topic. The film touches on George’s involvement with Indian mysticism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hare Krishna group, and his lifelong practice of meditation through the use of mantras. Particularly intriguing are Olivia Harrison’s recollections of how her husband spent a great deal of his life preparing for the moment of his death. She recounts how her husband was adamant about being prepared for the moment when his spirit would leave his body and how his near death encounter during a 1999 home invasion almost wasted a lifetime of spiritual preparation.
Although Olivia’s brave intervention saved her husband’s life during that night, son Dhani Harrison remarks in the film how the trauma of that night may have been the catalyst for the recurrence of his father’s cancer. Still, when speaking of her husband’s final moments, Olivia Harrison seems at peace and almost joyous when expressing that George’s wish of being prepared for his death was fulfilled. She recalls that when Harrison finally did submit to death, it was almost as if he “lit up the room.”

In my humble opinion, the mark of any good art is its ability to move people or influence them on some level. Aside from being an enjoyable and informative documentary, Living in the Material World was significant to me in that it was able to change my decades-old perception and understanding of George Harrison, the man. Throughout my life as a Beatle fan, I came to assign a label to each of the Beatles, which in my view, encapsulated the roles they played in the band and in life on a grander scale. John was the rebel, Paul the conformist, and Ringo the good natured guy who seemed to have it all fall in his lap but knew how to handle it. George always seemed to me a malcontent, a man who was less controversial than John, less consumed about maintaining his public image than Paul, yet generally less able to enjoy life than Ringo. From a distance, George appeared to be a reluctant lottery winner, unable to appreciate the many gifts that had been bestowed upon him. He struck me as having an undercurrent of bitterness or dissatisfaction with the world or perhaps, the manner in which people conducted themselves in the world. This bitterness would at times creep into his music and is evident in his masterpiece While My Guitar Gently Weeps, as well as later compositions such as Cockamamie Business, and the Traveling Wilbury’s Handle With Care.
Yet through Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese allowed me to relate to George Harrison more intimately than I ever had in the past. The film enabled me to peek behind the curtain to see a simple man, who was not necessarily unappreciative of his artistic gifts, great fame, and fortune, but simply less interested in the glory than he was in the music itself and in attaining a higher plain of spirituality. Perhaps the bitterness was the result of being dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight, chased through the streets by screaming girls and ravenous press, and having every morsel of privacy snatched away at such a young age. Perhaps George could never adapt to the carnivorous and sycophantic nature of the music business. As the novelty of celebrity and fame wore off, it seems that his tolerance for the seedy side of celebrity status waned to the point of resentment. Once he had attained all the wealth, success, fame, and adulation that one can on Earth, George Harrison began to seek fulfillment at a higher level. Perhaps he was not a malcontent at all. Perhaps he realized at an early age, what most of us never do. There is more to life than living in the material world.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: George Harrison: Living in the Material World: Part 1

Being a lifelong fan of both the Beatles and the films of Martin Scorsese, I was intrigued to learn that Scorsese had recently directed a documentary about the life of George Harrison. This new doc is entitled George Harrison: Living in the Material World and this past October it was released in theaters (limited), on Blu-Ray and DVD, and was also broadcast as a film in two parts on HBO. I recently had a chance to watch the film in two separate viewings, which given its length of nearly four hours, will be necessary for many people.

The project was envisioned by George Harrison’s widow Olivia, who is credited as a producer, and she could not have but placed it in better creative hands. Scorsese and his editor David Tedeschi, have woven together a patchwork quilt of public and private photos, videos, and concert footage, along with interview segments with some of George’s closest friends and family, and intriguing journal excerpts to provide an intimate, yet respectful glance into the life of a private man whose talent and circumstances thrust him into a very public life.
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Having spent my whole life as an avid Beatle fan, I have probably been exposed to nearly all of the Fab Four media that has been officially released or bootlegged over the last three-plus decades, most of it several times over. In light of this, I was truly impressed with Scorsese’s ability to recount George Harrison’s Beatle days without treading on very familiar ground during the first part of the film. So little of the content had been seen or heard before that the film was fresh and intriguing even for the Beatle fans that may have grown weary of the same photos, clips, and sound-bites that have been re-packaged and re-sold year after year. Particularly interesting were recited letters written by George to his parents in his early days with the Beatles. These glimpses into his private life reveal that even then, on the cusp of superstardom, a teenage Harrison was mature beyond his years and viewed life through a simple prism.

Scorsese delves into George Harrison “the person” in a way that few Beatles-related works have done in the past. As a member of the Beatles and a successful solo artist, George was indeed loved by millions from a distance. Yet in this documentary, Scorsese drives home the sense that George was a man truly and dearly loved by those who came to know him well. Interviews with lifelong friends Eric Clapton and Ravi Shankar, early Beatle era cohorts Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, Monty Python collaborators Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, Traveling Wilbury’s band member Tom Petty, and of course, Beatle band mates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, paint a portrait of a man who was a devoted friend and truly had a profoundly positive effect on those who loved him. Extensive interviews with Harrison’s widow Olivia and short segments with his son Dhani delicately examine the private side and home life of the legendary musician.

Please check back for Part 2 of the review of George Harrison: Living in the Material World...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Star Wars Trivia: Round Two

Round Two of Star Wars Trivia!

1.   What is the name of Luke’s friend from Tatooine who pilots one of the X-Wings during the attack on the Death Star?

2.   What was the original last name of Luke’s character in early drafts of the script for Star Wars?

3.   After purchasing the droids from the Jawas, Uncle Owen tells Luke to take them back to the garage and clean them up before dinner. Luke responds with a whiny complaint that he was planning to go where to pick up some power converters? 

4.   Who was Artoo and Threepio’s master prior to their capture by the Jawas?

5.   What does Uncle Owen say about Obi Wan Kenobi when Luke talks about him at the dinner table?

6.   Upon arriving at Mos Eisley, Luke and Ben Kenobi are stopped at a stormtrooper checkpoint and asked, “How long have you had these droids?” What is Luke’s response?

7.   Finish the line: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my                                                     .”

8.   Upon what creatures do Sandpeople ride on Tatooine?

9.   On what part of Tatooine is Luke attacked by the Sandpeople?

10.   What real life creatures were outfitted as Bantha’s for the filming of Star Wars?

11.   What is the first line of dialogue spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy?

12.   What injury does C-3PO suffer during the attack by the Sandpeople?

13.   Why do Sandpeople always ride single file?

14.   According to Ben Kenobi, the Force can have a strong influence on who?

15.   Who released a disco version of the Star Wars Title Theme in 1977?

16.   How does the Death Star capture the Millennium Falcon?

17.   What bay was the Millennium Falcon kept in while on the Death Star?

18.   When Luke and Han are disguised as stormtoopers and attempt to access the detention area using Chewbacca as a prisoner, from which cell block do they say he is being transferred?

19.   What is significant about the number of this cell block?

20.   What are the first words Princess Leia says to Luke?


1.   Biggs Darklighter

2.   Starkiller

3.   Tosche Station

4.   Captain Antilles

5.   “That wizard’s just a crazy old man.”

6.   About three or four seasons

7.   “only hope.”

8.    Banthas

9.   The Jundland Wastes

10.   Elephants

11.   “Hello there.”

12   His left arm is dislocated from his torso

13.   To hide their numbers

14.   The weak-minded

15.   Meco

16.   With a tractor beam

17.   327

18.   Cell Block 1138

19.   George Lucas’ first film was THX 1138

20.   “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?’

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Star Wars Trivia: Round One

This is the first installment of Star Wars trivia on darthmaz314. This first round will focus on the first released film of the saga...Star Wars. All answers below so you will have to scroll down. No cheating or we'll know. The force is strong with us.

1.   What was the name of the blockade runner ship that is captured by Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer at the opening of Star 

2.   Who speaks the first line of dialog in Star Wars?

3.   What is that line of dialog?

4.   What is the name of the reptilian creatures upon which Sandtroopers ride patrol in the desert of Tatooine?

5.   Who raised Luke Skywalker on Tatooine?

6.   In which bay was the Millennium Falcon docked while at Mos Eisley Spaceport?

7.   What was the name of the Rodian bounty hunter that confronted Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina?

8.   How fast did Han Solo claim that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run?

9.   Finish the Obi Wan Kenobi quote: “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more retched hive of                                             and                                   . We must be cautious."

10.   What price does Han Solo demand for transporting Luke, Obi Wan, C-3PO, and R2D2 to Alderaan?

11.   How much does Obi Wan offer in response to this demand?

12.   Uncle Owen was a farmer. What kind of farm did he own?

13.   Aunt Beru asks Luke to tell Uncle Owen that if he buys a translator droid to be sure it speaks what language?

14.   What color milk does Aunt Beru serve in the family dinner scene in Star Wars?

15.   The exterior structure that served as the Lars homestead on Tatooine was not a set, but actually a real building. What was the function of that building?

16.   Where were the desert exteriors for Tatooine filmed?

17.  On what level and detention block was Princess Leia being held on the Death Star?

18.   When Princess Leia is threatened by Grand Moff Tarkin with the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan, which planet does she name as the location of the hidden Rebel base?

19.   What are the last words spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi while he was alive?

20.   What was Luke’s call sign during the attack on the Death Star?

21.   The Rebel base was on a moon orbiting what planet?


1.   Tantive IV

2.   C-3PO

3.   “Did you hear that?”

4. Dewbacks

5.   His Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru

6.   Docking Bay 94

7.   Greedo

8.   In less than 12 parsecs. This answer can be confusing since a parsec is a measure of distance, not speed.

9.   Scum and villainy

10.   Ten thousand, all in advance.

11.   Seventeen thousand. Two thousand up front, plus fifteen 
upon arrival at Alderaan.

12.   A moisture farm

13.   Bocce (I wonder if she meant to ask if it could PLAY bocce. After all, it was lonely on Tatooine for a moisture farmer’s wife.)

14.   Blue

15.   It was a hotel

16. Tunisia, Africa

17.   Level 5, Detention Block AA23

18.   “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”      

19.   Red Five

20.   Yavin

21.   Dantooine

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