Monday, May 30, 2011

Just for the Halibut

"Well I've got a dream too. But it's about singing and dancing and making people happy. That's the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I've found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kinda makes us like a family."
-Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie

I have a Muppet problem.

My love of the Muppets is deep and unironic. Some of my earliest memories are of The Muppet Show. What I find interesting, looking back, is the way the Muppets have remained a pretty constant presence in my life. As I child I was probably a bigger fan of other things, but my interest would wane (and sometimes wax again in adulthood), but the Muppets were just sort of always there in some way or another.

Jim Henson's death was the first - and maybe the only - celebrity death that really affected me, as if I had known him. 20 years later, I still wonder what work he still had in him, and get sad that we'll never see it.

Maybe that's why the Muppets make me so emotional, or maybe it's just something about the power of good puppetry, that weird magic that happens when an inanimate object comes completely to life. Either way, I have some kind of Muppet weeping trigger.

Last year I was in Atlanta on business and I went out of my way to go to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I was completely delighted by the props and puppets from Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas. And then, in a small room, were a handful of Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters. I teared up looking at Rowlf. He was clearly old and worn through in spots, like a well-loved stuffed toy. Yet in spite of that it was somehow alive, this character - this person (okay, dog) - I knew so well, given such a strong personality by Henson that even motionless in a glass case it felt like looking at an old friend. Or like meeting a celebrity idol in real life. A museum employee told me that although Rowlf had appeared in various films, he hadn't spoken since Jim Henson died. I later learned this story wasn't true at all, but I still want it to be, and I'm not at all embarrassed to have welled up over it in front of a stranger.

Okay, so this is a reasonable thing to get emotional about. But when Boy and I went to Disney World in December, I cried at the Muppet 3D movie. You guys, I cried at the trailer for the new movie. I have a Muppet problem.

I've been watching season 3 of The Muppet Show on DVD, and it's delightful but I can absolutely make it through an episode without breaking down. I can't explain any of this. I guess I get emotional about post-Henson Muppet things (the Disney World movie is one of the last things he worked on before he died) that get it right, which is harder than it looks (see Muppets Tonight and Muppet Treasure Island). When the tone (and the voices) are on, it's a little like magic, like these people (not just Henson but all of the original Muppeteers, most of whom have retired) are somehow still in these characters' souls. (As for seeing the original Rowlf, come on, you'd have to be heartless.)

ANYWAY, I've been thinking about this because for Christmas, Boy got me a gift certificate to make my own Muppet at FAO Schwarz (yes, I cried), and today we finally braved the crowds of horrible tourists and did it. It. Was. Awesome. The Whatnot Workshop is in a quiet corner of the store (it turns out, as much as I hate tourist traps like FAO, once you get through the first few feet past the entrance, it's actually pretty cool in there). The women who were working the counter really seemed to enjoy their jobs and love the Muppets. They would occasionally play with the samples for passing children, and they were really good at it! The set design was thorough but not overbearing, and there were plenty of samples to look at, which was helpful since you design your Whatnot in two dimensions.


You're given a packet of colorforms (colorforms!) with which to design your Muppet. I could have done this for hours (you get to keep the kit, so I just may). I'm easily stymied by too much choice, but I was also fascinated. Changing just one part could completely change the whole personality of the puppet. For instance, I thought the blue guy looked a little…special, with his wide grin.
But add eyes, and the grin becomes sinister…
…or kinda drunk…
…or sweet.

Even just a nose makes a difference.

I had originally thought I would make a Muppet of myself, but none of the parts really leant themselves to that. And besides, that would basically be Nicky from Avenue Q. So I decided instead to make Crankypants J. Hatemachine. A Muppet of my soul, if you will. There are really only four parts to pick, but we did a lot of mixing and matching. I chose the frowny-faced body, and different features made him look depressed, or scared, or way too mean. Even changing the outfit changed the feel of him.

Finally, I gave them this…
…(and some money), and 20 minutes later…
…they gave me this:

I love him! I imagine him as a cross between Sam the Eagle and Bert. Definitely someone voiced by Frank Oz back in the day. I didn't cry even a little. This was pure joy. I might have to make another one someday. I like that orange body and the hoodie too. Crankypants may need a friend.

I guess it's a little ironic that I used the thing that most brings out my inner sap to manifest my inner grouch, but given how much I liked Oscar when I was little, maybe it just makes sense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Netflix Challenge: Fame Costs Edition

Part of the problem with the Netflix Queue Challenge is the way I add things to my queue faster than I can watch them. And when those are long-running TV shows, I'm screwed. My friends at Extra Hot Great (which, by the way, I guested on last week and then forgot to post about here) added an episode of Friday Night Lights to their canon of great TV shows a few weeks ago, and the clips they played backed up the whole "it's not really about football" argument about the show, and convinced me that I should finally check it out.

Um, it's really about football. At least at the beginning.

I have such contempt for the culture being portrayed here that I can't get past it, even though the show clearly has its own mixed feelings about it. I certainly don't think playing football and taking it seriously aren't worthwhile. Nor are fandom or school spirit or hometown pride. But if high school football is the most important thing in the world to these people - and not just the players or the students or the parents but the whole damn town - I find that deeply sad. Why is there a radio talk show dedicated to criticizing hardworking teenagers seemingly 24/7? I understand that this is a real thing in many places, but I don't want to watch it. That even the likable characters are part of this, endorsing it, turns me off completely.

For a little while, I thought that wouldn't matter. I was incredibly impressed with the pilot, especially, believe it or not, with the football game that ends it. In under an hour, they did an amazing job of making me care about these people and understand the stakes for them, and the game itself was staged so that I - who have never watched a football game in my life - was completely wrapped up in and excited by it. That's no small feat. It didn't hurt that since this is old and I live in a pretty pop-culture-saturated world, I had a vague sense that something terrible was going to happen to Jason, which added to the tension, but I think it would've worked anyway.

I thought I was sold, but the next two episodes remained very much about football, and I didn't have the patience to wait around for Coach Taylor's wife and daughter to take on the larger roles I know they'll eventually have. And the way Jason's injury was treated (again, by the town, not the show) further turned me off. So after three episodes I decided I was done.

When I turned off FNL I poked around the instant queue for something else to kill 45 minutes with and found the TV version of Fame, which I'd forgotten was there. I loved this show as a kid, though now I couldn't tell you why. I remember watching it on weekend afternoons in syndication. Was it always in syndication? I didn't see the movie until years later, and while it's now one of my favorites, at the time I remember being annoyed by the actors who weren't the versions of the characters i was used to. Anyway, the pilot is a weird mishmash of rehash from the movie and new setup. It's not a sequel to the film, since it has characters who would have graduated mixed in with new ones, but it skips almost all of the setup for Leroy, Bruno, Coco, et. al., assuming we already know who they are. Much like in the movie, not much happens in the pilot, but it's a decent introduction to the world.

I watched two episodes, and was really surprised by how well it holds up as a TV show. There's a lot of "Oh, the 80s" sighing, but it doesn't suffer from the pacing problems I've come to expect from these things. I mean, it was never a very good show, but it hasn't gotten any worse with age (its or mine). It's exactly how I remember it. (Though having now seen the movie many times, it is interesting that, so far at least, Montgomery appears to no longer be gay.)

I also love how New Yorky it is. Artsy or no, you believe this is a real city public school. Lots of the kids have accents. They behave largely like kids. I feel like today this would all have been sanitized and autotuned away. And even though they shot mostly in LA, exteriors are really NYC, and I love looking at all those 80s buses, and subway stations, and restaurants and theaters that no longer exist. When they started renovating Lincoln Center a couple of years ago, the only thing I felt sentimental about was the replacing of the fountain, entirely because of how they danced around it in the opening credits of this show.

Watching old Fame reminded me of new Fame, the 2009 remake of the original film. It was surprisingly not terrible! I didn't expect much from it, but I like these sorts of movies usually, and the teachers are played by Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth (who never have a scene together, interestingly), Charles Dutton, and Megan Mullally, which was enough of a draw to check it out.

It's not an actual remake (Debbie Allen plays the principal, suggesting that it's more of a sequel…though IMDB says her character has a different name from her original one), but it's surprisingly faithful to the original film. It's set in a fake, run-down public school, instead of the actual current home of the School of the Arts (the exterior is a real school, just not that one, and not the old one either). Although the characters are new, all the broad strokes of the original movie are in place: Coco's brush with porn gets an update, there's a rap producer (instead of a synthesizer genius) studying classical music, and an inner city kid whose family doesn't know he's at PA (now he's an actor/rapper instead of a dancer). Everyone's shifted around but it's all in the right spirit. They even stop everything cold for a rendition of "Out Here On My Own." As everyone should.

The adults are as delightful as promised, especially Bebe, with her withering, dream-crushing looks in ballet class, and Megan as the tough musical theater teacher with a heart of gold. The movie is about the kids, but I'd have been perfectly happy to see an entire film about the teachers.

And of course I'm a total sucker for a big inter-disciplinary graduation number. It's no "I Sing The Body Electric", but I have a weakness for pop songs with string sections, and even moreso for ones with an inexplicable African dance break.

Monday, May 09, 2011


Look, I really like The Hunger Games, but I don't understand these people (and I am friends with some of them) who are all in a tizzy about the casting. First of all, if you're the sort of person who's getting worked up about actors' hair color, is there any possible way you'd enjoy this movie under any circumstances? Clearly, no depiction of these characters will ever match the image in your head, which is in fact the nature of filming a book (I suppose Harry Potter might be an exception, since it was illustrated - and that worked out okay). Also, deeply faithful adaptations of books rarely work, since the media are different and changes are actually necessary to make a good movie. This is even true of plays, which are obviously closer than books. So you'll be annoyed about that. Finally, there's just a really good chance it will be terrible.

Of the many things to hate about the Twilight movies (to be clear, I hate the books too, I'm shifting to a slightly new argument), I hate the painfully awful hair on many of the actors the most. If it's that important to have someone be blonde, cast a blonde. Or spend some decent money on dye and wigs, and don't make pretty people look ugly for no good reason. Which I realize is kind of the argument of the Hunger Games whackos, but my point is that it's not that important. Peeta's blondness is not a plot point. It's not relevant in any way at all. I would rather see a good actor who's fun to look at with the "wrong" color hair, than spend two hours looking at a wig line or thinking about conditioner.

I'm not saying I'm not interested in the casting of this movie and the conversations about it (clearly I am, or I wouldn't be writing about it), but interest and investment/caring/consternation/upset are not the same thing.

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, when the internet exploded over news of…somebody, I don't even remember. I didn't post it because I couldn't think of a snappy ending. I still can't, but today Mark tried to start a Twitter meme of #UpcomingHungerGamesCasting. It didn't really take off but there are some funny ones, so I'll let that be my snappy ending! And I will totally see the movie, and most likely complain about it. But just because that's what I do.