Thursday, October 1, 2015

Throwback Thursdeath: What We Do in the Shadows

Vampires Suck has the same 85-minute running time as What We Do in the Shadows, but unlike What We Do in the Shadows, the jokes during Vampires Suck are probably so hacky that Vampires Suck feels like it's 85 hours long.

Today's edition of Throwback Thursday is a repost of a TBT piece from March 12, 2015.

One of my favorite SNL sketches that Yahoo's "complete SNL archive" currently doesn't carry is a 1989 Dracula sketch written by Jack Handey and James Downey, who told interviewer Mike Sacks in his 2014 book Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers that a few other SNL writers disliked his sketch when they first heard about its premise because they thought it sounded hacky: "What if Dracula were AIDS-aware?" The sketch, which featured James Woods as an inquisitive Dracula who asks his potential victims about their medical histories (one of whom was played by the late, great Jan Hooks), turned out to be funny anyway, and it's a shame that Yahoo doesn't have it. If you do fondly remember that James Woods Dracula sketch, then you're bound to get a kick out of the similar "old-world vampire who's had to adapt to the modern world" humor of co-stars/co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's clever 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.

At only 86 minutes, What We Do in the Shadows doesn't wear out its welcome. It ends before it can exhaust any of its gags about vampire housemates who are hardly as suave as the stars of True Blood and bicker over household chores or fashion choices, fussy werewolves, chatty and verbose zombies and a modern-day Renfield who's more like a personal assistant than a spider-eating mental patient. If Christopher Guest or the geniuses at Aardman Animations ever wanted to make a mockumentary where all the main characters are famous movie monsters, the result would probably resemble What We Do in the Shadows.

Wow, the production budget for this 258th season of MTV's The Real World is considerably lower than in previous seasons.

The film, which takes place mostly in an apartment in Wellington, New Zealand that's shared by a group of vampire friends, could have been a one-joke mockumentary. But thanks to the rich screenplay and capable direction by Clement, the bespectacled half of Flight of the Conchords, and Waititi, a fellow New Zealand comedian who directed Clement in the 2007 film Eagle vs. Shark and a few Flight of the Conchords episodes, What We Do in the Shadows is packed with so many effective jokes that it's difficult to catch them all in a single viewing, which makes it a film worth watching again and again.

It's also got a tender side underneath the comedic gore--you're as insane as Renfield if you're expecting What We Do in the Shadows to be a bloodless affair--and the gags about vampire genre clichés. Much of that tender side involves Waititi's character Viago, a 379-year-old aristocrat who traveled to New Zealand in a coffin to marry his girlfriend, but thanks to a coffin postage error, he wound up lost at sea and she married someone else instead. Viago's pining for his lost love is handled beautifully: it's sad, but it's also tinged with some raunchy humor (I've seen tons of TV shows and movies where people fuck each other in coffins, but I've never seen a moment where someone masturbates from inside a coffin, until What We Do in the Shadows came along), which keeps that side of the movie from turning unbearably sappy.

The nicely drawn characters created by Clement and Waititi are a plus, but what's even more enjoyable about What We Do in the Shadows is how its vampire universe is more enticing than most vampire universes from other genre works because it's so amusingly mundane and lived-in. I love the offbeat rules and customs Clement and Waititi came up with for their vampire world, like the bloodsuckers' inability to eat French fries or the little bit of business where they have to draw on notepads to each other how they look in outfits they're trying out because they can't see themselves in mirrors. By emphasizing the mundane, whether it's in those little details or the humorous neuroses of either Viago, his housemates or their werewolf rivals (whose leader is played by Clement's old Conchords co-star Rhys Darby), What We Do in the Shadows takes back the vampire genre from the detestable and banal Twilight and makes vampires relatable--and human--again.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The original songs from Spy and the Hannibal finale are better Bond themes than Sam Smith's actual Bond theme for Spectre

How Lea Seydoux can walk like that inside a wobbly train car without tripping in her heels is a bigger fucking mystery than who Franz Oberhauser really is.
Léa Seydoux in Spectre

I'm more of a fan of the music of 007 than the actual 007 movies themselves (although I'm fond of From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Living Daylights and the 2006 Casino Royale, and I like a lot of what Sam Mendes and Penny Dreadful showrunner John Logan--as well as regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins--brought to the table in Skyfall). It's a franchise that's committed more misses than hits in its 53-year history, artistically speaking, and I understand why Andrew Ti from Yo, Is This Racist? despises the 007 movies a lot more than I do. "He's like the literal personification of imperialism," grumbles Ti about a franchise that's either ridiculed and emasculated Asian men (Licence to Kill) or killed off the ones who, for a change, aren't villains like half-Pinoy ex-wrestler Dave Bautista's Spectre henchman character Mr. Hinx (A View to a Kill). I'm sure Ti would also be thrilled about the time Bond told a black sidekick to fetch him his shoes.

That's why--despite how well Daniel Craig plays Bond as a broken man and how interestingly the underrated Timothy Dalton similarly portrayed the Ian Fleming character as a damaged soul (particularly when he's seen still mourning his murdered wife Tracy in Licence to Kill)--I've never viewed this personification of imperialism as a hero I'd root for and completely identify with. I may ogle the Bond women and admire the artistry of some of the Bond action sequences, but I've never felt like these action movies were being made for me--in the same way that Justin Lin was making Fast Five and Furious 6 specifically for me and creating the first non-stereotypical, post-Sulu Asian American cinematic action hero in the form of Sung Kang's Han, a character Lin so regretted killing off in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift that he ballsily rewound the Fast and the Furious series timeline just so he could include Han in the action again.

I've seen all the 007 movies except Moonraker (Buffy once warned me against renting it), and the best and most fascinating thing about these movies that are still being run with a tight fist by the same family that started them (the story of the Broccoli family business, by the way, is another fascinating tale in itself) is often the score music. "It's mean stuff. It's not pretty or sanitised. It sounds tough. That's why [John Barry's] work has been sampled so much by hip-hop artists - those sinister horn stabs, especially," wrote superproducer Mark Ronson about the aural template that was established in the '60s by the late Barry and later recreated by Barry fan David Arnold in five consecutive 007 movies and regular Mendes composer Thomas Newman in Skyfall and now Spectre. Even when the movie's terrible, either Barry or Arnold would bring an unmistakable pulse to the original music. Unfortunately, that pulse is missing from "Writing's on the Wall," the newly released Spectre theme performed by British singer/songwriter Sam Smith and written by the blue-eyed soul artist (in what he claims to be only 20 minutes of songwriting) and Jimmy Napes, who both penned "Stay with Me," the 2014 Smith pop hit that bizarrely sounds like the love child of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and the theme from I'll Fly Away.

I'm not going to be like a lot of haters of the Spectre theme on social media and dismiss the theme with an extremist, Blaine and Antoine-style "Hated it!" (although some of those anti-"Writing's on the Wall" tweets are amusing, particularly one woman's description of the tune as "a drunk elephant tried to do karaoke to an Adele song whilst singing like James Blunt"), because the theme is actually an okay 007 ballad in the mold of Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service's dating montage and the Pretenders' "If There Was a Man" at the end of The Living Daylights, which were both produced by Barry. In fact, the best aspect of "Writing's on the Wall" is its Barry-style dramatic orchestrations, particularly before Smith's trademark falsetto comes in and warbles typical 007 song lyrics like "I'm prepared for this/I never shoot to miss." The first 15 seconds are classic 007 travelogue music.

But as an opening title theme for a 007 movie, "Writing's on the Wall" leans a little too adult contemporary for my tastes. "I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit," said Smith to NPR about lyrics like the rather adult contemporary-ish "How do I live, how do I breathe?/When you're not here I'm suffocating." writer Odie "Odienator" Henderson would complain on his blog about Adele's beloved and pitch-perfect "Skyfall" being too slow and putting him to sleep. Henderson doesn't understand that "Skyfall" is supposed to have a funereal tone because the song is actually about the death of M and is written from her point of view. That's why it would have been stupid to open Skyfall with a "View to a Kill"-style dance floor banger, whereas "Writing's on the Wall" is the kind of somnambulant tune Henderson misguidedly thought "Skyfall" was.

Wow, that Guillermo is one hell of a stage designer in addition to being a security guard and talk show sidekick.

"Where's the intrigue? Where's the danger?," wonders Idolator in its pan of "Writing's on the Wall." After those terrific first 15 seconds, the song never really builds towards anything memorable or punchy. What particularly makes "Writing's on the Wall" disappointing is that it reteamed Smith and Napes with the U.K. garage act Disclosure, a.k.a. brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, but it has little of the spark of earlier Smith/Napes/Disclosure tracks. I had no idea Disclosure had a hand in producing the Spectre theme until I saw several pop music blogs take note of Disclosure's involvement, right after I downloaded the "Writing's on the Wall" single from Amazon and then listened to it and thought I had teleported into the "Brian McKnight helps Martin propose to Gina in the park" episode of Martin instead of an action thriller.

"The reason we got involved afterwards was to try and add a bit of post production and they just wanted it to sound a little more spacey and add something behind it that wasn't just a straight-up orchestra," said the duo to the U.K.'s Capital FM radio network. While trying to lend a hand to something that they've said is "a lot more along the 'Goldfinger' lines," Disclosure, an act I enjoy for never being too saccharine in their music, sacrificed too much of what makes them great and took a turn towards the saccharine. k.d. lang and Garbage previously proved in Tomorrow Never Dies' Arnold-produced "Surrender" and the Arnold-produced opening title theme for The World Is Not Enough, respectively, that you can bring your own stamp to a traditional-sounding 007 tune and honor the 007 sound without sacrificing too much of your musical identity. I know I keep using the word "pulse" to refer to what "Writing's on the Wall" lacks, but that's the best word I can come up with to describe the thing that's absent from the Spectre theme and had permeated the previous Smith/Napes/Disclosure collabos "Latch" and "Together," which features some unknown nobody named Nile Rodgers.

Where's some of the sinewy garage sound that also distinguishes Disclosure's work with other acts like AlunaGeorge, as well as their work on their own (my personal favorite Disclosure banger, by the way, is "When a Fire Starts to Burn")?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Advantageous

Netflix is debuting new episodes of Mr. Peabody and Sherman next month. That show better fucking explain why a superintelligent dog who built a time machine has never bothered to use the machine to alter the physiology of dogs so that he doesn't need to walk on four legs anymore.

Usually on Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the stub and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. This week, instead of drawing some random stub, I'm going to completely break protocol and focus on a first-run movie I didn't see in the theater. I caught this movie instead on Netflix, and it's a good one. This week marked the season premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, the single-camera sitcom that made waves last season as the first genuine hit show on network TV to center on an Asian American family--and also has been consistently funny to boot--so I'm discussing an equally intriguing sci-fi film from earlier this year that's also told from an Asian American point of view.

On the surface, America in the year 2041 looks enticing early on during Advantageous, indie director Jennifer Phang's second feature-length film. Nobody in the future seems to complain anymore that "We were promised spacecars" because the unnamed city Advantageous takes place in appears to be surrounded by such spacecars. The city's sleek architecture gleams prettily in this low-budget film's surprisingly convincing matte paintings. It's like a city where all the skyscrapers were aesthetically inspired by the gleaming, bean-shaped Cloud Gate, that giant Chicago sculpture I remember so well from Source Code and one of the musical numbers during Dhoom: 3. Best of all, small mom-and-pop restaurants that tout their hormone-free fried chicken have managed to survive gentrification.

Caprica before the Cylons occupied it

But as the film digs deeper into 2041 America, it becomes clear how really fucked-up the future is underneath all that surface prettiness. The spacecars aren't actually spacecars: they're surveillance drones deployed by both the police and tech firms like the Center for Advanced Health and Living, whose name sounds like a shady Scientology subsidiary. Domestic terrorism has become so commonplace that barely anybody bats an eye at a terrorist attack or objects to the loss of their personal freedoms due to the increase in drone tech. "The 2033 bubble" has apparently led to an end to the middle class. The unemployment rate for women has skyrocketed, resulting in an increase in homeless women on the streets. A radio news report that could easily be missed underneath the dialogue during first viewing depressingly rattles off stats about "the recent rise in child prostitution in our country." Education has become unaffordable.

When single mother Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim), the Center for Advanced Health and Living's spokeswoman, becomes one of the unemployed after losing her job due to the corporation's plans to replace her with a younger spokeswoman, she chooses an unusual last resort for ensuring that her 13-year-old daughter Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation) stays in the country's super-expensive private school system, a broken system that ends up being the only way to protect Jules from a bleak future of hooking on the streets. Gwen agrees to earn a living as a guinea pig for the Center's newest product: a risky alternative to cosmetic surgery that allows people to transfer their minds into younger bodies.

Advantageous, which is like the best Black Mirror story Charlie Brooker hasn't written, originated as a 2011 short film Phang and Jacqueline Kim co-wrote as part of the FutureStates series of shorts for PBS. The scenes from that 2011 version resurface in the feature-length version and are surrounded by newly shot material featuring Jennifer Ehle as a sinister Center executive and, in an atypically non-comedic and surprisingly effective role, Ken Jeong, who co-produced the 2015 version (James Urbaniak, who's so sublime at playing manipulative and evil assholes on comedy shows like The Venture Bros. and Review, gets to demonstrate some non-comedic chops in Advantageous as well). The biggest and most satisfying difference between the 2011 short and the 2015 film is the film's lack of an opening crawl establishing all of the above details about the dystopian future.

'This Gillette razor is making you verrry sleepy.'

Omitting the crawl that opened the short causes the feature-length Advantageous to be ballsier storytelling-wise than even the director's cut of Blade Runner, which was never shorn of its explanatory crawl about replicants in the future despite completely removing Harrison Ford's clunkily delivered, "Grrr, can't wait to be done with recording this shit in the booth 'cuz I gotta go meet my weed connect"-ish voiceover narration. Phang wisely trusts the viewers to figure out piece by piece--and on their own, without much expository dialogue to hold their hands (other than the aforementioned fake news soundbites)--the future's worst aspects and its gender or racial inequities, as well as its strange customs. There's a great little scene where Gwen wants some time to herself to consider the "consciousness transplant," so she checks into a hotel that specializes in letting its guests go off the grid and be rid of all of their devices, as well as be rid of drone surveillance. In 2015, we have the freedom to go off the grid and take as long a break from social media or technological distractions as we want to, while in the fucked-up future Advantageous depicts, people have to pay to do that. But the most beautiful thing about that hotel scene is the lack of awkward exposition from the concierge like "Welcome to the Bedford, the hotel that grants you privacy from surveillance." It's world-building at its finest.

Another thing that makes the feature-length Advantageous superior to the 22-minute version is how the added material with Jeong (and an unseen Jeanne Sakata as Gwen's deeply religious mom) causes Gwen's desperation to make more sense and be more believable, even while Phang does subtle things with the dialogue and the editing to make the future slightly difficult to understand and more like a puzzle, narratively speaking. Phang's puzzle-like storytelling approach is reminiscent of one of my favorite Steven Soderbergh movies, The Limey, and it made me wonder at times if the entire movie was actually a flashback inside Gwen's head, just like how The Limey interestingly implies that Terence Stamp is playing back the entire movie in his head on his flight home to England. Even composer Timo Chen's Advantageous score is as similarly ethereal as Cliff Martinez's score to The Limey, and on his YouTube account, Chen details the unconventional ways he performed his effective score, like the sliding of a toothbrush across piano strings or the use of a sex toy as a plectrum.

As Chen says, Phang's puzzle-like approach inspired him "to develop new tools to play [instruments] in different ways." That phrase could also describe how a new and much-needed voice in sci-fi like Phang's takes a familiar, Children of Men-style dystopia and plays that dystopia in a different way by filtering it through her rarely acknowledged--and rarely visible on the screen--perspective: the perspective of women of color who are clearly fed up with classism, ageism, sexism and racism. Advantageous is an angry political work, but it's also hopeful about social change and fortunately, not completely humorless. Instead of Jeong supplying the film's humor, its humor emerges in the way Gwen and her co-workers sound exactly like Hollywood types when they discuss their work, like when Urbaniak's character says to Gwen, "We're obligated to go a different direction for the face of the Center."

Kim--whom Star Trek heads will remember as Sulu's grown-up daughter in Star Trek: Generations and who gets to show far more range in Asian American indie projects like Advantageous rather than in something like Generations--clearly took her experiences of hearing the drivel of Hollywood casting directors who babble in coded language about race and worked those experiences into the film's script. So Advantageous also becomes a satirical comment on Hollywood's treatment of Asian women and its tendency to either whitewash characters who were Asian females in the source material (like when Arrow changed the DC Comics character Sin from an Asian girl to a white one) or cast in leading roles Asian performers who look "less Asian" and are closer to Hollywood's beauty standards.

If Gwen 2.0 found a job at Dunder Mifflin, Michael Scott would probably greet her with 'Was your dad a G.I.?'

Gwen is so brainwashed from her days of working at the Center that when she chooses her new body, it turns out to be, of course, a racially ambiguous one. Gwen 2.0 (Freya Adams) may look as outwardly pretty as the city she's been raising Jules in, but just like the city, the new Gwen's concealing an enormous amount of pain and unease. In a manner that brings to mind how the late Roddy Piper so gruffly and amusingly tried to get anyone in L.A. who hadn't joined the alien invaders--as well as the Reagan-era theater audience--to listen to him about the world around them during John Carpenter's classic dystopian satire They Live, Advantageous dares us to stop taking a blind eye to that same kind of pain and unease that exists outside the screen (and on the streets of present-day cities or in the power structures within our own Center-like workplaces) and take a closer look.

Advantageous is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Monday, September 21, 2015

That viral pic from Tumblr of Christina Ricci as Morticia Addams isn't real, but it proves why Morticia is the part she was born to play, baby

Elizabeth Montgomery once starred as Lizzie Borden in a TV-movie that was made for people who wish Bewitched could have used a little more scenes of ax murders.
Christina Ricci in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

I've stayed away from Asian Twitter ever since two different camps within Asian Twitter came to blows over #CancelColbert--the dumbest-looking campaign against a fictional TV character since Dan Quayle's outrage over Murphy Brown's choice to become a single mom--and all that arguing between Asian Americans over #CancelColbert made me want to stick my head in the oven, so I've spent most of my lurking time on Twitter over on Black Twitter. Does the fourth half of that last sentence make any sense? Shit, it probably doesn't.

Black Twitter is sometimes a more enjoyable place to be than any other part of Twitter, mainly because of Desus Nice's consistently funny tweets about either hip-hop, sports, white people's bullshit or an America where "President Trump starts WW3 with Mexico and China." Desus has parlayed his 140-characters-and-less wit into both a career of writing for comedy shows on MTV2 and a popular, now-defunct comedic webseries with "all-caps rap reviewer" The Kid Mero that returned to the Internet earlier this month in the form of the newly launched podcast Bodega Boys. Emmy night and the following day are interesting examples of the differences in trending topics between Black Twitter and White Twitter, or as I like to call it, Facebook.

So Black Twitter has been all about the new Drake/Future mixtape, the enthusiasm over Uzo Aduba, Regina King and Viola Davis all winning Emmys for acting and black viewers' frustrations over a Twitter rant about Davis' candid and rousing Emmy acceptance speech that was posted and quickly deleted by a drunken white actress from General Hospital. Black Twitter shouldn't be surprised that the lady from General Hospital would post racist opinions about Davis' Emmy win for her role on How to Get Away with Murder: she's a Cassadine. Of course she would say such things.

How do I know all this shit about the Cassadines? I used to watch General Hospital in between UC Santa Cruz classes. I lived in a nice off-campus apartment building where none of the neighbors on my floor were weed dealers or were into sharing their weed, so I never really was heavily into weed like most other UCSC students. That also meant that when I wanted a good laugh at about 2pm before I'd slink back to class or the campus paper, I was too lazy to go score some weed downtown. Instead I would get a couple of good laughs at 2pm by just switching on General Hospital to chuckle over either three things: the show's G-rated and overly romanticized portrayal of the Mafia, two or three years before The Sopranos premiered and its popularity caused General Hospital to be completely changed into Sopranos lite; the fact that every outdoor conversation at night would take place on the same exact foggy Port Charles dock set; or one of Anthony Geary's genuinely funny and often unscripted one-liners during the feud between the evil Cassadines and the slightly less evil Spencers. That's how I know who the Cassadines are.

Anyway, while those are the trending topics on Black Twitter, White Twitter is preoccupied with much weirder things: viral footage of a subway rat carrying a slice of pizza (apparently he's got a few ninja turtles he needs to feed), gossip over David Cameron once inserting his dick into a dead pig as if he were in an episode of Black Mirror and a photo of Christina Ricci dressed up as Morticia Addams, the mother of Wednesday, the character Ricci charmingly brought to life in the two Addams Family movies. Yeah, that's white people in a nutshell.

Wait a minute. [KRS-One voice.] Rewind. Someone posted a pic of Ricci as Morticia? Has that person been reading my mind lately and glimpsing a hot fantasy I once had about present-day Ricci in a Morticia outfit? I'm no Goth, but I would love to see Ricci play Morticia in an Addams Family reboot. Also, why is the Photoshopping job on that Tumblr pic kind of shitty, and why does it remind me of Lena Headey's face getting poorly grafted onto her body double during Cersei's walk of shame? How's it possible that there are people who were actually convinced the photo is real?

Thanks, Tumblr, for making Christina Ricci look like a long-necked ambassador from the Jedi Council.
(Photo source: Mystical Enchantment)

She's thinking about tying up and torturing the writers behind the first season of Smash.

Shame! Ding! Shame! Ding! Shame! Ding! Shame! On whoever did the shitty CGI for this! Ding!
(Photo source: Uproxx)

Ricci most recently starred as Lizzie Borden in both a Lifetime movie and a short-lived Lifetime show. An ideal future role for her would have to be Morticia or a grown-up Wednesday. The Addams Family, the show that was based on the only New Yorker cartoons that are worth a damn, has already been rebooted three different times in live action and once in animation (as well as turned into a Broadway musical starring Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia and Nathan Lane as Gomez). I hate most reboots, and the unwatchability and suckitude of the last two live-action Addams projects are a good reason why I dislike most of them (the Addamses are too big to be in something as small as a chintzy direct-to-video movie). But it's not surprising why a certain segment of Hollywood keeps wanting to resuscitate the Addams fam.

The Charles Addams characters' brand of dark humor--they're misfits mocking the lily-white and squeaky-clean suburbia of '50s and '60s sitcoms like The Donna Reed Show and then later on during the era of the Barry Sonnenfeld movies, America as envisioned by those who worshiped the Bush Sr. Administration--is timeless and always appealing, especially to misfits and outcasts who don't care for how dull, unpleasant and, well, hateful that kind of suburbia or America can be. At a time when a hatemonger like Donald Trump is trying to stoke the racist anger of that kind of America, maybe we need the Addamses on the screen again to take that America down and shoot arrows at it a la Wednesday and Pugsley during that Thanksgiving play they rewrote in Addams Family Values.

All an Addams reboot needs besides Ricci are a director who's incredibly focused--and doesn't let the art direction become the only good thing about the movie but still manages to infuse a strong visual sense--and a writer who's as sharp as Paul Rudnick, a script doctor on the first Addams Family flick and the sole credited writer of Addams Family Values, the sequel that was a perfect marriage of quip writer and teen performer delivering those quips (Rudnick/Ricci). Shit, on second thought, they should just bring Rudnick back, unless he'd rather stick to ghostwriting the film reviews of Libby Gelman-Waxner.

Somewhere, Azrael Abyss is creaming his pants right now.
(Photo source: Go Fug Yourself)

Azrael Abyss is also now working at a Home Depot in Peoria.
(Photo source: Go Fug Yourself)

I want more than just Ricci channeling Morticia on the red carpet, man. I'd like another Rudnick-penned Addams movie, and I'd like her to be an Addams again. Ricci may have scared away Lifetime viewers while wielding Lizzie Borden's ax, but as an Addams wielding an ax, she'd definitely get our attention again.

Marc Shaiman's "The Tango," the instrumental highlight of Addams Family Values, isn't currently in rotation on AFOS (it was removed from rotation in 2012 due to limited station hard drive space), but it ought to be.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Muppets (2011)

The pilot episode of The Muppets hints that the chicken-loving Gonzo still has a crush on Miss Piggy. What is it with Gonzo and farm animals, man? He makes Gene Wilder look like a Mormon.

Usually on Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm going to focus today's TBT piece on the Muppets' return to the big screen after a 12-year absence, due to next Tuesday's premiere of The Muppets on ABC.

Network TV appears to be in such a sorry state this fall--original content on either streaming services or cable is where it's at these days--that the only new network comedy I'm looking forward to is ABC's The Muppets, which is being billed as "a more adult Muppet Show" (wait a minute, we've already had a more adult Muppet Show: it was called The Larry Sanders Show). As much as I love the film that was both the first Muppet feature film I ever saw and my unlikely gateway into the caper genre, the Jim Henson-directed, partially Jay Tarses-scripted Great Muppet Caper--it's my favorite of the Muppet feature films and a film subsequent Muppet films haven't surpassed, not even 2011's well-received The Muppets--TV, the medium the Muppets were created for, is where they work best and are at their funniest. I'm talking episodic TV, not movie-of-the-week TV, which was where Kermit the Frog and company spent most of the 2000s (and disappointed the franchise's most die-hard fans by starring in TV-movies like the poorly received Muppets' Wizard of Oz). Like the A.V. Club's resident Muppets fan, Erik Adams, said last year, a new take on The Muppet Show would give the Muppets' writers and puppeteers the proper space to stretch their ambitions and allow the franchise's gargantuan cast of characters to shine again in a format that's not as cramped as a two-hour movie.

But I have one huge reservation about this new weekly Muppet comedy from showrunners Bill Prady, the Big Bang Theory co-creator who got his start working for the late Henson, and Bob Kushell, and that would be the show's rehash of the confessional/mockumentary format that was popularized by The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. It's such a tired format these days that even Modern Family is starting to find ways to break away from the format, like when it told an entire story using nothing but Skype chats last season. No matter how many times Gonzo points out the tiredness of the confessional gimmick, I really wish the Prady/Kushell show would phase out the confessionals because much of the Muppet characters' appeal is due to their timelessness, and the confessionals scream out 2005.

Timelessness is also integral to why Flight of the Conchords episode director James Bobin's 2011 big-screen reboot works so well, despite occasional missteps like the film's ill-advised needle drop of Starship's 1985 radio hit "We Built This City," an anthem about maintaining the "purity" of rock n' roll that neither rocks nor rolls. Although I'm not a fan of musicals, I would rather hear another musical number written by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie--who won a Best Original Song Oscar for penning the film's clever and very Conchords-ish number "Man or Muppet"--than have to endure "We Built This City" again.

References to anger management classes and the crassness of reality TV (and terrible Starship songs) aside, Bobin's The Muppets could have come out of 1981 or 1991. There was a lot of grumbling to the press from Muppet project veterans like the retired Frank Oz about Bobin's movie before its release. They felt (no pun intended) the screenplay by lead actor Jason Segel and his writing partner Nicholas Stoller disrespected the Muppet characters by having them tell fart jokes or experience Martin-and-Lewis-ish bitter feuds--the film's story has Segel's character and his Muppet Show-loving little brother Walter, a new Muppet character voiced and performed by Peter Linz, helping Kermit (Steve Whitmire, whose most sublime bit of Muppet acting in the film has to be the distraught expression his hand gives to Kermit's face when he finds out Miss Piggy kidnapped Jack Black) to get the other stars of The Muppet Show back together after years of estrangement and unfulfilling jobs away from the limelight.

A bit of the old guard's skepticism about Segel and Stoller's screenplay is understandable because, conceptually, their screenplay is on the creaky side. Much of it is a rehash of the "Muppets put on a show to stop a greedy developer from tearing down their theater" story from 2002's made-for-TV It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, which starred Joan Cusack as the greedy developer instead of Chris Cooper, who--despite being trained to rap by McKenzie, a skilled Beastie Boys parodist who once proved he could flow on Conchords, for a brief number where his villain character raps about himself--should never ever rap on screen again.

But otherwise, Segel, Stoller and Bobin take that "Muppets reunite to put on a show" premise and make it a timeless and effective way to reintroduce the Muppets and get a new generation of viewers to understand why the Muppets' irreverence and warmth were a big deal to those of us who grew up watching The Great Muppet Caper repeatedly or enjoying The Muppet Show and either its shtick involving Animal (the description of Animal's untold backstory in ego trip's Big Book of Racism! is hilarious: "Drunk, inarticulate and wilder than Tijuana on a Jerry Springer celebrity spring break--naturally, he's Mexican") or its various musical numbers. One of those numbers was the show's cover of Piero Umiliani's "Mah Na Mah Na," a nonsense song that resurfaces in the Segel/Stoller/Bobin movie's end credits and is notorious for originating not as a Muppet Show number but as an original song during the 1968 Italian softcore porno Svezia, inferno e paradiso (Swedish: Heaven and Hell).

How else should the Segel/Stoller/Bobin movie have reintroduced the Muppets? Put them through another half-baked parody like a Wizard of Oz remake? The "Muppets never grow apart or do fart jokes" complaints strike me as very "Gene Roddenberry won't allow the Enterprise-D officers to get into conflicts with each other"-ish. The skeptical Muppet veterans were wrong about Segel, Stoller and Bobin being too crass and cynical in their approach to bringing back the Muppets. In fact, I think Segel, Stoller and Bobin were so reverent at times about honoring the most beloved of Muppet movies, 1979's sweet-natured Muppet Movie, and pleasing the old guard (plus the Disney execs) that their movie doesn't have enough terrific little "whoa, how did that get snuck into a family film?" gags like Janice's random aside in The Great Muppet Caper about her past ("And I said, 'Look, Mother, it's my life, okeeey? So if I want to live on a beach and walk around naked...' Oh").

Fortunately, Segel, Stoller and Bobin didn't do away with the self-aware dialogue that's classic Muppets ("Didn't you see our first movie? We drive") or the occasional jokes only a few adults in the audience will understand, like the Muppets showing up on the cover of Ebony on a wall in Kermit's mansion or Rashida Jones threatening Kermit with "I will rerun Benson if I have to." I'm sure that line led to a lot of kids in the audience saying, "Mommy, who's Benson?" Segel, Stoller and Bobin also came up with the first moment in a Muppet movie that genuinely moved me and nearly made me tear up:

Whoops, not that scene. This scene:

The Muppets is noteworthy for being the first Muppet movie to take The Muppet Show and all its episodes and make them a pivotal part of the storyline. While Kermit's discovery of the crowds of fans waiting outside the Muppet Theater nearly made me tear up, some Muppet Show fans have said the film's archival audio clip of Kermit introducing guest star Bob Hope was the part of the film that first made them emotional.

That's how beloved The Muppet Show is as a variety show (variety is, by the way, a long-dead-in-America genre Neil Patrick Harris is attempting to bring back to American network TV this fall with NBC's Best Time Ever, which is loosely based on Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway from the U.K.), and the show receives a satisfying tribute in the form of The Muppets, the most enjoyable comedy movie about a variety show since 1982's My Favorite Year, director Richard Benjamin's thinly veiled movie about the making of Your Show of Shows. The Muppet Show was such a huge part of my childhood that words like "Time once again for Veterinarian's Hospital, the continuing story of a quack who has gone to the dogs" are easier for me to remember than any of the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner."