Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is Everything Alright in Here?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Stew

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

B Is for Bobo

There were 27 years between The Muppets Take Manhattan and the quasi-reboot/nostalgia fest The Muppets in 2011. During that period of time, the Muppets moved on, and a lot of new characters were introduced... characters that became integral to the Muppets of the time (and allowed new performers to develop new characters of their own) but that I fear are being pushed aside now that the new series of movies is trying to more or less restore the original Muppet Show cast to primacy.

(That in itself leads to a criticism of the Muppets that I reject outright, which is that a lot of the Muppets "sound wrong" now; never mind that of the main Muppet Show performers who are still alive, only two--Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire--still perform their Muppets. And Whitmire had to take over Kermit the Frog!)

One of my favorite Muppet characters introduced in what we can probably refer to as the interim period of the Muppets is Bobo the Bear. He--or rather, his puppet--first appeared in The Muppets Take Manhattan as a generic bear performed by Jerry Nelson. After some slight modifications, the puppet was introduced by performer Bill Barretta as Bobo on the short-lived, underrated TV series Muppets Tonight (aka proof that, no, actually, you probably wouldn't watch a Muppet Show revival, because you didn't when you had the chance to 20 years ago... sorry, I get bitter about wanting a steady stream of Muppet entertainment).

Bobo was the amiable but bumbling security guard at KMUP, the fictional studio where the show was put on. He had me laughing right away with his attitude. Often, the show would open with the guest trying to get past Bobo in order to make his appearance on the show.

This clip is my favorite opening, with the Artist Formerly Known as Prince trying to sign in with security. ("Okay, Dr. Rorschach, I'll play along...") There were also great bits where Bobo would try to scam Rizzo the Rat out of food, or the episode where he fell in love with Cindy Crawford and attempted to woo her.

After the premature cancellation of Muppets Tonight, Bobo appeared in a substantial supporting bit as Rentro, the office assistant to Jeffrey Tambor's villain in Muppets from Space. This tiny little bit is one of my favorite things from that movie.


I don't know why that's so funny, but it gets me every time. Incidentally, Bill Barretta has told a story about this moment. His line "The Goat?" was ad libbed, and after Tambor corrected him "THE REMOTE!" they had to cut because Tambor was cracking up too hard to go on. Quite a coup for Barretta, since apparently Jeffrey Tambor never breaks up because of other actors ad libbing. Nice job.

Bobo made a number of other appearances as Bill Barretta's characters started to gain prominence in the Muppet ensemble. He's just too damn good a performer to ignore. (Big Mean Carl and another of my all time favorites, Pepe the King Prawn, are Barretta originals.) One of my favorite Bobo appearances is this Star Wars audition tape, done for an episode of the Statler and Waldorf: From the Balcony webseries.

Bobo's major film appearances, though, were as a security guard (assisting a security guard played by Nathan Lane) in A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa and one of the assistants to Tex Richman (played by Chris Cooper) who was the villain in The Muppets. It's a pretty good gig; Bobo is at his best when he's playing a low-level functionary who's jovial but not really very helpful. And the sight of him in a suit is somehow automatically hilarious.

Still, I feel like Bobo is falling by the wayside a little, again because The Muppets really sought to re-establish the original Muppet Show cast as the main ensemble. With Bill Barretta performing Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog and the Swedish Chef, there doesn't seem to be as much time for Bobo. Most recently, he was seen in a cameo in Muppets Most Wanted. There was also a lovely little moment on Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular where my beloved Kristen Bell tried to teach him to dance.

Kristen Bell with the Muppets? I feel like I can ultimately die happy now.

All I ask is a little bit of Bobo every so often. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled to have Dr. Teeth and Rowlf back--some of you may remember that Rowlf the Dog is my favorite Muppet--but a little bit of Bobo is a grand thing.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY (2013)
I never really expected they'd ever make a sequel to The Best Man, much less do it almost 15 years later and Big Chill the thing a little bit. I was surprised how easily the characters came back to me (I don't think I've seen the original since it first showed up on video in 1999/2000) and how much I just enjoyed being in their world for a little while. The cast is great--I don't really get to see Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long or Regina Hall often enough--and the emotions are genuine. It's just a nice Christmas-themed movie. Oh, and excellent soundtrack. All Christmas music, natch. ***

42 (2013)
The reviews of this Jackie Robinson biopic left me pretty cold, for the most part; I saw it referred to as bloodless and impersonal, and someone even went as far as to compare it to one of those too-clean stories of the lives of some saint or other, like it was the Sunday School version of Jackie Robinson. I decided to give it a chance basically because it just happened to be on. I spent all of Sunday with my Dad, fishing on the lake for the first time since I was 12, and found myself home alone all Sunday night. Having had a great day (only caught two small fish--less than six inches, but they were bass, a least--but it was a real triumph for me in that I managed to be patient and engaged and not anxious at all) and a long bath, I decided to order a pizza and watch 42. I remember Roger saying he liked it, and I guess I wanted to watch something I felt like my Dad would've liked, and it's been on all the time on HBO, so I sat with it. And I loved it.

It's not bloodless or overly sanitized at all. In fact, the language is so rough it made me uncomfortable (it's supposed to, of course). In one scene, the language was so harrowing and cruel that I wanted to cry. In some respects, the film is deliberately old-fashioned; it takes it cues from great baseball pictures like The Pride of the Yankees. But it's absolutely the right decision to put the focus on Jackie Robinson's ordeal and what he had to go through to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, even if it's somewhat at the expense of making Jackie's characterization more complex. It's not really a biopic; it's about social change.

It helps that a lot of the film rests with Chadwick Boseman as Jackie; he's a charming, personable actor giving a nuanced, sympathetic performance, and now I can't wait to see him play James Brown in Get On Up. I also liked Harrison Ford in the movie; I haven't actually seen him act in a long time, and he seems to be relishing the chance to ham it up without breaking the movie's reality. (There's a little bit of the baseball fan gee whiz to this movie that only adds to the charm of it.) And at the end, I found myself moved.

I'll be honest and admit that it's a solid three-star movie, but I'm going to give it an extra half because, let's be honest, your personal experiences always shade your feelings about a movie. Hey, these are reviews, not actual criticism. ***1/2 Glad I sat with it instead of dismissing it.

CONEY ISLAND (1917)
Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton are both after a married girl at Coney Island. I love seeing the Coney Island rides and attractions in old silent flicks. There's a lost magic to it. Fatty and Buster are on point, as always. ***1/2

LOOK PLEASANT, PLEASE (1918)
I'm not always the biggest Harold Lloyd fan, but TCM had some shorts on the other night that I quite enjoyed. This was the first, with Lloyd playing a hapless grocer on the run. He ends up standing in for a flirty (more like gropey) photographer who is dodging a jealous husband. Really, really tight pacing on this one, even though I still found Lloyd's personality a little cutesy. ***1/2

TAKE A CHANCE (1918)
The second Lloyd short; in this one, he's at the park trying to woo Bebe Daniels. Some fantastic physical gags in this one, including Lloyd's slide on a bar of soap. Great timing, great pacing. ***1/2

CAPTAIN KIDD'S KIDS (1918)
The final Lloyd short of the night. Not as good as the other two. The middle section here is Lloyd as a rich boy who gets captured by lady pirates. Some good gags, particularly the kitchen stuff. I just realized I'm really a sucker for kitchen sequences in silent movies... ***

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #50

"The Human Top!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko
(December 1963)

This one's a fun, breezy read. It's also everything I hate about Giant-Man & the Wasp stories.

First, the villain: David Cannon, the Human Top. He was born with the ability to spin around really fast like, well, the name's a give away. I guess he must be a mutant, since he was born with his powers, although the word isn't used. He's a bully and a jerk, and grows up to be a cheat; he gets in speed skating races and deliberately loses in order to drive the odds up, then easily wins as a sort of fix for the mob, because I guess the mob bets on the outcomes of speed skating races. Eh, gambling money is gambling money. His new plan is to get a job in a show at Danly's Department Store and rob the payroll.

Into this plot stumble Giant-Man and the Wasp, who are more or less insufferable in this issue.

First, we have Stan's usual go-to of flirty banter that basically amounts to Hank Pym using his "ew, girls are yucky!" attitude to deflect man-hungry Jan. It starts right from their first appearance in this story, after Hank calls Jan to remind her they're having a briefing this afternoon.

Let's remember the real victims of workplace sexual harassment in the Marvel Universe: male scientists who just want to do their jobs without being reminded that girls like all that mushy stuff. Which is too bad, because apparently all that mushy stuff is why a girl becomes a superhero herself.

The story's only 13 pages long, and ends on a cliffhanger, but a lot of pages are just this kind of filler, with the Wasp angrily insisting that handsome Giant-Man acknowledge her ceaseless flirtation. And apparently all he has to do is call her "honey" and she's over the moon. It's just really insulting and idiotic sometimes.

Hank learns about the Top's plans to steal the payroll, and he and Jan get jobs there to infiltrate and be ready. At least it's a little more believable than setting up your own jewelry store overnight to catch a robber.

Hank and Jan have been so insipid this issue that it's almost a relief when the Human Top shows up and just throws everything into chaos.

Not only is the Top snottier than Spider-Man, he's also apparently unbeatable. The guy with the power to spin around really fast is also the guy that Giant-Man can't beat. Gee, I guess being twelve feet tall isn't the best power in every situation.

This is what you get for those puke-inducing filler scenes of flirty banter that reads like it was written by children, Giant-Man! This is the funniest thing that's happened in a Marvel comic since this classic.

So, yeah, the Human Top gets away. And Giant-Man, humiliated, begins a combination of chemical tests and physical training in order to increase his speed so he can stop the Human Top's criminal rampage. But things aren't looking too good...

To be continued.

Stray observations:

:: The credits read "Illustrated by Jack Kirby, Rendered by Steve Ditko," which, from the looks of things, means Jack Kirby laid out the story and did some poses (lots of familiar Kirby poses in this issue), but Ditko did the finished pencils and inks. Marvel Wiki implies that Kirby did the pencils and Lee did the inks, but it looks a little more like Ditko's work to me. Hard to tell. I'm sure someone out there knows.

:: The ants still send messages to Dr. Pym about things that require his intervention. This is visualized like this:

I've long given up questioning why ants would even have the slightest interest in the affairs of human beings and their laws and their concept of good and evil or even their concept of the ways humans divide time. But who knew the ants thought in such legible script? And look, they have the concept of motion blur, too. Ants are much more sophisticated than we gave them credit for, apparently.

:: Ordinary citizens in the Marvel Universe are so stupidstitious.

*Sigh* Where were you when Atlantis took over New York, lady?

:: My wife: "How does the Human Top not just puke constantly? Even astronauts would be puking constantly!"

So, yeah, not my favorite issue here. Ever since Stan Lee took over this series and Ant-Man became Giant-Man, it just hasn't worked for me. I miss the old Ernie Hart & Don Heck Ant-Man stories. Alas, alas, etc.

This is also the last story in this Marvels series from 1963. But there are milestones galore in '64! (Sorry, wanted to see what it would be like to write for the bullpen for a second there.)

Next time: Stan Lee salutes the teenagers.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Song of the Week: "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls"

No one is ready for the sex girls.

I've always liked this silly, bouncy New Wave single. I first heard when I was a kid and saw Revenge of the Nerds, but I didn't encounter it again until just after high school when Rhino put out its Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 80s. New Wave is the music I was sort of born into, especially the earlier sound that's still punky. But what I think of as punk, anyway; stuff like the Dictators that was funny and snotty and Mad type stuff. New Wave and Post-Punk are probably the sounds that defined my childhood and set the bar for all the other music I would ever like. (Well, let's be honest: those and any Muppet music. Boy, modern me makes a lot of sense when you consider the kind of music I loved as a kid...)

Anyway, I always thought this song was glorious in its silliness and its ridiculous lyrics. It's not surprising to find out that these two guys--Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick--were also members of Sparks, who had a very similar sound at the time (a period which produced two of my all time favorite Sparks songs, "Monster of Love" and "Tips for Teens"). Kendrick was later in Devo, too. I love how connected all of this stuff is.

But let's go even further with the connections I like to find. Leslie Bohem became a screenwriter. He's the guy who created the Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken, which is not only one of my favorite things of the last 15 years, it also reframed my childhood fascination with UFOs and introduced me to one of my favorite actresses, Dakota Fanning (who later went on to play one of my favorite people ever, Cherie Currie). He's also currently a writer on Extant, which I've been really digging (as you could probably tell from this week's Sunday Hottie).

Other than puppeteer/matte painter/model builder/creature designer/special fx guy, the other job I really dreamed of as a kid was astronaut. It was never going to happen; I was a terrified kid, and I never kept in shape, and I'm terrible at science. But the wonder's still there for me, and I'm still so into outer space, since before I can remember.

So I watch this week's great second episode of Extant, and what do I see? An astronaut on a space station listening to "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls." An episode written by Leslie Bohem.

I love life sometimes.

Here's the hilariously ironic video for a song I just love to death in its transcendent hilarity. The goat noises always make me laugh. The video is just the right kind of mocking. (And hey, their meringue didn't hold, either. I made two pies in the last two weeks that just collapsed. This is the right video for the right song at the right time.)

Sunday Hottie 494

HALLE BERRY