Saturday, May 26, 2012

Crayon Dragon

Friday, May 25, 2012

TV Report: Luther

After admonishing myself in a post last week for not just sitting down and watching the 10 episodes of Luther already (top spot in my queue for a couple of months now), Becca prodded me to turn them on and we became immediately wrapped up in it and had to watch straight through to the end.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the show; the first episode starts off with a bang, showing us a London cop who's not above letting the killer he's after fall from a great height to put him out of action. John Luther is troubled, not squeaky clean, but dedicated and a genius. When he returns to work (he's been on forced leave between the opening and start of the episode proper), he investigates the murder of a family that left only the daughter, Alice Morgan, alive. I'm not spoiling anything when I say that Alice is the killer--it's the only thing that makes sense, and what's really great here is that it's not treated as a revelation. Luther figures it out after one interview with her, noting her lack of empathy and marking her as a sociopath, but the kind of genius who needs to be recognized for her genius, even if she's done an incredible job cleaning up after herself. There's no way to pin the murders on her, but it's important to her that Luther knows she did it and that he's duly impressed by how clever she is.

So what's interesting about this show is that so much of it is about these two geniuses on opposite sides of the legal spectrum. Alice thinks they should be friends, because only Luther can appreciate her genius and she respects his. He's the only person she's designated as her equal, and seeks his approval. She starts to meddle in his life--he's got a wife (Indira Varma) about to leave him for a man she fell in love with (Paul McGann) while they were separated--because she feels protective of him, but also because she wants to constantly remind him how close and like-minded they are. It sounds like a cliche, but it's surprising how complex and fascinating it really is.

The first series is one of the best I've ever seen. Idris Elba is riveting as John Luther. Though there's plenty of police procedural here, there are so many emotions at play. The morals are always in question; there are lines Luther is quite willing to cross, but only because his ultimate goal is to catch the criminal and get him off the streets. He becomes so consumed by the dark side of the crimes he investigates that you start to wonder how he'll ever crawl back out of it, and what kind of prices he'll have to pay. It's a truly excellent performance, and deeply involving television.

I was cooler on the second series, however. It has a shorter amount of time (4 episodes vs. 6 in the first series), but after the grand emotional play of the first series, the stakes just can't get personal enough in the second series to really ramp up the tension and suspense the way the first series does. Especially since Alice has at first a much smaller role, and then disappears halfway through, cutting off one of the most important nerve centers from John Luther's character. They try to make it personal, giving Luther something of a daughter surrogate, and while it's still clever, I never really felt as invested as I did in the first series. I felt like before we were seeing a dark, driven man who was compelled to help people even at the risk of his own personal happiness and mental well-being, and did so as a cop... and in the second season we're just watching him be a cop. I kind of hate myself a bit for making this comparison, but if the first series is Batman, the second series is Batman if he took off the suit and got a day job solving crimes. It's still an interesting series, but not in the special, intense way the first one is.

That said, it's still better than a lot of the cop shows I've ever seen--I don't tend to like cop shows, with some big exceptions like Wire in the Blood--and at this point I think Idris Elba could just angrily bark the phone book at the camera and I'd find it compelling television. (And side note: what a sexy motherfucker he is.)

I just read today that Luther will get a third series in 2013, and I'll watch that as soon as it comes somewhere I can see it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It's Time to Play the Music: My 50 Favorite Muppet Songs

Trust me, this list could have easily been my 100 favorite Muppet songs, or even more, but I decided to just go with 50 as a nice, round, not-too-taxing number. These are my 50 favorite songs by the Muppets, whether they be original or just performed really well by them. I've included songs from the various Muppet projects, from Fraggle Rock, and of course from Sesame Street, but decided to leave out some of the other various Jim Henson productions, so no David Bowie on this one, I'm afraid (my wife will be annoyed to hear it, but there it is).

I'll be linking these on YouTube, so without further ado, here are my 50 favorite Muppet musical moments.

(Honorable mentions: the medley from Jim Henson's funeral service and, of course, the greatest moment in television history.)

50. "Feelings" (The Muppet Show, Episode 424)
This almost feels like an obligatory add, but it's just so damn much fun. This is the kind of joke they excelled at on The Muppet Show without running it too far into the ground. And it's nice how Beaker gets to keep his dignity and sing his heart out.

49. "Somebody Come and Play" (Sesame Street, Episode 0047)
This was originally used in one of those great film clips they used to play on Sesame Street for a long time; I remember seeing this one--with a baby orangutan in his zoo enclosure--when I was a kid, and its original appearance on the show was six years before I was even born. One of Joe Raposo's typically lovely songs. I also have Big Bird singing this on a record somewhere...

48. "A Professional Pirate" (Muppet Treasure Island)
I've tried not to focus too much on the guest stars, but Tim Curry has an incredibly fun solo number here, camping it up in one of the Muppets' most underrated films. Great wordplay in here, and I love the visuals of the pirate Muppets during lyrics such as "we'll never stab you in the back" (cue backstabbing) and Polly Lobster's slow burn during Black-Eyed Pea's Brando impersonation. Fantastic moments.

47. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (The Muppet Show, Episode 213)
One of the most surreally bizarre sketches on The Muppet Show with Miss Piggy trying her damnedest to seduce a towel-clad Rudolf Nureyev. The comedy more than makes up for Nureyev's voice. I love that this sketch reverses the male and female roles in the song, with Piggy as the aggressor. (This is, for my money, one of the absolute best episodes of The Muppet Show, not least because of "Swine Lake," in which Nureyev ballet dances with a pig. I would've included it here, but I decided to stick to songs.)

46. "Rubber Duckie" (Sesame Street, Episode 0078)
One of the classics; I even remember hearing this on the radio, and it was on a 45 I had (one of a couple of Sesame Street 45s). As I'm fond of repeating, "Ernie" was my first word and, as a little one, my favorite Muppet.

45. "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" (The Muppet Show, Episode 102)
One of the great things I think The Muppet Show did was to acknowledge and pay tribute to the comedy and show business classics; not in a way that was co-opting them, but as both a love letter to tradition and a way to reintroduce those to an audience perhaps unfamiliar with them. So here we have Groucho Marx's signature song, but I heard Kermit sing it first. It was even on a cassette I used to have; sadly, I didn't see a single Marx Brothers movie until I was in junior high (and loved them instantly).

44. "New York State of Mind" (The Muppet Show, Episode 209)
As a kid, I never really appreciated how integral Floyd Pepper was to the Muppet Show dynamic. Every Muppeteer has his representative character--Jim Henson and Kermit, Frank Oz and Fozzie, Richard Hunt and Scooter, Dave Goelz and Gonzo--and for a long time I figured Jerry Nelson's was Robin. But as touching as Robin can be, it's really Floyd that best represents the jazzy personality of Jerry Nelson, and seeing The Muppet Show again as an adult, I really appreciate how Nelson was able to take these moments with Floyd and deliver these lovely performances of beautiful pop songs. This short version of one of Billy Joel's most gorgeous songs is my personal favorite, though there are a lot of great ones.

43. "Cabin Fever" (Muppet Treasure Island)
Muppet Treasure Island's most wonderfully madcap moment, complete with calypso gear and Fozzie in a Carmen Miranda outfit. Bonus: the embarrassed muttering at the end of the song. "I hope no one saw that..."

42. "Life's a Happy Song" (The Muppets)
The opening number from last year's wonderful The Muppets, a great introduction to Gary, Mary and Walter, tiptoeing the line between too hipster and just genuinely cheery, setting the tone for a movie that remembers what the Muppets used to mean to people like me, and what they might mean again. (Love the subversion of the happiness in the flick, when the song ends and everyone just makes an annoyed, exhausted noise.) (Note: I'm linking to the mp3 because the hipster videos on YouTube suck.) (Second note: Mickey Rooney? MICKEY ROONEY? Totally random cameo and one I found surprisingly thrilling. You can't hate that guy.)

41. "123 Sesame Street" (Sesame Street, Episode 0514)
Stevie Wonder's appearance on Sesame Street was so great that I remember seeing it rerun a number of times. He wrote this song celebrating children's television's most famous address for the show, and I for one am glad he did. Just a nice bit of funk.

40. "Ode to Joy" (viral video)
Not just a tremendously fun performance by Beaker, but the video that put the Muppets back on the map as genuine comedy and not just nostalgia or kiddie entertainment.

39. "Never Before, Never Again" (The Muppet Movie)
When I was a little kid, I always wanted to skip past this scene; this was the mushy romantic stuff, and I wanted to get back to the comedy. Now, I think this is a comic triumph: take this beautiful song that Paul Williams has written and have Frank Oz perform it in a Miss Piggy falsetto that he can barely maintain but fearlessly commits to. Furthermore, he sings it with the utter seriousness of his porcine character, which just makes it that much funnier. Pure Muppet perfection.

38. "Wemblin' Fool" (Fraggle Rock, "The Beast of Blue Rock")
One of my favorite Fraggle songs, with Wembley and Gobo, well, wemblin' (where to wemble is to be unable to make up your mind). Sorry, nothing to link to here, as Lionsgate have been dicks and removed the clip from YouTube. But it's a fun ditty.

37. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" (Sesame Street, Episode 1187)
One of my favorite moments from Sesame Street--hell, from all of television history--is Paul Simon appearing to perform his hit on the steps of 123 Sesame Street. It's magic, watching children relate to music with pure joy and an utter lack of pretension, with one enthusiastic girl improvising her own lyrics (Simon seems so delighted that, if I'm counting my beats correctly, I think he delays singing just to let her go for a while) and a couple of kids dancing. Even when one kid starts wandering around and messing around with the door behind Simon, the director doesn't stop it because they're capturing something truly special.

36. "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" (The Muppet Show, Episode 101)
My personal favorite rendition of this Randy Newman song, with Richard Hunt in particularly fine form as Scooter. Wonderfully bouncy and carefree.

35. "It Was a Very Good Year" (The Muppet Show, Episode 406)
Frank Sinatra, William Shatner, Homer Simpson, and Statler and Waldorf. Some great pop culture renditions of this song, and Jim Henson and Richard Hunt are in great form here, alternately wistful and hilarious, taking the piss out of the song while not robbing it of its poignancy. Genius.

34. "Barbeque" (Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas)
I remember seeing this special on HBO so often as a kid, and the Paul Williams songs have been stuck in my head forever. This is an infectious number, boys, but you're just no Yancey Woodchuck. Also: I love Wendell Porcupine.

33. "Saying Goodbye" (The Muppets Take Manhattan)
One of the most genuinely saddening scenes in any Muppet production, as the characters all go their separate ways to make things easier on Kermit, who has become desperate to make their dreams of getting on Broadway come true. This is quintessential Muppets: the gang is breaking up out of their deep loyalty to Kermit, not willing to keep letting him bear the responsibility of their expectations... and not telling him why because they don't want him to feel like he's failed. This song always makes me tear up, I admit.

32. "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" (The Muppet Christmas Carol)
Paul Williams' songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol are wonderful, and nearly all of them make my annual Christmas mixes. This has one of my favorite Muppet lyrics ever: "There's no such thing as strangers when a stranger says hello." I think this is the moment, too, when I first really accepted Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog. As I've said elsewhere, Whitmire's Kermit may not be Jim, but he's really made the character his own, and I think this was the first real moment when I felt that he could make Kermit not necessarily the same (impossible, of course), but still essentially Kermit.

31. "The Inch Worm" (The Muppet Show, Episode 109)
A lovely song from the Danny Kaye movie Hans Christian Anderson, here sung beautifully by Charles Aznavour and one of my absolute favorite Muppet moments. (And the Muppets even performed it again with Danny Kaye on episode 316!) Such a dreamlike song in the best possible way.

30. "The Boy from Ipanema" (The Muppet Show, Episode 220)
I admit, I'm picking this largely for the visual impression it makes. When I first saw this is a little kid, I was so surprised and amazed by the sight of Petula Clark (though I didn't really know who she was then) dancing with one of the Bossmen, a very, very large marionette Muppet. It was just there, suspended in the darkness (it's actually operated with huge rods), hovering over her, and I was completely transfixed. I've never forgotten it.

29. "Can You Picture That?" (The Muppet Movie)
Always a favorite bit from possibly the most-watched movie of my young kidhood. I just dig the Electric Mayhem. They don't look like Presbyterians to me.

28. "Everybody Sleeps" (Sesame Street, Episode 0406)
Another lovely Joe Raposo song accompanied by a film clip. Watching the film now makes me feel sort of warm and nostalgic. And I like the point being made without beating you over the head: we all do the same basic things.

27. "Sing After Me" (Sesame Street, Episode 1112)
One of Grover's finest moments is this duet with the wonderful Madeline Kahn, where he struggles to keep up with her operatic flourishes.

26. "Bein' Green" (Sesame Street, Episode 0087)
One of Joe Raposo's supreme achievements (with uncredited assist from Jon Stone), this poignant song about realizing the dignity of our identity and our worth (even if we're frogs) has moved a lot of us over the decades, and been sung by artists like Lena Horne, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra. It's simple, but very powerful.

25. "Brothers" (Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas)
Another song from the boys, this one with some wonderful lyrics about the possibilities of life and friendship and urging us to "live a lifetime of surprise." Just great fun.

24. "When the River Meets the Sea" (A Christmas Together)
Paul Williams wrote this for Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, but I've always especially loved this version from a perennial Christmas album since I was... damn, before I can even remember. Jerry Nelson is, as ever, quite moving as Robin here, and the production is lovely. I've had John Denver in the home all my life--my mother was a big fan, and so am I.

23. "Movin' Right Along" (The Muppet Movie)
Paul Williams is the king of this list. Another fun song from The Muppet Movie with wonderfully loopy lyrics ("Though sadly we just left Rhode Island." "We did what?" "Just forget it."), and this clip features a cameo from Big Bird, one of my favorite sight gags in the movie (fork in the road), and one of my all time favorite lines: "A bear in his natural habitat: a Studebaker."

22. "Sing" (Sesame Street, many appearances)
I'm not exactly sure from which episode this particular video I'm linking to comes, but this is definitely my favorite version of the song, sung by Bob in English and Luis in Spanish. I do not have enough words to describe how much I loved Luis as a kid. I just love that man. I always wished he could be my cool uncle or something when I was a little boy. Another beautiful Joe Raposo song.

21. "Hey a Movie!" (The Great Muppet Caper)
A case could be made that Joe Raposo is, in fact, the king of this list... he and Paul Williams seem fairly evenly matched, but I'm not really paying enough attention. I love this wonderfully chaotic opening sequence to the Muppets' second film outing, which is just a celebration of the whole idea of cinema itself, and features some great business from Sweetums throughout. ("Is there any way to stop it?!") (The song starts about three minutes into the linked clip.)

20. "Marley and Marley" (The Muppet Christmas Carol)
Leave it to the Muppets to take a great ghost story--perhaps the greatest ghost story, or at least my favorite--and make one of its most blood-chilling scenes scary and funny. This was also, if you can't tell, the first of many recasts of Statler and Waldorf (with both Jim Henson and Richard Hunt passed). Here they're Dave Goelz and Jerry Nelson, not doing too bad.

19. "Halfway Down the Stairs" (The Muppet Show, Episode 110)
An AA Milne poem set to music, with one of Jerry Nelson's best performances as Robin. (He apparently performed it as Robin on Top of the Pops, as well.)

18. "Born to Add" (Sesame Street, Episode 2477)
I love this song. Just love it, so much. True, I'm a sucker for any rock song with bells in the production, but I just dig the hell out of this. It's a style parody of Bruce Springsteen, obviously, but it reminds me of a lot of the rock music from this time period that I just adore more than any other music. And I dig this performance from Bruce Stringbean and the S Street Band better than, honestly, 85% of Bruce Springsteen's output (and anything after "Streets of Philadelphia").

17. "Happiness Hotel" (The Great Muppet Caper)
Clever lyrics and just one hell of a fun song. Not much more to it than that, but it's wonderful. RENOIR!

16. "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along" (The Muppet Movie)
A rare pairing of two characters played by Jim Henson, with Kermit meeting Rowlf and sharing their takes on the single life and women. I love the interplay between the characters in the dialogue and the lyrics (the version on the soundtrack is even better, with an extra verse and more dialogue). One of my favorite moments in any movie, and surprisingly sophisticated lyrics about the 1970s dating scene. "It's not often you see a guy that green have the blues that bad."

15. "Follow Me" (Fraggle Rock, "Beginnings")
One of several beautiful songs from Fraggle Rock, this one sung by Uncle Traveling Matt and Gobo, and describing the wanderlust in Matt's soul. This is one of many Muppet songs with a lyric I've always tried to hold onto as an aphorism for life: "Every day the world begins again, sunny skies or rain."

14. "Monster in the Mirror" (Sesame Street, Episode 2681)
From 1990, I never actually heard this song until I was an adult (on Radio Disney of all places), but I've loved it ever since. Especially being such a nervous, anxious person, I've really taken this song to heart and tried to remember which situations do not, in fact, call for freaking out.

13. "Just a Dream Away" (Fraggle Rock, "Gone, But Not Forgotten")
One of Richard Hunt's finest moments as Mudwell the Mudbunny, teaching Wembley about the cycle of life and the impermanence of its stages. I like how he compares the motion of life and its changes to water: "One day it's an ocean. One day, ice in motion. One day it's a teardrop in your eye." Such a poignant song, somehow added even more weight by Richard Hunt's death from AIDS-related complications just five years later (making this one of Richard's last major Muppet performances). (Note: the link is to an mp3 which, despite how it sounds, is probably the best quality I'm ever going to find it at.)

12. "Man or Muppet" (The Muppets)
One of the best moments from the latest film (here in a music video that played on Disney Channel) as Gary and Walter question their choices and decide whether they are very manly Muppets, or Muppety men. Wonderfully straight-faced humor.

11. "Turn the World Around" (The Muppet Show, Episode 314)
This is another one I'm choosing in large part because of the visual aspect, though this is one of my favorite Harry Belafonte songs. I first encountered it on The Muppet Show, arrested and fascinated by the strange and beautiful appearance of the African masks performing this amazing song with Belafonte. It left its mark on me forever and is still very, very powerful to me with the questions it asks about our relationship with each other, our world, and ourselves.

10. "Somebody's Getting Married"/"He'll Make Me Happy" (The Muppets Take Manhattan)
A little beat of a cheat at two songs, but it's a wonderful musical piece featuring the Muppets--nearly all of them. To me, this is all really lead-in to my favorite moment of the film, which is all of the Muppets in the church together, the camera pulling back to show the greatest tribute to the Muppeteers, showing us all of the Muppets and the Sesame Street Muppets and even Uncle Traveling Matt gathered together to celebrate the fictional wedding of Kermit and Piggy. The songs are by veteran Sesame Street composer Jeff Moss, and he gives us a pair of especially poignant lyrics that have always moved me: "Days go passing into years. Years go passing day by day."

9. "The Peace Carol" (A Christmas Together)
Another great Richard Hunt performance, this time as Scooter, singing very sincerely with John Denver and what was, at the time I think, a fairly new Christmas song. One of my absolute favorite Christmas tunes.

8. "Bohemian Rhapsody" (viral video)
Like I wasn't going to put this on here. My absolute favorite 21st century Muppet moment so far, and I really hope this isn't the final appearance of the underrated Johnny Fiama. And maybe more Pepe the King Prawn in the next movie, okay?

7. "Let Me Be Your Song" (Fraggle Rock, "The Minstrels")
I absolutely love Cantus the Minstrel. He's one of my favorite Jim Henson characters: his voice, his vocal cadence, the things he says. He's all of Jim Henson's hippie characters as quasi-mystic. I remember hearing this song for the first time when I was 7, and I just sort of floated away on that pipe. This is some kind of magic.

6. "It Feels Like Christmas" (The Muppet Christmas Carol)
One of my favorite Jerry Nelson performances is this moving, happy song from this wonderful movie. I honestly can't ever listen to it without getting a little choked up; not only is it beautiful, but I associate this film with one of the happiest Christmases of my life.

5. "Just One Person" (The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson)
Definitely a case where the Muppets have made a song their own in a way that totally appropriates it from its largely-forgotten source material (the stage production Snoopy!! The Musical). The Muppets performed this a few times (including with Bernadette Peters on The Muppet Show), but it was never more poignant than in this tear-jerking tribute to Jim Henson. I remember watching this when it aired, 14 years old and totally rocked by the untimely death of (to me) the most important creator of entertainment in my lifetime. It never fails to pull a tear from me. (And of course, this was Steve Whitmire's first appearance as Kermit.) (Also, I really want to see the giant 1040-form.)

4. "The Rainbow Connection" (The Muppet Movie)
Kermit's other signature song, the song that establishes his soul and opens The Muppet Movie with its own "When You Wish Upon a Star" moment with a song that is equally as powerful and poignant.

3. "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" (Sesame Street, Episode 2396)
A beautiful Jeff Moss composition where Ernie opines that the moon is a nice place to visit, but in the end he'll always come home to the people he loves.
2. "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" (The Muppet Movie)
Just a perfect, beautiful, beautifully perfect song about longing, friendship, and dreams, with some of my favorite lyrics I've ever heard. I've been singing this song since I was 5 or 6 years old, and I still feel it deep in my soul. "I've never been there, but I know the way..." And: "There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met."
1. "Cottleston Pie" (The Muppet Show, Episode 107)
In the end, it's this song, a nonsense AA Milne poem set to music, that tops everything else for me. It's just the way Jim sings it as Rowlf, my favorite Muppet, as this fluffy, lovable lullaby, with its silly wording and its childlike curiosity about words, and Jim's easygoing, genuine charm. This is, indeed, my favorite Muppet song.

(Note: in the end, Paul Williams is indeed the king of this list, with 12 songs out of 50--including almost every song from The Muppet Movie! Joe Raposo ended up coming in with 6, with Jeff Moss following closely at--arguably--5.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Great American Cereal Book

I just finished reading through this book tonight. It's sort of a catalog of American breakfast cereals throughout their history; it serves as a historical overview and a collection of trivia about both individual cereals and the fads and market trends that influenced the creation of what I've been eating for breakfast throughout my life. The book also inspired a lot of those nostalgia-based discussions about what Becca and I remembered eating when we were kids. I realized tonight that I ate so much Smurfberry Crunch between 1983 and 1987 that I can still recall the taste a quarter-century later. Also, I really miss that cereal that was promoting the 1989 Batman movie. That was some good stuff... like Cap'n Crunch dipped in honey.

Just for the hell of it, my 20 favorite breakfast cereals of all time (most of which are sugary and I can't eat anymore because sugary cereals make me feel sick):

1. Batman
2. Rice Chex
3. Frosted Mini-Wheats
4. Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries
5. Kellogg’s Cornflakes
6. Franken Berry
7. Corn Pops
8. Froot Loops
9. Rice Krispies
10. Mr. T
11. C-3PO’s
12. Quisp
13. Cheerios
14. Smurfberry Crunch
15. Ghostbusters
16. Fruity Pebbles
17. Trix
18. Golden Crisp
19. Strawberry Shortcake
20. Kix

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Song of the Week: "Last Dance"

Donna Summer died this week, and when everyone one Tumblr was suddenly posting videos and mp3s, I realized that Donna Summer never really made a big impression on me in music. That's not to denigrate her considerable talents, that's just to say that I was born in 1976 and didn't hear a lot of disco growing up because, with a couple of exceptions, my Dad more or less absolutely despised disco music. I didn't really discover a lot of hit until I was in high school, in the early 90s, and though there are some disco songs I just love, it comes across at worst like too many other novelties and just sort of floats past me. Donna Summer had a lot of really well-constructed pop hits, and I've always liked a few of them, but I've never really sought her out.

I know, this isn't really much of a tribute, and it doesn't have to be. I've seen a lot of other really nice ones this week, some (like Kelly's) specifically about this song. I do happen to love this one. This one is, I think, much more than a well-constructed pop hit. It's a thing of beauty, well-produced, perfectly performed.

My Exact Approach to Life