Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Long ago I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol in theaters, which means I would have been around eight years old. I didn't remember it very well beyond Scrooge gloating about how Christmas is the perfect time for moneylenders because people spend mortgage money on gifts and parties.

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood has decided to revisit the film, and so I took a watch. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's Christmastime in Victorian London and the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) doesn't give a damn. He's a selfish, bitter, unpleasant man who gloats that Christmas is "harvest time for the moneylenders" (like himself) because people spend their mortgage payments on gifts and other "frivolities," tyrannizes his staff, including loyal Bob Cratchit (none other than Kermit the Frog), and apparently has turned foreclosed homes into slums he doesn't maintain while squeezing the tenants with high rents.

However, his deceased former partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him in the night, telling him that to avoid their fate of eternal damnation, he will be visited by three spirits--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come--and he should heed what they're saying. These spirits take Scrooge into his past, into the present, and into the future, a journey chronicled by Charles Dickens (the Great Gonzo) and his companion Rizzo the Rat.

The Good

*The acting is very good. Michael Caine does an excellent job as Scrooge, conveying the crankiness and bitterness and the temper creeping out from under his rather thin veneer of politeness. He also plays him as intelligent enough to make wise-sounding arguments to justify his ugliness (like suggesting people pay their mortgages rather than spend money on Christmas "frivolities"). And in the scenes of his childhood he conveys very well how these arguments are severe denial papering over deep psychological wounds. He's a big jerk gloating about foreclosing people on Christmas in the beginning, but damn I felt sorry for him based on the boarding-school scenes alone. And slowly as we see nostalgia creep in and him confronting his issues, he warms up quite convincingly. The musical number with the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him experiencing straight-up joy probably for the first time in many years and even though I didn't like the song, I thought that was one of the finest acting bits in the movie. And by the time the ghoulish Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come arrives, he has learned genuine humility and eagerly awaits the lessons this terrifying creature can teach him. Scrooge's arc is well-done and most of the credit for that belongs to Caine.

*When I was a little kid I didn't really understand why Scrooge hated Christmas or even really understood his back-story at all. I saw the Alliance Theater production (an Atlanta tradition) sometime later that elaborates on the end of his relationship with his fiancee Belle (he foreclosed on former employer Mr. Fezziwig under the influence of a much more malevolent Jacob Marley) and in the animated version he outraged her by foreclosing on someone whose mortgage payment was an hour late, but this one goes deeper into his past. Seeing him spending Christmas alone at boarding-school was legitimately poignant, as was seeing his fiancee leave him on Christmas because he was becoming too fixated on money even though the scene was rather abbreviated. Scrooge as an old man is a prick, but all of this made me feel for him.

*Per the above, you can see the miserly tendencies in Scrooge even when he's not truly a bad person. As a young man working for Fozziwig (Fozzy the Bear), he's concerned that Fozzy's Christmas party is consuming too much of the company's money. And his reasoning for delaying marriage to Belle (apparently not the first time this has happened) is that he's worried they don't have enough money to live properly. Scrooge's true wickedness (even if you have to foreclose on someone who doesn't pay their loans you don't have to enjoy it) comes later, but it doesn't emerge out of nothing.

*There are some moments of legitimate creepiness, like those leading up the appearance of Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*The film moves along relatively quickly, which is good for a kid's movie.

*I did like the younger Statler and Waldorf portraying the Marley Brothers as "lads" before they became old skinflints who ended up in Hell. I've only seen those particular Muppets as old people before, so a completely new design was pretty cool. We also see a Muppet spider-monster as the fence Old Joe buying stolen property and I liked the puppetry design of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*I liked the explicit Christianity of the Cratchit family, especially the disabled Tiny Tim who explicitly speaks of the One who healed the sick and made blind men see. And although Mrs. Cratchit clearly knows how much of a jerk Scrooge is, they all wish him a merry Christmas regardless. Jesus said to love even one's enemies and one's jerkass employer doesn't quite reach that level.

The Bad

*Muppet Treasure Island has much better and more memorable songs. "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" really isn't that good. Neither is "Marley and Marley," which introduces Scrooge's deceased business partners who try to help him avoid their damnation for callous greed and even outright sadism (gloating about foreclosing an orphanage). The Ghost of Christmas Present's song isn't that good either. Belle's song about how her and Scrooge's relationship wasn't meant to be should have stayed in some capacity so Gonzo and Rizzo's reactions make more sense and to amplify the sadness of Scrooge's back-story, although perhaps not this version.

(From her facial expressions she seems like she's spitefully rubbing her leaving in his face rather than sad their relationship is dying because of Scrooge's greed and/or fixation with having "enough money." If she truly loved him I would imagine she would mourn rather than be sadistic.)

*I would have had a lot more sympathy for Scrooge's nephew Fred (Stephen Mackintosh) if he hadn't taken shots at his uncle at a Christmas party. If I had a relative with whom I had some...sharp philosophical disagreements...I simply wouldn't discuss them with non-family-members at all rather than making them the butt of my jokes at parties. Especially if I'd invited them to said party in the first place.

*It's my understanding that Fred's mother Scrooge's sister (with whom he was rather close) died and that Fred's presence aggravates Scrooge's uglier tendencies because he's never come to terms with her death. Although one might think they can't go into a lot of detail due to this being a kid's movie, the impending death of Tiny Tim stayed. Perhaps Fred could bring up his mother and that sets Scrooge off--kids wouldn't get it but adults would. Instead Scrooge's sister is never mentioned at all, even though according to some of what I've read her death (apparently that was on Christmas too) is one factor behind Scrooge's hating Christmas and his bad behavior in general.

*Scrooge is entirely too well-dressed for a miser. It's my understanding Scrooge was so cheap and obsessed with money that he didn't spend even on pleasurable things for himself. In one version of the story I read or saw on television (it might have been the Mr. Magoo version of the story), the ghostly Jacob Marley chides him for living on gruel in a cold drafty house. Obviously he does have to look somewhat presentable to do business, but I would expect a more austere mode of dress.

(Of course, either Nic or Thomas theorized that he pilfered the watch and chain off the dead Jacob Marley, which would make sense.)

The Verdict

Michael Caine is probably one of the best human actors in any Muppets film I have ever seen, but the movie is still rather mediocre. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)

I don't call my review of Labyrinth a "blast from the past" review because I never saw it when I was a kid, except perhaps for the opening animated owl on the Disney Channel. I knew about the movie from film books (I remember reading about the special effects in a book that also shows how they did the unmasked Vader for Return of the Jedi, for example) and always found the concepts and some of the imagery rather creepy, so I actually avoided watching the film.

(I did know enough about the film to make jokes about David Bowie's excessively tight pants when I was older.)

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is discussing the film and so here I am finding the motivation to watch the movie. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Teenage Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is not taking her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, and the presence of her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) very well. She retreats into her imagination and fantasyland far more than is healthy. Required to babysit Toby one night so her father and stepmother can go on a date, she becomes so frustrated with him that she wishes the Goblin King would take him away.

Well be careful what you wish for. None other than the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and various Muppet minions show up. Sarah immediately realizes the horrible mistake she's made, but Jareth requires her to solve a magical labyrinth in 13 hours or else Toby will be transformed into a goblin forever.

Sarah now has to traverse a dangerous and magical world, making friends and allies and learning life lessons along the way.

The Good

*Although TVTropes (and some of the reviews from the time) talk crap about her acting, Jennifer Connelly does a great job as Sarah. She starts out as a selfish, immature, annoying, bratty teenager. Seriously, there is a lot of flouncing and excessive drama going on here (plus her speech to Toby about how he's a selfish brat shows quite a bit of projection) and it makes her really unsympathetic. However, through the events of the film, she grows out of it. Even when she's in full brat mode she still shows some sisterly concern for Toby, and Connelly does a good job projecting her growing horror when she realizes that she did set the goblins on him. And when the Goblin King takes Toby away, she sets right to getting him back, although she takes some time to grow out of her demanding and selfish tendencies. Sarah's character arc is extraordinarily well done and much of the credit goes to Connelly.

*The character Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) is given real depth and is played very sympathetically. He's short, ugly, has low self-esteem, apparently never had any friends until he met Sarah, and gets abused and threatened by Jareth, but although he does some bad stuff he's not truly bad. I liked him.

*There are moments of legitimate suspense, like the intercut of real, actual goblins observing Sarah about to invoke them and her over-dramatic speech in which she makes the wish that the goblins would take Toby away. If I didn't know the general story already, I would have definitely found it more suspenseful, and if I were a little kid (i.e. the target audience), even more so. And the Junk Lady (Denise Bryer) is pretty creepy too, given what she ultimately plans on doing.

*The movie teaches good moral lessons for children, especially those who might have a new sibling they resent or are part of a blended family. Sarah learns over the course of it to be unselfish, brave, humble, ask nicely for things, not judge by appearances, persevere when things get tough, understand that things aren't always what they seem, and solve her own problems using her own intelligence. She also uses the kindness we see even in full brat mode to recruit allies.

*The movie gets off to a quick start and moves along quickly. Sarah's invocation of the Goblin King is ten minutes in and she enters the labyrinth at around fifteen.

*Although Shelley Thompson isn't in the film much as Sarah's stepmother, she does a good job with her small part. Although I can easily imagine her rubbing Sarah the wrong way, I can definitely see her point of view that Sarah isn't respectful and needs to have a more normal social life. And her and Sarah's issues are shown, not told, in one scene that was painful to watch.

*There are a lot of good subtle touches, and nothing is in the film by accident. For example, Sarah has a scrapbook with clippings of her actress mother's career and a man beside her in the image is David Bowie. To be fair I might not have noticed if I hadn't already known from others' comments on the film that Jareth is really is her mother's new boyfriend (yikes, a sexual rivalry with one's own mother?), but just because someone doesn't notice subtext doesn't mean it's not there. Another example is all the toys and fairy-tale stuff in Sarah's room. Despite being presumably 15-16 (Connelly's actual age at the time), this shows rather than tells her immaturity, as does the fact that she utterly loses it when Toby and/or her stepmother take one of the toys for him to play with. Yes, teenage girls don't want people messing with their things (as Nic pointed out in the podcast), but I was a better sharer at 3-4 (when my little brother was born/big enough to want to play with my toys) than she is at 16.

*The costumes and creature design are very well-done. Giving Bowie's Goblin King different-colored eyes makes for an unsettling introduction, besides the obvious fact that he's come in through Toby's bedroom window and is looming over a teenage girl. There's also a straight-up Goblin Mecha Muppet at one point that's pretty cool, as well as armies of goblins with what look like elderly velociraptor cavalry and machine guns.

The Bad

*The opening sequence goes on for too long with that damn owl flying around. All with the David Bowie soundtrack too. It goes on for nearly three minutes. Come on people, let's get going.

*Speaking of David Bowie, he's not that impressive as an actor. When he first appears to Sarah he's rather monotone and dull. He does manage to project his subtle contempt for Sarah well with his speech about how she should go back to her toys and forget about Toby and it seems like he really is having fun in "Magic Dance." However, I think he's mostly there for the singing, and his acting ability pales in comparison to Connelly.

*There's too much David Bowie music in the soundtrack. Yes, I know he has a major part in the movie, but the Bowie songs are jarring when the rest of the film's soundtrack is more typical of an 80s fantasy film and him actually singing in-scene (other than "Dance, Magic Dance") was even worse. A Bowie concept album based on the film (exploring themes like coming of age, sexual awakenings, parental divorce, etc) would have been an interesting idea though, just like Songs in the Key of X for The X-Files. It would have been better to save the actual Bowie songs in the opening and closing credits of the film rather than have him awkwardly bursting into song in the midst of his appearances. "Dance, Magic Dance" kind of works, but it comes off to me as what TVTropes would call a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Although I could imagine it's there to show that Jareth is bored lording it over a bunch of dim-witted gremlins (i.e. motivation for messing with Sarah and/or wanting to keep her and her brother as companions) and that he's more affectionate with Toby than his own sister, it just comes off like an excuse to have a Bowie number. Actual musicals integrate the numbers into the plot far better. And although one could excuse "DMD" as Jareth just being bored and having a musical performance for kicks, him bursting into song at other times really didn't work for me. "Within You" is a really blatant example.

*And as far as Big-Lipped Alligator Moments are concerned, the singing and dancing vaguely Caribbean fire creatures took too much time on-screen, event though they do serve as an additional peril for Sarah and give her a chance to demonstrate her cleverness in dealing with them. The blue-screen effects aren't very good either. I admit I do like the song though. :)

*Some of the dialogue is a little too on the nose, like Sarah's bit about how she took it for granted after Hoggle lectures her about not taking things for granted.

The Verdict

A charming children's fantasy with some flaws. 8.5 out of 10. Of, and for anybody who's interested, someone typed up the entire novelization here. It goes into a lot more detail about the psychological and family dynamics driving the plot if you're into that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

ISIS Nukes Brussels, The Seljuks Beats the Mongols, and Stalin Joins The Axis

Although I'm still self-banned from posting on the biggest alternate-history forum on the Internet, I do visit the public sections to see what interesting actual alternate history (as opposed to the endless political arguing I quit the forum to avoid) is being discussed.

This led to my finding three more interesting timelines in recent weeks. One takes place in the modern day, the second in the days where Turkish power expanded into Asia Minor at the expense of the crumbling Byzantines, and the third during World War II.

The Sultanate of Rumistan: An Alternate Anatolia-The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was established after the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks, which began the process of Turkifying and Islamizing Asia Minor and the Byzantines' long decline. The Sultanate was eventually defeated and forced to pay tribute to the Mongols after their defeat at the Battle of Kose Dag, but in this timeline, the Seljuk sultan listens to his experienced commanders and waits for the Mongols to come to him rather than attack them immediately. The Mongols are defeated and the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate--which ultimately led to the rise of the Ottoman Empire--is averted. This is going to make life rather difficult for the Byzantines, but the author knows a whole lot about the workings of the Seljuk Sultanate, the neighboring Kingdom of Georgia, and the Byzantine secessionist regime in Trebizond and it's really quite interesting.

The Maw: When the Lights of the World Went Out-This story begins with agents of the infamous Islamic State somehow getting hold of a nuclear weapon--just how they got it hasn't been explained yet--and they smuggle it from the Middle East into Belgium. They set it off in the downtown area of Brussels, killing tens of thousands (if not more) immediately and provoking France to nuke ISIS's capital of al-Raqqa in reprisal. A straight-up World War II level obliteration of ISIS soon follows. It looks like the author was setting up a much darker scenario based on the hints he was dropping, but the timeline hasn't been updated in some time. Given how the real-life migrant crisis in Europe has been, well, a crisis, a world where ISIS agents snuck into Europe via Greece and ripped a chunk of a major EU city out with a nuke, I suspect the people getting the worst of it are going to European and refugee Muslims.

The Twin Vipers-Stalin joins the Axis. Although given Hitler's ultimate desire to conquer the Soviet Union, exterminate "Jewish Bolshevism," and turn the Slavs into helots for German Spartans and how in general fascism and Communism are opposed ideologies make this sound absolutely insane, there were talks to that effect. Rather than refusing to deal more than the bare minimum with people whom he viewed as racial enemies, the Germans were actually willing to admit the Soviets to the alliance to help defeat Britain. That would have made life very difficult for the Western Allies, since the Soviets could menace the Middle East and India in a way the Germans could not.

However, this timeline begins somewhat earlier than the real-life talks that took place after the defeat of France when the 1939 border conflict between the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan that ended with the Battle of Khalkin Gol escalates into a full-blown war. This leads to Mussolini getting sidelined, the British and French fighting the Soviets in Finland, and even Operation Pike, an Anglo-French plan to bomb the Soviet oil fields that didn't happen in real life.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)

Here's another movie review I hesitate to call a "blast from the past" simply because even though it came out the summer between my last year of middle school and my first year of high school (1999), I didn't actually see it. It's Muppets from Space and it's the latest offering of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast episode. And now onto the review...

The Plot

Big-nosed Muppet Gonzo (Dave Goelz) is having a personal crisis, unsure of his place in the world or even his species. After he begins receiving messages in his breakfast cereal, he starts to think that he's actually an extraterrestrial. This draws the attention of K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), the head of an MIB-like government agency headquartered in an old cement factory.

Will Gonzo find his alien family? Or will he be captured and have his brains sucked out? And will Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) advance her journalism career? Only one way to find out...

The Good

*There are some moments of surprising poignancy for a Muppet movie. Gonzo's loneliness and angst about not knowing what he precisely are very well done. Meanwhile, Tambor's back-story of being mocked for his beliefs in aliens had real pathos. He made me empathize with the character no matter how much of an a-hole the man objectively is.

*There are some clever jokes here and there. There're riffs on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, and Men in Black, among others. I admit I laughed out loud during a karate fight between an MIB and none other than Miss Piggy, a fight that had quite a few double entendres. There are also anal-probe jokes and a whole riff on prison films, including Shawshank Redemption. A lot of the humor works well for adults as well as kids.

*Some of the Muppets I was less familiar with like Clifford (Kevin Clash) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Baretta) get their time to shine. I especially liked Pepe. And Miss Piggy was pretty darn funny, especially when she gets rough.

*The movie is relatively short, which is good for kids and good for me considering I didn't really enjoy it that much. More on that below.

The Bad

*Although I did like some of the jokes, the movie gets off to a very slow start. And that's a real problem.

*What's with all the retro soundtrack music? I generally prefer "classic rock," 1980s pop, etc. to modern music, but that doesn't mean I'd give a movie set in the present day so many songs from previous eras. There's "Brick House," "The Gambler," and a lot of stuff from the 1970s or very early 1980s. And the Muppets themselves never sing, not like they do in Muppet Treasure Island where there're good songs like "Shiver My Timbers," "Boom Shakalaka," and "Professional Pirate."

*The movie seems to be a return to the earlier Muppet films like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Great Muppet Caper in which the Muppets are a group of actors or musicians trying to get by in something resembling the real world rather than Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Christmas Carol in which the Muppets are characters in an otherwise-unrelated work. I liked that approach better, although if they wanted to do a sci-fi story exploring the origins of Gonzo, I'm not sure how they'd do it. The Muppet Men In Black? That might be kind of cool actually. Keep Will Smith as Agent J and have Kermit as Agent K with guns fighting aliens. Miss Piggy can be the eventual Agent L. Or since Gonzo's friends all think he's going insane, perhaps The Muppet Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Or if Gonzo is of supernatural rather than alien origin, The Muppet Hellboy? Kermit would need to be pretty jacked up to play Hellboy and Miss Piggy as Liz seems difficult.

*Although the muppets are fine, the CGI special effects haven't really aged well. It would have probably been better to go old-school on this one.

The Verdict

Meh. 4.0 out of 10. It doesn't even have good songs like Muppet Treasure Island. Go see The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth instead of you want a better puppet movie.