Monday, March 12, 2012

The Muppets, Villains, and Fox News

After years of Christmas specials and Webbie-winning YouTube videos, the Muppets debuted a charming new theatrical release. Fans rejoiced, yet a solitary diatribe soured the moment. Eric Bolling of Fox Business News hammered Jim Henson’s beloved creations for perpetuating Hollywood prejudices against the oil industry.

Come on, man!  They’re the Muppets! Cut them some slack!

To their credit, the Muppets’ use of Tex Richman, sinister oil baron (performed by the very capable Chris Cooper), acknowledges the “Evil Oilman” trope. No cackling for Richman, he just repeats the line: “Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh.” He’s meant to encapsulate Hollywood’s penchant for cheap, unoriginal whipping boys.

But is this good storytelling? Sadly, no. Despite Cooper’s splendid performance, Richman was one of the weaker elements of the film because no one knows exactly why it's so important to him to crush the Muppets.

According to the movie's official site, Richman had a more fleshed-out motive that wound up on the editing room floor. Richman’s friends watched the Muppets and laughed. He couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Said friends mocked him. Trauma ensues. Embittered, Richman vows revenge.

It’s not Shakespeare, but you don’t watch the Muppets for Shakespeare (unless you like your Shakespeare with pigs and talking skulls). A stronger villain would have strengthened the overall story, but in the editing room, you’re confronted with tough choices.

Bolling has a point, though not the one he made. Hollywood demonizes certain types—the devout, the military, businessmen, etc. The problem with this is not so much that it indoctrinates kids. It's that it leads to stale, predictable storytelling, the one cardinal sin of entertainment. However, it’s petty to single out the well-intentioned Muppets for an industry-wide flaw.

All I’m saying is give Kermit a chance.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chuck Vs. The Series Finale

I’m a few weeks late to the punch, but I can’t let Chuck fade without a few final words.

With a series finale, you expect a parade of clich├ęs. Revisiting and tying up old plot threads slow-mo sendoffs. Amnesia is often deployed as an excuse to rehash the preceding seasons with flashbacks. We get it all from the Chuck team, and yet it’s all blended into a highly satisfying grand finale.

To recap, Sarah Walker is infected with a corrupted Intersect which wipes out her memory of the last five years. Behind this mastervillainy is one Nicholas Quinn, a sinisterly rotund Angus MacFadyen (of Braveheart fame). He convinces Sarah that for the past five years she’s been undercover, handling a rogue spy—Chuck, of course—who killed her partner, Bryce. Quinn then turns her loose. Gone is the sweet, devoted Sarah whom Chuck adored, replaced by a ruthless killing machine bent on revenge.

Along the way we’re treated to some magnificent Chuck staples: red meat quotes from tough guy John Casey (“You shot down my helicopter with my own damn gun?”), shameless Subway plugs from Big Mike (“Tonight, I’m eating fresh.”), Morgan arguing that Sarah’s memory can be restored by true love’s kiss, and Jeffster, debuting some eighties-tribute karaoke in order to stall a sonic bomb in a setup awfully reminiscent of the orchestra assassination scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much—right down to the cymbal crash.

With any series finale, a lot of writers assume the audience wants closure. But tying up every plotline with a big red bow feels contrived. What audiences crave is momentum, the sense that we know where the characters will be five, ten years down the road. This is where J. K. Rowling got it pitch-perfect in her Deathly Hallows epilogue. This is where the Chuck writers show off their chops, giving Chuck one last mission to go out on.

A Shout-Out To Dirty Matt

So my old college chum "Dirty" Matt started a blog years ago. He's mentioned it in passing, and then he linked it on our Pedestrian site. I skimmed it (Sorry for not leaving comments, Matt. I have the same problem with answering machines: I never know what to say! I vow to do better, though.) and particularly enjoyed his quick reviews of movies, TV series, and books. Naturally, I thought, "Hey, I want to do that, too!" I mean, isn't that what the Internet is for? So we can spend hours typing out our views so that billions of people can utterly ignore them?

Hence, here's my contribution.