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What I’ve Watched In… December 2016

rogue-one-imax-poster

Favorite of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
  2. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
  3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
  4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
  5. The Night Before (2015), B-
  6. Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
  7. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
  8. Snow (2004), B
  9. Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
  10. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
  11. Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
  13. Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
  14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
  15. Christmas Eve (2015), A-
  16. Scrooge (1970), B+
  17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
  19. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
  20. Trading Places (1983), B
  21. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
  22. A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
  23. Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
  24. The Ref (1994), B+
  25. An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
  26. Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
  27. Ebbie (1995), D
  28. Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
  29. Die Hard (1988), A
  30. Home Alone (1990), A
  31. Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  32. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
  33. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
  34. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
  35. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
  36. A Christmas Story (1983), A
  37. In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
  38. Captain Phillips (2013), B+
  39. Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
  40. Life of Pi (2012), A-
  41. 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
  42. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
  43. Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
  44. No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
  45. Keanu (2016), B
  46. 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
  47. Wild Things (1998), B
  48. The Sting (1973), A-
  49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
  50. The Jungle Book (2016), C+
  51. For the Love of Spock (2016), A
  52. Ghostbusters (1984), A
  53. Ghostbusters II (1989), B

What I watched in… July 2016

star-trek-beyond-poster-international

Favorite of the Month: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah (1995), B
  2. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002), B+
  3. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), B
  4. Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus (2000), B
  5. Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla (1994), C+
  6. Godzilla (2014), A
  7. Red Dawn (1984), B; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  8. Bone Tomahawk (2015), A-
  9. The Neverending Story (1984), A-
  10. Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1985), F; MST3K Riff, A
  11. Ring of Terror (1962), F; MST3K Riff, B
  12. Monster A-Go Go (1965), F; MST3K Riff, B-
  13. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), A-
  14. Star Trek (2009), A
  15. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), B
  16. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), B
  17. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), A+
  18. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), B+
  19. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), B+
  20. Ghostbusters (2016), C-
  21. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), C-
  22. Star Trek Beyond (2016), A
  23. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) B+
  24. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), A-
  25. Star Trek: Generations (1994), C+
  26. Star Trek: First Contact (1996), A-
  27. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), C+
  28. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), B-
  29. LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League-Gotham City Breakout (2016), B
  30. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015), B
  31. Back to the Beach (1987), B
  32. Summer Rental (1985), B-
  33. Scooby-Doo (2002), C+

What I Watched In… December 2015

Star Wars Episode 7-The Force Awakens

Favorite of the Month-Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Magic Christmas Tree (1968), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
2. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A
3. It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown (2015), B+
4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), B
5. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999), B
6. A Madea Christmas (2013), D+
7. One Magic Christmas (1985), C
8. The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About Christmas (2012), C+
9. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1998), B-
10. The Christmas Dragon (2015), C
11. Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999), C
12. Christmas With RiffTrax: Santa’s Village of Madness (2012), B+
13. The Story of Santa Claus (1996), C
14. Mrs. Santa Claus (1996), B
15. Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones (2002), C-
16. Krampus (2015), A-
17. Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005), C+
18. Gremlins (1984), A-
19. Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), A
20. Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), A+
21. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), A
22. The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas (1996), C
23. Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), A
24. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), A
25. Babes in Toyland (1961), B
26. Becoming Santa (2011), B+
27. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), F; RiffTrax Riff, A-
28. Elf (2003), B+
29. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), B+
30. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977), A-
31. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A
32. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), B+
33. It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2003), B
34. I Believe in Santa Claus (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
35. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
36. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
37. Die Hard (1988), A
38. A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008), B+
39. A Christmas Story (1983), A
40. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B+
41. Home Alone (1990), A
42. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), B
43. Joyeux Noel (2005), A
44. Her (2013), A
45. King of Thorn (2009), B
46. The Purge (2013), C-
47. The Purge: Anarky (2014), C+
48. Home (2015), B
49. Shakespeare in Love (1998), A-
50. Good Burger (1997), B-
51. What We Do in the Shadows (2014), B
52. The Muppet Movie (1979), A
53. The Cocoanuts (1929), C
54. A Night at the Opera (1935), A
55. Horse Feathers (1932), B

What I Watched In… January 2015

Favorite of the Month: After the Dark

Favorite of the Month: After the Dark

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014), C
2. Muppets Most Wanted (2014), B
3. Frequencies (2013), B+
4. Mudbloods (2014), B+
5. Caddyshack (1980), B+
6. After the Dark (2013), A-
7. Love (2013), B
8. Legends of the Knight (2013), B+
9. Frank (2014), B-
10. Oculus (2014), B
11. Mercy (2014), C
12. Operation Pacific (1951), B-
13. Tusk (2014), B-
14. Donald Glover: Weirdo (2011), B+
15. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), B+

What I Watched in… December 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
2. Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (2002), B-
3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
4. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014), D-
5. Home Alone (1990), B
6. Journey to the Christmas Star (2012), C+
7. The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966), C+
8. Babes in Toyland (1986), D
9. The Crucible (1996), A
10. A Flintstone Christmas (1977), B-
11. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), B+
12. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
13. A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (2014), B
14. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), B
15. Bad Santa (2003), B
16. The Santa Clause (1994), B+
17. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A
18. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
19. A Christmas Story (1983), A
20. Arthur Christmas (2011), A
21. Love Actually (2003), A
22. Stage Fright (2014), B
23. Foodfight! (2012), F
24. Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014), B

What I Watched in… January 2014

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Muppets From Space (1999), B
2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), A
3. Bill Cosby: Far From Finished (2013), B+
4. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
5.  The Wizard of Oz (1939), A; RiffTrax Riff, B+ 
6. Rocketship X-M (1950), D; MST3K Riff, B
7. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), B
8. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013), B
9. Cinderella (1950), A
10. The Pod People (1983), F; MST3K Riff, B+
11. JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time (2014), B+
12. Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), B
13. Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (1966), C; MST3K Riff, B
14. American Hustle (2013), B+
15. Stranded in Space (1973), D-; MST3K Riff, B-
16. Revenge of the Creature (1955), C; MST3K Riff, B-
17. Where the Toys Come From (1984), C-
18. Lincoln (2012), A-
19. 21 & Over (2013), C
20. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013), C
21. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012), B-
22. Jedi Junkies (2010), B
23. Lovelace (2013), C-
24. Big Trouble in Little China (1986), A-
25. King Kong (1933), A
26. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962), B

Scrooge Month Day 16: Oscar the Grouch in A SESAME STREET CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006)

Sesame Street Christmas Carol 2006Directors: Victor DiNapoli, Ken Giego, Emily Squires, Jon Stone

Writers: Rickey Boyd, Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey, Christine Ferraro, Tony Geiss

Cast: Caroll Spinney, Kristin Chenoweth, Joey Mazzarino, Matt Vogel, Jim Martin, Tim Curry, Rickey Boyd, Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Pam Arciero, Fran Brill, Alice Dinnean, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz, Noel MacNeal, Jerry Nelson, Carmen Osbahr, Martin P. Robinson, David Rudman, John Tartaglia, Steve Whitmire, Bryant Young, Carlo Alban, Alison Bartlett, Desiree Casado, Emilio Delgado, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Imani Patterson, David Langston Smyrl, Brian Gore

Notes: This is, of course, not the first time the Muppet characters have tackled A Christmas Carol, but  sadly the Muppet Show Muppets and the Sesame Street Muppets are so far removed from one another these days that it almost doesn’t even matter. At any rate, this (much toned down) version of the Dickens story casts Oscar the Grouch as the most natural Scrooge since McDuck. New characters – all computer animated rather than traditional puppets – appear as the three ghosts. My favorite bit of this, though, is that the special uses footage from classic Sesame Street Christmas shows, thus allowing us to see performances from the likes of the late Jim Henson and Will Lee and the mostly-retired Frank Oz, all right alongside the modern cast of the show.

Thoughts: Tim Curry starts us off in his usual role as The Best Narrator In the World Assuming You Can’t Afford Morgan Freeman, and introduces us to an Oscar the Grouch (Caroll Spinney) who’s looking forward to sleeping through Christmas entirely. His plan is wrecked, though, when a messenger named Joe Marley (Joey Mazzarino) shows up with news. Marley is there to deliver Oscar the first of three Ghost-O-Grams, beginning with a vintage 1843 baked beans can. (1843, in case you didn’t know, is the year A Christmas Carol was first published. Cute.)

It hardly seems necessary to critique Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch – he’s played the character for over four decades and he’s made him one of the most enduring childhood icons in the history of the world. Let’s instead just agree that Oscar as Scrooge is such an obvious idea that one wonders why they didn’t try it before and move on, shall we?

Rickey Boyd provides the voice for the first “ghost” – Rhubarb, the Grouch of Christmas Past. Rhubarb and Oscar agree to watch the old films of previous Christmases, even as they agree not to enjoy them, and we see the “Gift of the Magi” segment from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I wrote about last year. It’s a clever use of the old footage, something very few other versions of A Christmas Carol could even imagine, but it does raise an important question: what’s the point of all this? There hasn’t been any talk of “redeeming” Oscar the way Scrooge usually needs to be redeemed, and even if there was, this clip doesn’t even include him. Why is Rhubarb being sent to show Oscar heartwarming clips? Even Oscar asks this question, and Rhubarb doesn’t have an answer.

But you know what? It’s Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Will Lee, all together. I’m not about to complain about that.

In the next segment, we have an old musical number with Big Bird (Spinney again) singing about how he misses his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, who’s away for Christmas. It’s a cute song, one I don’t really remember, which probably suggests this clip came some time after I grew out of the prime Sesame Street demographic. There’s not really anything to hint as to just when it was made. Once it was over, we cut back to Rhubarb and Oscar, laughing about how bad the clips are. Call me a racist, but this is the kind of typical Grouch behavior that has caused people to have certain opinions about them for decades.

Marley returns with the next Ghost-O-Gram. This time Oscar gets a jack-in-the-box that releases Christmas Carol (Kristin Chenoweth), a woman in a Christmas tree outfit, who decides to dress up Oscar’s trash can with a little holiday makeover. It gets worse for Oscar when she pops a Santa Claus hat and beard on him. Carol presents a contemporary segment featuring Sesame Street’s current cash cow, Elmo (Kevin Clash), on a visit to Santa’s workshop. Santa sings Elmo a song which can be summarized as, “Boy, it’s nice that you’re not a selfish jerk,” and we then spin off into another clip. This time, Elmo has somehow caused it to be Christmas every day, because he’s never seen a Christmas special before, and he sings a song explaining that Christmas is only special because it’s once a year. Oscar sarcastically quips, “Christmas every day is a bad idea,” as if he didn’t know that already. For once, Oscar, I’m with you.

Then, to ensure that Sesame Workshop maintained its educational grant, we get a couple of Muppet-free segments about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The last Ghost-O-Gram introduces us to a flying robot named i-SAM (Kevin Clash), who is there to show Oscar Christmas Future. Instead of a Sesame Street clip, though, we get an animated segment in which we “tour” a future where homes decorate themselves, giant holiday dinners are reduced to pills, and families are whisked around in oversized Christmas tree ornaments. It’s a silly, charming little cartoon that fulfills the “Future” requirement in a decidedly non-frightening way. Oscar suddenly wakes up and sees it’s Christmas morning, and he’s being visited by Joe Marley again – only this time he claims to be “Little Joey Dickens from Brooklyn,” who tells Oscar all he had was a bad dream. He gives Oscar a present, though – a sticky ball of used wrapping paper – and all seems well. Especially since tomorrow is the best time of the year for a Grouch – the longest possible time until it’s Christmas again.

I don’t usually like stories that end with the “it was all a dream” conceit, but in a way it’s the only thing that makes sense here. There’s no real reason for Oscar to be visited by these ghosts, nothing changes, nothing actually happens in this film. It’s just an excuse to use a classic framing device to show old clips of the show. It’s not the worst premise in the world, but it feels like there could have been more than a little lip service given to Dickens in the framework. It’s cute, and it’s perfectly acceptable as a Sesame Street special, but remembering just how special some of those specials have been, it seems it could have been better.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 9: Michael Caine in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1993)

Muppet Christmas Carol 1993Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, David Rudman, Don Austen, Jessica Fox, Robert Tygner, Steven Mackintosh, Meredith Braun, Robin Weaver

Notes: The early 90s were a rough time for the Jim Henson Studio. After Jim died in 1990, there was a serious doubt in the minds of many that the Muppets could go on. But before his death, Jim had begun working out a deal with the Disney studio to produce more Muppet films, with one of them being an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. After Jim died, his characters were passed on to other performers. This was the first theatrical production for the Muppets after Jim’s passing, and the film is dedicated to him and Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who died in 1991. Although a musical and mostly comedic, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original novel, with Michael Caine playing Scrooge, new Muppets created for the three ghosts, and classic Muppets filling most of the other roles. Statler and Waldorf played Jacob and Robert Marley (rimshot), Fozzie Bear became Scrooge’s old boss Fozziwig, Sam the Eagle was Scrooge’s headmaster in school. Most notably, we got Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit and Kermit’s nephew Robin as Tiny Tim. The film’s stroke of genius, something that gives it an added dimension of fun, is casting the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, and allowing him to act as narrator, with additional commentary by his oft-time sidekick, Rizzo the Rat.

Thoughts: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this may well be my favorite version of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, there are probably better films, but something about this one works for me. Maybe it’s the amazing music by Paul Williams (who also wrote the songs for the original Muppet Movie). Maybe it’s the silly charm that I still feel when I see humans and Muppets walking around a set together as if there was nothing unusual about that at all. Maybe it’s because this is the movie that, in many people’s hearts, proved that the Muppets could survive after Jim Henson was gone. Whatever the reason, I love The Muppet Christmas Carol like I do few other Christmas movies.

Michael Caine is, of course, an acting legend. He’s done amazing work in dozens of fine films, such as Jaws: The Revenge, which made him the logical choice for Scrooge. His Scrooge starts out as bitter as any, but he has a quality of containment about him. He’s mean and angry, but even in the first scene you get the sense that his greatest degree of hatred is turned inward. He seems like a man ready to explode, and few people present that quality as clearly as a man who is keeping everything inside. When the film ends, when he lets his emotion finally free, it’s not anger but happiness that explodes into the old town. For all his lively parading through the streets, though, nothing serves to illustrate his reformation as well as the quiet moment where he approaches the charity collectors (here played by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker) to give them a generous donation. Bunsen is speechless, but Beaker (always speechless) finds a way to express his gratitude: giving Scrooge the scarf from around his neck. The surprised look on Caine’s face makes you believe it’s truly the first Christmas present he’s ever been given.

This wasn’t Steve Whitmire’s first time playing Kermit the Frog, but it was here that he really had to prove himself. The simple kindness and sincerity of America’s favorite amphibian was perfect for Bob Cratchit… but it wouldn’t necessarily have been all that funny in and of itself. The solution was to surround him with Muppet rats who alternately support him and sell him out when Scrooge bellows. It’s a funny juxtaposition, and when he’s paired off with Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) for the scene in the Cratchit home, her overbearing personality plays off of him in much the same way. Whitmire has had the Kermit job ever since. He acquitted himself well.

At one point, the plan was to use existing Muppets to play the three ghosts, but the filmmakers decided it would detract from the seriousness of the story. Instead, we got three all-new Muppet creations. Christmas Past is a softly floating, ethereal puppet that looks like a bizarre combination of elf and child, glowing and floating. In fact, the performance was filmed in a tank of water to give it the sort of weightless effect they wanted, then greenscreened onto the film. For such a simple effect it’s remarkably effective, giving the ghost an ethereal quality that truly makes it look like it belongs to a different world than our own (or even an alternate version of our own where Muppets coexist with humans). Jessica Fox’s Ghost takes Scrooge on the traditional trip through his past – the joy as he left school and went to Fozziwig’s Christmas party, the heartbreak of losing Belle (Meredith Braun) when she realized he loved his money more than her. The song they sing together is devastating – she sings “The Love is Gone” with fresh sadness, while behind her Michael Caine joins in. Near the end she turns back and, just for a second, you think she’s going to acknowledge the older Scrooge… but she doesn’t. She can’t hear or see him, of course, but the audience sees the agony in his face – the pain of a man forced to relive the greatest mistake of his life.

Christmas Present is presented in a form much in keeping with other versions. He’s huge, of course, but cloaked in the traditional green robe with a holly wreath and a long red mane of hair. There’s a nice tick they give the character, though – being the Ghost of Christmas Present, he has a difficult time focusing on the future or remembering the past, and frequently repeats himself. Throughout his segment, as he and Scrooge get closer and closer to the end of Christmas Day, the Muppet grows visibly older. At the end, he’s practically ancient, and vanishes with the wind. It’s a brilliant effect that gives a nice subtext to the movie. We’ve already seen that the Past is forever, and Present reminds us the now is transient. But what’s coming next, the future… that can still be changed.

Caine sells the present scenes very well. When he realizes he’s the butt of the joke at Fred’s family party, there’s genuine pain on his face. The scene at the Cratchit family house invites a few uncomfortable questions about a world where frogs and pigs are genetically compatible, and are exclusively male and female, respectively. You forget those things when Tiny Tim launches into his song, “Bless Us All.” This part improves on many versions of the story. So often, you just see Scrooge look upon Tim and start to feel bad for him… his transformation is brought on more from pity than anything else. But here, as Tim sings his song you get an impression of just how good and pure a soul he is, and when he starts to cough Scrooge’s change of heart is no longer that of a man who simply feels bad for a sick child, but a man grieving for a world that will be deprived of such light.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even in Muppet form, is a sight to behold. Although not quite the skeletal figure he sometimes is, he’s got your standard robe and large, oversized hands that make it look like Michael Caine is being escorted by something wholly inhuman and terrible. This segment goes pretty quickly, rushing from one scene of terror to another before they get to Scrooge’s tombstone. Once again, Caine proves himself, begging for his chance to change in a way that makes you believe in him, believe it’s possible to change, maybe even regain a little of your overall faith in the human race.

Surrounding the whole film is Gonzo as Charles Dickens. His antics with Rizzo provide added energy and comedy in scenes that traditionally aren’t that funny – when Scrooge holes himself up in his mansion before encountering the Marleys, for example. Gonzo is smart enough to know when to keep quiet, though, and in fact the characters make a show of running off and hiding just before Christmas Yet to Come pops in, then make a grand return for the finale. Using him as a narrator also allows this film to layer in much of Dickens’s beautiful prose that rarely makes it to screen, as it’s not dialogue. For that reason alone, that helps this stand as one of the most surprisingly faithful adaptations of the book I’ve ever seen.

I mentioned Paul Williams’s music before, but it’s certainly worthy of its own paragraph. The opening song, “Scrooge,” is somehow gloomy and peppy at the same time – a snappy number about a miserable man. It perfectly encapsulates the character, even giving a hint that there may be goodness within him somewhere (although the Muppets quickly dismiss that notion). Kermit and Robin later sing “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” a lovely, happy song that’s worth singing every Christmas Eve. But the crowning gem is Christmas Present’s number, “It Feels Like Christmas.” There’s something undeniably joyous about the song, something that clutches the heart and the ear so tightly that it bubbles out of me at random moments in the middle of July.

Fair warning, though – the theatrical release of the film and some of the subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray editions left out the duet between Scrooge and Belle, “When Love is Gone.” Disney thought it slowed down the film too much, but when left out it kills the emotional impact of the scene, and furthermore hurts the finale, which contains a counterpoint mixed with “It Feels Like Christmas.” My DVD, fortunately, includes it, and I’d never upgrade to a Blu-Ray that leaves it out.

If you haven’t seen this version of A Christmas Carol before I can only presume that you hate the Muppets, hate Christmas, or hate joy itself. Again, I do not deny that there may be objectively superior adaptations of the book, but I very much doubt anything will ever take its place as my favorite.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

What I Watched In… June 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

(June being the first month of Summer vacation and me being a teacher, I had a bit more time than in previous months to watch a lot of movies. I usually do. Expect July’s tally to also be extensive.)

  1. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), B
  2. Warriors of the Wasteland (1983), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  3. Creepshow (1982), B+
  4. Cat’s Eye (1985), B-
  5. Sherlock Holmes (2010 Asylum “Mockbuster”), D
  6. Brainiac (1962), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  7. Dark and Stormy Night (2009), A-
  8. Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008), B-
  9. Superman: The Last Son of Krypton (1996), B+
  10. Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1997), A-
  11. Superman: Brainiac Attacks (2006), C-
  12. Superman/Doomsday (2007), B
  13. Superman (1948 Serial), B+
  14. Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), B+
  15. Superman Unbound (2013), B
  16. Superman (1978), A+
  17. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006), A
  18. Superman III (1983), C-
  19. Supergirl (1984), C
  20. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D-
  21. Superman Returns (2006), B-
  22. Man of Steel (2013), A
  23. Bill Cosby, Himself (1983), A
  24. Carnival of Souls (1962), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  25. The ABCs of Death (2012), B
  26. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), C
  27. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), C-
  28. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993), C-
  29. TMNT (2007), B+
  30. The Shawshank Redemption (1994), A+
  31. The Green Mile (1999), A
  32. Upstream Color (2013), B+
  33. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), C+
  34. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), B-
  35. Adventures in Babysitting (1987), B
  36. Clue (1985), B+
  37. The Aristocrats (2005), B
  38. The Princess and the Frog (2009), A
  39. Starship Troopers (1997), B
  40. The Mummy (1999), B+
  41. The Mummy Returns (2001), B
  42. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), C+
  43. The Purge (2013), C
  44. Unforgiven (1992), A
  45. Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007), B
  46. Run Lola Run (1998), A-
  47. Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (2008), B-
  48. Unbreakable (2000), A-
  49. Futurama: Bender’s Game (2008), B-
  50. Wonder Boys (2000), B+
  51. Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009), A-
  52. Shrek 2 (2004), B-

The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

muppet-family-christmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.