Alan Smithee Podcast 99: KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978, Gordon Hessler) / Detroit Rock City (1999, Adam Rifkin)

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Alan Smithee Podcast 68: The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley) / Muppets From Space (1999, Tim Hill)

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With the fabulous, sensational and hyperbolic debut of a new Muppet movie, the online podcasting world has been all abuzz as to how An Alan Smithee Podcast will score one or two extra Google hits on the ensuing carnage by pairing one good Muppet movie with one bad one which isn’t the new one. Just kidding, The Muppets is actually half decent and a welcome relief to millions of parents choosing between it and Fred Claus. The only muppet movie we could really choose for a bad one is Muppets From Space, which like The Muppets is only a bad movie by the standard of other muppet movies.

Our good Muppety film is the very first one, 1979’s The Muppet Movie, a film which not only celebrated the triumph of Jim Henson’s vision on television but stood as a magical achievement in puppetry as well. This and Star Wars really heralded the arrival of puppetry into state of the art special effects for the following decade, as Kermit and company convincingly co-exist with our world to a degree that had never been seen before. In hindsight of Jim Henson and The Muppets’ legacy since 1979, the story of the Muppets meeting each other and banding together only grows more poignant as time goes on. If you don’t get piss shivers when those first banjo notes of “The Rainbow Connection” play over the helicopter shot of Kermit’s swamp and the title “Produced by Jim Henson” appears, you’re one cold fish. Presumably you’re not, as only true misers and curmudgeons could reject the earnest showmanship of the Muppets and if that’s the way you feel, you wouldn’t be watching The Muppet Movie in the first place.

By the way, why didn’t “The Rainbow Connection” beat out stupid “Norma Rae” for Best Song at the 1980 Oscars? Either the Academy is full of Commies or they thought people would be confusing Kermit’s with that other song about rainbows which won an Oscar 40 years earlier.

Two decades later, the diminished stature and ambition of The Muppets as a continuing part of pop culture couldn’t be better represented in the film Muppets From Space. Unlike the other relatively successful, Henson-less Muppets films of the 90s, Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, From Space suffers from a serious lack of scale. The story plays out like an episode of some fictitcious Muppets sitcom, right down to the limited number of locations and reliance on Jeffrey Tambor. Fans of the short-lived Muppet Show revival Muppets Tonight! will at least appreciate the deference to characters created for that series such as Pepe the Prawn, Dr. Phil Van Neuter and Bobo the Bear. The conceit of the film – the Gonzo the Great is finally alerted to the origin of his species by messages from outer space – is less the response to unanswered (and unasked) questions about Gonzo’s animal type than the response of uninspired writers to the wave of interest in paranormal alien activity that washed over docile post-Cold War / pre-9/11 America’s imagination throughout the 1990s.

There’s a famous Onion opinion article about a nerd appreciating the Muppets on a much deeper level than you. It’s hilarious for a couple reasons: first, signaling in on the longstanding appeal the Muppets’ innocence has had to emotionally damaged adult nerds who were picked on way too much. (“I never should have let you go to the kitchen for more Pringles during Kermit’s big ‘High Noon’ speech to Charles Durning—the emotional apex of the film.”)

Second and more to the point of this episode, it details the particular connection those who grew up with the Muppet Show feel compared to those who grew up just a few years later with Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock or even A Muppet Christmas Carol. The 70s and 80s were a hard slog for kids living in the exhausted remnants of their parents’ pop cultural golden age and the Muppets offered a window into old-fashioned children’s entertainment for a generation facing the exponential growth in the mainstream of glib cynicism. No one will appreciate the Muppets on the deeper level that Generation X did – Jason Segel is more than happy to remind us – but the body of work Henson and company left us lives on and beyond.

Enjoy this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast and discover how we felt. Get it?

NEXT EPISODE: POLTERGEIST SPECIAL! POLTERGEIST (1982, TOBE HOOPER) & POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986, BRIAN GIBSON)

Episode 53: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Richard Brooks) / Bats (1999, Louis Morneau)

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The dichotomy between our two movies in this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast is as simple as the difference between bats and birds. Both are examples in their own right of movies done by the numbers according to formula. The raw materials at hand make all the difference.

Tennessee Williams adaptations were something of a cottage industry for Hollywood after Marlon Brando’s breakout role in A Streetcar Named Desire, such as Baby Doll (1956), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) also directed by Brooks, and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Sweet Bird of Youth came at the tailend of that cycle, just before ending with Night of the Iguana (1964) as the last popular Williams film adaptation for many years. Brooks made a perfectly serviceable drama here, thanks to the talent at hand. A couple years prior, Williams himself had somewhat written the play for Broadway with his own recent fame in mind, and one feels his security in the recurring elements he knows he does well: Southern gentility, alcohol and drug fueled madness, patriarchy, and as the title implies, faded youth. Sweet Bird is also about the fear of lost fame, beginning and ending with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page reprising their stage roles as a deliriously addled movie star panicked that she’s growing old – and Newman, her pool boy / valet / boy toy. They’ve holed up at a hotel in Newman’s old Flordia hometown, to settle unfinished business with old girlfriend Shirley Knight, her political boss father Ed Begley and an unrecognizably young Rip Torn as Begley’s right hand nephew. Brooks’ direction is flat, but with the acting talent and author at hand it doesn’t matter. While Sweet Bird didn’t set the world on fire, they made a truly enjoyable movie practically on autopilot and that’s commendable.

Bats came out eleven years ago today. Like Sweet Bird, this film also has self-assurance written all over itself, except that they’re all calculated around the soft bigotry of low expectations. Is there an elegance to the simplicity on display? The Williams movie was about the tragedy of youthful beauty being not long for one’s posession, like a bird disappearing to the wind. Bats is about bats. Would you be surprised to learn that the titular bats were altered by science? That there’s a sheriff played by Lou Diamond Phillips? That the lead beautiful Chiropterologist Dina Meyer has a wisecracking black sidekick played by a rapper with one word in his name? That this film was released a week before Halloween?

Bats was destined for calculated success. It may have only made 10 million worldwide on a 6 million budget, but the popularity evidently endured long enough for the 2007 direct to television sequel, Bats: Human Harvest.

Listen on to discover the connection between Bats and Scream 2 (hint: hold your computer screen up to a mirror) among other sweet bits of trivia about these movie-by-numbers kits.

NEXT EPISODE: PLEASE TEACH ME ENGLISH (2003, SUNG-SU KIM) & ZARDOZ (1974, JOHN BOORMAN)