About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, December 30, 2011

All The Best For 2012 and Beyond!

Hey Everybody!

2011 turned out to be a great year for my blogging and writing. Thanks for all of your great support throughout the year. It's been a fun one!

More neato cool stuff is coming your way starting Friday January 6, 2012.

All the best for the New Year and keep having on those hats!


Friday, December 23, 2011

"He Had on a Red Hat"

Xmas is an Adventure.

Hello Everybody!

I hope this holiday season is treating everyone well and that everyone is having on a wonderful hat.

Here is my special Holiday gift to my readers. And, no, I'm not saying "Holiday" to be PC but, rather, to annoy all the silly "War on Christmas" types who more than likely do not read my blog.

This is a special compilation I edited together of some of my fave lesser seen Christmas moments from TV, movies and advertising. Friends of mine may recognize some of this stuff from my "Very Terence Christmas" DVDs.

Either way, enjoy.

Happy Holidays!
Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Kwanza!
Happy Winter Solstice!
Happy New Year!
And, yes...


Friday, December 16, 2011

Tintin, The War Horse and the Spielberg Top 10

Mr. Spielberg has probably gotten pretty good at posing for these "Spielberg Directing" publicity shots
Steven Spielberg is having another Double Whammy Year. Like 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List  or 1997 with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad or 2002 with Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, 2011 will see two major Steven Spielberg releases in the same year.

This year, Spielberg's more escapist fare is The Adventures of Tintin, a state-of-the-art animated motion capture adventure that many are characterizing as an attempt to foist a massively popular international comic hero on unsuspecting American audiences.

Spielberg's more serious film is War Horse, a movie that depicts the horrific events of the First World War as seen through the eyes of a horse in military service.

On this occasion, I have decided to look back at Mr. Spielberg's incredible directing career through the prism of my own personal Spielberg Top 10...

10. Sugarland Express (1974)

Sugarland Express is Spielberg's first theatrical release. He had previously directed Duel, a TV movie about a seemingly phantom truck harassing a meek traveling salesmen on the open highways of America. Duel was released theatrically in Europe so there is some debate as to what film is truly Spielberg's first theatrical release.

Based on a true story, Sugarland Express follows the exploits of a very young Goldie Hawn as she breaks her husband out of jail because she fears that she will soon lose custody of her son. In the process, the two fugitives take a Texas State Trooper hostage. It's not long before their escape becomes a media circus.  They are followed down the highways of Texas by a large caravan of cops and media.

It's your basic chase movie with a twist.

One scene that I love takes place while Goldie and her husband William Atherton (later the sleazy journalist in Die Hard) are holed up someplace or other. They look out the window and see a drive-in theater in the distance. They quietly watch a Road Runner cartoon with no sound; a wonderfully surreal visual allegory to the events of the film.

That scene also hits on one of Spielberg's greatest recurring themes: the mediated experience of real events.

9. Empire of the Sun (1987)


The guy from Being John Malkovich  becomes a father figure to a twelve year-old Batman in a Japanese POW camp in China during WWII.

Got it?

Spielberg's early ventures into serious "grown up" films were commercially risky and generally not well received critically. Many critics and audiences who saw the director as crowd pleasing sentimentalist greeted Empire of the Sun and his earlier The Color Purple with skeptically crossed arms. Looking back on Empire of the Sun, though,  for shear human emotional impact set against an incredibly detailed and nuanced historical backdrop, the movie can not be beat.

It's an epic that has stayed with me all these years.

Empire of the Sun is a film that plays to another one of Mr.Spielberg's big themes: the deconstruction and ersatz reconstruction of the nuclear family.

8. Jurassic Park (1993)

Yes, yes, I know. This is Spielberg directing the sequel.
Jurassic Park was kind of a comeback for Spielberg.

In the late 80's and very early 90's, he had stumbled through his ill received more serious films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Then there were the odd misfires of Always and Hook. His only real old Spielbergian  box office smash was the third film of what was then the Indiana Jones trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. While the third Indy installment has a bit more depth than the first two films, it was still, nevertheless, kinda rehashing old territory.

In 1993, Spielberg once again embraced his now neglected inner child along with some cutting edge special effects. The result was Jurassic Park, one of the biggest box office hits of not just the 90's but of Spielberg's career.

While the movie is a tad weak narrative-wise, the dinosaurs are brought to life in with a combination of technical expertise and artistic mastery that only Mr. Spielberg could pull off. The Thunder Lizards are the true stars of the film and, like any solid movie stars, they carry it well. The human-raptor cat and mouse chase scenes of the later part of Jurassic Park represents some of Spielberg's most tense, scary and thrilling work since Jaws.

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Spielberg's first, but not last, cinematic fraternizing with aliens.

Close Encounters is quite possibly Spielberg's most visual film. The dialogue is often sparse and usually only supports the visuals anyway. The film also has that great cinematic layering technique that is often seen in the director's earlier work.  There is a lengthy scene where Richard Dreyfus spends a whole day making a scale replica of Devil's Tower, the locale of a future UFO landing, in his living room. As he obsessively does so, the audio and visuals of an entire day of TV programing play in the background. It's a classic example of Spielberg's skilful multi-layering.

Spielberg cast one of his cinematic heroes in Close Encounters: Francois Truffaut. Truffaut's films and the legendary French director's portrayal of children in particular, were a major influence on Spielberg. Critics who cite the kids in Spielberg's films as being influenced by Disney movies have clearly never a Truffaut film. Nor, for that matter, have they likely seen any pre-Spielberg era live action Disney movies either. 

In later interviews, Truffaut said that he arrived on set with a book by the legendary acting teacher Constantin Stanislavsky. He says that then Spielberg showed him the storyboards for the film. After seeing the storyboards, Truffaut immediately put the book away as it was clear he would not be needing it for this movie. Yep, while there are some great performances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the movie is just not about the acting.

6. War of the Worlds (2005)

 By 2005, the line between Spielberg's fantasy films and his so-called "grown up" serious films was becoming increasingly blurred.  War of the Worlds is a prime example.

Spielberg's adaptation of the HG Wells' science fiction classic was part of his unofficial trilogy of dark SF films. The other two were A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002).  AI and Minority Report are two of Spielberg's most maligned and misunderstood movies. Even so, though, War of the Worlds still remains the strongest film of the three.

Heavily influenced by the events of the post 911 era, War of the Worlds is as much about the destruction of human society and values as it is about an alien invasion.

The alien tripod's attack on a ferry which Tom Cruise and his children are attempting escape on is a tour de force of Spielberg's strengths: visual tension and solid special effects make foe a scene that has a powerful emotional impact. Yes, Spielberg has this wonderful way of putting his characters through hell while ultimately finally delivering them from evil.

5. Munich

Many of  Spielberg's films have been referred to, over the years, as comic books. If that's the case, then Munich is his graphic novel.

Munich is highly stylized yet quite morally ambiguous. The film closely follows an elite group of Israeli intelligence agents.Their mission is to covertly eliminate the Palestinian terrorists believed to have been responsible for the killing of  members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. Whether or not the events depicted in the film actually took place or not is still the subject of some debate.

Munich is based on the 1984 book Vengeance by Hungarian born Canadian writer and columnist George Jonas. The film departs from the book in many significant ways. Jonas clearly states his own personal feelings towards the events he writes about. He contends that while terrorism is evil, counter-terrorism can be morally justified and is necessary.

Spielberg's film, on the other hand, is very sympathetic towards the agents while being critical of the mission itself. Munich is also allegorically critical of the American reaction to the event of 9-11 (the final shot of the film is of the 70's NYC skyline with the World Trade Center featured prominently). Justified or not, Spielberg took a lot of heat for Munich and the film continues to dwell in relative obscurity. 

Unlike many of Spielberg's films, even the serious ones, Munich is not dominated by his overwhelming directorial presence. The cinematic elements of the film, while very strong, do not call attention to themselves as strongly as they might in his other films. Thus the focus of Munich shifts towards the characters and the events they are caught up in.

IMO, Munich is one of Steven Spielberg's most underrated films.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

You ever wonder what it would have been like if Spielberg and George Lucas would have left Raiders of the Lost Ark as just one movie? Yep. One Indiana Jones adventure. No sequels. No books. No comics. No Young Indiana Jones. Just the one movie and that's it, that's all.

K. There's more fantasy in that paragraph than there is in Raiders of the Lost Ark itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is loosely based on the old Hollywood theatrical serial adventures that used to play in weekly 15-20 minute installments in movie theaters back in the days before TV. Though, it is much more exciting that many of those serials. In fact, Raiders is a triumph of action and excitement that had never been seen before on the big screen.

Harrison Ford is brilliantly cast the globe-trotting archaeologist who, while incredibly brave and heroic, clearly has some anger management issues. Ford is one of those Hollywood movie star actors who is incredibly good at playing one thing. And that thing is Indiana Jones, followed closely by Han Solo (and, c'mon, is there really that much difference between the two characters?).


I remember watching, on one of my umpteenth re-viewings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the shot of the Ark of the Covenant in the cargo hold of a ship the Nazis had just commandeered. The Ark is in a crate with a large swastika stamped on the side of it. While the crate sits there alone in the hold and rats scurry by, a light shines out of it. The swastika is burnt away and replaced by a Star of David. I remember at that moment thinking to myself "Someday Spielberg is going to do a serious film about the Holocaust".

Which brings us to....

3. Schindler's List (1993)

I have to admit right off the bat that Schindler's List is one of the rare Spielberg films that I have only seen once. The others I've seen only once are Always, Hook and The Terminal for, as you can guess, completely different reasons.

The truth is that I found Schindler's List such an incredibly emotionally harrowing experience that I've not been eager to go there again.

Nonetheless, there are many scenes in the movie that are still permanently etched in my mind. One in particular was the subject of some debate with a friend of mine back in the day. It's the scene where some young kids hide from the Nazis in the disgusting bowels of an outhouse. I remember my friend making the case that even in the context of the Holocaust, Spielberg was still clinging to his old habits of portraying cute kids; that those kids in that scene still had these big wide innocents eyes just like anything out of, say, ET.

My answer to that argument was and is simple. However, "cute" they may be, these are kids that are literally up to their necks in human excrement in an attempt to escape what is widely considered the largest act of genocide in human history.

See my point about the prevalence of condescending attitudes towards Spielberg's work?

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Again with the pointing.

The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan alone deserved an Oscar. Really, is anyone still blogging about Shakespeare in Love almost 14 years later?

Sorry. Pet peeve. Moving on.

Saving Private Ryan is the ultimate deconstruction and reconstruction of the mythological nature of World War II that has become common in movies and in the popular consciousness in general. World War II, in movies up to that point, was rarely depicted as an incredibly horrific war (least of all in American movies). That kind of treatment of warfare was usually reserved for films about the war in Vietnam.

Spielberg's incredible visuals created a decidedly different vision of World War II. Some veterans of the D-Day invasion have said that Saving Private Ryan is the closest on screen recreation of the event that they have ever seen.

For instance, to avoid the typical look and sound of "movie guns", Spielberg had very realistic mannequins made of the actors so that real bullets from real guns could be fired into them for some shots. He and his Director of Photography, Janus Kaminski, studied a great deal of WWII combat footage and photo journalism to get the verisimilitude just right. It also just about the only war movie off the top of my head where you actually see soldiers cry.

One of Steven Spielberg's finest achievements.

1. Jaws

For my money, there is no film of Spielberg's that is as well crafted and as thoroughly entertaining as Jaws. From start to finish, there is never a dull moment.

It is also rare case of the movie being better than the book. Peter Benchley's bestselling novel of the same name gets bogged down on a mafia subplot and some completely unnecessary sexual encounters.The movie drops all that extra fat and concentrates on the lean action of a classic killer shark story.

From John Williams' iconic Jaws theme to the surprisingly effective mechanical shark to Richard Dreyfus, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw in some of the best performances of their careers, Jaws is a true classic film of American cinema. Spielberg was just 27 years old when he directed it.

Jaws has one of the best scare scenes ever. In what starts as an unremarkable dialogue scene, Scheider complains about getting stuck dumping dead fish off the side off the boat in attempt attract the shark. While he complains and starts dumping the stuff into the water, suddenly, and without any build up of tension or expectations, a giant shark head casually comes right up out of the water behind him. He turns then sees the shark. Then, stunned, he gets up slowly and backs away towards the unaware Dreyfus and Shaw. Then Roy Scheider utters one my favorite famous lines from any movie ever:

"We're going to need a bigger boat."

Friday, December 9, 2011

May All Your Christmases Be Incepted...

If, like me,  you've spent any amount of time checking out the various mashup videos on YouTube, then you may have noticed that almost all mashups move in trends. Somebody posts a trailer recut into another genre (ie: the romantic comedy version of Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shinning) and soon genre splicing trailers can be seen as far as the mouse can click.

Trailers are, in fact,the most popular mashup genre. In many mashup trailers, the sound from a trailer from one movie is played to the visuals of another entirely different movie.  So you might see a mashup of the soundtrack from the trailer of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal set to the visuals of, say, Sister Act 2 or vice versa (that's not a real mashup, BTW-but don't ya just with that is was?).

The mashup trends are often long lasting and far reaching. Movies directed by Christopher Nolan are very popular mashup fodder. His 2008 Batman epic, The Dark Knight, has inspired mashups with everything from Toy Story 2 to the 1966 Adam West Batman movie (yeah sometimes they kinda make sense) to The Wizard of Oz to The Simpsons and anything that may come up in between.

In the last year and a half, Christopher Nolan's other big hit movie, Inception, has become a very popular mashup subgenre. Nolan's 2010 Sci-fi thriller about Leonardo Dicaprio and his Dream Team (get it?) of mind criminals has crossed over into Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter territory, to name just a few.

Well, it being December and all, I have noticed an all new new Inception mashup sub-subgenre: Christmas movies.

YouTube now features a surprising number of Inception mashups featuring classic yuletide movies:

Yep. There is something about that Hans Zimmer Inception score that can make just about any scene from any movie thrilling and mysterious. Who knew that shots of an eight year old kid in a Roy Rogers cowboy outfit carrying a BB gun could be so darkly dramatic?

Sometime these mashups will incorporate some elements of the original movies from which the scenes are taken but still maintain the basic Inception premise:

Or, in other cases, the mashup will keep the dialogue and just let that great ol' Inception music do all the juxtaposing:

Or if you prefer a more classic traditional Christmas Inception mashup:

Then this mashup takes one of the best selling songs (Christmas or otherwise) ever and goes in a whole other Inception direction:

Yes, may all your Christmases be incepted!

Enjoy this holiday season everybody!

Friday, December 2, 2011

James Cagney, Martial Arts Master

Long before Bruce Lee came to Hollywood and introduced martial arts to western pop culture, the silver screen had an earlier, lesser known martial arts master.

That master was James Cagney.

The movie is Blood on the Sun from 1945. James Cagney is an American reporter in Japan in the 1930's. The story follows his attempts to smuggle the Tanaka Memorial document out of the country. The document was supposedly the Japanese version of Hitler's Mein Kampf (the book in which Hitler laid out his plans for world conquest, among other things). Only the Tanaka Memorial document was later revealed to be a fraud, largely a creation of the Western allies for propaganda purposes.

None of that mattered to martial arts master James Cagney though.

He had to get that document out of Japan and into American newspapers, no matter what. The Japanese were ready to throw anything in his path to stop including a femme fatale, a murder frame-up and even their own martial arts master, Captain Oshima.

I am far from an expert on martial arts but I really can't figure out what style this fight is supposed to be in. It seems like mash-up of Judo, Jujitsu and maybe Karate. But there's also plenty of punching and kicking on Cagney's part (I guess the idea there was that they didn't want to have our hero fighting with techniques too closely associated with the enemy). I'd have to say that Mixed Martial Arts is probably the closest equivalent to whatever this is.


SPOILER ALERT: This is the climatic fight scene of the movie.

Until next week, Sayonara!
(see what I did there?)

 PS: You can watch the whole movie by clicking here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets: Kids stuff? Or Subversive Adult Comedy?

The Muppets returned to the big screen this week with that wonderful new blockbuster paradigm of the movie that is both a reboot and sequel (or prequel) at the same time.

Simply titled The Muppets, the movie stars and is co-written by Judd Apatow regular, Jason Segal. The original songs are written by one half of The Flight of the  Conchords, the musical comedy duo from the cutting edge HBO comedy series of the same name. The traditional Muppet movie roster of celebrity cameos includes the likes of Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, and Lady Gaga.

Are The Muppets are getting a little edgier this time around?

If you look at the history of The Muppets, well, not really.

Right from the start, The Muppets (much like Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry and Popeye) have been aiming their unique brand of one liners and felt slapstick humour primarily at an adult audience. 

The story of The Muppets is filled with many pushes and pulls between entertainment aimed at kids, adults and/or both.

According to Brian Henson, the son of Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, "The years with the Muppets, it was really all targeted to adults.  It was in a time when everything had to be safe for the whole family.  But he was targeting adults."

Jim Henson first introduced The Muppets (but not under that name) in 1955. He created a "puppet show" called Sam and Friends that aired live, twice daily in five minute segments that ran only in the Washington DC area. The show featured an early progenitor of a puppet that later would become a Muppet known as Kermit The Frog. The early shows generally consisted of the Henson's puppets lip-syncing to popular hit songs of the day. 

A really young Jim Henson  with the Sam and Friends crew.

Some of the lip-syncing was to songs that included such decidedly adult fare as "I've Got You Under My Skin." and "That Old Black Magic". The show also contained a regular running parody of the then current news program The Huntley Brinkley Report and of the popular Western TV series Gunsmoke. Not exactly parody tailor made for six year old's.

Sam and Friends ran until 1961. Not long after, Henson and his new creation now known as The Muppets, moved on to an even bigger audience: The Ed Sullivan Show.

Hey, hey! Watch the hands there, Ed. This is a family blog.

The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the highest rated TV shows of its time. It was a classic early TV variety format. Hosted by the nationally renowned newspaper entertainment columnist, Ed Sullivan, it aired at a time when there were only something like 4 channels on TV (in most areas). Needless to say, there weren't a hundred different cable channels that each catered to a specific niche audience in those days. Instead, they had one show that featured something for everyone. A typical edition of the Ed Sullivan Show would feature jugglers, opera singers, numbers from current Broadway musicals, stand-up comedians, impersonators, Jazz trio's, rock n'roll bands and, sometimes, The Muppets.

Jim Henson's Muppets (or "Jim Newsom's puppets" as Ed once introduced them) appeared on Sullivan 25 times between 1966 and 1971. While often categorized as a "children's act" on the show, many of the sketches involved various Muppets getting eaten by or eating other Muppets, cross-dressing, psychological torment and, in one of Henson's favorite comedic forms  lip-synching to popular songs (even one of the Beatles' more druggy tunes,Come Together). 

During this time, Henson and his Muppets were also quite busy in the field of advertising and industrial films. One of his clients  interestingly, was IBM. 

Circa 1967, The Muppets appeared in a number of different IBM training and sales films. IBM was launching the first electric typewriters, word processors and computers. These newfangled gadgets, in order to be sold properly, had to be explained to the general public and, perhaps more importantly, to IBM's own sales staff.

Some of the films featured The Muppets working as IBM sales reps. Was that supposed to appeal kids? What kid in 1967 would have been on the IBM sales staff? 

I mean, today, sure, but never in '67. 

In 1969, Henson and The Muppets got the break of their career when they landed a gig on the innovative children's educational TV series, Sesame Street. The show made the Muppets, especially Kermit The Frog, a household name. 

For Henson, Sesame Street was both a blessing a curse. It brought fame to his creation but it also cemented an impression in the minds of the general public and TV executives that The Muppets were strictly children's entertainers.

Henson, eager to break the kids TV typecasting The Muppets had fallen into, made a deal with an all new and different non-prime time TV series that had just made its debut. The series was called Saturday Night Live. 

It made sense. Saturday Night Live was, at the time, groundbreaking late night TV. It was one of the first shows do jokes about drugs, sexually liberated lifestyles, rock music  and generally address a growing post-hippie youth subculture that had been largely ignored by mainstream TV.

The polar opposite of Sesame Street, in other words.

The result was The Land of Gorch, a series of "adult" Muppet sketches. The Gorch sketches followed the story of some rather nasty looking mythical creatures on a far away planet. The design of the SNL Muppets was more raw and intense than anything Henson had created up to that point. Typical sketches dealt with issues like alcoholism, sex, and death . All in all, a pretty big departure for The Muppets.

Unfortunately, The Land of Gorch sketches were something of a disaster. The sketches were written by SNL and not Muppet writers. Writing Gorch became was doled out to writers as a punishment or as an initiation for new SNL scribes. 

Audiences didn't really know what to make of the sketches either. Here are Muppets in a kind of child-like fantasy setting, they have the same voices as many of the Sesame Street Muppets yet they're making the archetypal 70's SNL "I am so stoned!" kinda jokes. 

They were too confused to laugh most of the time.

Last Gasps in The Land of Gorch from ethan thompson on Vimeo.

Henson himself probably put the experience into perspective  best when he said years later: 

"I saw what he (Lorne Michaels) was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never jelled. ... When they were writing for us, I had the feeling they were writing normal sitcom stuff, which is really boring and bland. ... Yeah, it just never jelled with the particular writers we were working with, but at no time did I ever lose my respect for the show. I always liked what they were doing."

Fortunately for Henson's and The Muppets' career, it was around this time that Henson landed the deal for the now legendary Muppet Show. Still unable to convince any of the US networks that The Muppets were not just strictly for kids, Henson finally sold the idea of a Muppets TV show to the British broadcaster, ITV. The shows would be produced in Great Britain and syndicated internationally.

The ensuing 1976-81 TV series was, of course, a massive hit. It firmly cemented The Muppets' fame outside of the Sesame Street realm. It also became a cherished childhood icon for an entire generation. The show featured adult oriented guest stars like Elton John, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minnelli and John Cleese, to name a very few. There were many clever and, for the Muppets for the time, "risque" lines. Yet there at the same time there were talking animals and lots of physical comedy. So, essentially, The Muppet Show became the classic case of a crossover show attracting both young and old audiences alike.

Major hit motion pictures followed: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhatten (1984). The pattern continued, they were movies with a major "family friendly" crossover appeal featuring adult oriented celebrity cameos and the occasional "Woah! I can't believe The Muppets just said that" kinda lines. Still, generally, though appealing more to younger rather than older audiences.

In 1982, Henson again attempted to break the mold with The Dark Crystal. The film was a serious, dark fantasy adventure film featuring new Muppets and innovative creatures that were not unlike something that might have appeared in The Land of Gorch. The Dark Crystal met with mixed critical and financial success but later would garner a cult following on home video.

In 1986, Henson made Labyrinth, a more family friendly fantasy musical adventure starring (in what was a major departure for him at the time) David Bowie. Like The Dark Crystal, the film met with mixed critical success but better box office success than The Dark Crystal. It too would achieve a cult following on home video in the years to come.

Some of the best Henson creations ever.

On TV, Henson attempted to continue the darker material with a series called The Storyteller. Later, in The Jim Henson Hour, he attempted to mix classic Muppet humour with more edgy material. The Jim Henson Hour only lasted 13 episodes.

Sadly, in a stunningly unexpected turn of events, Jim Henson died of pneumonia in the spring of 1990. 

Henson's son, Brian carried the Muppet torch after that. He produced a series that the senior Henson had been developing before his death. The show was called Dinosaurs. The 1991-94 series featured live action anthropomorphic Dinosaurs (all creations of the relatively newly formed Henson Creature Shop) in a sitcom setting. Dinosaurs owed a great deal to both The Flintstones and The Simpsons. Despite attempts to humorously deal with more serious issues like drug abuse, pre-marital sex and media censorship, Dinosaurs still tended to appeal to a younger audience.

The cast of Muppets Tonight

Brian attempted to bring the franchise back to slightly more adult territory with The Muppets Tonight. The show aired on the ABC network in the US during the 1995-96 season. Later, The Disney Chanel picked up the series and ran nine more new episodes in the 1997-8 season. Similar to the original Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight featured the backstage antics of the Muppets attempting to produce a show. This time around it was a TV show as opposed to a live theatrical show, as was the case in the original Muppet Show. 

Muppets Tonight was hosted by a new Muppet, Clifford, the "homey made of foamy". That by itself creates a pretty clear impression of where the younger Henson was trying to go with the show. The series featured guest stars like Prince (known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince at that time), Coolio, Jason Alexander and Cindy Crawford. Much of the humour attempted to skew older. It only lasted 13 episodes on US network TV. 

Muppet motion pictures also continued throughout the 90's with A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and what would be the last theatrical feature film for Henson's creations for twelve years to come, Muppets From Space (1999). However, the basic predominantly for kids "family friendly" humour prevailed. 

In 2004, the rights to The Muppets characters were sold to the Walt Disney Company. It was, in fact, the conclusion of deal that Jim Henson himself had begun negotiating not long before his death. The Disney deal would certainly mean the end of any more adult or riskier material, right?

Um...maybe not.

In a surprisingly hip move, Disney approached Jason Segal to star in and write The Muppets reboot/sequel. They were reportedly swayed by his the puppet Dracula musical featured in another film written by and starring Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brett Mackenzie of Flight of the Conchords was brought on board to write the original songs. James Bobin, who directed all 22 episodes of the Conchords offbeat HBO TV series, was hired to direct. Presumably, all the interesting cameos fell into place after that.

So the question remains: is the new Muppets film merely kids stuff? Subversive adult humour? Both? 

In the case of a new Muppet movie made with decidedly edgier hands manipulating the beloved felt characters, all bets are off. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

The 10 Best Things About The Year I Was 10

Self indulgent Birthday alert!

Self indulgent Birthday alert!

Last year, my birthday post consisted of The 10 Best Things About The Year I Was Born. The response was so good, I have decided to keep the tradition up by annually posting a 10 Best list for every decade of my life. When I was 10, that year was 1973.

This list is undoubtedly going to stir up a storm of controversy and heated discussions amongst the massive Internet fanbase for both me and the year 1973.  

I stand by my choices....

10. Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup

I realize that putting any Canadiens Stanley Cup win at number 10 on any 10 best list is considered treason for anyone living in the greater Montreal area. Honestly, though, '73, was the last time I was actually following hockey closely. 

As was Canadian Law for all children under the age of 12 at that time, I collected hockey cards. Many of the names on roster from that year are still familiar to me: Ken Dryden, Serve Savard, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, Frank and Pete Mahovlich and, of course, "the pocket rocket" Henri Richard. In fact, I could name the '73 line-up much better than I could name just about anybody on the current roster (um, is Carey Price still on the team?).

Most important to me though, for obvious reasons, was head coach Scotty Bowman.

In the 70's, Bowman led the Canadiens to six of the their total of 23 Stanley Cup victories. Four of those victories were won consecutively (76-79). It's also the highest number of wins for any decade in the club's history.

1973 was 2 of 6, though no one knew or predicted that then. I remember it very well. Well, kind of well, actually. Except for the Saturday night games, I never got to see the end of any hockey game, playoff or not. I usually had to go to bed sometime around the 2nd period. I would get the final score in the morning either from the radio or my dad (whichever one I got to first).  

I didn't even get to see all of the final game of that '73 series. And with the series going seven games, it was pretty obvious that the Habs could take the Cup that night. Such was the Law of Bedtime in my house.

For what it's worth, I am told that I am distantly related to Scotty Bowman. Some people have told me I kinda look like the guy as well.

So, if anyone out there is casting that biopic...

9. Live and Let Die

Not the movie, the song.

In 1973, Roger Moore, former star of the long running British TV series, The Saint, took over the iconic role of James Bond, secret agent 007. Live and Let Die was super loosely based on the Bond novel of the same name by Ian Fleming. 

Moore's reign as Bond would mark a decidedly arch turn toward camp and, at times, even outright slapstick in the 007 films.  It created a link in the public consciousness between Bond and silliness. That link became so strong that it would not fully be broken until the advent of Daniel Craig in the role of James Bond in Casino Royale, the series' 2006 reboot. 

Despite an overwhelming case of the sillies, Live and Let Die is still considered a fan favorite. To be fair, I did not see Live and Let Die in the theatres in '73. I was barely aware of it and only vaguely aware of James Bond's existence at the time. More than likely, I would not have been allowed to see the movie even if I had known about it. I would not see any of the Moore Bonds until I was much older. By that time, I considered the wackiness of, say, a chase that ends up crashing through a wedding with a lot of people comically screaming and running around, to be the exclusive domain of the those live action Disney comedies of the 70's. Such madcap mayhem, as far as I was concerned, belonged in movies like Herbie The Love Bug and The Strongest Man in the World and not in what should have been more serious Bond thrillers.

But I digress.

I remember hearing the song, Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings while listening to CKGM, Monteal's Top 40 radio station. I thought it was just about the coolest piece of music I'd ever heard in my life. It made for the perfect running around the house and jumping up and down on the couch while my mom wasn't looking soundtrack.

Live and Let Die was the highest charting Bond song up to that point in time. Later Bond title song hits were Carly Simon's Nobody Does it Better from The Spy Who Loved in 1975, Sheena Easton's For Your Eyes Only in 1981 and Duran Duran's A View to a Kill in 1985 (which also marked Moore's last appearance in the role). The McCartney composed title song marked a departure from the franchise's previous penchant for brassy big band style songs like Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger and Tom Jones' Thunderball. 

The story goes that after being approached by producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to provide the theme for the next Bond film, McCartney went off on his own, wrote the song and then recorded it soon after. 

Later, at a meeting with the Bond producers, he played a tape of the finished song. Saltzman and Broccoli then reportedly said something to the effect of "Wow. Great demo! Let's get Shirley Bassey and the band that played on Goldfinger into the studio to record it for the opening titles." At which point, McCartney reportedly explained to them that they just heard was the title song exactly as it would appear in the movie. It was that or they don't get to use the song at all.

In the battle of Beatle vs Bond, Beatle won.

8. Schoolhouse Rock!

Schoolhouse Rock! was a very telling sign of its time. It marked perhaps the first time that education finally caught up with the generation gap of the 60's and 70's. Schoolhouse Rocks! clever combo of animation and pop songs managed to nail down that elusive concept of making learning fun. 

Schoolhouse Rock! was also significant in that it was a product born out of the world of advertising. The short snappy educational segments were the brainchild of one of Madison avenue's most successful ad agencies, McCaffrey and McCall.  Education was approached in the same way that an advertising campaign approaches selling soap. The advertising techniques were especially relevant when it came to getting that important information, like the times tables, say, right into the young viewer's heads for good. The short animated musical shorts  created jingles for learning math, grammar, history, science, etc. Instead of selling Juicy Fruit Gum or Lestoil, Schoolhouse Rock! sold reading, writing and arithmetic.

Schoolhouse Rock! began in 1973 as interstitials on the ABC network. They ran between cartoons and other kids shows on Saturday mornings. They quickly caught on with the kids, eventually attracting big name sponsors like Nabisco and General Mills. The Schoolhouse Rock! segments ran on ABC right up till 1985. They were then revived by ABC in the 90's. 

I own an album, "Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks" featuring cover versions of Schoolhouse Rocks! songs by various indie rock bands from the late 90's. It's very cool. Get it. 

The Schoolhouse Rocks! phenomenon continues today with DVD's, Blu-ray's, newly produced segments and even live concerts. Now that Disney owns ABC, Schoolhouse Rocks! is sure to remain a pop culture institution for years to come.

And let's face it, Schoolhouse Rocks! segments were and still are stunningly effective educational pieces. Who could ever forget what a conjunction is after you've heard "Conjuction Junction" two or three times? Or that a noun is "any person you can know, any place that you can go or anything that you can show.."?  Even today, whenever I follow American politics, my fundamental understanding of how the U.S. Legislative branch of government works still comes from "I'm just a Bill, sitting here on capitol hill...".

It's like, for one brief shining moment, advertising used its powers for good instead of evil.

7. The Six Million Dollar Man


Or something like that...

The Six Million Dollar man debuted in January of 1973. A mid-season replacement that caught on big time, The Six Million Dollar Man was an action adventure series centered around the exploits of a super powerful cyborg secret agent named Steve Austin (not to be confused with the 90's wrestler who borrowed his name). The role of Steve Austin  was played by a post-Big Valley, pre-Fall Guy Lee Majors. 

Austin was a former astronaut and an Air Force test pilot who lost both his legs, his right arm and his left eye in a plane crash. With the help of a highly advanced top secret government program, Austin's damaged legs, arm and eye are replaced by powerful mechanical prostheses or, using the term the series popularized, "bionic" (an actual scientific term but not used accurately in this context) parts. Hence where the super powerful cyborg secret agent part comes in. The title comes from the fact that, in 1973, it cost six million bucks to make the "world's first bionic man".  

Not only did The Six Million Dollar Man introduce the word "bionic" into the pop culture lexicon but it also introduced the phenomenon of millions of boys play fighting in slow motion in elementary school yards all across North America. 

The show is a quintessential old school action adventure series. It had a super strong guy beating up bad guys (though for Standards and Practices reasons, he tended to just throw them around a lot),  poor man's James Bond villains, jungle adventures, fast cars, helicopters, robots and even (in one now famous two part episode) Sasquatch (who, of course, turned out to be an alien robot).

After two very successful seasons The Six Million Dollar Man, spun off another extremely popular 70's action adventure series, The Bionic Woman. This time around, the super powerful cyborg secret agent was a woman. Jamie Summers' adventures tended to be of the Barbie career variety. A typical episode would see Ms. (yes, the were using that prefix by then) Summers go undercover as a nurse, flight attendant, etc.

As played by Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman came along at just the right time in my life, developmentally speaking. It premiered when my interests were just shifting away from big strong guys to attractive but not too threatening women.

6. Roe v Wade

My first instinct was to not include this historical event on the list. 

True, the landmark US Supreme Court ruling that effectively made abortion legal in the United States did happen in 1973. However, such an emotional, important and controversial topic seemed a bit out of place on a list featuring the likes of the Six Million Dollar Man and Schoolhouse Rocks!  And wouldn't it come off a kinda flippant to place Roe v Wade at no. 6, between The Six Million Dollar Man and The Exorcist?  Plus, needless to day, the issue wasn't much on my radar at nine going on ten years old. 

Then I thought...hmmm...maybe if I focus on the bumper stickers Roe v Wade generated. One can still see many pro and con Roe v Wade slogans on the backs of cars just about anytime you visit the United States. The subject would fit into the "He Had on a Hat" paradigm a little easier that way too. The uniquely American fixation of political and social debate via car bumpers had always fascinated me anyway.

So I Googled Roe v Wade bumper stickers. What I found was, well rather stunning. In the results for a Google image search for Roe v Wad bumper stickers, there was about 1 pro-Choice slogan for every 10 pro-Life slogans. This went on for pages and pages. Then it hit me that I really have to write about Roe v Wade.

Um, actually, it really isn't...

I recently heard the claim that Google is, in fact, part of the liberal biased "lamestream" media that Fox News loves to pretend exists. If that's the case, Google musta really slacked off on this one. Clearly, the pro-Life movement is much better organized when it comes to tipping the search engines in their favour. Making sure that any given message dominates Google searches takes a concerted effort, especially given how much those Google geeks love to change search algorithms.

I mean, c'mon, whatever your beliefs on the subject, there's got to at least be debate. It's too important an issue for one side to just ride roughshod over. 

As far as the bumber sticker issue goes, well, I think this classic piece from The Onion's book, Our Dumb Century, does the topic more justice than I ever could....

From The Onion's "Our Dumb Century"

5. The Exorcist

I was way, way, way too young to see The Exorcist in the theatres when it first came out in 1973 (or even on its watered down network TV premiere a couple of years later). I remember finally seeing The Exorcist on TV many years later and kinda thinking "Pff! That's not scary". Fair enough, on the small screen with all the more gross and scary bits cut out and with the movie constantly being interrupted by commercials, yeah, it wasn't scary at all. 

I remember finally seeing the intact version on video in the early 90's. While it still did not scare me all that much, I did find it incredibly creeping and disturbing. Few movies have pulled off the craft of genuinely creepy and disturbing filmmaking in quite the same way. 

The Exorcist was based on the book of the same name by William Peter Blatty. Blatty not only adapted his novel for the screen but also reportedly had a great deal of say in the choice of the film's director and cast. The story goes that he held out for director William Friedkin based on the directors work on his previous 70's hit, The French Connection. The studio had a director named Mark Rydell in mind. I've seen at least two of Rydell's other films, The Cowboys and On Golden Pond and I can safely say that there is no way in hell that Rydell coulda pulled of The Exorcist (pun intended). Stanley Kubrick, not suprisingly, turned down the offer to direct both The Exorcist and, later, its sequel.

The original casting choices for The Exorcist were quite different as well. The original cast at one point was going to be Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda  and -get this- that kid from the 60's sitcom, Family Affair, in the part of Regan, the little girl who gets possessed by Satan . That cast did not work out for various reasons. And a good thing too.

Those actors are all have powerful on-screen personas who would have undoubtedly overpowered the film itself (k, maybe not the kid from Family Affair). The cast they finally went with was Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair, all strong actors but not as well known or as dominant with their on-screen presence as the earlier casting choices. von Sydow had just arrived in Hollywood and was then famous only to college students and Swedish film goers.  Jason Miller was a playwright and actor not really all that well known outside of the New York theatre scene. Burstyn was a "name" but not a big one at the time. The movie was Linda Blair's second film.

The Exorcist was released on Boxing Day, 1973. It was not just a big hit but also the only horror movie to have ever won an Oscar for Best Picture. It was followed by two sequels and a prequel that had two radically different versions released a year apart. The classic horror film was introduced to a new generation of fans with the hit 2000 re-release of the slightly different "version you've never seen". 

Back in the day, The Exorcist was talked about everywhere and often referred to as "the scariest movie ever". It was very much on my radar. Having never the movie or even the trailers on TV, I was never scared by it. Though I do remember seeing a cover of the novel in the store. The cover merely showed a blurry picture of some kind of ethereal head. Didn't matter. Still scared the hell out of me.  

I could not look at the cover of that book for months.

Pretty scary shit, huh?

This rare trailer was never shown in theatres as the studio felt it was "too disturbing". Good call.

4. The U.S. Withdraws from Vietnam 

In January 1973 in Paris, representatives of the U.S., North and South Vietnam and the Viet Cong signed a historic peace agreement. The agreement followed years of negotiations and more recently, a massive bombing campaign of the North Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi, ordered by US President Richard Nixon. After nine long years of war and the death of 58 000 American troops along with 1 and 3 million Vietnamese deaths, American military involvement in the controversial war was over.

When the news of the peace agreement broke on TV early one Saturday morning in January of 1973, I was incensed. 

They interrupted my Saturday Morning cartoons! 

Didn't they realize that I only had one chance a week to watch cartoons and that one chance was Saturday mornings? Back in the day before VCR's DVD releases, digital downloads, 24/7 cartoon channels and DVR's , you had to watch TV shows at the exact time when they actually aired on TV. The only time they aired shows aimed directly at children was for about a 4 hour period on Saturday mornings. The rest of the time, TV was mostly for grown-ups.

At the time, of course, I did not realize the historical importance of the situation. Nor did I realize that I'd one day own many of these shows that "only were on TV once" on DVD in the years to come.

The Vietnam War had lasted my entire life at that point in time, even longer if you count the presence of US military advisers as early as 1950 (they were there in order to help the French defend their colony). In the 60's, the US still had the draft. That meant that pretty much any guy over the age of 18 could be drafted and potentially sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Imagine the difference a draft like that might make in public opinion towards the long running current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The other source of controversy surrounding the Vietnam War was powered by that same thing that brought me my Saturday Morning cartoons every week, TV.  The power and potential impact of TV news on warfare had not really been understood by anyone until Vietnam. As no official declaration of war existed, there was not as much restriction of information as they had, say, during World War II. Journalists had a fairly wide range of access during Vietnam. Another thing they didn't have in World War II were cameras that shot footage of combat that could then be shown on TV back in the US and around the world within a relatively short period of time. As a result, the horrors of modern warfare were, being seen in homes across North America on a nightly basis.  For perhaps the first time in history, just about everyone everywhere got a chance to see the real face of war.

Again, imagine what Iraq and Afghanistan would be like if we were regularly seeing images of naked napalmed Iraqi children running through the streets or of Afghan authorities executing civilians right out in the open. 

Vietnam was seen for what it was: a long, brutal, costly and, some would say, completely unnecessary war. Even as a kid,while being spared some of the more brutal images, I got the idea that the war was bad and that many people weren't happy about it (I just never made the connection between those boring old men talking in Paris interrupting my cartoons and the end of that war).

In the 80's and beyond, the image of the Vietnam War has been cleaned up some. Much of the popular perception of the war has been altered by political revisionism along with a well orchestrated PR campaign in the media. It was a negative blip in the popular consciousness of war that has, in may ways, been either covered up or forgotten.  

In some ways, the cartoons live on much better in the popular memory than does the true image of Vietnam. 

3. GI Joe: Secret of the Mummy's Tomb

I kind of covered GI Joe and his greater social and political context in last week's post. So, this week, let's focus on my all time fave Adventure Team set.

The Secret of the Mummy's Tomb was a big gamble for Hasbro, the company behind GI Joe. It was the first toy set of its kind to break the $12 price barrier. $12? What where they thinking?

That just about every boy on the continent would want one, most likely.  

The reason for the higher price was that, unlike most of the GI Joe "sold separately" sets,  this one came with its own 12 inch GI Joe Land Adventurer action figure. It also came with one of the coolest accessories ever, the six wheeled yellow ATV. ATV, cleverly enough stood for both All Terrain Vehicle and/or for Adventure Team Vehicle at the same time. The set also came with a comic detailing The Secret of the Mummy's Tomb adventure. Unlike the Joe's of the 80's that would follow, 70's GI Joe comics could not be sold on their own. They only came with the toy.

Most importantly, it came with the object of GI Joe's quest, a Mummy. The story of that particular archaeological adventure and the background behind it so fascinated me that I went right to the school library to look up everything I could on Mummies. It would be years before I learnt about lost civilizations in school. Much of the knowledge I have today on ancient Egyptian culture began with that little GI Joe-inspired research spree.

And I had a teacher who said that GI Joe was "worthless junk"....

2. Westworld

In 1973, best selling author Michael Crichton made his directorial debut. Based on his own screenplay, the film was called Westworld. It starred Richard Benjamin, James Brolin (Josh's dad)  and Yul Brynner.

Today Westworld might be called something of "high concept" premise.

In a futuristic amusement park named Delos, there are three resort worlds: Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld.  All are populated by androids that allow the park’s guests to indulge their wildest sex and violence fantasies without consequences.  Well, that is, without consequences until the androids malfunction.  

One particularly badass gun-slinging robot is played by Brynner. He wears almost the exact same wardrobe he wore in the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven.  Brynner’s android in black goes after guests Benjamin and Brolin with a vengeance. He forces Benjamin in particular into a nerve racking chase that leads through, and behind the scenes of, all three resort worlds.

The events that follow could best be described as The Terminator meets High Noon with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure.  The last comparison is particularly apt. Twenty years after Westworld,writer-director Crichton would substitute android cowboys running amok in a theme park for cloned dinosaurs running amok in a theme park in a little novel and subsequent motion picture called Jurassic Park.

Westworld is a very effective low-key thriller.  Much of the pace of the film is closer to that of Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s SF films Solaris or Stalker than to today’s Michael Bay action Sci-Fi Transformers-style pacing.  As is the case with most 70’s Sci-Fi, Westworld is also social commentary.  In this film, the underlying message is that violence, in any form, is never without consequences.  

All of that would have been lost on me at the time. I remember that I was dying to see Westworld when it first came out.  I think it was rated PG and it was showing, I believe, in theatre in downtown Montreal. Living in the suburban West Island of Montreal in '73,  it might as well have been in Delos itself.

1. Watergate

Mad Magazine satirizes the Watergate scandal via the popular movie The Sting.
Would Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert handle Watergate any differently today?

In June of 1972, there was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the Watergate Hotel and office complex in Washington DC. The burglary was ordered by and, in some cases, carried out by agents working for the committee to re-elect US President Richard Nixon. The ensuing cover-up of the break-in and scandal that followed would not only bring about the first ever resignation of a President of the United States but would also change public perceptions of politics and politicians forever.

One of those perceptions was mine. It was a shift in perceptions for me that consisted of no awareness of politics at all to some awareness of politics. Like Vietnam, Watergate was impossible to avoid in those days, even for a kid. If anything, the scandal may have seemed like an even bigger deal than it actually was. 

Beyond just the TV news and the newspapers, Watergate made its way into popular culture. Sonny and Cher, on their hit variety series, were dropping Nixon jokes all over the place,  Rich Little got "Tricky Dick" saying "I am not a crook" down pat and, most importantly, Mad Magazine ran parodies in pretty much every issue (or so it seemed) throughout 1973 and 1974.

Far being something I just skipped over to get to the Sergio Aragonnes margin cartoons or the latest Spy vs. Spy, I read and took in all of Mad's Watergate "coverage". And there was plenty of it too. Through their satirical bits, I came to an understanding, albeit a simple one, of the Watergate scandal. I got to know the names Spiro Agnew, John N. Mitchell, J.R. Haldeman, John Dean and (though I never got the reference) Deep Throat almost as well as I knew the members of The Avengers. Plus, who knew that you could so much comedic mileage out of reel-to-reel tapes?

There are surveys that say that most younger audiences today get all their news from shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. In 1973, the same was true of Mad Magazine. From Watergate through to the election of Ronald Reagan, I got all or most of my information on US politics via Mad Magazine.

Looking back on it today, the satire is pretty simplistic, but, hey, I was 9. While I seem to remember that Alfred E.Newman was an equal opportunity offender, Mad Magazine today would probably be (and possibly is) considered by some to be part of the "lamestream" liberal bias media.

I have been to Washington DC three times. I have visited the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex all three times. 

They should offer tours and sell more T-shirts.

Next year: The Top 10 Things About The Year I was 20.

At this rate, I'll run out of Birthday post topics by the year 2016.

See you on the other side of 48!