Archive for the ‘ Pop Culture ’ Category

Why We Love the Muppets Like Family

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

In honor of one of my Philcon panels today, “Muppets! Muppets! Muppets!” I am reprinting a piece I originally published on the now-defunct Yahoo! Contributor Network.


The new Muppet movie, “The Muppets,” will relaunch the brand with the classic characters, along with some new faces. After so many years, the Muppets are like old friends — or better yet, like family. So who’s who in our Muppet family?

Kermit the Frog, The Perfect Dad

No matter how perfect your real dad might be, there’s no way he’s as patient, as gentle, and as understanding as Kermit. The soft-spoken father figure of the Muppet clan leads his misfit crew with TLC, offering support and advice where necessary, mediating disputes, and occasionally sending family members to their (dressing) rooms. Even his rage is cute.

Miss Piggy, The Flamboyant Stepmother

Dad remarries to a glamorous diva who never really wanted children to begin with (unless they’re part pig). She insists on being called “Miss Piggy” and will never answer to “Mom.” But at times she is a lot of fun: telling stories about the celebrities she’s met, demonstrating her martial arts skills, and singing us to sleep with operatic bedtime lullabies.

Gonzo, The Weird Uncle

Just about everyone has one: the uncle whose bachelor pad is festooned with a quirky collection of his personal memorabilia, the one who makes archaic references you don’t get but that make your dad go “tsk-tsk.” The guy who has absolutely no idea other people think he’s odd, even while he’s wearing skates, balancing a bowling pin on his head, and juggling chickens. At times, it’s hard to believe he’s related.

Rowlf the Dog, The Cool Uncle

Rowlf is the uncle who’s in a band, gives you backstage passes for his concerts, and teaches you how to play chords. He tells you that you’re talented and introduces you to all his cool music-making friends. Even though Kermit is the perfect father figure, there are times you wish that, instead of plinking away on his wimpy little banjo, he’d rock out on the keyboards with a bluesy growl like Rowlf.

Fozzie Bear, The Daydreaming Older Brother

Ever since he was born, older brother Fozzie was convinced he was destined for greatness. Unfortunately, his chosen profession was comedy, and as everybody knows, Fozzie isn’t terribly funny. But with plenty of support from dad Kermit (after all, he even put Fozzie in his show), Fozzie continues to follow his dreams. He might still be living in his old bedroom, but he knows one day he’ll make it big, get his own place, and bask in the adulation reserved for a star.

Scooter, The Geeky Younger Brother

While Fozzie is a dreamer, Scooter is practical, which is why he helps run the family business, serving as a stage manager for the Muppet Theater. Everybody knows that someday it will be him and not Fozzie who takes over for dad Kermit. He is young but detail-oriented and eager to please. If you need someone to fix your computer, ask Scooter.

Statler and Waldorf, The Wisecracking Grandfathers

Retirement was the best thing to ever happen to Statler and Waldorf; it freed them from any real responsibilities. Now they can just sit back and criticize the world around them. If you listened to just their words, you’d think they hated everything their family does. But as much as they claim that sitting through it is sheer torture, they make sure to get a box seat to every performance.

5 Must-See Vampire Movies

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

Lesser Known Films for the Vampire Lover

About 20 years ago, I wrote a four-hour radio program about the vampire mythos. In the course of doing research for this show, I watched and read countless vampire movies and stories. Countless vampire movies have been made, ranging from campy to dramatic. Here are a few worth watching.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wagenheim, Greta Schroder, Ruth Landshoff

Shot on realistic sets in Wismar and Lubeck, Germany, this classic silent film was based on the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula, with minor efforts made to change the names. Therefore, the vampire is called Count Orlock. All copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed due to a legal settlement with the Stoker estate, but a complete copy survived in the possession of one collector.

The special effects are done with simple camera tricks and expressionistic lighting. Even today, however, this film still evokes a feeling of forboding and even terror.

The Spanish version of Dracula (1931)

Director: George Melford

Starring: Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena

Many people have seen the classic Bela Lugosi version and can quote lines from it. For a brief time in the early days of sound, studios made Spanish versions of movies, starring Spanish actors, instead of simply dubbing the original. The actors used the same sets and sometimes the same costumes, typically shooting at night.

The Spanish version of Dracula is much more compelling and romantic than the Lugosi film, with Villarias as a sensual, charismatic vampire and superior camerawork. Watch both and see if you agree.

The Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen

The British studio, Hammer Film Productions, put out dozens of low-budget horror films that are, nonetheless, beloved by horror film fans for their artistry, acting, scripts, and lush costumes and scenery. This role made the career of well-known character actor Christopher Lee, who up until then had only played minor roles.

Not all of the Hammer Dracula movies are as good as this first one — some are very campy — but this film is justifiably praised for its modern, sexy and dangerous retelling of the classic Stoker novel. Though he’s only on-screen for a short while, Lee’s presence is astounding, and Peter Cushing, another veteran character actor, is unforgettable as Van Helsing.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Director: Robert Bierman

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alva Restrepo, Jennifer Beals

This is no doubt the cheesiest movie on this list, and it is a personal favorite because of its different take on the vampire movie. Nicolas Cage plays a businessman who meets a woman in a nightclub (Jennifer Beals) whom he believes is a vampire. The question becomes: was she really, or is he simply going insane?

Cage’s hysterics as he deals with the results of his encounter are highly entertaining. The script by Joseph Minion is highly quotable. Just don’t expect to take this film too seriously.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Director: E. Elias Merhige

Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack.

It’s a good idea to watch Nosferatu before seeing this movie, because it tells the fictionalized tale of the making of that film. According to this account, the actor playing Count Orlock, Mac Schreck, was so convincing because he was, indeed, a vampire. At times black comedy, at times horror film, and at times meta-film about the filmmaking process, the movie easily draws viewers into this isolated, strange world.

Willem Dafoe does a terrific job as Mac Schreck, which is little surprise, since the role was written specifically for him. Udo Kier, incidentally, once played the count himself, in Andy Warhol’s Dracula, a.k.a. Blood of Dracula (1974). This film captures the look of the original amazingly well, and in many ways is just as scary.

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