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December 05, 2014

Top DVD and Blu-ray Gift Sets for the Holidays 2014

What makes for a great gift set? Is it an old TV favorites making its way to home video for the first time, or a hit movie packaged with an awesome collectible? Is it as simple as simple as finding new ways to bundle popular franchises? Perhaps remastering the content for high-definition can offer a fresh perspective of a classic on Blu-ray.

In any case, it’s the content that matters, and studios are finding bigger and more creative ways to bring that content to the fans who love it. To get you started on your holiday shopping, we count down our top 10 boxed sets for the holiday season.

1. Batman: The Complete Television Series
Warner/Fox; $199.70 DVD, $269.97 Blu-ray

Holy boxed sets! The campy 1960s “Batman” TV series was one of the most-anticipated home video releases of all time, and now it’s finally here. The limited-edition Blu-ray is an essential addition to any Batman collection, including not only all 120 episodes beautifully remastered for high-definition on 13 discs, but also retrospective bonus features, a Batmobile replica, trading cards and a photo book from Batman himself, Adam West. Warner will be reissuing the Blu-ray set as a slimmed-down version without any of the collectibles.

2. The Wonder Years: The Complete Series
StarVista; $249.95 DVD; Available via TimeLife.com

The only other TV show possibly as coveted on home video as “Batman” was probably “The Wonder Years,” and fans got that one too in 2014. The direct-mail Time Life collector’s edition includes all 115 episodes on 26 discs, packaged in yearbook replicas stored in a miniature school locker with decorative magnets. Plus, the cast of the 1988-93 series has reunited for 23 hours of bonus features. Hardcore fans can get “The Experience” for $299.95, a bundle of the boxed set with a Kennedy Jr. High gym bag, Wildcats gear and a newly produced CD.

3. Transformers: Age of Extinction Gift Set (Amazon exclusive)
Paramount; $119.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo

This is a must-have for “Transformers” fans. The film itself might leave a lot to be desired, but the chief selling point here is the exquisitely sculpted statue depicting the scene of Autobot leader Optimus Prime riding into battle atop the Dinobot Grimlock. The only downside is the included Blu-ray combo pack is not the 3D version.

4. Planet of the Apes: Caesar’s Warrior Collection
Fox; $129.99 Blu-ray

The two reboot films of the classic “Planet of the Apes” franchise have been an undeniable success, and collectors can pick them both up in this deluxe set packaged in a replica of ape leader Caesar’s head. The set includes 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, its sequel, the recently released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a 32-page booklet and four character cards. Pair it with the Legacy Collection boxed set of the original five films, or, better yet, with the Ultimate DVD Collection ape head that included all the original movies as well as TV shows based on them.

5. The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension
RLJ/Image; $349.98 DVD

This 41-DVD end-all-be-all release of the famed anthology franchise includes not only all 156 episodes from Rod Serling’s legendary 1959-64 series, but also the 110 installments from the 1985-89 revival version, packaged in a tidy numbered cube, paneled with lenticular photos and limited to a run of 7,500 copies. Exclusive extras include new documentaries, interviews with the original cast and crew, a collectible comic book and more.

6. The Sopranos: The Complete Series Blu-ray
HBO; $279.98 Blu-ray

HBO has released complete collections of “The Sopranos” several times before on DVD, but this is the first time the whole show is available on disc in high-definition (previously only the sixth season had been released on Blu-ray). The 86 episodes of the critically acclaimed gangster drama have never looked better.

7. Halloween: The Complete Collection
Anchor Bay/Shout! Factory; $169.99 Blu-ray

Prepare to spend a weekend with Michael Myers. Horror fans can rejoice that all 10 films of the “Halloween” franchise are finally available in a single 15-disc set. This includes the eight films of the original franchise, the two Rob Zombie remakes and the previously unreleased producer’s cut of Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, but also tons of bonus materials, including new interviews with cast members and filmmakers, commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries.

8. Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Complete Series
Shout! Factory; $149.99 Blu-ray

Pull up a Chairry and get ready to bask in the zany, colorful world of a quintessential 1980s kids show, remastered for an amazing high-definition picture. All 45 episodes, including the Christmas special, have been carefully reconstructed in HD from the original film elements. Paul Reubens leads the cast as the iconic Pee-wee Herman, with guest stars including Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkerson and the late Phil Hartman, among others. The eight-disc set also includes more than four hours of new interviews and featurettes about the show.

9. ESPN 30 for 30 Fifth Anniversary Collection
ESPN; $249.95 DVD, $199.95 Blu-ray

Sports fans have plenty to be thankful for in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series of unique, eye-opening sports documentaries, and now every program is available in one handsome collector’s set. The 100-title set includes not only the “30 for 30” episodes, but also all films in the “30 for 30 Soccer Stories” and “Nine for IX” series (a tribute to women’s sports spurred by Title IX), as well as selections from “30 for 30 Shorts” and additional films The Fab Five, Catching Hell and The Announcement. A 32-DVD set exclusive to Groupon comes in a metal sports locker with a shirt, hat, limited-edition book and poster. The Blu-ray set comes in a custom ticket box.

10. Sherlock: The Complete Seasons 1-3 Limited-Edition Gift Set
BBC; $197.50 Blu-ray/DVD combo

This modern twist on “Sherlock Holmes” has generated a huge fan following and made international stars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. This 14-disc collector’s set includes all nine TV movies in the series, plus new commentaries, never-before-seen outtakes, art cards and busts of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Picking this one up is elementary.

Honorable mentions:

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection (Warner, $199.99 Blu-ray)
Spartacus: The Complete Series Limited Edition (Anchor Bay, $199.99 Blu-ray)
The Walking Dead: Season 4 Limited Edition (Anchor Bay, $129.99 Blu-ray)
How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Series (Fox, $179.98 DVD)
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, $139.99 DVD)
Mork & Mindy: The Complete Series (Paramount/CBS, $129.99 DVD)

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November 13, 2014

Casualties of the Marvel Movie War

The rise of Marvel Studios is starting to have a profound effect on the entertainment industry, and not just for what it means at the box office.

Paramount Pictures, which had a distribution deal with Marvel before Disney bought the comic book company, recently reported a significant drop on annual profits without its Marvel deal in the mix. Now that it’s firmly entrenched in the House of Mouse, Marvel has plotted out its theatrical strategies into the next decade, part of a cinema cold war of sorts with DC Comics, which has its own line-up of films slated by Warner Bros.

Given Warner’s inconsistent attempts to adapt its DC properties to the big screen (aside from Batman and Superman), it’s easy enough to assume Marvel has a better chance of making good on its proposed film slate at this point, having already released 10 films as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and seemingly printing more money with each one.

In 2016, Marvel has Captain America: Civil War, an adaptation of a comic book storyline that saw various factions of superheroes turn against each other over political disagreements. Interestingly, the ascendency of Marvel Studios has sparked something of a civil war within the various Marvel comics properties relating to film rights.

Before Marvel Studios was a glint in anyone’s eyes, Marvel Comics licensed the film rights to some of its biggest characters, with the Hulk at Universal, the X-Men and Fantastic Four going to Fox, Spider-Man ending up at Sony, etc. So when Marvel Studios started up, they only had the rights to what were considered second-tier characters at the time, such as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. However, the fact that the characters they still had formed the core of the Avengers sparked the idea of building a shared cinematic universe to play in.

The rights to some characters, such as the Hulk, Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Punisher, have since returned to Marvel, allowing for their incorporation into the MCU. And certainly Marvel would like to get the rights Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men back, which they won’t be able to as long as Sony and Fox continue to make movies with those characters.

Fox seems particularly entrenched to keep Marvel from getting some if its characters back, especially after moving forward with a reboot of the Fantastic Four that has many fans scratching their heads. Marvel’s response seems to be a passive-aggressive war of attrition, as the comics division has canceled the Fantastic Four book, meaning it won’t be around to cross-promote the new film. Also, apparently Disney has blocked any merchandising for new “X-Men” products such as action figures, and Marvel has barred its comics writers from creating any new characters for the “X-Men” books, so Fox won’t have any new material to adapt into films.

Oh, and Marvel also decided to kill off Wolverine, the most popular X-Men character in the film series and the only one to appear in all seven movies.

This would seem to be a strategy meant to devalue the properties from within, diminishing Fox’s financial incentive to continue producing films. (It might also appear to be Marvel shooting itself in the foot on the comics side, but they probably feel the popularity of the comics is elastic enough to bounce back after the house studio recovers the necessary rights.)

One result of this animosity is that Fox has banned Marvel from using the term “mutant” in its movies to explain how any of their superheroes have powers. As fans of the comics are well aware, the mutant concept was introduced with the “X-Men” in the 1960s as a way to explain characters born with superpowers via genetic mutation, a plot point played up in the “X-Men” movies through its motif of the evolution of mankind.

Generally, Fox has exclusive rights to all of the Marvel Comics mutant characters, with a few exceptions, most notably Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who are members of the Avengers but also the mutant children of No. 1 X-Men baddie Magneto. The murkiness of these rights issues is playing out in the form of dueling Quicksilvers, with different versions of the character appearing in both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Using these two mutant characters, however, does raise a story issue of how they obtained their powers within the context of the MCU. That might be one reason that the Marvel is devoting a lot of attention to its “Inhumans” brand. The Inhumans are essentially a race of superpowered descendants of humans who were genetically manipulated by aliens millions of years earlier.

Fundamentally, they differ from mutants in that their genetic distinctions are a result of engineering rather than evolution, but functionally they serve the same purpose. MCU can simply dub its superpowered characters Inhumans instead of mutants and carry on without any concern at all. In fact, the MCU properties are already carefully laying the foundation for these story points, with the means of obtaining superpowers being a central focus of the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV show, which is deep into a story arc that involves alien artifacts and DNA unlocking mysterious abilities. The MCU has already trotted out the terms “gifted” and “age of miracles” to explain non-mutant superpowered humans, but Inhumans would accomplish the goal in a much more elegant way.

Certainly, MCU’s adaptation of the Inhumans may differ from the comics presentation to fit its needs, but the fact that an Inhumans movie is slated for 2018 definitely shows they already have some role to play in the MCU.

On the flip side, a rift in character rights doesn’t have to lead to a rift between the studios involved. Contrast the Fox/Marvel rift with the relatively cozy relationship between Marvel and Sony, which are rumored to be in talks to connect the Sony’s Spideyverse to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This isn’t the first time such an idea has been floated. In 2012, the Oscorp building from The Amazing Spider-Man was reportedly approved by Sony to appear in The Avengers but the visual effects couldn’t be finished in time.

It’s unclear if the MCU Spidey would continue with the ASM storylines or reboot the franchise yet again, but obviously an alliance between Marvel and Sony over Spider-Man would be a huge deal for future MCU and Spider-Man films.

It would also shield Sony from the criticism that, following the poor reception of Amazing Spider-Man 2, that it’s only trying to pump out Spidey movies to maintain the rights, without regard to quality. Marvel Studios has clearly demonstrated that it has a firm grasp on how to adapt its characters into popular, well-received blockbuster films, and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t do the same with Spider-Man.

As far as Fox is concerned, it’s not like they don’t work with other studios either. Fox recently reached an agreement with Warner Bros. that paved the way for the long-awaited home video release of the 1960s “Batman” TV series, which is being handled by Warner.

But the impacts of its dispute with Marvel could be felt well beyond just the Marvel properties. For instance, could the feud spill over into Disney-owned Lucasfilm’s efforts to promote the next “Star Wars” movie? After all, Fox still controls distribution of the earlier films for a few more years, and owns the distribution rights to Episode IV in perpetuity, so any plans Lucasfilm has for new boxed sets of the earlier films will require Fox’s cooperation. This is especially the case if the rumors are true that Disney is hoping to release Blu-rays of the unaltered original trilogy, something “Star Wars” fans have been demanding for years.

It’s a mess to be sure, but if anything is certain in Hollywood, it’s that money will always win out in the end.

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June 25, 2014

A Brief History of Time Travel

When word got out that X-Men: Days of Future Past would feature a time travel component, many fans became excited at the prospect. Sure, time travel is sometimes a crutch that franchises fall back on when they run out of stories to tell, but it’s also one of the unique conventions of science-fiction and fantasy that can instantly refocus a series in interesting ways.

In an age of remakes and reboots, it also gives filmmakers a chance to reshape franchises for new audiences while maintaining a connection to what came before. For “X-Men,” that meant not only uniting the casts of the original “X-Men” trilogy and its prequel, X-Men: First Class, but it gave director Bryan Singer a chance to address a problem common to long-running series: a growing list of contradictions that began popping up between films. Among the fanboy crowd, complaints about such things can be deafening.

So, for X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh film in the “X-Men” film franchise, time travel presented not only the catalyst for a story that “X-Men” fans would relish, but it also let the writers hit the reset button in a way that lets them carry on with the First Class continuity without worrying too much about inconsistencies with the previous films (a fact demonstrated in a final scene that tells the audience it’s OK to expect things can change).

Interestingly, the “X-Men” use of a standard sci-fi trope to reboot itself is extremely similar to another prominent sci-fi franchise, “Star Trek,” which in 2009 also used a time travel plot as the framing device for a reboot. Both films involved a traveler from the future changing history, and in the process resetting the franchise from what had come before without fully divorcing itself from the earlier stories.

This is a new approach to reboots, which typically wipe the slate clean, advancing a storyline with new actors as if the earlier works hadn’t existed, even though everyone knows they did (Casino Royale, The Amazing Spider-Man and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are just a few prominent examples of this).

Journey Into History

It’s only natural that time travel would emerge as a way to shape a reboot, since as a storytelling gimmick time travel solves any number of issues, the first being a lack of creativity. The prospect of characters meeting younger or older versions of themselves or interacting with historical or future events just opens up a bevvy of potential plot ideas. Men in Black 3 went this route after the franchise went dark for 10 years.

Time travel in movies and TV shows has had a long and varied history as a plot device, but certainly a popular one. While various authors had toyed with the concept as a literary device, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine at the end of the 19th century were among the first major works to spark public interest in the idea of time travel.

Twain’s version was less interested in the mechanism of time travel, using a simple blow to the head to send a man back in time to Camelot. Wells’ story zeroed in on the mechanics of how someone could travel through time, and indeed, the 1960 film version of The Time Machine was one of the first major films to really outline time travel as in a scientific way, presenting history as immutable despite the potential presence of someone from the future (a concept completely botched by the film’s 2002 remake).

Since then, the use of time travel in film has enjoyed a complicated history, as writers determined new ways to use the plot device to create interesting situations. Along the way, the desired dramatic outcomes led to vastly different sets of rules for how time travel actually worked within a story — usually some variation of whether history could change or not.

Most Hollywood screenwriters will write time travel stories in which history is changeable, usually some variation of the protagonist having to correct a wrong of some sort. The TV show “Quantum Leap” made this its weekly premise. The underlying story arc wasn’t much different from a typical cop tries to stop a criminal act type of story, but the wrinkle of time travel gave it some extra oomph, raising the stakes or adding new motivations that otherwise couldn’t exist. Changing history could provide for a satisfying conclusion (albeit in ways that would ultimately make no sense if you actually think about them for more than a minute).

For example, the recent Looper is an effective thriller based on the idea a young hitman having to track down his older self, who is on a mission to prevent a disastrous future. Not only can the timeline be changed, but, as is the case with many time travel stories, the entire plot rests on the existence of two mutually exclusive potential futures both happening, which is logically impossible.

Of course, this is why the phrase “alternate reality” is a popular one in time travel fiction, and even something of a sub-genre in itself. It’s always fun to look at alternate versions of familiar things in fiction, especially when given a chance to explore the darker side of a franchise. This is the It’s a Wonderful Life Scenario, seen in some of the classic episodes of “Star Trek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and others.

That’s not to say that stories with internally consistent timelines can’t work. The 1995 film 12 Monkeys is probably the best example of one of those. There’s also 1980’s The Final Countdown, built around the intriguing premise of modern jets vs WWII planes, although it’s mostly just talking about theory with little actually happening aside from a few events to make sure history unfolds as its supposed to, as a giant vortex sucks things back and forth through time when needed.

Funny as it may be to consider, the “Bill & Ted” films also presented time travel as an internally consistent loop, though this achievement is dampened a bit by the supernatural nature of the second film.

And if it’s too confusing to keep track of, there’s always “Doctor Who,” which just goes with the flow and saddles its time traveling main character with whatever rules are needed to tell a good story that week (although, in general, the show falls back on “some things can’t be changed, some things can, but if The Doctor knows the outcome of an event he can’t change it).

You know, Between The Doctor’s beloved TARDIS and Bill & Ted, there seems to be an abundance of time-travelling phone booths in science-fiction.

Tools and Talent

With storytelling as the writer’s primary motivation, and with most writers not being actual scientists, the method of time travel soon became secondary to the intended impact of the story. Anything from black holes to intense concentration could be enough to induce temporal displacement. Actually stopping for a moment to dwell on the physics of the thing was a rarity.

In “Back to the Future,” for example, the time machine, made from a DeLorean car, was practically a character in the film and one of its most popular elements. And the film’s humorous attempts to provide a logical context for the time travel didn’t detract from the film’s real goal, which was to tell the story a boy getting to hang out with his father when they were the same age. Back to the Future Part II, on the other hand, went out of its way to present a zany time travel adventure, filled with multiple versions of the same character, alternate timelines and potential paradoxes. The third film would return more to a character based approach, offering a love story between two people of vastly different eras brought together by a mutual affinity for knowledge.

Aside from “Back to the Future,” the most famous time travel-based franchise is probably “The Terminator,” a richly textured fictional world of a future overrun by cyborgs and their attempt to wipe out the resistance leader who defeats them by killing his mother, Sarah Connor, before he’s even born. In the process, their efforts to erase John Connor’s existence are directly responsible for his birth.

Days of Future Past is pretty much a reverse-Terminator. Both films showcase a future world overrun by artificial intelligence and machines of war. Where the plot of The Terminator is motivated by the machines using time travel to wipe out humanity, Days of Future Past is motivated by humanity (or the mutant strain of it) using time travel to erase the machines.

The "Terminator” films managed to exhibit both types of rules as the franchise went on, with the creation of the terminators as a result of the time travel from the first film suggesting a predestination paradox (when time travel is required to make the future possible, also known as a causality loop).

By the way, the hypothetical existence of causality loops even in an internally consistent time travel loop is for me the biggest logical problem with the existence of time travel in real life, since it opens up the door, so to speak, for ideas and objects to be created out of nothing. Take Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, for example, Scotty trades the formula for transparent aluminum for some plexiglas so he can build a tank to transport whales into the future, where they are extinct. He does this on the assumption the guy he gives the formula to is the inventor of it anyway. But the guy never invented anything, he only got it from Scotty who had it because he was from the future. Thus, the time travel loop has to take the credit for inventing transparent aluminum (a similar loop occurs in the 2009 Star Trek film).

In the 1980 film Somwhere in Time, a young man receives a watch from an old woman, and when he finds out why he figures out how to travel back in time to meet her younger self, to whom he gives the watch he brought from the future. This is then the watch she gives him as an old woman. So, not only was the watch never actually created (but by the time loop itself), its precise age is paradoxically infinite, since it is simultaneously its current age plus the duration of the time loop.

Anyway, Terminator 2: Judgment Day tries to weasel out of its causality loop by suggesting that history can be changed, prompting Sarah to kill the guy who invents the terminators to prevent the evil future from happening. The film’s alternate ending even shows a happier future, but the theatrical cut leaves this an open question.

And then Terminator 3 dumps all over this, replacing the “there is no fate but what you make” message with “fate will always win.” This is emblematic of a relatively new variant in the time travel rules that straddles the line between both types by saying that history isn’t as important as destiny, and that specific events can change but the universe will work to maintain a bigger picture (e.g., Judgment Day can be averted for a time, but is inevitable) which is a nicely literary romantic notion if ultimately lacking in any logical foundation. The 2009 Star Trek hinted at this as well by putting all the younger versions of the TOS characters together even though history had been drastically altered.

Now there’s a “Terminator” reboot in the works, and it will be interesting to see how they handle that from a storytelling standpoint, since Arnold Schwarzenegger is again playing a terminator and the franchise has time travel in its DNA. It already took an alternate reality approach when the “Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV show followed up T2 by ignoring the third movie.

Of course, just because time travel is a staple of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s the best way to reboot it. The third film in the original “Planet of the Apes” series used time travel to bring the future apes back to the Earth of the present (in that case the 1970s), where their offspring ended up being responsible for the evolution of apes seen in the first film. “Apes,” of course, went with the more traditional reboot, first with Tim Burton’s derided 2001 remake, and then the superior 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which took more of a prequel homage direction (to be followed in July by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Retcons and Reactions

The prospect of a reboot can be a touchy subject among fans, who are often wary of investing interest in a continuing storyline if it suddenly stops continuing because the writers ran out of ideas. While time travel attempts to placate this concern, reactions to its use as a reboot agent have had mixed results. The reaction of “Star Trek” fans to the use of the plot device was polarized to say the least, while fans of the “X-Men” films have been mostly in support of its use there.

This varied reaction undoubtedly stems in part from the vast differences in the nature of the two franchises.

“Star Trek,” being primarily a TV franchise, had amassed more than 700 episodes from five live-action series, many of them also dealing with time travel plots. The 2009 film created a divergent timeline from before the era of the original 1960s “Star Trek” series. While the film’s writers insisted it was only an alternate reality, many fans interpreted the story as erasing not only the events of the original series, but also sequel series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” (not that there’d be much uproar over losing “Voyager”). That meant that the panned prequel series “Enterprise” was the only lasting bit of “Star Trek” continuity, which didn’t sit well with fans. Also confusing was the fact that the technology seemed vastly different than what it should have been had this new continuity really been connected to the old one.

In 2013, Star Trek Into Darkness further attempted to exploit the connection between the old and new continuities by reintroducing fan-favorite elements with alternate storylines, which just raised more questions. Why bother with the reboot if only to keep playing in the old continuity, and not as satisfyingly as it was portrayed to begin with?

In contrast, it’s widely acknowledged that the “X-Men” use of time travel as a reboot agent erased mostly aspects of the franchise that fans didn’t like, which says a lot, since lit basically says all the movies except First Class didn’t happen either, even the good ones).

Another key difference is the fact that Days of Future Past is a follow-up to X-Men: First Class, which is basically a pure prequel to all the other “X-Men” films and kind of a more traditional reboot in its own right. It didn’t involve time travel, but was simply set in the 1960s. Days of Future Past in many ways was an attempt to reconcile discrepancies between First Class and what was established about mutant history in the “X-Men” trilogy, but it also gave Singer an excuse to gloss over his own controversial history with the franchise and embrace his own second chance with it.

The key sticking point among “X-Men” fans is, of course, that Singer abandoned the third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, to make the horrible Superman Returns, and in the process damaged two superhero franchises. The warm regard fans held for the first two “X-Men” films was not extended to the third, a situation exacerbated when the 2009 prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine was considered even a worse step down. Singer’s return as a writer and producer of 2011’s First Class helped reverse the sinking fortunes of the franchise.

But even a wide net can’t catch all the fish. Days of Future Past doesn’t quite explain all the story inconsistencies between the films, even if it gives the audience an excuse to ignore them. For its own part, Days of Future Past seems to completely ignore anything that happens in Origins, since much of it is set during a 1970s timeframe also used during some of Origins, when characters are shown doing very different things.

Now, ask a “Star Trek” fan to ignore the original series, “TNG” or “DS9” and they might have a problem with that. But “X-Men” fans have no problem pretending Origins doesn’t exist.

What’s interesting to consider about the idea of creating an alternate reality as a reboot is that essentially Back to the Future did this to itself WITHIN A SINGLE MOVIE and no one has a problem with it, probably because it was planned from the start as the concluding gag of the film, and not conceived as a way to restart a franchise. It’s kind of like the gag from that “Simpsons” “Treehouse of Horror” episode where a time-travelling Homer has to keep going back and forth trying to restore his own timeline, until he finally gets to one he seems to recognize, except that everyone has a lizard tongue. Tired of his journeys, he utters the famous refrain, “close enough.”

But think about it. Logan in Days of Future Past undergoes essentially the same journey as Marty in Back to the Future. After returning from the past, his present has been replaced by one that’s similar, but different, and much happier (both for him, and, in this case, the fans).

This actually illustrates another constant to the idea of the time travel reboot is the presence of a character who remembers the way things were supposed to be, which gives the writer a frame of reference within the fictional universe to compare the two timelines for the benefit of the other characters.

Ironically, the traditional role of this character in time travel fiction would be to fix damages to the timeline. “Star Trek” is loaded with examples of this, and in the 2009 Star Trek, this role is filled by the older Spock, an artifact of the “prime” reality. When, at the end, he chooses to find a life for himself in the new reality (an alternate version of his own past, by the way), it marked the first time a main character from any “Trek” franchise was aware of a change in the timeline and didn’t bother to try to fix it.

On the flip side, some sci-fi franchises, such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Wars” pride themselves in not having fallen back on using time travel as a plot device (though it did feature in some non-canon comics for both, and "Galactica 1980," but it's best not to think about that). Time will tell how long that keeps up, especially now that J.J. Abrams, architect of the 2009 Star Trek, and Rian Johnson, writer-director of Looper, have taken the reins of “Star Wars.”

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March 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Batman!

March 30, 2014, marked the 75th anniversary of one of the great milestones in comic book history.

March 30, 1939, saw the release of “Detective Comics” No. 27, a little comic book that happened to introduce the character of "The Bat-Man" to the world, featuring artwork by Bob Kane and a script by Bill Finger. Copies of the issue, which bore a cover price of 10 cents, now sell for north of $1 million at auction.

At the time, the book was an anthology of detective stories, and the flagship book for what we now know as DC Comics. Before long, the book became devoted entirely to stories about Batman (dubbed the “World’s Greatest Detective”), and over time was one of several comics devoted to the adventures of the Caped Crusader, and the ways millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne devoted his life to fighting crime after witnessing the senseless murder of his parents. His sidekick, Robin, would debut a year later, in “Detective Comics” No. 39 in 1940, quickly followed by “Batman” No. 1, featuring Batman’s origin story and his first battles against The Joker and Catwoman.

Batman stood out from the early superheroes for a couple of reasons. He quickly emerged as a darker counterpoint to the optimism of Superman, who debuted a year earlier. Batman blended equal parts Zorro and Sherlock Holmes in the form of a masked vigilante with no superpowers, relying on the strength of his own intellect, and trained to the peak of physical perfection. Batman was one of the first antiheroes of comic books, a darker figure emerged from the shadows to fight the criminal elements in corrupt Gotham City, where the cops would often look the other way.

“Batman is one of the greatest characters ever created, in comics or elsewhere, and even after 75 years he continues to wildly fascinate fans. He is an integral part of pop culture and has successfully captured the imagination of the entire world,” said Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment, and president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “The origin of Batman, Bruce Wayne and the famous citizens of Gotham are legendary and likely a story you know inside out, even if you’ve never picked up a comic book in your life, and that speaks volumes to the character’s immense popularity and the constructs of the original mythology.”

The character has been reinvented several times throughout the generations to adapt to the era, always maintaining the same core elements and reigniting his popularity with the fans. The 1966 “Batman” TV series focused on the campy aspects of the character, while Tim Burton’s 1989 film focused on his darker side, and both were responsible for huge bouts of “Batmania.” Christopher Nolan took the character to new cinematic heights with his “Dark Knight Trilogy,” the second film of which, The Dark Knight, is often cited as the greatest comic book film ever.

The nine theatrical movies based on Batman (two from Burton, two from Joel Schumacher, Nolan’s trilogy, the 1966 TV tie-in movie and a 1993 animated film) are more than any other comic book character (and that’s not counting two movie serials from the 1940s).

“From billion-dollar blockbuster films to TV, home entertainment, video games and consumer products, the Dark Knight continues to resonate with audiences worldwide and rightfully deserves his place as a global pop culture icon for the ages,” said Kevin Tsujihara, CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

To mark the milestone, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment have prepared a year-long celebration of product releases and special events.

• DC Entertainment recently released a special edition of the “New-52” version of “Detective Comics” No. 27, commemorating Batman’s first appearance in the book 75 years ago. A new weekly comic book series, “Batman Eternal,” launches April 9, and DC plans several exclusive Batman variant covers for San Diego Comic-Con International in July.

• DC Entertainment is also partnering with thousands of comic retailers, book stores and libraries for “Batman Day” on Wednesday, July 23. Each location will host a Batman 75th anniversary celebration and offer fans a free, special-edition Batman comic.

• Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has invited fashion designer Asher Levine to create a cape and cowl based on the Batsuit of the recently announced Batman: Arkham Knight video game developed by Rocksteady Studios. Favorite contemporary artists will have the opportunity to use the replicas as a blank canvas to produce their own, original interpretations of Batman’s iconic attire for an all new “Cape/Cowl/Create” art exhibit that will be showcased at Comic-Con.

• Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will bring fans an array of new Batman titles throughout the year, including the first DVD release of the 1966 “Batman” TV series later this year. New direct-to-video animated films include Son of Batman May 6 and Assault on Arkham in the summer. In addition, a 25th anniversary edition of Burton’s 1989 Batman film will be released in the fall.

• Warner Bros. Animation has created two all-new Batman animated shorts set for debut in April, with producers Bruce Timm (“Batman: The Animated Series”) and Darwyn Cooke (“Batman Beyond”) each presenting a unique and familiar take on the Batman animated universe. In addition, Timm will participate in a Batman 75th all-star panel at WonderCon in Anaheim on Saturday, April 19, which will also feature an exclusive premiere of Cooke’s animated short based upon “Batman Beyond.”

• Warner Bros. Television is in production on the pilot episode of “Gotham,” a potential one-hour drama for the Fox network that explores the origins of eventual police commissioner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and the villains that made Gotham City famous.

• Warner Bros. Pictures will begin production of Zack Snyder’s untitled Superman/Batman film starring Henry Cavill, who reprises his role as Superman/Clark Kent from Man of Steel, and Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne. The film is slated for release in summer 2016.

• Warner Bros. Consumer Products has partnered with an array of licensees to celebrate Batman’s 75th Anniversary through special-edition and limited-release products.

• offers a Batman 75 Sweepstakes that offers one lucky fan a unique prize package. More information about the anniversary events is available at .

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December 09, 2013

The Secret Truth of Mary Poppins

After spending a day viewing the “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary special and the Mary Poppins 50th anniversary Blu-ray, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that Mary Poppins is a Time Lord.

A simple Google search shows that I am not alone in this assessment. The evidence is rather overwhelming, considering all the traits she seems to have in common with our good pal The Doctor.

She seems to live forever.

Her carpet bag is bigger on the inside, a trademark of Time Lord science and their dimensional-warping capabilities.

Her umbrella is imbued with astonishing abilities, like a sonic screwdriver.

She loves taking her companions on wild adventures.

The “Doctor Who” special added another wrinkle to the argument, reminding us that Time Lord art is bigger on the inside, allowing people to actually jump inside it and move around. You know, a lot like those sidewalk drawings Mary jumped into with Bert and the children.

Speaking of Bert, he has all the hallmarks of a Time Lord companion, and it’s clear he and Mary must have shared some adventures before. It’s probably where he learned the techniques of Time Lord art to create those trans-dimensional sidewalk drawings of his (or, perhaps he’s using special Time Lord drawing sticks, which the rest of use perceive is simple chalk).

Not being a Time Lord, of course, Bert lacked the means to actually enter the artwork. But Mary was able to complete the transference, probably because her umbrella is equipped with the necessary spatial technology needed to embed people in the art.

Where’s Mary’s TARDIS, you ask? Well, maybe she keeps it hidden in the clouds, much like The Doctor did in “The Snowmen” Christmas special.

And since Time Lords are expert time travelers, Mary may be responsible for transporting the penguin waiters back to Los Angeles in 1947, where they show up in Who Framed Roger Rabbit 17 years before Walt Disney would have created them.

See. Really it makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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October 11, 2013

In Defense of 'Raiders'

The Oct. 10 episode of “The Big Bang Theory” featured an intriguing premise. Primary geek Sheldon (Jim Parsons) treated his girlfriend, Amy (Mayim Bialik) to her first-ever viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, she suggested the film suffered from a major plot flaw, that Indiana Jones was ultimately irrelevant to the outcome of events.

She’s not altogether wrong. Even with Indiana Jones there, the Nazis found the Ark of the Covenant, took it to their secret island lair, opened it and died. And all of this would have happened if Indiana Jones had never showed up. And this little news sent Sheldon and his friends into a funk when obsessing over the detail, thinking it ruined the movie, and ultimately the franchise (aside from the fourth movie, which Sheldon said was bad on its own).

To their credit, the guys did try to punch holes in Amy’s theory. First, the suggestion that the Nazis were digging in the wrong spot, and only found the Ark because of Indy; this was countered by the assumption that without Indy, the Nazis would have gotten the medallion from Marion when the first tried, and would have found the right spot to dig. Then there was the idea that Indy’s presence at the opening ritual was how the U.S. government ended up with the Ark at the end; but then it was pointed out (somewhat incorrectly) that Indy actually failed because he wanted the Ark to go to a museum.

Surprisingly, they couldn’t figure out that Amy had missed the point. Amy’s primary mistake is that Indy’s so-called non-role is a “story problem.”

Remember that the movie is called Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, despite whatever promotional materials the Lucasfilm marketing department has put out over the years.

The title raiders are the Nazis, and the film’s story is their attempt to find the Ark, only to be hampered by a pesky archeologist and the mysterious forces surrounding the title artifact. One could argue that Indy failing to actually stop the Nazis from doing anything (or at least making them work harder to do it) wasn't a problem with the movie, it was, in its ironic charm, actually the whole point. He was also the audience surrogate, there to explain why the Nazis were ultimately destroyed by the Ark.

As for Indiana Jones not being essential to the story, that depends on your point of view. True, he didn't stop the Nazis from doing what they were trying to do. But so what? It's not a plot hole, by any means. Even so, to say that Indiana Jones had no impact on the story is like saying the losing team in a football game had no impact on the outcome.

Or, to use another sports analogy, take a look at Bobby Thomson’s home run in the 1951 playoffs. It’s often listed as the most famous home run in history. Is it ultimately inessential because the Giants didn’t go on to win the World Series?

Of course not. Try telling that to Ralph Branca.

The whole point of the movie is to accompany Indiana Jones on an adventure. Our liking of the character is based more on his demeanor and daring-do, not whether he actually succeeds at his goal. This tone is established almost immediately, as Indiana escapes the temple in the opening scene with the idol and then loses it to Belloq, only to escape with his life with nothing to show for it. The rest of the story is just an excuse for Indy to engage in a series of spectacular action setpieces, and that's why the movie is so fun.

Then again, without Indy there, the Nazis probably would have killed Marion as a loose end. Because of Indy, she’s still alive. That has to count for something, especially if you like watching the film for its love story.

What I will say about the plot structure is something I noticed when rewatching the films when the Blu-rays came out last year. In both Raiders and the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy only joins the quest after the real heavy lifting has been accomplished. The key clue in Raiders are the map room, and the Nazis already discovered that, and the headpiece of Ra, previously uncovered by Marion’s father, Abner. In Last Crusade, most of the major clues have already been revealed by Henry Sr. Indy kind of swoops in to be a disruptive force, hired not to go on a quest, but to pick up the pieces.

Speaking of the Blu-ray, I was a little disappointed to see that Sheldon only had the DVD version. Any Raiders fan worth his salt would have picked up the Blu-ray boxed set of the trilogy.


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October 02, 2013

A Drinking Game for Every Movie

Pop culture has inspired its fair share of traditions over the years, with one of the most enduring stalwarts being the drinking game. You know how it works … gathering around the TV with your friends and a favorite cocktail, and imbibe that beverage when the program reaches a particular occurrence, such as the utterance of a well-worn phrase.

For example, if you’re watching “The Big Bang Theory,” you could take a sip every time Sheldon says “Bazinga,” or a shot every time Raj talks to a girl.

It can literally be anything agreed upon by the group. If it can be put on a screen, then someone can figure out a drinking game for it.

If it helps, come up with a few standing rules that could apply to anything you watch. My brother and I years ago came up with a standing rule to drink every time a performer who has died in real life appears on the screen (call it a show of respect, if you will).

We dubbed it the "Benoit Rule," after pro wrestling superstar Chris Benoit. Shortly after Benoit tragically killed himself and his family in 2007, World Wrestling Entertainment reportedly started editing him out of the archive footage they used on TV and released on DVD, with the notable exception of the 2004 Royale Rumble, which he won. (For those who don’t know, the Royale Rumble is one of the WWE’s biggest matches of a given year, so it would have been difficult to leave off the whole match from the anthology DVD sets released in 2008.)

Like many a young American, my brother and I had been fans of pro wrestling in our youth (I was fascinated by the storytelling aspects of it), and though our interest waned in adulthood, the DVDs released en masse over the past few years were always good for nostalgia. So the original idea behind the Benoit rule was that, if he was going to be cut out of the shows, then when he did appear we would take a drink. And then we noticed other wrestlers on the DVDs had since passed away (Mr. Perfect being a notable example), so we expanded the rule to include the appearance of any wrestler who was now dead. And so on and so forth, until we just started doing it for any movie or TV show we were watching.

That’s just one example of a rule people could come up with if they want to play a drinking game while watching something. And for those who don’t want to think too hard about it, there are plenty of variations to be found online.

In fact, Ulysses Press just put out a book called Lights Camera Booze: Drinking Games for You Favorite Movies, which should be a good starting point for anyone looking to liven up their movie nights at home. The book offers rules for 33 movies, plus a cocktail recipe tailored for each film, as well as trivia and other activities.

Some of the movies include Back to the Future, American Pie, Ghostbusters, The Hangover, The Goonies and Pulp Fiction. The rules themselves are listed with stylized text and sketches that can be a little distracting, but they should do the trick.

Or, make up your own. You never know what new details you might uncover about your favorite movies or TV shows when the conditions are right.

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April 05, 2013

The Enduring Influence of Roger Ebert

Anyone who considers themselves a film critic at any level would be lying if they said they weren’t in some way influenced by Roger Ebert, who passed away April 4 at age 70 after a long bout with cancer.

For many people, Ebert defined the art of film criticism and took it to a new level because of all the people he was able to reach. Beginning as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert’s columns were syndicated to hundreds of newspapers and formed the basis for dozens of books. One of my favorites was Ebert’s Movie Glossary, a handy guide to clichés, plot contrivances and other observations that were commonplace in movies. (He would even invite readers to submit their own entries, the best of which were published in subsequent editions).

An Ebert review was part criticism, part essay, and their true value was not just that he was offering an opinion, but the way he could succinctly lay out the reasons for why he came to the conclusions he did. Not that everyone, including myself, wouldn’t disagree with him on at least a semi-regular basis, but at least he would make an argument. He could be serious, he could be funny, but he was rarely uninteresting.

According to RottenTomatoes.com, Ebert agreed with the Tomatometer 77% of the time, a statistic based on 7,202 reviews of his posted on the site.

Ebert’s influence as a critic became so great that he became a pop culture institution unto himself.

In 1970, he collaborated with director Russ Meyer on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an ‘X’-rated spoof not only of the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, but of Hollywood in general. The film became a cult hit, eventually earning a DVD release in 2006 from Fox.

Ebert’s immense popularity as a critic was undoubtedly spurred by the revolutionary idea in 1975 to pair him with another Chicago critic, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to talk about the movies on television. By the 1980s, “Siskel & Ebert” was a weekly institution, and their style of giving films “two thumbs up” or “two thumbs down” had entered the lexicon. I was a regular viewer, curious about which new movies were worth my time, and keenly interested in seeing how my views on a film aligned with theirs.

Personally, I tended to prefer Siskel, who seemed to take a working-class approach to movies in contrast to Ebert’s more erudite nature. That wasn’t just a casual observation. While Siskel would spend his non-critic days covering Chicago Bulls championships for Chicago TV stations, Ebert would host film festivals and lecture students with frame-by-frame examinations of classic movies.

It wouldn’t be unfair to label Ebert a film historian, either, and those not fortunate enough to hear him speak in person could always pick up one of the movies for which he recorded a commentary for the DVD (most of which have carried over to the Blu-ray version of said films).

Naturally, he recorded a commentary for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but his commentaries are also available on Casablanca (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Citizen Kane (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Dark City (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Crumb (DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion), and 1959’s Floating Weeds (on DVD from Criterion).

It wasn’t unheard of for a bad Ebert review to earn the wrath of a filmmaker or two. The 1998 Godzilla remake from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich took delight in presenting the buffoonish New York mayor and his assistant as thinly veiled Ebert and Siskel parodies, after the duo had mocked Stargate and Independence Day on their show. (Similarly, famed critic Pauline Kael’s harsh reviews of the “Star Wars” movies inspired George Lucas to name a villain in 1988’s Willow after her.)

Ebert and Siskel (whose name came first on their show because he won a coin flip) weren’t above poking fun at themselves, either, as evidenced by their numerous appearances on late-night talk shows, or the episode of “The Critic” called “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice” (readily available on DVD from Sony Pictures) in which they play themselves in animated form, splitting up only to be drawn back together.

Siskel’s death due to complications from a brain tumor in 1999 was one of the first times I can remember being not just shocked by a celebrity death, but also disappointed for the loss. Ebert tried out a revolving door of replacements until settling on his Sun-Times colleague, Richard Roeper. And while Roeper grew into the role, and is one of the country’s top critics now, “Ebert & Roeper” seemed more a show about a master and an apprentice, rather than the clash of equals that “Siskel & Ebert” had been.

Soon after, Ebert would experience his own cancer diagnosis, spurring a decade-long decline that forced him out of the spotlight. Robbed of his ability to speak, but not to write, he kept on in earnest, turning more toward the Internet and Twitter (something of a twist, I suppose, given how much online ubiquity has dampened the impact of the individual critic). These last few years of Ebert’s career were marked by a variety of bizarre, nonsensical statements and reviews that would leave me scratching my head wondering if we had watched the same film. Whether this had something to do with his cancer I couldn’t say, but I was always a bit saddened that the Roger Ebert “of old” seemed to be gone.

Still, that should not diminish an enduring legacy fueled by a love of going to the movies, and a spirit that lives on in each of us who drew inspiration from his efforts to spread the gospel of film to the world.

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March 30, 2012

The Long, Strange Journey of The Muppets

It’s easy to view 2011’s The Muppets, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, as some sort of “return” for the popular characters. It’s not that they had really gone away in the past few years, but they haven’t been in the spotlight as much as they had been during the heyday years of “The Muppet Show” (1976-81) and the first few Muppet movies.

In fact, with $88.6 million domestically, The Muppets became the highest-grossing Muppets film, just 12 years after the previous theatrical release, Muppets From Space, earned just $16.6 million.

One of the charms of the new film is the way it reintroduces characters that haven’t been seen in years, or even decades. Like a blast of nostalgia taking us back to a simpler time in our lives, The Muppets reminds us that the things we love may not always be the priority in our lives, but they never really go away.

Even so, it’s not as if the Muppets we all know and love always existed. Jim Henson and his creative collaborators took years to craft the characters, seeing what worked and what didn’t, to create a brand that is now every bit as recognizable as Mickey Mouse and the Disney toons, or Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes.

As we see in the new documentary Being Elmo (on disc April 3 from Docurama), for example, Elmo wasn’t always the biggest star of “Sesame Street,” but had been a background puppet long before Kevin Clash took over the character and transformed him into an international sensation.

A lot of critics, many of whom may not have been paying attention to the Muppets the past few years, have noted with a tinge of regret that some of the character voices in The Muppets seem different, and it’s true that Kermit doesn’t seem as energetic as when Henson did it. But this Kermit voice isn’t exactly new; he’s been performed by Steve Whitmire since 1990, shortly after Henson died.

However, it should be noted that Henson’s own Kermit voice changed considerably as he was developing the character. Kermit debuted in 1955 on “Sam and Friends,” a sketch-based TV show Henson and his wife, Jane, put on for the Washington, D.C., area. Kermit, not classified as a frog yet, was more of a lizard-type creature and lacked his distinctive pointy collar and frog-like hands and toes. Henson created Kermit to experiment with the way hand movements could be used to manipulate the visual emotions of the character.

In the 1960s, however, the best-known Muppet was probably not Kermit, but Rowlf the Dog, thanks to a stint as a sidekick on Jimmy Dean’s show from 1963 to 1966. Rowlf got his start in a Purina Dog Chow commercial before that. (Henson, of course, gained a lot of exposure for the Muppets through his Wilkins Coffee ads in the late 1950s). Now, Rowlf is best known for being the troupe’s resident piano player.

As the Muppets rose to prominence in the 1960s, Kermit began to be referred to as a frog, such as when Johnny Carson introduced him as Kermit the Frog on the 1965 New Year’s Eve episode of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” The Kermit puppet was redesigned into its current look in 1968 for the TV special Hey Cinderella! (which didn’t air until 1969). This Kermit appeared on the “Sesame Street” pitch reel in 1969 (which also featured Rowlf, though only Kermit would become a regular on PBS’s new kiddie show; it's available on the Sesame Street: Old School Vol. One DVD).

According to Henson, Kermit’s frog status wasn’t set in stone until the 1971 TV special The Frog Prince, which also introduced Kermit’s nephew Robin and Sweetums, the big, hairy brutish-looking Muppet left behind at a used-car lot in The Muppet Movie and The Muppets (in the latter film, he’s the Muppet who answers the first pledge call for the telethon).

“Sesame Street” and TV specials such as The Frog Prince, which fell under the “Tales From Muppetland” banner, and others such as 1970's The Great Santa Claus Switch were the primary source of Muppet entertainment before “The Muppet Show” came along in 1976. (Many of these Muppets specials haven’t been released on home video, so a DVD compilation would make a nice addition to a Muppet fan’s collection).

In fact, Henson conceived of “The Muppet Show” as a more adult-friendly series, in response to the way “Sesame Street” had caused the Muppets to be associated with children’s fare.

The subsequent success of “The Muppet Show” would divide the Muppet world into the “Sesame Street” Muppets and the “Muppet Show” Muppets, with only Kermit hopping between them. Other side groups of Muppets would still pop up, such as those from “Fraggle Rock” in 1983, the adult-targeted “Land of Gorch” sketches from the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” and the characters from Henson’s 1980s films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, to name a few.

As “The Muppet Show” evolved, some characters carried over from the earlier specials, while most slipped into obscurity. For example, one of the prominent early-’70s Muppets was Thog, who first appeared in The Great Santa Claus Switch. He’s the big blue guy in the opening credits of “The Muppet Show,” and shares a dance with Mia Farrow in 1974’s The Muppets Valentine’s Show. Thog appeared in a handful of sketches during the five-year run of “The Muppet Show,” and popped up in the finale of 1979’s The Muppet Movie, but then disappeared for 33 years, finally showing up again in The Muppets.



The Muppets Valentine Show was one of two pilots for what eventually became “The Muppet Show,” with the other being 1975’s The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. While Kermit would become the undisputed star of “The Muppet Show,” he is barely featured in either of these specials, gives a memorable turn in the “Froggy Went a Courtin’” sequence of The Muppets Valentine Show. In these days before Miss Piggy was created, Kermit’s love interest was Miss Mousey (probably because a mouse was whom the frog was courting in the old folk song). This sequence also features a great character named Big Mouse, who has never been used again. (Even the Kermit in this special doesn’t sound quite like “Muppet Show” Kermit yet).

Miss Piggy got her start as a generic pig puppet in the Sex and Violence special, but earned her name on the “Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass” show. She was meant to be called Piggy Lee, a takeoff on Peggy Lee, but it didn’t stick. Her early voice, performed by Jerry Nelson, was much different than the trademark sassiness provided by Frank Oz as the character fleshed out during the early years of “The Muppet Show.” (Even in early episodes, her eyes seem a lot rougher than what we’re used to today).

Another Muppet that grew from modest origins was Gonzo, who started as Snarl, from a group of monsters called frackles, in The Great Santa Claus Switch. In the hands of Dave Goelz, who still performs the character, the puppet became Gonzo the Great on “The Muppet Show,” the daredevil weirdo we all love today. Gonzo’s species became a running gag, and in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper he was dubbed a “Whatever.” In 1999’s Muppets From Space, Gonzo is revealed to be an alien, which is alluded to in The Muppets when he reintroduces himself by saying “People of Earth!” (It’s interesting that Gonzo’s species would raise eyebrows since it seems most of the Muppets are some variety of unknown monster, as the Gonzo precursors had been).

Those Muppets that rose to prominence on “The Muppet Show” became the focus of The Muppet Movie and its follow-ups, which helped solidify their standing as the Muppets we know best today. The Muppets Take Manhattan, in 1984, included a sequence depicting several of the characters as children, inspiring the popular “Muppet Babies” cartoon that ran from 1984 to 1990. (Ironically, the most successful Muppet series outside of “The Muppet Show” used animation and not puppetry. I love Baby Rowlf's enthusiasm on the piano riff in the Muppets Take Manhattan version, though.) “Muppet Babies” probably solidified what is now considered the core group of Muppets: Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf, Animal and Scooter, although Bunsen, Beaker, Statler and Waldorf made appearances. (“Muppet Babies” introduced Scooter’s twin, Skeeter, as another female character, but she has never really appeared in grown-up form in any other Muppet project. And good luck finding “Muppet Babies” on DVD any time soon, with the obvious rights issues involving music and movie clips used on the show). When Walter symbolically joined the gang at the end of The Muppets, the five Muppets inviting him over were, fittingly, Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf and Scooter.

If you think about it, "Muppet Babies" kind of invalidates the idea in The Muppet Movie that Kermit assembled the group on a road trip to Hollywood. It's also the third different origin for Scooter, who started on "The Muppet Show" as the nephew of the theater owner, but in The Muppet Movie is retconned as the manager of the Electric Mayhem band. That's why it's best not to think too hard about it.

Other Muppet characters would flirt with bouts of popularity in the 1990s. The Rastafarian Clifford, performed by Kevin Clash, first appeared on 1989’s short-lived “The Jim Henson Hour” and became the host of “Muppets Tonight” (1996-98), but then largely disappeared after that. (Clash performed Clifford on a May 1990 episode of "The Arsenio Hall Show" that featured Jim Henson two weeks before he died.)

After Henson’s death, the Muppet movies took a page from the early days, sticking the characters into adaptations of famous works. These include 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, and the 2005 TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.

The most iconic 1990s Muppet is probably Pepe the King Prawn, who started on “Muppets Tonight” and had prominent roles in Muppets From Space and the 2002 telefilm It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Pepe has a short scene in The Muppets practicing a dance routine with Miss Piggy. The lack of newer Muppets in The Muppets may stem from the filmmakers having grown up with “The Muppet Show,” which also explains the generous screen time afforded to great vintage characters such as Link Hogthrob. Another 1990s Muppet, Bobo the Bear, gets a bigger role in The Muppets, as one of Tex Richman's henchmen (joining another long-absent Muppet, Uncle Deadly).

Pepe the King Prawn

Link Hobthrob, best known from "Pigs in Space," and as seen in 2011's The Muppets.

(L-R): Chris Cooper as Tex Richman, with Uncle Deadly and Bobo in The Muppets.

Given the way the troupe has evolved, it will be interesting to see what becomes of Walter, the newest member introduced in The Muppets. (I for one, though, vote for more screen time for the Muppet hobos.)

The newest Muppet, Walter

Muppet hobos with Hobo Joe (Zach Galifianakis) in 2011's The Muppets

Speaking of It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, that movie is a fascinating artifact for a couple of reasons. First, it gives an It’s a Wonderful Life treatment to the Muppets, with Kermit witnessing an alternate reality in which he is never born, the Muppets never get together and Doc Hopper’s French Fried Frog Legs, the bad guy from The Muppet Movie, becomes a successful fast food chain. Second, , with the group having to put on a big show to buy back their theater from a greedy developer.

On the left, the Muppet Theater as seen in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. On the right, how it appears in 2011's The Muppets, as a redress of the El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard.

But where the Christmas movie treated the material more as a personal conflict for Kermit, The Muppets smartly expands on the premise to explore the Muppets as a cultural phenomenon.

It’s kind of funny to think that many of the Muppet performers in these recent efforts re-creating “The Muppet Show” weren’t doing these characters in the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, many of the characters are now on their second or third generation of performers, expertly keeping the spirit of the Muppets alive for generations to come.

Such change should not only be expected, but encouraged. The Muppets have their place in history, to be sure, but they also have their place in our hearts. And that’s a legacy that few entertainment franchises can ever hope to achieve.

Much of the information in this report was compiled from the , an invaluable resource for Muppets enthusiasts.
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March 11, 2012

‘Star Wars’ Translated to Reality

As science-fiction, “Star Wars” often depicts fantastic technologies well beyond what is currently possible in real life. But those concepts may not be as far out there as one would think. That’s the premise behind “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” a traveling museum exhibit that has been touring the country for the past few years.

The fun showcase, like a "Science of Star Wars" documentary come to life, combines displays of props, costumes and models with interactive features that demonstrate the films’ real-world implications. In one section, kids can build a model of a working magnetic levitation train out of legos. Another lets handy fans build a miniature R2-D2, or try to simulate how humans walk using remote-controlled robot legs (it's not as easy as it looks).

One of the stations for designing a maglev platform out of Legos.

Controlling a robot's legs by remote control isn't as easy as it looks.

In another display, guests learn about some of the different planets of “Star Wars,” and have the opportunity to create virtual habitats to discover some of the best ways to survive in the extreme environments depicted.

To further hammer home the life-imitates-art aspect of the exhibit, some props are displayed near examples of real-life counterparts. This means that the medical section offers not only a prop of Luke’s and Anakin’s  fake arms, but also actual prosthetic devices. A section about the ice planet Hoth shows off real Antarctica survival gear. For the robotics section, this provides perhaps the best excuse to stick a Roomba in a museum. And a prop of Luke’s landspeeder from Episode IV rests not too far from a working hovercraft on which kids can ride.

Real-life robots

Test drive a hovercraft

Then there are models of conceptual spacecraft so theorhetical that may as well have been in the movie.

Still, fans will take great delight in walking past the special effects models used to depict such ships as the Millennium Falcon and a Star Destroyer, Darth Vader and Stormtrooper costumes, and much more. It’s a terrific testament to the work of artist Ralph McQuarrie, who died March 3. Seeing many of these props so close might be surprising for some people. I for one never realized just how big the Wookiees were supposed to be.

The big guy

One of several Millennium Falcon models on display

So if you’re looking for a “Star Wars” experience beyond just re-watching the movies on Blu-ray and the museum tour comes to your town, be sure to check it out. And for an extra $5 fans can take a simulated ride in the Millennium Falcon.

All in all, this is a great example of how popular cinema can be used to inspire learning.

The exhibit, which launched in Boston in 2005, is currently at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, Calif., through April 15. It moves on to Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas, from May 26 to Sept. 3, 2012, followed by the Orlando Science Center in Orlando, Fla., from Oct. 13, 2012, to March 17, 2013.

Tickets to the exhibit in Santa Ana, which also requires a museum general admission, can be purchased online () for $22.95 for adults and $20.95 for children 14 and younger and seniors 62 and older.

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