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Daily Reads: The New ‘Muppets’ Is More Adult and Less Mature, What ‘GoodFellas’ Meant to a 15-Year-Old, and More

Daily Reads: The New 'Muppets' Is More Adult and Less Mature, What 'GoodFellas' Meant to a 15-Year-Old, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Kermit Is in a Mundane Mid-Life Crisis in ABC’s Updated “Muppets.” 
Tonight, ABC will air the premiere of the “The Muppets,” the first series to feature the puppet gang since “Muppets Tonight,” in 1996 (and the classic “The Muppet Show” in the late-1970’s). Critics have had a decidedly mixed reaction to the return of the Muppets, with many calling the show’s attempt at “adult” humor to be forced. The New York Times’ new chief TV critic James Poniewozik reviews the new series and wishes it would be “a little less adult, and a little more mature.”

If “The Muppet Show” was a kids’ show conceived by smart adults, “The Muppets” plays like a kid’s idea of adult TV. It doesn’t quite dynamite the franchise à la detonator-wielding Crazy Harry. It just, every so often, tosses a tiny stick of TNT into your fondest memories. On paper the concept, from Bill Prady, the creator of the “The Big Bang Theory” who began his career as a production assistant for Jim Henson, makes perfect sense. The ’70s “Muppet Show” was a “Carol Burnett”-like variety show, coupled with the backstage antics of a production verging on chaos. It was the logical extension of media-savvy “Sesame Street” to big-tent entertainment. (The celebrity guests ranged from the dancer Juliet Prowse to the glam-rocker Alice Cooper.)… The first episode opens with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew calling a meeting to order by Tasering his assistant, Beaker, which will never not be funny. Miss Piggy fits into the role of demanding star without missing a cloven-hoofed step. (Rattling off a list of complaints, she insists that her dressing-room lilacs “don’t smell lilacy enough.” Kermit notes on his to-do list: “Talk to God about lilacs.”) The problem starts to creep in around the edges. The problem, it pains me to say, is largely Kermit. These mockumentary Muppets are more “real,” which is to say mundane. They fight traffic. They have relationship issues. (Fozzie Bear is interspecies-dating a human, played by Riki Lindhome of Garfunkel and Oates.) They wrestle with their sexual identities. (“Gender is fluid!” cries the crustacean Pepe. You do you, my prawn.) And Kermit, he’s now one more angsty Hollywood guy in a midlife crisis, ruing his choices and chasing new (curly) tail. (“BoJack Horseman,” the tragicomic Netflix animated show about a has-been horse sitcom star, is a terrific example of that, but we don’t need a second.) On “The Muppet Show,” he was bothered by nitwits but wryly in control. Here, he’s beaten down. In the movies, he could be wistful, but here he’s borderline depressing. If this sounds like a ridiculous thing to say about a piece of felt with someone’s knuckles visible through his cranium, so be it. Kermit and company are real, dammit, as real as Walter White or Leslie Knope. Their character integrity is just as important, and crucial to that is their unironic sweetness, optimism and sense of fancy.

2. “That’s Italian!”: The 25th Anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas.” 
Twenty-five years ago yesterday, Martin Scorsese’s modern classic “GoodFellas” opened in theaters, and as they say, the rest was history. After that point, “GoodFellas” would be subjected to quoting by movie nerds and future directors alike, with certain scenes going down in film history, and with others basically entering the modern film vernacular. Over at Movie Mezzanine, Sean Burns writes about when he saw the film at fifteen in a multiplex just outside of Boston.

The cinema also was located across the street from The Squire Lounge, a sleazy strip club and notorious mob hangout. (The original owner was a member of the Patriarca crime family who got whacked by Johnny Martarano at the behest of Whitey Bulger back in 1976.) On Sunday family movie days in my youth, we’d drive by and my dad would jokingly have my sisters and I count the number of Cadillacs parked at The Squire. Took me a few years to figure out why that was so funny. Those Cadillacs had all made the trip across the street for “GoodFellas,” and it was shortly after we took our seats that my friends and I quickly figured out we were probably the only guys in attendance who weren’t connected. When Robert De Niro’s name appeared in the opening titles, the crowd burst into applause and a voice from the back bellowed “THAT’S ITALIAN!” This followed for every name that ended with a vowel, of which you probably recall there are more than a few. Two minutes later, when a frothing Joe Pesci repeatedly plunged his mom’s kitchen knife into the whimpering Billy Batts, then De Niro sauntered over and began firing shots into the corpse, the audience was stunned into silence. For about two seconds. Then someone once again yelled “THAT’S ITALIAN” and the applause resumed. Aside from a thunderous ovation when Henry pistol-whipped that doofus who’d tried to rape Karen, I don’t recall specific other outbursts, but that might just be because I was so lost in the film. Those two-and-a-half hours flew by like 15 minutes, and when I got home that night I could barely sleep. “GoodFellas” is one of the great sustained acts of virtuosity in American cinema, and the artistry is so in-your-face and swaggering that even a 15-year-old kid who only knew what he was talking about half the time could see the man behind the curtain working the levers, and that made it all the more thrilling. I still point to that moment when De Niro is staring at Morrie, smoking a cigarette in slow motion to the opening riff of “Sunshine of Your Love” as when I finally understood what it meant for a movie to be directed.

3. Why Is One of Bill Murray’s Best Movies Still Largely Unavailable? 
On Sunday Night, Bill Murray won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, but wasn’t at the awards because he was attending his son’s wedding in Philadelphia. Then yesterday, he celebrated his 65th birthday. Bill Murray is the closest thing America has to a comedy legend and an urban myth rolled into one. So why is one his best movies still largely unavailable? HitFix’s Drew McWeeny explores the little-seen “Quick Change,” in which Bill Murray stars as a literal clown.

It’s not quite “After Hours” dark, but it does take some profoundly weird left turns along the way. There’s a jousting scene I find beautiful, and one seriously deranged Tennessee Williams joke, and through it all, Murray’s doing character work on par with any other comedy or drama released in 1990. He’s a great actor, something I don’t think people truly acknowledge. After all, he’s the Yeti. He’s too much fun for us to totally take him seriously…right? The truth is that the most subversive thing about Bill Murray is just how deeply soulful he is in his sneakiest moments. His humor is a tool that he uses to dissect the world and disguise just how much it all genuinely affects him. It’s one of the reasons I think “Scrooged,” his version of the oft-told Dickens tale, is one of the most affecting. He is so good at putting on the cynical front, playing the detachment, that when he thaws, when he wakes up, when he becomes that best version of Bill Murray who seems like he just wants to tickle every single person on the planet at least once, it’s a huge emotional release.

4. Seven Inventive Films to Premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. 
Everyone is still reeling from the Toronto International Film Festival, which ended last Friday. Though certain films have gotten quite a bit of play in the media, like Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” or Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” or Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” some others have kind of slipped under the radar. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore looks at seven of these inventive films that you may not have heard of yet.

“High-Rise”: Unlike “Evolution,” “High-Rise” features a metaphor that’s impossible to miss, long before a quote about capitalism from Margaret Thatcher plays over the final scene. Based on a J.G. Ballard novel, the film’s set in a luxury high-rise that becomes a self-contained model for a collapsing society, the inhabitants of the lower floors agitating against the wealthier residents in the upper ones as power and services start to fail. It’s all as subtle as a blow to the head, with one of the penthouse residents even having a taste for costume parties in aristocratic garb, while lower-floor resident Helen (Elisabeth Moss) seems to exist forever hip-deep in screaming children. “Snowpiercer” did this better, but there’s something to be said for director Ben Wheatley’s (“A Field in England”) ability to move “High-Rise’s” sense of reality from slightly off to full-on phantasmagorical as order breaks down gradually and then totally. And as 25th-floor resident Dr. Robert Laing, Tom Hiddleston proves himself to be an intriguing leading man, even with a character who’s often opaque.

5. Humanity, Not Evil: A Review of Fatih Akin’s “The Cut.” 
Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has gained an international presence over the last ten years with films like “Head-On,” “The Edge of Heaven,” and “Soul Kitchen.” Many of his films depict the lives of German-Turks, and the difficulties of reconciling both cultures. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri reviews his new film, “The Cut,” about the Armenian genocide, and works through its choice to make a film about humanity and not evil.

During World War I, around a million or more Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically murdered by Turkish authorities through execution, starvation, forced marches, and a variety of other horrors. Over the decades, Turkish governments have (foolishly) disputed the use of the word “genocide” to describe these atrocities, and there have been efforts to explain away and minimize what happened — even though the events were well-documented and reported upon at the time, and some of the leaders of the Ottoman government were convicted and executed, in part for these crimes. (Growing up as a Turk, I was told that these were just unfortunate wartime massacres and that it happened on both sides — an insufficient answer to the question, “What happened to the million and a half Armenians who used to live in this country?”) There’s still a lot of political contentiousness over the issue in Turkey, but the simple fact that it can now be debated at all is some sign of progress. Another sign, oddly enough, is that when “The Cut,” a film about the Armenian genocide by the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin opened in Turkey, it was met mostly with shrugs. A decade or two ago, it probably would have been banned, and Akin — a beloved figure in Turkey — declared persona non grata.

6. Is Hamlet Fat?: A Slate Investigation. 
Over at Daily Reads, we sometimes like to highlight some pieces from worlds directly outside the film and television landscape, occasionally dipping our toes into more, dare we say, “high culture” territory. Especially in light of a piece in the Guardian that will go un-linked denouncing supposed “snobs” for their sin of enjoying opera, we think it’s time to showcase a piece about something a little different. Over at Slate, Isaac Butler investigates whether or not Shakespeare’s Hamlet was actually fat through textual analysis and historical scholarship.

We also live in a time of fad diets and fitness crazes where one’s weight is mistaken for an indication of one’s moral fiber. Today, however, Hamlet’s heroism is taken for granted, and very few people believe that the text of “Hamlet” definitively shows he is fat. According to Levy-Navarro, some scholars claim “the word must be a printer’s error. Shakespeare must have written ‘hot,’ ‘faint,’ or ‘fey.'” Plumbing the depths of Shakespearean listservs, we find similar arguments. Harvard’s Eric Johnson-DeBaufre suggested, for example, that “‘fat’ is Shakespeare’s truncation of ‘fatigate,’ an adjective [meaning “weary”] in regular use during the period,” including in texts Shakespeare likely read. Even if it’s not a printer’s error or a truncation, “fat” might not mean what we think it means. In Elizabethan times, “fat” also meant sweaty. Since Gertrude offers Hamlet her napkin to wipe his face, perhaps context reveals that fat refers to his perspiring brow. This begs the question: How can anyone ever definitively say what the meaning of a word is in Shakespeare? I decided to get to the bottom of this with some help from John-Paul Spiro, a Shakespearean scholar who teaches at Villanova. According to Spiro, investigating the meaning of specific words in Shakespeare is particularly fraught because Shakespeare was the Ornette Coleman of language. Beyond inventing more than 1,700 words, Shakespeare was “deliberately coming up with new meanings of words, and opening up new conceptual spaces,” Spiro said. The play “Macbeth” invents the contemporary definition of the word “success,” for example, and Shakespeare was the first person to use “crown” as a verb. In order to figure out what “fat” means at this specific moment of “Hamlet,” then, we must look not only at how Elizabethans understood the term, but how his contemporaries used the term, how Shakespeare uses it in his plays in general, and how Shakespeare uses it in “Hamlet.” To the Elizabethans, “fat” could indeed mean sweaty, but “sweaty in the way fatty meat is sweaty when you cook it,” Spiro said. “Even in Elizabethan times, you would never say, ‘I went for a run, and now I’m fat.'” But how did Shakespeare use it? At my urging, Spiro dug out his concordance and looked up every single usage of the word “fat” in Shakespeare. Of the 80 or so times Shakespeare uses “fat,” there are two usages outside of “Hamlet” where the Bard could be referring to sweat, but in general “‘stuffed’ is really what it’s used to mean,” Spiro told me. “Not just heavy. Overfull, teeming, something ‘fatted’ and overfed, like livestock.” It has other connotations as well, particularly around clumsiness. “If you have a fatted goose, it’s not going to walk well,” he says. “If you go back to references to Falstaff and a few other characters, there’s also a hint of calling someone effeminate. You’re clumsy the way a very pregnant woman is clumsy.” In “Hamlet” itself, “fat” is used in ways that reference fullness and death. “Fat” appears first in Act I, when the Ghost tells Hamlet that if he is not interested in the Ghost’s story, he will be “duller…than the fat weed/ That roots itself in ease,” on the banks of the river Lethe, which cleansed newly dead souls of their memory in Greek myth. In the Queen’s bedchamber scene, Hamlet expresses his horror at his mother sleeping with her husband’s brother/murderer, ranting, “forgive my this my virtue/ For in the fatness of these pursy times/ Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.” Hamlet is declaring Denmark so stuffed with corruption that virtue is subservient to vice.

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