Frank Oz

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)

The Great Muppet Caper is rather easy to describe. It’s joyous spectacle. The film has four screenwriters and not a lot of story. Instead, it’s got some fabulous musical numbers. Director Henson really goes for old Hollywood musical, complete with Miss Piggy doing an aquatic number. It also has a bunch of great one-liners and visual gags. The finale isn’t some masterful heist sequence, it’s the Muppets being really funny in their environment and to one another. It’s delightful. Henson is primarily concerned with creating delight. Not entertaining. Being entertaining, being diverting, these two things are very different from creating delight.

Muppet Caper is also technically excellent–Oswald Morris’s photography, Ralph Kemplen’s editing. Henson directs the film in a matter-of-fact, expository nature, then turns it around and makes the viewing of the film engage with the acknowledgement of that exposition. Down to Diana Rigg explaining to Miss Piggy her dialogue is expository. It’s got to be Henson’s way of making the film appeal to both children and adults. Maybe more to adults and their children than the reverse. The human actors relish their roles–and how awesome is it the film pairs John Cleese and Joan Sanderson as the doddering English couple–and their enthusiasm carries over regardless of if a kid is going to fully appreciate it.

Though the best cameo might be Peter Falk just because he’s got an impossible monologue to deliver and he sells it perfectly.

The Great Muppet Caper is about singing and dancing and making people happy. And Charles Grodin having the hots for Miss Piggy. Sure, you need to be a little familiar with Charles Grodin to fully appreciate having him have the hots for Miss Piggy, but only to fully appreciate it. Muppet Caper only gently relies on its pop culture references. The Muppet Performers are so exceptionally good at what they do, at creating these wonderful felt creatures, the artistry is always there. Henson knows how to make this film; his confidence is stunning from the start.

Because it’s a delight from the start. The delight even gets it through some of the rougher songs–Joe Raposo does have a few great numbers, but the rest are mostly mediocre. Muppet Caper is awesome. Of course it’s awesome. It’s called The Great Muppet Caper and it’s directed by Jim Henson. What else would it be.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl and Jack Rose; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Joe Raposo; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by Frank Oz and David Lazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Oscar The Grouch).

Starring Charles Grodin (Nicky Holiday), Diana Rigg (Lady Holiday), Jack Warden (Mike Tarkanian), Erica Creer (Marla), Kate Howard (Carla), Della Finch (Darla), John Cleese (Neville), Joan Sanderson (Dorcas), Robert Morley (A Gentleman), Peter Ustinov (A Lorry Driver) and Peter Falk (A Tramp).


Innocent Blood (1992, John Landis)

At some point during Innocent Blood–I think it was the lengthy sequence with recently resurrected Robert Loggia wrecking havoc at attorney Don Rickles's house–I realized it was hilarious. The movie moves so fast, director Landis never lets up long enough for a laugh. There's one other really good pause spot a few minutes earlier involving Loggia escaping the morgue, but for the most part, too much is going on.

There are multiple achievements to the film. Michael Wolk's script is a strange mix of serious vampire film (undead and lonely Anne Parillaud is frequently shown to loathe her life), police versus Mafia drama (Loggia's a terrifying mob boss), tender romance (between Parillaud and undercover cop Anthony LaPaglia) and spoof of the first two. Landis never spoofs the romance. The great Ira Newborn score aids in transitioning between the genres.

Landis directs the film perfectly; he has these little stylistic devices to control the viewer's experience of scenes. The script's really big–Wolk structures it like a thirties slapstick comedy, with Parillaud and LaPaglia always racing around while the fantastic supporting cast moves things along in their absence.

Parillaud and LaPaglia have the most difficult roles. Parillaud gets to narrate some of the film, but all the depth to the character is subtly addressed. Wolk's script decidedly does not give her easy monologues to define herself. And LaPaglia has to establish himself over a long period of the film. It's three-quarters through before he's done.

Innocent Blood is a phenomenal motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; written by Michael Wolk; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Dale Beldin; music by Iran Newborn; production designer, Richard Sawyer; produced by Lee Rich and Leslie Belzberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Anne Parillaud (Marie), Robert Loggia (Sal “The Shark” Macelli), Anthony LaPaglia (Joe Gennaro), David Proval (Lenny), Chazz Palminteri (Tony), Luis Guzmán (Morales), Elaine Kagan (Frannie Bergman), Rocco Sisto (Gilly), Leo Burmester (Dave Flinton), Kim Coates (Ray), Tony Lip (Frank), Angela Bassett (U.S. Attorney Sinclair), Frank Oz (Pathologist), Tony Sirico (Jacko), Marshall Bell (Marsh) and Don Rickles (Emmanuel Bergman).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, Frank Oz)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to have a full, three act plot–with all the twists necessary for a confidence picture–but it also is constantly funny. Oz juggles his two leads but mostly relies on Steve Martin for the more immediate humor. With Michael Caine, Oz and the screenwriters tend to be a lot quieter… letting the humor build. Martin gets the gags.

Deciding the better performance–between Caine and Martin–is difficult. Caine has a lot more to do in terms of range, but Martin has to be doing something almost every frame of film.

I’ve seen Scoundrels before, but I never fully appreciated the film’s successes. For example, Oz uses montages a couple times to hurry the plot along and each scene in the montage is hilarious, but the film never pauses to laugh at itself. It never loses momentum, even during the more outrageous gags.

And Scoundrels has a lot of potential speed bumps. The first act alone has a micro-three act structure built into it, as the focus transitions from Caine to Martin (it shifts throughout the film). Then there’s the appearance of Glenne Headly, who arrives during the second act. She’s an essential player and is absent during the first act. Actually, Headly probably gives the film’s best performance.

Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid, who both have big parts at the start, slowly fade away. Rodgers in particular has some fantastic scenes. Barbara Harris is great in a small part too.

Scoundrels is outstanding.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stephen A. Rotter and William S. Scharf; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Roy Walker; produced by Bernard Williams; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), Barbara Harris (Fanny Eubanks), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Reed), Meagen Fay (Lady from Oklahoma), Frances Conroy (Lady from Palm Beach), Nicole Calfan (Lady in Dining Car) and Aïna Walle (Miss Krista Knudsen).


Muppet Treasure Island (1996, Brian Henson)

As a Muppet fan, the thing I miss most about Muppet Treasure Island is the Muppets. Oh, they’re around, but in neither of the film’s principal roles. Instead, it’s Tim Curry and Kevin Bishop–and their performances both have ups and downs.

But neither is wholly responsible–in Bishop’s case, the script changes his character quite a bit without reasonable impetus, and Curry seems to be missing directorial attention. So, while Bishop nonsensically abandons his friends to hang out with Curry, Curry is busy acting awkwardly around the Muppets. Maybe if Curry was really good with Bishop, it’d make up for the script failings or for Curry’s nonperformance with his Muppet costars, but he’s not. He’s better than he is with the Muppets, but he’s still performing like everything is a monologue and he’s got the stage to himself. It hurts Bishop’s performance too, especially near the end.

Some of that fault falls, clearly, on Henson. He’s not ready for a film of this complexity–the constant mix of Muppet and live action (versus Muppet Christmas Carol, which really only had Michael Caine)–not to mention some rather intricate effects shots. The effects come off as ambitious without being successful (John Fenner’s photography might be an accomplice).

It’s too bad because much of Treasure Island is fantastic. The songs are food, the main Muppet performances are great (the one-offs, created just for this film, not so much), the script is funny.

It’s just too human–not enough Muppet.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Jerry Juhl, Kirk R. Thatcher and James V. Hart, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; director of photography, John Fenner; edited by Michael Jablow; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Val Strazovec; produced by Martin G. Baker and Henson; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Bill Barretta and Frank Oz as the Muppets.

Starring Tim Curry (Long John Silver), Kevin Bishop (Jim Hawkins), Billy Connolly (Billy Bones), Jennifer Saunders (Mrs. Bluberidge), Danny Blackner (Short Stack Stevens), Harry Jones (Easy Pete) and David Nicholls (Captain Flint).


RELATED

What About Bob? (1991, Frank Oz)

What About Bob? is a special movie. It’s absolute dreck. Coming from screenwriter Tom Schulman, I suppose its lack of quality shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I think I was operating under the assumption producer Laura Ziskin wouldn’t let it get too bad. I mean, production wise, it’s got good people–Anne V. Coates is good editor and Michael Ballhaus has done some truly great films. I mean, sure, Frank Oz isn’t great shakes, but he’s competent.

So why’s Bob so awful? First, and easiest, it mocks mental illness. Though Bill Murray’s performance is atrocious and he’s never believably mentally ill for a moment in the movie–it’s a real problem, Murray playing the character as a totally sane, totally self-aware jerk (he just wants to make Richard Dreyfuss miserable)–he is supposed to be mentally ill. And the viewer is supposed to laugh at him. Second, it’s never believable the supporting cast would welcome him into the fold, knowing he’s a patient of Dreyfuss’s prominent psychiatrist. It’s ludicrous.

It’s got to be one of Murray’s worst performances (one can hear the paycheck deposit), but there’s a lot of terrible acting to go around. Julie Hagerty’s “acting” is something special, but Charlie Korsmo is even worse. He’s got to be one of the worst child actors I can remember. Just terrible.

Oddly, Kathryn Erbe’s steady, even though her writing is as bad as everyone else’s.

Dreyfuss has some moments and they’re mostly visible, where one can see he’s at least enjoying himself (for the most part, he isn’t). The rest of the time, he looks mildly embarrassed, but no more than the viewer who remembers his good, better and unspectacularly poor films.

Oz’s direction isn’t bad. The movie looks beautiful and Oz is competent when it comes to framing shots, especially all the (slightly) moving camera shots–mostly the camera following people as they go over to other people. And he also convinced me, somehow, if I kept watching, it’d get better (it never, ever does–the ending is just as awful as everything else in the movie).

What’s scary about Bob is how light-hearted it seems to be. It’s insensitive and garish. If it were from a better filmmakers, I’d try to find some stronger words… but Oz doesn’t strike me as particularly smart and Schulman is quite obviously, based on this one and his other “writing,” a functional illiterate.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; screenplay by Tom Schulman, based on a story by Alvin Sargent and Laura Ziskin; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Les Dilley; produced by Ziskin; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Bob Wiley), Richard Dreyfuss (Dr. Leo Marvin), Julie Hagerty (Fay Marvin), Charlie Korsmo (Siggy Marvin), Kathryn Erbe (Anna Marvin), Tom Aldredge (Mr. Guttman) and Susan Willis (Mrs. Guttman).


The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, Frank Oz)

There’s something–well, actually a lot–missing from The Muppets Take Manhattan, but when I started the sentence, I was going to write “good songs.” None of the songs are terrible, but when the best song in the movie is the one to advertise the then upcoming “Muppet Babies” series… okay, I’m being a little mean… the “Somebody’s Getting Married” song sequence is really nice. But the rest of the songs are just there. Well, maybe not… I am remembering another good sequence, but the problem is the film is better remembered, than actually engaged, because the story’s so slight, it brings the movie down. But the rest of the songs–those aren’t very good, with the two exceptions and then the “Muppet Babies,” which is cuter than it is good.

Like the other movies, Manhattan uses celebrities in cameos, occasionally to good effect (Dabney Coleman and Gregory Hines), but the cameos are usually throwaways–bits to give the opportunity for Elliott Gould, for example, to show up–instead of actual story content. There isn’t really any story content in Manhattan, because it takes forever to decide what the movie’s crisis is going to be… until the last half hour even. Before that point, it’s all build-up–through possible crises (the Muppets breaking up, Miss Piggy getting jealous)–and the build-up is really boring. The mid-section makes the interesting choice of getting rid of the all the Muppets except Kermit, Piggy in a reduced role, and Rizzo the Rat. I’m not sure if they were grooming Rizzo or something… it sure seems like it, but I think it’s instead just another indicator of The Muppets Take Manhattan’s damning problem–Frank Oz.

As a director, Oz does a mediocre job. He creates a handful of charming scenes, but none of them are particularly special. As a screenwriter, along with a couple other jokers, he breaks the Muppets up and only uses, for the majority of the film, them in vignettes. These vignettes are the best part of the movie, because it’s the Muppets doing what the Muppets do… which should be, I don’t know, the movie… right?

The movie relies a lot on the human cast, particularly Juliana Donald as the object of Miss Piggy’s jealousy–while Donald is fine, she treats the role like a guest spot on the show rather than a person interacting. The other supporting cast are fine too, but their roles are even less import.

The New York locations and setting provides for a lot fewer good scenes than it should; besides a large, amusing Central Park sequence, most of the film takes place indoors. The opening titles suggest a big city adventure–as well as the Muppets, not a reduced cast of Muppets, having that adventure–and Oz delivers a movie centered around a coffee shop.

There’s no grandeur to the movie, nothing exciting overall, and it’s a pleasant disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; screenplay by Oz, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, from a story by Patchett and Tarses; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Evan A. Lottman; music by Ralph Burns; produced by David Lazar; released by Tri-Star Pictures

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson as the Muppets.

Starring Juliana Donald (Jenny), Lonny Price (Ronnie), Louis Zorich (Pete), Art Carney (Bernard Crawford), Dabney Coleman (Martin Price), Gregory Hines (Roller skater), Linda Lavin (Kermit’s doctor), Joan Rivers (Perfume saleswoman), Elliott Gould (Cop in Pete’s), Frances Bergen (Winesop’s receptionist), John Landis (Winesop) and Edward I. Koch (The Honorable Edward I. Koch).


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