Friday, April 18, 2014

Yes We Cannes

I can’t help staring at the poster for this year’s international Cannes Film Festival. There’s young Marcello Mastroianni, from Federico Fellini's “8½,” staring out at us from over his sunglasses, still an unquestionable icon of cinema.

And so is the festival itself, which over the years has become the most high profile and most prestigious of the international film festivals, and its prize, the Palme d’Or, one of the most respected. Past winners have included “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Tree of Life,” chosen by juries of respected filmmakers and artists. The list of Palme d’Or recipients looks like a survey of the most influential directors of the past six decades. Stephen Spielberg presided over last year’s jury, which gave the top prize to “Blue is the Warmest Color.” And though there are the usual controversies and politicking, the festival retains a sterling reputation and remains an important yearly showcase for international cinema.

And that’s why any pretentious film lover worth their salt, including yours truly, gets so excited about the lineup of premieres every year. Last year’s lineup of films in competition included “Nebraska,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Behind the Candelabra,” and Foreign Language Oscar winner “The Great Beauty.” It usually takes months and months for these films to make their way Stateside, and there are a couple on last year’s list like James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” that are only reaching theaters this spring. Some titles, of course, all but vanish into obscurity as soon as they’re done screening. Still, the early reviews and reactions are a great preview of what’s in store for audiences, especially since most of the competing films are from well known, high profile directors.

Every year you hear the speculation over which films will be having premieres at Cannes. This year there the possibility of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” being in the mix got a lot of people worked up. It didn’t show, most likely still in post-production, but there are a lot of other titles to get excited about. We’ll be getting new movies from the Dardennes brothers, who have already won the Palme d’Or twice, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, Michel Hazanavicius, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Jean-Luc Godard, who is bringing his first 3D feature. Of particular note to American film fans is Bennett Miller’s delayed “Foxcatcher,” and the Tommy Lee Jones western, “The Homesman.” Few remember Jones is a director, but this is his third theatrical feature.

Films that aren’t part of the main competition still benefit from participating at Cannes. The Un Certain Regard competition was created in 1998, a parallel to the main awards for “original and different” films. It’s already generated its share of major international classics, including past winners “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Dogtooth.” Last year’s contenders included two of the other Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees, “Omar” and “The Missing Piece,” and the indie darling “Fruitvale Station.” This year, Un Certain Regard will include a version of Ned Benson’s “Eleanor Rigby” double-film, and the directing debut of Ryan Gosling. And screening out of competition entirely are the new Zhang Yimou film “Coming Home” and the world premiere of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The latter film may seem out of place, but it’s become the norm for a few Hollywood blockbusters to premiere at Cannes every year.

There’s no question that many of these films are the ones we’ll be talking about when awards season rolls around again. Though Cannes and the Oscars very rarely see eye to eye, the festival’s influence is inescapable. Films that make a major splash at Cannes or one of the other major festivals are guaranteed a certain amount of attention by the art house crowd, so they inevitably become part of the awards conversations. Because Cannes is invitation only, and extremely selective, it’s much harder to influence their decisions through marketing or other tactics, which gives the results a much greater sense of legitimacy. Though I’ve never seen a film at Cannes, there are several films I know I’ve seen largely because of Cannes.

This year I’m looking forward to several titles. Ken Loach’s last film, “Jimmy’s Hall,” will be part of the competition. Wim Wenders’ latest documentary will be in Un Certain Regard. And I love finding out about films I had no idea existed - for instance, one of the out of competition screenings will be for the Danish film “The Salvation,” a western from a couple of Dogme 95 alumni that stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It’ll probably be a year before I get to see it, but I know to watch out for it now. And sometimes, that’s the most important part of being a movie fan.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Prisoners" and "Enemy"

I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Go "Joe"

"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What I Want From the Last Season of "Mad Men"

It feels a little disingenuous to be writing up this post now, because "Mad Men" isn't going to be premiering its last batch of episodes until next spring, thanks to this business of splitting Season 7 into two chunks of seven episodes apiece. But if AMC can cheat, so can I. The season premiere aired last Sunday, and the exiled Don Draper is facing 1969 and the end of the '60s. What do I want to see happen to him and the rest of the ad execs in this final year? I did a "what if" post looking at possibilities and predictions last year, but this time around I want to get more concrete.

"Mad Men" has been all about examining and poking holes in the iconic '60s image of masculinity personified by Don Draper in the early seasons. From the start he's always been a facade, and over the course of the last six seasons that facade has been slowly chipped away bit by bit until we find it in a state of total disrepair at the start of the seventh. Don is left feeding ideas to Freddy Rumsen and resisting the lure of Neve Campbell, having been burned too many times by previous affairs. The episode's final, haunting image finds him alone, unable to sleep. At the same time the show also tackles other familiar figures like the ascendant working woman, in this case Peggy Olsen. For all of Peggy's talents and all her drive, we find her in a place not much better off than Don, her work compromised and her personal life all but nonexistent.

This isn't where I want these two to end up. Oh, I'm not rooting for some kind of fairy tale ending where they pair up romantically and go off to found their own advertising firm of Whitman and Olsen, but I do want them to both survive the decade and make it to a place where they're prepared to tackle the next one. The internet has been full of speculation that Don is going to die in the final episode, but I'd be much happier with a metamorphosis, from Draper back to Whitman, perhaps, or from Draper into someone new. Peggy, I suspect will either claw her way to the top or simply walk away from Sterling Cooper and the world of the mad men in the end. Both could be read as victories, and I'd be happy to see either outcome.

Betty and Sally didn't appear in the premiere. Though her part in the show has been drastically reduced, I still identify with and root for Betty. I doubt that there's more narrative space left to really explore her world, but the Betty and Sally relationship deserves some more attention. I hope these two can figure out to connect with each other, or at least reach some kind of mutual understanding, now that Sally has become disillusioned with her father. From their last encounter, Betty may still have some maturing to do, but she's grown up enough to get over Don. I'd like Sally to be able to do the same, maybe mirroring the scene with Roger and his daughter next week.

Speaking of Roger, I honestly don't see much hope for his redemption at this point, so I can only hope that his decline continues to be spectacular. The possibility of Joan becoming a real wheeler-dealer at the firm was raised this week, however, and suddenly I want her to be a successful account woman very badly. Pete Campbell showed up amusingly tan and happy, and though the little rat has caused a lot of grief over the years, I've grown fond enough of him that I hope he finds a way to stay happy and put all the bitterness behind him - though I know he probably won't. At the same time, I want something really nasty to happen to Teddy Chaough.

Among the minor characters, I'm still rooting for Ken and Ginsburg to make it out of Sterling Cooper with some dignity intact. And then there are all the other supporting characters who were left by the wayside as the show rolled on. I love that we got to see glimpses of what happened to Midge and more amusingly, to Paul. But whatever happened to Sal? And Abe? Does Harry Crane get any more time this year? And what of Bob Benson and the man named Duck?

Finally, 1969 will bring the Apollo 11 moon landing, My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family murders. And even if Megan Draper isn't supposed to be a analog of Sharon Tate, I still stand by my original assessment that she's not going to be a part of Don's world for much longer. I think the relationship has run its course, and I'd rather see it over sooner rather than later.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Captain" On Deck

I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" roughly even with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.

We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.

While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.

Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.

Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.

"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.

There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Now 2016 is Getting Crowded

2015 was billed as the year that we were going to be overloaded with major event movies. Summer was going to be a showdown between some of the biggest names in blockbusters, including a potential "Avengers 2" face-off with "Batman vs. Superman." In a post I wrote up a year ago, I listed over two dozen major titles expected to debut in 2015, but also noted that we were probably going to see many of these projects delayed or cancelled. I was right. 2015 is still going to have a lot of big movies from big franchises, including "Fast & Furious 7," "Avengers 2" plus Marvel Universe film "Ant-Man," two PIXAR movies, a James Bond movie, "Jurassic World," "Terminator 5," "Bourne 5," "Mission Impossible 5," the last "Hunger Games" movie, and of course "Star Wars: Episode VII," but a lot of the biggest potential moneymakers have been pushed back to 2016. And now the 2016 schedule is starting to look crazy.

May and June are battlefields already. May 6th has "Batman vs. Superman" pitted against "Captain America 3," which is suddenly looking like a much more even match-up since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has cleaned up at the box office and received sterling critical notices to boot. Memorial Day pits "Alice Through the Looking Glass" against "X-Men: Apocalypse." Two weeks after that comes "The Amazing Spider-Man 3." And then a week later, "Finding Dory" is somehow scheduled to open on the same day as "How to Train Your Dragon 3." Later in the season comes "Independence Day 2," "Ice Age 5," "Planet of the Apes 3," and another Marvel universe movie that we don't have the details for yet. Not on the schedule yet but certainly still in play are "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" and "Avatar 2." As usual, we must provide the caveats that many of these projects are going to shift dates or be delayed, and there's no way that the three showdowns I've listed won't result in some of these movies getting bumped a few weeks earlier or later.

Still, we're looking at another packed year in the making. It's scary to think of it, but the overstuffed 2015 roster may have been the start of a trend. With the exception of that last "Hunger Games" movie, all those titles I listed for 2015 will spawn sequels if they do well enough, and the studios have every expectation that they will. Four of the movies jockeying for prime release dates in 2016 are direct sequels to films that are coming out in the next few months of 2014. That means that we can expect sequels to most of those 2015 films coming in 2017 and 2018. Considering how much they've invested, Disney will be pressing on with more "Star Wars" movies no matter what the response to the first one is. And we can expect more Marvel movies on the way, at the rate of at least two per year. And two to three animated Dreamworks movies. And the goal is three yearly releases from PIXAR and Disney Animation combined. And remember that WB, Sony, and Fox want their own comics-based movie franchises following the Marvel model, built around the DC, "Spider-man" and "X-men" universes.

Can anything stop the inundation? Well, yes. The studios keep making more and more big films because there is the demand for them, but we're reaching a point where the market may not be able to sustain them all. The disastrous "implosion" of the film industry predicted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas last year hasn't come about, but too many crowded movie seasons like 2015 and the summer of 2016 certainly appear to be setting the stage for it. Eventually we are going to reach a point where making so many movies this way becomes unfeasible. Some big, expensive projects are going to go down hard, and create losses too big to be absorbed. Disney's more notorious misses like "Lone Ranger" and "John Carter" are made up for by their profits from hits like "Avengers" and "Frozen," but the prediction is that one of these days, one of the major studios will have one bomb too many, and get wiped out.

And honestly, that may not be such a bad thing. The current practice of dragging some of these franchises on to fourth and fifth installments and beyond, rebooting old properties that should have stayed dormant, and pumping out way too many gargantuan movies based on little more than good branding is far too prevalent. If audiences keep shrinking the way that they have, and the release calendar gets more and more crowded every year, diminishing returns are inevitable. Until that happens, though, moviegoers are in for some wild times as event movies go bigger and bigger, and the studios pit them against each other in increasingly high stakes matches. Here's to the upcoming battle for the summer of 2016.

May the best movie win.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Peek Into "Creature Shop"

"The Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge" sounded like a concept to good to be true to a Henson geek. Syfy's new reality show gives ten special effects artists a shot at working for the much beloved Jim Henson Creature shop, best known for creating elaborate creature suits and puppets for movies and television. It follows the "Project Runway" competition template, having the contestants build a new creature every week, and evaluating them via a screen test. The show is a very much a Jim Henson Company affair, hosted by "Farscape" actress Gigi Edgley, and featuring mentors and judges who are effects industry veterans. The head judge is Brian Henson, current president of the company, who looks more and more like his father with every passing year.

As a Muppet geek, I had to get a look at this thing. So I watched the first two episodes, and came away with somewhat mixed but mostly positive reactions. The contestants are all clearly talented and experienced, capable of turning out incredibly impressive work. It's a lot of fun to watch them build their creatures. We're not at the stage where more than a few big personalities have emerged, but the weekly projects are strong enough to carry the show. Also, the folks behind the scenes are still working through some bumps in the show's formula. "Creature Shop" hews to the "Project Runway" formula a little too closely, and sometimes it's not a good fit. The judges aren't the type to drop one-liners, and the contestants' array of creative skills are more interesting than the usual manufactured drama you can sense is being played up. I wish the design and fabrication portions of the show were longer than the judging portions.

The two rounds so far have been promising. I wasn't thrilled with the first, which asked the contestants to design a deep sea creature that had to lurk along the ocean floor, and resulted in some pretty unappealing entries. The second challenge, however, was great. The contestants were given the much more complex task of creating their own villainous Skeksis character from "The Dark Crystal," which included puppeteering it for the screen test. The results were far more impressive, and I could imagine the characters actually appearing onscreen, unlike the contenders from the first round. It didn't hurt that Hensons furnished "Dark Crystal" props and shared trivia about the film, which was very gratifying to this 80s fantasy geek. And there was much more shop talk about the business of effects work, which I hope continues.

However, it's hard to escape the sense that the show is really one big promotion for the Jim Henson Company and its work. I've loved these guys and their output for decades, so I'm very receptive to the hero worship many of the contestants have shown in these episodes, but at the same time I think they lay it on a little thick. The most familiar Muppet characters like Kermit and Piggy have been notably absent from the installments I've seen so far, but with a new movie in theaters, I'm sure they'll show up eventually. I recognized plenty of other material from the Henson archives, though, including lots of clips and artwork from "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," "The Storyteller," and "The Jim Henson Hour." Of course, we have to keep in mind that this is what the Hensons have the rights to.

Still, in the back of my mind I can't help noting that so few of the featured examples of the Creature Shop's work are very recent. It's a sad reminder that the visual effects industry has largely been taken over by CGI, and a practical effects operation like the Creature Shop has become a rarity. They're surely one of the best at what they do, but the demand has been steadily dropping off for a long time. I stumbled across a reel of their recent work, which mostly consisted of character puppets for obscure ad campaigns. Their last really big project that I know of was creating the Wild Things for 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are," and even those characters ultimately had CGI faces.

As thrilled as I am to watch the show and see the way that it celebrates all the different crafts that go into creature creation, it also feels a little like it's operating in a different world. I can imagine similar reality shows built around the finding the next great PIXAR animator or the next great Nintendo game creator, but those are big companies that are part of thriving industries. Would the PR be worth it for them to commit so many resources to something similar? I don't think so. Meanwhile, "Creature Shop Challenge" feels sadly a bit like it's pitching for its own relevance.

Those Skesis sure looked impressive, but what film would actually use them in this day and age?