Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Case For Mystery Science Theater 3000

Last week I played the devils advocate, pointing out the reasons why many people dislike one of my favorite shows. Now I offer the support for the show.

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Humor is based on the reaction to something unexpected. You sit down to watch a movie and you expect some basic things in it to work. Sure those expectations may be unreasonable, especially if the names involved in the film are ones you appreciate. Sometimes that movie doesn't meet your expectations. The result is laughter. For example: you expect a movie call "Space Mutiny" to be an exciting adventure of heroes and villains in space, doing battle. What you get is something that is not exciting, not really an adventure. The heroes are not likable and the villains are laughable. The space shots are all done with borrowed scenes from the original "Battlestar Galactica" and interior shots done in warehouse. There are battles but they involve souped up golf carts. How are you not supposed to laugh at that?

What Mystery Science Theater does is take the movie as a launching point. It takes the expectations you have for a movie and uses those as the basics of it's humor. But in a way it is more than that. The writers really outdo themselves with the vast amounts of knowledge they have at their disposal. They will use references to obscure album covers, forgotten TV shows and even classical history to create a fabric of sophisticated humor. Added to that is the (then) current pop culture references, low brow jokes, and even open name calling. To me, the humor on display here covers such a wide stretch that it can appeal to nearly everyone. Most people who watch an episode of the show will find it amusing because there is something for everyone.

On top of it, the movies shown are mostly forgotten. They were released, some may have been moderately popular for their time, but now, most people will not have a clue who or what "The Beast of Yucca Flats" is all about. Yet the movie "Manos: The Hands of Fate" and "The Incredibly Strange Creatures to Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies" would be all but forgotten except for the fact that they have been shown on MST3K and actually gained a following of a sort. Some movies were never even released. The "The Dead Talk Back" was given their first life on MST3K. Sure it's a dubious fame, but many of the creators embrace the chance and can say "Who am I that I can't be laughed at."

And yes the host segments are low budget, extremely goofy and sometimes so obtuse they are painful - but these guys and gals go out of their way to make you laugh. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail, but much like the riffs they come up with they give you such a scattershot of comedy that something is bound to work. Some may find "Public Pearl" incredibly annoying. I will find myself frequently singing about "loving lovers love again."

In their own way, the creators of MST3K love movies. It's obvious with many of the quips they make, that they have watched and enjoyed countless films. And the willingness to sit through these movies tells me that at some level they enjoy them. This show was made by movie lovers for movie lovers. And while fans of the show may debate if "Pod People" is more hideous than "The Final Sacrifice", most of us would be more than happy to sit back and watch both of them as a double feature. Some of the quips maybe a bit cynical or even rude - but at the core, there is a love for all movies there.

This is a perfect storm of comedy entertainment. The writing is often top notch, with lines that will surprise and delight you. The movie selection is top notch and the energy is always high. For me this show was one of the funniest I've ever seen. Sure there are people who won't like it or won't understand it's appeal. But the majority of us will always find something fun about a man in a rubber suit attempting to be monster even if his zipper shows.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Case Against Mystery Science Theater 3000

As many of you know, I enjoy bad movies. Something about them just makes me smile. The goofier and more inept the better. It's the only reason I have a movie like "Bloodrayne" in my collection (and I got it real cheap from the used DVD rack). For me there is fun to be had watching and mocking movies that just don't quite meet thier goal. But there are those people who don't feel that way. In fact, I've run into some serious detractors of the art of mocking. This got me thinking. Is there a case against a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000? Is one of my favorite television series nothing more than a collection of haters mocking something they don't even have the guts to do themselves? I decided to play the devil's advocate.

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Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) is really nothing more than a group of mean spirited people mocking a weak opponent and beating up on it for the amusement of other cynical and bitter people. There is no true joy in this television series. The comedy is all based on making fun of others, something that the best comedians keep to a minimum. In some cases the targets of MST3K are foreign made films and the jokes are based on making fun of other cultures and people (especially guilty in the Japanese and Russian imports). Other times the movies are made in another era, one that had different values and stylistic concerns. These are shown as "not normal" or "ignorant and stupid" and there for worthy of mockery. On this basis alone, this series is actually pretty hateful.

But one of the most annoying things about the whole concept of the show is that they do not take into account the amount of sheer effort it takes to make a film. No matter what the intentions of the film maker (Coleman Francis obviously wanted to comment on the bay of pigs in "Red Zone Cuba" and Roger Corman was just trying to turn a profit in "Swamp Diamonds"), the fact that they attempted to create something lasting in a medium that requires large amounts of money, cooperation and luck and actually got it release is a huge achievement. Such achievements should be rewarded with some respect and yes some critical examination - but not outright abuse.

And who are these people who can sit back and question technique, acting, writing, music or any other part of a movie - when it is obvious that they lack the skills to do any of these themselves. Just look at their "host segments". What do you see in the way of technique, acting, writing or music? Would they be mocked on their own show? Sure they would. The few self deprecating comments they made to that point do not change the fact that they are no one to judge the achievements of others.

In the end, this series is made by cynics for cynics. Its humor is not anything more than what you'd find at a party with a few drunk friends. Humor should be entertaining and at its heart it should impart some kind of joy. With something as mean-spirited as this, there is no way the "humor" on display here can do anything other than create more cynical and frankly depressing feelings in a viewer. This is not entertainment. It's venom and it's poisonous.

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What do you think of the show? Do you think the opinion above is valid or is made by someone to takes movies a bit too seriously.

(My next post will take up the counter argument)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Revisits Part 2 - Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The date for the release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (TMP) was set in stone and no force on earth could change it. Come hell or high water, it was going to be released the December 1979. Paramount wanted the movie to be a hit and they figured they had to have a holiday release to pull it off. Director Robert Wise pushed as hard as he could to deliver a watchable movie on time. But in the end, editing was rushed, effects scenes weren't complete and the sound mix was never perfected. Still the movie hit the theaters on time and the loyal Star Trek fans saw the movie again and again.

Contrary to popular belief, TMP wasn't a failure. It made money, mostly based on the repeat viewings of dedicated Star Trek fans, and enough single viewings by the curious and those who were hoping for something along the lines of "Star Wars: A New Hope". I know my family went to see it, because I was a huge Star Wars fan. I vividly remember getting some kind of fast food promotional thingy with a starfleet iron-on and a game to find "The Real McCoy". But in the end, the movie disappointed fans and new comers alike. It picked up the name "Star Trek: The Motionless Picture" and other cute aliases.

Jump to 2001 and several things have happened. The Star Trek movie series had unleashed a serious dog in the form of "Star Trek V - The Final Frontier" and by comparison, TMP didn't look so bad anymore. Enough time had passed so that some perspective was allowed. For all of its faults TMP was probably the only movie to attempt to really capture the awe and enormity of space exploration. While later adventures focused on the crew and their dilemmas (for some solidly entertaining movies), TMP had a serious theme at its core - one about concept of humanity. It looked like everyone involved in the project just reached a little too high and missed the goal.

Paramount watched carefully and saw that the Star Wars Special Edition campaign worked very well for George Lucas and Fox. They were ready to release the film on DVD and Robert Wise was available to revisit the film. They offered him the chance to go back and rework TMP into the movie he intended it to be. He was given a special effects budget and access to unused footage and sound effects. Initially the revamp was going to get a theatrical release, but became the flagship offering for the first Star Trek movie on DVD in a two disc set.

What are the results? In my opinion: it is a better movie all the way around. It moves faster, it has a greater overall impact that resonates deeper than the previous cut was able to. The strange thing is, the changes are pretty hard to detect. The biggest change is the pacing. There are still some moments of slogging in the middle of the film but they aren't nearly as bad as they used to be. The updated effects shots fit pretty seamlessly into the existing footage. You have an extended background here, some new shots out of a window there, and improved visuals with the V’ger entity that give you a real sense of its size and power. This ups the ante at the end of the movie, and makes the stakes for the crew of the Enterprise very clear. The new footage here and there clarifies some points and actually gives Spock a full character arc.

This doesn't mean that movie is perfect. Improved? Definitely. But there are still some issues that could not be solved. This is still a slow moving movie. It was intended to be one and that hasn't changed. It was going for more of a "2001: A Space Odyssey" feel, over the action and adventure of "Star Wars". Some of the acting is lacking in areas. The costumes still look pretty goofy (and the whole muted look of the Enterprise is just odd). The basics of the plot haven't changed and I know that some people were annoyed by the fact that the story was very similar to a couple of episodes from the original series.

With that said, I think Robert Wise was able to improve his movie and please most fans at the same time. None of the changes harm the film, and even if a favorite scene got cut, the DVD has all the edited footage (and unused footage that was left out in the first place) on the second disc to peruse. I haven't really run into any Star Trek fans who were upset with the Director's cut. Some still don't like the movie, but feel that it was improved overall.

In the end, I’ve always been a sucker for the original cast of Star Trek. I enjoy the movies and this one is pretty nostalgic for me. I'd enjoy it without the changes, but the new cut makes for a better film, and one that even people who disliked it the first time around, may find value in now. I think "Wrath of Khan" was a better movie all around, but for me TMP is still a classic sci-fi adventure.

What was your first impression of TMP when you first saw it? Did it change with a viewing of the director's cut? Comparing this directors cut to Lucas' new cut of Star Wars - which one benefited the most?

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Revisits Part 1 - Star Wars - A New Hope

Back in 1997 George Lucas decided that it would be a good idea to revisit his Star Wars trilogy and do some clean up. This was done to save the 1977 film which had deteriorated much more than anyone had expected. But it also gave Lucas a chance to fix some of the things that had always bothered him about the movie. Because of budget and time constraints (not to mention inventing and perfecting special effects to make the movie work), several things about the film just never worked for him. A perfect example is Luke's landspeeder. In the original, you could clearly see the mirrors and even the smudging that was needed to hide the wheels under the vehicle. In the Special edition, he was able to digitally remove the wheels, mirror and smudging that had been jokingly called "the force field" to give the illusion that the landspeeder was hovering over the sands.

But George also had another motive in mind. He was planning for his prequels and he wanted to see just how much he could alter a film with special effects and have the audience accept it. He knew his new movies were going to have scenes were nothing on the screen was real - basically animation. And if he was going to mix these scenes with actual footage of real people on real sets or on location, he wanted it to be accepted.

So he dug up his old unfinished footage of Han and Jabba meeting. He added some more scenes to Mos Eisley. He replaced aliens in the cantina. He reworked Han's confrontation with Greedo. He practically redid the entire end battle with computer generated starships.

The results were a mixed bag with most fans. Some people felt that "their childhood was raped" by the changes. The most hated change was the whole Greedo vs. Han exchange. Others felt that the movie gained much from the upgrades, and felt that the overall effect was a good one. Newer fans felt it was a vast improvement, feeling the old 70's effects were looking pretty bad.

My opinion? I thought that the overall idea was a sound one. I didn't mind most of the little technical changes that added to the film. I didn't like Greedo shooting first, and I think the updated effects in that scene still look bad (they were cleaned up a bit for the DVD release). I'm not disavowing Lucas because of the change, but I didn't think it was necessary. I didn't like the new scenes with Jabba and or the added moment with Biggs. Both weren't needed to tell the story and the Jabba scene feels like it was forced in (especially with Mr. Fett's knowing look at the camera). As for the revamped space battle, I think it is an improvement. The ships have more motion, and it generates more excitement. In addition it’s easier to follow what’s going on, especially Wedge's maneuver to save Luke. For the longest time I never knew what the hell happened in that scene - the Special Edition clears it up.

Still many fans were more than angry, they were infuriated. Hatred for the new version of the classic film was boosted by other changes in "Empire" and "Jedi, not to mention the release of the prequels. Many of these angry fans are old timers, like me, who grew up with Star Wars and hold it close to our hearts. I held on to my old Laserdisc version to be able to watch the unchanged version of the movies - but I bought the Special Editions as well. Eventually Lucas offered an olive branch to the pissed off fans with an untouched copy of the original films (even going so far as to release the cut with the opening crawl, minus the episode number). Still some fans are angry that these original versions are not in anamorphic widescreen. You can't please everyone Mr. Lucas - don't even try.

I know many people who are convinced that the Special Editions were one hell of a cunning marketing scheme. Lucas got to release his existing films, tinker with some scenes for a minimal amount of money and then release them to cash in. All the old timers will see them for nostalgia reasons and bring their kids along (20 years later most of us old timers have kids), and start the cycle fresh again - just in time for "The Phantom Menace" in theaters in 1999. If he made a few people angry - who cares. He got them to see the movie didn't he?

I'm sure some of that mercenary thinking went into the decision, but I think that Lucas was frustrated with some aspects of Star Wars. Even in old interviews he's lamented some of the failings of the “cutting edge for 1977” effects. In that vein, I don't mind him going back and cleaning up the movie a bit. But when you start tampering with character motivations, and basic storytelling - it's bound to make some fans unhappy. Add to it the fact that tampering with the movie inspired other tampering to occur (Spielberg’s changes to "ET" are one of the bad side effects), and that Lucas can now make little tweaks to all his films and release them again and again and again - just leaves a bad taste in this fan's mouth. It's one of the reasons I really stopped calling myself a Star Wars fan. I enjoyed the classic films in their classic form, and while I do watch the Special Editions from time to time, I’m glad I can watch the versions I remember from my youth. Because for me, Star Wars makes me feel like a kid again.
What did you think of the Special Edition Changes Lucas made? Do you think fans made angry by the changes need to get a life, or do they have valid points? Do you have a problem with a creator going back and tinkering with his creation (especially when it comes to movies and books)?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Deliciously Devious Dexter - Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Where do I start with "Darkly Dreaming Dexter"? My wife picked up the book and loved it. Than it was recommended by my MySpace pal, Richard Bellush Jr. especially after my blogs about Alfred Hitchock's "Rope". So I figured that there had to be something to this book, and especially it's puzzling main character that attracted these readers and the creators of the Showtime television series, "Dexter".

The character of Dexter is one that should not be considered the protagonist. He kills people and he does it as a kind of pleasurable release. He's a very controlled, very dangerous serial killer. He cannot care about people - he doesn't understand them. He tries his best to fit in and be "normal" but continues to be puzzled by their behavior. Dexter is a human who doesn't understand human nature.

How can a reader relate to this type of person? Well you give him a set of guidelines. Dexter only kills people who deserve to be killed (like other serial killers). These guidelines were passed down to him by his foster father, an ex-cop who figured out what Dexter was at an early age. He introduced the idea of meting out justice in your own way. This allows Dexter to indulge in his need to kill, and he is doing society a service. This at least makes Dexter's murderous tendencies a little more palatable.

The writer also tells the entire story from Dexter's point of view. So we get to see how he observes the rest of us humans. It's actually pretty interesting to see how Dexter just doesn't understand emotions. One of the characters is obviously hitting on Dexter and it takes about a third of the book before he figures it out. Then he's disturbed by it, because the thought of actual physical contact with a person is repellant to him (unless he's cutting them up). When he actually puts the pieces together he figures that if he can fake interest in her back, then he might be able to get something out of it.

Dexter is also cheerful and optimistic in his own way. He doesn't let himself get too concerned about anything that doesn't really directly affect him. Except for blood. He hates bleeding and blood and messy killings. Did I mention he works for the forensics unit for the police department and is a blood spatter expert. Yeah, Dexter's got a bit of a complicated life.

And all this makes it very easy for writer Jeff Lindsay to add conflict to the story. Just about everything in Dexter's life ends up making things a little more difficult for him. For example, he runs into a new group of killings that speaks to him and his inner killer, Dexter becomes conflicted. He wants to find the killer sit down and talk with him or her and maybe even help them with their work. Then the part of Dexter that is governed by justice wants to take the killer down.

This makes for a fascinating read, one in which you are cheering Dexter on and at the same time hoping he doesn't cross that line that turns him from a colorful anti-hero to someone you don't like.

Have you read the first Dexter book? What did you think? Have you seen the show? Have you ever read a story or seen a film where the killer was the protagonist? How did the creator pull you into the story?