The MST3k Reunion Was Everything It Needed To Be And More

e6cb31b27ff62b87dad5e700b1eac58fOn Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.

But let me take a step back.

If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.

The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.

Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.

After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.

But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.

Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.

Wow. That was a big step back.

The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.

Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.

And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.

Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”

The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.

Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”

Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.

Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.

Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.

The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.

But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.

When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.

 

ADDENDUM:

At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.

Allow me to respond.

I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.

But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.

It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.

Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.

Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.

I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.

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Watch “Person of Interest”

maxresdefaultA very good, special show ended last week and I bet many of you don’t even know it. The good news is you can still watch it because it now lives in the digital realm thanks to Netflix. I hope you heed my suggestion.

Person of Interest ended on Tuesday night after a quick burn of its final 13 episodes over the last month and a half. Its final season was cut down from 22 to 13 episodes. The reduced runtime really honed the writing and the story. In fact, credit where credit is due: CBS could have just cancelled the show outright or let the producers wiggle on the line regarding renewal. But they gave them a final run and the show’s creators made the most of it.

The series centered on Harold Finch played masterfully by Michael Emerson. Finch build a surveillance Machine for the government to fight terrorism after 9/11 with access to camera feeds, phone calls, emails, text messages, internet searches… everything. It feeds information to the government about terrorists based on all of this collected data so it can stop terrorist attacks. There is a privacy compromise, however: the government can’t see or access this information. The Machine communicates a social security number or another unique ID associated to a person. The government must then determine if that person is a terrorist, a terror target, or somehow affiliated with terrorists on its own.

But because the Machine sees everything it knows about non-terrorist violent crimes, too. The government wasn’t interested in those, though. Those crimes are labeled “irrelevant.” Harold set up a connection with the machine so that he receives the “irrelevant” numbers so he can intervene. However genius Harold may be, he’s not equipped to stop these crimes on his own so he partners with a former CIA operative, John Reese, played by Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel. Reese is cast off, adrift, and probably close to death either by his own hand or otherwise. Harold gives John a purpose and they get to work receiving numbers and helping people.

Every episode opened with a “saga sell” kind of like Quantum Leap had (the first 48 seconds of this clip), which explained the show’s premise. Watch POI’s “saga sell” from season one. It’s more succinct than my summary. And here is a scene from the pilot episode with our two leads discussing it as well.

On the surface, Person of Interest was like any other CBS crime procedural. A new number—a new case—every week. Good guys and bad guys. Easy enough, right? For the first third of its first season, Person of Interest seemed to conform to that, but a dense mythology was brewing under the surface. How did Harold build this Machine? How does it reach the conclusions that it does? If the government wants to keep this a secret, what might they do if they found out Harold can access the Machine and receive information from it?

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the Machine helps them stop crime and the government stop terror attacks, it is a massive overreach of power. The government’s system can see everything we do. Harold’s defense might be that only the Machine sees that data, no human can view the private information the Machine sees. Is this right? The end result is good, but at what cost? How might this kind of technology be abused?

But the most fundamental question of all: what really is the Machine? It’s better if you watch to find out, but I can say concisely: artificial intelligence. The Machine is not just a database. Not just an algorithm. It thinks. And it learns. It makes judgements. That’s how the Machine can make determinations about if a violent crime is going to occur—it’s not just if Steve says, “I’m going to kill Judy.” The Machine sees that Steve purchased a gun, he has a violent felony arrest record, he’s bought plastic sheeting, and he’s made an appointment with Judy late at night in a secluded part of town. All of those facts taken together (and much more) factor into the Machine’s decision-making. In practice, the Machine would send Steve’s SSN to Harold and he and John would need to investigate to find out what’s going on.

While POI never really shed its “procedural” shell, it transitioned from a crime thriller to a modern science fiction show with the introduction of a mysterious hacker, Root (played by the ageless Amy Acker), who had figured out that the Machine existed and, realizing what it was, wanted to free it. Root saw the Machine as a higher life form, an ASI—Artificial Super Intelligence—a god even. But Harold had “shackled” the Machine with rules so that it couldn’t be abused and so that it would not grow too powerful in its own right. Here, the show started to show its true colors. It was a CBS crime procedural, yes… but it was also about a nascent artificial intelligence and all of the ethical questions associated with its creation, how others might seek to use it, and its very existence.

The show gave us many glimpses into the past about how Harold not only created the Machine, but also how he taught it judgment, logic, and, most importantly, the value of life. Arguably, that education continued between Harold and John; Harold discouraged John from killing and encouraged less lethal means. It was also a way for our series lead badass to not kill 20 people an episode and just shoot them in the legs. CBS probably would have frowned on the excess murder, but gunshot legs are fine.

Meanwhile, as the show continued, evidence of another artificial intelligence loomed. If Harold’s Machine was a passive conduit for our heroes to help people and save lives, the introduction of “Samaritan” showed that there was another way artificial intelligence could go. Samaritan was an ASI unshackled like the Machine. Its handlers weren’t trying to protect privacy or restrain its power and access, they wanted Samaritan to amass knowledge, influence, and power. While the Machine made no direct action itself, Samaritan changed police records, deactivated security systems, influenced stock market prices, texted people with monetary incentives to do its bidding, and was basically a precursor to Skynet from The Terminator.

But it has to be emphasized that the show kept all of this grounded in reality. And that’s the scary part! Nothing Samaritan (or the Machine) did seems out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the show makes explicit references to actual, real government programs to build something like the fictional Machine or Samaritan. If you don’t know, the government actually tried to do something like this. Three such projects were TIA, Stellar Wind, and Trailblazer. The show was science fiction, but just barely.

And like any good science fiction, it’s the characters that breathe life into the “fantastical” situations and story. We begin, like we do with any CBS procedural, believing our heroes are the chaste, white knights chasing down bad guys. But think about what Harold has created. It’s true that he’s trying to use the Machine for “good,” but he’s effectively hacking a government program. And the Machine exists as a tool for violating personal privacy and rights of search. That it’s a “benevolent” intelligence is beside the point. Our “heroes” are vigilantes. And, more to the point, may have opened Pandora’s Box. Had Harold not created the Machine, would Samaritan exist? Would the government have simply found a way to build this technology anyway with a less altruistic creator? These are questions you might have and the show, God Bless It, addresses.

In my zeal to sell you on the concept, I’ve left out a ton of things you should discover on your own. Taraji P. Henson plays Detective Joss Carter, who is on John Reese’s tail as well as facing down an inter-departmental ring of dirty cops. Kevin Chapman plays Detective Lionel Fusco, a crooked cop in which John Reese takes an interest. Sarah Shahi plays Sameen Shaw, a government operative initially working on the list of numbers from the Machine’s “relevant” list, who may also be a high functioning sociopath. And there’s a host of other recurring characters that “Team Machine” encounters along the way who only enrich the universe the creators have crafted. There’s even an awesome dog who is probably my favorite character, but really it’s because it’s a dog.

Ron Swanson once said, “Son, you should know that my recommendation is essentially a guarantee.” This is true of my recommendation as well. I hope you check out Person of Interest. The first four seasons are on Netflix right now. In a pinch you could get the final season on iTunes or Amazon Video, whatever. But for those of you (I’m one!) who have lamented the lack of quality in broadcast network TV, Person of Interest was a rarity. It broke the mold of CBS’s usual, tired premises and aspired to be a thoughtful, exciting, dynamic show with real heart and purpose at its center.

As I noted at the beginning, Person of Interest’s series finale aired last week. Finales are hard to get right. In my humble opinion, Breaking Bad and The Shield are probably the best, most satisfying TV finales ever crafted. POI breathes that rarefied air, too. So, if you’re not looking to get invested in a show only to be disappointed by the end, you can relax. If anything, you’ll wish there was more Person of Interest to come and really, that’s the way to end a show: make the audience miss it, not be glad it’s dead.

I miss Person of Interest. If even a few of you pick it up on my recommendation, it will have been worth it. You’ve got a hell of a good show ahead of you to watch and I’m envious.

Belated Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

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And, yes, I’m trolling the haters by using this image.

Beware. There are some spoilers, but nothing too damaging.

Let me get this out of the way first: go see X-Men: Apocalypse. If you read nothing else, you’ll be fine. The movie is an X-Men movie, through and through. If you like superhero movies, you’ll enjoy it. If you like X-Men movies, then great, you’ll enjoy this. I actually think I liked it more than Days of Future’s Past. X2 is still my favorite of the series—it has a solid pace, emotional intensity, and does a great job handling the large ensemble cast. But Apocalypse comes close.

Anyway, I try to review a movie on its own merits and leave public perception and outside influences aside, but since this review is coming so long after the movie originally premiered I have to address the critical reception it’s received so far. So, here it is: what are they talking about? Did we watch the same movie? Now, it’s not groundbreaking cinema by any means. And it’s not a surprise like X-Men: First Class was. But this is a solid effort with a fairly uncomplicated story, some standout performances, and fun action sequences. Really though, it’s so in-line with First Class and Days of Future’s Past that I don’t really understand why it was viewed with such disdain.

Here’s the story: back in the days of ancient Egypt, Apocalypse ruled (played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac of “Poe Dameron” fame from Star Wars: The Force Awakens). He had acolytes among the people and four mutant honor guards. But a secret conspiracy struck when he was at his most vulnerable, during a process to transfer his essence into another mutant with a healing factor a lot like Wolverine’s, and his honor guards were killed and Apocalypse was left buried under a pyramid.

In the present, we catch up with characters we know like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havok (Lucas Till). We also meet some “new” faces like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner – Sansa!), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). We even catch up with Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) who was in First Class, but sat out Days of Future’s Past.

The world is in tentative peace. Mutants were revealed during the events of the previous film and things aren’t perfect, but mutants are something of a policy question at this point rather than a group politicians are seeking to legislate or restrain. Professor X has gotten over his crisis of faith and has embraced running the Xavier school. But that’s all he’s embraced—helping mutants control their powers and giving them the tools to acclimate back into society. The idea of the “X-Men,” a proactive force protecting mutants and people from mutants around the world, remains shuttered below the mansion.

Mystique, however, has become something of a folk hero among mutants for preventing Magneto from killing Nixon. Mutants (and, indeed, everyone) know who she is and some even have posters of her. She is a dedicated one-woman mercenary out to save and free as many mutants as she can from various circumstances. This is where we first meet Nightcrawler.

Meanwhile, Magneto has assumed a fake name. He’s married with a daughter. And he’s living a very simple life, working at a steel mill (of course he would). He’s starring in his very own 80s action moving opening or maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales fits better—a man who’s left war and violence behind and you cringe while watching it because you know it won’t last. I hope that’s not a spoiler for anybody.

Finally, Alex Summer’s brother, Scott, has just undergone his mutant transformation. He’s brought to the Xavier school where he acquaints himself with fellow “freak” Jean Grey and stands out, at least initially, as the most powerful, but uncontrolled wild card of the bunch.

It doesn’t take long before Apocalypse is awakened and goes about recruiting the most powerful mutants in the world to take it back from “the weak.” His ultimate plan is decent, if not a little convenient. His recruits, with the exception of Magneto, suffer from the over-stuffed ensemble and don’t get much to do other than pose and look threatening. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke came off better than Storm and Angel did and I’m not sure why I thought so, maybe it’s because she had very few lines and otherwise just got to be a badass. Whatever you think of Munn’s acting, she’s got a good “threatening” stare.

The third act gets a little bit frenetic with a lot of things happening intercut with grey men in control rooms providing exposition bolstered by world-destroying CGI, but that’s hardly a complaint limited to the X-Men films. On balance, though, the final confrontation was exciting and satisfying. The X-Men movies never really had “boss” fights at the end of their films, at least not in the traditional sense, but this one does and it actually serves to mean something thematically for the story which impressed me.

The ending maybe gets a little too cute with a couple of knowing winks and nods at the audience that probably rankled other movie reviewers, but I confess that they worked for me, particularly a reference to the original 2000 X-Men movie. And I’m excited to see where the franchise goes from here because the characters are left in a particularly tantalizing place as the movie ends.

What I liked:

  • Quicksilver, of course. He’s back. I didn’t mention him as part of the quick synopsis run-through above because I didn’t want to go too far into the weeds of the plot. But Quicksilver steals the movie again with another fantastic sequence that ups the ante on his capabilities. He also sticks around this time which is only a good thing.
  • A very good extended cameo.
  • For those of us who remember how restrained the first X-Men movie was, black leather suits, unexciting uses of mutant powers, etc., this movie is the culmination of what fans have wanted for years: big, exciting displays of mutant powers like what we remembered from the comics or the various cartoon series.
  • Professor X gets to contribute! The professor is a tricky character because he’s extremely powerful. His ability to control minds would basically end movies before they started unless there’s a way to “block” him or take him out of the story. The first X-Men movie just put him into a coma in the 3rd act, X2 simply had him kidnapped and manipulated by another powerful telekinetic mutant, and X-Men: The Last Stand just killed him (!). First Class was the first film where the Professor got to do some stuff and the story cleverly pitted him against evil Betty Draper (Emma Frost) as well as another powerful mutant who devised the helmet that Magneto eventually wears, but is also just a force who cannot easily be controlled. Days of Future’s Past stripped the professor of his powers as he is basically a drug addict clinging to a medicine that helps him walk, but also suppresses the constant barrage of voices and thoughts to which he’s subjected. Finally, my point: in Apocalypse, Professor X is legitimately challenged by Apocalypse so he actually is a participant in the fight. It’s an exciting element, well executed.

What I didn’t like:

  • Perhaps the only point some of the critics made, which I partially agree with, is about the pacing. The movie spends a lot of time catching us up with old characters and introducing new ones. I didn’t mind this so much, but I did reach a point where I wondered when things were going to get moving.
  • Apocalypse’s inconsistent powers. This is, again, something not unique to the X-Men movies, but Apocalypse’s power is shown to be great. He literally vaporizes a group of guys at one point. So, it makes one wonder why he didn’t use this power when confronting the X-Men at the end of the movie. Characters like Xavier and Jean Grey, perhaps, can protect against this kind of attack, but people like Cyclops and Mystique have no defenses against stuff like that. It’s kind of the reverse problem of keeping the Professor out of the action because he’s so powerful, Apocalypse is so powerful that he could vanquish some enemies just with a look, but he only does it sometimes and it doesn’t make sense.
  • The movie takes place in the 80s, but it’s not really an influence on the movie like the 70s were in Days of Future’s Past. Other than hair styles and the fashions around the Xavier school, you’d barely know it was 1983. Some characters go to see Return of the Jedi at one point, but other than setting up an audience-winking, meta quip about X-Men: The Last Stand, it doesn’t really impact the movie. Not a major complaint, mind you, but it just seems like they could have done more with the time period.
  • Finally, and I don’t know if this is something that I “didn’t like” per se but, if I’m judging this film on its own merits, it’s a movie that relies heavily on backstory from the previous two movies to inform its story. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fantastic actors, so you can feel the 25 years of history between these men when they speak or refer to one another, but that’s purely from their performances. The story doesn’t give us much information about their history other than some scattered flashbacks. As much as movies can be sequels or part of larger franchises, they still need to be able to stand on their own. I’m not sure this movie passes that test. I enjoyed it and understood everything I needed to because I’ve seen the other movies and I know the basic character beats from other X-Men media. I don’t know if Joe Movergoer would have understood everything in this movie on its own merits.

In summary, my advice is this: ignore the commentators and the critics slamming the movie. Go and see if for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised like I was.

Go See “Creed”

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Can’t do much better than Rocky Balboa in your corner.

This review is late, but no less valid now than when Creed came out two weeks ago. If I’ve seen you in person since I saw the movie, I know I’ve told you how good it is. If I don’t see you in person all that often, well: Listen Up.

Creed is a spin-off/sequel/restart (?) in the Rocky series. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is because it follows everything we’ve seen in the previous six Rocky movies, yet follows a new character, Adonis Johnson/Creed (the fantastic Michael B. Jordan aka Vince from Friday Night Lights and Wallace from The Wire), Apollo Creed’s bastard son from an affair. Yet, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, for the one person out there who doesn’t know that) is the film’s co-star and his character arc is the next chapter in his life as if this were a strict Rocky sequel.

I spend a lot of time defending and justifying sequels, re-imaginings, reboots, shared universes, and all other kinds of franchise building efforts. Creed is, quite possibly, the best example of what a sequel (or whatever it is) should be.

The plot is no secret and is pretty plain from all of the advertising leading up to Creed’s release. Adonis Johnson is Apollo Creed’s son by another mother and like his famous boxing father, he wants to fight, but no one will train him. As his last hope, Adonis seeks out his father’s equally famous friend, Rocky Balboa, to train him. Based on the plot concept, this movie had the potential to be cheesy and not very good.

Writer and Director Ryan Coogler punched that idea right in the face, Ivan Drago-style. This isn’t just a good Rocky movie, it’s a good film in its own right. I can’t remember the last time a movie so satisfied everything I wanted it to be. Coogler made exactly the movie that this needed to be given its hybrid story and origins.

You can never overstate how important music is to a film. Creed’s composer, Ludwig Goransson, has made magic by weaving the Rocky films’ score in and out of a beautiful new arrangement, defined by a badass theme for Adonis that I think will become just as memorable as Rocky’s. Even the degree to which Rocky’s theme music is soft and emotional (for the most part…) compared to the dominant bass and trumpets of Adonis’s theme is right on the money—this is Adonis’s movie, but Rocky is his heart and his spirit. It’s just an incredible arrangement.

Now I won’t go into extreme detail, but I’m a big fan of the Rocky series. Even at its goofiest moments in Rocky III (Thunderlips) and Rocky IV (James Brown and Paulie’s robot), the films all have genuine emotional heart. And they’re inspiring, all about spirit triumphing over seemingly impossible odds. As a short man, with limited physical gifts, I identify with that message.

Director Ryan Coogler shares writing credit with Aaron Covington and these two have captured Rocky’s universe as perfectly as if they extracted it right out of Stallone’s brain. But what’s so good about what they have done here is nothing feels ripped off or copied. Every reference to what has come before, both in Rocky’s life and in Adonis’s relation to Apollo Creed, doesn’t feel like pandering; it feels like necessary, organic parts of this story, which only make them more satisfying. Too often it seems like sequels and reboots run away from what made the original film(s) they are based upon so great. Creed doesn’t do that at all. And it’s so much stronger for embracing its roots in the Rocky story and forging a new path ahead of Adonis, who is no Rocky clone, but does share Rocky’s determination and heart.

It would be a disservice to review this film without commenting on the boxing. It’s fast, brutal, and easily the most realistic of the Rocky films. Plus, Ryan Coogler sets up some imaginative shots that really put the viewer in the ring with Adonis. Most of the fighting is shot over Adonis’s shoulder except in a few cases the camera works to jolt you along with him.

I’m a fan of Michael B. Jordan’s work on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so I’m probably not the most objective person to evaluate him. Jordan’s portrayal of Adonis Johnson (Creed) is simply great. He imbues the character with history, with pain, with sadness, with strength. It’s not inaccurate to compare Adonis here to Rocky in the original movie, but Adonis is wholly a different character. Even as Adonis courts Bianca (Tessa Thompson), it’s clear he’s got a lot more game than good ol’ Rocky had. But that’s OK.

Meanwhile, while Rocky’s boxing fights are behind him, his character still has a fight ahead of him. And I dare you to keep those eyes dry while Rocky confronts the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. I’ve heard talk that Sylvester Stallone might get an Oscar nod for this performance. I hope he does because it’s really meaty stuff and it’s proof that, while Stallone made his career out of bulletproof action heroes, Rocky Balboa is in his heart. This is why the film doesn’t solely belong to Michael B. Jordan.

I thought I had seen the last of Rocky Balboa’s world with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, a fitting conclusion (I thought) to this series of films. But I didn’t realize how much I missed that character and his world. Or maybe it’s just that Ryan Coogler has told such a compelling, emotional story that it breathes new life into the whole franchise. Creed is over two hours, but it flew by and I want more.

Go see this movie and try not to jump to your feet at the start of the last round. I dare you.

I’m on a Podcast!

Hi all!

There’s a great YouTube channel, and Facebook page (!), called “Obnoxious and Anonymous” that populates great entertainment news and opinion. I’ve recently joined as a contributor and I’m fortunate enough to appear on some of the weekly podcasts. It’s exactly my taste (in that we talk about nonsense), so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy the podcasts too.

This week’s podcast includes two members of the YouTube group “The Sausage Factory,” Cole and Orc. They have some great film discussions and “live watches” on their channel. They’re also big 80’s slasher film fans and I’m also a mega fan. TSF has a new episode premiering tonight, so check it out.

But this latest “O&A” video is one of the best and Cole and Orc are a couple of smart, funny guys so we have a pretty good discussion. I hope you enjoy and, if it floats your boat, subscribe to the channel! And this one!

 

Fear “The Walking Dead’s” Return Because the Spin-off Doesn’t Match Up

…but we won’t explain HOW it began.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I’m not hyper-critical about sequels and spin-offs. I usually like them.

If I like the source material, I’m generally excited to see more adventures with the characters or see new angles of the universe through new characters and situations. If the creators of the “main” show, or original movie, are doing their jobs they’ve constructed a living, breathing world where all kinds of things can happen.

The Walking Dead does its job. Other than some logical and pacing missteps in its second season (rife with behind the scenes turnover and drama), TWD is a rich, fully realized world with a number of potential story paths to follow with our original cast and to explore away from them if they so choose. Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead mines the missteps from TWD season two as its concept—domestic drama.

The spinoff takes place in L.A., 3,000 miles away from where Sheriff Rick Grimes rests in a coma in Georgia. By all appearances, the new show takes place in the time when Rick was out of the loop. Society still exists. Kids go to school. Drug addicts get high. You get it.

The pilot introduces our main characters, a mixed-race family featuring Cliff Curtis (Travis), Kim Dickens (Madison), Alycia-Debnam-Carey (Alicia*), and Frank Dillane (Nick), in the midst of turmoil of the domestic variety – Nick is a drug addict and is in the hospital following a car accident precipitated by a proto-zombie attack. Of course, no one believes him because that’s crazy. This is another mistake FTWD makes – much of the show’s drama is based around the fact that the audience knows what’s happening and the characters don’t. In interviews, creators and cast cite this as a strength, but I think it’s a weakness. The show should stand on its own and create stakes based upon this story, not source cheap scares and suspense from the fact that we already watch The (superior) Walking Dead. What’s interesting about this story? Why should we invest in these people?

It’s unfair, but I have to compare the FTWD pilot to TWD pilot. When you do that, you see there’s no comparison at all. TWD pilot is cinematic, evocative, and tells a whole story in of itself – like a good pilot should. Rick Grimes is shot and goes into a coma; when he wakes up, he is alone and the hospital is abandoned. We enter this world with Rick as he discovers barricaded doors covered with a scribbled warning “Dead Inside.” The viewer is Rick’s companion as he stumbles deeper into a barren, empty, frightening world where the dead “live” and the only safety he finds is with a lone man and his son surviving in the abandoned suburbs near his empty house.

That pilot is highly visual, too. Rick riding down the highway in his sheriff’s uniform on a horse towards an apocalyptic Atlanta horizon, Rick weeping over an almost dissolved zombie body that still lives in unending torment, Rick shooting a zombified little girl in the head, and more! There’s hardly any dialogue, but the pilot communicates everything you need to know with powerful cinematography and crisp scripting.

Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot is nowhere near as strong. There’s nothing powerful happening here. Creator Robert Kirkman emphasized how this was going to be a story about a family and, man, he wasn’t kidding. Variety’s review suggested that FTWD is like Parenthood with zombies. The only problem with this is Kirkman and his co-writer, Dave Erickson, are not nearly as sharp as Jason Katims at crafting engaging family drama. But the question remains: why do we care about this family’s drama at all when we know there’s a zombie holocaust underway? One of the most fascinating episodes of the original show is “TS-19,” the first season finale where Rick and company arrive at the CDC and encounter the last surviving scientist who doled out tantalizing nuggets of mythology. I wasn’t asking for a show about chemistry, but some exploration of an outbreak that reanimates the dead might have been interesting.

FTWD’s focus on the family feels like a tease. I know Kirkman is dedicated to telling “ground-level” stories in his zombie universe, but he’s at a disadvantage here. After spending years with Rick Grimes and his motley crew, I have many questions about the zombie outbreak, the government response, what people knew and when, and so on. Since that show just threw us into the world after zombies, when we occasionally took a break to explore what family and friendships mean in this environment it was interesting (sometimes… I’m looking at you, Season Two). But FTWD has inverted that formula. We start with a family and, presumably, we will follow them into the apocalypse and see what that means for them. But there’s no hook. I have no reason to keep watching other than my foreknowledge about what’s coming. Kirkman’s insistence that he will give no answers or insight on the zombie virus (?) or sickness (?) is maddening. That’s the hook. That’s what would invest us in this story. Simply dropping us in a story of another group of people at a different point in time is just not a compelling reason for this show to exist.

Finally, if you forget the fact that The Walking Dead exists and evaluate this show on its merits, it’s OK. It’s not great. But if this had been the first show, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. Again, what’s the hook? The measure of any great spin-off needs to be whether or not that show can be its own thing. FTWD would not have shattered ratings records if not for the fandom of the original show. I can’t begrudge the show for having a successful predecessor, but I can try to look at it objectively. If I do that, what was remarkable? Name a memorable scene. Name a character other than Nick and don’t cheat by going back in this post.

I’ll watch next week and, odds are, I’ll watch all the way up to The Walking Dead’s season six premiere. But, honestly, I’ll do so to pass the time until the exciting show I want to watch comes back. Maybe Fear the Walking Dead will grab me in the meantime.

 

*It’s distracting that Alycia Debnam-Carey is “Alicia.” Feels lazy even though I’m sure the name was set in the script before Debnam-Carey was cast.

Sequels, Reboots, and Shared Universes – Oh My!

Jaws 19

This time it’s really personal.

I know I said I would stop apologizing about not writing enough, but I feel bad that I’m not more up to date. It’s this annoying fatherhood… I mean, like “Change your own diaper!”

Fortunately, I’m feeling the itch to write these days thanks to some contributions I’m making at Obnoxious and Anonymous on video podcasts about a variety of subjects.

I’ve been aching to take on the persistent, knee-jerk cynicism about sequels, reboots, and the relatively new phenomenon of shared movie universes.

On the surface, I get it.

As the writer of my own original independent work (works), I would like room to break in and show people something new as opposed to a 3rd Spider-Man reboot within 15 years of the original film – to say nothing of the fact that the character has been in production for about fifty years of comics and cartoons (let’s not speak of the live action 70s show…). New characters and new stories are necessary. We can’t keep rehashing the same things over and over.

And, more to the point, I think what I, as a fan, sometimes hate about sequels or reboots is how bad they can be, which can spoil the memories and connections I’ve made to the original work. Two examples that illustrate this perfectly for me are the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and The X-Men films. Both series started out with decent first films and then debuted stronger, more complex—more awesome—sequels. Then each series turned out bad second sequels that were not only pretty bad films, but they soured the stories and my memories of the first two films. I would point out, too, that it was largely studio interference or behind the scenes problems that tanked these movies. Not that it makes it better, but it’s not like the ideas were flawed from the start.

But the geek in me—the passionate fan—wants more content about the things I love. More good content. I want these films—or TV shows—to succeed. Sometimes I think I come off as a contrarian when it comes to these things because there seems to be so much vitriol online against sequels that I feel the need to balance the scales and defend them.

It’s not just that, though. The truth is: we don’t hate sequels. Some of our favorite films are sequels. There are the obvious ones: Godfather 2, Aliens, Terminator 2… these movies are not only good by their own rights, but they grew the worlds of the original films and gave us extra dimensions of the characters and situations that only improve the original movies in context.

I would add Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Lethal Weapon 2 to that list as well, by the way.

I have less patience for so-called reboots, but even there I think there is something interesting in taking an established property and playing with our expectation of it. It may seem like an odd example, but the Friday the 13th reboot is one of the best. The writers clearly had a love for the original material and the film is like a spiritual remix of the first four movies in the “original” series. They even took the opportunity to make sense of the original series disjointed mythology related to Jason’s original drowning and return. More than anything, they got the character of Jason right. He’s not necessarily a complex character, but Jason Goes To Hell is an example of how wrong you can portray Jason Voorhees (including misspelling his last name like JGTH does).

On the other hand, I have a seething hatred for Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot. That’s an example of how not to reboot something. Zombie fundamentally does not understand the characters of the original Halloween least of all Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis, who are pretty important to get right. Zombie said once that Dr. Loomis must have been the worst psychiatrist in the world, which to me is one of the most brain dead things I have ever heard. The point in Carpenter’s Halloween was that Michael Myers was pure evil. No amount of psychiatric treatment would have helped him because he’s not a person. He’s a force. But I digress… I could devote a whole blog to my hatred of that film.

Meanwhile, Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins is another example of how to properly reboot a property. In that case, it almost seems easy in retrospect. After Batman and Robin, there was no way it could be worse. But Nolan didn’t settle for average—Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer crafted a story that explored the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman, which, oddly enough, wasn’t really done in the previous four Batman films; the previous directors put the focus on Batman’s rogues as opposed to the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, in costume as Batman, doesn’t even show up until around the 40 minute mark of Batman Begins. It’s a strong film and, by the way, followed by the amazing sequel The Dark Knight.

Finally, while sequels and reboots aren’t exactly new, the concept of a “shared movie universe” is less than 10 years old. Birthed by our good friends at Marvel, for those of you living under a rock since 2008, this is when more than one movie franchise exists in the same “universe.” Basically, Tony Stark (Iron Man) can go have coffee with Bruce Banner (The Hulk). What happens in one film happens for all the films in that shared universe.

It makes the most sense with comic book properties because that’s how comic books work. As Spider-Man web-slings around the city he might pass Iron Man or Johnny Storm (Human Torch) flying in the other direction. Crossovers are plentiful. But the standard of believability and reality in a feature film (or TV show) is different from a comic book. Marvel’s shared universe gambit was so bold because of the logistics involved with meshing, say, Thor with Iron Man. Iron Man wears a high-tech suit that flies. While it’s fantastical, it’s grounded in a kind of realism that makes it believable. Meanwhile, Thor is a musclebound god who flies and hits people with a magic hammer that only he* can lift. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been worried, but you can see how there was cause for concern.

But criticisms of the shared universe concept go beyond movie logic. Marketing, particularly by Marvel, has been problematic. Last summer Marvel announced every movie slated for release through 2019. While it was interesting to see the new properties that would debut, like Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, new entries in existing character franchises were announced as well—not to mention the next two Avengers entries. It’s been argued that this robbed Avengers: Age of Ultron of some drama because if we know that Captain America is coming out next year, then we know he survives the film and is OK. Same with Thor, who also had a new entry announced.

This criticism is fair. But my response is simple. Who actually thinks Marvel would kill off a marquee character like Thor or Captain America when the actors still have films left on their contracts? Besides, death with comic book characters is about as permanent as the Hulk’s shirt.

I love the idea. But I have two gripes. One, studios are tried to do shared movie universes with everything whether it makes sense or not. Universal is working on a classic monster shared universe with Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc. Paramount is working on a Transformers universe with spinoff films centered on different characters like Bumblebee. Meanwhile, one shared universe I’m excited about is a Stephen King universe and this is mostly because there is a shared King book universe connected by The Dark Tower series.

My second gripe is aimed at Marvel and DC. Marvel built up to 2012’s The Avengers where all of our established heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye teamed up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight aliens. Awesome! Then Iron Man 3 threw it all out the window. After establishing all of these characters and the connectivity in the greater world, Iron Man effectively faces off against Al Qaeda by another name and he does so alone. One might wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D., the overarching intelligence apparatus that seems to know everything, didn’t appear. I did! The movie never addresses this issue. After S.H.I.E.L.D. was up Tony Stark’s butt for two independent films and then a team-up film why would it suddenly disappear when terrorists fly up to Iron Man’s house and blow it up? Why weren’t they involved in combatting the terrorists up to that point? The movie could have had one line that fixed this and I would have stayed mum: “Oh man, S.H.I.E.L.D. is so busy cleaning up New York they’re undermanned…” or whatever. Problem solved. But the movie doesn’t bother to address it.

Similarly, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers and Black Widow are on the run, they go to Falcon’s house and say everyone they know is trying to kill them. What about Tony Stark? They were even in New Jersey at one point, which brought them close to NYC where Tony and THE HULK were chilling in their Science Bros lab. Again, not really addressed. I would have been happy with a line that explained S.H.I.E.L.D. was monitoring Tony’s phones or Tony wouldn’t respond. Something. Anything! The movie clearly knew that Iron Man exists because “Anthony Stark” is targeted by “Project Insight” at the movie’s climax. I get that each character needs their own films and stories, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of building a shared universe you have to maintain it and acknowledge what you’ve built.

I’ve made my feelings about DC clear in other pieces so I won’t belabor them here. I will only note that the inner-connectivity between Arrow and The Flash is a perfect example of how to do it right. My complaints about DC are more about how they won’t unify all of their TV properties and have separated their films from TV.

Basically, my position is simple. Sequels, reboots, shared universes – make them! But make them well. And if you’re going to develop a shared universe, you need to respect the audience’s intelligence – don’t ignore the fact these characters exist in each other’s’ lives. Otherwise, why are you doing it?