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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008


It was an announcement of seismic proportions. The members of MiSTie Nation could barely contain themselves. After 14 years away from daily production on the series, and eight years since his last appearance on the show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson was coming back to the comic format he helped establish - and he was bringing a few friends along for the return trip. Under the auspices of a new bad movie mocking setup - given the clever name Cinematic Titanic - our sleepy eyed hero, along with former MST Cast members J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Servo), Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow T. Robot), Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, were back. The plan - create original installments of this new project for direct to DVD download and/or distribution. For most, it would be their first foray back into in-theater riffing since the original ceased production in 1999.


Of course, there was a catch. Instead of bringing Mystery Science back totally, Joel was forced to create the new entity. It was a problem facing other cast members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett when they started their Rifftrax experiment for Legend Films in 2006. While the overall concept was easily recreated, the naming rights were another story all together. With Best Brains Incorporated in legal limbo, and some slightly sour feelings remaining between the original creators, it seemed like the best way to go was with a brand new identity. With a successful catalog of audio-only comedy tracks (for such major releases as The Matrix, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) Nelson and his pals had kept the concept alive. They had also started their own set of DVD releases under the Film Crew label.


What Hodgson’s reemergence meant to the reinvigorated trio was a question further complicated by the simultaneous announcement that BBI was bringing back an official MST3K website with old school content and new animated “skits” from everyone’s favorite automatons. Naturally, none of the original actors were involved save Jim Mallon (producer and voice of Gypsy) and writer Paul Chaplin. So, where once there was a dearth of MST-styled material to enjoy, where all a fan had was VHS copies of the original show, the occasional Rhino DVD release, and tape trading, there were now three separate entities planning on the goodwill inherent in the product and the demographic. At first, everyone was ecstatic. Even with the usual apprehension regarding quality, the more MST, the merrier. But as joy was replaced by judgment, the arrival of three competing creative outlets raised more feelings of unease. 


Primary among the concerns were surface issues like ego and old rivalries. Fans have long been aware of minor animosity between the Joel and Mike camps, leftover bitterness founded on the Season Five switchover and the resulting Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel falderal. When the Rifftrax/Film Crew started up, old timers wondered if the lack of certain participants - namely Joel, Trace, and Jim - meant that there would never be a full blown MST reunion. And then there was the belief that any revamp of past success would barely compete with the legend already in place. Even worse, The Satellite News, at one time the official Mystery Science Theater 3000 site, lost its ability to call itself that, and had to switch over to “fan oriented” content. It wasn’t because of anything they did. In essence, three separate entities are now vying to carry on a cult tradition that, five years ago, everyone considered more or less dead.


Now, Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a phenomenon was never officially over. While the familiar had stacks of prerecorded episodes, new DVDs, and online content to dig through, the main thread of Hodgson’s concept - making fun of really bad movies - maintained its popularity. Newbies were also just discovering the show, using YouTube and other personal file sharing protocols to experience some of the best the series had to offer. Anyone with half a brain knew that there was always an outlet for MST3K and it’s style of humor, and with the supported success of Rifftrax, Mike Nelson commentaries on public domain titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Reefer Madness, and multidisc volumes, it was only a matte of time before the show - in some form or another - made a comeback.


But things don’t look good in film quipping land these days, especially if initial rumors and messageboard reports are to be believed. While a genial “we’re all friends” attitude seems to have greeted the recent Hodgson/Mallon announcements, little rifts in the riffing are being noted. Joel and the gang have tried to maintain a fan friendly email list approach, using direct communication, blog entries, and other personality oriented propositions to draw viewers to their product. Yet in a recent interview, he seems miffed about people sharing copyrighted material - which Cinematic Titanic and old MST definitely fall into. Mallon has also been closing down online clips and complaining about unofficial sites stealing content. Even Rifftrax has announced an official player making the use of their MP3-only product much easier - at least on home computers.


Sounds like a group of competing claimants circling their wagons and preparing for a long legal haul, doesn’t it? And when you consider the trifurcated nature of the approach, three separate and so-far incongruous and incompatible entities competing for the same share of a dedicated and devoted constituency, it looks more like war than mere friendly fire. It’s odd, at least from an impersonal perspective, that so much would be made out of what the performers considered a “little cow town puppet show”. Yet for those who believe Mystery Science Theater 3000 was, and continues to be, the best thing TV has or ever had to offer, such posturing seems apropos. Never appreciated in its time, this newfound mythos can and should be milked for all the monetary value it can garner. But amongst the creative and compelling cash grab, something less affable is in the works.


Mallon’s maneuvers with YouTube and the recent announcement that Shout! Factory was taking over the MST DVD dynamic from Rhino suggests the days of trading posts and “circulating the tapes” may be over. With 2008 representing the 20th anniversary of the show’s appearance on local Minneapolis UHF channel KTMA and tributes bond to occur, who will take the center stage in the celebration seems shaky at best. BBI may take point, since they officially own the name - yet both Hodgson and Nelson were instrumental in making that happen. And this fails to take into consideration known names - Kevin Murphy, in particular - who were around at the time of the show’s inception, and yet didn’t become well associated with it until they stepped up and started performing.


Early opinions of both Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the hilarious Oozing Skull (see review in Tuesday’s SE&L) as well as recent Rifftrax takes on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Transformers indicate the gang are in classic form, yet it begs the question - couldn’t they rule the entertainment world if they simply got back together, ironed out their differences, and offered up Mystery Science Theater 3001? Imagine the excitement, and the anticipation, of seeing the classic casts and all the classic characters banding together to take down the cinematic scourge of bad, bad movies. With so few sure things out there, a studio or distribution company would be insane not to bankroll a return, and rights issues could be cast aside as deals could be struck with both filmmakers and film owners who’ve longed for the day they’d be subject to Joel, Mike and the ‘bots.


Of course, it will probably never happen. We are dealing with artists here, individuals who mix the fear of rejection with the bravery of performance on a daily basis to earn their keep. Trying to convince them to lay aside differences and work together again is probably a Beatles/The Jam impossibility. Since fans are willing to support all three (or at least Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic - the verdict is still out on the BBI revamp of MST3K.com) there really is no reason to play nice…not yet, at least. Here’s hoping that, one day, the powers that be will come together and realize that one flawless presentation of silver screen spoofing is far better than many still amazing examples. If the differences are too deep, however, then it appears we are in for more than one illustration of MST magnificence. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
backpack-picnic

This week: Ever wondered where those random shoes on the side of the road come from? So does Backpack Picnic. In this skit, Shannon does something completely unexpected and almost gets everyone killed looking for the answer to this important question.  Kinda.


Every week PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008

Leftovers and scraps from the media’s round-tables.

By Chris Justice


Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama


Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch was right when he recently stated this in The Connecticut Post Online: “Polls can tell us what voters are thinking and who is ahead at a specific time. But polls should not be considered prophetic.” But why do so many journalists ignore this reality?


Polls raise more questions than answers. I hear the echoes now around water coolers throughout the country: “Were you polled?” “Who? Me? I’ve never been polled.” So who was actually polled? And when were they polled? What was the question? What exactly is a “margin of error”? Which political organizations fund this pollster?


Polls are useful when identifying trends in public opinion, but are damaging when they become news stories themselves. They promote instant debate ripe for sound bytes, but rarely spur thoughtful, critical analyses. As snapshots of accuracy, they are numbingly inaccurate, create more confusion than clarity, disagree with each other constantly, and direct more attention upon the pollster than the information they solicit.


Answers are moot with polls and pollsters, as John Zogby demonstrated during a recent interview with Jon Stewart. Politicians may need polls, but journalists should avoid them, especially in an era of eroding trust in our news agencies. When so much information is under suspicion, journalists must do a better job of scrutinizing the most suspicious.


I prefer people to polls. Journalists should report people’s stories and not the impersonal, mercurial speculations produced by the American polling monolith. Journalists should avoid using polling information in their leads. Polls are predictive, not prophetic. They don’t warrant the attention journalists give them.


Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008


It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film - and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising - canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.


There are actually three intriguing stories at the center of the new DVD release of El Cid. The first is the legend of the title character, a sweeping spectacle dealing with important issues like loyalty, courage, and destiny. The next is the tall tale of how Samuel Bronston, a wide-eyed Romanian employee of MGM, branched out into independent production and navigated several epic films to the big screen, El Cid included. He also was famed for using the Roadshow format to maximum early ‘60s effect. This is also the story of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who’ve used their recent split from Disney (and their signature company, Miramax) as a stepping stone toward their passion for film preservation. Dedicated to their late mother, the new Miriam Collection intends to champion forgotten efforts from the past, hoping that new generations will discover their glories. With the digital treatment of El Cid, they’ve created a product that will make both Mom and the history of cinema proud.

The myth surrounding the title character, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar begins as all such romanticized history does - with a wedding thwarted and an act of charity leading to charges of treason. After releasing a captured Moorish general and his men, our soon to be conqueror earns the gratitude, and undying loyalty, of his previous prisoners. Naturally, the King and his court are not happy, and Rodrigo is accused of being a traitor. As the noblemen debate his fate, he seeks the solace of his beautiful bride to be Jimena, daughter of the royal champion. Their love is undying and undeniable. But when his own father is insulted, Rodrigo challenges his lady love’s guardian to a duel. The results ruin the relationship with his fiancé forever. As the King’s newest knight, El Cid is sent to negotiate with disloyal factions in the kingdom. He eventual succeeds, and an innate ability to avoid ambush and double cross turn him into a rural icon. Soon, competitive elements within the royal family will challenge his sense of duty, and his love for Jimena…and all the while, the Moors are preparing for all out war.


Anchored by yet another stellar Charleton Heston performance and propelled by director Anthony Mann’s sense of scale, El Cid is the kind of good old fashioned filmmaking that truly satisfies the deepest inner cravings of an aesthetic starved movie buff. Lacking the usual clunky dialogue that dooms such sword and sandal period pieces, and laced with a thread of near religious allusion in its themes, we wind up with the kind of larger then life experience that makes history seem evocative and personal sacrifice the noblest of all intentions. While the story of how Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is slightly marginalized by the artform’s natural tendency to over-tweak the genre, and some of the supporting players can’t match master thespian Chuck’s mantle, we still walk away feeling drawn in by a monumental experience that does a devastating job of putting us right inside the ideological conflict at play.


Indeed, some may feel an odd sense of déjà vu as the main Moor villain - the incredibly bad Ben Yussuf, portrayed by an unrecognizable Herbert Lom - delivers his anti-enlightenment screeds. It’s all burning books, avoiding knowledge, limiting freedom, and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. The notion of a Muslim army overthrowing the rest of the known world via sheer brute force and insane violence is nothing new, but in our current hot button foreign policy pickle, such pronouncements seem prophetic. Some will also recognize a similar Arabs as mannered madmen ideal like the one forwarded in 300. The enemy’s misguided sense of purpose is outlandish and intense. With the exacting costumes and large scale battle scenes, Mann and his mega-sized war machinery definitely leave a big impression.


But El Cid is not all gigantic battles and a cast of several thousand. Some of the best moments are one on one, like Rodrigo’s swordfight with the father of his fiancé. It’s a perfectly paced and performed bit of stunt swashbuckling. Similarly, the jousting gauntlet sequence strikes the proper balance between dread and intended daring-do. Heston handles all his demands with aplomb, grace, and just a small amount of indirect demagoguery. Unlike his work in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, there is very little humility in how he plays Cid. Only when confronted by his King does he ever let his guard down. Even playing against a slightly stiff Sophia Loren (who really isn’t given much to do except look stoic), there is a humble hubris percolating at the core of his character’s being. He knows he’s right - he’s just waiting for the rest of Spain to get clued in.


All of this leads to one of those amazing real life recreations, complete with a windswept seaside setting, untold extras, and enough found location legitimacy to keep the pomp palpable. It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough - and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.


Long unavailable on DVD - many of these bloated bits of ballyhoo became lost in a quagmire of competing rights once movies went simplistic and post-modern - the Weinsteins should be praised considerably for bringing this movie back from the home video dead. The pristine, almost perfect anamorphic widescreen image captures Mann’s magnificent framing and composition with polish and professionalism. The picture here is just amazing. Similarly, a newly struck Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix bolsters the brilliant score by Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, King of Kings). But the best element of this Miriam Collection release is the context. With commentaries, production featurettes and other print-based bonuses, we get a vivid picture of what it took for Bronston to bring this project to life.


On the full length complementary discussion, Bill, the late producer’s son, talks about his dad and his desire to make movies. He’s joined by Neil M. Rosendorf, historian and Bronston biographer. While the latter can’t help but overly praise the film, and link everything back to his Jewish heritage, the overall conversation provides the kind of clarity we need to understand this phase of mainstream moviemaking. Equally insightful are the documentaries, bonuses that concentrate on the movie, Mann, Rozsa, and the difficulty in preserving cinema’s past. Together with a booklet outlining the film and its famous roadshow success, we get a clear picture of what made Bronston tick - and why he choose such a large canvas to tell his tales.

The answer is obvious - in order to battle novelty, one has to be equally unique as well. The roadshow, with its event-like mentality and sense of spectacle, was a surefire way to get audiences back to the bijou. It announced an experience unlike anything they were normally used to, and promised to deliver sound and vision incomparable - especially from a fledgling medium like television. And for a while it worked, and watching El Cid some 48 years later, it’s easy to see why. By combining expert casting, lush opticals, and narratives that span the scope of all human experience, the epic promised the very essence of man’s place within the universe. In that capacity, Bronston and El Cid truly deliver. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s new DVD arm gets such grandeur as well. This new digital package is one of the year’s best.



DVD


 
EXTRAS


 


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008

The Scotsman puts it best: “It had to happen.” In the fine tradition of shows like Celebrity Love Island and Dancing With the Stars, UK celebs are signing up to compete in yet another lame-brained reality show. This one is called Murder Most Famous, and get this—the celebs, under the tutelage of Minette Walters, will study criminology and forensics in order to write their own crime novels. The winner will see their novel published by Pan Macmillan next year.


The competitors are a group of people The Scotsman calles “C-list celebrities”. Their names are Brendan Cole, Sherrie Hewson, Angela Griffin, Matt Allwright, Diarmuid Gavin and Kelvin MacKenzie. Famous in England, I guess.


What? I don’t even know where to begin. Shame on you, Pan Macmillan, for letting this abomination go ahead.


The news of the show comes hot on the heels of this article in The Guardian that poses the question, “are crime books easier to write than ‘serious’ novels?” The article talks about Joan Brady, a Whitbread winner, who sued the cobbler living downstairs whose weird cobbling chemicals seeping through her floor caused her to go a tiny bit mental. This new lack of brain function manifested itself, says Brady, in her abandoning her serious literary writing to pen a substandard crime novel. The fumes made her do it, she cried, and she and the cobbler settled out of court with Ms. Brady receiving quite a hefty sum.


So, according to Ms Brady, crime writing is for spaced-out dunces. It’s something a writer must be reduced to doing. But where did such thinking come from? It’s a big debate in Book World, that crime novels aren’t “real” literature, falling into the category of “genre” writing alongside horror novels, science-fiction, and romance. If you ask me, such thinking is pretty much bupkiss. Crappy crime writing is just crappy crime writing. It doesn’t mean all crime writers are lame, just the lame ones. After all, plenty of great modern literature is set in space. I think all well-rounded readers know this. So why can’t Ian Rankin shake the stereotype perpetuated by the Joan Bradys of the world?


I blame James Patterson. And crime fiction publishers and marketers everywhere, truth be told. Patterson’s books, when viewed next to Ian Rankin’s, look a bit similar. And like Rankin, his books feature recurring, damaged characters in dire need of redemption. Their books are always mysteries, a couple have been turned into movies, and all can get quite grisly. The difference between the authors is, while James Patterson blurts out five novels a year, all told in the same gimmicky, rapid-fire and ready for TV style, Rankin waits a while between stories, and writes chapters that need more than a trip to the dunny to be fully digested.


But, this, too, is well-known. So, is it a case of some writers spoiling it for everyone? I think it is. There are serious crime writers and there are hacks. Just as there as serious musicians and crappy synth-ed robot people with guitars. It’s a popularity game, and we all know it, so why is the question still coming up? Why can Ms. Brady get thousands of pounds out of a poor cobbler for doing what every author and his dog who wants instant chart success seems to be doing?


The readers don’t help, either. Or is it our new fast and loose lifestyles that mean we only have time for Patterson-sized chapters quickly scanned before lights out? The readers demand these books—remember that statistic about Mills and Boon consumers from last week? Someone is reading, so publishers are getting that product out there. It’s business. And as with anything that gets too popular, too in-demand, the quality has dropped. I remember when crime novels were by Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer, epic and researched and good. Even the popcorn-y ones like Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys were more literary than anything Patricia Cornwell has shat out in past 10 years. It’s a cycle, maybe. As Pearl Jam Xeroxed a hundred times becomes Nickelback, so Norman Mailer becomes Michael Kimball. All hope is not lost, though, because while they’re lumped in with the crap, people still read Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow, and the other thinking crime writers we do really need.


The Guardian‘s question is just wrong in its phrasing. It’s not easier to write crime novels, it’s easier to writer crappy crime novels.

Murder Most Famous airs on BBC2 in March. Patterson’s Double Cross was released in November. His Sail will be out in June. The paperbacks of 6th Target and Saving the World came out this month. The paperback of The Quickie arrives in April. Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Crows in out in March.


And, just for fun, Joan Brady’s latest crime novel, Bleedout is out 29 January.


 


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