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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008

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


I’m so tired of John Edwards.


Apparently, in another act of campaign desperation, with interest in his presidential bid fading faster than a setting sun, the Edwards campaign is now blaming the media for his failures to earn primary votes. During a recent interview with MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer, Edwards campaign manager David Bonior, a former Democratic whip in the House of Representatives, turned testy when asked why Edwards wasn’t gaining more traction. His answer? It’s the 5% less media coverage Edwards has been receiving compared to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.


Such a claim insults the intelligence of American voters. How can anyone believe John Edwards, a former U.S. Senator and Vice-Presidential nominee, has not received ample media coverage? Bonior’s own numbers reveal the absurdity of this claim: Does any rational human believe 5% less media coverage will result is such overwhelming differences between Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina?


Haven’t we seen this playbook before? The Bush administration has masterfully manipulated public opinion by pointing fingers at the media instead of themselves and their policies whenever criticism has grown too harsh. Edwards, another candidate trumpeting change, seems immune from it with this new twist. Here is just one anecdote revealing Edwards’s failed strategies: Recently, while driving home from work, I listened to a NPR interview that featured three leading Hispanic thinkers commenting on the presidential primaries and the influence Hispanics would have on the elections. One commentator said the Edwards campaign was “invisible” when trying to reach out to national Hispanic organizations. 


The reasons Edwards isn’t gaining traction are simple: his campaign is poorly organized, and his messages don’t resonate with the American people. He is a millionaire lawyer with minimal experience as a legislator, no experience as an executive, and a former Vice-Presidential nominee that LOST an important presidential election. Sure, he’s attractive, smart, and energetic; however, his ideas are unattractive, and he should bow out of the race sooner than later.


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


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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008
Anticraftby Renee Rigdon and Zabet StewartNorth Light BooksNovember 2007, 160 pages, $22.99

Anticraft
by Renee Rigdon and Zabet Stewart
North Light Books
November 2007, 160 pages, $22.99


Let’s get the obligatory mention of the duct tape corset out of the way straight off.


With the small sacrifice of an old tee and possibly the help of a close friend you can craft your own perfectly fitted and ‘slightly sinister’ corset. Besides this project, there are several other excellent features in Anticraft: Knitting, Beading and Stitching for the Slightly Sinister. The photography is sensational, even when the showcased project isn’t overly exciting. Black and white backgrounds provide a fabulous contrast to colorful (think ebony, blood red, and “ichor green”) projects frequently adorned with skull motifs. The settings are invariably dungeon-inspired hangouts with antiqued decorations. Just flipping through and looking at the great pictures might keep you from noticing that a simple skull-accented hat is edged with faux FunFur. Which I didn’t realize came in black. I can’t actually picture this one on any self-respecting goth-chick, but the appeal of The Anticraft is not limited to those with yarn stashes exclusively containing various shades of black and red. All the better for the book sales, really.


A couple of favorite patterns of mine include ‘The Whilameenas,’ a crocheted two-headed rat, and ‘Three Owls,’ a mini-parliament of felted and embroidered feathered friends. There are many goth-leaning crafters out there (witness the success of The Anticraft website, now on issue number nine), and each of them can find something fascinating among the collection’s 25 projects.


The extra material in the book is a big plus. One feature is the ‘mood enhancer’ paragraph the accompanies each project, in the usual manner of listing materials and tools needed to complete it. Here the authors recommend music, movies, or books to match the mood of the project. Themed recipes and comic strips featuring the authors are also great touches. And the whole book is illustrated like an art project, with vine-like doodles, Victorian-style wood-block prints, and explanations of pagan symbols. At the back there is the customary crafting techniques section, although this one contains illustrated instructions on creating your own chain mail. On the whole, the book is a pleasure to flip through, but most of the projects are either too intricate or too impractical to really bother making.


The point is more about the inspiration and finding a place in the community of Anticrafters.


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Monday, Jan 28, 2008


It’s literally like going back in time. Three voices, long silenced, have returned from entertainment exile to remind us of why we fell in love with Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the first place. When a local Minnesota TV station took a chance on comic Joel Hodgson’s unique vision for a combination matinee movie/satiric space take-off, five now familiar faces were there, establishing the foundation for what would end up being the best TV show in the history of the medium. Along with the famed stand-up, young J. Elvis Weinstein, the snarky Trace Beaulieu, and two station employees - Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon - they honed a rather scattered scheme to make fun of really bad movies. Establishing such soon stalwart ideas as The Satellite of Love, robots Servo, Crow and Gypsy, and a pair of mad scientists running the show, these MST makings would remain solid memories for die hard devotees.


That’s why the first few minutes of the new Hodgson created enterprise Cinematic Titanic are so spooky. Hearing the talented man and his former collaborators (minus Murphy and Mallon) is like a late night on the Comedy Channel back in 1991. It’s like standing in the doorway of your one bedroom apartment’s kitchen and craning your ear to hear what wonderful quip was going to come next. Announced last winter as a return to form, Hodgson has paired with Weinstein and Beaulieu, and with the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to bring the fine art of movie mediocrity back to the masses. While Murphy, along with Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson have carried on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format for over a decade.


And it was well worth the wait. Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the horribly dull Al Adamson splatter stiff The Oozing Skull, is vintage MST filtered through a slightly more adult ideal. Like Nelson’s download only offerings, the jokes can get a bit ‘blue’, but never venture into territory that would insult the intelligence, or the sense of age appropriateness, of the established fan base. Without much initial context (there’s no setup, no ‘us vs. them’ villainy, or sketch comedy insert material - at least, not yet) and an unusual construct that finds five people interacting with the film (two standing, three sitting) there’s an initial adjustment period that lasts about 10 seconds. Then we hear the sonorous tones of our former heroes, and the hilarity comes reeling back.


This is outstanding stuff, the kind of rapid fire revelry that sends a satiric chill down your funny bone. While it’s hard to top the artistic triumph that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, what’s clear is that none of the former participants have lost an ounce of their wonderfully witty edge. The ‘all over the map’ spirit is still intact, jokes running the gambit from unusual references to the very essence of lowbrow. Unlike the original show, Hodgson has incorporated a small amount of physical comedy, letting Conniff take point for a glitzy guest star showcase (all done in silhouette). Beaulieu also gets a make-over moment for Skull‘s leading lady, and on at least two occasions, a wheelchair bound individual comes in and cracks wise, Stephen Hawking style. It’s all very wacky, but within a controlled entertainment environment.


As with most MST product from the past, an episode of Cinematic Titanic will more than likely be judged on the success or failure of the film being mocked - and in the case of The Oozing Skull, they couldn’t have picked a better slice of schlock. Al Adamson, as bad a Z-movie maker as the often mocked (undeservedly so) Ed Wood, steps up and spews his aimless point and shoot stool sampling all over the audience. When the benevolent dictator of a small fictional Middle Eastern empire is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he resorts to a rather extreme backup plan to stay in power. With the help of his peroxide blond gal pal Tracey, the experimental brain transplant operations of Dr. Robert Nigserian, and the protection of attending physician Dr. Lloyd Trenton, Abdul Amir will get a new body. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Gor, an acid scarred retard whose brutish strength hides a baby’s mentality.


So corny that hominy grits are jealous of its maize like properties and so hackneyed that a picture postcard of an Indian Taj stands in for a real location, The Oozing Skull is all gory head surgery and undeniably illogical plot pointing. Adamson, who never met a sequence he couldn’t shatter with his innate lack of mise en scene, delivers his standard 80 minutes of mediocrity, lots of close ups substituting for coverage, and insane ramblings replacing ideas. Dogs dying of rabies-induced dementia are more cogent in the ways of science than this operation-oriented dung. During the first act dome cracking, we get a nice amount of scalpel to fake flesh bloodletting. And the finale is fun in a fumbling, drunken uncle sort of incomprehensibleness. But for sheer boredom and genre junking, this is some very dumb dread.


Luckily, the CT squad is around to address the dilemma. Punching away at all the story chasms, reasoning quagmires, and pizza dough quality effects, the quintet’s quipping is masterful. There is never a missed opportunity, no one performer overriding or dominating the proceedings. Conniff gets off a couple of classic drug jibes, while Hodgson occasionally calls on other cast members to give their talented two cents. The movie is actually paused four times - once to introduce a nauseous Al Hirt, another to let Trace touch up bimbette Regina Carrol’s clown-like face, then for a discussion of battery acid, and finally to hear Weinstein croon a plaintive ballad (kind of) - and during these moments, we instantly recognize the brilliance of these comedians. Even when faced with the daunting challenge of making a sloppy ‘70s drive-in exploitation turd manageable, they are consistently clever and right on the money.


Even better, the movie seems to inspire a kind of chemistry and camaraderie that’s been missing from other MST-styled offerings. Taking nothing away from the radiance offered via Rifftrax and the Film Crew, but seeing all five together, outlines contrasted against Adamson’s bile like cinematography, is morphine for the memory. It reminds us of that classic trio, sitting at the bottom of the screen, providing enjoyment where there definitely was none, smiles where only depressive tears once appeared. Some may think this is nothing more than trading on the past for the sake of a quick buck. But there is much, much more to Cinematic Titanic than traveling back down bad movie memory lane. And with mysterious elements like the Time Tube and other mythology left to explore, the series can only continue to grow.


While we all tend to bark at technology for making life a lot harder than it needs to be, science should be snogged for allowing one time talents, stifled by bumbling broadcast feebs unable to see their inherent value, to take control of their own creative destiny and deliver amazing experiences like the Cinematic Titanic. It will be disorienting at first, a pro-MST mentality unsure of how to react to the satiric specter of the former masterwork. But after a while, after the novelty wears off and the intelligence sinks in, the spirit is lifted and the soul assuaged. The Oozing Skull is just another of those long festering celluloid sores that should have been lanced with some manner of corrosive and cast aside. But in the capable hands of the CT crew, it stands as the start of something wonderful indeed.

DVD


 



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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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