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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


The indirect partnership of author Stephen King and writer/director Frank Darabont remains one of film’s most fascinating. Somehow, after crafting several genre scripts (for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel), the soon to be cinematic savoir hooked up with George Lucas, working on the heralded Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Yet Darabont never forgot his earlier experiences crafting a short film out of King’s least supernatural story, the autobiographical cancer tale The Women in the Room. From there, he was determined to tackle another obscure tale from the fear master’s canon- the prison drama Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The results, considered by many to be a mid-90’s masterpiece, cemented his status as the ultimate interpreter of King’s work. Even the slightly bloated Green Mile couldn’t undo his reputation.


So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, fans almost instantly began foaming. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna. It was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. After all the pro and con Stephen King sniping is said and done, when expectations have been shattered and new realities firmly affixed, those who ever doubted Darabont’s ability will see the frightening forest for the desolate, deconstructionist trees. The filmmaker deserves a great deal of credit for what he’s accomplished here. Like Stephen Spielberg’s revisionist attempt at a realistic fantasy blockbuster with his reality based War of the World, the man behind this innovative inversion of King’s creepshow has crafted the most unconventional conventional b-movie ever.


When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton surveys the damage. A massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may be a presence there. At first, some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.


Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant. There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. This is a movie that has no music during its first 80 minutes, that never announces via sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. It’s also a film that lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.


Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease. Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.


Indeed, what happens between people is far more potent than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King wrote them, they were perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs. And then there are the fiends. Some may argue that they’re rather unbelievable in their computer generated junkiness, but that’s another Darabont objective. He wants his terror to be derived from seemingly silly entities. It makes the bigger ‘bugs’ waiting out in the mist that much more horrifying.


And here’s another clear caveat – don’t believe the half-baked hype about the “new ending” either. Yes, Darabont does stray rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. You can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision. Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face.


After all The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, and it may put some people off this otherwise remarkable motion picture. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.



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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


Music is given credit for a lot of things. It forms the soundtrack of our lives, has charms to soothe the savage breast, and expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent. It’s our heartbeat, our sense of spirit, and exposes the depth of our very soul. It is also a callous and cruel mistress, messing with us when we don’t want to be manipulated and infusing us with aspirations we may never attain. Because of its excruciatingly personal and private nature (one man’s Beethoven is another’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard), it makes for a rather tenuous cinematic base. While your story may be sublime, the songs or sounds you use to accent it can come across as atonal and discordant. Oddly enough, the exact opposite happens in Kirsten Sheridan’s disastrous August Rush. The melodic moments are some of the best ever captured on film. Too bad the rest of the narrative is as nauseating as a boy band ballad.


Living life as a picked upon orphan in the last Dickensonian home in all of post-modern society, young August Rush dreams of two things – finding his birth parents and making music. Seems he envisions his biologicals as a famed concert cellist and a punk spunky rock and roller. After a one night stand, a baby boy was born. Not wanting to see his daughter destroy her chances as a virtuoso, her domineering dad tells Lyla Novacek that her son died. At least she’s still part of the process. Moody frontman Louis Connelly tries to reconnect with his post-performance fling, but he’s instantly whisked off on the rest of his tour. Escaping to New York, August is befriended by Arthur, a young street performer. Seems he works for faux foster father figure Wizard. He and his other homeless youth play music around the city, and their glorified guardian collects a percentage. When August turns out to be a prodigy, Wizard smells success. But our undersized hero wants more than that. He could care less about concerts, or Julliard, or the debut of his first rhapsody. He just wants his parents – and his music just might be the means of bringing them together.


Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick. It’s Oliver without the twist, a well-meaning lament fashioned out of arrogance, artificiality, and artlessness. You’d think that someone with director Kirsten Sheridan’s aesthetic lineage (her dad is My Left Foot/In America helmer Jim Sheridan) would be better at making magic out of such melodrama and music. But unfortunately, she’s unsure about how to handle such an ‘adult fairy tale’. Yes, August Rush is one of those films that announces its archetypal intentions from the very start. It salutes you with schmaltz and then turns up the convolutions until the clichés no longer have room to breath. Eventually, they die off in waves of unexplored potentiality, resulting in a literal ghost of a film. There are times when this maudlin muck is so lightweight and wispy, we fear a sudden sneeze from the audience will cause the screen to go blank.


Part of the problem is the story the screenplay sets up. Happenstance usually isn’t this hokey, but for some reason, writers Nick Castle and James Hart want to make every plot point as sappy and sentimental as possible. These are the same guys who turned Peter Pan into an adolescent rude boy filtered through Robin Williams’ hirsute persona in Hook, so perhaps there’s an excuse after all. Speaking of the cinematic Sasquatch, Mrs. Don’tfire is present as the Bono version of Dickens’ child exploiter and he’s about as manipulative as the Victorian pickpocket pimp. We keep waiting for the ghost of Oliver Reed to show up and beat him, and perhaps co-star Keri Russell to death. While the babe in the woods approach is nothing new to moviemaking, Castle and Hart make it so old and moldy that it makes us question such a founding formula. There is never a believable moment of reality or fantasy in this film. Everything feels forced, purposefully played for maximum mawkishness.


This includes the performances. Russell’s Lyla is so empty and unfulfilled she’s like a blow up doll. Even when desperate to locate her child, she comes across as calmly coming apart at the seams. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Louis is even worse. Morrissey was never this melancholy. Heck, Hamlet’s desperate to rise from the grave and sue this character for giving brooding male leads a bad name. Williams is his usual abominable self, reducing Wizard to the same six body gestures the comedian turned hack actor has milked since the Me Decade, and Terrance Howard (as the Child Protective Services officer) appears to have wandered in from another movie all together. He’s so out of touch with what Sheridan is striving for, you could almost blame the entire fiasco on his non-presence.


Sadly, that status goes to Freddie Highmore. Struggling between an unbelievable American accent and something best considered “Madonna/Tina Turner Ersatz English”, the one time child star stinks up the joint here. Instead of playing naïve and trusting, he’s like a common sense idiot savant. Show him the absolute worst decision to make, and he’ll embrace it like a lost puppy. And this is supposed to be someone with an innate, natural gift for music. True, Sheridan does handle his ‘discovery’ sequences well, the beating of a guitar’s strings, or the chording of a pipe organ having the necessary moments of majesty to move us. But then we come crashing back to quasi-reality, a place where Russell barely fingers her instrument and Rhys Meyers sings like a slightly more macho Billy Corgan. August Rush is not a movie about the harmony in our head as the conceived cacophony that passes for performance in film. Even our title character’s signature symphony is an amalgamation of staid sonic stigmas.


Still, this is the kind of movie that connects with audiences, possibly because they don’t know any better. Tears will well up as the completely predictable ending arrives, mechanical obviousness meshing with last minute personality reforms to destroy anything remotely suggesting cinematic credibility. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine how any of this could have worked. Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate any real artisanship, but her failings don’t completely undermine the results. No, August Rush fizzles because of several unsuccessful factors. It is sloppily strung together, loaded with characters we don’t care about, and disrespectful to the elements that supposedly make up its meaning. Music may be the universal language, but this film speaks with the most misguided of mother tongues. August Rush is not a flight of fancy. It’s a dissonant plane crash.



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Monday, Nov 19, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

With Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist hitting theaters tomorrow, it’s time to reflect on the other Stephen King works in desperate need of a big screen translation.


Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.


At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.


But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:


The Long Walk


As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.


The Regulators


Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.


Eye of the Dragon


Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.

 


Gerald’s Game


Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.


Insomnia


It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.


Blaze


Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

In the case of the J.J. Abrams-produced mystery project, there’s an official title and a new trailer. Oddly enough, very little about the project has changed.


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007


It remains the single most significant debate in the series’ otherwise stable history. While many consider it to be a minor, or even moot point, messageboards and fan sites still sizzle with its personality based paradox. On the one hand there are fervent admirers of stand-up legend and show creator Joel Hodgson. His sleepy eyed sense of whimsy matched by a non-threatening satiric irony made him the perfect post-modern kiddie show host. But when he finally left Mystery Science Theater 3000, the movie mocking comedy cavalcade that he had shepparded through growing pains and cable channel cultdom, he was replaced by the soon to be celebrated Mike Nelson. Longtime collaborator and head writer, the Midwestern mook took his confused Everyman shtick and launched it into the stratosphere. Before long, he was the most recognizable face the show ever had, far more mainstream than the previous personality.


Thus, the ultimate standoff was established. On one side are the faithful, the ones who believe Joel represents everything MST3K stands for. He’s the cornerstone of the classic, the reason the show exists and why it still resonates some two decades later. And yet those who support Mike argue that his substitution actually saved the series. He sat at the center of Mystery Science’s commercial renaissance, the shift from unknown quantity to noted example of the medium’s multifaceted excellence. Oh course, the question boils down to this – who is better? Is Hodgson’s culturally astute ramblings, laced with enough pop life references to strangle a steer, the true tenet of MST, or does Nelson’s nice guy numbskullery, the buffoonish set within a pure distillation of homespun humor, best exemplify the show’s entertainment essence?


While a definitive consensus may never be reached, Rhino’s latest volume of forgotten funny business, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 12, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Featuring Joel circa Season 4 (The Rebel Set) and toward the end of his run (Season 5’s Secret Agent Super Dragon) vs. Mike during his introductory phase (Season 6’s The Starfighters) and his Season 8 Sci-Fi Channel finery (the classic Parts: The Clonus Horror), this brilliant box set creates the conflict perfectly. How you respond to and revere each episode traces your wit proclivity to its point of personal origin. By the end of the unquestionably hilarious six hour slog through some of the worst movies ever made, you’ll have a better handle on your cow town puppet show preferences.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or with the human equivalent of same, Mystery Science Theater 3000 offers a rather surrealistic premise. Hodgson plays a former worker for the fictional Deep 13 Laboratories shot into space by disgruntled mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. With the help of henchman TV’s Frank, the fey super villain subjects his orbital guinea pig to the lousiest, lamest films ever conceived. He then monitors Hodgson’s mind to see how the ‘experiment’ affects him. Of course, our hero combats the sniveling psycho by creating a collection of robot friends. Gypsy runs the higher functions on the spaceship. Crow and Tom Servo act as buffers to the bad movie mania, sitting in the Satellite of Love’s screening room and riffing away to combat the crap. When Joel escaped his fate during the mid-section of Season 5, Nelson simply replaced him as the newest test case.


With 1959’s The Rebel Set, we have one of the best examples of this premise in play. The staid little heist flick substitutes stupidity for suspense, and offers the most unlikely set of criminals this side of an episode of Dragnet. Working angles both unbelievable (a struggling actor agreeing to a between trains snatch) and beatnik (the ‘oh so uncool’ coffeehouse setting gives poets an even worse rep) it’s a stagnant, unstoppable mess. Naturally, it makes for flawless MST fodder. One of the show’s signatures remains its host segment/sketch material. Instead of quipping throughout the entire film, the picture occasionally pauses so that Joel, his tormentors, and his automaton pals can comment on what they’ve seen and extend the comedy beyond the actual meaning of the movie. Here, we get suggestions for what someone could do on a four hour layover in Chicago, how to hone one’s acting chops the “Scott Baio” way, and a discussion of unknown character actor Merritt Stone. Throw in a sensational short subject (the Canadian National Exhibition exercise, Johnny at the Fair) and you’ve got a pristine illustration of Joel-era bemusement.


For exemplary Mike, on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the diabolically dull Starfighters. Clearly crafted as a recruitment tool for the US Air Force, we watch as new pilot recruits (including one rather spineless daddy’s boy) take their multimillion dollar fighting machines up, up, and away. Endless footage of mid-air refueling commences. Deconstructing such blatant propaganda is not hard for the gang – especially when the last act revolves around something called a “poopie” suit – but the lack of anything remotely amusing or engaging does give the jokesters a run for their riffing. Again, the midpoint material is sensational, Crow and Tom taking the notion of a ‘de-briefing’ to sensational slapstick heights, while the United Servo Men’s Choir provides an acappela medley of flight-oriented catchphrases. Any film featuring future former Congressman Bob Dornan as a wussified jet trainee has its own unique entertainment inertness. But Mike proves that all facets of humor, from commercial parodies (a BBQ sauce setpiece) to old school tech tweaks (Crow tries, unsuccessfully, to merge onto the information superhighway) are ripe for rediscovery.


Of course, the movies themselves manufacture much of the mirth – especially when they play like an inadvertent spoof of the genre they’re shameless imitating. Joel’s second offering, the espionage ipecac Secret Agent Super Dragon is verifiable evidence of such poorly planned production misfires. This ersatz Bond, bumbling around like Matt Helm and Derek Flint’s bastard offspring, is about as intriguing as a bureaucratic seminar in triplicate. This typical Italian rip-off starts out sloppy, and only gets more inexplicable along the way. Centering on an international dealer smuggling drugs via auctioned artworks, there’s plenty of ripe ridicule material present. And Joel’s jesters make the most of it. Even better, we get another sensational sketch segment where Crow writes a politically correct script for his own take on the misogynistic, chauvinistic spy thriller. One of the best amalgamations of type with treatment the series ever established, it’s sad to think that there were only eight more episodes featuring Hodgson after this.


Luckily, Nelson was able to carry the comic mantle expertly. Even after cancellation, renewal, and constant fretting over the Sci-Fi Channel mandates regarding content (this is a network that now considers professional wrestling as acceptable genre subject matter), MST3K still managed to deliver undeniable comic genius. Nowhere is this truer than in the now classic take on the clone organ harvesting extravaganza Parts: The Clonus Horror. Remember Michael Bay’s The Island from a couple of years back. Same plagiarized story. Dopey duplicates kept in a utopian resort learn they are actually body part banks for influential individuals. One rebellious replicant decides to fight the system. Boredom ensues. Unlike the other three installments of the series offered herein, Parts has problems that have very little to do with the quality of what’s going on and everything to do with unclear context and continuity. Unless you followed the show from Season 7 on, you’ll have no idea who Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo, or Brain Guy actually are. You’ll hear Crow’s new voice and wonder why the switch was made. Granted, the PBS pledge drive segments are wonderful, but the lack of perspective and place may confuse the uninitiated.


In fact, the only fault found in any of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 material is the latter versions need to maintain season-long story arcs. Sci-Fi’s suits must have slipped a substantial gasket requiring a show built around a different movie every week to develop some manner of character/narrative continuity. It’s unnecessary, and makes future syndication seem scattered – or impossible. In any case, these delightful DVDs give us an opportunity to revisit the series without having to worry about messy torrents, Nth generation bootlegs, or DVD-R scams. They look amazing, and Rhino fleshes out the films with trailers, interviews (Rebel Set star Don Sullivan) and another installment of the MST3K Video Jukebox. Many forget just how many amazing songs and music based skits the comedians created, and this third go round collects some of the best.


Yet none of this really addresses the opening concern – who, indeed, was a better show host? Joel was a jolly if slightly cynical sort who let his razor sharp observations slowly stumble and creep up on you. He wasn’t the hit you over the head type that Mike masterfully manipulated. Hodgson often played as if he knew this was all a joke, retrofitting a lifetime exposed to WGN family fare as a means of making a grander, neo-nostalgic point. Nelson gave the premise all he could, frequently letting the robots redesign his reputation into slacker, stooge, cheesehead, and chump. You could call it a perfect example of humor yin and yang, the intellectual and the inbred blissfully blundering away together – and frankly, you’d be right. One of the main reasons Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a TV classic is this combination of heart and head, the brainiac and the balderdash. It suggests no one is better and both are best. Indeed, to argue between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson is rather pointless. When something as brilliant as the episodes included in Volume 12 stands as validation, there’s no need to choose sides.


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