Category: Movies

Buster Makes Me Feel Good

Last week I watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

I thought it was delightful -- albeit that uniquely Coen Brothers type of "delightful" that involves some truly horrifying and disquieting stuff happening at various points over a two-hour period.

One of the things I really loved about it was its format: it's an anthology movie, made up of six stories, each running around 15-30 minutes.

I wrote a blog post years ago titled Form and Function where I discussed how the Internet could, hopefully, eliminate some of the rigid page-count and running-time requirements we're used to in print media and on TV. Buster Scruggs doesn't do that itself -- it's a two-hour movie -- but it's a roadmap for how a TV series could do that.

I saw reports, on the film's release, that it was originally planned as an episodic series. That's not actually the case; Josh Rottenberg asked the Coens about that story in an LA Times interview and Joel said it was always intended as a movie. But the rumor about it being a TV series is believable. You could certainly watch the movie that way, switch it off at the end of each story and come back and watch the next one some other time -- the only thing stopping you is that boy, some of those segments are grim, and the Coens have wisely arranged them so that the nastiest stories are followed by something with a little more levity.

There's no reason you couldn't make a TV series where each episode resembled one of Buster Scruggs's stories -- do a fifteen-minute episode, do a thirty-minute episode, do whatever length the story calls for. Traditional TV requires that your story be told in a half-hour or an hour, minus commercials, but there's no such restriction to online streaming (and even basic cable has been tooling around with episodes that have some variation in their lengths, like Noah Hawley's Legion or Fargo -- say, there's another one that comes right back to Ethan and Joel).

Mostly I see this resulting in longer episodes -- maybe a show goes a full hour instead of forty-five minutes, or a full half-hour instead of twenty-two. But why not shorter? Why not fifteen minutes? Why not fifteen minutes one episode and thirty the next?

The new Twilight Zone series would be perfect for a format like that, but I suspect they'll be keeping it around the half-hour mark. Still, it feels like somebody is bound to start playing with the scripted TV format with episodes of wildly varying lengths, and the recent resurgence of anthology-style shows seems like a good place to do it.

Glaivin'

I don't play many new games anymore. I played Spider-Man because it came with my PS4, but since I finished it I've switched to something a couple years older: Final Fantasy 15.

I haven't been playing it long, just...*looks at save file*...Jesus, twelve hours? Anyway, I'm on Chapter 3. And so far I'm really enjoying it.

I dig the setting. Final Fantasy has been doing this "let's juxtapose fantasy with a quasi-modern world" routine since 7, and it's a lot more fully-realized here than it was then. Still not perfect -- city planning does not work that way, guys; you don't pass the limits of a major city and immediately find yourself off in a big empty desert with only an occasional gas station; the transition tends to be more gradual than that -- but still, the dissonance is a lot less glaring than FF7's transition from Midgar to a big empty overworld.

Actually, to a large extent, the dissonance is what I like about it. Taking things that shouldn't go together and then mooshing them together. This is a game that starts off with...well, I can't seem to get the intro to embed (I suspect a music rights thing), but if you haven't seen it, check it out on YouTube.

As I was saying: This is a game that starts out with a barrage of fantasy tropes -- the king in his castle saying farewell to his son, who's leaving to marry a princess to secure peace with the Empire -- and then cuts to the party pushing a broken-down car while Stand By Me plays. It is instantly one of my favorite video game openings ever.

The game doesn't retain quite that level of quality throughout. But even where it falls short, I like it, at least so far. I like ambitious failures. Here's how Brent described it:

As long as you keep the "FF15 has been in development for 10 years" fact firmly in mind the whole exercise is interesting from a how-do-you-make-something-mostly-complete-out-of-this aspect.

Did you notice the one part of the game where there was supposed to be a rad as fuck boss but they only got as far as modeling and not rigging the rad as fuck boss so they had you go and take a look at how rad as fuck the boss's model is and everybody comments on how rad as fuck the model looks and then you get a cutscene explaining why you don't need to actually fight the rad as fuck boss and then you just fuck off?

Not gonna lie, I love stuff like that. It's like the best kind of soup, the "if you've got it, just toss it in the pot" kind.

I love stuff like that too.

And you know what else is overambitious about this game? Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15.

Kingsglaive is a movie that occurs before and during the first chapter of FF15. It fleshes out some major plot points -- in a way that's, frankly, kind of ill-conceived, because there's at least one major scene in FF15 that lacks some pretty important context if you haven't seen the movie.

Spoilers for Kingsglaive and the ending of the first chapter of Final Fantasy 15 follow.

At the end of the first chapter of FF15, the kingdom of Lucis falls. And in the game, you don't really have a lot of context about just what the hell is going on. You've never seen the Emperor or General Glauca before, and you're given little context for who they are. Clearly the big spiky guy stabbing the king is a bad guy, but...you're given no other information on who he is or what his deal is, except that the peace agreement was a ruse and Niflheim has sacked Insomnia.

Do you even see the general again? I don't know. He kinda gets incinerated at the end of Kingsglaive, but maybe he gets better. I don't know for sure, but...it kinda looks like the game shows a scary-looking dude murdering the protagonist's father, never explains who he is, and then maybe he never appears again? That's...not great storytelling. That makes Kingsglaive less an ancillary cross-media spinoff and more an essential part of the story that is neither included with the game nor explained by it.

But I'm underselling just how baffling the entire endeavor is.

Because shunting a major, game-changing event off into a spinoff movie isn't the weirdest thing about it. It isn't even the weirdest thing about that scene.

Because the climax of Kingsglaive -- the betrayal at the signing ceremony, the fall of Lucis -- is intercut with Nyx and Lunafreya fighting a giant monster. And not just any giant monster.

Giant Purple Octopus

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15
© 2016 Square Enix

That's Ultros. From Final Fantasy 6. This guy.

ULTROS: Mwa ha ha! Let's see if Maria can shrug THIS off!

Final Fantasy 3
© 1993 Square Enix
Screencap courtesy of Blastinus at Let's Play Archive

The movie cuts back and forth between the fall of Lucis -- guards being stabbed, bombs dropping on the city, the Emperor pulling a gun on the King -- and the octopus who tried to drop a 4-ton weight on an opera.

It is insanely, spectacularly wrong, and it is absolutely hands-down my favorite scene in the movie.

How did this happen? What was the thought process here? "Newcomers to Final Fantasy will just see a generic monster. But longtime fans will be wracked with the giggles!"

Obviously Final Fantasy is self-referential as all hell, and some of that was to be expected. But there's a pretty big difference between, say, playing the main Final Fantasy theme as background music early in the movie, and introducing Ultros during the climax.

But there's also something quintessentially Final Fantasy about it. This series is chock-full of sudden and inexplicable tonal shifts. I've talked about this before, back in my Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images post in 2011: FF7 goes from Barret's somber battle to the death with Dyne straight to chocobo racing. Bombs dropping while the heroes fight a tonally-inappropriate Easter egg? Just like the games!

And something that weird and singular saves the movie from being boring.

Because Kingsglaive is boring. It's very pretty; as a two-hour tech demo, it definitely demos the tech. But the characters are thinly-sketched, the villains' motivations and the plot twists don't make a whole lot of sense, and the climax feels like a Godzilla movie without the fun or the charm. It feels like the movie is focused entirely on showing really cool locations, monsters, and fights. It does that. But not much else.

In its own way, the Ultros fight is one more of those striking juxtapositions I like so much. Final Fantasy 15 starts out with high fantasy tropes and then immediately swerves into being a road trip movie. And Kingsglaive intercuts the serious and the silly. It doesn't really work, exactly, but I still love it.

There's an old Simpsons line where Marge tells Homer she doesn't hate him for failing, she loves him for trying. Whatever FF15's faults -- and I'm sure I'll find more of them as I get farther in the game -- they seem to be the result of overambition. And you know what? That's a good kind of failure. An interesting kind. Square Enix tried some things nobody else had ever done here. In some cases, at least, it turns out that there's a good reason nobody else has done those things. But if you're going to mess up, at least find a new and interesting and, perhaps, spectacular way to do it.

Does Whatever a Spider-Pig Does

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

...actually, I saw it like a month ago, and that's when I wrote this post. But then I got some kind of flu or something and I'm only now just getting around to posting it. But hey, now it's timely, because it is now Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Anyway:

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And it blew me away.

Mothra on Brontoforumus described it as the best comic-book movie he'd ever seen. When I read that comment, I assumed he meant the best movie based on a comic. Now that I've seen it, I'm thinking he must have meant the movie that best translated the medium of comics onto the screen.

I'm inclined to agree. It does some really cool shit with comic-style layouts (like the new DuckTales opening titles, if they were two hours long). Where movies like Persepolis and Sin City are straight off the page, Spider-Verse adapts the page itself. In a funny way, I think the movie makes a good defense of Ang Lee's Hulk -- because you can watch Spider-Verse and see that this is what Lee was trying to do with those splitscreen tricks. He couldn't quite stick the landing, but I've always thought it was a fascinating approach -- and Spider-Verse takes those ideas and makes them work.

Plus, after 35 years of "Biff! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" headlines, it's nice to see a movie that's finally unselfconscious enough to put sound effects up on the screen.

And the plot -- somehow, a movie that's packed with heroes, villains, and parallel dimensions manages to feel lean and tight. I think part of that is that the script (by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) knows who to focus on (Miles > Peter > Gwen > the rest; Kingpin > Prowler > Doc Ock > the rest). It also trusts the audience: not only do Lord and Rothman trust that they don't need to explain who Doc Ock is; they trust that the very idea of a bunch of different versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes is a fit premise for a kids' movie.

They're right.

I took my seven-year-old nephew to see it. He didn't have any problem understanding the many-worlds premise. Granted, it's not the first time he's seen a superhero multiverse; both the 2003 and 2012 versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teamed up with the 1987 versions at one time or another. But the point is, this is a kids' movie that treats kids like they're smart.

How My Weekend Went

I spent the weekend with a sore throat, so I took it pretty easy. Gargled saltwater, took warm baths, sat around, played Mad Max.

I did manage to make it out to the mall and see Thor: Ragnarok. It was good! While I was out there, I also found out that Barnes and Noble is having a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection movies. I bought a few. I will probably buy more after my next paycheck. The signage said it's going through November 30, though the lady behind the counter said she thinks it might get extended through Christmas.

So as blog posts go, nothing exciting or insightful here. We'll see if I can rustle up something tomorrow.

Podcasts

Expanded from a couple of posts at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-08.


I like listening to NPR on the drive to work.

I do not like listening to NPR on the drive home. I have had just about enough of Kai Ryssdahl acting surprised about the Internet.

So I decided to look into some podcasts. I'm not really looking for scripted stuff at the moment (I've got a buttload of Big Finish Doctor Who I haven't listened to yet as it is); I want something where if I lose the thread for a minute to concentrate on the road, I'm not going to miss out on important story details.

So here's what I've been looking at so far:

Brontoforumus regular Niku recommended Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen; I listened to the Rick and Morty episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. The website hasn't been updated in a couple of years; it has episodes up through Christmas 2015. It went on hiatus after that (Paulsen had throat cancer; he's better now) and came back in January. Tech Jives has episodes up through May. More recently, the show has moved to Nerdist, which has a bunch of short videos but no episodes; there are some articles referring me to a subscription service called Alpha but it's not mentioned on the website and I really have no idea if the show's even available in audio format anymore? It's really not clear and I hope they fix that.

Retronauts is a podcast started by Jeremy Parish and currently hosted by Bob Mackey, about retro games.

Axe of the Blood God is USgamer's RPG podcast. I've only listened to it a couple of times, when my old friend Steve Tramer was a guest; he hasn't been on it recently, but it's still a good group.

Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast is pretty great. So far I've listened to some great interviews there, with Frank Conniff, Rob Paulsen, and Carl Reiner.

And speaking of Frank Conniff, he and Trace Beaulieu have a podcast called Movie Sign with The Mads where, as the name implies, they talk about movies.

I don't listen to a lot of political podcasts at the moment, but I like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air. Larry's a good interviewer; I'll never understand why he went with a panel format on The Nightly Show, which was easily its weakest component. (It's not an original sentiment, but I do wish he'd gotten to take over The Daily Show and Noah had gotten a chance to do his own thing in Colbert's timeslot.)

I hear good things about Flop House (failed movies), Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman (comics, movies, the sort of stuff characters in Kevin Smith movies talk about), and WTF. I've mentioned Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files before, back in 2015. I've listened to one episode of Talking Simpsons with Bob Mackey (another Niku recommendation) and it was pretty good; I expect I'll check out more.

As for actually-scripted podcasts (not what I'm currently looking for, but there are some good ones!), I enjoyed the one episode of Dead Pilots Society I listened to. It's a podcast where they do read-throughs of TV pilot scripts that never made it into production; the one I listened to and enjoyed was Only Child, a John Hodgman vehicle (the hook was he was playing himself as a teenager; all the other kids would have been played by age-appropriate actors).

And, lastly (for now!), I see that yesterday saw the launch of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast. I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I bet it's pretty good!

The Mads Live

Expanded from a post at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-22.


Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, formerly of MST3K, have been touring the country, riffing movies, under the name The Mads. I caught them at the Chandler Alamo Drafthouse two weeks ago, riffing the Vincent Price "classic" The Tingler. It was fun! If you get a chance to see them, I recommend checking them out.

The event was smaller and felt more intimate than when I saw Cinematic Titanic some years back. They've got a merch table (books and posters) where they hock stuff before and after the show, and I had a chance to chat with them for a bit (and picked up copies of Trace's Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children and Frank's How to Write Cheesy Movies). They did an audience Q&A after the movie, too.

The riffing...well, you know how MST3K keeps things PG and doesn't make timely political jokes? Well, it's not like that. They say "fuck" a lot and one of the more memorable riffs involved a corpse covered by a sheet and Frank saying, "That sheet makes you look like a Trump supporter." So keep that in mind if you're planning on taking any kids or Republicans.

At any rate, the Mads put on a good show. Keep an eye on that tour schedule on Facebook (because for some reason their website is down) and go see 'em if you get a chance.

They've also got a podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads, where they discuss movies -- including some that are actually good! So far I've listened to their episodes on The Shining and Young Frankenstein -- it was Halloween season, after all. I enjoyed the shows and look forward to hearing more. And I expect I'll have more to say about podcasts in a future post.

Early Weird Al Memories

As I mentioned last week, I've been avidly following Nathan Rabin's The Weird Accordion to Al (today's entry: Harvey the Wonder Hamster from Alapalooza). As it happens, I've also been reading Nathan Rabin's Weird Al: The Book. All this Nathan Rabin stuff has really got me thinking about Weird Al.

I'm pretty sure the first time I ever saw Weird Al was in UHF, running on HBO a year or two after its release. My grandpa was channel-surfing; we came in right around the time George and Bob get to the TV station. Grandpa mistook Philo for Doc Brown and thought it was Back to the Future, so we kept it there; it wasn't long before we realized it was not in fact Back to the Future, but we liked what we saw enough to stick with it through the end.

I'd have probably been 8 or 9 years old. I didn't even catch the name of the movie; it'd be awhile before I saw it again. It was on its way to becoming a hard-to-find cult hit; I remember by the early '00s, there was like one video place that had a copy on VHS (the DVD wasn't out yet), and we'd rent it sometimes.

After UHF, I next saw Al on the PBS math show Square One TV. He did a song called Patterns, which is sadly not included on the Medium Rarities disc in his new "complete" collection.

He also appeared in the Mathnet segment, playing a sleazy DJ who Frankly and Tuesday suspected of accepting payola. Or possibly flyola.

A few years after that, we got cable, and we'd see Amish Paradise and Gump in regular rotation on MTV. I remember I was in eighth grade when Spy Hard came out; a classmate of mine was telling me about the opening Bond-parody number and said something like "What's that guy's name? Crazy Al?"

The first Weird Al CD I ever bought was the Gump single, which also featured the Spy Hard theme. It wasn't long after that I got the Permanent Record: Al in the Box set. The first Weird Al album I ever bought was Bad Hair Day -- and I think I'll come back to that later. Rabin's just a few songs away from getting to Bad Hair Day, and I expect I'll have some Bad Hair Day-related thoughts as he wends his way through the track list.

The Zappa Kickstarter

Has it really been over two years since my last Zappa post? Well, time to dust off the most-used tag on this here blog.

If you're a Zappa fan, you've probably already heard about the Who the Fuck is Frank Zappa? Kickstarter. But in case you haven't:

Alex Winter (best-known as Bill from the Bill & Ted movies, but more frequently a director these days) is making a documentary about Frank. And as part of the process, he's helping Joe Travers to preserve and digitize the Zappa Vault.

Winter recently explained in Update #18 that the first million dollars raised in the Kickstarter campaign will all go to preserving the Vault, and that he won't put any Kickstarter dollars toward the documentary until and unless it passes $1 million. I think this shows he's got his priorities in order; I definitely want to see the documentary, but I agree with him that the most important step in preserving Zappa's legacy is preserving his work and making sure we don't lose it to degrading tape and film.

The Kickstarter runs through April 8. There are add-on rewards available, too, which don't require you to pledge to the Kickstarter and which will still be available after it ends.

You know, I've always wanted a Zappa for President T-shirt.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 4: The Old Cast

A lot of the discussion about the MST3K reboot has centered around fans who want to see the old cast come back. Joel has said he'd like to bring them on as writers, and to appear in cameos. But the thing is, most of them don't seem to want to do it.

Here's what Mike, Bill, and Kevin said when Chris Ford asked them about it in a Diffuser interview last year:

Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he’d consider revisiting ‘MST3K.’ Is that something you’d consider?

Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?

Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing ‘MST3K,’ was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven’t made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive ‘MST3K’ have already failed because of such issues. So I’d be skeptical.

Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would … it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am.

Since the announcement of the Kickstarter, Mike and Bill have both reiterated their non-involvement, as have Mary Jo and Josh. Trace has ruled out even showing up in a cameo.

Joel addressed this in a Kickstarter update:

What about everyone else? Are the other MST3K writers and actors coming back?

This is the hardest question to answer, because there are several moving pieces involved.

Right now, I don't know who will agree to come back and work on the next season of MST3K… but if the Kickstarter is successful, everyone will be invited to take part.

Until yesterday, I wasn't even sure this whole Kickstarter idea would work. I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back.

Plus – as many of you know – so far, the old cast haven't been compensated as well as they (or I) might have liked. I wish I could go back and fix that, but if I'm going to ask them to participate in the next season, I want to be certain we can pay them what they deserve this time. As soon as we pass our initial goal of $2,000,000, I'm hoping to start making the invitations official, and I hope some of them will be able to join us before we start working in January.

And guys, as much as I'd like to see the old cast and crew back, given their responses so far I really don't think it's going to happen.

I think it's great that Joel is talking about royalties. I believe that Shout! Factory should pay royalties to all the former writers and cast members, not as leverage to get them to participate in the new show but because it's the right thing to do.

But while royalties have certainly been a sticking point for some of the former cast members, I don't think they're the only reason people are holding out on participating in the new show. Look at what Mike and Kevin said in the Diffuser interview I quoted above -- it doesn't sound to me like they're holding out for a better deal; it sounds like they just plain don't want to do it. And Josh has said he's working on two documentary films, so it sure sounds like his non-participation is because he's too busy with other projects.

Aside from what they've said in public, I can't speak for individual cast members' motivations. Mary Jo has complained about the lack of profit participation in the past, while Frank has said it doesn't bother him. I've seen a lot of fans assume that the reason the old cast members aren't interested in being part of the new show is because of their lack of profit participation, and that if Joel gives them a good offer they'll be onboard after all -- but I think that's fans' wishful thinking. I've seen no hard evidence to back it up; the only thing I've seen that even looks like a "maybe" is Bill's "It would depend completely on the arrangement" in that Diffuser interview.

There are other reasons why people might not want to participate -- Mike and Kevin have suggested that they're just plain not interested. As for other former cast members, the geographical issues that brought an end to Cinematic Titanic are still present; the simple fact is that many of them don't live in the place where the new show is going to be produced. Even if, say, Mary Jo gets a profit-sharing offer that she's agreeable to, she still lives in Austin.

In short, I think that while fans are absolutely right to call for a new royalty agreement for every former cast member and writer on MST3K, they should also tamp down their expectations that this will lead to the old team returning for the new show. I just don't think that's gonna happen. Look forward to the new show for what it is, not for what you wish it was going to be.


I think that's it for now on the subject of the upcoming MST3K relaunch. The Kickstarter page, one more time, is bringbackmst3k.com; I haven't pledged yet but I plan on throwing in at the $35 level. That'll get you the first episode of the new series, plus three classic episodes as DRM-free downloads. (The three classic episodes are not currently listed in the Rewards section, but Joel said in an update that they're being added to the $35 tier as a bonus. He has not yet specified which three episodes they will be.)

And on the subject of compensation for the cast and crew of the old series: Rifftrax has just started selling MST3K episodes; as of this writing they have Mitchell, Pumaman, Final Sacrifice, and Future War, each priced at $10, with another episode going up for sale every Monday. And here's the most important part:

A significant share of the profits of all MST episodes sold on RiffTrax will be paid out directly to ALL the principal cast members of MST – Mike, Joel, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank, Josh and Bridget. We feel it’s important that the original artists benefit directly from their awesome work. So if you want to support them, buy your MST here on RiffTrax!

There's no mention of Paul Chaplin; I wonder if that's an oversight, or if they don't know how to get in touch with Paul these days or what. I hope he gets a cut too.

At any rate, much as I love the DVD sets, I have to recommend from here on in that if you want to buy old episodes of MST3K, you buy them through Rifftrax, because right now that's the only way the cast and writers get a percentage of your purchase dollars. Again, I'm hoping that changes and the series' new owners at Shout! reach a deal to give them a piece of all purchases and streaming revenue. But for now, they only get paid if you buy them through Rifftrax. So do that.

Update 2017-10-31: Trace and Frank have confirmed that Shout! Factory pays royalties. Please feel free to purchase your MST3K from the source of your choosing, and rest assured that the original cast members are getting a cut. See my MST3K and Royalties post for more information.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 3: Behind the Camera

The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.