RiffTrax: Bringing New Life to Bad Movies since MST3K

People are always surprised when I tell them that I really enjoy watching bad movies. It does appear a puzzle when it is written out like that. The word “bad” after all usually means something like unenjoyable, poor, miserable – all not good sounding words. Well, for starters – there are two types of bad movies. Films like Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun Li and A Nightmare on Elm Street fall into the boring bad (or truly bad) category. These are poorly made films without a lot of action or attempts at comedy. In other words, they are dull beyond belief. I do not (nor do I know of anyone) who enjoys watching this type of bad movie. The other type, however, is far more redeemable. These are the movies that are so bad that they are unintentionally funny. Films like Batman and Robin and Troll 2 fall into this category. These movies, while poor in script, acting, and direction can still be a lot of fun to watch – as long as the viewer is in a mocking mood. And, of course, the perfect compliment to any bad movie has to be RiffTrax.

For those out there who have never heard of this service before, Rifftrax is made up of primarily three professional comedians: Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Michael J. Nelson. They specialize in a brand of “make fun of” comedy and have been doing it for years. The three actors gained fame on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short), a show that originated the idea of professionally mocking bad movies. It is exactly what it sounds like: these three watch the films ahead of time, write out jokes, and then perform them during the course of the movie. This simple action can be nothing short of brilliance and shows that anything, no matter how obtusely bad, can be improved with laughter.

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One guy and three robots watching bad movies in space on a ship shaped like a dog bone… I can’t make that up.

By creating this service, Rifftrax has (likely) unintentionally done a huge service to the lesser films in creation. I seriously doubt that any director ever sets out to make a bad movie. Like all artists, they strive for greatness, whether that is recognition from their peers or the admiration of the crowd. Inevitably, most fall short of the lofty vision that began them. Take a film like The Last Airbender. M. Night Shyamalan was supposedly a huge fan of the show, yet the movie turned out… less than stellar. Regardless of who is to blame, the film became a miserable viewing experience. Personally, I cannot stand this film. It really is devoid of anything resembling entertainment and it is not even two hours long. Yet let’s see what happens when some comedy is injected:

Suddenly that movie becomes a lot more watchable.

Granted, Rifftrax cannot save every bad movie. That first group that I mentioned can be hard to salvage. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a Rifftrax Live event: Godzilla (1998). Yes, Rifftrax made me pay for a film that I never wanted to give money to again. They did an excellent job making fun of it, but Godzilla primarily falls into the boring bad category. It is a long movie where not much happens. While jokes help fill the gaps left by the script, it was hard to escape the tedium of watching the world’s least genuine Godzilla movie.

So if you’re counting on them to turn crap into gold – sorry but that doesn’t happen, even in the realm of movie magic – it’s a service that is definitely worth checking out. The good people of Rifftrax have performed a feat that should not be discounted. They have taken something poor and made it better. Good on them for trying.

Incidentally, the next live event is Anaconda. I don’t know about anyone else but I am really looking forward to seeing that film again… never thought I’d write those words.

Writing Kim Kelly or One of Many Reasons why Freaks and Geeks is a Show to Watch

Once upon a time, the land of television was a harsh, unforgiving place. Shows came and went, regardless of quality. Having a well-written, well-cast, well-directed program did not guarantee success. Take Freaks and Geeks: I’m going to guess that many out there have not heard of this show. It only lasted a season (1999-2000) and ran on NBC (hardly HBO). Well, this was a show produced by Judd Apatow (the 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), and that starred actors like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. Guest stars included Shia LaBeouf, Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, and Jason Schwartzman. So… there were a couple names (not yet big) involved.

I think what killed Freaks and Geeks was the premise: high school. Talk about a unique setting for dramatic teen comedy, especially in the late nineties. The show focuses around the Weir family, particularly their children Lindsey(Linda Cardellini) and Sam(John Francis Daley). Sam is a geek, one of a few just starting out his high school career. Lindsey was also a geek but a different kind (math nerd), she is an upperclassman looking to break out of her image by hanging with the “freaks”: Segel, Rogen, and Franco. I’m going to be honest: this is not the most driving premise I’ve ever heard. What makes it work, however, is not just the casting. Freaks and Geeks has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on television, and one needs look no further than the character of Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) for an example.

She just comes off as sunshine and rainbows.
She just comes off as sunshine and rainbows.

Kim Kelly is the bitchy girlfriend of Franco’s Daniel Desario. She appears dumb, vulgar, and mean-spirited. On the surface, she is the exact opposite of protagonist, Lindsey Weir. For many shows, particularly comedies: this would be enough characterization (for one season anyway). Comedies are no strangers to using stereotypes for laughs, especially among non-starring characters (which Kim Kelly is). A lesser show would have stopped there with her and probably little of the humor would have been lost.

I’m going to try to avoid going into spoilers, as I think the storytelling of Freaks and Geeks is best left to its writers. That said, I am going to discuss one episode in detail: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” The basic premise: Kim invites Lindsey over for dinner in an attempt to try and build a friendship between the two of them. Two people who don’t really like each other trying to get along: hilarious… but that’s not what the episode is really about. This is Kim’s family:

They are not like Lindsey’s family. Lindsey’s family is about as normal as it gets: father (working), mother (homemaker), and younger brother (insert sibling description here). Kim comes from an abusive household, and the writers make no secret of this. What’s great, however, is that they don’t overdo it either. Kim’s “father” isn’t physically abusive (at least not in the episode) and her mother isn’t immediately crazy. It is a realistic presentation of a dysfunctional family.

Afterwards, Kim is explained a little bit: but the show doesn’t use her background as a crutch for her character (oh this is just how she was raised nonsense). Kim is still given responsibility for her actions and still expected to grow (just not at the same pace as Lindsey). How refreshing it is to have no shortcuts taken. There were a million ways to explain Kim Kelly and the writers chose the simplest. They didn’t make it flashy or outwardly attention-grabbing, they just made it good.

One of Kim's many great lines from the show.
One of Kim’s many great lines from the show.

Every character gets this treatment on Freaks and Geeks: it’s what makes the show worth watching. I could go on praising but that is just what it would be. So I’ll simply say: watch it. No stupid hooks, no excessive nudity or character deaths in place of character development: just good, realistic, character drama. Too bad there aren’t more shows on this level.

Marvel's Gamble: Guardians of the Galaxy

“Who?”

Yes, the trailer for Marvel Studios’ upcoming blockbuster-hopeful, Guardians of the Galaxy (based off the comic series by the same name), highlights the film’s principle problem immediately. While past superhero movies have starred big names like Batman, Superman, and the X-Men; Guardians of the Galaxy gives us Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, and Rocket. Who indeed. For the first time in its existence, the cinematic superhero genre is going obscure. There is no one out there, other than comic book fans, familiar with these characters. It’s a bold risk, although Marvel Studios is no stranger to ambitious projects (Thor, The Avengers, the Incredible Hulk).

For starters – the film needs a star. Someone the audience can identify and be like “I want to see a movie with that dude/dudette in it!” Guardians of the Galaxy has such a star. Bradley Cooper, an Academy Award nominated actor whose recent screen credits include American Hustle, The Hangover trilogy and Silver Linings Playbook. Simply put: he is one of the most popular actors out there. Surely they would use his face to help draw in the ticket sales… well, this is his face in the film:

Yep.
Yep.

Bradley Cooper lends his voice talents as Rocket, the seemingly homicidal, gun-toting, sentient raccoon. While this still sounds like a great casting decision, it’s not going to draw in the casual crowd. That’s okay because Vin Diesel (of Fast and the Furious fame) is also in the movie… as this guy:

Groot-Concept-Art-Comic-Con-2013-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy

Perfect, so the film’s two biggest leads are virtually unrecognizable. I could point out that Zoe Saldana (Star Trek and Avatar) is also in this but, you guessed it: she’s the green chick. This is not to say that Chris Pratt (Peter Quill aka Star-Lord) is a nobody. He has appeared in hits like Parks and Recreation and the LEGO Movie (looks totally identical to his Lego counterpart). Still, of the four actors mentioned, he is currently the lowest in terms of recognition. That may change with films like this and Jurassic World (I’m not kidding, that’s the title of the 4th Jurassic Park) but for now: star power is shaky.

However, star power isn’t the only thing that drives the success of a film. Competition is also important. Guardians of the Galaxy is currently slated for release on August 1st of this year. It’s main competition will be the films that come out immediately before (July) and immediately after (rest of August). Right now it will only be going against films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11th), Hercules (July 25th), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (August 8th). That’s not too imposing in terms of potential blockbusters. The direct challenge is the last film mentioned:

One week after release and the Guardians will face their biggest challenge: a team of much better known superheroes.
One week after release and the Guardians will face their biggest challenge: a team of much better known superheroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy is in good shape to make a splash this summer: provided that audiences think it will be worth paying money to see. That largely depends on marketing. Again they have their hands full this time (who are these people and why should anyone give a damn). First impressions matter and, well, here is the trailer:

Pretty good, nice use of “Hooked On A Feeling” to give it some class (as opposed to trying to cash in on the latest popular radio song). The trailer illustrates that there may be more going on here than just the average, action-driven superhero movie. For one thing: there’s comedy. When two of the main characters are a raccoon and a walking plant, seriousness would be hard to impart. Marvel’s better films (Thor, The Avengers, and Iron Man) have all made excellent use of comedy to help infuse their plots with human emotion.

It is worth noting that this movie is directed by James Gunn. Not the largest name in Hollywood by any stretch but Gunn made a name for himself with Super, another superhero film that not enough people have seen (seriously check it out, Ellen Page is amazing in it). While no guarantee, Gunn’s involvement does bring some assurance that Guardians of the Galaxy will not be the next Man of Steel.

I have made no secret that I believe the superhero genre is dying in movies. I have yet to see anything to convince me otherwise but nevertheless, Guardians of the Galaxy is in a good place to make money this summer. Marvel Studios is counting on it, should this film fail financially, it will bold very ill for the likes of Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange.  If Marvel is lucky (and if the film is good) their gamble will pay off.