Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Inspired Lunacy

THIS is why I love the Muppets...... and OK Go..... But mostly the Muppets.


I know, lack of posting again. Things have been a little busy and on top of that there have been a few new DVD sets come into my life which I've been busy trying to make my way through.

Hopefully, more new stuff coming soon!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"...There Was a Guy Named Joel; Not Too Different From You or Me"

And at last it is time to look at the second cable season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Some appear to think of this season as the one with the "Biker Trilogy" -- so called because the riffing team would tear into three 1960's era biker movies in fairly close succession. Others think of this season as the "Robert Lippert Season" as four of the thirteen movies riffed here would be produced by Robert Lippert (and all would contain massive amounts of padding in the form of either long, aimless, walking scenes or long, aimless, rock climbing scenes. In point of fact, "Rock Climbing" would become a callback riff in later seasons and would crop up again almost 20 years later... but that's a story for another day...). For me, however, if I wanted to give season two a "theme" I would call it the season of nihilism... and we'll get to why in short order.

It becomes clear, right off the bat, that the show is not and really probably never will be still or static. There was almost always something changing even if the changes were small and subtle. For season two small and subtle was certainly not the case. With the departure of Josh Weinstein two new people joined the on-air cast to replace the one loss. Where Weinstein had portrayed both Tom Servo and the mad scientist Dr. Laurence Erhardt the decision was made to split the parts. Comedian Frank Conniff came on board as Dr. Clayton Forrester's new lackey, Frank, and Kevin Murphy went from behind the camera to in front of it (sort of) as the new puppeteer and voice of Tom Servo.

Despite being somewhat new to audiences both of these guys had a history with the team -- particularly Kevin Murphy. Murphy had been an old colleague of Jim Mallon, who became producer on MST3K, and Mallon had hired Murphy to help him out at the Minneapolis's KTMA where the show was born. Murphy had been on set from day one running the cameras and lights (if you watch the end credits for the KTMA episodes you will find Murphy listed as "Cambot"), helping with the scripting (what little there was back in the day) and as an extra puppeteer (since in the KTMA days Josh Weinstein operated and provided voices for both Tom Servo and Gypsy any time Servo and Gypsy had to appear on-screen together someone else had to operate Gypsy while Weinstein provided the voice. Most often that someone else was Murphy). When the show moved to cable Murphy went along, continuing to hold various jobs behind the scenes -- including being a regular member of the writing team. It was only natural, then, for him to finally move in front of the camera in the form of Tom Servo.

As for Frank Conniff, while he was not involved in early production of the show the tight knit comedian community in Minneapolis meant that he was known around. In point of fact, Trace Beaulieu knew him well enough to give him a shout-out back in the KTMA days. In the first tackle of the movie Mighty Jack Crow remarks that a character "looks like Frank Conniff". With his addition and Murphy's move to puppeteer the cast would remain stable for the next several seasons.

There were other changes for the opening of the second season as well. The Deep 13 set was given a little makeover and the Satellite of Love Bridge set was completely revamped.

As for the season itself -- the guys seemed to make an effort to vary their material. The first cable season was heavy on old sci-fi and horror films as well as featuring mostly black and white films (out of thirteen movies only three were in color... a fact that the riffing team themselves kind of acknowledged on-screen at one point). For their second season they mixed things up with seven color films out of thirteen, one (bad) comedy, three aforementioned biker films, at least one adventure film and one movie that.... well, honestly, I don't even know how to categorize Rocket Attack U.S.A. (No, seriously. It's part Cold War drama -- only badly done. Part spy story -- bdaly done. And part piece of propaganda -- really badly done). Of course, though, the tried and true movies were the sci-fi and monster flicks.

And here's where we get to the nihilism. Whether by accident or design a number of the movies shown for this season had really downer endings. I doubt I'm spoiling anything for anyone by remarking that five of the thirteen films feature deaths of either: all the main characters, the primary protagonist, significant secondary characters or, in one case, the annihilation of New York City. Not kidding on that last one.

For me, personally, films have to be really good to pull off a downer ending without leaving me with a lingering edge of depression. I'm no Precious Pollyanna who always wants the happy ending but a film has to earn the emotional payoff of a sad or bittersweet ending. And for the bad films featured on MST3K there's no way they earn that emotional weight. As a result, no matter how good the riffing is I'm always left with a lingering slightly bad taste in my mouth. The funny just rarely balances out the depressing weight of a bad film with a horrid ending.

On the whole, however, audiences can see the improvement the guys made over the first season to the second. The rate of jokes speeds up markedly and those jokes are more pointed and funnier. More to the point, the skits for the host segments take a big jump up in quality. There are still a few clunkers but most of the sketches earn a grin or a chuckle if they don't earn a belly laugh and at the very least they get points on the sheer cleverness of the writing.

The cast changes also fold in without a blip. The various members shift smoothly and quickly settle into on-screen chemistry that would become famous for years to come. It's actually a testment to the professionalism of the group despite the fact that many of them did not come up in the world of episodic TV.

In the final round up, for me, this isn't my favorite season. While I can see the improvements and I applaud them many of the movies left me cold and not even the jokes and pointed satires of Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, and Trace Beaulieu could save them for me. Your actual mileage may vary though.

Favorite Episodes:

Lost Continent. The movie that would put rock climbing on the map. The film and the riffing start out kind of slow for me but as the actual action in the film picks up so do Joel and the bots' jokes. They even manage to make the interminable rock climbing scenes entertaining... mostly by threatening to lose their marbles.

Godzilla vs. Megalon. As a gal who grew up watching old Japanese monster movies on a small, local TV station on Saturday afternoons this episode is close to my heart. I was and remain a fan of all those cheesy flicks -- Godzilla and Gamera and King Kong Escapes (A.K.A. King Kong vs. Mechakong) -- but I take no offense when the MST3K team punctures them with verbal barbs. In fact, I enjoy it and there's a lot here to enjoy as the jokes are really very clever and Lord knows the movie gives them plenty of material to work with.

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. See above. This one isn't quite a sharp as the previous but it's still loads better than many of the other offerings this season.

There is one cautionary note which must be made here... the MST3K editions of the Godzilla movies can be difficult to find... legally. Back in the day Toho -- the studio who created and owns Godzilla -- licensed out the movies to various American companies. In turn those companies put together English dubbed versions of the films (some better translated and dubbed than others). In more recent years Toho has been not renewing those licenses when they have lapsed and thereby regaining control over their most famous movie monster.

In the last round of Godzilla films there was a concerted effort on the part of Toho to restore Godzilla to his fearsome, force to be reckoned with, status as opposed to the softer, more 'savior of mankind' status he had gained over the years. It was hoped that this would help the character be taken more seriously. Connected to that Toho has, since 2006, been digitally remastering all the old Godzilla films and releasing them on DVD in their original, Japanese, format in an effort to kind of erase the badly dubbed American versions. As a result while the MST3K team had the rights to riff the movie back in the early 1990's thanks to American distribution companies those rights have now reverted back to Toho and reportedly Toho has no desire to see either the bad English dub versions OR the MST3K comedy take on the films perpetuated. Without the rights to the films these episodes cannot be released on DVD.

While they do pop up on internet sites like YouTube or DailyMotion from time to time Toho usually quickly has them taken down for copyright violation. So while the two are some of my favorite episodes for this season watching them absolutely legally is technically impossible.

And as a personal note -- while I understand Toho's motivation I honestly don't think them allowing the MST3K versions of the film to be released would hurt them any. I've run into many fans like myself who can appreciate the movies on both levels. I actually like to watch the original versions in Japanese with English subtitles because they are often less silly and make more sense than the English dub versions -- as well as being more true to the Japanese culture that spawned the films to begin with. At the same time I get a kick out of the pure ham-and-cheese of the English dub versions which inspired the MST3K riffing team. It's not an either/or situation.

Now, on to season three... and backwards to KTMA..... Huh?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Smooth Operator

So one of the things which had me busy recently was this:

Yeah, in a moment of abject nostalgia for my childhood I got the entire first season of The Equalizer on DVD from my local library.

It's not the first time I've gone all nostalgic. The thing about it is that, quite often, I find that the stuff I enjoyed as a child really doesn't hold up with the passage of time. Shows that I can remember looking forward to watching way back when turn out to be trite, cliche ridden, lacking depth, and/or poorly scripted and acted. and yet, I continue to go back to my past to look at these things again. One might think I was a glutton for punishment.

Ah, but once in a while.... I find the true gold that time does not tarnish. Such is The Equalizer. And I have to admit I was surprised. Yes, I really did go into this expecting that I would be disappointed but from the moment I sat down with the first disc to the time when I popped the last disc from my DVD player I was enchanted.

For those of you not in the know or too young to remember this show "The Equalizer" was actually one Robert McCall (played by British actor Edward Woodward) a former spy for an unidentified espionage agency. It is never really clear what finally caused McCall to give up the spy business but it is strongly hinted that at least one major event and several minor ones convinced him that he was on the wrong path and that he had much to atone for. In his past was a failed marriage and a son from whom he was estranged and now, in his middle years, was attempting to reconnect with.

In an effort to balance the scales of the things he did which he felt were wrong he set himself up as a troubleshooter for those who had nowhere else to go. A sort of 'court of last resort'. McCall used his skills, knowledge, and occasionally even his old agency contacts to see that justice was done -- even if that justice didn't exactly come from a court of law. Independently wealthy (although from what source his income derived is never really stated), McCall often took cases for free or at least a nominal fee or some sort of tit-for-tat deal. McCall took on drug dealers, abusers, crooked businessmen, assassins, gangs, and even other spies just to name a few.

The show ran from 1985 to 1989 and so, like many shows from that era, it features the slick, superficial look of a lot of shows of the 1980's -- expensive, flashy cars, expensive, flashy clothes, good looking men and women, a kicky soundtrack... and no heart. What sets The Equalizer apart from those others shows are three things -- 1) Heart 2) Edward Woodward 3) The character of Robert McCall.

The heart and the character of McCall are actually closely intertwined in the show. While the people who come to McCall for help are often defined only by their problems and are not terribly deep McCall quite often takes their plight to heart. He cares about them very much and it shows and so we as the audience care about them just as much. The writers were quite careful to include a heaping helping of compassion and empathy in the series which sets it apart from other shows of the time period. And related to that McCall's own seemingly bottomless capacity for that compassion makes him a more sensative hero.

Along those lines, the character of McCall himself is a flawed person -- again, something that makes him far more interesting as a hero as the writers cannily play up. He has a failed marriage, he has had lovers in the past that he feels he failed to protect, he's done terrible things in the name of "peace" and he now questions whether some of those things were necessary. He has blood on his hands and like with Lady MacBeth it simply will not come off. He has a son whom he loves but whom, in his devotion to his job, he allowed to slip away and now struggles to reconnect with. He has determined to leave his life of espionage behind and yet it still follows him and occasionally threatens to draw him back. He is also not the typical young hero. He's well into middle age and time has taken it's toll on him. He exhudes a sense of a person who has lived a difficult life and struggles to deal with the fallout from that life. All of this draws the audience into his existence deeply even today. This is the key to why the show still works -- because the core of the character of McCall still works. The audience can still recognize and relate to his flaws because they are problems which exist in all times and eras.

Finally, there is Edward Woodward. A respected and award winning actor, it would have been easy for someone of his calibre to simply "phone in" his performance. With shows like The Equalizer they were often run far more off of their "look" and premise than they were of the actors in them. Woodward could have easily let the trappings of the show carry it along and it probably still would have been a hit for the network. He did not, however. Instead, Woodward put himself into the role fully and as a result he breathed real life into the complex character the writers crafted. Woodward brought charm, charisma and most of all a genuine sense of humor that ranged from sly and snarky to jolly. All of those things still shine through today and this is also what makes the show still eminently watchable today.

Sadly, it appears as though only the first season is available on DVD but if you're a fan of 1980's Cold War intrigue, or a fan of USA Network's series Burn Notice then check out The Equalizer -- you'll find that Burn Notice owes quite a bit to Edward Woodward's Robert McCall.