Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

Make no mistake -- I am of the "Muppet generation". I was one of those kids who grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I remember being a little kid and endlessly watching the trailer for The Muppet Movie and impatiently waiting for the movie to come out...

It didn't disappoint me as a kid and it still doesn't disappoint me all these years later.

But somewhere along the way it felt like the Muppets lost their path. Even though I was an adult (technically) I went to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in the theatres and it made me tear up. It was a lovely story lovingly retold with the Muppets and that was fine... But then they followed it up with The Muppet Treasure Island -- which I talked a friend into going to see with me -- and there was something... lost this time. Where was the zaniness? Where was the wild and weird scripting? The Muppets needed to be themselves -- their own, established characters -- rather than playing adaptations of characters written for something else. It added an extra layer that didn't need to be there. Kermit needed to be just Kermit, not Kermit playing Captain Smollett. After that the Muppets just passed me by. They faded away -- seemingly having no place in this modern world -- only existing in the past as DVD box sets of the original Muppet Show were released.

And then came news of a new movie... The Muppets. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best and, as the first trailers started coming out, I was heartened to think that maybe the best was not behind these felt creations.

The day before Thanksgiving I headed to the theatre with family to see if the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie, et. al. that I remembered were back. And the final verdict?......

It doesn't knock the first movie off it's pedestal but The Muppets gets more right than it gets wrong.

The scriptwriters and stars perfectly understand that the Muppets are about zaniness, and wackiness and breaking the fourth wall and impossible visual puns. They understand that the Muppets simply exist in the world and no one questions them. No one questions a blue-eyed, blonde haired, talking pig working as a plus size fashion editor for Vogue. No one questions a... whatever the heck Gonzo is... becoming a plumbing magnate with a chicken for a secretary. No one questions that Walter (a Muppet) and Gary (a human) are brothers. THAT is the world of the Muppets. Stuff happens. You roll with it. If you're thinking about these things then the movie isn't doing it's job.

And that's the other thing this movie gets right -- the heart. The Muppets fight and squabble and argue -- they're a family, of course they do! But the Muppets maintain a higher standard. They don't hurt people, they don't offend people, they don't call people nasty names -- it's just not in them to do those things. They turn the other cheek and when someone knocks them down they'll just pick themselves right back up again. The Muppets always win because they refuse to quit. When the going gets tough the Muppets will just keep going. It's a lovely, sweet, message that still has a place in the world today.

On top of all this the writers have crafted a number of other messages. Walter, the idealistic Muppet, discovers that sometimes reality doesn't match your dreams and that dreams also don't just get handed to you -- sometimes you really have to work for them.

He also finds his place in the world after much searching -- even if finding that place means going in a different direction than his beloved brother. It's a lesson that, sooner or later, all kids learn. It doesn't mean that family doesn't matter or that family members don't still love one another it's just that one has to make their own place in this world.

On the other side of that coin Gary (Jason Segel) has spent years sheltering and protecting his brother Walter and he must come to let go of Walter and pursue his own dreams and his own place in the world.

And on top of all of that we have Kermit -- who let his "family" slip away and now is finally realizing the scope of all he has lost. Getting them back won't be easy and it may not be possible at all. Does he have the courage and the will to take on this fight? Well... he's Kermit after all.

All of these messages weave in and around one another and strangely never overwhelm the film. And that takes a deft touch.

There are also several new songs from Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie and these turn out to be good additions to the Muppet song book. They don't have the lasting legacy of "Rainbow Connection" nor the surprisingly philosophical bent of "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" but, as compared to some animated movies lately, they are invested in the movie. Unlike many movies which seem lately to just shove in some pop-style song into a sequence without the song having much to do with the movie or the characters the songs here further the plot or they tell us something about the characters or how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking. The songs are also very much in the old musical bent. "Me Party" has a disco flavor and is probably the most singable outside of context but "Life's a Happy Song" feels like something out of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical and you probably won't find yourself belting it out at karoke night. If there is a complaint it is that there aren't enough new songs and the movie pads things out by using existing songs like "We Built This City" by Starship. But honestly, this is me being a bit nitpicky.

The movie also is maybe a bit too nostalgic in that it plays a lot of tributes to the original Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie which younger viewers aren't going to get but hey, minor quibble really. Also, I have to say that the characters of Walter, Mary and Gary do seem to overwhelm the Muppets at a few points. Walter at times borders on an author self-insertion style character which can be dangerous. These are the things which hold the movie back from being quite as brilliant as the first one but, if I'm honest, I'd probably put The Muppets in above even The Muppets Take Manhattan.

If you want a wacky, zany, inventive comedy with a lot of heart and emotion and that also has a good message presented without artifice or a sledgehammer to the skull then go to see The Muppets. The kids will have a good time and so will the parents. There's something here for everyone making it a truly "Family" film.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"He Did a Good Job Cleaning Up the Place..."

And now for the final part of my season 3 overview... some of my favorite host segments.

As I said in the first part of my overview, season 3 produced a lot of good host segments but there are a few I keep coming back to again and again.

One of these is Servo's ballad to Tibby -- which I linked to in the second part of my overview.

From that same episode -- Gamera -- comes Crow and Servo making an impromptu voodoo doll to express their dislike of the little boy from the movie...

From Gamera vs. Barugon comes the 5000 piece fightin' men and monster set...

Both of these episodes also come highly recommended to watch the whole of and not just the host segments.

The same can not be said of ep. 305 -- Stranded in Space. Even with the riffing the movie is dull as dishwater. The third host segment (which unfortunately I can't link to directly) is a delight if you grew up with TV detective characters of the 1970's and early 1980's (and I did). Joel plays a crime kingpin with the bots as his hench...er... bots and orders the execution of a number of famous TV detectives. The bots are a little confused, though, by Joel's use of slang for 'killing'. Go seek it out, it's funny.

Another one from a movie I found dull and also another host segment I can't link to directly is the second host segment from ep. 307 -- Daddy-O. The bots recreate a drag racing scene from the movie in their own inimitable style.

And another one I can't link to directly -- the opening from ep. 309 -- The Amazing Colossal Man. the bots build a cardboard fort in which they hide out and from which they mock Joel.

Then there's "Old Joel Robinson Had a Farm" -- from ep. 310 -- Fugitive Alien.

"Joel Robinson is DEAD!!!".... or maybe not. From ep. 314 Mighty Jack.

Also from the same episode one of my favorite songs... "Slow the Plot Down".

Ep. 315 -- Teenage Caveman is another rather dull flick but the host segments -- pretty much all of them -- are terrific as they feature a running battle between Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester. Especially great is where they do a parody of the music from the Star Trek original series episode "Amok Time".

And in another one I can't link to directly, ep. 318 -- Star Force: Fugitive Alien II's first host segment has Servo blowing a gasket due to the horrible nature of the movie. Joel rushes to revive him while Crow channel William Shatner from Rescue 911.

Finally there is ep. 323 -- The Castle of Fu Manchu. This episode has a reputation of being bad. As in the film is so bad even the riffing team can barely make it enjoyable. The film has been accused by fans of being incomprehensible, plotless, and having nothing happen.

Now, I disagree with pretty much all of this. The film *does* have a plot... but it's a needlessly convoluted one. And stuff *does* happen it's just that it happens intermittently. Really Castle of Fu Manchu's biggest sin is that it's *boring*. The action sequences are few and far between and when they do show up we don't care about the characters so we don't care about any threats to them. Christopher Lee phones in his performance as Fu... long distance... on a bad connection. Seriously, a man who made a sub-career out of playing villains couldn't intimidate a water bug here. And in the meantime viewers are stuck with characters who repeat information that we've already been told or shown.

As such, the film really isn't the worst one the team has ever had to tackle BUT it is dull and the riffing just isn't fast or funny enough to cover that fact. The guys really probably shouldn't have done this tough of a movie this late in the season when they were likely starting to burn out.

The thing about this one, though, is that it has some of the most fun host segments as they all build upon one another and tell a kind of 'story arc' as Joel and the bots slowly start to fall apart. Could it be that the Mads might actually.....*gasp*.... WIN?! Skip the film segments, watch all the host segments and find out.

And that's all from me for now. Have a Happy Thanksgiving (if you celebrate it).

"...Just Another Face in a Red Jumpsuit..."

As promised my list of things from Mystery Science Theater 3000's third season that you shouldn't skip.

I say "things" because, and here's where season 3 is a little different, this was really the first season where there were a number of host segments which were better than the movie riffing and several shorts where the short combined with the riffing to blow the feature film it was paired with out of the water.

First -- whole episodes...

Ep. 301 -- Cave Dwellers: The season opener gets off like a pistol shot. It's fast and hilariously funny and it is obvious everyone is on their game. The host segments are silly and satirical at the same time and the theatre riffing is top notch. You'll be laughing till you cry by the end of it. The film is a real "winner" as well (and by that I mean 'loser') -- a fantasy 'epic' that is more like epic fail. Bad acting, plot holes you could drive a truck through, and characters who are just ridiculous. My favorite character is actually Thong, the hero Ator's wordless sidekick. Why do I love Thong so much? Because he's an utter jerk. Seriously. At one point Thong is told flat out that Ator is walking into a trap. Does Thong even *try* to warn Ator before the trap is sprung? No. When Ator is first captured does Thong try to rescue him? No. When Ator and a bunch of villagers are taken to a place of sacrifice to be sacrificed to a giant snake (puppet) Thong waits until every single one of the villagers is sacrificed before he acts to save Ator. In short, Thong is a butthat. Oh, and the "cave dwellers" of the title? Yeah, they only appear at the beginning and middle of the film and probably have a screen time of about five minutes total.

The Gamera Run: I couldn't pick just one of the Gamera movies -- the riffing on all of them is just too good. Sure, some are stronger than others and some of the host segments are a mixed bag of merely amusing to outright hilarious but the five Gamera movies represents something unprecedented in the history of the show. Never before and never again would the team do a run of direct sequels like this. In fact, as a sign of the Gamera movies' place in the show's history this past summer all five were released on DVD in the show's first ever themed box set. You can find them as MST3K vol. XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera. And the DVD box set is pretty nice. I have to admit I didn't have much interest in many of the extras offered but just having the five riffed movies in nice, clear, sharp quality was worth it. Another reason these hold a special place for me is more personal -- I was one of those kids who grew up watching the Gamera movies on Saturday morning from a local, independent TV station. I met Gamera before I ever met Godzilla and my love of goofy, rubber suited monster movies was cemented. I love Gamera in spite of the cheesiness and also because of the cheesiness. The excellent riffing by Hodgson, Murphy and Beaulieu is just icing on the cake of my childhood memories. Sweet, satiric icing.

As an incentive here's the justifiably beloved "Tibby" song from Ep. 302 -- Gamera:

Ep. 321 -- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: It was the gang's first attempt at doing a 'Christmas' episode and they hit a home run on their first time at bat. There is almost an insane balancing act done here of making fun of the movie and spoofing some Christmas social conventions but without ever turning nasty or mean spirited about it and the team makes it look effortless. And the riffing for this weird little movie is a laugh riot. If you're someone who gets the holiday blues or whose family gets you down then seek out this gem to lift your spirits. The movie itself is the ultimate in cashing in on the cheap. I can only imagine the writers sitting down over a three martini (or more) lunch and coming up with this plot: The children of Mars are depressed. They see TV programs from Earth and want to have fun and play like the Earth children do. So the leaders of Mars get together, go to Earth, and kidnap Santa Claus to bring toys and Christmas to the Martian children. One of the Martians, though, has a grudge against Santa and is determined to see the jolly old fellow dead. Hilarity ensues.... unintentional hilarity. The movie was obviously trying to capitalize on the "space" craze with the Martian plot and it tried to do so as cheaply as it could with lousy costumes and cheap sets filmed entirely on a soundstage somewhere. On several occasions one actor completely steps on another actor's line and they don't bother to reshoot the scene. At one point "Santa" also seems to lose the plot or the script one or the other (or maybe both) and, again, the scene isn't reshot. I also, must confess, that I actually *did* see this film once when I was little on that aforementioned independent, local TV station. I don't remember most of it and it turns out there's a good reason for that. Still, this is a perfect movie for the guys to riff and by the time they're done with it Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is nothing more than a smoking crater.

Part the Second.... The Shorts:

Ever since the first season the MST3K-ers had used serial installments and short films to to pad out the time when a feature film ran too short to fill an episode. Season 3, however, featured some of the finest (and by "finest" I mean bizarre, out-of-date, and unintentionally hilarious) examples of the genre. There are three, though, that I truly loved...

Catching Trouble (second short for ep. 315 Teenage Caveman) While the riffing on this one is pretty good it's the short itself that if funny in that 'appalling' way. Viewers watch tracker "Ross" in the Florida Everglades as he hunts down and captures animals for zoos in obviously stages scenarios. Even if you're not a backer of PETA you'll probably find this one shocking thanks to the passage of time. Catching Trouble, however, would not be complete if it were not watched with the following host segment -- "Catching Ross". The guys get something of an unholy glee out of 'capturing' a doll meant to represent Ross. It's definitely more entertaining than the slow Teenage Caveman where even Joel, Kevin, and Trace seem to struggle to make the movie funny.

The Home Economics Story (short with ep. 317 The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. Yeah, that's an obscenely long title) This one would be funny enough on it's own but being as I am the female of the species this short's casual sexism and perpetuation of "suitable" jobs for women in the 1950's is a scream. Viewers are treated to what is essentially one big commercial for the University of Iowa's Home Economics program -- which teaches girls how to be fashion designers, design home appliances, work in school and hospital cafeterias, run restaurants, and be interior designers... at least until they get their M-R-S when they'll be expected to apply their knowledge to creating a comfy home for their family. Add to that Joel and the bots sitting in front of the screen making fun of the 'college experience' and the short's sexist attitudes and it is, in short (heh) awesome. It also definitely beats out the feature film -- one of Roger Corman's early efforts. One of my favorite lines (and don't ask me why)... Servo: "Would she smoke thin, black cigarettes and reject the Triune God?"

Mr. B Natural (short with ep. 319 War of the Colossal Beast) This one is pure, 100% cheese. Like The Home Economics Story this one was created as one long commercial (for Conn band instruments). In this outing a "Spirit of Music" named Mr. B Natural (played by a woman, of course) works to convince a boy that he can be the hit of the school that he longs to be if he learns how to play an instrument. The riffing that Joel and the bots do onscreen for this one is through the roof. Indications that the little boy is hallucinating, castigation of "Mr. B Natural", and popping the bubble on popularity are just some of the directions the jokes take. The writing team was clearly inspired here. For an added benefit watch the follow up host segment where Crow and Servo do a hilarious debate on whether Mr. B Natural was a woman or a man.

And, as I realize this post is getting a little long I'm going to leave it here for now. Tomorrow I will finish up season 3 by covering a few of my favorite host segments which can (and in some cases should) be watched independently of the movies they are paired with.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"He Worked at Gizmonic Institute...."

Season 3 over, finally! Okay, actually, I finished it up a while back but it took some time for me to put my notes in order. Anyway... the overview....

Season 3 might be best summed up as... 'Forward, into the past!'... and I'll explain that in a minute.

With season 3, though, the creative team started out the year with a certain amount of stability. There were no more cast changes nor would there be until mid-season 5, the sets were pretty well... uh... set and the same could be said of the robot puppets as well. Also, after a whole season of working together, the cast had settled into familiarity.

Stability, however, does not mean that the show was static. MST3K broke new ground as they increased their episode production from 13 episodes per season to 24 -- even more than they had done at KTMA in their initial run! They also decided to tackle their first Christmas themed episode and they experimented with riffing bad films and their equally bad sequels.

All of this security seemed to put the gang into a reflective mood, though, as they looked back only three short years ago to how they had begun on the little, local, independent TV station of KTMA. As a result the original team members decided they wanted another crack at some of the movies they had riffed at KTMA to do a better job at it now that they had more experience under their belts. As a result, out of the 24 new episodes this season 9 of them were recycled from KTMA -- Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gaos, Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera vs. Zigra (sensing a theme here?), Time of the Apes, Fugitive Alien and Starforce: Fugitive Alien II. The result of all of this was some of the show's fan favorite episodes, host segments and songs -- stuff that is still quoted and laughed over today.

Season 3 would also end up having some of the best-known riffed shorts with the likes of Mr. B Natural and Appreciating Our Parents among others. As for the films well, season 3 wasn't as genre diverse as others seasons were or would be. The slate came down heavily on 'science-gone-wrong', Cold War analogy sci-fi, and (thanks to the KTMA do-overs) badly dubbed and worse edited Japanese imports. This was okay, though, since, in my opinion, the gang really did some of their best work within the sci-fi genre. There's something about extra large humans, arachnids, traffic cones and/or turtles that seems to inspire the riffing.

One of the most noticeable things was how much tighter the writing became on the skits. The host segments for season 3 produced far fewer clunkers and even for the less amusing installments at least the skits tended to have a beginning, middle and end rather than meandering around before finally just coming to an end.

If there is one complaint to be had it is that the end of the season is noticeably weaker than the the beginning. The last feature -- Master Ninja II-- goes out with much more of a whimper than a bang in my opinion. This is understandable though since tackling 24 bad movies in one season was quite an undertaking. Still, they hopefully learned from the experience and paced themselves a little better when season 4 rolled around.

Usually I finish up with a few episodes that were the highlights of the season for me. This time I'm putting those in a separate post since I have a *lot* to say. You've been warned.....

Tune in tomorrow for Stressfactor's list of "Things You Can't Miss" from season 3 of Mystery Science Theatre 3000

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Signs That You Are Now a Dog Guardian

1) It is cold, windy and rainy outside. Instead of being curled up on your couch with a nice mug of hot tea thinking about how nice it is to be curled up on your couch with a nice mug of hot tea instead of being outside you are preparing to go outside to walk the dog.

2) You are preparing to go walk your dog out in the cold, wind, and rain.

3) Said preparations involve dragging out the 'stomper boots' that you have not had out since the last 11 inch snowfall.

4) You put on said 'stomper boots' only to feel something hard inside. You take off the boot, shake it out, and find a piece of kibble inside.

5) You put the 'stomper boots' back on, layer up, and, against your better judgement go out in the cold, wind and rain.

6) You know it's only going to get worse from here -- see reference to 11 inch snowfall.