I Should Really Just Relax

So! The New Mystery Science Theater 3000 is here. That longshot, once-in-a-lifetime revival of the best television show in history turned out to be the real deal, unlike some crowd-funded projects involving cans without labels that I could mention. What’s more, we didn’t just get some one-time, big-nostalgia reunion special, we got over fifteen hours of show, rich and fully featured.

And…I don’t like it that much.

Everything a fan could want is here: the puppets, the songs, the chintzy sets. The movies are as pitiful as ever, and the riffs are rapid-fire. This fan, however, is left wanting. I admit that the following are the expected complaints of a crotchety old man who wants everything to stay the same as it ever did, but I’m going to deliver them anyway.

First off, the show feels…I don’t know…rushed. It wants to get straight to business. There’s no acknowledgment of the show’s long hiatus, and the new host, Jonah, seems almost happy to be stranded in space. Whereas the old show took a little time to characterize Joel Robinson as a gentle, fatherly figure, and Mike Nelson as the bullied newbie, I feel like Jonah has no persona to call his own. He just kinda slides into his position and does what’s expected of him. I’d say he’s like a guest on The Muppet Show, but even guests on The Muppet Show occasionally paused to wonder at their surroundings.

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Hey, everybody, let’s do an Invention Exchange! Hey, let’s have a song, whaddaya say?

I also find it baffling that Gypsy can now talk. Previously, Gypsy had to devote so much of her CPU time to controlling the ship, that she could only speak in a muddled, halting manner. She came off as slow, causing the other bots to tease her, and Joel to give her special treatment and comfort. I thought it was sweet, but I guess today’s attitudes towards autism/ADHD/any other over-diagnosed childhood illness won’t allow it, so the writers decided to play it safe. Now we gots a smart-and-sassy Gypsy…who melds right in with the others and is quickly forgotten.

Crow and Tom Servo are just okay, though their shrill, sibilant voices are difficult to distinguish from one another at times. Neither one of them has really had an opportunity for characterization, either. I haven’t seen a shred of Crow’s masochistic mania, or of Tom’s cultured pompousness. They don’t explain how they got shanghaied from Earth and stuck on the Satellite of Love again; they’re just there, going along for the ride, never questioning, never doubting.

Then there’s the villain. While nobody could replace Trace Beaulieu as the man-about-madness Dr. Clayton Forrester, I think the makers of this show could have done a hell of a lot better than Felicia Day. There’s absolutely nothing threatening, silly, or even funny about her, and I feel like her involvement is just another attempt of hers to stick her geek-baiting face into a set where lovelorn nerds will fawn over her.

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I was in The Guild! That means I like video games!

The only cast member who looks like he belongs is Patton Oswalt, though I feel he’s criminally treated playing a dope like TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Oswalt is an intelligent and thoughtful guy; I almost feel like he should be the host. He’s so good at playing put-upon, sensitive, and optimistic characters that he’d be a natural for it. Some of the best skits on the old show involved Joel teaching the bots about the delicate aspects of human nature, and I just don’t see the happy-go-lucky Jonah pulling this off. Oswalt, on the other hand, could have been great.

I tried to tell myself that the show isn’t really about the characters, it’s about really bad movies, and the really good jokes made at their expense. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t convince myself of this. I think that the relationships between the characters, and the tone established in the host segments, are linked to the atmosphere in the theater. An emptiness in one seeps into the other. The hurried feel of the show makes the riffing weak and mechanical. My dad and I watched the first episode together, and he and I were making better jokes than Jonah and the bots within five minutes. Bear in mind that he and I were students of MST3K; we learned how to make fun of movies from Joel and Mike.

So I watched the new show for hours and hours, scratching my head about why it wasn’t lighting me up. Then, ubiquitous uber-dork Neil Patrick Harris made a cameo, and all became clear: the show’s been hijacked. It’s not the territory of struggling, self-hating comics anymore. Now it’s the land of the Happy Little Internet Elves. It’s all nerdgasms and super-squees. I wouldn’t be surprised if PewDiePie or Jonathan Coulton made appearances. I guess it’s just a product of its time: when you used to watch MST3K, you were smoking on the couch and staring at Comedy Central at two in the morning. Now you’re binging Netflix on your iPhone while working the elliptical at In-Shape. The world shifts as its denizens hold fast.

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We’ll get back to doing RiffTrax after this, right?

It’s more evidence that the problem is likely mine. Maybe I’m just griping about the show because it’s different from what it used to be, and I don’t want it to be different from what it used to be. If I can just stick with it, show it a little patience, then maybe I’ll get on board with it. After all, I had a really tough time accepting the changes that the Sci-Fi Channel made to the show back in the 90s. Eventually, however, I came to love Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy, as is evidenced by their cameo on the new season, which overjoyed me, and reminded me of just how much I missed them.

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Top Non-Cartoons: 12 Monkeys

Today, I’d like to write about Non-Cartoons. I’m not sure that the term needs definition. Does it? What do you think?

Well, okay, I’ll do it anyway. A “non-cartoon” is a live-action film which, I feel, was made with the ambitious scope, and the careful physical attention, that I associate with animated films. I’m not talking about superhero or Star Wars films, which are practically cartoons already, nor am I talking about dry, adolescent anime films, which would probably turn out the same if they weren’t animated. No, I’m talking about films that go broad: they’re grand in scope, and they deal with very huge characters. They’re extreme, they’re over the top, and yet their live actors somehow keep them from sailing off into space. They are weird, but they would not work if they weren’t.

In this venture, I feel I must start with 12 Monkeys, a film directed by Terry Gilliam: an animator.

Terry Gilliam is the guy who did the Monty Python cartoons. You know, the goofy paper cut-out stuff that bridged the sketches:

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Terry Gilliam is known for his outlandish, ambitious movies, and the boiling water they throw him into. Studio executives hate his works, which often feature bleak and authoritarian settings, strange, cheap-looking props, and dark, ambiguous endings. His most successful movie, Time Bandits, is a whimsical children’s story. Its cast made it attractive — it features John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Sean Connery — and it has some of the most dazzling imagery that I’ve yet seen in a film. I think Gilliam used that marketability to sneak in his trademark cynicism, but he couldn’t get away with that twice. His next film, Brazilwould be his greatest struggle.

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Brazil is another Top Non-Cartoon, one that I would like to write about later. I bring it up now because it is the unrestrained portrait of Gilliam’s vision. It’s weird, it’s silly, it’s frightening, and it’s funny. Different people could call it fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, art film, and comedy, and they’d all be right. Here’s a movie that’s impossible to categorize, impossible to forget, and, I daresay, impossible to like completely.

12 Monkeys is another one.

This is a time-travel story about a deadly epidemic that’s wiped out eighty percent of the population, and a science team’s efforts to stop it. Forced to live below ground, they send convicts up to the germ-ridden surface to find clues about how everything fell apart. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, has proven himself to be one of their best investigators, so the scientists offer him a full pardon if he’ll go back in time to find the virus’s source.

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The prison facility is a hellhole with joint-crunching cells and terrifying interview rooms. The scientists exchange sentences in a comic fashion, and they observe Cole through a jittering orb of monitors and cameras. Sorry for bringing it up again, but it’s all very Brazil, and all very Gilliam.

The time-travel scheme doesn’t go well. First off, the scientists accidentally send Cole to the wrong year. Second, Cole’s story and violent behavior land him in a mental institution before he can get anywhere. When he explains himself to a panel of therapists, even he seems to realize just how loony it sounds. So he’s trapped, spending his days in a thorazine haze, and his nights reliving a murder he witnessed as a child. Life sucks in a nut house, especially when you think you don’t belong there.

Cole’s foil is a person who’s owned his craziness: one Jeffrey Goines, a string of firecrackers given Oscar-nominated life by Brad Pitt. I fucking love this guy.

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Pitt was chosen for the role in an effort to deflate his “pretty boy” persona, and boy does he succeed. Goines is balls-out wacko. He spews manic monologues. He flips everyone off. His laugh is a dopey croak. He’s that weird kid down the street that your parents didn’t like you hanging out with, and that you weren’t sure you liked hanging out with, but you did it anyway because you were kinda scared to say no to him.

He’s also a ton of fun to watch. Fast-talking and fast-moving, he’s like James Woods on crack. With his wild antics and anti-establishment speeches, he is the original Nolan Joker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In the movie’s best shot, a desperate Cole pushes Goines against a third-story balcony railing, and holds his head over the side. The camera is held above the two, so we can see the frightened onlookers from the floors below. Goines doesn’t react in any rational way: he just cracks up laughing, and thrusts a fuck-you finger in Cole’s face. It’s a total Batman/Joker moment, only without the stupid costumes and makeup. It proves the superfluity of the superhero movie.

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So Goines is a force of nature, but he’s also a red herring, and the movie kinda limps to its finale after Goines leaves the picture. It gets reflective and melancholy when it really needs to get up and get moving. Threads about sanity and the Cassandra complex wrap up long after we’ve lost interest in them, and the romance doesn’t feel believable. The language of time-travel movies is so familiar by now that there’s no surprise to the ending at all (this was likely intentional, but that makes it no less boring). There’s an excellent, chilling moment involving David Morse’s character, but the rest feels low and saggy.

Now this brings me to the TV show.

For some reason, the SyFy channel felt the need to expand 12 Monkeys into a series, one of those things that makes no sense to me. The movie may be flawed, but it got its point across, and serializing it won’t do its slower elements any favors. I call it “The Sopranos Syndrome,” and you see it everywhere now. The Peak TV philosophy seems to go like this: stretch a plot until it’s ready to snap, bloat it with tired themes, provide no answers or resolution until the mad rush of the finale, and boom, you’ve got yourself a success. Even South Park is doing this now, and it drives me nuts.

What’s more, the producers decided to cast Emily Hampshire as the Goines character, and one of the first things she says is, “Look at you; you can’t take your eyes off me!” Ugh.

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Already, this new Goines has told us that she knows she’s hot. Come on. A great character shouldn’t have to fall back on hotness. There is nothing sexy or even sexual about the original Goines, and that a sex symbol plays him underscores that fact. In the movie, Goines is Daffy Duck. In the show, Goines is Catwoman.

This doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying this because of any feminist leanings; I just don’t find the “small, cute, and catlike” look to be especially threatening. There are plenty of women in cinema who’ve done crazy and terrible without any eye candy. Look at Misery. Look at La Femme/Inside. Look at The Ring! Perhaps it’s the nature of our culture, but it does seem like this equation of menace with attractiveness is more common among female villains. Is there any male villain like that? Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, is the only one I can think of.

Anyway, 12 Monkeys is a true Non-Cartoon, not only because of Pitt’s character, but because of the peculiar setting, wild concept, and crooked camerawork. I think its musical score is beautiful too. I believe that animating it wouldn’t damage it, if it was provided the right animator. In this case, that animator is Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. His character designs are freaky and weird, and his settings are eerie and monolithic. I can totally see him doing this movie justice, but I would keep him far away from the show.

Top Cartoons: Space Ghost Coast to Coast – Intense Patriotism

Oh man…it’s been too long since I last watched this. I’m still laughing too hard to even organize this post. This is a comedy tidal wave, and if you watch it, you’re going to have a tough time getting enough oxygen. Sure, it’s recycled animation put through After Effects, but who cares? The concept, jokes, and timing are so god-damned, spot-on perfect that I think it earns a spot on the ol’ Top Cartoon list.

This episode came at that SGC2C sweet spot between the lame Evan Dorkin days and the just plain weird Adult Swim days. Talk show host Space Ghost has decided to finally travel to America, where all the great superheroes live. Evil musician Zorak, and mostly-indifferent director Moltar have their doubts, but they’re going whether they like it or not. Unfortunately they end up in Mexico.

Highlights include:

  • The Pledge of Allegiance
  • Jeff Foxworthy’s “jokes”
  • Moltar’s fear
  • Zorak’s kids
  • The box
  • Zorak demands freedom
  • “MINE is still on.”

Just watch the dang thing.

Top Cartoons: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

magoo theater actor.png“Do you know the weight and the length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It is a ponderous chain! Oh, captive bound and double-ironed! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity misused? Yet, such was I….”

Not the sort of dialogue one might expect from a cartoon, eh? A snottier animator than myself might even say that it’s not something that belongs in some chintzy UPA production, but I’m no snot-rag.

To me, cartoons have never simply been about art and movement. They’ve always been about presentation, performance, and timing: all the things that make any drama appealing. Just ask any Pixar fan his or her opinion on the studio’s success, and you’ll realize that with animation, as with all forms of acting, motion always comes second to emotion.

This is why I consider Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol to be the best of the myriad animated “Carol” adaptations. Sure, the animation is limited. Sure, the backgrounds are wildly exaggerated. Sure, the characters rarely evince their existence in the third dimension. All these stylistic qualities are unarguable, but to fault this cartoon for them would only reveal an artistic prejudice in the viewer. Magoo is beautifully drawn, finely directed, powerfully acted, and a joy to watch.

magoo.jpgThe cartoon sets up the story as a Broadway production, in which the myopic Magoo is the star. Jim Backus does some impressive voice gymnastics here, as he successfully buries the familiar Magoo dottiness beneath a surprising veneer of cruelty, sorrow, rage, and fear.

And Scrooge has much to fear. The four ghosts of the story lose none of their malevolence in their cartoon manifestations. Christmas Present grandly admonishes and condescends, and the legless, looming form of  Christmas Future remains my all-time favorite version of the character. Even the childlike, androgynous Christmas Past exhibits an unsettling aspect in its final departure.

74c790eb3b2c850d26feaab5f619a9cf.jpg xmaspresent.jpgGhostOfChristmasFuture-Magoo.jpgBut the grooviest ghost of them all is Jacob Marley, by far. Thanks to a jaw-dropping performance by Royal Dano, Marley is sure to get the attention of everyone in the room as he laments with frightful, operatic anguish. Marley’s scene was one of the first in animation to move me to tears, but not in the way you might expect.

There is a particular moment in the scene when Marley orders Scrooge to peer through his bedroom window and behold the afterlife that awaits him. And then, several fiery threads knit themselves together: a desperate musical cue, a vision of lost souls, a horrified outcry, a somber warning, and a swelling bass tone. And it’s all constructed so well that it becomes a thing of limitless, abstract beauty: something I cannot react to except to weep. It is not Scrooge’s plight that overwhelms me, as no other adaptation of this scene has elicited such a response. No, I think that I am simply awed at a craftsman’s level — amazed and moved at this perfect achievement of effect.

marley.jpgOf course, there are moments later on that actually aim to yank out the tears, and I think they’re quite good too, considering the simple drawings we’re looking at. The talented musicians, songwriters, editors, and voice actors all deserve great credit for this accomplishment.

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Still, Dickens’s timeless tale is the cradle of these emotional forces, and the truth is that any minor tweak to it can ruin the whole soup. Thankfully, UPA wisely treats the work with great reverence. While concessions understandably had to be made for time, much of the heady dialogue and darker scenes from the book were retained. No punches were pulled for the sake of offending a child viewer, and I think the results speak for themselves. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is by turns sad, warm, funny, wondrous, and frightening, and neither Disney nor Warner Bros. were able to pull the Carol off so well as this. The simple technical skill massed within these studios is meaningless without the innate understanding of timing, heart, and power that UPA demonstrated here.

Or, to make my point more simply, “it’s not the number of frames in the life, it’s the amount of life in the frames.”

Top Cartoons: Stimpy’s Invention

Anyone who watched The Ren & Stimpy Show remembers Stimpy’s Invention. While I think Man’s Best Friend is a superior R&S episode, the sheer madness in the second half of Stimpy’s Invention makes it a top cartoon.

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Even the title card is awesome. Set to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, it sets the uneasy tone for what’s to come.

Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t get off to the best start. Stimpy asks Ren to test out his silly and useless “invinshins,” which sets in motion a series of weak gags that are only funny because of the excellent voice acting. Safe though they are, I think these scenes serve their purpose in providing characterization, as well as setting up contrast.

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After this, we get a long, long, long sequence of Stimpy at work in his laboratory. There are couple of funny shots, but overall this feels like padding. Once Stimpy yells “Eureka!” however, the cartoon takes flight and never touches the ground again.

Stimpy’s newest invention is the Happy Helmet, a mood-altering abomination that forces its wearer to feel elated all the time. Stimpy ambushes Ren with this device, and a freaky transformation follows (brilliantly set to The Flight of the Bumblebee). The poses and animation here are tremendous, unlike anything seen in most cartoons. Ren goes so far off-model that most square studios would never allow it. Thankfully, Spumco is no square studio. Laying out this cartoon must have been a hell of a lot of fun.stimpys-invention-mkv_snapshot_07-25_2014-02-16_01-45-17.png

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Having turned into a mindlessly cheerful drone, Ren goes on to perform “wonderful things” for Stimpy, like ironing the cat’s underwear and cleaning his litter box, and the parade of astonishing poses continues. I mean, just look at this! Nobody does stuff like this. There’s no way Disney would ever contort its precious characters in this way, and even Warner Bros. never took things to these extremes.

Finger_in_kitty_litter.pngren ironingren cat boxThe climax of Stimpy’s Invention is, as most know, the haunting musical number of Stinky Wizzleteats’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” This scene is pretty much indescribable. Ren & Stimpy cavort to this bizarre children’s ditty, performed by John Kricfalusi himself in a weird homage to Burl Ives. As the song hits its crescendo, Ren rediscovers his willpower and frees himself from the Happy Helmet by smashing himself on the head with a ball-peen hammer. It all happens in time with the song, too. It’s amazing.

Here’s something strange: when I first saw this as an eleven-year-old, and the spotlights fell on the characters, I somehow knew that I was about to see something that wasn’t just special, but historic.

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It is here that John Kricfalusi first demonstrated to the world that mixture of disturbing and funny that would be the hallmark of his work ever after. Many cartoons — including Billy & Mandy, The Brothers Grunt, Spongebob Squarepants, and Adventure Time — have attempted to recapture this sinister-yet-silly tone that’s so well encapsulated in Stimpy’s Invention, but none has succeeded. Some of the shows on Adult Swim come close, but I’m not sure they count since, well, they’re not aimed at children, and thus, have no lines to toe. What Ren & Stimpy got away with blows the mind, as well as the doors for all outrageous cartoons that followed.

Don’t Rainn on His Parade

So that new Backstrom show just came out, and already, things are looking grim for it. When I first saw the ads, I didn’t have high hopes for the show, as it looked a little too much like NBC’s The Michael Richards Show, in which the kooky guy from a previously successful series attempted to make it on his own (also as a detective). Now, I hate television as much as the next hipster, and I can think of a lot of shows I’d love to see ripped from the air, but for some reason, I feel bad for Backstrom, and I don’t want to see it fail.

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Like AMC’s Low Winter Sun, Backstrom was cursed before it had a chance. The comedians I follow on Twitter tore into it weeks ahead of its premiere. The ire was strong, too. They called Wilson’s character “Dwight Lite.” They said he was the afterbirth of House M.D. And man, they hated that damn Slurpee cup. I mean, really hated it.

I admit that I shared some of the same feelings, but hey, I gotta be honest, that’s not the show’s fault. It was the marketing. The ads tried to sell me on all the wrong things. It’s like with Breaking Bad. I didn’t start watching the show until it was well into the third season, despite the accolades and gushing word-of-mouth. The reason for my delay? That fucking first-season DVD set, the one with the picture of Walter in his undies on the front:

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I mean, come onWhat sensible person would look at this and say, “Hey, now here’s a complex, fascinating thriller!”?

I realize that Fox’s marketeers want to re-introduce Wilson to us in a way that feels familiar. He was iconic as Dwight Schrute, after all, so they might as well remind us of that, right? Shoving Wilson’s “different-ness” in my face, though, doesn’t earn my interest. In fact, it gives me the impression that the show has little else going for it. What about the setting? What about the cinematography? What about the rest of the cast? There’s got to be more to it than just a grumpy genius who annoys everyone.

Maybe there is, who knows? Wilson might have a chance to show some impressive range with Backstrom. Maybe, as we discovered with Bill Hader, there’s a dramatic edge to Wilson that we haven’t yet seen. I know he seems like a one-note nutball, but so does DJ Qualls, and he was surprisingly eerie as Detective Getz in Breaking Bad. And speaking of Breaking Bad, who would have thought that this guy…

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…could turn into this guy?

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My point is, Backstrom might actually be good. Must Wilson, and all the creative people who poured their hearts into the show, suffer such invective? It’s not their fault that Fox pushed this show, and pushed it, and pushed it, and kept pushing it until we all got sick of it. I mean, here’s this actor trying to continue his career, and people are just shitting on him. That’s got to be painful. Where does this all come from? I mean, Wilson was pretty funny before, right? Why would we want him to go away? Is it tacky and disgraceful that he wants to try something new?

I suppose this is bothering me because I know wouldn’t appreciate such preemptive judgment. If I wrote a novel that was criticized simply because my publisher screwed up the marketing, I’d be highly pissed. And hurt. And disappointed with the audience that I thought would give me a chance.

Am I going to watch Backstrom? Hell no, I hate television. But that just means I’m not the target audience. I’d like to think that people who do enjoy TV are a little more open-minded than they seem. After all, they fucking got Snooki her own show; why can’t we let someone talented have a shot?