Tuesday, January 26, 2010

RiffTrax creates new paradigm for movie mockery

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2010 at 10:16 PM

One of the reasons why “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” retains such an enduring cult following is because it built its fan base from the ground up. The schlock cinema-riffing TV show originated on a Minneapolis UHF station in 1988, when the Internet barely existed. Creator Joel Hodgson and his cohorts reached out to audiences through such grassroots methods as an old school fan club, viewer mail segments and even a post-credits exhortation to “Keep Circulating The Tapes.” “MST3K” often felt like a viewer’s personal discovery, even after the show earned national recognition, awards and slots on Comedy Central, and later the Sci Fi Channel.

Both of the new movie riffing projects by "MST3K" alums, Joel Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic and Michael J. Nelson’s RiffTrax, foster chummy fan relations, but RiffTrax really works Web 2.0 to connect fresh forms of content to its community of admirers. RiffTrax began as MP3 downloads designed to be played simultaneously with DVDs, so Mike Nelson and fellow "MST3K" vets Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett could poke fun at mainstream movies without infringing on copyrights. Where "MST3K" always focused on obscure B-movies, RiffTrax found humor in Hollywood hits, from 300 to Twilight.

For attentive/obsessive fans, RiffTrax can be a font of free songs, video downloads and other Easter eggs. Nelson and company have staged live events simulcast to movie theaters nationwide, the first of which has been released on DVD on Jan. 26. RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space, arrives alongside two new discs of shorts and as well as a face-palming late ‘70s stinkeroo, Planet of Dinosaurs. Collectively, the new batch of DVDs showcase RiffTrax's creative spin on a time-tested format, as well as some lapses in coolness:

The Plan 9 disc, for instance, presents more than just the guys zinging Ed Wood's notorious tale of inept graverobbers from outer space. The recording of the Aug. 20, 2009, event includes riffing on a vintage short, "Flying Stewardesses," some spoof ads from SomethingAwful.com and two songs from Jonathan Coulton (including a ditty about zombies). The group, anchored by Corbett, even croon a highly amusing song about the aliens hitherto unknown Plans 1-8. One of the most pleasing thing about the RiffTrax discs is that the menus feature ridiculous new songs about the films in question.

That said, Plan 9 isn't RiffTrax's funniest work. As "the Citizen Kane of bad movies," Wood's bumbling hackwork proves so terrible -- and so familiar -- that ridiculing it feels almost beside the point. The disc's funniest moments simply draw attention to its seemingly bottomless incompetence, like the hero who gets into his car from the passenger side, then slides across to the wheel, or the police inspector who repeatedly gestures with his drawn gun.

Wide World of Shorts and Shorts-tacular Shorts-stravaganza are the latest of RiffTrax four shorts-collections on DVD. Vintage 1950s shorts frequently provided "MST3K's" funniest moments, and the RiffTrax Dec. 16 simulcast, Christmas Shorts-stravaganza, was about as funny as evenings gets. But while Wide World of Shorts is just fine, it has a few too many downbeat, draggy films, despite the appeal of witnessing Eisenhower-era celebrations of good eating habits and the beer industry. The best depict teen awkwardness in “Toward Emotional Maturity” and carnivorous plants in, uh, “Carnivorous Plants.” Many of the shorts are also available on RiffTrax's site as individual downloads -- sort of like the option of downloading a whole album, or just your favorite singles.

RiffTrax's own packaging tends to embrace corny ideas that they'd merciless shoot down if they came from others. Nelson's wacky expressions on the packaging prove almost painful to look upon, and some of their films (including Plan 9) have been colorized, although the process goes unmentioned. Do they really not notice that an army guy in Plan 9 has skin tone that matches his uniform?

Planet of Dinosaurs, however, represents what the spirit of "MST3K" is all about: uncovering films that time forgot and holding them up for the ridicule of new generations. The skunky 1978 sci-fi non-adventure depicts a dull-witted, squabbling band of hirsute, jumpsuit wearing astronauts who become marooned on the titular world of primitive but perky stop-motion reptiles. At one point Murphy wonders, “How did the cast of a '70s porn film get a space ship, anyway?” and Corbett sighs, “Kevin, you obviously haven’t watched enough 70s porn.” With endless walking scenes and quite possibly the worst soundtrack in any film ever made, Planet of Dinosaurs provides great jokes and the aesthetic fascination that accompanies movies so weirdly horrid, you can't imagine them being finished, let alone released. RiffTrax has masterfully adapted the "MST3K" concept for the iPod age, but also makes fun of movies the old-fashioned way.

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