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Interview: Mike Nelson of MST3000 and RiffTrax

Posted on June 2, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Michael J. Nelson is the former host and writer of the Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the author of the hilarious Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese. His witty commentary on movies is wildly funny but also very clever and perceptive. He spoke to me about his website, RiffTrax, where you can download his commentary to play along with your own or rented DVDs and upload your own to share with everyone else. He was every bit as much fun to talk to as I hoped.

How did you got started being snarky?

It came from watching movies. Midwestern people are almost by their nature snarky. And I came from a snarky family. My brothers and I always did that kind of thing, making smart-alecky comments about what we were watching. A lot of people do that but it falls away as you grow up and mature. My parents were very strict about bedtime, but they would put us to bed and then my dad would wake us up to watch some late night movie. My mom just rolled her eyes.

Did you get in trouble as a kid?

Well, someone once said, “Do you think you can make a living watching TV?” And I did!

What makes a movie a good candidate for comic riffing?

It has to take itself seriously. And it should probably have Keanu Reeves in it!

The main thing is that it is not boring. A lot of people don’t realize that truly bad movies are really boring and no one wants to watch them. There’s only so much that you can elevate with your comments. The baseline of entertainment has to be there. We’re enhancing and hopefully improving what is already there. I would have thought that sci-fi uniquely lends itself to what we do but if you carefully write something and work on it, it can be done on many different kinds of films. There’s subject matter that you can’t do but we’ve done dramas and other genres.

Are there actors you especially enjoy making fun of?

We’re big Patrick Swayze fans. We also give a lot of grief to Hayden Christienson — he didn’t take to the green screen acting very well.

Is there a movie that has such a devoted following that it can’t be riffed?

We did “Twilight!” That has both passionate fans and passionate detractors. A bunch of guys were dragged to it and wanted revenge on it in some way, to have us rescue it for them. The slow pace, and mopey, gothic overtones made it work — it became one of our fan favorites.

Tell me about RiffTrax.

It’s a full service comedy commentary site. We sell separate commentaries, video on demand, and shorts. People are constantly doing it themselves and wanted an outlet so we let people make their own and post them and compete with each other. That makes it possible for us to check out things we’d never do because the movie is too obscure for us. There are people out there who think we’re just picking on the mainstream and so they do films we’ll never get to.

We’ve been doing it for three years and it is growing. It has exceeded my expectations, and I’m especially happy to see so many younger people on the site. A goal would be to get a team of writers, people who want to do this. It is so much work. It takes so much time, we can’t quite keep up with the releases. A goal is to look at the uploaded tracks to see if there are people we can use, maybe get us close to doing all major releases.

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After the kids go to bed Internet, Gaming, Podcasts, and Apps Interview

Glee

Posted on May 24, 2009 at 8:00 am

I so enjoyed the sneak preview of the new fall series, “Glee.” The characters are immediately engaging and the music is inspired.

You can watch the entire pilot episode of “Glee” on Hulu and listen to an interview with the creator, Ryan Murphy (of “Nip/Tuck”), on Fresh Air. The series begins this fall.

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After the kids go to bed Television

Last Chance Harvey

Posted on May 5, 2009 at 8:00 am

It’s wonderful to watch young people falling in love for the first time. That’s why we get to see it so often in the movies. But it is even more wonderful to see people falling in love for the last time, and that is one of the three great pleasures of this touching grown-up love story.

It’s always romantic to see first love because we can share with them — just for a moment — the belief that happily ever after means that there will never be an argument or disappointment or loss. But it is even more romantic to see older people fall in love because they know there will be all of that and they go ahead anyway. That is the story of “Last Chance Harvey,” a man who has lost his job and whose daughter asks her step-father to give her away at her wedding because she feels closer to him. Which is what gives him a chance to think about what he really wants for the rest of his life — and then he sees Kate.

Not much more happens. They walk around. They dance at the daughter’s wedding reception. They think about whether they really want to take the risk of sharing themselves knowing in a way that young people cannot what it really means. And yet in those moments, everything happens, and we know it and they know it.

The other two pleasures of the film are Dustin Hoffman as Harvey and Emma Thompson as Kate. These two actors, so perfectly at home with themselves, fearlessly give us two people who are complicated, difficult, and very, very protective of their bruised hearts. And then they let us see them bloom, not all at once, more of a two steps forward, one step back opening up of their hearts to each other. And that leaves our hearts just a little more open, too.

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After the kids go to bed Date movie Romance

I Could Never Be Your Woman

Posted on April 15, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Usually when a movie has a limited release with no ad support it means that test audiences hated it and the studio has decided to cut their losses. But once in a while it has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the film and that is the case with I Could Never Be Your Woman. The title is awful, but the script and cast are great and the movie is a quiet gem.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Rosie, a television studio executive responsible for a sitcom called “You Go, Girl!” with a demanding star. The show’s appeal is fading and its cast has outgrown their roles — though they are still playing teenagers, most of them are married with children. In order to refresh the show and broaden its appeal, Rosie adds a new cast member, Adam (Paul Rudd), an appealing and talented young actor. He is interested in her but she is reluctant to respond because he is younger than she is and because she is still protective of her feelings following her divorce. Rosie’s relationship with Adam is endearing and appealing, but in every way the heart of the story is Rosie’s relationship with her middle-school-age daughter Izzie (Saoirse Ronan, the young girl who was nominated for an Oscar in “Atonement”). Rosie counsels Izzie about life in general and a boy in school in particular and the tenderness and understanding of that relationship is beautifully conveyed.

But it never got any support from the studio. Even the trailer doesn’t do justice to the film. It looks sit-com-y.

The movie got caught in completely unrelated financial problems at its studio and never got a real chance in theaters. I am hoping that Rudd’s recent success will inspire audiences to seek out this film. It is uneven (though I love Tracy Ullman, I would have cut her scenes as Mother Nature). But it has a deft script, smooth direction from Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”), world-class performances, and a real feeling for the mother-daughter relationship. And Pfeiffer is an extraordinary actress. This film really gives her a chance to shine as a professional, a mother, an ex-wife, and a woman who is surprised and delighted to find out that she can still be surprised and delighted. Audiences will find themselves surprised and delighted, too.

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After the kids go to bed For Your Netflix Queue Neglected gem

The Big Bad Swim

Posted on April 4, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I am a bit of a softie when it comes to those movies about diverse groups of people who come together to learn something new like tap dancing (“Stepping Out” with Liza Minnelli) or ballroom dancing (“Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere) or Italian (“Italian for Beginners”). We get to see glimpses of lots of different characters and stories and we get to see the way that they engage with new challenges and are transformed by their sense of accomplishment, new skills, and relationships.

I really enjoyed a quiet little movie in this genre called The Big Bad Swim. A group of people sign up for a swim class at a local rec center. It is a special class for people who are reluctant or scared of the water. The students include a recently divorced calculus teacher, a cop, a casino dealer/stripper, and a couple with a new pool. The movie skillfully interweaves the characters and their relationships with the kind of messy authenticity and respect for the audience that makes independent films so engaging. The performances are exceptionally layered and true, especially Paget Brewster as the teacher, and the little coda after the credits is delightful. This has very mature material, including sexual references and situations, drinking and drug use, and some very bad decisions, but is well worth a look for fans of independent film and good stories.

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After the kids go to bed For Your Netflix Queue Neglected gem
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