Sunday, May 29, 2011

Michael J. Nelson on some first wave superhero movies (and me on Nelson on movies)

On Barb Wire:
When the film was over, I had the overwhelming urge to shower. A good, hot shower with mounds of antibacterial lather. The kind of shower than Meryl Streep got in Silkwood.

On Batman:
Burton pulled off a nice trick in that he used almost no lights in the film, dispensing with the need to actually show the audience anything. With the actors obfuscated by utter blackness, Burton was free to not tell any kind of story or create any characters worth caring about, simply because no one could see them!

On Batman Returns:
Why anyone thought that the sight of DeVito ramming alewives into his twisted, purple maw was something to be projected onto a large screen for viewing by other human beings was a good idea, I’ll never understand.

On Batman & Robin:
For those of you who were scared away by the abysmal reviews of Batman & Robin, let me lay to rest some of the prejudices you might have about the film. It’s not the wost movie ever. No, indeed. It’s the worst thing ever.

On Blade:
Unless you’re actually scooped up and put into a hopper of discarded animal innards, Blade is probably the bloodiest and most gruesome thing you’ll ever see in your life…However, as dark as it is, it should be admitted that there are quite a few outstanding dance numbers.

On Judge Dredd:

There are many digital effects in the film, and when you see them, you’ll say, “there are many digital effects in this film.”

On Spawn:
I recently rented Spawn ("that's your own damn fault," I hear you saying, and you're absolutely right), starring Martin Sheen, aka Ramon Estevez. Now, Spawn is not the worst move ever made. Wait...yes it is. It is the worst movie ever made.

All of the above quotes are from Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese (Harper Entertainment; 2000), of which I am not going to talk about for a few hundred words).

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You may recognize the name of that author. He was the head writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and also one of its stars—he played the funny, smart alec movie-watcher Mike Nelson (Quite a stretch, I’m sure).

The above quotes were all taken from reviews Nelson wrote for Home Theater and Entertainment@Home magazines, which form the basis of Movie Megacheese.

I was aware of the book’s existence for a great many years now, remembering that killer blurb about Batman & Robin from a publicity interview with Nelson, but I was never able to actually track down a copy of the book until just recently, inspired by my viewing habits over the last few months.

I stumbled across some MST3K clips on YouTube, and quickly discovered that the entirety of just about every episode was available on YouTube. Seeing some I had never seen, despite my fanhood of the series as a teenager, so I’ve been working my way through the episode guide backwards, finding plenty of episodes I had never, ever seen before (When I went away to college in 1995, I went through an almost four-year period during which I saw almost no television, and thus missed most of the last few seasons of the ten seasons of the show).

The certain knowledge that there is not, in fact, any more MST3K naturally made me want more of it, so I started searching for post-MST3K stuff from the creators, and started by looking for Nelson’s book (He’s written at least two more too; similar essay collection Mike Nelson’s Mind Over Matters and Mike Nelson’s Death Rat: A Novel).

The book is broken down into chapters by subject matter, mostly film genres—action, sci-fi, chick flix, etc.—although there are also some chapters dealing with odds and ends, like television, families of actors, acting legends and even a chapter of “Very odds and ends.”

Within each chapter are short reviews of film or pairs of films or bodies of work, the emphasis on the films’ shortcomings, and the ways in which Nelson can wring jokes out of them. This is as much a book of humor as it is a book of film criticism; perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a book of humor in the form of a book of film criticism.

Nelson’s sense of humor is probably fairly evident to anyone who’s seen any MST3K, the main difference between his prose writing here and his joke presentation there is volume—while the TV show would bombard one with constant jokes from as many as three different sources almost simultaneously (not to mention whatever weird thing was going on in the movie the viewer was watching the three main characters watch), here the jokes come at a more leisurely pace. There are a lot of them, of course, but they are encountered one at a time, and with a reader’s full attention.

That may go a long way toward explaining some of the weakness of the humor in Megacheese. The jokes aren’t terrible or anything, and, in fact, the worst thing I can say is that Nelson’s writing here occasionally reminds me of that of Dave Barry and similar newspaper humor columnist (which in certain circles is actually high praise I’m sure; me, I’d rather watch an episode of MST3K than read an hour’s worth of Barry’s prose).

Another thing that jumped out at me was how hard to please Nelson seems—in fact, almost every review in this book is negative, and I found myself struggling to figure out what, exactly, Nelson would consider a good film.

That’s ironic, of course, because he is functioning as a critic, and that’s what critics do—criticize. I’ve functioned as a professional critic—of film and other media—for my entire adult life, and I’m constantly complaining. As a reader of this blog, you’re no doubt well aware that most of what I discuss in a critical, review capacity could be considered negative.

With Nelson, it was a little more difficult to make sense of though, because the lack of examples of good film made it difficult to establish a spectrum with which to contextualize his comments (As you may have gathered from the quotes above, he hated the Tim Burton Batman films every bit as much as the Joel Schumacher films, for example). It’s made even more difficult by the fact that Nelson’s always joking.

For example, in the introduction, he discusses the “unifiying theory that informs [his] writing on cinema,” and it is this:
What I really believe is that a film should be judged on how well it comes off when compared with the Patrick Swayze film Road House. For Road House is the single finest American film. Certainly it stinks, but I believe the filmmakers meant it to, and succeeded grandly.

He likes The Three Stooges, but hates Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. He has nothing nice to say about the work of such men as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Seagal, but is extremely knowledgeable in the work of each of these men (I think Van Damme’s name is mentioned more than that of any other actor in the book, even Swayze’s).

In addition to the work of the Stooges, he has quite a few good things to say about Jackie Chan, the joint review of the American releases of Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop being the closest thing to a rave in the book.

He recommends Broken Arrow and Executive Decision wholeheartedly (the latter, he says, “is my favorite move ever, if only because it killed off Steve Seagal early into the film”).

He calls William Forsyth’s films like Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy and Local Heroes charming and quirky.

Anaconda, Twister, The Postman, The Blair Witch Project, The Bridges of Madison County, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Snake Eyes, Face/Off, The Edge, Ed, Lost In Space and dozens of others, however…

As those titles have no doubt tipped you off, the contents of the book are rather dated. Well, it is some eleven years old now. That dated nature, however, turned out to be a big part of what I enjoyed about the reading experience. It was a nostalgic reading experience, not simply because it was written by one of the writers and actors of one of my favorite televisions shows of my youth, in a voice that was comforting and familiar to me, but also because the subject matter was so nostalgic.

I don’t really talk too much about movies on EDILW, save for when they intersect with the world of comics, but film criticism is what drew me into professional writing in the first place, and film critic is still one of those dream day jobs I’d love to have some day.

My very first professional writing assignment was for the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s teen-written N.E.X.T. section (I forget what that was an acronym for); they gave 17-year-old Caleb $25 for 500 words about Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

At the time, I was living in my hometown, a very, very small city of about 25,000 (and shrinking!) and for much of my teen years, my friends and I would go to the movies every weekend.

After I started submitting reviews to the local paper and the Plain Dealer’s teen section, I started going even more. When I went off to college, I reviewed movies for the school paper.

And in 2000, after flirting with a few part-time jobs to support me while I wrote the great American graphic novel—mall janitor (11 days), part-time library assistant (4 months), freelance feature writer for local community newspaper (2 months), staff writer for local community newspaper (9 months), grocery store clerk (9 months)—I eventually got a gig as a staff writer for an altweekly paper in Columbus, Ohio.

It was a small enough staff that everyone could and did write just about everything to fill up all those pages every week, and one of my responsibilities was film reviews; the arts editor handled the bulk of them, and I’d write what she didn’t have time for, which often included dumb action and dumb horror movies (she nobly accepted the dumb romantic comedies).

I got booted out of that job in 2005 when the big, evil daily paper consumed it and integrated it into its own publishing empire, and continued reviewing for a local blog for a while, but film criticism isn’t all that rewarding a gig when you’re not getting paid to do it. (Incidentally, that was just before I started EDILW, as for the first time in years I found myself without a place to deposit thousands of words of writing every week, and suddenly had free time again).

I’m not sure how this turned into my memoirs. My point is that from the early ‘90s to the mid-aughts, I saw movies pretty much constantly; and after the turn of the 21st century, I actually made very serious efforts to see everything that was released in a given calendar year.

The films in this book cover the films of the nineties, so in addition to enjoying Nelson’s discussion of them, in the back of my head I was often remembering seeing the films being discussed, who I saw it with, what the occasion was, and so on. Of the 57 films that are given somewhat length consideration in the book, I saw over 30 of these in the theater, and remember deciding not to see the others. I wrote reviews of a few of them as a teenager (Judge Dredd, Waterworld, The Edge). And I vividly remember seeing Sleepless in Seattle with a girl I liked in high school, laughing my way through Face/Off and Anaconda with my friends and forcing a friend and a girlfriend to sit all the way through The Postman with me, because I never, ever walk out of a movie after I’ve started watching it, even if it is as interminable as The Postman.

For many years, The Postman was my personal yardstick by which I would measure bad movies when discussing them with my friends; no matter how bad a movie may be, I could usually find one good thing to say of it—“Well, it was shorter than The Postman.

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I laughed out loud once while reading the book. It was during Nelson’s review of Twister and Independence Day: “Twister is the story of an actor named Bill Paxton and how he’s not very good.”

Eh, maybe you had to be there. And be me.

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This book bears a blurb from Leonard Maltin on the cover: “Mike Nelson just might put some ‘legitimate’ film critics out of work! His writing is both film-savvy and very, very funny.”

Maltin has appeared on MST3K before. He guest-starred in the Gorgo episode (he appears at the 4:10 mark here) in which he helps Pearl Forrester choose a movie with which to torture Mike and the ‘bots. In previous episodes, they ridiculed his star rating system by pointing out the high ratings he had given to some of the terrible films that have appeared in the series in his movie guides, and noting far better films with similar or worse ratings.

In at least one episode, Nelson donned a fake beard to impersonate Maltin (He does a pretty good Maltin voice, too).

While reading through this, and after having been reminded of Maltin by that blurb, I realized how much I’d like to see Nelson (or Nelson and his MST3K/Film Crew/RiffTrax collaborators Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy) produce their own version of Maltn’s annual encyclopedias of films. I’m not sure if you’ve ever spent much time with those books, but they’re good reference (better reference before the advent of IMDb; not they’re kinda superfluous) although pretty damn useless in terms of making recommendations. I sure wouldn’t mind having a funny version that would replace the uselessness with humor and trivia.

4 comments:

Eyz said...

"Everybody's a critic these days"~

Akilles said...

I was wondering if you like burtons Batman movies. Do you? I wonder why I even ask, since I know what a Batman-fan usually says, since I`m one too.

Tell me why "postman" is so horrible. What`s its plot? No, I`m not gonna defend it, since I haven`t seen it.

Have you watched "There will be blood"? If you haven`t, by all that`s holy, don`t watch it! It`s basically (about) a 3 hour movie about a b******d, who`s not shown to get punished. Gosh, it`s good that I didn`t see all of it.

Anthony Strand said...

I'm a big Mike Nelson fan, but I really didn't care for this book that much. Like you said, it's just so much complaining - he even talks about Gary Oldman being one of the worst actors around in a way that assumes it's a well-known fact!

Mind Over Matters, which is just funny essays about things like Radio Shack and the process of moving a couch, is a lot better. Although, I say that as a big Dave Barry fan. So, you know, take it with a grain of salt.

MOCK! said...

His recent string of books ("Happy Kitty Bunny Pony", "Goth-Icky", etc....) are fantastic....

And I agree that "Mind Over Matters" is the better book!