Tag Archives: TV

MST3K: The Return, a Minimalist Review

While fans of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) are either loving or hating The Return  (read: Netflix “reboot”), its reception elsewhere is much more lukewarm. Starring Jonah Ray,  Hampton Yount as the voice of Crow T. Robot,  and Baron Vaughn as the voice of Servo (also known for his role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie),  The Return goes back to the old Joel Hodgson formula, complete with the much-loved invention exchange.mst3k_thereturn

Slipping into the roles of this trailblazing trio is Jonah Ray,  whose serviceable performance as an average but not-so-average guy lacks the humble charm of his predecessors, and yet manages to come across as rather likable after an episode or two. Patton Oswalt repeatedly demonstrates his performance to be the most well-acted role in the whole show and a welcome inheritor of TV’s Frank role as the evil bumbling sidekick.

But it’s the robots that stand out most. Like Jonah, as characters they are pretty bland with undifferentiated behaviors, jokes, and even voices (it’s easy to confuse the three voices in the darkened theater). Their personalities are essentially interchangeable, making them feel underdeveloped and gimmicky, like caricatures of the originals. Even Gypsy (previously voiced by Jim Mallon), whose role as the somewhat mentally slower robot sibling, is not exempt. Altering her voice from “funny” to “young and sexy” strips her character of one her most defining feature.

The show launches with a rocky start. Its series opener aims below cheesy for the disappointing sub-adequate mark. Jokes range from fair to good, rarely great. By the second episode the team finds their riffing groove and the comedy becomes relatively smooth sailing from there on out.

That said, Jonah and the bots carry a heavy torch in following up the comical adeptness of MST3K’s original cast. While it may be hard to live up to the legendary Joel, Mike, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (let alone the powerhouse trio of Mike-Kevin-Bill, now of RiffTrax fame), even they did not start out as comedy all-stars. But with a little time and practice, maybe they will one day surpass the originals.

For many, the magic is in the freshness of seeing new MST3K episodes for the very first time. Or perhaps it is watching as one of the greatest cinematic experiences in living memory passes onto a new generation while also stoking the dormant coals of that beautiful old nostalgia.

What’s the conclusion for this Minimalist Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return?

Meh.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

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The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a Minimalist Review

Brenda Hampton’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a TV show, in that it has characters with their own personalities, desires, coming into conflict with each other within a plot of sorts. However, it is hardly more than that.

TheSecretLifeoftheAmericanTeenagerWhile the overall storyline plays out like an immature daytime soap, characters and conversations give the impression that the show is being written by a sheltered 14 year old virgin guessing at how adults and teenagers must act in the “real” world, with limited understanding about relationships and the facts of life. The end result is a weird demonization of sex that confuses hormones, love and lust in ways that are inaccurate, misleading and downright harmful. If teenagers are using this show as a guide to navigating their teen years, they will be in for a considerable shock.

Episode plots are absurdly repetitive, so skipping 1 or 5 episodes results in landing on the exact same issues you left on. Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.

Despite being set in Los Angeles–one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US–the cast is almost entirely white, with one representative couple for each other ethnicity. But even those groups are played as “white” for all intents and purposes.

Character arcs rarely surprise as they take on predictable lines. The principals tend to fall back into the same issues repeatedly. The main female lead proves herself the most heinous of the bunch, acting selfish, petty, demanding and spoiled to the point where she ends up as a sort of villain to her supporting cast. If you want to a watch a show where nearly every character ranges from unlikable to downright loathsome, you’ve come to the right place.

While the characters themselves are rather well-formed, their dialogue seems to be written by someone who has never heard of subtext…or a thesaurus. The collective ensemble ends up wielding a combined vocabulary equivalent to that of a single 10 year old.

To sum up…

The Secret Life is one of the worst television shows to survive more than one season on the air, let alone a mind-boggling five. It is a show that exists for reasons beyond reason. If any script from this show came across my desk for analysis, it would have been an easy PASS/PASS.

Rating: 1.5/5

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STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

Series 7: The Contenders, a film by Daniel Minahan

by James Gilmore

Before the Hunger Games (2012) there was a grossly popular Japanese film by director Kinji Fukasaku called Battle Royale (2000), and there was today’s subject, an obscure little film called Series 7: The Contenders (2001) by Daniel Minahan.

Movie poster for Daniel Minahan's 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders, as seen on Minimalist Reviews compact film and book reviews.

Based on his experiences working in reality TV, Minahan exploits his intimate knowledge of reality television to accost that hypocritical world with scathing ridicule.  In this deadly serious mockumentary, Minahan takes us through highlights from the seventh season of a fake hit reality series called “The Contenders” in which a group of individuals are selected at random to compete in an anything-goes deathmatch.  Think of Series 7 as the Roman gladiatorial games meets reality television.

The story is short and efficient, confronting head-on a two-pronged theme: that the American public’s insatiable lust for entertainment and the media’s unscrupulous push for ratings could ultimately lead to the sacrifice humanity itself. Minahan drives home his point with merciless precision by employing a faux unscripted format which so closely resembles the genuine article that one wonders if such an inhumane entertainment is not too far off, if our “advanced” civilization has deteriorated to the point of reviving Roman gladiatorial bloodsports just to keep audiences entertained. Or perhaps Minahan is saying that reality television as it is now is an emotional battle royale in which there can be only one survivor.

Character lies at the heart of the script. Plot twists usually occur in the form of character reveals, and everyone in The Contenders hides aces up their sleeves. Even the most unassuming combatant will surprise you more than once.

Viewers may recognize the star of the film, Brooke Smith, whose prior work include roles in Grey’s Anatomy and The Silence of the Lambs.

Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders is a complete surprise and a must see, an impressive low-budget film worthy of its stock. Available on streaming at Netflix.com.

Rating: 4 / 5

Blue Gender, an animated series by Ryosuke Takahashi and Koichi Ohata

by James Gilmore

In an attempt to branch out in review material, Blue Gender is this blog’s first Minimalist Review of a TV series—a Japanese anime TV series at that.

Movie poster for Blue Gender, a Japanimation series by Ryosuke Takahashi and Koichi Ohata, on Minimalist Reviews.

Seemingly inspired by another anime series called Neon Genesis Evangelion (and occasionally approaching near plagiarism of it), this 26-episode animated series proves to be an incredibly dark, violent and gory sci-fi that is externally centered around a chosen few individuals who pilot exoskeleton suits (read: big robots) to fight off a global alien invasion. Internally, the story is about one individual trying to find his purpose in a seemingly pointless existence.

Although the series stays afloat with decent execution, it suffers from numerous logic holes, a unique but blunted concept (a directorial issue, see below), and a bloated, inefficient plot spread too thinly over 26 episodes. Even though it improves somewhat over time, the whole series still feels two episodes longer than is necessary. The plot is sometimes too predictable due to directorial shortcomings in dramatizing big reveals, even if they do occur on cue in a solid over-arching structure. The underlying emotional/relationship content remains adequate for the genre but could have been taken much further given its powerful seeds. Barely worth mentioning is the all-too-frequent laughable dialogue and occasional clips of unnecessary nudity (justified as “fan service,” which is typical of the anime supergenre).

Despite its numerous shortcomings, Blue Gender remains coherent, well structured, directed, animated and characterized, ultimately leading to a surprisingly entertaining end result, even if the commendable main character has a habit of becoming irritating a little too often. Testaments to the series’ impressive visuals are its gruesome imagery, realistic future technology, intimidating foes and intense battle sequences, most notable in the first six episodes. Most striking of all is the uniquely remarkable soundtrack which combines dirty grunge and dark choral with the experimental.

In the end, Blue Gender is worth a look for those into adult sci-fi series featuring an alien invasions, big robots and wholesale slaughter.

Rating: 2 / 5

The Trip, a film by Michael Winterbottom

by James Gilmore

The Trip is a comedic film reconstituted from a short-lived improv TV series of the same name, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional (and sometimes not so fictional) versions of themselves. Off-beat and off-color, this hybrid mockumentary/traditional film narrative delivers comedy that might not be to taste for the general American viewing public. Although presented as a low-key comedy, the film is really a sad coming of middle-age story at heart.

Movie poster for The Trip a film by Michael Winterbottom on Minimalist Reviews.

The plot follows a foodie pilgrimage taken by non-foodies, unfolding to reveal the life of an aging, professional actor as he approaches a sort of mid-life crisis. But beneath the façade of this simple story is one man’s journey as he is confronted with the revelation that he hides in a fantasy world and must face the brutal truth about his own life, and in so doing transcend from the idles of youth into the maturity of adulthood. For this the film and especially the direction are commendable. Unfortunately, in part because of its conception and in part due to its nature as an ad-hoc film edited together from a TV series, The Trip fails to deliver a strong story arc, resolution of sub-plots or character relationships. The true core of the film cannot be better illustrated than by Steve Coogan’s line: “It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.”

The film’s comedy is both passive-aggressive and extremely understated, often to the point of there being no joke or gag at all, merely subtext and unspoken situation which presents itself as genuinely humorous. Especially entertaining is the continuous battle of dinner table impressions, namely those of Michael Cain and Woody Allen.

 

Coogan’s acting proves to be one of the most impressive aspects of the film as he demonstrates his chops for more serious roles (not to mention that he won a BAFTA for his acting in The Trip).

 

Rating:  3 / 5