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.
The Broadcast Film Critics have announced their predictions for the movies of summer 2009:
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Away We Go
500 Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Outstanding Performances of the Summer:
Johnny Depp in “Public Enemies”
Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”
Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds”
It may be, as Thoreau said, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but in the movies, desperation is much more likely to be loud. “Revolutionary Road” is another movie about unhappiness, phoniness, and corrosive dysfunction behind the manicured lawns of suburbia story from Sam Mendes of American Beauty. This time, it is set just after WWII, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It is the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a couple who are devastated to find themselves unable to escape the stultification of conventional middle class lives and who respond by devastating each other.
There is a moment for each of us, when we begin to see outside everything we have known and start to think of something different for ourselves, confident that we can avoid the mistakes of our parents and their generation. And then there is another moment when we learn that it is not that easy. This notion of exceptionalism, whether at the personal or national level, is the question these characters must face.
And it is that issue that gives this film its power. Yes, it is beautifully observed detail, rich images, and brilliant, fearless performances and yes, it has a scathing portrayal of the foul rot beneath the superficial suburban prettiness, with only a madman who can tell the truth. But all of that has been done before and these stories themselves tend to risk an aura of smug, we’re-in-on-the-real-story superiority that is as artificial as the lives it is dissecting. What makes this story transcend its setting is the resonance it has with the notion of America’s own sense of its exceptionalism in the world and in history.
It turns out that it all goes back to the playground. What did our moms tell us when boys teased us and knocked us down? “He only does it because he likes you!” This leads to two consequences. First, women lose the ability to apply common sense in interpreting the signals about level of interest sent by men. Second, men get positive reinforcement for sending those mixed signals. Add in a couple of doses of fear of getting hurt and fear of being alone, and a just a dash of fear of missing out on The One and you have “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a movie inspired by a non-fiction book inspired by one line on the television series “Sex and the City.”
On that episode, a man named Berger (Ron Livingston) took pity on a character who was coming up with increasingly far-fetched excuses for a man’s turning down her invitation to come up to her apartment after a date. “He’s just not that into you,” said Berger. This was a revelation. The episode attracted so much attention it led to a non-fiction book (written by a male-female team), and that led to this daisy-chain of stories about love old and new, sweet and sad, funny and wise.
At the heart of the story is Gigi (“Big Love’s” Ginnifer Goodwin), an ever-hopeful sort who is always willing to see the glass as half full even if there is nothing in it at all. He hasn’t called? He’s busy at work or he had a sudden business trip. Or maybe he forgot her number. She is helped in this romantic delusion by her friends, who try to cheer her up by persuading her that men behave like this all the time when they are interested and they always have these hopeful little urban legends about someone’s second cousin’s college roommate who thought that a guy wasn’t calling but then they got married and lived happily ever after.
It takes a cynical bar manager named Alex (Justin Long) to give Gigi the movie title advice, and that leads to some more bracing honestly. It all boils down to this: the only signal that matters is the choices people actually make. If he wants to talk to you, he will call. If he wants to see you, he will make it unequivocally clear. Same for women, by the way.
Meanwhile, a young married couple (Jennifer Connelly and Bradley Cooper) is dealing with stress on two levels, external and internal. Their new home is being completely gutted and renovated. And he is feeling attracted to a vixenish young singer (Scarlett Johansson) and to the possibilities of a life without constraints and promises. An ad saleswoman for a gay men’s newspaper (co-producer Drew Barrymore) says that modern technology has just created more ways to keep from talking to each other — email, texting, voicemail, and myspace. She gets a lot of support and some good advice from her sympathetic co-workers. And another couple (Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck) gets along just fine on every issue except for one — she wants to get married and he does not.
You will get a sense for which side this film takes in the gender wars when you look at the cast — the big names and familiar faces are mostly on the female side. But the performers are all attractive and capable and director Ken Kwapis (“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) knows how to keep several stories going at once. He manages his talented cast well and he skillfully handles the material so that it stays comic without losing sympathy for the characters. The film balances humor with some sharply observed moments and painfully familiar conversations that are sure to provoke some lively debates on the way home from the theater.