Review of Cinematic Titanic and “The Oozing Skull”



Cinematic Titanic is a group of people who hang out and make fun of movies. If the concept sounds familiar, it should be no surprise: The Cinematic Titanic creators and stars include many of the creators and stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the ultimate in “movie riffing” shows.

This article is written for the reader who is familiar with MST3K, as there are many comparisons to be made between MST3K and Cinematic Titanic. This is a review of Cinematic Titanic as well as a review of “The Oozing Skull”, the first episode of Cinematic Titanic. (A note for the curious: though the DVD label is mostly black and white, the movie itself is in color.)

Cinematic Titanic episode 1: “The Oozing Skull”

What’s Cinematic Titanic like?

At the time of this review, we’ve only got one episode to go by. But the premise is pretty simple, nothing fancy: The movie starts, the actors walk on to the screen, and we watch their silhouettes as they comment on the movie, sitting or standing on scaffolding on the lower sides of the screen. Periodically, they’ll pause the movie and do a short silhouetted skit about whatever’s on the screen. At the end of the movie, the credits roll.

Whereas Mystery Science Theater 3000 had the out-of-theater sequences, Cinematic Titanic does not. You’re in the movie theater the whole time.

How are the jokes?

Joke quality is very good. Mike Nelson was head writer of MST3K for a long time, and is not part of Cinematic Titanic, but I laughed out loud multiple times during The Oozing Skull. And that’s as it should be, since Cinematic Titanic is written by some very funny people, all of them having been writers and stars on MST3K.

The jokes are more topical than Mystery Science Theater 3000. I recall an interview with one of the MST3K writers – I believe it was Mike Nelson – who said that they intentionally stayed away from topical jokes, since they would date the show. In Cinematic Titanic’s The Oozing Skull, we get jokes about blogs, Second Life, Lindsay Lohan, George W. Bush and other 2008-era goofiness. That’s not a criticism, just an observation: those same jokes may not be as funny ten years from now. I would assume the decision to use topical jokes was intentional by the part of Cinematic Titanic’s writers. It’s again not a bad thing, but a difference in style from MST3K.

There is more “physical commentary”: We can watch MST3K and see the silhouettes of Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Joel, Mike and others as they sat in chairs and watched the movie with us. Physical gags happened, but not often, and was mostly relegated to Joel or Mike gesturing at something on the screen. There were some funny physical gags in the MST3K movies (like Joel running in place in front of footage of a speeding motorcycle), but it wasn’t often. Cinematic Titanic, on the other hand, shows the bodies of the riffers more clearly: they’re elevated higher up on the screen, and some are standing, not just sitting:

Cinematic Titanic

An example of good physical comedy: In the first act of The Oozing Skull, we get a guest appearance: between the set scaffolding, a person in an electric wheelchair drives onto the set, says something in the “voice” of Stephen Hawking, and rolls off. Excellent use of the set design, and the “cameo” was hilarious, and completely appropriate at that point in the movie. There were other physical bits, like when the movie was paused for “Frank’s Conniff’s Holiday Entertainment Cavalcade”: chandelier silhouettes dropped from the top of the screen, and hijinks ensued.

A quick note about the scaffolding that holds all the actors: Awesome. I really like it. While the MST3K movie theater seats were fun, this is more impressive. It’s cool-looking, for one thing. As for the movie itself, the scaffolding is designed to frame the movie nicely: We get to see a lot of the hosts’ bodies and movement while not blocking any important bits of the movie. The creators made a big effort to design a set that would show off the hosts, allow for “activities” when the movie was paused, all while interfering with the movie itself as little as possible. They succeeded.

Constructive criticism for Cinematic Titanic:

Sure, you may be thinking, “Give ‘em a break, it’s just their first episode!” Well, I think that a show that exists solely to make fun of movies can handle some gentle suggestions for improvement. Here are a few things that I think could be improved upon for future episodes:

Polite Suggestion #1: Characterization

Fans of MST3K know the people on Cinematic Titanic. We know a bit about their personalities. To new viewers, however, it’s just a bunch of interchangeable strangers riffing on the movie. Add to the enjoyment and build your audience by giving us character development, or interviews with the cast so we can learn about them. MST3K was fun because we knew how Tom Servo would react in a certain situation, and his jokes also fit his personality. I think that level of audience involvement would really help Cinematic Titanic attract more viewers and increase show quality.

Polite Suggestion #2: Less is more

Having a lot of people on screen tends to increase the number of jokes that need to be said. It’s as if all comments need to be shared equally between the hosts, and in order to make that happen, we get a lot of jokes in a shorter period of time. This was the case for the first half of the movie, with the hosts sounding like they were just reading their unrelated jokes one after the other. It’s my opinion that fewer jokes can be just as good or better than constant riffs. Look at RiffTrax or MST3K, for example: we have fewer people commenting, and less jokes per minute. The result feels less forced, more fluid, and more entertaining. For the record, the second half of The Oozing Brain had the jokes better-paced.

Polite Suggestion #3: DVD Extras

The DVD contained no extras. No behind-the-scenes footage, or “how Cinematic Titanic works”, or interviews with the cast and crew, any of which would be great. I assume they’re waiting to gauge the show’s success before putting time and money into DVD extras. I can be patient on this one.

My polite suggestions are just that, and nothing more. Nitpicking at worst, and none affected my enjoyment of the show. Further, this is the FIRST EPISODE of Cinematic Titanic: they’ll only get better from here!

Conclusion:

I like Cinematic Titanic’s “The Oozing Skull”. I like it a lot. It was very similar in feel and joke quality to Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I also like a lot. Introducing Cinematic Titanic to a MST3K fan is like handing Mitchell a beer: You’ve just made a friend for life.

For those who haven’t seen MST3K, but like bad movies and good jokes, they’ll enjoy this. It’s not a show for children (at least not this first episode). Language is at the PG-13 level, but with a movie called “The Oozing Skull”, you can rest assured there’s some pretty gross oozing: lotsa fake blood, brains flopping around, that sort of thing.

When I watched Cinematic Titanic, and saw Frank, Joel, Josh, Mary Jo and Trace, I felt like I was seeing some old friends again. And I didn’t realize until then just how much I’d missed them.

Hi, everyone. It’s great to have you back!

Other articles related to this topic:

8 Comments

  1. Corby Ziesman:

    I just got the DVD this week. When I heard about this project, it renewed my interest in all things MST3K and I came across the four “Film Crew” DVDs that Mike, Bill, and Kevin made before going on to RiffTrax. So I got those as well. I’ve only gotten one RiffTrax so far (I got “Fifth Element” when it came out, which was one of their first releases).

    Comparing Cinematic Titanic to Film Crew / RiffTrax… to me the jokes on Film Crew were more natural, and they felt more integrated with the film. With Cinematic Titanic, the jokes are really on top of the film.

    But this is their first release… and if anything, I learned from many episodes of MST3K that the film they choose as source material matters a LOT in the quality of the jokes and end product. Some MST3K episodes I can re-watch over and over, and others I just can’t watch more than 5 minutes of, before I start to feel like shooting myself because the film is just not salvageable with any amount of jokes.

  2. abkaiser:

    With Cinematic Titanic, the jokes are really on top of the film.

    This is an excellent way of putting it. Hopefully future episodes will have a more relaxed feel and stronger characters. And yes, this is just a review of Cinematic Titanic episode #1. So there’s plenty of room for improvment as they iron out wrinkles and work to make the show better.

  3. blake:

    Excellent review!

    http://bitmaelstrom.blogspot.com/2008/01/great-oozing-skull-review.html

  4. VapoRub:

    CINEMATIC TITANIC 01
    THE OOZING SKULL

    First, I’m glad to see this and I want to see more. The warm sense of reunion is a fairly good substitute for genuine entertainment.

    But, it was something of a let-down. Maybe my expectations were too high. MST3K is one of my favorite things. This production feels as if it was done either as a bored lark or in desperation. It is not inspired. It has the feel of a relic… a leftover… serving a niche market-within-a-niche market. The jokes refer to such a wide span of pop-culture eras, it’s practically a sure thing much of the audience will be baffled at any given time during the show. MST3K referenced a more narrow window of familiarity.

    The absence of Mike Nelson as head writer is keenly felt. Mike, Joel, and the rest made up a wonderful team. That team is now fragmented. RIFFTRAX, uneven as they are, are on average much funnier than the CT-riffed OOZING SKULL. The FILM CREW’s version of HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK is much funnier than OOZING SKULL’s riffing. The ideal riffing entertainment experience was provide by Joel as front man with Mike as the best brain. We may never get that combination again, which is too bad.

    In CINEMATIC TITANIC, There are too many on-screen riffers. Each riffer has relatively few jokes. The riffers are shown from such a long shot it’s difficult to get any sense of their presence and gestures. The whole thing looks like a post-production “cheat”, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The riffs could very easily have been recorded comfortably in advance, and various takes of the silhouette guys just standing around could be combined in editing and compositing. The simple immediacy of three clearly-seen guys in seats offered by MST3K has been replaced in CT with a less visually-involving presentation. There are long sequences in CT 01 in which individual silhouette characters appear to be held frames.

    Mary Jo is hardly used. She has few lines. And while it sounds sexist, it is not easy to understand the typical female voice compared to that of a typical male voice. Mary Jo’s voice is perfectly lovely, gorgeous even, but it doesn’t have the edge that makes it easy to understand in a riffing situation. Her lack of lines and the difficulty in making out what she’s saying suggest that she should be the first casualty among CT’s onscreen characters.

    The assaulted movie, retitled here as OOZING BRAIN, was an excellent choice. It is prototypical MST3K material and presents more than enough opportunities for witty derision. Unfortunately, many of those opportunities were missed by the CT gang. While I understand the need to let a riff session “breathe”, there are many dead spots in this first episode – incidents which cry out for obvious jokes and receive none, and long stretches of silence from the riffers while hilarious incompetence unfolds on the big CT screen. Five riffers should make for more riffing than three riffers, and there was certainly room for more riffing. Instead of a high-speed barrage of appropriately deadly jokes offered in the best episodes of MST3K, CT 01 gives the viewer a painfully relaxed, almost disinterested stream of moderately funny observations. There are very funny moments, and I’m sure you know what they are, but there aren’t many of them. It appears the group wasn’t really giving its fully-focused effort.

    Both the FILM CREW and MST3K have a structure that provides a pleasant rhythm: the silhouette/voice over sequences are peppered with host segments that serve as a resting place, some eye relief, a useful summation, increased familiarity with the riffing characters in sketch material that amplifies the riffing humor in a setting that offers more freedom than the commentary offers alone. CT (and RIFFTRAX) does not offer this pleasing, desirable, interlude. The complete lack of any explanation of why the little silhouette guys are stuck in an auditorium riffing on movies is disorienting. MST3K wrapped up the entire reason for its existence nicely in a short theme song. CT offers nothing. Beyond the instrumental theme, there is no wrapper material. No extras. No explanation. What the dang heck anyway.

    I hope CINEMATIC TITANIC is successful and there are many more CT shows. It has to get better, and it’s great to hear these people work together again. This first show, however, is way off.

    In terms of value-for-money, CT 01 is a bust. I don’t need to rehash the oft-repeated complaints about CT’s despicably shoddy packaging and extremely high price. DVD replication and packaging is surprisingly inexpensive these days, so the corners cut here are baffling.

    —————————————–

    Addressing one of the more foul-smelling elephants in the room: piracy may slightly affect the bottom line of CT. It’s impossible to believe in a 100% lost-sale correlation, as put forth by MPAA/RIAA. Each copy downloaded via P2P does not result in a lost sale. Most downloaders wouldn’t have bought what they download at any price, even if piracy was completely eliminated. It is possible, however, that a small segment of the potential market, one that might have purchased CT 01, downloaded it for free instead in a moment of ethical weakness. The exact impact of illicit digital acquisition will never be known, but this may prove interesting to the idly curious:
    I will ignore, for the moment, binary newsgroups, IRC, FTP sites, and emule, and stick to discussing the popular bit torrent protocol. I have over 200 bit torrent sites bookmarked. Just for kicks, I searched every one for CINEMATIC TITANIC. I found several torrents, and removing all redundant hits from aggregating sites, I found that torrents for the show have been grabbed over six hundred times. Assuming each torrent resulted in a download, that’s six hundred pirate copies of CT 01. Many P2P users dupe downloaded video for friends. Let’s wildly claim that 20% of CT downloaders did that. That would make 720 illegal copies generating no revenue for Joel and The Gang. How much does the CT crew get for each copy? That’s private info and we can only guess. Let’s guess that EZTRAX keeps more-or-less 33%, and that CT receives about $10 per disc. IF we accept the plainly fallacious assertion that each downloaded copy is a lost sale, from bit torrent alone, that would mean $7200 lost. That’s not so bad, really. If an entertainment company can be damaged by a $7200 loss, it’s not doing well.

  5. Hair:

    Was your copy playable then? Mine was all scuffed in the mail.

  6. blake:

    Ooh. Bad break. Probably not all that common, though.

  7. Andy Kaiser:

    I didn’t mention that in my article, but yes: I do remember looking in surprise at the DVD when I realized it had arrived in not much more than an unpadded paper envelope! I would hope that the future efforts will involve plastic cases. Even small ones the size of the DVD itself, just for shipping protection.

  8. John:

    I love MST3K but was disappointed with the Oozing Skull.