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The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale and the summer movie season

The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale and the summer movie season (photo)

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Movies are fixed (for the most part) but our opinions of them are fluid. You might see a movie and hate it, then see it again five years later and love it. Maybe your tastes changed, maybe the context changed, but for whatever reason the exact same movie generated two wildly different reactions. One common factor in these divergent opinions are sequels: a great sequel casts a rosy light on a predecessor (think “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”) while a crummy sequel retroactively diminishes our feelings about the original (think “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Revolutions”).

To measure the impact of sequels on their franchises and our opinions of them, Nick Fortugno created the clever Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale. It’s an effective way to pinpoint the degree to which one film reflects positively or negatively on the rest of a series. It’s named, of course, for the “Star Wars” prequels, which introduced all sorts of dopey retroactive continuity, most infamously the idea of “midi-chrlorians,” microscopic blood-dwelling organisms that were revealed in “Episode I” to be the source of Jedi’s magical powers. As Fortugno puts it:

“I’m sorry, the Force comes from bacteria?!? That’s just stupid. And not only is it stupid, it makes Jedi, some of the coolest warriors in all of science fiction, completely lame. Can you even WATCH the first three movies anymore? All I see when I look at Luke is a guy with a really rampant infection, and that’s not heroic or cool. It’s just embarrassing, and I would argue that thanks to midi-chlorians, so is admitting to liking ‘Star Wars,’ anything of ‘Star Wars,’ now that the later movies exist.”

According to Fortugno, that would make the “Star Wars” prequels a -6 out of -6 on the Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale (MCRS), because “the later content destroys the narrative such that the early work, which was widely loved, is no longer even passable in quality. The brand is completely and irreversibly destroyed.” That ranks it above (or below, I guess) “The Matrix Revolutions” with an MCRS of -5 (“it is possible to respect the original property, but only by utterly ignoring the bad material and treating it like it doesn’t exist in a willful violation of the truth of the imaginary entertainment environment.”) and “Alien Resurrection”‘s MCRS of -3 (“The brand is effectively dead from that point on. Once the changes have been established, you can’t go any further, because it’s all become too lame. But this doesn’t ruin earlier instances — they can remain cool in isolation from later work.”).

Fortugno’s highest grade is a 0, which he gives to sequels that have no negative impact on previous films; his examples are the many “Star Trek” sequels. I do think the MCRS should be revised to allow for positive scores for rare movies like “The Godfather Part II” which provide interesting and beneficial retroactive continuity (like De Niro’s sequences as the young Vito Corleone). But overall, I really like this rating system.

In fact, I dig it so much I thought we should apply the MCRS to some of this summer’s franchise tentpoles. I say some because according to industry experts, every single movie released in the last fifteen weeks was a sequel or a reboot or a prequel or a remake or a prequoot (otherwise known as a simultaneous prequel and reboot) of some kind. Rating them all would take days, but here are a few notable ones. I’m maintaining Fortugno’s 0-6 score, but I’m going to note the instances where I think a positive MCRS score would be applicable. For instance:

“Fast Five”
MCRS Score: 0

Here is a sequel that definitely improved its previous films in retrospect and deserves a score better than 0: not only was it absolutely the most satisfying film in the series since the original “The Fast & the Furious” but it also made me truly excited for a “Fast Six” that continues the film’s numerous plotlines. The final post-credits teaser retroactively made the big plot twist in the earlier “Fast & Furious” more intriguing, and the seamless incorporation of characters from previously disparate installments of the franchise (Roman from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Han from “Tokyo Drift,” and so on) created a sense of this giant mythos that didn’t exist before.


“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
MCRS Score: -1

The third “Transformers” film introduced a ton of heretofore untold backstory for the perpetually feuding Autobots and Decepticons, including a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) alien ship crashed on the dark side of the Moon, a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) former leader of the Autobots, and a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) weapon that could turn the tide in their war. Most of these elements were fairly dumb, but then most elements of every “Transformers” are fairly dumb, and the ones in “Dark of the Moon” did little to harm the ongoing continuity of the “Transformers” franchise (it is really hard, by the way, to write the phrase “ongoing continuity of the ‘Transformers’ franchise” and not burst out laughing). Still, “Dark of the Moon” would surely rate better on the MCRS than its predecessor, “Revenge of the Fallen” which introduced its own set of characters and MacGuffins, most of whom were borderline racist stereotypes.


“X-Men: First Class”
MCRS Score: -1

This is a tough film to grade. “X-Men: First Class” was one of my favorite films of the summer, but there’s no denying that it featured a lot of borderline absurd retroactive continuity. How does Cyclops have a brother who’s at least thirty years older than he is? If Emma Frost was around in the 1960s, who was the teenage girl that was introduced as the same character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine?” And if mutants got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, how did they keep their existence secret from the public for another thirty years? That’s why I’m giving the movie a -1; these things are undeniably dumb but, as Fortugno puts it, they’re “trivial enough that it doesn’t effect your view of the series as a whole” and I “still wholeheartedly like the originals and continue to like the brand.” “Wolverine,” though, would have to rate at least a -2 or maybe even a -3.


“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
MCRS Score: 0

Like “Fast Five,” this is another example of a sequel that improves upon the fictional universe built by its predecessors. The origin story of the Planet of the Apes provided in the original ’60s and ’70s films was convoluted to the point of unintentional humor. In contrast, the revisions offered by “Rise” were clear, believable, and scary. The plot machinations of prequels often feel awkward and forced — things happen not because one beat follows logically to the next, but because the demands of previous films require them to — but that wasn’t the case with “Rise.” Almost everything felt believably motivated by the actions of Caesar, the leader of the ape rebellion. Maybe that’s why “Rise” has surprised a lot of people at the box office. It’s a prequel prequoot that feels like an original film.

What MCRS scores would you give to the rest of this year’s sequels?” Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Southern Fried SNL

Watch Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in SNL’s Southern Rock Supergroup

Fred and Carrie kept it mellow on the SNL season finale.

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

It was a veritable “band from comedy heaven” this weekend as a myriad of comedians assembled for a feel-good musical sketch in the Saturday Night Live season finale. Guest host Fred Armisen was joined by Portlandia cohort Carrie Brownstein as well as Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Larry David, and members of the SNL cast to form faux-southern-rock supergroup The Harkin Brothers — a band whose members managed to outnumber its audience.

If The Harkin Brothers’ smooth vocal stylings remind you of The Blue Jean Committee from Documentary Now!, that’s probably not a coincidence. The BJC first appeared in a different, more regionally-specific form in a SNL sketch with Sudeikis on drums.

Watch an all-star SNL cast perform a mellow tribute to Arkansas called “Summertime in Fayetteville” in the video below.

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Farewell Mr. Fred

5 Funniest Sketches From Fred Armisen’s SNL Season Finale

Is "Farewell, Mr. Bunting" the best SNL sketch of the season?

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

The 41st season of Saturday Night Live drew to a close this past weekend, and star of Portlandia and Documentary Now! Fred Armisen hosted the occasion. A former SNL player himself, this homecoming allowed Fred to show off the comedy chops and character skills he’s honed since leaving Studio 8H.

Here are the 5 funniest sketches from the season finale of Saturday Night Live hosted by Fred Armisen.

1. Farewell, Mr. Bunting

What appears to be a straightforward take on the maudlin climax of the 1989 Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society takes quite an unexpected turn. But if you’re really watching, you’ll realize it’s completely organic and integral to the plot.


2. Fred’s Monologue and One-Man Show

Actor, writer, producer, musician, impressionist — Fred can do it all. So tackling the many characters in the story of his life is a cakewalk for such a talent. Here, Fred takes us on the emotional journey through the day he got the job at SNL and luckily he leaves no detail, however minor or insignificant, out of the performance.


3. New Girlfriend

We were wondering what characters Fred would bring back, but we didn’t predict Regine. Fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis appears in this sketch as Regine’s new boyfriend, who introduces his pals to his snarky, raunchy lady. Watch Aidy Bryant try not to crack up at Fred/Regine’s joygasms.


4. Expedition

Three of the biggest stars in American colonialism are Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea. But what most history books choose to omit is the simmering sexual tension between the three explorers. Fortunately, a group of community players illustrate the historical figures’ lustful dynamic to a high school class in graphic detail.


5. Escape Pod

As an interstellar ship begins breaking apart, Fred plays the lucky member of the space crew who wins access to the last escape pod. But a heartfelt goodbye is mitigated by the pod’s virtual assistant ensuring all the luxuries and pampering are to the occupant’s liking.

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The Crying Game

10 Things You Didn’t Know About A League of Their Own

Batter up for A League of Their Own this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

While there may be no crying in baseball, lots of blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of A League of Their Own. From sweltering July heat to concussions to the Material Girl causing trouble, making the hit film wasn’t exactly a homerun. Before you catch A League of Their Own on IFC, check out some dirt on the making of this sports movie classic. Hear that call! The time has come for one and all to play ball!

1. The cast really had to play baseball.

League of Their Own Quotes
Columbia Pictures

Director Penny Marshall was adamant that all of the actresses cast in the film could really play baseball. Prior to the start of filming, the cast (even Madonna!) trained eight hours a day, six days a week for over seven months to hone their skills and bond as a team. They initially practiced sliding using a Slip ‘N Slide, but that method was abandoned when both Tracy Reiner and Megan Cavanagh suffered concussions.


2. Geena Davis auditioned in Penny Marshall’s backyard.

Geena Davis
Columbia Pictures

The Fly and Beetlejuice star was the last person cast in the film after several other prominent actresses like Debra Winger, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Demi Moore passed. Davis had never played baseball but won Marshall over through a game of catch in her backyard. A natural athlete, Davis was outplaying most of the other actresses on the film. (Though she did use a double for the sliding portion of her infamous catch in the splits.)


3. Tom Hanks entertained the extras with puppet shows.

Tom Hanks
Columbia Pictures

Over 1,700 extras were used throughout the shoot, enduring long hours and occasionally extreme 100+ degree summer heat while on location in Indiana. To keep them entertained in between shots and scenery changes, members of the cast performed. Tom Hanks did puppet shows behind the dugout while Rosie O’Donnell would perform stand-up. Madonna reportedly refused to perform (what a shocker!), leaving the rest of the cast to perform imitations of her. Geena Davis suggested they perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” and songs from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, assigning Tom Hanks the role of Caiaphas.


4. Madonna wasn’t exactly a team player.

Madonna Bosoms
Columbia Pictures

To say the Material Girl was a bit of a handful during the shoot is an understatement. In addition to refusing to perform for the extras and ignoring requests for autographs, she often complained about coming into the film a star but being relegated to the background. According to costar and friend Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna brought a boombox to set the first day and warned everybody that if they broke it, they’d have to buy her another one. She also wrote a somewhat scathing letter about her experiences to a friend, calling Geena Davis a “Barbie Doll” and lamenting the lack of “beautiful men” in Chicago.


5. All of the injuries in the film were real.

Bruise League of their Own
Columbia Pictures

The real women of the All American Girls Pro Baseball League were tough, but their onscreen counterparts were equally as tenacious on the field. Penny Marshall had the actresses play a lot of real games with multiple cameras set up in order to get enough footage for montages, and they didn’t go easy on one another, jamming their shoulders, spraining fingers, and nearly breaking noses. The giant strawberry bruise Alice gets while sliding into base was a real injury actress Renee Coleman sustained during filming, and it lasted for well over a year.  Ouch.


6. Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell were the real most valuable players.

Rosie O'Donnell
Columbia Pictures

Though Geena Davis showed natural ability and was supposed to be the “best player in the league,” on-set coach William E. Hughes was most impressed by Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell. Petty could actually outrun Davis, so she was forced to slow her pace during the scene where the two race so as not to appear faster than Davis. She wound up throwing more pitches during filming than most Major League Baseball pitchers do in a full season. O’Donnell had actually played Little League baseball with her brothers growing up, so she excelled during training camp, learning how to throw two balls at once from one of the real AAGPBL players on set. O’Donnell and Petty often had hitting competitions and could hit the fences at Major League parks with little difficulty.


7. Even Tom Hanks didn’t know how long he would pee in the locker room scene.

One of the most memorable moments in A League of Their Own occurs when Jimmy Dugan introduces himself by bursting into the locker room in a drunken stupor and relieving himself in front of the rest of the Peaches while Mae times him. To keep both Hanks and the actresses on their toes, Penny Marshall stood in a stall off camera and made the noises with a hose and a bucket for maximum comedic effect. The actual length of Dugan’s epic #1 is an impressive 53 seconds!


8. Jimmy and Dottie had a romantic subplot that was cut from the film.

A League of Their Own Spit

The initial cut of the film clocked in around four hours before being cut down to its more slender two hours and eight minutes. Among the footage left on the cutting room floor were scenes depicting a growing romantic relationship between Dugan and star player Dottie. The conversation on the bus left in the final cut of the film hints at tension, but in a deleted scene the pair shared a passionate kiss late one night on the field which is what originally led to the scene with Dottie telling Lowenstein she was going home.


9. Jon Lovitz was almost upstaged by a cow.

In the scene where Lovitz’s character, baseball scout Ernie Capadino (a role specifically written for the SNL star), visits Dottie and Kit at their family dairy farm, the girls are seen milking cows. Unbeknownst to Lovitz, one of the cows off-screen was giving birth and mooing loudly, causing him to ad lib the line “WILL YOU SHUT UP?!” It was only after they finished filming that Lovitz found out a calf had been born, which the farm named Penny after director Penny Marshall.


10. Some of the cast reprised their roles on the A League of Their Own TV Show.

CBS aired a TV version of A League of Their Own for a brief period in 1993. Cast members Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner and Jon Lovitz reprised their roles, with former “Bond Girl” Cary Lowell in the Dottie role and Sam McMurray channeling Hanks as Jimmy. As you can imagine, it only lasted five episodes.

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