Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)


Introduction

Another movie with a very good buzz around it, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was based off a best selling Swedish novel, one that is also doing quite well in its translated form in the states. It was only a matter of time before the movie (and a remake) were brought to US shores. But can a foreign murder mystery really be that interesting?

Summary

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a reporter who was just successfully sued for libeling a high powered industrialist. With a prison term awaiting him Mikael is offered a job by Henrik Vengaer (Sven-Bertil Taube), a man of great wealth and power. He is seeking his favorite niece, Harriet (Ewa Froling) who disappeared years ago under mysterious circumstances. As Mikael begins his investigation he discovers that a young computer hacker named Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) has breached his computer and is helping him out. Pieces to the puzzle fall into place, and it each new clue leads to a tale of men who hate women and enigma of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.

Good Points:

  • Excellent acting by the entire cast
  • The story does not pull its punches
  • Unravels at a measured pace

Bad Points:

  • A long movie that may move too slowly for some
  • Some of the characters and situations may be too disturbing for some viewers
  • They solution to the mystery is not a huge surprise

Overall:

You want solid believable characters and a compelling story, this is the movie for you. Top notch acting pulls you into the tale and the measured pace gives you a chance to get a feel for the leads and their world. At nearly two and a half hours, you’ve got to be ready for some serious subtitle reading. But its well worth the effort.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 4

Music: 4

Acting: 5

Script: 4

Direction: 5

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

Curious about a full review, send me an email and I'll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tropic Thunder (2008)


Introduction

It tough to pull off a good parody film. Most of the time the jokes fall flat or are too obvious. Every once in a while you get a movie that is smart, entertaining and funny. The last one that really entertained me was "Galaxy Quest", but I heard very good things about this movie.

Summary

In a bid to make the ultimate war film four of the biggest names in Hollywood are brought together. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) - action star extraordinaire, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) - comedian specializing in fat and fart jokes, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) - an actor willing to do anything to achieve his role, and Hip Hop Superstar Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). In a bid to create the height in realism, the group is dropped into the jungle for guerrilla style filmmaking. But there's a hitch, a group of well-armed drug lords is convinced that these actors are actual solders sent to hunt them down. How long will it take these actors to realize that they are fighting for their lives, not filming "Tropic Thunder"?

Good Points

  • Some very funny moments in the script that contain biting satire and laugh out loud lines
  • Smaller parts for big name actors are hilarious
  • Robert Downey Jr. nearly steals every scene he's in

Bad Points

  • Not every joke lands, and some scenes are a little too "inside"
  • Ben Stiller is good, but miscast
  • The trailers in the opening are so funny that the rest of the movie ends up looking a bit weak

Overall

For anyone who loves movies and knows about the filming of war films will find plenty to enjoy here. It takes lots of jabs at Hollywood style filmmaking and personalities. The humor ranges from gross out jokes to nasty satire. If anything its worth seeing the first sequence of fake trailers.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 4

Music: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

Curious about a full review, send me an email and I'll make additional thoughts to this review.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)


Introduction:

When I opened the 100 Sci-Fi Classics and saw this title I thought, we've got some kind of island queen who has power over the sharks and she uses it to defend her village from pirates. Sounds like a fun film, right? I thought so. But when I saw that the director was Roger Corman, I knew he wouldn't have the budget for that type of movie. So I set my expectations a bit lower. You should too.

Summary:

Jim (Don Durant) finds himself in a bit of trouble with Hawaiian law enforcement, so he and his brother Chris (Bill Cord) hop on their little boat and try to escape. A tempest destroys the boat and they are saved by the hula dancing/pearl diving woman of a small island. Queen Pua (Jeanne Gerson) wants them gone as quickly as possible. But Mahia (Lisa Montell) falls for Chris. Meanwhile Jim decides that he wants those pearls for himself. Things quickly devolve into kidnappings, sacrifices, sunken tiki idols and sharks. Will the brothers be able to escape the wrath of the "She Gods of Shark Reef"?

Good Points:

  • Really and truly filmed in Hawaii
  • A beach movie without any lame songs
  • None of the actors are really bad

Bad Points:

  • Moves really slowly at times
  • The shark scenes are kinda funny
  • None of the actors are good either

Overall:

You know, for a Corman film this isn't too bad. Sure it moves slowly and has some serious budget limitations, but at the same time the script accounts for that. It's really the story of two brothers caught in a jam and having to figure a way out of it. Look at it as more of a thriller filmed in Hawaii on a shoestring budget and you might enjoy some of it. But don't let the title fool you into thinking there is anything fantastic going on.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 3

Sound: 2

Music: 2

Acting: 2

Script: 2

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Overall:2

After watching a few Roger Corman films on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I know what to expect from him. He used his small budget as best he can. He'd stretch that dollar with long scenes of people walking, and talking and walking some more. He'd hold out shots a little longer than they needed to be, and sometimes include questionable edits. Its drive-in material. No one was expecting the teens in the audience to really be paying too much attention. For the record, Corman could make some fun and entertaining films, especially if his budget was a bit larger. But for something like this, you just gotta expect the usual suspects.

Take the acting for one thing. Actually no one in this movie is horrible. Corman will often cast based on looks and sex appeal as opposed to actual talent. Sometimes he got lucky, but most of the time you end up with some nice looking folks that are out acted by a wooden sets. In this case, everyone is just below average. Bill Cord makes Chris a likable guy if a bit on the bland side. Don Durant plays his brother Jim as a mercurial hot head. One minute he seems like he's got it together, the next he's thirsting to steal something or beat someone up. He provides some of the color to the film, so I can't fault him to much.

Lisa Montell as Mahia makes a very alluring island gal. She plays up the innocent angle a bit too much, but it works in context of the film. Jeanne Gerson as Queen Pua is more like the cantankerous old gramma who will not let her daughter date those boys! It's a funny performance. I' m not sure if she did it on purpose or not, but she's not commanding or threatening. She just seems cranky.

The script is an odd beast, starting off with Jim and very disturbing looking old man sneaking onto a peer and killing some guards. They seem to be looking for guns, but things go wrong when they are discovered. This starts the movie with a moody and dark sequence, making me wonder if this was going to turn into something more chilling or closer to a horror film. This sequence in style and tone is nothing like the rest of the movie. All it does is show us what kind of man Jim is, and that becomes apparent quickly enough.

The rest of the movie has Chris and Jim relating to each other and to the women of the island. The two brothers obviously have some issues with each other, but Chris seems to genuinely care for his brother. Jim seems a bit more sociopathic. The rest of the dialogue is your typical islander warning the outsiders kinda stuff, "You anger the shark gods!", "You bring bad fortune!", "Only a sacrifice can appease the Shark Gods!" "You leave now, you're not wanted here!". Queen Pua gets these gems and says them in her crankiest voice.

Part of the problem is that the Shark God is never really a threat, and neither is Queen Pua. The whole movie has a real laid back feel, and it just doesn't work to create any momentum. Most of this is probably the direction, but some work on the script should have been used to make a real threat for the brothers. Instead they just seem like they are hanging around the island because it’s populated with woman who hula dance regularly.

The sound is really off in this film, with the boom mic not nearly close enough in some scenes and other times being overpowered by the sounds of wind and surf on the island. Quite a few lines of dialogue are lost because of this. Then there's the music. It goes for authentic island feel, but it is placed at some very inopportune times, becoming distracting in many scenes.

The movie does have one thing in its favor, beautiful scenery. Filmed on the island of Kauai, the cliffs and mountains of the island are wonderful to behold. Even Corman was able to grab some breath taking vistas in this film. The beach looks wonderful and even the underwater moments are impressive. It's a real shame that the print is so faded, I can imagine that this movie looked great when it was first released in 1958. Some of the budget limitations appear during the shark attack scenes. Corman uses a mix of stock footage and what appears to be a dead or drugged shark for some close up scenes. The whole thing is actually pretty funny looking and takes away any threat there may have been.

As I mentioned, I was expecting this movie to be a lot worse, but it had its moments. Things move slowly in places, with dancing sequences and walking sequences padding out the film. On the other hand it moves a lot quicker than some of the more dreary of Corman's films. If you're looking for a good riffing movie with some friends, this fits the bill. But if you're looking for an entertaining island girl film - um, move along, nothing to see here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

500 Days of Summer (2009)


Introduction:

It's amazing what good buzz can do. When I first read a review for this movie during its festival run, no one had heard of it. Jump forward about six months and I couldn't rent it from my local DVD store - it was always out. Well I finally got a chance to see it. Did it live up to the buzz?

Summary:

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is breaking up with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Everything seemed perfect and now its all going wrong. Tom's memories take us through 500 days of falling love, being in love and falling out of love with his perfect girl. But as the story progresses we begin to see that Summer may not be perfect after all. What will be revealed about Tom after we see all "500 Days of Summer"?

Good Points:

  • Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel bring their characters to life
  • An entertaining and original script
  • Avoids the clich├ęs of current romantic comedies

Bad Points:

  • A little gimmicky in parts
  • The pacing suffers at times with the fractured narrative
  • The song selections are sure to rub some people the wrong way

Overall:

This is how you make a film about relationships. It’s entertaining, managing to be funny and touching all at the same time. It never goes overboard with the characters or wacky antics. Instead it does its best to show how to people come together, fall for each other and grow apart - even if one of them doesn't realize it. Gordon-Levitt nails the character and Deschanel is perfect in her part, and since they carry the movie it clicks all the way through. Definitely worth checking out, even if this isn't normally your type of movie.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 4

Audio: 4

Acting: 5

Script: 4

Music: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

Curious about a full review, send me an email and I'll make additional thoughts to this review.

Moon (2009)


Introduction:

This movie had some good buzz on it when it came out in theaters. Many reviewers found it refreshing to have an original sci-fi idea actually executed in a movie. Most sci-fi these days is really space opera, lots of fun and adventure, but not much science. "Moon" was more of a throwback to classic sci-fi adventures of the 50's, but without the Fire Maidens or Bug Eyed Monsters.

Summary:

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has been alone on the lunar station for almost three years, but it’s getting close to the end of his shift. Soon he'll be able to return to earth and be with his wife and child. During a final check of some mining equipment, he is in an accident. When he awakens his robot companion GERTY (Kevin Spacey) tells him that he was unharmed. But Sam begins to doubt this. You see, now he's pretty sure he's not the only human on board the lunar station - and that solving that mystery is going to shatter his idea of reality.

Good Points:

  • Top notch acting from Sam Rockwell
  • The whole movie and its themes leave you thinking at the end
  • Amazing production design for a film with this budget

Bad Points:

  • The movie's slow pace may bore some viewers
  • A few of the shots get a little artsy and pull you out of the film
  • Some viewers dislike GERTY and/or Spacey's take on him

Overall

I love space adventure films, but it's nice to get a solid sci-fi flick once in a while, and "Moon" is a good one. Rockwell owns the movie and really makes you care about his character. The slow pace makes perfect sense when you look back on it, but it can be challenging for someone expecting more excitement. I can recommend this film easily to anyone who enjoys sci-fi and is looking for something with a bit more meat in the story.

Ratings (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 5

Music: 3

Acting: 5

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

Curious about a full review, send me an email and I'll make additional thoughts to this review.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)



Introduction:

Has it really been 15 years since “Toy Story” came out in theaters and revealed to the world that computer animation could be used to tell a feature length story? IMDB is saying it’s true. Is there a point to making another movie, other than to fatten Pixar’s and Disney’s wallet?

Summary:

Young Andy (John Morris) is getting ready to head off to college. His playmates lay in his old toy chest all but forgotten, and yet Andy still can’t part with them. Eventually he decides to put the toys in the attic, except for Woody (Tom Hanks) who will join him at college. But a mishap ends with the toys heading out to Sunnyside Daycare. At first this doesn’t seem so bad, at least they’ll get played with. But it becomes apparent that the daycare is a prison for the toys, and that they must escape or end up destroyed by toddlers. But if they do make it out, where will they go? After all if a toy isn’t being played with, what good is it? Find out the answer in “Toy Story 3”.

Good Points:

  • The animation and voice acting are top notch
  • The story is a logical and entertaining continuation of the first two tales
  • Achieves a surprisingly poignant conclusion

Bad Points:

  • The 3D was well integrated but not needed
  • Some of the story elements are obvious recycles from the previous two films
  • The ending may push some viewers a little too hard

Overall:

I’ve doubted Pixar in the past, but they have yet to make a movie I don’t like. “Toy Story 3” is just as good as the previous two films, but has a darker tone to it. This gives it a greater impact at the end, one that may be a bit overblown, but is very effective. There are still plenty of laughs and thrills to enjoy. All your favorite characters and some new ones are on hand to make a very entertaining film, and maybe one of Pixar’s best yet.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 5

Sound: 5

Music: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 5

Total: 5

In Depth

“Toy Story 3” hits all the right notes. It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s exciting, it’s funny and it’s sad. Yeah, you heard me; this movie’s got a real melancholy vibe to it. I’m not sure if younger viewers will catch this, they’ll see the sunny ending and feel that the toys are safe and happy. Heck, I keep telling myself the same thing. But the adult in me felt the sense of loss, knowing you’ve left childhood behind. Andy’s moved on and has to say goodbye. Most of us have had to do this at one time or another. This film captures that feeling and nails it, making it one of the few movies to actually move me to tears in the theater. Oh, I’m a cynic most of the time – but when it comes to animation, I can be a softy.

Speaking of animation, this is some of the best work Pixar’s done. Each movie really pushes the envelope of what they can pull off. While this doesn’t have the aggressive detail of “Wall-e” it does a great job of pulling the colors, movement and style of the previous Toy Story films and improving them. Take a look at the scenes with Lotso (Ned Beatty). His fur is amazing, looking just like plush that has been well used over the years.

Another stand out element is the action. There is an amazing amount of fluidity to the movement, especially in scenes where cameras angle around toys in motion over a background in motion. This was also done to great affect in the finale of “Toy Story 2” at the airport. The gut wrenching finale action sequence in the junkyard is amazing to see. Pixar still can’t be topped in this department.

A word about the 3D, it’s not necessary. It’s well done, and never distracts from the film. I was never wowed by it. This movie will play just as well without the 3D and the colors will probably look a bit sharper too.

The sound work is as good as it’s always been. All the toys have distinctive sound effects that accompany them. In addition the key element of background noise is perfect, pulling you into the world that’s been created.

Randy Newman who provided the score for the first two films returns for the third. He does a great job with the score, building moments and keeping things fun. For moments when Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is reset into his Spanish-speaking mode, Newman injects a flamenco beat into the score. His song, “You’ve got a Friend in Me” is utilized throughout the score and even played with lyrics a couple times. He even provides a new song for the end credits. I’m not a huge fan of his vocal style or his songs, but fans should enjoy what they get here.

The cast of Toy Story started out pretty big and it’s increased with each movie. Each actor brings the characters to life perfectly. Of course everyone knows and loves Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz. But Joan Cusack is excellent as Jessie the cowgirl and nearly steals the scenes she’s in. New characters include Ned Beatty as the deceptively cuddly Lotso (hugs Bear), Michael Keaton as Ken to Jodi Benson’s Barbie. Timothy Dalton provides the voice for the classically trained actor Mr. Pricklepants – a hedgehog. And Blake Clark joins the group as the voice of Slinky Dog taking over for the late Jim Varney. I want to give each actor a plug, but seriously they all do a great job. It takes effective voice acting to make an emotional ending work, and they pull it off easily.

The basic story takes the premise of “Toy Story 2” and reverses it. So instead of Woody being captured by a toy collected and being rescued by the other toys, the other toys captured at the daycare and Woody has to stage the rescue. Even the finale action set piece with the moving conveyer belts and dangerous enemy toy scheming against our heroes is very similar. It’s the added element of Andy being an adult and making a decision about the toys that drives the whole plot and the emotional climax of the film. The previous two films were focused on friendship too, but more on the friendship between the toys. This element of ending friendships looms over the whole story from the beginning and gives this movie a different tone. It feels like a natural continuation of the first two stories and it’s true climax. The only thing that really seems to be lacking is the snappy one-liners the first two films had. The movie also assumes you’ve seen the first two films. Many of the relationships and jokes rest on events the occurred in those movies.

The whole package is executed with great skill. Director Lee Unkrich keeps all the elements flowing at once. He executes the action and comedy with perfect timing. The movie never loses momentum, or bogs down in sentimentality until the end. I found the ending to be very effective, but I was also very conscious that it was getting a little manipulative. Some viewers may not understand why the farewell scene is dragging on so long. I loved it, but I also loved the multiple endings of “Return of the King”. For some, the end might be a slight misstep.

I was surprised by this movie. I knew I’d enjoy it. I really enjoyed the first two films. I also knew there was going to be a bit different from those films. I wasn’t sure how that element would work in the final analysis. When it’s all said and done, the movie is great, providing a well-rounded experience of fun and fantasy with a touch of sadness. If you’ve seen the first two films and enjoyed them, then this is a must see.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Diabolik (1968) – MST3K Review



Summary:
Super cool super thief Diabloik (John Philip Law) and his lover Eva (Marisa Mell) are the most wanted criminals in Europe. Time and again they execute impossible jobs under the nose of the exasperated Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli). But now big time gangster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) is tired of the police coming down on his operations to find Diabolik. So he teams up with Ginko in attempt to catch the super thief and get him out of the way for good. Little do they know that they are dealing with a man who is a master of disguise, has a super secret lair, crazy gadgets and the endless devotion of Eva. It’s going to take more than these two knuckleheads to catch the uncatchable Diabolik!

Movie Review:
We’ve seen this before. Take one fairly good film – edit the crap out of it, and if it’s foreign make sure to dub it atrociously. Then slap it on VHS or on TV and make a quick buck. MST3K has thrived on these disasters in the past, especially in the form of the Russian fantasy films or the Japanese TV adventures. But another avenue for comedy are the endless 60’s and 70’s European rip offs for the James Bond franchise. Most of these were made in Italy and some even featured Bond cast members getting face time for a paycheck or two.

A little of that is going on here. Diabolik is actually based on a long running Italian comic book series about an antihero who goes out of the way to punish cops and criminals alike. This fits in fine with the late 60’s anti-police sentiment. The movie is filled to bursting with style and color and European finesse. The plot is pretty thin, but the objective was to make a movie as dynamic as the comic book it was based on.

But whatever success the movie made have had in its original incarnation is obliterated in this edited junk that Mike and the bots must endure. Taken out of context Diabolik seems like a madman, killing police and citizens because his Eva wants a necklace, or because he wants to steal some gold and thumb his nose at Ginko. Then there’s the ending, which leaves Diabolik trapped in gold and winking at the audience. So he’s defeated? The whole movie is spent showing you how cool he is and how dumb the cops are and you end it with him getting caught, kinda? Editing makes turns Diabolik into a mess.

The whole late 60’s vibe is extremely dated at times. The mocking of authority comes across as childish. Eva’s hair and outfits are so “cool” they generate laughter. I have to mention the club scene that would fit perfectly in an Austin Powers movie. It’s even got swirling lights and groovy music blaring. If you don’t know that it’s supposed to be over the top and flashy, the movie comes across as ridiculous and bizarre.

The dubbing doesn’t help. John Philip Law is obviously speaking in English as are a few other minor characters, but just about everyone else is obviously speaking another language and dubbed by the most grating voices that could be found. One of my favorites is Valmont’s arm candy who can’t stop babbling. Valmont snaps at her to “Shut yup!” so many times you start cheering him on.

Then there’s the music, done by the incomparable Ennio Morricone (famous for his work on Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns). Morricone’s music is very catchy and distinctive in this movie, but it’s also very silly. With the opening credits playing to what sounds like a bunch of women singing “Dee Dee Daa” you just can’t take it seriously. It’s all very entertaining, but can see others finding it a major distraction.


This version of Diabolik is pretty strange, and if you don’t understand what it’s trying to be, a lot of humor can be found. But at its heart it’s not a bad movie at all. Fans of 60’s style and flash should find the unedited version and check it out – I think you’ll have a blast.

Episode Review:
We’ve arrived at the final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Over its ten year run the show has had several finales. Some of them were your typical season ending episodes. Others were more important: the change of hosting duties from Joel to Mike, or the final episode done for Comedy Central. Sad to say that compared to those episodes Diabolik ends up falling a bit flat. I’ve been saying for the last few episodes that a lack of energy is apparent in the show, and here it rears its ugly head again. What should have been a real send off comes across as a middle of the road episode, one that doesn’t really celebrate the last ten years, but feels almost like the cast and crew going through the motions.

I’m getting a bit harsh here. It’s only noticeable if you compare it to episodes like Mitchell, Laserblast or even something like Overdrawn at the Memory Bank the finale of season eight. You still have very entertaining moments. Many of those will come for long time fans of the show, and appear during the host segments. Those who watch the show for the movie riffing will be a bit disappointed.

This is another case where riffing a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously to begin with backfires on the riffers. If Diabolik was made in the same spirit as Batman from 1989 or Dark Knight from 2008, it would have been a different story. But this is more in the style of the 60’s Batman television series melded with James Bond at his most over the top: You Only Live Twice for instance. It’s bright gaudy and silly and knows it. This makes mocking the movie seems kind of pointless. So Mike and bots best moments of riffing occur when they comment on how over the top everything is.

My favorite riffs come from Crow this time around and are all based on the musical score and songs by Morricone. During a guitar driven theme as a car races away Crow starts singing along to the music, "going down to the store, gonna pick up some bread". Then during the infamous “Deep Deep Down” song in the opening credits, Crow says, “You know I’ve been considering the argument presented here, and I have to say, Dee Dee Daa guys. Seriously” Tom and Mike nod in agreement. The song is played again during the love scene. As Diabolik and Eva face mash Crow quips to the song, “Deep Deep Tongue!”

I also enjoy the riffing on the high tech lair of Diabolik. When the secret door opens to his garage, Tom wonders how much he had to pay the contractors to make that thing. When Eva walks into a long plastic tube leading to the bedroom Mike says in an effeminate voice, “I love what you’ve done with the Habitrail”. Anyone who’s had a hamster as a kid will get a kick out of it.

But other moments just kinda drift by with fewer riffs or ones that fall flat. Some of the strangest sequences in Diabolik don’t get much mention. This riffing session is just adequate at best. I was in the mood for it this viewing and enjoyed it, but the previous viewing left me very cold.

This episode is better remembered for its host segments and frankly for fans of the show they are the real reason to seek this episode out. Things start off with Tom having issues getting his hover skirt to work properly. Turns out the Satellite of Love Employee Handbook was wedged in there. The procedure writer in me got a kick out of Pearls rules and regulations. Pearl then rigs up a joystick to control the SOL with. She is using it so vigorously that she breaks it, causing the SOL to plummet down toward earth. There’s no way to stop the fall, so Pearl decides to let Mike crash, but first one last movie. At the first break Mike and the bots have packed and are discussing what to do with all the extra Tom Servos around the ship (a nice little nod to long time viewers who’ve seen Tom duplicated many times). At the next break we check in at Castle Forrester. Everyone’s got a new job, Pearl is the new dictator for life of Qatar, Bobo will be working at the zoo and Observer… um well, he’s got a lot of stuff going on… really. For the next break Crow is scared of living on Earth, so Mike’s come up with a nice little song called “To Earth” to cheer Crow up. We haven’t had a good song from the crew in a while (Joel used to do that a lot more). It’s a fun one to end on.

The final segment has the SOL coming in for a landing. Everything starts going wrong, with pieces of the ship fall off. Mike asks Pearl for help. Her reply, “Look Nelson, move on. I have.” And she cuts the connection. The SOL crashes! Then we’re in a little apartment with Crow and Tom sitting on the couch. Mike is coming over with a big bowl of rice (a nod to his attempt at creating EXTREME RICE!). Turns out Gypsy now runs a huge company and is making tons of money. She was always the smartest one of the robots. While Mike and the bots settle in the watch a movie. Turns out its The Crawling Eye, the same movie Joel and the bots riffed back in 1989 for the first official episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

That final segment is one of my favorites and really it’s the best of the bunch (as much as I enjoy the song). It wraps up the show really well. It’s a shame the rest of the episode is really only an average effort. But as I and many fans of the shows will point out, even an average episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is better than just about any average episode of television comedy. Maybe I hold it against the episode that it’s the last one, but I wish they had gone out with something like “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders”.

Still I give Diabolik three gold encrusted super thieves out of five.

This episode is available on DAP

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Strange Illusion (1945)


Introduction

I flipped through the 100 Mystery Classics and picked this film because of its premise: using a dream to solve a crime. I was hoping to avoid a movie that would put me to sleep. Of course then I could dream up a better film.

Summary

Young Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) has a strange dream in which a shadowy man threatens his family. He cuts his vacation short and hurries home to find that his mother Virginia (Sally Eilers) is involved with the smarmy Brett Curtis (Warren William). Paul becomes convinced that Brett is up to no good. When several events from his dream take place, he begins his own investigation. Is the Curtis really a criminal in disguise – one that was put away by Paul’s dead father, the judge? Or is Paul mentally unstable, and really tearing his family apart with his strange illusions?

Good Points

  • An interesting premise that connects the dots in many places.
  • Brett Curtis is an intriguing character with some very disturbing secrets.
  • The scenes in the asylum have potential.

Bad Points

  • The music is badly edited into scenes and mixed too loud.
  • The ending is fairly obvious about fifteen minutes into the film.
  • Flaccid direction keeps things moving too slow.

Overall

What could have been a neat little film turns out to be less than the sum of its parts because of pacing. The script has too many holes in it, and a faster pace would have kept the viewers involved and ignoring those holes till after the credits roll. But the end result is film that is interesting enough to finish, but not interesting enough to remember.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects: 3

Sound Aspects: 3

Acting: 3

Music: 2

Script: 2

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Total: 2

Film Review

The idea of using a dream to solve a crime is pretty silly, but for anyone interested in the possibility of precognition, it holds some appeal. Is the future fixed? Can humans see that future? Can that ability be used to help others? All are interesting questions – and none are really explored in this film. This is going for a fun “what if” ride. Too bad it never quite pulls it off.

Director Edgar Ulmer gets things off to a bizarre start with the Jimmy’s dream sequence. It’s foggy, shadowy and creates an surreal atmosphere. Another dream ends the film and these are both handled with some creativity.

The rest of the movie follows standard film making techniques, with nothing too noir or flashy to report. It’s functional at the best. The sound falls into the same boat: creative during the dreams, and functional otherwise.

On the acting front it isn’t a bad time. Jimmy Lydon is good as Paul Cartwright. He reminds me quite a bit of Robert Lowell as Jimmy Wilson in I Accuse My Parents. He’s very sincere and looks a little too old to be playing a college student. The other actor of interest is Warren William as Brett Curtis. The man just oozes smarm and slime. You don’t’ trust him the minute he appears and he does nothing but confirm your suspicions with each passing scene. The rest of the cast is average. I did like Jimmy Clark as Paul’s friend George. He had the ah-shucks sidekick thing down cold.

Now we start getting into the below average points. Let’s start with the music, on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s a bit overdone, but that’s typical of 40’s scores. The real problem is that it is matched poorly to certain scenes. Sinister music plays in scenes where nothing sinister is happening and vice versa. On top of that the music is mixed very loud, drowning out dialogue in many scenes.

There were a couple interesting elements to the script. I was a bit surprised at the approach for Curtis’ character. It’s implied pretty clearly that he likes young women. He’s often seen leering at Paul’s sister Dorothy and Paul’s girlfriend Lydia. In a later scene Lydia describes how Curtis was in the pool with her, grabbed her, held her under water in a strangle hold and kissed her over and over again. It’s a chilling revelation, and one that seals the deal for Curtis (if there was any doubt about him… see below). But I was surprised that this type of thing could be discussed and implied in a movie in the 40’s.

I was also interested to see the way the asylum was portrayed in the film. There’s a two-way mirror and a bugged vent, something I thought was more a modern convention.

The script is not as tight as it should be. The main crime here has several parts. First Paul’s father was murdered and it was made to look like an accident. Second, Paul’s mother is going to marry the shady Curtis. Third, Curtis plans on destroying the family from within and obtaining the wealth from the Cartwright family. It’s elaborate and requires quite a few things to occur perfectly for the crime to be pulled off. Needless to say, suspension of disbelief is severely tested.

On the flip side, Paul is supposed to use the clues from his dream as well as deductive skill and research to solve the mysteries. The only problem is that the dream acts as a kind of dues-ex-machina, popping up whenever it’s convenient, and patching some of the more serious holes.

Unfortunately the director really drops the ball. Ulmer meanders from scene to scene giving the viewer time to wonder about plot holes. How was Curtis able to change his identity so completely? Why does one else seem to realize that Curtis is so darn oily? Is there anything that the dream won’t reveal that the perfect moment?

No attempt is made to make Curtis appear anything other than the villain. You know he’s up to no good the minute he’s introduced. William plays the part as the sleazy and smarmy as you can imagine. He’s a great villain, but Ulmer should have had him dial it down at the beginning, so a little suspense could be generated. Instead the mystery is pretty much nixed within 15 minutes.

This robs the film of entertainment value. The dream is a double-edged sword, adding an interesting element and yet a too convenient one. The viewer ends up watching to see how the dream elements play out, not to find out if Jimmy and his family make it out of the situation. It’s a slow film, not horrible, but never really clicking the way it could have.

James Lilieks thought it moved a little faster than I did, but he liked it about the same. Check out his review here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Squirm (1976) - MST3K Review


Summary:

This episode starts with a short, “A Case of Spring Fever”. Its deals with a dumpy guy who wishes that springs didn’t exist. Coily the Spring Sprite grants his wish. The main character soon realizes that the world is entirely composed of springs and learns the error of his ways. Coily sets the world to right, and our hero spends the rest of the short telling his golf buddies how great springs are. No kidding.

The feature answers the question, what happens when you combine a huge storm, a downed power line and big slimy worms? Mick (Don Scardino) is about to find out. He arrives in Georgia to meet with a Geri (Patricia Pearcy), a girl he met at an antique show. Things don’t go exactly right. First there’s Roger (R.A. Dow), who’s obviously enamored with Geri and who keeps butting in. Then there’s the testy Sheriff (Peter MacLean) who is convinced that Mick is a troublemaker – especially after the egg cream incident. Then there are the man-eating worms. They start pouring out of the ground and devouring hapless southerners. Will our northern gent be able to save the town from the “squirm”y menace?

Film Review:

Sometimes you just ask, what the hell is this short about? My summary for “A Case of Spring Fever” really doesn’t do this short justice, you should seek it out (with or without MST3K commentary) if you can. The whole thing is a really strange exercise about the importance of springs. Why? Were people doubting the need for these simple machines, or was this part of a larger film series that would include pulley-ee the Pulley Sprite and Inclined Planey the Inclined Plane Sprite?

It’s mildly interesting to see how many things in our world actually contain springs (even more so in the pre-digital world we see here). But the short belabors the point with Coily’s maniacal laughter and bizarre sound effects. Coily comes across kind of demonic actually and our hapless lunk-head is well, helpless. You also know exactly where the short is going within the first minute of the film.

The big kicker is right when you think the short is done, with Coily setting the springs back in place, the short just keeps on going. Our hero goes golfing with his buddies and spends the next five minutes of the short babbling on and on about springs. The short shows all his buddies bored out of their minds – seriously! The short ends with one of the friends about to declare that he doesn’t want to see another spring as long as he lives. Our hero stops him just in time and then shares a secret smile with Coily. Truly a bizarre little film.

“Squirm” is actually a movie with a budget and financed by a major studio (MGM). So it’s a bit more competent then some of the other episodes we’ve seen this season. That’s not to say that director/writer Jeff Lieberman is a master of the filmmaking art, but he does a respectable job with what he’s got.

What he’s got is oozy gooey worms as the threat. This makes the horror element pretty simple to execute, especially with the disturbing idea that they can devour you. Now the idea that electricity could turn the worms into man-eaters, that’s about as silly as you get.

There are a few missteps with the horror elements. For instance, the numerous close ups on the worms. Nothing wrong with that on the surface. But when you add roaring sound effects it just makes me laugh. Then there’s Roger, who after he’s been attacked by the worms, turns out to be a zombie worm face man. Um, really? Roger was actually kinda of creepy already what with is obsessive behavior and low IQ. But now he’s just silly looking with the zombie makeup and the even dumber lines he’s been given. Have the worms been eating his brain?

Odd characters abound in the film. You’ve got Mick, the thin and nerdy lead. I think that we are supposed to root for the guy because he’s the underdog: the northern gent in the southern town. He’s such a dweeb that you end up laughing when he’s in peril. On top of that he’s supposed to be our romantic lead, but he generates very little chemistry with Pearcy. I can believe that they met at an antique show, but I can see them more as shopping buddies instead of lovers.

Pearcy is shrill and overly southern. Yeah I know it’s a weird comment, but she’s putting the accent on really thick. We don’t feel frightened for her, but keep hoping she’ll end up as the worm food. Her mother played by Jean Sullivan is an over the top Southern Belle in every way. As the movie progresses she gets spacier and spacier. Then there’s little sister Alma, with her oh so hip 1970’s clothing and shoes. She’s a fashion disaster and uses the best 70’s slang in the movie.

You can’t have a southern movie without the stereotypical intolerant sheriff showing up. MacLean plays the part to the hilt; being a nasty jerk from the moment we lay eyes on him. He’s also into harassing waitresses with a slap on the butt and getting girls into his jail cell for some nighttime shenanigans.

To add to the 70’s feel the whole thing, you’ve got a wonderful Moog soundtrack. Not only does it instantly date the film, but it’s not even used effectively.

Lieberman does a competent enough job with the film. It’s not slow moving, but it’s not really scary. If you find worms icky, then yeah this movie is going to gross you out. If you find the Southern states inherently frightening, then you’ll be horrified by this movie. But for the most part, it’s just a silly romp with plenty to make fun of.

Episode Review:

Let’s start with the short. This little movie has been on the radar of Mystery Science Theater for years. Back in the Comedy Central years, it had come up for consideration. I’m not sure why the Brains never decided to riff on it, but they were inspired in other ways. A series of host segments for the episode “Viking Women and the Sea Serpent” had Crow masquerading as Waffly the Waffle Sprite, sharing the glory of waffles with Joel and Tom. Trace Beaulieu even adapted Coily’s vocal mannerisms and the goofy sound effect. Earlier this season Crow once again dressed in a costume and declared himself Droppy the Water Droplet for the episode “Future War”.

So the short is finally revealed and it’s just as silly as the host segments lead us to believe. The riffing is pretty steady, mocking our pudgy protagonist and the demonic sprite with equal zeal. After the zillionth time Coily yells “No springs” and laughs insanely, Tom quips “And No Redemption either!” After the world is returned to normal and our hero continues babbling about springs, Mike asks the question on all our minds, “Um movie? Shouldn’t this be over?” it’s a great riffing session and starts the episode with a bang. I consider it a perfect finale for the long history of mocking short subjects on the show. At the time Bill Corbett lamented that he only got to work on three shorts during his time playing Crow on the show – but now with Rifftrax he, Mike and Kevin tackle shorts regularly and to be honest they are some of the funniest material they’ve done. Check out the hilarious 70’s educational short “Drugs Are Like That” for a taste of the comedy.

“Squirm” is ripe for mocking and provides the team with lots of material to work with. All the characters get attacked: Micky with his nerdy feeble physique, Geri and her ultra skinny body, the slimy sheriff and the zombie Roger. Mike and bots also provide the worms with voices (much as they did with the bats in “It Lives by Night”) when they aren’t already roaring.

Even though the film is saturated in 70’s music and fashions they team goes lighter on the 70’s jokes and focuses more the extreme Southerness of the film. As I mentioned before, it feels like the director instructed his actors to play up the accents and behavior. The result is a movie that wallows in stereotypes and Mike and the Bots just jump on it, even allowing it to ooze into one of the host segments.

My favorite sequences mostly involve the ineffectual Micky. The whole scene with him ordering an egg cream at a diner and having to explain what it is to the waitress is odd to begin with. Mike and the bots just riff on everyone in the diner, especially the nebbish Micky and his fear of drinking the egg cream he just ordered!? Near the end, Micky is rendered shirtless, for the ladies I guess (just like “Boggy Creek 2”) and forced to wander around in the swamp. Mike and the bots are relentless on his feeble looking arms and the way he strains under the wood he’s bringing back. When he’s attacked by worm zombie Roger, all bets are off and the riffs come at both characters expense.

The host segments are varied. Things start with the safety check the satellite. Turns out the ship is very unsafe. Pearl then reveals that she will take over the Universe Fair, but will start with her local county fair. Observer and Bobo help with rides and games. At the first break, Mike and the bots discuss Coily and how he works in the grand scheme of things. At the next break, the movie is so Southern that it has caused Tom to transform into a Southern Belle! For the next break, Mike is inspired the movie to create his own mutant worms – turns out they taste pretty good too. In the finale Crow dresses up like the super 70’s sister in the movie and Pearl has Observer test out the bungee jump.

All told you’ve got an entertaining mix here. The movie and the riffing are a little better than average, but the classic short and the fun host segments push this into a higher grade. In my mind, this is the last good episode. But I’ll save my reflections on the final episode. For now I give this episode four egg creams out of five.

This episode is available on DAP. A Case of Spring Fever is available as an extra on the Killer Shrews disc in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – Volume Seven.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Introduction:

Even though I'm not a big fan of "Titanic", I was interested in seeing this movie. A lot of the marketing stressed how it was a reunion of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. More interesting to me was that Sam Mendes was directing. His work on "American Beauty" and "Jarhead" was excellent. Kate Winslet always turns in an excellent performance, so it seemed like a good match.

Summary:

Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife April (Kate Winslet) have just about everything an American family in the 1955 would want. Frank has a good job with an eye on a promotion. They have a lovely house on Revolutionary Road. They have children they love and friends to spend time with. Of course all this perfection can't remain, and it becomes obvious that it is an illusion. A need for something new begins to drive the Wheelers, at first uniting them in a common purpose. But after a life changing event occurs Frank and April are at odds and each moment drives them apart and toward tragedy. Is there any way to escape the dark fate on "Revolutionary Road"?

Good Points

  • Visually, the movie captures the feelings and themes of the film as well as the look of the 1950s
  • Acting by Winslet and DiCaprio is pitch perfect
  • Mendes does a great job of creating the appropriate atmosphere

Bad Points

  • The musical score is too subtle
  • The themes and ideas are very similar to those in "American Beauty"
  • Not the type of film you could call entertaining

Overall

This is a well-made and thought provoking film. I certainly recommend it, especially to see some excellent acting from Winslet. Mendes handles the material very well, creating an environment and characters that are fascinating and yet repellent at the same time. Not an easy film to watch but one that you probably won't forget.

Scores (out of 5)

  • Visuals: 5
  • Audio: 3
  • Music: 4
  • Acting: 5
  • Script: 4
  • Direction: 5
  • Entertainment: 4
  • Total: 4
In Depth Review

Movies like "Revolutionary Road" are tough to recommend. Some people are just going to hate this type of movie. It's not uplifting. It's very cynical and thematically dark. The characters are too realistic, reminding viewers of themselves in many cases. Some may not want to see what Mendes is expressing here and feel that he is attacking the American way of life. Others will just be upset that this is not the romantic escapade that the trailers seemed to promise.

"American Beauty" had the same affect on people when it came out. A lot of people hated it for a number of reasons (and some of them are perfectly valid). But I always suspected that the main reason people disliked it, was because the mirror was a little too accurate. Mendes takes a different approach, but basically has the same message here.

Based on the novel by Richard Yates, the main thrust of the film is that not everyone is going to find happiness and joy in the "ideal family life". When people try to do something different, society seems to go out of its way to crush those ideas. What is interesting with "Revolutionary Road" is that the use of the 1950's period distances the viewer but also adds another dimension. For many, the 1950s were the high point of American culture, influence and prosperity. So show such a dark and rotten heart at the center of this 50's family is very cynical.

Mendes has a great eye for setting up shots and executing sequences for maximum affect. It was one of the great things about "American Beauty" and "Jarhead". Certain scenes stick out in your mind, either because they are symbolic, standing for several elements of the film, or just because they create an image that is striking. "Revolutionary Road" is filled with these moments. The house the Wheelers eventually purchase and live in is filmed in such a way that it is lovely and cold all at the same time. The movie's themes may be dark, but the house is filled with light and very open. But in many ways Mendes, uses the house to show other things. There is a scene where April is wandering through the house and it seems so lonely and empty. The lighting, the angles and Winslet's acting contribute to this quiet and horrifying scene. It captures despair so well and yet does it so simply. That is what Mendes is good at.

His use of music and sound are less obvious. The sound work is just about what you'd suspect. Mendes avoids any showy sound design and keeps things grounded. It works well for the film, but doesn't stand out. The score is a mixed bag. It's very subtle, creeping in and adding texture to scenes. There is a main theme, and it is interesting, but sparse. It works fine in the film, but as a stand-alone listen, I don't' think it will be that appealing.

Mendes has a solid cast here. Both DiCaprio and Winslet are top notch. DiCaprio has grown on me in last few years. He did some solid parts in his youth but seemed limited as an actor. I was one of the few that found him out of his depth in "Titanic". But he impressed me in "Catch Me If You Can", and then again in "The Aviator". By the time I saw "The Departed" I had to admit that he was much better than I originally thought. In this film he's very good, capturing the youthful fire of Frank in scenes where he is starting his life with April and stretching into the scenes where he is at odds with his wife and growing further and further from her. He keeps the man believable. I always understood why Frank did what he did, even if I didn't agree with him. DiCaprio's performance is commendable.

Kate Winslet is really the powerhouse here, and honestly her part is much more juicy. April travels a similar road as Frank, sharing the initial attraction and love of the young couple. But her role as a wife and mother in the 1950's allows her for less expression and less freedom than her husband. When things start to go bad, she doesn't have an outlet that is socially acceptable (Frank can get drunk and sleep with secretaries - its expected. But a wife and mother could never do such a thing). As the minutes pass during the film you see Winslet slowly becoming more and more desperate and yet doing everything she can to suppress it. By the end of the film, it is painful to watch her performance, because it is too real. It's a top-notch job, one of the reasons she is one of my favorite actresses. She never goes over the top with her part, but performs in a way that allows you to believe her character and bond with her.

The supporting cast is up to the challenge, with Kathy Bates being other big name in the cast. She serves as a foil and friend for the young couple. Her family has it's own issues and we see how they are handled, in a way that is socially acceptable even if it is questionable in it's resolution. A scene with her at the end of the movie serves as a coda to the film, and is very telling.

I've already mentioned that this is not an entertaining film. It's got a message and it delivers it. The production and cast are very good. But the story and themes are not appealing or uplifting. This is a tragedy, pure and simple. Unlike "American Beauty" or "Jarhead" where the darkness was tempered with humor and inventive fantasy sequences, "Revolutionary Road" is cold and cruel in its approach. The black humor is gone and in all that is left is a movie about a family that is destroyed by themselves and the ideas they feel they must live up to. This is a very sad film, but worth seeing.