Friday, July 21, 2017

Avalanche (1978) – MST3K Review

Summary:

David Shelby (Rock Hudson) has created the ultimate 1970s winter resort, and he is getting ready to show it off to the world. His ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow) arrives to congratulate him on his accomplishment, and he takes it as a sign that she wants to get back together with him. Talk about reading the room wrong. But David’s hot temper and impetuous ways still annoy Caroline. David’s attitude also get’s in the way when Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) shows up to tell him that all the land development has made conditions ripe for a massive avalanche that will destroy the resort!

But David tells Thorne to go suck some eggs and proceeds to party like it is 1978! Well sure enough, heavy snowfall meets out of control airplane and boom you have an avalanche. Who will survive? Who will meet a frozen fate? And who will end up hurtling to the bottom of a gorge and exploding on impact? No, I’m not making this up. Produced by Roger Corman… well that should tell you enough right there.

Movie Review:

The title character makes his big entrance.
Ah, that Roger Corman. He just doesn’t miss a trick does he? Disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake were all the rage 70s. So why not make your own, for a smaller budget of course. Get a couple big name stars to get butts in the seats and make a profit.

Well, the disaster movie craze hit its peak around 1975 or so. By 1978 we were really dredging the bottom of the barrel with this genre when movies like The Swarm bombed in the box office. Avalanche came out the same year, and even with the one-two punch of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow as your main stars, I doubt this movie did very well at all. I don’t think anyone was clamoring for snow based disaster thrills in the post Star Wars world.

That said, just because the movie wasn’t a hit in its time doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, right?

Yeah, this is a bad film. Sorry folks.

"If it ever stops being the '70s, we'll all be in trouble."
What is sad is that you can see Avalanche following the disaster movie tropes with religious fervor. You have your two leads having relationship problems. You spend way too long developing them and a host of other minor characters. This way when the disaster hits, you’ll be involved in their fate and thrill to see if they live or die.

The main problem here is that none of the characters are engaging enough to care about. Sometimes it is the acting. Sometimes it is the writing. Sometimes it is a combination of the two. But I only liked one character in the entire film. The rest were just fodder for the snow and ice to take out.

Now we know what happened to Danny after
the end of Time Travelers!
What lucky character appealed to me? That would be Henry McDade, because I think the character got a raw deal. He spends the bulk of the movie following David’s mother (played with verve by Jeanette Nolan) and trying to keep her out of trouble and from drinking herself into a stupor. That is her main character trait, she drinks a lot and yells “Aloha!” Anyway, McDade is stuck with this woman because David is his boss and David says he has to. I just feel bad for the poor guy. But when the snow hits the fan, McDade actually stays with the old lady and does his best to save her. He shows more compassion than almost anyone else in the movie. And SPOILER ALERT – he survives. Good for him! Maybe I’m also partial to the character because he is played by Steve Franken. We just saw Franken in The Time Travelers as the lab fanboy Danny. Anyway, this simple character is the only one I cared about in Avalanche

This movie came out four months before Ice Castles.
That's Corman for ya!
The rest of them… jeez. There is a jaded skier who hits on underage girls. His “love interest”, I think, is a Dorothy Hamill look alike, who has an obvious skate double. She’s bland. There is another skater who is nervous and keeps botching her routines. Her coach gives her motivational speeches. The meaningful music tells me I’m supposed to care about them. Bland performances and little screen time makes sure I don’t. There is the Television Host who seems like a nice guy for the two minutes we see him. He ends up trapped with small boy on a ski lift. It almost works, but the peril gets neutralized because of obvious stunt doubles and silly camera work. You end up chuckling instead of gasping in horror.

He's even sincere about McDade's goofy hat.
Then there are our three lead characters in Avalanche. The best performance is given by Robert Forester, who is one of those actors who always delivers solid work in just about anything I’ve seen him in (including The Black Hole). The role of Nick Thorne is cliché-ridden and not terribly interesting, but Forester makes the most of it. He is sincere in his conviction that an avalanche in immanent. He is sincere in his attraction to Mia Farrow. He is sincere in his wiliness to help people when the avalanche hits. But he is such a one-note character, it is hard to care about him. Forester does the best he can with a poorly written role.

"You are never going to stop shouting, are you David?"
Mia Farrow on the other hand does not much of anything with a poorly written role. Much like Forster’s character, Caroline doesn’t really have an arc. She shows up at the resort annoyed with David, but she still loves him. It ends with her annoyed with David, but she still loves him. Along the way she says she’s interested in Thorne, but her acting doesn’t show it. She says she may be willing to give David another chance, but her performance says otherwise. Well, that’s not right, her performance is just kinda there. It is tempting to say that Farrow is just there for the paycheck. But I think the role was so boring that she decided not to give too much effort. She has no chemistry with anyone in the “love triangle” and while she has a couple of good moments yelling at David, she doesn’t do much of anything in the story either. She’s just there because we needed a woman in the “love triangle” that goes nowhere.

David in a rare moment of not shouting.
Rock Hudson takes the opposite approach. I get the feeling that Hudson read the script to Avalanche and liked that he wasn’t playing the nice guy for once. David is an egotistical jerk, who places his desires over everyone’s safety. He even endangers his own (drunken) mother. I can see Hudson liking that aspect of the role. I can also see him reading it and realizing how stupid the whole thing was. So instead of just playing low key, he goes big and broad. Hudson rants and raves. He snarls and barks. He is a complete asshole to just about everyone else in the film. He does it so well that you pretty much want him to suffer a humiliating death by snow boulder. I’ve never seen Hudson play this kind of role this broadly before. On the one hand it is fun to watch. But in the service to the film, it just doesn’t work. I think we are supposed to feel some kind of catharsis that he gets what he deserves at the end. He does seem a little subdued at the end, but the crushing reality that his actions have killed his mother, dozens of people and destroyed his dream for the resort just seem to be given a “oh well, that sucks” feel from the tone of the ending.

Much like this review, Avalanche spends way too much time going on and on about these flat characters before any hint of disaster appears. But when the avalanche arrives, about 55 minutes into the movie, it delivers some thrills, right? Well, kinda sorta. For the budget and knowing this is a Corman production it works out Ok. Lots of scenes feature super imposed ice/snow visuals over people flailing about. That provides some unintentional laughs. The disaster on the ice rink and the whole thing that happens in the kitchen are laugh out loud ridiculous looking.

Um, should we be watching this?
The most thrilling sequences of disaster are the ski lift rescue and unearthing David’s mother and McDade from the encased dining room. The ski lift has a pretty good build up to the final rescue. The whole thing gets more and more unstable as the news anchor and the kid hang on for dear life. There is electricity in play, and the fire department has trouble getting to them. It’s edited a bit clumsily, but it gets the job done. And since I actually liked McDade (and I admit the drunken mother was kind of likable too) I wanted to know what would happen to them.

Avalanche also tries to have a message about the media not caring about people, but doing anything for the story. The camera crew doesn’t try to help the news anchor and the child. They just stand there and film it, wanting to catch the moment they fall or get electrocuted. There is also a message about harming the environment, and letting greed and ego get in the way of compassion. It is all heavy handed, and doesn’t really go anywhere. I guess it is supposed to add some kind of depth to the film, but it just feels like padding to a movie that feels way too long already.

And then 1978 smacks you right upside the head!
For me that is the biggest crime Avalanche commits. The movie drags. Not just because of the slower 1970s pacing, but because it wastes over half of its running time on the flat uninteresting characters. They are written and executed so poorly it makes for an uninteresting film. You can’t wait for the snow to start falling. The movie picks up when the disaster finally hits, but so much of the entertainment comes from the hilariously bad special effects and over the top acting that you are laughing at the movie, not thrilling to it.

Yes, Avalanche is a disaster of a movie. But is it a disaster that Jonah and the Bots are ready to take on?

Episode Review:

Looks refreshing.
I don’t think Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever tackled a straight up disaster film before. The closest we got was the wonderfully hilarious San Francisco International, which was a 1970s television pilot filled to bursting with past their prime actors spouting out over-ripe dialogue and providing thrills on the tarmac. The movie was a perfect fit for riffing and it remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire series.

So Avalanche has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, things just don’t work out so well this time around. That doesn’t mean that Jonah and the bots aren’t giving it their all, because they really are.

"Old man Peabody used to own all this..."
For those first 55 minutes or so, they riff away at the movie as best as they are able too. So much of the film deals with silly melodrama and talky scenes with Rock Hudson shouting at everyone that it was a bit of a struggle to keep things fresh. Jonah and the bots focus on the ripe dialogue and over baked performances.

And don’t worry they don’t go for any overly nasty pokes at Rock Hudson. There are a couple of subtle riffs playing off his lifestyle, but they focus more on his ranting and 70’s outfits. I will admit that MST3K has gone for the nasty jokes about celebrities in the past. Bela Lugosi’s drug problems played into quite a few riffs in Bride of the Monster and in the Rifftrax commentary for Plan 9 From Outer Space they went overboard (and Lugosi is hardly in the film). So it is nice to see Jonah and the crew not taking that tactic this time out. Keep it classy guys.

Jonah and the bots get their groove on too!
Since Avalanche falls smack dab in the midst of the disco era, and we have a party scene you get some of the best riffing during that sequence. As the scene starts Jonah say, “1978 you have so many crimes to answer for.” Tom adds, “We have an avalanche of polyester on the dance floor tonight.” As the Baked Alaska desserts are brought out the boys throw several funny quips at the oddity of the whole scene.

Crow says, “Not that I’m complaining, but by this time Gene Hackman was half way through the Poseidon.” And you are really starting to agree with him, when the avalanche hits. You get some unusual POV shots from the avalanche to which Crow comments “The Avalanche has a Go Pro on.” The disaster provides so much fodder for Jonah and the bots that they go into overdrive.

"You see when a man loves a tree very much..."
Seriously the quips come so fast and furious that you do end up missing quite a few of them. There is some great material in there from the kitchen cheerleader to the observation from Tom that “He fell in slow motion and they still couldn’t catch him?” It is a shame the riffing goes so quickly that it gets tangled up in itself. Luckily this is the last episode to really have this problem. From The Beast of Hollow Mountain forward, the riffing hits the perfect pace.

One more thing to look for at the end of Avalanche is a hilarious series of quips from Jonah and the bots as they pretend to write up reviews for David’s resort in Trip Advisor. These are all very funny, and the boys do a great job delivering them as the meaningful music plays in the finale.

If Neil Simon wrote the next Fast and Furious film.
The host segments are OK, with one stand out sequence. For the invention exchange the bots create a cool new Dustbuster that uses the human mouth as it’s suction device. Jonah gets a bunch of stuff caught in his “filter”. The Mads create a program that will create an instant font and look for your movie poster. All you have to do is say the title. The system is super sensitive, so it starts to pick up the Mad’s conversation with amusing results. At the first break the bots are convinced that the loud and pushy Rock Hudson is cool, so they try to emulate him. Jonah talks them down. Then it is time for our special guest as Neil Patrick Harris shows up as Kinga’s online boyfriend. The two sing a duet about how they are in love but don’t want to actually touch each other. Patton Oswald as Max steals the show as he pines for Kinga with his own little interlude.

I think I would pay to see Rabbitoxicity.
But my favorite of the host segments is inspired by a riff during the film. The boys come up with Syfy channel original movie title and realize that those ridiculous MegaShark versus Crocosquid movies need to stop. So they create a whole bevy of titles and trademark all of them so Syfy channel can’t make them. These are hilarious, and the amount of titles they come up with is impressive. Kinga and Max try their hand at a few too. When the movie ends Gypsy comes down to provide some songs and entertainment inspired by the boozy performance of David’s mom in the film. Her music touches everyone, even Kinga.

Like the previous episodes in Season 11, this one is entertaining, but it just doesn’t go much further than that. The movie’s first half is so dull, and the guys do the best job they can. The second half overwhelmed with the rapid-fire riffs that you get lost in all the jokes. With some pruning of the riffs in the second half this could have risen a full grade.

But as it stands I can only give it three kitchen cheerleaders out of five.


This episode is available on the Netflix Streaming.

"Dear Trip Advisor, I found a cheerleader in my salad and
the dressing was not on the side. 1 1/2 stars."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

And Then This Happened... Avalanche

Winter sports can be fun for just about everyone. Of course you need the right equipment for them. Luckily the gent in this picture is one of the best skiers in the country (at least according to the film). So that means he not only possesses the right equipment (sponsored by Schlitz of all things), but he is also very skilled. That must also go along with his ability to escape deadly ice and snow from avalanches!

This picture comes from the Roger Corman disaster epic, Avalanche. Time to give our olympic hopeful the caption he deserves.

And then this happened...


Friday, July 14, 2017

Anime Juke Box - No Need for Promises - The Vision of Escaflowne

Been a while since the old Anime Juke Box has spun some j-pop for you. I was going through some of my older anime soundtracks and ran into all three of the wonderful CDs for Vision of Escaflowne. The music was co-composed by wonder woman Yoko Kanno and her husband at the time Hajime Mizoguchi. The score is one of her most bombastic orchestral powerhouses, with amazing action cues, sweeping romance and gothic horror. It works well in the series and is always a treat to listen to.

But Kanno's skills go well beyond her ability to compose for orchestra. She almost always writes the opening and ending pop/rock songs for the anime series she works on. Vision of Escaflowne is no exception. She gets the series started with this cheerful number called No Need for Promises. Like most J-pop of the 90s it is perky, happy, and well produced. Kanno has a thing for using bagpipes in her 90s scores and songs, so you get an interlude with them here too.

Perhaps the biggest thing about this song is that Kanno got the voice actress playing the main role of Hitomi to sing the song. The actress's name is Maaya Sakamoto, and this song launched her successful singing career at the tender age of 16. Kanno and Sakamoto worked on many projects afterward, with Kanno even writing the songs for an entire album of Sakamoto's songs. Both women are still hard at work in the world of film and anime music to this day. So here is where it all began with No Need for Promises from Vision of Escaflowne, written by Yoko Kanno and sung by Maaya Sakamoto.



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Doctor Strange (2016)

Introduction:

I’ll admit, I’ve lost track of all the Marvel movies lately. But the concept of Doctor Strange sounded like a good one. It goes into an angle of mysticism you don’t see explored in too many big budget movies. I heard the fantastic score by Michael Giacchino. Oh and let’s face it, my wife is a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, so we were going to see this movie no matter what.

Summary:

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an egotistical but very skilled surgeon. When he ends up in a car accident he loses all steadiness in his hands. Feeling like his life is pretty much over unless he can heal his digits, Strange embarks on a journey to Nepal where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who says she can help him, help himself.

Little does Strange know that his keen mind allows him to access and adapt to the mystical secrets of the universe – becoming a true master of magic. Just n time too, because Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is looking to use a key relic to unleash hell on earth. Now it is up to Doctor Strange to use his newfound powers, magic cape and quick wits to save the world.

Good Points:
  • Some very impressive visual effects that really help develop the key concepts
  • Creates an intriguing world and conflict at the heart of the film
  • Solid acting by the entire cast

Bad Points:
  • The character arc for Doctor Strange is overly familiar – see Iron Man
  • You’ve got Mads Mikkelsen – why aren’t you using him better?
  • Fans of Inception may cry foul at some of the visual effects

Overall:

Like most of the Marvel movies this one is a lot of fun. Visually it is stunning with some of the best visual effects I’ve seen in a long time. The film also creates a very strong concept of magic and mysticism and uses it to flesh out an interesting conflict among the characters. Sad to say the story arc for Doctor Strange himself is a well traveled one. Cumberbatch’s charisma and acting keep it interesting. But then you have Mikkelsen, a very strong actor, who is given a very flat antagonist role. I enjoyed the film, but it felt like it had the potential to be something a bit better.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals:  5
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script:  3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

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


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Friday, July 7, 2017

Chopping Mall (1986)

Introduction:

Ok, it is called Chopping Mall, it was made in the 80s and the VHS box cover art had a severed head in a shopping bag. How the heck was I supposed to resist that? Well, I never did get around to watching it back in the day. But when I saw it available for streaming I knew my quest for a cheesy movie to watch that weekend was at an end. But was I going to regret this little trip to the mall?

Summary:

Mall security could use an upgrade and why not look to some A.I. to help out. Sounds good until a freak storm causes the programming for the three robotic mall cops to go on a killing spree. These guys are bullet proof, have the ability to electrocute victims and shoot sleeping darts. Oh, and since this is the 80s they can also shoot multi-colored energy beams from their eyes. If you happen to be a topless teen this will make your head explode. No, I’m not kidding.

Speaking of teens, some employees at a furniture store decide to stay after hours and have a sex party. There are the goody goody ones that don’t even kiss, so you know they will live. But the rest are all fodder for the rampaging robots. Keep your eyes open for scream queen Barbara Crampton and everyman Dick Miller as they try to survive a night in the Chopping Mall.

Good Points:
  • Packed the brim with 80s clothing, lingo, hair and robots – 80s ROBOTS!
  • Starts with an interesting premise and some hints at amusing parody
  • Some of the kills are pretty graphic and entertaining

Bad Points:
  • Never commits to scares or laughs and ends up doing neither
  • Runs out of steam about halfway through due to the uninteresting characters
  • Didn’t use the mall to the full advantage (probably for budget reasons)

Overall:

This could have been better all the way around. It isn’t scary. It isn’t all that funny. But it hints at trying to do both. The characters are paper-thin and do some really stupid things (par the course for this type of movie). And while it was neat to see the same mall from Commando again, they just didn’t do too much with it, probably for fear of property damage. That said the 80s robots are fun in a retro way, and some of the kills and strategies to stop the robots are clever. Fans of cheesy films will get a kick out of the all out 80s onslaught. But this is more of a rental than a hidden gem.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

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


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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Movie Music Musings: The Goldsmith Award 2011

It wasn't just animation, it was motion capture based animation, so that made it even more expensive than a typical animated feature. Add to that the simple fact that whenever someone talks about these types of animated films like The Polar Express or Beowulf or the 2009 version of The Christmas Carol, they usually use the world "creepy looking" in there somewhere. I'm not sure that a budget of 150 million was ever going to see any profit.

But Robert Zemeckis was obsessed with getting this motion capture animation to take off. Mars Needs Moms was such a bomb it pretty much ended that idea. The film came out before Spielberg's Adventures of Tin Tin, but that superior film got tainted and that seems to be last of that odd animation experiment. Most motion capture animation remains in the realm of video games.

All that said, Mars Needs Moms may have been a bomb (and a half) but the score isn't. John Powell composed a fun and exciting score. It is what he does best and animation really seems to ignite his creative powers. His scores for the two How to Train Your Dragon films are some of the best of the decade. Mars Needs Moms is right behind them, with lots of orchestral color and energy.

So enjoy the end credits suite to Mars Needs Moms by John Powell. No creepy dead eyed characters shown here. :)


Friday, June 30, 2017

The Time Travelers (1964) – MST3K Review

Summary:

Three scientists are working on a window that will allow them to view events across time. So far they haven’t been very successful, and their funding is going to be cut off. Steve Connors (Philip Carey) decides to crank the power up to 11 for a final try. Dr. Steiner (Preston Foster) and Carol White (Merry Anders) aren’t as keen on the idea but go along with it. They experiment works… kind off. The resident lab groupie, Danny (Steve Franken) discovers that the working window isn’t a window at all, but a door. And because of the extra power boost they are looking nearly 100 years in the future.

Due to series of events, our three scientists and Danny go through the doorway and end up stranded in the future, which is a grim place. World war has destroyed the earth’s surface and only mutants survive. Underground is a group of advanced humans lead by Dr. Varno (John Hoyt) who are constructing a rocket to take them away from earth. They use some seriously creepy looking androids to help build the rocket and fight off the mutants. You see, resources on earth are nearly depleted and the mutants don’t want to be left behind. Can our Time Travelers figure out a way to avoid mutant attacks, return to the 60s and make sure this future never happens?

Movie Review:

Your lab coats won't save you now!
Every once in a while Mystery Science Theater 3000 finds a movie for riffing fodder that is not all that bad. In fact, I would say that Time Travelers is a lot of fun all the way around without the riffing. If you’ve never seen it before you may find yourself being pulled into the twisted time travel adventure and miss half the  riffs that Jonah and bots launch.

Written and directed by Ib Melchior, this man helped bring Reptilicus to the screen. But Melchior brings a bit more to the table when it comes to the script for this film. In Reptilicus he was tied to the typical giant monster movie tropes, but here he can play with time travel and the impacts on the travelers themselves.

Which one of you fluxed the capacitor?
While the characters in Time Travelers aren’t terribly engaging or well developed, the plight they find themselves in is interesting. These are your typical scientist types. Foster plays the older wiser scientist. Conners is the younger hot head who doesn’t play the by the rules. And Anders is… well she’s the girl. I guess we should just be happy that they have a female scientist at all in a 1964 film. But don’t expect her to actually contribute too much to the technical parts of the plot. She’s mostly around to make observations on the future culture and be saved by Steve.

Danny is the everyman character. He spends most of his time in the future with his mouth hanging open and hitting on the future ladies. Franken plays him a little broadly, but that is par the course for a movie like this. He adds a bit of levity to the scenes with some wry comments and bad pick up lines.

In the future everyone has a gaggle of creepy androids
following along behind them... um... yay?
Where Time Travelers ends up shining is as we explore the futuristic society. The way the humans have adapted using the androids (ignoring how darn creepy those things look) as a slave workforce and army is interesting. It allows the scientists and technicians to focus on working on the rocket. But it also keeps these greater minds from actually interacting with the dying earth and the mutants directly. These people were made by their situation, but they also perpetuate it by ignoring the plight of mutants and any who are like them. Carol’s compassion toward a partial mutant is looked at as detriment, but we understand how she can feel for those unfortunates.

"Wow, Simon got a lot more complicated."
All technological leaps our heroes see, the oranges that grow instantly, the music/light show, the ability to capture images of distant worlds, is all interesting and I like that the plot spends some time showing us all these elements and allowing our characters to interact and comment on it in some ways. It gives perspectives from both sides of the dilemma.

Time Travelers’ real weakness is mostly due to budget constraints. The concept is solid, but there are some moments where the execution is less because the effects look a bit silly, or the androids are just too darn creepy.

Alas poor Data. I knew him Horatiotron.
Yeah, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room any longer. Are these things supposed to be uncut nightmare fuel? As melty and lumpy as the mutants are, the androids are just wrong with their O shaped mouths, dead eyes and cone heads (inspiration for the Saturday Night Live sketch of the 70s?). They seem helpful enough, but I swear if I caught this film on TV when I was a kid, they would have scarred my psyche for life.

I will admit that the whole sequence in the repair bay is a lot of fun, with solid practical effects and slight of hand to make the whole thing interesting to watch… and then you get another close up of an android face and you run screaming from the room.

Oh wait, is this a Tom Baker episode? Cool!
There are a few bad points. The pacing of the film is on the slow side, but that is more a relic of the time it was made. For a scientist film made in the 1960s it actually moves along pretty well. Some of the sets look a little flimsy and the model work for the rocket isn’t all that convincing, but I’m willing to give it all a pass. Time Travelers does such a good job focusing on crafting a solid sci-fi story and doing it as well as it can, I find it to be a bit charming and entertaining.

Tom gives the rocket a helping hand.
Right up to the ending. The story attempts an interesting twist, something that could have come right out of a Rod Serling script. It will certainly remind some viewers of one of the old Star Trek episodes. But due to some editing on by the crew at MST3k it ends up not making a whole lot of sense. I’ve seen the movie twice and while I appreciate the effort, I’m also not quite sure what the heck happened at the end. Not in a good 2001: A Space Odyssey way, but more in a Starcrash kind of way (but we’ll get to that in good time too).

The Time Travelers is a solid B grade sci-fi adventure, with an engaging story and some fun visuals. Jonah and the bots find plenty to work with, but does this turn out to be too easy of a target for them?

Episode Review:

Take a trip to the uncanny valley... to hell!
When the episode ended my wife turned to me and said that the whole thing reminded her strongly of a Joel/Comedy Central era episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Maybe it was the fact that The Time Travelers feels like it would be something they would watch after The First Spaceship on Venus or even 12 to the Moon. Jonah’s style of riffing certainly feels more like Joel’s easygoing style and less aggressive than Mike’s.

That said, I could see The Time Travelers being a big favorite for anyone who loves a good 50s/60s scientist movie. All the tropes are in full force and Jonah and the bots have a good time with them. For the most part the riffing is solid, although they are still clustering riffs rapidly together at times. This creates some pacing and timing issues that I noticed in all the early episodes of season 11.

"What is he doing the its ro-batch!?"
They do end up picking on the character of Danny quite a bit. I’m not sure the character earns it. He’s kind of annoying but not as aggressively annoying as Paul from Cry Wilderness or Akton from Star Crash. For some reason they go off on him quite a bit. Some of the riffs are funny. I do like when Jonah comments that the scientists should get Danny a Highlights magazine while they do important stuff. Later when they attempt to use a matter transporter device on Danny and he appears in a 2D form Tom says, “He’s more Polaroid than man, twisted and Danny.” Quite a few Star Wars based riffs in this one, especially when Crow does a C-3PO impression during the robot repair bay sequence.

Oranges... OF THE FUTURE!
There are also a lot of fun riffs based on the concept of time travel and how the movie’s script attempts to explain and execute them. Crow takes time to remind Jonah and Tom that he often travels through time at the rate of one hour per hour. Later on when the scientists declare that they have gone over the target time they were aiming for Crow asks, “Do I get paid overtime to go overtime?” When our heroes return to the 60s only to realize they arrived before they actually left Crow asks, “Hey, did the movie just lap itself?” Those are all valid questions.

Are they going to give him a less creepy head?
But my favorite riffing sequence in The Time Travelers takes place during the robot construction sequence. As we take a full tour of the robot repair bay we get a great combination of riffing. On the one hand the disturbing robot faces cause all kinds of hilarious jokes from Jonah and the bots. But then Tom and Crow are intrigued and disturbed by seeing other robots being created. Their reactions are priceless. The sequence only suffers a bit form the speed of the riffing here, I was laughing so much that I missed many jokes even during the second viewing.

"Our oranges have the vodka already inside, so you
don't have to!"
The host segments are right in the middle of the road. It starts with Jonah and the bots playing “Never did I ever…” but the bots take the easy way out with things like “Never did I ever breath oxygen.” During the invention exchange Crow invents the edible silica packet for your snacks. It allows you to do the forbidden act and not die a horrible death. The Mads come up with the After-life alert, modeled off the silly looking medallion from Cry Wilderness. After you die you can contact someone using the After-life alert to ask for help getting to heaven… or the other place. After The Time Travelers in the film ignore safety protocols Crow and Gypsy are concerned that Tom and Jonah may do the same thing. So they create a helpful safety film for them. Jonah and Tom think the whole thing is goofy. At the next break Jonah keeps introducing new robot friends. This enrages Tom and Crow and they destroy them! But Jonah may be doing this on purpose.

A difference of opinion about how to celebrate
200 hilarious episodes.
In the next break we get another guest cameo as Dr. Varno played with gleeful relish by Elliot Kalan. You may recognize Elliot from The Daily Show where he was a writer as well a performer. You also get a chance to see Joel Hodgson out of his Ardy garb and play Larry the orange tree scientist. The two are cruising through space being the party animals they are. They invite Jonah and the bots to come along on their galactic party, but Jonah declines (much to the bots disappointment). When the episode ends Kinga declares it a success and says it is the 200th episode of the series (if you count the KTMA episodes). How time flies when you’re riffing.

Yeah I think the mutants have the right idea.
This is a fun episode with a solid riffing session and a watchable movie. Fans of the classic science fiction episodes featured on older MST3K episodes will find a lot to enjoy here. You really get the feel that The Time Travelers could have appeared on season three or four of the original series. For me, while I had a good time, it didn’t quite hit those high points I was hoping for. The rushed riffing hurt it and the movie’s pacing is on the slower side. As usual, I’ve already run into people that say this is their favorite episode of the season. I can recommend it for sure, but it is not in the top tier.

I give it three dead eyed androids out of five.


This episode is available on the Netflix streaming.

"Doh! How are we supposed to get Back the Future?"

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

And Then This Happened... The Time Travelers

Traveling through time can be a tricky business. There are all those issues with paradoxes and accidentally killing your great grandmother so you are never born. But there are also the dangers of traveling to a time where you are constantly attacked by people who just don't like you. In that case, it is always good to bring gear you may need to defend yourself against such vicious attacks. Of course you may have a Time Lord with you, but that is a whole other Tardis full of fun.

In this case our Time Traveler finds herself the center of some unwanted attention. Time to caption this scene.

And then this happened...


Friday, June 23, 2017

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Introduction:

In an interview with director David Lynch he mentioned that 1992 was probably one of his lowest points of his career. The film he spent so much time and effort on completely bombed with critics and audiences. It wasn’t that people didn’t like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. They HATED it. You read some of the reviews from the time and there is some real anger in those words. People took the film very personally. They were angry at the man who forced them to look into a very disturbing and dark place.

Summary:

When a young woman is murdered in the pacific northwest the FBI sends one of their best agents to investigate… but it is not who you think. Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his partner Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) start to investigate the murder but find that it may be tied to some bizarre happenings that the FBI is already aware of. Before Desmond can make obtain a solid lead he vanishes and the case goes cold.

We then jump forward a year to follow Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) through the final days of her life. Laura is a troubled girl, popular at school and friendly to everyone in Twin Peaks. But she is also addicted to cocaine and will often degrades herself sexually. At home she is being raped by a thing she calls BOB (Frank Silva), who has been abusing her since she was twelve. Laura feels her life burning out of control, especially when she makes a horrifying realization about BOB.  We know how the story ends, and we watch as Laura is consumed by darkness leaving only the words Fire Walk with Me behind.

Good Points:
  • Creates a wonderful tone of mystery in the first third and then delves into a dark atmosphere that is filled with dread
  • Two top notch performances by Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise
  • Filled with layers and themes that build on and enhance the television series

Bad Points:
  • Anyone looking for closure to the television series will be disappointed
  • Anyone looking for some of the fun characters from the series will be disappointed
  • This is a deeply tragic and disturbing film – not a fun time here

Overall:

Judged on its own merits this is one of David Lynch’s best films. His focus on Laura Palmer and her final days is a fascinating and yet horrifying journey to take. He infuses the film with a dread and darkness that goes deeper than many other films because he uses his surreal imagery in a way that words alone can’t touch. The film is a masterpiece of using mood and visuals to create those feelings in the viewer. But it strays far from all the light and fun elements of the television series. If you don’t know that going in, the movie may feel unfair or unwanted. That said, it is nightmare journey that you won’t forget, even if you wanted to.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Laura's final days.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a study of contrasts in nearly all its aspects, including the reaction it elicits in viewers. It is a film that demands that you pay attention to all its details and yet will throw you for a complete loop while you try to make sense of them. It starts one mystery and ends a different one. It delves into horror and despair but ends with Laura smiling and laughing with tears in her eyes. It is familiar and alien together. It is pure David Lynch, but it isn’t what we asked for (even while we were complaining about his absence during season two of the television series).

I could go on like this, but you get the idea.

It is a difficult movie to watch and to examine. But I’m going to give it my best shot and forgive me if I end up rambling or twisting upon myself on a lost highway somewhere. That kind of thing happens when you discuss David Lynch.

Foreshadowing the fate of Laura.
Let’s take a look at the first part of the film, the one that may feel the most like Twin Peaks as we understood it from the television series. The film opens with what looks like a brutal attack and then cuts to a body floating in a river wrapped in plastic. We are immediately reminded of the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on the shore of a river near Pete Martell’s (Jack Nance) place. But the titles on the screen tell us that this is Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley).

Those with a keen memory to the first episode of the television’s series will remember that the murder of Teresa Banks was the case that Agent Cooper connected to the murder of Laura Palmer, leading him to believe this may be the start of a serial killing.

Sam is skeptical about his coffee.
But Fire Walk with Me gives us Agent Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley as investigators on the case. Desmond seems to be much like Cooper with a more instinctual approach to investigation. But Stanley seems to be the complete opposite Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) who’s acerbic and cynical approach in the television series was a treat. Instead Stanley often seems confused, obsessed with strange details and even a little slow to catch on to what is happening around him.

David Bowie arrives and it gets weird!
This twist continues with the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks. The town is like a bizarro-world version of Twin Peaks. The Sheriff and his staff are rude, mocking and openly resistant to working with the FBI. Hap’s Diner looks run down and owner is surly compared to the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, which always looks immaculate, and Norma (Peggy Lipton) was always helpful and had a smile for anyone who walked in.

A dirty callback to the little man in the dream.
In fact there is very little beauty in this first portion of the film. Most of what we see of the small town looks run down, filled with junk heaps and dirt. The R.V. Park where we meet the bitter and angry Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton having a good old time in the part) just looks so damn seedy. It is almost as if Lynch is going out of his way to make this look as far from Twin Peaks as possible.

But there is one element that does fit in the first third of the film, the mystery. Lynch follows Desmond and Stanley on their investigation giving us strange clues and pouring on those atmospheric touches that hint at further twisting paths in the depths of this world. Desmond becomes convinced that a ring that Teresa Banks had in a photo is a key clue. His search for the ring leads directly to his disappearance. And that ring plays a key symbolic role in Fire Walk with Me.

"Don't know where. Don't know when."
The first portion concludes with Agent Cooper discussing a dream with his supervisor Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his amusing character form the television series) and partner Rosenfeld. Suddenly a missing agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie in a short cameo) appears and tells a strange tale that we only hear fragments of. Jeffries was investigating something that is tied directly to Banks case (and eventually tied to Laura Palmer’s case as well). Cooper tries to track down Desmond’s last movements and becomes convinced that the killer will strike again.

This first third of the film feels almost like it is coming from another movie or television series focused entirely on the FBI cases surrounding the supernatural events around Twin Peaks. I really like the way it plays out, feeling off kilter enough to be tied to the same world, but also weaving a new mystery and building on a bigger picture. The moods that Lynch captures here are ones of mystery and the uncanny. Watching it now, I kind of wish the move continued along these lines, with Agent Cooper attempting to find out more about these connections and how they play into the mystery of BOB and his unusual pals who live above the convince store.

The lady with the blue rose.
I’ve read that if Fire Walk with Me was a success that Lynch wanted to create more films that followed the FBI cases and delved deeper into these “Blue Rose” cases (what I assume are Agent Coles’ version of the X-files). Sadly the film bombed and Lynch never got a chance to delve into this aspect of the film. But as it stands, it makes for an intriguing 30 minutes of viewing.

But it really is a prelude to the main story: the decay and death of Laura Palmer. That is the black heart of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and something that was also at the heart of the show. It is the portion of the film that remains longest in the memory because of the horror it delves into and the performances by the main characters in this tragic tale.

Can't you just hear the music?
Visually we are back in Twin Peaks proper. All the dust and rust of the first third of the film are replaced by the familiar suburban bliss from the television series. Favorite locales like the high school, the Double R Diner and the street in front of the Palmer home all make appearances. We also glimpse the pressure cooker on the inside of that same home, the foreboding woods outside the town and of course the Red Room where little men dance and speak backwards. It wouldn’t be Twin Peaks without that.

Moira Kelly dopplegangs Donna.
While the familiar strains of Badalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks plays, and reassures us that we are back in a comfort zone, the film refuses to give us any comfort. The first third of the film had some of that absurd humor that Lynch loves so much, but even that was on the subtle side (for Lynch anyway). Once we get to Twin Peaks itself, the humor is gone. Even when the Log Lady makes an appearance, she is solemn, almost acting as a priestesses giving Laura some kind of absolution.

It is difficult to talk about this portion of the film without some major spoilers so I’m warning you now, going forward I’m going to assume you’ve seen the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and know who killed Laura Palmer. Ok, you still here? Let’s go.

Lounging and daydreaming.
Lynch has said in interviews that what drew him to make Fire Walk with Me was the chance to see Laura Palmer alive, instead of just hearing about her from friends and family and finding out about her secrets through the lens of Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman. The first scenes featuring Laura show us at her most vibrant, meeting up with Donna (now played by Moira Kelly adding a strange surreal twist to the film and visually tying to the doppelganger concept of the final episode of season two) and going to school. In fact almost all those scenes at school show us the façade of Laura Palmer and the cracks showing underneath. Lynch doesn’t waste any time delving into the darkness of Laura as she sneaks into the bathroom for a quick snort of coke.

Laura sees the man who is the mask.
Right there the movie lays the cards on the table. The mystery of Laura Palmer was going to be revealed, all of it in unflinching detail. We see her drug addiction, her sexual debasement, her rape by BOB, and under all of it the young girl who is sinking under all the darkness within her. This is Sheryl Lee’s performance becomes crucial. If she didn’t convince us, then the movie falls apart. But Lee goes all in with her performance. It is hard to watch her at times because the pain and fear look so real. She’s said that she loved the final result of her performance, but that making the film was a very difficult experience. It comes across in this powerful performance, and gets right to the heart of what Lynch wants to explore in the film.

Matching her is Ray Wise playing her father Leland Palmer. Wise did a very fine job in the television series as he took the journey from grieving father, to vengeful killer, to shattered man and finally to a broken wreck of a human begging for absolution from Agent Cooper as he dies knowing that he murdered his own daughter.

Ray Wise makes this scene very uncomfortable.
In Fire Walk with Me Wise captures the two sides of Leland Palmer, the protective but loving father and the predatory beast that controls his house with fear and oppression. There is a powerful scene where Leland verbally abuses and intimidates Laura at the dinner table. Wise is disturbing in this sequence, his eyes burning with a mixture of animal lust and aggression as he berates Laura and manhandles her in front of his wife. In a scene that follows we see him in his bedroom with his wife, and that aggression melts away and the realization of what he did and said comes across his face. The horror and anguish is palatable as he goes to Laura and apologizes to her. Wise’s performance is pitch perfect, and just adds to the horror of the situation.

But what is the situation. You can debate it forever, and Lynch never gives a solid answer. Is Leland Palmer a mentally unstable man, who descends into rages that cause him to rape his daughter and drive him to kill? Was this persona of BOB something that Laura constructed subconsciously so she could deal with the abuse going on at home? Or is Leland a victim too, controlled by the malevolent force that is BOB to do these unspeakable acts?

If a little man from another place offers you a ring...
Do. Not. Take. It!
Lynch has said that BOB and many of the characters like him in his other films (the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, the cowboy in Mulholland Drive to name a couple) are “abstractions”. He doesn’t ever clarify what that means exactly, but I feel that they are physical manifestations of emotions and thoughts projected out from the characters. These abstractions seem to feed on and build more of the same emotions. Are they actual characters in themselves? Hard to say. When it comes to Twin Peaks, it does seem like these abstractions have a life of their own and can exist outside of the human characters.

BOB hangs up his mask.
In the series it is implied that BOB has attached himself to Leland for many years, and we see that dark side very clearly in Fire Walk with Me. It is very possible that BOB saw the potential for these acts in a young Leland and has been nurturing them over time. But the horror is that you can’t have one with out the other. Leland is BOB on some level and BOB is a part of Leland. Yes BOB rapes and murders Laura, but so does Leland. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to absolve Leland for his actions and blame it all on BOB.

The other piece of the puzzle that comes across several times in the dialogue is that BOB wants to take Laura as his next host. He’s grown tired or indulging Leland’s dark side and he want to taste that darkness as Laura. What we see of Laura in this film we understand how that darkness manifests within her. If BOB was to take and augment that further… I shudder to think.

Last Log Lady Rites.
Laura fears this above everything else. That fear is what drives her in most of the film. It is why she struggles so violently in her life. She tries to do good deeds, like work on the Meals on Wheels project. She’s a model citizen in Twin Peaks and everyone loves her. But in her mind that mask is slipping and once her defenses break she will become BOB’s new toy.

The real sadness of the film is watching her fall further and further into despair. No matter what she does it only seems to make things worse. She falls further and further into the darkness and this only make BOB hunger for her more. Self destruction seems to be the only way to truly escape from all of this.

No angel can save Laura now.
Fire Walk with Me ends as it must, with Laura being brutally murdered by her father/BOB. She won’t let BOB in, and in his rage he destroys her. Laura is hopeless as she dies, with the visual motif of guardian angels vanishing from her sight implying the finality of her fate. It’s a crushing sequence that Lee and Wise play so well, but as with much of the film, it is difficult to watch such a bitter and dark climax.

Then there is the epilogue in the Red Room, with Laura and Agent Cooper talking. She seems to have reached some kind of acceptance of what happened to her, and at that moment the angel reappears before her, and she laughs and cries at the same time. You can read this ending in so many ways, as a final bleak FUCK YOU to Laura or as a bit of hope that her soul and her life were not wasted. I’m sure if you asked Lynch, he’d be more interested in your interpretation of the ending then telling you anything about it himself.

Blue Laura laughing in the Red Room.
I’ve only focused on the main conflict and relationship in Fire Walk with Me, but there are plenty of other interesting elements to dive into. Hell I could write another ten pages or so about the other abstractions in the film, the interplay between Laura and her peers, the way her mother relates to the events in the film and how Teresa Banks plays into the whole thing. I could go into some of the production problems Lynch faced (including cast members that didn’t want to come back and footage that was shot but never used). I could also go into how those production issues forced Lynch to make some very creative and interesting solutions that impact the film overall. But as interesting as all those rabbit holes are (and their fascinating imagery too) they serve to support the focus on Laura’s final desperate battle.

Your abstractions just arrived.
I think that Fire Walk with Me represents a major turning point in David Lynch’s approach to storytelling. In nearly all his films afterward (with the exception being The Straight Story) Lynch tells his stories out of narrative order, allowing the emotions of the characters to dictate the flow of the film and often manifest as abstractions. We see elements of these in his previous films, but Fire Walk with Me feels like the first complete manifestation of this approach to storytelling, and it may be his most approachable of those types of films. It is certainly the least oblique, which is saying something.

"Fire... walk... with... me... ME!"
But I wouldn’t recommend this film to a Lynch neophyte. While it is a prequel to Twin Peaks to really appreciate the full impact of the film, you need to watch the first two seasons of the show. And obviously even those who have watched the series ended up disliking the film.

I can see why. In many ways it feels like a harsh slap in the face. The movie is aggressive in its approach to the darkness of the soul. It is also aggressive in its use of symbolism and abstractions. It never tells its story simply or in clear terms. It focuses on mood and atmosphere as much as narrative. It can feel insane, pretentious and just plain pointless.

Fire Walk with Me is not a fun movie to watch. It is heartbreaking and painful. As you unwrap its secrets you see more darkness in the core, and yet it is still beguiling. That is the magic of Lynch’s skill in the filmmaking. If you are in tune with how he tells stories, then the film is a journey worth taking again and again. It is fascinating and horrifying all together, just like Laura Palmer.

The angel returns.
In the scope of the Twin Peaks saga it is an essential tale, that adds to the world crafted in the television series. If a fan of the television show can get past the initial slap in the face, they will find plenty to explore. In the scope of Lynch’s films, this may be one of his best all around productions. Personally I enjoy the ride along the Lost Highway a bit more, but I can’t deny that the emotional impact of Fire Walk with Me may be his most effective.


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Laura lost.