Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reptilicus (1961) – MST3K Review

Summary:

While drilling for minerals in the hinterlands of Denmark, Svend (Bent Mejding) and his crew come upon some strange flesh and blood on the drill bit. Quickly a scientific team consisting of Dr. Dalby (Povl Woldike) and Professor Martens (Asbjorn Andersen) arrive and declare that the flesh is from a frozen and preserved prehistoric reptile of enormous size. They remove the tail portion and take it back to a top-secret lab to run a series of experiments on it.

Because this is a monster movie they discover that the reptile flesh can regenerate, and soon they have a giant prehistoric creature growing in front of them. That is always a great situation, right? Well soon enough the creature reveals that if’s flesh is harder than stone, it can spit acid and has a taste for human flesh! Worse, it escapes from the lab and starts terrorizing Denmark and making a beeline to Copenhagen! The UN swoops in, but the real danger becomes apparent. If you blow up the creature, all those little parts can regenerate into new large creatures. Is there any hope for humanity against the terror of Reptilicus?

Movie Review:

"Could you check my teeth. I think I got a little
Danish stuck in there. HA! I kill me!"
Another film in the long line of Godzilla imitators, this time Denmark wanted a piece of the action. Where does this fall in the scope of movies that span from Gorgo to Gamera? Well maybe somewhere on the lower end of things. But any fan of monster movies is going to find plenty to enjoy here. Let’s dive in and see what Reptilicus has to offer.

The film follows all the traditional monster movie beats. The monster is discovered, and examined by scientists. The monster suddenly explodes from its hiding spot and rampages around. The military steps in and tries to stop it but fails miserably. After a major metropolis is devastated, someone (usually the bland hero) comes up with an idea to take down the beast. There is more destruction but the monster is defeated. But we all know that it will return in the sequel.

Holy... did I just see that?
Sorry, but no sequel to Reptilicus.

What is strange that is that even though the film hits all the story points you expect it doesn’t really make them terribly interesting. Typical of this type of movie, lots of time is spent with the humans talking about the monster, and not as much time spent with the creature. If your characters aren’t interesting then you’re going to have a problem.

Well most of the conversation is between Dr. Dalby and Professor Martens, and those two don’t exactly light up the room with energy or excitement. Mostly they are earnest and thoughtful. To compliment them you’ve got our youthful Svend, who doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s just the younger guy in the cast and helps the army with some ideas. But since he is pretty much a foreman for a drilling operation, his expertise in prehistoric reptiles is limited.

I think Karen may be more interested in Svend than
Reptilicus will ever be.
If you want cute girls, the movie has them too. Professor Martens has two lovely daughters Lise (Ann Smyrner) the wise one and Karen (Mimi Heinrich) the flirty one. They wander in and out of the movie to provide some cute commentary and make googly eyes as Svend. But they really don’t do too much else. There is also Dr. Connie Miller (Marlies Behrens) who is sent by the UN to um… do something… She hangs around with the General quite a bit, so there is that.

Yeah the General is one of the most colorful characters in the film. Played by Carl Ottosen he actually almost has a character arc. He arrives in Copenhagen from the U.S. and is bored and feels useless. But when things get crazy he steps into action. Ottosen actually tries to make his character go from confident to disturbed to resigned. He is doing his best, but man, Reptilicus is one hell of an adversary. Even dubbed, it’s a decent performance.

Oh the hilarity that is about to ensue... not really.
Then you get the comic relief character of Petersen played by Dirch Passer who is kind of like Denmark’s version of Jerry Lewis. He plays a Danish hick who is hired to keep watch of the top-secret lab at night. He mugs a lot, says stupid things and generally makes a nuisance out of himself. The character doesn’t have much going on and vanishes about three quarters of the way through the film. Passer may have been a comic genius of his time, but his work in Reptilicus isn’t very funny at all. Luckily he isn’t in too much of the film.

"You seen Smaug around here? He owes me
5 gold pieces."
I see you over there staring at me and demanding to know more about our title monster. Ok, you asked for it. He’s completely and totally goofy. Nothing about him is intimidating. He looks to be marionette controlled, and this renders his movement wobbly and inconstant. You begin to doubt that the poor creature is going to remain upright much less destroy anything. Beyond bobbing around on the screen, he doesn’t have a lot of motion in his face. Instead the filmmakers rely on some really hilarious visual effects to create the slime blast the creature creates. Supposedly this stuff is like acid, but we never get a good look at the destructive properties, the screen gets some animated green ooze across it and then we move on.

Mostly Reptilicus is scary because he destroys model buildings. Nothing wrong with that, it is a staple of Godzilla films down through the ages. But the ones used in this film seem less convincing and intricate as the ones used by the Japanese monster movie masters. Instead you just chuckle at how silly the whole thing looks. My favorite moments are when Reptilicus looks like he is stuck behind some kind of model work and can’t move. Oh, and those green slime sequences are bad movie gold. When he finally eats someone, that is worth the price of admission. One of the most mind blowing special effects I’ve seen in a movie of this type – I’m not exaggerating.

Didn't Fred Flintstone eat these?
The rest of the production elements aren’t bad. The music is a bit over done, but does its best to build tension and thrills. The sound effects work fine enough. All the army footage has some punch to it. It looks like they really had full-blown military participation for the movie, not just stock footage. So some of it is kind of impressive. But the best scenes are the ones where hundreds of Danes are running in terror down the street or away form the beach. You can tell they really got people to go for it in this. One sequence blew my mind, where actual stuntmen are jumping and falling off an enormous bridge in Copenhagen. You can tell they are real people taking the plunge. Wow! I’m sure Reptilicus wouldn’t eat them after seeing that stunt work.

Crowds not seen since the Beatles were in town.
The movie has solid direction. The camerawork is functional. The sequences with the monster appear to use a different film stock, and those scenes look really beat up for some reason. But everything else looks pretty good. It’s well lit and framed. Not amateur hour like Manos: The Hands of Fate or even Samurai Cop.

In the end, the movie is almost entertaining. Since is follows such familiar plot points, and the characters are so bland you are never really engaged in all the human activity in the first half of the film. But once Reptilicus breaks out of the lab, the fun begins. The monster is so silly looking, the visual effects are so unconvincing, and the impressive spectacle of the army, stunt work and running masses make things pick up quite a bit. A solid watch for fans of dubbed monster movies, just don’t expect Godzilla. This is more like Gamera vs. Gaos territory, but without the blood fountain. All told, this may be a perfect introduction to Jonah and the bots tackling the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s historic eleventh season.

Episode Review:

"Photo-bomb!"
If you jump in your time machine and travel back to 2010 and ask me if I think Mystery Science Theater 3000 will ever return to television, or get rebooted or anything like that, and I’d shake my head sadly and say “Not a chance”.  In my mind the show was fragment of an era that was gone. With YouTubers doing their own riffing (including the hilarious Josh Way over at Fun with Shorts) and the alums of the show working on Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic it just never seemed in the cards. Besides, who could take that concept of low budget show riffing bad movies with puppet robots and make it work in this day and age.

Well the answer was simple, the creative mind behind the concept, Joel Hodgeson. Through a mixture of passion, marketing savvy and a lot of fans like me, he got one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns funded, hell, it was overfunded. His target was to create 12 new episodes, but the stretch goal of 14 episodes (including a Christmas special) was reached. It was a resounding success for everyone involved.

A new door sequence gives us peak into Jonah's
living quarters and robot repair bay.
But then came the months of waiting, as the show went through preproduction, production and postproduction, not to mention shopping it around to networks who could show the episodes.  Other key participants like Shout! Factory who have been doing amazing work with the MST3K DVD and Bluray releases were also involved. It was agony and ecstasy to see the whole thing coming together. Because, as I’m sure you are all too aware, this is my favorite television series of all time. It is a friend I turn to when I need a laugh. It is part of my lexicon and even forms part of a secret language I have with my wife. I can quote riffs from the show that fit the current situation and she can respond in kind. It is scary and maybe a little sad, but MST3K is really a big part of who I am.

So I was trying to stay optimistic and was also nervous. Because I was one of those Star Wars fans who lived and breathed the original trilogy and then lived in denial of how bad The Phantom Menace really was for a couple years. The eventual disappointment left scars. And sad to say, I try not to get invested in pop culture to that extent too much any more. I avoid hype and excitement and try to judge things as cold as I can.

Gypsy pops into the theater and throws a couple
of riffs at the film too.
But this was MST3K and I put in my cash to help bring it back. So it was really hard to be objective. And to be honest, I still might not be there yet. As of this writing, I’m not quite half way through the new season, so I can’t really give a full retrospective of it. But I can say that the show does aim for the right target, and I think for the most part it succeeds.

I’m off track here, but I also wanted to give a bit of context about Season 11 and why I’m writing about it. But if you want to know more about Reptilicus as an episode, well here we go.

Not only does Gypsy have a new voice, but now she
descends from the ceiling.
As the first episode of Season 11, Reptilicus has some heavy lifting to do. It has to bring new viewers up to speed with the show’s premise. It has to get old timers engaged with the new cast and concept. For that older audience it also has to reassure them that this is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 they remember and love, but with a new coat of paint and some new folks at the helm. Yeah there are some cosmetic changes; there are some slight tonal shifts, but all in all the heart of the show is still the same. It’s a good-natured time with a cheesy movie, some skilled comedy writers and performers and a healthy dose of silliness.

That is a lot of stuff to accomplish and for the most part this episode does all those things fairly well.

The framing elements of the host segments and opening theme song all move fairly briskly. Not a lot of time is taken up getting Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) wrapped up in Kinga Forrester’s (Felicia Day) experiment with the devious Max (Patton Oswald) at her side. This pre-credit sequence becomes the opening credits and then we jump a couple months later where Jonah is at home with his robot pals Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn). Gypsy is also around with a new voice provided by Rebecca Hanson.

Need a break? The Boneheads provide a musical
interlude every half hour or so.
In between the riffing the movie does pause for breaks, just like the older series did for commercials. In some cases we get the Bonehead band (a group of musical henchmen that work for Kinga) playing instrumental versions of classic songs from MST3K’s older seasons including Living in Deep 13 and the Wild Rebels cereal jingle. It’s a surprising bit of musical fun. But you also get a dash of host segments where Jonah and the bots banter about something in the movie.

"Every monster has a nation."
Reptilicus attempts to give viewers a smattering of just about everything in these host segments, including a song performed by Jonah and the bots about monsters and the nations they come from. It is a very funny tune and actually an earworm, so be warned you might find yourself humming it hours later. Later Crow decides to slice off Servo’s arm and see if he will regenerate like Reptilicus. It works! At the next break Jonah and the bots read some letters from fans. Amazing they already have fans in the first episode, but it is a nice callback to the Comedy Central days. When the movie ends Gypsy is Reptilicus as she destroys a model city. I think she might be more convincing than the monster in the film. Kinga and Max discuss the experiment and Max gets to push the button.

For me the song is really the highlight of the host segments, but it was neat to see the different elements that the new show was taking from the old one and bringing into this new version. It really balances the low budget look and feel of the old show, but still manages to have a little bit more visual interest going on, especially in the larger space of Moon 13 in Kinga’s lair.

Max, don't mess with her, seriously man.
She was one of the potential slayers in Buffy!
But the host segments really do look backwards, the silly song, the multiple Servos (a running gag in the old show), the letters from fans and the commentary by the mad scientists after the experiment all keep that nostalgia going, even if the faces in front of the camera are different. The character dynamics are in play too. Kinga and Max are really funny with Oswald really playing Max as an extension of Frank, maybe a little more put upon and less gleeful. Instead the manic part of the equation goes to Day as Kinga. She has a ton of energy and plays the mad part of the role really well. They are really a fun pairing and even though they don’t get too much screen time in this episode, you end up wanting to see more of them, which is a good thing.

Tom Servo is caught in the wake!
Jonah and the bots also have camaraderie from the first time we see them. All three actors know each other and you can tell they are having a good time. Jonah does a fine job interacting with the puppets (who are a bit more advanced in this iteration and require a more than a single performer). But his banter with them really feels genuine, even in this episode.

The only misstep is that the characters of Crow and Tom were very well defined after 10 seasons of the series. It feels like Yount and Vaughn are doing their best to stay true to Crow and Tom we know, but they don’t’ seem quite as distinct as they used to be. Part of this is the voice quality of the actors. Jonah and Baron have very similar voices. In the old series Kevin Murphy’s deeper voice always contrasted well with Trace and Bill’s versions of Crow. That isn’t the case here. It is a bit more of a problem in the theater. You’ll hear a funny riff but will be unable to tell which of the boys said it from the voice itself. Not a huge issue and one that I think will sort itself out as the series continues. I’ll get used to the new voices, and I think the cast will define the characters for the robots a bit better.

Two familiar faces watch as Jonah attempts to save the day.
Joel did promise that we would get some surprising cameo appearances in the host segments. The episode actually starts with two sci-fi television series alums making an appearance. I got a good chuckle out of seeing them, and enjoyed their performances. Looking forward to seeing who else appears on the show.

So what about the riffing? Well I have to say that Reptilicus is a movie that provides plenty of material for Jonah and the bots to work with. It has enough odd dialogue, bad dubbing and unusual editing in the first half to keep things interesting. But in all honesty the riffing started out a bit slow. I’m not sure if it is because they wanted to ease new viewers into the concept, or if they were just saving the better material for the second half. The movie does drag a bit at first and the riffing does help a bit, but there are a few scenes that could have used a bit more energy.

Crow's horror in the face of the temperature gauge is real.
But when we get the sequence where Reptilicus starts growing into his original form the riffing ratchets up a notch. There is an oddly edited sequence between a sleeping scientist, a wall clock and a temperature gauge. Each of the boys shoots out a riff as the scenes edit quickly in a pattern around these three things. Crow becomes more and more frantic and it is hilarious, pointing out how strange the editing is while also making it funny.

I also love the riffing that revolves around the comic relief character Peterson. It reminds me of Catalina Caper when Joel sarcastically anticipating the next “hilarious” pratfall. In this film, Jonah and the bots start to groan whenever they see the guy on screen, and try to anticipate his shtick and do their best to actually make his scenes funny.

When Reptilicus explodes into his rampage, the riffing hits overdrive. I’m not kidding here. The guys unleash and it actually goes a little too fast. You’ll find yourself chuckling at a joke, but missing a volley of three more that follow right behind it. This will entice you to rewatch the episode, but it also gives you a feeling that you’re missing some of good material. But I have to say the comedy in the second half of the film is really excellent, feeling like something from a season four or five episode. And that is high praise indeed.

"I can't find my 10 sided dice!"
The General’s desperation is a big point for the riffing. He gets a bit over dramatic at times and the boys add some very funny lines to his dialogue. One of my favorite moments occurs when the camera enters the planning room for the General and we see all these men sitting around a desk staring at a map. Someone comments that it looks like the worlds largest Dungeons and Dragons game and the riffs that spring from that are hilarious. There are also some very funny video game references when the army attacks Reptilicus in a few scenes. This isn’t too surprising since Felicia Day is on the writing team and her web series The Guild was all about gamers.

Like any good MST3K treatment of a giant monster, the boys give Reptilicus a funny voice and amusing lines as he rampages about. Some of these are up there with the monster commentary from The Giant GilaMonster, so I was glad to see that tradition kept alive and handled well.

Reptilicus in "Attack the Block".
All told the riffing is very solid. There is a wonderful mix of riffing types, and material that will tickle the funny bone of just about any age watching this episode. They make references to 1950’s television shows, 1980’s commercials and current video game trends. The first half is a little slower, but the movie isn’t giving them quite as much to work with. But the second half is very funny, even if it does get a bit oversaturated with jokes. I’ve seen this episode twice and I will say I caught different jokes the second viewing, so it was just as entertaining the with the repeat viewing.

Ok, you can't do that on television.
In the scheme of things Repticlicus offers us one of the better season openers in the series. The energy is there, you can tell the cast and crew are game, and the writing is solid. It is a good time for sure and good episode that manages to show new viewers what the show is all about, while keeping old timers happy with the overall tone and approach to the concept. I will say that if you are a fan of the more aggressive style of riffing that occurred during the Sci-fi Channel years (seasons 8 through 10), you might be a bit disappointed. Jonah and the bots don’t’ seem to be attacking the movie, but having a good time with it. But the speed of the riffing is much closer to the later seasons, and in my mind that is the best of both worlds, closer to Seasons four, five and six, which contain some of my favorite episodes.

Reptilicus isn’t perfect, but I didn’t expect it to be. It is a great introduction to Season 11, and a great start to what I hope is a fun season. I give it three blobs of cartoon slime out of five.


This episode is available on Netflix Streaming.

Friday, April 21, 2017

And Then This Happened... Reptilicus

You know how it is. You go to the beach with that special someone. You do your best to impress, and stay calm after you see them in a swimsuit. But nothing goes right. First the water is too darn cold to swim in. Second the sand is too darn hot to walk on barefoot. The sand fleas are biting and someone's dog does their business upwind of your blanket.

Oh, and some idiot at a nearby lab grows a giant, slime-spewing, prehistoric, reptile that gets loose and starts rampaging across the beach. What a lousy day! I think it may be time for a caption for that moment.

And then this happened...


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MST3K - Season 11 Overview

It took a massive Kickstarter campaign, the enthusiasm and guidance of Joel Hodgson and a collection of some of the brightest and best comedy writers and performers, but the impossible happened. Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned from the grave. In April of 2017, a new season was created and unleashed on the world via Netflix for new and old fans to enjoy.

Of course things were a bit different this time around. There was a new host, Jonah Heston who became our human trapped by a new mad scientist, Kinga Forrester. Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy and Cambot all returned but with new performers (and voices). The show balanced this new crew with a faithful attempt to capture the feel and tone of the original series. The special effects were low budget, the host segments were a mix of corny and silly with a dash of song. The riffing managed to span a wide range of topics and generations while keeping things family friendly and fun.

The result was an impressive return that managed to do exactly what the show always did, expose the viewer to unfortunate films and provide plenty of laughs. The films selected for this season run the gamut from giant rubber monsters, 80's fantasy cheese, 70's Star Wars ripoffs and even a disaster movie. All the films are in color and widescreen and no short subjects were tackled. But all in all, the movies are some of the most entertaining yet and the crew does a fine job with them.
  • 1101 - Reptilicus
  • 1102 - Cry Wilderness
  • 1103 - The Time Travelers
  • 1104 - Avalanche
  • 1105 - The Beast of Hollow Mountain
  • 1106 - Starcrash
  • 1107 - The Land that Time Forgot
  • 1108 - The Loves of Hercules
  • 1109 - Yongary - The Monster from the Deep
  • 1110 - Wizards of the Lost Kingdom
  • 1111 - Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II
  • 1112 - Carnival Magic
  • 1113 - The Christmas that Almost Wasn't
  • 1114 - At Earth's Core

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Neon Demon (2016)

Introduction:

So this movie got a lot of bad reviews when it came out. I remember a particular reviewer I usually trust saying it was the worst movie the year and that it made him physically ill. Of course, that got my attention. Not the physically ill part, but the vehemence he leveled at the film. He did the same thing to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and I love that movie. So I think it was time for me to visit The Neon Demon.

Summary:

Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes to Los Angeles to launch her modeling career. She stays at a seedy motel managed by an unhinged Hank (Keanu Reeves in a wonderfully odd performance). Her friend Dean (Karl Glusman) takes some photos to get her portfolio started. Soon she is discovered and starts to climb the ladder of success.

She meets Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist to takes a shine to her and wants to be her BFF. But other models see Jesse as a real threat to their careers. She’s too popular, too beautiful and too pure. Something has to be done. As Jesse continues on her journey, success creates its own dangers. Before long the Neon Demon is staring out of the mirror back at Jesse, and everything changes.

Good Points:
  • Jaw dropping use of color to create dreamlike visuals you won’t forget
  • Some brave and disturbing performances especially from Fanning and Malone
  • A wonderful score by Cliff Martinez that puts you into the glittering world

Bad Points:
  • The overall message and themes are familiar ones
  • The plot is very simple and straightforward – the execution isn’t
  • Has a few scenes meant to shock and disturb - deeply

Overall:

Um yeah this movie is not for everyone. If you appreciate David Lynch and movies like Enemy or Perfect Blue than this may be something you’ll appreciate. It is a movie crafted with amazing visuals, sound and music exploring the themes of obsession with beauty and how vanity ultimately corrupts and consumes. Not new ideas and the plot is pretty obvious. But the way the story is told, the way it creeps under your skin, the way is entrances and horrifies all at once impressed me. Style over substance, yeah. Will some see at as pretentious, oh hell yes. But I loved every neon lit, blood dripping minute of it.

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

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


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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Score Sample: Neon Demon (2016)

You probably weren't expecting this. Two score sample in a single week, I'm a mad man! But I watched this movie recently and was struck by the score. I enjoy a good bit of electronic music, and Cliff Martinez's work for Neon Demon really worked wonderfully in the film. I was surprised how it also made for a good isolated listening experience. He uses some retro sounding synths creating the kind of thing you expect to hear in a chilled out 1980s cyberpunk bar somewhere.

Winding Refn was going for a movie that focused on mood and themes for the Neon Demon and he relies heavily on the score to create that mood. The music reminds me of a combination of John Carpenter and Vangelis with a bit of Giorgio Moroder in there. It has a cold beauty that gets dark and mysterious at times. Really fits the film and helps build the atmosphere, especially combined with the long takes and scenes with almost no dialogue.  The title track will give you a taste of the score, so take the trip with the Neon Demon composed by Cliff Martinez.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Score Sample: Twin Peaks (1990)

I don't share nearly enough jazzy music on this blog. But I do enjoy the occasional jazzy film score. I think I owe that appreciation of jazzy scores enjoying the music from the television series Twin Peaks. I haven't blogged much about my fandom of David Lynch, but yeah, I pretty much love everything he's directed. I even find merit in his flawed take on Dune.

One of the key elements of any David Lynch production is the creation of mood. With Twin Peaks Lynch brought along his frequent musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The sound they created for the show was a mix of 50's rockabilly, smooth jazz, dream pop, and eerie synths. Nothing else quite sounds like the musical world of Twin Peaks, and if you've ever watched a few episodes of the show, you'll know it when you hear it.

I'm going to avoid the obvious cuts from the show and share one of my favorite tracks, which makes its dreamlike appearance in the third episode of the series. It focuses more on the jazzy end of the score. Enjoy The Dance of the Dream Man from Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti.