Sunday, May 30, 2010

Queen of the Amazons (1947)

Ok guessing time. Is the movie Queen of the Amazons , from the 100 Sci-fi Classics collection, a mythical adventure film featuring the Greek tale of Theseus and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta? Or is it a safari film featuring a white woman ruling over black Africans and featuring lots of stock footage? What do you mean that was too easy?

Alas, poor Greg Jones (Bruce Edwards) has been lost while on safari. His fiancĂ© Jean (Patricia Morison) and his father Colonel Jones (John Miljan) head off to find him. Along the way they pick up Gary Lambert (Robert Lowery) a safari guide who doesn’t like women and Gabby (J. Edward Bromberg) a cook who won’t shut up. Little does the group know that Greg is in the hands of Zita the Amazon Queen (Amira Moustafa) and that he’s doing very well thank you. Will Greg return to civilization, and can Jean and Gary keep their hands off each other long enough to figure out who’s trying to kill them all?

Good Points
  • Some decent acting for this kind of movie
  • The stock footage is interesting
  • You get a bit of India in your safari movie
Bad Points
  • The comic relief isn't very funny
  • The stock footage use is endless
  • The plot isn't too interesting or new
This movie is an odd bird. It’s got lots of stock footage of Africa and India, but not much of a story. I could have been a travel log, except it’s got bad comic relief in the form of monkey and crow shenanigans. The acting is passable but the script barely makes any sense. And then there’s the Amazon Queen, a weird character who is set up as a mystery and ends up dull. The movie never gets rolling and it leaves you wishing a little more time was spent coming up with a better script.

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

In depth review
I haven’t seen too many safari movies in my day. When I was a kid, the local station used to show the 1950 version of King Solomon’s Mines, and this movie kinda reminded me of that, you know without Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. Still I was hoping it would be more fun, along the lines of the 1985 version of King Solomon’s Mines with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone. Ok, I knew it would be more like Jungle Goddess with George Reeves.

Talking about the visuals in Queen of the Amazons makes it impossible not to mention the stock footage. Director Edward Finney does his best to work with the stock footage and make it a part of the plot. Sometimes it’s successful, other times it’s painfully obvious that not a single actor from the film is in the footage. But you get all kinds of interesting stuff to see, from an elephant parade during the India sequence, to a lion hunt about half way during the film. Some location shooting (probably in California) helps things a little, and keeps the movie from looking too studio bound, but all in all it’s a wash. The stock footage is interesting at least, even if some of the dialogue that accompanies it is inane or condescending.

The sound and music work well enough creating a typical jungle movie sound without really standing out in a bad way. A few of the music tracks in Queen of the Amazons seem odd, but this score wasn’t composed – just pieced together. It was kinda funny to hear Wagner’s “Die Valkyrie” during a scene where a lion chased down a native.

The acting isn’t too bad for a low budget film. My favorites were Patricia Morison playing Jean. She makes her a tough gal who’s a good shot with a pistol and clever enough to play Gary along till he accepts her as a key member of the group. J. Edward Bromberg makes Gabby a typical annoying character, but hiding a secret. Once the secret is revealed he plays his character differently and it’s an effective turn. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will get a kick out of seeing John Miljan as Colonal Jones. Mr. Miljan played the drunken and grouchy father from I Accuse My Parents. Here he’s just superior and condescending toward the natives, instead of toward his essay-writing son.

Things go badly with Roger Merton’s script and Finney trying to make the whole thing work. I’m not sure if the stock footage was found first and a script was pieced together around it, but that’s what it feels like. The first part of the movie is the most interesting with the group heading to India (for reasons I never caught). While they are in India an attempt is made on the life of a man who saw Gary last. This all plays like a low budget thriller and is actually pretty well done.

But once Queen of the Amazons slips into African safari mode it losses steam. The stock footage isn’t well integrated. Much of it just seems like an excuse to pad out the film. When the footage isn’t being used, you get lots of walking scenes. Things pick up with a lion attack and warring tribes, but it’s a little too late.

The whole Amazon Queen angle is just as silly as your typical white woman ruling over African tribes can be. But the difference here is that her whole tribe is white women who were lost during a boat accident. She has a pet lion and Gary is her pet as well (and not sad at all!). Once the group arrives at the camp of the Amazons (all four of them) the whole thing turns into talky scenes. The climax where the amazons fight off another tribe and a ivory poacher is nonsensical. The wheels come off and never get righted. But everything ends happily with all our heroes getting the girl they want.

It’s hard to condemn the director. He probably did the best with what he could, but without a better budget Queen of the Amazons just never takes off. The first few minutes are interesting, but once you arrive in Africa, all the comic relief and monkey footage isn’t going to save the movie. I think a bigger budget would have made all the difference.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (1985) - MST3K Review


Professor Lockart (Charles B. Pierce) or Doc grabs his prize student Tanya (Serene Hedin), the shirtless Tim (Chuck Pierce) and the whiney Leslie (Cindy Butler) after a sighting of the Boggy Creek creature is made, and heads into the Arkansas swamps. Doc provides some narration over some of the more popular tales of the Boggy Creek beast, before they make camp and start their hunt. The monster is revealed, seen first by the guys, then the gals. Then they decide to head down river to meet up with Old Man Crenshaw (Jimmy Clem) one of the must repulsive characters in MST3K history. Turns out Crenshaw knows quite a bit about old Boggy - more than he lets on. "And the Legend Continues...”

Movie Review:

Don't believe the title, this movie is actually the third film in the "Boggy Creek" cycle. The first film "The Legend of Boggy Creek" is actually considered a decent little low budget monster romp made in 1972. It was followed by "Return to Boggy Creek" in 1977. Now Charles B. Pierce directed the first film and actually put quite a bit of effort into it. "Return" was made without his help and is considered a poor sequel. I guess Pierce was upset by this (even if "Return" did star Dana Plato), so he made an official sequel!

I'm guessing that Pierce also had a bit of an ego inflation since 1972, because his 1985 feature has all the markings of a man who thinks he knows best. He knows that his son will be the perfect actor for the part of Tim, and that the girls in the audience will want to see him without a shirt. He knows that if there was ever a heroic figure, that Charles B. Pierce is that figure. His character of Doc gets all the heroic scenes. He is wise in the world. He wants to understand the creature, not harm it (even though he waves a rifle at it a few times). He snaps into action, with his teeny tiny shorts, whenever the women-folk are threatened, or Tim wets himself. He also barks orders to Tim - a lot. Yes, truly this is the vision of one man, a man with big ideas and a big ego. It reminds me of Arch Hall Sr. and his film "Eegah", where he also foisted his son on us. Coincidence that both men named their sons after themselves?

Pierce seems conflicted in the type of movie he is presenting (seems to be a theme this season). The movie opens with long and very pretty shots of the Arkansas swamplands. Pierce provides thoughtful narration about nature and the Boggy Creek Legend. You might think that you are watching a documentary. Even the creature is shown in as naturalistic a light as possible. Then you get a quick cut to a college football game with hundreds of screaming fans. And that's a bit closer to the type of movie you'll be getting.

The rest of the film attempts to balance the mystery of the creature with the horror of finding him. The story gathering sequences should serve the purpose of keeping us guessing. Is the Boggy Creek creature dangerous, or is it merely curious about humans. But Pierce bungles the approach by sapping the suspense from scenes with bad camera work, silly acting and poor use of the creature. By the time we get to the hunting sequence (which makes it sound more exciting than it is) we don't know if we should be afraid of the creature or afraid that Doc is going to kill it.

The final sequence of the story really makes no sense. The entire party has seen Boggy and thus fulfilled their quest - to see the creature first hand. They didn't bring and cameras so they have not real proof that they did see it, but hell, that was their own fault. But for no real reason they seek out more stories about the creature. This leads them to Old Man Crenshaw, the mountainous, hairy backwoods man. Now, this character is so amazingly horrifying, I don't mind the trip, but logically there was no reason to go there. Of course, this gives Pierce a chance to show his keen intellect, not only in dealing with the hillbilly, but also in deducing that Crenshaw has something to hide.

So what about the other elements of the film? Well the acting goes from average to pretty weak. The worst is actually poor Chuck Pierce as Tim. He delivers his lines with little emotion and seems to take his shirt off at a moment's notice. Both he and Doc run around in tiny shorts that leave little to the imagination, a true horror film for just about anyone. The girls are pretty bad too, overacting and generally not behaving like students of anthropology. They are both pretty in a very 80's kind of way. And if you like to see women sliding around in the mud, then this is the movie for you.

The creature is not a bad looking costume to tell the truth. The actor in it is forced to move rather stiffly, and its face has little movement. There is also a Little Creature that turns up later in the film. Again, the costume isn't bad, but the way it is filmed doesn't do much help things out. It appears in broad daylight and too often, making its limitations very clear. Still we've all seen worse.

The real monster is Crenshaw. It's rare that you suspect you may smell an actor through the televisions screen, but Clem is that actor. He appears to be nude except for his ratty overalls barely hanging on with one strap. What parts of him aren't covered in hair, are covered in a film of grime. His beard and hair looks crusty and yet oily at the same time. He wears a tiny bandana that one of the riffers refers to as a broccoli rubber-band. If that's not what it is, well I'd be surprised. His tiny eyes are shrewd but not bright. If this man is an actor, he's really damn good. If not, than I think Pierce just had Clem play himself - and that my friends is a horrible thought.

Episode Review:

This episode is a nice step up from the downer "Blood Waters of Dr. Z". But it shares a lot of similarities with that film. Both take place in the south. Both deal with monsters and people hunting them. Both feature bodily fluids. But at least "Boggy Creek" injects some humor into its film. Sure its lame humor, but overriding message is not one of despair and dreariness. I don't think Pierce would have stood for that. Instead it’s actually optimistic at the end. And maybe that optimism makes the riffing work better.

Because the energy is back and the laughs return with it. I think part of the fuel is Pierce himself. He comes off as such an obnoxious blowhard, and when you see he wrote, directed and produced this film, well you can't help but unleash a little on it. That's what Mike and the bots do, attacking the film and Pierce with plenty of jokes, and some of them not too nice.

The flashbacks and stories get particular attention, mostly because they are so badly filmed or handled. The first couple are so blurry that it's difficult to see whets happening. Later ones are so badly set up and executed that you can't help but mock them. Then there is the dreaded outhouse sequence, one that Bill Corbett said had to be edited because it was too noxious. Mike and the bots have a great time with these sequences.

But it is Old Man Crenshaw that the best material is saved for. Much like Torgo from "Manos: The Hands of Fate", or Eegah, here is one character that so captivates the crew that they just go to town on him. Some of the riffs get pretty down and dirty, something that seems to come up a lot as this season progressed. But everything about Crenshaw is made to be mocked, from his goat to his senseless capture of The Little Creature. The ending of the episode is top notch with some of the funniest material of the season.

It's not all gold, there are some slow spots here and there. Mostly these arise during the hunting sequence with his basically Doc and Tim wandering around the swamp and the girls at the camp. Luckily the flashbacks and stories are dotted throughout the film and that helps things. And when all else fails you can mock the tiny tiny shorts Tim and Doc wear [shudder].

The host segments are entertaining, with some high points. Things start off with Mike and Crow starting a Cub Scout den. Poor Tom can't fit into the outfit, so he dresses as a Brownie. When Pearl shows up, she's got a new plan for taking over the world. It involves potato batteries. Naturally Bobo screws it all up. At the first break Mike and the bots use flashbacks to help Mike remember why he was on the bridge in the first place. Each flashback is blurrier than the last. The next break reveals that Pearl was inspired by the movie and decides to turn Castle Forrester into a tourist destination, using Bobo as "The Creature". Observer sings a folksy song about The Creature. The next break Tom starts a corporate empire based on whittling. He's such a nut. After the movie ends, Crow lights a bunch fires just like Crenshaw. Back in the castle Pearl has her first customer, but things go wrong when "The Creature" shows up and acts decidedly un-creature like.

This is a good episode to pop in on a hot summer day, so you can feel like you are in the Arkansas swamp with the team of crack researchers. There's plenty of laughs in this one and while it never really escalates into the upper tier of episodes, it's worth checking out.

I give this episode three little creatures out of five.

This episode is available in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 5

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Looking back at previous actor's second stab at the role of James Bond something is revealed. You can see how the tone would flow into the rest of their films. From Russia With Love gave us the beginnings of all the elements that would coalesce in Goldfinger. Roger Moore's Man with the Golden Gun focused more on humor than thrills. Pierce Brosnan appeared in Tomorrow Never Dies a movie that tries to balance thrills with comic book style action. What does Quantum show us about the direction of the Daniel Craig films?

British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) has managed to get his hands on the mysterious Mr. White. White reveals that he is part of a much larger organization before all hell breaks loose and M (Judi Dench) is nearly killed. Bond loses White but is determined to find out who is pulling the strings that lead to the death of Vesper. He finds himself entangled with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and her obsessive pursuit of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). What does Greene have to do with the mysterious Quantum group, and what does it have to do with buying up acres of wasteland in Bolivia? Bond finds himself hurtling from Italy to Haiti, engaging in boat chases, dangerous plane flights and of course good old-fashioned explosions to reach a Quantum of Solace.

Good Points:
  • Daniel Craig and the rest of the cast are very good.
  • Excellent location choices and some very good scenes showing them off.
  • Ties up some of the unanswered questions from Casino Royale.
Bad Points:
  • Poorly executed action scenes
  • A plot moving so quickly and with so little down time that the viewer is never invested in the story or the characters.
  • Really weak opening theme.
A movie with solid groundwork ends up getting lost in the execution. As a result, the shortest of the Bond film feels like one of the longest. While the film does perform as a nice cap to Casino Royale it comes across more like an extended coda than a fully realized Bond film.

Score (out of 5)
Visual Aspects - 3
Sound Aspects - 5
Music - 3
Acting - 4
Script - 3
Direction - 2
Entertainment - 2
Final Grade: 3

In Depth Review

Not since Goldeneye has a first stab at a James Bond film really clicked with the public. Casino Royale was the type of James Bond film everyone wanted to see, and nearly everyone loved it. For the first time in a long while we got to know James Bond, got to see what made him tick, and what kind of a man he was. Sure some of the changes made things feel a bit off. People missed the gadgets, Q, Moneypenny, even some of the obvious humor. Me, not so much. I enjoyed this fresh take on 007. It was nice and gritty, a variation on what Dalton did in 87 and 89, and I enjoyed Dalton's take on the part.

So when I heard that Quantum of Solace was going to be a direct follow up to Casino Royale I was happy. I hoped they'd take what they had established in the previous film and just continue on that path. There was plenty of interesting places to go and it was obvious that Daniel Craig was up to the task. I wasn't hoping for a movie that would surpass Casino Royale. To me, that would be difficult to pull off. But I figured that if the story continued in the same style it would be a worthy follow up.

The final result was a movie that has its highest ratings in the sound and acting department, but is average or below average everywhere else. This hasn't happened in a Bond movie before to my knowledge and it reveals something interesting. Quantum of Solace ended up suffering at the hands of its creators. Let's take a look at what works and then see how it was diluted down.

All the ingredients for a excellent follow up to Casino Royale are in place. The script follows Bond as he attempts to find a line into who was the direct cause of Vesper's death. As he digs deeper into the mess, he finds out about Quantum and their plans for accumulating wealth and power. It seems that Greene is a key in those plans and the he was connected to Le Chiffre. Bond finds himself entangled in Greene's plot and a direct target for the powerful man. But Bond's cold fury isn't directed at Greene per se, he's after Vesper's old boyfriend. All the leads end up tying back to the mysterious man and Bond confronts him at the end of the film, after he's taken care of Greene.

Quantum of Solace offers a complex story, and one that requires us to feel with Bond. I'm sure it appealed to the cast, and they do an excellent job bringing the script to life. Daniel Craig is cold and hard in this film. He is focused on achieving his revenge and taking out anyone who gets in his way. His singular drive is completely revealed in his eyes and his stony demeanor. Some nice dialogue with Mathis and M helps bring out some of the finer points, but we get lots of physical cues from Craig.

Kurylenko as Camille also fits into her mold of a woman driven by revenge. Like Bond she is cold and calculating, but can turn on the charm to get what she wants. Her desire for revenge against General Medrano is convincing. When she finally achieves her desire, the emptiness of the execution and her situation engulfs her (not to mention the peril of the burning and exploding building) and we see a woman broken by getting what she wants. It's a very good performance and one that has plenty of ties back to Vesper.

Amalric is a top notch French actor with quite a impressive list of credits. So it seems a bit of a waste to cast him in the part of a sleazy and manipulative jerk, with little depth. He's a man who wants power and will do whatever he has to do to get it. His casual act of nearly pushing Camille to her death is chilling. His confident manner in bargaining with General Medrano was good as well. But when faced physically against Craig's Bond, it takes some stretching of imagination to see Greene as any type of threat. He does it well enough that you are satisfied with his exit.

Supporting cast was up to the challenge. I enjoyed seeing Giannini return as the weathered and worn Mathis. He's given a bit more to do this time around and his final scenes in the film add a good punch. Dench is excellent as M, she's fitting in perfectly with the new harder edged Bond film. Gemma Arterton has a small but key part as Fields, Bond's only female conquest in the film. She's good, but you wish she had a larger role. Cosio plays General Medrano with a cruel delight. He's the type of unstable creep you'd expect in a Bond film and he's a good opponent for Camille.

The locales for Quantum of Solace are pretty impressive. You start off in Sienna, Italy and get some great beauty shots as well as some horse race action. A foot chase is contrasted in an interesting way with the horse race, something that should have worked well but... I'm getting ahead of myself. Then it's off to Haiti for a key meeting with Greene and a boat chase. Then back to Europe with a stop in Vienna. This is an elegant setting with lots of cool blues and blacks. It includes one of the most impressive Bond settings with a modern opera going on and an enormous eye staring out into the audience. Then it's over to Bolivia for the bulk of the action. You've got a nice mix of scenes set in La Paz, the capital city and then into the wastelands of Bolivia with some serious heat coming off the screen. The movie wraps with a scene in snowy Russia. This is an excellent setting for the revelation at the end, a cool down for the heat of the previous scenes.

Most of the set work is very good. The new MI6 headquarters room is all done in cold white and glass. Sure some of the computer graphics are over the top, but we expect that in a Bond movie. I also enjoyed the desert compound in Bolivia. The interior was convincing as an actual building and it worked well once the action scene kicked in.

David Arnold comes back for his fifth turn as the composer. His score works fine with the action, delivering a score that matches the film in its distant style. There aren't too many flourishes of the Bond theme here, just lean mean pulse driving action. Some hints of Vesper's theme from Casino Royale slide in here and there and work well to tie the movies together. Of all the scores that Arnold has done, this has the least character to it. Not a bad score, but more functional than colorful.

Since Goldeneye gave us some serious explosions to rock the seats with, James Bond has not skimped in the sound department. Quantum falls right in line. The action scenes give you plenty to enjoy with bullets flying, water splashing, fire raging, explosions erupting and opera music rising. When the movie slows down enough to hear the atmospheric sounds, they add to the feature.

Now moving on to the less than stellar issues. The first is the extremely unimpressive theme song performed by Alecia Keys and written by Jack White: Another way to die. I'm not entirely averse to taking Bond themes in a new direction. I just wish that the title song was good enough to be worked into the movie score. This would not only contribute to giving the score it's own identity, but would have given the song a bit more personality. As it stands, this may be one of the most dispensable opening themes since All Time High from Moonraker. This weakness contributed to my lower music grade. The best Bond scores work the theme song and other themes into the score to create a solid musical feel for each movie. It just didn't happen here.

As for the script, there seems to be a lot of good intent here, as I pointed out above. But from the final product I don't feel like everything was addressed in a complete manner. The biggest failing is that the ending of the film does not deliver the punch that I think they were intending. It's a bit flat, feeling like a punctuation on something that never was an issue. And yet, I got the feeling that the cast knew that there was something deeper going on - so maybe the script was solid. But in the final product, it just feels less then complete.

In the end the execution of the entire film rests on the director. He guides how the movie is going to turn out, from filming up to editing and postproduction. I think what happened here was a director who was put into very different waters and was at a loss on how to proceed. Maybe there were complaints that Casino Royale was too long and didn't have enough action. So the verdict was to make a shorter film with more action.

I think that effort to streamline the complex story was the first nail in the coffin. I understand the need to keep the plot moving, but they way the movie ended up unspooling was actually a detriment to it's entertainment value. The characters, so well defined (for a Bond movie) in Casino Royale were really just flat here. Bond's motive and goals are never defined for the audience. The delivery of Greene's scheme is tossed in with such a blasĂ© attitude that it never seems like a threat to anyone. Bond sees some thirsty people, OK, but he never seems moved by their plight. It's just as if he happens to stop Greene on his way to a bigger goal.

Then there is the action scenes. There is a current belief that the faster the cuts and the more movement in the camera the more thrilling the action scenes are. Put the audience into the action with hand held cameras and they will be on the edge of their seat. Or maybe it's because they are feeling ill because of the motion, or a just trying to figure out what is going on.

For a James Bond film (and any film where action set pieces are key) a lot of time and money goes into making action scenes as realistic as possible. The free running chase in Casino Royale was a perfect example of how to execute an exciting, action scene. It was clear what was happening at all times. It was fast paced, but not confusing. It moved the story forward and kept you guessing at how Bond was going to end up catching the guy. Compare this to the pre-credit car chase in Quantum. Fast edits show us cars moving, trucks driving. Cars dodging. Bond in danger. Bad guys with guns. Police watching the chase. Cars crashing. Bond in danger. More speed. More driving and then it's over. I had no clue who was in what car at what time, and didn't really care about it. In most of the other pre-credit sequences, we get a nice mini movie. Some of the best ones, like The World is Not Enough or The Living Daylights give us a bit of story with a key action scene. Here it's just a mish mash of sound and fury with a slightly funny one liner at the end.

All the action scenes suffer from this. There is no clarity here and it only makes things boring or worse, funny. The boat chase in Quantum is a perfect example. It was fast and wet and there was some kind of action going on. But I have no clue how Bond got out of it. There was an anchor and he threw it and then the boat was gone. It made me laugh. I suppose he used the enemy's anchor, but it looked like it was his own. In any case, it wasn't as thrilling as I think they hoped it would be.

For me this Bond film just didn't really meet the requirements to keep me entertained. It was fast and noisy, but other than that, it never really engaged me on any level. It was nice to see the characters again, but the execution of the story and the mismanagement of the action scenes made the movie feel so much longer than it was. It's a shame really, because there is a lot to like here, but I really think this movie could use another longer edit with better work in the action editing and you'd have a worthy follow up to Casino Royale. As it stands now, it's probably the weakest Bond film since Octopussy, something I never thought would happen during Daniel Craig's tenor as Bond. It made me appreciate the skills of a solid action director (like Martin Campbell - Goldeneye and Casino Royal and John Glen The Living Daylights, For Your Eyes Only) brought to these films. Well, it can only get better from here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blood Waters of Dr. Z (1975) - MST3K Review


Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) is grouchy because his peers think he's crazy. So he turns himself into a fishman (Wade Popwell) so he can prove them wrong. Um... OK. Guided by a huge planning wheel he begins to terrorize a small town in Florida. Sheriff Krantz (Paul Galloway) brings in some outside help from Rex (Gerald Cruse) a marine biologist, and INPIT Agents Martha (Sanna Ringhaver) and Walker (Dave Dickerson). But can these four mismatched heroes do anything to cleanse the "Blood Waters of Dr. Z"?

Movie Review:

This is a 70's version of a 50's style monster movie. You got your typical mad scientist who feels wronged that his peers call him crazy. So he continues his "crazy" experiments to prove them wrong - which of course only cements the fact that the guy is nuts. MST3K has featured a few movies with these plots such as "Mad Monster", "Bride of the Monster" or "The Unearthly".

The familiar plot makes things pretty easy to script. You've even got the scenes where the heroes use their own science to track and find the monster, even whipping out the old standby Geiger Counter to detect the radiation that the monster throws off.

What make's this movie bad beyond your typical monster movie issues (bad monster suit, overacting, silly pseudo-science) is the lack of tension or thrills or anything to generate "horror" in the audience. Director Don Barton falls into a trap that many movies from the 70's do - pacing and mood.

Editing and basic structure are the main problems with pacing here. The movie opens with a ridiculously performed voice over while we are shown footage of ocean animals (provided by the helpful folks at Marineland in Florida). The long languid shots of the ocean animals does nothing help the pace. We then cut to Dr. Leopold staring out at the ocean and watch as he wanders into an abandoned beachside complex. Over all this a folk song plays. Yeah you read that right. Could this movie start out any slower and more boring? Actually it could, check out "The Incredible Petrified World".

When Leopold finally turns into the fishman, things get slightly more interesting. Oh and he's never referred to as "Dr. Z". Turns out that this movie has gone through a ton of name changes. It was originally called "ZAAT", based off the formula Leopold uses to create the fishman. Other names include "Dr. Z.", Legend of the Zaat Monster", "Hydra" and "Attack of the Swamp Creatures". As I mentioned the fishman suit looks ridiculous. It has fur on it. Poor Wade Popwell stumbles and trips quite a bit in it. While it looks nothing like a fish, it does seem to work underwater. The Gillman from "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" could take this guy out with one webbed hand tied behind his back.

The pacing continues along its slow and meandering way. There are attacks, but the build up is handled in a very clumsy manner. The hunt for the creature is dull. The finale cuts from a guy reading, to fishman carrying a girl through a swamp, to another guy stumbling in a swamp and back through - several times in a row. Wow. Even the 50's monster movies would at least have one scene where the tension worked. But in this movie, not a single scene is scary.

The other issue is the overriding dreary dourness of the film. There is a mood that permeates many 70's films, one that drains the fun right out of them. The film stock is grainy and dark. The lighting leans toward orange and brown. The acting is bored or flat. The climax of these film ends with nearly every character dying or left in some form of despair. This film fits all those criteria, draining even the funnier moments of life.

There are some bright spots. The voiceover continues through the film and it's always good for a laugh. I love Leopolds enormous planning wheel. It's like a Franklin Covey planner for a mad man, with pictures of those who wronged him, and key points (such as finding a mate) relegated to sections of this huge pie chart. The devices that he uses to make fish people is pretty silly looking, and makes obnoxious sounds. You also get some cute girls in bikinis and wandering around in their underwear so that's a plus for male viewers. The music is horribly used, blaring when something of no consequence is occurring. When it is electronic, it drives the viewer insane with it's droning and groaning. Someone take the Moog away from the composer! There is also an attempt to make our default hero, Walker, use a silly amphibious vehicle. It looks like something a toddler would be pedaling around on their front lawn. Handled correctly this chunk of 70's malaise is perfect for Mike and the bots.

Episode Review:

But I know we're in trouble when the host segments outshine the riffing. Things start off with Crow taking up chewing tobacco. He hasn't got the spitting part down yet. Before the film starts Pearl experiments by withholding love from Mike and the bots. Crow turns out to be very susceptible to love deprivation. At the first break, Crow hides in the rafters to provide overblown voiceover for Mike. It's as scary as it was in the movie - so, not at all. In the next break, Mike and bots try some fishing. This sketch is a nice throwback to some of the Frank inspired Comedy Central host segments. For the final break, the bots are convinced that nudity helps any scene in any movie. Mike disagrees. To prove the point Bobo and Observer perform a scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross" in the buff. This proves nothing, other than Bill is willing to do a lot for a laugh. After the movie ends the bots come up with other carrying cases you can use to transport items (its based off a nonsensical sequence in the finale). Pearl has turned Bobo into a mar-monkey. Wow!

I know I sound like a broken record, but energy is often a key point to making an episode go from good to great. But in cases where the movies are very slow and dreary, energy in the riffing is a necessity. The movie itself can be too painful, and without a team alive with energy it will actually make the episode fail. That's exactly what happens here.

With a show so dense with jokes and comments, some of them have to hit, just by law of averages. But when the laughs come infrequently you know you're in trouble. I was surprised how limp and lifeless the riffing is in this one. The movie provides the goods but Mike and the bots don't really go after the movie in the way they did in previous and future episodes. The Sic-if Channel years are known for harsher and more aggressive jokes than the Comedy Central years. Now I love many shows from the Comedy Central years. But I've noticed that for a movie like this, you need aggressive jokes that attack the film.

Mike and the bots seem relaxed in this episode and for the most part the jokes they do make just don't click. Things pick up a bit near the end, when the fishman is heading back toward his lair. The little buggy that Walker drives is good for some lines, and the Sherriff’s final battle is good. But really it’s too little too late. I wonder if the crew thought that the movie was so bad that the laughs would come by themselves (and it's easily possible), or if the impending cancellation of the show affected the riffing. Either way, the dreary movie overwhelms everyone, including this viewer.

For me, the 70's films can be difficult, but very funny episodes. "The Incredible Melting Man" from season 7, "Parts: The Clonus Horror" from Season 8 and "The Touch of Satan" from season 9 are all good episodes. Even Joel's swan song, "Mitchell" from season five is classic stuff. But in this case Mike and the bots can't pull it off, and we have one of the weakest episodes of the entire series. My advice, skip this one and if you're in the mood for a fishy monster flick, check out season 8 offerings "Revenge of the Creature" or "Horror at Party Beach".

I give it one planning wheel out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater Collection Volume XVII.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Future War (1997) - MST3K Review

After Sister Ann (Travis Brooks Stewart) nearly runs over a mute and nameless man (Daniel Bernhardt), she takes him to a local shelter she works at. In a matter of days the man is able to speak and explains that he is a slave, escaped from a starship run by dangerous cyborgs. These cyborgs use dinosaurs to track down the slave and kill anyone who gets in their way. Sister Ann and the runaway must keep the dinosaurs at bay, elude the Cyborg Master (Robert Z'Dar), and keep the cops from arresting them. The only solution is to get the local gangs and the shelter staff to do battle with the alien forces in a real Future War.

Movie Review
If my summary sounds a little jumbled and confused, well that's because Future War isn't very well thought out. You get the feeling very early on that this story idea came about because someone liked Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park and decided to fuse the two together. Hire a guy who looks like Jean Claude Van Damme and you've got a sci-fi action winner, right?

Well the big problem with basing your movie on two huge budget sci-fi blockbusters is that you need to have a budget to really make this work. The story requires dinosaurs and cyborgs, not to mention space ships and explosions and nuns. Really, we are talking a good-sized budget, even if you are an independent production. The crew behind Future War didn't have that kind of budget. In fact it doesn't look like they had much of a budget at all.

It's kind of sad, because from the right perspective this could have been a crazy fun type of movie. The story idea sounds so much like something a grade school kid would come up with on the playground, and the script is so haphazard, I can't imagine any of the cast or crew taking it too seriously at all. In fact some of the performances come across like there were only there as friends or just filling in for line readings (the cop on the phone is especially bad).

The main cast is all over the place, they are trying but honestly none of them is very good. Bernhardt does look a lot like the muscles from Brussels, and even has the accent. But he's not convincing as an escaped slave. I do believe that he is a martial artist in a crappy movie. Stewart is horrible during her voice over sequences (but the writing is atrocious). During her actual scenes she ranges from shrill and irritating to almost convincing. Z'Dar is hired for his size and intimidating features, but he acts like a generic cyborg. The supporting cast goes from average to horrible.

Aside from long sequences of walking down streets or inside reservoir complex, Future War actually moves at a decent pace. A few of the talking scenes go on a little too long, but it might be the bad acting that makes it feel that way. If the script weren’t such a mess, I would almost be convinced that a logical movie could have been made. Some of the action scenes are even staged well, with editing making some of the hits actually look pretty good. But there is the use of cardboard boxes. There are two action sequences staged in "warehouses" filled with empty cardboard boxes. It may have been economical, but it sure looks silly.

The special effects are where the whole thing goes wrong. The dinosaurs are actually pretty detailed little puppets. They look pretty cool on the surface and have some impressive motion (compared to the hilariously static Hobgoblins). The only problem is they aren't very big. The director tries to use forced perspective and model work to make them look bigger, the only problem is when they have to interact with actual people you end up seeing how small these guys are. It also makes the dinos look like they shrink the closer they get to people. While the puppets looks pretty cool, they are still obviously puppets, and some of the shots hold on them a little too long or in areas that are too brightly lit. Either they were confident in the model work, or they knew it looked silly and just went with it.

Then there are the cyborgs. Basically get a big actor, dress him in black, put on some clown white make-up (or not, depends on the scene I guess) and strap all kinds of plastic bric-a-brac on him. Make sure all that stuff is painted black or metallic. Put a visor thingy over an eye, make something look like a ray gun here, and you have your basic cyborg, right? Um, not quite. Add to it the cheesy computer graphics that supposedly represent the cyborg's vision (rendering everything pixilated and in neon colors), and you've got a real questionable menace.

At some point when you are waving little plastic dinosaurs in front of the camera to make it look like the dinosaur is huge compared to the kids in the park, you have to say to yourself - this is ridiculous and it's going to stink. Rumor has it, that's exactly what the producer of Future War thought. He even told the cast and crew that at some point this motion picture would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Episode Review
And so Future War obtains the distinction of been the most recent movie featured on MST3K. It was released in 1997 (but was shot in 1994), and this episode aired in 1999. A similar event happened in Season One of the show, with Robot Holocaust being shot in 1986 and being featured in an episode in 1989. Does this make this episode any better or worse? Not really.

Part of the problem is the slow start to the film There is a long pre-credit sequence, meant to pull the viewer into the action. It has the opposite effect, featuring characters we don't know sneaking around in the darkness. The momentum of the episode never seems to recover. Once our hero shows up, things pick up and the laughs easier (because the dinos are after him as well). But the movie does hit a few hiccups and riffing slows down because of it. Slow riffing is fine, but sometimes the energy can be drained, and that seems to happen in this episode.

Lots of laughs in Future War are generated by the dinosaurs and cyborgs of course. But you also get lots of humor from our "nun" in training, the antics of "the runaway" and the fact that he refers to himself as a tool. You've also got some funny bits with the shelter and guys who run it. But some of the best stuff occurs at the end when our heroes do battle against the dinosaurs at the reservoir. You've also got the hilarious bit with the final confrontation with the Master Cyborg, a moment that is so funny you get it for the stinger at the end of the end credits too.

The host segments are a bit mixed. The show starts with Mike and bots using a computer program to determine how many "times a lady" each of them is. Then Pearl appears and subjects the bots to not so secret LSD tests. Observer and Bobo provide appropriate musical accompaniment. Tom is inspired by the movie and challenges Gypsy to a kick boxing battle. Then Mike and bots thank Pearl for not killing them. It's very heart felt. Crow is inspired by how important water is in the movie, and appears as Droppy the water droplet. I think he's still tripping on LSD at this point. After the movie finishes Mike tries on a Robert Z'Dar sized chin and Bobo and Observer's band has hit the big time!

Future War is one of those episodes, like Quest of the Delta Knights that I remember more fondly then it may deserve. It's a funny episode, how can it not be with the cute dinosaurs and silly looking cyborgs. But as goofy as the movie is the riffing never takes off. I find myself enjoying it, but wishing it was a little faster with the riffing or a little more up tempo. Mike and the bots do a solid job, but I'm left thinking it could have been better.

Three exploding dinosaurs out of five.

This episode is available in the Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Girl in Gold Boots (1968) - MST3K Review


Michele (Leslie McRae) was born to dance. When Buz (Tom Pace) meets her, he offers to take her to Los Angeles to meet his sister Joanie (Bara Byrnes), who can make Michele into a star. Since her life is going no where as a waitress, she joins him. Along the way they meet Critter Jones (Jody Daniels) a free spirit with a guitar and a gentle attitude. But Los Angeles changes everything. Michele may be a star, but her boss is an oily drug lord. Buz, who was on a criminal path to begin with, joins right in with his own caper. Only poor Critter sees the danger, but his love for Michele may not be enough to save her. You see, the lure of drugs, bongos and oily men may be enough for this "Girl in Gold Boots".

Movie Review:

What you've got here is a movie that tells your typical rise to stardom story in a very 1968 kinda way. On an interesting side note, this movie has an almost identical plot to the infamous "Showgirls" of 1995. Girl wants to dance. Girl gets to dance. Dancing nearly destroys here. Girl meets good guy. They escape. The big difference (aside from the fashion and slang) would be the budget. "Showgirls" was multi-million dollar mess. "Girl in Gold Boots" has a much smaller budget and at least it can use that as an excuse.

The basic story isn't bad, not original, but not bad. It's just all the little strange touches that pop up. Buz is the main issue here. When we meet him, he seems like the dangerous rebel type. I think we're supposed to like him - not sure really since Mr. Pace plays him like a jerk the whole time. I think Buz is a mini story - of a corruptible character brought low. Michele is the opposite, all naive and full of joy and then turned onto the dark path, before she is rescued by Critter. The trick is Buz and his story take up a lot of screen time. He gets involved in a caper late in the film and we get to see all of it. What this has to do with Michele's story is beyond me. It affects her in an indirect way, but there is no need to show the planning of the caper and the execution. Buz isn't the love interest, he's just this odd third character that gets too much screen time for his plot importance.

Critter would have been a better focal point, but he's not that interesting. He gets to sing some songs while strumming on guitar. He gets to fall in love with Michele. And he gets to say all kinds of silly/meaningful dialogue. But in the end we don't get to know him too well. His big revelation, that he is a draft dodger, may have been included to add a bit of bad boy to his role. But it only makes him look like a putz. So Michele can pick Critter the putz, or Buz the sociopathic loser. Um... yeah.

Michele doesn't come across as the brightest bulb in the box. Part of it is McRae's acting, but the role is pretty badly written as well. Michele is supposed to naive, but she acts more like a very young child, than a sheltered young woman. Her interaction with oily sleazy Leo (Mark Herron) just seals the deal. This guy just looks like trouble, and when he talks and oozes up to her, you just know he's up to no good. But Michele buys right into his lines. If she's that dumb, it's hard to feel sorry for her fate. Oh and I don't want to sound rude, but McRae isn't a very good dancer, so its really hard to buy that she is the star attraction anywhere.

There are a lot of songs in this movie, and most of them have a typical sound of the late 60's. You've got a mix of Beatles-sequel sound, Go-go music for the dancing sequences, bongo playing, and of course the folksy ballads courtesy of Critter. None of them are god awful, but most are non-descript. Some provide some unintentional laughs at the odd lyric combinations.

Mostly there are the odd sequences such as the whole dune buggy on the beach scene. I think it's supposed to show how much fun Buz, Critter and Michele are having on their journey, but it occurs so suddenly and is so odd that you can't help but laugh. Later Michele smokes a joint at a party and does a very strange little dance to a bongo player's rhythm. The whole party sequence is bizarre and well worth seeing. Then there is the Haunted House club. It's got a monster behind the stage that shoots smoke from his nostrils and has glowing eyes. There are bats, skeletons and all kinds of crazy things all over the place. It's hilarious and kinda kitschy all at the same time. I doubt any performance here would catapult anyone to the big time. At least it's more realistic than Club Scum from "Hobgoblins". And finally there is the scene where Bara Byrnes has a huge breakdown and screams, "I want my pretty mind back!" A great acting moment in the MST3K cannon.

Episode review:

With this episode Sci-Fi Channel finally loosened the restriction on the type of movies that MST3K could tackle. And so they went to a genre that had served them well in the past - teens in peril. Much like The Beatniks, I Accuse My Parents or Kitten with a Whip, this type of movie has plenty of good material to riff on, and it offers a nice break from the constant sci-fi/horror/fantasy output of the past couple years. It also gives us songs that Mike and bots can improvise with.

This is one of my favorite episodes of this season. There is so much good material here that it really makes me wish that Sci-fi had let them attack this kind of film earlier. From our opening moments in the restaurant known as "Eat", to the grand finale with Critter and Michele rocking out on the beach before he is shipped off to Vietnam there are plenty of laughs. Buz and his delinquent tendencies provide all kinds of opportunities. Tom Pace looks to be in his mid 30's, yet people keep calling him "young man" or "kid". In addition he has a peculiar accent that the guys keep mocking. Every time Buz is on screen, there's lots of comedy - especially the whole "elf" moment.

Between Critter's goofy songs and Michele's attempts at dancing, it's hard to say which is funnier. Aside from the afore mentioned party scene, Michele graces us with several dances at the club. Combined with the hit song "Girl in Gold Boots" and her back up dancers - well it's a sight to behold; one that the movie shows you about three different times. I guess they were proud. Then there is the hilarious scene where Critter sings a love ballad while images of Michele appear behind him. Mike and the bots use it to the full advantage offering commentary by Michele's ghostly floating head.

Then there's Leo and his gangsters and the whole caper plot. Wow, the amount of oily sleaze on display here is pretty impressive. Lots of great riffs on Leo's whole demeanor and his 60's slang. And when he shares the screen with Buz, well it's comedy gold really. From top to bottom, the movie provides solid laughs and more than a few fall down funny comments.

The host segments are pretty funny as well. The show starts with Crow answering the question, "What would Buffy St. Marie Do?" Pearl then reveals that she's not a fully accredited mad scientist. An inspector is sent to verify her insanity - this results in electric shocks and a latex hump. The first break has Crow reenacting Buz's confrontation with the bikers. Mike gets to play the biker. The next break, and this time Crow is inspired to dance like the women in the movie. Mike is visibly disturbed. For the next break Mike is inspired and sings a folksy love song - just like Critter. And this causes the disembodied head of Crow to appear over his shoulder. When the film concludes Mike and the bots are all dressed like oily sleazy Leo. Pearl's experiment is considered a failure until Observer appears... I can't say much more other than this segment shows just how far the crew at Best Brains will go to make you laugh. Bill Corbett, you are a brave man.

With that said, this is an easy episode to recommend, especially if you enjoy these types of films. MST3K often had a blast with teens in peril flicks, and it was nice to have one more before the show ended it's run. Not a big surprise that it turned into one of the best episodes of season ten.

I give it five gold boots out of five... but then again, I'm just a child.

This episode is available in Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 4.

MST3K - Season 9 Overview

Season 9 falls in the middle of the three seasons that the show spent on the Sci-fi channel. It's a fairly solid representation of the show during these final years, with a good mix of episodes. If you have a favorite genre of film it's represented here. This was the Season where the endless chase format of the host segments was discontinued. Pearl and her crew stay in Castle Forrester and Mike is back in orbit over the castle. This made things a bit easier for Best Brains in handling the host segments and brought back the feel of the Comedy Central years. But I found I missed the crazy storyline they came up with in Season 8. But for those of you who enjoy the host segments there are some good ones in this season, with my favorite being Previously on the Satellite of Love for the show 905 - The Deadly Bees.
This season was also the one where short films made a come back into the show's format. For some reason in Season 8, Sci-fi channel did not want Best Brains to use short films in their show. Both shorts featured in this season are hilarious and worth seeking out. Century 21 Calling can be found on the episode 906 - The Space Children, or as an extra on the disc Killer Shrews on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 7. Robot Rumpus featuring Gumby can be found on show 912 - The Screaming Skull. It's available on DAP.

There are a few episodes that are now considered classics in this season and I'll tell you my favorites.
MST3K didn't tackle the superhero genre often, but if this episode is any proof, they really should have. Everything about this film is inept and it makes for some very funny riffing. But the moments when our hero is "flying" combined with the childish soundtrack is comedy gold by itself. With Mike and bots on hand it makes it an instant classic.
What a bizarre little movie this is. From the random rules about transformation, to the odd accents (especially for residents of Flagstaff, Arizona), to the consistently changing look of the werewolf to the fact that no one can say Warwelf, or Wurwalf, or whatever it's called consistently makes this episode "Absolootilee Faceenating" and funny too.
A huge slice of 80's sleaze and cheese. You want a movie with puppets driving a golf cart? This is the movie for you. The movie strives for comedy and horror, but fails spectacularly at both. Watch for the fight scene involving gardening tools and the fantasy scenes involving the friend in his little red shorts. The host segments are right on target as well.
Zap Rowsdower. Really there isn't much else you need to say. This low budget Canadian adventure story has the wimpiest main character in a MST3K film. While I find the beginning to be on the slow side, once Rowsdower appears Mike and bots really get going unleashing riffing on the film and Canada in general. The host segments featuring "hockey hair" are hilarious.
In a way this is the weakest season of the Sci-fi years all told. But that just means that there are quite a few average episodes in the mix. And as fans of the show will tell you, even an average episode of Mystery Science Theater is ten times funnier than most other comedies on television.