Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nostalgia Nugget: Those Holiday Classics

Each year us movie fans end up settling in with our favorite holiday classics. Being brought up with a family that celebrates Christmas, I enjoy watching Christmas films. There are the classics that most folks enjoy; It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas or even biblical epics like Ben Hur.

But if you look off the beaten path there are some Christmas films out there that don’t get mentioned, but hell I enjoy them and they often hold a nostalgic place for my family and me. And yes Mystery Science Theater episodes count.

One of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. This Mexican take on the Santa Claus story is filled to bursting with oddities. You get enslaved children workers, a huge, huge mouth, Santa spying on people with a disturbing telescope, an imp from hell trying to fight Santa and the horrible laughing reindeer. No, nothing can prepare you for the terrors within. So if you seek this out, make sure it’s the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, with Mike and bots on hand to riff away.

Gremlins (1984)
Joe Dante’s demented dark sense of humor, combined with his love of Loony Tunes and some of the most disgusting death scenes ever enacted on puppets – it’s a holiday classic for sure. The movie features all kinds of Christmas trappings, and Jerry Goldsmith even works some Silent Night into the score. Looking for something a bit nasty to counteract the wholesomeness this time of year – look no further than a severed Gremlin head on the fire and the movie ending with the town of Kingston Falls on fire.

Sure it borrows from The Terminator, but its all done in good fun. Besides it’s got a futuristic cop hunting zombies in 1985 during Christmas. Add in Helen Hunt dressed as a cute mall elf and it’s just too awesome to describe. If you enjoy low budget sci-fi from the Regan years, this is well worth checking out.

Die Hard (1988)
Want hard-hitting action this Christmas? Look no further than one of the best action films of the ‘80s. Bruce Willis is still great as McClane and Alan Rickman is still the slickest bad guy we love to hate: Hans Gruber. But what really is amazing is how director John McTiernan manages to keep the 131 minute film sailing along and bursting with great lines and great pacing. If you haven’t seen it in a while, give it another spin.

Take one silly kids movie featuring one of the funniest looking robots in history, combine it with the most annoying Martians in history and you’ve got a real winner for the riffing crowd. Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic have both tackled this film with plenty of laughs to be had. The theme song Hooray for Santee Claus is enough to give you nightmares.

Scrooged (1988)
Richard Donner’s final version of this film may be flawed, but there is so much to like here I give it a pass. Bill Murray is excellent as Frank Cross, really giving is a nasty character as well as the reformed Scrooge at the end. The interplay between the TV special and the ghosts is hilarious. Danny Elfman gives us a darkly magical score to accompany the action. Then there’s the ghosts, some of the funniest and most creative seen in any version of A Christmas Carol or any of its adaptations.

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Or maybe you just want to have some more felt in your Charles Dickens experience. Well here ya go, one of the most fun adaptations of the story, and with all your favorite Muppets at hand. Michael Caine is an excellent Scrooge and really works well with the rest of the puppety cast. Add to that Paul Williams providing the song and lyrics and you’ve got some of the catchiest tunes since the original Muppet Movie.

Hey don’t make that face at me, part of this moronic police drama takes place during Christmas. Joe Don Baker is a slovenly cop who annoys everyone he meets, sleeps with hookers, gets in fights with Merlin Olsen and has his own theme song sung by Hoyt Axton. How he’s supposed to be our hero is anyone’s guess, but there it is. This was the final Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode with Joel as the host, and its one of the funniest riffing sessions they ever had. Fun to watch any time, but usually makes the rounds this time of year because of the Christmas scene at John Saxon’s house.

A Russian fairy tale movie about the magical Jack Frost (or Morozko, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus). I’m sure unedited; in its original aspect ratio and language this is a fun fantasy film for children and adults alike. Some editing and dubbing later and you’ve got a fever dream of epic proportions. A man with a bear head, a conversation with flowers, a game of hide and seek with a mushroom man, a cackling witch, an enchanted wooden pig sled and an evil black cat are mixed into one story and unleashed on the audience. I love this movie for all its sweetness and amazing visuals. I also love that Mike and bots riff on it in this wonderful offering from Season Eight of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This second film (also known as Midsummer's Eve) in the Tenchi Muyo series takes place during summer, but has a bunch of flashbacks and talk about Christmas all the way through it. While it helps to at least have seen some of Tenchi’s previous adventures prior to giving this movie a spin, there’s lots of fun to be had. This movie feels a lot closer to the original series made in 1992, and also to that take on the characters. Ko Otani’s musical score is a mix of great synth oriented themes, a sprinkling holiday cheer and excellent battle music. Ok, I admit it, this is a very personal choice, but I enjoy watching it this time of year or closer to Midsummer if the mood is right. Besides the end credits song is about Christmas presents!

One of my favorite anime directors, Satoshi Kon, delivers his most realistic film. It follows the adventures for three homeless folks who find a baby in a dumpster and go on a quest to return her to her parents. Along the way they have all kinds of adventures and it culminates into one of the most amazing chase scenes in animation history. A mixture of heart, silly humor and sadness, this is one movie filled to the brim with the spirit of the holidays.

So give one of these movies a shot next time you’re looking for something a little different around the holidays. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Trancers (1985)

A long time ago I watched this movie and thought it was a weak wannabe of Terminator. But a review of the film over at Direct to Video Connoisseur inspired me to revisit it. Besides it has Helen Hunt in it, how bad could it be?

Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a police officer in the distant future. He is hunting down the dangerous Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), a criminal with the power to turn weak willed people into drooling zombie-like slaves called Trancers! Whistler has just hurtled into the year 1984 to kill the ancestors of the great council – the only body powerful enough to stop him. But Deth isn’t going to take this lying down, he travels back in time to hunt the bastard. What follows has to be seen to be believed: Helen Hunt dressed as a Mall elf, a punk rocker singing Jingle Bells, a Trancer Santa Claus, assault by tanning booth, and a few film noir style quips courtesy of Mr. Deth. Let the holiday season begin!

Good Points:
  • Thomerson and Hunt are excellent in the parts
  • Moves along at a great pace
  • Balances humor with action to make an entertaining movie

Bad Points:
  • Low budget issues
  • Very very 80s
  • Owes a lot to Terminator and Blade Runner

Want an example of what a fun low budget sci-fi movie should be, then stop watching the SyFy channel and give Trancers a shot. Yeah the story isn’t too original, but the cast, the dialogue and the spirit of fun makes this a great movie for a Friday night. Throw in the oh so’80s atmosphere and you’ve got a movie that suits me just fine. All the Christmas decorations and the scene with the trancer-afied mall Santa make it perfect for holiday viewing. If you have Netflix download – it’s currently available there. Check it out.

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

Oh those mischievous Muppets, what have they been up to lately. Well they’ve made some funny online parodies and a few pretty bad made for TV movies. I was beginning to wonder if the best Muppet adventures lay in the distant past. And then this movie came along.

Walter (Peter Linz) is bursting with excitement, because his brother Gary (Jason Segel) is taking him to L.A. to see the Muppet Studios! Oh yeah and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) is along because of some kind of anniversary, but what’s more important is that Walter will get to see his heroes! Unfortunately the Muppet Theater is nothing but a dusty old wreck. Worse still the theater is about to be demolished by the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), unless someone can buy the land from him. So Walter, Gary and Mary rush off to find the Kermit and the rest of the gang to put on a show and raise the money. But will anyone care if The Muppets put on a show? Get ready for a bunch of silly songs, a bunch of celebrity cameos and more felt than you can possibly imagine.

Good Points:
All the Muppets are back and mostly in character
The songs are a lot of fun
A nice blend of nostalgia and silliness

Bad Points:
The focus isn’t completely on the old favorites
Some of the covers of pop music may go down a bit rough
If you hate felt, then avoid this movie

Yes I had a good time with this movie, and that’s about what you can expect from it. It took someone who loves the Muppets, Segel, to really get back to the heart of the characters and the feel of their older work. So this movie is as much about nostalgia as it is about getting the Muppets in and out of silly situations. Any fan of the old movies (especially The Muppet Movie) should give this one a try, I think you’ll have a great time and find yourself humming some of the tunes. I will forever ask myself if I am a manly Muppet or a Muppet of a man.

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Night of the Blood Beast (1958) – MST3K Review

It all begins with the short film from 1956, Once Upon a Honeymoon. All songwriter Jeff (Ward Ellis) and his wife Mary (Virginia Gibson) want to do is go on their honeymoon. They were married a year ago, but Jeff was so swamped with his work on a play that the honeymoon was put off. Just as they are about to leave, they get a call from Jeff’s boss. The lead actress in the show is demanding a rewrite of the song. Despair starts to creep in as the couple attempts to come up with a song. Little do they know that their guardian angel, Wilber (Chick Chandler) has a bit of heavenly magic ready to help them out.

Night of the Blood Beast begins with an astronaut John Corcoran (Michael Emmet) crash landing on earth. He doesn’t survive, but NASA picks up the ship and the body to study just what went wrong. When the crew gets back to their station, they find that they all contact to the outside world is blocked out by a powerful magnetic force. Before you can say, alien life form, one of the scientists is killed gruesomely and a strange shape is seeing wandering around the base. On top of that John comes back to life – and he’s got a little surprise. Turns out he didn’t come back alone. Incubating inside his body are small living creatures of unknown origin. What other horrors will be revealed during the Night of the Blood Beast?

Movie Review:
Every once in a while Mystery Science Theater 3000 would find a short subject that was so bizarre, so unique, that it would defy comprehension. Once Upon A Honeymoon is right up there with Out of this World and Mr. B Natural.

This is little movie combines elements of It’s a Wonderful Life with a ‘50s musical extravaganza. The opening scene with the angels floating around on cloud nine is certainly bizarre enough. But when Wilber cruises down to the roof of the house and uses his portable phone to call the head angel, you’ve just got to wonder what kind of pills the creators were popping.

But the real puzzle is figuring out the point of the whole enterprise. It’s obvious that this is a short film advertisement for something. But unlike the outrageous Design for Dreaming which clearly made its goal the exciting cars of the 1956 Motorama, this little film never clearly points out what its hawking. It took multiple viewings for me to finally realize that this was an extended ad for designer color phones. And no one was going to watch this thing multiple times, except for fans of MST3K. You see, as Mary is singing and dancing around, wishing for new interior designs for her house, she made sure to mention the different color phones she can get for each room. Also notice how Wilber the angel uses his portable phone, and the boss makes a big deal of using conference call and speakerphone technology.

So, compared to Century 21 Calling it’s a failure as an advertisement. But for sheer goofiness it’s a hoot. The wishing song is ridiculous in the extreme. The acting is over the top. The dance sequences are silly. Wilber the angel presents a whole new take on floaty. It’s just packed with everything a fan of absurd cinema could want in their short film.

Executive producer for Night of the Blood Beast is Roger Corman, and that should give you a hint of what’s in store. Corman can be really hit or miss. And the fact that this film was paired with She Gods of Shark Reef may have you worried. But there is some interesting stuff in this movie even if (as Mike puts it) the film has been thoroughly Corman-ized.

I liked the interesting twists involving the alien creature (played by a shambling Ross Sturlin). When it reveals its intentions at the end, it’s actually kind of interesting. The idea of the creature using the dead body of John as a living incubator was unusual, as was the fact that John was still technically dead. Sure he could walk and talk and even remember his fiancé Julie (Angela Greene). But he was obviously affected by the power of the creature.

There is an interesting film in the middle of this movie. But it does struggle with a few things typical of a low budget film of the era. The first is scope. The rocket ship used in the early portions of the film is pretty silly looking, and extremely small. Worse still is the official NASA equipment used in the film, an old farm truck and what looks like an abandoned radio station as a home base. None of this looks official in the least.

Our team of scientists look even less convincing. Dr. Wyman (Tyler McVey) is the best of the lot, playing the older gent with all the knowledge (and all the long talky scenes). Steve (John Baer) seems to be around to do the heavy lifting and Dave (Ed Nelson) is around to be aggressive. Donna (Georgianna Carter) is around to look cute and take photos. Oh and to be threatened by the Blood Beast. The acting works OK for a flick like this with Carter being the weakest link. Admittedly her part is extremely thin anyway.

The real issue is the pacing. There are lots and lots of talky scenes with little pay off or suspense. There are also several montages of walking (a Corman favorite). I can appreciate the idea to keep costs down by staying on one set, but the film never does much with it (unlike John Carpenter’s The Thing which used its isolated setting to excellent advantage). The scenes with the Blood Beast creeping around almost work at times, but director Bernard Kowalski never manages to pull it off. I had the same issue with his film Attack of the Giant Leeches.

The final result is that the movie has enough oddities in it to make it interesting, but enough issues to bog it down too much. But Mike and the bots are ready and raring to tackle the Blood Beast.

Episode Review:  
What better way to start off the truncated season seven of Mystery Science Theater than with a Roger Corman “classic”? Not only did Mystery Science Theater 3000, tackle this film, but they also aired it on Thanksgiving of 1995, as part of the Turkey Day Marathon. As such the episode has two unique sets of host segments: one them revolving all around Thanksgiving. So here you go, the Thanksgiving episode of my favorite show.

For the most part, season seven is a final hurrah for the cast and crew. You get the feeling here that they were going to go out with a bang, and why not start with something that fit their MO – a black and white sci-fi film with no budget. Having already tested their mettle with some of the most painful films ever made in season six (Coleman Francis trilogy of pain, not to mention Starfighters and Racket Girls), even this slog-fest from Cormanland couldn’t keep the boys down.

Besides they start out with the amazingly goofy Once Upon a Honeymoon. From the minute the credits kick in Mike and bots just let the riffs fly and the short just keeps on giving. The angel board meeting offers all kinds of silly office related humor.  When Wilber floats down to land on the roof of the house and gets tangled in the television antenna Tom quips, “They just got immaculate reception,” I also loved all the jokes they give Jeff as he grumbles and grouses about writing the new song and putting off the honeymoon: and all the sex that entails. During one scene as he scowls at the screen, his wife wanders over and asks how it’s going. Crow responds with “Here’s how far I got: LAA!”

The wishing song and the dance sequences offer all kinds of hilarious riffing opportunities. Tom does what he does best, add hilarious riffs to the music and lyrics. When a dance number starts, Mike focuses on the painful smile on Jeff’s face and says in a strained voice “Honey, help! I can’t stop smiling!” Mike decides that the film “is the perfect pairing with Eraserhead”.  While that is a hilarious thought, I believe that Once Upon a Honeymoon is one of the perfect pairings for Mike and the bots.

The movie proves a little tougher, but not too much. As usual the talky scenes and walking scenes are a challenge for riffing. But the guys focus more on the low budget “NASA” equipment the crew uses, especially “Fred Sanford’s truck”. I also like Crow’s comment, “If the name says Corman, then there’s gonna be walkin’.”

They also get confused during one of the talking scenes on the name of one of the characters. It appears that Judy refers to two different men as Steve. So Mike and the bots just start calling everyone Steve – even Donna! This was very similar to Joel and the bots getting confused with Ken in Fugitive Alien.

But for me the best jokes revolve around the monster and the pregnant John. Crow identifies the monster as “Barney after his horrible ordeal with the wild fire”. Mike gasps in horror when its revealed that John “is pregnant with shrimp”. This leads to all kinds of pregnant humor from the boys. But Tom notes that Night of the Blood Beast is much better than the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Junior.

The main host segments revolve around Thanksgiving. It all starts when Dr. Forrester discovers that Frank invited a whole bunch of people over for Thanksgiving dinner before he disappeared at the end of season six. These include appearances from many visitors from seasons past including Pitch from Santa Claus and Jack Perkins from his appearance in Fugitive Alien. Forrester’s mother Pearl also shows up to make his life miserable. With each passing break the Thanksgiving meal goes downhill as Dr. Forrester continues to screw things up and his guests complicate matters (Kitten with a Whip keeps throwing up hairballs in and on the food). On the satellite Mike has to act as a ref as the bots tackle the age old debate: stuffing or mashed potatoes! Later Pearl and “Art” (Pearl keeps calling Crow that) catch up on old times. The feast ends with Dr. Forrester and Pearl gloating as all the guests react to the Turkey Surprise.

This is a solid episode. The short is one of the funniest they tackled. The movie is an above average riffing session and the holiday themed host segments hit the spot.

I give it four baby shrimp out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater Collection volume XVI.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1958) – MST3K Review

This episode features the first segment in the serial adventure series, Radar Men From the Moon. This 1952 serial features the adventures of Commando Cody (George Wallace) as he first discovers the threat of the moon men on earth and then hurtles to the moon itself to bring the battle to them. Cody uses his super cool rocket pack to fly into adventure. He’s no slouch when it comes to fisticuffs or using his revolver, either. Cody’s a man of action and those moon men are in for some trouble!

You’d think the title The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy would reveal the entire plot, but no, this movie is filled to bursting with storyline. It all begins when Dr. Eduardo Almada (Ramon Gay) gathers his scientifical friends over to fill them in on previous events. In an e-x-t-e-n-d-e-d flashback, he reveals that he regressed his wife Flora (Rosa Arenas) into a past life and discovered that she was an Aztec priestess. This reveals the location of a valuable breastplate and bracelet. Eduardo grabs his pals and Flora and finds the artifacts, only to discover that taking the treasures raises the wrath of the Aztec mummy Popoca (Angel Di Stefani).

They are able to return the valuables before anyone gets really hurt, but the evil Dr. Krupp (Luis Aceves Castaneda) decides he wants the breastplate and bracelet for his own.  After a few schemes are thwarted by Popoca, he vanishes without a trace. This ends the flashback, and we return to present day. Krupp has created a robot that is a fusion of corpses and metallic parts. With this he can defeat the Aztec Mummy, but first he needs Flora to lead him to the treasure.

Movie Review:
When it comes to serials Radar Men From the Moon is pretty standard stuff, but it is entertaining if you come at it in the right way. The series is all about overblown fun, with fast editing, a silly plot, low budget special effects, and a cliffhanger ending. You usually get hammy acting, and the moon men provide that in spades, especially the leader Retik (Roy Barcroft). Wallace provides a sturdy hero in the classic ‘50s sense. He’s a square jawed scientist that has no problem getting into fights and shooting villains with his pistol.

What is surprising is how effective and fun the special effects are. For a low budget serial, there are some neat rocket effects, and of course the rocket suit itself. I also enjoyed the miniatures of the city. The editing moves the plot along at a brisk pace and the cliffhanger is a hoot.

Contrast this to The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy which is horribly edited, horribly slow and way too boring to be blessed with this title or its alternate: The Aztec Mummy Against the Humanoid Robot. To be honest the version we are seeing here is dubbed, and I’m not sure what kind of editing job the American distributors did with this film. But the final result has to go down as one of the worst movies in Mystery Science Theaters storied history. For whatever reason, nearly 70% of the movie is composed of flashbacks to the two previous Aztec mummy films: The Aztec Mummy and Curse of the Aztec Mummy. This means you get poorly edited footage with lame voice over provided by a bored English voice actor. Um, yeah its as much fun as it sounds.

What is killer here is the pacing. We’re talking glacial here. Some of this is done to create suspense. But everyone moves like they’re sleepwalking – not just the mummy! The scene where the mummy is first revealed is tedious. It’s composed of floating heads reacting to the slow, slow shadow of the shambling of the mummy. But you know what, maybe it worked fine in the original film. A horror movie benefits from building up to the scary images (especially true of classic horror films). But what we all came here to see was a mummy battling a robot. The fact that it takes so damn long to even introduce the robot is a bad sign.

One of the saving graces is the evil Dr. Krupp who is also known as “The Bat” for some unknown reason. Maybe because he rants and raves like someone whose spent too much time around guano? But once he gets his robot going, things move a little faster. But don’t get your hopes up. The movie still manages to screws it all up. The final battle between the mummy and the robot has to go down as one of the great anticlimaxes in film. You have to see it to believe it. But if you do choose to see this stink pile of a movie – see it with Joel and the bots.

Episode Review:  
This is only the second episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its comedy central years, and it shows. There’s a lot of stuff the team hadn’t quite worked out yet. The story goes that after a single viewing of this movie the crew asked Comedy Central if they could skip this movie and find something else to riff. They were denied and so they forged ahead, working on a movie that was so bad it confounded them. The result is a show that none of the crew was really proud of.

The best part of the episode is the riffing on Radar Men From the Moon. It’s actually up to standard quality for later seasons, with the riffs coming at a good pace. The serial gives the team plenty to work with. Tom keeps calling Cody in his trademark helmet “pumpkin boy”.  When a battle erupts between two scientists and some professional thugs, the scientists kick major butt and nearly win. Joel and bots speculate on what the scientists are studying that enables them to be so well versed in fighting. Then there’s the cliffhanger ending that just leaves the bots confused by the whole thing. All in all, the riffing the serials is usually a good time, and this first attempt at it sets the bar high.

But The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy just ends up clobbering the boys. Maybe they were so disheartened about actually having to work on a movie they found too horrible. The movie left such a bad taste in their mouths that they would avoid Mexican films for a good portion of their work (Santa Claus and Samson vs. The Vampire Women being the exceptions).

One of the worst things they have to deal with is the extended narrated flashback. Usually voice over works in the riffing favor. They can usually add lines to the narration to hilarious effect. But here the flat unemotional deliver of the dialogue drains any fun from that portion of the film. We’re talking 70% of the movie here!

There are a couple things that occur in this episode that were never tried again. In one scene a woman is singing, and Joel stands up and puts his hand over her mouth. They actually muffle the singing each time he does it. Joel liked to physically interact with the movies, but this is the only time that what he does affects the actual film. In another scene (the horrible mummy reveal), the heroes have their backs to the camera and their arms in front of them. They way they are lined up does look a bit like men lined up at some urinals. So the crew added some sound effects until they turn around. According to Mike, they are very ashamed by the gag.

The riffing does pick up once the new footage kicks in. The pacing is better and Dr. Krupp is chewing so much scenery that he adds to the comedy. Tom quips “Wow, they just covering the plot holes up in asphalt now.” During a long scene in a cemetery the boys do a whole Martin and Lewis routine as the comic relief character wanders around. They do some fun things with the mummy’s name. My favorite is Crow calling him the Beer Barrel Popoca. Of course the titular showdown gives them a bit to work with as well. The robot is sooo lame that the bot get up in arms at Dr. Krupps faulty invention.

For host segments, they experiment with a complete storyline that covers all the breaks. Things start off with the typical invention exchange. Joel creates an airbag for a motorcycle. The Mads create the “Chalkman” to play nails on chalkboard sound effects to drive party guests away when they refuse the leave. At the first break the Satellite of Love is swarmed by demon dogs! These are little plastic bone dogs painted red (and were originally a toy from the He-man toy series). Tom tries to tame them, but they think he’s a fire hydrant. At the next break the king of the demon dogs arrives and tries to make peace. Gypsy eats him. When the boys come out of the theater the next time, Crow decides to disguise himself as the demon dog king. They see right through it and relieve themselves on him. After the movie ends the demon dogs invade the theater. Joel fires a ball from the SOL and the demon dogs chase it!

This is one of those episodes that long time fans of the show may find interesting. Its neat to see how different the series was in these early shows, and what the crew tried to do to combat such a slow and painful film. But for casual viewers this is a real slog of an episode. See if you can find the Radar Men From the Moon episode on line, but there’s no real need to seek the full episode out.

I give it only one sacred breastplate out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XV.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wild World of Batwoman (1966) – MST3K Review

This episode starts with a short about cheating called ironically Cheating. We follow young Johnny as he discovers he has no head for numbers and can’t grasp factoring. He enlists the help of his brainy friend Mary to smuggle answers to him during a test. Soon cheating becomes a habit with Johnny and yet he rises to the role of student council representative. But his cheating is soon revealed and he tumbles, losing his position in the student council, his friends and maybe his sanity. Poor dope.

As for “the movie”… the evil super-villain Ratfink has his eye on the atomic hearing aid currently residing at Ayjax (pronounced Ajax) Industries. With this device he and the stupidly brilliant Professor Neon (George Mitchell) can obtain government secrets and sell them to the highest bidder. Unfortunately Jim Flanagan (Steve Brodie) and his boss J.B (Richard Banks) are aware of the plot and bring in Batwoman (Katherine Victor) and her girls to protect it.

Sure its seems like most of the girls are around to wear skimpy clothing and dance around, but they are really protecting… um… something. And sure it seems like Professor Neon and his mugging assistant Heathcliff (Lloyd Nelson) are “comic relief” but they are really super brilliant scientists. And just because Ratfink is dressed like a Mexican wrestler… oh never mind. You want girls, you want groovy humor, you want silliness and skimpy clothes then see if your brain can stand The Wild World of Batwoman.

Movie Review:
Um, yeah, this movie.

No, I’m not going to talk about it yet. Instead I’ll tell you about the short. It’s from Centron those masters of educational shorts from the ‘50s and ‘60s. These tended to be overly earnest black and white affairs that attempted to guide people through various issues such as personal hygiene, buying food and dating.

Here they tackle the black art of cheating. Filmed in places like a noir horror film, the aim is to scare potential cheaters with dire consequences. When we see the despair that Johnny descends into it’s a bleak picture, with dark shadows and his home becoming a void of emptiness. I also love the way the floating head of his teacher haunts his dreams.

It’s the combination of earnest chastising from the voice over and the goofy acting that makes this one fun. These days shorts like these seem too silly to be effective and I wonder if they had the same effect back in the day on the intended audience. Centron made a ton of these types of films, so someone somewhere must have thought they were effective.

Well I guess I have to write about this movie eventually.

1966 saw the arrival of the Batman television series with Adam West and Burt Ward. It mixed comic book antics with campy style and silly laughs. It was a blast of fun that appealed to folks and lasted for three seasons.

Look, its obvious this movie was made to cash in on the popularity of Batman but with a hot babe and her gals fighting crimes and delivering laughs. There’s just one teensy weensy problem. It stinks to high heaven. I don’t even know where to begin.

Ok let’s start with director Jerry Warren. He’s got an atrocious track record. I haven’t seen Frankenstein Island but I’ve heard nothing but horror stories about it. I have seen The Incredible Petrified World and that experience nearly killed me.

I can take a lot of things from a bad movie. There’s usually plenty of entertainment to mine even from a poorly made dramatic film. But one of the most painful types of movies to endure is the unfunny comedy. Batwoman is one of those.

None of the pieces here work at all. Batwoman and her babes can’t act, they can’t fight, they can’t do much more than look slightly attractive in their skimpy outfits. So when your main hero can’t live up to the basic elements of being a hero, you’ve got a problem. I suppose the cheesecake element here works. The girls spend a lot of time dancing around and lounging around.

But the villains really sink the whole thing. Ratfink looks like a moron in his cloak, fedora and Mexican wrestler mask. He has a secret identity, which is why I didn’t give him a cast credit – but it’s so lame that you won’t care when it’s revealed. His two thugs are supposed to be funny in a palooka kind of way, but they grate more than anything else.

And speaking of annoying there is Professor Neon and Heathcliff. These two are supposed to be the cornerstones of comedy in this film and fail over and over again. Neon’s accent changes constantly, he is supposed to be kooky mad scientist type. But he spends most of the movie whining, giving people happy pills (that makes them dance uncontrollably) and getting Heathcliff to drink experimental drugs. Heathcliff is a hunchbacked, mugging freak who flails about and paws at the girls. He makes Torgo from Manos the Hands of Fate look civilized. His antics are supposed to amuse, but the mugging is so painful you want to kill him. He gives Droppo from Santa Clause Conquers the Martians a real run for the money.

The movie is badly paced, slowing down horribly in places. It has scenes that have nothing to do with anything. There are two opening sequences that feature characters we never see again! The entire séance scene is painfully unfunny with an offensive Chinese character babbling on and on. The ending is supposed to be a mad cap romp involving all the characters chasing each other around a table as wacky music plays. You will only feel pain.

This is a bad, bad movie. One of the worst the team at Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever tackled. Are they up to the challenge?

Episode Review:  
Mike Nelson only had two episodes under his belt as the lead riffer when he tackled The Wild World of Batwoman. On the surface the movie offers a lot of stuff to mine for jokes, but the overall badness of the movie has a powerful smothering affect.

Luckily the Cheating short starts things off, and it’s probably the best bit of the entire episode. Mike and the bots jump right into the exceedingly noir ton of the short and make it one of the darkest riffs they did during the Comedy Central years. It’s great stuff. Some of the best moments occur during the actual cheating scenes in the classroom. Mike and the bots add all kind of interior monologues for Johnny as he plots and plans his cheating maneuvers. I love the moment where he’s lying in bed later and considering his crime. The head of his teacher appears floating above him and Tom Servo says, “Oh hi Mrs. Gramby,” in a calm tone and then screams in pure terror. Once the cheating is discovered, the short shows how word spreads of Johnny’s crime. Over the shot of a ringing phone Crow quips “Mother Teresa called. She hates you.”  I love the riffing on shorts and this is certainly one of the better ones.

There are some great moments here and some funny riffs, but the movie is exceedingly bad and slow moving. Mike and the bots do a good job, but never get a really handle on the film. Part of that is the movie’s poor direction and horrible editing. As Crow says, “It’s like they put a bunch of movies in a blender and hit mix.”

Most of my favorite comments are the ones that just attack the amazing stupidity of the film. When Mike says, “This is like a Warhol movie, except now its getting weird”, you’re inclined to agree with him. During a scene with a bunch of people dancing because Professor Neon gave them happy pills we get this exchange. A character on screen asks, “Have you lost your mind?” Mike answers, “No, just my self respect.” Oh and those dancing moments come with some really painful music, but as Tom notes, “Sure the music’s terrible but it drowns out the dialogue.”

This type of movie requires just a bit more aggressive riffing style, something the boys perfect in season six with some real monsters like Starfighters and The Beast of Yucca Flats. Here, they put in a good effort, but its not quite enough. Most like you’ll feel like Tom Servo as the last few minutes of the movie play out and start screaming “ENNNNND!  ENNNNNND!!!!!” My wife does, and pretty much refuses to watch this one.

The episode begins with Mike attempting to play blackjack with the bots. Crow is obsessed with doubling down. For the invention exchange Mike creates a giant razor for shaving back hair. The mads create an atomic hairdryer (inspired by the atomic hearing aid). At the first break Mike asks the bots to write an essay based on the Cheating short. Crow wasn’t paying attention. At the next break everyone presents their essays and Crow cheated! For the next break Mike and bots meet about Crows cheating. Tom wants Crow burned at the stake. When the movie ends Crow meets his accusers and deliver’s a speech. He won’t own up to a thing!

All in all, this episode is a tough one. When I’m in the mood for something this dumb, I find it to be an average episode. But if you aren’t prepared, it can be painful. Still the Cheating short is classic stuff, and worth seeking out.

I give it two atomic hearing aids out of five.

This episode is available on a single DVD from Rhino (and may be out of print at this time).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Warrior of the Lost World (1983) – MST3K Review

This film starts with an exciting screen crawl (that looks nothing like Star Wars I tell you, NOTHING!) that explains how there was a terrible war and everyone died and blah blah blah. Out of the ashes rose the evil Prossor (Donald Pleasence) who is brainwashing everyone into a state of mellow passivity. But help in on the way in the form a mush-mouthed, robotic motorcycle riding hero known only as “The Rider” (Robert Ginty).

He is tasked by some odd floaty people to rescue McWayne (Harrison Muller). This guy is some kind of visionary who was captured by Prossor. Along for the ride is Nastasia (Persis Khambatta) the lovely daughter of McWayne. At first The Rider scoffs, because there is nothing in it for him. But eventually he stops imitating Han Solo and attempts a daring rescue. But the forces of Prossor are powerful and he’s got a deadly card up his sleeve – MEGAWEAPON! Can the Warrior of the Lost World hope to survive?

Movie Review:
After the apocalypse films were all the rage in the early ‘80s thanks to the Mad Max series. Many low budget films tried to cash in on the success and this one of those flicks. According to legend director and writer David Worth was sent to Italy without a script to begin working on the film. All he had was the cast and the finished poster. While this does explain some of the completely bizarre stuff going on in the movie, it also makes the perfect excuse for the final product.

Either way, the movie is made up of characters and scenes you’ve seen before. Knight Rider had hit television the previous year, so we’ve got a lead character named “Rider” and a talking motorcycle with amazing devices that Q from the Bond series would be envious of. While KITT from Knight Rider was a cool sounding gent, the motorcycle from Warrior of the Lost World sounds like a digitized smurf. It also has the annoying habit of repeating everything it says at least twice as well as showing it on the small screen over the handlebars. How The Rider can read this stupid screen while driving is beyond me, but hey I also don’t drive while talking on the cell phone so what do I know.

As I mentioned above The Rider is supposed to be a cool mercenary dude, with his unshaven good looks and cold eyes giving him an air of mystery. Sadly Ginty isn’t up to the challenge. His mumblings and grumblings come across like he’s had a few too many beers before filming. When he does manage to say something clearly, its pretty much whining. You end up rooting for Nastasia to just kick his butt and take over the movie. Alas, she is soon captured and our “hero” has to come to her aid.

Poor Persis Khambatta, she never really got to shine in any of her movies (but I’d argue she does a good job in Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Here she is the tough gal who is contractually obligated to fall for our leading man even though there is no evidence in the film that she finds him interesting or attractive. She’s not bad in the part, but its underwritten and formulaic.

Pleasence is always good as the villain, but it looks like Worth asked him to play the part EXACTLY like he played Bloefeld in the James Bond classic You Only Live Twice. There is really very little difference between the two characters, but Pleasence does it so well we don’t mind. And hey, he plays a nearly identical character in Puma Man too.

What makes this movie a heaping helping of awesome ‘80s is the fact that it tries to push its budget and play to its audience all at the same time. The result is some classic moments. You’ve got the “army” that The Rider proves himself to. These consist of punks, truckers, amazons, martial artists and some odd militiamen. There’s the armored vehicles with spikes on the bumpers and the huge Omega symbol painted on them. The machine guns that sport “futuristic” sound effects.  Not to mention the entertainment in Prossor’s city that looks like a Duran Duran video fused with an leather show. Some horrible dubbing appears,  and you've got the oh-so-synthy musical score. Fan’s of low budget ‘80s cheese will have a lot to enjoy here.

Also taking a page from The Road Warrior, we get some on the road action with lots of vehicles shooting at each other and chasing each other around. Some of this is filmed pretty well, giving us some good views of the action. But it lacks the kinetic drive that you find in the Mad Max movies or even Death Race 2000. And finally the movie ends with a plot twist that seems to hint a sequel. But we were spared more of Ginty attempting to kiss Khambatta by swallowing her whole face.

All in all, not a bad movie for what it is, but it could have been a lot better. Of course if it had been better then Joel and bots wouldn’t have had a crack at it.

Episode Review:  
And the fifth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 started off with a bang, bringing us the glory of “the Paper Chase guy” as The Warrior of the Lost World. For me, Season Five is one of the best of the series. Joel’s riffing has a bit more bite to it (some believe that Mike was providing the bulk the material at this point) and the speed of the riffing is reaching its best point.

One of the things that is great about these low budget fantasy and sci-fi films of the 1980s is that they just keep on giving the bizarre and wonderful elements. These are just tailor made for riffing. One of these gifts is the talking motorcycle with its display showing everything it just said. As Crow points out its closed captioned, and probably because the digitized voice is so grating that you naturally want to block it out. This leads to all kinds of great riffs on the bike and builds up to the hilarious final battle between The Rider and the enormous armored truck named MEGAWEAPON. Joel and the bots hate the talking bike so much at this point that they are cheering MEGAWEAPON to victory. It’s a hilarious sequence.

But there’s plenty more to enjoy. The actor playing McWayne bears a resemblance to Jimmy Carter and all kinds of jokes kick in – especially since the man is running around with a machine gun for most of the film. Joel dubs him “Jimmy Carter in Missing in Action!”

Joel creates a song about the multicolored drinks served in Prossor’s Duran Duran video , sorry, entertainment club. Him and Tom sing the song to the music provided and even ‘80s it up with Tom performing the echo effect.

Of course with Trace being a huge Star Trek fan you get a lot of references to Khambatta’s role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. When Pleasence shows up 40 minutes into the film, they add even more jokes dealing with bald pates.

One more sequence to enjoy is during the ceremony at the end of the film. The camera pans over a crowd of people watching, and Tom Servo gives each and every one of them a celebrity identity. It’s a hilarious moment that is sure to be in anyone’s top ten for season five.

All this and plenty of riffing on “the Paper Chase guy” and his mumbling and you’ve got a really funny episode.  Like many episodes there are a few slow moments, when our heroes are sneaking around. The guys also lose a bit of steam during the extended chase scene. But for the most part the pacing is solid.

The host segments are silly fun. The episode starts with Tom attempting to perform the intro to the show, but ends up being a blowhard, and Crow keeps interrupting him. The invention exchange has the mad scientists revealing The Square Master, a plastic square that you put on the floor to help you exercise. Joel and bots come up with candy hearts for grown ups that are really antacids and come with clever sayings like “Get Out”, “Still Mad”, “My Needs”, “Like a Brother” and “It’s Blue”. At the first break, Joel is inspired by the car chase to turn the bots into slot cars. Tom’s just doesn’t work right. At the next break, Joel plays The Rider in a skit about him dealing with his mom before the apocalypse. For the next segment Joel and bots discuss what they would do if the apocalypse happened. Turns out there would be a lot more places to roller skate. When the movie concludes Joel and bots decide to give MEGAWEAPON a call and see how’s he doing. Mike Nelson provides the voice for the hulking truck.
While I had a blast with this episode on this viewing, the first time I watched it, I found it a bit too slow in the middle. Don’t know if I put some perspective on it or what, but this one comes close to a top rating. So I give it four MEGAWEPONS out of five, with the possibility to raise it by one if I enjoy it as much next time.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Nostalgia Nugget - Farewell to the SOL

1999 was an eventful year for movie fans. The boom of the independent films was coming to an end (we didn’t know it at the time). American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project were creating huge buzz. And Mystery Science Theater 3000 was airing its final season.

Sure, we’d been told this before. Back in 1996 the show left Comedy Central after seven seasons. Sure we got Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, but it seemed like small conciliation. The series seemed to be going strong and Comedy Central just lost interest in it, focusing more on South Park (which is still a favorite around our house). Then the Sci-fi channel came on board and picked up Mike and the bots, and fans of movie riffing breathed a sigh of relief.

But things were changing. There were new cast members. Some folks still dislike Bill Corbett’s take on Crow and Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester. There was also a meaner edge to the riffing, with Mike and the bots unleashing some barbed riffs in addition to the usual fare. The final season of the show was a mixed bag, with the later episodes lacking the energy of the second half of Season Eight. It seemed like the cast and crew was ready to move on.

In some ways, I was too. I admit that during that initial run of the Sci-fi years I felt something was missing too. While I started out watching each new episode, partway through Season Eight I started to lose interest. Something seemed to be missing in these final seasons, and the harsher tone just wasn’t as funny. These days, I have a much longer list of favorites from the final three years, and I’ve come to appreciate the darker more vicious tone the series took. It’s just another choice I have when picking an episode, do I want Joel’s more good-natured approach, or do I feel like hearing Mike and bots tear into the idiocy of Space Mutiny again.

It was just odd that the final episode of one of my favorite shows just didn’t have the impact I expected. Diabolik was an average riffing session at best, and while some of the host segments were entertaining, they weren’t nearly as memorable as the finale to Laserblast or Mitchell. It just felt like the show ended on a whimper and that was it. We could enjoy Rhino’s VHS (and eventual DVD) releases, but that was it. The cast and crew moved on to other things, Mike writing some amusing books, Trace becoming a writer for television.

Then in the mid-2000s the creators of Mystery Science Theater came back with new projects all based on movie riffing. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy  and Bill Corbett joined forces for the entertaining Film Crew series. In only lasted four episodes, but is well worth seeking out. Mike also provided some solo commentaries for Legend films. At first these were low key riffing and observations. Then everything changed with the creation of separate audio tracks that could be synced to a movie – Rifftrax was born. Mike, Kevin and Bill have been cranking these out ever since. They tackle short educational films (some of the best material from the MST3K years), as well as Hollywood blockbusters and little known B-films.

But the rest of the crew has not been idle. Joel Hodgson got together with Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff and J. Elvis Weinstein to create Cinematic Titanic. CT focuses on riffing B-films, and performing live shows. These have been a big hit with fans. Best of all, the CT group is always around after the show to sign autographs and talk with fans. I haven’t had a chance to pick up their DVDs yet (or attend a show), but I’m looking to rectify that this year.

But an interesting side effect has occurred because of MST3K - movie mocking has gone viral. Sure there were movie mocking crews before MST3K. I remember a short-lived show called Mad Movies that basically replaced an old film’s soundtrack with their own dialogue (I remember them taking on Cyrano de Bergerac from 1950 starring Jose Ferrer). But MST3K made this type of entertainment more popular and refined it. This has inspired plenty of other riffers to try their hand at the comedy with mixed results.

It seems that internet is teaming with this type of comedy, especially in a time when anyone can make fun of anyone else with impunity. In many ways, it’s a natural progression in tone from the meaner riffing style of the final seasons of MST3K, but with a lot more colorful language and in your face antics. And I’ll readily admit that I find a few of these folks very funny.

My first exposure to this new breed was with The Angry Video Game Nerd played by James Rolfe. Essentially he reviews old video games, spanning from early Pong consoles to Nintendo 64. He usually finds some of the worst games in existence and unleashes a torrent of anger and frustration on them. I admit a lot of the humor comes from his creative language as well as commiserating with him on some of the games he tackles (especially some of the low budget 8-bit Nintendo games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s). Rolfe can be very abrasive, but you can tell he really does love retro games, and his collection speaks for itself. The Angry Nerd is really a persona, and if you catch any of Rolfe’s other short films and reviews (he has a fun and interesting horror movie retrospective out there) he comes across as a knowledgeable and funny guy.

In the same league is Doug Walker of The Nostalgia Critic. Again, this is an angry persona who reviews movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s and pretty much rips them apart. His observations range from spot on to over the top and he obviously is having fun playing the ranting reviewer. Again, if you catch some of Doug’s other work, you can see he’s a movie lover and knows his stuff, but uses the angry character to generate laughs. Doug has gathered a team of reviewers spanning all kinds of genres and this group can be found at That Guy With Glasses. Not only does this allow you to find many of these folks in one place, but allows them to do crossovers and cameo appearances in each others work. Great way to cross promote Doug!

Another reviewer who follows a similar style is the Nostalgia Chick aka Lindsay Ellis. The Chick tends to come at the target with a bit more of an analytical path, often going into themes or portrayals of women in her reviews. She keeps things cynical and angry, as well as funny. She also has plenty of cameos from her pal Nella. They even created their own silly storyline that pops up in the reviews.

Thing is, most of these reviewers are pretty one note when it comes to the reviews and the comedy. They go on and on about how much pain the reviewing experience causes them and go over the top in unleashing their hatred upon it. Yeah, its funny, but its also a little too negative. Sometimes, I miss the more good-natured humor.

And then I found Obscurus Lupa (Allison Pregler), a gal who loves watching cheesy movies. Yes, she points out issues with plot, acting and has some riffs of her own. But she tends to review movies that she enjoys watching, because they are so silly they’re fun. She focuses on direct to video action films of the ‘90s (especially anything with Cynthia Rothrock) and low budget horror films. Lupa always seems to have a good time with her reviews and always lays it down at the end – is the movie a cheesy good time, or is it not worth seeking out. She also has some mini-story lines and cameo appearances in her reviews. Both Nostalgia Critic and Nostalgia Chick have teamed up with Lupa to make some hilarious episodes.

So my favorite television show did come to an end way back in ’99, but its legacy lives on. I’ve got plenty of Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic to explore. And if I want a quick riffing fix, I’ll give Angry Video Game Nerd, Nostalgia Critic, Nostalgia Chick or Obscurus Lupa a watch.

A sample from each of these folks:

Rifftrax - Drugs are Like That (sample featuring edits from the educational short)
Cinematic Titanic - East Meets Watts (sample live performance)
Angry Video Game Nerd - Godzilla games
Nostalgia Critic - Congo
Nostalgia Chick - Dragonheart
Obscurus Lupa - City Dragon