Wednesday, December 21, 2016

First Impression: Kubo and the Two Strings

When it comes to stop motion animation, we don't see too much of it on display these days. Most studios go for the full computer animation to bring their worlds to life. But Laika specializes in stop motion and their wonderful work on Coraline remains a favorite of mine. So when Kubo and the Two Strings started getting really great reviews, I knew I had to check it out. Besides it takes place in Japan during the samurai era. That has to be cool, right?

Things I liked:

  • Jaw dropping stop motion animation and action
  • Fun and engaging characters
  • A plot that pulls you in with some interesting themes it explores

Things I didn't like:

  • Some of the voice acting may not work for all viewers
  • May be too scary or intense for young viewers
  • The end title song may annoy some viewers

And Laika knocks it out of the park again. Kubo and the Two Strings is a visual dazzler. The world they created for this film and the way the viewer is pulled into it is really impressive. But the story and characters are what really make this film work. Kubo is a very likable protagonist and his journey is engaging, exciting and fun. The movie touches on some great themes including storytelling and family dynamics. Well worth seeking out. I think a single viewing is enough to enjoy it on the surface level, but this movie begs for a rematch to really see how all the pieces work together to make this top notch effort.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Jack Frost (1964) – MST3K Review

Amazingly adorable Nastenka (Natalya Sedykh) lives with an evil stepmother and wicked stepsister. Her life is one of toil and ridicule. Her father is a pathetic wimp who always agrees with the evil stepmother. One day Nastenka meets handsome braggart Ivan (Eduard izoltov) who tries to impress her but ends up turning into a half man half bear. All because he was a jerk to Grandfather Mushroom after an extended game of hide and seek (don’t ask). 

Ivan runs off to do a good deed and turn back into a handsome man. Meanwhile after a matchmaking meeting goes poorly for the wicked stepsister, Nastenka is blamed for the debacle. The poor girl is taken out to the middle of the forest to freeze to death. Told you the stepmother was wicked! She is found by Jack Frost (Aleksandr Khvylya) the spirit of winter who takes her into his home. At the same time Ivan, attempts to find Nastenka and runs into the wicked witch, Baba Yaga (Georgi Milyar). She claims to want to help, but she is determined to eat Ivan and turn Nastenka into a frozen statue. Will our fairy tale heroes end up dead, or will they be saved by the magical powers of Jack Frost?

Movie Review
Like nearly all the Russian fairy and folktale movies tackled by Mystery Science Theater 3000, you can view these films in two ways. You can see them as colorful, entertaining films filled with magic, and child-like wonder. Or you can view them as insane, nonsensical bits of film containing some of the funniest dub lines uttered and strangest situations ever put on the screen.

As a lover of fantasy films, I fall into the first camp. Jack Frost or Morozko as it is known in Russian is first and foremost a fairy tale targeted toward children. The characters are simple. The situations are outlandish. There are moments that are supposed to thrill the single digit age crowd and put a smile on the face of adults who remember those folk tales fondly.

Jack Frost is really a compilation of several fables and story tropes combined together to make a single narrative. That explains why it jumps around quite a bit doing its best to work the Santa Claus-like figure of Morozko into the same tale as infamous witch Baba Yaga. To be honest, it takes some serious stretching to get there. Still we root for Nastenka, because she has a good heart and is pretty. At first we don’t like Ivan because he’s a braggart and rude to his elders. But after he turns into a silly bear headed man, he learns his lesson and becomes the hero of our story. He tricks Baba Yaga and does his best to save Nastenka after she is frozen. He has a good heart, he just needed to be shown how to treat others with respect. With simple lessons to learn, the movie isn’t a masterpiece of plotting, but an interesting grab bag of your favorite European and Russian stories.

Where the movie really shines is the amazing visuals and fun situations. For a Russian film made in 1964, this is an elaborate production, with colors popping off the screen and crazy costumes and special effects. Sure it’s all a bit dated looking now, but the magic is still there. Everything from animation to reversing the film is used to create the magical world. One of my favorite special effects is the silly wooden pig sled that goes racing over the snow. Its such a random sequence executed with a bit of string and sped up camera that you can’t help but laugh and shake your head. Every effort was made to make this fairy tale land come to life and I think it was handled very well.

The acting is all over the top and silly. Not a single character plays a normal person. Nastenka Is so cute your teeth hurt. The witch is so wicked that you can’t help but boo her, and yet she’s silly enough that little children won’t be too frightened. My favorites are the nasty stepmother and stepsister. These two are so repulsive and horrid that you can’t wait for them to get their just desserts. Even Jack Frost appears as a mysterious force at first. You don’t know if you can trust him, but when Nastenka melts his heart, he’s like the magical grandfather your never had. Unfortunately the dubbing is uniformly bad, with lines coming out in a jumble or just not making a lick of sense. My knowledge of Russian myths and legends helped me follow the film, but if you’re not familiar with these stories you could get lost very easily.

As much as I appreciate Jack Frost, I can say that it is one of the goofiest things I’ve seen. The pig sled is only one example of random hilarity to be found here. Another is Grandfather Mushroom, a disappearing old coot who toys with Ivan. The witch’s cottage with legs and thuggish tree henchmen has to be seen to be believed. The robbers look like a mix of Michael Palin and schnauzers. Then there’s the entire matchmaker sequence where the stepsister gets gussied up for an interview with the eligible bachelor. Wow! It’s all done in the name of fun and magic, but its so over the top, and foreign at times your American mind can’t help but laugh. It was a perfect fit for Mike and the bots. Let's see what they do with it.

Episode Review
This is the fourth Russian fairytale film the crew tackled and in my book it’s the best one. The Sword and the Dragon was on the slow side. The Day the Earth Froze seemed to stun Joel and the bots with its strangeness. The Magic Voyage of Sinbad has the best riffing of the Comedy Central episodes, but really Jack Frost fires on all cylinders.

Part of the reason has to be that Sci-fi channel finally relaxed enough to let the crew to do something other than sci-fi or horror, and something that wasn’t in the Universal catalogue. After the endless parade of black and white John Agar-fests, I think the crew was exciting to tackle something in a bit more outlandish. What better way to celebrate than with an amazingly colorful and insane film like Jack Frost?

The boys get right to work commenting that the stepsister looks like Tom Petty in a baby’s crib. When they comment that the candy she’s sucking on looks like liver on a stick, you know you’re in for a good one. Grandfather Mushroom opens the door for drug related humor (“Isn’t that what they called Jerry Garcia?”) When Ivan turns into a bear, they can’t believe their eyes and just roll with it. The pig sled, the witch, the robbers - its as if the movie is just gift-wrapping the situations and characters for riffing. 

The boys have some fun with how darn cute Nastenka is, and how often her little face fills up the screen with her huge eyes. They get a kick out of the over the top acting provided by Jack Frost himself, as he rants, raves, and flails about. He bears more than a passing resemblance to the nutty Santa in Santa Claus. All the animals in the film are given their own lines thanks to Mike and bots, with the family dog and the evil cat getting the best ADR riffing. The boys are non-stop with the laughs. After another impossible and over the top occurrence concludes Crow says, “Well I guess this is just a magical land, Mike.” He pauses and then says, “I hate magical lands!”

But the hatred it feigned. The movie is too good to hate and so silly that you can’t help but laugh with it. The jokes are varied and plentiful, really making this a can’t miss episode for anyone who loves fantasy films and anything with a bad dub.

Sadly the host segments are really hit and miss. Pearl takes off and leaves Observer and Bobo behind on the “camping planet”. The two argue for a while before Mike steps in and nearly gets them to forget about the movie. After the first break Crow brings in Yakov Smirnoff (if you don’t remember him, good!) to comment on the film. He fails. At the next break, Crow has turned into a bear, just like Ivan in the movie! Mike and Tom don’t believe him. For the next break, Crow brings in another expert in Russian fables – Earl Torgeson. Yeah no one knows who he is either. When the movie concludes Servo tries to be as cute at Nastenka and fails. Pearl comes back in time to determine what the best ape movie ever made is.

This is one of the gems of the second half of season eight and maybe of the entire show. The episode provides lots of laughs. It’s also fun movie to watch during winter and makes for an excellent final part of a trilogy including Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Santa Claus. I can hardly wait to inflict it on other family members this next holiday.

I give it five wooden pig sleds out of five.

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tenchi Muyo: Daughter of Darkness (1997)

The Tenchi Muyo series was certainly the king of anime in the 1990s. So it goes without saying that after a successful television series and first movie, there would be another movie. But this film seems to follow the original OAV series, and instead of looking at Tenchi’s past, looks to his future – as a father!

As Tenchi (Matthew K. Miller) is heading home one summer afternoon, he comes across a pretty girl sitting on the shrine steps. She smiles warmly and calls him “Daddy”. Her name is Mayuka (Julie Maddalena) and while she knows that Tenchi is her father, she has no clear memories of her past. This is all very odd, since she doesn’t look that much younger than him. Of course this puts Ryoko (Petrea Burchard) on her guard, convinced that this girl is a threat to Tenchi. Washu (K.T. Vogt) starts doing some research on Mayuka’s DNA to find out more, especially when Mayuka displays the same powers as Tenchi.

But mostly everyone in the house befriends the lost girl, especially Sasami (Sherry Lynn) and Ayeka (Jennifer Darling). But evil is lurking in the background as a mysterious figure called Yuzuha (Barbara Goodson) watches and waits. She’s got a few tricks in store for Tenchi and the girls. All she has to do is let this Daughter of Darkness trap him.

Good Points:
  • All the characters seem to be their less intense OAV versions
  • Mayuka is a likable character
  • Ko Otani provides a really good musical score 

Bad Points:
  • Yuzuha’s motivations and plan aren’t well developed
  • Some confusion on what continuity this takes place in
  • Reduced scope compared to the previous film

For me this is one of the most entertaining of the Tenchi Muyo incarnations. The characters seem like friends, all dealing with the bizarre revelation of Tenchi’s daughter. Miyuka is so sweet (if a little weird) that you really worry about her fate, and place in Yuzuha’s plan. If only the script was polished a bit this could have been the best of the movies. As it stands, it’s a bit confused, but still very entertaining.

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

In Depth Review
Tenchi is about to meet... his daughter?
In the interest of full disclosure I should say this was my first exposure to the whole Tenchi franchise. I picked up this DVD on a whim. It was one of the few anime DVDs available at Tower Records, and I was just getting back into Japanese animation. I had heard about Tenchi, but hadn’t had a chance to see any of it. The OAV series and television series would not come to DVD for many years. This was the first bit of Tenchi to come out on a shiny disc in Region 1.

What I’m saying, is that Daughter of Darkness holds a lot of nostalgia for me. Every time I watch it, I’m taken back in time to a lot of good memories. That is one of the reasons why it gets regular play at Christmas time, and why I still count it as one of my favorite incarnations of the franchise.

That said, I’m going to do my best to be level headed in this review. As a whole, this is entertaining, but kind of a mess all the way around.

The Startica festival on planet Jurai.
From an animation point of view, things look pretty typical of the OAV continuity, looking a lot like the animation style from the later half of Series 1. Some of the epic scope from Tenchi Muyo in Love is missing here. No huge space battles or massive destruction. One of the most elaborate sequences is the star festival on planet Jurai called Startica. The flashbacks on Jurai give us a little bit more of a peek at this world and their tree based technology. Sadly, most of the footage is reused several times in the film.

More time and design was spent on Yuzuha’s dimension of darkness. It’s filled with bizarre tunnels, deranged toys and moist and sticky television monitors (call David Cronenberg!). It plays a large part in the finale sequence and the animators get to have some fun with scale in it. Yuzuha’s obsession with Startica and Christmas fuel her final attack and so you get scenes with a huge Christmas tree, killer gift ribbon and a teddy bear the size of King Kong.

The English voice acting in Daughter of Darkness is pretty solid all the way around. The cast has Tenchi and the girls down cold, and they perform all their roles with skill. New to the cast is Wendee Lee playing Kiyone. Lee was a veteran of anime voice acting, so I’m sure this was an easy fit for her.

Yuzuha has a wicked plan that just doesn't add up.
The two new roles, Mayuka and Yuzuha are played very well. Maddalena brings an innocence and exuberance to Mayuka. It’s critical that she come across as both na├»ve and yet mysterious. Maddalena manages both. Her curiosity about the world around her as well belief that Tenchi is her father are conveyed with sincerity. Contrast this to when Yuzuha controls her and we can almost hear the demon speaking through her. It’s a very good performance and key to the whole movie working as well as it does.

Goodson’s performance as Yuzuha is just as effective. I love the maniacal glee at the mischief she is creating. In flashbacks, she is sympathetic, until we learn more about her. But it is her seething rage at Tenchi’s grandfather that becomes the key here. The final scenes of the movie are driven by this rage. It’s an interesting character with some twisted morals, and Goodson is really great in the part.

Ko Otani’s musical score is probably my favorite of the three films (and probably my favorite of the franchise). He creates three themes for the film. One based on Yuzhua and her dark world. One based on the innocence of Mayuka (and seems very connected to Yuzuha’s theme). Finally there is the theme for Christmas/Startica. All three themes are woven into each other, given different variations and conclude in a satisfactory way. Mayuka’s theme get the most airtime, with several variations throughout her story as she arrives innocence and ends up twisted by Yuzuha in the finale. The score is heavy on electronics, but Otani uses them well, creating a wonderful atmosphere, as well some excellent driving action when needed. The end theme, Manatsu no Eve is based off the Christmas/Startica theme is performed by Mariko Nagi and is a nice pop piece.

Ayeka doesn't think Mihoshi or Ryoko have a clue.
There are few things that really appeal to me about Daughter of Darkness. One is the entire summer atmosphere of the whole movie. The cast is dressed in summer clothing and doing things around the house that are typical of the season. The animation and action combine to create a real sense of time, and a feeling of carefree summer days. No one is going to school. They’re doing some chores, but then hanging out eating watermelon, watching fireworks and trying to stay cool. This is well contrasted to the Christmas flashbacks. Here everyone is bundled up, there are decorations all over the house and the whole cast is celebrating. It’s no wonder that Mayuka wants to stay with the gang and have fun all day long.

Ayeka opens up to Ryoko about her fears.
In sharp contrast to Tenchi Muyo in Love, the cast here seems to be enjoying each other’s company. Ayeka and Ryoko aren’t constantly fighting. In fact the two rivals have a great scene together, as they talk about the possibility of Tenchi not picking either of them as a girlfriend. Darling as Ayeka and Burchard as Ryoko both get to show off some acting chops here, letting the girls take things a notch down. It is this fellowship, as well as the fact that Mihoshi isn’t a drooling moron that leads me to believe this is supposed to fall in the OAV continuity. But more on that in a minute. It was nice to see all the characters behaving like a family. Sure Ayeka and Ryoko aren’t going to ever be friends, but here we see that they at least respect each other.

Daughter of Darkness also drops a lot of the stupid comedic moments that plagued Tenchi Universe and even Series 2 of the OAV. Humor comes out of situations naturally, not because of some gag the writers tried to force into the plot. Instead of going for full-blown laughs, the movie focuses on the group dynamic once Mayuka is introduced, and how each character reacts and changes because of it. It’s really more character-centric than the plot heavy previous film.

Ryoko has had enough of Mayuka.
But this second movie is far from perfect. As I mentioned, no one really knows what continuity this event happens. While it seems to fit the OAV timeline, and shares the one hour running time, as well as the watercolor images during the end titles, a few things don’t add up. First Kiyone did not appear in the OAV series at all. My guess is that she was popular after her appearance in Tenchi Universe (gotta admit she’s one of the best parts of that show), so they figured they couldn’t have a movie without her. The other element is Tenchi’s energy weapon. In the OAV this was known as the Light Hawk Wings, a kind of triple bladed thing he used against Kagato. But in Tenchi Universe it became the Light Hawk Sword, and that is what the whole cast refers to it as in this film. It looks much more like the blade in the television series. It’s a bit confusing, but only for folks who have been following Tenchi closely.

More annoying are all the odd little elements that just don’t add up from a script point of view. Most of this revolves around Yuzuha’s plot. We know she hates Tenchi’s grandfather, Yosho. But instead of focusing her attack on Yosho, she focuses it on Tenchi. She never says why, but it’s implied that Tenchi looks so much like Yosho that it makes her hate transfer to him.

Father and daughter about to disappear.
So Yuzuha creates Mayuka to go to the Tenchi household and … um… do stuff? Obviously Ryoko becomes jealous of Mayuka almost immediately, and Washu and Yosho attempt to figure out more about her. But the few times Yuzuha takes control of Mayuka it’s to have the girl grope, kiss and lick a stupefied Tenchi. Um, yeah kinda gross if that really is his daughter. Each time this happens, a dimensional doorway opens. But usually another cast member comes in and sees the whole unpleasant scene and it stops.

Two things could be going on here – but again nothing is explained. I’m guessing Yuzuha wants to pull Tenchi into her dark dimension to mess with. I’m also assuming that her love/hate of Yosho makes her love/hate Tenchi. So she actually possesses Mayuka to exercise her desires on Tenchi while he is in a trance. This is supported by the fact that each time Mayuka does the forbidden dance with Tenchi her eyes are a different color and she speaks more like Yuzuha.

Happy Christmas memories
But it still feels sloppy. The kissing, groping and licking aren’t necessary to open the dimensional door because Mayuka doesn’t need to kiss Sasami to open the door and abduct her. I don’t want to think it, but maybe the writers were just pervs and wanted to see Mayuka get it on with Tenchi.

Part of the issue with Daughter of Darkness is the really short running time of an hour. It must have been tough to cram in all the needed exposition, as well as all the great character moments they did come up with. The movie flies by a little too briskly, and if they had another 20 minutes or half an hour, all these odd little script moments could be resolved. Or maybe not, hard to say really. For what it is, you get some solid entertainment and a few great character moments for just about everyone in the cast. Yes, nostalgia plays a big part in my enjoyment here, but still it’s my favorite of the Tenchi films. One more Tenchi film was released in 1999: Tenchi Forever.

Friday, December 9, 2016

And then this happened... Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

So my first edition of And Then This Happened... was for a Star Wars movie, I figured I might as well end with one from the same series. But since we are enjoying winter, I had to do a scene from Hoth. I kind of wanted to add some snowmen, Snoopy on a toboggan and maybe Krampus. Then I could say they are all in the new Special Edition of the movie because George wanted the scene to be more Holiday themed. But in the end I decided to just present it as it originally appeared in 1980.

And then this happened...

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)


Back in 1996 when Tom Cruise starred the first Mission: Impossible film, I didn’t think we’d be seeing a five film franchise coming out of it. I figured it was good for maybe one or two sequels. But here we are, nearly 20 years later and Cruise is still running around with his MI team. But will this be one adventure worth taking?


Top agent for the Impossible Mission force, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is convinced that a diabolical agency is working against the IMF to create chaos and terror. While on the trail of this entity known as the Syndicate, he runs into the lovely Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who helps him out of a jam, but seems to be working for the Syndicate.

Meanwhile William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) runs into opposition from the head of the CIA Alan Hunley (played with verve by Alec Baldwin). The CIA feels the IMF is more destructive than effective and shuts them down. Hunley also sets his sights on Hunt as the main issue and issues a warrant for him (again). Meanwhile, Hunt marshals his forces including Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) to track down the Syndicate. This results in some crazy acrobatics on the outside of a plane as it takes off, a intense motorcycle chase, infiltrating a secured location – under water, and stopping a sniper or three from killing dignitaries during an opera. But is there any hope against the dangerous Rogue Nation?

Good Points:

  • The plot balances thrills and action very well
  • Action scenes and stunt work are really impressive for this outing.
  • We finally have an intriguing villain for this series!

Bad Points:

  • Story line is a bit convoluted for anyone looking for pure action
  • Wait, didn’t Ethan go rogue in the last four movies also?
  • A little less humor than the previous entry 


I enjoyed Ghost Protocol well enough, but I wasn’t clamoring for another adventure in the franchise. But I have to say the additions of Ferguson and Harris made for a more intriguing film. The humor is toned down a bit for some straight up tension, but it works great. McQuarrie does an excellent job crafting a fun film and the score by Joe Kraemer may be the best of the series. Well worth checking out.

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

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

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Score Sample: Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Five films. Did anyone expect us to get five Mission: Impossible films? I didn't. But hey, I guess Tom Cruise enjoys putting himself in danger for our amusement. While the films vary a bit in quality, they are all entertaining. That goes for the scores associated with them too.

I hoped that Michael Giacchino would be brought back on board for this film, and craft a Mission: Impossible trilogy to enjoy. But it wasn't in the cards. Instead director Christopher McQuarrie brought his pal from the first Jack Reacher film to score this one. Joe Kraemer doesn't shy away from the task. He uses the famous Mission: Impossible theme as well as the less known The Plot theme and weaves them all over the place. He crafts a sneaky theme for the villain and adapts a lovely opera piece for the leading lady (which plays into the assassination scheme at the opera). Its a really excellent score, maybe the best of the whole series so far (and I love Giacchino's work). Here is  the impressive opening sequence followed by the opening titles. What a way to start this movie!

Monday, November 28, 2016

And Then This Happened... Horrors of Spider Island

What is scarier than a turkey hangover or black Friday at the mall? The Horrors of Spider Island of course. Well scary might be a strong word. More likely you'll just be amused and confused by the wandering models, the "spider-man" creature and most of all the buxom and burly Babs as she hulks around the film. She's all woman all the time, to quote Crow.

There are also a couple of doofy guys in this movie who are supposed to be the heroes, but honestly I wanted Babs to be the amazon warrior who saves the day. But at least the twin doofuses give us this moment for you to caption.

And then this happened...

Friday, November 25, 2016

And Then This Happened... Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance

Are you concerned about how you look and how tall you stand? Sure we all are. Then you need to check out the short film Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance. Or maybe you just want to watch the MST3K episode featuring this short film and Red Zone Cuba and just marvel at all the ineptitude on display.

In any case this little moment from the posture themed short is perfect riffing fuel. Once again, I won't describe what is going on here. Provide your own caption!

And then this happened...

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

And Then This Happened... Sidehackers

Well it is getting close to Turkey day and that means heaping helpings of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you aren't planning on watching any of this hilarious show this year, then maybe I can provide you with some bit sized tidbits to enjoy and riff on yourself.

First up is the biker/sports film Sidehackers. Yeah this movie is a mess, and has plenty of "did I just see that?" moments and characters. But this guy is one of the most annoying of the bunch. I'd describe what is actually happening here... but you know what, I think it might be more fun if you just caption it.

And then this happened...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Score Sample: Legend (1985)

After making Blade Runner Ridley Scott wanted to get in on the action making a fantasy adventure film. He concocted a script that was based on classic fairy tales, but keeping the dark and disturbing edge they originally had. The movie had a really troubled production and that even came down to the music.

Originally Jerry Goldsmith crafted a very interesting orchestral score that used some synthesizer elements to it. It is a score that is dense with themes that each interweave and interact with each other in surprising ways. It may be one of Goldsmith's most complex scores, and is one that you appreciate more and more each time you listen to it. This may be the reason why Goldsmith was so disappointed when his score was thrown out after the movie was heavily re-edited. This caused Goldsmith's score to be unusable, and also gave the producers a chance to pull in popular electronic group Tangerine Dream to score the film.

Tangerine Dream has simpler more obvious themes but they are catchy and work really well in the shorter cut of the film. This is version I grew up with, so I actually enjoy this version of the score quite a bit. Still Goldsmith is my favorite film composer and what he crafted for this movie was really impressive.

So I figure I'll give you two pieces for the same scene and you can enjoy them. First up is Goldsmith's score for the Dress Waltz, a creepy scene where Mia Sara dances with a dark dress that absorbs her.

And then the Tangerine Dream version of the same scene called The Dance in this case. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Score Sample: Red Sonja (1985)

Originally we were supposed to get a trilogy of Conan movies back in the 1980s. But the poor reception of Conan the Destroyer and the fact that Arnold wanted to move beyond muscle bound sword swinging antics meant that a true sequel was out of the picture. But Arnold had a contract to make three films with Dino De Laurentis. So Arnold said he'd be a supporting character in the movie and they went ahead.

Thus Red Sonja was born. Brigitte Nielsen in the title role as an avenging warrior with red hair and a big sword. Arnold plays Kalidor who is pretty much a Conan stand in. The result is a movie that is pretty infamous for being really bad.

One aspect that is rarely criticized is the outstanding music provided by Ennio Morricone. Morricone is best known for his work on spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly as well as a few Hollywood flicks in the 80s and 90s like The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America. Morricone has written a score for pretty much every type of genre, and we get a full blown fantasy adventure score here. It has a bit more of a classical feel to it, as opposed to the more medieval feel of Poledouris' work on the two Conan movies. But it works great as a solo listen.

One of my favorite tracks is Fighting the Soldiers which actually has the chorus chanting Sonja's name. Its kind of cheesy and yet so awesome all at the same time. So enjoy that track at the 2:23 mark in this suite from Red Sonja by Ennio Morricone.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Score Sample: Conan the Destroyer (1984)

When it comes to the big guns of fantasy music of the 1980s, you can't ignore the amazing score to Conan the Barbarian by Basil Poledouris. Nearly every track on that score is top notch film music material, and it is easily one of my favorite scores for the 1980s. The score became iconic in its time, and when the sequel came around the producers asked Poledouris to return.

While most of us will agree that Conan the Destroyer is an inferior film to the original, it has some solid fantasy tropes, some cool action scenes, and some really bad humor that doesn't work and some serious moments that turn out hilarious. It is a great movie to riff. But the music is actually one of the best parts of the production. Poledouris returns with a similar style, primal and rooted in medieval music stylings, giving it a very different feel to John Williams or James Horner's more classical trained scores.

Conan the Destroyer keeps the love theme, the main theme and even repurposes a few themes from the original score in unique ways. But the new material is really great. The villains get a bombastic new theme. The sequence with Conan facing the mirror room creature has a relentlessness to it, and there is plenty of magic in the score. While the original 80s album isn't too bad, there was an amazing rerecording that is the only way to listen to this score.

For you listening pleasure here is a suite of music from Conan The Destroyer by Basil Poledouris.

And the rerecording done by City of Prague Philharmonic for the amazing Tadlow album, that also includes music from the Universal Studios Sword and Sorcery Spectacular.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Score Sample: The Beastmaster (1982)

Continuing to listen to a lot of fantasy film music from the 1980s as I work on my fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. So many good scores to pick from, it gets tough to settle on what to listen to for the evening. I picked up the score to The Beastmaster earlier this year, and I've had it on pretty regularly while working on the background and the novel itself.

The score to The Beastmaster was written by Lee Holdridge, a composer you don't hear too much about these days. He never became a huge name like Williams, Goldsmith or Horner, but worked steadily over years, eventually moving from films to television miniseries where he was nominated and won a number of Grammy awards in the 90s and 00s.

His score to The Beastmaster is similar if feel to Clash of the Titans, and features a great heroic theme as the main focal point. It is very memorable and certainly one of the top themes of the genre in this decade. Holdrige also created some unique themes for the playful ferrets that feature in the film, as well as romantic love theme. He has some robust action music as well. This is a great score to write to, and I'm very happy to have it my collection. The deluxe version contains the score as it appears in the film, as well as the unique tracks performed and edited for the original album release in the 80s. There is also an excellent suite designed and rerecorded by Charles Gerhardt on there. It's a great package for any fan of the score.

So here A New Kingdom from Lee Holdrige's impressive score to The Beastmaster!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Anime Juke Box - Adesso e Fortuna - Record of Lodoss War

You know at some point I really need to do a proper review of Record of Lodoss War, one of the best fantasy adventure stories brought to the screen in the 1990s. This Japanese animated series took all the classic Dungeons and Dragons archetypes and tropes and blended them in one epic saga of animated adventure. These days the plot looks really standard and unoriginal, but back in the 1990s I had never seen those classic D&D characters and storylines brought to life in such a entertaining way.

The music for the series was mostly done on synths standing in for orchestra for budget reasons. Still there are plenty of medieval and renaissance style tracks in the score, as well as pure late 80s synths. The opening and ending themes were J-pop of course, but done in a way that actually fit the tone of the series. In most anime you have the perky poppy song as the opening and the more serious song as the end credits, but Record of Lodoss War reversed that. I did my best to find the Japanese song version of the opening track Adesso e Fortuna sung by Sherry. But all I could find was the English dub, not bad, but not great. It was an early dub from CPM and they were all over the place.

I did find a wonderful cover of the instrumental version featuring a piano and cello. Seriously these two pretty much nailed the sound and feel of the version on the CD. So enjoy some fans performing this anime classic.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Score Sample: Clash of the Titans (1981)

Since I am hard at work on may National Novel Writing Month project, expect only short posts on this blog. I'll try to get a couple out a week and most of them will probably be movie music related. But I might have a surprise or two in there.

I'm working on a fantasy novel or Nanowrimo and you can follow my progress at my other blog. Most of time I write with music blaring to help inspire and motivate me. Of course movie soundtracks are wonderful for this. I've got plenty of fantasy scores in my collection and a lot of them are from the 1980s when movie music wasn't afraid to go BIG!

The 1981 version of Clash of the Titans is a great example of this. Since the movie is a throwback to the golden age adventure films of the 50s and 60s the score follows suit. Laurence Rosenthal gives us big bold themes with plenty of in your face style. Some people think this score is a bit corny, but I love it (and love the movie). It was hard to pick just one track, but I really love the theme for Pegasus, and how is soars around the room. So here is the track Pegasus that combines the theme for the flying horse as well as the main theme for Perseus as he tames the wild beast. Enjoy!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Top Ten: Movie Monsters

So I was pondering a good top ten for October and realized that I never catalogued my favorite movie monsters. So lets start with defining what a monster is. In this case I'm going to call a monster any type of creature that is more powerful than a human. It also has to be of animal intelligence. Beyond that and it we are getting into more villain territory. Movie monsters may be the main antagonist, but usually they are supporting cast to the main villain. So if we take an example from Return of the Jedi, I'd call Jabba the Hutt a villain, but the Rancor and the Sarlacc would be monsters.

So these are my favorites, and to be honest they ones I thought up pretty quickly. I'm sure you'll come up with others that I may want to add to my list.

10. The Cyclops - The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

So yeah, prepare yourself of a lot of Harryhausen on this list. When it comes to monsters, childhood is probably the best time to have them cast their spell on you. When I was a kid Harryhausen was the master wizard. His work with creatures of all shapes and sizes just fueled my imagination. The Cyclops from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad has to be on the list. He goes beyond the Greek vision of the creature but giving him a satyr-like lower half, a horn protruding above his eye and even a smattering of scales. He's a mix of horrors and colossal to boot! But I love the personality that Harryhausen gave him. His face is one of brutish malevolence. He likes to hurt and kill because he is just a huge bully. He's the scariest monster on the island, because you know if he sees Sinbad or any of the crew, he will do horrible things to them - for fun.

10. Vermithrax - Dragonslayer

For the longest time dragons and movies just didn't mix. Hollywood just couldn't seem to get them right. Once again Harryhausen had the best one in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, but that creature was more like a pet than a character. Then along came Dragonslayer in 1981 and it held the crown for years, until Smaug finally made it to the big screen in 2013. And even so, I give big old Vermithrax the edge. She is terrifying in her size, her look, and her ability to rain down fire and death. She accepts human sacrifices and has no problem letting her children devour hapless princesses. The special effects team used a mixture of life sized rigs, computer controlled stop motion (called go-motion) and puppets to bring the old girl to life, and for the most part it works. I will admit that Smaug has more personality, because he can speak. But I think Vermithrax is actually a bigger badass of the two.

9. Kali - Golden Voyage of Sinbad

I'll be the first to admit that stop motion is always the best solution to brining a monster to life. But when the monster is mechanical and/or doesn't require smooth motion, then it can be very effective. Perfect example is the statue of Kali brought to life by the diabolical wizard Koura (played with gusto by Tom Baker). She can dance alluringly, but give the goddess a sword, or six and suddenly she's cleaving Sinbad's sailors like you wouldn't believe. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is filled to bursting with cool monsters, but Kali is the queen here. She does more damage to the crew than any of the other creatures and seems invincible. Metal sword and spears just bounce of her metallic body. And watching Harryhausen bring this complex figure to life in a full blown sword battle against a battalion of men is something else. From a stop motion perspective she is amazing, but she's also the deadliest challenge Sinbad ever faced.

7. The Balrog - Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

When you read The Fellowship of the Ring and try to imagine the Balrog, a creature made of flames and shadow, it seems like something best left on the page and in the imagination of the reader. But Peter Jackson had to get this beast on the screen in 2001 for a climactic battle of evil and good in the form of Ian McKellan's excellent Gandalf. In this case computer graphics was the only way to go, and the result is an amazingly dynamic monster. Much like the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, this creature is pure brutish malevolence. It exudes that in his poses, his stride and his confident and powerful attacks. It is an amazing creation that made for an iconic moment in that movie and maybe in all fantasy cinema. The Balrog is a beast to be reckoned with.

6. Stay Puft Marshmallow Man - Ghostbusters

Not all monsters are created equal. This list had to include one silly monster or it just wouldn't be my list. Well look no further than the hilariously evil Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. He's huge, he's tasty and he's destroying New York. Maybe the fact that he's so ludicrous makes him scarier... Probably not. But the image of a giant mascot for a baking treat is fighting the heroic Ghostbusters all makes sense for some reason. He's the perfect capper for a fun film and I just couldn't leave the big grinning guy off this list.

5. Godzilla - Godzilla

You can't have a favorite monster list without adding the king on it can you? And as much as I enjoy King Kong I have to say that Godzilla is just a giant green juggernaut that can't be stopped. Besides I've always like giant reptiles over giant apes anyway. Godzilla is a force of nature on the screen and as a franchise. Much like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster or zombies, you just can't keep the big guy down. Japan keeps bringing him back and if they aren't than Hollywood tries their hand at the rampaging beast. Most of the Godzilla movies are lot of fun, but the classic 'zilla films from the 50s, 60's and 70s will always be my favorites.

4. Medusa - Clash of the Titans

Ok I swear this is the last of the Harryhausen monsters. But I did warn you at the beginning right? Medusa is the most frightening of all the creatures from that era because of the whole package. Her lair is a ruined temple lit only by firelight. She can slither in and out of the shadows, but does so in a slow, measured pace of a hunter. She has a bow which she is a deadly shot with and uses it to knock her pray around so they end up looking at her, and when they do - well its all over for them. She is a sinister looking creature and a patient hunter on top of it. She makes quick work of Perseus' two companions and you wonder how the young man is going to get out of this one. It takes some quick thinking and a bit of trickery to do it, and we admire Perseus even more for his victory. In many ways this is the climax of the original version of Clash of theTitans. After facing down Medusa, the Kraken doesn't seem like much of a threat. I will say the remake in 2010 improved on that aspect, and their Medusa was a worthy upgrade. But the original had more tension and terror in that sequence and wins the day overall.

3. The Thing - The Thing

You can't trust anyone. One of the most horrifying things that can happen to you is complete isolation and despair and that is what The Thing taps into. The idea of a creature that can mimic humans so perfectly is scary enough, but the execution of this creature just ups the gross-out factor and the horror. It is almost as if the Thing is mocking us as it disassembles human forms, makes them move in impossible ways and accomplish disturbing attacks. John Carpenter keeps upping the stakes as the move progresses and we never get a true idea of what The Thing is trying to accomplish or even if it has a personality. It just is and we are in the way. So with fear of the unknown added to the mix, its no wonder The Thing ends up high on this list.

2. Cthulhu - Call of Cthulhu

As a Lovecraft fan how could I leave the big guy off the list. This 2005 film is done in the style of a silent movie. That means that Cthulhu himself is a stop motion creation that looms over the characters using all kinds of classic camera tricks. He looks great in the context of the film and when he emerges from his sunken tomb, it is really a great moment. For now Cthulhu doesn't seem to be a creation we'll see on the big screen. Even an adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness ended up falling apart in pre-production. This may be the closest we get to seeing this iconic monstrous undead god on the screen in all his glory.

1. The Alien - Alien

When it comes to the truly terrifying I have to hand the monster throne to the alien from Ridley Scott's 1979 horror masterpiece Alien. The monster is built up through the course of the film. His planet of origin is dark, stormy and visually disturbing. The eggs are slimy and disgusting. Then you get the face hugger hatchling stage. The strange wormlike larval stage. Then you have a creature that seems to get bigger and more powerful each time you see him. It has acid for blood. It can hide in the shadows and appear  from hiding spots above or below. It is insect-like, reptile-like and not remotely human. It seems to be nothing more than a beast at first, but as the movie progresses you realize it has some kind of intelligence. It doesn't kill Ripley at the end because it knows it must escape the doomed Nostromo with her. This is a creature nightmares are made of, and in my opinion the most frightening monster put to film yet. Alien is a classic for many reasons, and the title creature is certainly one.

What did I miss on my list? Are any of your favorites on here?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Subspecies (1991)


Back in my video store days, I remember seeing the cover to Subspecies and its sequels many times over the years. I never got around to watching them at that time, wasn’t as into horror flicks back then (unless they were anime). A few years ago, comedic reviewer Allison Pregler (aka Obscures Lupa) took a look at all the films in the series and made them look like a goofy good time. So I picked up the box set. Was it worth the journey, or was this one bloodsucker I should have left on the shelf?


Three college friends travel to Romania to research medieval castles and folklore. Michelle (Laura Mae Tate) is the most studious of the trio, and always looks cute in her hat. While wandering around the local villages they discover a castle that is shunned by the locals because they fear that a vampire still lives in the crypt within. The girls joke around, but one of them gets cut while exploring and that is bad news.

Sure enough the villainous Radu (Anders Hove) rises from the crypt, gets a taste of the blood and starts stalking the girls. At the same time a mysterious young man named Stefan (Michael Watson) seems to know more than he lets on, and why does he only appear at night. Soon villagers end up dead, legends of the Bloodstone are unveiled and Michelle comes face to face with the fearsome Radu and his minions, the Subspecies.

Good Points:
  • Wonderful location shooting in Romania
  • Has some great creepy moments of atmosphere and suspense.
  • Hove is one hell of a vampire 

Bad Points:
  • Very traditional storyline that you’ll be able to predict
  • Some of the acting is pretty flat
  • Some elements of the script never seem to have a payoff


This movie manages to smash classic vampire folklore with the 1990s angsty vampire genres together and keep it all pretty entertaining. Hove is dark and unsettling as Radu, but Watson is pretty lifeless (pun kinda intended) as Stefan. Tate gives Michelle a bit of personality. But really this movie’s best points are the creepy settings and the Romanian countryside and castles. Plenty of riffable moments abound, but the movie is just trying to be a good time, and it succeeds. Not mandatory viewing and the sequels are actually a bit goofier and more riffable. But this is fine Halloween viewing if you crave some bloodsucking action.

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

In Depth Review

Live from Romania, it is RADU!
Subspecies comes to us courtesy of the direct to video boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Full Moon Entertainment was cranking out medium and low budget horror films like it was no ones business. You did get some gems among the massive glut of films, but most of these movies were fun entertainment for a weekend viewing. I know a lot of folks have a big chunk of nostalgia for the Full Moon catalogue, and I admit movies like Trancers and Puppetmaster fall in that area for me.

But I just never got around to Subspecies. Looking at the date, I have to wonder if this movie was conceived of to cash in on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Coppola film that came out a year later. I can see the pitch now, “So we combine a vampire story with puppetmaster creatures and we get … um… Subspecies!” And yeah, I’m not sure how they thought that was a good idea, but that is what we ended up getting in a way.

The thing is, I don’t want to sell Subspecies short, because the movie has a lot of good points and there is a reason it makes for fun Halloween viewing. In its corner is the fact that the movie was filmed on location in Romania. In fact it is the first American film to be allowed to film in the country after the iron curtain collapsed. So for that alone, Subspecies gets some props.

Nothing wrong with a picnic in front of mouldering
medieval ruins, right?
But director Ted Nicolaou actually uses the setting to his advantage. Lush rolling hills and mysterious forests add a lot of atmosphere. But the two castles that house the bulk of the action give the movie some authenticity. The crew didn’t just film on the castle grounds, which offer some great scenes for Radu to lurk among crumbling ruins. But they also filmed inside the castle for a lot of the interiors. I really puts the girls in an world in stark contrast with their late 80s fashions and hair.

I also have to comment on some of the effects. Radu is a nasty piece of work. Hove has presence of course, but his make up highlights his angular features and makes him look demonic and otherworldly. They also use some fun effects with shadows and lighting to make it appear as if Radu is vanishing into thin air or moving with uncanny speed. It is all simple stuff, but Coppola used a lot of the same techniques in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it was just as effective.

No guys, you're doing the YMCA dance wrong.
I can’t go without mentioning the titular characters, the Subspecies themselves. These little stop motion creations are muscular miniature demons that Obsurus Lupa referred to as finger demons. They are kind of cute and creepy all at the same time. It is neat to see old school effects even if there are moments where they just don’t seem to be quite standing on the floor. Makes you appreciate the magic of Ray Harryhausen.

I should also mention the goofy looking prop they used for the Bloodstone. This is supposed to be a mystical gem that holds the blood of all the saints in it. Any vampire who drinks from the Bloodstone… um… is really cool and stuff. They never really explain what the big deal is about it, but Radu and Stefan keep rambling on about it. Once again I’ll reference Lupa, because I thought the same thing she did – it looks like an overly ornate push pop that drips ketchup, I mean blood, on the vampire’s tongue. It is too silly looking to take seriously, and adds to the fun seeing all the vampires get in a lather over this goofy push pop.

The real Phantasm is his wig!
Sound effects are pretty solid. There’s lots of creepy atmosphere with wind howling in the woods, creaking crypt doors and crackling flames during the Vampire Festival. Nothing really crazy accomplished here, but it all works fine. The music is also solid. Looks like several composers were hired, or a wealth of library music was used. In any case, it is effectively spooky and haunting, but saturated with 1980s style synthesizers. This will either make your ears bleed, or just add to the cheesy awesomeness that is Subspecies.

Alas the acting is very uneven. Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame) has a cameo in the film. He plays the king of the vampires and he seems to giving it a good try, even if his wig renders him terminally goofy. Luckily he doesn’t stick around too long. Of the three girls Laura Mae Tate brings the most to her character (of course her character actually has an arc as opposed to the other two). I love the scene where she meets Stefan and they get googly eyed at each other. Or at least she does, I’m not sure what he was attempting.

"Stefan, I am your father! Get it! Like Star
Wars. Oh come on Stefan, its funny!"
But the real reason to enjoy these movies is Anders Hove as the villainous and over the top Radu. He skulks and looms like Count Orlok from Nosferatu. He speaks with a wheezing voice that is actually pretty disturbing. He often drools blood from his lips and looks just dementedly evil when the occasion calls for it. Hove brings the intensity to the part, and it actually makes Radu fun to watch but also intimidating and a bit of a wild card. You get a real sense of danger from Radu, and it makes you wish the rest of the story was less conventional and predictable.

Irina Movila as Mara and Michelle McBride and Lillian do solid jobs with very thin characters. Mostly they are around to joke with Michelle, run in terror from Radu, and then get drained of blood and come back as half naked vampire brides. They do it well enough. I blame the script for the flat characters.

Lili Dumitrescu as the Old Crone is wonderfully emphatic, over the top and difficult to understand with her thick accent. She almost seems like a Monty Python character, but it adds to the fun. I also liked Ivan Rado as Karl, the imposing groundskeeper who knows all about the vampires and tries to help the girls. He puts in some effort, and his eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting.

Our hero? Nice scarf!
Alas the real weak point when it comes to acting in Subspecies is with our hero Stefan. Michael Watson doesn’t bring much life to the role. His character is also supposed to be the sensitive vampire with the heart of gold. But he ends up sitting around looking a little sad eyed and mopey. He shows his most energy when fighting Radu during the climactic sword fight. But that is just hilarious for other reasons, so I don’t really count that. Maybe they were going for a contrast between the two vampires, but really Hove just blows Watson out of the water whenever they share the screen together. It’s not a big surprise that Stefan’s character doesn’t make it far into the sequel.

I’ve mentioned the script a few times already and well I’ll be honest and say that it is a bit of a mess. There are some really good ideas in the film, but none of them really get fleshed out. I like details like the Bloodstone becoming addictive to Radu – but nothing ever comes of that statement. Since they never explain what the Bloodstone does for vampires, if anything, it just doesn’t seem to have much of a point in the film. And yet all the vampire characters seem obsessed with it. I guess the blood of saints is like pumpkin spice latte to these guys.

And now I will know how many licks it takes to get
to the center of a Bloodstone,
Then you have the little Subspecies demons. While they are cool looking and have some potential to create some creepy scares, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with them. The most useful thing they do is open a secret door that Radu can’t get to. That’s it. Otherwise he just has them torment Mara in one scene, which is them just kind of jumping around near her. And then in another scene they bring Radu the Bloodstone, which is just lying on the floor a few feet away. They do fetch Radu’s head at the end of the movie, so we can have a sequel, but all in all they are just wasted special effects. It is so strange that they name the whole series after these guys. Radu is the main attraction and make no mistake.

Aside from those two odd details the rest of the plot is standard vampire stuff. The trio goes snooping where they shouldn’t. Radu picks up their scent and stalks them. Then you’ve got girl meets vampire, girl falls for vampire, vampire whines about how they can never be together, vampire fights evil vampire to save girl, girl is infected – oh no! It all ends with Stefan drinking deep from Michelle and they sleep it off in a coffin. You can see the beats coming a mile away. That is why it is so strange that the Bloodstone and Subspecies are around but don’t impact the story. A really interesting story could be made with Michelle finding the Bloodstone and that attracting Radu and Stefan, and the two attempting to get it from her. One using fear and threatening her friends. The other attempting to seduce her. Hell Stefan didn’t even have to be a good guy, just less insidious than his brother. I just made up that story and I think it is actually more interesting than what we end up getting.

Looks like Michelle is filled with strawberry
That said, Nicolaou does manage to tell the story pretty well. There are a few moments that almost seem like a travelogue, but I can forgive that since this was the first American film in Romania. The pacing can drag a bit here and there when Radu isn’t around. But the movie has plenty of gothic atmosphere, some moments of genuine dread and chills, and a powerhouse performance by Hove.

Subspecies is solid if a bit standard vampire entertainment. It sets things up for the sequels, which expand the story of Michelle and Radu. The sequels tend to go bigger in a lot of ways and have goofier moments that are plenty of fun. But you also get the feeling that the sequels know they are goofy, and so they are winking at the audience a bit. The first film is going for a genuine creepy feeling, and succeeds several times. Worth checking out if you want to shake up your Halloween viewing.

Romania? How the hell did you drive us to Romania?
Must have been that left in Albuquerque.
Oh my gawd! Stefan! Put your pants back on. No one
wants to see that.
No seriously, put your pants back on. 
The search for Stefan's pants drags into the night.
"And now Stefan, I will push you and a push pop!
"Slumber Party! I want to pillow fight first!"
Radu, ugly with the mask on and off.