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!