Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Movie Musing: An Auteur in Blockbusters

It is the man, the myth, the legend. 
Each time a film by Christopher Nolan is released there is tremendous buzz among the internet's film fan community. There are some serious(ly) (rabid) fan(boy)s out there. They proclaim that everything Mr. Nolan does is a gift from the cinema gods to all us little folk. If you say that you think Nolan's latest film is only OK, or god forbid you don't like it - the reaction is explosive and visceral. Such is the state of fandom.

I haven't written much about Nolan's films, and I figured that since he is such a major part of the film making world I really should throw in my two cents. Nolan fanboys, you can go somewhere else, unless you really want to get angry at me for my opinion.

Anyone left? Ok.

Space according to Nolan.
Nolan is one of those directors that I admire, but I don't love. All of his films fall into the same category for me (as of this writing I haven't seen Dunkirk yet). He has a great eye for presenting his films visually. His scripts are well thought out and usually work very well. His casting choices and directing of their acting is usually spot on. Even if you pull yourself away from the hype-train that cruises into town whenever composer Hans Zimmer and Nolan combine forces, you'll find the composer's scores to work very well within the film. All the pieces are in place to make excellent films.

And there lies my main problem with Nolan's films. They feel very much like finely crafted, ice sculptures. They are beautiful to look at and impressive in execution. But they are so very very cold.

Cat Woman: Nolan style.
I'm sure it is a conscious choice by Nolan to go in this direction, but his movies are very dower for the most part. Tonally, they have a grim muted feel to them. It is part of Nolan's visual style and for many of his films it works well. It is hard to imagine The Dark Knight in any other visual style except for the grim muted one Nolan developed over the three films. I can even see it working in something like Dunkirk where he is going for an ultra realistic feel. But I think this style hurt Interstellar and especially Inception.

But this approach goes beyond the visuals and actually moves into the characters. As they are written, most of Nolan's scripts feel very mechanical, each piece moving perfectly to achieve its overall effect. But this creates characters that also feel very distant to me. Interstellar is the only film of his where I was actually feeling for some of the characters, and even that wasn't nearly as involving as something like Apollo 13 or even Gravity which pulled me into the films to a great degree. I hate to be "that guy" but I wonder how much of Interstellar's character work came from the script when Spielberg was still attached to the project.

Dreams as presented by Nolan.
The thing is, I watch Nolan's films. I admire them, maybe even enjoy them on some level, but I find it really difficult to get into the mood to watch any of them again. I've had Interstellar sitting on my shelf for a couple years now, and haven't broken the plastic on it.

I think part of this has to do with a personal bit of rebellion too. You see after Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight were mega hits, every Hollywood studio decided that everyone wanted to see grim, gritty cheerless blockbusters. We had a whole rash of them, and with each one I was less and less interested in revisiting Nolan's work. Granted, his films are better made than a great many of the films that tried to ape his style (Clash of the Titans remake is a great example of taking a fun concept and turning it joyless).

"You want to name an automobile after me?"
These days things are turning around thanks to Marvel and Star Wars showing that people want to have fun in the theater. Nolan's dower films are now one of many flavors you can enjoy, and that is the way it should be. Give me another year or two and I might rematch one of his Batman films again.

In any case, I don't think Nolan is a film making god, or a genius of cinema. I think he is a director who has a very distinct style and way to telling a story. It works for a lot of people, but I don't find the majority of his films delivering the impact they try to. I like his films. I don't love them.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Avalanche (1978) – MST3K Review


David Shelby (Rock Hudson) has created the ultimate 1970s winter resort, and he is getting ready to show it off to the world. His ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow) arrives to congratulate him on his accomplishment, and he takes it as a sign that she wants to get back together with him. Talk about reading the room wrong. But David’s hot temper and impetuous ways still annoy Caroline. David’s attitude also get’s in the way when Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) shows up to tell him that all the land development has made conditions ripe for a massive avalanche that will destroy the resort!

But David tells Thorne to go suck some eggs and proceeds to party like it is 1978! Well sure enough, heavy snowfall meets out of control airplane and boom you have an avalanche. Who will survive? Who will meet a frozen fate? And who will end up hurtling to the bottom of a gorge and exploding on impact? No, I’m not making this up. Produced by Roger Corman… well that should tell you enough right there.

Movie Review:

The title character makes his big entrance.
Ah, that Roger Corman. He just doesn’t miss a trick does he? Disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake were all the rage 70s. So why not make your own, for a smaller budget of course. Get a couple big name stars to get butts in the seats and make a profit.

Well, the disaster movie craze hit its peak around 1975 or so. By 1978 we were really dredging the bottom of the barrel with this genre when movies like The Swarm bombed in the box office. Avalanche came out the same year, and even with the one-two punch of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow as your main stars, I doubt this movie did very well at all. I don’t think anyone was clamoring for snow based disaster thrills in the post Star Wars world.

That said, just because the movie wasn’t a hit in its time doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, right?

Yeah, this is a bad film. Sorry folks.

"If it ever stops being the '70s, we'll all be in trouble."
What is sad is that you can see Avalanche following the disaster movie tropes with religious fervor. You have your two leads having relationship problems. You spend way too long developing them and a host of other minor characters. This way when the disaster hits, you’ll be involved in their fate and thrill to see if they live or die.

The main problem here is that none of the characters are engaging enough to care about. Sometimes it is the acting. Sometimes it is the writing. Sometimes it is a combination of the two. But I only liked one character in the entire film. The rest were just fodder for the snow and ice to take out.

Now we know what happened to Danny after
the end of Time Travelers!
What lucky character appealed to me? That would be Henry McDade, because I think the character got a raw deal. He spends the bulk of the movie following David’s mother (played with verve by Jeanette Nolan) and trying to keep her out of trouble and from drinking herself into a stupor. That is her main character trait, she drinks a lot and yells “Aloha!” Anyway, McDade is stuck with this woman because David is his boss and David says he has to. I just feel bad for the poor guy. But when the snow hits the fan, McDade actually stays with the old lady and does his best to save her. He shows more compassion than almost anyone else in the movie. And SPOILER ALERT – he survives. Good for him! Maybe I’m also partial to the character because he is played by Steve Franken. We just saw Franken in The Time Travelers as the lab fanboy Danny. Anyway, this simple character is the only one I cared about in Avalanche

This movie came out four months before Ice Castles.
That's Corman for ya!
The rest of them… jeez. There is a jaded skier who hits on underage girls. His “love interest”, I think, is a Dorothy Hamill look alike, who has an obvious skate double. She’s bland. There is another skater who is nervous and keeps botching her routines. Her coach gives her motivational speeches. The meaningful music tells me I’m supposed to care about them. Bland performances and little screen time makes sure I don’t. There is the Television Host who seems like a nice guy for the two minutes we see him. He ends up trapped with small boy on a ski lift. It almost works, but the peril gets neutralized because of obvious stunt doubles and silly camera work. You end up chuckling instead of gasping in horror.

He's even sincere about McDade's goofy hat.
Then there are our three lead characters in Avalanche. The best performance is given by Robert Forester, who is one of those actors who always delivers solid work in just about anything I’ve seen him in (including The Black Hole). The role of Nick Thorne is cliché-ridden and not terribly interesting, but Forester makes the most of it. He is sincere in his conviction that an avalanche in immanent. He is sincere in his attraction to Mia Farrow. He is sincere in his wiliness to help people when the avalanche hits. But he is such a one-note character, it is hard to care about him. Forester does the best he can with a poorly written role.

"You are never going to stop shouting, are you David?"
Mia Farrow on the other hand does not much of anything with a poorly written role. Much like Forster’s character, Caroline doesn’t really have an arc. She shows up at the resort annoyed with David, but she still loves him. It ends with her annoyed with David, but she still loves him. Along the way she says she’s interested in Thorne, but her acting doesn’t show it. She says she may be willing to give David another chance, but her performance says otherwise. Well, that’s not right, her performance is just kinda there. It is tempting to say that Farrow is just there for the paycheck. But I think the role was so boring that she decided not to give too much effort. She has no chemistry with anyone in the “love triangle” and while she has a couple of good moments yelling at David, she doesn’t do much of anything in the story either. She’s just there because we needed a woman in the “love triangle” that goes nowhere.

David in a rare moment of not shouting.
Rock Hudson takes the opposite approach. I get the feeling that Hudson read the script to Avalanche and liked that he wasn’t playing the nice guy for once. David is an egotistical jerk, who places his desires over everyone’s safety. He even endangers his own (drunken) mother. I can see Hudson liking that aspect of the role. I can also see him reading it and realizing how stupid the whole thing was. So instead of just playing low key, he goes big and broad. Hudson rants and raves. He snarls and barks. He is a complete asshole to just about everyone else in the film. He does it so well that you pretty much want him to suffer a humiliating death by snow boulder. I’ve never seen Hudson play this kind of role this broadly before. On the one hand it is fun to watch. But in the service to the film, it just doesn’t work. I think we are supposed to feel some kind of catharsis that he gets what he deserves at the end. He does seem a little subdued at the end, but the crushing reality that his actions have killed his mother, dozens of people and destroyed his dream for the resort just seem to be given a “oh well, that sucks” feel from the tone of the ending.

Much like this review, Avalanche spends way too much time going on and on about these flat characters before any hint of disaster appears. But when the avalanche arrives, about 55 minutes into the movie, it delivers some thrills, right? Well, kinda sorta. For the budget and knowing this is a Corman production it works out Ok. Lots of scenes feature super imposed ice/snow visuals over people flailing about. That provides some unintentional laughs. The disaster on the ice rink and the whole thing that happens in the kitchen are laugh out loud ridiculous looking.

Um, should we be watching this?
The most thrilling sequences of disaster are the ski lift rescue and unearthing David’s mother and McDade from the encased dining room. The ski lift has a pretty good build up to the final rescue. The whole thing gets more and more unstable as the news anchor and the kid hang on for dear life. There is electricity in play, and the fire department has trouble getting to them. It’s edited a bit clumsily, but it gets the job done. And since I actually liked McDade (and I admit the drunken mother was kind of likable too) I wanted to know what would happen to them.

Avalanche also tries to have a message about the media not caring about people, but doing anything for the story. The camera crew doesn’t try to help the news anchor and the child. They just stand there and film it, wanting to catch the moment they fall or get electrocuted. There is also a message about harming the environment, and letting greed and ego get in the way of compassion. It is all heavy handed, and doesn’t really go anywhere. I guess it is supposed to add some kind of depth to the film, but it just feels like padding to a movie that feels way too long already.

And then 1978 smacks you right upside the head!
For me that is the biggest crime Avalanche commits. The movie drags. Not just because of the slower 1970s pacing, but because it wastes over half of its running time on the flat uninteresting characters. They are written and executed so poorly it makes for an uninteresting film. You can’t wait for the snow to start falling. The movie picks up when the disaster finally hits, but so much of the entertainment comes from the hilariously bad special effects and over the top acting that you are laughing at the movie, not thrilling to it.

Yes, Avalanche is a disaster of a movie. But is it a disaster that Jonah and the Bots are ready to take on?

Episode Review:

Looks refreshing.
I don’t think Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever tackled a straight up disaster film before. The closest we got was the wonderfully hilarious San Francisco International, which was a 1970s television pilot filled to bursting with past their prime actors spouting out over-ripe dialogue and providing thrills on the tarmac. The movie was a perfect fit for riffing and it remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire series.

So Avalanche has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, things just don’t work out so well this time around. That doesn’t mean that Jonah and the bots aren’t giving it their all, because they really are.

"Old man Peabody used to own all this..."
For those first 55 minutes or so, they riff away at the movie as best as they are able too. So much of the film deals with silly melodrama and talky scenes with Rock Hudson shouting at everyone that it was a bit of a struggle to keep things fresh. Jonah and the bots focus on the ripe dialogue and over baked performances.

And don’t worry they don’t go for any overly nasty pokes at Rock Hudson. There are a couple of subtle riffs playing off his lifestyle, but they focus more on his ranting and 70’s outfits. I will admit that MST3K has gone for the nasty jokes about celebrities in the past. Bela Lugosi’s drug problems played into quite a few riffs in Bride of the Monster and in the Rifftrax commentary for Plan 9 From Outer Space they went overboard (and Lugosi is hardly in the film). So it is nice to see Jonah and the crew not taking that tactic this time out. Keep it classy guys.

Jonah and the bots get their groove on too!
Since Avalanche falls smack dab in the midst of the disco era, and we have a party scene you get some of the best riffing during that sequence. As the scene starts Jonah say, “1978 you have so many crimes to answer for.” Tom adds, “We have an avalanche of polyester on the dance floor tonight.” As the Baked Alaska desserts are brought out the boys throw several funny quips at the oddity of the whole scene.

Crow says, “Not that I’m complaining, but by this time Gene Hackman was half way through the Poseidon.” And you are really starting to agree with him, when the avalanche hits. You get some unusual POV shots from the avalanche to which Crow comments “The Avalanche has a Go Pro on.” The disaster provides so much fodder for Jonah and the bots that they go into overdrive.

"You see when a man loves a tree very much..."
Seriously the quips come so fast and furious that you do end up missing quite a few of them. There is some great material in there from the kitchen cheerleader to the observation from Tom that “He fell in slow motion and they still couldn’t catch him?” It is a shame the riffing goes so quickly that it gets tangled up in itself. Luckily this is the last episode to really have this problem. From The Beast of Hollow Mountain forward, the riffing hits the perfect pace.

One more thing to look for at the end of Avalanche is a hilarious series of quips from Jonah and the bots as they pretend to write up reviews for David’s resort in Trip Advisor. These are all very funny, and the boys do a great job delivering them as the meaningful music plays in the finale.

If Neil Simon wrote the next Fast and Furious film.
The host segments are OK, with one stand out sequence. For the invention exchange the bots create a cool new Dustbuster that uses the human mouth as it’s suction device. Jonah gets a bunch of stuff caught in his “filter”. The Mads create a program that will create an instant font and look for your movie poster. All you have to do is say the title. The system is super sensitive, so it starts to pick up the Mad’s conversation with amusing results. At the first break the bots are convinced that the loud and pushy Rock Hudson is cool, so they try to emulate him. Jonah talks them down. Then it is time for our special guest as Neil Patrick Harris shows up as Kinga’s online boyfriend. The two sing a duet about how they are in love but don’t want to actually touch each other. Patton Oswald as Max steals the show as he pines for Kinga with his own little interlude.

I think I would pay to see Rabbitoxicity.
But my favorite of the host segments is inspired by a riff during the film. The boys come up with Syfy channel original movie title and realize that those ridiculous MegaShark versus Crocosquid movies need to stop. So they create a whole bevy of titles and trademark all of them so Syfy channel can’t make them. These are hilarious, and the amount of titles they come up with is impressive. Kinga and Max try their hand at a few too. When the movie ends Gypsy comes down to provide some songs and entertainment inspired by the boozy performance of David’s mom in the film. Her music touches everyone, even Kinga.

Like the previous episodes in Season 11, this one is entertaining, but it just doesn’t go much further than that. The movie’s first half is so dull, and the guys do the best job they can. The second half overwhelmed with the rapid-fire riffs that you get lost in all the jokes. With some pruning of the riffs in the second half this could have risen a full grade.

But as it stands I can only give it three kitchen cheerleaders out of five.

This episode is available on the Netflix Streaming.

"Dear Trip Advisor, I found a cheerleader in my salad and
the dressing was not on the side. 1 1/2 stars."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

And Then This Happened... Avalanche

Winter sports can be fun for just about everyone. Of course you need the right equipment for them. Luckily the gent in this picture is one of the best skiers in the country (at least according to the film). So that means he not only possesses the right equipment (sponsored by Schlitz of all things), but he is also very skilled. That must also go along with his ability to escape deadly ice and snow from avalanches!

This picture comes from the Roger Corman disaster epic, Avalanche. Time to give our olympic hopeful the caption he deserves.

And then this happened...

Friday, July 14, 2017

Anime Juke Box - No Need for Promises - The Vision of Escaflowne

Been a while since the old Anime Juke Box has spun some j-pop for you. I was going through some of my older anime soundtracks and ran into all three of the wonderful CDs for Vision of Escaflowne. The music was co-composed by wonder woman Yoko Kanno and her husband at the time Hajime Mizoguchi. The score is one of her most bombastic orchestral powerhouses, with amazing action cues, sweeping romance and gothic horror. It works well in the series and is always a treat to listen to.

But Kanno's skills go well beyond her ability to compose for orchestra. She almost always writes the opening and ending pop/rock songs for the anime series she works on. Vision of Escaflowne is no exception. She gets the series started with this cheerful number called No Need for Promises. Like most J-pop of the 90s it is perky, happy, and well produced. Kanno has a thing for using bagpipes in her 90s scores and songs, so you get an interlude with them here too.

Perhaps the biggest thing about this song is that Kanno got the voice actress playing the main role of Hitomi to sing the song. The actress's name is Maaya Sakamoto, and this song launched her successful singing career at the tender age of 16. Kanno and Sakamoto worked on many projects afterward, with Kanno even writing the songs for an entire album of Sakamoto's songs. Both women are still hard at work in the world of film and anime music to this day. So here is where it all began with No Need for Promises from Vision of Escaflowne, written by Yoko Kanno and sung by Maaya Sakamoto.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Doctor Strange (2016)


I’ll admit, I’ve lost track of all the Marvel movies lately. But the concept of Doctor Strange sounded like a good one. It goes into an angle of mysticism you don’t see explored in too many big budget movies. I heard the fantastic score by Michael Giacchino. Oh and let’s face it, my wife is a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, so we were going to see this movie no matter what.


Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an egotistical but very skilled surgeon. When he ends up in a car accident he loses all steadiness in his hands. Feeling like his life is pretty much over unless he can heal his digits, Strange embarks on a journey to Nepal where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who says she can help him, help himself.

Little does Strange know that his keen mind allows him to access and adapt to the mystical secrets of the universe – becoming a true master of magic. Just n time too, because Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is looking to use a key relic to unleash hell on earth. Now it is up to Doctor Strange to use his newfound powers, magic cape and quick wits to save the world.

Good Points:
  • Some very impressive visual effects that really help develop the key concepts
  • Creates an intriguing world and conflict at the heart of the film
  • Solid acting by the entire cast

Bad Points:
  • The character arc for Doctor Strange is overly familiar – see Iron Man
  • You’ve got Mads Mikkelsen – why aren’t you using him better?
  • Fans of Inception may cry foul at some of the visual effects


Like most of the Marvel movies this one is a lot of fun. Visually it is stunning with some of the best visual effects I’ve seen in a long time. The film also creates a very strong concept of magic and mysticism and uses it to flesh out an interesting conflict among the characters. Sad to say the story arc for Doctor Strange himself is a well traveled one. Cumberbatch’s charisma and acting keep it interesting. But then you have Mikkelsen, a very strong actor, who is given a very flat antagonist role. I enjoyed the film, but it felt like it had the potential to be something a bit better.

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

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

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Chopping Mall (1986)


Ok, it is called Chopping Mall, it was made in the 80s and the VHS box cover art had a severed head in a shopping bag. How the heck was I supposed to resist that? Well, I never did get around to watching it back in the day. But when I saw it available for streaming I knew my quest for a cheesy movie to watch that weekend was at an end. But was I going to regret this little trip to the mall?


Mall security could use an upgrade and why not look to some A.I. to help out. Sounds good until a freak storm causes the programming for the three robotic mall cops to go on a killing spree. These guys are bullet proof, have the ability to electrocute victims and shoot sleeping darts. Oh, and since this is the 80s they can also shoot multi-colored energy beams from their eyes. If you happen to be a topless teen this will make your head explode. No, I’m not kidding.

Speaking of teens, some employees at a furniture store decide to stay after hours and have a sex party. There are the goody goody ones that don’t even kiss, so you know they will live. But the rest are all fodder for the rampaging robots. Keep your eyes open for scream queen Barbara Crampton and everyman Dick Miller as they try to survive a night in the Chopping Mall.

Good Points:
  • Packed the brim with 80s clothing, lingo, hair and robots – 80s ROBOTS!
  • Starts with an interesting premise and some hints at amusing parody
  • Some of the kills are pretty graphic and entertaining

Bad Points:
  • Never commits to scares or laughs and ends up doing neither
  • Runs out of steam about halfway through due to the uninteresting characters
  • Didn’t use the mall to the full advantage (probably for budget reasons)


This could have been better all the way around. It isn’t scary. It isn’t all that funny. But it hints at trying to do both. The characters are paper-thin and do some really stupid things (par the course for this type of movie). And while it was neat to see the same mall from Commando again, they just didn’t do too much with it, probably for fear of property damage. That said the 80s robots are fun in a retro way, and some of the kills and strategies to stop the robots are clever. Fans of cheesy films will get a kick out of the all out 80s onslaught. But this is more of a rental than a hidden gem.

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

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

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Movie Music Musings: The Goldsmith Award 2011

It wasn't just animation, it was motion capture based animation, so that made it even more expensive than a typical animated feature. Add to that the simple fact that whenever someone talks about these types of animated films like The Polar Express or Beowulf or the 2009 version of The Christmas Carol, they usually use the world "creepy looking" in there somewhere. I'm not sure that a budget of 150 million was ever going to see any profit.

But Robert Zemeckis was obsessed with getting this motion capture animation to take off. Mars Needs Moms was such a bomb it pretty much ended that idea. The film came out before Spielberg's Adventures of Tin Tin, but that superior film got tainted and that seems to be last of that odd animation experiment. Most motion capture animation remains in the realm of video games.

All that said, Mars Needs Moms may have been a bomb (and a half) but the score isn't. John Powell composed a fun and exciting score. It is what he does best and animation really seems to ignite his creative powers. His scores for the two How to Train Your Dragon films are some of the best of the decade. Mars Needs Moms is right behind them, with lots of orchestral color and energy.

So enjoy the end credits suite to Mars Needs Moms by John Powell. No creepy dead eyed characters shown here. :)