Monday, December 30, 2013

The Last Voyage of the Cinematic Titanic

At this theater in Glenside, PA, near Philadelphia, a handful of people will see the final voyage of the Cinematic Titanic. It'\ll be the last time where the original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000, plus TV's Frank Conniff and former Mad Scientist mom Mary Jo Pehl will pummel bad cinema to the delight of others. They'll end their six-year run with a double feature: The Wasp Woman (pure, uncut Corman) and The Doll Squad (so cheesy a cable channel aired it...on purpose). By the way, I want to thank Tony Goggin for letting me use this photo.

It's hard to believe that six years ago we saw the first movie, The Oozing Skull, and we wondered if the MST3K alumni still had that way of mocking bad acting, writing, special effects and even editing. When it was first available, it had a modest DVD disc:

After about five minutes, we all thought, "Cool. Nailed It, We're back". Still, when Joel re-used an old riff about "The Mod Squad", and said he was old, we understood. The important thing was, the spirit of MST3K was revived through Cinematic Titanic. It was like the old days: a bunch of people trapped by nearly-evil forces, required to mock bad movies for some vague reason, then put away the results in a time tube. It's not exactly like being trapped in space, but it was the next best thing. It's too bad that when they switched to making DVDs of live shows, they didn't include an escape attempt in one of the DVDs.

The choice of the Keswick was also interesting, but I would have thought the last show could have been in the Uptown in Minneapolis, where a convention included a live riffing of "This Island Earth". Still, the CT tour has toured in an arena, classic theaters, and even New York City.

The fun of mocking movies continues through Rifftrax, which got into full gear a year earlier than CT, and Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, which started in 2008 and continues to do "host segments" more complex than MST ever did. Not bad, since it started as "something to sell on MySpace".
Heck, if you get the blu-ray version of The Heat, you get a commentary track of Joel, Trace and Josh, er, J. Elvis mocking Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy from start to finish. Sure, Trace and J. Elvis used to work for the director, but... (Note, I reviewed this, and it somehow became popular).

I actually met Joel, Trace, J. Elvis and Frank at a convention in San Jose in 2008 shortly after the first CT episode:

I thought this was a great moment, because I finally got J. Elvis' autograph, and got to meet my cable TV heroes. After all, when would I ever meet them again?

Well, it would be a lot sooner than I thought:

This was their first live visit to San Francisco, when they riffed on East Meets Watts (although back then they called it The Dynamite Brothers), and created the "Spit Take Heard Round the World" that's on the live version. I still have the ticket stub

Now, some of us get in the habit of riffing, even on good movies. I do that while I watch something like Frozen, American Hustle or even a movie that everyone but me has seen, like any Harry Potter movie.

Also, I try to "improve" on the riffing of others. My Rifftrax copy of that over-discoed-in-a-new-wave-world musical, The Apple, has great commentary, but I try to add to it. In the "Show Business" number, I wondered why Mike Nelson never noticed the whole routine was similiar to how Baz Luhrmann would have staged a Super Bowl halftime show. Also, in "Cry for Me," when Alfie does his big song outside his apartment window, I find myself singing, "I'm mad at Hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore".
If I watch it again, maybe I could come up with a riff for Catherine Mary Stewart, who was the female lead who went on to Night of the Comet. That's not quite as surprising as the cast including a soap opera star (Finola Hughes) and a guy who helped create two reality shows (Nigel Lythgoe).
Yes, that's how I sometimes see movies, unless it's Gravity. That movie is riff-proof.
Note: the comment about Gravity is no longer true.

At least I was there for the final San Francisco show at the Castro. It's too bad the sound was terrible for the first half, The Doll Squad. After seeing it on TCM a few weeks ago, it's just as well, but I just couldn't come up with any good riffs.
That's why I am hoping that we'll get one last CT DVD of Doll Squad, Astral Factor or even Samson and the Seven Miracles. Just one more for the road, guys.

So, the final Cinematic Titanic show may lead to tears, laughs, and maybe a two-hour chant by the crowd, begging "Please Don't Go". Yet, it has to end, since the cast have new lives all over the country. Besides, Rifftrax and ICWXP will pick up the slack in their own way.
As long as there's an actor taking a role he doesn't have a clue to do convincingly (hello Johnny Depp), they'll be there. As long as there's cheesy, high-priced sci-fi and bad book adaptations, they'll be there. As long as Adam Sandler, Michael Bay, Tara Reid and James Franco are employed, they'll be there.

Besides, if the Eagles, Frank Sinatra, Cher and Brett Favre unretired, maybe the Cinematic Titanic will sail again in the seas of Video On Demand, Netflix and DVDs. We can only hope.

For now, Godspeed, Cinematic Titanic!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

All the World's A Con: Review of "American Hustle"

Variety, you're wrong.

Peter DeBruge's declaration that American Hustle is an overrated mess, and that critics and award shows have been conned, proves that he missed the point about the movie.

Of course, it's messy, puzzling, irrational and everything else. That's because you have a bunch of people who play a role they create to survive. Irving (Christian Bale) wants to create a better life for himself, starting with breaking windows to help his dad's glass business, then going into fraud and art forging. One day, he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who fakes a British accent to help with his cons. They're also madly in love with each other. Too bad he's married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who's a bit of a mess and has a young son.

Irving and Sydney, however, get caught by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to fight big white-collar crime and rise in the ranks. He uses these two con artists to create a sting operation to fight major white-collar crime. They target Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Polito's "role" is being a man of the people who wants to do right for his city and New Jersey...just as long his constituents don't know all the facts. Richie hopes to tempt Polito by getting him involved with a fake sheik in an attempt to get money to renovate Atlantic City. If it sounds like ABSCAM, the movie will only admit that "some of these events actually happened". It's fiction, but somewhat close to what really happened.

The great thing about this movie is that Irving, Sydney (in her Lady Edith persona) and Richie are all trying to play each other to get what they want. Sydney seduces Ritchie for her own gains, and Irving knows that. Richie wants to learn what they know about cons. It leads to one really bizarre triangle.

There's also some great set pieces, when Sydney seduces Ritchie at a disco, then he tries to "be real with her" only to find out the truth about her. There's Rosalyn getting friendly with some of the mobsters at a party Polito is throwing, then that confrontation with Sydney in the ladies' room that a lot of people will be talking about. The best one is when Irving, Politio, Richie, and their fake sheik meet mobster Victor Tellegio to close the deal...and Tellegio does something that threatens to ruin everything. Most of the cast have been in David O. Russell movies before, mainly The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and he uses his familiarity with these actors quite well.

Christian Bale is incredible as Irving. Despite a chubby body and an awful comb over, you can't help but believe what he says. It's hard to believe this man is also Bruce Wayne, Dicky Ecklund and John Connor. Bradley Cooper is also great at Richie, who thinks he's better than the con men, but learns the truth in a hard fashion.

It's the women, though, that are THE reason to check this movie out. Amy Adams as Sydney could fit right in a noir movie, and she has the perfect mix of vunerability and deviousness. She is also beyond sexy here. Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, proves that she is much more than Katniss...again. You almost hate Irving for treating Rosalyn this way, keeping her in Long Island while he's with Sydney. She is an oddball, but someone you hope can emerge from all this. Of course, there's also that scene in the ladies room. Both Adams and Lawrence are likely to be in the Best Supporting Actress race, and either one would be a good choice.
Meanwhile, it looks like Louis C.K. could have a future in movies. After appearing in Blue Jasmine, he's great as Richie's boss. And, fans of Angel and Law and Order may spot Elizabeth Rohm as Polito's wife, although she looks much different.
Oh, and if Tellegio looks familiar, he was in at least one of Russell's movie before. A recent one.

Now, the movie starts with multiple voice-overs in a style that may be a bit too much like Goodfellas, but this is a long con that pays off at the end beautifully. It also has a great soundtrack that includes "White Rabbit" in Arabic. It's also very good at recreating the 70's, from the old Columbia Pictures logo from back then (the 2nd worst logo update ever, Warner Brothers "little w" is still the worst), to the clothes that look right out of Ron Burgundy's closet.

Easy three and a half stars for American Hustle, and maybe a few awards as well. So there, Variety.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: Behind Unknown Music

For every Bob Dylan or Kingston Trio, there was a thousand Llewyn Davises who filled stages at coffee shops in 1961. Maybe they make an album, but not much more than that.

Joel and Ethan Coen, who have made movies that ranged from a kidnapping gone wrong to a screwball comedy, a western to film noir, turn their attention to a musician who struggles to fins a place to sleep, much less his next gig. Inside Llewyn Davis shows that this man's career is affected by bad luck, and maybe himself.

When we first see him, he gets clobbered by someone outside the Gaslight Cafe in New York for some reason. He crashes at a friend's house, then accidentally lets the friend's cat escape. He has to carry the cat everywhere, while he deals with an indifferent record executive, talking to his sister, and then to the flat of Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend who says she's pregnant--and she's not even sure is Llewyn is the father. Seeing them talk about her dilemma shows that he sees himself as an artist who wants to be above money and career. That is, until he agrees to be a backup musician for a song written by Jim (Justin Timberlake), called "Please Mr. Kennedy".

We later find out Davis used to be part of a duo, but his partner committed suicide. They were known for a song called "If I Had Wings", which has been featured in the trailer.

Davis soon hitches a ride to Chicago, hoping to talk to a club owner about a gig there. It's a tough drive that includes Roland Turner (John Goodman), a boozy jazz singer, and his driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

What's interesting about Davis is that he's a good enough singer/songwriter, but he is sometimes plagued with the weirdest bad luck. Aside from losing the friend's cat, he almost gets in another accident trying to avoid hitting another car. When he tries to get a job with the Merchant Marine, his licenses get thrown away by accident. This isn't about an unknown singer who finds stardom. It's about an unknown singer who stays that way, because that happens most often.

Isacc is great as Davis, and his performances of folk songs are also very good. While the audience at the screening I attended at the Century Stadium 14 did laugh during some parts of this movie, it's more of a character study of one of the countless folk singers who weren't heard as much as he had hoped.

Nestor, the Forgotten Christmas Special

Every Christmas season, TV viewers see the usual characters that generations have grown up with. We see Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in four specials, the Grinch stealing Christmas until he finds out it's a little bit more than gifts, Linus telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about, how Santa Claus first came to town, and Frosty the Snowman trying to keep his hat while parents are asking "who's Jimmy Durante?"

ABC Family airs many of these kids specials, mostly from Rankin-Bass, an animation company that was best known for Christmas stories starting with Rudolph in 1964. It's even airing The Little Drummer Boy, a very underrated special, and Pinocchio's Christmas.

However, there is one that no one is showing this year. In fact, it's been years since anyone has shown the story of Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey on TV

Nestor who?

In 1977, ABC made a special that might be quite familiar to those who are aware of Rudolph and the problems he had with his shiny red nose before a foggy Christmas Eve helped him go down in history.
That's because Nestor, like Rudolph, is based on a song written by Gene Autry. Thanks to YouTube, here's the song performed by Marty Robbins, with scenes from the special.

Both songs are about animals with an unusual body part. While Rudolph had his nose, Nestor had really long ears. The donkey, however, did have his mom by his side.

One winter day, Roman soliders come to buy donkeys from Olaf. However, they reject Nestor, and take the donkeys without paying Olaf. Nestor gets tossed out of the stable and into the snow by Olaf, but mom escapes. Both are caught in a blizzard, but she tells Nestor that no matter what, he must be brave.

She's forced to protect Nestor from the snow, but sacrifices her life. This is kind of dark for a Christmas special, except this also happened in The Little Drummer Boy nine years before. If you remember, Aaron hated all people because bandits killed his parents, but playing for the Baby Jesus changed his life.

Anyway, Nestor meets up with Tilly, a goofy angel voiced by Brenda Vaccaro. She guides Nestor to Bethlehem, where his ears will actually help someone. It turns out he's the one to helps Mary and Joseph to get to Bethlehem. There's even an epilogue where Nestor actually goes back to Olaf, and he's glad to see him back. No reason why, actually. Apparently this is the equivalent to Rudolph's red nose being celebrated at the end.

While Rudolph had Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) as the storyteller, Nestor had Spieltote (Roger Miller), who apparently is a direct descendant of Nestor. The special also has connections to other Rankin-Bass productions. One of the camels looks like Joshua from The Little Drummer Boy, while in the final shot we see Rudolph from Rudolph's Shiny New Year along with Mrs. Claus and Jungle and Jangle from The Year Without A Santa Claus. 

While ABC Family may not air Nestor this year, people can see it at YouTube. It's also available as a VOD at Rifftrax's website. Mike Nelson riffs this one solo, and comments on how corny the song is and how Nestor gets treated. However, he sounds a bit upset when he sees how Nestor's mom is killed.

Anyway, with the fact that we have zillions of channels, someone should air Nestor regularly, along with some of the lesser-known Rankin-Bass holiday specials. For example, there's no sign of The Stingiest Man in Town with Walter Matthau or First Christmas: Story of the First Christmas Snow with Angela Lansbury on TV this year. I had said 'Twas the Night Before Christmas wasn't being aired, but ABC Family will have that Christmas Eve morning after all. Good thing, too, because it has an interesting story, along with Joel Grey and George Gobel.
Also, they shouldn't be aired at the crack of dawn (The Little Drummer Boy at 7 AM?) just to say they did. It should be done in the afternoon, when even Mom can be nostalgic over these specials.

Then again, there's also YouTube and DVDs as two handy sources.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rifftrax vs. Santa: The Final Chapter (Please, God!)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of the cheesiest holiday movies not made by the Hallmark Channel, and also a child of the Cold War. Think of it: when Martians kidnap Santa Claus, the response was the U-S military, or its stock footage, pulling out all the stops to find him...and not getting close

It eventually became the traditional holiday target of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with Joel, Servo and Crow teeing off against the movie with its cheap sets, awful costumes, and really dumb story. If you want to find anything to blame for the existence of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny--or even Tim Allen's Santa Clause movies--this is it.

This past Thursday, Rifftrax took its turn against this holiday kitsch, even though MST and Cinematic Titanic had their chances already. It was difficult to find things that haven't been riffed on, but Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett managed to find a few. They just took different approaches. Mike wondered why the Martians never took off their helmets, Kevin marveled on the Martians' Air Blasters by Marx that stopped anyone cold, and Bill pointed out the movie had "famous people" like Pia Zadora, and Ned Wertimer, the doorman on The Jeffersons. Bill also lusted after Momar (the mom) a bit too much.

They also recycled two riffs from the MST version. When Billy and Betty saw Torg the robot, Joel noted in the MST3K version the soundtrack sounded too much like the theme from Jeopardy. With Rifftrax, Mike said the music was really "Alex Trebek's Funeral March." When Voldar plotted to "discredit Santa", Mike said they were planning to get Karl Rove to help them. That sounds similar to the original riff from Crow: "You get Donna Rice on the phone. I'll get a camera." Just look up Donna Rice on the internets, and you'll get it.

Here's some other riffs:

we see Droppo for the first time:

We have our Jar-Jar

Kimar meets with Chochem about why the Martians kids are acting strangely. Kimar says it's Septober:

Servo: Time for Septoberfest
Rifftrax: I thought it was Februly

The crew of the Martian ship gather:

Didn't one of you mess around with Fred Flintstone?

Kimar pushes Voldar after it's thought Santa and the Earth kids are sucked into space

MST3K: I love you. (Voldar pushes back) It'll never work.
Rifftrax: Invisible mistletoe.

Santa meets Momar

Santa's thinking of going green

Santa complains about the idea of having pills for breakfast:

Crow: What are we, Judy Garland?
Rifftrax: Courtney Love would have liked it there.

There are also riffs on the X-Files, Arby's (of course), a callback on a couple of past Rifftrax targets (including a recent one), JJ Abrams (especially his logo), CBS comedies, Norman Krasner, a certain movie with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and Watergate. Voldar is also compared to Daniel Plainview a lot. It's too bad that when Voldar is defeated in the final battle against Santa and his toys, he didn't moan, "I'm finished!"

Before that, the gang found an incredibly cheesy Christmas short made by Sid Davis, usually known for educational movies that try to protect kids from drugs, auto accidents and sexual deviants. This is called "Santa and the Fairy Snow Queen." It's narrated by an overly-hyper brownie called Snoopy, who makes Mr. B Natural look like Clint Eastwood. The "plot" involves the Snow Queen who brings a bunch of "toys" to life. She's described as a "third-rate ballerina on pain killers." Here's the unriffed short:

If you get past the fairy queen's strange Valeria/Natalie from Werewolf accent, and the weird-looking costumes, you'll see this short makes the main feature look like 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other hand, as the Rifftrax crew notices, it could be mistaken for an existential version of Toy Story. The riffs take on Ronald McDonald, Chewbacca, Lady Gaga, Twilight, and The Nutcracker.

Rifftrax's version was pretty good, but a lot of people are likely to say the MST3K version or the Cinematic Titanic is the best one. The MST3K version is available though Cheesyflix, while Amazon has the Cinematic Titanic version. Also, you can look at my review of the CT version. Judge for yourself who was able to conquer Santa Claus Conquers the Martians best.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Godspeed, WWE Classics on Demand

It had been speculated for some time the WWE wanted to create its own network, where wrestling fans can see their favorite sport 24 hours a day.

After some delays, it's now official: WWE Classics On Demand will close on January 31, and the WWE Network will take its place.

I'm gonna be sad to see the on-demand service go because it was my main source of old-school wrestling, after ESPN decided to stop showing the AWA, World Class reruns and even the Global Wrestling Federation (best known for giving us Marcus Bagwell and Sean "The 1-2-3 Kid" Waltham).

The best thing about WWE Classics is that it showed the pre-Hulk Hogan period of the WWE.  when regional channels (PRISM, MSG and even the old Z Channel from L-A) showed wrestling cards. That beats Prime Time Wrestling every time. Action that hadn't been preserved in VHS or even DVD would be shown every month. You could see proof George the Animal Steele used real words at one time, Hulk Hogan had a War Bonnet that was supposed to be what every kid wanted for Christmas (why else did he have that thing?), and there were cool wrestlers way back when like Superstar Graham, Bob Backlund, Rick Martel before he was "the model", and the Big Boss Man as a jobber that Jim Cornette abused before eventually hiring him as Big Bubba.

If the new WWE network was smart, it should unleash its massive wrestling library big time. There's a ton of old World Championship Wrestling from the late '70s and early '80s that fans would eat up: the arrival of the Freebirds, early Ric Flair, Bobby Heenan managing there for a while, and so much more. Heck, if they showed Stampede Wrestling from 1979 that included early Jim Neidhart, and Jake Roberts and Junkyard Dog using his real name, they could show JYD vs. the Freebirds.  How about a series on how Hulkamania ran wild in the AWA, but also had its roots with WTBS shortly before? Let's not forget Championship Wrestling from Florida...or Mid-South Wrestling. That's going to pull a ton of subscribers to the channel.

Of course, it's obvious the new channel will remember to promote the current stars. There's word that the NXT show may wind up there after a long run on Hulu. We'll get PPV cards six months or so after they're run (although people will have to see the whole thing, not choose individual matches), and there's a chance the new channel will show next year's Wrestlemania. There's also supposed to be reality shows, which ought to rip kayfabe to pieces.

Still, it should stick to its roots and show the old days in a big way. After all, where else could you see a 1984 card from St. Louis just after McMahon bought the WTBS time slot, and could claim the then-National Heavyweight Champion the Spoiler as its own?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Rifftrax Presents Swamp of the Ravens, or He Brought His Evil There

Lately Rifftrax has been concentrating on the cheesiest movies from Europe for its VOD collection. A while ago, we had Supersonic Man, a disco version of Puma Man with the guy dubbing Cameron Mitchell overacting way too much.

Now from 1974, we have Swamp of the Ravens, a production of Ecuador and Spain which could be a surrealistic version of "The Brain That Wouldn't Die". I chose this because the Black Friday sale Rifftrax had promised a five dollar credit if you bought 20 bucks worth of stuff...and a 20 percent discount. The other reason was one the strangest "love songs" in any cheesy movie.
The Rifftrax sample was removed from YouTube, but here's a link from the main site.

The plot: a scientist named Frosta thinks he can bring people back from the dead because he thinks death is an evolution and can be overcome. He tries to cure a leper, but winds up having to dump his body in the swamp next to the lab. The lab seems to do a better job of reviving the dead than the doc does because we see the victim's heads, and their eyes blinking.
Frosta also has a girlfriend named Simone who wants to go back to her ex-boyfriend, a guy who sings to a Spanish version of Resusci Annie about his love for a dead robot. It's like a lounge singer's version of Lars and the Real Girl. Here's a link to the English version (which might be removed), but here's the Spanish version below:

After she gets away from Frosta by "fooling" him with a mannequin, he grabs her right back and hopes to enslave her with his experiments. He has to fend off the dead leper's friend, described as a "human Nobby", Simone's ex-boyfriend, and the barely competent police.

Now, how the Rifftrax gang endured this movie:

The first four minutes is the doctor reviving a corpse in a van:

Kevin Murphy: In Ecuador, this is what passes as a witty farce. 

The doc's zombie assistant dumps a body in the swamp

Mike Nelson: Terrible biopic of John the Baptist

We see a shelf filled with babies' corpses placed in jars

Bill Corbett:  You managed to go from "creepy" to "Rob-Zombie-level-nightmare-inducing-creepy" in a single scene. 

There's plenty of riffs on Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Kermit the Frog, Jethro Tull,  Eugene Levy, Family Ties, Human League, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Kevin also comes up with a fine song about the leper guy, while Mike does an extended riff on Nick Nolte. There's also a long riff on why the ravens don't own their own swamp...and that the movie actually has buzzards, not ravens. Maybe "Swamp of the Buzzards" isn't as romantic, in a horror kind of way.

Swamp of the Ravens, among other cheesy movies, are available at Rifftrax's new Christmas store. It includes its holiday selections including Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (which has something in common with Rocket Attack USA, a past MST3K target), Talking Christmas Tree, Santa's Village of Madness (also known as outtakes from that Mexican Santa Claus movie), and the Rifftrax Live Christmas Shorts show with Weird Al Yankovic and the live riffing of the other Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon.

Review of Frozen: This Ain't Your Father's Disney Musical

Once upon a time, Walt Disney Pictures made animated features based on fairy tales where there was a beautiful princess who had to be saved by a Prince Charming, and it all ended happily ever after.

Then Enchanted came along and made a bunch of money. and Disney decided that the old formula could be revamped and improved. That's why Brave won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars last February.

The likely winner in 2014 is Frozen, a new spin on Hans Christen Anderson's "The Snow Queen" and Disney musicals in general. There's the beautiful princess, and two handsome love interests. However, the villain isn't where you expect.

It begins in Arendelle, where there are two princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell--yep, Veronica Mars could have done her own musical if given the chance) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa has the power to produce winter, but it causes an accident that almost kills Anna. The King and Queen decide to keep the sisters separate, and erase the memory of the accident. The castle is also closed to everyone. After the King and Queen die, Elsa is about to take the throne. While she looks cold, she is struggling to keep her icy touch in check. The pressures overcome her, and she puts the kingdom under eternal winter.  She's forced to leave and build her own Castle of Solitude.

Meanwhile, Anna wants to marry Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) after knowing him for one entire song. Elsa objects, which caused her power to go out of control. Anna endures very cold conditions to get her sister back with some help from Kristoff (Johnathan Groff), an ice deliverer, and his reindeer named Sven. Kristoff is also skeptical about Anna thinking Hans is "meant to be".
To serve as comic relief, there's a talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who wants to experience summer...although he's not aware of what that's like. There's a great song where he dreams of being in summer and getting a tan.

What's great about this movie is that Elsa is not the villain. She is the victim of a power she'd give anything to lose, but thinks pushing people away is the only thing she can do. Her fear amplfiies that power to disastrous results, and freezes her sister's heart. When Anna is told that true love can save her, she thinks kissing Prince Hans will solve everything.

She is right. True love will save everyone. Where it really comes from makes this a very different kind of Disney musical. It's a great story, with Disney princesses taking charge of the "happily ever after" part. It also has two songs that could get Oscar gold. My choice would be "Let It Go" over "For the First Time in Forever", but "Reindeer Are Better Than People" may be a cult hit.

UPDATE: here's "Let It Go", thanks to YouTube...

Before the movie, there is what seems to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1929 called "Get A Horse". After a minute or two, it's more than that. We see the original Mickey Mouse emerge from the 3-D. That genre-bending touch could lead to the Mouse's first Oscar for Best Animated Short. He won in 1932 for being created, but not in competition.

As far as the trailers are concerned, there's going to be a flood of new animated movies. There's The Nut Job, about squirrels hoping to break into a nut shop to survive the winter, the Lego Movie, about a Lego piece who is "the chosen one" for some mission, and Walking With Dinosaurs, which might remind people of The Land Before Time. There was also the trailer for Muppets Most Wanted, where Kermit is mistaken for a jewel thief. Even with Tina Fey with a ridiculous accent, Ty Burrell with a pencil-thin mustache, and Danny Trejo somehow appearing, I'm not sure about this one.

I also saw Hunger Games: Catching Fire recently. This franchise will succeed through the end thanks to Jennifer Lawrence. She's born to be Katniss, and her performance is the best thing about this movie. he movie is wise to show that just because she and Peeta survived the 74th Games doesn't mean they go back to their lives as nothing happened. The scars from that experience reveal themselves time and again. She's also identfied as a threat to the status quo at Panem, and a symbol of revolt. She'd rather not have this status, but the more the government responds in severe ways, the more she's willing to fight. Her last defining moment in this movie is proof of that. It should be interesting how they turn Mockingjay into two movies, since the overall plot goes from a game to a war.

Monday, November 18, 2013

How Many Doctors Do You Have?

There are two types of Doctor Who fans: those who have discovered the show when it appeared in PBS stations around the mid 1970s, and those who discovered him when he returned in 2005.

Thanks to YouTube, DVDs and BBC America,  those who say their first Doctor was Nine can discover who their favorite Time Lord was like long long ago. Remember, he was off the BBC for 16 years, not including Fox's attempt to revive him through Paul McGann and (unwisely) Eric Roberts as Master 3.0.

My first Doctor that I saw in the flesh was Jon Pertwee. He visited San Jose back in 1984. One thing I will always remember is seeing dozens of fans following him as he walked near the Hotel Saint Claire where the con took place.

Actually, KRON in San Francisco showed Doctor Who in the early 1970s, but it started with Pertwee's second episode when he encountered the Silurians. It would have been better if they showed "Spearhead from Space," which would have been a nice entry point for the uninitiated. Well, he didn't catch on until Tom Baker arrived, but Pertwee was a big hit in San Jose. Showing him a picture of the soon-to-be Sixth Doctor, then getting his reaction, was something I won't forget.

It was also back in the days when local fan clubs met to see bootleg copies of fresh episodes from the UK. A bunch met in a small room near San Jose's KTEH.  It was also where I saw my first Pertwee episode in more than ten years, "The Time Warrior". Ah, the popularity of circulating the tapes. I also helped out in a couple of Who-themed pledge drives for KVIE in the late 1980's.

Anyway, that led to the BBC and other groups bringing Doctor Who cast members, including Time Lords past and present, to the U-S and a a grateful public. It also led to a shrinking time gap of getting fresh shows. Thanks to those cons, I got the autographs of Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. They're all in the BBC's 20th anniversary book for the show. It also includes several companions, the Brigadier and the Master 2.0. If only I started taking pictures back then.

The book also has this postcard that was signed by McCoy. Using my status as a news director for a small radio station, I asked him if and when his unique sweater would be available. I actually got a response

Of course, thanks to the internet, people can sell such homemade versions of those sweaters, or even extra-long Tom Baker scarves. It can also lead to fans no longer having to wait until July to see the Christmas specials.

When I finally got to see a Time Lord in the flesh with David Tennant at Comic-Con four years ago, it was a fantastic feeling. I only wish I could have shaken his hand. Then again, it's not every day you get a taco served by Eleven a couple of years Comic-Con of course.

Since then, I have been lucky to get some autographs of companions including Elisabeth Sladen, Caroline John, Katy Manning, Wendy Padbury and Sophie Aldred (in the form of a first-day cover). I would love to get a 21st Century Doctor, but thanks to the internet (again) and big business, it's not as easy as it used to be. If I had steady paying work, I'd pay 100 bucks for Matt Smith or David Tennant's signature. That's unlikely right now, but I can always hope.

Still, I'm very satisfied and proud of my collection of Doctor Who autographs, plus some other relics of old-style Who fandom. It sets me apart from those who have recently discovered Doctor Who. I can say that I always knew him, even back when he had a mop of hair and a really long scarf. In a way, that was cooler than a bowtie and a fez---mostly.

An Odd Couple of AIDS Activists: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club"

Ron Woodruff is the definition of a Texas redneck. An electrician by trade, he lives hard and loves hard. He overdoses on women, drugs, booze and anything else.
In 1985, he finds out he is HIV positive, and has 30 days to live. He fights to have a little more time, and winds up being one of the most unlikely AIDS activists.

This is the story behind Dallas Buyers Club, which may also be an excellent example of two actors making major commitments to create the best performances.
First off, look at how Matthew McConaughey had to change his leading man look to be Woodruff:

He not only lost 50 pounds, but all the baggage from being in lame romcoms Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker. True, he's also done good work in recent movies like Killer Joe and Mud, but nothing like this.
When Woodruff gets the news, he does what most people do: deny it through any means necessary. When it finally dawns on him of what has happened, and maybe when it happened, he reads what he can about drugs like AZT, the first drug the FDA approved for treatment despite serious side effects. He also hears about alternative methods and drugs that haven't gotten FDA approval, or even noticed. To be clear, he's partially doing it to benefit others, but it's really because of himself and earning cash. McConaughey does a great job making sure that Woodruff is no saint, but still willing to provide treatment options aside from AZT. This includes impersonating a priest and a researcher to get "unapproved" drugs from China, Japan and Mexico.

The performance most people will talk about is Jared Leto as Reyon. He's on an AZT trial program, but sells part of his dosage to help someone else...and for the money. Soon he and Ron create a unique way to distribute alternative drugs and try to keep one step ahead of the FDA. Most people remember Leto from My So Called Life and his band, 30 Seconds to Mars:

Seeing him as Reyon will stun a lot of people. He is someone you don't forget.

It's safe to say Leto's return to acting will get a lot of applause, and lead to a few awards after the New Year.

Jennifer Garner is also good as Eve Saks, who helps run one of the AZT trials for a hospital in Dallas, but slowly realizes that Ron's unorthodox ways may have its merits.

One reviewer said in a podcast that the FDA's heavy-handed way to stop Ron was a bit far-fetched. Then again, this was during the days of the War on Drugs. The battle may have included anyone who made the FDA look bad, so how the FDA agent is portrayed made sense.

Dallas Buyers Club is not only a great story about how a real redneck made sure AIDS patients got care that would keep them alive, but it's also a fine showcase of two great actors.

As I said in my review of 12 Years A Slave, the battle for Best Actor at the Academy Awards will be an endurance race. While Robert Redford will be the sentimental favorite for All Is Lost, McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor cannot and should not be ignored. That's why I'm hoping it will be a split vote right through the Oscars next March. As for Leto, it looks like he'll be the 2014 version of Anne Hathaway, although McConaughey may give him a run for his money for his performance in Mud.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doctor Who's Past and Future Anniversaries

As Doctor Who's 50th anniversary gets closer, people are deciding whether to see "The Day of the Doctor" at home, at a pub, or in 3-D in selected theaters in the UK and America. Others are probably taking out their homemade DVDs or even old VHS cassettes, looking at really old Doctor Who episodes shown on PBS way back when. 

It's easy to forget that the BBC has honored the Doctor with big anniversary episodes in the 1970s and 80s. Never mind the dream matchup of David Tennant and Matt Smith, and their respective sonic screwdrivers, there was a time when three Doctors had to work together...and later four.

This is from "The Three Doctors", shown from late December 1972 to January 1973 in honor of the show's tenth anniversary. It was back in the days when stories lasted a month and were shown 30 minutes at a time.  An alien force kidnaps a scientist, while a black hole threatens the Doctor's home planet (which wasn't named Gallifrey until "The Time Warriror" a year later). It forces the Time Lords to have the Doctor get some unwelcome (he thinks) help from his second form. Between trying to explain this to Jo Grant and the rest of UNIT, and clashing personalities, they have to figure out who is responsible. The original Doctor was supposed to be in the TARDIS as well, but William Hartnell's health limited him to extended cameos in this story. Still, it's a hoot seeing Jon Pertwee as Three literally beside himself with his previous self, played by Patrick Troughton. It's also responsible for the classic line "You've redecorated, haven't you? Don't like it." It'll be said again next weekend, according to the trailer.

The Doctors and their friends find out they were kidnapped by Omega, who worked with Rassilon to develop time travel. Omega was thought to be dead, but he was alive, and demanding revenge upon his fellow Time Lords. This episode was important not only for having more than one Doctor, and getting a look at his planet, but it also freed him from his exile on Earth. The Time Lords admitted that having someone helping them out in the universe would be a good idea. Besides, the Master was still out there somewhere. 

Ten years later, the BBC made "The Five Doctors," a one-off story that also had what most would call an all-star cast.

Instead of all the Doctors working together from start to finish, they're kidnapped individually. First, the original Doctor (Richard Hurndall) is grabbed by something, then Two and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, Three while driving Bessie, and then Five (Peter Davison) with Tegan and Turlough. It would have gotten Four, and to some people the real Doctor, but Tom Baker balked at the project. The special used clips from the unseen story Shada to "include" him. His decision also affected the story, although that works out in the end.

What makes this special is that we see someone who makes an unexpected return after 18 years...Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter played Carole Ann Ford. After escaping a Dalek, they're the first ones to figure out they're in Gallifrey. Sarah Jane Smith is also back, but she is paired with Three. The Master 2.0 (Anthony Ainley) is also involved, to rescue Five of all things. The Cybermen also show up, and a Yeti, apparently kidnapped as well. 

It winds up as a menacing version of The Wizard of Oz, as everyone has to approach a Tower, where it's revealed someone on Gallifrey wants immortality. 
We also get surprise appearanes by some of the Doctor's old aquaintances, like Liz Shaw, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Herriot. That may not mean much to those who discovered the show in 2005, but look them up. 

From what has been revealed, we know we'll get at least two Doctors in "The Day of the Doctor" on November 23rd. However, this webisode released by the BBC suggests two things: Eight (Paul McGann) should have had a longer run (thanks loads, Fox) ,and the final shot from "The Impossible Girl" didn't lie. 

By the way, the Doctor was on Karn. and it wasn't his idea. Stephen Moffat has more on the web prequel in this BBC blog.
If we got this, what else, or who else, will we get?

Amazon, of course, has The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors for sale, plus the time he was on Karn.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happy 75th Birthday, Tower Theatre

This is the second time I attended a movie theater's anniversary. The other time was when the Crest in Sacramento celebrated its 60th birthday in 2009. It just had one special event and a birthday cake.

The Tower, however, went all out. It had three different shows for its 75th anniversary, replaced its usual movie posters with posters from the 30s and 40s, and featured a cake that looked like the building.

While I took a few photos, I decided to make a video of the event. It may not be fancy, but that's because I wanted to use my Kodak Zi8.

While it was a pretty good event, there was one drawback that is due to new technology. I had expected the theater to use real film to show cartoons and classic movies. However, like most theaters, it converted to digital projectors last year. It used DVDs to show cartoons, the Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York,  and a recreation of  the old way of showing a movie (namely a short subject, newsreel clips, a cartoon, trailers and the main feature, Algiers). Somehow, it wasn't the same. It was close enough, though.

It was a reminder of how the Tower has become an essential part of Sacramento's entertainment scene, even after 75 years. The Crest has abandoned showing movies every day thanks to cable TV and the multiplex down the street. It would be great if the Tower had "old-fashioned" movie nights every once in a while. At least the Crest's tradition of showing It's a Wonderful Life close to Christmas will be alive this year. It's one of those movies that just looks better on a movie screen, rather than a flat-screen TV.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Beautiful and Bleak: A Review of Nebraska

It's been a long time since we've heard from Bruce Dern. Although he was on HBO's Big Love recently, he's still remembered from his movies from the 1970's. This year, he made an impressive comeback by winning Best Actor at Cannes for a movie about an old man who thinks he's won a million dollars. The movie, Nebraska, has become a winner for Dern, but also for two other actors, Will Forte of SNL and June Squibb.

Although it won't be officially released until Friday, it was shown last week through the New York Film Critics Screening Special at a handful of theaters, including the Crest in Sacramento, and included interviews with Dern and director Alexander Payne.

The movie is short in black and white to show the bleakness and beauty of the setting of the three cities where the action takes place: Billings, Montana, where Woody is trying to walk to Nebraska to claim his prize, Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's home town, and Lincoln, where he thinks his prize will be. Woody Grant is 77, an alcoholic who looks like he doesn't undertsnad what is happening.. He thinks he has a sweepstakes ticket worth a million dollars. He doesn't, but his son David (Forte) decides to take him to Lincoln to "claim" his prize. After having one too many at a stop in South Dakota, Woody cuts his head open. For the rest of the movie, he has a bandage on his head which shows him as damaged but not done yet. Another scene where he visits the farm where he grew up is also poignant. Here, he can remember what it was like. There's also a funny scene where he gives an interesting comment about Mount Rushmore.

Despite being best known for his comedy on Saturday Night Live, Forte is just great as Woody's son. Although he says he's on this road trip to humor his dad, he's also getting over a break-up with his live-in girlfriend. Maybe he'll get closer to his dad. He does, in unusual ways, like where David asks Woody why he got married.

When they get to Hawthorne, the town is also fooled into thinking Woody's a millionaire. Since it's one of the small towns that is slowly fading away, populated by mostly old people, it'll take any bit of good news. That includes Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who expects Woody to give him a share of the prize that doesn't exist.

June Squibb is also great as Woody's wife Kate. When she arrives in Hawthorne, he gets a chance to reconnect with old friends. You also see why she loves Woody, dents and all. Seeing her visit a local cemetery is a hoot. (UPDATE: Enetertainment Weekly has that cemetery visit in a special video.)

This is a bleak and beautiful film about a part of the country that is slowly fading away, along with the people who live there. Woody is hoping that the "prize" will help him up for his failings, and that he can be a winner in the eyes of his family. It may remind some of The Descendants, which also includes a family trying to heal itself. Payne, of course, directed that movie, too.
Nebraska is a nice little gem to find among the upcoming wave of holiday movies over the next few weeks.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Solomon Chained

American history is filled with chapters that aren't easy to look at. That includes the years before the Civil War, where the nation had to deal with slavery and its treatment of African-Americans.

This chapter hasn't been seen too often: a free Black from New York state meets two men who promise him a job, but actually sell him to slavery. This was the story of Solomon Northup, who was 12 Years A Slave between 1841 and 1853, well before the Civil War and even the Dred Scott Decision. It's the basis of a fantastic drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. It's now in more than 400 screens a couple of months after its premiere at Telluride, and may get more later this month.

The movie begins with Northup as part of a gang of sugar cane harvesters. It seems to be a typical day of hard work and little food. Then we see him try to write something. We see he is not a typical slave. He was once a fiddler, a husband, and a father in Saratoga, New York in 1841. He is treated like anyone else. Then, he meets two men, Hamilton and Brown, who promise him a lucrative job in Washington. Instead, he wakes up in chains, and is told he's a runaway slave. He tries to identify himself, but without proof, he has lost his identity and even his name. The movie makes it clear that even a Free Black's status can be taken away by losing his papers, just because of his skin.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, doesn't pull any punches on how slaves were treated. Seeing some of the slaves whipped is a painful experience. Showing how they were sold, even nude, to people is even more shocking. When Paul Giamatti as Freeman presents slaves for sale, it's almost as if he's a used car salesman.

Northup, now called Platt, is sold to Shaw (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to be reasonable. However, Tibeats (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt, mainly because he's smarter than Tibeats. Platt is later sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a cruel master, and sometimes has sex with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a field slave. How his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) deals with this fact is even more disturbing. She doesn't like what Epps is doing, but she doesn't really stop him. In her mind, it's also Patsey's fault.

Through the years, Platt does what he can to survive and find a way to escape back north. As the years go by, that determination slowly breaks down. When he's with Shaw, he thinks his experience in building the Champlain Canal may make him a valuable part of the plantation. Tibeats does what he can to end that idea. In Epps' plantation, Platt is slowly broken down. Seeing his face in full despair is something you don't forget.

He does get some hope thanks to Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter. Even if Platt regains his true identity, he may still lose valuable things he'll never get back.

This movie has been touted as a possible favorite for Best Picture come Oscar time, but 12 Years A Slave isn't an easy movie to see. It is still worth watching. It shows a piece of American history that's not discussed very often, but should be to remind us how we've advanced.
Ejiofor is the best. His abilities as an actor has been getting a lot of notice from this movie and the Starz mini-series, Dancing on the Edge. Fans of the sci-fi movie Serenity, though, already know. Fassbender is chilling as Epps, who says he can do anything to his "property", even force Platt to do an unspeakable thing. Nyong'o is also great as Patsey, someone who has made some unpleasant decisions to survive. Cumberbatch is also good, showing that not all slaveowners were bad. At least he recognized Platt was not a typical slave.

It also shows the race for Best Actor might wind up as an endurance race. Ejiofor does through a lot of physical and emotional abuse in this movie. Tom Hanks battles pirates and their treatment in Captain Phillips. Matthew McConaughey loses a lot of weight to be an unlikely AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club, and Robert Redford battles disaster on the high seas alone in All Is Lost. It'll be one interesting awards season.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

ICWXP: More Bad Shorts, New Eyes, and a New Villain (Update: and a new van!)

It's been nearly a year since we last heard from our heroes known as Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, otherwise known as life in the zombie apocalypse that's not in The Walking Dead.

While Rifftrax just mocks bad movies, and Cinematic Titanic heads towards the sunset, ICWXP reminds us that the host segments, the comedy in between the movies, are very important. That's how we see Rick Wolf, TopsyBot 5000, Johnny Cylon, and Flux Namtari deal with being trapped in a movie theater in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

The episodes are becoming more ambitious, too. When season 2 started, the DVDs ran only 45 minutes. This new DVD runs a whopping 90 minutes, not including extras. In the commentary track, Rikk says mixing a real story with movie mockery, as MST did in the SyFy days, makes it different.

In "Fahrenheit Cine-A-Sorrow", there's some changes, like TopsyBot getting a new head and the lobby getting a new candy counter. The zombies seem to communicate through long moans that are actually profound discussions about existence...or World War Z. However, there's something else, as shown below....

So who's behind all this? We'll get to that later.
Cylon is trying to make a documentary about life at the theater, and tries to set off an argument between Topsybot and Rick. What happens is childish yet compelling, and it's all too much for Topsybot. He goes into an electric stroke, and finds himself in the ultimate Hell: an Adam Sandler film festival. Actually, he got a new head, paid for by fans.
Then Cylon interrogates Birkin, one of the Ludovico lackeys strapped to a chair. There's a mysterious brownout, which gives Spencer, the other lackey, a chance to escape from being forced to see "Soapy the Germ Fighter" over and over again.

Afterwards, we have the first short, "The Haunted Mouth", where Colgate uses the evil voice of Cesar Romero to threaten kids about the dangers of plaque. Here's the first couple of minutes...

Plaque basically dares kids to brush their teeth every day, and in a disturbing fashion that makes Topsy say, "Brush your teeth like a bad girl."

During intermission, Birkin tries to get away, and Cylon tries to communicate with the head of Professor Zedikiah Logan, still a rotting head but now with a teddy bear. It's great they've found a new way to use Zed, who hasn't been seen since "Bloody Pit of Horror" back in 2009. It can only communicate through blinking, but not for long.

The second short talks about the wonders of coal-fired power plants, and how they make life in Ohio wonderful.

There's also riffs that have connections with MST3K. When a storm is brewing, threatening the power grid, Topsy says, "Diarrhea is like Lake Erie raging inside you." That sounds familiar to hardcore MSTies.  Then, when Rikk asks who Jam Handy is (yes, the Jam Handy that gave us "Hired!"), Cylon says he's "someone who gets mad fun of by robots a lot".

Afterwards, they get another brownout, and their mysterious friend, Bottomless Epiglottis, says it's due to a computer virus. It can fix the problem, but it needs the password....from Zed.
After some "negotiation" with Zed, plus a special device that's provided by the late great Dr. Blackwood, they fix the problem. In fact, it gives Zed a new voice, which helps him express a lot of anger through very long words.

However, that's not the end. There's a new set of villains called the Order of Mortis, a cult that wants to take over the theater and lead the world to a new beginning. They've already recruited the zombie that was captured at the start of the show.

So how do they think the theater will help them fulfill their mission? Well, you'll never know unless you get the next DVD, right?

"Fahrenheit Cine-A-Sorrow" includes shorts on the new fan-funded candy counter, Zed's new eye, and a tribute to the Dickinson 6, which was used as the exterior to Cine-A-Sorrow. There's also a feature on how Topsybot got a new head, and was told to thank the fans, individually, who helped pay for them, and a visit to the Transworld Halloween convention in Saint Louis.

As mentioned before, Rikk comments on the action. He had planned two scenes with Flux, and some others, but that didn't work out. He also says creating that cult was needed to develop a major villain for the show. His comments do go all over the place, from how Dexter ended to what could have ended season two of the show but won't. It shows he's devoted to this show and so should we. If there's anyone who deserves a $60 million Powerball ticket, or a cable network, to keep this franchise going, it's him. 

"Fun With Shorts" has a short on Thanksgiving in this DVD. Here's the link to it. This episode will keep you going through Halloween, Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving.
Finally, there are easter eggs in the second (light up the straw), third (popcorn kernel) and fourth (lemonhead) chapter menus.

You can order a copy of "Fahrenheit Cine-A-Sorrow" plus other episodes, through this link.

UPDATE:   Rikk and the boys wanted an old van that they'll turn into the zombie killing leviathan, the "Necrogon". They raised 1500 bucks towards that plan, and early Halloween afternoon, this was added to their website:

They'll need to get the van zombie-fighting ready, and meet other needs in the future. You can chip in by clicking here, and get additional rewards depending on the size of the donation. If the season finale is really going to be two hours, including a whole movie, it'll take a lot of green to get it going.

One more thing, I got Supersonic Man, one of the latest Rifftrax VOD offerings. I wanted to know how bad it is compared to, say, Puma Man. This movies makes Puma Man look like The Dark Knight.

It's a European Superman knockoff with a bland European guy who talks into his watch to be a super hero, an annoying drunk, and Cameron Mitchel (and the guy dubbing him) over-acting. It makes you really appreciate Donald Pleasence, or Krankor for that matter. That's despite a scene where Dr. Gulik (Mitchel) tells a kidnapped scientist, "Today is a great day for science", and Kevin Murphy riffs, "Big Bang Theory has been cancelled".  There's also a callback on The Room, and riffs on Windows 8, "western music", Dog the Bounty Hunter, Charlie Brown, Costco, Kickstarter, Michael Bay and the Wiggles.  Mike also turns Supersonic Man's awful theme into a nice jingle for a local shopping center. Good thing he didn't try it with the theme song from the Spanish version.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Riffrax Live: Return of the Night of the Living Dead

The week before Halloween, the Rifftrax gang presented a ghoulish display of one man’s living nightmare….then showed the classic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead.

A sellout crowd in Nashville, Tennessee and thousands more at theaters across the country enjoyed a night of cinematic horror, punctuated by funny comments. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett presented an improved print, and also improved sarcasm, of the classic George Romero movie. There were some jokes left over from the original DVD, but they took out the riffs about women, Keith Olbermann, Ron Paul, and the Steelers (since the movie was filmed near Pittsburgh). The new version added jokes about Crocodile Dundee, Game of Thrones, cab drivers who hate to go to Brooklyn, non-alcoholic weddings, Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird, Nancy Grace, Microsoft Zune, Miley Cyrus,  Orville Redenbacher, and Birdemic.

It’s also fun to compare the original DVD  to the live show. Mike starts off with this comment during the long driving scene in  the opening credits: “If they pass a sign that says ‘Valley Lodge’, I’m leaving.” This was followed by…

The first zombie attacks Johnny and Barbara at the cemetery:

DVD: C’mon, lady, ward him off with your giant forehead.
Live: Knock off the fighting. What do you think this is, an Irish wedding?

Ben, the male lead, shows up at the abandoned house surrounded by zombies.

DVD: Apparently the zombies were emanating that weird mosquito noise
Live: Young President Obama, thank God you’re here!

He tries to comfort a stunned Barbara:

DVD: She’s got gonna sing, is she?
Live: Lars and the Real Girl had more chemistry. (TV’s Frank would be so proud)

A naked female zombie is seen from the back

DVD: How come every time a naked chick shows up at your doorstep she’s either a zombie or she just escaped from some lunatic’s basement?
Live: She’s not a zombie. She just likes to par-tay! (No gorilla grams, either)

The Coopers are in the basement, thinking they're safe, but Tom, who's upstairs, says he and Ben found a TV.
DVD:  You're still not allowed to come up. Just wanted to tell ya
Live:  We can watch The Walking Dead. (that was the most inevitable joke that night)

Tom asks Judy why she always has a smile for him

DVD:  I like marshmallows.
Live:  Dianetics

While the riffers are glad the zombies are not Instagramming the human remains they’re eating, they see a zombie enjoying an arm too much

DVD: It isn’t disgusting enough to eat corpses, now they went and got KFC.
Live: Tori Amos has gone feral.

The most tragic line of the show occurred when we see Helen Cooper dead after her zombie daughter Karen stabbed her:

DVD: Finds a spotlight as she’s dying. That’s true show biz spirit, folks.
Live: She’s been spade (or spayed). This got Bill fired for ten seconds.

Once this show is available on VOD, it’s certain to replace the DVD version as the definitive riff on this classic movie.

Before that, fans saw true horror in a new “Norman Krasner” short where he is told by his boss to write a speech and presentation with hardly any time to prepare. Just like the other shorts, everything goes wrong. The cleaning lady vacuums some of the slides then pours coffee on his notes. It ends, quite appropriately, with a sprinkler system pouring water on Norman just as his speech collapses in a pile of failure. These shorts were supposed to teach business people how to prepare for the unexpected, but with so many things going wrong for Norman, the moral seems to be, “we’re doomed, so why bother?” There’s jokes about Transformers 3 and Eeyore, while Norman is left asking the question, “Where the Hell is my dignity?”

It was also announced the first “Norman Krasner” short, which was given to certain backers of the Kickstarter project, will be available to everyone next month. I’ve seen it already, and have this review. It’s black and white and also a horror story.

Rifftrax had its traditional 30-minute “fun facts” show, including haikus, costume ideas like dressing as a Native American dressing as Johnny Depp, and the next great horror flick title: Freddy vs. Jason vs. Milo and Otis.

The winners of a caption contest were also announced. This is the picture…

My entry was: “They’re not only saying Grace, they’re eating her, too.”
It couldn’t compare to the winner, “Steve, the other white meat.”. Second place went to “Subway: Eat Flesh”, which I think should have won.

After Halloween, preparations for Christmas start almost immediately. Rifftrax will be ready on December 5th to take on, yet again, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. If it can re-riff Manos and Mr. B Natural, Santa on Mars, not to mention Droppo and Tor the Robot, aren’t safe either. 

One more thing: the closing credits included the names of people who donated at least $125 to the Kickstarter campaign. They were supposed to be included  after the Starship Troopers show last August.

One of those names: someone claiming to be Faith Lehane. According to the "Thanks" page, she's listed as "Faith L.", but the credits had her last name, too. It might be her, but you'd also expect Buffy to drop a few dollars to Rifftrax.

Maybe Rifftrax’s next Kickstarter event should be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie….and Nick Brendon is invited to help out. Just an idea.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cinematic Titanic's Secret Episode: The Heat Blu-Ray

What if you mixed Miss Congeniality with Lethal Weapon, and got the guy who directed Bridesmaids as the cook? You'd get The Heat, a different kind of buddy-cop movie that did very well at theaters.
Now, what would happen if you added three guys mocking it from beginning to end?
You'd get The Heat Blu-ray DVD, revealed as Cinematic Titanic's secret episode...or a secret episode by the original MST3K trio. Either way, all movie riff fans should get this DVD.

Sure, Sandra Bullock as the by-the-book FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as a wild Boston cop produced a lot of laughs. However, the Blu-ray adds more laughs with a commentary track from director Paul Feig, and from McCarthy's fictional family. The best option, though, is hearing Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein commenting on it.

The riffs start at the opening 20th Century Fox logo ("You know you're a successful company when you've outlived your logo") to the ending credits where the trio explain how they know Feig (mainly because of Freaks and Geeks), which led to this.

They waste no time dissing Bullock, as FBI agent Ashburn leading a raid ("Don't shoot him. I want to adopt him and make him play football"), and McCarthy, as Officer Mullins, claiming she's the love child of a disturbing combination that not even Conan O'Brien could imagine in his "If They Mated" bit. Joel even compares her to the Tasmanian Devil. This is barely scratching the surface, too. They fire riffs on Samuel L. Jackson, They Live, the NRA, MASH, The Deer Hunter and Neil Sedaka. They also wonder how Feig could afford to include Jack White in the soundtrack. They also have classic comments about Bullock's driving, and the scene where both girls finally let their hair down after ordering a "Scotch and Tape".

I thought Bullock was too uptight and nerdy, but she makes up for it in the last 20 minutes or so. McCarthy really goes all out as the wild cop, and once you see her family it explains everything about her.
Even if you're not a fan of the comedy, hearing the original MST3K trio comment on it makes this Blu-ray one of the best entertainment bargains in years.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cinematic Titanic: The Last Picture Show

Cinematic Titanic Posters

More than five years ago, five members of Mystery Science Theater 3000 decided to riff on movies again. They started with a test show at Industrial Light and Magic, did a few DVDs, then took to the road. It fulfilled a need...a need for cinematic justice.

Now, while Rifftrax, the other major movie riffing movement, is still going strong, the CT guys are making their last tour. They attracted a sell-out crowd of 1400 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco this past Saturday (10/19). It was a little different from its previous visits, but still very funny.

Dave "Gruber" Allen, who recently posed at the Really Groovy Pope on Conan, did a fine job filling in for Josh (J-Elvis) Weinstein, who is still ill but hopefully will be back for the grand finale. Aside from two very funny lip-synch performances, he also took Cinematic Titanic to the next drama!

Here with the former Forresters, Mary Jo Pehl and Trace Beaulieu, they perform the final scene from A Doll's House in a very Midwestern way. The best riff: "Oh, Torvald"...and Dean.

Then, Cable TV's Frank Conniff talks about how his career has changed, when he joined Totally Biased as a writer and budding Andy Rooney. He wanted to stay with Current after it changed to Al Jazeera America, and even pitched a show called "Sharia Law and Order." He also talked about bad pizza and artisan ice cream.

Then Joel Hodgson arrived to thank the fans for supporting Cinematic Titanic. He then went on to describe the 7 PM movie, The Doll Squad. Picture Angel's Revenge as produced by Russ Meyer, or someone who thought he was Meyer. Here's a sample:

The movie drowned out the riffs at first, but the sound mixing sounded better from my seat. Since this will be shown on the tour, the only riff you can expect is that the boat captain is mistaken for Catfish Hunter. They also got in some riffs on the government shutdown and the BART strike.

A lot of people wore MST3K and CT shirts, but this guy has the best costume with a Gizmonics jumpsuit and hardhat. His costume was impressive. There was also a woman dressed as Tom Servo, and a ticket taker who wore a Firefly sweatshirt. In the spirit of Halloween, we have this picture of the Castro Theater organist under the disturbing-looking Sketchfest spotlight

According to one person who stuck around for the 2nd movie (as reported at Satellite News), The Astral Factor, Trace had a short film where he plays "Dr. Eff" hoping to make a monster named Frank. That's one way to get around copyright infringement. Then someone asked a very complex question about an MST3K episode. Joel gave the only answer he could: "Just repeat to yourself, it's just a show"

I did ask Trace if there would be DVDs of The Astral Factor and The Doll Squad, and it seems there won't be. He confirmed that fact at the Satellite News site. I still tweeted a request to tape the final performance in late December. After all, if The Band did and created The Last Waltz, so can Cinematic Titanic. However, there is one "lost episode" that still exists: it's a commentary on the blu-ray of The Heat. That's right, people are riffing on a comedy that some people liked. There will be a review of this before the upcoming Rifftrax Live event this week, but some random thoughts about losing CT. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

It's A Long Way Down: A Review of "Gravity"

Imagine if you're working hundreds of miles in space, and an accident destroys your space shuttle.
Then you're losing oxygen...and you can't get help from the ground. No radio. No rescue.

Certain tragedy? In nearly all cases, but it's the ultimate challenge for Ryan Stone, an engineer on her first space mission who has to find a way to get home in Gravity. There has been massive buzz for this movie ever since it premiered in Venice and Telluride a couple of months ago. It is well-earned. This is just so different from other sci-fi films in the past 20 years. It creates an realistic possibility that most of us wouldn't want to think about, much less face: what if you are marooned in space, without the spacecraft you had? How could you get back to Earth, and survive trying?

It starts out calmly: Stone (Sandra Bullock) and retiring astronaut Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) are in a spacewalk and doing some repairs outside the Space Shuttle Explorer. One of the other crew members is nearby, while he tries to flirt with Stone. You may not notice because the opening scene will stun you. It's almost as if Bullock and Clooney are really in space. It's that good.
Then they find out a Russian satellite has exploded, and the debris caused a chain reaction destroying many other satellites. While Kowalski says it means "half of North American just lost Facebook", the debris is headed their way. It damages the shuttle, and kills nearly everyone on the crew. Just Stone and Kowalski are left, and they have to somehow find a way to get down. However, they can't contact Mission Control because communications are dead. They are on their own.

Kowalski, a seasoned vet, does his best to calm down Stone, and get her through this impossible situation. However, a crucial decision forces Stone to find a way to get back to solid ground. It involves getting to a nearby space station, and then another, with skill, nerve, and belief. That road is not easy to complete, either.
Director Alfonso Cuaron, and his brother Jonas, came up with a great story of survival. At one point in the story, there is a sudden twist which was a big disappointment...until we learn that it isn't. Also, it's amazing how Cuaron gives us a sense of floating through nearly all of the movie. Floating is safety, keeping one above all the cares of the world. Once the satellite debris hits the fan, then we have a need to hang on to our lives. Seeing Stone and Kowalski trying to avoid floating towards deep space is just unnerving. When the debris flies towards the screen, you will blink, guaranteed. That's how good the special effects are. You also know what it's like inside the space suit, not just outside.

The main reason to see this is Bullock. She plays a role that has never been done before: an astronaut who has to get back to Earth without a shuttle. First she has to rely on Kowalski, and then on herself. At one point, she tries to be Kowalski's lifeline, hoping that she can save him somehow. Seeing her face as she sees the shuttle torn to pieces by the debris will haunt you for some time. However, you'll also be impressed on Stone's process of gathering enough inner strength to somehow escape.

It may be six months before Oscar season, but Gravity should pick up two or three tech awards easy. Bullock may also be edging ahead of Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, but it's still early.
Four 3-D stars, period.