Thursday, September 19, 2013

Don Jon: A Ladies' Man Learns What Love Is

You don't want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.--Sleepless in Seattle

In the case of a Jersey guy named Don Jon, he doesn't want sex. He wants to satisfy himself through porn. In many ways, he argues that it's better than real sex.

Well, he has to learn that isn't true. That's the story of Don Jon, a romantic drama which is also Joseph Gordon-Levitt's first movie as star, writer and director. He has a lot to say about sex and love, and how media define our expectations. I was lucky to see this movie a week early thanks to a sneak preview at the Century Downtown 7 in Sacramento

Look at how he compares being satisfied by porn sites to actual sex. He goes for women who could be from those porn sites, and claims actual sex doesn't match those porn videos because they include better sexual positions and the "happy ending". With sex through porn, it's all about him and not the other partner. Still, as long as he confesses to his priest, and says the Hail Marys, it's all good.

Even the woman he does fall for fits his porn dreams. Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, is beautiful, but reluctant to hook up with first. Her expectations about love are based on romantic comedies, such as the one she and Jon see on a date (the couple in that movie, by the way, look very familiar). It's also no accident that her bedroom where she and Jon make out one afternoon has a poster from Titanic, which defined romance for a lot of people in 2000.

Things go bad due to his porn addiction, and some little signs that suggest Barbara isn't so perfect. He soon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) at his evening college class, and we wonder if there could be a connection there, too.

Jon has some odd ways to balance his love for porn with his family and his religious beliefs. Let's just say he has a new way to pay penance after his confession. The sex scenes are just short of R-rated level, but the porn shots are hard-R. Gordon-Levitt made this choice to make a point.

Gordon-Levitt is just great at Don Jon. He's someone you'd want to hang around with, despite his problems. Johansson is also good as Barbara, who might have been good for Jon if knew that a real relationship that isn't the same as "falling in love in a movie". That becomes as much of a problem as his porn addiction.

Moore is really surprising as Esther. He calls Jon out on his attitude towards porn, but is not disgusted by them. That makes him reconsider his attitude towards sex. I also liked Tony Danza as Jon's dad as he pays more attention to a football game than his family, even at dinner. As Jon's sister Monica, Brie Larson just stares into her smartphone...but not all the time.
The ending might puzzle some people, but if you listen to what he says at the end, it does make sense for him.

Last year, it looks like Gordon-Levitt was everywhere in the movies, whether it's Gotham City or beside Abe Lincoln. Now, he's tackled new roles as director and writer. Don Jon is a very good first try, and let's hope he'll be doing this again.


Monday, September 16, 2013

MST3K, The Home Game: How It Changed The World

Satellite News, the go-to website for fans of MST3K, recently had a post about an upcoming conference that will discuss the cultural impact of the TV show.
That's right: a bunch of scholars will talk about how some guy and two robots mocking movies changed the world as we know it.

It's run by the Southwest/American Popular Culture and American Culture Association, and will take place next February in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The official title is "Mystery Science Theater and the Culture of Riffing", although it will take up other topics, too. The guy in charge is Rob Weiner of the Texas Tech University Library. He compiled a book of essays called In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology and the Culture of Riffing.
And people thought earning a degree on studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer was unusual.

One of the proposed subjects in this conference is "MST3K, the Home Game". This aired twice on SyFy (when it was the Sci-Fi Channel) on January 25th 1997. Roger Corman's "The Day The World Ended" was shown, and people could send in their riffs through IRC's, or Internet Relay Chat rooms, that the network set up. They even had a commercial to show how it worked:

Those who circulated the tapes, or were smart to tape it when it aired (like me), have copies of both versions. It was available on YouTube, but not any more. People interacted with the movie by pretending to be Mike, Servo or Crow, then got to read their riffs on TV. It was quite a treat for those who were probably adding their own riffs while watching MST3K, or any bad movie.
For the most part, the riffs in the "home game" came about ten seconds after the action. If they syched up better with the movie, it would have been funnier. Then again, this was 1997 technology, a long way from Twitter. The fact that SyFy did this at all was still a big deal. It mixed TV watching with internet chat rooms. That's not too far off from watching Conan or Breaking Bad with your TV and iPad for a "second screen experience".
Nowadays, we tweet while watching TV, and some of those tweets are shown on TV, even during news shows on CNN or MSNBC. You can easily say "MST3K: The Home Game" made this possible.

The special also had features on a new set, and new episodes that were about to premiere a week later. The home game was only a taste of the new era to come. It may have also convinced some people that they could make their own versions of MST3K, if they only had a couple of robots or stuffed toys. Somehow, this led to iRiffs, Josh Way and Incognito Cinema Warriors XP. That, of course, is a good thing. Someone has to maintain the new tradition of severe movie criticism, usually as you're watching the movie. Again, "MST3K: The Home Game" made this possible.

SyFy's decision to have the home game was a sign that they wanted to have MST3K on its lineup after Comedy Central let it go because it had South Park, and didn't need funny bots anymore. It's too bad they didn't try it again as the technology improved. Maybe they could have had viewers riff on all of This Island Earth.

The conference is expected to discuss other MST3K subjects like comparing Mike and Joel (which nearly broke the internet around the Holidays 20 years ago), who was the best evil sidekick, and how riffing can be connected to Frank Zappa ("is that a Sears Poncho?"), Shakespeare and Monty Python. There's even a proposal to see how riffing affects spy movies, Christmas movies (maybe including Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny and that annoying Talking Christmas Tree), Hercules movies, and just movies that were forgotten for good reason. Despite all these subjects, a panel on MST3K: The Home Game should be on the agenda. It gave viewers a chance to mock a bad movie, see their comments on TV, and decide they can make their own version for mass consumption or something cool to download on YouTube.
And, in a way, it would also lead to seeing viewers' comments being shown on certain TV shows, thanks to today's social media.
Too bad we can't have a new version of MST3K: The Home Game today...with the target being Sharknado. Then again, we still have Rifftrax.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This Movie MST3K, The Whole Story On Blu-Ray

As many Rifftrax fans await the encore of the live riffing of Starship Troopers next week in theaters, and Night of the Living Dead just before Halloween, many of them have picked up the new blu-ray release of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Movie. It's not only a new and improved version of the 1996 movie, but it also includes extras that reveal why the movie didn't do as well as it should have...and studio meddling is a main reason why.

I remember seeing it at a theater in Eureka in 1996  just after watching the show on Comedy Central. The crowd was small, but it was a good movie...and strangely short. I got a copy by taping it off Starz during one of its "free preview" weekends.

The premise, of course, is evil mad scientist Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) ready to show the movie to poor lab rat Mike Nelson and his two bots Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow (Beaulieu), figuring the movie's so bad they'll be driven insane. For some reason, Clayton went overboard on the "crazy". Maybe he was missing TV's Frank, who left Deep 13 just before this experiment started.  Safe to say, the "victims" shake it off easily.

The new edition includes a "featurette" that's a combination of the trailer and interviews with the cast. There's
even a couple of scenes that never made it in the final version.  Then, Ballyhoo presents the real story of the very hard road the production had to travel just to get to the screen, or 26 of them (according to Box Office Mojo). It features interviews with Mike, Trace and Kevin, along with producer/director Jim Mallon, aka Gypsy. We find out some new facts about pre-production, such as another studio was interested and it almost became a musical.
Making the show for the movies is quite different than making it for Comedy Central. For one thing, Universal tried to control the choice of the film (like only using its titles), and what kind of jokes they could tell. That's why the weird alien was called Leona Helmsley instead of Bootsy Collins. They also kept insisting on cutting the film under 90 minutes, even asking for a scene they later decided they didn't need. That's why the movie is 74 minutes, much shorter than a typical MST episode without ads (not to mention This Island Earth, which lost 13 minutes being MSTied).

There's also focus groups, whose odd opinions also affected production. The pain they inflicted was recreated in the host segments from The Incredible Melting Man, where "Earth vs. Soup" got the real Hollywood treatment.

A third featurette looks at the making of This Island Earth, and how Universal had hoped it would give them a bit more prestige after the release of Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds. We also learn people connected with that movie are not happy with what the MST crew did to it.

Then there are the deleted scenes. I had seen them on video footage of the 1996 ConventioCon, but the ones in the blu-ray version are much better. Ballyhoo said Universal didn't have the original masters of those scenes, but what they found are still in good shape. The storm shelter scene is classic, and those suits at Universal should have risked a 91-minute comedy and kept it. There was also a different ending that actually would have been better, especially when you see Crow finding a chainsaw in Servo's room. The extended scenes have slightly different riffs compared to the original.

MST3K The Movie may not have been bigger and better than the typical Comedy Central episode, but it was a bridge to its second life on the Sci-Fi Channel. It might have had better luck it if was made like a regular episode with a bigger budget, and Universal just butted out and took whatever was given to them.
It's also more fondly remembered than Barb Wire, the movie that Gramercy decided to support because it had Pamela Anderson and That movie made nearly three point eight million dollars in 1300 screens. Compare than to a million dollars in only 26 screens for MST3K. It also came in handy as a go-to movie for Cinemax and Starz for a while.

Shout Factory made a lot of MSTies happy with a fantastic blu-ray release that gives the movie the respect it deserves.  Copies are likely to be seen during stops of the Cinematic Titanic farewell tour.

Maybe someday, the Rifftrax crew will take on This Island Earth, the complete version. Then again, riffing on Barb Wire may be an even better idea. To keep Mike, Kevin and Bill Corbett from being distracted by Pam', the Gorilla Grams can always block the screen again.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Lie My Mother Didn't Tell Me: Reviewing DVD of Stories We Tell

It sounds like a Lifetime movie: a young woman whose mother died long ago hears rumors that her real father was someone else. She goes and searches for her biological dad, and that affects everyone, including herself.

However, this is more than just a true's a documentary made by the young woman in question, actress and director Sarah Polley. This is a long way from Avonlea.

I had heard about Stories We Tell for some time, and got a chance to see it on DVD thanks to my friendly neighborhood Redbox. Polley interviews the family and friends of her mother, Diane Polley, and her dad Michael Polley, to investigate the truth of her parentage. She uses a mix of fake home movies, interviews, and even her dad's narration to piece together how Diane had an affair with someone while she was in a play at Montreal in 1978. The result turns out to be Polley.

The search actually starts because of an off-hand joke by one of Sarah's brothers, and the search leads to one possibility, and then the real father. So, once the truth is known, what can be done with it, and how will it affect everyone? This especially hits Sarah hard when she discovers a reporter has found out, and is about to publish it. This is before she's even told her dad the truth, and his reaction is quite unexpected. It's safe to say that it led to this film.

It's interesting we hear all the details of the marriage of Sarah's parents, including how they grew apart. We also hear from those who think they recall the affair. What's really touching is how it affects Sarah, and her doubts about even making the film she winds up making, and Michael as well. Even he says that while many stories will be told about Diane, Michael and Sarah's real dad, it's not really the whole truth. It's still compelling, and very interesting.

If you want a good drama, Stories We Tell is for you. While it has been praised with awards in Canada, the producers are hoping it may be in the Oscar hunt next year.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rifftrax's Other Kickstarter Rewards, Without Riffs

After reviewing Mr. B Natural 2.0, one of the rewards Rifftrax sent to Kickstarter supporters of the Starship Troopers live riff show, I decided to check out the other two shorts they had offered.

I was warned by other fans to approach the "Norman Krasner" short carefully. We first saw him in Norman Checks In, at the live riff of Birdemic . While what happens to him seems relatable to many businessmen, we can see why he's become a new cult hero to the Rifftrax-verse. Still, who thought it was a good idea to make a six-minute film about a guy who tries to use a pay toilet? This short is the ultimate worst case scenario that likely wouldn't happen these days...we hope. Rifftrax now has it for sale to everyone, and you can expect distrurbing jokes about using a restroom. I won't list them all, but one joke does mention a certain politician who got in trouble using a restroom in a suspicious manner.

Also, why this short was called Norman Krasner, Beloved Husband of Irma. Was he found dead in the toilet by the custodian two days later? How come Irma isn't in this short? Is she invisible, like Mavis in Frasier? Does Irma prefer not to be identified as Mrs. Norman Krasner? Judging from Welcome Home, Norman (featured in the San Francisco Sketchfest and Manos Live show), and Norman Makes a Speech,  she probably prefers it. Norman is supposedly the corporate version of Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Charlie Brown, and is presented to employees the way girls were shown films on "Molly Grows Up" when they turned twelve. Still, what can anyone learn from being in a pay toilet from Hell, or an airport parking lot with no exit? Maybe that Death is preferable?

Oh, and thanks to Cinegraphic Studios for putting these shorts on YouTube.

The other short is a riffed version of the 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, as made by Melies. Here's one of several versions on YouTube. I chose this one because apparently this was Melies' attempt to colorize his movie way before Ted Turner..or Rifftrax, since it colorized Reefer Madness:

There are some callbacks to ridiculous holiday specials, but there's some others that talk about a certain type of celebration, doing something rude on the moon, and some unlikely references to Vegas shows, movies and two famous 19th century guys. I'm keeping these riffs vague until they're available to the public. Besides, riffing silent movies are much different than regular bad movies with worse dialogue. I wonder if this will lead to riffing Chaplin, Keaton, The Great Train Robbery or even Birth of a Nation. Besides, who are the silent film equivalents to Ed Wood or Coleman Francis?

UPDATE: It's also available at the Rifftrax site.

Backers of the Rifftrax Live show on Starship Troopers should be glad to have these shorts in their cyber-libraries before anyone else. We get a new look at a classic short, a famous movie, and a guy whose life is one audible moan of resignation.

Now, when do we rip The Lone Ranger, AfterEarth, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters a new one?