Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rifftrax Christmas #3: Kris Kringle Down

It seems every country has its own way of making a Santa Claus movie. We make one where he conquers Mars, or makes the Martians look like pompous fools. Mexico has him battle a demon while trying to reunite a rich boy with his parents and give a poor girl a doll taller than her.

What does France do? Have Santa and a "good fairy" get kidnapped by African warlords to grant a young boy's wish to get his parents back.
Could be worse. There could have also been a croissant bunny involved.

Rifftrax has found another holiday movie that, despite its attempt to convince kids to never give up on their dreams, makes even less sense than Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

It's called I Believe in Santa Claus, although it's French title means "I Met Santa Claus". It's about a kid named Simon who's having a tough time. His parents disappeared somewhere in "Just Africa", and he gets tossed in a closet by a mean janitor who thinks he broke a window. Someone else did it, but his excuse is he's scared when he's in a locked room.
The only "cheer" he gets is from a singing teacher who's either trying to be a prototype for Celine Dion or the first member of a French knockoff of ABBA. Rifftrax tried to compare her to Brazilian singer Xuxa, but she had much better songs.

Simon writes a letter to Santa, asking him to bring his parents back, who supposedly were captured by African warlords. That was probably a way to create a holiday story ripped from the headlines of 1984. The kid also has a saying from his dad saying that anything can happen if you wish hard enough. Believe it or not, that idea works. During a field trip to the airport, Simon and his friend Elodie are mistaken for two kids booked for a flight to Finland.

So, after wandering around in the snow, Santa finds them, and they meet a good fairy named Mary Ellen, who looks like their teacher. Couldn't the movie explain their teacher is also a Good Fairy, which makes her a more whimsical version of Safety Woman? Maybe she knew the kids were missing and tracked them down...and gave Finnair a piece of her mind about grabbing kids and putting them on planes at any moment.
I know, "just repeat to yourself it's a kids movie that can't help from being dumb," but it makes Home Alone look better.
Anyway, her songs are schmaltzy. When she sings a song abut elves making toys, the Rifftrax crew thinks it almost sounds like "Coming To America" by Neil Diamond. She also tells Simon and Elodie not to head to the forest because that's where an ogre lives. He's mean and eats kids and dogs. Naturally, when Santa and the fairy head to Africa to save Simon's parents, the kids go to the forest.

Come to think of it, seeing Santa and the fairy walking somewhere in "just Africa" is a sight to see, especially when he cools off by jumping into a lake with his clothes on. They wind up getting captured by the African warlord, who won't release the parents until France denounces his country's government. He also thinks white bearded guys like Santa are CIA.
The warlord's kids are worried, though. Santa in jail means no Super Bowl t-shirts where the losing teams are declared champs (in the case of '84, Miami). So, they let him out by taking some of the soldiers' guns. When Santa and the fairy get back, they see the kids went to that ogre. This leads the fairy to disguise herself as Red Riding Hood, while singing something that's almost "The Winner Takes It All".
She does rescue the kids, and lets them help Santa on his Christmas ride. Of course, Simon's parents do get home, too. It's all as dumb as it sounds.

Riff time:

Simon writes his letter to Santa, wanting his parents back
A trip to the hardware store shouldn't take three years.

Simon and Elodie go through the airport lobby in Finland
By Finnish decree even the airport must look like a ski lodge.

Santa tells Simon what happened to his parents is due to politics. Simon asks what is that and Santa says "It's nothing you want in your Christmas stocking"
Unless you're George Will

The idea that warlords kidnapping Santa would make a great holiday story
It's A Wonderful Life could've used just a few more political kidnappings

The warlord asks "who let the guns be stolen?"
The Baha Men's unsuccessful follow-up song

There's also riffs on Anakin Skywalker, Klaus Barbie, Skymall, Wendy's, Planet of the Apes and Sally Struthers. Oh, and they came up with a new slogan for...well, you know.

It's likely this movie may be Rifftrax's Christmas show next year, but there are other possible strange holiday movies to mock, There's one where Santa may get evicted from his workshop for not paying his rent, or the one where a greedy oil company threatens Santa's workshop due to over-drilling. If they don't get these movies, the new MST3K might.

Until then. I Believe in Santa Claus is available at the Rifftrax website, along with other holiday classics.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Disasterpiece Theater: The Grandfather of MST3K

To some people, movie riffing was begun by Mel Brooks' classic animated short, The Critic. However, the art of mocking movies may have really begun at a station in Tijuana, Mexico.

I came across some videos from a TV show called Disasterpiece Theater. It aired on XETV, a station that was independent in the early 80s before becoming a Fox channel, and later part of the CW. The host was Sal. U. Lloyd, and he helped mock lousy monster movies, mainly by graphics that mocked the plot, like this:

It's not quite like a guy and a couple of robots making snide remarks at lousy movies. The closest thing to this is Zomboo in Reno, where he makes comments about the movie in mid-scene, or dubs in different music
Some clips exist on YouTube in SalULloyd's channel, but considering VHS or Batamax was available back then, maybe some other clips exist. If only those tapes were circulated, too.

Review of The Big Short: The Crash of 2008 For Dummies

What can you say about a movie that explains why the housing market, and the American economy in general, nearly collapsed due to Wall Street fraud better than the Federal Reserve and CNBC..and what they use are Selena Gomez playing blackjack and Margot Robbie in a bathtub in what seemed to be a deleted scene from Wolf of Wall Street?

Adam MacKay, best known for Will Ferrell comedies, wrote and directed a nasty reminder of what happened in America just eight years ago, and how we didn't notice because we were distracted by other things. MacKay uses clever ways to explain complex terms by sub-prime mortgages, CDOs and bond ratings.

The main players are Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who heads a mutual fund, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who works for Deutsche Bank, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who runs a small investment firm, and Charlie and Jamie (John Magaro and Finn Whittrock), two guys who made it big by betting against stocks. They all figure out that banks try to get people to invest in mortgages that are not as rock-solid as they think. Anthony Bourdain turning old fish into a new fish stew is the best analogy, and that's really in the movie.

It's really interesting how Burry and Baum come to the conclusion the economy is in big trouble but no one wants to believe it. Baum is especially upset, mostly because he's trying to recover from a personal tragedy. They're all stunned to see empty homes with the owners long gone because they can't pay their mortgages, bond rating houses admitting they'll overvalue just to keep customers and even people who issue bank loans to get commissions without verifying if the prospective homeowner could afford it or not.

Carell is very good as Baum. Those who still identify him as Michael Scott in The Office will be surprised how angry he gets over all of the fraud that's going on.. Bale as the laid-back Burry doesn't do much aside from defending his decision to invest against the mortgages, but you can see the stress when things don't happen as he expects...and why. Gosling is also good, especially when he uses a Jenga game to show how fragile the housing bubble is. Let's not forget Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, who used to be in banking, and is very cynical about what's happening. He'll still help Charlie and Jamie, though.

The real tragedy is how the crash of 2008 affected the characters, the investment houses and their employees, and people who were economic collateral damage. Even though some got rich betting against the economy, they aren't exactly proud of it (except for one). Besides that, no one learned a thing. It's still a great way to be reminded what happens, as this person says...

For the record, we're still wondering how banking can get into rehab after this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review of Star Wars, The Force Awakens: And So Does the Franchise

Star Wars may be compared to, say, the New York Knicks, Montreal Canadiens or entertainers who have residency in Branson, Missouri. They used to be great, but lately are now a shell of their former selves.

When it was announced JJ Abrams would direct the seventh movie, there was a lot of skepticism, mainly thanks to the Star Trek sequel. When the first trailer came out, and we heard Han Solo say, "Chewie, we're home", our hopes started to improve.

Then the movie came out last Friday, and the Force came back with a vengeance.
Due to my warehouse job and the Christmas rush, I didn't have a chance to see the movie until now, but I was lucky to avoid any spoilers or reviews that told too much of the story. That really helped my enjoyment of this movie,

What's more, it started with something simple: what if Luke Skywalker wasn't around to make sure the Republic would stay strong? That happened because he tried to train new Jedi, and one of them turned on him and jumped into the Dark Side. That guy, of course, is the main Big Bad in this story, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. This is a man who is determined to be the heir to the darkness of Darth Vader. It's a title he wants, and he'll get it by wiping out the rebellion against his First Order.

The heroes are Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who was trained from birth, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a girl from Jakku who lives through scavenging old ships. Finn decided to reject his role after his first battle, and helps Rebel Pilot Poe (Oscar Issac) escape via Tie Fighter. They're shot, though, and crash in Jakku. Poe seems to be dead when Finn wakes up. He crosses paths with Rey, who just found a droid called BB-8 with a very special message to the Rebels.

The way Rey and Finn seemed a bit too "meet cute", mainly because he pretends to be one of the rebels, and needs BB-8 to cover for him, Once the First Order show up, it turns back into an action movie and stays there. The point when I was convinced it would work is when Rey and Finn looks for a way to escape, and she prefers one ship because the other one is garbage. When that ship is destroyed, she heads to the garbage ship...and one look tells us the ship she takes (and learns how to fly on the spot) is anything but garbage,

Later on, Han Solo and Chewbacca find them, and get involved in getting BB-8 to the rebels. Things haven't worked out too well for Han over the years, but Harrison Ford shows the character really has aged well. He's still got it as the wise-cracking sort-of-sketchy pilot we know and love. Still, he has a very important role in the story and his connections are deep. In fact, I'd make a good case for him to be considered for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar time.

As I saw the movie, it dawned on me that this was a variation of Episode IV, which brought Luke Skywalker, Leia and Solo into the battle against the Empire, Here, Finn doesn't want to be part of the battle and Rey wants to be home, hoping her family will come back to her. There's even a "cantina scene", but it includes Rey receiving something very important from Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o). There also a couple of "Alec Guinness moments" as I call them. One of them involves Ren using a certain trick to escape, and the other is an important confrontation.

As for Ren, he wants to finish what Vader started, and considering his family tree, he's certain he has the chance. He is guided by Smoak (Andy Sirkis) who leads the First Order but is mostly seen via hologram. Ren is someone who is strong with the Force, but also is very destructive with his lightsaber when something goes wrong.
The biggest shock is when you see his true face. He's still intimidating, unleashing his Dark Side for all to see. Yet you get the feeling he wonders if he took the wrong path, but it's a path he can't change.
In any case, he has the weapon to stop the Rebels in their tracks, and it's something that literally makes the Death Star look like a peashooter.

Someone on the 'net called the movie mainly a reunion of the franchise's "greatest hits", and everyone does come back at one time or another. The thing is, the classics are there to give the new hits (Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe and BB-8) their launch so they can lead us fans through the next two chapters. That is done very well, right to the end.

The best news is that we don't have to wait long for the next episode, only until the summer of 2017. Until then, we can speculate what's next, and have Marvel and the Batman-Superman clash to distract us. At least we'll know the Force will really be with us, always...or at least until 2019 or so.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why the MST3K Revival Campaign Succeeded

It's been a few days since Joel Hodgson's dream of bringing back Mystery Science Theater 3000 came true with the Kickstarter project collecting more than six point three million dollars, enough for 14 episodes including a new Christmas show (which I'd like to suggest The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, where Santa could get evicted from the North Pole for not paying the rent--and no, I'm not kidding).

When Joel said he hoped to earn five and a half million dollars for a season of 12 episodes, people weren't sure if it could be done. After all, that's Veronica Mars and Reading Rainbow territory. Besides, we have Rifftrax, and it's showing old MST3K episodes. Is there really the need for a new batch of cheesy movies to be mocked by some guy and two snarky robots?

It took several reasons to make this project a big success, starting with Joel. He gave regular updates of how much was raised, and also gave us lots of incentives to hit the ultimate goal. He even gave us extra time for a couple of challenges.
Most importantly, he had this:  

This clearly shows why he set the goal, and where it will go. After all, this is a show that will be made with his own hands and our cash. It's got to be done right...and it takes a lot of cheap toys to make the walls.

Second, we must remember that MST3K never went away. It just took on new forms. We have Rifftrax, made by Mike, Kevin and Bill (the Syfy trio), then Cinematic Titanic with Joel, Trace, Mary Jo, TV's Frank  and J. Elvis (aka Dr. Forrester's original assistant). There's also Incognito Cinema Warriors, which is still trying to finish its second season but is getting a lot of attention thanks to riffing video games on YouTube. Josh Way, who has his YT channel, has also kept the tradition going. There may not be bots, but the riffing continued strong

Third, Joel has chosen his cast well. There's Jonah Ray as the new SOL captain, Jonah Heston, with Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as Crow and Servo. People were kind of hoping the alumna would be invited, and they have, but Joel wanted a new crew for a new century.
That's why he chose Internet goddess and best-selling author Felicia Day and comedian and former Pixar voice Patton Oswalt as Kinga Forrester and TV's Son of TV's Frank (named Frank, we guess). Some people thought this was "too Hollywood", along with the chance Neil Patrick Harris and Jerry Seinfeld may sneak in. Uh, things have changed since 1989. Movie mocking is more popular than even, even with people we've heard of. Besides, Neil has been a fan for years.

Fourth, Joel's decision to show old shows online has also paid off. Aside from the annual Turkey Day shown on, he had double features in the last week of the campaign. Then there was the telethon, which wasn't smooth but was very entertaining, especially for this:

...and of course, the final minutes where they reached $6.3 million:

Finally, there's the decision to keep the "add-on rewards" store open. This will make sure the project gets some extra change, and people who didn't get a chance to contribute can get t-shirts, DVDs and more. It's certain people with yellow jump suits can have a chance to get those patches.
The site for the rewards, by the way, is here.

Production is set to start in the next few weeks, but fans are hoping that "next Sunday A.D." will be coming very soon. Til then, we'll keep circulating the tapes, URL and downloads

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Other Rifftrax Christmas

Fans of Rifftrax have already spent their holiday season seeing the revised version of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, with Jack and the Beanstalk as the story in the middle. Many people enjoyed it, especially Jack as the "discount Greg Brady" who tried to steal back a magic hen that looked more that an oddly-shaped metal football. It'll likely be sold online by February or March.

However, the riffing duo of Bridget Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl think they can do better. They made their own special that takes on two shorts and a piece of TV history. While it's great to hear them riff on Christmas, and what was the best present they ever got, I wish we should have seen them. That's what Mike, Kevin and Bill did when they presented the Magic Christmas Tree and those K. Gordon Murray shorts.

Aside from that, it's a pretty funny special, as this preview shows.

The first short is a Castle Films version of the really good version of A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim. Some people were upset this was chosen, but we should remember no movie is safe from Rifftrax. Just ask Jaws, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Dark Knight and the good Star Wars movies. Besides, this version, as Bridget says, "edited the Dickens" out of the movie. It skips Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Scrooge doesn't even say "Bah humbug". The girls are entitled.

Besides, some of the riffs are pretty funny.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows up
Who you gonna call? All-female Ghostbusters.

Tiny Tim says, "God bless us everyone"
Oh, shut up and drink your gin..

They also think the second ghost looks very familiar, and have riffs on Artemis Gordon and Meryl Streep.

The TV clip had Dean Martin singing Marshmallow World with two Golddiggers jumping up and down. Mary Jo and Bridget claim it's them, but people may wonder why Dean wings it. Remember, he never rehearsed anything on his show. That worked more often than you think.
There's also a car commercial from 1986 that impresses Mary Jo.

The other short was another Castle film, The Little Lamb, about a lamb that made history by being Jesus' first blanket. It features an angel telling shepherds about the birth of Jesus...and he sounds like another famous dad. Bridget also imitates Mary, saying frankincense is a strange gift for a baby.

At $3.50, it's a nice holiday bargain, and shows again why Mary Jo and Bridget are Rifftrax's Dynamic Duo. They'll also be part of Rifftrax's annual visit to the SF Sketchfest (which hopefully will be taped and available to fans, as it was last year). Rifftrax has lots of other holiday offerings from a Rankin Bass special and The Star Wars Holiday Special,  to a live riff of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and a new movie where Santa has to save a kid's parents from kidnappers in Africa....really! Click here to check them out...and Merry Christmas.