Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Most Depressing Double Feature I Ever Had

OK, the main reason was learning she died.

This happened five minutes after Manchester By The Sea ended at the Century Riverside 12 in Reno. Thanks to some handy discounts I saw this and another movie for less than nine bucks, and basically saw the top contenders for the Oscars in February. I learned about it on my phone, and told a few people who were nearby. I fully expect people to make a return trip to their local theater to see Rogue One just one more time, along with the main Star Wars movies and The Force Awakens. This will be a long week, but this will be the only way such fans, including me, will cope.
To think, I had a chance to go see her when she was at Comic-Con. Then again, I thought she'd last longer than her mom, Debbie Reynolds. At least I have her autograph.

Getting back to Manchester, I wanted to know if Casey Affleck's performance is really a guaranteed award-winner. It''s pretty good, although I also liked Lucas Hedges as the teen who's also a main part of the story.

The movie is about Lee (Affleck), a handyman who maintains several apartments while living in a small basement apartment. He gets news that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), died from heart failure, and that he has to take care of his nephew Patrick, played by Hedges. Lee is very reluctant to do this, mainly because of a shocking tragedy from his past. During the first half, the movie looks at Lee dealing with his brother's death and the new responsibilities while also adding flashbacks to his past, and that tragedy. It's a shocking moment that drives him away from his family and his wife, played by Michelle Williams. Seeing both Lee and Patrick in their younger days, when they were much closer while fishing in Joe's boat, is touching. However, seeing Lee deal with the tragedy is also heart-breaking.
Hedges is also great as a teen who's stressed out by way too many things, from hockey and losing his dad to trying to reconnect with his uncle and how this will affect his life. There's also a scene where he visits his mom (Gretchen Mol) and his new sort-of creepy fiance (Matthew Broderick). Patrick finds his mom via e-mail but another e-mail will upset him. Hedges just might sneak in for Supporting Actor, but may not win.

The story also took Lee and Patrick's relationship to unexpected roads, especially at the end. It's a good decision by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan to have a story where a family tries to recover from tragedies, but also an ending that is honest.

The other movie I saw was the adaptation of August Wilson's classic play, Fences. We can thank Denzel Washington for this, being director and the star. This is basically the same play that wowed Broadway a few years ago, but on a sound stage. It's about a Pittsburgh garbageman in 1956, still bitter over what could have been. He used to be a ball player, but before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. When we first meet Troy, he's talking to his friend Bono over the fact that all garbage truck drivers are white. Troy breaks that color line, but he's still bitter about other things. He argues with his son over whether he should play football, but has a loving relationship with his wife Rose that crumbles when a big secret is revealed.

Washington is realy good as Troy, while Davis just takes her Tony Award-winning performance to the screen and makes it even better. While she's in the Supporting Actress races, people wonder if she could beat Natalie Portman or Emma Stone in Best Actress. It would have been very possible.

From here, I'll be looking forward to Jackie and Hidden Figures over the next few weeks, and the Oscar nominations in a month.

In the meantime, I'll toast Carrie with the screen test that started it all:

Carrie Fisher by andaluska

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review of "La La Land": Singing In The Pain

A musical in the spirit of MGM's glory days?
Sure, Disney's done that for years, mainly with snow princesses, beauties and beasts. It's tough to do that with regular actors.

It's been a dream of Damien Chazelle to make such a film, especially after his excellent debut as writer and director of Whiplash. It came true in a big way when La La Land premiered in Venice last summer, then slowly but surely caught the eyes and praise of critics everywhere. It's only been in release for three weeks, and if it hasn't reached the hinterlands, it will very soon.

The story is about two people with dreams:  Mia (Emma Stone), a barista who dreams of being an actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who prefers traditional jazz and wants to open his own club.
They sort of meet in a traffic jam, but see each other at a restaurant just as Sebastian is canned for not following the set list. They don't hit it off at first, but in musicals like these, they do.

What's interesting is that we get a good look at their struggles. Mia tries to do an emotional scene but she's not even allowed to finish it. There's also a string of auditions that also don't go well. It's hard to figure anything else until Sebastian is forced to play in a band doing the worst '80s covers ever.

The main romance is depicted in excellent dance routines in classic L-A locations, even a routine at the Griffith Observatory that defies gravity. Their duet of the main song, "City of Stars" is also dreamy.
Things start to look up when Mia hopes to premiere a one-woman play while Sebastian joins a jazz band that becomes way too commercial, even if John Legend leads it. However, the love Mia and Sebastian share starts to fray, especially when she wonders if Seb is happy playing music he doesn't really prefer.

Usually in musicals, such a couple will wind up happily ever after, but Chazelle prefers to make one that's more realistic. Does that include "hopeful?"
Well, Mia does one more audition, and how Stone sells this story just may be enough to fend off a tight race for Best Actress at the Oscars next February. It's basic, but it blows you away.

Gosling and Stone make a fine romantic couple, as they did in two other movies. That may have helped here. They are a wonderful couple of dreamers who may reach their goals, but will have to make some sacrifices along with way.

It's going to battle Fences and Manchester By The Sea when award season gets underway in a few weeks, but La La Land shows that original musicals, just like the old days, can still be made.

Rifftrax's Christmas Circus: The Least Show On Earth

Remember when TV's Frank deeply apologized to Joel, Tom Servo and Crow for showing them Manos, the Hands of Fate?

Well, this is Rifftrax's version, after they found a Christmas movie created by a TV clown from Kansas City

It's called Santa's Christmas Circus, featuring Whizzo the Clown. He had his own show in the 50s, and this is an example:

In 1966, he got his own movie set at his "wonderland". His style of clowning is more of a stream-of-consciousness where he starts a joke, comments, then tries to finish what he started. He's only slightly more coherent than the woman who narrated Fun in Balloonland.

As for the circus, it includes kids who wind up dressed as circus acts, but one girl is sad because she thinks Christmas should be more than just fun. Charlie Brown, of course, did the same thing much better.
He's able to conjure an "atomic time machine" which looks more like a junior Interocitor, and a magic carpet so the kids can travel to see Santa at the North Pole.
Here's a link to the movie trailer. As for Rifftrax's version, here's its trailer.

Before that, the gang found a holiday short called "The Christmas Tree" from 1976. It's about three Christmas trees are placed in three homes, and how they're part of the holiday. Thing is, these are the trees:

They're described as Hannibal Lecter's Christmas trees. The guys who play the trees basically respond by facial expressions. There's no dialogue, but it's weird to see them frown because the mom waters the plants but not them. There's also an afterlife for the trees, too, apparently.

OK, riff time:

Whizzo makes his first appearance
Guys, what have we done?

Mike loses his patience over Whizzo's act and how distracted he seems to be with the kids
Focus for more than a second and a half, you insane twisted harlequin (or as Joel would say, "DO SOMETHING! GOD!)

The sad girl who wonders if Christmas is more than just fun
God, I wish I didn't blow that Star Search audition

Whizzo shows lots of holiday store displays
(as Lupita) You call that a Christmas display? May Craig forgive you.

After the kids leave, Whizzo says he's kinda lonesome
And the camera pans left, we hear a single gunshot, followed by a thud.

There's also riffs on The Art of War, Christmas Rhapsody, Stranger Things, Krusty the Clown, and a Jerry Lewis movie no one can see.

The film is available at

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of "Sing", or Zootopia Idol

For quite a while, movie fans think that the race for Best Animated Feature around award season would be between Zootopia and Moana.

It's still likely it'll be between those two movies, but a dark horse could be Sing from the guys who gave us Despicable Me. At the surface, it would be about a singing competition run by a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) with a Texas accent who hopes to get this theater out of a big financial hole. He's offering a prize of a thousand bucks, but it's accidentally upgraded to a hundred grand thanks to Moon's elderly assistant.

From there, the movie swoops to introduce the four main characters:  Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a  way too busy mom of 25 piglets, Mike (Seth McFarlane) , a mouse who's good with a sax but also sings like Sinatra, Ash (Scarlett Johansson) , a singer-songwriter who doesn't get respect from her musician boyfriend, Johnny (Taron Egerton) , a gorilla who would prefer to sing than steal despite what his gangster dad days, and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with a killer voice but also stage fright. They all want something more out of life, and hope the contest will help them do just that.

While it's odd to see McConaughey voicing a koala who'll do anything to keep his theater open, you can't help but admire his enthusiasm. How he tries to get around unpaid utility bills is another matter. You feel for Rosita trying to balance motherhood and the contest, but also pleased with how she does it. Mike is a bit annoying in his arrogance, but he can sell a Sinatra classic. Meena helps out behind the scenes, and soon gets her shot on stage,

The story is very predictable, and there are some puzzling decisions. First off, Buster shouldn't have required the contestants to do specific songs, but maybe this is supposed to show that his shaky creative ideas led to his financial problems. They certainly hurt Ash's chances at one point. Also, Mike lies his way into getting a credit card, and almost winds up in the tummies of some angry bears. How come he doesn't use his sax playing as an edge? No one says he couldn't do that in the contest.

The big reason to see the movie is how these guys sing, especially in the final act when it looks like Buster's dreams are literally collapsing. Fans may be impressed by how Scarlett and Taron sound, for example. There's also a cameo voice early in the movie by Jennifer Hudson.
It may be a jukebox musical, but it's one that is done well. Sorry, J-Law and whoever is connected with Assassin's Creed, Sing hits more of the right notes for this holiday season.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Choose Your Rifftrax Holiday Double Feature

Rifftrax is wrapping up an very eventful year with its first holiday double feature with Santa Claus Conquers The Martians 3.0 and the 2009 Shorts-Stravaganza from San Diego. However, true fans of MST, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax can make their own double-headers. Others may mix Rifftrax holiday shows with other holiday DVDs for a truly different experience,

In this case, let's stick to riffed holiday movies.

MST3K:  Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and Santa Claus

This is an obvious choice but for some reason one movie is tougher to get than another, Santa Claus, a holiday movie made in Mexico, is part of Volume XVI (the one with the free Tom Servo). However, Shout Factory has not re-issued SCCTM, which was only in the two DVD set MST3K:  The Essentials (the other episode being Manos). It can be found via Amazon or eBay, but it would make sense this classic episode be available again. At the very least, it should be on streaming video.

Both shows do feature new holiday standards, "A Patrick Swayze Christmas" and "Merry Christmas, If That's OK". Actually, they're quite different. The first one was a typical MST episode compete with holiday Invention Exchanges. The other one, though, is basically a spoof of "The Gift of the Magi" but it ends with a big showdown between Santa and Pitch, the demon who tries to ruin Santa's holiday. At least the crew exchange presents, including Gypsy's famous "Joike" sweater.

Cinematic Titanic:  Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and Rifftrax:  I Believe in Santa Claus

Before Rifftrax riffed SCCTM in a live show two years ago, Joel Hodgson and his Cinematic Titanic crew was the only group that had a post-MST3K riffed version of the movie. It was released in November 2008, and is available at eBay and Amazon. I reviewed the DVD, and noticed they updated the riffs a little. The best part, though, was before the movie, when Trace tried to run away and the mysterious staff who's trapped the crew had to drag him back.

The second feature was issued last year, and is probably one of the strangest holiday movies. A kid in France may spend Christmas alone because his parents have been kidnapped by an African warlord. He writes to Santa, hoping he'd get the parents back. Through a ridiculous series of events, the kid gets to meet Santa and a fairy queen who's a whimsical version of Safety Woman. It's pretty bizarre.

The  other suggestions are all Rifftrax videos.

Nestor The Long-Eared Donkey, Bridget and Mary Jo's Christmas and Magic Christmas Tree

This is a triple-header only because they're all much shorter than usual movies. The first is a Rankin-Bass feature that's a little darker than its most famous creations including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Nestor is clearly a knockoff on Rudolph, since he's mocked because of his really long ears. They do come in handy when he helps Mary and Joseph get to Jerusalem for the birth of Jesus. Instead of Burl Ives narrating, they had Roger Miller as the descendant of Nestor. It's a cute story, if you forget that at one point he and his mom are forced out into the snow, and she sacrifices herself to save her son. At least in Frosty the Snowman, he melts in a greenhouse but a cold wind brings him back.

The second feature was made last year by the Real Housewives of Rifftrax, Bridget Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl. This duo is coming close to out-shining the main Rifftrax crew thanks to several shorts, Catwomen of the Moon, and Gravity. The 30-minute special has a heavily edited version of A Christmas Carol (which doesn't include "Bah, Humbug"), a car ad Mary Jo really likes, footage of Dean Martin, and a short about a sheep that keeps Jesus warm on the night of the Nativity.

The third feature looks like a sitcom. A little boy saves the cat of a spooky old lady, and he gets a magic ring and a special seed that produces a Magic Christmas Tree that talks. It also gives him three wishes, including the power to kidnap Santa. Somehow it leads to him being kidnapped by a big giant. They're at the Rifftrax website.

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (both versions)

It's possible to see both versions in less than two hours. The riffing of Santa Claus being stuck in Florida because his reindeer ran away or something is the same in both versions. Those who prefer the more recent version last year may go that way, but others may look at the original with Thumbelina then see the live show with Jack and the Beanstalk (which has much better songs).

Santa's House of Madness and Santa Claus (2014)

The first feature is actually three shorts with the exact same opening credits that have weird-looking animals and Santa Claus. There's outtakes from Santa Claus, plus footage from two Santa's Villages in California and Indiana. The third short is mainly Santa "threatened" by an ogre, and it ends with a song that would have killed it.

The live riff of Santa Claus is actually the uncut version with Spanish opening titles, and it shows why MST3K decided to cut a lot of it out. When we see a shirtless blacksmith and Merlin taking too much time making sleeping powders and the Flower to Disappear, it's best to move past those scenes. However, the riffs they come up with are incredible, especially one where Santa flies with his wind-up reindeer.

If you can come up with other combinations, feel free, but this will be a start. Just make riffed holiday movies part of your holiday season.