Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2021)

July 19th, 2021

Once again it’s movie time! Similar to my last movie review roundup I watched all of these movies from home, although now that most of us are vaccinated a few theaters have reopened. Personally I can’t see myself going back to theaters until things are fully back to normal — no temperature screenings, masks that stop you from eating popcorn, etc. That’s my big hope for the movie review roundup next time: actually seeing movies in theaters again.

Or maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Either way without further ado, here are the movies I watched in the first half of this year.

 

Synchronic

Steve and Dennis, a pair of paramedics in New Orleans, come across some victims with unusual injuries. The injuries turn out to be related to Synchronic, a new recreational designer drug. At first this might sound an awful lot like the 2011 film Limitless but the similarities end there.

See, the hallucinogenic effects of Synchronic are not hallucinogenic at all — the effects are the result of unpredictable time travel. When Dennis’ daughter disappears after using the drug Steve takes it upon himself to administer the drug on himself in order to rescue her.

Sometimes this movie is listed as a sci-fi horror, yet it’s more of a sci-fi drama. After the mysterious opening sequence it’s not scary or suspenseful enough to be a horror movie at all. 

The main problem with this movie is it takes the concept and explores it in an interesting way, but then takes it way too seriously for how ridiculous and illogical it is in the first place. The tone is very uneven — personally I think it would have worked better as a comedy as some of the film’s strongest beats are firmly in the comedy realm.

Best moment: Steve systematically exploring and documenting how Synchronic works.

Rating: 5/10

 

Willy’s Wonderland

After experiencing car trouble a mysterious mute unnamed tough guy (Nicholas Cage) accepts a job for one night as the janitor at Willy’s Wonderland — a dilapidated Chuck E. Cheese knockoff — in exchange for car repairs.

The small town where Willy’s is located has a surprising number of missing persons cases, all of whom had accepted a similar offer in the past.

Where did they go? Well obviously the animatronics at Willy’s come to life at night and murder people. A band of young townsfolk arrive to burn the place down and warn the new janitor, only to find he’s completely unphased by the situation.

Armed with nothing more than cleaning supplies and a steady diet of caffeinated sodas, Cage’s janitor takes on the deadly animatronics one by one, tearing them apart before wrapping their remains in garbage bags as though they are nothing more than the trash he was hired to remove. Unfortunately most of the locals aren’t so fearless.

Played more for laughs than scares, Willy’s Wonderland is like if you took a supernatural slasher movie and then tossed in an action hero with predictable yet satisfying results. It’s simple, dark, and funny in all the right ways. While it’s far from perfect I wish more ridiculous films like this existed.

Some people have pointed out the similarities between this movie and the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series. While there’s certainly a resemblance, I think this isn’t entirely fair for two reasons. First the idea of animatronics coming to life is only a slight twist on the age old nightmare about statues coming to life. Second, the overall stories are otherwise dissimilar.

My main caveat with this film is the sloppy fight scene editing. I realize this was shot on a low budget with a tight schedule, but these scenes are so integral to the story that it would have benefited from having a fight scene coordinator to give these scenes a coherent flow. That said the puppeteering work does capture the threatening nature of the animatronic creatures.

Best moment: When the first animatronic draws blood and Cage’s expression slowly turns to an evil grin before he goes absolutely apeshit.

Rating: 7/10

 

Bad Trip

Chris (Eric Andre) gets into an embarrassing situation with a vacuum cleaner at a car wash right as he spots his high school crush, Maria, for the first time in years. Meanwhile his best friend Bud is working at a computer repair store when Bud’s sister Trina pulls up in a bright pink car and robs the store.

This sets a few events into motion: After getting fired from the car wash Chris gets a new job at a smoothie shop and runs into his crush again, who tells him she has an art gallery in New York City. Trina is sent to jail, while Chris and Bud decide to “borrow” her pink car to take a road trip from Florida to NYC in an attempt to track down Chris’ crush again. Unfortunately for the two of them, Trina breaks out of jail, steals a police car, and chases after them to retrieve her beloved pink car.

To be clear the story is really nothing more than a loose framework on which to hang a bunch of hidden camera pranks. Like most comedy films the story both supports the jokes and occasionally feels like padding for time. However some of the funniest and most extreme moments aren’t in the trailer which is very unusual for a comedy.

Many reviewers compared this to the Borat movies but I think that largely misses the point — the majority of the people being pranked in the Borat movies are completely aware they’re on camera, whereas here they are only made aware they’re being filmed after the fact. This is made clear in scenes played over the credits with the people being pranked laughing with the actors and crew as the hidden cameras are pointed out to them.

The more obvious comparison is to the film’s star Eric Andre’s The Eric Andre Show which features hidden camera pranks in every episode. There’s one prank in this movie that’s essentially recycled from The Eric Andre Show but fortunately it’s a good one, and the reaction here is more shocking.

As a fan of The Eric Andre Show I think other fans will enjoy it, as will fans of cringey hidden camera pranks in general. Be aware there’s a lot of dick jokes, fake vomit, etc. If you’re on the fence go watch an episode of the show first to get a sense of the type of humor involved since each episode is only 11 minutes long.

I have to point out that Tiffany Haddish who plays Trina here is absolutely perfect for the role. She comes across as both sympathetic and terrorizing, and in one memorable scene repeatedly whips the patrons of a diner into an absolute frenzy. 

Best moment: The ending, which I should have seen coming in hindsight. 

Rating: 9/10

 

Come True

“Dreams aren’t what you think” has been a staple premise in scary stories since… well probably as long as humans have been around.

Come True takes this basic concept and tosses in some science fiction in a way that makes you think “Hey, remember Inception? I could be watching that instead.”

The story focuses on a teen runaway named Sarah who joins a sleep study just for a place to sleep. All is not as it seems of course, and this mysterious dream study which turns out to be a slight twist on the “Ever dream this man?” meme.

While Come True does an admirable job of amping up the suspense, it never quite manages to build to anything worthwhile. It’s like a rollercoaster with a really big lift hill but the drops aren’t very sudden and the corkscrew loop is pretty boring.

I’m not going to beat it around the bush: the ending to this movie is both dumb and completely unoriginal. In fact, given the topic of “dreams” I bet you’ve already guessed what it is. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Despite flaws in the story I will say Julia Sarah Stone is great in the lead role. Credit where credit is due.

Best moment: Sarah learning the truth about the sleep study.

Rating: 3/10

 

Nobody

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is presented as your average suburban dad. One night his home is invaded by a pair of robbers. After deciding to let them go — there wasn’t much to take anyway — he feels emasculated. Something in him is re-awakened; specifically his past work as “auditor,” which turns out to be more of an asskicker role than a financial one.

Borrowing his dad’s FBI badge, Hutch tracks down the thieves only to find they’re extremely desperate. He gives up but on his way home a bunch of young Russian punks terrorize a girl on a bus. Hutch resolves the issue by beating all the punks to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, one of the guys he beat up on that bus is related to a scary Russian mobster, leaving Hutch no choice but to single-handedly take down an entire mob.

Much of what makes this film work is the casting choices. Bob Odenkirk is totally believable as a suburban dad, but as a one man killing machine? It’s just so ridiculous that you can’t help but to laugh. Likewise for Hutch’s dad, a scary ex FBI agent with a huge stash of guns played by — who else? — Christopher Lloyd. 

This is one of those films where if you watch the trailer, you pretty much know what you’re in for. That isn’t to say there are no twists or anything but if the trailer is appealing you’re going to enjoy the movie.

One thing I personally found amusing is that most of the time when you see characters in a movie using a computer, it’s either product placement, some generic operating system that looks like it could be either Windows or Mac OS, or something completely ridiculous like that 3D file system in Jurassic Park. In this film we see a Russian hacker running Ubuntu Linux with its recognizable custom Gnome 3 shell… something a real hacker might actually use.

Best moment: The spectacular way in which the gangsters’ plan to kidnap Hutch backfires.

Rating: 8/10

 

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star, a pair of eccentric middle aged women who “worked” in a furniture store find themselves laid off and directionless. Ostracized from their group of equally eccentric middle aged friends they decide to take a vacation together to — you guessed it — Vista Del Mar.

Meanwhile, a group of villains are planning on killing the entire population of Vista Del Mar using deadly mosquitos. In an “Austin Powers” like move both Star and lead villain Sharon are played by the movie’s co-creator Kristen Wiig. Sharon’s murderous intentions stem from being embarrassed as a child at Vista Del Mar’s annual seafood festival.

Barb and Star wind up unintentionally taking drugs and dancing with one of the evil henchmen, Edgar, accidentally disrupting the plan.

The movie never quite finds its sweet spot, wavering between a journey of self discovery in the Barb and Star subplot and the ridiculous scene chewing in the villain’s subplot. It doesn’t help that Barb and Star come across as mildly annoying and half fleshed out characters.

While the overall premise is funny, what this movie lacks is connective tissue between comedic beats up until the last quarter of the movie. By that point I can’t help but to feel the average viewer may have sighed and thrown in the towel.

This is a difficult movie to rate. As a comedy it’s occasionally dull until the end when it all comes together. The problem is there’s a runtime of 107 minute but maybe 80 minutes of it feel necessary. 

Best moment: The reveal that both Barb and Star are each running away with Edgar separately.

Rating: 6/10

 

Boss Level

Roy, a former soldier turned alcoholic is stuck in a Groundhog’s Day style time loop where he’s the only one who recalls the previous events. But unlike Groundhog’s Day this isn’t merely about trying to improve his life, it’s about maintaining it: the same killers come after him every day and he has to learn how to fight them all off, dying day after day just to get one step further.

Oh and to make things worse he has no idea who’s after him or why. To the audience it’s all clearly connected to a military project run by an evil contractor (Mel Gibson, surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke) and his unwitting scientist, Roy’s ex-wife (Naomi Watts.)

Without saying too much throughout the violent action/sci-fi/comedy there’s a recurring video game motif (hence the name of the movie) that only sort of makes sense toward the end without ever coming completely full circle.

While it’s by no means a great film, there’s enough campy, quirky humor with some genuinely great quips where  I could see it become one of those B-movies which eventually lands as a sleeper hit. This assumes the right audience finds it though, and to be honest I have no idea what the “right” audience would be for this film.

Again I don’t like to include spoilers in these reviews but the ending is deeply lacking and unsatisfying. Supposedly they filmed more than one ending, so it’s totally possible this gets re-released as a better film in the future.

Best moment: When Roy finally realizes killing all the bad guys isn’t nearly enough.

Rating: 4/10

 

Super Mario Bros: The Morton Jankel Cut

Normally I only review new movies in these blog entries, but here I’m reviewing a new cut of an old movie — a movie that’s pretty much universally hated — the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie.

There’s a lot of backstory as to why the film was such a disaster, but the short version is that co-creators Morton and Jankel had a vision for the movie that significantly clashed with what Hollywood Pictures (aka Disney) had in mind. Specifically, Morton and Jankel were the creators of Max Headroom and wanted to create something with a similar gritty steampunk vibe. The studio on the other hand wanted a family friendly film. The result? A movie with a wildly inconsistent tone and a story that’s borderline incomprehensible.

This new cut is the work of artist Garrett Gilchrist who took an early workprint of the film on VHS, restored it, and re-edited the entire movie to include missing scenes and even restored/modified some of the soundtrack. According to Gilchrist there will be a cut that incorporates better quality footage from the Blu Ray release in the future.

The footage that was edited back in is very obvious as it includes timestamps over the footage, as was typical of workprints at that time. This additional footage ranges from short sequences which add a small amount of context to entirely “new” scenes that were edited out of the theatrical cut.

At the end of the day the real question is, does this edit redeem the movie? The short answer is no; the story is a mess, but a much better organized mess. The longer answer is that it’s still an improvement over the original cut and I think for those interested in watching this movie as a historical curiosity this is the best cut to watch of the two available. I also want to point out that like some movies released around the same (Jurassic Park, etc.) the special effects and early computer graphics largely hold up.

So for this edit I’ll give it an A for effort but… there’s only so much even the best editor can do to polish a turd. Still, aside from some missing audio here and there and a brief moment with missing composite effects this is clearly an improvement over the theatrical release — but mostly because it’s not bafflingly incoherent.

Let me repeat that again: this is the first time I’ve watched this movie and actually understood what was happening.

I should note it’s probably not technically legal to watch this movie, but… who cares? There’s absolutely no reason to watch the original, and even this version is still an exercise in self-punishment.

Best moment: The new (to us) Iggy and Spike rap sequence, which finally explains why Koopa turns against them.

Rating: 3/10 (The theatrical cut may not even deserve a 1/10 so this is intended as high praise to the editor.)

 

Luca

Off the coast of Italy, a pair of small-time fishermen accidentally discover a young “sea monster.” As we soon discover the sea monster’s name is Luca and he lives in an underwater village of his fellow brethren along with some dopey fish. In his society the humans boating around above them are “land monsters” which they’re terrified of. Luca is curious about these land monsters and some of the technology he managed to steal from the fishermen, like a record player (the first indicator of when this story is set.)

After a chance encounter with Alberto, an older boy sea monster, they swim up to the surface together where they do “the change,” transforming into their human counterparts — something Luca was warned never to do by his parents. Yes this is a similar concept as The Little Mermaid but the comparison between the stories pretty much ends there.

The pair slowly learn about human life in Italy circa 1960 through trial and error, making this a fish out of water story in the most literal of ways. I don’t want to spoil the whole story but it involves a somewhat convoluted quest to acquire a Vespa and standing up to a bully.

The animation really nails a realistic looking Italian seaside village and perhaps more impressively the motion of water — something notoriously difficult to animate. Unfortunately this has the unintended consequence of making the human characters look out of place, particularly the ones with more cartoony character designs. Still, that’s a minor quibble as Pixar’s animation has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years and this film is no exception.

At first the idea that Luca and Alberto change back to sea monsters as soon as they get wet is treated like a joke that never quite sticks the landing. However toward the end of the movie it winds up redeeming itself as it becomes integral to the story.

The voice acting is on point in this film especially considering the main roles are all voiced by effectively unknown teenage actors playing against a strong supporting cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen and stand up comedy legend Jim Gaffigan.

Even by Pixar’s standards this is an amazing film, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the entire team was working from home due to the pandemic.

Best moment: The surprisingly happy ending.

Rating: 10/10

 

Pig

Rob, (Nicolas Cage) a local celebrity chef turned recluse lives in the woods of Oregon with his pet truffle hunting pig. Rob trades his truffles to a wealthy yuppie named Amir in exchange for ingredients and supplies. When Rob’s pig is kidnapped in a violent attack, Amir takes Rob back to Portland to find his beloved pig. Despite his disheveled and bloody appearance Rob is still recognized by every chef.

Now any time you have a movie featuring Nic Cage you have to ask yourself, is this going to be one of those “Nic Cage movies?” Willy’s Wonderland (see above) is certainly one of them. Or the Wicker Man remake (“NOT THE BEES!”) But then you have movies like Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas proving Cage is a perfectly serious actor when he’s working with a serious script.

Despite its unusual premise this film fits squarely in the latter category. It boils down to the fact that the mystery of tracking down the pig isn’t really what this movie is about: it’s a portrait of a broken man.

Or should that be broken men? Every single chef Rob meets in the world of fine dining is sketchy, empty inside, or both. While it’s never said outright the theft of the pig merely seems as though it was merely one minor event in some dark underbelly of the restaurant scene. Except of course for Rob — for him it’s personal.

Pretty much everything about this film works. It looks fantastic though some small part of that could be chalked up to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The pace isn’t leisurely though it takes a leisurely pace at the right moments. And while there aren’t many characters they’re all perfectly cast.

First time film writer/director Michael Sarnoski clearly set himself up to win here and he largely did. What doesn’t quite work is the tendency of the story to bring up more questions than answers: we learn a lot about these characters but the film leans heavily on the actors to sell their inner struggles without offering much insight on their pasts.

Best moment: Rob bringing a grown man to tears (I won’t tell you how or why, just go watch the movie.)

Rating: 8/10

Recent movie review round-up (second half of 2020)

January 18th, 2021

In the last installment of my movie review roundups I expressed some concern about new movies in 2020 due to the pandemic. Thankfully I was wrong: while many big budget movies were delayed, 2020 turned out to be a great year for new indie and medium budget movies debuting on streaming services.

Surprisingly three movies on this list take place right here in San Francisco, which I was not aware of going in to any of them.

So in no well thought out order here’s what I watched in the latter half of the year.

 

Black Bear

An outcast actress named Allison who was deemed “difficult to work with” tries forging her own path by becoming an indie filmmaker. She’s sharing a giant cabin in the woods near a lake with an unmarried couple with a child on the way. The couple doesn’t get along at all and after a series of arguments and too much wine, all three of them become the third wheels of the trio.

Without spoiling too much there’s a film within a film aspect happening here which is revealed about halfway through. What’s real? Who’s acting and to what extent? Is this all imaginary?

This film has some great moments and plenty of thoughtful dark comedy. But it ultimately just made me go re-watch Mulholland Dr. again. Both movies share very similar neo-noir and film-within-a-film concepts. However, Black Bear doesn’t feed on the uncertainty it creates nearly as well as Mulholland Dr., which makes it the weaker — though more approachable — of the two films.

Best moment: When the first twist hits, and you realize in retrospect that you should have seen it coming a mile away.

Rating: 6/10

 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character from Da Ali G Show is back for a second film. This time there’s more upfront explanation of the backstory, which starts to drag after a while despite some genuinely hilarious moments. The gist is that once again Borat is coming to America, but this time he’s stuck with his 15 year old daughter Tutar who, naturally, lives in a cage.

Cohen’s typical cringe comedy antics are on display here with various disguises, trying to learn about different aspects of American society and failing miserably, etc.

While you’ve probably already read about at least one spoiler for the movie, there are plenty of shocking moments that surprisingly did NOT make the news. Perhaps that’s more of a testament to 2020’s crazy news cycle than what happens in the movie though. And yes, that Rudy Giuliani scene is far more alarming than it was made out to be in the news.

One unfortunate aspect of this movie’s distribution on Amazon is that you will most likely have to enable subtitles to understand certain scenes as their player — at least for me — didn’t turn on subtitles automatically for non-English scenes. 

Although I have to admit I didn’t see the twist ending coming, this particular style of prank/cringe comedy is so widely imitated these days that it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when Cohen debuted his Borat character two decades ago, let alone his more recent efforts like Who Is America. But it’s still a wild movie with plenty of uncomfortable laughs.

Best moment: Professional babysitter Jeanise Jones who isn’t just the only sane person in the entire movie, but actually cares about Tutar’s well being.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

This is the story of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests in Chicago told primarily through a courtroom drama and flashbacks to a Vietnam War protest. 

Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen also starred in this movie, cast perfectly as 1960’s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman. It’s hardly the only spot-on casting choice in this film though it’s interesting that Cohen appeared in two very different political films this year.

Let me point out that the film gets a lot of things correct, in particular the ideological clashing between the protestors themselves and the courtroom antics. It also gets the gist of the case correct with the judge being unsympathetic to the defendants, how the defendants should have been tried separately (if at all), and most notably that you don’t want a high profile jester in the court, let alone two — Hoffman and Rubin.

At the same time, I think the film’s flashbacks undercut the true story with a variety of embellishments from inventing new characters to inaccurate representations of events.

Taking some liberties with a true story clearly worked for writer (and director here) Aaron Sorkin before with his script for The Social Network, yet this time his tale fizzles out as he attempts to dramatize a much better known story that simply doesn’t need any additional drama. The actors manage to elevate the material from time to time but can’t salvage it entirely.

The biggest issue is there never seems to be any justification as to why this story needed to be told in 2020. I appreciate not being hit over the head with an obvious message, but the parallels to Trump’s America could have at least been ever so slightly underlined.

Best moment: Hoffman and Rubin’s courtroom antics are all funny, but the best one was when they came in dressed in judicial robes. And yes, that’s based on a real event.

Rating: 5/10

 

Sonic the Hedgehog

Remember Sega? Remember their iconic 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games? For a lot of people the answer to both questions is going to be a resounding no, which leads to a pretty obvious question: who is this movie made for? That was the main question I went into with this one and I’m still not sure I entirely have an answer.

While it’s a pretty universal law that all movies based on video games are going to be bad, a notion cemented by 1993’s Super Mario Bros., in Sonic the Hedgehog thankfully nobody is taking anything seriously. This is a movie well aware of its own absurdity.

The story setup is basically this: after being hunted on his home world, the speedy Sonic the Hedgehog is given a bag of rings that let him teleport to other planets. He winds up on Earth in a small town and eventually befriends a sheriff’s officer named Tom who’s on his way to becoming a police officer in San Francisco.

Meanwhile after Sonic accidentally causes a power outage, the Pentagon decides to bring in Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist played by a mustache-twirling Jim Carey, to hunt down and eliminate the problem.

My expectations were low going in and while I can’t say Sonic is going to be a classic film by any means, it’s a reliable and fun diversion. Not every joke lands — or even most of them to be honest — though the movie manages to capture a similar feel to not-very-serious comic book movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Best moment: The mix of real footage and computer animation is solid throughout the movie — if I had to pick just one example I’d go with the bar fight scene. The animation is particularly remarkable as Sonic’s design underwent significant alterations shortly before release.

Rating: 6/10

 

The Invisible Man

This new adaptation of The Invisible Man is very loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel, so if you’ve read it or seen the previous film adaptations you’ll still be going in fresh. Even the genre has shifted slightly to lean on horror more than science fiction.

Cecilia is trapped in a controlling relationship with her husband, an optics engineering genius named Adrian. One night she makes an escape with the help of her sister and goes to live with a detective friend for her safety.

Cecilia soon gets the news that Adrian has killed himself, a relief at first… but given the title of the movie you can easily guess where this is headed.

Can’t say too much more about the plot without going into spoilers. Check out the trailer though, which provides the gist of the story while slightly misdirecting the viewer. At least one scene in the trailer is not even in the movie.

Overall I enjoyed this film. Like the best horror movies it keeps the audience guessing without revealing the villain too soon, for obvious reasons in this case. The cinematography masterfully presents empty space as potentially treacherous. For a two hour film it manages to keep viewers on their toes until the very end.

My only complaint is why set this in San Francisco when only the establishing shots are filmed here? Places have their own distinct visual language and it’s distracting when it doesn’t line up with what’s presented on screen, occasionally breaking the tension.

Best moment: The big reveal and its immediate aftermath. Can’t much more without going into spoiler territory, except that it’s the best kind of jump scare: the one you’ll anticipate long in advance.

Rating: 9/10

 

Feels Good Man

This documentary is like peeling back the layers of an onion to explain a strange phenomenon; an alt-right internet meme that started out as an innocent and completely unrelated comic.

Matt Furie, a soft spoken San Francisco artist created a comic called Boys Club while working at Community Thrift. One of the characters in the comic is Pepe the Frog, a humanoid with a frog head. At one point Pepe takes his pants off to pee while standing up with the dialog “feels good man.” For various reasons both this phrase and the image of Pepe become an instant internet meme, eventually finding its way to the 4chan imageboard popular with disenfranchised basement dweller types.

Matt Furie initially ignores the spread of Pepe across the internet until it becomes classified as a hate symbol after being associated with white supremacy. Far too long after it’s spiraled out of control Furie decides to fight back, officially killing off the character and suing sellers of counterfeit Pepe merchandise such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Oh and just like the “doge” meme before it, Pepe becomes the mascot of a cryptocurrency because of course it does.

Much of the film centers on interviews with Furie and his wife with a mix of archival footage and animation. Self-described druid John Michael Greer is presented as a voice of reason in this completely insane story.

It’s a very well put together documentary and while I do recommend it at times it comes across as a little too sensationalized. I legitimately do feel bad for Matt Furie though.

Best moment: On a personal note as someone who’s been stopping by Community Thrift here in San Francisco every now and then for ages, this one surprised me. If anything I’d expect an anarchist zine to come out of that place.

Rating: 8/10

 

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns hasn’t had a hit in decades. To make matters worse they now have to write a song to unite the world and don’t have much time to do it; not only is time itself collapsing, but a killer robot named Dennis is coming after them. Given access to their old time traveling phone booth they decide to go into the future and attempt to steal the song from their future selves

Meanwhile their respective daughters — Billie and Thea, naturally — borrow a more modern time machine to recruit some of the best musicians from throughout history to join their dads’ band. 

Going in I was skeptical of a sequel to a funny but old pair of movies from nearly 30 years ago. Turns out when the concept essentially boils down to an absurd lighthearted comedy with time travel, outdated slang, and music, there’s plenty to room to craft a ridiculous tale that only needs to be fleshed out enough to get from one funny moment to the next. What more can you expect from a Bill & Ted movie, dude?

My only real complaint is it left me wanting to learn more about Billie & Thea’s relationship as it felt like a one-note joke here. That said the last half of the movie really delivers. In terms of making a new entry in a movie series from decades ago I’d rate this as a solid effort.

Stay for the post-credits sequence which is most excellent, my dudes.

Best moment: A posthumous George Carlin “hologram” as a nod to the previous two films.

Rating: 7/10

 

Another Round

Normally I won’t see a film just because of who’s in it, but after seeing Mads Mikkelsen’s eccentric performances in everything from Casino Royale to the Hannibal television series, I’ve been curious to see him in a film from his home country of Denmark. When this one appeared on my radar with good critical reviews I figured why not, if you’ll pardon the pun, give it a shot?

Another Round is an original dark comedy about a middle aged teacher named Martin (Mikkelsen) at the equivalent of a high school in Copenhagen. He’s stuck in a rut, rarely gets to see his wife, and when his students (and their parents) blame him for their bad grades it seems clear his interest in life is fading.

In the first quarter or so of the film we see Martin and three of his fellow school employees bond over drinks. One of them gets to talking about an obscure philosopher who once remarked that humans were born with a blood alcohol content 0.05% too low. This leads to an experiment starting with Martin taking a swig of vodka in the school bathroom. Soon all four of them become day drinkers.

Best moment: Again I’m steering clear of spoilers here but the ending is very memorable and surprisingly fun.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Last Blockbuster

Remember Blockbuster Video? Even though most of us probably associate Blockbuster with fees for not rewinding your tapes, the company didn’t go under until well into the age of DVDs. Despite the company’s demise a few franchisees held on — and now there’s only one left. 

This documentary presents several different angles about Blockbuster: nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, the rise and fall of Blockbuster corporate, and a look at the life of the woman who runs the last Blockbuster.

The first two aspects of the film are largely through talking heads. The nostalgia angle is covered by the likes of director Kevin Smith and comedian Brian Posehn, the latter of whom rented VCRs since he couldn’t afford to buy one.

Likewise a separate roundup of talking heads familiar with Blockbuster’s business guide us through how the company started, the tactics they used to muscle out (or acquire) their local competitors, and ultimately why the company didn’t make it.

And finally we also get the story of Sandi, the woman running the last Blockbuster. She’s a very hands-on type who does everything from purchasing movies to solving IT issues. Her family and various current and former employees from the store are interviewed along with her. These glimpses into the daily life at the store end with Sandi trying to figure out how the store can survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the film the number of remaining stores steadily decreases, despite the efforts of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight promoting the three remaining Blockbusters in Alaska by sending one of them memorabilia from Russell Crowe movies.

While all these individual stories and tidbits are interesting, unfortunately they hardly overlap enough to make for a cohesive documentary. It banks so heavily on (frankly, undeserved) nostalgia that it struggles to find a good argument for why Blockbuster should still exist as a physical store. Many of the people we see treat the last Blockbuster more like a living museum than an actual store. Even Sandi herself seems nostalgic, looking backward rather than to the future.

Best moment: Gen-Xers remembering how they struggled to find a good date night movie at Blockbuster. I laughed out loud at this, as though younger generations don’t spend time scrolling through Netflix or whatever for the same reason.

Rating: 7/10

 

Wild Mountain Thyme

Perhaps the weirdest movie of the year — but not necessarily for the intended reasons. The movie kicks off with Christopher Walken’s character telling us he’s dead before backtracking a couple years.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. The real problem with this movie are the Irish accents, which seem evenly split between “actual Irish actor” to “failed an audition for a Lucky Charms commercial.”  Walken in particular doesn’t sound like he’s even trying. The differences are so jarring it’s hard to believe these actors are even in the same scenes together.

Getting back to the story it’s about a man named Anthony Reilly and a woman named Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) who work neighboring farms in Ireland. The two are clearly in love but too stubborn to do anything about it.

This all changes one day when Anthony’s cousin (Jon Hamm) comes to town from New York City with eyes not only on the farm, but on Rosemary as well.

Aside from the accents the big problem with this movie is the script: the dialog is cheesy, the characters are flimsy with little backstory, and there’s no real sense of pacing.

Whereas an average movie tends to sag in the middle, Wild Mountain Thyme’s entire first half is largely pointless. It’s all very day-dreamy filler until Jon Hamm shows up and kicks the story in motion. From the halfway mark it’s at least enjoyable, if not completely obvious where it’s headed.

At some point I had to stop the movie and look up if it was written by an Irish or American screenwriter. Turns out it was written and directed by an Irish-American living in NYC. I’ve never been less surprised in my entire life.

Best moment: Any moment Emily Blunt is on screen as she’s the only actor trying to make this idiotic movie work.

Rating: 2/10

 

I Used To Go Here

Kate is a writer whose first book “Seasons Passed” isn’t selling well and her book tour has been cancelled as a result. This comedy film more or less begins when Kate’s former writing professor invites her for a reading at her old college (hence the name of the film) and she jumps at the chance.

From there it turns into a predictable nostalgia trip for Kate, catching up with old friends and meeting the new batch of roommates who live in the same home she used to.

The characters are very much cookie cutter tropes, which is fine for a comedy. I mean if you expected Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun movies to have any character development, you were watching the wrong movie. But what works fine for a comedy (and worked for the first two acts of this movie) doesn’t work when it shifts suddenly into a drama in the last act. A drama with no well established stakes simply cannot work.

While I will have to say this is a funny movie with a lot of sharp jokes and cringey moments, the ending let all the steam out for me. That said it’s not a long movie so it’s tough to complain too much about something I got a kick out of, even if it didn’t work entirely.

Best moment: The line “Honestly I just can’t think of a good lie here,” which I may have to use if I’m ever in a similar situation.

Rating: 6/10

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Lucy goes on a long drive with her new boyfriend Jesse, despite her apathetic feelings toward him, to meet his parents. During the drive they have a long, philosophical, and meandering conversation filled with silent pauses. During the silent moments, Lucy’s inner thoughts are presented to us as a voiceover, with Jesse’s voice interrupting her internal monologue.

During the ride Lucy recites a poem she wrote about the dread of coming home, which foretells what’s about to come.

The meeting with parents gets inexplicably awkward at first, with her boyfriend’s embarrassingly oversharing mom telling uncomfortable stories about Jesse’s childhood.

Soon various shifts and jumps happen which I won’t spoil here, other than to add that a (seemingly) different story cuts in here and there. 

If you liked Charlie Kaufman’s other movies (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) you’ll probably find much to like in this movie’s maze of dream logic. Otherwise you might consider checking out those earlier films first.

Best moment: Whatever moment you first notice that something is off, which I’d suspect is a little different for each viewer.

Rating: 7/10

 

Jiu Jitsu

A tough young American man suffering from severe amnesia wakes up in an army base in Burma, proceeding to kick everyone’s ass with his bare hands for no clear reason. After being reunited with his team of fellow ass-kickers it’s revealed his name is Jake — and he’s a key part of their mission.

Jake soon meets the eccentric Wylie (Nicolas Cage) who explains the backstory: an alien fighter named Brax returns to Earth regularly and, according to legend, demands a “fair” fight for some definition of fair that is never explained. The stakes? If Brax isn’t satisfied it’s the end of life on Earth.

As you can easily guess from the above description this is not a good movie. At the same time it’s not the unwatchable schlock some critics made it out to be. Yes, the story is very thin, the CGI is mediocre, and cinematography is wildly inconsistent.

Yet at the same time the story is so goofy and the fight scenes have such laughable sound effects (whoosh! whip!) that it’s clearly an homage to action comedy movies from twenty plus years ago. Come to think of it, if this came out in the 1990’s it would probably feature Jackie Chan. Even the major plot points are so absurd and often inconsequential I couldn’t help but to laugh at them.

Best moment: Whenever Nicolas Cage is on screen doing his thing. Unfortunately despite receiving top billing that’s maybe 20 minutes of the entire movie at most.

Rating: 4/10

 

Soul

Joe, a music teacher at a New York City middle school is tiring of his students’ poor performances just as he’s offered a full time teaching position. Meanwhile he’s excited by an offer to perform on stage with a famous jazz musician at a local club, foreshadowing that if he could perform with her he could “die a happy man.”

So naturally after auditioning for the part, Joe dies and ends up in a cartoon pastel-colored purgatory of sorts where all of the administrators are abstract beings named “Jerry.” In this afterlife the former and future souls appear as Smurf-like caricatures of themselves.

Unlike most of Pixar’s works, Soul focuses on an adult character facing adult issues. I suspect children might find Soul watchable or even fun but won’t fully appreciate it. 

Which leads me to my only complaint about this film. If Pixar can pull off a unique story like this that can only be told through animation, why does it need to be dumbed down with a sense of humor for six year olds? I wish Pixar’s writers weren’t always so bound to Disney’s “we need a comic relief character” mentality. But then again, Hollywood seems addicted to making movies for children (and adult children) so it wouldn’t be entirely fair to take out these general annoyances on this particular film.

Best moment: Joe’s cartoonish walk past a number of dangerous obstacles before he inevitably enters the purgatory.

Rating: 8/10

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2020)

July 4th, 2020

It certainly hasn’t been a great year for movies with the global pandemic so a handful of these are from last year. What can I say, it’s been a good year for streaming and catching up on good movies we missed in theaters.

The order here is disjointed just like last time. Whatever, roll with it.

 

Spaceship Earth

This documentary looks back at Biosphere 2. For those unfamiliar, Biosphere 2 was an experiment where a group of eight people lived in a large greenhouse with an airtight seal for two years starting in 1991. Ostensibly the goal was to attempt to live as though they were on the moon or another planet. (Biosphere 1 being the planet Earth.) The project was largely met with skepticism from scientists and created a media sensation.

The movie starts when everyone involved met in the 1960’s in San Francisco and formed a theater company that sailed around the world. After returning to the US, the group moved to Arizona and got started on their new project: Biosphere 2. It doesn’t go into the personality clashes or the tourism aspects very much — but it does contain a lot of footage from inside Biosphere 2 and interviews with the various participants you won’t see anywhere else. 

Oh, and it does cover the part where a certain Wall Street guy named Steve Bannon got involved, tossed out all the data, and tried to use it to “disprove” climate change.

Like a lot of documentaries, Spaceship Earth covers an interesting topic broadly, though barely scratches the surface of any of the questions it answers. It’s also remarkably non-critical of the inherent problems with Biosphere 2. I think it would have been better as a miniseries where each episode takes a deep dive into each of the questions it’s asking about the project and the group (or cult?) that was behind it.

Best moment: Let’s just say it’s an oddly fitting movie to watch during a pandemic when we’re all sealed off from the outside world.

Rating: 5/10

 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Somehow I missed this one when it was in theaters — a big mistake on my part. The story centers on a young Black man named Jimmie living with his friend Mont in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. A bit of an outcast, Jimmie’s obsessed with the Victorian home he grew up in in the Fillmore neighborhood. When the current owners get kicked out of the home, Jimmie and Mont squat the place.

This is one of those rare low-budget indie films where everything from the writing to the performances are completely perfect. But this movie has another trick up its sleeve; it depicts San Francisco as a real place with real people instead of some postcard idealist fantasy.

From its heartfelt message to its philosophical moments, this is the kind of movie that would win an Oscar in an alternate universe. 

Best moment: The skateboarding scenes, especially the long one near the beginning. These add a sense of scale and space to the movie that I suspect would simply come across as padding in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

Rating: 10/10

 

The Vast of Night

Framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone style TV show, this indie sci-fi film tells the story of a small town in the southwestern United States in the 1950’s where a teenage switchboard operator and her friend at a nearby radio station investigate a mysterious electronic signal.

Despite an unoriginal concept the storytelling is more gripping than one would expect. The nearly unknown cast pull off excellent performances.

I think this film would have benefited from a theatrical release at art house theaters. Due to COVID-19 it’s streaming exclusively on Amazon instead and their clumsy marketing department didn’t do this one any favors.

Best moment: For a low budget flick I was really wowed by the cinematography, particularly the moment where the camera goes through a basketball game at a gym, exits out the back window, and then continues down the street.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Lighthouse

In the late 19th century a young man named Winslow (Robert Pattinson) accepts a job at a decrepit lighthouse and has to put up with poor working conditions — especially the longtime lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), a demanding and potentially insane man who speaks like a Moby Dick character. 

Winslow quickly begins going mad himself while trapped in the remote location, a process that accelerates when the two start drinking together and a massive storm arrives. In a twist of fate this makes the movie perfectly suited for sheltering in place.

I don’t want to give away much else as this psychological thriller is best watched fresh. 

My only issue with this movie is there’s a lengthy stretch before the end where it becomes repetitive. I do realize it’s an intentional choice to serve the story’s mood, though it’s edited in such a way that makes it feel more dull than I think was intended. There’s a nearly perfect ~90 minute movie in here somewhere.

Best moment: Willem Dafoe’s unhinged monologues are all absolutely golden.

Rating: 6/10

 

Cat Video Fest 2020

People have been filming their pets for as long as home video has been around. The yearly Cat Video Fest is devoted to new and classic cat videos. As expected there’s a lot of things being knocked off shelves, harassment of dogs, and generally odd feline thinking.

This “film festival” raises money for cat rescue organizations, including Give Me Shelter in San Francisco. 

Rating: I’m not sure how to rate this one as it’s not a typical film at all. I’ll just say if you like watching cat videos on YouTube or TikTok, it’s for you. That said, humorous content is best watched with an audience — and this was the last movie I was able to see in theaters so far this year.

 

Color Out of Space

In an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Nathan Gardener (Nic Cage) moved his family to an old house in the middle of a forest to run a small alpaca farm. A wise but eccentric old hippie (Tommy Chong) squats in a nearby shack.

A meteorite crashes just outside the house, and after it gets repeatedly hit by lightning everything goes bonkers.  The town’s hydrologist warns them not to drink the water from their well though it’s far too late — unusual plants grow, insects and animals mutate, everyone slowly goes crazy, and even reality itself collapses into psychedelic madness.

The film comes across as more uneven than unsettling, careening between 1980’s throwback sci-fi horror to outlandish comedy. Which isn’t to say a film has to be one thing, it just tends to work better if it has a central foundation other than “weird.” What does work very well in the film’s favor is the vibrant cinematography, especially for a story that seems unfilmable. “It’s just a color, but it burns.”

Best moment: There are many “Nic Cage dialed up to 11” moments in this film it’s a challenge to pick just one, but I’ll have to go with Nathan (Cage) shouting at his older son to “get the alpacas back in the barn by ten” as he’s preparing to take his wife to the hospital.

Rating: 8/10

My favorite MST3k episodes featuring incoherent movies

June 22nd, 2020

Now that life is inching back towards some sense of normalcy with the first restrictions lifted in many places, it’s time to revisit my earlier blog post about MST3k episodes with coherent movies. This time we’re going for maximum insanity: episodes with movies that are incoherent.

After spending over two months indoors we’re all losing our minds anyway. As we shift into phase two of the reopening, we’d might as well jump into the depth of absolute madness.

The movies in these episodes go from having an outlandish plot to barely having one at all. Either way, trying to follow the story beats will leave you feeling like someone’s rubbing sandpaper on your brain.

Obviously with the types of movies MST3k tended to feature this could be a super long list so I’m focusing on the worst of the worst — but I’m not ruling out a part 2 to this list. And of course I’m limiting it to episodes you can stream online as of today. To be nice, I’m also going to try to come up with redeeming qualities for these films… just don’t expect much in that department.

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) 

Available on Amazon Video

Okay: this one can’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with MST3k.

Manos means “hands” in Spanish so even the title is kind of… off. The story begins with a family on a road trip — with plenty of footage of driving around — while looking for a place to stay. They wind up stuck in a mysterious lodge despite the warnings of a man with huge knees named Torgo. At night the master of the lodge conducts some sort of ritual with a group of (enslaved?) wives to determine what to do with these newcomers. 

This infamous film was, according to legend, the product of a fertilizer salesman in El Paso who made a bet that he could make a “horror” film. Seems about right.

The movie is such an obscure dud that it’s become almost synonymous with MST3k as few had ever seen it before. Thanks to MST3k a collector found a better print of Manos: The Hands of Fate and managed to restore it and re-release it on Blu-Ray.

Even though there’s some great riffs in this one, there’s too much time to fill due to its severe pacing issues. Best riff: “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.”

Redeeming qualities: MST3k made Torgo a recurring character on the show (as played by Mike.)

This episode features the 1940 short Hired: Part II which deals with training the sales staff at a Chevrolet dealer.

The Day Time Ended (1979)

Available on Netflix

A family meets at LAX and drives to the middle of nowhere, where they move into a weirdly shaped new home powered by solar panels. Unfortunately for them a cosmic event has caused time and space to do… something?

Nearly as soon as they arrive there’s a sense that something’s amiss. A mirror repairs itself. A glowing pyramid steals a pony, then shrinks to the size of an inch. Some tiny aliens appear. A menacing floating camcorder shows up. Late at night a bunch of different types of aliens start fighting outside. Does that sound like a story? No?

The family seems remarkably unphased by everything that’s going on, most likely due to the actors not having the slightest clue to what would be inserted in post production. Clearly more care went into how the alien monsters look than anything else.

While the riffs in this one are on point, what makes this episode memorable is a host segment where Tom Servo chastises Jonah and Crow for attempting to write a coherent sci-fi script. Tom quickly breaks into song (a Music Man parody) about cramming your script with concepts in place of an actual plot. 

Redeeming qualities: The stop motion effects, which honestly belong in a much better movie.

The Creeping Terror (1964)

Available on Amazon Video

Films have narrators for one of two reasons: a stylistic choice, or because there would otherwise be no other way to tell what was going on. This monster movie is distinctly in the latter category. Making matters worse the narrator — who sounds like one of those disembodied voices from a 1950’s educational film — doesn’t seem to know what this movie is about either.

Unfortunately the “monster” in this movie is a walking carpet. The terror comes from the carpet eating people, or more accurately screaming as they slowly crawl under it. There’s a lot of scenes and different characters, though little resembling a story arch.

The non-existent plot, production values, and lengthy narration provide ample material for Mike & the bots to riff on in this one — especially when they add their own narration. Best riff: “Something sort of happened… kind of.”

Redeeming qualities: It’s only 74 minutes long.

The Beast Of Yucca Flats (1961)

Available on Amazon Video

Film nerds love to debate which movie is the worst ever made, but there’s little question who’s the worst director of all time: Coleman Francis, a man so terrible at directing he makes Ed Wood look like Stanley Kubrick.  Although all three of his films appeared on MST3k I decided I had to pick just one for this list and it’s a doozy.

The Beast of Yucca Flats is ostensibly some sort of thriller or horror movie involving an atomic bomb explosion that turns a man into a monster… I think? Almost the entire film could be generously described as filler.

Of the numerous aspects of this movie that can only be described as entirely incompetent, the one that stands out the most is the lack of dialog. We see characters speak but never hear them. People get strangled but don’t shout or scream. All the dialog is from characters we can’t actually see, or are too far away to see their mouths move. The narrator only adds to the confusion with non sequiturs such as “Flag on the moon… how’d it get there?” or  “Touch a button… things happen.”

Mike and the bots focus their riffs on the strange narration, the ugliness of the cinematography, and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. 

Redeeming qualities: More effective than Ambien at treating insomnia.

This episode also includes two shorts, both infinitely more coherent than the main film: Money Talks! in which the ghost of Ben Franklin offers financial advice to an annoying teenage boy; and Progress Island, U.S.A., an advertisement for doing business in Puerto Rico. The riffs are particularly sharp in the latter.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)

Available on Amazon Video

A monster musical comedy that’s not scary, not funny, and filled with boring dance numbers that have no connection to the plot. The plot? To the extent there is one, it’s about a fortune teller at an amusement park who hypnotizes people into becoming murderers and deforming their faces with some chemical. These “zombies” eventually escape and kill people in the park.

But you know what the worst part is? According to Wikipedia, this film was originally shown with The Beast Of Yucca Flats as a double feature. Yikes.

The riffs focus on the poor audio, the beehive hairstyles, and the main character’s resemblance to Nicholas Cage. Best riff: (on the quality of the cinematography) “Outtakes from the Manson Family Christmas.”

Redeeming qualities: Well… there’s some perfectly good establishing shots of LA in the 60’s.

The Pumaman (1980)

Available on Amazon Video

When researchers wearing flashy black leather outfits discover a gold Aztec mask with alien mind control technology, their leader Dr. Kobras uses it against an assistant to prevent her from revealing their findings to the world — before declaring they must kill “the Pumaman.”

That’s the first scene in the movie, and it doesn’t get much less odd from there. The aforementioned Pumaman turns out to be a random white guy who can fly when wearing a special belt given to him by an Aztec man. 

There’s so much to make fun of in this movie the riffs barely scratch the surface, though not for a lack of trying. Best riff: (regarding the way Pumaman flies) “He flies like a moron.”

Redeeming qualities: The hilariously poor special effects.

The Starfighters (1964)

Two decades before Top Gun came out, The Starfighters brought an Air Force movie to the screen. But instead of interesting characters and exciting drama, The Starfighters eschews all of that and more. This movie features very little in terms of story, conflict, or characters; but plenty of scenes of Air Force personnel talking about military stuff, people talking on phones, etc. Around half of the running time appears to be Air Force stock footage — especially footage of midair refueling. Overall it’s about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The riffs center around the movie’s musical incongruities, wasteful military spending, and most of all the vaguely sexual nature of the way the aircraft are treated. There’s also some memorable host segments featuring Crow trying to set up a home PC and get on “the information superhighway.” Best riff: “The cutting room floor was remarkably clean.”

Redeeming qualities: Confirms my theory that many filmmakers in the 1950’s and 60’s had somehow foreseen MST3k and were intentionally making movies for it.

The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)

I should start by pointing out this movie has nothing to do with the DC Comics character, who wouldn’t exist until a couple decades later. Instead it’s about an all young female group of secret agents who communicate via wrist radios with their boss, the mysterious masked Batwoman. One of them gets kidnapped by an evil masked man named Rat Fink who’s after her wrist radio, which is somehow related to an “atomic hearing aid.” Also there’s a mad scientist who mostly seems to specialize in drugs that induce dancing.

That’s about as close as I can get to understanding, let alone explaining this movie. I don’t get the feeling the actors knew what this one was supposed to be about either. There’s never any sense of stakes or danger. At one point some cave monsters are brought up and we see footage of them (from another film, no less) and then they’re almost immediately forgotten about.

At a certain point the riffs stop being riffs, becoming pleas for the sweet release of death. During the overly long ending scene Tom Servo desperately screams “END! END!” at the screen.

Redeeming qualities: Nope.

The episode features a short film called Cheating about a kid in high school who was kicked out of the student council for — you guess it — cheating. This provides ample fodder for the host segments with Crow remaining on the pro-cheating side.

 

This post is already going long — I have a few other completely incoherent MST3k movies I could add in here but I think I’ll leave them for another time.

Looking back at Dispatches From Elsewhere, season 1

May 6th, 2020

Now that the first season is over I thought I’d give a non-spoilery take on Dispatches From Elsewhere. There will be some mentions of the events in the first episode, so if you want to go in completely fresh go watch it first.

This won’t be your typical review, as I was a participant of the real life events this series was based on.

My ears perked up when this series was announced. The name comes from a pirate radio broadcast participants would listen to in Dolores Park which introduced the second chapter of Games of Nonchalance — which I’m just going to call The Jejune Institute here since that’s what most of us called it anyway.

I’ll admit upfront I’m not particularly familiar with Jason Segel (aside from that one Muppet movie) so I wasn’t too certain what to expect from a show he produced, wrote, and co-stars in. Personally I very much enjoyed the show’s first season, with its many twists and entirely unexpected ending.

Just like it’s “real” counterpart, in Dispatches From Elsewhere its version of The Jejune Institute presents itself as a mystery, becomes an act of escapism, and when it’s all over nothing’s really changed. Except of course for the things you decide to change yourself. And maybe the friends you make along the way.

 

Episode 1

So let’s go into the setup in the first episode before I get into how real life events were switched around into a television show.

The series opens with The Jejune Institute’s leader, Octavio Coleman, breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging you’re watching a TV show. He introduces Peter (Jason Segel), a bored employee at a music streaming company in Philadelphia.

Coming across a series of inexplicable flyers attached to utility poles with a phone number attached, Peter eventually pulls off a tab, calls the number, and finds he has an appointment at The Jejune Institute.

After an intense initiation — which drives Peter to tears — he disobeys Octavio and follows the directions on the initiation card. This leads him on a short journey where he meets another participant, Simone (Eve Lindley), a transgender woman who seems ready to attack him at first. Their meeting appears to have been intentional somehow, and they wind up becoming friends, solving some unmentioned piece of the game together.

Later on The Jejune Institute holds an event where, after dancing with a breakdancer and a sasquatch in the rain, participants are assigned into groups of four; Simone and Peter are put into a group of four along with Janice (Sally Field), an energetic older woman, and Fredwynn (Andre “3000” Benjamin), a strange man who alternates between a Sherlock Holmes-style detective and a nutty conspiracy theorist.

What makes the show compelling is how it follows this group of four participants as they go through an experience where they’re never certain exactly what’s part of the game and what’s not, let alone what the rules are — or if there are any.

 

The source material

So let’s talk about similarities and differences between the show and what I recall based on my experiences. Obviously the show is set in Philadelphia, but real life The Jejune Institute took place in San Francisco (though one chapter was in Oakland.)  The flyers Peter finds look nearly identical to the ones I encountered in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. The real Jejune Institute didn’t have appointments as far as I’m aware — it was a walk-in affair.

Many aspects from the show were taken from the real Jejune Institute including certain characters’ names, notably the names of Octavio Coleman and his enemy Commander 14. The mysterious promise “To those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits,” also originated at the real Jejune Institute’s induction session.

Obviously some of the events in the show are dramatized quite a bit, though many have clear nods to the source material. The Jejune Institute didn’t have rules exactly, though there was a sort of winking aspect to it that let you know you were safe and on the right track.

More information about The Jejune Institute can be found at the official summary web page. Or in numerous blog entries right here on this very site.

 

The other source material

Segel’s inspiration for Dispatches From Elsewhere wasn’t actually The Jejune Institute itself, but rather the 2013 documentary The Institute. In the documentary participants and creators give talking head style monologues about The Jejune Institute, and we see footage (much of which was recorded by participants) about each of the four chapters and the silly after party.

Although I went to see The Institute at its premier I don’t think I’d seen it a second time — until Monday, when it was streamed on Twitch. The documentary’s director, Spencer McCall, and the creator of The Jejune Institute, Jeff Hull, were in the chat to answer questions and provide context.

I have to point out that one of the talking heads in the film, a very enthusiastic participant named Kiyomi Tanouye, was tragically a victim of the Ghost Ship fire in 2016. The first season of Dispatches From Elsewhere is dedicated to her memory.

The Institute is a much better documentary than I remember. It’s easy to see how Segel was influenced not only by the wild stories and events, but also people’s reactions. Oh and the part with dancing with a sasquatch and a breakdancer in the rain? Yup, that really happened — only to a select few, however. See the clip below for proof:

I’ll also admit the few glimpses of me in the movie make me question what was going on with my hair at the time. Too much mousse or something, it looked terrible. What was I thinking? 

If you’d like to see The Institute yourself, it’s available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon Video.

My favorite MST3k episodes featuring coherent movies

May 2nd, 2020

As we’re all sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one activity I’ve found well suited for the times is watching episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3k.) Each episode is about an hour and a half, featuring a human host and his robot pals watching a janky movie and cracking jokes at its expense.

While all the movies shown on MST3k over the years are bad, some of them are absolutely incoherent: movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, or The Day Time Ended, or even The Castle of Fu Manchu. Those are a challenging watch even with the MST3k treatment and I can’t imagine trying to subject myself to such madness while being locked inside for weeks on end.

So here we go: in no particular order, my favorite MST3k episodes with coherent movies — specifically episodes you can stream online at home.

Laserblast (1978)

Available on Amazon Video

Like many B-movies in the late 70’s, Laserblast is a sci-fi movie that can’t quite decide if it’s ripping off Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Star Wars. This becomes quite apparent due to the main character’s resemblance of Mark Hamill and later when he blows up a Star Wars billboard. 

The story revolves around a young guy who finds an alien weapon which can only be used when he’s wearing a special necklace. The more he uses it, the more he turns into a monster. It’s a perfectly good premise and actually has decent special effects. Unfortunately, nothing else really works from the script to the casting to the cinematography.

The riffs focus on how the movie’s bargain bin Mark Hamill seems incapable of wearing a shirt (or at least one that fits) as well as a police officer who may or may not be “ready for some football.” They also suggest Pepsi may have secretly paid for the Coca-Cola product placement. But the real focus is why film critic Leonard Maltin gave this trashy film two and a half stars.

This episode marks the last time Trace Beaulieu appeared on the show. His Dr. Clayton Forrester character is sent off with a parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gorgo (1961)

Available on Amazon Video

Easily one of the most watchable of the monster movies on MST3k over the years, though to be honest the back half gets pretty dull. This one takes place in the UK instead of Japan, yet somehow it has the overall kaiju style anyway.

In this host segment Leonard Maltin appears as himself (though Pearl keeps calling him Roger Ebert) to recommend Gorgo — and plug his then new 1998 movie review guide.

The riffs refer to a number of other monster movies and make fun of the English and Irish. Crow declares Gorgo has the “best teeth in England.” They also get a lot of mileage about a circus in London named “Dorkin’s.”

Mac and Me (1988)

Available on Netflix

This movie answers the question “What if E.T. was a commercial for Coke and McDonald’s?” It’s arguably the best known movie they’ve ever shown. The story has some big plot holes and the cinematography is roughly on par with an average sitcom. The aliens are supposed to be cute but come across as both cartoonish and repulsive at the same time.

While the first season of the rebooted MST3k on Netflix was a mixed bag, by the second (and so far, last) season it was firing on all cylinders. In this episode the riffs are funny, well paced, and overall I’d rate it as “pretty nice!” 

The riff that sticks with me the most comes pretty early on when they point out the score seems to have been composed for a much more exciting movie.

Mitchell (1975)

Free on YouTube

This Joe Don Baker vehicle certainly features a lot of, well… vehicles. I’d estimate about half the movie is just shots of people in cars, either parked or driving very slowly. Oh and there’s a car chase, albeit a very slow one that mostly seems to exist to pad the movie’s runtime. The most baffling thing about this is it got a theatrical release despite looking like a made for TV movie in every respect.

Before I get to the riffing, I should mention the host segments: this was Joel’s last outing as the host of the show, so most of the host segments are set up to introduce his replacement, Mike, and Joel’s escape from the Satellite of Love.

Most of the riffs focus on how out of shape Baker is here, and his character’s appetite for alcohol and snacks. Supposedly when Baker got wind of this he wasn’t happy and (jokingly?) threatened to beat up the cast of MST3k.

Space Mutiny (1988)

Available on Amazon Video

This Canadian sci-fi action film features a story that kind of makes sense but is marred in every conceivable way. Despite being set on a spaceship the sets don’t look like spaceship interiors at all, the acting is embarrassingly poor, and the editing almost seems intentionally bad — one character dies, only to appear alive in the very next scene. 

The riffing gets a lot of laughs out of just pointing out the numerous mistakes and poor acting choices in the film, as well as coming up with nicknames for various characters. The muscular leading man gets a whole string of nicknames including Flint Ironstag, Slab Bulkhead, and Big McLargeHuge. 

The Final Sacrifice (1990)

Available on Amazon Video

Also from Canada, this student film is about a kind of annoying teenage boy who’s forced to avenge the death of his father — who died at the hands of a mysterious death cult — with the help of a drunk redneck named “Zap Rowsdower.” 

For some reason it was released on home video. The whole thing has a very outsider art feel to it, like a community theater group trying to make a film.

The riffs in this one are some of the funniest MST3k has ever done, from “the bacon-y stench of Canada” to mocking a character’s Yosemite Sam-like voice… and making fun of the name Rowsdower, of course. But the true lesson we learn from the riffs is never to invest in lemon mines.

If you happen to come across this one on DVD it includes an interview with the actor who played Rowsdower. This is likely the closest thing to a “making of” type documentary for this film we’ll ever see.

Alien From LA (1988)

Free on YouTube

Kathy Ireland’s first attempt at transitioning from a model to a movie star resulted in this dud. To be fair it’s not entirely her fault, though speaking in an irritating squeaky little girl voice for the entire film didn’t help. The story thrashes between genres before eventually deciding to become a sci-fi chase through Atlantis.

Mike and the bots often imitate Ireland’s aforementioned squeaky voice, as well as another character they describe as “Australian.” When they start referring to unnamed characters as cereal box mascots, you know the movie’s in trouble.

Watching this episode again I’m surprised I’d forgotten the host segments. From Mike milking a refrigerator to a “sexy” Tom Servo, this is MST3k at its silliest and best.

I Accuse My Parents (1944)

Available on Amazon Video

Before the movie, this episode kicks off with a short — and extremely dated — educational film called “The Truck Farmer.” It’s ostensibly about modern farming practices, but Joel and the bots poke fun at how they’re spraying everything with pesticides, exploiting labor, and bulldozing forests — all so we can eat carrots. 

Getting on to the movie, it’s a cautionary tale about a young man who joins the mob by accident due to his alcoholic and uncaring parents. The movie opens with his trial before jumping back in time to see how he got there — which has less to do with his terrible parents than the set up would suggest.

The riffs focus on the character’s numerous lies, the advanced age of the actors playing teenagers, as well as references to the time period (for example one unnamed character is referred to as Eleanor Roosevelt.) The host segments in this episode are quite memorable as well.

Hobgoblins (1988)

Available on Amazon Video

This shameless straight-to-video Gremlins knockoff is about a tribe of small alien “hobgoblins” with mind control powers who escape an (unlocked) vault in a movie studio to terrorize a group of young men and women. 

Oh, and it’s the kind of movie where every female character is either a “nag” or a “slut” — an extremely misogynistic one in other words.

The riffs really zero in on the amateurish production values and make a lot of jokes referencing the 80’s. In one scene early on Mike asks “does he have Pringles in his shoes?” due to poor foley.  In a dance scene, Mike makes up lyrics to the music: “It’s the 80’s, do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Regan.”

My favorite riff in the whole movie: “Someone’s rubbing puppets on us!”

 

Honorable mentions

Not all the films I wanted to include on this list are currently available for streaming, though there are low-quality copies on YouTube. Three stand out in particular.

Soultaker (1990)

In this cheesy movie, a group of “teens” die in a drunken car crash and wind up as ghosts. The angel of death dispatches his minion to steal their souls. It’s one of (at least) two movies they’ve covered starring Joe Estevez.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Unfortunately MST3k lost the rights to this one, and it was only very briefly available on DVD. The movie barely has anything to do with Godzilla; instead it’s mostly about a robot named Jet Jaguar fighting a giant bug thing named Megalon. 

12 To The Moon (1960)

This odd film about an early moon landing seems more on the drama between the astronauts than the strange events that start happening once they get there. It’s preceded by a ridiculous short film called Design For Dreaming about all the new products from GM and Frigidaire coming in a very 1950’s version of the future.

 

Depending how long the shelter in place order continues I may end up doing another round of these — feel free to send in suggestions. After life goes back to normal I may do a similar entry for incoherent movies on MST3k, of which there are many to choose from.

Recent movie review round-up (2019)

January 21st, 2020

Despite intending to on plenty of occasions, I’ve never used this blog to review movies. In an attempt to change that I’ve written up short reviews of movies from the past year or so. Films are reviewed from newest to oldest.

 

 

VHYes

In the mid 80’s a boy gets a camcorder and starts filming random stuff with his friend… over his parent’s wedding video. The first half or so of the film is a comedy based mostly around the deeply weird stuff the boys record on late night television including an Antiques Roadshow knockoff with an unflappably chipper host, a home shopping show hosted by a clueless bickering divorced couple, and a Bob Ross style painting show hosted by a woman who’s clearly nuts.

Oh, and there’s an “edited for television” porn flick about global warming.

For the first half of the film’s short 72 running time it’s packed with genuinely funny, though not always original sketches; making fun of low quality TV has been a staple of sketch comedy all the way from Monty Python to, say, Key & Peele.

Unfortunately the film falls apart as it tries to tug all the different threads into a coherent plot, relying on Lynchian nightmare logic to arrive at a conclusion. The ending makes very little sense and drags on far too long for a movie this short.

Best moment: Mark Proksch’s character smiling as he happily describes how a stained antique bowl was used in unsuccessful heart transplants.

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Uncut Gems

Howard has a lot of problems: he’s deeply in debt with dangerous mobsters, hopelessly addicted to gambling, and his marriage is failing. His fortunes are finally about to turn around though as he’s acquired an uncut gem (under mysterious circumstances) reportedly worth millions.

When NBA star Kevin Garnett shows up and sees the uncut gem, he insists on borrowing it as he thinks it’s a good luck charm. This triggers a series of events that send Howard further into his chaotic downward spiral.

What sets this movie apart is how it manages to ratchet up the tension for over two hours without much physical action. It’s more of a fast-paced drama than a traditional thriller. The synth-heavy soundtrack somehow pairs perfectly with the tone.

Best moment: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but everything about Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard is perfect. I suspect his reputation for lazy frat boy comedies may have unfairly turned audiences away from this one.

Rating: 10/10

 

 

Knives Out

Bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey died under strange circumstances after a family party at his creepy mansion. As it turns out Harlan has cut off the family financially, so almost everyone at the party has a reason to be angry with him — but would any of them resort to murder?

Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a goofy southern accent) is hired to solve the murder, but by who? He doesn’t know, which presents a second path to investigate. Like any good “whodunnit” story there’s a lot of twists and turns — and the discovery of a secret passage — before the detective can unravel the mystery.

My only criticism is the movie takes its time in the beginning with a slow setup, though to be fair there’s a good balance between setup and payoff throughout this movie once it gets going.

Best moment: Detective Blanc using the novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” metaphorically, only to immediately reveal he’s never read it and suspects nobody else has either.

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Us

When a family travels to Santa Cruz for a vacation, the mother (Lupita Nyong’o) has flashbacks to her unsettling experience visiting the Beach Boardwalk as a child. Her concerns are brushed off… until a family of scissors-wielding doppelgangers appear outside their vacation home one night.

Us blends horror with social commentary and a few dashes of humor, which won’t be a surprise for those familiar with Jordon Peele’s previous film Get Out. This time around the same ingredients are much better prepared and presented.

Everything gets a little doughy in the middle of the movie when the characters start killing each other. After a certain point it feels like you could take a bathroom break and still know who killed who.

Best moment: Without spoiling it, the twist ending left me thinking about this movie for days. If you like this movie you’re going to want to see it a second time.

Rating: 8/10

Review: Dracula (2020 miniseries)

January 10th, 2020

 

The new Dracula three part miniseries from Moffat and Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who) adapt Bram Stoker’s classic novel with the sort of twists and trappings we’ve come to expect from this duo, for better or worse.

It’s available on both BBC and Netflix if you’d like to see it. Here’s my review.

 

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Much like the 1950’s Japanese monster movies Dracula is fundamentally an invasion story: a vampire leaves his castle in Transylvania, sailing to England in search of new blood. The obvious modern choice would be to make this a story about immigration with some kind of Brexit allegory, but that’s nowhere to be found in this adaptation.

The first episode starts in the late 19th century with Dracula’s first major victim in the story, Jonathan Harker. We initially meet Harker in a semi-alive state in the care of a convent of nuns. A mysterious nun named Agatha is keen to understand his story and learn more about Dracula, despite her already vast knowledge of vampire legends. We see Harker meet Dracula through flashbacks.

Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses won’t be a big surprise. He feeds on human blood, only comes out at night, can’t stand sunlight or crosses, sleeps in a coffin, drinks blood, etc. Every vampire story is a little different but I suspect most of us have at least a passing familiarity with Dracula.

The first plot twist is kind of a let down either way. For those familiar with the story it’s clear from the start that Sister Agatha is a vampire hunter, and for those that aren’t the reveal of her last name won’t mean anything.

The second big twist involves another one of Dracula’s vampiric traits: he has to be invited in. It’s clever enough that I won’t spoil it here.

 

The second episode focuses on Dracula’s voyage to England. It’s a typical murderer in an enclosed space horror story where the audience knows what’s happening, yet the characters struggle to figure it out before they’re all dead.

We confirm something about this version of Dracula from the last episode; he doesn’t just drink blood to live, he absorbs certain aspects of his victims via their blood. This keeps him a step ahead of everyone else.

The ship contains a big secret: no, not Dracula — we know that from the start. As it turns out Sister Agatha is on board. She’s still trying to understand Dracula right up until she has stop the ship from reaching England.

The episode ends with Dracula reaching the shore of England anyway. But wait! Time has skipped forward by just over a century. Dracula is greeted by armed guards and… Sister Agatha? Huh?

 

The third and final episode is the most original of the series… and the biggest let down. Dracula rapidly adapts his old ways to modern life as though he were a supervillain with a time machine.

Meanwhile the descendant of Sister Agatha who looks exactly like her — and sort of is her, through blood in another obvious twist — continues the journey to discover the true nature of Dracula and the mysterious rules he lives by. Why is he afraid of sunlight and the cross? What do the undead see when they look in the mirror?

All of this comes crashing down in an unsatisfying ending that only partially answers the questions it raises about Dracula.

 

Looking critically at this series I think it needs to be split in half. In the first two episodes we see the setup of the story, with some key twists on a familiar tale. It’s a solid adaptation: just different enough we don’t know exactly what to expect.

The third episode is a unique beast: it takes the stakes (sorry) and drives them forward, but stumbles repeatedly along the way.

The primary climax is perfect: Agatha and her descendant unearth Dracula for who he really is, and how his weaknesses are all related to a central personality defect. The downfall of Dracula isn’t some hero pounding a stake through his chest — it’s Dracula’s own primal fears laid bare.

I want to pause here because it’s a legitimately good twist: “Agatha” forces Dracula to pause and examine himself. After reflecting on his decisions Dracula decides to finally die on his own terms.

The dissection of Dracula’s traits isn’t without its flaws however, as many of them are never explained. Dracula can turn into dogs and bats, and in exactly one scene we see him fly. Are these rules also part of Dracula’s personality? Do they apply to other vampires or undead characters? What exactly are mirrors reflecting? Unfortunately these questions are not addressed. It’s unclear if other vampires like Dracula even exist.

Several parts of the story fall flat in the third episode. Dracula’s last victim is Lucy, portrayed as a vain narcissist who’s so unsympathetic I was rooting for her to die immediately. Dracula’s lawyer (played by Gatiss himself) serves as a comic relief in a story that already has enough comic beats to make his scenes redundant.

Overall I think Dracula is a decent enough adaptation, though the third episode suffers from focus and pacing issues — there’s a solid, unique 60 minute story stretched out to 90 minutes with completely unnecessary “clever” ideas. It would have been a more compelling story if we had the time to see Dracula come to terms with himself.

Just as with the later seasons of Moffat-era Doctor Who and the third season or so onward of Sherlock, Dracula slurps up some promising new ideas before ultimately sputtering out. 

Killer BOB wanted poster spotted in SOMA

February 9th, 2018

“BOB” wanted poster
 

While waiting to cross the street outside the LinkedIn building, I noticed a wanted poster taped to a light post and did a double take — it’s a recreation of the Killer BOB wanted poster from the original Twin Peaks. The poster implores you to call Sheriff Truman if you’ve seen BOB.

If you’re unfamiliar with the surreal crime drama, BOB is an evil spirit of sorts who possess people. In his physical manifestation he was played by Frank Silva. Silva does have a connection to San Francisco as he had a degree from SF State. Unfortunately he died back in 1995.

(Spotted at Second and Howard)

Ghostwatch reviewed by an American in 2016

October 29th, 2016


 

For Halloween this year I thought I’d so something a little different — I got my hands on a copy of an infamous British TV horror special and decided to write a review.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Ghostwatch is a 1992 Halloween TV horror special from BBC. It never aired in the US, nor has it ever been made available to US viewers through legal means (unless you have a region-unlocked DVD player.)

The TV special scared many viewers at the time because it masqueraded as a live, non-fiction TV show featuring hosts familiar to BBC viewers. You can read more about the effects the show had on its audience over on Wikipedia.

I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll just give you a brief rundown. The 90 minute show alternates between a talk show host with a paranormal investigator, and two on-scene reporters investigating an allegedly haunted house where two girls live with their single mother. The talk show segments include everything from “live phone calls” to interviews with a skeptic from New York.

 

 

The type of horror leans toward the subtle variety one would expect from BBC. Think Doctor Who and you’re not far off. There’s no terrifying violence or jump scares here. As an American viewer, I’d say the closest analog would be if The Blair Witch Project had been a TV special hosted by Geraldo Rivera.

One minor spoiler: the ending won’t be a surprise to you if you’ve seen The Onion’s Halloween episode of In The Know. For all I know The Onion could have been making an homage to Ghostwatch.

Overall I can say it’s entertaining, but twenty four years later it feels very dated. TV shows don’t do call-in segments anymore, for example; instead they read responses on social media. But the biggest problem isn’t the format, it’s the storytelling. The haunting theory presented toward the end casts the ghostly villain as two lazy stereotypes; mentally ill and transgender.

I don’t mean to say that a mentally ill transgendered person returning as a ghost couldn’t be compelling, but Ghostwatch doesn’t make a case for this. Instead these attributes only serve to advance the story while neglecting any potential motivations behind the ghost’s actions.

The horror aspect also deserves some critique, as the host segments tend to deflate the sense of dread building up in the on-scene segments. For the most part the tension built up inside the haunted house dissipates once the show returns to the comfort and safety of a TV set.

 

 

There are two paths Ghostwatch could have gone that would have made it a more timeless classic. One, it could have played its cards closer and have never tried to explain away the details of the haunted house. Two, it could have gone the opposite route and explored the alleged ghost in more depth.

That said, I could easily imagine the show doing well in the US market in the early 90’s when similar “truth seeker” reality shows were popping up on Fox, cable TV, etc. But stripped of its cultural context, the show seems more enjoyable for its curious novelty factor than its ability to scare.

 
Verdict: B-/C+

Good for: People curious about unusual television history, those looking for a mildly scary 90 minutes of television.

Not good for: Those bored by typical horror tropes, anyone seeking modern horror.