Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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.

Reverse Empire (spoilers!)

April 2nd, 2015


 

Let’s face it: if you’re reading this, you’re the kind of person who’s familiar with the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. You’ve memorized the scene where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.”

In a recent episode of The Flash, an evil villain played by Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself! — makes the same revelation to his young trainee.

I’m dubbing this move the “Reverse Empire.”

The John Barrowman Theory

February 6th, 2015

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Image credit: Phoenix Comicon
 

What if the television shows Doctor Who, Desperate Housewives, and Arrow are all part of the same universe? Crazy, you say? Well sure. But let me explain The John Barrowman Theory to you anyway.

After the events in Doctor Who and Torchwood, the enigmatic man who calls himself Captain Jack travels forward in time and discovers Earth is destroyed by an environmental disaster. Rather than work with Torchwood he decides to take matters into his own hands. He travels back in time and assumes the name Patrick Logan to conceal his identity from Torchwood.

As Patrick, he becomes an eco-terrorist to stop the impending doom. To escape his crimes, Patrick fakes his own death in an explosion (an easy feat because he’s immortal) then changes his name to Malcolm Merlyn. In the face of tragedy Malcolm decides to become even more of a badass and trains with Ra’s al Ghul’s assassins. When things take an ugly turn, what does Malcolm do? He fakes his own death again, that’s what.

 
See? There’s a pattern here — morally ambiguous, vengeful, mortality-challenged. Jack, Patrick, and Malcolm could easily be the same character in the same universe. And that’s the John Barrowman Theory.

Mind = blown.