Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Third Row's Post-Seasonal Coma Christmas Special

Cause like I said before, it's been one of those seasons.

I'd had more planned for this Christmas on writeups. I really did. But, life loves to throw some pretty wild curve balls- namely working retail during the holiday season sucking the cheer right out of me.

Not wanting to leave you guys empty-handed, I present you with this somewhat belated article in turn.

In the week leading up to the holidays, my girlfriend had suggested doing an article on modern Christmas specials. This idea intrigued me, partially because a lot of the ones considered to be staples...well...let's face it, there really haven't been any recent ones that seem to have the same staying power as the classics. And they certainly don't have the same tone.

I got to thinking on some of the better more recent Christmas offerings (I set the start date from around 2000, to give a decent window.) It was around this time I noticed a particular trend in some of the standouts I was looking at. Specifically, two trends:

1) I have a pretty sick sense of humor if many of these are to be an indication.
2) This past decade or so has seen a pronounced uptake in, for lack of a better term, the Anti-Christmas Special. This isn't in the sense that these episodes are against Christmas itself, so let's have none of that "war on Christmas" talk. Instead, these are episodes that seem to serve as a giant middle finger to the more heart-felt archetype of the Christmas episode. Some of them do have some elements of heart to them, but they also come with either a good dose of cynicism or some incredibly macabre humor to off-set what would otherwise be the heartfelt schmaltz that's become so part and parcel with holiday episodes of this time of year.

So, as an offering for this year, I present a selection of titles that I feel both standout as holiday episodes, as well as a good selection of this new wave of holly jolly middle fingers to the Hallmark standard. This is neither a complete list, nor a gold standard. Just some I've found to be standouts, in no set order.

Futurama: "X-Mas Story"

OK, so I'm TECHNICALLY cheating on this one. The episode aired just a few days shy of the 2000 cut-off. Humor me.
This is also a good point to say one other bizarre trend I've noted our culture seems to have an odd love for - the idea of the murderous Santa Claus. Even before the Krampus comeback, there's something about seeing everyone's favorite toygiver turn bloodthirsty vigilante that's just struck a chord with us culturally. Of the various examples of it, this episode remains arguably one of the most entertaining - recasting the jolly fat man as a robot with an exceedingly high sense of naughty and nice and the voice of John Goodman. This is also one of the few episodes on this list I'd say also flirts a bit more with letting some heart into its story, given the whole theme of who you spend Christmas with, but in true Futurama fashion, it comes with its fair share of warped bits of humor (alongside murderous Santa, the other standout here is Bender leading several homeless robots on what essentially becomes a looting spree.) It also contains arguably one of my favorite seasonal threats in the line "I'm going to shove coal so far up your stocking you'll be coughing up diamonds!" but that's more of a minor point.

Sealab 2021: "Feast of Alvis"

Okay, we'll have a LITTLE discussion of the whole 'war on Christmas' concept here, simply because it's the central tenet behind this gleefully batshit insane holiday episode of Adam Reed's batshit insane early Adult Swim hit. It's kind of weird realizing this episode is now over 10 years old, because the jokes almost feel more relevant now than when the episode first aired. Amusingly, Reed completely dodged any sort of controversy in this thanks in part to the fact the various religions featured in the episode are all run through a filter. It's not a particularly comprehensive filter (it's VERY easy to figure out which group is which just based on the conversations about them) but it was apparently enough to keep anyone from raising much Hell at the time. Even further impressive given the show's Jesus-proxy, the above mentioned Alvis, was recast as a figure from America's pioneer era with a love for three things: firearms, drinking, and vengeance. It's the zeal of Captain Murphy (voiced by the immortal Harry Goz) for Alvis and his whiskey-fueled love that causes him to alienate many of the other crew as they try to explain to him why others may not share his enthusiasm. Murphy is...well...let's just say he handles it in a fashion that anyone familiar with the series would expect. At all of 10 minutes, it's still a surprisingly hilarious shot in the arm towards the idea that all the different faiths should lock horns at this time of year for supremacy.

The Venture Bros: "A Very Venture Christmas"

One of the more open salvos towards the classic Christmas episode, this is another case of concentrated insanity. The episode starts with a cold open of Venture patriarch and failure extraordinaire Rusty Venture (James Urbaniak) in a dream that plays out like a giant list of Christmas special references from Charles Dickens to Charlie Brown. A dream he wakes up from commenting "What a nightmare. I dreamed I turned into a complete ****." That intro on its own sets the tone for the next 10 minutes, in which Hank and Dean's desperate attempts to achieve the more traditional Christmas backfire stupendously, leading them to summon up the Krampus from Christmas lore (introducing many to it a good 10 years before the more recent comeback.) The episode itself ends in a delightfully sick book-end to its opener, but that's all I'll say to keep the surprise. Again, it's only 10 minutes, but it feels a suitable length for the story they want to tell here.

American Dad: -"The Best Christmas Story Never Told" -"The Most Adequate Christmas Ever" -"Rapture's Delight"
-"For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls" -"Season's Beatings" -"Minstrel Krampus"
Okay, I'm just gonna leave this as all of them, because over the course of the series, Christmas episodes have been one of their constant successes. This is partially thanks to the fact the show's writers have seen these as great opportunities for extra flexing of their creativity. Over the years, the Christmas episodes have covered everything from a time travel storyline with the stakes being Soviet takeover (it's the kind of thing that has to be seen in its full episode to really appreciate it), to a bloody gun battle with Santa Claus, to their most famous Christmas episode, where a yuletide case of the Rapture plunges the festivities into a post-Apocalyptic Hell with one of the single most unique depictions of the Antichrist ever put to film. The sheer variety is arguably one of this show's strongest points where its Christmas episodes are concerned. The fact they are singularly strong episodes on their own is a feat in itself, but the fact they each show a surprising variety makes them even better. This seems a surprisingly sparse entry for a tradition the show has now run for six seasons, but that's because if I gave them all a direct focus, it would be an article in and of itself. They have made it a goal to see that no holiday cliche is left unscathed, and so far have done a very thorough job in keeping to it, even with the most recent being delayed a year (though WELL worth the wait.)

The Boondocks: "A Huey Freeman Christmas"

Leave it to The Boondocks to be one of the only Christmas specials to really touch on the origins of much of the holiday. I'm not just talking about the scene where Huey explains Saturnalia either, though I give them points for addressing that as well. When given the task of presenting his version of the Christmas story, Huey, true to his nature, sets to work cutting through much of the traditional seasonal whitewash of Jesus (Editor's note: But I thought Megyn Kelly said……) Well, there are some elements that are fictionalized (the ninjas come to mind) but the fact is, the parts we see the particular focus paid to here are the big factor the show is getting at. Yes, there's some humor played with the fact Huey takes a school production and turns it into a high-budget epic, but at its core, his goal is a fairly noble one - stripping away much of the trappings the holiday has been effected by. Also, in a rare quasi-miracle, this episode marks quite possibly one of the only times we see Uncle Ruckus doing something fairly decent ( decent as Ruckus goes, anyway.)

Moral Orel: "The Best Christmas Ever"

I'll say this much right now - I've actually considered doing an entire writeup about this show before. It's something that may happen at some point, to be perfectly honest. When comedy writer Dino Stamotopolous first debuted his claymation series, about a precocious young boy in a town that was very much a caricature of hyper-moral Christianity, no one was quite sure what to expect-Especially since this episode was everyone's first taste of a series that, as it went on, would become one of the most uncomfortably dark stories put to animation in recent memory. This episode (actually the final episode of the first season, but aired in advance because Christmas) was no exception - balancing Orel's desire for the titular Best Christmas Ever with a rift growing between his parents, fueled by questions of the parentage of his younger brother. The final shot of the episode - in which Orel has been informed that his parents are getting divorced, but he still looks to the skies, hoping for that best Christmas proclaiming "I have faith in you" is a surprisingly well set-up, and incredibly depressing shot to end the episode on. But then again, that feeling sums up a LOT of the series. On its own, this really is one of the single most definitive Anti-Christmas specials out there. The same could also be said for the show's final episode, though that at least ended on enough of an upswing to be considered bittersweet rather than just completely depressing.

Community: -"Comparative Religion" -"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" -"Regional Holiday Music"
Like American Dad, this has been a series where each new season has a standout in terms of seasonal episodes. To be honest, I almost made this writeup on just the second season episode, Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas, but the first and third season Christmas specials are also strong standouts. The surprising part of this is how, of the examples listed here, alongside Futurama, these are the others that have managed to maintain a heart along with the cynical elements they bring to the table. Between the first season's addressing of different views of the holiday (a bit less 'guns blazing' than Feast of Alvis, but still fairly solid), to the second season's rather direct parody and later inversion of the old stop-motion Christmas specials, to the third's dual middle fingers at Glee, the entire notion of the over-the-top cheerful holiday special, and the different styles of Christmas music, the show has found no shortage of material to rib on in the season. Even tonally, they've shown some good variety, ranging from the third's considerably more joking tone, to the second season's actually surprisingly dark (if still touching) storyline (which, not surprisingly, was also written by MO creator Stamotopolous.) At its best, Community has always had a knack for balancing the humor with just enough heart to keep up the investment, and their holiday episodes have remained some of the better examples over the show's run of this (as well as one of the consistent marks for when a season gets past its rocky starting episodes.) After the much-contested fourth season, it will be curious to see if the fifth can regain the old steam or not.

Again, this is not a complete or comprehensive list. These were just some of the standout examples I had come to mind when looking at the image of the more modern Christmas episode.
Whether any of them will stand the test of time as well...who can say? For my part though, I still enjoy firing up some of these around this time of year.

With that, I raise a glass of strong egg nog and say unto you all:
Alvis bless us, everyone.
...except for the Krebs.

Also, since I forgot to mention in the last post, the deadline for suggestions/votes on this year's pain movie will be January 7th. Gives a good window to work with.

Till next time!

Friday, December 27, 2013

End of the Year Coverage Part The First: "More...HURT ME MORE!"

I know what some of you are thinking 'You promised us a busy week. Then you did a writeup on the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit and vanished. What happened?'

In a nutshell - the holiday season happened. Anyone who knows me personally will know I spent much of the last week working, eventually causing all the days to blur into a morass of work, eating, and coma.

Suffice it to say, this blur went through Christmas, causing a lot to go off the map.

I have a piece for the holidays to show for this, though I know it probably won't be as well met at this point.

Of course, in recognition of my shortcoming, and in following up on something from earlier this year, we come to this post.

I don't ask participation of you guys too often, but I do from time to time, because I trust you. Yes, maybe it's a mistake, but I do.

Anyway, after last year's masochistic viewing of the movie Smiley, I got to thinking: What better way to atone for any mistakes I made by you readers during the year than to voluntarily subject myself to one of the worst of the worst movies this year has to offer?

This, of course, is where you come in.

Let's face it, each year sees a lot of bad movies. Not just mildly bad, but the kind of stuff that makes an audience feel like the old crew of the Event Horizon bad. THESE are the titles I want to pull up here.

Here to provide a good example of what I consider a good basis for my response here: Sir Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen.

So, I'm opening this up as a poll:

Either post your answers here, email me at or hit me up with a tweet @guyinthe3rdrow with your vote. Remember, pain educates. Pain motivates. Help me by hurting me.
...OK, that just sounded INCREDIBLY wrong, but you get the idea.

As it stands, some candidates being considered (but I'll also take other ideas if you know of a suitable abortion) -

-Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
Everything I have read about this movie sounds like a Jack Chick comic come to life. I feel both intrigued and repulsed by it the more I hear of it.

-Battle of the Year
OK, dance movies in and of themselves aren't that uncommon, nor are dance movies getting reamed by critics; but hitting both of those as well as trying to start the acting career of Chris Brown? THIS may be a special sort of perfect storm...

-The Lone Ranger I even need to say anything here? Like at all?

One of the year's surprise bombs (OK, no one was surprised this one flopped. But it was shocking to see just HOW hard it thudded.) Died with a whimper and only Harrison Ford's impression of an angry chimp to its memory.

These are just a couple of candidates. Again, either put in a vote for these, or offer up your own suggestion. Bonus points if you can come up with a good reason to sell me on it. If it sounds amazingly bad enough, I may eschew whoever wins the vote in its favor.

Do it right and I may briefly declare a fatwa on you for making me aware it exists.
Or not...I mean, that's a lot of work.

Anyway, I try not to ask too much of you guys here, but times like this, your feedback is appreciated - much as I will regret it later.

So let the venom flow, and things will resume their pace here soon.

Till next time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit: In Which I Bring My Inner Child Into the Thunderdome

Note before I begin this: I'd like to take a moment to issue a big thank you/apologies to my girlfriend who proofread on this article. She has a lot of strong feelings about this movie. To the point I even offered an out on doing the proof on this. She still opted to do so anyway.
The response...well...

So yeah...again, big thanks and apologies for riding this one out. When I try and take on the other two next year, again, the offer remains on the table for me to get someone else to proof. Just sayin'

I promised there would be another connected piece to go with the release of Jackson's second feature.
It's not a review of that movie. Not yet, anyway- That will come tomorrow (partially cause I'm still mulling over my thoughts on it.)

In the meantime, I decided to finally follow up up on a statement I made the better part of a year ago during my write-up on my favorite bad movies. At the time, I had included Bakshi's problematic adaptation as a placeholder when I had a last minute change of heart. I later acknowledged this and expressed my interest in revisiting the movie to give it a fair chance to stand on its own merits. This is not the time for it, but I got to thinking - given their ultimately checkered reputation on the internet, why not give each of the varied animated attempts to adapt Tolkien its fair day in court?

Of course, this was a challenge since, as the title suggests, I have a lot of childhood memories associated with these films. So I had to get myself into a suitable mindset in order to be able to look at these objectively. This marks my first attempt, using the 1977 made-for-TV version produced by the people at Rankin-Bass during one of their downtimes from largely cornering the market for Christmas specials.

"...and this is Thorin, and Dopey, and Bashful and--you know what, you're really not gonna remember half of these guys later anyway. No sense spending too much time worrying about it."

As I said before, this is one of those titles that has a really strange standing in the eyes of viewers, particularly on the web. I've seen people really love and REALLY hate this movie. In some circles, animated Tolkien is treated as being the equivalent of that cousin no one talks about at the family reunions because he's still in lock-up for things he allegedly may or may not have done to a beached whale while riding a cocktail of grain alcohol and bath salts.
...OK, maybe that's a bit much, but you get my point; This title's reputation somewhat precedes it.

Personally, even looking at this nowadays, and disregarding any sense of nostalgia (which took a fair amount of mental preparation) I'm just gonna say it outright - I really don't think this adaptation is anywhere near as bad as people make it out to be (Editor's note: LIIIIIIIIES). Yes, it has some problems - notably the fact that it barrels through the story with its foot pretty firmly on the gas- despite that, it still manages to hit all of the important points without feeling like it's missing the point. Probably the one big complaint I've heard leveled at this as an adaptation is that the movie is 'too kiddy'. And to be honest, one I've always found a little bit strange when one considers that Tolkien wrote this particular story for children. I mean, if this were The Silmarillion, or their later attempt at The Return of the King, I could see the point. For this particular story though, I never really felt this particular adaptation soft-balled it or softened things up too much. It's an adventure story made with younger readers in mind, and so the film version keeps itself accessible for young viewers. With one strange exception- This may be one of those rare cases I've ever heard of where an adaptation actually kills off more characters than the original story, by a sizable number, and is still considered the "kidder" version of the account.

Yes, it's a PG-rated murderous mob, but it still IS a murderous mob...

And because I know someone's going to bring them up - the complaints about the singing also struck me as particularly odd. With one exception, all of the songs were featured in the original book, so I can't rightly see why keeping them in is somehow a detriment. You can dislike the way the film translated them, certainly, but many of the complaints seem to take umbrage with the fact there are songs in their Tolkien adaptation to begin with (in which case, I wonder just how familiar they are with the books to begin with.) That said, as far as this front goes, I personally don't really have much problem with them. I do have an exception, though- The one area where there is something of a drawback in the music here, at least to me, goes to the songs involving the goblins in the story. Now, again, they keep the same lyrics, and their own, they're actually somewhat catchy tunes (care of Jules Bass.) Which is kind of the problem. Given the reputation goblins have in the story, you'd expect their music to sound crude, mocking, even a bit horrific. Then you have said tunes being sung by the legendary Thurl Ravenscroft (whom many are more likely to recognize as the baritone voice behind 'You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch') and what should be two rather horrible songs by design become catchy despite themselves. Much of the rest of the soundtrack isn't too bad, and there's even a couple of nice standouts, but those two tracks stand as a mix of both 'it works' and 'but it really isn't supposed to.'

Okay, that took care of one of the major dispute points right there. There certainly are some complaints I can certainly see some validity in, even if I don't find them as bad as others. For example, I can see how the art style of the movie (which as odd fun facts go, was animated by the studio that would later evolve to become Studio Ghibli) would prove off-putting to people. The character designs in particular, with their often overdetailed faces, have been described as anything from ugly to downright disturbing. There are a couple of places where I can kind of see the case, more in the case of individual scenes than an overall look. That said, the aesthetic still fascinates me overall, Particularly where the backgrounds are concerned. They all share in the heavy amount of detailing, but it winds up looking a bit more organic. Even now I'm still actually surprised looking at some of the background art on this, especially on realizing the conditions this movie was made in.

One thing I will give the character designs on this movie - they make for an untapped reserve for reaction faces.

Some of the designs as far as particular creatures within the setting, I can understand the complaints about. I have to single out the Wood Elves. With their green skin and overly wrinkled expressions, they seem to invoke a sort of proto-Yoda with smaller ears and a full-sized frame. Fortunately, they're not a major part of this story, but it's still a bit of an unusual creative call. More prominent, and also rather divisive, is the design the movie offers for the goblins - short, blue-grey skinned with a look that's a mix between bulldogs and frogs. It throws a LOT of people. As far as this movie goes, I still think it works out. Tolkien's descriptions of goblins were pretty scant in the book anyway, so there was some room for interpretation, and the size works out alright given how short most of the cast are. This one is really a big case of personal preference more than anything else. When they come back to the story later...well...we'll get to that in the future.

In fact, a good chunk of the problems with this movie really do seem to be more a product of its origins. With those in mind, for a late 70s made-for-TV project, it actually turned out fairly well. Even more surprising, it's actually aged alright under those circumstances. It's no Akira, but the animation is actually still pretty decent in many moments, with very few really glaring errors in it.

Probably the strongest aspect this movie has going for it is probably the voice cast. Orson Bean as Bilbo is one of those roles I've actually come to appreciate more over the years. While there are a few awkward line reads, he is, by and large, a good fit in the role - especially when one considers that, by design, Bilbo was a 50-year-old homebody. Taking that into account,  Bean's older sounding voice lends itself well to the part. John Huston as Gandalf is one I'm a bit more split on. On the one hand, it's John Huston - the man has one of those voices where even the act of reading the nutritional information on a box of cereal can sound interesting (which sort of makes it creepy when you consider one of his most famous acting roles is still as all-around scumbag Noah Cross in Chinatown.) On the other, his Gandalf feels rather flat at points. Some of the edge of that is taken off by virtue of the John Huston voice, but the fact is, some lines do still fumble a little because of it. If anyone could be seen as the MVP in the cast, it's arguably veteran voice actor Hans Conried as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. While a lot of the character's development is sadly lost in the condensed story, Conried still imbues him with a good balance of the nobility of his position and bull-headed stubbornness. He makes the part work well in spite of its bare bones characterization. The rest of the cast are varying degrees of capable, with a lot of veteran voice actors among them. The two others worth much note being Brother Theodore as Gollum, played here starting quiet and slowly growing more manic, and Richard Boone as Smaug (and here's where I invoke the heretic card and say now, on hearing both in fairly short succession, I think I prefer Boone's Smaug to Cumberbatch in some respects.) The only real grievance I can think of in this cast isn't even so much bad as confusing - I'm not really sure why they got Otto Preminger in this for about maybe 20 lines (tops) as the king of the Wood Elves, but it really comes across a rather random piece of casting and doesn't really add much. It doesn't subtract at least, but it still leads me to wonder where the decision came from.

"They're shipping me with WHO?!"

It strikes me as somewhat humorous that, in all, the biggest problem with this adaptation is the inverse of the problem Jackson's adaptation has been having. Where Jackson's version has been argued as having too much time and playing out too many plot threads to fill all of that time, the Rankin-Bass version is too short: condensing the entire book into a scant 78 minutes. With the time it has to work with, it's still a decent adaptation, albeit one with faults as a result of that compress. Most notably, the fact that most of the dwarves are reduced to the role of non-characters. After their introduction, only maybe four really have any sort of relevance to the film, with most of the rest simply being non-speaking. It's a game attempt to try and tell the story, and while it doesn't always work, I still think the end result isn't quite as deserving of the contempt that's been flung upon it as many others seem to think it is.

Looking at this shot, it's very hard to not picture Gollum saying "Get a load of this motherfucker right here..."

Well, this first one actually turned out alright. A few bumps and scrapes, but in general, it's still a decent adaptation.

The next two we may not get to them until next year, simply because I have some other writeups planned for the rest of this month, but rest assured. They will be coming. Just like winter.

Be warned/till then!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Meet the Feebles: Today's Post is Brought to You by the Letters N and C and the Number 17.

(OK, so it's actually rated R, but the joke didn't work as well there. Humor me.) (Editors note: Speaking of NC17, are you ever doing Showgirls?)

Ever get one of those ideas that come out of the blue? Cause that was what prompted this article.

I didn't want to dive right on into the holiday stuff, so I was trying to find something else for this. The idea hit me earlier this week - this Friday marks the second part of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit (I do have another article for that, but that will come later.) So, with Jackson continuing to run with his new MO of big-budget epic, why not take a cue from what I did with Edgar Wright earlier this year and dig up one of his earlier pieces? While this wasn't Jackson's first, I'm gonna be honest - I REALLY couldn't pass up the opportunity for reviewing this movie. That said, Bad Taste will likely turn up here sooner or later.

Before I go on, I'd just like to say one more general note on Jackson - while I liked his work on the Lord of the Rings movies, there's a part of me that would really, really, REALLY love to see him make a return to his old splatterhouse roots. Remember how Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell allowed him to go back to the slapstick horror that he made his early bones on? I'd love to see Jackson let his insane/vulgar side out to play again, especially with the new connections he has to abuse and exploit.

Both the insane and the vulgar are out in full force on this project: Jackson and a team of writers, including longtime collaborator Fran Walsh, offer up a vision of Jim Henson through a mirror darkly. Right from the film's opening song number, we're plunged headlong into the world of the Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour - a Muppet Show equivalent, all run by puppets. Of course, before the lawyers have time to sharpen their knives, the differences begin - the verbal abuse the director heaps on his cast winds up actually being the lightest of dark sides this show suffers from. Guiding us into this felt-covered heart of darkness is young Robert (voiced by Mark Hadlow), a naive little hedgehog with stars in his eyes about being able to work with the Feebles- even if it's just as a chorus member. Robert is kind, supportive, shy, and affected by an endearingly innocent speech impediment: in short, his innocence is marked for death the second he shows up with his gear. Beyond Robert's loss of innocence, we learn that the Feebles cast are plagued with almost every conceivable 'behind the scenes' problem imaginable, along with some new ones: the show's manager, Bletch, is cheating on the show's star (who, on finding this out, goes into a pretty far-flung spiral, culminating in a bloody rampage,) one of the cast learns his constant bed-hopping may have garnered him an STD (it's never named, but the fact they call it 'The Big One' makes the implication pretty clear,) another finds himself slapped with a paternity charge (in all fairness, the child DOES have his eyes...among other things,) another cast member is a shattered wreck from his time in Vietnam - and given his act involves knife-throwing, I'll let you guess where this is heading. On top of all this, the studio is being used as a cover for filming underground porn, and Bletch has been buying drugs to sell to his cast. That's just on a short summary, mind you. The fact that Robert isn't the only innocent in this cast is actually rather stunning, all things considered.

It's also rather surprising that his experience on the show doesn't drive the poor little guy to suicide, but I digress.

As you can guess from a summary like that, this definitely isn't a movie for everyone. It's crass, it's vulgar, and at points, it's fairly gross. That said, if you have a sick enough sense of humor (I'll own up to that) it's also funny as Hell. Part of what makes this work is the fact that its concept, despite having some parallels in that Henson analogy, is still its own setting. There's no sense of missing the joke cause you don't catch the specific references. It's all here - in all its wonderfully psychotic glory.

Cause everyone loves puppets, right?

One of the other strengths of the movie, and another odd one, is the fact that, for a variety show doomed to all the vices and lunacies of its cast - this movie actually has some catchy music. It's certainly not gonna be remembered on any of the greatest soundtracks of all time, mind you, but Peter Dasent, Michelle Scullion, and Jay Snowfield keep the film running with a bizarre spread of song numbers that further help maintain the movie's momentum. From the above mentioned song-number, to its last big number (described more below) that segues into a piece referred to as the Massacre Suite, there's a surprising range of both good instrumental tracks and song numbers that further reflect on the full-blown madness that inhabits so much of this movie. They're the kind of tunes you won't expect to have creep back into your head, but every so often, they will to be met with a muttered "Goddammit, REALLY?" Which is a unique ability in its own right as songwriting goes.

If there's one thing I'd say is a consistent between the Peter Jackson of then and the Peter Jackson of now- this is a bit odd to say- it's ambition. No, I'm serious. In its own weird way, I would still consider this to be a fairly ambitious movie. True, it's not on the same scope as Jackson's later big budget efforts. Still, he and his team take a concept here that had been joked about before, and still find creative ways to up the ante. They do so both in terms of just how outlandish the jokes can get - the film's climax starts with a bloody gun rampage set to the show's director performing his own song - in which he dramatically extols on the merits of sodomy...yeah... -  and how fully the movie commits itself to its all puppet conceit. In the latter case, probably the finest example of this comes with the knife-throwing frog Wynyard. When he explains his need for drugs, we're treated to an entire flashback that plays on just about every Vietnam movie trope imaginable, with particular emphasis paid toward The Deer Hunter. Again, all while played out entirely with puppets. This sequence is like watching a Muppet Show sketch guest-written by John Milius, and it's that bizarre mix of both serious 'war is Hell' tropes and the goofier elements the puppets bring that make the whole joke work so well. Further, there are no 'normal' humans in the cast, as we often see in the Muppet films - there's a human contortionist in the show, but he's still a puppet, sort of like the lost Indian cousin of Bunsen Honeydew - so the film remains fully immersed in the joke. This is arguably the biggest 'sink or swim' factor that will determine how you feel about this movie. Yes, more than the crude subject matter, if you can ride with the entire conceit that all of the vulgarity and dark comedy of the soul is being acted out by puppets with decidedly much more human perversions and substance abuse problems, then you're already halfway there on whether or not this movie will work for you.

Yep...war is Hell like that...

This is a tough film to really give a completely solid read on for everyone. Personally, as said above, I think it's funny as Hell. It's incredibly crude, completely out of its mind, almost daring itself to come up with newer and more disturbing ways to top itself in terms of shock value, and this is one of those rare occasions where that actually works in its favor. If you're not sure if you can ride with that level of crudeness or puppets, and if you find yourself easily quote the late Alec Guinness: "Watch your step. This place can be a little rough." If you think you're up for the challenge though, then by all means, get yourself a seat for the greatest (and last) performance of the Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour. A task much easier to do now than it used to be, I might add (for a long time, this movie wasn't available in the US, though that has since been changed in recent years.) Oh, and a friendly warning to those of you in the first few rows - you will get wet, and all the necessary booster shots will be available in the lobby for after.

Well, this marks the end of the first part of this week's...I guess you could call them theme posts. The next will take less time, in part cause that's already been half-written out for a while before this. It's more now's been a good excuse to unleash it.

Till then!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

MST3k Month The Final: Conclusions/On Riffing

Well, it's been a fun month here. I got to celebrate 25 years of one of the most fun cult TV series out there. Sure, there were points that hurt - it's amazing how much the riffing numbs the pain of seeing Joe Don Baker have sex - but in general, this was a really enjoyable retrospective for me.

It was really appropriate that I started this month off with catching one of the final shows of Cinematic Titanic's tour. For those who don't know, Cinematic Titanic is one of the two offshoots through which the cast and crew of MST3k continued to do what they do best. Where RiffTrax includes Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, Cinematic Titanic is/was the team of Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, and Josh Weinstein. While RT has the bigger national coverage, part of the tradeoff is that CT is more of a live venue experience. By this, I mean they will actually tour to different theaters, screen the film there, and do the riffs in front of the audience. The reason this was their final tour, and a side effect of the nature of their show, is that it was getting harder for everyone to keep the schedules lined up. Suffice it to say, I was really glad to get the chance to see them before they went (they may come back at some point, but for now, they're treating this as a farewell tour.) It was a very pleasant surprise to see how gentle time has been to everyone - both in terms of the fact they've physically aged well, but also in the fact they're still as entertaining as they were back when the show was on the air. Sure, we had a couple of minor callbacks to the heyday (Joel's bringing back "It stinks!" from Pod People was a nice surprise) but mostly, this was new material that showed they still had it after all this time. It was a great night seeing a team of consummate showmen (OK, more accurately four showmen and a that the term?) in the element where they operate best.

Why am I bringing this up?

Two reasons - the first, the above mentioned conclusions. Between this and the Rifftrax Live performances have seen (care of the simulcasts, admittedly) it's pleasantly surprising to see how everyone from the show's core cast and writers are still at it, even with the show over. They've found new ways to expand on the ideas beyond what they could do in the show format, and still kept the same magic that made the show great coming even nowadays. It makes a very encouraging sight to see all the old cast and crew aren't content to simply rest on the laurels, but rather keep working at what they started with the show 25 years ago.

The second leads to an interesting discussion point I had come to mind during this month. Now, as a general rule, when I watch a film for a writeup, I also make it a point to research what other information I can about it. You know, production history, odd bits of trivia, etc. The kind of stuff which, while it doesn't change how you watch a film, does make for some interesting things to keep in mind regarding certain aspects of it. Naturally, IMDb tends to be a good jumping off point in this regard. This then lead to an odd sidestop while I was looking up information regarding Danger: Diabolik.

I know that, as a general rule, IMDb comments are akin to YouTube comments with the text limiter turned off. That, as a general rule, they're one of those boards where the comments are best ignored, because there is always ALWAYS going to be that one case that leads you to walk away going "No. Really. What the HELL?" In this wasn't really one case. Rather, it was an entire five page debate raging starting from someone's anger that the folks at Best Brains would riff Diabolik as a movie. They saw this as a great personal insult, suggesting that the entire purpose of it was simply to tear down a movie out of some misguided spite - all while either failing to realize, or appreciate, the fact that they were doing the very same thing to the folks of MST3k. But then, the Internet isn't exactly great at the whole self-awareness thing.

Anyway, reading the comments, I was rather struck by the incredibly knee-jerk reaction this seemed to generate. For one thing, a lot of the flak was directed at Michael Nelson, which I found a bit odd, since they seemed to believe he was the showrunner- He wasn't. Even when he took over as host, Jim Mallon was still a big part of the show's controlling process. Further, they seemed to believe Nelson was doing this out of some spite towards Diabolik. This in particular told me they hadn't actually watched the show: if there's one thing about the later seasons I've noticed more on rewatching, it's that when they hate a movie, and I mean REALLY hate a movie, it shows. Yeah, they'll mock a lot in films in general, but certain films - Hobgoblins and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank are two great examples - the writers and riffers really, really, REALLY don't mask their hatred towards when they think they're bad enough. Their riffing of Diabolik was a number of things, but spiteful wasn't one of them.

If anything, the assumption that the show was simply picking on low-budget movies, at least to me, really showed me that those leveling the charge had never watched the show. Especially the earlier seasons, which were in large part carried by the cast and crew's love for the more bizarre of old films. They riffed on these movies because they enjoyed doing so. Yeah, not every movie was particularly loved (Manos, Monster a-Go-Go, Radar Secret Service, for a few examples) but several of the movies they riffed they actually admitted to liking (Gamera, The Magic Sword, and I Accuse My Parents are all examples there.)

The big crux of the problem in this debate seemed to be the idea that riffing is only done out of hate or insolence. That people only riff to denigrate and tear down a movie, and that films don't deserve such treatment. Personally, I disagree. Yes, there are certain films that don't lend themselves particularly well to riffing (if you can riff something like 12 Years a Slave or Schindler's List, you either have astonishing fortitude, or you might be a sociopath. That's for you to decide) but the fact is, there are a lot of good movies that can be riffed. Hell, I'll be the first to admit there are many movies I enjoy that are quite riffable (for some examples: Akira, The Warriors, the Evil Dead trilogy, the films of John Carpenter, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the Star Wars trilogy...I could keep get my point.) The thing is, I don't see this as hurting the film, as some of these people seem to do (incidentally, one would think if you have the necessary sense of humor/levity to appreciate a 60s spy/theft film like Diabolik, you would be willing to acknowledge it's got a fair number of things in it you can joke about.) For me, it becomes more of a matter of, for lack of a better term, interactivity. It's a means by which one can enjoy a film experience in a way beyond just watching it, and in particular, enjoy it with other people. I'm not gonna try and say it's something everyone should do, it's entirely a matter of preference, naturally, but if you're in a group where everyone's on board with it, I don't see any reason not to. Being riffable does not make a movie bad. It means there's things in it that one could find humor in. Granted, on occasions, it can be used as a means to cope with a film you think is bad, but the act itself doesn't automatically make the movie bad.
It's akin to joking between friends. Yeah, you sometimes let some barbs fly you wouldn't say to a total stranger, but that context, they slide as just good natured joking around. It's the same thing here - if it's done in just casual joking, it's just that - it's not a desire to tear the film down to its foundations and salt the Earth in and of itself. It's just a sign of a more relaxed movie watching experience.

It's strangely appropriate that I find myself remembering the show's opening in my response to the people who are taking the idea of riffing as this great personal insult. I'm paraphrasing, but in the case of the manner of films that tended to grace the screens of MST3k:

Just repeat to yourself 'it's just a film, I should really just relax.'

Fade out. The audience goes fucking apeshit.

...oh damn. You guys are still here.

Well, thanks for sticking with me on this one. It's been a pretty interesting experiment for a month.

Got some promising possible ideas lined up for December. So we'll see what comes of those within the next few weeks.

Till then!

Friday, November 29, 2013

MST3k Month: Who Riffs Short Shorts?

MST3k Month: Who Riffs Short Shorts?

I will admit this was first inspired by the realization I had two extra days left to this month after all of the other planning. It dawned on me - several of the shorts featured on the show have become pretty famous in their own right, some even surpassing the movies they were attached to.

So, in coming up with ideas, I thought it could be fun to put together a list of five favorite MST3k shorts. What started as a pretty callous move for filler actually turned into a fun little piece to help wrap up the month in.

In further maintaining the brevity, I decided to have all five shorts fight it out to to the death to see who would get their picture featured. Coily put up a good fight, but underneath Mr. B's powder blue tunic beats the blackened, twisted heart of a killer.
Don't let that smile fool you otherwise.
Plus, I was up working the retail side of Black Friday this morning, who the Hell are you to judge me?!

...OK, got a little off course there.

As with the Mike & Joel lists, these will be posted in chronological order:

-Mr. B. Natural

Arguably the single most famous of the MST3k shorts, and for good reason - it's another case of when the show hits that great balance between a laughably ridiculous source and some brilliant riffs to play off it. In this case, care of a short put together by the well-intentioned people at C.G. Conn instruments. Wanting to make music appealing to kids (and, ya know, their instruments) they picked that time-honored marketing trick - the sexually ambiguous personification of what you want to sell. This time showing up to visit/guide/torment dumpy high school teenager Buzz. The entire premise lends itself to a lot of angles for Joel and the Bots (after Mr. B informs young Buzz that he awakened...let's go with him...Servo immediately responds "So I'm attracted to guys now?") Surprisingly, even with the bald-faced instrument hocking, they don't hit this angle up too much (the prize here being - Mr. B: "Well, sir--" Servo: "We duped 'em!") It's one of the most awkward and misfired attempts at turning kids on to music this side of Kidz Bop, albeit here being more mercifully short and considerably less tone-deaf. In short, it's just the right mix of unintentionally inept and 'pants full of unspeakable' madness that makes for great riffing.

-Circus On Ice

This short came at the front of the pretty infamous Monster a-Go-Go, which is an episode I tend to feel very mixed on overall. It has a few decent riffs, but the movie itself is just such a completely aimless, meandering mess that even Joel and the bots can only keep it afloat for just so long.  Fortunately, this episode DID have this short attached to the front of it, which does make it somewhat more watchable. Further proving their ability to take almost everything Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank could throw at them, this saw Joel and the bots taking on a somewhat bizarre ice skating gala. Besides playing on he sheer number of ways ice skating in and of itself could go wrong ("Vomit sprays out in a beautiful technicolor dream!") this is a show with some downright bizarre acts in it. Between humans acting as beasts of burden ("Yes, it's dehumanized objectified circus on ice!") and a group of soldiers 'bravely' wiping out the last dragon in existence (the short's words, not mine) the guys get a lot to work with. But the prize-winner here goes to one skit involving a deer being hunted and killed. This is the kind of act that smacks of performance art and interpretive dance gone hideously awry, and Joel and the bots have a field day playing up just how wrong it gets ("Oh mom! I don't wanna watch the circus on ice anymore--" "Shut up and watch the deer get slaughtered!") It's one of those acts that time has just allowed us to appreciate the weirder elements of THAT much more, and the riffs making the weirdness even more enjoyable.

-Hired! (duology)

OK, so technically I'm cheating here. Watch me not care. This one's worth it. A short split over two episodes on the importance of the importance of how to properly sell a car - we start the first half off with salesman Jimmy, who is something of a pushover. One can't really blame Joel and the bots for unloading on Jimmy - he is a TERRIBLE salesman (when asked to compare his car to competition, he replies "I don't know about those things, I just know Chevrolet is better." ... Yeah...) If anything, they also do the guy a favor by playing him up with a fake criminal record ("AKA 'The Pantsless Salesman'?! or 'The Piddling Peddler?!'" Of course, the verbal abuse of his pathetic marketing is but a prelude to the craziness to come, when Jimmy's beleaguered manager decides to complain about the failings of his salesman. Dear old Dad suggests he may not be entirely devoid of blame either - which is a good point, and valid...if only it came from someone who didn't seem to be completely insane. The boss's father's behavior is the strongest source of humor for the riffs in this movie - between his swatting at unseen insects ("Gah! Flying elves are back!") and randomly putting a napkin on his head, the man completely steals the thunder on the rest of the short. The fact that Joel and the bots still make the rest as funny as that segment further speaks to the writers skills with riffing.

-Why Study Industrial Arts?

"You know, it's fun to have an idea." "There. Wasn't it fun?"
This line really helps set the tone for the at times bland, at times outright creepy film strip about...well...exactly what it says. Attached to the infamous movie The Skydivers, this short espoused the value of taking shop classes in high school.
...OK, virtues isn't necessarily the best term. Anyway, Mike and the bots got some fun material out of this one: much of the later half, which, in true educational film fashion, amounts to "and we owe it all to..." tries to really play up the importance of shop class to a growing young man's future, while the 50s aesthetic of the film leads to an extra surplus of communism jokes. Though probably the biggest laugh of this comes care of Mike and the bots taking on the start of the film strip. As the somewhat awkwardly voiced narrator describes the joy he gets from shop tools, Mike and the others sense his disturbing affinity for tools in true serial murder fashion. This leads to, at least for me, one of the biggest laughs of the short, as all three riffers take turns spinning a disturbing/fetishistic take on the narrator's unusual reverence for his shop tools. It's one of those nice reminders there, as humor styles go, the folk at Best Brains can handle dark quite well when the need calls for it.

-A Case of Spring Fever

This is the last short the show ever had, and from the second to last episode of the show's run. This holds a curious spot among the MST3k shorts in part because they'd been making jokes about this one even back during the Joel years, but it took them almost until the very end to finally feature the short. It's even more a surprise it took them this long to bring this episode into the crosshairs when one sees its concept: a doughy man, frustrated with his couch, decides to cuss out the springs, hoping to never see another again. Enter one of the most bizarre of cosmic entities to hear his complaint, and, well, as Mike puts it best: "So one clod says something and the whole world pays?" Follow this up with Coily, the aforementioned imp making it a point to repeatedly torment the doughy man, and Mike and the bots have a great springboard to play off of. Even after Coily eases off, and Doughy McPastyjowls becomes the poster child for spring advocacy to the point of exasperation, Mike and the bots mine new ground in both his zeal and his friends' annoyance.
It's an incredibly warped spin on the old educational film trope of "You'll learn to respect this thing if it just vanishes from existence!" and it made a great piece to help send the show off with.

One more piece to go tomorrow. This month's been a lot of fun, and it's gonna be a bit of a shame to see it end, but all good things must do so.

Plus, it's not like I won't have other things to write on soon enough as it is.

Join me tomorrow for the final chapter of this 25th anniversary celebration.

Till then!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

MST3k Month: Arbitrary Listing Time - Mike Edition

First off, a happy Thanksgiving/Turkey Day to all the readers out there who celebrate it. Hope you guys have/had a good one (depending when you read this.)

Second, as promised, we now move into the second half of the show's run. After Hodgson had to leave the series, they found themselves in need of a new host. The job, as was set up by the end of Mitchell went to Michael J. Nelson as Mike Nelson. The humor remained largely the same (though some films definitely took a bit more of a beating in the later years) with the biggest change actually going to the dynamic with the bots. Where Joel was more of a father figure to them, for both their good and bad times, Mike is on more equal footing with the bots. As a result of that, he was pretty often made the butt of their jokes - though he got to dish some out from time to time as well. The changes in formula were minor, but enough that they have helped fuel the Joel vs Mike debates that have been a regular part of the MST3k fandom.

For my vote, it's a hard sell. Both are great, but with the strengths in different areas, so the comparison really becomes a matter of more which qualities does one want more in their episodes.

But I digress. You guys came here today for Mike episodes, so let's discuss some Mike.

...OK, Palance's outfit really doesn't even need a quote here.


I found out about this episode somewhat by accident years ago. Around the time I first really became aware of how easy/active/technically legit it was for people to stream episodes of the series online (I say technically since, while the people at Best Brains are OK with it, occasionally the rights holders on the original movies will step in) I would sometimes hunt blocks of episodes on a theme. This one, I found while going through some of the show's more fantasy oriented episodes. Without knowing exactly what it was about when it started, I could tell I was already in for some insanity as soon as I realized this was based off the infamous Gor books (once I got past the shock of realizing someone DID adapt those stories to film.) The movie really was perfect as an episode for riffing fuel - cheezy dialogue, wonderfully bad acting (the actor playing Marlenas in particular is unintentionally funny even before riffing), and a setting with a high, if somewhat creepy, level of cheesecake exploitation going for it. Of course, given the source, that was to be expected (once I heard the name to connect it, there was a moment of "...welp, they have their work cut out for them on this one.") The pinnacle of their riffing on the film's setting being during one of the skits, when they give us the now famous 'Tubular Boobular,' which pretty well sums up the movie's penchant for skin to a T. All this AND they get to work on their Jack Palance imitations to boot, care of his appearance as the oddly dressed high-priest Xeno. Like Mitchell before it, this is one of those films that just keeps digging itself deeper for Mike and the bots to work with, especially right at the start with things like the irritatingly wormy Watney Smith, and our film's hero, Cabot - who the movie's writers seem to fear you will forget, as his name is repeated early and often. Really, if you haven't checked this one out yet, it's worth giving a watch. Especially now, as it debuted in part of the show's Turkey Day block years ago.
Also, again, if Shout Factory's listening, an official release on this episode WOULD be greatly appreciated.

-Favorite Riff -
Crow: "You know, you can watch the outtakes for this movie."
Mike: "Oh, you mean in one of those World's Wackiest Bloopers shows?"
Crow: "No, Faces of Death."

-Favorite Skit - Even outside of the movie, Mike and the bots get a chance to further play with their Jack Palance imitations care of the fake autobiography Palance on Palance: Believe It Or Not. The imitations alone are pretty priceless. The progressively darker entries while making Outlaw just make it THAT much better. Without giving too much away, I'll just say a particular source of laughter in this bit for me is the gleeful emphasis Mike puts into the line "Spent entire paycheck on bunch of crack!" while still in the Palance voice. It's another great example of how delivery can make a line arguably more than the line itself sometimes.

and so on, and so forth...

-Space Mutiny

Another that went on to become a fan favorite and a classic. For very good reasons too, I might add. As low budget sci-fi goes, this DOES have a lot in it to make fun of. Not even just in the slipshod production, either. Most of the cast put themselves pretty firmly in the crosshairs on many occasions. In particular, Reb Brown has earned himself a place of honor in the MST3k rolls for the laundry list of nicknames his David Ryder receives over the course of the movie, including but definitely not limited to: Big McLargehuge, Slab Bulkhead, Punt Speedchunk, and Fist Rockbone. Surprisingly, they pass up the temptation to comment on the film's rather blatant recycling of effects from Battlestar Galactica, though they make up for that by poking fun at the film's overtly 80s aesthetic and soundtrack. This element in particular leads to an enjoyably twisted end credits sequence, where a song "with music rejected by the band Survivor" serves as a springboard for Servo and Crow to belittle Mike for being part of the 80s and, subsequently, blame him for this movie. Said berating ultimately culminating in a bizarrely thought out, and quite strongly visualized sequence of the sort of loser Mike would have been back in the day, all capped off with Crow's "You and your 80s. Your precious 80s!" This is one of those it feels odd to try and sell people on, as it's such a well known and well liked episode already. Like so many of their other greats, it's one where the writers take a lot of what could have simply been easy targets and still make it a point to put in the extra effort on the payoff. The result leads to a LOT of great riffs and yes, one of the best episodes in the show's run.

-Favorite Riff -
(As Brown starts a fire that kills off James Ryan's villain with a limp)
Mike: "Our brave hero roasts the disabled man!"

-Favorite Skit - Servo and Crow decide to do the movie one better with their own dogfight...using the Satellite's only remaining escape shuttles. Suffice it to say, the shuttles don't survive.

"Could you put my hair out?"

-The Final Sacrifice

Another where it feels weird to sell this simply because it's such a well known movie. As the so-named 'worst thing to come out of Canada', this is another where the writers had a lot to work with material wise, and thankfully were neither overwhelmed or taking the easy way out. The cast in particular gave them a LOT to work with here - between the ski mask wearing cultists, the almost cartoony Pipper, and the bizarre hero combination of Troy and Rowsdower, a lot of this movie's riffs really work best at the cast's expense. In particular, once the cast learn the name Rowsdower - he becomes almost as much of a punchline by name as the many pseudonyms of David Ryder before him. On top of this, the movie just further fuels the show's penchant for cracking on Canada to boot, so there's a string of that along with it - leading to a priceless sketch along the way. It does also help that this is considered, as movies featured on MST3k go, one of their more watchable films. Yeah, it's low budget and many of its concepts are rather ridiculous, but, like I said before, it still manages to work despite them. As a result, having the show riffing it in top form just takes an already pretty fun bad movie and makes it THAT much better as a result. If you haven't seen this one yet, fix that. Now. Yes, now. Go on. This article will be here when you get back.
...oh, and be sure to vaccinate for hockey hair before you go in. Trust me. You'll thank me later.

-Favorite riff -
Pipper: "Troy McGregor? Thomas's son?"
Troy: "You knew my father?"
Crow: "Knew him? He was delicious!"

-Favorite skit - Servo's attempt to defend Canada from Mike and Crow's abuse. It backfires in a BIG way, as Servo then delivers an exceedingly violent screed against Canada, crossing the line even for Mike and Crow. Mike calls for hate in moderation, as a weeping Servo apologizes in French, which is a sight all on its own that words can't properly sell the humor on.

(Insert Kevin Murphy's groaning sound here. Cause it really is one of the other great laughs in this movie.)

-Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders

As fun facts go, this was technically the last episode of the series ever shown, but not the show's finale. This is thanks to the fact that the episode itself was lost for a time (almost got stolen, actually.) By the time it was recovered, the show had ended its run proper, and this was instead aired as The Lost Episode.
I can only imagine what the writers on the show were thinking when they got this movie to work with, cause this is a genuinely bizarre feature even by the MST3k standard. This is thanks in no small part to director Kenneth J. Berton apparently deciding to take an earlier movie of his, a horror movie called The Devil's Gift, and graft a whole new piece of movie on it to sell as a family picture.
Yep, you read that right. This guy decided to repackage a horror movie as family fare. But it gets better - rather than simply have to deal with an awkward second half, Berton still leaves a fair amount of grim material in the first as well (including burning a cat alive and a man getting clawed up pretty badly, both played with a fairly straight face.) All this while framed around the idea that these two pieces of awkwardly stitched narrative are being told by grandpa Ernest Borgnine to his kid, who makes a strong bid for one of the worst child actors out there.
Suffice it to say, that premise alone inspires a fair number of choice zingers. Each new horror is accented with a Borgnine voiced grandfather, as the speaker for each is clearly relishing the joke while one of the other two accompanies as his weeping, traumatized grandson. It's a wonderfully sick running gag that perfectly encapsulates the insanity of this movie. Of course, even beyond its exceedingly dark side, they get a lot to play with in things like Merlin's odd performance and dialogue (and the fact no one seems to mind his 'wizard' look in this day and age,) a smug jackass of a reviewer in the first story that inspires a LOT of material, and the screamingly dated aesthetic of the second story, which was clearly made the better part of a decade earlier. It's an incredibly bizarre experiment of a movie with crazy that can be, and is, played for some great laughs. I'm really glad this episode wasn't lost to the ages, cause seeing this one for the first time years ago on Sci-Fi (back when it was still called that) it won me over right away with just how gleefully sick the humor on this one got.
...God, what does that say about me?

-Favorite Riff - Tom (as Merlin): "Remember to believe in magic - or I'll kill you!" - again, perfectly encapsulating this movie and everything bizarre about it.

-Favorite skit - There's a great spread on this one, but I have to give this to Mike ordering the Ernest Borgnine collection of children's books. The macabre escalation playing off the movie's dark side is another case of the show having a good sense of comic buildup. Probably one of the best parts of this is how they don't even go into the full horror of Fuzzy Bunny's New Blue Suit. Mike recoils, and the only clue we get is Crow's horrified "OH GOD! THEY'RE EATING HIS LIVER!" Only for the actual punchline of the skit to come in the wrong-footing as Mike and the bots are surprised to find out how strangely tasteful and happy
Dr. Blood's Orgy of Gore is as children's fare.
Would Borgnine's estate sign off on having his name attached if someone were to write these books now? Cause I'd buy them.

"GERONIMO--I mean, ME!"

-Final Justice

There's a right way and a wrong way to handle being riffed. Joe Don Baker will always remain the gold standard in how to do it the wrong way. His infamous beef with the show's writers over Mitchell has become the stuff of legend, to the point where Hodgson has admitted he's not entirely clear on the full details of it any more. So, when the time came in the show's final season to riff on another Joe Don Baker film, the writers at Best Brains opted to cry mockery and let slip the dogs of insolence. The result was simultaneously brutal and hilarious. This time around, Baker traded his would-be detective for a cowboy...which, admittedly, he passes for a BIT more easily, but not by much (as Crow coins it mockingly "Mom made me a real cowboy outfit!") Of course, where Mitchell was largely just inept in his detective skills, this movie's Geronimo (yes, he claims to be part Indian) is outright destructive. I'm not sure what inspired someone to keep casting Baker as renegade heroes, because he really just comes across as a jerk when does it. Which makes the admittedly somewhat mean-spirited riffing on this one feel less dickish, and more like fighting fire with fire. Incredibly hilarious fire. Even outside of the many barrages at Baker, the rest of the movie doesn't fare much better - especially thanks to its location filming in Malta. The carnival scene in particular inspires a lot of great bits (probably one of the highlights being Crow's response to an eery clown float: "SEE YOU IN YOUR NIGHTMARES!") I'm not sure if this ever escalated the Baker feud, but even if it did, it was worth it. Even among a mostly strong final season (...OK, there WAS Hamlet, but otherwise) this stands out as one of the greats.

-Favorite Riff - I have to give this to the alternate lyrics Crow and Servo give to the end credits song. Yeah, it's another long game one, but what can I say? It IS pure gold.

If I had to pick a runner-up...I think I'd have to give this to a nice bit of simplicity - Crow's reaction to seeing Baker's name in the credits:
"Oh, how I wish I was illiterate so I didn't have to read that."

-Favorite Skit - Crow's report on Malta. Well, more accurately his report that veers into a ridiculous and comic tirade against Maltese men. It's an incredibly random malfunction for a robot to have - but this IS Crow we're talking about, so it works well. Another great case of the show's writers having a good sense of comedic escalation, added to by Bill Corbett's building rage as he reads the report. The things the bots come to love and hate have always been kind of bizarre (though fun), but this is still among their finest moments in odd hangups.

Wow. Got this one done early (hey, it IS a holiday. Plus, the Turkey Day marathon is running now.)

Two days left to go, with writeups for each.
This part of the month is really a nice relaxer.

Till tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

MST3k Month: Arbitrary Listing Time - Joel Edition

With 25 movies done, I realized I still had a few days left till the end of the month. Not wanting them to just go to waste, I decided to try and take on one of the all-time great questions any MST3k fan gets to contend with - picking favorites.

Which should be easy...but damn, the show has a LOT of good moments. It's almost easier to put together a list of the weak episodes in the long run.
Still, I made a go of at least putting together a decent list of five favorites from each of the two 'eras.' Plus, for the Hell of it, five favorites from the shorts, which have become almost a category unto themselves.

All this culminating in one last review at the end of the month.

Oh, and as you can imagine, these aren't going to be quite as thorough as the 25 writeups were. One part cause the format itself isn't really about deep review (hey, they even say this within the show's main theme!) and one part because with Thanksgiving coming up, these are my designated 'ease off' write-ups.

Also, rather than attempt to rank these any more than they already are, I'll just be listing them in chronological order. So understand, where a film falls on this list is not a matter of ranking. know, given the nature of this show, adding extra captions feels futile. So in these moments, will be using a suitable riff from the episode from here on out.
...what? Can't I at least take that time off here?


The entire Gamera series are regarded as classic episodes, and for good reason. The material is both pretty fun on its own while also giving Joel and the bots a lot of material to riff (with some extra assistance care of the dubbing by Sandy Frank. For another good example fun at SF's expense, look up the Fugitive Alien episodes.) The first is no exception to that rule. While I enjoy the VS episodes, there is something about this one that just nudges it above the later endeavors. I think it's how Joel and the bots handle the concept of (as they would later coin the character type) the 'monster' child in this movie. With Gamera not having any monster to fight, young Kenny's affinity for him just comes across as a mix of a nuisance and downright creepy, leading to a LOT of great riffs about his behavior. These range from simply depicting Kenny as a jerk ("Let's see. What can I ruin next?") to setting him up as akin to an occult acolyte to the big turtle ("Gamera demands your immediate death!") The other sources of jokes in the episode are also quite good (things like Joel's mockery of one of the film's character's dub voices that leads the bots to threaten him after a while,) but I think it's the sheer extent they take the riffing on Kenny that really helps send this one into the top for me. It's a concept that's odd enough on its own, but doesn't look as bad when there's another monster to be the bad guy. Here, Kenny has no fallback for his idol to look good next to, so Joel and the bots are free to unload on the kid with relative impunity, and they do so with great results.

Favorite Riff - As part of the more demonically skewed riffs about Kenny:
Child (in film, referring to stones stolen from Kenny) "It's just...I threw them away. Into the river."
(Shocked look by Kenny)
Joel: (as Kenny) "DIE! DIE! DIE!"
(Crow and Servo start chanting a la The Omen)

Favorite Skit - Joel tries to ascertain the nature of Crow and Servo's hatred for young Kenny. Probably one of the best parts going to Crow's delivery on "Now when I see Kenny, I wanna give him a big snuggly huggly! ... and then squeeze him. and squeeze. AND SQUEEZE!" The gleeful malice Trace Beaulieu puts into the line as it moves on being a big part of where the humor from it comes in.

"Heeeere comes the Devil!"

-The Day the Earth Froze

The first of the now famous Russo-Finnish quadrilogy (you know, this set would be a nice follow up to the Gamera pack in the event anyone at Shout Factory is listening,) and still the most enjoyable to me. It's a good mix of the movie itself running at a nice lively pace, and the riffs likewise keeping in top form.
With a short on the circus, where Joel tries in vain to keep the bots from skewing the humor to the dark side, this episode is already off to a strong start. Then the movie itself kicks in, and this is another that lends itself quite well to the riffing. From a start which allows them to get a lot of the Finnish gags out of their system early, we get thrown into this bizarre but kind of endearing adaptation of The Kalevala. Once the story itself properly gets going, some of the best laughs of the film largely go to the movie's antagonist: the witch Louhi. Well, that and her fixation on the elusive Sampo, a magical device the movie is kind of vague on (the opening narration explains it, but the riffs override that,) leaving Joel and the bots to mull it over, and get a nice new running joke out of it in episodes to come.
It really makes me happy to learn this was one of the films picked for the 25th Anniversary release, cause it has held up very well among their greats.

Favorite Riff - The 'Total Failure' song. Easily.

Favorite Skit - Crow and Servo, inspired by the short, decide to pitch their own circus. Despite Joel's admonishing them otherwise, it inevitably turns into 'a dark carnival of the soul.'

"It's the latest chapter in the Taster's Choice saga!"

-Manos: the Hands of Fate

Yep. The classic. One of the most infamous movies they ever ran, and subsequently one of their funniest episodes. It really speaks to the abilities of the writers on this show that they could take a movie as rambling and bizarre as Manos and still get a lot of great riffs out of this. Alongside the added joke of the idea that this was the movie that made Dr. Forrester and Frank suspect they went too far (I'm gonna have to disagree, that line was crossed with Monster a-Go Go,) they just find a lot of great material to work with in this. From the wide array of gags about the Master's brides and the seeming obliviousness of the main family to the veritable fountain of humor that is Torgo, the reason this episode is on the list almost explains itself. It really is some of the best talent of the show in top form, trying to wrap their minds around a movie that, to this day, they still feel somewhat perplexed by.
Also, as a nice bonus, the movie is preceded by the conclusion to the priceless short Hired, giving us gems like "Gah! Flying elves are back!" and "I'm beginning to sober up and you're scaring me!"

Favorite Riff - Servo's entire mid-western monologue during one of the movie's last prolonged pieces of location porn. I'm not sure how much of that was written in advance and how much of that was improvised in recording by Kevin Murphy, but it is arguably among his best moments in the show's run - and for how long he worked there, that is pretty high praise.

Favorite Skit - This one's a tough choice, but I think I'm gonna have to give this to the group's roadtrip skit using footage from Manos. The traumatic breakdown from Crow and Servo that ensues while reminding them of the movie is priceless, culminating in a sad/funny "Oh, Daddy!" as the bots break down sobbing to Joel.

"They all laughed when I accused my parents and I kiiiillled theeeem
Let's see if they'll be laughing noooooooow!"

-I Accuse My Parents

This is another one of those movies where Joel and the bots take an outlandish concept pitched by the movie and run it all the way to the proverbial goal posts. I mean, yeah, like I said before, the movie is already pretty inadvertently funny on its own anyway. Leave it to them to not sit back and let their jobs be done for them, the writers took the ridiculousness into some other wonderfully bizarre areas. Things like a recurrent 'nagging guilt' voice whenever Jimmy lies, as well as one-upping him with their own ridiculous versions of Jimmy's lies, and their having a field day with Jimmy's parents and their hard-drinking circle of friends are but a few of the topics that get stoked for humor here with great results. Further adding to the fun, they start the episode off with an educational short on truck-farming, of all things, and get some great quotables out of it ("Praise the truck farmer! Worship him at the altar of your choice!")
Combining this movie with MST3k is like an insanity Reese's. Two great things that taste great together.

Favorite Riff - I can't not laugh when Joel and the bots roll out their "LIAR! LIAR! LIAR! *ZING*" to accompany each of Jimmy's latest exaggerations. The delivery is what really sells the joke.

Favorite Skit - Joel and the bots trying to get to the root of what makes Jimmy lie. Between the sheer ridiculousness of sources chosen ('bad haircut' for one) and the highly cluttered visual aid they roll out with all of their connection points, the result is pure gold.

"Our hero, ladies and gentlemen..."


My, my, my, my Mitchell. This is one of the single best examples I can give of someone going out on a high note. This marking Joel's final episode on the show, it was only fitting they have a suitably awful movie to send him off with. Fortunately, this one was as riffable as it was awful. The entire idea of Joe Don Baker as a detective alone was enough to give Joel and the bots plenty of ammo to run with (see their own lyrics added to one of the movie's instrumental tracks for a great example.) Paired up with some laughably Italian stereotypes, John Saxon literally escaping the movie in an edit, and the movie's now infamous love scene ("Oh, how I long for The Burning Bed right now!") this was the movie that just kept giving. At the end, it's a little sad to see Joel go (though considering the reason in-show for leaving, it beats the alternative...and even out of show, I respect the decision) but it's at least nice to see he left us in top form with a movie that they played for a LOT of great quotables and laughs.

Also, I have to admit, rewatching this, I really like how they closed off the episode with just enough of a sign the show would continue (the last words being Dr. Forrester asking future host Mike Nelson "What size jumpsuit do you wear?") It's a fairly minor part of the episode, but it really was just the perfect note to close it on, and a nice bit of lightness after the surprisingly emotional send-off for Joel.

and oh yes, this is the episode that inspired the much talked about and somewhat infamous grudge on the behalf of Baker towards the cast and crew at Best Brains.
Which did wonders for turning their barbs away... ...until the tenth season brought us Final Justice, anyway.

Favorite Riff - Picking a favorite for this episode is, to be honest, REALLY hard. There's a lot of great ones, but one that stands out above the rest is tricky.
Though if there's any one I think I've quoted more than any others, I think it goes to Joel and the bots adding lyrics to a fight scene in the movie:
Mitchell! (Ryyyyyyyye on the sandwich!)
Mitchell! (Heart pounding!)
Mitchell! (Veins clogging!)"

As just a sample, anyway.

Favorite Skit - This was one of those surprising ones, given the skits on this episode are definitely more story-driven than a lot of the other episodes, with this being Joel's last. That said, I have to give this skit pick to the first ad break, when Gypsy learns of Dr. Forrester and Frank's plan to kill Joel. Besides the 2001 reference, the deliberately stilted way Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff perform their evil laugh is, strangely enough, one of the funniest things in this episode for me.

That's it for tonight. Swing by tomorrow before the triptophane kicks in for my five favorite Mike episodes.
Also, if you can, see if you can catch the streamed MST3k Turkey Day celebration tomorrow.

Till then!