Welcome, won't you?
Roger Miller croons the same song over and over again in Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Read the review here. Tomorrow we'll finish off the second set of ten with a review for the postapocalyptic dragon flick, Reign of Fire.
Welcome, won't you?
Welcome, won't you?
The review for what should (but won't) be Harrison Ford's last action film has been posted. Tune in tomorrow for more Christmas cheer than you can shake a donkey-beating stick at in Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Welcome, won't you?
What do pacifism and furries have in common? Frankenheimer's deliriously gory Island of Dr. Moreau casts neither in a good light. (Read the review here.) I'm taking a break for the weekend, but I'll be back on Monday with a review for Harrison Ford's latest geriatric action flick.
Welcome, won't you?
From the far-off reaches of Japan comes one director's frightening tale of hairy, purposeless slaughter. Read the review here. Coming tomorrow: Heinous anti-jewelry propaganda in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Welcome, won't you?
As implied by the post title, my review for the pseudo-spiritualist kung fu computer movie The Matrix has been posted. Tune in tomorrow when I review the second most boring SciFi epic ever made.
Welcome, won't you?
A review for the maddeningly hostile Point Break has been posted. (Posted a little later in the day than I would like, but posted nonetheless.) Come back tomorrow for a review of John Carpenter's warning to promiscious teenagers everywhere, Halloween.
Welcome, won't you?
The next ten Rifftrax have been listed here. As noted in that post, I haven't quite reviewed them all yet. Expect comments about the list to be added sometime next week. Tomorrow, however, you can expect a review of Point Break, the surfin' FBI film that everyone seems to like but me.
In other news, I've declared a moratorium on the use of post titles that include the word "update." I thought it was funny originally, but now the joke is all used up.
R009 Point Break
R011 The Matrix
R012 Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
R013 The Grudge
R014 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
R015 The Island of Dr. Moreau
R017 Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
R018 Reign of Fire
Welcome back for Rifftrax's second set of ten. This set rises steeply in overall quality from the first ten, partially because eight of them feature guest riffer Kevin Murphy. While Mr. Murphy's commentary style favors references and rants over punchlines, his manic energy adds a great deal to every track he appears in. His rapport with Rifftrax creator Mike Nelson, doesn't hurt either, as tracks featuring more than one riffer benefit greatly from the interplay between them.
Film selection is another reason this section turned out so well. We all have our own unique cinematic predilictions--i.e. films or kinds of films that most thinking people avoid--and in the first ten, Mike seemed to spend some time puttering around with movies that mostly appealed only to him. (Of course, that could just be my own cinematic predilictions talking. Quite possibly I'm understimating the Rifftrax fan base's hunger for braindead formula pictures from the eighties.) In this section, he goes straight for Hollywood's exposed jugular: the big, loud, CGI-heavy SciFi epic, thus giving his fans a great deal of elegantly crafted eye candy to go with their mockery.
Oddly enough, one of my two favorites from the above list is a stop-motion Christmas cartoon I'd never heard of before (Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey). The other is, of course, Fellowship of the Ring--a really good movie mocked with a great deal of affection by Mike and Kevin. My two least favorite are the ugly, execrable Island of Dr. Moreau and the maddening Point Break.
(2002, SciFi-Postapocalyptic/Horror, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Gentlemen, begin flexing!
In a nutshell:
Filthy survivalists save what’s left of the world from fire-breathing dragons.
A school-uniformed youngster named Quinn breaks safety regulations left and right as he strolls into hardhat-only construction site and descends a shaft to find his civil engineer mother. His bad grades have lost him a scholarship, a source of consternation and potential financial strain to his mom. I was curious why a junior high kid would need a scholarship (last I heard pre-college education was free, even in England) but then a dragon bursts out of a previously undiscovered cavern to kill everyone but Quinn, effectively rendering the scholarship issue moot.
A grim radio and magazine montage chronicles the dragons’ ascent to the position of dominant species on the planet. Now among the last surviving vestiges of humanity, a grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale) has organized a band of grimy survivalists into a castle-dwelling colony somewhere in Northumberland. Against Quinn’s express orders, various colony members go harvesting at the castle’s tomato patch, and are roasted by a marauding dragon. Quinn drinks himself into a morose stupor, underscored by another dismal montage.
Next day, a contingent of American tanks arrive, led by the megalomaniacal Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and a lovely helicopter pilot Alex (Isabella Scorupco). Van Zan asks Quinn to let them in so they can resupply. Quinn doesn’t trust them, but eventually obliges.
All the new folk predictably draw a dragon. Alex’s skydiving helicopter squad attempts to bring it down with a lot of improbable aerial stunts, but fails. Quinn steps up at the last moment to lure it close to Van Zan, who kills it with a giant harpoon. The colonists’ celebration of the dragon’s demise is short-lived, as Van Zan declares that the dragon’s death cost him three men and thus cannot be considered a victory. (Or, words to that effect. What he actually says is, “You all disgust me.”) He accepts volunteers from the colonists to replace them, and then forcibly recruits several others. He savagely beats Quinn when the latter attempts to intervene.
The company drives towards the dragons’ original lair in London, intending to wipe out the draconian scourge once and for all. (The laughable faux-science explanation for this is that they’ve determined there’s only one male dragon in the whole world, and if they kill it the rest of the species will die out.) The male dragon is much larger, fiercer, and more intelligent than its offspring; he fries the whole company rather easily, then backtracks to the castle and flames it as well. Quinn saves most of his colony by hiding them in the castle’s sprinkler-laced catacombs.
Van Zan and Alex are the company’s sole survivors; they return to the castle aboard the helicopter, dispirited at their failure. Their arrival triggers Quinn’s memories of childhood. “I know where he lives,” he declares (meaning the dragon, I assume), and the three of them embark via helicopter to London. They sneak into the shaft from the movie’s beginning (i.e., the male dragon’s lair), hoping to shoot it in the mouth with an incendiary arrow, thus exploding its presumably flammable head. After several setbacks and Van Zan’s self-sacrificing death, Quinn finally succeeds. She-dragons must have really short lifespans, because some months later, the dragon menace has ended.
If you had a choice as an actor, which would you rather be: competent or entertaining? I would have said competent every time, but after watching this steaming pile, I think I may change my mind in certain circumstances.
Of the two leads, Christian Bale is clearly the better actor. He is fiercely defiant but occasionally self-doubting. He feels anguish over the deaths of his friends but works hard with the survivors. Overall, he turns in an art house-worthy performance that is far more nuanced than this dreary, hopeless little B-movie deserves. Which is to say that watching him depressed me.
On the other hand, Matthew McConaughey shoots his performance so far over-the-top it’s a wonder he can even see the rest of the movie below him. He only knows one note and that note is “homicidal cracker,” like Foghorn Leghorn gone psycho. I snickered at him every time he appeared, affording me welcome relief from the rest of the movie’s bland, depressing weight. Thank goodness he was in this turkey, because I don’t think I could have stood to watch it without him.
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy do what they can to lighten the mood for us as well. Upon seeing the tunnel-digging machine’s odd shape, Mike calls it an “overlapping automatic swastika machine,” inspiring Kevin to sing a little jingle for it. When it becomes clear that no one knows how to stop the fire-breathing creatures, Mike suggests, “Why don’t you try ordinary table salt? That seems to work in most B-movies.” During Van Zan’s big entrance, the very first thing he does is flex for the colonists, inspiring Mike to say, “Got any chicks in there that want to scale Mount McConaughey?” For the most part, the movie’s a hopeless gray sludge with dragons, but Mike and Kevin (and McConaughey) salvage it enough to make it worth watching.
(1977, Children-Holiday/Television, color)
Not a lot of historicity to this story, so don’t go combing through Luke looking for it.
In a nutshell:
A talking donkey overcomes his physical defects to assist the Nativity.
Santa’s donkey Spieltoe (Roger Miller) takes a break from the hard work of hauling presents on Christmas Eve to address the audience. A bit of exposition, a bit of folk song, and a bit of stop motion animation later, we dive right into the story of his ancestor, Nestor.
Nestor lives with his mother somewhere in the Roman Empire, where he spends his days tripping over his five-foot-long ears while enduring the derision of his fellow stable-dwellers. The stable keeper (Paul Frees) joins in the ear-based persecution as well, feeding the young donkey with verbal abuse instead of grain. His mother solves the ear problem by folding them up and stuffing them into an old pair of socks.
One winter day, a troop of Roman soldiers break in to demand beasts of burden. The stable keeper sells him a handful of donkeys that includes Nestor. Nestor puts up a fight, and his ear socks come off during the struggle. The Romans punish the keeper for trying to sell them “imperfect misfits” and leave Nestor behind. The keeper blames Nestor for the incident and throws him out into the snow. Nestor’s mother breaks out of her pen to run after him.
Mom digs down into the snow and covers Nestor’s body with hers. The ensuing blizzard freezes her to death, so Nestor carries on alone. That is, until a wide-eyed cherub named Tilly drops from the sky to let him in on his Divine Purpose. There’s a preachy little Roger Miller folk ballad called “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry” as all the woodland creatures heap Nestor with cruel mockery during his subsequent journey. Tilly eventually guides him to a stable within a day’s walk of Bethlehem.
At the stable, Nestor endures even more mockery until Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arrive to seek transportation. Divine Light beams into the stable keeper’s head, forcing him to give them Nestor for free. With Mary on his back, they start off for Bethlehem.
A terrible sandstorm obscures the way, but Nestor’s enormous ears are so sensitive that they can pick up the voice of Tilly, her backup cherub choir, and the ghost of his mother. He wraps his passenger in his ears to keep her warm, carries her through the storm, and drops her off at a stable in Bethlehem. Various sacred events ensue. Nestor returns to his first home, where the formerly abusive keeper and his formerly abusive fellow stable dwellers welcome him with open arms.
Now this is odd—a Christmas television special that does not attempt to address the True Meaning of Christmas. It bothers me, a little, that someone would use an event as sacred as the Nativity as a backdrop for their silly little version of The Ugly Duckling, but they mostly keep their distance from it, and what they do show is treated respectfully, making the end product more baffling than offensive. Guys, your movie doesn’t seem to be about Jesus. So why is He in it?
What it is about is fairly clear. The lesson is stated in song, to wit: “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry.” The derived moral is easy to see as well: Everyone, no matter how freakish, has an important contribution to make. I could raise issues like incongruous darkness of Nestor’s mother’s death. Or maybe I could write about the universally repugnant behavior of the other animals. (Don’t they have other things to do? Is there no four-legged creature in the world with any redeeming qualities?) Or perhaps I could bring up the way the stable keeper and his animals magically learn of Jesus’ birth and Nestor’s role in it, and then convert from the worship of Ceres (or whatever) to Christianity before his arrival at the end. Possibly I could mention that the Hummel-esque Tilly is the creepiest, most demented angel I’ve seen on film since I saw Christopher Walken’s portrayal of the archangel Gabriel...
Or I could just give in and admit that most kids don’t care about plot contrivances and thematic problems so long as there’s a funny donkey with big ears.
This is the shortest Rifftrax commentary thus far, clocking in at just over twenty minutes. Though alone on this track, Mike keeps this one funny by poking holes in the absurd story logic. When the stable keeper blames Nestor for the Roman soldier incident, Mike says, “My life as a disease-ridden stable boy was perfect until you came along!” When Nestor cries over his mother’s frozen corpse, Mike narrates, “Nestor died alone and afraid, carried forth upon great clouds of despair.” When the stable keeper lifts Nestor on his shoulders during the joyous reunion, Mike says, “Guy who beat me and killed my mother, you’re my best friend of all!” The Rifftrax website’s description calls this track “technically G-rated,” a reference to the number of times Mike says the word “ass” instead of “donkey” (it’s a large number), so if you don’t want your kids repeating the word back to you, don’t show it to them. For adults, though, Mike’s send up of a mediocre children’s TV special is nothing short of Christmas magic.
(2006, Crime Drama, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
I hope they show him clean his registry next.
In a nutshell:
High-tech kidnappers force Harrison Ford to rob a bank.
Bank security specialist Jack Stansfield (Harrison Ford) has spent a long, hard day protecting customer accounts from cyber crime when a debt collector arrives to demand payment for ninety-five thousand dollars in gambling debts. Jack has never gambled in his life; he realizes his identity has been compromised and asks his security partner to clear it up. His partner agrees, and then introduces him to a man (Paul Bettany) who offers him a better job somewhere else. Jack says he’ll think about it, bids them both goodbye, and heads home.
He gets into his car to find the job offer man waiting with a gun. His name is Cox, and he wants to go home with Jack. At the house, we see Jack’s wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and their two kids being taken hostage by gun-toting pizza deliverymen. The sinister pizza guys put security cameras all over the house to keep them in. Jack and Cox join them. Jack’s gun is confiscated. Vague demands and specific threats are met with suitably fright-contorted expressions, and everyone goes to bed.
Next day Jack is outfitted with a microphone in his tie and a camera in his pen so that his new masters can keep an eye on him. Several unsuccessful attempts to get help later, Cox appears in the office under the pretense of being a security consultant. He outlines his plan: Jack will siphon ten thousand dollars a piece from the accounts of the bank’s ten thousand most wealthy clients, giving Cox a ransom of a cool one hundred million for Jack’s family. Jack has a number of technical objections, all of which are waved off by Cox. Jack is a security genius, so he will find a way. Cox kills his most inattentive henchman to provide addition incentive.
That night, Jack runs his son’s remote control car to distort the security monitors so that his wife and kids can escape. This almost works—“almost” being the operative word. In retaliation, Cox feeds Jack’s son a peanut-based cookie and then withholds his allergy medication until he’s almost to the point of death. Jack finally agrees to attempt the heist.
The heist in question involves using a fax scanner and an ipod to scan the account numbers off a maintenance screen, and then using that information at a transfer terminal to siphon the accounts. Jack puts the money in another account specified by Cox and voila! The heist is done, and Cox leaves with his money. Jack tries to leave too, to get his family back, but he’s terrible at subterfuge, and his unfriendly new boss has noticed his extremely suspicious behavior. He has to knock his new boss down in the parking lot and drive through a closed gate to get away.
He gets home, but his family isn’t there. One of the henchmen arrives to take Jack to an unspecified location. Jack finally snaps and kills the henchmen with a variety of kitchen appliances. He takes the henchman’s cell phone and leaves to look for help. The first person he runs to is his security partner. He sees Cox shoot the partner dead with Jack’s gun and figures out the rest of the plan. A phony message on the partner’s machine is supposed to make people think the partner was having an affair with Jack’s wife. The police would assume that Jack had killed his partner over the implied indiscretion, stolen the money to pay off the bogus gambling debts, and vanished. The henchman who was at Jack’s house was supposed to help him “disappear.” Jack waits until Cox is gone before he collects the gun and flees.
The next person he runs to is his ex-secretary, Janet. He fired her the day before when Cox thought she was too suspicious, but she softens up when he explains the situation to her. He explains his plan: Apparently, in order to siphon the accounts in question, he used the wire transfer terminal of her admirer, and borrowed that boy’s cell phone to take a picture of the screen. Janet tracks the boy down at a Christian rock concert and steals his phone. Jack uses it to get Cox’s account information. He breaks into an airport branch office of his bank to call Cox while he siphons the money away from his account. They agree to meet the next morning to exchange his family for the money.
Jack hears barking in the background during the call and realizes that Cox has taken the family dog as well. He tracks them using the GPS in the dog’s collar and sees that they’re not heading towards the bank after all. He sends Janice for the cops while he goes after his family. Several shootings, stabbings, and explosions later, Jack’s wife and kids are saved.
While I don’t think anyone will argue if I say that Harrison Ford is past his action star prime, I like his recent spate of “I’ve still got it” roles. Sure, having a sixty-something man married to a forty-something woman with kids in single and low double-digit age groups pushes credibility just a little bit, but I still enjoy his action scenes. He has the “everyman pushed to the brink” routine down pat; when he takes down men twice his size and a third his age, it’s out of desperation. They fall before they’ve had time to react properly, and die with surprised expressions on their faces. I can’t imagine him pulling off this kind of role for much longer though. To be an action star into your seventies you need a Connery-esque lovable irascibility, and I don’t see Ford ever pulling that off.
Of note: there are no firewalls in this movie. Well, I guess that’s not true. The sheer number of computers portrayed and Jack’s cautious approach to online security implies dozens of redundant firewalls, but they never come into play. Firewalls are programs that keep people on other computers out of your computers, and since Jack’s an administrator working within an established network, he probably never even comes into contact with one during the heist itself. On the other hand, it’s a vaguely computer-related word with only two syllables, one of which is “fire.” For a computer-ish suspense thriller, I guess it’s as good a title as any.
Kevin Murphy joins Mike Nelson for this commentary track, and together they spend a great deal of time at the beginning pointing out all the obvious elements that will be important later. At one point Kevin notes, “This movie’s so heavy with foreshadowing, it’s a wonder it doesn’t tip over.” Around that same time, Mike sums up Harrison Ford’s acting style with, “Grumble, whisper, scowl.” Later, Kevin notes the generally hopeless atmosphere at the bank by saying, “Walking is prohibited; everyone must joylessly trudge.” It’s a middle-quality suspense film made goofy by Mike and Kevin’s enumeration of its foibles and flaws, and thus is worthy of your attention.
(1996, Horror/SciFi, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Is it too early to hit Val with a coal shovel?
In a nutshell:
A mad scientist’s creations inevitably turn on him.
Official U.N. Peace Guy Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) has survived a plane crash into the middle of the ocean. When our story begins, he’s trapped on a life raft with two nameless military escort-type guys as they engage in a life-and-death struggle over the last canteen of water. (How trained peacekeepers got desperate to the point of violence before becoming too dehydrated to move is never explained.) Knives are pulled; paddles are wielded; sharks are attracted to the resulting corpses; and sole survivor Edward is left to drift on alone.
He wakes up aboard an Indonesian vessel in the care of trained veterinarian Montgomery (Val Kilmer) who takes Edward along with him to the eponymous Island of Dr. Moreau. A bit of rabbit-killing exposition reveals that Moreau (Marlon Brando) came to the island to continue his animal research away from activist interference. A bit of belly dancing exposition (courtesy of the lovely Aissa, played by Fairuza Balk) reveals that the unseen “island natives” have secrets of their own. Montgomery shows Edward to his room, and then locks him in.
Of course Edward escapes, and, also of course, he stumbles onto the “shocking truth” of Dr. Moreau’s experiments. Basically, the mad doctor has genetically and surgically altered animals to look and behave like people. Much of the film’s middle portion alternates between scenes spent with Moreau himself—a huge, pale man whose remote control can cause all his beast subjects to fall to the ground in pain—and scenes spent with the beast people—the goat-ish Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman), the feline Aissa, and so on.
Another feline mutant breaks the island’s strict vegetarian law by killing one of Montgomery’s rabbits and is executed for his lapse. The unfortunate mutant’s friend Hyena discovers a microchip planted on the bones of the corpse; he discovers that by removing it, he can become immune to Moreau’s pain-inducing remote. He leads a band of revolutionary mutants who break into Moreau’s house to kill and devour their master.
This leads to a breakdown in order among the other beast people, as they all depended on a constant supply of Moreau’s experimental pharmaceuticals to keep them from reverting to their animal natures. The already drug-addled Montgomery slides even further into his narcotic haze; he decides to dress up as a fat, pale, effeminate weirdo, thus imitating Moreau with frightening accuracy. He heads into beast town to throw a rockin’ man-animal rave, which mercifully ends when Hyena et al. arrive to gun him down.
Meanwhile, Edward has been searching among Moreau’s notes to find a way to keep Aissa from turning back into a cat-girl. He discovers that the only way to make her permanently human is to kill himself and strip his body for parts—in fact, he was rescued and brought to the island for that very purpose. Hyena finds them, murders Aissa, and hauls Edward forward for execution. Edward tells him that since they ate the flesh of their god (Moreau) that he and all of his fellow revolutionaries are now gods as well. Hyena becomes jealous of the others, prompting a fight that kills them all.
Later, Edward builds a raft and leaves the island over a heavy-handed montage of Third World violence.
So Moreau’s ultimate goal is to turn animals into people? I don’t really see that as helpful or necessary, especially when you consider that a) animals in their natural states are essential to the planet’s ecosystem and b) real humans are easily manufactured, and thus are not in short supply. (I could hit at least a dozen with a goldfish cracker from where I’m sitting.) On the other hand, questioning the utility of a mad scientist’s experiment is a little like asking a four-year-old why she put beans up her nose. When deciding on a course of action, common sense was simply not one of the criteria.
Nor does common sense appear to have been a factor in the making of the film. Some rather heavy-handed montages at the beginning and end appear to make a statement against war. The gruesome movie in the middle, however, significantly undercuts that message, like those Berkeley peace protesters who feel so strongly about pacifism that they inevitably attack the cops sent to watch them. The message implied by Sayer of the Law near the end is contradictory as well. Animals are better off as animals, he says—killing and eating one another as necessary, I guess. But we just spent a good portion of the earlier film implying that people can be more like animals than animals can be like people, which further implies...what? That we should just give in and wallow in internecine violence?
And then, as if the film’s metaphorical waters needed to be muddied further, we have the performances. Much has been made of Brando’s weight, indifference, and inability to remember lines. (According to some tales, his prompter fed him lines through an earpiece, which occasionally picked up a nearby police band. So oblivious was he that he’d catch his costars off-guard by parroting the dispatcher instead of reciting dialogue.) Nevertheless, he has a powerful screen presence that could have lent his scenes considerable weight if only he’d bothered to involve himself in them. I did not know it was possible to be “intensely bemused” or “intensely apathetic” but apparently Brando can manage it just by being Brando. The sad result is that his bemusement and/or apathy that tends to drown out whatever’s happening around him. I’d say that the above applies to Kilmer as well, except that Kilmer is at least attempting a character of some sort. The fact he manages to give such intensity to a man who spends most of his time in a pharmaceutical stupor speaks well of his acting ability. The fact that he draws so much attention to it in a movie that’s not about his character’s drug addiction speaks ill of his commitment to the rest of the film.
Put all of the above together, and you have a disjointed, pseudo-political, hallucinatory film that will make you feel like you’ve been shouted at by a paranoid schizophrenic for ninety-nine consecutive minutes.
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy team up yet again to provide the commentary track. When names of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer appear simultaneously on screen, Mike calls them, “A potentially fatal speedball of acting.” Later, as Montgomery feeds Edward drugs aboard the Indonesian ship, Mike says, “I’m going to give you something to help you convulse.” Later, when they reach Moreau’s tent-and-Quonset-hut stronghold, Kevin notes, “This is an odd remake of M*A*S*H.” The commentary is funny, but not funny enough to overcome this nightmarish turd. It’s like having your favorite comedians along to crack jokes with you while visiting a ward for the criminally insane.
(2001, Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Hobbits are essentially teenagers with huge feet.
In a nutshell:
A small, sprite-ish person must traverse a dangerous fantasy world to destroy an evil magic ring.
(I’m not sure why I bothered to summarize this film in such detail. If you’ve seen this before, or read the book, then you already know all of this. If you haven’t, then the complicated summary below will make one of the best fantasy films ever made sound silly and confusing. I apologize in advance for what you are about to read, and hasten to point out your option to skip ahead to the “Thoughts” section.)
In the distant past, the Dark Lord Sauron sent hordes of hideous orcs to conquer all of Middle Earth. Armies of men and elves drove them back to Sauron’s lair on the slopes of the volcano Mount Doom. Things were going pretty well for the good guys until Sauron showed up in person. He used the power of his magic ring to slaughter men by the dozen, until a prince named Isildur cut the ring away from Sauron’s hand. Seeing as how the ring can only be destroyed in lava-filled chasm at the mountain’s heart, he should have melted it down then and there. But, since the ring’s evil also corrupts anyone who wears it, he decided not to.
Later, Isildur (now the king) rode with his subjects through the countryside. A remnant of the orcish forces attacked and slaughtered them. The ring fell from Isildur’s hand into the river. Later still, the ring was found by a small riverbank-dwelling creature, which it twisted and corrupted into a vicious little troglodyte named Gollum. Even laterer, Gollum lost it in his cave to a hobbit (hobbits: a diminutive, hairy-footed race of people dedicated to the pursuit of alcoholism and obesity) named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Bilbo used the ring’s powers to make himself invisible during his following adventures, unaware that it was extending his life while slowly corrupting him as well.
This, after endless Cate Blanchett-narrated flashbacks, is where our story begins.
In the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) visits his good friend Bilbo to help celebrate the latter’s one hundred and eleventh birthday. The entire hobbit population attends the party. Fireworks, dances, gluttony, and binge-drinking ensue. Bilbo delivers an obliquely insulting thank-you speech, declares his intention to leave the Shire forever, and uses the ring to vanish.
Gandalf catches Bilbo packing for his journey. Having observed certain alarming oddities about the way Bilbo acts with the ring, he bullies his friend into leaving it behind. Bilbo is reluctant, but finally agrees. The ring passes to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood).
Gandalf rushes to the archives of Minas Tirith (means “Tower of the Guard”; it’s the last great city of Gondor...look, if you don’t already know this, just nod and smile, okay?) where certain ancient documents confirm what he already suspects: the ring in Frodo’s possession is none other than Sauron’s evil trinket. He rushes back to the Shire to explain the danger. Sauron has risen again and has gathered hordes of orcs to renew his campaign to conquer all of Middle Earth. The only thing he lacks is his ring—if he finds it, he will “cover all the lands in a second darkness.” Moreover, the ring cannot be carried by anyone that possesses real power (e.g. Gandalf) because its power would corrupt him. After some discussion, they agree that Frodo and his hobbit friend Sam (Sean Astin) will take the ring to Rivendell, the hidden city of the elves, where Sauron’s former enemies will decide what to do with it. Gandalf has to rush off again and to consult with the head of his wizard order; he agrees to meet them halfway in the village of Bree.
Shortly into their journey, Frodo and Sam run into Frodo’s dim-witted and juvenile cousins Merry (Dominic Monoghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who involve them in an ill-advised plan to steal produce from a local farmer. This goes awry when a hideous black rider arrives. They hide beneath a tree, but the rider’s presence sends Frodo into a trance. His friends drag him along while they run for the borders of the Shire. They finally leave their pursuit behind at the ferry.
They make it to Bree, but Gandalf has not yet arrived. Sinister folk have been looking for Frodo, so he gives a false name, but Pippin gets drunk and lets it slip anyway. Frodo puts the ring on accidentally, and is accosted by a ranger called Strider (Viggo Mortensen). Strider declares that he is a friend of Gandalf’s, sent to guide him to Rivendell. At his suggestion, they put the black riders (called ringwraiths or Nazgul) off their trail by filling their beds with false hobbits made of pillows and fur. Then he leads them into the wilderness.
They stop halfway at a ruin called Weathertop. Perpetual numbskulls Merry and Pippin start a campfire while Frodo’s asleep and Strider’s out scouting; the black riders see it and close in. One of them stabs Frodo in the shoulder while he attempts to take the ring. Strider arrives to drive them off. He examines Frodo’s wound and declares it to be poisoned. They run through the night, searching for herbal medicine as they go.
Strider’s elvish girlfriend Arwen (Liv Tyler) finds them. She volunteers to take Frodo ahead on horseback. After a lengthy chase, she flees across the river that marks the border to elvish land. The black riders try to follow, but the river turns into watery horses and drowns them. Frodo collapses.
Frodo recovers; he wakes up with Gandalf at his bedside, and we are treated to a flashback in which the head of Gandalf’s wizard order, a white-clad wizard named Saruman (Christopher Lee), turns traitor and declares his fealty to Sauron. He imprisons Gandalf while his orcs tear down the surrounding forest to turn his tower into a monster-manufacturing plant. Gandalf sends a message to his giant eagle friends via moth. He eventually escapes, but not until he’s missed his meeting with Frodo and company in Bree. He apologizes for his lateness.
There’s some exposition woven into the introduction of several other major characters but everyone eventually ends up at a meeting of Sauron’s enemies. Frodo presents them with the ring. Human warrior Boromir (Sean Bean) leaps up to ask them to use the ring on his city’s behalf (the aforementioned Minas Tirith...never mind). Rivendell’s ruler Elrond (Hugo Weaving) replies that a) the ring cannot be used against Sauron, as it will corrupt anyone who tries to use it, and b) the ring can only be destroyed in Mount Doom, near the heart of Sauron’s lands. The council devolves into bickering, as each race turns against the other.
Frodo silences them all by offering to take the ring to Mount Doom. Gandalf agrees to go with him. So do Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Strider, now known as Aragorn, joins them along with Boromir. An effeminate elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and burly Scottish dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) round out the party. They call themselves The Fellowship of the Ring, and set out on their quest.
Their first task is to cross a perilous mountain range. An attempt to go through the main pass goes awry when they realized it is being watched by the traitorous Saruman. An attempt to take a higher pass fails when Saruman calls down a blizzard to block it. Gimli suggests that they cut through a mine owned by his cousin. Gandalf is reluctant, but agrees take them through.
They solve the enchanted riddle that opens the mine’s back entrance, only to find a lot of dwarvish corpses, riddled with goblin arrows. They try to go back, but a tentacled lake creature blocks their way. The tentacle monster collapses the cavern entrance, forcing them to continue.
During the underground journey that follows, they discover the ring’s previous owner Gollum following them. Later, Gimli finds his cousin’s tomb, and weeps over the sarcophagus while Gandalf reads the history of the dwarves’ fall from a handy nearby journal. Pippin pokes an armored dwarf corpse, which rattles down a well, which alerts the goblin squatters to their presence. A small goblin force leads a huge cave troll into the tomb for a battle sequence. The Fellowship eventually defeats the goblins and the troll, but not before the troll skewers Frodo with a trident.
But he was wearing a shirt of magic chain-mail he picked up in Rivendell, so he’s okay. Everyone runs for the mine exit, but goblins surround them before they can make it out. An enormous fiery demon (called a balrog) arrives to drive the goblins away. The Fellowship flees over a gorge. Gandalf pauses to shout “You shall not pass!” He breaks the bridge behind them. The demon falls into the gorge, but manages to drag Gandalf in after him.
Aragorn leads the rest of the grief-stricken Fellowship out of the mines and into a neighboring forest to seek protection from the wood elves. They are greeted by Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) who offers them rest, protection, and cryptic visions of the future before reoutfitting them and sending them on their way. They canoe down a river and camp between some giant ruined statues and a waterfall.
Meanwhile, Saruman’s monster-manufacturing efforts have paid off with the man-eating Uruk Hai. He sends a troop of these bestial minions to kill the Fellowship and bring him the hobbits.
Also meanwhile, Boromir has succumbed to the ring’s corrupting influence. He pursues Frodo into the forest and tries to take the ring away from him, but Frodo uses the ring’s invisibility power to escape. He tries to leave for Mount Doom on his own, but Sam insists on coming too. They paddle off towards Mount Doom together.
Also, also meanwhile, the Uruk Hai overrun the camp. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli fight them off, but not before they’ve kidnapped Merry and Pippin and mortally wounded Boromir. Boromir confesses what he’s done and apologizes before he expires. Aragorn decides to let Frodo and Sam go on alone to protect the rest of the company from the ring. He leads Legolas and Gimli along the Uruk Hais’ trail, intending to rescue Merry and Pippin.
To be continued...
My one complaint against this film is the way it portrays the hobbits as irresponsible juveniles. The literary hobbits are all fifty-some-odd-year-old men, slightly mischievous, but brave and competent in their own way. The movie hobbits are idiots. I might give Sam a dollar and ask him to pick me up a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup at the local convenience store, but the rest? Pippin would forget what he was supposed to do, mistake my dollar for pipe weed, and sit under a tree to blow smoke rings with it. Merry would make it to the store, but would probably come back with a half-eaten Snickers Bar instead. Frodo would press my dollar into his palm, stare at it sadly for a moment, and then burst into tears. The only reason to make a hobbit carry the ring is because if it corrupts him, he’ll be too small and pathetic to do any damage with it. The only reason to bring three more of these helpless, bumbling little creatures on a desperate quest to save the world is for use as spares. (Then, if the ring-bearer buys it, you can just hand the ring off to the next one down the line.) The second half of the trilogy raises them above this kind of behavior, but it bothers me the way the movies imply that all hobbits start out with an unrelenting native stupidity.
That issue aside, I have a great deal of affection for this film. Tolkien’s books are flush with detail, and the fact that the filmmakers managed to include many of these without making the whole thing incomprehensible is nothing short of amazing. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, resisting their target demographic’s love of ironic humor by refusing to wink at the audience. Everything important is emphasized and visualized, so we don’t lose our way in the labyrinth of names, languages, and mythologies. And, though this weighs in as the longest movie appearing on Rifftrax thus far (at 178 minutes), it’s expertly paced, so you don’t really feel the time pass. Compare this with Star Wars: Episode I, which ends forty-five minutes earlier but feels twice as long.
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy appear to share my appreciation for this film in the commentary track. Many, many references to obscure Middle Earth lore reveal them both as huge Tolkien nerds. There’s plenty of mockery as well, but most of it has to do with character foibles and cracks at the role-playing culture this story inspired. At the beginning, when “The Lord of the Rings” flashes across the screen, Kevin declares, “The Liberace Story!” Nicknames are handed out liberally, as in “Boy-toy elf” (re: Legolas) and “The violent Keebler” (re: Gimli). Later on, Mike comments on the poor aim of the goblin archers with, “They couldn’t hit an Ent if it was standing still.” When the end credits start, Mike finishes the track with, “May the dwarf be with you.” With or without the commentary track, this movie’s worth seeing.
(2004, Horror, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Everyone in this house moves as if the air was as thick as syrup.
In a nutshell:
Two words: killer ghosts.
Before the movie proper can begin, several blocks of floating text explain that when a person dies in a great rage or sadness, that place is infected with a curse that consumes everyone who enters it. You’d think that would just be a teaser, but no. It’s the beginning and end of the entire plot.
There’s a lot of non-linear tomfoolery and about a dozen peripheral victims...er, characters, but it all boils down to the following: Once upon a time a Japanese woman fell in love with an American professor (Bill Pullman). Whether she was just an obsessed stalker or they had an actual affair is never adequately explained. She keeps a diary chronicling her unhealthy fixation with him, though. This is discovered by her husband, who kills her and their son in a fit of rage before hanging himself. The professor arrives shortly thereafter for some reason, finds the bodies, and goes home to throw himself from a fourth floor balcony.
Later, the ghosts of the woman and her son kill a lot of innocent people.
That’s pretty much all there is to it.
...well, I guess there’s also Karen, a nurse played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. She has more screen time than anyone else, but hasn’t been given much to do. Mostly, she walks slowly towards random objects while the flashbacks happen around her.
The Grudge is one of the emptiest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s got lots of atmosphere but no substance, so that the end result is creepy but never actually scary. The scattered timeframe is particularly frustrating. It’s a little like staring at an unassembled jigsaw puzzle. There are five hundred pieces, but you only need thirty of them to complete the picture. The other four hundred and seventy are just there to confuse you.
Kevin Murphy joins Mike Nelson for the commentary track. The movie takes place in Japan, so there’s some obligatory mockery of Japanese popular culture—for instance, when the cops arrive, they note that these particular policemen belong to the giant lizard and fire-spitting robot divisions—but they spend most of their time urging the motor-impaired characters to take some kind of action. When nothing happens for a long time, Mike notes that there’s no actual horror, “just raw, unmitigated creepiness.” “Like a Pauly Shore movie,” Kevin replies. At the resolutionless ending, when there’s been nothing but aimless wandering and senseless killing up to the credits, Kevin says, “They just ran [the movie] into a ditch and left.” If I’d been watching the movie by itself, I’d have turned it off about half an hour in, asking myself why anyone had bothered to make it. Fortunately, Mike and Kevin make it far funnier than it deserves to be. With the commentary track, it’s worth a single viewing, but I won’t be watching it again.
(2001, SciFi, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Um, Yoda? Load of crap, biggest ever heard, have I, this is.
In a nutshell:
A little boy and a clown princess become embroiled in staid interplanetary politics.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an undefined trade dispute resulted in the only marginally legal blockade of a small planet with an infantile name...etc., etc., etc...a pair of Jedi have been sent by the Galactic Republic to force a settlement...blah, blah, blah...vacuum cleaner robots with blaster rifles are lightsabered in half during their unexplained escape from a gas-filled foyer...rapeta, rapeta...
Look, do I really have to spell this out for you? Because the movie doesn’t. Oh sure, they stop the action and talk about it for interminable periods of time, but not much is actually explained. If you don’t already know about Jedi, lightsabers, the Force, the Republic, etc...well, then you’re probably from Central Africa, Rural China, Eastern Europe, or someplace else where you have bigger things to worry about than the juvenile fantasies of a wealthy Northern Californian. And this is just as well, because if you do happen to see it (and figure out what’s going on) you’ll be appalled by the way this film stereotypes and/or demonizes your ethnicity.
If you are a member of the movie’s target demographic (i.e., anyone who ever saw and loved the original trilogy, or, most of the population of the Western World) you will be appalled by the things they do explain.
Wanna know how Emperor Palpatine came to power? No, he doesn’t overcome the Republic’s pitiful defenses with the power of the Dark Side. He forms a Senate Sub-Committee and courts powerful lobbyists while occasionally donning a hoodie to lisp at the villainous “Chinese Monkey-Lizards” (Mike’s description) as they engage in the aforementioned trade dispute with the ridiculously overdressed Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).
Wanna know how Anakin Skywalker (an embarrassingly bad Jake Lloyd) became Darth Vader? No, he’s not “seduced by the Dark Side” (as Sir Alec Guinness puts it in an earlier and vastly superior film). Instead there’s some gibberish about a prophecy and a virgin birth, as well as some undefined built-in violations of the nonsensical Jedi Code. The upshot of this is that everyone acts as if they’ve explained Anakin’s later journey to the Dark Side, when, in fact, nothing has been explained at all. Of course, future prequels will reveal that he’s always been a whiny, petulant little creep with homicidal tendencies, completely devoid of redeeming features, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Wanna know exactly how the Force works? “Wise” Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) explains it in detail. When he’s finished, you’ll wish that he hadn’t. Indeed, if you are a die-hard fan you will probably wish you knew someone capable of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type operation to remove the information from your brain. In fact, while they’re in there, you should probably have them remove any indication that you ever saw this movie at all. Of course the prequel we desperately wanted would have been better, but that’s true of anything this highly anticipated. The sad thing is, in my darkest nightmares, my imaginary worst case scenario was not this bad.
I was reading Roger Ebert today (as I often do—not just because I want know about movies, but because I like the way he puts words together), and he had this to say:
“Just because CGI makes such endless sequences possible doesn't make them necessary. They should be choreographed to reflect a strategy and not simply reflect shapeless, random violence.”
He was writing about the most recent Transformers movie, but as pixels continue to get cheaper and more realistic, and as audiences become more inured to them, this mistake has become increasingly common. I haven’t seen Transformers, and it’s possible that I never will (update: I have now), but in my mind, nothing epitomizes the above more than the Star Wars prequels. I didn’t write anything about the action in the summary because none of it seemed all that important, and I’m not going to summarize it now because I just quoted Mr. Ebert, and I can’t think of a better description than “shapeless, random violence.”
The good news is that Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson rip into this film with gleeful abandon. Rifftrax has always been mean—it’s in their mission statement, I think—but there’s always been a “just kidding” element and an occasional grudging acknowledgement for the things the filmmakers got right. Not for this film. This commentary is a vicious attack on the movie, its auteur, and whatever it is they stand for. (And deservedly so. Everything about this movie screams “Cynical Merchandise Grab.” If George Lucas cares at all about the fans that made him rich, it certainly doesn’t show.) When Amidala uses her “royal monotone” to say that she will plead her case before the senate, Mike adds, “Flatly, lifelessly, killing scene after stupefying scene.” After the first few embarrassing minutes of Jake Lloyd, Mike muses, “Maybe the kid is being run by Frank Oz.” After some really odd alien hollering marks the end of the Pod Race, Kevin says, “George Lucas is a four-year-old, right? That’s the only possible explanation for everything we’ve just seen.” Their pain is hilariously cathartic, lifting the viewing experience well above the source material. My only complaint: with every scene in the source material far, far longer than it needs to be, the movie will wear you down at least forty-five minutes before the end. If you watch it in one or half-hour chunks, though, it’s wonderful.
(1999, Action/SciFi-Postapocalyptic, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
The future is very retro.
In a nutshell:
Heroic kung-fu hackers set out to save the world from their evil robot overlords.
The vinyl-suited Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) has been engaged in undefined illegal activities on an ancient monochrome computer in a squalid, unfurnished apartment downtown. Her line is traced. The cops burst in. Outside, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his perfectly groomed co-agents arrive to chide the local authorities for attempting an arrest without them. Their reason for caution becomes clear as Trinity breaks several basic laws of physics—kicking chairs, walking on walls and freezing time itself—to slaughter her would-be captors and flee the building. The preternatural agents defy gravity and wreck garbage trucks to pursue her. She makes it to a nearby phone booth and is schlurped away through the receiver.
Meanwhile, super-hacker Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves), has dozed off at his computer in his apartment. His computer wakes him up with a message about The Matrix, and gives him instructions to “follow the white rabbit.” Presumably illegal computer-related dealings ensue, during which he meets a girl with a white rabbit tattoo. He follows her to a club.
Trinity meets him there to tantalize him with vague information about a man named Morpheus and something called the Matrix, but he doesn’t get anything specific until the next day, when Morpheus himself (Laurence Fishburne) calls him at work. Agents have entered the building to arrest him, and the only way to escape is down a window-washing scaffold. Intimidated by the wind and the height of his building, Neo allows himself to be arrested.
The agents seek his cooperation to hunt Morpheus. He refuses, so they seal his mouth shut and drop a tiny metallic squid into his navel. Trinity and her kung-fu hacker cohorts pick him up that night. She removes the squid with a highly complex belly button vacuum and takes him to meet Morpheus. After some standard “last chance to get out” banter involving multihued pills, Neo chooses to stay. They strap him into a chair and ply him with drugs and halter monitors. Then a mirror melts on his hand.
Several special effects later, Neo wakes up bald, naked, and trapped in a pod filled with wires and goo. He sits up to see huge dark poles hung with pods just like his. A giant spider-ish robot unplugs his wires and then dumps him into a sewer. A hovering airship recovers him soon after. A blurry, semi-comatose montage ensues as Neo’s pale, weak body is refurbished by some kind of futuristic electric acupuncture device.
When Neo finally wakes up completely, he is aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a grungy futuristic vessel populated with less stylish versions of the kung fu super-hacker squad. Various reality-bending sessions of exposition explain about the ancient robot-human war. Humans attempted to win by polluting the sky, thus cutting the solar-powered robots off from their energy source. The robots struck back by enslaving mankind, hooking their brains to a reality simulation machine called the Matrix, and using their body heat to fuel their generators. Neo has been chosen to join their crew because a prophecy names him as “The One”, i.e.: a human born with the ability to alter the Matrix at will.
Neo is skeptical, so they download a lot of kung fu directly into his brain and reinsert themselves into the false reality of the Matrix to meet someone called The Oracle. The Oracle turns out to be a middle-aged matron with a compulsive baking disorder and a foyer full of underage psychics. She slathers Neo with a rather thick layer of vague metaphysics, which he interprets to mean that a) he is not really The One and b) Morpheus will soon die unless he sacrifices himself to save him.
Neo tries to share what he’s learned, but Morpheus refuses to listen. Thereafter, the treachery of adjunct kung fu super-hacker Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) leads to Morpheus’ capture and the deaths of most of the squad. Neo confesses the Oracle’s revelation to Trinity, and they decide to rescue Morpheus.
Bullets fly fast and furious, simulated cops fall like dominoes, and various explody things explode while they invade the agents’ stronghold to free their captured leader. At a crucial moment, Neo finds enough super strength and speed to reveal that his is The One after all. (Apparently, the Oracle told him a lie calculated to get him into a situation where he’d discover it for himself.) He defeats Agent Smith in a subway and attempts to flee the Matrix. He almost makes it, but gets a chest full of bullets just before the chosen phone receiver can schlurp him back to reality. Several minutes of false tension later (c’mon, after all this, did anyone seriously believe he was actually dead?) he rises again to see the world in monochrome green. The agents’ bullets stop in mid-air in front of him. Smith makes a desperate attempt to re-kill him by hand, but is killed himself.
Neo returns to the real world to smooch with Trinity. Mediocre sequels ensue.
The Matrix is a near-perfect example of the “show, don’t tell” method of story-telling. Here’s a conceit so heavy with its own ludicrous weight that most methods of exposition would simply collapse beneath it. “Remember that one Keanu Reeves movie?” people would be saying, had the story been presented even slightly differently. “The one with all the metaphysical nonsense, you know, where the robots used people as batteries...” Fortunately for the Warner and Wachowski brothers, this is not what people say when they talk about The Matrix. Instead, they talk about the stylized violence, the villainous agents, the shiny black outfits, the ways the movie bent its own reality. And well they should; these are the movie’s strengths. Its genius is that it flaunts those strengths while leading us by the hand from one tidbit of plot information to the next, so that by the time it unleashes its full silliness upon us, we’re already hooked.
Kevin Murphy joins Mike Nelson once again on the commentary track. Comments about the faux technology abound. Mike calls Neo’s operating system “Fake-intosh Version 9,” for instance. When Trinity starts climbing the walls during the opening sequence, Kevin says, “She had one too many cans of Rockstar.” Later on, with the full weight of the metaphysical stupidity pressing down, Kevin wonders if he ought to be making fun of a movie that’s worshipped by geeks everywhere. Mike tells him not to worry. “This is intensely stupid,” he says. Also included are many, many comments comparing the formally dressed agents to Mormon missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The movie’s entertaining enough on its own, but the commentary punctures its serious façade to make it even better.
(1978, Horror/Holiday, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
I enjoy a good underpant.
In a nutshell:
A deranged killer escapes a mental institution and returns to terrorize his home town.
Halloween night in the early sixties, Haddonfield, Illinois. A six-year-old Michael Myers (not the famous British-Canadian comedian) peeps at his teenage sister and her boyfriend through a window. The boyfriend leaves. Apparently traumatized by what he has just seen (which appears to be nothing), young Michael grabs a kitchen knife and mask and goes upstairs to murder his sister.
Fifteen years later, on the night before Halloween, an extremely nervous Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) guides a new nurse back to the mental facility he directs, warning her as they drive about a particular patient who must be kept in a drugged stupor at all times, so that he doesn’t...
They pull up to the gates and notice that the inmates are running free through the grounds. Dr. Loomis gets out of the car to investigate. Moments later, the nurse is attacked by a mostly unseen assailant. She escapes the car just before it drives away.
It’s Halloween in Haddonfield again, and straight-laced teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) goes about business as usual, making arrangements to babysit the neighbor boy, sitting through class, and bemoaning her non-existent love life with her catty teenage friends. A strange, masked figure keeps appearing behind bushes, in cars, and out windows, but is never there when she tries to show anyone else. Her catty friends show standard teenage compassion (a.k.a. derision) for her increasingly frightened behavior.
Dr. Loomis arrives in town just before nightfall; he makes contact with the local sheriff. The sheriff is rather incredulous, but elects to stay up all night scouring the town with Loomis on the off chance that his dire warnings are correct. They visit Michael’s old home to discover the fresh, half-eaten corpse of a neighborhood dog.
Meanwhile, Laurie babysits a little boy while gossiping by phone with Catty Teenage Friend A, who is babysitting a little girl across the street. CTF-A spills something on herself and hangs up so that she can strip down to her underwear. Several laundry room-related false alarms later, she’s still alive and oblivious to the homicidal maniac lingering just outside the living room window. She blackmails Laurie into taking care of her babysitting charge for her, so that she can fornicate with her boyfriend in her employer’s house. She climbs into her car to go pick him up, but the knife-wielding Michael is hiding in the back seat. Fifty-four minutes in, and we’ve finally arrived at the movie’s second murder.
Shortly thereafter, CTF-B arrives with her boyfriend. The body of CTF-A has been removed, so the oblivious couple goes upstairs to fool around. Michael waits for them to finish before shuffling the boyfriend off this mortal coil. He goes after CTF-B as well; she sees him coming and manages to dial Laurie’s number before he strangles her with the phone cord.
Laurie assumes the grunting phone call to be a practical joke, but sends the kids to bed and heads across the street to investigate anyway. She finds the corpses of her friends in various poses, and then Michael surprises her with a knife. He only gets her sleeve, though; she escapes by throwing herself down the stairs. She runs back to the other house, and stabs him in the neck with a knitting needle when he chases her. She goes upstairs to check on the kids, but Michael gets up to follow. The kids hide again while she gets Michael’s hand caught in a closet door, steals his knife, and stabs him one more time. Then she lets the kids out and tells them to run for help.
They run into the street and find Loomis, who has been searching the town all this time. He rushes into the house to put several bullets into Michael, who has risen yet again to try and strangle Laurie. Michael falls over a railing and presumably dies, but a missing corpse and an obscene number of sequels (seven and counting) seem to indicate otherwise.
Halloween is an effective, competently made film. It’s a little slow by contemporary standards, and the arbitrary, repetitive soundtrack can get annoying, but it works because it draws us in with a fairly interesting and reasonably realistic slice of small-town life before it starts stretching its credibility with the inexplicably unkillable antagonist. Many people consider this movie to be the first slasher film of any quality ever made (and, if you choose to ignore the prior existence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the original version of Black Christmas, I guess they’re right). If you like being frightened and have the patience for one of the earliest, most bloodless examples of the slasher genre, you’ll probably enjoy it.
Me, I don’t really “get” the horror genre in general. This may seem an odd admission coming from someone who watches and writes about horror movies all the time, but keep in mind that what I write about is bad movies, many of which happen to be horror movies as well. When watched for mockery purposes, a bad movie can be fun regardless of genre. When, upon occasion, I am surprised by a competent horror movie, I confess I get a little perplexed. I don’t mind being frightened occasionally in the service of the greater good, but it baffles me that people enjoy movies whose sole purpose is to frighten you, as if “horror” was a desirable end in and of itself. I’d much rather be fascinated than horrified. Give me a choice between Psycho and Halloween and I’ll choose Psycho every time. Norman Bates? Frightening, yes, but also fascinating. Michael Myers? Merely inexplicable and occasionally startling.
Kevin Murphy shows up to assist Mike Nelson on the commentary track. As Michael stalks Laurie early in the film, Mike says, “Puts on a mask; hangs around schools; frightens small children—it’s Michael Jackson!” Later, as CTF-A wanders the night in her underwear, Mike asks, “What’s her name again?” to which Kevin replies, “Victim Number One.” When we get near the two-thirds mark, and no one’s died since the opening sequences, Kevin notes, “In a recent movie, there’d be enough corpses to fill a strip mall right now.” It’s not a bad film, but the genre itself begs for mockery, and Mike and Kevin deliver.
(1991, Crime Drama/Sports, color)
When aroused, the surfer will emit a high-pitched howl.
In a nutshell:
Keanu Reeves goes undercover to catch a gang of surfing bank robbers.
Rookie FBI special agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) arrives in Los Angeles, greeted by the scorn of his superiors and peers. His first partner: the gruff and disgruntled Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey). His first case: catch the ex-presidents, a gang of bank robbers who wear rubber masks decorated with the visages of former chief executives.
Tan lines and suspicious traces of wax lead Pappas to believe that the robbers are surfers. So, lacking any other reasonable leads, Johnny learns to surf. To this end, he recruits surfer babe Tyler (Lori Petty) who introduces him to surfing Zen master Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his followers, with whom Johnny forms an unlikely friendship.
In this midst of this surfer activity, Johnny runs afoul of a vicious gang of violent surfer dudes, who match the ex-presidents in number and body type. Could it be that he’s found his men?
(Nothing points to this as a red herring, does it? I mean, aside from the fact that it’s too early in the picture to deliver that kind of payoff; we’ve heard all the sinister foreshadowing conversation with Johnny’s new friends; and the back of the DVD case identifies Swayze as the real villain.)
Johnny nearly misses the raid after an all-night surfing/sex party on the beach, but it doesn’t matter. The raid goes down; people are shot, stabbed, and forced towards the spinning blades of an upturned lawn mower; and several kilos of illegal drugs are seized. Afterwards, his shrill superior introduces him to a disheveled DEA agent, who chews them out for ruining three months worth of undercover work. The upshot: they’ve caught the wrong gang, for the wrong reasons.
The next day, Johnny has an epiphany that flashes him back to all the previous sinister foreshadowing. He jumps to the obvious conclusion and starts to tail Bodhi and his followers. His suspicions prove correct; he disrupts their next heist, and most of the gang dies in the ensuing gunfight. His superiors try to arrest him for being at the scene of the crime, but Pappas springs him and they rush off in pursuit of Bodhi and his last remaining follower. More gunfire, and Pappas dies. Everyone jumps out of a plane for some reason, and Bodhi gets away.
Johnny dedicates the next several months of his life to tracking Bodhi down. They finally meet on the beaches of Australia during a powerful storm. They wrestle in the waves and Johnny wins, handcuffing Bodhi while the Australian cops close in. Bodhi begs Johnny to let him surf just one more time on the enormous waves. Johnny throws his badge away and lets Bodhi go. The Australian cops wait on the beach while Bodhi paddles into the stormy sea, where he will probably drown.
Some of the commentary was funny, most notably Mike’s comments about the filmmaking, e.g.: “Written by and for guys who’ve taken one too many surfboards to the head,” and, “The editor must have done a line in the bathroom, because we’re suddenly out of control.” Also abundant are comparisons to other movies, such as: “If you watch this movie, you are now legally exempt from watching Blue Crush,” and, “This movie is essentially ‘Jackass Goes to the Beach’.”
Commentary aside, though, I did not enjoy this movie at all. I found it hostile to its audience and mind-numbingly stupid. Keanu’s desperate flatness; the maddeningly obvious red herring; the way everyone shouted at each other constantly for no apparent reason. Not quite as mind-numbing and hostile as, say, Battlefield Earth, but that movie had a lot of inane SciFi goofiness mixed in, and a full crew of MST3K alumni on hand to mock it. This movie is much more competent with its hostility, and Mike all by his lonesome wasn’t enough to overcome it for me.
That said, the movie itself is mostly competent and often suspenseful. So if you like hostile, competent, suspenseful, mind-numbing movies, and you like Rifftrax, then you’ll probably like Point Break. I didn’t, though.
Welcome, won't you?
The review for X-Men has been posted. Fun but silly mutant mayhem ensues. Come back tomorrow when I cap off the first set of ten with a review of the unintentionally (but laughably) homoerotic classic, Top Gun.
Welcome, won't you?
My browser just finished a knock-down, drag-out fight with IMDb.com's flash ads (both of them lost, eventually, and a lack of administrator privileges meant I couldn't assist either side), so I almost didn't get this review posted today. Come back Monday for more superheroes than you can shake a stick at in X-Men.
Enjoy the mediocre road movie adventures of a pre-Federline Britney!
Welcome, won't you?
A review for the extreme sports spy thriller xXx has been posted. Come back tomorrow when we finish off the week with the adventures of a nubile young pop star and her birdbath-shallow friends in Crossroads.
Welcome, won't you?
The Road House review has been posted. There will be a brief weekend break, and then we will return on Monday with a review for the exuberantly French scifi adventure The Fifth Element.
Welcome, won't you?
The full review for Plan 9 From Outer Space has been posted. Tomorrow's a holiday, so I won't be checking in. If you tune in Thursday, though, I'll be posting a review for Night of the Living Dead.
Happy Fourth of July!
Welcome, won't you?
Response to my Question Regarding Rating Methodology has been mixed. Or rather, aside from a handful of people who regard my rating system with mild distaste, no one cares. So I've decided not to change anything right now. If you have strong feelings on the matter, feel free to drop me a line.
In the meantime, I am adding Rifftrax reviews to the site. I've added placeholder posts today, as well as an index post for the first ten, and will be fleshing them out with full reviews at a rate of one per weekday until I catch up with Mr. Nelson.
(1986, Action/Drama, color)
Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett
I’m suffering from cool name overload.
In a nutshell:
A handsome but unreliable pilot learns to trust and love again.
American and Russian fighter jets clash over an undefined ocean. One of the Russians flies off when our hero Maverick (Tom Cruise) achieves missile lock on him. The other leaves when he and his copilot, Goose, fly upside down within a few feet of his cockpit and flip him the bird. In the meantime, one of the Russians has achieved missile lock on the other American fighter. They don’t fire, but their target, an American pilot called Cougar, is so badly rattled that he can’t concentrate on flying his plane. Maverick disobeys orders to guide Cougar back to their aircraft carrier, where Cougar turns in his wings and retires. The commanding officer delivers a top-volume speech to the effect of, “That was amazing, so you’re in a lot of trouble; here’s your reward!” Then he sends them to Top Gun.
Top Gun is apparently a kind of graduate school for fighter pilots, and (again, apparently) it is a great honor to be sent there. At the school in question, they meet their instructors Jester (a taciturn Michael Ironside) and Viper (a bemused Tom Skerritt), as well as their chief rival Iceman (an emotionless Val Kilmer), and their civilian consultant Charlie (a sultry Kelly McGillis). In a section that occupies the bulk of the movie, Maverick divides his time between wooing the lovely Charlie—a process that involves bad karaoke, following her into the ladies room, and showing up late and stinky to their dates—and performing stupid and dangerous stunts during training missions—like flying too low, deafening the control tower, and flying too close to other planes. Charlie eventually succumbs to his arrogant, boyish charms while he and Iceman run neck and neck for the school’s top honors.
And now, the humbling tragedy you heard coming from miles away: Maverick flies too close to another jet’s engines; both his engines flame out, sending his jet spinning across the sky like a Frisbee; the eject malfunctions, bonking Goose’s head against the cockpit; and Goose dies of head trauma. Maverick’s hopelessly overacted grief knows no restraint, and though a navy investigation of the incident clears him of any wrongdoing, he starts to fail his training missions by flying too timidly.
He goes to see Viper, who clears up a mystery about Maverick’s father’s death. (Oh, didn’t I mention the “father died under mysterious circumstances” subplot? It’s supposed to be the internal conflict that grants Maverick’s character depth, and justifies his reckless behavior. Sorry; must have slipped my mind.) This emboldens Maverick to graduate with the rest of his class. The main players all go directly into their first combat mission, where the first two fighters sent up, flown by Iceman and the lesser-known Hollywood, meet more Russians than they could reasonably be expected to handle. Hollywood gets shot down almost immediately. (Take that, mostly anonymous peripheral character!) Iceman takes out one of his opponents before gunfire cripples his fighter.
Of course the only American fighter in helping range is Maverick. He goes into a panic at first, but quickly pulls out of it to single-handedly wipe out the entire Russian squadron. And then, just to prove that he’s regained his reckless, order-disobeying abilities, he buzzes the carrier control tower. Having succeeded at his first combat mission out of Top Gun, he decides to retire and return to Top Gun as an instructor, where he and Charlie will presumably live happily ever after.
A question about the action sequence at the beginning of the film: Do navy fighters routinely stay out on patrol missions until they have only seconds worth of fuel remaining? Assuming that they do, and also assuming that they ran into enemy fighters near the end of one such patrol, would they then proceed to engage said fighters without, say, heading back to the carrier to gas up first? Just curious.
Another thing I’m curious about is Japan. You may well ask what Japan has to do with this movie. I’ll tell you. Top Gun was nominated for perhaps a dozen cinematic awards and won a handful of them, though they were almost universally in praise of the eighties pop rock that permeates the film. (Which, I must admit, is better than your average eighties pop rock.) Japan’s Academy Awards, however, named it the best foreign language film of 1988. Why, I ask you, with hundreds of movie-producing countries to choose from, would they pick the biggest, dumbest, loudest American film of the era? Sure, they churned out Pokemon, Mighty Jack, and any number of rubber monster flicks, but they’ve also given us Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, so I know they know what good movies look like. Did they deliberately choose something that would make the lowliest episode of Dragonball Z look subtle by comparison? Or maybe they looked at all they had to choose from and said, “This totally reminds us of America. Yes, this is the movie that epitomizes American-ness as we know it!” I’m joking, sort of, but I’m also a little afraid that the latter scenario might not be very far from the truth.
Whether or not you consider it to be a bad movie depends on your appetite for cliché. Top Gun is constructed from 100% pure, uncut cliché, but is perhaps one of the most well-crafted examples of cliché available. Like Road House, it is so committed to its virtuous machismo that it will tell us things like, “An inability to accept criticism makes a woman’s heart go pitter-patter;” and “Our nation’s armed forces prize individuality over obedience;” and because it said these things with a straight face, over the urgent strains of Kenny Loggins, we accept the inherent ridiculousness without question...at least until the end.
On the Rifftrax commentary, Mike Nelson and guest riffer Bill Corbett want you to know a lot of things, but mostly they want you to know that this movie is amazingly gay. (Indeed, the last time I saw this movie was when I was young enough to think of fighter jets as “radical,” and thus did not notice that almost half the movie consists of wet, mostly naked men engaging in hygiene, sport, and tender embrace. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it deserves the title of Most Unintentionally Homoerotic Family Film, 1986 to 1996—1997 being the year marked by the advent of Joel Schumacher’s nipple-encrusted superhero epic, Batman and Robin.) They also want you to know that, “Tom Skerritt [is the] world’s most grizzled man,” (Bill) and that “Stripey and Captain Fun” (Mike) would be good fighter pilot call signs. Another, and perhaps my favorite bit of fun comes when Mike starts to sing “House on Pooh Corner” every time the Kenny Loggins song kicks in. It’s a good, solid commentary for one of the biggest, dumbest, loudest movies ever made.