8/31/07

Dr. Feelgood...Paging Dr. Feelgood...

Welcome, won't you?

After yet another unexpected absence (it seems to have been a bad month for those) I'm back with a review for Rifftrax's take on one of the girliest shows ever made, Grey's Anatomy. I'll be taking Labor Day off, so come back Tuesday for whiny, generic superheroes in Fantastic Four.

Enjoy!

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8/29/07

This Just In: Hostile Aliens Outnumber Benevolent Ones More Than Thirty To One

Welcome, won't you?

Today's Rifftrax review covers their most masculine film selection since Road House. Tomorrow, just to prove their dedication to viewers on both sides of the gender divide, I'll review Mike's take on a show so girly, it probably bleeds doilies and perfume.

Enjoy!

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8/28/07

Zee Glittah Cannot Ovahpowah Zee Ah-teest!

Welcome, won't you?

If you want to know how Mariah Carey became an international superstar, you'll have to look much, much further than her famously bad starring vehicle. Thank goodness for inept attempts at fancy camera work, or it would have been boring as hell. Tomorrow: an eighties formula picture of almost Road Housian perfection.

Enjoy!

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8/27/07

In A World...Where Everything Is As It Seems...

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Impossible as it may sound, Rifftrax's second dragon movie is somehow worse than the first one. Thankfully, it is also somehow funnier. Tomorrow: Mariah Carey stars as Blandness Personified in Glitter.

Enjoy!

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8/24/07

You Know What They Call Casinos in France?

Welcome, won't you?

Today's featured Rifftrax takes on Casino Royale, certainly the best James Bond film in more than a decade, and perhaps the best James Bond film so far. Read the review here. Come back next week for a precipitous downward turn in film quality, as we visit an epic fantasy film that was apparently assembled from off-the-rack parts.

Enjoy!

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8/23/07

Who Can Take Tomorrow, Wrap It in a Sigh...

Welcome, won't you?

Another unexpected day away from my computer, this time due to my daughter's oral surgery. She's taken care of now (until September, anyway) so, appropriately enough, here's a Rifftrax review of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, relating the adventures of an amiable child-hater and his tiny orange minions. Tune in tomorrow for a Rifftrax review for the third, best, and hopefully final cinematic version of Ian Fleming's spy novel Casino Royale.

Enjoy!

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8/21/07

For Spartaaaaa!

Welcome, won't you?

Comments for the last chunk of ten Rifftrax have been posted. Placeholders for the next chunk of ten have been posted as well. A review for more whimsical, less creepy film version of Roald Dahl's most famous work will be posted tomorrow.

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Rifftrax 029-038

R029 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

R030 Casino Royale

R031 Eragon

R032 Glitter

R033 Predator

R034 Grey's Anatomy

R035 Fantastic Four

R036 Star Trek: Generations

R037 300

R038 The Bourne Identity

The previous chunk of Rifftrax may have had the first non-standard commentor, but this chunk has a plethora of them. Neil Patrick Harris for Willy Wonka. Mary Jo Pehl for Glitter. Bridget Nelson for Grey's Anatomy. (Mary Jo is my favorite of these, as she's the only one who acts like she likes to see bad movies.) The best thing about this sections selection? Half of these movies are actually good. Willy Wonka and Predator are classics of their genres; Casino Royale, 300, and The Bourne Identity are too recent to be considered classics, but twenty-five years from now, they will be. The even better thing about this section? Most of the bad ones are a goofy, laughable sort of bad, while the only truly awful film (Glitter) is saved by the able commentary. I can't say I loved every film shown, but I at least liked all of them.

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R038 The Bourne Identity

(2002, Action-Spies, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett

You’re listening to the mellow sound of European existential dread.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

An amnesiac assassin goes on the run.

Summary:

Starring the squarest head in Hollywood.A fishing boat pulls a nameless man (Matt Damon) from the water. The ship’s doctor pulls two bullets and a tiny laser projector from his backside. The bullets are discarded, but the projector provides the name of a bank and an account number.

Unable to remember anything on his own, the man travels to a bank in Switzerland to see what the account number tells him. The bank employees direct him upstairs to a vault where he is given a safe deposit box full of money, passports, and a gun. The man adopts the name he finds printed on the passport on top—Jason Bourne.

Bourne sees that he has police pursuit. (He reflexively defended himself when a pair of Swiss cops tried to arrest him for vagrancy the night before, discovering himself to be martial arts expert.) He manages to make the safety of the U.S. embassy before the cops can arrest him. The cops communicate with the embassy guards, and soon the guards are after him as well. Bourne beats them up too, and escapes via the roof before the building can fill with marines. He meets a German girl named Maria at the curb and offers her $20k to drive him to Paris.

They exchange their life stories during the drive, though Bourne’s is much shorter since he can’t remember anything before his fishing boat recovery. They reach Paris and visit an address that his passport identifies as his apartment. Maria cleans up in the bathroom while Bourne hits redial on his phone; he finds that he had been booked into a hotel under another of his passport names.

An assassin with a machine gun bursts in. Bourne defeats him with a ballpoint pen and presses him for details about who he (the assassin) is and who he (Bourne) is. In the meantime, Maria searches the assassin’s satchel to find security photos of herself from inside the American embassy. She freaks out. While Bourne attempts to calm her down, the assassin leaps from the window to his death.

Bourne drags the semi-catatonic Maria back to her car and drives away. She finally calms down, and Bourne tries to get her to run away and go to the police. She refuses, and they go on the run together. One long-ish police chase later, they break into a disused hotel to disguise themselves and make love.

Testing a smooth, clean shave.At Bourne’s request, Maria visits the hotel where he had stayed under another alias to get his billing and phone records. Bourne uses these records to discover that he was researching luxury boats: in particular, the luxury boat of an exiled African dictator. Meanwhile, Maria discovers that the identity they’re researching is dead, and supposedly has a body in the local morgue.

By the time they arrive at the morgue, the body has been removed. Bourne steals the sign-in sheets to discover that the dictator had visited the body. With this information, plus several newspapers from around the time of the body’s discovery, Bourne divines that he is an assassin who failed to kill this former dictator as ordered. The police discover his hideout, and he and Maria are forced to flee again.

Bourne has finally convinced Maria to leave him, so he goes to drop her off at one of her former friends’ houses. The friend is there with his children and is displeased to see them, but offers them shelter for the night regardless. Meanwhile, Bourne’s former employers track him down. He sends Maria to flee with her friend while he kills the assassin sent to eliminate them.

The assassin mutters something about an organization called Treadstone before he expires. Bourne uses the assassin’s equipment to arrange a meeting with his former Treadstone employers. His ex-boss shows up with an escort, so Bourne plants a tracking device on the van and calls the meeting off. He follows them back to their Paris base and breaks in to demand answers. His ex-boss tells him he is a CIA assassin who failed his mission. Bourne remembers that he refused to kill the ex-dictator because he was sleeping next to his children on the boat at the time. Bourne warns them to leave him alone and kills several more operatives during his escape. The last surviving Treadstone assassin kills the Treadstone boss at the CIA’s insistence, effectively terminating the Treadstone program.

Bourne tracks Maria to Greece, and they have a tender reunion.

Thoughts:

I'm conflicted on the issue of my deadliness.Spoiler warning! Jason Bourne is actually a CIA assassin. Further spoiler warning!! He lost his memory because he is a basically good person who snapped under the immorality of his profession. Even more spoilers follow!!! The people hunting him are CIA assassins who don’t want him to blab their illegal methodology to the world.

Actually, due to the obvious nature of the above, I hesitate to label them as spoilers. Of course he’s an assassin. Of course he’s a nice guy. Of course his former bosses want to silence him. This is all heavily implied within the first twenty minutes of the film, and is never contradicted. The Bourne Identity is not about plot twists or surprising revelations. It is about the character of Bourne, who reacts realistically to these contrived situations with competence but also with dread. It’s about set-piece action sequences that are, well, not exactly realistic, but consist of realistic events strung together in an improbable manner. These things set the film apart from other modern spy flicks; Bourne’s Bond-ish counterparts do physically impossible things because they are made of sexually inexhaustible bulletproof rubber, never allowing us to become afraid for their well-being. The Bourne Identity’s more realistic elements ramp the tension up much higher, endowing the film with more actual, heftable weight.

Of course Mike, Bill, and Kevin make fun of it anyway. Included are many, many Europe-bashing jokes, including Kevin’s comment, “He’d blend in better with a little hat and a sense of sullen alienation.” Mike comments on Bourne’s relatively mundane escape from the embassy by saying, “I’m a little disappointed he’s not leaping to escape a huge fireball.” When Maria presses Bourne for memories, Bill exclaims, “I strongly suspect I’m Latin songstress Shakira, okay?” Also included are numerous comments about the rectangular shape of Matt Damon’s head, and near the end two of the commenters deliver synchronized slaps every time the other attempts a pun. It’s already an entertaining film, and the commentary serves to make it more so.

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R037 300

(2006, Fantasy-Sword & Sandal, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett

These guys must all have freakishly high blood pressure.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

A highly stylized version of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Summary:

The restaurants in Hell aren't all that great.Spartan soldier Dilios (David Wenham) narrates the birth of his king, Leonidas. Spared the precipice of birth defects (Spartan population control apparently consists of old men tossing “imperfect” infants from high cliffs), the boy grows and fights and trains until one day his teachers throw him out into the snow to prove himself. He returns clad in the skin of a digital wolf, and is crowned king.

Many years later, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his unfortunately named wife Gorgo (Lena Headey) greet the Persian ambassador. The arrogant Persian insults Gorgo while he demands tribute; if they refuse, his master’s armies will raze Sparta to the ground. By way of reply, Leonidas throws the ambassador and his contingent into a bottomless pit.

Leonidas knows that the Persians outnumber the Spartans by a ridiculous number, but he has a plan. To reach him, the Persian Emperor Xerxes must thread his troops through a narrow canyon known as the Hot Gates; a small, determined force wedged into the canyon could conceivably hold of the Persians indefinitely. Unfortunately, by law, the oracles must approve his plan before he can put it into action, and the disfigured oracles and their semi-nude teenage girl mediums say no. Leonidas does not know that Persian agents have paid the oracles to say this, but he suspects. With his wife’s blessing, he gathers a bodyguard of three hundred men and heads north to the Hot Gates.

The rest of the movie alternates between Leonidas’ campaign against Xerxes and Gorgo’s attempts to drum up support for her husband’s campaign. At the Hot Gates, Leonidas and his three hundred soldiers defend the canyon from a host of multicultural foes, exotic beasts, and inhuman monsters in an elegantly choreographed orgy of blood. On several occasions, the megalomaniacal Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) offers to let Leonidas keep his kingdom, and even give him command of his armies if he’ll just let the Persians through. On all occasions, Leonidas refuses.

Um, Lena? If I can count ribs, then you need to eat more than bottled water and lettuce.In Sparta, Gorgo struggles with a traitorous politician named Theron, finally agreeing to sleep with him in exchange for his support before the Spartan Council. When the time to meet the council comes, however, Theron announces that she slept with him in an effort to gain his support. (Apparently a double standard applies in that Theron is applauded for his efforts on Sparta’s behalf while Gorgo is shunned as an adulteress.) The scorned Gorgo breaks free of the guards, seizes a sword, and runs her accuser through. His newly sliced purse spills Persian gold, conveniently stamped with the visage of Xerxes himself. The easily swayed Council denounces Theron as a traitor and presumably declares their support for Leonidas.

By this time, however, Leonidas has refused to let a deformed Spartan expatriate join their ranks, resulting in eventual betrayal. The spurned hunchback offers his services to Xerxes, and leads Persian forces over previously unknown paths to encircle the Spartans in the night. Recognizing that his three hundred are doomed, Leonidas sends the wounded Dilios back to Sparta to tell their tale. The next morning, Leonidas kneels before Xerxes. The Persians let down their guard just long enough for the three hundred to make one last charge. Leonidas snatches up his spear in the confusion and hurls it at Xerxes; it slashes the Persian king’s face, but fails to kill its target. Leonidas dies in a rain of arrows fired from the cliff tops.

The narration ends, and we see that Dilios has been telling this story to thousands of Spartan soldiers and tens of thousands more Greeks united by the tale of Leonidas’ sacrifice. The movie ends as the angry Greeks sweep down on the doomed Persians.

Thoughts:

Oh, darling.  Shall we elope?When this movie came out, it was amusing to see so many reviewers attempt to extract some sort of socio-political parallel. “Let’s see,” said the conservative reviewers. “The Spartans represent our valiant United States Armed Forces while the vile Persians represent al Qaeda/Iraqi Insurgents/Taliban Remnants.” (“It’s an insult to the nation of Iran,” Middle Eastern radicals added in a similar vein. “Everyone knows that Iranians are the modern-day Persians.”) (Note to Iranians: No, they don’t. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of ethnocentric America thinks that a modern Persian is a kind of long-haired cat.) “No wait,” the liberal reviewers replied. “It’s the other way round! The Persian war machine represents imperialist America, and the Spartans are those plucky Middle Eastern freedom fighters...”

Guys, sometimes a chest-thumping, homoerotic sword and sandal fantasy is just a chest-thumping, homoerotic sword and sandal fantasy.

Actually, 300 reminds me more of an opera than a movie. The lines, for instance, are never merely spoken; they’re declaimed, growled, or shouted. Highlights include such pithy gems as “Come back with your shield or on it!” “This is Sparta!” “Tonight we dine in hell!” and the immortal “For Spartaaaaaa!” (It should be noted that all of the above quotations end with exclamation points for a reason.) The dialog is completely superfluous to the production; the whole thing could have been performed in Italian for all the difference it would have made. As in opera, the plot is not its reason for existence. People go to the opera for the music, not because they enjoy the luridly improbable adventures of high-born young women who dress like men and sleep with their half-brothers before (or during) eventual suicide. Likewise, people who watch 300 will not do so out of educational curiosity (though it is rather vaguely based on a historical event) but because it boasts some of the most breathtakingly filmed violence since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

A full complement of the usual MST3K alumni (Mike, Bill, and Kevin) is on hand for the commentary track. When the immense and gaudy Xerxes first appears, Kevin notes, “He looks like Mr. Clean on his way to Mardi Gras.” Regarding the violence, Mike observes that “Persians were known for their tender, squishy physiology,” while Kevin agrees that they seem to “spurt like rain birds.” Bill just sighs and says, “Life moves at such a hectic pace; sometimes you just have to stop and smell the entrails.” Blood is this film’s medium of expression, and its use of ichor is eloquent, elegant, and even delicate. On the other hand, if you’re really going to use blood as your medium of expression, you deserve to be made fun of regardless of how well you use it, and Mike and his cohorts have a lot of fun with the material given them.

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R036 Star Trek: Generations

(1994, SciFi, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Crap crap, jargon jargon, crap, sir.

Rating: **1/2

In a nutshell:

William Shatner and Patrick Stewart gang up on Malcolm McDowell.

Summary:

Two Captains.  One Dignified.In the far flung future, Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) attends the maiden voyage of the Starship Enterprise-B, which I guess is meant to be a different ship with the same name as the original. Things go awry almost instantly, as two nearby ships filled with refugees get caught in a super-magic glow thingy known as The Nexus. The Nexus destroys one ship as the new captain struggles with indecision. Kirk takes command and orders the Enterprise into the Nexus to beam as many as possible to safety. In order to escape the Nexus themselves, some frantically shouted faux science requires Kirk to descend to the engine room and swap some parts. He does so, and the ship breaks free. In a parting blow, however, the Nexus shoots out an energy bolt that blasts a hole through the engine room, presumably sucking Kirk into space.

In a future even further flung, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) leads his crew on a merry pleasure voyage over a rolling sea aboard the good ship Enterprise. Standard holodeck hijinks ensue. A personal call interrupts, sending Picard fleeing to his quarters. A subsequent distress call brings up the rest of the crew. A space station has been attacked by Romulan marauders; the sole survivor of which is Dr. Tolian Soran (pronounced “Sauron” oddly enough, and played by Malcolm McDowell). Further investigation by Enterprise crewmen Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner) leads to the discovery of a dangerous solar probe. Soran sneaks away from his confinement aboard the Enterprise to surprise them and activate the probe. He takes Geordi hostage and beams aboard a nearby Klingon warship to make his getaway. The probe collapses the nearest star, destroying its solar system.

Picard retraces Soran’s life history to discover that he was one of the few survivors Kirk et al. managed to rescue from the Nexus way back in the opening sequence. Fortunately, one of his fellow survivors is on board the Enterprise. The ship’s bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) tells Picard about how the Nexus warps time and space, giving whoever it takes an eternity of their fondest wishes. Soran has been obsessed with it since it nearly took him eighty-some-odd years ago, and will do anything to get back.

Meanwhile, a bit of exposition aboard the Klingon vessel reveals that Soran has promised to give his star-destruction research to a pair of repulsive Klingon rebel women in exchange for assistance with his mad experiments. Also meanwhile, even further exposition aboard the Enterprise shows that Soran has been destroying stars in order to alter the various gravitational fields that control the Nexus’ path through space. If he destroys just one more, the Nexus will pass though an uninhabited planet, allowing Soran to hop aboard. Never mind that the planet next door is home to several hundred million people who will perish horribly without their sun. The Enterprise rushes to intercept him.

Ham and Anti-Ham.An improbable set of circumstances leads to a situation where Picard is exchanged for Geordi and subsequently beamed down to Soran’s sun-destroying base. Picard talks to Soran, trying to reason with him while looking for a way through the base’s force fields. Meanwhile, the Klingons have bugged Geordi’s air filter-esque visor with a spy camera. They pull some information from the Enterprise’s technical screens which somehow allows them to fire through its shields with impunity. The Enterprise crew uses some little-known Klingon lore to take the warship’s shields down as well and then blow it to pieces. Their damage is heavy though; everyone aboard flees to the ship’s saucer section, which separates from the rest of the Enterprise just before the engines explode. The force of the explosion sends the saucer to crash land on the planet below.

Meanwhile, Picard finds a way under the force field and attacks Soran. They tussle for a while, but Picard fails to stop Soran from launching his deadly probe. The probe destroys the sun; the Nexus alters course; and both Soran and Picard are engulfed in ribbon of light...

Picard wakes up in a Victorian-era home, surrounded by his frippily dressed imaginary children and his lace-covered imaginary wife. With the help of Whoopi Goldberg’s ghost (I think) he recognizes it as the wish-fulfilling false reality of the Nexus. (Oh, and there was some stuff near the beginning about Picard’s bottomless grief over his only nephew getting killed in a fire. That grief comes into play here, sort of.) He abandons his imaginary family to go looking for another Nexus resident...

Kirk is chopping wood outside a rustic cottage when Picard comes across him. There’s some bemused hamminess on Kirk’s part while Picard attempts to convince him to come back and help him defeat Soran. Kirk is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees. According to Whoopi’s ghost, the Nexus can take them back to any place or point in time they wish to go, so they go back to Soran’s sun-destroying base moments before the launch. The resulting fight ends with Soran dead in the explosion that destroys his probe, and Kirk crushed beneath a fallen bridge. He gets a nauseatingly poignant death scene before the rest of Star Fleet arrives to pick them up.

Later, Picard delivers the movie’s nonsensical but nonetheless heavy-handed moral while his crew roots through the wreckage of the Enterprise.

Thoughts:

Is this before or after he terrorized all of Middle Earth?And now, the Moral of the Story: Don’t murder hundreds of millions of people to achieve immortality; it’s just not worth it...

For those of you keeping score, this is the third consecutive Star Trek film to garner a Rifftrax commentary, and of those, three have had morals that make no sense at all. Star Trek V doesn’t want us to worship genocidal aliens. Star Trek VI came down against wanton slaughter for political purposes. Star Trek VII, a.k.a. Generations comes down against wanton slaughter for mad science purposes. And I’m wondering, what happened to the old Star Trek? You know, the goofy starship melodrama that took on issues like the meaning of freedom and the uselessness of racism. I admit I haven’t done a comprehensive study or anything, but I’d be willing to bet a shiny new quarter that the vast majority of Star Trek viewers are normal, regular people, and not mad scientists, maniacal despots, or worshipers of space-based ethereal heads at all. Did Star Trek’s producers run out of real-life issues to comment on? Is modern society so devoid of social problems that the science fiction screenwriters of the present feel compelled to harangue us about imaginary new ones?

It should be noted that Generations is the best of the three Trek films featured on Rifftrax, though if you look at the last two, it would have been difficult to be worse. Not that this film doesn’t try, since the ultimately nonsensical story is riddled with gaping plot holes. (Why does Picard have to bother Kirk? If he goes back by himself and fails to stop Soran again, the Nexus can send him back for as many times as he needs until he succeeds. For that matter, why does Picard need to go back to that point in time at all? The Nexus can drop him any place at any time; if I were him I’d head to Earth a bit further back in time to save my nephew from the fire, and then send a message to the Enterprise detailing Soran’s plot. They’d imprison him immediately after rescuing him from the Romulans and several stars would never implode as scheduled.) And then there’s android Data’s emotion chip—a tiny device that sparks a horrible subplot whose irritation factor defies all description. The only reason this movie stands head and shoulders above its predecessors is that it casts trained professionals instead of aging has-beens.

Like the previous Star Trek tracks, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy team up to provide the commentary. It starts off well with Mike raving about how his kids painted his living room wall like a star field and Kevin ranting about how much he hates the character Chekov. During the unfunny holodeck hijinks, Kevin says, “The Prime Directive should have been ‘Never Do Comedy.’” When Patrick Stewart and Malcolm McDowell meet at Soran’s base, Mike says, “It’s good to see another British actor selling out to this turd of a franchise.” When Picard tries to pull Kirk from the bridge’s wreckage, Mike puts on his best Art Garfunkel impression to sing, “Like a bridge over mangled Jim Kirk.” Superior mockery from Mike and Kevin make it funny, but more than that, superior actors debasing themselves in the service of Star Trek goofiness take away most of the pain associated with the franchise. It’s worth a look.

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R035 Fantastic Four

(2005, Action-Superheroes, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

This movie has a fetish for defenestration.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

A mediocre movie-length sitcom with superheroes in it.

Summary:

We bad...in the literal sense, unfortunately.Broke and desperate, renowned scientist Reed Richards begs his wealthy college pal Victor von Doom for funding to continue his research into cosmic space storm phenomenon. The unmistakably evil Victor agrees, intending to steal and profit from the results.

They go up into space to gather data, along with world-renowned twenty-something supermodel scientist Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her preternaturally obnoxious younger brother Johnny, and Reed’s friend and bodyguard Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis). Various love triangles and rivalry antics ensue—until the cosmic storm arrives, earlier and more powerful than anticipated. The various cast members reveal varying degrees of heroism during their attempts to rescue Ben from an ill-timed space walk. All except for Victor, whose cowardice leads him to lock them all out of the space station’s protective shielding.

Ben awakes some time later in a hospital on Earth, alive and in apparent good health. Everyone goes about their love triangle/rivalry antics until strange things begin to happen. Johnny bursts into flames while seducing a nurse on the ski slopes. Sue drops several rather transparent hints that she’d rather be with Reed than with Victor; the clueless Reed fails to notice, and she turns transparent herself out of frustration. In her surprise, she knocks over wine bottle; Reed’s arm stretches to twice its normal length to catch it. Ben turns into a pile of orange rocks and crashes through a wall in his desperation to escape.

Ben hops a freight train home to see his wife. She comes outside in an inconspicuous negligee to meet him, but flees in horror when she sees his rocky form. The next day he sits disconsolate at the edge of a freeway bridge. A depressed executive-type interrupts his morose cogitation with a suicide attempt. Ben prevents the jump by frightening the man into traffic.

Suicide Man falls down in front of a semi; Ben leaps onto the freeway to demolish it before it can squish him. This leads to a multi-car pileup, which results in a fire truck accident and the explosion of a truck full of oxygen tanks. Fortunately, Reed, Sue, and Johnny happen to be there as well, ready to deal with each emergency with overlong limbs, fire-retardedness, protective force fields, and invisible nudity. The television news crews arrive to turn them all into instant celebrities, apparently oblivious to the fact that they caused all the accidents in the first place. Ben’s wife arrives as well, to throw her wedding ring at his feet.

In the many montage sequences that follow, the foursome sequesters themselves in Reed’s only slightly run-down palatial penthouse laboratory/apartment while they search for a cure. Reed and Sue alternately fight and flirt while Ben mopes and Johnny chafes at his confinement. He breaks out to show off at a motor rally, provoking a fight with Ben and Reed.

Meanwhile, Victor fights for the future of his company, which was somehow thrown into ruination and chaos after the disastrous episode in space. Not only that, but it appears that the space station shield did not protect him from the cosmic storm energy after all, as his body slowly transforms into electrified metal. He murders his corporate rivals with his newfound powers, and then manipulates Ben into trying out Reed’s experimental Cosmic-Storm-Reversal chamber. It works, and Ben becomes human again.

Magic soap bubble, protect me!This is all according to Victor’s evil plan, of course. Now that Ben is soft and pink, Victor throws him through a wall, then twangs Reed several times like a rubber band before throwing him off the building. He takes his elastic nemesis back to his own penthouse office/laboratory for a little frozen torture session.

Sue and Johnny arrive at the laboratory to find Ben in the ruins, having survived his trip through several inches of metal and glass none the worse for wear. They tell him to find a safe place to hide while they go rescue Reed. Johnny sees a heat-seeking missile coming towards him (fired, of course, by Victor) and leaps from the building. He bursts into flames and flies away, leading the missile to impact harmlessly in the ocean. Sue, in the meantime, uses her invisibility to creep into Victor’s lab and release Reed.

Victor catches her, but before he can kill her, Ben bursts through the wall. (I think he somehow reversed the Cosmic-Storm-Reversal chamber to get his rocky powers back, but that’s just an assumption on my part.) The resulting fight sends all involved through large numbers of plate glass windows until everyone finally ends up on a busy street corner. Johnny heats Victor until he’s white hot; Sue puts a force field around them to keep the heat from scorching everyone else; Ben knocks over a fire hydrant; and Reed twists the water stream at the superheated Victor. Somehow this makes Victor’s metal body inflexible, defeating him. The onlookers applaud, though once again the Fantastic Four (as they’ve become known) have done nothing more than cause enormous property damage while taking care of a problem they created in the first place.

In the denouement, Reed proposes to Sue, Johnny irritates Ben, and some electrical interference implies that Victor will be back in the inevitable sequel.

Thoughts:

Perhaps the most irritating interpretation of a comic book superhero ever committed to film.Okay, Victor (a.k.a. Dr. Doom) hates Reed (a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic). Why? Well, Victor’s turning metallic and seems to think it’s Reed’s fault—an accusation I can’t really argue with—but later he decides to embrace his powerful new form, so...I don’t know. I read a Fantastic Four book or two as a youngster, but not far back enough to figure out the origins of this particular supervillain-superhero dispute, and apparently the filmmakers didn’t either. With the reasons thus lost in comic book antiquity, no one seems to think the issue important enough to make up new ones. Victor just hates Reed, and that’s all the filmmakers feel that we, the audience, need to know.

This unsupported devotion to the Fantastic Four mythos applies to the other relationships as well. One of the movie’s few innovations is to make Reed into a whiny, unlikable puss, and Sue into a catty little brat. As a couple they spend more than half of their “love scenes” on nasty, pointless bickering. Why would any two characters this wrong for each other want to get married? Well, they were married in the comic books, and dagnabbit, they’re going to get married in the movie too.

Even the departures from comic book continuity defy reasonable logic. Why do Sue and Reed want to cure their powers instead of use them? Why does Ben’s wife leave him? Why does the blind girl like him? Why is Johnny such a huge, gigantic tool? Does anyone in this movie ever do anything at all for any other reason than “the script told me to?” (Answer: No.) For a really good movie starring these characters (or as close to these characters as makes no difference) allow me to recommend Pixar’s The Incredibles. I’d say this movie is a steaming pile of crap, but that would be unfair. Crap can at least be used as fertilizer.

Fortunately, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy are on hand to ease our pain. An opening shot of Victor’s metal mask leads to Kevin’s comment, “Al Gore looks like hell before makeup.” Later, when Victor pauses to inspect the humanitarian award plaque on his mask, Kevin adds, “In recognition of humanitarianism: an iron Satan mask.” As Ben’s wrestling match with Victor goes on and on through several windows, Kevin announces, “It looks like clobberin’ time will go into extra innings.” The commentary track lifts this horrible movie well above its source material, making it a lot of fun to watch.

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R034 Grey's Anatomy

(2005, Drama/Television, color)

Riffers:

Mike and Bridget Nelson

They make the Breakfast Club seem level-headed and mature.

Rating **1/2

In a nutshell:

Medical professionals behave like junior high students, to the detriment of their patients.

Summary:

I dedicate this DVD cover to the ubiquitous treatment montage.Dr. Meredith Grey, an intern fresh from medical school, begins her internship at a prestigious Seattle hospital. Beyond that, however, the first two episodes of this hit television hospital drama appear to be 100% plot-free.

What we get instead is a jumble of interlocking vignettes. These include, but are not limited to: an ill-advised sexual encounter in an elevator; a teenage beauty pageant contestant with an aneurysm; a famous mother with an undefined mental illness; various rivalry antics among the other interns; rampant unprofessionalism as full-fledged doctors insult each other in front of their patients; several montages of unwelcome hugs; a supermodel performing rectal examinations; a rape victim whose abdominal surgery turns up a chunk of her attacker’s wing-wang; the subsequent arrival, treatment, and arrest of her wing-wang-less attacker; a newborn with a heart defect; a search for roommates; and much, much more. Co-stars former teen heartthrob Patrick Dempsey as the Object of Her Affections.

Thoughts:

Dr. Chad Feelgood.How did we ever start thinking of hospitals as glamorous? There’s the saving and losing of lives, certainly, but there’s also the various seeping bodily fluids, open wounds, invasive testing and so on. Most hospital dramas emphasize the former while glossing over the latter. To its credit, Grey’s Anatomy includes all of the above, though it should be noted that patients who cannot double as Victoria’s Secret models are restricted to ailments which allow them to remain fully clothed.

Then there’s the staff. In all the times I’ve been to the hospital (a small but significant number) I have never once had a supermodel stick her fingers in my bum. Part of this may be because I haven’t needed a rectal examination since my age was in single digits, but mostly it’s because there are no supermodel hospital workers. These people work hard. No matter how attractive they may be in the outside world, a few hours in scrubs will transform anyone into a haggard, shapeless creature with a zombie stare.

And then, of course, there’s the sniping. Interpersonal and professional conflicts are common in all industries, and hospitals are no exception. I am not employed by a medical facility, but my work gets me involved in their disputes all the time. In my experience, such conflicts are usually either slow burns based on constant subtle harassment or quick, explosive outbursts that result in someone’s resignation, transfer, or termination. What they are not is constant trash talking in front the patients. Grey’s Anatomy seems to think that all doctors behave like thirteen-year-old girls. Even the doctors on M*A*S*H weren’t this immature. Hawkeye Pierce may have been a promiscuous goofball on his own time, but he was always a doctor in front of his patients.

Dr. Meredith Teenybopper.Of course, if I just break down and admit that this is a fantasy with no apparent aspirations to medical realism, then I have to admit that it’s a slick and light-hearted prime-time soap opera, sure to delight people who are into that kind of thing.

Mike Nelson’s wife Bridget joins him for the commentary, and almost immediately delivers my favorite line on the track. When Mike asks her if this is the womaniest show on television, she replies, “Audrey Hepburn filing her nails while drinking a cup of tea, eating half a caesar salad, and sitting in a field of daisies while gossiping on a cell phone is less womany than Grey's Anatomy.” Later, when an appendectomy gone wrong escalates into an argument, she says, “I’m glad to know my doctors are insulting each other’s manhoods while I’m bleeding my guts out.” When we fade to black during the sick baby subplot, Mike cries, “Do not change the channel or the baby will die!” It’s a competent if rather shallow show; not my cup of tea, but Mike and Bridget make it fun to watch regardless.

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R033 Predator

(1987, Action/SciFi, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson

This moment brought to you by Creatine.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

Commandos take on an alien hunter in a South American jungle.

Summary:

Now in Infraredvision(tm): a nearly opaque filter that makes everything look like vague shapes appearing in a constantly stirred vat of strawberry jam.U.S. military advisor Dillon (Carl Weathers) asks his friend Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of commandos to help him rescue a lost cabinet minister from the depths of a guerilla-infested South American jungle. Dutch agrees, so Dillon accompanies them on an inconspicuous helicopter ride deep into enemy territory, blasting surreptitious Little Richard songs as they go.

They touch down a few miles away from their target, having somehow remained undetected by the remarkably inobservant guerrillas, and proceed through the jungle on foot. They come across the skinned and gutted remains of a troop of Green Berets. No one can figure out what did that to them, nor does Dillon admit to knowing why there were Green Berets so far into the jungle.

They reach the enemy compound and charge in with their guns a-blazin’. After several hundred thousand explosions, knifings, shootings, and post-kill puns, they poke through the guerilla corpses piled at their feet, eventually discovering that there never was a cabinet minister. Dillon admits he fabricated the story to get them to help wipe out an unfriendly military base. He takes the camp’s last survivor prisoner (a shapely young woman named Anna), so that he can take her back to his base for questioning.

Dutch and his crew are peeved at the deception, and sullenly trek back through the jungle to the helicopter rendezvous point. Anna bonks her guard on the head with a stick and makes a run for it. A commando named Hawkins chases her down. A camouflaged creature with infrared eyes jumps out to kill him and drag away his corpse.

The others arrive to find Anna covered with Hawkins’ blood and frightened into insensibility. They pursue the almost invisible creature into the jungle, but it turns back to blast another commando named Blain (Jesse Ventura). Realizing their danger, Dutch orders his remaining men to find a defensible position and rig it with traps to catch their antagonist.

Extraterrestrial Jamaicans aren't nearly as mellow.Something crashes through the traps in the middle of the night. An incredibly sweaty commando named Mac attacks and stabs it to death, but flares reveal it to be just a wild pig. While they’re off dealing with the pig situation, the creature sneaks into their camp and makes off with Blain’s body.

Realizing that the thing can see their technological traps, Dutch decides to try again with traps made of trees, foliage, and vines. This eventually works, as something sneaking into the camp sets off all their traps at once. It breaks out and flees into the jungle. Now completely insane with anger and fear, Mac pursues it. Dillon follows, determined to help Mac hold it off until the rest can reach the helicopter rendezvous point. The creature kills both of them easily, and then runs down Native American guide Billy and the wounded Poncho as well. Anna scampers ahead into the jungle while a poorly aimed blast knocks Dutch over a cliff and into a river.

Dutch ends up in a mud bank downstream. He hears the creature splash into river behind him and curls up against a tree root to wait for death. The cold mud covering him foils the creature’s infrared vision, and it passes him by. Dutch uses his relative invisibility to spend the night rigging traps and primitive weapons. He attracts the creature with a bonfire and shoots at it with gunpowder-tipped arrows. He wounds it, and they fight all the way back to Dutch’s trap-filled hollow. The creature recognizes the trap and goes around, but stops to pose beneath the trap’s heavy counterweight. Dutch springs the empty trap, the counterweight comes down, and the creature is crushed. The creature uses its alien wrist device to activate a self destruct. Dutch manages to avoid the explosion, which draws the helicopter back to pick him up.

Thoughts:

I vill terminate ze high vorker's compensation premiums of Cal-ee-forn-ee-a.Predator is a deservedly iconic film. Sure it’s a dumb, violent, homoerotic action movie whose well-greased heroes can walk unscathed through a rain of bullets while their heavily accented foes fall around them by the hundred, but that describes most of Schwarzenegger’s (or Stallone’s, or Van Damme’s) work from the eighties. This movie is the apogee of such films because it acknowledges and embraces itself with admirable single-mindedness. There is, for instance, just enough characterization to let us know who these people are and how they behave, without all the unnecessary clutter of their personal lives. Why do we need elaborate backstories in an action film? Would Blain’s character have had greater depth if they’d told us that his love for Little Richard music and Skoal Bandits came about because he was raised by a blind African American tobacco farmer? I submit that it would not. The alien predator hunts humans for their skulls. Would it really make a difference if they told us why? I submit that it would, and not for the better, since the arbitrary explanation would probably insult our intelligence while interrupting the carefully paced action sequences. This is something modern action films have yet to learn, as most of them still contain endless CGI, hamfisted political statements, and enough plot details to fill a three-volume reference work.

Mike Nelson goes this commentary track alone, and one of the first things he wants to know is, “What is it about this movie that it managed to produce so many novelty governors?” (Of note: Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California as of this writing; Jesse Ventura was governor of Minnesota 1999 to 2003; and Sonny Landham (Billy) ran unsuccessfully for governor of Kentucky in 2003.) Much of the film’s first half consists of Dutch and company looking over their shoulders, leading to Mike’s comment, “Maybe ‘Predator’ is a Spanish word meaning ‘Creep around in the jungle unceasingly.’” Later, as Dutch escapes the Predator’s laser to flee into the jungle, Mike says, “[Predator] used the slight temporary pain ray on Arnold instead of the death ray.” It’s a decent film, and Mike’s mockery of it is spot on. It’s worth a look.

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R032 Glitter

(2001, Drama/Musical, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl

And the crowd goes tepid.

Rating: **

In a nutshell:

Mariah Carey expends no effort whatsoever while others work to make her a star.

Summary:

It's a sad day when the poster has more plot than the movie.Billie Frank (Mariah Carey) grows up with her alcoholic mom...blah, blah, blah...goes into the music business and is hired to ghost the voice of a less talented singer...etc., etc...dates a DJ who produces tracks that catapult her to superstardom...rapeta, rapeta...

I know that the above paragraph contains a lot of ellipses and filler words. Usually I use these for comedic effect and/or to indicate that the story is clichéd and boring, but in this case I think they may have actually been written into the script. (Or, as Mike puts it, “This director’s from the Yada, Yada, Yada School of Filmmaking.”) “First this will happen,” the filmmakers said, “Then that, and then that other thing. Stuff will probably happen in between.” “What kind of stuff?” ask the hardworking assistant filmmakers. “Doesn’t matter,” comes the reply. And thus the rest of the movie is filled with whatever can be thought of at the last minute, such as:

a) A subplot in which Mariah’s addict mom abandons her to social services, promising to come back for her just as soon as she’s clean and sober. This never happens, though DJ boyfriend Dice finds out where her mom lives just before he dies in subplot b. Mom greets her with open arms in the last few seconds of the film, with nary an explanation for the abandonment. (And don’t try to tell me her mom lost track of her. According to the film, Mariah’s character has been an international superstar for months if not years before the tearful reunion.)

Our chemistry-free leading couple.b) A subplot in which Dice agrees to pay sleazy R&B producer Timothy Walker (Terrence Howard) one hundred thousand to buy out Billie’s ghosting contract. Walker releases Billie but Dice later refuses to pay for no easily explainable reason. (Of course no backup singer, however talented, is worth that kind of money. But if he didn’t want to pay, he shouldn’t have made the deal in the first place, especially not with a violent street pimp masquerading as a music producer.) The dispute inevitably escalates to relationship problems, violence, and murder. Near the end, Mariah shamelessly rips off A Star is Born by having Billie sing a tearful ode to her deceased boyfriend for a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.

c) Something that desperately wishes it was a subplot, involving a pair of fellow former orphanage dwellers who have become her backup singers and dancers. These characters (played by Da Brat and Tia Texada) don’t do much but hang around and reinforce the Sassy Ethnic Woman stereotype—though I suppose they subvert the cliché a little in that Sassy Ethnic Women are supposed to be wise, while these two couldn’t light a match with a burning candle.

Thoughts:

Ze glittah cannot ovahpowah ze ahteest!Much has been made of Mariah Carey’s wooden acting in this film, but I’m not sure if I agree. I’m not sure if I disagree either, since in order to pass judgment on her acting ability, I’d need to see some kind of acting performance. One of the oddest things about this film is that, though it’s ostensibly a vanity project for its star, it does very little to showcase her. Sure, she sings occasionally, and though I’m not exactly a fan, I’ll admit I’m impressed by her astonishing vocal agility and her inhuman range. The film’s focus on “her story,” however, seems to consist of the other actors performing around her; moving her along with them from place to place like a sparkly prop with breasts. Nothing says “drama” like a completely passive main character.

Also of note are the many extreme, attention-grabbing visual gimmicks throughout. The swish-pans, the fast-motion aerial shots, the “dolly in and zoom out while pulling the background out of focus” nonsense, the blinding thermonuclear explosion-esque wipes between the early jump cuts—most directors use these kinds of effects sparingly to enhance an already dramatic moment. Glitter director Vondie Curtis-Hall just tosses them around like confetti, providing a great deal of welcome but unintentional hilarity in an otherwise bland film.

Mary Jo Pehl, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known as Pearl Forrester, joins Mike Nelson on the commentary track. Her style differs from Mike’s and indeed from most of the other guest riffers in that she seems to be genuinely happy to be watching the film, laughing giddily at the film’s more ridiculous moments and occasionally at her co-riffer’s sillier jokes. (Most notably during the recording session with Eric Benét, when Mike shouts “Booty, booty, booty, booty, booty, booty!” and so on over the lascivious synthesizer music.) It’s refreshing to hear, and I hope she does more of these with Mike in the future. Other good comments come during the Alcoholic Mom and Neglected Kid bar duo when Mary asks, “Where’s Simon Cowell when you need him?” Later, during a discussion about an important album-related meeting at which Billie does not seem to have been present, Mike says, “She started to get involved in her own career, but just kind of lost interest.” Near the end, when the crowd is raging at Madison Square Garden, Mike wonders at their enthusiasm by saying, “These people do know they're about to see Billie Frank, right? It’s not like they're going to see an elephant fighting a whale, or the first confirmed leprechaun.” It’s an excruciatingly boring film, but Mary Jo’s joy is infectious, and she and Mike are clever enough to make it funny viewing.

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R031 Eragon

(2006, Fantasy-Sword and Sorcery, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Halt and be fabulous!

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

Like every other fantasy movie you’ve seen, only dumber.

Summary:

Paragons of masculine danger, all of them.Many years ago, the mystical land of Alagaesia was ruled by the mystical dragon riders, a band of mystical warrior-magicians who rode the length and breadth of the land on their mystical, telepathic dragons, righting wrongs, standing up for the oppressed and downtrodden, fighting for truth, justice, and the Alagaesian way—until the mystically evil Galbatorix and his dragon turned against his rider brothers. Galbatorix (John Malkovich) declared himself king, murdered every rider who opposed his rule (i.e., everyone who wasn’t him) and set up housekeeping in a black, forbidding fortress, decorated with bones and boiling hot lava.

That’s the backstory. Our story actually begins with mystical girl named Arya, who travels the length and breadth of the land with a mystical blue stone she stole from the king. A mystical, lank-haired sorcerer named Durza pursues her with his mystical tattooed cohorts. He captures her by setting the woods on fire, but she casts a spell that teleports the stone to a vague but presumably distant locale.

Cut to the presumably distant locale, where a temporarily unmystical lad named Eragon hunts for deer in the dead of night. A sudden flash of light scares away his game. He finds the blue stone and, after an unsuccessful attempt to trade it to the butcher for food, he takes it home.

There’s some teenage joviality and sinister soldier antics involving village’s obligatory Grizzled Loner™ (Jeremy Irons as Brom) but none of it seems to be important or even informative. Eventually the blue stone hatches into a baby dragon named Saphira. Over the course of a day, she grows to adult size and learns to telepathically project her thoughts with the echo-effect voice of Rachel Weisz.

Somehow Durza discovers that the stone, er, egg has hatched, and the location it hatched in. He sends a trio of oily, insectile mummies to kill Eragon and Saphira. Of course they’re out of the house when the bug mummies arrive, so they slaughter his father/uncle/caretaker person instead. Brom turns up and—surprise of surprises—he turns out to be a disguised agent of the Varden (i.e., a mystical freedom fighter). He helps Eragon flee the bug mummies (called Raz’ac), and explains that by hatching Saphira, he has become the first new dragon rider since the king slaughtered his cohorts, lo, these many years ago. This makes him the Varden’s only hope to defeat the evil Galbatorix once and for all.

They wander/train/fight tattooed bad guys for a while before ending up in a swampy village that appears to have been designed by the Second Little Pig. Eragon meets a wholly inconsequential fortuneteller and a random dark, brooding person before the tattooed baddies arrive for their scheduled Big Fight. Eragon immolates them all with an accidental spell and passes out.

He wakes up miles away with Brom and Saphira, who explain the vague and arbitrary rules of magic. They fly around and kill Raz’ac, and then dramatically reveal Brom’s tragic past—he used to be a dragon rider until an agent of Galbatorix killed his dragon. Later, a sexy, soft-focus nightmare calls Eragon to rescue Arya, now imprisoned in Durza’s mystical grunge fortress.

Even as a dragon, Rachel Weisz looks great.Against Brom’s advice, Eragon journeys to the fortress and sneaks inside. He’s already rescued Arya before he discovers it was a trap all along. Brom leaps in front of a mystical spear, and Eragon shoots Durza in the head. Too bad Durza can only be slain by piercing his heart. The random dark, brooding person shows up to cover their escape.

Brom dies a short time later, and the poisoned Arya falls into a semi-coma, leaving the random dark, brooding person (named Murtaugh) to guide Eragon to the Varden. They ride all the way there with an army of tattooed baddies on their heels. The elaborately costumed Varden welcome Eragon, Saphira, and Arya, but imprison Murtaugh due to a complicated set of circumstances, most of which seem to have been cut from the film. Everyone digs out the fanciest warrior outfits they can find to prepare for battle.

Durza and his armies attack. There’s a lot of grunting, groaning, flailing, and falling down while Eragon and Saphira fly high above the action to flame the enemy at will. Durza summons a ghost dragon or something to take his fight into the sky. There are some setbacks and near misses, but Eragon manages to stab his enemy through the heart before he crash lands on the battlefield with Saphira. He uses his magic to heal her (Look ma! I’m mystical now!) and passes out again. He wakes up later to cheers and fanfares, but he ignores it all to fly after Arya.

Meanwhile, Galbatorix’s rage causes him to slaughter an innocent tapestry, by which I assume he means to imply an upcoming sequel.

Thoughts:

...the shards of Narsil; the sword that cut the ring from Sauron's hand...This is the laziest fantasy film I’ve ever seen, and when I consider the sheer number of cheap Italian sword and sorcery flicks I’ve watched, that’s quite a statement. It’s got a decent budget; we can tell by the very nice dragon graphic they’ve provided. It’s also supposed to have elves, dwarves, and orcs (known in this setting as urgals), but it apparently can’t be bothered to differentiate them from humans with anything more than axle grease, facial hair, and faux-Polynesian tattoos. Come on, movie, I know you’ve got the money to make the Raz’ac into the truly frightening insect monsters they’re supposed to be. So why, instead, did you decide to wrap a few guys in toilet paper and spray-paint them black?

At this point I think I’ve given it away, so I’ll just admit to it: I read and enjoyed book on which this movie was based. A lot of critics went on about how the movie is just a mishmash of clichés cribbed from every other fantasy film before it, and while that criticism is certainly valid, I don’t see this as a major problem. The book is a mishmash of clichés as well, but redeems itself with an astonishing amount of meticulously plotted detail.

These details are where the movie fails. Armed with prior knowledge of the plot, I was not too terribly confused by the strangely perfunctory story presented in the movie. This made writing the above summary a little difficult; I began to type something like the following, for instance: “Eragon lives with his Cousin Roran and his Uncle Garrow because his mother was married to the...” and then I had to hold down the backspace key because I remembered the movie never explained any of this. Not that Roran and Garrow were cut—they both had quite a bit of screen time at the beginning. They just didn’t seem to serve any kind of purpose, and if anyone ever mentioned their names, I must have missed it. Why include these characters at all if you’re not going to use them? It’s as if the people in charge of turning the book into a screenplay just included information from every twentieth page instead of, you know, doing an actual adaptation. If I was Christopher Paolini (author of the source material), I would be livid.

Mike Nelson and his most prolific guest-riffer Kevin Murphy team up again for the commentary track. They kick things off by making fun of the ridiculous fantasy names; Kevin refers to Arya as “Recitative” and “Leitmotif” while Mike calls the fantasy setting “Analgesic.” After the novelty of this wears off, they move on to making fun of the film’s numerous borrowed elements; when the Raz’ac show up to demand the dragon egg, Mike cries, “I sold it to a moisture farmer named Lars!” When lank-haired Durza appears to his band of evil, tattooed auto mechanics, Kevin calls him, “The poor man’s Snape.” The final sequences with the elaborately costumed Varden lead to many, many comments about their Chorus Line battle outfits. It’s an arbitrary, nonsensical film, but it’s bright, colorful, and fast-paced as well. Combined with the commentary track, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

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R030 Casino Royale

(2006, Action-Spies, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Nothing Bond touches can cost less than eleven thousand dollars.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

James Bond becomes a high-stakes gambler to foil a terrorist financier.

Summary:

With his tie rakishly undone, Bond is ready for some lovin' and killin'.In the recent past (as indicated by the grainy black and white film stock) up-and-coming secret service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns his “double-oh” status by killing a foreign spy, and then assassinating the British government official that was selling secrets to him. The final gunshot segues us into a computer-generated opening credit sequence filled with computer-animated playing cards and silhouettes—none of the which, curiously enough, belong to scantily clad women.

Cut to a jungle-based terrorist camp in a fictional African country. A sinister middle-aged man introduces the terrorist commander to an even more sinister scar-faced man named Le Chiffre (pronounced “La Sheaf”) who occasionally, and for no apparent reason, weeps blood instead of saline. Le Chiffre is an investment broker who specializes in terrorist money. He promises that he will invest the commander’s ill-gotten loot in no-risk stocks, and then immediately bets it all against the widely-predicted success of a company that manufactures giant airplanes.

Cut to Madagascar, where a cheering crowd watches a cobra fight a mongoose while James Bond and his inept cohort watch a suspected terrorist bomber. The inept cohort gives them away, resulting in a lengthy chase up, down, and through a construction site that ends in the embassy of another fictional, terrorist-run African nation.

Bond understands the rules against violence in foreign embassies, but follows the bomber in anyway. He shoots up the building, executes the bomber, and escapes with the bomber’s backpack and cell phone. His superior, M (Judi Dench), gives him a half-hearted lecture and sends him to hide out somewhere until the heat on her agency blows over. Bond uses the bomber’s cell phone to track his employer to the Bahamas. Further security camera machinations and questioning of ritzy club staff lead him to a gambler/terrorist handler living nearby.

Bond wins the handler’s car at the gaming table and celebrates by seducing the handler’s wife. The information he gleans from her causes him to break off their pairing to follow her husband to a macabre gambling museum, where he is discovered and forced to kill the object of his pursuit. By this time, however, an airport locker key has already been handed off to a replacement terrorist bomber. Using the handler’s cell phone, Bond tracks the new bomber into the airport and, after a lengthy fuel-truck chase, prevents him from blowing up the latest giant airplane prototype.

M’s team of spy support staff figure out the rest. Le Chiffre used the money acquired from terrorists to invest heavily in the giant airplane manufacturer’s failure, and then hired the handler to arrange said failure. With their prototype intact, however, the manufacturer has succeeded, meaning that Le Chiffre now owes an astronomical amount of money to a lot of violent, murderous men with no collective sense of humor. In a desperate, last-ditch effort to save himself, Le Chiffre has enrolled in a terrorist gambling party at Casino Royale, where he will hopefully win enough to pay them back. M’s plan is simple: she will send her agency’s best gambler to the party and leave Le Chiffre destitute, hoping he will give them information on his organization in exchange for protection from his creditors. And her agency’s best gambler just happens to be...

Bond is met by a representative of the Treasury Department on the train to Casino Royale. Her name is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and she decides how much money Bond gets to gamble with, and when. The verbal sparring and innuendo eventually subside, and we get into the game.

Grubbiest. Bond. Ever.Fortunately, the card game only happens in spurts. A brief bit of dealing and betting, and then Bond and Le Chiffre both have to deal with the arrival of Le Chiffre’s terrorist African creditors from the beginning. A bit more gambling, and then Le Chiffre cleans Bond out on an extraordinarily lucky draw.

Vesper refuses to finance him further, so Bond strides across the room to finish off his opponent with a steak knife. Fellow gambler Felix stops him with a confession and an offer. The confession: he is not actually a terrorist, but a CIA agent sent for the same purpose as Bond. The offer: he knows he is not good enough to out-gamble Le Chiffre, but he also knows that Bond might be. He will give Bond the money to buy back into the game if he promises to give Le Chiffre to the CIA when he wins. Bond agrees.

More gambling, and Le Chiffre’s girlfriend poisons Bond’s drink. Bond excuses himself so that he can stumble to his car, where the spy support staff back home talks him through the antidote process. He almost makes it, but fails to attach all the electrodes on his defibrillator before he passes out. Vesper arrives just in time to put everything back together and restart his heart.

More gambling, and Bond finally bankrupts his last four opponents. The CIA contacts Le Chiffre about asylum in exchange for information, and he presumably agrees. Bond and Vesper’s mutual loathing gives way to flirtatious banter. Vesper is called away by their local contact. Bond realizes something about their local contact and rushes out just in time to see her being pulled into a fleeing car. Bond leaps into his own car to give chase, but is forced to swerve and roll his vehicle when he speeds round a corner to find Vesper bound and lying in the middle of the road. Le Chiffre’s men pull his unconscious body from the wreck.

Bond wakes up in his underwear, tied to a seatless chair in a sewer. Le Chiffre beats his groin with a knotted rope while demanding the password to the account with the winnings. Bond refuses and taunts him with the knowledge that, no matter what Le Chiffre does, his creditors will kill him for losing their money. This goes on for a while, and then the sinister middle-aged man from the beginning breaks in to shoot Le Chiffre in the head. Bond passes out again.

He wakes up in the hospital with Vesper. Their flirtatious banter gives way to soul-baring honesty, and they make love in an unused hospital room. He resigns from the secret service to travel the world with Vesper, and they’ve gotten as far as Venice before M calls him to ask where the Treasury’s seed money has gotten to. Bond declares that he will wire it over today, and then starts investigating. Apparently, the money was transferred to the wrong account, and is even now being withdrawn at a bank in Venice.

Bond follows and catches Vesper handing the money over to Le Chiffre’s former associates. The subsequent shootout sinks an old building into the canals of Venice. Bond tries to save Vesper, but she deliberately drowns herself rather than face him again. Later, M reveals that Le Chiffre’s employer had kidnapped her former lover, blackmailing her into helping them, but she abandoned him to run away with Bond. The only reason Bond is still alive now is because she traded the money for his life. M then concludes that they will never know who that employer is.

Bond hangs up, and then finds a message on his phone from Vesper, sent before she died. It says “Mr. White,” and lists a phone number. The name belongs to the sinister middle-aged man who killed Le Chiffre. Bond and his gun pay him a visit.

Thoughts:

Yum, delicious metaphorical blood.For a movie named after a gambling establishment, Casino Royale features surprisingly little in the way of card play. No one even mentions the terrorist gambling tournament until minute fifty-six, and Bond doesn’t arrive at the eponymous casino until minute sixty-nine. Take out everything before, after, and in between, and you’re left with maybe ten minutes of poker footage. This is a good thing; poker is a bit like golf in that it is probably exciting to play, but is excruciatingly boring for a layman to watch for any length of time.

In fact, almost all of the things in this movie are good things. The franchise got more than a little silly after George Lazenby’s one-shot turn as the iconic spy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and never really recovered as each successive film more or less parodied its predecessors. This film deliberately goes against the grain by including no puns, very few gadgets, a lot of gritty violence, and only one implied sexual encounter. Basically, the filmmakers took out almost every element we’ve learned to associate with Bond and made it work anyway, turning the once-glitzy science fiction series into a highly entertaining crime thriller.

Of course Mike Nelson and co-riffer Kevin Murphy make fun of it anyway. It’s still a spy movie after all, and, as Mike has proved with his commentary tracks for movies like Halloween, X-Men, and The Fellowship of the Ring, a good movie from a ridiculous genre is still fair game. When Bond pursues an acrobatic suspect through a Madagascar construction site, Kevin says, “I think it’s turning into a spontaneous Cirque du Soleil.” When it’s almost an hour in, and there still hasn’t been any mention of Casino Royale, Mike cries, “I’m going to make a movie called Horses, Horses, Horses, and there’s not going to be a single horse in it!” Later, as yet another close-up of a cell phone helps Bond find his suspect, Mike supplies the product placement tag line, “Sony Ericsson: Our Phones Can’t Actually Do This.” It’s an exciting enough movie without the commentary, but it’s still got just enough silliness in it to make watching it with the commentary worthwhile.

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R029 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

(1971, Children/Musical, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Neil Patrick Harris

You don’t lose this many people on a tour of the open-manhole factory.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

An eccentric candy-maker holds a contest to find himself an heir.

Summary:

'I never dreamed that I would climb over the moon in ecstasy' is the kind of lyric we don't get in kids' movies anymore.Eccentric chocolateer Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) closed his factory to the public years ago, and yet he continues to produce mouth-watering confections despite his apparent lack of a workforce. Children everywhere scrimp and save to buy his candy, each one of wishing for a lifetime supply of chocolate and a chance to see inside the marvelous candy-making facility. An official announcement is made: a lucky five will get their wish if they find a golden ticket inside specially marked Wonka Bars™.

A chocolate-buying frenzy descends upon the world as everyone—children, adults, scientists, psychiatrists, and criminals alike—tries like mad to find the coveted golden tickets. Augustus Gloop, spokesmodel for childhood obesity, finds the first. He refuses to stop eating to talk to the press, but he’s got time for the sinister, scar-faced man that shovels bratwurst onto his plate while he whispers in the greedy youngster’s ear.

The preternaturally demanding Veruca Salt finds the next. Or rather, her father orders his enormous staff of nut-shelling factory workers to find it for her in an effort to appease her shrill demands. The scar-faced man has a word with her as well.

Veteran gum-chewer Violet Beauregard has to wrest the newsman’s microphone away from her used car-salesman father to tell her tale of finding the third ticket. She doesn’t quite tell us though, opting instead to show off a month-old wad of chewing gum. The scar-faced man approaches…

The appropriately named Mike Teavee won’t respond to reporter’s questions until after his show is over. His parents tell the press about his finding of the fourth golden ticket. The scar-faced man waits for the commercial to speak to the television-obsessed boy.

Meanwhile, Charlie Bucket lives with his laundress mom and his bed-ridden grandparents. They’re so poor, all they can afford to eat is cabbage broth. Fortunately, Charlie’s new job as a paperboy will allow for an occasional loaf of bread and some tobacco for his Grandpa Joe. He only manages to scrape together enough for two ticketless candy bars before a Paraguayan gambler announces he’s found the fifth ticket. Charlie finds a dollar in the gutter and buys himself a couple more, just because he’s hungry. While he eats the first, he overhears some bystanders discussing their distaste for Paraguayan gamblers who forge tickets. Charlie opens the second bar, and sees that glint of gold…

The scar-faced man stops him on his way home. His name is Slugworth, and his candy company will pay any amount for a sample Wonka’s amazing new confection, the Everlasting Gobstopper. Charlie continues towards home.

Charlie’s discovery is enough to get Grandpa Joe out of bed for the first time in twenty years. Next morning, he and Charlie join their less-than-savory fellow winners at the gates of Wonka’s factory. The man himself emerges, feigning infirmity for a few inexplicable minutes before springing up to welcome his guests. He invites them inside, browbeats them into signing a huge and complicated contract, and then proceeds to pick them off one by one, as follows:

Augustus Gloop: The first room is the chocolate room, reached through a series of confusing doors with musical locks. This room includes an idyllic, edible countryside with grass made of sugar and a waterfall of chocolate. Augustus leans over to drink greedily from the chocolate river, and then falls in. A nearby pipe sucks him up into another part of the factory. The Oompa Loompas (Wonka’s diminutive orange-skinned and green haired workers) sing a song of their disdain for overeaters while Mrs. Gloop is led away.

Violet Beauregard: Next up is the inventing room, reached by paddleboat down the chocolate river, through a dark tunnel filled with psychedelic images of insects and headless chickens. This room is significant for the strange machines it contains, including one that produces the coveted Everlasting Gobstoppers. Wonka gives them one each while swearing them all to secrecy. Another machine produces strips of gum, each of which contains a three-course meal. Violet steals one and marvels at the first two courses. They all shriek in surprise when she turns into third course (dessert) by swelling up into a giant blueberry. The Oompa Loompas sing of their disdain for gum chewers while they roll her away for juicing.

Transparent references to slavery are okay as long as you get chocolate out of them.Charlie Bucket: They pass through a bubble-filled room where Wonka makes something called Fizzy Lifting drink. When Wonka and the others move on, Grandpa Joe holds Charlie back to try some. They drift upwards, reveling in their newfound powers of flight…until they start drifting dangerously close to the giant fan blades on the ceiling. They discover they can get down by belching out the lifting gas. They reach the floor and hurry to rejoin the others.

Veruca Salt: The next room is one in which giant geese lay giant chocolate eggs wrapped in gold foil. Directly below each is an eggdicator, which keeps the good eggs and drops the bad ones into the garbage chute. Veruca demands a giant goose, and throws a musical fit when Wonka won’t sell her one. She sits on an eggdicator, which says “Bad Egg” and drops her into the garbage chute. The Oompa Loompas sing of their disdain for demanding spoiled little brats, and then Veruca’s father falls into the garbage chute trying to rescue her.

Mike Teavee: The last room is the Television room, reached by a giant foam-spurting contraption called the Wonkamobile. Inside, Wonka demonstrates a machine that can turn giant bars of chocolate into tiny bars of chocolate that pop out of your television. Mike Teavee gets a little overexcited and sends himself by television, coming out the other end only three inches high. Wonka sends him to be stretched in the taffy puller, while the Oompa Loompas sing of their disdain for kids who watch too much television.

Having run out of children to torment (except for Charlie) Wonka returns to his office. Charlie and Grandpa Joe follow him in to ask about the promised lifetime supply of chocolate. Wonka replies that the episode with the Fizzy Lifting Drink disqualifies him from receipt of same, pursuant to the contract they signed upon entry. They walk out, and Grandpa Joe determines to give Mr. Slugworth the Gobstopper he was seeking. Charlie disagrees, and returns to the office to give the Gobstopper back.

Mr. Wonka springs up to introduce his scar-faced employee, who was only posing as Slugworth to test the integrity of the golden ticket holders. He takes Charlie and Grandpa Joe into his glass elevator, which goes so far up that it crashes through the ceiling and flies out into the sky. As they look down on the factory below, Wonka declares that Charlie has proven himself worthy, and will someday succeed him as owner of the chocolate factory.

Thoughts:

If you check your DVD extras, you'll find that this actor now sports the ugliest mustache in all of Christendom.As a former child, you’ve probably already seen this film multiple times. I’ve seen it many, many times both as a child and as a parent, and it always makes me think about the exact same thing. Specifically: About how much I hate the “Cheer Up, Charlie” song, one of the longest, most boring musical compositions this side of Flower Drum Song. It’s even more boring than a night at the opera, in that having the actress who plays Mrs. Bucket gain three hundred pounds, don a metal brassier, and sing in German would have helped it immensely.

Aside from that, though, it’s thoroughly enjoyable film based on one of the most viciously fun little books ever written. Like many great children’s movies (e.g. The Polar Express, The Little Mermaid, Curse of the Wererabbit, and/or anything based on a fairy tale), it is essentially an over-the-top, carefully sanitized horror film with a happy ending. Contrived? Yes. Unrealistic? Certainly. Overly preachy? That’s usually a great detriment to a kid’s movie, but this one is so outrageous in its moralism that it’s impossible to take seriously.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t deserve mockery. Anything this ridiculous can’t help but inspire a snide comment or two, and the commentary track is full of them. Joining Mike is long-time television star Neil Patrick Harris of How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser M.D. When “The Candyman Can” describes a particular confection as “a rainbow, sprinkle it with dew, [mixed] with love,” Mike notes, “The FDA banned love as a food additive about a year ago.” When we meet Charlie’s eccentric teacher for the first time, Neil asks, “Stark raving insane, or just British?” Later, Neil says, “I had an Everlasting Gobstopper once. It tasted like banana-flavored paint thinner.” Not a bad movie, but an extremely goofy one; the overall effect of the commentary is to intensify the story’s zaniness, making a good movie even funnier.

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8/20/07

A Shocking Exposé of Souls in Bondage

Welcome, won't you?

I've put up the framework for The Film Crew DVDs, as well as a review for its first entry, the nauseatingly depressing Hollywood After Dark. Online tracking systems indicate that my copy of Killers From Space may arrive any day now.

In the meantime, I'll be back tomorrow with the framework for the next ten Rifftrax reviews, and commentary on the last ten.

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The Film Crew Guide

Please allow me to introduce you to The Film Crew. Or rather, don't, because if you're a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and/or its internet offspring Rifftrax, then you already know them. The premise is simple: Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett now work in a basement for a clueless bon vivant named Bob Honcho, who has burdened them with the heavy task of providing commentary tracks for every movie that doesn't currently have one. In practice, this means that many ancient, public domain films somehow missed by Mystery Science Theater will be released on DVD accompanied by the mockery they desperately deserve.

First up is Hollywood After Dark, during which I spent at least a quarter of the running time averting my eyes. Second is Killers from Space, the makers of which apparently thought that ping pong balls are the scariest things ever. The third is The Wild Women of Wongo, a cautionary tale that details the dangers of dating outside one's attractiveness bracket, while Giant of Marathon is pretty much just an excuse to look at breasts. Big, oily, heaving man-breasts.

Sadly, this project is now defunct, partly because of the long gap between filming and release, and partly from backroom maneuvering among the publishers. Mike, Bill and Kevin have since moved on to Rifftrax. Go give that a look-see, why don't you?

FC001 Hollywood After Dark
FC002 Killers From Space
FC003 The Wild Women of Wongo
FC004 Giant of Marathon

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