Welcome, won't you?
...Footloose, to be riffed by eighties dance movie veterans Cole Stratton and Janet Varney, to be released November 5, 2009.
Welcome, won't you?
Rifftrax's list of Riffs Most Requested by Fans was reduced by one today with the release of a commentary for Titanic. (I'm pretty sure the only title left on this list is Dune.) Given my limited viewing time of late, getting through this one's three-and-a-quarter-hour running time is going to take days. Get it here.
Welcome, won't you?
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen joins Battlefield Earth and Batman and Robin on the very short list of Riffed Movies That Hate You. If it weren't for the riffers pulling me through, I would have turned it off the second time the dogs got it on, and thus missed most of the robot minstrel show, the painful science lecture, the lapse into Species madness, the pot brownie hysteria, the kitten calendar hysteria, John Turturro's naked derriere, the community theater codger-bot, the giant metal testicles... Excuse me while I vomit...
Okay, I'm back. So yeah, it's a decent riff, but the film is an abomination. Keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to watch it. Full review here.
(1950s-ish, Educational/Industrial/Short, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Let’s just skip ahead to the inevitable engine rebuild.
In a Nutshell:
A gas station mechanic clashes with ditzy dame.
An avuncular service station manager reminisces about his favorite customer, a fantastically stupid young blond who stumbles her way through acres of auto maintenance malapropisms whenever she comes to the station. She agrees the manager’s every recommendation, racking up mechanic fees that give her abusive alcoholic husband apoplexy. We head round the malapropism/apoplexy circle two or three times before the husband finally storms down to the station to give the manager a piece of his mind. Given the narrator’s cheery demeanor, a happy ending is all but inevitable, but we won’t know for sure until the guys get around to riffing Call It Free, Part 2.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my gas station attendant experience before. It got me through my first couple years of college. Of course this was the nineties not the fifties, and instead of dithering about auto maintenance with idiotic housewives, I spent my time keeping the counters clean and the coffee pot full. Customer service-wise I mastered such important skills as chasing off drunks and schizophrenics while being painfully polite to gangsters, prostitutes and gun-toting rednecks. It was a very, um, special sort of neighborhood.
Call It Free hasn’t revealed its overarching customer service philosophy yet, but so far it seems to boil down to the following:
1) Your customers are morons.
2) You have to be nice to them anyway.
It’s a rather cynical message when you consider the short’s farcical tone, but if customer service can be defined as “keeping your customers satisfied, even when they’d rather not be,” it’s not far amiss. Maybe it’ll pull a reversal out of its derriere when we get to the second half, but I hope not.
The riffing works pretty well for a short that’s already a fairly successful comedy. A few of my favorite comments: When we see the title, Mike says, “I hope this is about beer.” When the manager goes on about his experiences at the service station, Bill adds, “Dropping out of the fourth grade was the best decision I ever made.” In the face of the woman’s relentless ignorance, Kevin recommends, “Please don’t speak anymore. You degrade the human race entire.” It’s a broadly played short that the riffers manage to punch up in just the right places.
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October is apparently nine-hour epic month down at Rifftrax. Their next commentary will serve up a highly deserved riffing of Titanic, a serious contender for the title of Most Undeserved Oscar of All Time. All they need to do now is squeeze in a Return of the King riff in before November.
The Titanic commentary will feature Mike, Kevin and Bill, and will be released on October 29, 2009.
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It's time for bonecrunching, earshattering, mindnumbing, unending robot warfare with part two of Michael Bay's (hopefully only) two-part magnum opus of 'splosions, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. All I can say is, I hope Mike, Bill and Kevin are funny enough to get me through this, and that they keep their voices raised.
Get it here. Review coming next week sometime.
(2007, Action/Superhero/Horror, color)
Matt Sloan, Aaron Yonda and Jason Stephens as “Nicholas Kage”
His Oscar is currently trying to escape.
In a Nutshell:
Nicholas Cage turns into a heavy metal album cover.
“There is a legend,” Sam Elliott growls—a line he will rumble and re-rumble many, many times in the 114 minutes to come. Said legend involves a flaming skeleton cowboy who stole a contract from the devil worth a thousand evil souls.
Jump ahead to the seventies, when a young Johnny Blaze and his father perform a motorcycle act in a traveling carnival. Johnny nearly wrecks his bike showing off for his girlfriend Roxanne. Daddy Blaze chews his son out for recklessness. Later, on a sundrenched hill beneath a spreading oak (yes, it’s a subtle film) Johnny asks Roxanne to run away with him to escape her oppressive father. She agrees.
Johnny goes home, where a paper recovered from a trash can reveals his father’s terminal cancer. A mysterious stranger (Peter Fonda) visits him while he works on his bike in the carnival’s garage tent. The stranger offers to cure Daddy Blaze in exchange for Johnny’s soul. Johnny agrees. Daddy Blaze wakes up feeling great. His doctors examine him and give him a clean bill of health. That afternoon, he crashes into a flaming hoop and dies.
Johnny drives out to a crossroads. (The crossroads, perhaps? Is the devil at a particular crossroads, or is he at all of them?) He tries to fight the devil, but Old Scratch declares that he upheld his side of the bargain by curing the cancer; death by other causes wasn’t covered. Johnny must now bide his time until the devil has work for him. The sky clouds over and rain begins to fall as Johnny strands his girlfriend under the spreading oak to wait for his infernal assignment. Subtlety, thy name is Ghost Rider.
Johnny grows up into a Karen-Carpenter-loving, monkey-show-watching, jelly-bean-drinking, neuroses-accumulating, super-extra-crispy-double-dog-world-famous stunt rider. Imagine an unholy amalgamation of Evel Knievel, Elvis Presley and Woody Allen portrayed by Nicholas Cage. (Come to think of it, Mr. Cage’s name alone implies all the qualities I meant to convey. I probably could have mentioned him first and left the others off.) Johnny’s made his fortune performing stunts of lunatic daring, secure in the knowledge that the devil hasn’t called for him yet, and thus won’t let him die.
At the scene of his latest stunt (leaping his bike over six low-flying helicopters) he’s interviewed by an older, more voluptuous version of his former flame Roxanne, now played by Eva Mendes. He tries to get her to stay for the show, but she refuses. He does the leap in a hurry and speeds his stunt bike out the stadium door to chase down her news van. After he nearly kills himself to pull her over, she agrees to a date.
While he’s getting ready, the devil comes calling. You see, the devil’s emo goth son Blackheart and his emo goth demon friends have escaped hell. Even now they wander the world sucking the life out of innocent bikers in search of the thousand-soul contract his father lost, lo, these many years ago. (So they can rule the world, naturally.) Johnny’s assignment is to become the Ghost Rider, a flaming motorcycle skeleton man tasked with tracking down the escaped souls of hell. Johnny screams and cackles as his flesh burns off. He rides to a nearby warehouse to turn an emo demon to dust.
Johnny turns back into a human at sunrise in an unfamiliar graveyard. The caretaker (Sam Elliott again) stitches up Johnny’s wounds and—wait a minute. Am I crazy, or did Johnny not have flesh to wound during the warehouse fight? Sigh.
Where was I? Oh, right. The caretaker rumbles, “The story goes...” and launches into his legend spiel again. Now filled in on the backstory, Johnny returns to his apartment. Roxanne meets him there, upset that he stood her up the night before. He hems and haws a bit before finally filling her in on the whole “contract with the devil” and “flaming skeleton transformation” deal. She doesn’t believe him and leaves.
Meanwhile, the cops have discovered the license plate from Johnny’s bike at the destroyed warehouse. Somehow they leap to the conclusion that he’s responsible for all of Blackheart’s murders. Johnny maintains his innocence under questioning, but they lock him in a holding cell with a lot of murderous psychos anyway. This activates his burning skeleton-ness; he transforms and slaughters the cell’s other inhabitants before breaking out to hunt down another one of Blackheart’s cronies. Since the “flaming motorcycle of death” thing isn’t very low-key (and neither was the jail cell massacre) every cop and news van in the city follows him around during the battle. Johnny turns another demon into dust while Roxanne watches. She realizes Johnny was telling the truth after all and tries to go to him, but the police open fire. Bullets don’t work on skeletons, so Johnny rides off into the night.
Blackheart has been watching the battle and observing Roxanne’s behavior. He realizes that she’s Ghost Rider’s girlfriend, and sets a trap for her. Johnny tries to save her, but his “guilt stare” (the power to make you remember every bad thing you’ve done, which turns your eyeballs into charcoal briquettes) doesn’t work on someone without a soul. Blackheart takes Roxanne away, telling Johnny that he’d better find the contract if he wants to see her again.
Johnny runs back to the caretaker, who intones “There is a legend” a couple more times before turning into a flaming skeleton cowboy. He hands over the contract, and they ride together to the old ghost town where Blackheart waits. At this point the caretaker turns human again and leaves because he only had one more transformation left in him, grumble grumble, something something, mushroom pancakes. I could not have made that up if I tried.
Johnny goes from the desert to a swamp (where he defeats the last emo goth demon) and back into the desert where he exchanges the contract for Roxanne. Blackheart and Johnny fight until the sun comes up, which turns Johnny human. Blackheart uses the contract and devours a thousand damned souls at once. Johnny lures him into the shade, where he turns back into Ghost Rider and uses his “guilt stare” to make Blackheart feel the pain of all the souls inside him. Blackheart melts back to hell. The devil shows up to take back the Ghost Rider power in exchange for the return of Johnny’s soul. Johnny refuses, vowing to use his flaming skeleton-ish-ness to fight the devil wherever he can. The devil throws a fit and leaves. Johnny and Roxanne say a tender goodbye in a sundrenched field under a spreading oak.
Johnny Blaze: a name only a comic book character’s mother could love. In non-Cage hands he’d be just another Man Behind The Mask, a pathetic milquetoast cut from the same cloth as the reliably uninteresting Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. Nicholas Cage will not allow this. He piles on quirk after brooding, intense quirk until the boring Johnny Blaze twists and warps into a fascinating character. A ludicrous and unbelievable fascinating character, true, but that’s still more than this insulting, illogical little movie deserves. You got to hand it to him; even when he’s terrible, Nicholas Cage keeps things interesting.
This goes for the Ghost Rider movie as a whole. Its problems are many and varied, to be sure. The dialog is some of the most ham-fisted trash I’ve ever heard, redeemed only by the fact that I can’t understand half of it. (I’ve never had trouble understanding Nicholas Cage and Sam Elliott before, so I’m assuming this is a technical problem). Also, if this movie had a middle name, we’d have to call it Ghost “Inconsistency” Rider. Many of the illogical gems have been noted in the summary above, but here’s another worthy of note: When Johnny first meets the caretaker, the latter grumbles that he’s safe in the graveyard because the demons can’t enter hallowed ground. And yet Blackheart enters a cathedral to slaughter a priest with impunity not fifteen minutes later. The latter half of the final confrontation takes place in a frontier church. No explanation is ever offered. It’s a very special sort of movie that violates its own rules so often and so flagrantly.
Despite these shortcomings it stays interesting, marching ever forward under the power of Cage’s self-conscious quirks and a plot that doesn’t stop for breathers. I say more power to it. If you’re gonna be this bad, you might as well be bad in a fun-to-watch way.
Much of the credit for the movie’s entertainment value has to be given to Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan, who have now cemented their position as my favorite non-MST3K Rifftrax contributors. The writing is sharp and the timing impeccable. Instead of their creation Chad Vader, they’ve included the occasional quip from impressionist Jason Stephens. His imitation of Nicholas Cage commenting on his own film will never be mistaken for the real Mr. Cage (at times it could double as a mood-swinging Jimmy Stewart) but it’s recognizable and often drop dead funny. A few of my favorite comments (again, not able to attribute them to specific commenters): When Sam Elliott recounts being sent to “fetch a thousand evil souls”, a commenter remembers “I once sent my dog to fetch a thousand evil tennis balls”. Upon glimpsing the title, someone says, “I imagine that riding a ghost is kind of like riding a dolphin. Kind of slippery and gooey.” After a particularly awful and fascinating scene of Quirky Nick, fake Nicholas Kage says, “I’m like a vacuum cleaner. I suck, but everyone needs me.” The commentary is quotable enough to fill several more pages, but I should probably stop there. Finding the correct cut of this movie can be tricky—you need the hard-to-find 114 minute theatrical version, not the ubiquitous 127 minute extended edition—but the end result is well worth the trouble.
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American Thrift, Part 1 posits that the women of this country rule the financial world with an iron parsimonious fist. By extension, they've also caused our national trumpet player and canned eel shortages, in addition to their deliberate attempts to undermine the tourist industry of Nassau. Women, am I right?
Veronica Belmont joins Mike, Kevin and Bill, and does pretty well. Review here.
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Maintenance day! Time to add comments to the last set of ten Rifftrax and post placeholders for the next set of ten. Also, Veronica Belmont has been added to the Rifftrax Dramatis Personae page. A review of her first riff (American Thrift, Part 1) is coming soon.
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Another Friday, another Rifftrax short. I do believe this is the first one to feature a guest riffer. Veronica Belmont joins Mike, Bill and Kevin for their third multi-part short, American Thrift, Part 1. Pick it up here. I'll be adding her to the cast page shortly.
(1984, Romance/Drama/Teen, color)
Janet Varney and Cole Stratton
Screw it, can I just dance or something?
In a Nutshell:
Kevin Bacon teaches an intolerant town to dance.
Troubled teen Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) and his mother move from Chicago to a small town after the divorce. They seem to arrive directly at the local church, where they meet the preacher Reverend Moore (John Lithgow) and his hot daughter Ariel (Lori Singer). Ren gets in trouble almost instantly when he tries to chat up the local zealots about literature (Twain is okay but Vonnegut is sinful), while Ariel slips off to perform dangerous and stupid stunts on speeding cars.
Eventually we get the backstory, as follows: The Moore family suffered a tragedy a few years ago when the oldest son got drunk after a dance and drowned during an admittedly stupid stunt on a bridge. Now Reverend Moore rules the town with an iron fist, using his influence in the community to outlaw dancing, rock and roll and all other forms of youthful entertainment. His daughter Ariel rebels—dancing, drinking and sleeping around as much as possible to drown her grief and her disillusionment with her father.
Ariel takes a shine to Ren, who’s been floundering in his archconservative new town. She tries to seduce him after catching him doing some gymnastic anger dancing in an abandoned warehouse. He rebuffs her, allowing their relationship to build slowly. When the town refuses to accept him, he decides to stop trying to fit in and starts crusading to get the dancing law repealed. The buildup to the big town meeting includes Ariel escaping her abusive boyfriend, Ren teaching his redneck friend to dance, and a lot of soul searching on the part of the Reverend. Ren gives an impassioned speech at the meeting, quoting the bible at several points. His request is denied anyway.
Next day, Ren’s sympathetic boss points out that you have to drive over the county line to get to the factory where they work, and offers to let him use it as a dance hall. Ren organizes a dance and then asks the Reverend to let Ariel go to it with him. Reverend Moore softens his stance, and in church that Sunday he offers a prayer that amounts to tacit approval.
The big night arrives. Ariel’s intolerant ex-boyfriend does his best to break it up, but a few acrobatic fisticuffs later, the dance is in full Kenny Loggins-drenched swing.
Ah, the age-old “generation gap” movie, in which the hip teens of today come into conflict with their oppressive, hidebound seniors. Usually this kind of film tries to make the teens right by emphasizing youthful pleasure while glossing over consequences. Footloose takes a higher road than most by making the teens right for real, but when you depict your adults as book-burning zealots and your teens as church-going Kenny Loggins fans, I can’t help but notice that you’ve stacked the deck just a tiny bit in your favor.
Most of the time it stays pretty close to the requirements of its genre, but I was impressed by the relationship between our main protagonist and antagonist. Ren is not a saint by any means, and Reverend Moore is not a villain. In their own minds, they are both right and the film does itself a great service by not proving either of them completely wrong. In the midst of this clash between youth and adults, Ren stands up to several of the darker elements of youth culture while the Reverend stands up to the darker elements of his often overzealous congregation. In the end, neither is converted to the other’s cause, but they learn to get along anyway.
Could have used more dancing, though. For a supposed dance movie, there was surprisingly little of it.
Cole Stratton and Janet Varney have several Rifftrax Presents titles under their belt now, and they get a little better with each one. A few of my favorite comments: When the abusive boyfriend shows up in his massive truck, Cole calls it, “The Ford F1 Douchebag.” When Ren shows up at his incredibly large and stylish small town high school, Janet wants to know, “Where’s he going to school, in a Jordache commercial?” When Ren and the abusive boyfriend play chicken with tractors, Cole calls it, “The Farm and the Furious.” My DVD kept sliding out of sync with the commentary for some reason and, while this may have marred my enjoyment of it somewhat, the fact that it still entertained me is telling. It’s worth looking at.
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For a children's short from the fifties, A Circus Wakes Up seems remarkably dedicated to realism. In fact, the morning routine of a circus performer/animal isn't that different from mine. I eat, bathe and dress too. The main differences lie in the facts that a) I don't do backflips as calisthenics and b) I am quite aware that, backflips or no, morning routines are not the slightest bit interesting. Full review here.
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From the annals of Rifftrax comes a horrifying classic short in the grand, Lovecraftian tradition. In A Circus Wakes Up, ravenous demons from a mephitic netherworld infect an enormous circus tent, luring unsuspecting spectators and performers through its gaping maw into a hellish dimension of man-eating elephants, scorching brimstone and all the cotton cotton candy you can eat. It has clowns for teeth.
Or maybe it's nothing like that. Haven't seen it yet, so I couldn't say for sure. Check it out here.
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Dragon Wars: D-War now tops my "favorite riffs released this year" list, (it shares that slot with Twilight). Surprisingly, in addition to being completely and irredeemably incompetent, the movie itself is exuberant and fun. And depite all their protestations of how punishingly difficult this was to riff, the commentary is marvelous.
Grab it now, if you haven't already. Read the full review here.
Also: The Rifftrax Live rebroadcast is tonight.
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Remember that live show we had a month and a half ago? On October 8, 2009, Fathom Events will rebroadcast the (formerly) live riff of Flying Stewardesses and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Also included is a fantastic performance by Jonathan Coulton, and some "acquired taste" sort of humor from Lowtax. I've seen three different riffed versions of Plan 9 now, including the one they're showing, so I won't be in attendance, but if you missed it in August, now's your chance. Check Fathom's site for a theater and time near you.
Also, the Dragon Wars riff vastly exceeded my expectations. This and Twilight are by far the funniest riffs they've done this year. Pick it up if you haven't already. Full review coming tomorrow.
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The Matrix Reloaded really put me in a quiet state of mind. After the viewing I had to take some time out and reflect on the nature of life and free will. Thankfully, my hearing eventually returned, allowing me to resume my life as normal.
Yes, the movie is that loud.
It's a good riff, though. Just keep your finger on the volume sliders, and you'll probably be fine. Review here.
R089 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
R091 Star Trek (2009 Version)
R093 Drag Me to Hell
R094 Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
R095 Terminator Salvation
R096 Paranormal Activity
R097 The Twilight Saga: New Moon
This is a decent span of Rifftrax, but nothing really stood out for me. Return of the Jedi was fun, as was Star Trek. New Moon was fun too, in a "steel yourself against the grating teenage angst and laugh" sort of way. The Revenge of the Fallen commentary is pretty good, but has the misfortune of being attached to one of the most extraordinarily painful films I've ever seen. Rifftrax fans need to see it for the bragging rights if nothing else. The only one that didn't do anything for me was the Titanic riff, but I suspect that may be more a matter of taste.
(2009, Fantasy/SciFi/Political-ish, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Just what this movie needed. Another way to demonstrate the sweeping grandeur of blah-dee-blah, blah, blah...
In a Nutshell:
Evil corporate humans harass benevolent, planet-worshiping alien aborigines.
An avatar is an alien body grown in a tank, driven by psychic remote control. They’re partially grown from the DNA of their operators—exclusively scientists who study avatars and avatar-related phenomena. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) isn’t a scientist, but his twin brother was. Twin Brother was shot to death in a mugging gone bad just a few weeks before he was scheduled to ship out to the alien world of Pandora. Avatars can only be driven by the operators with whom they share DNA so, unwilling to let an obscenely expensive avatar go to waste, the corporate executives in charge of the operation hire Jake instead.
Jake’s a paraplegic ex-marine with no avatar training, which annoys the scientist in charge (Dr. Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver) to no end. She complains to the executive in charge of the planet (Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi) who puts her off with dismissive exposition. To wit: Pandora is the only known sole source of unobtainium. The local natives, a race of primitive blue monkey-cat people called the Na’vi, populate the area above the richest deposits of this lazily named and most valuable of resources. The job of Dr. Augustine and her staff is to pilot their Na’vi-shaped avatars into the native settlements and convince them to leave.
If you can’t plot the rest of Avatar’s trajectory from here, then you don’t watch very many movies.
Turns out Jake’s a natural avatar driver, though his lack of experience with the local fauna makes him a liability on his first trip into the lush jungles of Pandora. He’s chased by predators, gets lost in the jungle and meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a mostly unclad semi-human-shaped blue jungle girl who will make any furries in the audience feel a bit funny, you know, down there. She takes him back to the village. Her father the chief finds out he’s a warrior, not a scientist, and accepts him for basic Na’vi training.
Now Jake’s caught in three directions. The Na’vi want to “cure his insanity”, i.e., make him like them. The scientists want him to help them preserve and learn more about the Na’vi culture. The executives, of course, want him to either convince the natives to move or give their pet mercenaries the intelligence necessary to wipe them out. Of course Neytiri is in charge of making sure Jake gets Na’vi training, and of course they fall in love during the stupefyingly lengthy Na’vi training montage. Jake becomes a member of the tribe, and soon after, Neytiri’s mate.
Soon after that, the executive/mercenaries get impatient and use Jake’s previously obtained intelligence to destroy the Home Tree, the local Na’vi tribe’s home. Upset that his people would do such a thing, the Na’vi cast him out again. Desperate to return, Jake and his scientist cohorts escape to a remote broadcasting location. Jake reenacts an old Na’vi legend (the one about riding a giant red alien turkey) to regain the Na’vi’s trust and rally the tribes against the humans. This, of course, leads to a big explody fight in which Na’vi and humans die by the hundreds. Eventually, the living planet Eywa (sort of a collective planetary consciousness housed in the jungle root system) summons all the vicious predators of Pandora to smash the human armies. The Na’vi eject the human survivors from the planet. Jake uses Eywa to permanently upload his mind into his avatar.
The plot ain’t nothin’ to write home about, but then, it’s nothing to scoff at either. It’s a simple, sturdy, workmanlike story that neither pleases nor offends the intellect. If this was a different movie, I’d complain that it doesn’t especially engage the intellect either, but this is Avatar, and engaging the intellect is clearly not the story’s job. What little plot we get is simply framework, a narrow network of events whose only purpose is to provide us with an excuse to visit the visual effects.
How to describe the visual effects? As of this writing, Avatar has already grossed more than any other movie in the history of movies, so if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably already seen them. They are good. Do me a favor, and re-read the previous sentence while pretending that instead of saying “good,” I churned out a five-page treatise that made liberal use of words like “awesome,” “incredible,” “inspiring” and “groundbreaking” without any trace of sarcasm or irony. Now I’m going to write “they are good” again, and this time I’d like you to pretend I wrote a similar treatise, only longer. They are good.
If I had to complain—and since I’m me, I do—I’d have to say the visual effects are a little too good. No, that’s not right. It’s not that they’re too good, it’s that they’re too good for too long. It’s like the time I took my family to Yellowstone Park, one of the most interesting, beautiful places on earth. At the beginning, we waited forty minutes in the sun amid a jostling crowd to see Old Faithful do its thing. Then we went on to the hot springs, the mud pots, the waterfall, the buffalo herds, the other hot springs, the other mud pots, the other waterfall, the other buffalo herds, the other other hot springs, the other other waterfall, etc., and so on. By the end of the day we were spending no more than five minutes at each masterwork of nature and cursing the buffalo herds whenever they blocked the road. There is such a thing as awesomeness exhaustion, which brings us back to the unnatural, fascinating and eventually tedious beauty of Avatar.
There’s enough to make fun of, though, which is why we’re discussing it here. A few of my favorites from the commentary track: Right off the bat, Mike identifies this as, “The film that broke amazing new ground for director’s egos.” Later, when Dr. Augustine calls Jake “numbnuts”, Bill says, “Thoughtful nickname for a guy who’s paralyzed from the waist down.” As blue alien warriors-in-training leap from floating rock to floating rock, Kevin advises, “Jump down the third green pipe and warp us to the end of the movie.” Smurf and Blue Man Group jokes are well-represented, mostly by Kevin, but the riffers restrict themselves to no more than one every twenty minutes or so. Good filler bits include Kevin’s ongoing Amway salesman routine, used to liven up the lengthy predator chase early on in the film, and the way a riffer usually cries “SCIENCE!” whenever one of his companions starts to question the odd biology on display. It’s a good commentary that picks up the slack reasonably well whenever the movie pauses to let you drink in the general majesty of it all. Now, if someone (*cough*jamescameron*cough*) had the restraint to not pause the movie quite so often...
(2009, Romance/Horror, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
This concludes today’s episode of Non-Responsive Theater.
In a Nutshell:
Bella is a stammering, suicidal twat who likes abusive supernatural men.
It’s sequel time, so those not intimately familiar with the mythos of glitter-based undead should head back to my review of the prior film before proceeding. Ready now? Good.
It’s Bella’s birthday, and she’s eighteen years old. That’s one year older than her boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson). Of course, he’s been seventeen for ninety-some-odd years and counting, so it’s a gap that will only widen over time. Distressed, Bella (Kristen Stewart) begs him to make her a vampire too. He refuses. As a vampire, he believes he is damned, and finds the thought of damning someone he loves abhorrent. Things come to a head at a vampire family party when it becomes apparent that paper cuts and blood-drinkers don’t mix. One of Edward’s “brothers” gets a little overexcited and has to be restrained. This is too much for Edward. Faced with a choice of either envampirating his beloved or letting her die—of other vampires if not old age—he chooses to leave her. The entire Cullen vampire clan disappears quietly one night.
Bella goes into a near-catatonic depressive state for months until her dad finally threatens to send her back to Arizona to live with her mom. She makes an effort to snap out of it by heading to the movies with one of her schoolmates. Afterwards she meets a bunch of local bikers, and discovers that she can hallucinate a scolding from her boyfriend whenever she does something stupid and reckless. Sure it sounds unhealthy, but hey, “unhealthy” is her thing and has been since this series began. Naturally, she must perform more dangerous stunts to encourage her delusions further.
To this end she rekindles her friendship with a Native American boy named Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a huge, burly teen capable of turning a pair of rusty old wrecks into working motorcycles. This takes a lot of work and semi-romantic banter, but eventually Bella finds, to her delight, that riding too fast without a helmet is a sure-fire ex-boyfriend hallucination trigger.
Somewhere about now, Jacob withdraws from their friendship to glower and pout and stand in the rain with his shirt off. Frantic over losing her best distraction from emotional pain... er, friend, Bella stalks him until she figures out his secret. He’s become a werewolf, a vampire-hunting shapeshifter of Native American legend. (You remember those legends, right?) He and his fellow werewolves now hunt the surviving antagonists from the previous film. They’re hell-bent on killing Bella as revenge for certain prior events. Doesn’t really matter what those events were, because it takes only five to ten minutes for the werewolves kill one and chase the other out of the plot entirely.
In the midst of this, Bella still seeks ways to feed her Edward mirage habit. Her recklessness du jour is cliff diving, which she does in bad weather and adverse surf conditions. Jacob happens to be wandering by and drags her unconscious body from the water. He takes her home to find Edward’s precognitive vampire sister Alice (Ashley Greene). Alice saw Bella jump in a vision, and is surprised to find her alive. A distant Edward got wind of it somehow and thinks Bella is dead. Overcome with guilt, he will now commit suicide to join her in the afterlife.
For a vampire, suicide is a tricky proposition. They’re all but indestructible, and it takes werewolves or other vampires to destroy them. So Edward goes to the vampire government in Italy (a.k.a. the Volturi) where he will violate the undead code of secrecy and get himself sentenced to death. Bella and Alice rush to the rescue. They make it to the festival where Edward plans to, uh, expose himself. He sees Bella just in time and steps back into the shadows. But the Volturi haven’t failed to notice the almost-exposure, and now Edward is guilty of another crime. He’s told a human about vampires, and refuses to either kill her or make her a vampire too. Alice promises to transform Bella if Edward doesn’t, and the Volturi let them go home.
Edward and Bella reconcile. Bella and Jacob break up. Edward and Jacob fight. Edward asks Bella to marry him. The end. I haven’t exaggerated the abruptness of it, believe me.
I’ve seen worse films, but if I had to count them, I wouldn’t run out of fingers. The leading couple remains chemistry-free—the kiss of death for anything that purports to be a vehicle of cinematic romance, but this time Edward’s not even in most of it, except as an occasional gaseous apparition. The shapeless, awkward story doesn’t do the movie any favors either. No climax, no rising action and only the occasional, perfunctory bit of exposition; just an inert and largely uninteresting pattern of events. The characters are all glowering, one-note archetypes and Bella’s inability to finish even the shortest of sentences without stammering, pausing or twitching surely must test the patience of even the most die-hard Twilight fan. I’ve read reviews that say, “At least the cinematography’s good,” but I’m not sure we saw the same movie. Was something lost in the transfer to video? It has decent enough art direction, but the film quality looks like something you’d see in a soap opera rerun. The werewolves are appropriately huge and detailed, but they look more like enormous plush toys than ferocious predators, and never appear to have been anything but rendered, dragged and dropped into their scenes. To call New Moon “half-assed” would be overestimating. I doubt anyone gave more than one tenth of an ass worth of effort to it.
Lots of pauses mean lots of spaces to insert comments, and Mike, Bill and Kevin have our backs here. When the title appears over a shot of the moon, Bill is outraged. “That’s not a new moon,” he says. “I’ve seen that moon dozens of times before.” As Edward sledgehammers his foreshadowing home by discussing possible suicide methods, Kevin has a suggestion of his own. “Climb into a refrigerator box with a rabid badger,” he says. When the discussion moves to the subject of damnation, Mike adds, “Hell’s full. God’s damning people to East Lansing, Michigan now.” On its own, New Moon is a hundred and thirty minutes of twitchy, stammering pain. It’s so bad I spent much of the running time in a semi-permanent cringe. I also spent much of the time laughing out loud at the deftly aimed mockery, forcing me to shut my office door so I wouldn’t wake up the kids. Weigh those last two statements in the balance before deciding whether or not to view it.
(2007, Horror, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
We are Legion, and we're all quiet comfy here.
In a Nutshell:
An incorporeal demon haunts a couple’s home movies.
Bright Young Thing Katie hears spooky noises and feels an evil presence at night, as she has intermittently since she was a child. Her boyfriend/roommate Micah (pronounced Mee-Kah for some reason) has started hearing the noises too, though apparently he’s not sensitive enough feel the evil presence. This is hardly surprising; he’s barely sensitive enough to have a girlfriend.
Mee-Kah buys an unwieldy camera so they can film themselves sleeping. (The entire movie is from his camera’s point of view.) Capturing the noises, door swinging and light on-and-off-turning shenanigans on video proves that the nighttime disturbances are real, at least to an extent. Katie calls in a psychic.
Though Mee-Kah is barely civil, the psychic retains his composure throughout the interview and subsequent tour, somehow coming off as the only normal, reasonable person in the movie. He rules out the possibility of it being a ghost, which is his area of expertise. He gives them the number of a reliable demonologist and advises them not to antagonize their infernal houseguest until the appropriate expert arrives.
Mee-Kah, however, is a gigantic tool. Despite photographic evidence of otherworldly intruders that he himself obtained, he refuses to take the situation seriously. He does not let Katie call the demonologist, and over the next two weeks goes out of his way to do everything the psychic warned him against. He films more things moving by themselves at night, he gets a ouija board (which bursts into flames when no one’s home), he hurls schoolyard taunts down the stairs at their invisible antagonist. Eventually, Katie gets up in the middle of the night, stands beside the bed for hours, and then wanders downstairs to sit outside. When informed the next day, she has no memory of the incident.
Mee-Kah has to try one last thing before they call the demonologist. He puts talcum powder across the entrance to their bedroom. Loud noises wake them up that night. They follow the hoof-shaped prints to the attic, where they find a fire-damaged photo of Katie as a little girl. Katie freaks out. She tries to call the demonologist the next morning, but he’s out of the country for a few days. She calls back the psychic. He takes one step into the house, declares that the demonic presence is overpowering, and retreats again. Apparently they got the demon all worked up, and his presence is only antagonizing it further.
That night, an invisible force seizes Katie’s leg and drags her down the hall. Mee-Kah rescues her, and they decide to head to a hotel the next day. Mee-Kah goes out to arrange this (apparently you can’t just call). When he comes back he finds Katie semi-comatose on the floor, gripping a cross tight enough to bloody her hand. Mee-Kah burns it for some reason, and isn’t suspicious at all when Katie refuses to leave in an odd, dreamy voice. That night, she gets up to stand beside the bed for hours, then stomps down the stairs. She screams. Mee-Kah jumps out of bed to run after her. He screams too. Heavy footsteps up the stairs, and then a possessed Katie hurls Mee-Kah’s corpse at the camera with her freakish demon strength. A title card tells us when the police found Mee-Kah’s body, and notes that Katie’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Surprise of surprises, Paranormal Activity isn’t as bad as I expected. Granted, that’s not a very high bar to clear, but before I start nitpicking (something I would most likely do even for Citizen Kane) I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the well-structured story, the often realistic characterizations, and the slow but consistent pacing. In fact, I think I’ll go on record and say that this is quite possibly the very best one-location, three-character, no-budget movie about a pair of morons and their invisible demon stalker the director could possibly have made.
Okay, I admit it. I’ve started nitpicking already.
Here’s a gripe. Why do a pair of kids at least a decade younger than I am have a house nicer than mine? It would be different if they had good jobs (two incomes and no kids make up for a lot) but neither of these people are employed. Katie says she’s a student—a good investment for the future but not something that pays bills right now—and Mee-Kah is a day trader—i.e., someone who can’t tell the difference between the stock market and a slot machine. They don’t just make less money than I do, they make negative money. Both their occupations burn through cash like it was made of match heads.
That’s a minor quibble, I know, especially when you considerer the vast number of films featuring single-parent artistes who move their families into nineteen-room mansions. Here’s a better gripe. I call it, “Put down the camera and run, you slobbering, imbecilic sociopath.”
Putting one of the characters behind the camera works pretty well as a device to get the audience emotionally invested. At least, it does early in the film. But then the killin’ starts and it becomes apparent that the character filming would, for some reason, rather die than stop. More egregiously, he/she would rather film the horrible deaths of his/her loved ones than assist. Emotional connection? Lost. Sympathy for the character? Nonexistent. Suspension of disbelief? Plummeting earthward. This is a problem with pretty much every “protagonist as cinematographer” flick floating around right now. Paranormal Activity deals with this, to an extent, by portraying Mee-Kah as a selfish, narcissistic a—hole. “Yes,” we say to ourselves partway in. “This is the kind of guy who would shoot footage of his significant other getting violated by demons, and then make her watch it with him afterwards.” The problem of making us care about what happens to such a character remains unaddressed.
Mike (or, as he pronounces it, “Meek”), Bill and Kevin do their best to fill the movie’s many, many empty spaces, and do pretty well. During the many endless sleeping scenes, we get comments like Kevin’s “This is boredom that physically presses down on one’s chest,” Mike’s, “This movie’s mostly about ceiling vents, isn’t it?” and Bill’s “All the cinematic splendor of a Nyquil commercial.” At one point they fill space by all screaming at once for no reason. The funniest bit has Kevin fill a very long pause in the action by mumbling incoherently for two or three minutes straight. I don’t think I’m describing it well enough, because I’m pretty sure I’ve made it sound deathly boring. This is not inaccurate, but the decent filmmaking (for a highly qualified value of “decent”) and the riffers’ expert timing still manage to combine into a pleasantly watchable rifftrax experience.
(2009, Action/SciFi-Postapocalyptic, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
Are those donuts?
In a Nutshell:
A postapocalyptic revolutionary rescues the teenager destined to impregnate his mother.
Wow. Looking back at what I wrote for the “In a Nutshell” section, it seems kind of inappropriate and creepy. Yes, I was going for sarcasm (I usually am), but still, that one-sentence summary is in no way misleading or incomplete. For better or... Okay, just for worse, this is the subject of the film. Did the filmmakers intend it that way, or were they oblivious to the basic stupidity of their movie’s central conceit? Given that Terminator Salvation was directed by the one-named “McG”—a man who no doubt chose his own moniker for its supposed coolness factor—I’d say the latter scenario is not just possible, but probable.
I guess I ought to start with the backstory. Way back in 1984, cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger went back in time to kill Sarah Connor, mother of the resistance leader who would eventually defeat our post-apocalypse robot overlords. She was rescued by the charming time traveler Kyle Reese, whom she rewarded in true action movie fashion (shortly before his heroic death) and conceived the hero of every subsequent film in the series.
This is not part of Terminator Salvation, by the way. When Michael Ironside dramatically says “Kyle Reese” on the submarine of doom, he doesn’t explain himself. When the young Kyle Reese (played by Chekov stand-in Anton Yelchin) appears to tell our secondary hero, “Come with me if you want to live,” everyone assumes we already know what they’re talking about. Basically, if you didn’t know going in, you’re screwed.
And now I’ve gone on for three paragraphs without touching on the intricacies of this movie’s plot. Let me get to that now: There aren’t any.
Okay, so legendary resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) fights the good fight after the robot apocalypse until his squad gets blown to pieces by... something, after which he jumps into the ocean to argue with Michael Ironside on a submarine. Meanwhile—this is to say, both way before and a little after—a pre-apocalypse death row inmate named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) smooches a bald Helena Bonham Carter before donating his post-execution body to science. He wakes up after the lethal injections in the crater caused by the explosion of Connor’s squad, and wanders until he finds the aforementioned Kyle Reese. Marcus, Kyle and a magical mute girl wander more or less aimlessly until the latter two get captured by robots.
Marcus tries to follow on foot, but gets sidetracked by the beautiful Blair (Moon Bloodgold), a fighter pilot shot down in an altercation with the machines. They hike back to her base, where he sets off a robots-only mine. His flesh partially burned off, he discovers that he is metal underneath, a source of some consternation to Blair and her commander, John Connor. Connor orders him destroyed, but Blair sees that he thinks he’s human and lets him go. Connor tries to chase him down, but lets him go anyway because... uh... I think it’s because Kyle is in San Francisco and something about a frequency, but really, your guess is as good as mine.
Marcus goes to San Francisco, after which Connor goes to San Francisco, after which Michael Ironside’s submarine blows up for some reason, after which everyone else goes to San Francisco. Digi-Helena Bonham Carter fills Marcus in on the plot in true Talking Villain™ style. It doesn’t make any sense, so I won’t bother repeating it here. Connor wanders the halls looking for Kyle—so that he can send him back in time to shtoink his mom, naturally. Digi-Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to wreak havoc. In the end, Kyle is saved, the machine base destroyed, and Connor mortally wounded. But it’s okay, because Marcus still has a human heart, and apparently it’s a Snap-Lock™ now. Marcus gives up his life (because it’s, you know, a battlefield, and there aren’t dozens of better—i.e.: nearly expired—potential donors just, you know, lying around) so that they can bolt his heart into Connor, allowing him to continue leading the resistance.
The more I think about this film—a painful experience; I can’t wait to finish this review so I can stop—the more I wonder what kind of film our three-letter auteur thought he was making. In the early “escaping the explosion” sequences, he’s clearly trying to ape the continuous action sequences of Children of Men. In that film, the lengthy takes ramp the tension up to near-unbearable levels, often ending with the emotional equivalent of a gut punch. By contrast, Terminator Salvation doesn’t think we need to know what the hell’s going on, where the hell it’s happening or why the hell we should care, leaving its audience with a vague sense of confusion and motion sickness.
Also, according to Wikipedia (so take this with a grain of salt) “McG” instructed his actors to get into character by reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Road, two of the grittiest, most eloquent apocalypse books ever written. Christian Bale, of course, turns in an intense, art house-worthy performance, but he always does that regardless of what kind of film he’s in. More remarkably, the rest of the cast follows suit, entirely populating this film with the glowering and desperate. This is a serious movie, people! A deep, profound film in which every line of dialog falls into one of three categories: 1) action movie clichés; 2) quotes from the previous films; or 3) gibberish.
McG (should I call you “Mick” or would you prefer “Mr. G”?), the Terminator films are cheese. That’s what series originator James Cameron makes. He’s a great director because he knows he makes cheese. He embraces the cheesiness and churns out some of the greatest cheese in Hollywood. I’m not saying you could have made a good Terminator film—after watching this ugly turd, I’m reasonably certain that’s beyond your ability—but if you’d lightened up a little, you could have at least made it fun. As it is, you’ve made your film both stupid and depressing, and that’s a lethal combination.
Of course, Mike, Bill and Kevin have to spice up the commentary with many, many references to Bale’s famous rant at the lighting guy, including a general crowd scene admonition to “Get out of Christian Bale’s light!” (Mike) and Connor’s dying words, “We... are done... professionally....” (Bill). Other observations have to do with the rather dim machine enemies, as in Bill’s, “They wiped out most of humanity despite having the aim of a stormtrooper with Parkinson’s.” Regarding Blair’s, um, “interesting” eyeshadow, Mike says, “She puts on her eye makeup with a big rubber stamp.” When Connor rescues Kyle and sends him on ahead, Kevin shouts, “Just be sure to make it with my mom!” Many, many inappropriate head-turns prompt the riffers to say, “Is that donuts?” each time it happens. It’s a brutally stupid film and the riffers punish it mercilessly. My viewing was often entertaining and sometimes cathartic, but not always pleasant.
(1983, SciFi, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
The Death Star, so named because living on it means almost certain death.
In a Nutshell:
Another Death Star built, another Death Star destroyed. Oh, and teddy bears.
I’m sure you’re already familiar with the backstory, but just in case, reviews for the previous episodes are here, here, here, here and here. (Also here. But that one’s non-canon and pretty shameful even by the prequels’ rather low standards, so forget I mentioned it.)
The final (middle?) episode of our out-of-sequence saga begins where the previous one left off—with Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) encased in carbonite. Thus far, his new inanimate life has been spent as a wall decoration in the filth-drenched, synth-pop palace of a giant alien slug named Jabba the Hutt. Core cast members arrive one and two at a time to cajole/threaten/offer services in exchange for Han’s release. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) got there before the movie started and entered Jabba’s service as a guard. Droid comic relief characters C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (himself) arrive in the opening scenes and are press-ganged.
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Chewbacca the wookiee (Peter Mayhew) attempt a scam where Leia pretends to be a bounty hunter collecting on Chewie. She’s accepted into his court and then turns off the carbonite juice (I guess) to free Han while no one’s looking. Except that people are looking, and catch them in the middle of a celebratory freedom smooch that really should have waited until they’d made it outside. Jabba locks up the newly de-carbonited Han with his buddy Chewie, then dresses Leia in a metal bikini and forces her to be his love slave.
Finally, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) arrives. Luke, if you’ll recall, got all Jedi-ed up during The Empire Strikes Back. He uses a Force power or two while trying to negotiate everyone’s release and gets dropped in the Rancor Pit. The rancor (a slimy, superimposed rod puppet) eats an anthropomorphic pig and then goes for Luke. This earns him a bone in his soft palate and a heavy steel door to the head. Jabba gets angry and sentences everyone to death.
Well, everyone but the droids (because they’re useful) and Leia (because she’s hot even by alien slug standards, I guess). The rest are flown into the desert to be dropped into a giant carnivorous “space-anus” (Kevin’s description) called the Sarlacc. R2 tosses Luke a lightsaber while the others grab weapons from the guards. Leia strangles Jabba with her neck chain in the ensuing chaos. Eventually, everyone who’s not them dies. Our heroes explode the corpses and drop the pieces into Sarlacc just to be thorough, and then head back to the rebellion. Except for Luke, who takes a little side trip to Dagoba so he can sit by Yoda’s deathbed (performed by Frank Oz) and rehash the previous film’s plot points with the fuzzy blue ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness).
Now the real movie starts. The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and his lackey Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) have been busy building a new Death Star, whose half-completed husk now orbits the forest moon of Endor. The Rebels are ecstatic. Not only will a single strike destroy the Empire’s superweapon du jour, but the Emperor himself as well. All they need to do is land a team (led by Han, Leia, Luke and Chewie) on the surface of Endor and deactivate the energy shield protecting the Death Star Mark II. Then Lando can lead the Rebel Fleet in for the kill.
This plan does not proceed without hiccups. On Endor, Luke realizes that the Force allows him to sense the presence of his evil father Darth Vader and vice versa, so he turns himself in to Imperial troops to protect the others. The others, in the meantime, have befriended the local natives, a race of alien teddy bears called Ewoks. When the time comes to deactivate the shield, our heroes encounter far more Imperial stormtroopers than they anticipated and are quickly captured. When Lando shows up with the Rebel fleet, the shield is still operational. An Imperial fleet moves in behind them, trapping them against the shield.
On the Death Star itself, the Emperor gloats about how he set the whole thing up in an effort to lure Luke specifically and the Rebellion in general to their dooms. Luke seethes with anger, which pleases the Emperor. Apparently, when you get a Jedi Knight too angry he becomes infused with the Dark Side of the Force, which turns him evil forever. This will make him an ideal candidate for Imperial service.
Naturally, the Emperor started gloating too early. Turns out there are, like, a million alien teddy bears down on Endor, all quite willing to die for the Rebel cause. The sheer voluminous mass of them bears down on the stormtrooper legion like a fuzzy tide of squeaky comic relief death, allowing Han et al. to destroy the shield generator only slightly behind schedule. Lando leads the Rebel charge into the Death Star’s porous hull.
Luke, in the meantime, has defeated his father in single combat and still refused to give into the Dark Side. The Emperor starts the process of torturing him to death with fingertip lightning bolts. Vader’s slumbering goodness is stirred by his son’s pleas for help; he rises and throws his evil master down a bottomless shaft. Luke says a tender goodbye as his father dies, then drags the corpse to a shuttle and flees the inevitable explosion.
Planets across the galaxy cheer the Empire’s defeat while all the surviving cast members party down with the Ewoks. Luke burns Vader’s body and smiles wistfully at a poignant convocation of fuzzy blue Jedi ghosts, including Obi Wan, Yoda, and his de-Vadered (and heavily retconned) father.
Return of the Jedi is easily the silliest of the original trilogy even without the murderous teddy bear hordes. Jabba’s palace, with its porcine guards and alien cabaret, qualifies it for that title all by itself. And speaking of the alien cabaret, why do 75% of alien species have human secondary sexual characteristics? (Answer: because titillation is a vital component of space opera.) I guess it’s better than Star Trek, where the need to get Kirk laid in every other episode pushes that percentage close to 100.
Thankfully, Return of the Jedi lacks the tedium that afflicted its prequels. Sure, the lengthy Jabba sequence is entirely unnecessary, but it’s also a complete and classically structured story, punctuated by thrilling, comprehensible action sequences. (It helps that the dancers never stop to discuss politics.) The Ewok battle at the end is more laughable than dramatic, but it still knows how to engage and hold its audience. If I had to write a three-word review, it would be “goofy but exciting.” I guess that puts it closer in tone to an Indiana Jones flick than the Empire Strikes Back.
Mike, Bill and Kevin deliver another very quotable Star Wars commentary. A few of my favorite lines: During Vader’s guard-lined first arrival on the new Death Star, “Security is tight after a terrorist tried to smuggle sand onto the death star,” (Mike). During the desert sequences, “Kind of reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia, if it had been made by a mentally deficient badger,” (Bill). After several cackles from the Emperor, “His laugh is less ‘Evil Guy’, more ‘Grizzled Prospector’.” (Kevin). The riffing feels a bit sluggish during the first half of the movie, but it kicks into high gear when we get to the Ewoks. Kevin in particular has it in for them, with “Do you suddenly smell a million wet skunks in a blender?” “How is the Ewok civilization any different from Burning Man?” “Nude, but heads covered; are their privates up there?” and the obligatory Planet of the Apes reference, “A planet where koalas evolved from men?” The riffers seem to find Endor’s warlike teddies inspiring, and step up with a hilarious second half.
(2009, Horror, color)
Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett
Sam Raimi’s return to horror, if you don’t count Spiderman 3.
In a Nutshell:
An innocent young woman is dragged to hell.
The “In a Nutshell” section says it all, really. Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, the innocent young woman in question. As a bank loan officer, she refuses to extend an old gypsy woman’s credit a third consecutive time—not the kindest option, but certainly the most responsible one—and is subsequently damned to hell. Apparently, the heaven/hell system isn’t performance-based as advertised. All it takes to send you downward is a prayer of complaint from a cantankerous old Romany.
Christine has three days to contemplate her fate, and director Sam Raimi fills it with ominous portents, demonic goat possession, squirting body fluids and insect inhalation. Of note: this is the second Rifftraxed film in a row to feature cat mutilation and eyeball ingestion. Also: a frustratingly obvious game of Button, Button, Who’s Got the (Magic, Curséd) Button.
The button is key. The old gypsy apparently cursed, not Christine, but one of her buttons. If Christine can give away the hell-bound clothing fastener before her time is up, the curse will strike its recipient instead. She puts the button in an envelope and hands it off to her chosen victim—the corpse of her recently deceased curser.
In a plot twist absolutely no one could have predicted the first time we saw multiple envelopes, it turns out she handed off the wrong envelope. Her boyfriend (Justin Long) innocently hands her the right envelope just as the curse’s three-day grace period expires. He has to watch as demons emerge from underground and drag his beloved to hell.
Before the thoughts, a caveat:
As I’ve stated before, I am not an especially objective reviewer or a serious film critic. I have some rather pronounced biases and tend to wear them on my sleeve. Just about anything fantasy, for instance, gets a free pass. A filmmaker really has to try hard to screw up that genre for me. I have a much more difficult time enjoying horror movies. Oh, I don’t mind bad horror, which can be a lot of fun for mockery purposes, but good horror—horror that actually accomplishes its goal of horrifying—perplexes me. People like being horrified? Why? Being horrified is no fun.
Drag Me to Hell is good horror. It has a simply and effectively told story, its revelations doled out at just the right pace. The genuinely creepy visuals don’t rely entirely (as too many horror films do) on half-seen creatures leaping into frame. It knows the mood it wants and builds it, pausing occasionally to let the audience catch its breath, with the odd bit of grim humor to keep the tone interesting and varied. As far as modern demonic possession films—indeed, horror films in general—it would be hard to find better. Thus, for all the reasons stated above, I hated it.
For the first time in years, the Rifftrax Triumvirate comes up one short. During the introduction, Bill reads a note from Kevin explaining the latter’s absence. (He’s been dragged to hell.) The commentary starts off with some funny comments about how the names in the opening credits are “made of book farts” (Mike), and how a shot of L.A. traffic means “we’ve already been dragged to hell” (Bill). Thereafter, I found the movie rather disgustingly distracting, which made it hard to pay attention to the commentary. The large number of FreeCell games I played while it was on may have had something to do with my distraction as well. Hey, I was desperate for distraction, okay?
So yeah, this is not an unbiased review. It is, in fact, about as admittedly biased as you can get. If horror isn’t your cup of tea, well, Drag Me to Hell is the real deal, so you’d be better off avoiding it. But if the movie I just described sounds appealing to you, by all means, give it a shot.
(1934, Horror-Mad Science, b&w)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Is this reanimation or shiatsu?
In a Nutshell:
A 1930s mad science softcore slasher disguised as a clinical study.
Maniac is a serious clinical film. You can tell by the way it stops the action for minutes at a time to scroll handwritten blocks of academic language at us.
What fills the film’s remaining running time could not be called cohesive, or even lucid. Ostensibly, it’s the tale of one Don Maxwell, a small time vaudeville impersonator forced by unspecified circumstances to assist the mad Dr. Meirschultz with his experiments to raise the dead. Why, you are now asking, would the mad doctor hire a vaudevillian instead of, say, a nurse or some other medical professional? The obvious (but unstated) reason is that he is mad. The reason they actually give us is that Don’s impersonation talents lend themselves particularly well to corpse theft. A bit of spirit gum and a stuffy manner, for instance, pass him off as a coroner, netting his boss a shapely young suicide victim.
The doctor revives her with a bit of mad massage therapy and some light fondling. She stirs and goes to sleep. They stash her in a back room or something, and the doctor demands another corpse. Someone with a bad heart this time, because he really wants to use the disembodied electrode heart he’s been working on in the years since they cast him out of the academy, where everyone laughed but they’ll all pay, etc., etc. Don tries, but can’t get a second body. The doctor hands him a gun and tells him to shoot himself in the heart so that he can revive the corpse. Don accepts the gun, but shoots Dr. Meirschultz instead. The wife of a patient arrives to demand treatment for her demented husband. In a panic, Don tells her to come back later. He puts on a lab coat and dons crepe hair to become the doctor himself.
Of course he screws it up almost immediately by giving something called “super adrenaline” to a man who thinks he’s a famous literary orangutan. (Yet another plot element I couldn’t make up if I tried). Orangutan man goes wild and kidnaps the semi-comatose formerly dead girl. He drags her away and starts to rip her clothes off in a field. Then the film loses interest and never shows either character again.
His wife is still hanging around, though. She stumbles over Dr. Meirschultz’s corpse and offers to keep quiet about it in exchange for, uh... I think she wants Don to kill and revive her husband, which will somehow make him obey her every command? Don agrees. He spends the next few montages fondling semi-nude girls, mutilating cats and capering madly. (This is the part when he famously ingests a, er, “recently harvested” feline eyeball.) Now Don’s wife (who no one bothered to mention until now) comes looking for him. Don bricks up his employer’s corpse behind the cellar fireplace with a live cat, then arranges for his wife and Orangutan man’s wife to come down and wrestle. He locks the cellar door behind them and dances around on it in girlish glee.
Meanwhile, the cannibal cat rancher (he raises cannibal cats) has tipped the police off to strange goings on up at the mad doctor’s place. The cops burst in to arrest Don, free the ladies and unbrick the corpse.
The text walls are an interesting tactic; the medical terminology on display works in the sense that it describes mental illness, purportedly the subject of the film. On the other hand, the film’s protagonist is only insane in the generic cinematic sense. In every instance he fails more or less completely to illustrate the specific mental illnesses described. My suspicion is that these informational interruptions weren’t meant for the audience—at least, not the paying audience. “We’re totally educational,” the film says to the potential censors of eighty years ago. “Please don’t ban us.”
Also, for a film from the thirties, Maniac shows an astonishing number of uncovered breasts. There are four, I think; reanimated suicide girl and fantasy montage fondle-ee come in at two each. (Quoth Bill, “I didn’t think boobs existed in 1934.”) Add in the girl-wrestling, the eye-popping and subsequent eye-chewing, the rancher of cannibal cats and orangutan man’s, er, “eccentric performance” and you’ve got a movie to which the word “gratuitous” can be applied as a whole. Had it been released in 2009—perhaps as Tom Green’s long-awaited follow-up to Freddy Got Fingered—it would have been rated R.
A few of my favorite comments: When the whacked-out orangutan man drags off the topless zombie girl, Kevin says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us squirmier.” When ludicrous shenanigans give way to even more medical text about the signs of mental illness, Mike notes, “This movie helped a lot of people.” When the cat rancher peeps at bricked-up corpse/girl wrestling scene, Bill notes, “Even the professional cat fur salesman thinks this is pretty weird.” The riffers have a good sense of when to mock something mercilessly and when to just sit back and marvel along with the rest of us at the hallucinatory strangeness. It’s a solid fifty minutes of funny.
(2009, SciFi, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
In space, no one can hear you break every law of physics.
In a Nutshell:
Leonard Nimoy goes back in time to reboot the Star Trek franchise.
A spiky Romulan vessel emerges from a wormhole to attack a Starfleet ship. Outmatched, the Starfleet ship surrenders. The captain shuttles over to the Romulan vessel to negotiate peace, instructing his first officer, one George Kirk, to evacuate the ship if anything goes wrong. Things predictably go wrong. Kirk evacuates the ship, but stays aboard to ram his vessel kamikaze-style into their attackers, allowing the shuttles to escape. His wife gives birth to a baby boy in one of the shuttles. They name him James Tiberius Kirk.
Many years later, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a disrespectful young punk who gets in bar fights, picks up women and (earlier in his criminal career) pilots vintage cars into the wide, Arizona-esque crevasses of Iowa. Starfleet Captain and former friend of his father Christopher Pike looks him up and taunts him into enrolling in Starfleet Academy. Interspersed with the above, we see child Spock on his home planet of Vulcan, beating up passionless Vulcan bullies. Later, young adult Spock (Zachary Quinto) refuses a position in the prestigious Vulcan academy to join Starfleet. Kirk and Spock meet for the first time when the former cheats his way through a simulation exam designed by the latter. They’re hauled before the academy’s governing body. Spock cries foul while Kirk argues that the exam is designed to be unpassable. Cheating is the only way to complete it successfully and thus his methods should be considered legitimate.
Before the committee can rule on the merits of Spock’s non-exam and Kirk’s non-argument for his methods of passing said non-exam, the academy receives a distress call from Vulcan. The rest of the fleet is away dealing with the Klingons, so new recruits are divided among new ships to deal with the threat. Kirk isn’t allowed to go until the whole cheating issue has been dealt with, but his friend Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) sneaks him on board anyway. Kirk overhears some chance dialog, puts it together with some other chance dialog he heard earlier and realizes that they’re flying into a trap. He rushes to the bridge to tell Captain Pike. Despite their disgust at seeing this flagrant rule breaker on the bridge, Spock and his girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) corroborate Kirk’s story. Pike takes precautionary measures and thus is not destroyed along with the rest of the new fleet when they arrive at Vulcan.
Of course the perpetrator is the ship from the opening scenes, captained by a villainous scenery-chewing Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana). Nero recognizes the Enterprise and demands that they send their captain to his ship to negotiate surrender. Pike sees he is outmatched and agrees, but when the transmission ends he promotes Kirk to first officer and puts him in charge of sneak-attacking the Romulan ship’s planet-destroying drill while he buys them time.
After a high-speed skydiving duel, Kirk and Sulu (John Cho) disable the drill as instructed, but not before the Romulans have dropped “red matter” into the planet’s core. Realizing that Vulcan is doomed, Spock beams to the surface to rescue his family. He gets his father and a few of his father’s friends, but is unable to rescue his mother (Winona Ryder), who falls to her death just before the planet implodes. The Enterprise speeds to safety with half a dozen Vulcan survivors, but no captain. As acting captain, Spock decides to regroup with the rest of Star Fleet. Kirk vociferously objects, causing Spock to eject him from the ship.
Kirk wakes up in an escape pod on an icy Hoth-esque planet filled with hostile tauntaun/Cloverfield monster hybrids. He’s eventually rescued by another Vulcan survivor, Spock of the future, or Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy). Spock Prime relates a mindmelded tale of time-travel caused by a supernova and the accidental destruction of the planet Romulus. Nero comes from the future as well; he blames his home’s destruction on Spock’s unsuccessful attempt to destroy the star before it could go nova. He stole Spock’s advanced star-destroying technology and plans to destroy all Federation worlds as revenge for his lost planet.
Kirk and Spock Prime hike to a nearby Federation outpost, helmed by engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). Scotty brogues his way through a lot of pseudotechnical gibberish before beaming Kirk and himself aboard the Enterprise. Young Spock demands to know how they got aboard. Bound to secrecy by Spock Prime, Kirk refuses to tell him, taunting his superior officer until Spock loses control of his emotions. Realizing what he has done, Spock steps down as captain of the Enterprise. Kirk assumes command and orders pursuit of the Romulan vessel.
Said Romulan vessel has made its way to Earth and positioned itself directly over Starfleet Academy. While Nero prepares to fire up the world-destroying drill, Scotty’s transporter prowess gets Kirk and Spock aboard. Spock steals back his older self’s world-destroying mini-ship to fly out and destroy the drill while Kirk fistfights, firefights and fingertip-dangles his way to the imprisoned Captain Pike. Spock leads the Romulan ship away and rams his ship into theirs. Fortunately, Scotty beams everyone important to safety just before impact.
In the denouement, Kirk’s test-taking malfeasance is forgotten as Pike cedes command of the Enterprise to him. After a discussion with his older self, Spock respectfully requests to be considered for the position of first officer. Kirk welcomes him aboard. Nimoy voices the iconic “Space: The Final Frontier” speech as we begin the closing credits.
Apparently, cinematic military organizations of the future will be just like the cinematic military organizations we have today, in that they will continue to prize reckless ingenuity over competent obedience. Two epochs, united in the way its depictions of military behavior remain so far removed from reality that you can’t even see reality from here. Not that I mind. Reckless ingenuity might be a crappy way to run a military, but it’s a hell of a lot more exciting to watch than competent obedience.
Speaking of “exciting”, I guess I could use this space to go on about the film’s flaws, but dang it, this new Star Trek entertained me, so I’m not going to do that. Take these next statements with a grain of salt, keeping in mind that I’ve only seen half the prior films, but... For the first time since Wrath of Khan, a Star Trek movie was actually exciting all the way through. For the first time since, well, ever, a Star Trek movie didn’t talk down to me, stopping the action every quarter hour to try and convince me of its own cleverness, or remind me how beloved it is, or harangue me about Very Important Social Issues. J.J. Abrams’s new Star Trek is a lean, forward-moving action machine that knows when it’s gone too far with its disregard for physics, illogical plot twists and obsessive love of fingertip dangling. And when that happens, it grins at the audience and goes even further because, hey, space operas are supposed to be fun. It’s about time someone remembered that.
My recommendation for J.J. Abrams’s next project: send Billy Dee Williams back in time to prevent Episode I.
Exciting or no, all things Star Trek have ridiculousness built right into the foundation of the franchise, so Mike, Bill and Kevin have plenty to work with. A few of my favorite comments: When an anonymous redshirt plummets to his death during the space drill sequence, Kevin says, “I didn’t realize Wile E. Coyote was on their drop team.” When Kirk gets grasped by the neck over a deep shaft aboard the Romulan ship, Mike asks, “Can I just once have a world-saving fistfight that didn’t take place over a bottomless chasm,” while Bill continues, “More choking? My neck’s more bruised than a 7-11 banana.” The scene’s inevitable consequence has Mike adding, “Ah, fingertip dangle, my old friend.” The film doesn’t take itself very seriously to begin with; all the riffers have to do is push it further in the direction it’s already going, with suitably entertaining results.