Welcome, won't you?
Strap in for Avatar, the most beautifully shot environmental screed/furry porno lite ever produced. Mike, Bill and Kevin dish out all the mockery this alien travelogue can absorb, but can't prevent the admittedly gorgeous scenery from eventually wearing out its welcome. Review here.
Welcome, won't you?
Rectangle drawing. Once a sport of playboys and bon vivants, this entertaining little diversion is finally trickling down to the masses. Don't be left out of the hot new craze that's sweeping the nation, learn yourself some rectangle drawing skills today. Rifftrax's latest short, Drawing for Beginners: The Rectangle, ought to point you in the right direction. Pick it up here.
A review will have to wait until I finish the endless slog through Avatar. I'm about halfway through.
(1957, Educational/Short, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
What is this, bad Hemingway?
In a Nutshell:
The idyll to end all idylls.
A pair of children passes an unspeakably pleasant day with their parents, aunt and uncle at a cabin by a lake. First they drive out to the lake, passing orchards filled with fruit trees laden with all kinds of fruit ripe at once. (“What the hell time of year is this?” asks Bill.) They arrive and swim, go on a picnic, and suffer a light rain shower for the sake of enjoying the rainbow that comes after. And speaking of suffering, the middle portion consists of a lengthy speedboat ride, accompanied by an even lengthier semi-free verse poem about speedboating.
The rose-colored glasses worn by these filmmakers have tinting so heavy, they’re almost opaque. Has Rifftrax, or even Mystery Science Theater, ever done a short so saccharine? I can’t think any off the top of my head. Maybe Mr. B Natural, but even that film had a minor conflict to drive the plot.
A few favorite quotes: When the narrator shows us a new wonderful thing around every corner on the drive to the lake, Bill tries to spice it up with, “Further along there are packs of roving cannibals.” When everyone spruces up for the speedboat ride, Kevin notes, “Mother wears a light speedboating dress.” When they end the poem/ride to go on a picnic, Mike pleads, “Please tell me there’s no poem for that.” It’s cheery, it’s rosy, it’s pleasant, it’s boring, and it’s occasionally amusing with the commentary.
Welcome, won't you?
The big news today is, of course, the simultaneous release of the Avatar DVD and the Avatar Rifftrax on Earth Day. (Pick it up here.) The Rifftrax guys already used the Life Day/Earth Day joke on their site, which is good, 'cause it relieves me of the obligation to do it myself. The obligatory Smurf and Blue Man Group jokes are in the alt text of the graphics above and to the right of this text. And now I'm all tapped out. I'm genuinely curious about how they'll fill two and a half hours worth of plotless alien jungle footage.
In the event that you'd rather see panty-peeping ghosts than cerulean monkey-cats in bikinis, we have Janet Varney and Cole Stratton's riff of Poltergeist, which was much better than I expected it to be. For one thing, I actually enjoyed a well-made horror film. For another, Cole and Janet keep it funny and unobtrusive without getting buried by the film, always a challenge when riffing a genre classic. Review here.
(1976, Educational/Short, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Thanks, oh great Sailor Moon, for the food.
In a Nutshell:
People in different parts of the world eat different things.
Three families in three different parts of the world prepare dinner. The Japanese family buys seafood and roots, which they keep under the floor until it’s time to prepare them for dinner. The Mexican family shakes unfamiliar fruit from a tree and kills a chicken for a meal in their hut. The American family loads up their cart at the grocery store and goes home to eat chicken and mashed potatoes.
Families: Food and Eating takes an often interesting look at meals in different cultures, but mostly it’s a not-so-subtle jab at First World prosperity. Yes, it’s probably representative of the depicted nations’ relative economies to portray middle class Americans and Japanese alongside dirt poor Mexicans. On the other hand, once you throw off the relative family demographics that way, you’ve pretty abandoned the whole “examination of cultural foods” thing, repurposing the short to trot out the old “starving children in [insert name of poor country here]” mealtime guilt trip used by parents since time immemorial. Or, in the film’s own terms, “Eat your greens and mashed potatoes, because you could be living in a tin shack with no floor, helping your grandma dismember a live chicken over a bowl of blood.”
Though they shy away from ethnic slurs, the riffers have no problems making fun of other cultures. My favorites refer to the Japanese, including many, many jabs about tentacle hentai while the children fondle the squids on display. Also from the Japanese shopping scenes: Mike translates the mother’s request to the shopkeeper as, “Just give me whatever’s most disgusting.” Later, as the American children crowd around their mom in the grocery store, Kevin says, “It’s like shopping with a pack of poorly behaved dingoes.” Bill notes the shopping cart’s contents with, “The Mexican family won’t see that much food in a year.” Throughout, they punch up an already semi-ridiculous short with enough commentary on all the cultures (including our own) to make the whole thing hilarious.
Welcome, won't you?
Cole Stratton and Janet Varney jump back into the Rifftrax Presents game with their first non-romance subject, Poltergeist. I note, however, that is their second film about ghosts and approximately their thirty millionth film from the eighties. Not that I mind; thanks to them, I'm finally whittling down that embarrassing list of Iconic Movies From the Eighties That Everyone Has Seen But Me. Available here.
Also, to no one's great surprise, the Rifftrax Big Three will return on April 22, 2010--just in time to throw a riff at James Cameron's visually magnificent and completely story-free masterwork, Avatar.
R099 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
R100 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
R101 The Boy in the Plastic Bubble
R102 High School Musical
R103 Clash of the Titans (2010 version)
R104 The Last Airbender
R105 The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
R106 Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny
R108 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
R109 Birdemic: Shock and Terror
Yeah, this section of ten has twelve titles in it. That's what happens when they change up the official numbering scheme on me.
Regardless, this section has one of the most eclectic selection of titles we've had in a while. The recent blockbusters are there (Inception, Last Airbender, Clash of the Titans), further entries in several long-running series (Return of the King, Order of the Phoenix, Eclipse) and even a couple slices of classic cheese (Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Highlander). Interestingly, two of the best are unapologetically irredeemable cinematic garbage (Birdemic and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny). Ice Cream Bunny even managed to dethrone The Star Wars Holiday Special as my favorite Rifftrax of all time.
Did I mention there's a musical in there too? That doesn't happen often.
(2007, Fantasy, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
For the third consecutive year, the new teacher turns out to be evil.
In a Nutshell:
Harry Potter just gets grimmer and grimmer, doesn’t it?
This is movie number five in the series, so here’s the obligatory link to the prior film. Also: here, here and here.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix starts off with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his thuggish cousin Dudley getting attacked by Dementors (soul-sucking ghosts) in a playground. Always handy with a spell, Harry drives them off. While a traumatized Dudley gets dragged to the hospital, the eponymous Order of the Phoenix arrives to escort Harry to OotP headquarters.
Said Order consists of all of Harry’s adult friends from previous films: the Weasleys (Mark Williams and Julie Walters), Mad-Eye (Brendan Gleeson), Lupin (David Thewlis), etc. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has gathered these trustworthy folks to fight against the rise of the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), freshly resurrected at the end of the last movie. Also included: Harry’s beloved Godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who’s still wanted for crimes he did not commit and must hide at headquarters. Harry learns that the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) and his lackey Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) refuse to admit that Voldemort has returned, and will do anything to stop Harry and Dumbledore from convincing the wizarding public otherwise.
Their latest smear attempt has to do with the spell Harry cast to drive away the Dementors. Underage magic is illegal outside school grounds, so they hold a hearing to expel him from Hogwarts. Dumbledore appears to point out that magic is allowed in life-threatening situations, and produces a witness to the attack. Fudge et al. have no choice but to drop the charges.
Harry returns to school, only to discover that Umbridge is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, specially empowered by Fudge to keep Dumbledore from spreading the word about Voldemort’s return. Umbridge makes new rules daily, forbidding students from learning any self-defense, or from gathering together in groups. Frustrated, Harry’s friends Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) convince Harry to start a clandestine club called Dumbledore’s Army, which trains defensive spells in secret. They are betrayed and discovered. Despite the fact that he had nothing to do with it, Dumbledore claims responsibility to keep them out of trouble. He disappears before Fudge can arrest him. Umbridge takes over the school, instituting even more draconian measures to keep the students in line. Finally some of the students rebel, throwing the school into chaos with a barrage of magical fireworks.
In the midst of this Harry has been having disturbing dreams which provide insights into the returned Voldemort’s mind. In an earlier dream, Harry saw Mr. Weasley get attacked by Voldemort’s pet snake, and sent help in time to save him. Now Harry has a vision of Sirius being tortured in the Ministry of Magic. Harry and his friends trick Umbridge into getting captured by the local centaurs and rush to the rescue.
The end up in the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries, a warehouse full of prophecies recorded in little crystal balls. Sirius isn’t there, but a gang of Deatheaters (Voldemort’s henchmen) are, including main henchman Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the insane Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter). Malfoy explains that Voldemort has figured out the connection between his mind and Harry’s and used it to show him a vision of something that wasn’t really happening. They need Harry to retrieve a prophecy for them. Only he can retrieve it, because it’s about him.
Harry already has the prophecy in question. (It says that either he will kill Voldemort or the other way around). He and his friends keep the Deatheaters at bay for a while, but end up trapped. The Order of the Phoenix arrives just in time. They fight off the Deatheaters, destroying the prophecy in the process. In the midst of the fighting, Bellatrix kills Sirius. Angry, Harry chases her into the hall and corners her.
Voldemort arrives to taunt Harry and defeat him in battle. Dumbledore shows up shortly thereafter to rescue Harry and defeat Voldemort in battle. Voldemort uses his psychic connection with Harry to posses him. Harry struggles and ejects the dark wizard just in time for Fudge and the Ministry to arrive and see that Voldemort really is back after all.
Harry and Dumbledore are vindicated in the press. Harry mourns Sirius and gets ready to go home for the summer.
Order of the Phoenix is the longest and darkest of the books thus far. Amazingly, the movie version is both shorter than Goblet of Fire (its immediate predecessor) and the most clearly plotted of the films since Sorcerer’s Stone. Much of this has to do with the way the story is told. Example: Harry is informed that he is being expelled for using magic to drive away the Dementors. He pounds his fists against the wall; a picture of his parents falls and cracks. It’s a horrible cliché, to be sure, but it quickly and unambiguously communicates his reaction. The whole movie is like this—broad, clear, simple strokes one after the other. Sure, some clever dialog or a demonstration of how events affect his life in subtle ways would be more satisfying, but there’s way too much story to get through to do that for everything. Simply put, Order of the Phoenix speaks cinematic shorthand better than any of its predecessors. This is a good thing; it’s the only language it has time to speak.
The movie’s relative competence dims the humor a bit, but not by much. Rowlings’s wizard world is ridiculous beyond belief, inviting mockery no matter how well you present it. A few favorite comments: When Harry flashes back to the death of a friend in a previous film (played by vampire heartthrob Robert Pattinson), Bill says, “Dudley’s right, I really should stop dreaming about—sigh—Cedric.” When we learn of the Fudge’s treachery, Kevin says, “So Fudge has been packing the paper full of lies?” When Helena Bonham Carter emerges from wizard prison, Mike says, “This is where Tim Burton keeps her between movies.” A very funny running gag about racist nursery rhyme “Taffy Was a Welshman” occupies much of the film’s beginning. It’s not the best of the Harry Potter commentaries, but everything they've done with the series thus far has turned out well, and this entry is no exception.
(2010, SciFi/Action/Drama, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
The important thing is that, no matter how you interpret the ending, someone on the internet can call you a homo.
In a Nutshell:
A team of experts breaks into a man’s dream to plant an idea.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have broken into the dream of Japanese billionaire Saito (Ken Watanabe) to steal secret information. The dinner party heist goes awry when Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) appears to warn Saito. Saito wakes himself up before Cobb can find the information he needs. Cobb and Arthur wake up as well, and a fight ensues in a filthy back-alley apartment. They force Saito to the floor and attempt to get the information out of him at gunpoint. Saito realizes that the texture of the carpet feels wrong, figures out that he’s still dreaming and wakes up again.
We finally return to the real world, where Cobb and Arthur hurry to collect their gear and flee Saito’s train compartment before he regains consciousness. The expository scenes that follow reveal that Cobb misses his children but can’t return to the U.S. to see them. Now he uses his dream infiltration expertise in the service of corporate espionage, hoping to earn enough money to bribe his way home. Having failed their last corporate client, he and Arthur have to flee again.
An attempt to flee by helicopter goes awry when they find it already occupied by Saito. He forgives them of their attempt to hijack his mind and offers them a job. If they can plant an idea into a rival’s mind, he will use his vast wealth and high-level contacts to fix Cobb’s problems with the law. Arthur declares that such “inception” is impossible, as the mind automatically rejects ideas it knows to be foreign. Cobb disagrees. He knows it can be done, but it’s difficult, and it depends on the idea being introduced. Saito wants the heir to a business empire to break up his father’s business upon inheriting it. Cobb agrees.
Cobb goes to his father-in-law (Michael Caine) who introduces him to Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architecture student who will help them create the recursive dream spaces they’ll need to work in. He also hires professional con man Eames (Tom Hardy) and master chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to study their target and concoct the special sleep serums they’ll need, respectively. Saito will join them as well, to keep an eye on his investment.
During the training/preparation sequences, we learn about tokens: objects that the dreamer carries to tell them whether or not they’re dreaming. Cobb’s is a little pewter top. If he spins it and it doesn’t fall, he’s asleep. If it falls, he’s awake. Ariadne becomes more and more suspicious of Cobb and his refusal to know anything about the dream spaces she’s built, and his inability to follow any of the dreaming rules he lays down from the others. One evening she notices him lost in his own dreams and sits down next to the dream machine to join him.
Cobb’s subconscious is populated with his regrets. His children, whose faces he can never see. His delusional and vindictive wife, now deceased. This is why he can’t design dream spaces or even know about them ahead of time. His guilt over his wife’s suicide always takes her form and stalks out of his subconscious. The job has to be done before she finds her way through the dream space and sabotages him.
Cobb and his team eventually surround their target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), in the first class cabin of a ten-hour flight to New York. Unbeknownst to Fischer, Saito has bought the airline, and now every other member of the first class cabin is in on the plot to infiltrate his mind. He falls asleep. They hook him up to their dream machine and join him.
The first level of the dream is a rain-lashed city run by Yusuf. They kidnap Fischer within his dream and begin the process of hacking into his subconscious by trying to turn him against one of his father’s advisors. This becomes tricky when they discover that Fischer’s subconscious has been specially trained to hunt and destroy infiltrators. Heavily armed subconscious projections beset them from all sides, wounding Saito. Eames wants to kill him, thus sending him out of the dream, but Cobb prevents him. The sedative they’ve taken is too powerful. Dying in the dream would send Saito to limbo, a place so deep in the subconscious that every second in the waking world feels like infinity. Spending that long alone would drive him insane, eventually turning him into a vegetable. The others are naturally upset that this detail was kept from them, but they have no choice but to continue. In a private moment with Ariadne, Cobb reveals that he’s been to limbo before, and just barely got out with his sanity mostly intact. His wife Mal did not. It was her time in limbo made her suicidal.
Yusuf gathers them all into a van, which he will drive around the city while the rest of them go deeper into another dream. This one takes place in an Escher-esque hotel hosted by Arthur. Instead of kidnapping Fischer, Cobb takes a more direct approach. He goes directly to Fischer and points out that this is all a dream. When Fischer is convinced, Cobb and his team pose as part of Fischer’s subconscious, here to protect him from other infiltrators. Having now turned Fischer against the real subconscious security force, Fischer helps them flee to a random hotel room. They continue to turn him against a projection of his father’s advisor, who now represents Fischer’s wish to keep his father’s company intact. With Fischer’s blessing, they hook him up to another dream machine and leave Arthur behind to go to yet a third level of dreaming.
This dream is a snow-covered fortress with Fischer’s most secret desires in an enormous safe near the center. Cobb and the others fight off Fischer’s subconscious drones while Fischer goes inside. When he’s almost to the safe, Mal shows up and kills him, sending him to limbo. Cobb wants to scrap the mission, but Ariadne convinces him to follow Fischer into limbo.
Ariadne and Cobb wander the wreckage of Cobb’s deepest subconscious. They eventually come to Mal’s house, where she holds Fischer prisoner. Cobb confesses why he knows that inception is possible. When he and Mal got stuck here before, she got lost and wouldn’t believe she was dreaming until he found the innermost part of her mind and inserted the idea that this world wasn’t real. They committed suicide together and woke up back in the real world. But the idea didn’t wear off, and Mal remained convinced that she was still asleep, eventually committing suicide to look for a world even realer. Hoping to force Cobb to join her, she left behind evidence that Cobb had murdered her. Ariadne shoots Cobb’s projection of Mal. While she lies dying in his arms, Cobb lets go of his guilt. Ariadne pushes Fischer off a high building (falling is the trigger to wake up) and then jumps off herself. Cobb refuses to follow. He knows that Saito has died of his injuries a couple of dreams up and vows to find his employer and return him to the real world.
Up in the snow fortress, Fischer has returned to open the vault and found a desire to not be like his father. Eames destroys the fortress’s supports, dropping the dreamers and sending them up to the previous dream. Meanwhile, Arthur has come up with a way to drop his dreamers in the zero gravity brought on by the sensation of falling in a previous dream (it’s too complicated to adequately explain, but it looks freakin’ cool) eventually stuffing them all into an elevator and using explosive charges as rockets. In the first dream, Yusuf has elegantly solved the falling dilemma by driving his van off a bridge. Everyone wakes up except Cobb and Saito.
Back in limbo, Cobb washes up on a beach outside a Japanese manor. Inside he meets Saito, now confused and elderly. Cobb brings back memories of who Saito used to be, and they commit suicide to make themselves wake up. Cobb wakes up on the plane next to his companions. Nearby, Saito wakes up too. Saito makes a call, and his agents in the United States make the appropriate bribes and connections. By the time Cobb gets to customs, all charges associated with his wife’s death have been dropped, allowing him to go home to his children. At home, he spins his top to see if he’s still dreaming. The film ends before we see whether or not it falls.
No doubt interpretations of the film and its ending abound, but surely these can only be variations on one of two possible themes: 1) The top falls, indicating that he has made it back to his children in the real world. 2) The top continues to spin, indicating that he hasn’t escaped limbo. (I briefly considered a possibility number three: The top continues to spin, indicating that Dead Wife Guilt Puppet is right and everything in the film from beginning to end is Cobb still trapped in a dream one level down from Mal. This interpretation ignores all the times the top has previously fallen, rendering it meaningless as an indicator of reality.) If I get to choose, I’ll go with interpretation number one, because I like happy endings and it’s not the kind of film that would be cheapened by one.
I don’t get to choose, though, and I probably shouldn’t. Auteur Christopher Nolan deliberately cut before we could find out one way or another, a little slap on the wrist for anyone looking for resolution. Resolution implies plot, and Inception doesn’t have a plot, per se. It has a logic puzzle disguised as one, but here too he deceives; it’s dream logic—compelling and urgent, but it only makes sense in the midst of the dream. Like an M.C. Escher drawing, Inception an illusion, an elegant construction of lines and angles that can’t possibly meet, but do anyway. The movie ends at the point where the top of Nolan’s paradoxical staircase appears to meet the bottom.
On to the Rifftrax. A few favorite comments: during her interview, Ariadne designs a maze that satisfies Cobb, and Bill says, “You got the job. Welcome to Highlights For Children.” When dream Paris folds over on itself, Mike says, “All this caused by one French mime pulling on an imaginary rope.” As the rules of dream space become more and more convoluted, Kevin says, “If we’re just making up rules as we go, let’s say there’s a monkey that steals bikini tops.” The commentary has its moments, but riffing Christopher Nolan’s films has proven to be a tricky proposition, and I don’t know that Mike Nelson et al. have ever gotten it quite right. This includes their treatment of Inception, unfortunately, but the comfort here is that they’ve never gotten it quite wrong either. Like Memento and The Dark Knight, Inception is absorbing. Often it defeated the commentary in the contest for my attention. Maybe the Rifftrax works better if you’ve already seen Inception a dozen times and have thoroughly worked over the inconsistencies for yourself. I wouldn’t know and I don’t have time to try.
(1972, Holiday/Children, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
Guys, did we take powerful hallucinogenic drugs before this?
In a Nutshell:
A stranded Santa relates the tale of Thumbelina.
Santa went to Florida for some reason and got his sleigh stuck in the sand. His reindeer tried their best to free him (not depicted), but eventually gave up and returned to the North Pole without him.
As our story begins, pointy-hatted elves notice he’s gone. They sing a tuneless song about how he’s not there and then continue their work unperturbed. Meanwhile, Santa uses his psychic powers to summon every child in running distance, including the tropically shirted Tom Sawyer, his pal Huck Finn and their nameless pet raccoon. They hide in the bushes while Santa explains his predicament to the other children. These children run off and return one at a time with a wide variety of barnyard animals, none of which can be persuaded to hitch themselves to the sleigh and commence towing. (Of course Santa and the kids can’t be bothered to do any hitching themselves.) Having exhausted every possible option, Santa does the only thing he can: He sits the kids down to tell them the story of Thumbelina.
Cut to nearby Pirates World, a crappy Floridian theme park whose approach to ride safety can accurately be described as “nonexistent”. A young woman peruses a diorama of the Thumbelina story (filmed from behind, so all you can see is its bare plywood backing) while a tinny loudspeaker begins the tale. A new set of opening credits roll...
Thumbelina’s prospective mother putters aimlessly around her cardboard house for a while and then goes to visit a witch. The witch sings an endless, repetitive song while puttering aimlessly around her papier-mâché witch cave and then gives the lonely old woman a seed. The woman plants it, and out pops an inch-high young woman.
Many happy months are implied to pass, until one day the forgetful faux mother leaves a window open. A plush frog woman kidnaps Thumbelina (not depicted) as a bride for her hideous plush son, trapping her on a lily pad. Sympathetic fish cut the pad’s moorings to help her escape (not depicted) allowing her to slip quietly down the river. She meets a gang of hideous plush insects (depicted, unfortunately) who threaten to squish her. She runs away, eventually taking shelter with an old mole woman. Old mole woman turns out to be our tinny speaker-voiced narrator. She guilt-trips Thumbelina into getting engaged to their rich but elderly neighbor, also a mole. Thumbelina gets cold feet and abandons him at the implied altar, running off at the last minute with a capricious bird. The bird drops her off in The Land of the Flower People (“Also known as Berkeley,” Bill adds) where she weds a tiny king.
End credits. Back to Santa.
The kids all get the same bright idea at once and run off. Having sweltered under the hot Florida sun for more than an hour now, Santa starts to remove his red velvet suit. Hearing an odd siren, he hurriedly puts it back on. The children have returned in a fire truck piloted (barely) by an enormous plush rabbit. “Ice Cream Bunny, of course!” Santa exclaims. Santa leaves his sleigh to board the fire truck, which the Ice Cream Bunny will presumably drive all the way to the North Pole. The sleigh magically follows shortly thereafter. The children are all astonished by its sudden disappearance. So are Huck and Tom, who were watching from the bushes this whole time.
End credits again.
Who, exactly, is the Ice Cream Bunny? Possibly people familiar with Pirates World would know. I wouldn’t place very good odds on it though, considering how well the movie explains everything else.
Truth be told, I don’t think it would matter if it was an explaining sort of movie. This is a film that defeats explanation. Has my poor summary made it sound incomprehensible? Aimless? Hallucinogenic? Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is all of these things. I have previously described films as “mind-altering.” I have described them as “cinematic fever dreams.” I meant these phrases as hyperbole—not as concrete descriptions, but as words meant to evoke a film’s flavor. I’ve used them again here, further up in this very paragraph, and as they pertain to Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, I want you to take them literally.
Watching it was a more intense experience than I’ve come to expect from Rifftrax. The first few minutes perplexed me. The next few minutes made me chuckle. During this short period I only wrote down two jokes worth mentioning. One is quoted at the top of the review; in the other, Kevin describes the elves as, “When Girl Scouts join the Klan.” Thereafter, I laughed so hard I could scarcely breathe. I did this without stopping. My wife came over several times to see if I was okay. My youngest daughter (six years old) woke and tiptoed carefully up beside me to see what I was laughing at. She saw the hideous plush bugs dancing across the screen. My headphones were in, so she couldn’t hear Kevin making the same comment she was: i.e. shrieking in abject horror. I had to pause the movie and spend a fair amount of time calming her down and coaxing her back to sleep. I was afraid that the interruption would put me out of a Rifftrax-enjoyin’ mood, dulling the humor, but within a minute I choking back sobs of laughter, tears streaming down my face. By the time it ended I felt emotionally drained. I never expected them to top The ‘Star Wars’ Holiday Special, thus far the apex of their work, but somehow they have done it. I said this already in the Holiday Special review, but now it applies to Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny even more—if you only plan to watch one Rifftrax in your life, this is the one.
(2010, Horror/Romance, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
If there are any teenage girls out there who find this romantic, please seek help.
In a Nutshell:
The surliest creatures of the night worship a sullen teenager with no redeeming qualities.
We’re three deep into the series now, so if you’re not already up to speed, grab a pint of fawn's blood out of the fridge and take a look at my summaries of the previous films here and here.
Ready now? All undead, glittery and/or shirtless? Good.
The young and stammery Bella (Kristen Stewart) loves her icy vampire beau Edward (Robert Pattison) much to the consternation of her best Native American werewolf friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Bella wants to be a vampire too, but Edward doesn’t want to damn her to his endless, bloodthirsty state of unlife. She’s prevailed upon the Cullens (Edward’s vampire family) to change her anyway, but not until after high school graduation.
In nearby Seattle, vampire villainess Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) still fumes over the Edward-induced death of her mate two movies ago. She creates an army of young vampires and aims them at the Cullens. While the army slowly gathers and prepares, Bella pines, frets, stammers, blinks and mopes while Edward presses her with cold, emotionless proposals of marriage and Jacob presses her with overaggressive sexual advances. (The preceding sentence describes the film’s middle seventy percent.) Bella eventually accepts Edward’s proposal.
The army arrives. Bella, Jacob and Edward hide out on a remote mountain peak for some reason. Love triangle shenanigans ensue, culminating in an illicit kiss between Bella and Jacob. A tenuous alliance between the werewolf tribe and the Cullens brings the vampire army down. Edward kills Victoria. The Volturi (i.e. vampire government) arrives, led by Jane (Dakota Fanning). After a bit of posturing, they leave again. Bella and Edward set a date for the wedding.
The blurb on the DVD cover says “Best Twilight movie so far,” a statement I can’t honestly refute. Keep in mind, however, that Revenge of the Sith was the best Star Wars prequel and still consisted solely of equal parts tedium and pain. Eclipse is better structured and more briskly paced than its predecessors, reducing the tedium to some degree. In a way, this just makes it worse for the non-fan viewer; at times you can feel the pain portion expanding to fill the void.
What else can I say? With only one exception, every character in the entire friggin’ movie is too cool for such petty feelings as happiness and pleasure. The performances range from “emotionally sterile” to “clinically depressed” with most of them pushing the boundaries of “utterly unlikeable.” Ashley Greene as vampire sister Alice often seems as if she’s as only the person capable of joy in all of Washington State. During her appearances, I found myself wishing they’d made the movie about her instead. It’s a romance movie and she’s one of two characters who are even remotely sexy. The other is Jacob, who wields his blatant sexuality in the most disturbingly rape-ish way possible.
And what of our central couple, Bella and Edward? They are still steadfastly, hopelessly in love. Once again, we only know this because the script has told us so. If it’s romantic chemistry you want, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
A few favorite comments: Jacob remarks how he’d rather Bella die than become a vampire, and Mike says, “It’s nice to have someone who cares enough to wish death on you.” While Edward prepares for battle, Bill notes his, um, “lean” physique with, “Even David Spade wouldn’t run away from this guy.” While Jacob continues to press himself on Bella in the creepiest, most aggressive way possible, Kevin follows one of his lines with, “I’m pretty sure that exact phrase is in a police pamphlet somewhere.” My favorite is Mike’s line near the end, quoted at the beginning of the review. “If there are any teenage girls out there who find this romantic, please seek help.” Bill adds that older women who find this romantic should seek double help. It’s a funny, expertly timed commentary, and it helps that the movie pauses after every line as if made for the purpose of mockery. If it weren’t for the pain associated with viewing, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. As it is, well, the pain is significant.
(2010, Fantasy/Action-ish, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
His light-up tattoo looks fancy, but it’s really just to remind him where his nose is.
In a Nutshell:
Magical fantasy kids wander the world righting wrongs, etc.
A “bender” is a person that can manipulate one of the four elements. An airbender can control air, a firebender controls fire, while waterbenders and earthbenders control their own respective elements. In the semi-Asian fantasyland where our story takes place, each category of bender has its own tribe, kept in balance by the Avatar. Able to bend all four elements instead of just one, the Avatar is the continuously reincarnated enforcer of inter-tribe peace.
That’s the setting, now the backstory: The latest incarnation of the Avatar was born into the Air Tribe, a bald and heavily tattooed child named Aang (Noah Ringer). He fled upon learning about his responsibilities and subsequently became trapped in the ice for a hundred years. Without the Avatar to keep the world in balance, the Fire Nation got all uppity and murdered rest of the Air Tribe. Then, for good measure, they enslaved the Earth Tribe and half of the Water Kingdom.
The movie doesn’t start us out with any of this information, by the way. There’s a lot—and I mean a truly elephantine amount—of narration, voiceovers and expository conversations. These get salted pretty evenly throughout the movie, but they’re disjointed and not in any kind of comprehensible order. At one point the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis) and his most evil general (Aasif Mandvi) start talking about the plot, continuing their conversation while the screen fades to the next scene. Then they stop for a while only start again after that next scene has given way to yet a third unrelated scene. “Who’s talking there?” Bill asks at this point. “I think that’s dialog leaking over from the next theater,” Mike responds.
Can you tell I’m trying to avoid discussing the plot? It’s not that I don’t understand it. I’m pretty sure I grasp the basics at least as well as writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, though M. Night’s understanding of his own movie could easily be called into question. The movie actually begins with Water Tribe child Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). They dig Aang out of the ice after a hundred years of Fire Nation tyranny. The three of them decide to journey towards the unenslaved half of the Water Kingdom, liberating bits of Earth Kingdom as they go. Meanwhile, exiled Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) pursues, trying to capture Aang to redeem himself with his evil father while simultaneously trying to keep the evil Fire General from stealing his prize. Also meanwhile, Aang feels really bad about letting the world down for a hundred years and has occasional dragon-related hallucinations.
They finally reach the Water Kingdom, where Aang learns to bend water in addition to his air skills. Sokka falls in love with a white-haired princess, who sacrifices her life to resurrect a sacred fish while the Fire Nation attacks in steampunk boat tanks. Aang eludes Zuko and uses his dragon hallucination’s nonsensical advice to raise a wall of water between the Water Kingdom and the Fire Nation’s invading ships. The Fire Nation retreats. Everyone bows to Aang. Aang does a startled tai chi exercise. To be continued...
How does one even begin to discuss this film? Of course it’s terrible. Almost indescribably so. But how to describe its particular flavor of badness?
Imagine The Phantom Menace, with even flatter dialog and seventy-five percent of the action scenes removed. The remaining twenty five percent have been diluted and stretched so that they still take up the same amount of time.
Imagine The Room without that movie’s enthusiasm (its sole redeeming quality). Slow, ponderous martial arts sequences have replaced the squick-inducing sex scenes.
Imagine you get invited to a party by a guy that, well, he’s put on some really great parties before. He’s also put on some parties that were, frankly, not so great. Upon hearing your concerns this hypothetical guy waves them aside, assuring you that this party will really rock. So you go, fearing awkwardness but hoping for fun, and when you get there you find a literal rock. Not an interesting rock, mind you. In fact, strictly speaking, large hunks of broken concrete aren’t actual rocks. You’re disappointed, because this rock-like object is not an enjoyable gathering of friends. You are also relieved, because this rock-like object will not park its car behind yours and disappear, trapping you in the house with a drunken philosopher who’s decided to follow you around explaining The Meaning of Life. As an inert, lifeless object, it cannot entertain or offend you, and any bad feelings you may have toward it stem solely from way you’d been misled to believe it would be party.
Which explains why this is the most poorly reviewed Shyamalan film yet. Even bad films are enjoyed by some percentage of the attendees. As a filmmaker, no matter how much you offend, no matter how grossly you miscalculate, at least a small minority of the audience will possess tastes that match yours. In the case of The Last Airbender, audiences showed up and saw a more-or-less random series of words and images instead of a film, and if they showed up for the retrofitted 3D version, they didn’t even get the images part. No one liked it because there was nothing to like, nothing to hate, nothing to inspire any kind of feeling, really.
A few favorite comments: After the first few minutes of dialog, Mike asks, “That was a conversation? What is this, Jim Henson’s Lobotomy Babies?” While Aang slowly works his airbending into a battle scene, Bill says, “Looks like a lot of effort. He should just buy a gun.” Kevin has a great time shouting “Woo-tini!” every time Aang dons his Jawa-esque hood. After the film is over, Bill cuts off M. Night’s funding, suggesting that he “go to refrigeration school or become a locksmith. Do something worthwhile with your life!” (If there’s any justice in the world Bill will be right, but remember: people gave him money to make this unfortunate film after The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening. Like a Batman villain, Shyamalan will eventually be loosed on the public again.) The film’s basically a blank slate—a gray, clunky, mercifully short slate—and the riffers make it entertaining by projecting their own personalities onto it. The movie sure doesn’t do them any favors, though.
(2010, Fantasy—Sword and Sandal, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
This movie is ninety percent releasing things.
In a Nutshell:
Blah, blah, blah, hack! Blah, blah, blah, slash!
An incomprehensible fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite) discovers a coffin at sea, containing a dead woman and her still-alive baby. The fisherman calls the baby Perseus and raises him as his own, holding emotional heart-to-heart talks with the growing boy about, uh, you know, things...
Okay, I have no idea what’s going on with Postlethwaite’s normally clear diction, but most of his lines have to be guessed at, and the other half of the conversation—indeed, the rest of the dialog from here on in—doesn’t help much.
Perseus grows up to be Sam Worthington, a dusty, gray, musclebound lump of a man whose line delivery rivals Vin Diesel himself for flatly intoned surliness. Our unflavored wad of hero is out fishing with his family one day when they see soldiers from nearby Argos tearing down a statue of Zeus. Death god Hades (Ralph Fiennes) appears and destroys the soldiers with Furies (i.e. bat-lady monsters). Then, just for kicks, he sinks the fishing boat, drowning all aboard except for Perseus.
Now let’s head to the top of Mount Olympus where, after centuries of randomly slaughtering and occasionally raping his followers, chief god Zeus (Liam Neeson) can’t understand why the mortals don’t love him anymore. Zeus gives his brother Hades special dispensation to occasionally pop out of the underworld and stomp the mortals back into submission.
The surviving Argos soldiers recover Perseus on their way back to their city, dumping him in front of the royal family for some reason. King Kepheus and his wife Cassiopeia are holding a rockin’ party to celebrate their “victory” over the gods. Despite her daughter Andromeda’s remonstrances and pleas to the contrary, Cassiopeia declares Andromeda to be more beautiful than the love goddess Aphrodite. Hades appears, slaughters the remaining soldiers and declares that he will release the Kraken (i.e. gargantuan tentacle monster) to destroy Argos on the next full moon. The only way to avert this is to sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken. On his way out, he fingers Perseus as one of Zeus’s many bastard sons.
Eager to seize an advantage, Kepheus urges Perseus to take up a quest to slay the Kraken. With the encouragement of the cursed maiden Io and about three seconds of combat training from guard commander Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), Perseus agrees. (Direct quote from my notes: “What, no training montage?”) Perseus and his entourage start searching for someone who knows what they’re supposed to do and how to do it.
The journey is fraught with dangers, the first of which is the angry and disfigured ex-husband of Perseus’s mother. Granted power by Hades, he picks off several of Perseus’s honor guards. Ex-Husband Monster flees when wounded, but his blood turns into giant scorpions. One lengthy giant scorpion fight later, some djinn (i.e. disfigured Arabian sorcerers) arrive to hypnotize and domesticate the scorpions.
There’s a bit here about a poisonous bite and the gift of a magic sword from Zeus that Perseus refuses to accept for some reason, but these don’t have much to do with the plot, so we’ll move on.
Perseus et alia make it to the top of a mountain where they meet a trio of (I’m sensing a pattern here) disfigured old women who share a single disembodied eye between them. Perseus steals their eye and makes them tell him how to kill the Kraken. They tell him to use the head of the gorgon Medusa, and then add that he and all his companions will die. (I think. Like the rest of the bad and ambiguously written dialog in this film, it’s hard to say for sure.)
Determined to prove them wrong, Perseus et alia now head into the underworld via zombie-drawn water chariot to do battle with Medusa, a gorgon (i.e. lady snake monster) whose gaze can turn any living creature to stone. Everyone dies but Perseus, who emerges victorious with a dripping bag of gorgon head. Io meets him outside, but the Cuckolded Ex-Husband of Mom Monster returns to skewer Io and break Perseus’s weapon. Perseus picks up the magic sword he got from Zeus, which I guess is okay to do now that he’s proven his point about... um... Anyway, he smites his corrupted semi-relative. Hades’ taint departs, and the now-repentant ex-husband passes on a bit of meaningless wisdom before he expires. Shortly thereafter, Io expires too, turning into a shimmery white mist.
A black Pegasus arrives to carry Perseus back to Argos, where he loses and recovers his gorgon bag from a gang of Furies, uses the head to turn the Kraken to stone, runs Hades through with his Zeus sword and rescues Andromeda. He refuses her offer to make him king, riding nobly into the sunset on his Pegasus.
Meanwhile, Zeus has figured out that his prior behavior wasn’t making him any friends, and also that his brother was plotting against him. (Did I mention that? Seems like the sort of plot development that ought to be important, but it isn’t.) So Zeus is pretty grateful to Perseus. After a few words of parting with his abandoned bastard child, he brings Io back to life as a thank you gift.
The summary above is probably more detailed than it needs to be. “Blah, blah, blah, monster fight, blah, blah, blah, monster fight” is pretty much all you really need to know, and describes the experience of watching it far better. The CGI is functional and the fight choreography adequate, but everything that makes a movie interesting (plot, characters, dialog) is... Well, I considered the words “perfunctory” and “half-baked”, but such descriptors imply an incomplete effort on the part of the filmmakers, when I really want to imply no effort at all. “Bad” is certainly applicable, if a bit non-specific. I wouldn’t call it “offensive” because making a really rotten, soul-grating movie takes effort as well. “Lazy” comes close, but I don’t think it’s strong enough. Maybe if I use it twice. “Clash of the Titans is a lazy, lazy film.” Yeah, that works.
A few favorite comments: When we’ve spent several minutes trying to penetrate Postlethwaite’s accent, Mike says, “Damn your thick Greek brogue.” When the camera zooms up to the heavenly, cloud-festooned peak of Olympus, Bill says, “Let’s check in with Lando.” After they tame and ride the giant scorpions across the desert, Kevin says, “Action fans love a good, prolonged scorpion-parking scene.” The movie makes no efforts on its own behalf, so the riffers have to do the heavy lifting of keeping things interesting by themselves. Amazingly, they mostly succeed, adding a highly quotable commentary to a deathly boring film.
(2006, Teen Drama/Romance/Musical, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
When you get near a melody, hop on.
In a Nutshell:
A jock and a nerd fall in love while auditioning for the school play.
High school basketball prodigy Troy (Zach Efron) and voluptuous teenage bookworm Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) meet cute at a New Years Eve party when a pair of sadistic spotlights forces them to perform an impromptu and intricately arranged karaoke duet. They exchange phone numbers and go their separate ways. Winter break ends. Gabriella’s mom changes jobs and moves to a new town. Guess who already lives there?
Troy and Gabriella pair up at school, and despite their divergent interests, they find common ground in the karaoke experience of their recent past. Further duets earn them callback auditions to the eponymous high school musical. This causes some consternation among their respective nerd and jock peers. These groups go to ridiculous (and musical) lengths to pry the young lovers apart, only to be overcome by remorse when the scheme actually works. They confess, and TroBriella (GabRoy?) reunites.
But the real villain of the picture is Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale). As drama club president and (formerly) the only vocally gifted student at school, She of the Canine Name has performed the lead in every school play since her arrival, and she’ll be goll-durned (remember, it’s Disney) if she lets someone else audition too. Her manipulation of histrionic drama teacher Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) gets the callbacks moved to Friday instead of Thursday.
Dun, dun, dun!
I guess I should explain. Friday is when Troy’s Big Game and Gabriella’s Big (Nerd) Game are scheduled. They can’t possibly attend callbacks, basketball and nerd games all at the same time!
Dun, dun, dun, dun!
Of course our heroes devise a cunning plan. (Or rather, the basketball players say things like, “We can’t let her get away with this,” while the nerds devise and implement a cunning plan.) Said plan involves cutting power to the basketball gym and setting a stink bomb off during nerd games, forcing these activities to take unscheduled breaks so Troy and Gabriella can perform an elaborate, forgettable pop duet for an auditorium full of nerd/basketball/drama fans.
They get the parts and win their respective games, then dance and sing us into the closing credits.
This movie seems to be allergic to conflict. For a moment it looks like Coach Dad might not approve, but then it turns out he approves after all. The conniving peer groups backpedal so fast, it’s a wonder they don’t crash into the wall behind them. Sharpay would have spent the whole movie twirling a handlebar mustache if she had one, but even she has a change of heart at the end. Had it been set during the holocaust, Hitler would have turned out to be an okay guy.
Also, despite having just watched this yesterday, I find myself unable to remember any complete melodic line, though I can sort of feel my way through some of the more unintentionally filthy basketball song lyrics. This from the guy who can hum most of songs from Barbie: Secret of the Diamond Castle. (Before you ask, it’s because I have daughters.)
Despite these issues, High School Musical is exactly what it wants to be, and a highly polished, well-crafted example of what it is. As long as you’re not looking for anything especially clever, thoughtful or involving, I guess that’s okay. It reminded me of cotton candy, in that it’s brightly colored with the texture of sugary air.
A few favorite riffs: During the first love duet, Mike says, “Abstinence educators now give out recordings of this to prevent sex.” When Sharpay’s creepy brother shows up in one of many embarrassing hats, Kevin wants to know, “Did he make his hat out of bowling shoes?” When Troy breaks into Gabriella’s house to sing his apology song, Bill says, “She’s pocket dialing 911, and then Simon Cowell.” My favorite exchange comes up during an establishing shot of the school, when Kevin asks, “Where are all the thugs and stoners?” “They’ve been sanitized for your protection,” Bill replies. Since it’s a musical, the riffers spend much of the song time drowning out the real lyrics with quotes from other songs (most notably Randy Newman’s “Short People”), though they get tired of this near the end, choosing instead to interpret the line “Breakin’ Free” as an offer of free bacon. The commentary is reasonably funny all the way through, and is sometimes hilarious, but the insubstantial movie occasionally gives way beneath it.
(1976, Drama/Romance/Teen/Television, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
You can be sure that under that suit, he’s wearing disturbingly tiny shorts.
In a Nutshell:
Born without immunities, Tod grows up in a tiny sterile room.
Born without immunities, Tod Lubitch spends his first few years of life in a large sterile terrarium at the local hospital. Jealous of her neighbors’ toddler girl, Mrs. Lubitch (Diana Hyland) prevails upon Mr. Lubitch (Robert Reed) to prevail upon Tod’s doctor (Ralph Bellamy) to let them bring him home. They do so, terrarium and all, amid a media circus. Later, Tod interrupts their celebratory foreplay by choking on his teddy bear’s eye. He survives this incident to become John Travolta at age sixteen.
Teen Tod doesn’t feel confined. He likes sitting behind his plastic wall while his parents, doctors and nurses cater to his every whim. In fact, any suggestion of a possible cure provokes pouting, provoking a scolding tirade from his doctor. Meanwhile the neighbor’s toddler girl has grown into a shapely young woman (Glynnis O’Connor as Gina Biggs) who rides her horse within sight of Todd’s window. Her parents convince her to invite Tod to a beach party on the fourth of July. Inspired by her bikini, Tod accepts.
At the party, fellow teens offer Gina two dollars to hold Tod’s hand. She does so, then explains that it was a prank, provoking a tantrum from Tod. Feeling guilty, she later offers to ferry homework and books to and from school for him. Mr. Lubitch forgives her, and eventually Tod does too.
Tod gradually falls in love with Gina. In order to be near her, He talks his doctor and father into providing him with a pressurized suit so he can go to school in person. The other kids look at him strangely, but accept him readily enough, despite his inability to relate to people. (This section includes my favorite part of the movie: Tod’s classmates express regret that they cannot share their marijuana, but he brushes their apologies aside and demonstrates his ability to get high through sheer force of will.) In an effort to impress Gina, he challenges the local jock to a push-up contest. He wins, but uses up his air filter’s battery in the process and has to be carried back to his filtered box at the back of the classroom.
Gina’s furious when she drops off his homework that night. How dare he put his life in danger trying to impress her? What if he died? She’d never be able to live with herself. She storms out, but Tod catches her just as she walks through her front door with a carefully timed call. She agrees to go to the beach with him the next day. By the next evening, she admits she loves him too.
Tod graduates, and under his tutelage, Gina graduates too. She’s accepted to art school in New York. Tod summons his doctor. What would happen if he just left his sterile environment one day? His doctor says that he’d probably die of the first virus he came in contact with. But is there a chance he’d survive? Yes, the doctor admits. There is a slim chance that his nascent immune system would adapt and thrive, but the doctor warns him against leaving. The next day, before his parents are awake, Tod leaves anyway. He goes next door and surprises Gina, who gives him a ride on her horse.
The penultimate scene assures us that Tod’s chances of survival are slim, but the closing credits roll before any consequences can consequent, which means the ending wants us to call it happy. Still, it’s hard not remember that the real bubble boy’s story ended pretty much the only way a story about a kid with no immune system could have ended.
The movie itself is pure Seventies made-for-TV cheese. If you’ve ever seen one of these before, you know what I’m talking about—generically written, broadly acted, tender piano score, unsubtle yet non-specific moral message, etc., etc. It is, perhaps, one of the better Seventies-TV-cheeses I’ve sampled, but that’s dubious praise. Think of it as cinematic bologna. It could be the best bologna in the world, but I’d still rather have bacon.
As a genre, it’s ripe for riffing, though. A few favorite comments: When Gina asks Tod when he’s going to get out, Bill replies, “I’m sticking with the lifestyle; it’s the only way to trump my vegan friends.” As Tod climbs through his room’s oddly configured interior, Mike notes, “The mousehole door makes him feel more human.” When Gina chews him out for nearly killing himself showing off, Kevin adds, “Your death would have sucked for me.” Scientology, Battlefield Earth and Old Dogs jokes abound, and the final scene, where Travolta emerges in a flowing peasant shirt to feel up trees while Paul Williams warbles in the background, is priceless. With the commentary, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble stays enjoyably funny all the way through.
(2003, Horror/Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Mattress King: Lord of Bargains.
In a Nutshell:
Mighty heroes and little hobbits save Middle Earth from Sauron’s evil hordes.
Summaries for the previous films are here and here. Read up now, because the movie doesn’t stop for backstory, and neither will I.
Return of the King mostly divides itself into War Plot and Horror Plot. Horror plot kicks us off as stalwart hobbit manservant Samwise (Sean Astin) assists his fading master Frodo (Elijah Wood) in their journey towards the blighted land of Mordor. Their goal: destroy the One Ring—the source of the Dark Lord Sauron’s power—in the fires of a volcano called Mount Doom. Their troglodytic guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) has been plotting to kill them and steal the Ring since the end of the last movie, and now he puts his plan in motion.
Step one is to alienate Frodo from Sam. Frodo’s already insane with paranoia due to the One Ring’s evil influence, so it doesn’t take much to convince him that Sam is plotting to against him. Halfway up the mountain pass to Mordor, Frodo sends his friend away. Step two ought to be easy: lead Frodo into a cave inhabited by the demon spider Shelob, who’ll suck the unfortunate hobbit dry and leave Gollum to pick the One Ring out of his remains. In practice, however, Frodo’s got a magic sword and a bit of bottled elvish starlight to keep the spider at bay. He stumbles out the other side of Shelob’s cave and fights off Gollum to proceed alone.
Shelob creeps out after him. The exhausted Frodo doesn’t see her until she’s already stung him from behind. Fortunately, Sam has followed. He recovers Frodo’s magic sword and bottle of starlight to wound and drive off the spider.
Orcs arrive from a nearby outpost. Forced to hide, Sam sees them find Frodo’s limp body and hears them declare that he’s not dead, only paralyzed. They take him back to their tower and strip him of his valuables, starting a fight to the death between two rival tribes over Frodo’s valuable chain mail shirt. Sam sneaks in and mops up the survivors to rescue his master. Frodo despairs at the loss of the Ring, but not to worry. Thinking Frodo was dead, Sam took it from his body right after defeating the spider. He gives it back and they press on, nervously picking their way towards the horde of orcs camped in the plains between them and Mount Doom.
Meanwhile the War Plot begins with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-exile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) meeting hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) among the ruins of a previous villain’s stronghold. Pippin finds an old palantir, a sort of blackened crystal ball that acts as a hotline to Sauron. Gandalf rescues him from its evil grip before Pippin can spill any secrets, but Pippin has learned a few secrets from the Dark Lord. Sauron is planning to attack the nearby fortress of Minas Tirith. Gandalf and Pippin rush to Minas Tirith while Aragorn and his allies in the nation of Rohan prepare to march their forces to assist.
The ruler of Minas Tirith is an insane old man named Denethor (John Noble), who refuses to prepare his troops for battle or signal Rohan for help. Under Gandalf’s direction, Pippin sneaks out to send the signal himself. Orc hordes attack from Mordor before Rohan can arrive so Gandalf takes command of the guard, leading a gradually losing battle while his forces retreat towards the keep at the top of the city. Just before the city can fall, the army of Rohan arrives. Despite being outnumbered, they drive the orcs away.
The orcs are just the first wave, though. Next come the Haradrim on their mumakil (er, pseudo-Arabs on giant elephants). The riders of Rohan take heavy losses, but eventually start to drive these back as well. Then the Nazgul (i.e. killer super-ghosts) ride down on their fell beasts (dragon-ish things) to take out Rohan’s King Theoden (Bernard Hill). His niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) fights off the chief Nazgul while the third wave—several dozen pirate ships—arrive down at the river. Thankfully, the actual pirates got waylaid a few miles back by Aragorn, who used his royal lineage to cash in an ancestral favor with a mob of angry green ghosts. The undead sweep the battlefield, effectively annihilating the Mordor invaders.
Knowing he can’t win unless Frodo successfully destroys the One Ring, Aragorn gathers the remainder of his armies and marches to the gates of Mordor. Though doomed to be slaughtered by the vastly more numerous orcs, Aragorn’s armies have successfully drawn Sauron’s attention and armies away from Frodo and Sam, who use the opportunity to scramble up Mount Doom. At the platform over the volcano, the One Ring’s influence finally overcomes Frodo, who slips it on his finger and declares its power his. With Sam knocked out from behind, Gollum returns to sneak up on Frodo and bite off his ring finger. Free of the Ring’s influence at last, Frodo knocks Gollum, Ring and all, into the lava.
The Ring melts, destroying Sauron’s power and scattering his armies. This saves Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest, who send out eagles to pick Frodo and Sam off the slopes of the erupting Mount Doom. Everyone lives happily ever after, as evidenced by the last forty-five minutes of the film.
Return of the King ends like a Beethoven symphony: often, and at great length. I can see why they did it—though split into three, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is structured like a single film, nine to eleven hours in length depending on what cut you watch—so it makes sense to not hurry the denouement. It’s not especially exciting, though. I tolerate it thanks to the goodwill built up by the previous three hours, which represent some of the best epic fantasy filmmaking of contemporary cinema.
The fancy nomenclature and dire pronouncements are built in, but the script never really gets any better than “adequate”. The movie tells a primarily visual story anyway, and I do mean story. This is not the lush but ultimately purposeless eye-candy of some other, more recent films I could mention, but a series of images that carry the narrative forward in exhilarating and often inspiring ways. Consider the way Pippin lights the beacon in Minas Tirith, and the camera swoops through the mountains to follow as other beacons are lit in response. Or Shelob’s tunnel, filled with bones and webs and captured birds, and the long anticipation of the spider before it finally arrives. Or the siege and subsequent battle in front of Minas Tirith. It’s more than an hour long and most of the dialog is grunts, screams and sound effects, but it builds expertly from despair to hope to triumph, then defeat before coming back to triumph again. It’s my favorite battle scene from any kind of movie, rivaled only by the one we saw during the previous film.
With three and a half hours of riffs to choose from, it’s going to be hard to pick quotes, but I’m going to try and limit myself to three anyway. As Frodo and Sam continue to scale the mountains outside Mordor, Kevin says, “Meanwhile, we return to the mostly climbing and whining portion of the film,” while Mike mourns his inability to “flip past the Frodo parts.” When an orc declares the poisoned Frodo “not dead,” Bill says, “He’s pining for the fjords.” Though many, many comments reference Legolas’s effeminate appearance, my favorite comes when Mike refers to him as “Lady Guy-Guy.” Have I gotten to three yet? Aw, man. I haven’t even mentioned all the “fat Sam” jokes, or how they compare every last orc to Larry King, or... Okay I’ll stop. It’s a fantastic but inherently ridiculous fantasy movie with a commentary track that starts off slow, but kicks into high gear somewhere around the time Mike shouts, “Yooouuuu shall not sing!” while Gandalf watches Merry and Pippin belt out a boisterous hobbit drinking song... Okay, I’ll stop for real now.
(2005, Fantasy, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
When will he learn that everything—EVERYTHING—in Hogwarts will try to kill you and send you to hell.
In a Nutshell:
Harry Potter gets inducted into a dangerous wizard game.
Before we get into the summary proper I ought to note that, while the Harry Potter novels have been creeping upwards in length since the beginning, book four is the first one large enough to kill you if it fell from the top shelf onto your head. And, since you tend to lose the valuable cusp-of-puberty audience somewhere just after hour two, the filmmakers didn’t get any extra running time to smooth the transition from page to screen. Basically, if you haven’t read the series up to and including this point, you haven’t got a prayer of following it.
(I’m assuming you’re already familiar with Mr. Potter’s previous exploits, but if you aren’t, reading my reviews of the previous films in the series might help a little. Probably not very much, though. Either way, let’s press on.)
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) skips the dreary and up-to-this-point obligatory Dursley section to hang out with his terminally whimsical friends the Weasleys. This lasts for about three seconds before they’re whisked away to the World Cup of Quidditch via magical shoe. The game gets a terrific buildup in the stands, and then we shift forward in time to a gang of Death Eaters (i.e. Voldemort followers) breaking up the afterparty with a heavy metal tattoo design in the sky.
Shift forward again to Hogwarts. It’s time to host the prestigious Tri-Wizard Tournament, a dangerous contest of magical daring pitting one representative from each of the three major wizard schools against each other. No one under the age of seventeen is allowed to enter, with spells enacted to enforce this decree. On the appointed day, the eponymous Goblet of Fire selects the contestants. From Hogwarts, the fey but manly Cedric (a pre-vampire Robert Pattinson). From Beauxbatons, the flirty French Fleur. From Durmstrang, the fur-swaddled, square-headed Viktor. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) starts to congratulate the selected competitors, but the goblet spits out an unexpected fourth name. No points will be awarded for guessing whose.
Harry’s in trouble instantly, as there’s supposed to be only one Hogwarts competitor, and besides, he’s underage. Harry doesn’t know how his name got in there, and doesn’t want to participate, but the rules are clear (to someone, somewhere). Like it or not, he’s a contestant.
This leads to friction among his friends and a fall from grace at the school, as everyone assumes he cheated to get in. Somewhere around the middle of the first contest everyone just sort of forgets about this while Harry battles a dragon for a golden egg. He wins, of course, and survives some teenage melodrama at a school dance to move on to the second contest. This involves swimming underwater for an hour to rescue his friends from merpeople. Someone gets murdered and a crazy new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody) runs amok, but it’s not enough to put off the third and final contest—a footrace through a vicious, animate hedge maze.
Cedric and Harry fight off the bushes and the bewitched Viktor to make it to the final cup together. Turns out it’s a teleportation device to a graveyard, where Harry’s longtime nemesis Voldemort (now played by Ralph Fiennes) murders Cedric and captures Harry. Voldemort uses Harry’s blood to help him come completely back to life. Harry duels Voldemort and wins with the help of some poorly explained ghosts. He seizes the cup and drags Cedric’s body back to Dumbledore, where it we learn that the whole contest was a plot to lure Harry to the graveyard, masterminded by Mad-Eye, who isn’t really Mad-Eye but an impostor, yada, yada, rapeta, etc. On to part five!
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks an interesting shift in the tone of the series. Up to now, it’s been whimsy with the occasional touch of desperation. By the end of Goblet of Fire, it’s mainly desperation, with only an occasional touch of whimsy. I’m still not sure how J.K. Rowling managed to attract so many readers with her magical schoolboy adventures, but the way she nailed us all to the floor with the dangerous quest to save the world was frightfully effective. Here’s a woman who knows how to keep an audience.
There are a few things you need to know going into the movie. Well, okay, there are a whole friggin’ lot of things you need to know going into this movie, but the vast majority of them are covered with the phrase, “read the books first”. As a film it’s fragmented, disjointed, full of ridiculous declarations and illogical plot developments. Why build up the Quidditch match so much just to leave the whole thing out? Weren’t there easier ways to get hold of Harry than to help him win a dangerous contest? What did the dance have to do with anything? Granted, many of these problems come directly from the novel, but fleshed-out characters and interesting subplots make the written version more appetizing. It’s when the movie strips the plot down to its bare bones that things stop making sense.
You don’t need to have read the books to enjoy the Rifftrax, though. A brief shot of the Weasley’s magical home inspires Kevin’s, “That house is so whimsical, I could actually fart rainbows.” At one point Dumbledore cries, “The school isn’t safe anymore!” “When was it ever?” Bill replies. When an obnoxious reporter joins the rest of the school in making light of Harry’s skill and achievements when compared with the other contestants, Mike shouts, “I HAVE SAVED THE SCHOOL THREE TIMES!” No one can resist referencing Twilight whenever Cedric appears; when he’s introduced, they yell, “Aaagh! Undead! Let’s fall in love with it! Aaagh!” With so many incongruent bits of whimsy and despair crowding each other to get screen time between plot holes, there’s never a moment that doesn’t have something to mock, and the riffers take full advantage.
Welcome, won't you?
Do you wear a seat belt while riding in the car? If you don't, your reason for not wearing one is probably dishearteningly stupid. The makers of Seat Belts: The Life Saving Habit would now like to enumerate the ways in which it is stupid, in alphabetical order. Oh, and here's some tiny crash test dummy torment to choke on, you potential child murderer. Review here.