Friday, May 27, 2011

I Accuse My Parents (1944) – MST3K Review

Summary:

This episode has a short film about truck farming called… um Truck Farming. In it we get to see people picking crops, watering crops, putting crops in trains and then shopping for food. It’s odd, it’s kinda pointless, and it’s got a vaguely depressing feeling.

In the feature, James Wilson (Robert Lowell) lives a life of quiet desperation. Even though he’s the winner of an essay contest at school and it’s his birthday, his parents still don’t pay him any attention. They spend of their time drinking and partying and yelling at each other.

So Jimmy creates his own life, first by getting a job as a shoe salesman and then meeting the enchanting Kitty Reed (Mary Beth Hughes). The two hit it off, but Jimmy can’t bear to tell her the truth about his family, so he makes up some stories, and makes up some more and some more. But that’s OK because Kitty has a secret of her own. She’s the moll to Charley Blake (George Meeker).

When Charley and Jimmy meet things go swimmingly. Well, Charley sees that Jimmy is an idiot so he hires him as a gofer. Jimmy is too dumb to realize that he’s being used and goes right on wining and dining Kitty and running shadowy errands for Charley. Well this twisted little life can’t endure, and soon the law catches up to Jimmy.

With no other options, Jimmy goes on the lamb, meeting Happy Chef (George Lloyd) and a loaded gun. It all comes down to a trial where Jimmy boldly declares I Accuse My Parents.

Movie Review:

The short film attempts to provide us with information about Truck Farming but never explains how it’s different from regular farming. Instead the short is focused on how crops can be grown in the southern US and used to feed the Northern US. There is mention made of how folks from Mexico come over on temporary work visas to help. Mostly you get to see a lot people working and looking depressed. In fact the whole short has this gloomy feel. The black and white photography only accentuates it. The final result is bizarre and unique in surreal kind of way.

I keep referring to this movie in many of my other reviews of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I figured it’s about time I give it a proper review. For me, this is the most competent movie I’ve seen from director Sam Newfield. And this guy had a long and prolific career. That doesn’t mean its good, but it’s better than his others. The plot is silly, the acting is all over the place, and the songs are just plain goofy. But it has a sincerity and charm that keep it out of the stink pile.

Mary Beth Hughes is a big part of the charm. Once she shows up in the film it gets a jump of energy. We can see why she entrances Jimmy and Charley. She’s got class, she’s got big ole eyes, she’s got amazing 40s hair. Yeah, the songs she sings are hilarious, but I don’t blame her. Hughes’ voice is fine, even if her stage performances are uninspired.

On the other hand we have Lowell as Jimmy. Lowell looks too old to be playing a kid in high school, but he gives it his best shot. He’s a bit too wide-eyed and sincere, but at the same time it makes us feel bad for him. We realize that he’s not only lonely and na├»ve, but that he’s not the brightest bulb either. He’s easily duped by just about everyone and we end up cheering when Happy Chef shows up to save his bacon. The rest of the cast if comprised of solid character actors who could do this stuff in their sleep.

The direction is functional, and the plot is completely ridiculous. Few people could be as dense as Jimmy and get into as much trouble as he does by performing courier services for the mob. The big problem is pacing. The movie plods along, the songs stop the plot dead and the characters aren’t terribly interesting. You get the feeling the movie was thrown together quickly and then Newfield went on to film Mad Monster or Lost Continent a few days later. What’s surprising is the mileage that Joel and bots get out of this one.

Episode Review:

This is one of those cases where the short and the movie aren’t exceptionally bad or weird, and so you wouldn’t think that it would make for good riffing. But this Season Five offering is just the opposite. The writing here sparkles with all kinds of joke and moves a great pace. Because the films are so middle of the road, they actually provide the perfect amount of material to work with and around.

The short is dull, but the voice over provides so many cues to add riffing to that it’s almost too easy. As the narrator ponderously describes the journey of the carrots from the ground to the train, he explains how they are unloaded and then pauses. Tom then chimes in with “And loaded right back on the train and taken back to the field where they are replanted. It makes no sense at all!”

I love the scene where we watch a famer clearing the land using a bulldozer and Crow says, “Don’t see many of these trees any more. Oh well, down it goes”. Or as a tractor meanders by, the three begin to sing “Go Speed Farmer! Go Speed Farmer! Go Speed Farmer! GO!” to the tune of Speed Racer.

But the riffing on the film is where it the real meat is. The opening scene is the bookend trial of Jimmy. At this point we have no idea who all these people are and yet the camera keeps bouncing along through all of them. With each quick cut to a new face, Joel and the bots have a riff ready for each of them. Some of them are so absurd that they are hilarious. My favorite is reserved for Happy Chef.

Jimmy’s victory at the essay contest provides a running joke. Every time he introduces himself to another character, one of the boys says in a whiney voice, “won the essay contest, you know.” The entire scene where he awkwardly tries to fit Kitty for shoes leads to all kinds of naughty jokes. Jimmy is just a dolt from the moment we meet him and crew has a blast with his character and his drunken folks.

The songs in the movie allow Tom Servo to get plenty of his own singing riffs in there. Some the lyrics are so dumb that he doesn’t need to say anything, but scoff in horror “the kiss way to the promised land?” I also like the little routine they do during one of the songs acting as patrons in the club all calling out “Check please!”

The riffing is steady and well timed, making this one of my favorite episodes, and one that I can pop on any time for some cheering up. I have run into a few people who find the movie so dull that the riffing didn’t help. And I think if you have a preference for the sci-fi, horror or fantasy films, this won’t work for you.

The host segments revolve almost entirely around the film. It starts with Tom Servo wanting to be a real boy – so he gets naked! For the invention exchange Joel shows off his junk drawer organizer, while the mads provide “Cake n’ Shake”, a cake mix that includes an exotic dancer – you know, for kids! At the first break Joel tries some art therapy on the bots. They’ve all got issues. The next break is a musical extravaganza as the crew creates their version of Kitty’s song (very similar to the Idiot Control Now segment from Pod People). For the third segment Joel and the bots try to use visual aids to explain Jimmy’s issues. The huge mobile is classic. After the movie ends the bots recreate the scene with Jimmy and Happy Chef. They’re packing heat and they want burgers!

In my book its easily one of the best episodes. It’s also a great one to start new viewers with. I give it five essays out of five!

This episode is available an individual disc from Rhino, but may be out of print.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)


Introduction:

Tarzan and His Mate is an improvement over the previous film. The movie is a definite sequel, building on the characters and plot points of the previous film and going that extra mile to make everything even more spectacular than Tarzan the Ape Man.

Summary:

The film begins with Harry (Neil Hamilton) returning to Africa with his is old pal Martin (Paul Cavanagh). The two are focused on getting to the elephant graveyard and picking up some serious ivory. Martin needs the money especially bad, he's sunk his entire fortune into the safari and isn't about to give up.

Of course just getting to the graveyard proves hazardous as they run into a fearsome enemy tribe, boulder throwing apes and a rival expedition. Luckily Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) come to the rescue. Harry is still carrying a torch for Jane and does his best to tempt her back to civilization. But she's dedicated to her loincloth wearing man.

The safari gets back on track, but Tarzan is disturbed by its goal. He feels that taking the ivory is the equivalent of robbing a grave. So he does his best to stop Harry and Martin. This makes Mr. Martin grumpy and he takes matters into his own hands. It all boils down to a smash bang finale involving furious tribesman, stampeding elephants, swarming lions, battle crazed apes, and Tarzan leaping around kicking everyone's butt.

Good Points:

  • Great interaction between Jane and Tarzan
  • One of the craziest climaxes I’ve seen in any movie from the 30s
  • More impressive visual effects

Bad Points:

  • The plot is pretty similar to the first film
  • More disturbing animal action
  • More disturbing portrayal of anyone not white

Overall:

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 3

Acting: 3

Script: 3

Music: n/a

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

In Depth Review

This movie attempts to take all the ingredients you enjoyed in the first film and crank it to 11. The result is a true Tarzan epic. You loved all the animal action, well this movie has even more, with rhinos, ostriches, snakes added to the original cast of chimps, leopards, lions, hippos and crocodiles. You loved Tarzan and Jane flashing skin, wait till you see the extended skinny dipping sequence. Hello Jane! You loved Cheetah the chimp shrieking for minutes on end, well this movie has Cheetah shrieking for even more.

More than that, Tarzan and his Mate really builds on the characters and situations established in Tarzan the Ape Man. The moments that Jane and Tarzan share are handled really well, and its fun to see this newlywed couple swinging around the jungle. O’Sullivan has a real charisma and her chemistry with Weissmuller is undeniable. The later movies continue to build on it, but for me this movie is the best representation of the two.

As for the supporting cast, they all do an adequate job. One thing I liked about the script is how Harry turned out to be a good guy who got a raw deal. You can tell he really cares about Jane, but soon realizes that she’s head over heels for Tarzan. He doesn’t like it, but he accepts it. But his money troubles that forced him to complete his safari, even if he must go against Jane and Tarzan’s wishes. Its Martin who starts as a cad and ends as a cad in the film. With his pencil thin mustache and smarmy ogling of Jane, you just don’t’ like the guy. He’s more desperate than Harry, willing to do just about anything to get the riches he needs. It was gratifying to see the horror on his face as the finale kicks into high gear and realized how out of his depth he is.

If you manage to catch Tarzan and His Mate for any reason other than Jane’s skinny dipping scene, it would be to see this crazy finale featuring some of the craziest animal action and special effects I’ve seen in any movie from the 1930s. Tarzan is swinging from trees, fighting natives, battling bloodthirsty lions, dodging spears, gunshots and stampeding elephants all to rescue Jane from two more lions. It’s crammed with action, motion and noise. Even the build up to the sequence featuring the hunters dealing with the lion worshiping tribe is intense and creates some excellent thrill sequences.

All in all the animal action and special effects are impressive for the time. Sure you get lots of rear projection. But you also get scenes with real stuntmen and many times Weissmuller himself dodging or riding rhinos, or rolling around on the ground with a real live lion. As I mentioned, I’m guessing many animals were hurt making this film, so those who don’t look kindly on that should avoid the film. But for me its an impressive feat.

But there was one scene so silly that I had to laugh. At one point Jane is being attacked by a rampaging rhino. Cheetah the elder (who is played by an unfortunate man in a suit) sees her peril and runs to the rescue. You get a hilarious sequence where a live chimp is running in front of a rear-projected jungle. Then turns into a man in a suit being charged down by a rear projected rhino. The rhino charges right at the screen at a bizarre angle. The “ape” gets “hit” and does a back flip to his death. This tragic moment nearly caused water to shoot out of my nose as I took a drink at that moment – don’t let that happen to you!

For all the fun to be had, the movie does run a bit too long. Clocking in at 105 minutes it’s the longest Tarzan movie I ended up watching and reviewing. The scenes with Cheetah running around shrieking really make you feel it. But for my money Tarzan and his Mate trumps the original with safari based adventure.

Read about the other lessons I learned from Tarzan the ApeMan at my review of the first collection of the films over at DVD Verdict.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nostalgia Nugget: The Return of the Great Adventure


In an odd twist of fate I got to experience a bit of evolution. I saw how adventure films have endured through the ages, and it got me thinking – where are the great adventure films of this generation?

Yes, I’m old. I’m going to gripe and grouse about how things were better in my time, when we had Spielberg in his prime and he knew how to make a good adventure movie. There have been a few good adventure films since then, and there were a ton before Spielberg got around to creating Indiana Jones (with some help from George Lucas).

Let me define adventure film here. I’m talking about something set in our world, maybe in the past, but a past where heroes still use their fists and their smart mouths to get out of trouble. The hero is usually on a quest of some kind, and there are obstacles to overcome and a girl to win over. While these movies have action, they are more about the exotic locations, overcoming the obstacles and getting away alive and with some kind of loot. You could throw the James Bond series in there if you wanted, but I always considered those films to be a different beast. I readily admit that Bond did move from the spy thriller into adventure territory – especially during the Roger Moore years.

The granddaddy of adventure movies would probably be King Kong from 1933. Sure there were safari and jungle movies before this. But Kong has all the elements of a great adventure movie and does them so well that many films have imitated (or remade it) You could argue about who the hero is. But I think John Driscoll is supposed to be our guy. He fits all the standard tropes, talks tough, fights tough and is after the girl. Kong is one hell of an obstacle, but he’s also the loot for Carl Denham. The movie twists the adventure frame more than a few times as it goes along, but the ending is what really makes it stand out. The final obstacle is conquered, but how come we feel bad about it.


One year before, we met one of the most famous adventure characters of all time. But ironically the movie featured him as a combination of loot and obstacle. His name was Tarzan, and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller became a star based on the film. The irony is that Jane is the hero of Tarzan the Ape Man. She’s the one that goes on a search for her father, encounters the jungle man and spends the rest of the film avoiding dangers and helping her father find the elephant graveyard. Like King Kong, Tarzan is in the way, but is also Jane’s prize. She wins him in the end.

1934 brought us Tarzan and his Mate, and here we get into classic adventure mode. Jane and Tarzan are both our heroes, and the white hunters and crazed tribes are the villains. There are all kinds of dangers in this movie, and one of the most impressive finales I’ve seen in any adventure film. It runs a little long, but the journey of the safari is a big part of the film. We start with the white hunters and at first we think they may be the heroes. But very quickly we see that Martin (Paul Cavanagh) is a true cad. Sure enough Tarzan and Jane become the center of the film and from that point on its jungle adventures with crazed lions, enraged natives and a whole lot of stomping elephants.


The same day I caught Tarzan the Ape Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark was on television. I was struck by how similar the 1981 film was to the Tarzan movie. Many of the same tropes and ideas were brought over, reworked to fit the era of Indiana Jones. Sure Lucas and Spielberg were more inspired by the adventure serials of the 40’s and 50’s. But the spirit of adventure is back and in full bloom in this film. Posters for the film touted “Indiana Jones – the new hero” and “The Return of the great Adventure”. To me, as a kid, this is what a good time at the movies was all about. Indy would continue through the 80s with Temple of Doom in 1984 and Last Crusade in 1989. While there were countless imitators, few were able to really capture the right ingredients at the right moment.

Ironically it took the remake of a horror film to bring back adventure to the theaters. 1999 brought us The Mummy, which is so steeped in classic movie adventure that you almost forget you’re watching something modern. OK, I exaggerate, because the movie is filled to bursting with that newfangled special effect style “CG”. Ok so it wasn’t terribly new in 1999, but it was still very impressive for the time. The heart of the film wasn’t the special effects it was the brash and bold hero Rick (played by Bredan Fraser who looks like he’s having a blast) and the lovely but klutzy Evy (Rachel Weisz). These two have mismatched screwball comedy written all over them. As a whole the movie works for popcorn entertainment.

Once we hit the 2000s things shift. Heroes become more serious and more troubled. The spirit of adventure is still around in some films, but it’s tinged with a darkness that saps the fun away. Some may say that films like Raiders and The Mummy are too old-fashioned and lack appeal. If you are targeting teenage boys, they probably do want a healthy dose of angst in their films.


Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong in 2005 is probably the closest I’ve seen to a film that continues the tradition. This time Jackson made Kong the obvious hero of the film. The movie is a bit on the bloated side, but its still entertaining. Then there was the return of Indiana Jones in 2008 with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This got such mixed reactions that I do wonder if this genre is dead. I admit that I found Crystal Skull to be lacking, getting a little too cute a little too often. But after watching the evolution of the Tarzan movies and knowing how much George Lucas LOVES those films, I can see where the inspiration came from. There was some fun stuff in the film and the music is great.
So am I lamenting a lost genre? Or is it just going dormant for a while until another director picks up the reins and starts up the adventure coaster again? Hard to say. These types of movies all but vanished in the grim and dower film-making world of the 70s. So maybe this is just a decade of hibernation. But I’m beginning to wonder if we need to look to animation to keep that spirit alive. Both Up by Pixar, and How to Train Your Dragon by Dreamworks had elements of the classic adventure films in them. Spielberg’s upcoming animated film The Adventures of Tintin looks like it has a similar feel. Maybe that’s the future.

What’s your favorite adventure film? Do you think the genre is dead? Is that a good thing?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Introduction:

Having enjoyed the first Iron Man film, I was ready for more. But I kept hearing that this movie felt like a lot of set up with little payoff. Does the franchise lose its footing in its first sequel, or is there more going on than meets the eye?

Summary:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man and now the whole world knows it. Things makes things a little more difficult for Tony as all kinds of folks come out of the woodwork to challenge him. One is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) a man with a serious grudge and some serious smarts. He combines forces with industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to create weapons similar to the Iron Man suit. But things go horribly wrong and its up to Tony to save the day if only he can survive long enough. Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson round out the cast of “Iron Man 2”.

Good Points:

  • Robert Downey Jr. maintains his excellent performance as Stark
  • Some interesting plot developments keep things fresh
  • Maintains its spirit of fun

Bad Points:

  • Does suffer from middle episode syndrome
  • Seems a bit overstuffed with characters
  • The ending lacks a proper punch

Overall:

The creators decided to create a sequel that would act as more of a bridge, really piling on the plot and cramming in the characters. As such, this movie is on overdrive from the moment it starts. Still it manages to keep things fun and entertaining. You wish some of the characters (and actors) had more screen time, but it all balances in the end. You get a movie almost as entertaining as its predecessor.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 3

Music: 3

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Iron Man (2008)

Introduction:

I was never a huge fan of comic books, but I remember as a kid that the costume for Iron Man fascinated me. But beyond that I didn’t know much about him. Then this movie comes along with a solid cast and an eager director. I decided to give it a shot.

Summary:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a millionaire, engineering mastermind and playboy. When he isn’t living it up with a series of hot women, he’s showing off his latest weapons to the highest bidder. But things take a turn for the worse when he is abducted in Afghanistan, and forced to build a powerful new weapon. Instead Tony forges a suit that will enable him to escape his captors. But this technology puts Tony in the sights of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) a man with few scruples and a ton of ambition. Can Tony with the help of his military pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard) and his gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) stop Stane and create a hero the world can depend on?

Good Points:

  • Robert Downey Jr. creates an excellent character in Tony Stark
  • An engaging origin story for a superhero
  • The script keeps things fun and not too dower

Bad Points:

  • Stane is not the most compelling villain
  • At a little over two hours the movie drags a bit
  • The score distracts from the film

Overall:

“Iron Man” delivers a fun evening of super hero entertainment. It tells the origin story, so it does get a bit predictable, but its seeded with plenty of witty banter and a compelling performance by Downey Jr. that you just go along with it. The musical score is a bit distracting and trying to hard to be cool. But its easy enough to get sucked right back in. One of the most entertaining of the recent superhero movies.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Music: 2

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.