Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top Ten - Mystery Science Theater 3000 Favorites

A few years back a friend of mine wanted a breakdown of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. I found this nearly impossible to do, but after some serious thinking and discussing with my wife, I decided the best approach was to pick my favorite episode from each of the 10 seasons of the show. This provides a nice spread of episode types and styles. Of course some of my bias toward movie types is evident.  I think it's a good time to resurrect the list, add some fun elements. So here you go, my top ten favorite MST2K episodes in Season order.

Season One
I think Valeria is gloating, but I can't understand her.
For me the choice is easy on this one. You've got a 1980s post-apocolyptic sci-fi with no budget - I'm there! Robot Holocaust is a lot of things and none of them are very good, but it is pretty much non stop hilarity without the riffing. Joel and bots do a great job, and the film provides them with so much to work with. My favorite character is the vampy Valeria, whose accent is so thick and performance so over the top, that she steals the whole film - in a bad way.

Fun Fact: Our protagonist is named Neo, and he has super powers, faces down a robotic overlord and frees an enslaved people. Any similarities to The Matrix are coincidental, right?

Season Two
I'm so surprised that they got to riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon, but I'm so happy they did. Made in the early 70s, this film seems like the little annoying brother to the other Godzilla films. It's got all the typical moments you expect in a Godzilla movie, but then it has a whole host of other oddities, my favorite being the robot randomness of Jet Jaguar. Joel and bots have a lot of fun with this one, and it is one of funniest episodes they ever did. I hope one day Sony lightens up, so this episode can see an official release - because it is gold.

Host Segment Highlight: The boys attempt to translate the Jet Jaguar song at the end of the film. it is silly, random, and yet I've seen enough translations of J-pop to say, they make plausible alternate lyrics

Season Three
Here's to good friends, tonight is kinda special.
Season three was the season where the boys tackled an immense amount of Sandy Frank imported Japanese media. Nearly all those episodes were great, but one stands head and shoulders above the others, Fugitive Alien. With it's plot made up of hacked and dubbed television episodes, barely making any sense in the final form, you've got a gold mine of fun. The movie is filled to bursting with odd moments, strange characters, horrible dubbing and plot points that come and go into the void. This kind of thing was made to be riffed and Joel and bots deliver - big time.

Favorite riff: (sung to the sassy brassy musical score) This is the song, written for the train chase. This is the chase: Rocky and Ken. He tried to kill me with a forklift. OLE!

Season Four
How can you not include "Manos": The Hands of Fate on this list? That movie is so well known now because of MST3K, and the classic riffing they put this movie through. In so many ways, it's almost become it's own cliche, and yet when you watch the episode they do such a great job with it. Torgo provides so much fodder for them of course, but every character is so poorly executed and filmed and recorded that there are countless riffing opportunities. Joel and bots are deeply scarred by the film, and yet it remains one of the funniest episodes they ever did.

Personal Favorite Episode: If the list was for myself, I'd pick Hercules Against the Moon Men. It was the first episode I ever saw, and holds a place in my heart for that. It is also the funniest sword and sandal epic they ever tackled. 

Season Five
Yes Satan! Speak to me through this song!
Not a lot of folks love this one as much as I do, but I Accuse My Parents is one of the best riffing sessions of Joel's era. It is a pure melodrama, a genre they rarely tackled. It's got goofy songs, a ridiculously naive hero, and fast talking gangsters. This mix was unique for the writers and I think they did a great job with it. Season five is filled with excellent episodes, but I can always pop this one in and have a good laugh.

Worthy Second Pick: Well you can always go with Mitchell. Not only was it Joel's farewell episode, but it has one of the funniest riffing sessions of the season in it. They didn't do too many 1970's flicks, but this was a great one.

Season Six
You want proof that you can riff on anything, then check out Red Zone Cuba. This is juggernaut of a bad film. It is soul crushing in the worst way, and yet it is clearly the work of a man trying to tell us something. It is Coleman Francis at his most epic, and it takes a top notch trio of riffers to tackle it. Mike, Kevin and Trace do an amazing job with this episode keeping the quips flying fast and furious. What should have been a slog is an amazing testament to how good these folks (writers and performers) were at their mode of comedy. 

"But I Just Want to Laugh" pick: Don't feel like marveling at the skill of of cast and crew of MST3K and just want some hilarity. No problem. Season six also contains the wonderfully 70s Angels Revenge the low budget Charlie's Angel wannabe. Can't go wrong there.

Season Seven
They call him old pasta marinara face.
This was a tough one, because there are two stellar episodes on here. And if you ask me next week, I might even say that Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell would be my pick. But today it's The Incredible Melting Man. Everything about this movie is a mess, from the goopy drippy monster to the ineffectual hero, Dr. Ted Nelson. There is barely a plot, the script is painfully bad, and the effects are very gross. But Mike and the bots have so much to work with. Maybe the must disgusting movie they've ever riffed, but also one of the funniest.

Favorite "What the hell?" moment in the movie: The entire rant that Dr. Ted Nelson goes on about having crackers for his soup. Atchka indeed my friend, Atchka!

Season Eight
The first season with the Sci-fi channel ended with a trilogy of wonderfully goofy 1980s sci-fi films - one of my favorite genre's for riffing. But the king of those three films is Space Mutiny hands down. Another movie that seems tailor made for riffing. The costumes, the acting, the plot, the sets, the hair (oh sweet God, the hair) all lend themselves to jokes. Our big beefy hero ends up with so many alternate names, and each one is hilarious. And let's not forget Kalgon and his maniacal glee. For the chase scene finale alone - you need to see this episode.

Favorite moment: When Chunk Manmuscle screams in rage, and then calmly exits the vehicle. 

Season Nine
I think he put on the goofy suit.
After you see MST3K take on Puma Man you wish they tackled more superhero flicks. Of course this movie really deserves to be mocked. The hero is a complete dork. He is constantly saved and out shown by his sidekick. Donald Pleasance dresses as a disco maniac as the villian, and then there's the music. I love the music in all it's Casio glory. Puma Man seems to be deadly serious one moment and completely off its rocker the next. This is one of those episodes that gets funnier the more times you see it, and it is hilarious the first time you watch it. You'll be singing the theme song for weeks afterwards.

Favorite riff: (to the Pumaman theme) Puma Man, he flies like a moron. 

Season Ten
This "movie" comes straight from the riffing gods, because no one else could have cobbled together such a weird "movie" from so many loose parts, and hoped it would entertain. And yet there it is, Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders. Part horror film, part kids flick, and none of it working any way. I love how the two different eras of film don't mesh at all. I love the stupid framing within a framing story idea. I love the acerbic and angry Jonathon, I love the angry psychic, and I love the Rock and Roll Martian - whoever the hell he is. This should have been the final episode of the series, because it really is one of the best they ever did.

Favorite Riffing Moments: When Mike and bots attempt to reconcile that Ernest Borgnine is telling these horrible stories to his grandson. "Grandpa Borgnine no!" "Oh you just wait, what happened to the cat was nothing to what was about to happen to Sparkle the dog."

Favorite Short
'And no one can wait to leave this seething cauldron
of angst."
This was a tough one, because I love so many of the shorts and sometimes one will strike me as hilarious one time and just plain funny the next. But there is one that pretty much makes me laugh out loud constantly through the whole thing and that is A Date With Your Family. This little short about eating dinner with your family is so odd and patronizing and yet perfectly 50s in every way. The riffing is just gold, with Mike and bots working with the holier than thou narrator. So many lines and riffs from this short get quoted around my house it isn't even funny.

Favorite Riff: (after a long discussion about who gets to eat first during dinner, Mike adds the following) "Father feigns eating, draws Junior out and then disowns him!" 

Favorite Movie
Ok so this one is a bit of a cheat, because there is only one MST3K movie: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. I know a lot of folks don't enjoy this one half as much as I do, but I think the combination of This Island Earth with one of the best riffing teams of the series delivers one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. I get a kick out of the movie every time I watch it and that is quite a bit.

Favorite Riff: (as Tom Servo scans the opening credits) Let's see... Shatner, Shatner, Shatner... he's not in this one. We're safe.
Jet Jaguar and Godzilla try out for cheer.

So there you go, my top ten favorite episodes from my favorite television series. What is great about this show, is that fan favorites are all over the map. One person may think that Radar Secret Service is the funniest thing they've seen, others will swear by The Rebel Set, It Conquered the World, Hercules Unchained, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank or Mad Monster. But when it comes down to it, the show has a perfect mix of writing and comic timing, and it's hard to find an actual weak episode. Hopefully this list can guide those looking to dive into the fun.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Score Sample - Gremlins

In my previous blog about Jerry Goldsmith I mentioned that he created a score for nearly any genre of film you can imagine. So some of you said, what about a Christmas movie, I bet he didn't score one of those. Well, he did. In fact Goldsmith had a great working relationship with director Joe Dante, and provided the score for nearly all his films since they first started working together on Twilight Zone: The Movie. So naturally when Dante finished working on Gremlins he brought in Goldsmith to score it. Dante seemed to bring out some of Goldsmith's humor in his music. For the snazzy theme for the gremlins, Goldsmith took the theme he crafted for the monster on the wing of the plane in Twilight Zone: The Movie and tweaked it a little - making it more mischievous and fun. But you can hear a very clear similarity between them. Makes sense, since the creature on the wing of the plane is gremlin-like in his destruction of machines. Here is the end credit suite from Gremlins, with Goldsmith indulging in his 1980s syths, as well as giving us one hell of a memorable theme.

Listen carefully and you can hear digitized wailing cats being used in counterpoint. A clever nod to a cat loving character in the film.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - Jerry Goldsmith

In my previous installment of my Favorite Composers series I covered the work of Michael Giacchino. Of the composers currently working in the field today, he is my favorite. I try to pick up nearly every score he works on, and I have yet to be disappointed in his work, even on something as silly as Land of the Lost. But Giacchino is not my favorite film composer. That title goes to Jerry Goldsmith.

Goldsmith started composing scores for television and film in the 1960s and kept right on working until his death in 2004. He's created a score for nearly any genre you can imagine. He could adapt his style to create disturbing atonal works, wonderful melodious romance themes, bombastic action music and even jazzy noire styles. He is one of the most prolific American film composers and his body of work is impressive. And for all that his name is not mentioned very often by the general public. Certainly John Williams and Hans Zimmer are more recognized names than Goldsmith. But his music and styles live on, and will continue to do so, because he did provide some wonderful scores to movies with enduring legacies.

One of his earliest triumphs was the disturbing and atonal score to Planet of the Apes. Goldsmith relies on rhythm and percussion to drive the action. He uses unique instrumentation to create an alien atmosphere to the film. One of his best and most impressive action cues comes from this film during The Hunt. But maybe his best choice was to leave the final minutes of the film unscored, as the final revelation unfolds. The silence is more devastating than anything that could be written for that moment. 

In the 1970s Goldsmith scored several films that would leave an impact. His march for the film Patton has been imitated countless times, and is recognizable to anyone who has seen the film. His use of choir in nearly every track of The Omen created it's own musical cliche. He used dissonance in human voices to add unease to the film, and horror film composers have followed suit ever since. For Chinatown he created a jazzy noir score that fits the film like a glove. It also influenced neo-noire soundtracks to many movies that followed (and even video games like L.A. Noire). Finally he wrote the score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I've already written an entire blog about that work, so check it out for my thoughts on what I consider his masterpiece.

Goldsmith embraced electronic music. As early as the 1960s he found ways to use synthesizers in his scores to maximum effect. Goldsmith rarely replaced the orchestra with electronics, instead he treated the electronics as a separate piece of the orchestra, used to create sounds that normal instruments could not achieve. His amazing score to Logan's Run uses pure electronic music for scenes in the futuristic city, and then shifts to orchestral as the protagonist gets further and further from the computer control. The use of the harsh synthesizers fits perfectly for the oppressive society, and contrasts with the beauty of the full orchestra when the protagonists leave the bubble and see the world outside. This rhythmic piece is used when the Sandmen hunt and kill a runner. It's an exciting cue, but cold, efficient and sterile. 

In the 1980s as synths become more common in film music (with folks like Vangelis winning Oscars for their pure electronic scores) Goldsmith experimented with a wide variety of electronic sounds and styles. Sometimes they would create other worlds, like in his score to Legend (which got replaced by a full electronic score by Tangerine Dream). Other times he would fuse the electronics in an unexpected but completely workable way, like in his surprisingly entertaining score for the Latin American thriller Under Fire.

Of course I've got to be honest here and say that when it comes to action music, few composers handled it as effectively as Jerry Goldsmith. His style evolved over time, but he always knew how to keep everything moving in a musical way and yet drive and accent the action. These days, action music often sounds like a bunch of loud noise, rarely feeling connected or fluid in a musical way. Goldsmith rarely let that happen. He would often use percussion as his focal point, and then layered two themes working in counterpoint to each other. This would create a drama in the cue that would rise, fall and tell a story musically. One of my favorite examples of this action style is from the Disney film Mulan, Avalanche is one of his best action cues of the 1990s.

The sad thing is, as good as Goldsmith was, he often got saddled with scoring horrible films. In many cases his music is the best thing about the movie and often elevates the weak or silly visuals much higher than you thought possible. So even if he scored duds like Congo, The Shadow, Star Trek V: The Final FrontierKing Solomon's Mines, and Supergirl, you get the feeling that he put his best foot forward. Some of these scores turned out to be a lot of fun. And in some cases they are some of his best and most entertaining works. 

If I had to recommend a Goldsmith score to start with, hands down it would be Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It has nearly all the elements I love about his work in one package and done with amazing skill. But if sci-fi isn't your thing, than I can also recommend his score to the 1990s wanna-be Arthurian epic First Knight. The theme for Arthur and Camelot is one of his best, the love theme for Guinevere is beautiful, the action music is top notch and the finale has one hell of a choral powerhouse to it. 

Well that concludes my series on my favorite composers. There are some other composers I'm quite fond of, but I didn't have enough of their work to feel comfortable writing a entire blog about them (Christopher Young, Joe Hisaishi, Miklos Rosza and Patrick Doyle all spring to mind). But I'll continue to spotlight some of my favorite tracks and even tackle an complete score in future blogs. Thanks for reading and listening!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

You’re Under Arrest (OAV) (1994)

In the mid 1990s North American anime fans got a steady diet of sci-fi action adventures and fantasy sagas. Most of these were ultra-violent and brutal. But there were plenty of other types of shows out there and some anime distributors wanted to prove it. So along came Animeigo and their release of a cop drama. It focused on high-speed chases, rescues, natural disasters and of course, cute girls. Sounded like a sure fire winner. There was just one small catch…

Natsumi Tsujimoto (Tamara Burnham Mercer) has just joined the traffic police of Bokuto Precinct in Tokyo. She’s outgoing, fun loving and has a bit of an attitude. So of course she gets paired with the quiet, focused and serious Miyuki Kobayakawa (Jo Ann Luzzatto). At first Natsumi is convinced this is match is doomed, but fate forces them to work together to thwart a mad bomber – and they make a great team.

Soon the gals find themselves in all kinds of scrapes, including bringing a critical patient to a hospital during a typhoon, attempting to quell a raging fire during a marathon and even navigating office rumors that could get them both fired. Life as a traffic cop is never dull. Even though these gals look cute, they will have no problem telling you, “You’re Under Arrest”.

Good Points:
  • Some excellent and detailed animation for the era
  • Has plenty of likable characters
  • The typhoon episode balances and thrills and laughs really well
Bad Points:
  • An early dub that is really hit or miss
  • Never gets too serious about anything
  • Ends up being more of a light comedy than an action or drama
You may find this one entertaining, or too light and fluffy to write home about. The characters are fun, and the writers come up with some interesting situations to put them in. But the thrills are mild and the focus is on how the girls become friends and how their partnership helps them become better cops. Breezy entertainment? Sure, but the animation is solid (and impressive in the chase scenes), and the theme songs are catchy. Worth checking out for a change of pace.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Natsumi has her doubts about her new partner.
This series is based on the long running and popular graphic novel series of the same name. Kosuke Fujishima is known for his appealing character designs, entertaining cast and his love for all things with motors. His most famous work has to be Ah My Goddess (or Oh My Goddess in some circles). But You’re Under Arrest was his first popular creation, and the characters of Ah My Goddess are actually a spin off of the cop series.

This Original Animated Video (OAV) series is four episodes that focus on Natsumi and Miyuki. The first episode brings them together, the second puts them through their most challenging assignment, the third deals with their personal lives and the final one threatens to break up their partnership. Its compact arc keeps the storytelling simple, and straightforward, but it also keeps the characters fairly static as well.

Ken says he's known as "The White Hawk of Bokuto",
but I always suspected that he was the only one who
used that name.
In many ways the five key characters are sitcom tropes. Nastumi is the wild girl with the heart of gold. Miyuki is the serious one. Ken Nakajima (Marc Matney) is a big burly motorcycle cop who is fond of Miyuki but acts like an idiot when she’s around. Yuriko Nikadou (Pamela Weidner) is the gossip of the police station. She spends most of the episodes hearing only half of a conversation and then telling everyone the wrong thing. Still she’s got a good heart, and is never malicious about it. Finally there is the Captain (Dave Underwood). He’s the laid back leader who is looking out for his folks. This involves making tough decisions, like promoting Natsumi to a different unit, or attempting to get Ken and Miyuki on a date.

That brings us to the main element of You’re Under Arrest that will end up losing some viewers. It is cute. For a series about cops, high speed chases and natural disasters, the overall tone is one of breezy fun. The most dangerous villain turns out to be a typhoon or a fire. Drama comes from getting a pregnant cat to a vet so she can deliver kittens, or making sure the local marathon goes smoothly by diverting traffic. There are no gunfights, no death of any kind. Instead, bad guys are arrested, people are saved and dates are enjoyed.

A great example of the lighting used in this series.
The focus on getting Ken and Miyuki together takes up a whole episode, and ends up popping up in all four of them. It is all handled is a very sitcom manner with mistaken feelings, wrong turns, and Yuriko not hearing the whole conversation. It ends with a dating montage in which the whole police precinct is monitoring the date to make sure Ken doesn’t screw it up. Like I said, that is a whole episode, and it’s the weakest one.

But the Typhoon in episode two does a great job of building tension, and testing the characters to their limits. In addition to the deadly storm, there is a crazy driver who enjoys racing around in the downpour and running other cars off the road. He’s appeared during the last few typhoons and Ken vows to catch and arrest him this time. But with Natsumi and Miyuki trying to transport the pregnant kitten to a vet (and having to navigate flooded roads and other perils), Ken has to make sure the girls don’t run into crazed motorist first. It’s all handled well, with great pacing and some excellent animation.

Natsumi and Yuriko stakeout Ken and Miyuki's
date. Great use of tax payer funds.
That is one of the big plusses with You’re Under Arrest; the animation is really handled well. Since Fujishima is such a fan of cars and motorcycles, his works often contain chases and races. Each episode features some kind of chase scene and the animators do some great things with them. In the first episode the girls chase down a red Mini Cooper that leads them on a scavenger hunt to a bomb. The chase goes through all kinds of urban terrain and locales. Most of the animation is fully rendered without the still frame cheats. The typhoon sequences in the second episode are even better, with the dark skies, pelting rain and flooded streets. Japanese animation always handles water extremely well, and this episode showcases it. The girls navigate some dangerous streets and Ken faces the crazed typhoon racer. The third episode has Natsumi and Ken on a road trip that has some nice scenic moments. The final episode has the force springing into action during a marathon when a fire goes out of control and traffic has ground to a halt. Each episode has a different feel with these chase/race scenes and handles them well. This isn’t quite the same level as Gunsmith Cats and the freeway chase, but it is no slouch either.

Cars and movement are realistically drawn and
animated, especially in the typhoon episode.
Fujishima’s pleasing character design remains intact here. Things seem a little closer to the AIC style that Tenchi Muyo! made popular, but Fujishima’s influence is obvious. We also see it in all the detail in the modified vehicles.  In addition the color palate is light and bright. Even the darkness of the Typhoon seems like a brief spot compared to the bright bookend sequences. There are also plenty of scenes have some great lighting to them, often using pastel colors or leaf patterns as shadows. For a hand drawn series, and an OAV (which were notorious for variable quality), the series looks really good.

Sound and music both fit the series. The score is a bit over the top at times, but it works well enough. The opening and ending J-pop songs are a lot of fun and catchy as hell.

"Shaa, I'm totally part of the biker brigade now. Most
The English dub is a mixed bag. This is an early dub from Animeigo, and for the most part it is solid. Some of the supporting cast goes a bit overboard at times, but that is typical of dubs from the era. Two things may annoy some viewers. The first is that the dub script is not a direct translation, and in fact throws in a lot of American slang and pop culture references. In many cases it adds humor to the series and reminds me a bit of the dub script for El Hazard (my gold standard for comedy dubs of the era). For a show so focused on humor, it makes sense to tailor the script a bit. Many times Japanese puns and cultural jokes don’t translate well. The sub script is very faithful, something Animeigo prided itself with.

But one of the main complaints with the You’re Under Arrest dub script is the way Natsumi is portrayed. For some reason she talks like a California surfer girl. She doesn’t sound like an airhead, but she got that So-cal twang that drives some folks up the wall. It’s a bit exaggerated at times, and she even uses some dated 90s slang like Wayne’s (of Wayne’s World fame) exclamation of “Shaa!” I think this was done to contrast her with Miyuki and her very straight speaking style. The result is that Nastumi has some of the funniest lines in the show, but I know some folks can’t stand the dub because of this dialogue choice.

Each episode moves at a good pace, with only the third episode feeling a bit on the slow side. For the most part all the characters get some time to shine, and the animation gets some nice moments to show off. It’s put together pretty well and remains entertaining throughout.

The final episode turns the tables on the first, with
Miyuki wondering about their partnership.
That’s the key here. You’re Under Arrest is a nice fun time, perfect for some lazy weekend viewing. It doesn’t strain your brain, it makes you laugh a bit, or smirk at how cute it gets at times. The OAVs were popular enough to spawn two television series, a few made for TV specials and a full-fledged theatrical film (which actually does get serious). In it’s first form it keeps things simple and fun, but never leaves a lasting impression. It never gets violent or nasty. It has some great animation and fun characters. But compared to the action packed adventures of the Gunsmith Cats or the more romantic and magical Oh My Goddess, it seems a bit plain. The television series evolved the characters a bit (and include some character from the original manga). But these episodes are considered the “pilot” of sorts to the show. I admit it is a bit of a nostalgic favorite of mine, because it is one of the first anime I watched with my wife. You’re Under Arrest, Oh My Goddess and Ranma ½ were enough to get her hooked on anime. So this show is a great one to start off folks who may not be into sci-fi or fantasy sagas, and want something a bit more light and comical. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

2003 was the year everyone was talking about Kill Bill (and maybe Return of the King too, but that’s another story). Tarantino fans were thrilled with the movie (for the most part) and were looking forward to what the Bride was going to do next. Would the final confrontation with Bill be worth the wait?

The Bride (Uma Thurman) has survived her battles with two of the assassins that destroyed her life, but two more remain: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Budd (Michael Madsen). Driver in particular seems to have a real grudge against The Bride and is looking forward to a full-blown showdown. But Budd isn’t as energetic and opts for a more laid back approach. The Bride underestimates Budd and soon finds herself buried alive!

But The Bride has trained with the Kung Fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). She was tormented, abused and yet the trial by fire provided her with new skills. She will need all of them if she hopes to escape her premature burial and face Bill (David Carrdine). But Bill has one small surprise that may keep the Bride from completing her mission: to Kill Bill.

Good Points:
  • The face off between the Bride and Elle is classic Tarantino
  • Bill’s little twist was a nice piece of work
  • The Pai Mei sequence was a nice nod to old Kung Fu classics

Bad Points:
  • The pacing of this volume slows way down
  • Lots of dialogue scenes that seem to go on too long
  • The ending may feel anti-climactic to some

It was going to be tough to follow the speedy action packed first volume. So Tarantino goes in a slightly different direction, fleshing out the characters a bit more (the Bride finally gets a name) and giving us a lengthy verbal confrontation between Bill and the Bride. This shift will work better for some viewers than others. Watching the films back to back makes volume 2 an uneven experience, but as a stand alone film it’s still a good time. Yes it’s a bit self indulgent with the dialogue, but I don’t mind it too much. Not quite as much fun as the first volume, but well worth a spot in any Tarantino collection.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino I was pretty excited to see Kill Bill. There was a good strong buzz about the film. It sounded like a fun blast of Tarantino action with a strong Kung Fu film influence. But then I heard they were splitting the film into two parts, and I started to worry. Was this just going to be an extended cash grab from Miramax, or was there a reason to split the film?

The Bride (Uma Thurman) is leaving her life as part of team of super assassins behind. She’s going to get married, and have a wonderful new life in El Paso. But her old boss, Bill (David Carradine) has an issue with that. So he brings his assassin squad to Texas and proceeds to kill everyone in the chapel. The thing is, he didn’t do a great job, because The Bride survives – and now she’s really pissed off.

After escaping from the hospital where she lay in a coma for years, the Bride begins her systematic destruction of Bill and the assassins. In volume one she faces Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) a master of knife fighting, and now living the life of a suburban mom. But her killing skills are sharper than ever. The Bride must also face O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the head of the Japanese crime gangs. She’s got an army of killers known as The Crazy 88 protecting her. And even if The Bride gets past them, Ishii is a master with the katana. But The Bride has a plan, to obtain a katana of her own from the master sword smith Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba). Will The Bride survive her encounters and finally Kill Bill?

Good Points:
  • Combines elements of Japanese pop culture together in a very exciting way
  • The pacing is perfect, building up to the confrontation with Ishii
  • The cast is have a great time

Bad Points:
  • Anyone who doesn’t enjoy the style of Japanese pop culture may find this film unwatchable
  • Foul mouthed and bloody as all hell
  • Very much style over substance

When it comes to pulp fiction, Kill Bill: Vol 1 really nails it. It is an over the top revenge story told using a myriad of styles and influences (primarily Japanese anime, manga, movies and television in this segment, but there are plenty of other influences in there too). It is done with a joy for the material and telling the story that the whole thing just flows. It is cool, old school, and yet modern all at once. Certainly one of my favorite films in Tarantino’s filmography.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Red Zone Cuba (1966) – MST3K Review

Before we jump on the night train, we need to take a look at the short, Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance. This black and white film examines how the way the speaker looks and stands is as important as what he says and how he says it. The short talks about maintaining good posture, ensuring your clothes are in order and your hair combed. It even provides a nifty exercise called “the knee test” that will ensure you are standing with your feet the optimal width apart. The knee test is demonstrated numerous times to ensure you do it right.

The feature film follows an escaped criminal, Griffin (Coleman Francis) as he falls in with two ex-cons Cook (Harold Saunders) and Landis (Anthony Cardoza). The trio hears that the US military is giving 1000 dollars to join for a one time operation somewhere in Cuba. If they survive they will be given another 1000 dollars – no questions asked. The desperados decide to give this a shot, and most likely just run off with the 3000 they get for joining. But things don’t go as planned.

Eventually they find themselves trained as covert operatives to participate in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The trio make it to Cuba, but they are captured and imprisoned. Griffin uses a clever ruse to escape. The men return to the states and start a crime spree in which people are ruthless killed, a widow is conned and coffee is drunk. Before it is all over Griffin may wish that he had been killed in Red Zone Cuba.

Movie Review:
"Now you look ready to rub out Sonny Corleone."
Centron delivers another short revolving around public speaking. Speech: Platform Posture an Appearance is a bit different from most because is focuses on how to make a good visual impression. It is actually filled with good advice for a public speaker. It discusses how credibility can be hurt if you look sloppy and unprepared. A speaker whose shoes are shined and suit is pressed just looks more credible than the poor schlep who can’t tuck in his shirt and has his hair hanging in his face.

But the real focus comes when the short delves into posture. Again, it really isn’t something most public speaking classes cover, but it does make a difference. The short describes the various types of bad posture, giving each a cute name and cartoon image: tired farm horse type, telephone pole type, rocking horse type and turtle type. The narrator discusses how each of these can be avoided and then shows us The Knee Test.

This man has obviously not made the knee test.
The goal is to make sure you have a stable stance to work with, so you don’t end up rocking, or slouching or leaning on stuff. The Knee Test lets you determine this optimal stance, and you can build from there. The only trouble is, it looks incredibly goofy in practice – and the short loves showing it off over and over again.

Like all shorts form Centron, Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance is deadly serious in it’s presentation. The black and white cinematography and authoritative voice over make it even more ridiculous. Still it is a unique look at public speaking and provides food for thought – very earnest food.

For Coleman Francis’ final film, he wanted to do something impressive, important and filled with meaning. He wanted to explore the themes that had been hinted at in his earlier work: government mistakes, human brutality, vigilante justice, flight and coffee. Francis had a limited budget, but he had a story to tell, and now that he had learned a lot about film making during his work on The Beast of Yucca Flats and Skydivers he was ready to tackle it.

And now we know what happened to those
three dorks who hung out behind the gym.
He called it Night Train to Mundo Fine (translated to Night Train to the End of the World). The title was later changed to Red Zone Cuba. It was going to be the one he wanted to be remembered for. These days, I think more people are familiar with The Beast of Yucca Flats – because it is so horrible. But Red Zone Cuba is really Francis at his most impressive. He aims high, and misses spectacularly, and yet, because he is reaching so high, the movie is more interesting because of it.

Coleman Francis had cameo appearances in his previous films, but this time he takes center stage as the anti-hero Griffin. The acting isn’t perfect, and you can tell the director is really trying to make Griffin a real character. The man is a brute, filled with a world-weariness that threatens to consume him. At the same time he is capable of violent and sudden rages that can turn murderous.  Francis’ love of close-ups work well with his own craggy face. He looks like he’s been through a lot (I’m not sure if the director had been. His films certainly don’t appear to come from a man who led a happy life). This resigned face will suddenly go angry, sometimes with little provocation.  As the movie progresses his violence escalates and there really is no other ending for this character than to go down in a hail of bullets. Francis does a good job making Griffin believable and frightening. Not to say the acting is great or anything, but it easily the best performance in the film.

Tony Cardoza is back and this time he's duller than
The other two leads are hopeless. Saunders as Cook seems lost most of the time. He flubs lines, misses cues and just can’t seem to portray anything more than a guy who wandered onto the set one day. There is very little intimidating about him, which means he can’t be the muscle. If that makes him the brains then we’ve got a real problem here, because Tony Cardoza plays his partner, Landis. If The Skydivers proved anything, it was that Tony Cardoza should not be allowed a major part in front of the camera. He is as lifeless, wooden and bland as ever. Even his lines delivered in voice over are in complete monotone. He shows no spark of intelligence, and you wonder how the hell a heist was planned between these two.

While Red Zone Cuba focuses primarily on these three gentlemen, a few other actors have significant screen time. Tom Hanson isn’t too bad as Bailey Chastain, an officer who attempts to befriend the men. He makes enough of an impression so that you feel bad when Griffin attempts to scam his wife Ruby played by Lanell Cado. She does a good job too, looking forlorn waiting for news of her husband.

"How do you like them apples!"
Receiving top billing is John Carradine, as a train engineer who is telling his story to a young newspaper reporter. This little prologue lasts less than five minutes and has nothing to do with the story. But hey, I guess they got John Carradine in their movie, so that’s cool. I wonder if he filmed this between The Incredible Petrified World and The Unearthly.

The rest of the cast is populated by Francis’ regular group of oddballs and random folks. While not quite as colorful as the acting team of Skydivers there are still plenty of fun appearances. Tony Cardoza gets to put on a fake beard and pretend to be Castro. It might be his most animated acting in all three of these movies. Then you’ve got Juan Cruz, a captured American soldier. He is killed by a firing squad. Then about five minutes later, the same actor is playing a Cuban guard. Yes, same guy, nearly the same outfit, and no attempt is made to hide his face. You also get Cherokee Jack, but more about him later.

Then there’s the haggard owner of the Frog Legs restaurant late in the film. He looks depressed, his story is depressing, and even his blind daughter makes you want to throw yourself into traffic. I’m not sure where Francis found these two, but man Red Zone Cuba moves into despair territory here.

"Imagine you're Castro and you see this awesome
Much like his other films, the editing is brutal. Scenes seem to be randomly cut short, jump to non sequitur scenes, or have inserts for no reason anyone can determine. No rhythm is evident, and in this case, all this ends up making the film very difficult to follow. Continuity is non-existent, so you will have a sequence of people chasing each other, one in the day one in the evening. Or you get a scene where it is obviously raining outside the plane, with water hitting the windows and thunder rumbling. But a quick shot of the plane flying shows a clear beautiful day. Has time passed? Was the editor asleep? We’ll never know.

The musical selections are jaw droopingly awful. Much like Skydivers, the music goes from over the top tension, to silly and goofy lighthearted marches at the drop of a hat. The “light” music is really the worst offender. It seems completely at odds with the dreary and dower visuals on the screen, even if the characters are experiencing some good fortune. One piece sounds disturbingly like Sleigh Ride. Then there’s the title song, Night Train to Mundo Fine. I kid you not, it is sung by John Carradine. Yeah, read that again. It is really an odd choice. But I have to say the swinging guitar version used at the end of the film is actually pretty good.

This leaves us with the story and themes. Francis’ wanted to say something about the Bay of Pigs invasion, the plight of men lost in the world with no hope in their future, the way justice can only come at the barrel of a gun, and that the world was a dark and dangerous place. It is a dreary tale about a man who is not redeemable and who plows through the lives of others, all the while powerless against the government, the law: the world itself. This bleak worldview oozes from every frame of the film, and makes it one of the most dower movies ever to be shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (with High School Big Shot or The Girl on Lover’s Lane maybe edging it).

Another character lost in the wheels of despair.
I will give Coleman Francis this, I think he was able to capture the mood and atmosphere he wanted this Red Zone Cuba (for the most part). Even his ham fisted editing adds to the brutality and sudden switch in fortunes for the characters.

But the film never comes together in a narrative way. This makes Red Zone Cuba a bit of a puzzle. You can tell Coleman Francis wanted to tell a gripping tale of a lost man pulled into the Bay of Pigs operation. The operation is a failure, and he is forced back on the run again, killing and destroying until he is gunned down with nothing but “a penny and broken cigarette”. But time and again he scuttles his own vision with scenes that go nowhere, dialogue that seems to mean something but doesn’t, and pacing that is quick and yet a slog at the same time (not sure how he manages that). It took several viewings of the film (and no one but a Mystery Science Theater fan should attempt that) to realize how the heck the men left Cuba and ended up looking for the Tungsten mine. The film feels like it wants to be an epic, but it can’t even manage to be entertaining. By the time the movie ends you are left confused, and a bit battered. But Mike and the bots are here to make it all better.

Episode Review:

Gentlemen, start your knees!
For the crew at Mystery Science Theater 3000 this film came in the middle of season six, and in the middle of the Coleman Francis trilogy. As such I’ve seen this episode called one of the worst in the history of the show, yes even worse than the dreaded Hamlet episode. But there are plenty of folks (and yes I’m obviously one of them) that think this episode is a testament to the skill of the writers and riffers. The fact that that can turn such a nonsensical mess of a movie into something so entertaining is really amazing.

Things start off with the short Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance. The boys were no stranger to Centron’s style and had tackled a previous speech short with lots of “lip and tongue action”. This was a natural continuation for them, and they do a fine job with it. As the short starts Mike wonders if “ancient toastmasters made this film”. The narrator starts in on how “appearance is a powerful factor”, Crow answers with “I learned that the hard way.” Then as the narrator describes all the negative types and shows the silly drawings of the various types, the riffers go to town on the short.

But the best material has to do with “making the knee test” (which Mike absolutely refuses to do). As the narrator carefully describes the actions to make it work, the riffs come fast and furious with Tom declaring “Just don’t do this during your speech.” As far as shorts go, this one is a lot of fun, and worth seeking out, even if the feature hurts too much.

Coleman aka "the Wild Curly" in captivity.
One of the great things about Red Zone Cuba is that it is filled with so many oddities, bizarre characters, strange lines and unclear plot points, that it really offers tremendous riffing opportunities. They aren’t the obvious type, but they are there and Mike and bots make the most of them. When John Carradine appears in the prologue scene Crow thinks “he makes Keith Richards look positively dewy”. When the young reporter asks Carradine if he remembers the desperados back in ’61, Tom answers “Which century?”

Because the sound is so bad, they can’t hear Sgt. Chastain’s proper name, and keep calling him Justine throughout the film. When his superior officer calls him into a meeting Mike says, “Sgt. Justine I want you to call me Lt. Vivian.” That only leads into a whole host of military jokes. Because of the limited budget, the “invasion force” is only about six guys, filmed over and over again from different angles. The boys have a great time with these scenes with Mike saying that “Charro could have planned a better invasion”. The term “shove off” is used frequently in these scenes and Mike and bots turn it into a repeating riff, getting mad at the actors when they use the term.

"Yeah, I'm Cherokee Jack."
Another running joke comes from one of the most famous characters in Red Zone Cuba: Cherokee Jack. Taking a page from The Beast of Yucca Flats, most of Cherokee’s dialogue is given when he is off screen or hidden behind something. The way he delivers his immortal dialogue, “Yeah, I’m Cherokee Jack” combined with the bad editing made him an instant favorite for MST3K fans, and the writers. He would get named dropped in several episodes in the future, usually by Mike who could imitate the cadence and delivery of the line perfectly.

Of course many of the riffs are just about how poorly the film is made. Crow thinks, “It doesn’t waste any precious time with a plot.” About half way through Tom says, “At this point the movie throws up its hands and says ‘I don’t know!’” (this has become a favorite line around my house when something goes wrong). When a quick edit happens in the middle of a scene Mike is concerned that his “neck got broken from that jump cut”. Crow sums up with “This film dares you to watch it!”

"When a wild Curly dies, it provides food for other
Mr. Coleman Francis is not immune to the riffs. With his close shaved head and rounded features the boys start referring to him as Curly. During his initial escape from the law Mike says in his movie trailer voice, “Coleman Francis is Curly Howard in The Fugitive.” Tom does a very good imitation of Curly Howard and provides plenty of Stooge based jokes. But my favorite series of riffs comes at the end, as Francis is chased down by an airborne vigilante squad. The camera tracks him low to the ground, and looks a lot like a nature documentary. So the boys just roll with it, talking about how fast a “wild Curly” can run, and how long they live in the wild versus living in captivity.

Frank and Dr. Forrester make the knee test.
The host segments focus on two items. One is how the bad the movie is, The other is Frank’s little problem with the mafia. Things start off with Tom acting as a lottery ball dispenser. Mike has to call the numbers as they shoot out of the top of Tom’s head. Frank then reveals that he owes the mob 50 large. They send a palooka to rough him up, but Frank uses a clever ruse, and Dr. Forrester gets beaten up instead. At the first break, Dr. Forrester is in a full body cast, and Frank chastises him for not rising above the pain. He forces Dr. Forrester to make the knee test! When we come back from the next break Mike has turned into Carol Channing to help deal with the pain of Red Zone Cuba. The bots are confused by this. Meanwhile Frank reads all messages from various folks wishing Dr. Forrester a speedy demise and a painful death. It includes anti-condolences from Mother Teresa and Jimmy Carter. At the next break, Mike is still having problems coping with the film. And we watch as Dr. Forrester has a very long and protracted death scene. He manages to survive only to get beaten up again. When the movie ends, Mike and bots are really depressed, but they sing a happy song about silly things and it makes them feel a lot better.

"Griffin ran all the way to hell, with a penny and
a broken cigarette."
I have to be honest, this episode left me really cold the first time I saw it. The movie was too dower and too much of a mess to enjoy. The riffing, while spirited was not enough to overcome that. But one day, a co-worker at the video store declared that Red Zone Cuba was a puzzle he was determined to solve. So we both watched it that night and did our best to figure out what the hell was going on. And so my appreciation of the riffing grew, and grew with each subsequent viewing. In addition I ended up seeing Francis’ other films and in the scope of things, I began to appreciate Francis’ work for what it was. To me Red Zone Cuba was his opus. Combined with this oddly fascinating film is some of the best riffing out there, matching the feature’s punishing blows with well timed and hilarious jokes. Yes, Red Zone Cuba is an acquired taste, I’ll admit it. But to me, it is easily one of the best episodes out there, and one of my favorite from this season.

I give it five Cherokee Jack’s out of five.

This episode is available as a single DVD.