A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 584 – Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank – October 5th, 2011

I really feel pretty bad about watching this tonight, but Andy suggested it and, well, I don’t really have any better suggestions. Though I do maintain that this is not so much a failing of our collection as it is a sign that we’re getting down to the end of the project and we’ve watched the vast majority of our really good movies. But then again, it’s hard to plan specifically for something like what to watch when someone like Steve Jobs passes away. We’ve burned through pretty much everything else that could be considered remotely appropriate and it was this or Real Genius, which we are saving for either The Worst Day Ever or the end of the project. So we went with this. Sorry, Mr. Jobs. You gave us revolutionary tech and we’re watching a made-for-tv movie featuring Raul Julia and stock footage of baboons. I am so ashamed.

As with pretty much every other movie we own that was featured in MST3K, I take responsibility for this one being in our home. We bought it on VHS when I was in college, more as a novelty than anything else. I mean, can you believe this movie was ever actually available on home video? It is probably up there with the weirdest stuff we own, just considerably cheaper in terms of production values than most of the others. It takes place in a future where everyone’s lives are controlled by an authoritarian government/corporation. One of the key points made is that regular people aren’t allowed to watch movies. They still exist, but they’re locked into a private database only accessible to the head of the corporation. The recreational activity of choice these days is called doppling. It involves having a little bit of tech implanted in your head that allows your consciousness to be stored in a cube and transferred into other things, such as animals. People dopple by spending a weekend riding around in the head of a lion or a horse or whatever. Meanwhile, their bodies are being taken care of at the doppling facility, stored in racks full of cots while bored technicians keep an eye on them.

The main character of the movie, Aram Fingal, is a programmer who’s bored with his job and his life in general. This sort of character is a stock figure in something like this. Obviously the dystopian setting requires that most people be subdued and willing to live with the monotony of lives controlled by the government and whatever basic amusements they’ve been offered. But Fingal isn’t. He wants something else. And he finds it by hacking into the movie database and watching Humphrey Bogart on his work terminal. It’s only a matter of time until he’s caught and reprimanded. And said reprimand? Comes in the form of an enforced doppling. Fingal hasn’t ever doppled before and he’s not terribly enamoured of the concept, but if he wants to keep his job then he’s got to do it. And all he can afford is three days in an old baboon.

Now, that sounds somewhat ridiculous, and it is somewhat ridiculous, albeit with a fairly decent core concept. But if you think for one moment that it’s not hilariously awful to listen to people say “Fingal’s dopple” over and over again? You are wrong and have no sense of humor. Just say it to yourself. Now say it again. Now say it about fifty times in the space of a minute or two. Now run some old National Geographic footage of baboons in the background and keep saying it. Congratulations. You have now made a reasonable facsimile of the first half of this movie, minus the late Raul Julia. To get the rest you need a somewhat modern looking office building and a seedy bar in which to re-enact portions of Casablanca. Also, a chroma key editing deck would help really set the mood. Give it that made-in-high-school feel.

No. I’m not joking. This is actually what this movie involves. The doppling facility loses Fingal’s body for a little while and the tech who was monitoring his dopple session has to talk him through the situation, keeping track of him while his consciousness is in the computer banks because they couldn’t keep it in the cube it was in while he was hanging out with the baboon. So Fingal starts making his own reality in the computer – very pre-Matrix, but lacking anything that made that movie cool. I’m sure some people would argue that the whole Bogart thing is cool, but no. No it’s not. It’s not remotely cool. I am so sorry, Raul Julia, but your Bogart impression kind of stunk.

Obviously since Fingal’s a rebel and a hacker and all, and now he’s inside the computers of the government/corporation, he’s going to muck around as much as he can, which worries the people in charge. So they try to get rid of him and he tries to get away from them and they have to find his body but that means inventorying the entire facility because apparently their organization skills suck hard. Seriously though, the reason this happened? Was because a kid on a field trip changed the tags on Fingal and someone else. And no one noticed. The only thing telling these people where each body belongs is a system of colored tags without any other identifying information on them and a kid on a field trip was allowed close enough to mess that up. For such an authoritarian society, they’re pretty sloppy.

There’s some really incredibly obvious foreshadowing early on, involving a vortex you have to avoid getting sucked into or you end up losing your consciousness completely. There’s a burgeoning romance between Fingal and the tech who’s been keeping an eye on him. And then there’s the stock footage and the Bogart impression and lots of cheap special effects and so on and so forth. While watching it I did a little reading up and found that it was one of three sci-fi book-to-tv-movie adaptations done by WNET/PBS in the 1980s. And that’s great! I’m glad someone had the idea of making sci-fi stories into tv movies or PBS at the time. As a kid I thrived on things like Doctor Who on PBS. But oh, oh the budget and the time period are so very obvious. The only remotely big name on the cast list is Raul Julia and let me be frank: This was not the performance of his career. And maybe the story reads better on paper, but on screen it just comes off as goofy, especially with people saying “Fingal’s dopple” over and over. It ends up being less a commentary on authoritarian governments meshing with corporations and controlling people’s lives and more a silly story about a ridiculous future.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 578 – Battlestar Galactica: Razor

Battlestar Galactica: Razor – September 29th, 2011

Unlike the previous two nights’ movies, this was made to actually be a movie, albeit one that depends upon a television show to make any sense whatsoever. It tells about a whole chunk of time that the show skipped over to keep things moving and also goes back in time a bit, telling a related story from the first Cylon war. And it is perhaps some of the darkest stuff the franchise put out once the reimagining went on the air. Make no mistake, this is bleak and nasty stuff. It serves the dual purpose of showing how a certain new group of characters came to be the way they were when the Galactica encountered them, and making it clear that no matter how bad things got on the Galactica, they weren’t like this.

I honestly wasn’t sure when this aired in relation to the series. The show had some gaps here and there, including a hiatus in the middle of season 2 just after one of the most brutal episodes of the series up to that point. That episode, Pegasus, introduced a new ship to the fleet, a newer Battlestar that had survived the initial attacks. The Pegasus, commanded by Admiral Helena Cain, was a far different thing from the Galactica, and Cain herself was a far different commander than William Adama. But then the show kept going after the break and I didn’t think this aired that early and I was right. Looking it up, I see that it aired after the end of season 3, long after we’d seen the eventual fate of the Pegasus and many of her key crewmembers. You know, just to remind us all of what had been going on.

The movie begins with Lee Adama taking command of the Pegasus after Cain has been killed. Well, to be accurate, the Pegasus had two other commanders, but neither fared well. The focal figure of this movie isn’t one of the people we already knew, though Lee and Kara are both very important to the plot. The main character here, however, is Kendra Shaw, a young woman who had been assigned to the Pegasus as Cain’s assistant. Not long after she arrives the Cylon attacks commence and she’s suddenly in a far more deadly situation than she ever imagined. She’d considered the post as a stepping stone to a more prestigious position in the Fleet. Obviously that never happened. So we see her story, from meeting Cain to seeing her make the hard decisions in the opposite direction from what William Adama was doing in the main series. This is the story of how it might have been, had Adama been a slightly different man, had he not been surrounded by the people he was surrounded by.

Where Adama listened to President Roslin’s suggestion that they take the civilians they could and run? Cain stripped the civilian ships they found of both equipment and useful crew and continued the fight, using guerrilla tactics and if anyone questioned her or tried to stand in her way, she shot them in the head. That’s a good way of commanding order, I suppose, but it makes for a grim situation. She does this with purpose, though, and that purpose is survival. Not necessarily survival of the human race, but survival of her ship and her crew for the purpose of killing as many Cylons as possible. And she is brutally ruthless about it. You could probably take the events on the Pegasus point by point and compare them to the Galactica. It’s a stark comparison.

The movie flips between the prior events on the Pegasus, flashbacks to the first Cylon war, and present day where Lee has put Kendra in place as his XO to try and prove that he respects the Pegasus crew. As the crew goes on a mission to find a missing Raptor crew and an old ship from the first Cylon war with some sort of experimental tech the Cylons were butchering humans for, we go back and forth. Kendra and Kara butt heads, Kendra questions everything, Kendra remembers what brought her to this time and place. And I like Kendra. She’s an interesting character who’s had to make some compromises between her survival and her morals. She’s done things she regrets, but she’s had to keep going and not let those regrets engulf her. And they almost do, but she still keeps going. I don’t think Kendra really has an analogue on the Galactica crew. Dee, perhaps, but I almost feel as though she is a stand-in for almost every minor or unnamed character on the Galactica. People who might seem like perfectly ordinary human beings with the morals and moral failings one expects, but who, when faced with someone like Cain, might do unthinkable things. One of the things I loved about Battlestar Galactica was that it wasn’t an easy show. It made its characters make difficult decisions and it made them deal with the consequences. And Kendra is like a poster child for difficult decisions and consequences.

She also acts as a bit of a foil for Kara. Now, I’ll be frank: I love Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace and I love her for her entire character, flaws and all. But because she’s such a key character in the show and because she often steals the spotlight, it’s easy to look at anyone opposing her and dismiss them. This is a mistake. Look at Tigh, for example. He turned out to be one of the biggest bad-asses on the crew. So I like when people Kara butts heads with turn out to be just as strong and just as skilled and just as stubborn as her.

The other thing I really like about this episode is the combination of past and future around the present storyline. As the team from the Pegasus goes after their missing people they discover something that was created in the past, but which ends up playing a fairly sizable role (in concept) later in the show. There are also a number of callbacks to the original series, with classic-style Cylons showing up once or twice. The only unfortunate part about that is that the
foreshadowing done in this movie never really played out very well for me. The movie ends with a mysterious character we know very little about giving a prediction of doom for the human race that involves a major character from the show. And technically I suppose it does play out. But any time you have to qualify something like that with “technically” it’s a bad sign. It’s a matter of the terminology being technically true but annoyingly misleading. It’s not clever and it’s part of my eventual disappointment with how poorly planned the end of the series seemed to be. There was so much foreshadowing, including the end of this movie, and it felt like they had to find a way to make it all fit together and it didn’t. Ultimately, I do enjoy this movie. I just have to ignore where the climactic prophecy actually ended up leading to.

September 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 577 – Battlestar Galactica (miniseries)

Battlestar Galactica (2003) – September 28th, 2011

Watching this tonight made me angry. And I find that annoying in turn. Because I typically don’t get angry about television shows. I ignore the ones I don’t like and I enjoy the ones I do like and when the ones I do like go downhill (i.e. Heroes) I just stop watching. And you know what I did with this show when it started to go downhill and bore/irritate me, and I started to suspect it wasn’t going to end at all satisfactorily for me? I stopped watching it. And I was happier for it. My mother, on the other hand, kept watching. I feel a little bad about that since I’m the one who got her hooked and in the end she just couldn’t stop. She chided me for “quitting” and not seeing the show out to the bitter end. And then when it ended she told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She likened it to The Prisoner (the ending of which she also hated). And she never again called me a quitter.

I was doing just fine in regards to Battlestar Galactica, the show, until we decided to put this in following Caprica last night. We’d planned on Caprica and Battlestar Galactica: Razor because they were both movie-length specials. But then Andy suggested we add this in between them, since it was a miniseries special that acted as a pilot for the series that followed. It was on the long side, yes, but we’d had theatrical releases that were longer, so why not, right? And then I realized it was going to make me angry, because rewatching the beginning of the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica just served to remind me that it started so very strong. It came out swinging and for the first two seasons it didn’t let up and watching it again, seeing it start and seeing all of these characters that I became fascinated by and knowing where it’s headed? That made me sad and angry.

This miniseries held such promise. It begins with an explanation that the humans created the Cylons, a race of thinking machines, to serve them. But then the Cylons rebelled and when the war between humans and Cylons ended, the Cylons left. They’ve been gone a long time when we come in, but now they’re back. We meet them by seeing a couple of shiny centurion models, and then we meet Six. She’s a blond bombshell in a red dress and she’s a Cylon and she destroys the station she’s on. Gut punch right there: The Cylons look like humans and they’re going to try and kill the entire human race. Which they attempt to do not long after, detonating vast numbers of atomic bombs on the surfaces of the twelve colonial worlds. They exploit a back door in the defense systems of the colonies and the ships of the colonial fleet, left there for them by one of their own.

The Battlestar Galactica, an old military ship due to be decommissioned and turned into a museum, survives the attacks because its computers were far too old to run the new (bugged) software. It’s a holdover from the first war, when networking meant being vulnerable to Cylon attack. And by the end of the first section of the miniseries we know that the Galactica is going to have to stay in fighting form for the foreseeable future. The miniseries is largely interested in setting the stage for the rest of the show, but as it was the very beginning and done in three installments, each section does have a beginning and end and a point. We see the Galactica’s crew form up and work to return the ship to readiness. We meet the characters who will fill the series and discover some of their issues. There’s Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, an excellent pilot but prone to violent outbursts. There’s William Adama, the ship’s commander and his first mate, Colonel Tigh (who has a drinking problem and longstanding enmity with Starbuck). There are more pilots and officers and a few civilians. There’s Gaius Baltar, a brilliant scientist who was also responsible for unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems. And there’s the imaginary Six who shows up only to Baltar, the apparent ghost of his former lover. There’s the new president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (formerly the secretary of education but everyone above her is now dead). The miniseries introduces all of them in bits and pieces, showing them instead of telling about them. And the acting from each cast member is superb.

Looking back on it, I’m amused to see how some of these people started out. Tigh, in particular, has an amazing character arc that starts here with his drunken belligerence and ends somewhere totally unexpected. As we’re shown how everyone works (or doesn’t work) together, we’re given a good sense of how some of these relationships are going to shake out, at least in the short term. The show’s big strength there is that it becomes clear even midway through the miniseries that things will not always end up going in the direction that the show seemed to be pointing. I loved that. I loved it so much. Because I felt like the show did an amazing job introducing these characters and making me care about them and then throwing them for loops that did interesting things to them without being gratuitious.

Take Starbuck, for example. I love her. Watching Katee Sackhoff in this, seeing her character develop strong right from the start where she’s jogging through the ship, I absolutely fell in love with her again. She’s so central to the whole thing and I adored her. And knowing that in the end all the things they did with her just seemed so… lacking? That’s frustrating, at the very least. But it’s still impressive to me, how well this introduction works. It lays everything out and makes it clear that there will be hard decisions and people will die. Faced with the choice of standing and fighting a losing battle or running and hiding and protecting the rag-tag group of civilian ships that survived, Adama seems torn. And the trouble is that no matter what choice he makes, there will be consequences. He ends up going with saving as much of the civilian fleet as possible, but notice I didn’t say all of it. And it’s all the product of the combination of people who are there to influence him, along with who he is as a person. Beautifully done.

The miniseries ends on a potential high note. The survivors have supplies, they have some cohesion. There’s a military presence to help with defense and a political presence to keep things organized. They’ve identified not only the external threat but at least some of the internal threat. And Adama ends by giving a rousing speech to the fleet, telling them that he’s going to lead them to the mythical thirteenth colony: Earth. And everyone cheers “So Say We All” and it’s all very heartening. Except, as we learn after the speech, it’s all made up. He has no idea where they’re going. It was a morale booster. That’s all. The threat is still out there and they apparently have a plan whereas the humans really don’t. And someone we know is something entirely different than we’ve been led to believe. It’s a hopeful ending, but a tense one at the same time, promising difficult decisions and shocking reveals that seem to be leading somewhere. I just wish that they had led somewhere better and I’m angry that the vast and amazing potential on display in this introduction wasn’t squandered by the middle of season three.

September 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 576 – Caprica

Caprica – September 27th, 2011

Back when the reboot of Battlestar Galactica started showing on what was still Sci Fi at the time, Andy and I watched it every week through the first three seasons. We stopped midway through season four. Andy kept up with it longer than I did and I still regret getting my mother hooked on it because she’s not the sort of person who can just walk away from a show, even when it’s clearly going downhill. So by the time Caprica started airing we just couldn’t handle starting to watch it. Why bother when we’d been so badly burned by BSG? We never tuned in and I only got bits and pieces of the show’s particulars from friends who were valiantly trying to stick with the franchise. Nothing ever really convinced me it was worth getting sucked into.

Because here’s the thing: I loved the first two seasons of BSG. I loved them passionately. And I knew that if the beginning of the new show was done half as well as the beginning of BSG, I would be suckered right in. The whole conceit of it is to show how everything began, introducing the key figures in the history of Cylon development and telling the story of how the Cylons came to be and where it all went wrong. And I love prequels! I love seeing the background to a story. Where it started, what happened, all the bits and pieces that resulted in a story that came much later. BSG itself was full of such a huge amount of background and history and up until late in the show’s run it was superbly written. So, toss me some backstory and write it to the same standard? Yep. Sold.

Except I don’t know. This is the pilot for the series and it has some good material in it, but I don’t know that it really left enough room to head towards BSG itself. Without going into specific spoilers for the end of BSG, the whole concept of the development of the Cylons being a big breakthrough in human technology is kind of off for me, knowing what I know. And having seen Battlestar Galactica: Razor, which has some flashbacks to the first Cylon war, I know even more of what’s in store than just the regular series showed. What, precisely, is going to be revealed here that we don’t already know? What I loved about the earlier seasons of BSG was that it was a show that messed with its audience. By the end of the miniseries that started it, there was a huge reveal about a major character and it totally changed things. And the show kept doing that. The big dramatic moment in this? Was when the Cylon body wakes up. But I was expecting it. I wasn’t at all shocked by it. And that made me doubt that there were any real surprises in store for me.

All that being said, I did enjoy this. It’s not bad by any means. I do like backstory, after all, and seeing the development of the Cylon as a military project, the shared online worlds developed in secret, the tensions between the colonies, the religious issues, those are all interesting. And at least in the special we watched, there’s nothing really there that spoils anything later in BSG, which I’m sure was difficult. Instead there’s a distinct focus on the roots of what divided the Cylons from the humans in the first place. And at least as far as this first installment is concerned, it appears that a hefty dose of social injustice as viewed by a religions zealot is the key.

Anyone who’s watched a significant amount of the BSG series (and why would you be watching this if you hadn’t watched any of the other or if you weren’t planning on it?) knows that the human colonists are polytheistic, believing in their own interpretations of what we identify as the ancient Greek pantheon. The Cylons, on the other hand, are monotheistic, believing in a single omniscient and omnipotent god. Caprica provides background on that, revealing that there’s a growing underground movement amongst the youth and young adults on the planet of Caprica and likely other planets, rejecting the pantheon of their parents and peers and embracing a single god and more rigid definition of right and wrong. Our main character, Zoe, is a convert. She’s also a computer genius and has managed to create a self-aware copy of herself in a virtual world created by her father. So when her father discovers the copy after Zoe is killed in a terrorist attack he attempts to resurrect her, downloading the copy into a Cylon body that he’s been working on for the government. It does not go as planned.

What complicates things even more, beyond the religious and moral issues, is that Zoe’s father has befriended another man whose daughter was killed in the attack: Joseph Adama. Joseph agrees to let Zoe’s father try to use Zoe’s code to create a copy of his own daughter. Unfortunately, the copy created is self-aware enough to seem real, but also to realize that she’s not really alive. She doesn’t have the knowledge of how she was created because she’s not the one who did it. When she realizes she can’t feel her heart beating well, it isn’t a good outcome by any means.

Add into all of that some political wrangling and mob influence on the government and corporations struggling for contracts and the like and you’ve got the start for a series. Which is, after all, what this is. It’s fairly obvious that this wasn’t meant to be watched on its own. It ends with a “shocking” reveal that’s clearly meant to herald in the major storyline for the series. It opens up possibilities with the prejudices between the colonies, sets up rebellious youth out of control and introduces a host of characters. The trouble is that it really is supposed to lead into the series. So as a stand alone piece it doesn’t quite work for me. I would hope that in future episodes Adama becomes a little more sympathetic, seeing as he is the father of a major sympathetic character in BSG. I would hope that more is done with the virtual world, since that would help explain some of the things that happen in BSG. I would hope that the show was able to weave together all of the threads it introduced here, but I’ve been burned by BSG already and I’m not intrigued enough by this intro to make Caprica worth the risk of another burn.

September 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 557 – The Master

The Master – September 8th, 2011

Among our MST3K episodes from back when I was recording them off of Comedy Central we had one titled “Master Ninja 2.” And we watched it fairly frequently. Enough to know a bunch of the jokes. The thing is, we knew there was also a “Master Ninja 1” that they’d done before, but I’d never managed to catch it. I’d never seen it, though I’d certainly heard about it. And then Shout Factory released both episodes on professional DVD and we snapped them up. I do not recall if we bought this before or after we’d finally seen Master Ninja 1 with the MST3K treatment. All I can say is that if we bought it after, it was probably my fault and I am duly ashamed.

I admit, it’s not really a movie. It’s a pair of episodes of a martial arts television show from the 1980s. But after the show was cancelled pairs of episodes were released as movies, which is how MST3K did them. The conceit of the show is that a US soldier named McAllister stayed in Japan after the war and became a ninja. Then he gets a letter from his long lost daughter, heads for the US and meets up with Max Keller, a well-meaning troublemaker who drives around in a van with his hamster and gets (literally) thrown out of bars. Keller convinces McAllister to take him on as a student and off they go to get involved in super spy plots and labor disputes and corrupt police forces while they search for McAllister’s daughter. It is exactly as horrible as it sounds.

The first episode in this pair is the first episode of the series. So we get an introduction to Keller and we get an introduction to McAllister and we get the rundown on the premise for the show. It’s all horribly contrived, but I will give the movie credit for not trying to claim that Lee Van Cleef, who played McAllister, was Asian. Granted, the way they explain the whole ninja thing feels terribly forced, but there’s at least a little effort there! They work it into the plot, such as it is! So, that’s something. And that’s about all this has going for it. Well, that and a few of the single episode cast members ended up having actual acting careers or had already had careers. In this first installment we have a young Demi Moore, for example, and in the fourth episode George Lazenby showed up. But that’s about it.

The first installment has the obligatory introductions, then promptly tosses Keller and McAllister into a dispute between a family that owns an airfield and a land developer who wants their property. There’s a skeezy police officer who assaults Demi Moore, the airfield owner’s daughter, and there’s a lot of fighting and corruption and arson. Honestly, the plot just isn’t that interesting. None of the plots are that interesting. They’re stock conflicts, usually with a pretty young woman for Keller to flirt at (I’d say with, but it’s not like any of them are sticking around so the chemistry doesn’t matter much). Someone will threaten them. Someone will underestimate McAllister. Then there’ll be a fight where McAllister uses his ninja skills to save the day. There you go. This first episode totally sets the tone, if the four episodes I’ve seen are an indication of what the other nine are like.

The second section follows right along, with an extra dose of McAllister’s mysterious past. From what I could tell, he seems to have defied ninja tradition and now his former student is out to kill him? I could be getting it wrong. I usually watch this through a filter of riffing and when we started the second part on the un-MSTed version we have we realized something was very wrong with the disc. First, our DVD player refused to play it, continuously defaulting back to the menu. Second, the XBox refused to play it too. We were finally able to get it running on Andy’s computer, but the sound was about three seconds behind the action. Turns out this makes a movie hilarious in some moments, when the dialogue ends up matched to the wrong person, and incredibly hard to watch for the rest. Now, to be fair, I’m sure we paid pennies for this and the old “you get what you pay for” axiom holds true, so I’m not mad that the movie’s out of sync. On the other hand, whereas I might have been willing to put in some effort to pay attention to a decent movie if it was out of sync, this movie just isn’t worth the bother. So I payed the barest minimum attention necessary.

I’m pretty sure the plot involved a club where drinks are served and talented dancers dance getting shaken down for protection money by a Yakuza gang who actually want to own the club and therefore force the former owner’s daughter to rake in money for them by dancing. Also, there’s a sister in a wheelchair who is of course not at all jealous of her dancing sister except she totally is. I would expect no better of a show this sloppy and dated. McAllister and Keller get involved, have the sister in the wheelchair deliver the ransom for the dancing sister, then there’s the obligatory martial arts fight. Oh, and the sister in the wheelchair takes a few steps at the end. Why was she in the wheelchair? Why did McAllister’s “just buck up and believe in yourself” crap work? Who knows! It’s not like the show cared or anything. It’s all there for the big poignant moment at the end anyhow.

Having seen this much of the series, some of it without the humor that makes it bearable, I’ve got to say I wonder how it lasted even thirteen episodes. I do prefer the third episode over all the others, but that’s really neither here nor there when it comes to what we watched just now. With a pilot like that first section with Demi Moore, how did this get greenlit? I guess martial arts were a thing at the time and Keller was played by Tim Van Patten, son of Dick Van Patten, so presumably the combo of family contacts and Lee Van Cleef convinced someone it was worth taking a shot on. But what’s even more unbelievable is that it was ever repackaged as movies and released. And we bought one! I don’t find this as gut-twistingly offensive as some things we own, but I do apologize. I’m sorry. I don’t know if it was really me who put it on the pile, but I’ll take the blame. It’s the least I can do.

September 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey Cinderella and The Frog Prince

August 9, 2011

Hey Cinderella / The Frog Prince

Tonight represents another of our double headers. We did this for a couple short John Cleese movies a little while ago, and for a couple Muppet Christmas specials last year. With these shorter features in our collection there was a danger of overlooking them, so I’m so delighted that we’ve found a way to fit them into the project.

These two movies fit naturally together. They’re both re-tellings of familiar fairy tales from early in Jim Henson’s career, one from 1969 and one from 1971. Both feature Featherstone and the King and Kermit the Frog. Last summer Amanda and I went out to Lexington, MA to see a traveling exhibit of Jim Henson memorabilia and one of the things I really enjoyed seeing there was the wide collection of sketches by Jim of various Muppets, including the Muppetland King and Featherstone. They’re such a classic Henson pairing. The tall, thin uptight one and the squat playful one.

What impresses me most about these two specials is how quintessentially Muppetty they are. This was years before The Muppet Show, years before Sesame Street. Jim has already established his sense of humor and his shtick for the characters. I’m particularly happy to see the first ever appearance by Sweetums, always one of my favorite full body Muppets in the second feature. And of course it’s great to see Kermit already taking his role as the lone voice of sanity in a world of silliness.

The first feature, Cinderella, is full of corny humor. The twist to this story is that in this version Cinderella and Prince Charming meet before the ball, but Cinderella doesn’t realize that he’s the prince because she meets him in a garden while he’s talking to his friend the frog. The prince is desperate to find a girl who doesn’t know who he is, and in Cinderella he has that girl. She doesn’t recognize him from the money and knows him only as Arthur. So they agree to meet each other at the masque ball the Prince’s father is throwing for his birthday.

It has to be said that the two of them do deserve each other. They’re both affably dim for the most part, though Cinderella seems to be the more intelligent of the two. The prince in particular doesn’t have a single thought in his handsome little head.

I think it’s in the juxtaposition of familiar tropes that this movie gets its charm. There’s the tale of Cinderella attending the ball, but there’s also a sort of corny sit-com feel as well, especially when Cinderella’s fairy god-mother shows up after it has been established that she isn’t a great magician. Indeed she’s been working as a kind of lame lounge act, and has been completely failing to change a pumpkin into a coach. Her ugly step-sisters, in a very Sesame Street scene, decide that the best gift for the king is a pair of old socks (his response? “I already have a pair of old socks!”) Then there’s Splurge, the giant radish-loving purple monster. He’s a friend of Kermit’s and although he’s not a crucial part of the story he provides a lot of great fun.

This first feature is mostly one-liners and silly jokes. Characters break the fourth wall and talk to the camera. Even though it’s set in a magical kingdom there’s a modern day feel to it at times. Well, a late sixties feel at least. By contrast the second one feels more like a musical. It features a number of fun songs and a sort of fantasy adventure feel to it. Of course since it’s The Frog Prince it also involves an awful lot of frogs.

Surprisingly it turns out that Kermit is not the Frog Prince, instead it is Robin, who is actually a knight known as Sir Robin the Brave who has been enscorcelled to be a frog by an evil witch. Meanwhile the lovely young princess Melora has been cursed so that she can only talk in spoonerisms. This is so that her father the king cannot discover what she knows: that his long-lost sister is not in fact his sister at all but is the same evil witch that changed Robin. Her pet is an ogre that lives in the dungeons beneath the castle that she affectionately calls Sweetums.

It’s strange to see Sweetums portrayed as a dim witted bad-guy here. He’s always been a big lumbering hulk, but basically kind-hearted. I suppose he is that here too… he just wants to eat a frog for some reason.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that the catchy songs in this movie were not the work of cool little person and unofficial Muppet Paul WIlliams. They have such a familiar feel to them. Instead it is Joe Raposo who created fun ditties like the lullaby for Sweetums and the fantastic ode to being a frog sung by Kermit and his frog companions.

In spite of the fact that these movies were made way back at the start of the seventies they’ve aged spectacularly well. Muppets are, of course, ageless. That’s part of their appeal. The only slightly dated part is the appearance of the human co-stars and it’s pretty easy to overlook that. I don’t watch these movies for the humans anyhow. I’m in it for the fun, for the felt, for the Muppety joy of it. It’s always a pleasure to throw these in for another viewing.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

A Little Princess (1986)

July 10, 2011

A Little Princess (1986)

I know that there have been many adaptations of this story through the years, and likewise I know that for Amanda there is only one in her heart. This is the three hour Wonderworks version produce originally as a British television miniseries. I have only seen it once before (at Amanda’s insistence) and my recollection of it is vague. Before we put it in tonight I went over the plot in my head, and I couldn’t figure out how it worked out to three hours. It’s a pretty simple plot, really, and it seemed to me that there was no way it could be that long without feeling padded.

This is the story of Sara, a young girl sent by her father to a boarding school in London. He is a captain in the army living in India who seems to be doing pretty well for himself. I don’t know if it’s ever established where it came from but he has a small fortune at the start of the movie. In addition to being able to send his daughter to an exclusive school with her own room, her own French maid, and her own personal coach and pony, he is able to invest heavily in a good friend’s diamond mine.

Sara is not your typical British school girl. Her father is very clearly well off, and she has plenty of pretty dresses and silk stockings and such but it’s a relatively recent happening. She was raised by her father in India amongst exotic animals and people. She is his “little soldier.” As such she is not given to airs. She is a level headed young woman for her age of eleven years old. Some of her peers resent her for “flaunting” her wealth but she does’t really. She is quick to make unlikely friends. She befriends the unpopular girl in school, and a scullery maid, and becomes surrogate mother to a younger girl who like her has no mother.

Then disaster strikes. The diamond mine her father invested in apparently has no diamonds and he is destitute. He is so devastated that he will be unable to keep his daughter in the fine manner that he seems to think she deserves that he dies of a broken heart – or so it is implied. Miss Minchin, the pinched and bitter head of the seminary Sara is attending, feels betrayed that her most profitable student is abruptly penniless and unable to settle her accounts. Miss Minchin wants initially to turn Sara out into the streets to fend for herself, but she is convinced by Sara’s solicitor to keep her on as a servant. Sara is forced to work off her debt in the kitchens, living in an unheated attic room with often nothing to eat.

The key to this story is, of course that Sara is the most kindly, decent, caring and giving person who ever lived. Even when she’s destitute, hungry, tired and cold she still finds it in her heart to help her friends. She takes refuge in books and stories, and in her own imagination. She befriends a mouse, and a monkey and the mysterious Sikh who has moved into the vacant building next door with his reclusive invalid master. Of course this kindness does not go unrewarded in the end and she does eventually find herself able to help all of her friends.

Now, I’m clearly not the target audience for this. Amanda is. It is intended for smart, bookish girls. It’s a moral tale about how if you treat people right and behave properly miracles can happen. It’s a simple little story about good things happening to good people in spite of the horrid nature of the world. I appreciate that message, and I wish it were more prevalent.

Really this is a charming, uplifting tale. It’s beautifully put together and although this is one of the longest movies in our collection I never felt that it was padded or drawn out. Three hours went by in no time at all because it’s just so much fun to watch Sara and her adventures. Of course you could not manufacture anything better designed to appeal to my wife as a young girl, and I appreciate that as well. It’s a perfect gem of a movie and I see why Amanda takes such delight in it.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Box of Delights

December 23, 2010

Box of Delights

1984 was a great year for Christmas movies apparently. Yesterday we reviewed the 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, and today we review the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s Box of Delights, which came out that same year. I talked yesterday about how professional and impressive A Christmas Carol was – how little it looked like a made for television production. This is the other side of the scale: a made-for-TV movie that clearly shows it. The production values here are what I am accustomed from the BBC in the Eighties, reminding me a great deal of my days watching the old Doctor Who. Which is appropriate due to the delightful presence of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, as the elderly Punch and Judy man in this movie.

There is much that is familiar to me as a long time anglophile about this story and setting. This is a tale of English schoolchildren having a supernatural adventure during the winter holidays. Kay Harker has returned home to his manor at Seekings, where he is in the care of his guardian Caroline Louisa. The truth of the matter is that young master Kay pretty much has the run of the place. Visiting him for the holidays are the “Blessed Joneses” Peter, Maria, Jemima, and Susan: four siblings about Kay’s age. On the way home Kay encounters an elderly Punch and Judy performer who claims to date from pagan times and who warns Kay that “the wolves are running.”

So begins a splendiferous magical adventure. Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy man, is in possession of a magic box which a number of seedy individuals are attempting to steal. The box of delights holds all sorts of mystical power. It will allow you to go swift, or to go small. Inside it contains wonders and visions. The nefarious sorcerer Abner Brown wants the box so that he may sell it back to Cole in exchange for the secret to eternal life, and so he uses his minions (a nasty spying rat, a pair of crooks named Joe and Charles, and Kay’s old governess the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer) to steal and scrobble and ransack the pleasant English countryside in search of it.

This is an ambitious production. The version we’re watching is a single three hour movie, but originally it was broadcast as six episodes. Over the course of his adventures Kay travels into the past to hunt wolves in the pagan English countryside at the side of Roman centurions. He travels with Herne the Hunter in the form of a deer and goose and trout. He flies and shrinks. He befriends a talking mouse and escapes from pirate rats. The technology of the day, and the restraints of the BBC budget mean that most of the time the effects look pretty laughable. There is a lot of chroma-key compositing and your usual BBC cardboard sets. The rats and mouse are slap-dash costumes. There is a lot of pretty good hand-drawn animation as well, which contrasts oddly with the live action bits. As Kay travels in time he flies through cardboard models of different time periods. It’s the kind of BBC special effects I’m well used to from my youth, and I really don’t mind the necessity to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the adventure.

It struck me as we watched this tonight that it’s an odd sort of Christmas movie. It does culminate in a joyous millennial mass at the local cathedral, but all of Kay’s dealings with the Romans and with Cole, who comes from pagan times, and with Hearne, act to stress to me how young a religion Christianity is, and how it’s only in the last couple millennia that it has forced itself upon the world. Still, it is very much a Christmas tradition with us to watch this movie. We love the cast, the “special” effects, the overall British feel of the whole thing. It makes me grin and laugh in the face of the stress and chaos of the Christmas season. “Ha, ha, what?”

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas/A Muppet Family Christmas

December 21, 2010

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas/A Muppet Family Christmas

For tonight’s viewing we’re doing something unusual. We have two short movies that didn’t qualify by themselves for our project because they weren’t long enough but which we didn’t want to lose, so we’re reviewing them both in one night as a single unit. They work well as a pair being as they are one of the first Christmas specials Jim Henson did and the last one.

Emmet Otter is like a distillation of everything that was wonderful about Jim Henson. It is full of fantastic puppetry. Jim really experiments here – expanding beyond the usual hand puppetry of the Muppets to include a lot of marionette work for wide shots. From the opening song as Emmet and his mother float down the river delivering laundry it is clear that this movie will be filled with clever tricks. How did Jerry and Frank operate the two from under water in the close up shots? I can speculate but ultimately that’s just part of the magic of the movie.

The entire world of Emmet Otter is a beautifully designed wonderland. It has the look of a storybook illustration – which is probably because it is based on a picture book. I’m curious to know how closely Henson’s vision matches with the illustrations in Lillian and Russel Hoban’s book. It’s a peaceful and serene riverside land with wheeling birds overhead and marionette ducks below. (Another of the clever touches in this movie is the series of birds that inhabit the river and have a more realistic look to them than the usual Muppet.) There’s also a subtle environmental message here. The nasty riverbottom hooligans that cause trouble in Emmet’s town drive a loud car and later ride around in smoke-belching backfiring snow mobiles, while the rest of the peaceful animals living along the river are much more rustic and rural. It’s not necessarily saying that technology is dangerous or destructive, but it does seem to be disruptive and annoying in the wrong hands.

The story of Emmet Otter is also something that feels like it would resonate strongly with Jim’s sensibilities. It’s a simple, homespun tale about risking everything for a dream, and about the power of music. Emmet Otter and his mother Alice have almost nothing to their name. About all they have is a tool chest that once belonged to Emmet’s father and which Emmet uses do do various odd jobs around the neighbourhood and the washtub that his mother uses to do laundry for a meager living. One Christmas their town holds a talent show/competition with the princely prize of $50 going to the winner. Emmet wants to enter with his buddies as part of a jug band, but that would mean putting a hole in his mother’s washtub to make a washtub base. Alice wants to enter so she can sing, but to make a new costume she will need money for the material, and the only way she can think of to get the money is to hock the tool box. So to follow their dreams they would need to give up everything.

And there’s the music. Paul Williams delivers a host of wonderful and catchy songs. In particular the hauntingly lovely “When the River Meets the Sea” brings tears to my eyes (and was later covered by John Denver for his Muppet Christmas special.) These songs are simple, beautiful, vibrant and elegant. They’re perfect for the whole wistful mood of the movie, and they actually make me want to find other jug band music to listen to. This is a charming, beautiful and inspiring movie and absolutely screams Jim Henson in every way.

The perfect companion piece for this movie is the warm, comforting, Muppet Family Christmas. This light-hearted, almost hokey gathering of every popular Muppet show is just what it says on the tin. It is the Muppet family. Kermit and all the crazy denizens of the Muppet show invade the peaceful farmhouse where Fozzie’s mother lives. Then the Muppets from Sesame Street show up. The Muppet babies are very briefly shown in the form of a film clip one of the Muppets finds in the attic. Kermit and Robin find a Fraggle hole in the basement and have a visit with the Fraggles (who don’t celebrate Christmas but do love giving gifts – and re-giving them.)

There’s a lot of silliness in this Christmas special. The intersection of all these different Muppet worlds is charming but fun. Oh, sure, Big Bird had appeared on the Muppet Show before, but this was absolutely everybody from Cookie Monster to Gonzo to Red all gathered together in one place. They joke, they argue, the Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird for dinner. But ultimately they are family, and they end up singing Christmas carols together as one huge happy group.

I’m frustrated by the DVD release of this movie since it has some obvious and clumsy edits. Apparently due to problems getting the rights to a couple songs the Muppet Babies clip is severely truncated, and there’s a duet between Fozzie and his snowman sidekick that is alluded to but is not present.

Still, the spirit of the piece is there even though not the entire special is present. Maybe someday in the future the whole thing will be reassembled and re-released. In the mean time this is what we have, and I do love it so. Most especially because it features Jim Henson himself at the end watching all the Muppets together. “I do like it when they’re having fun” he says. Oh, Jim, I like it too. It brightens my Christmas to see the whole happy band together one last time. And I weep every time I watch this to think that without their creator and guide they can never quite be together this way again.

December 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

December 18, 2010

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

It’s time for another Muppet Christmas movie. This time it’s a made-for-TV Christmas special from 2002. I hadn’t watched this before buying it and wasn’t sure what to expect tonight. This is Muppets TNG, as clearly evidenced by the fact that the opening credits don’t contain Frank Oz and have Eric Jacobson in his place.

What’s odd about this movie is that, charming though it may be, it is more a tribute to the Muppets than a real Muppet movie of its own. The story is based loosely on It’s a Wonderful Life, but with many other holiday film references, plugs for NBC shows (and some good natured ribbing,) a lot of references to established Muppet lore and, because it came out in 2002, a lengthy Moulin Rouge parody. As with It’s a Wonderful Life the movie is half told in flashback. Kermit is depressed and disappointed at the start of the movie and we get to see why as a kindly pencil pushing angel named Daniel shows the entire story to a supreme being who we must assume is God.

The Muppets are putting on a Christmas spectacular in the old Muppet theater in an attempt to raise enough money to pay off their debt to the bank so that the theater will be theirs. Unfortunately Miss Bitterman, the new bank manager, has other plans for the theater and will do anything in her power to insure that the Muppets fail. She seduces Pepe, steals and alters the contract with the Muppets and ultimately forecloses and takes ownership. All to erect a seedy nightclub in the theater’s place.

I enjoy a lot of the performances in this movie. Steve Whitmire has, by this time, really mastered his Kermit. He does a great job conveying Kermit’s sometimes short temper, his love for his friends, and his dreams of doing something to help them all. Eric Jacobson likewise does a fantastic job with Fozzie and Miss Piggy. It’s most impressive that Eric has the range to sing in Miss Piggie’s falsetto which always cracked me up so much when Frank did it. Bill Baretta is hilarious as always and it is well worth watching the special features on the DVD for a bunch more Pepe the Prawn. Classic Muppet performers Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz also appear though Jerry was apparently ill during filming and Gonzo’s role is far smaller than in other recent Muppet movies so Dave also makes fewer appearances.

The human cast is wonderful as well. The two leads are David Arquette as Daniel and Joan Cusack as Miss Bitterman. David plays Daniel as a kind but timid fellow with a great love for Kermit and the Muppets. He’s sort of the voice of the audience in the movie. On the other side there is Joan, who manages to steal scenes from Bill Baretta – which is a pretty major feat. I think Joan’s madcap performance as the uncaring and mercenary banker is my favorite part of the movie. William H. Macy plays a minor role as a middle manager in heaven and as always he’s wonderful to watch. Then there’s Whoopi Goldberg as God – an inspired piece of casting that completely delighted me.

There are also an absolute ton of references sprinkled throughout the movie that tickled me. Mel Brooks voices a snowman that attempts to narrate the movie in a Burl Ives fashion ala Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Not only do we get to see a re-production of the old Muppet theater from the Muppet Show of the seventies but there is a great reference to the first Muppet Movie when Kermit wishes he had never been born and as a result there’s a Doc Hopper’s Fried Froglegs stand in the local mall. There are jokes that play with the old Gifts of the Magi trope of people giving up treasured possessions to give each other gifts based on the other person’s treasured possessions which most reminded me of the Sesame Street Christmas Special when Ernie gives up his rubber duckie and Bert gives up his prized paperclip collection (Mr. Hooper – remember him? – saved the day back then.) There are references to A Christmas Story (“I triple frog dare you!”) and what feels like a too-long plug for the Jim Carrey live-action Grinch movie.

So if the performances are so much fun and there are all these cute references then why does the movie feel so empty to me? I think its because this is sort of the processed fast food equivalent of a Muppet movie. It has a written-by-committee feel to it and it lacks heart. Oh, I can see the clear message wedged into the film about how Kermit and his friends don’t need financial success to be happy, but it feels almost rote. Any Christmas spirit in the movie feels like it comes more from the source material that’s being spoofed than from the Muppets themselves. Although I like the job that Steve does performing Kermit and Eric does with Piggy and Fozzie they’re still sort of impersonations – like homages rather than fresh creations. The whole movie has a slapped together and recycled feel to me. I think it was made with a lot of love and reverence for the Muppets, but it doesn’t feel genuine or original.

December 18, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment