Monday, December 19, 2011


Excuse me for getting a bit schmaltzy for a moment. I promise it won't last long.

As Christmas fast approaches we tend to use the word "magic" to describe the season but have we ever really thought about why?

Twinkling lights? Well, they're not magic -- it's AC/DC current flowing through wires providing power to tiny LED bulbs or tiny incandescent bulbs all colored in various shades.

Is it the tinsel? That's not magic either -- it's simply strips of colored, metallic fibers.

Ornaments? Trees? Again -- not magic. Metals, plastics, fabrics, pine (if you're so inclined; otherwise it's just more metals and plastics), etc.

Is it that all of these things combine to lend a "magical" appearance to things? Again, not really -- it looks pretty (if you've done it right) but not necessarily magical.

So maybe it's Santa Claus? except, well...... Santa's not exactly magical either.

Except that he is.

Sort of.

About ten years ago my somewhat scattered family ended up at my sister and brother-in-law's place in Virginia where they were living at the time. For me it was a very hectic time and even after I got out there things continued to be hectic. We ended up skipping Christmas Eve services as my two year-old nephew had to go to the emergency room with a high fever. The family didn't get back from the emergency room until about midnight with the diagnosis of walking pneumonia and an ear infection... poor little guy. He was plunked in bed and then had to begin the orgy of wrapping the last gifts and putting other things together so when he came down the next morning "Santa" would have visited.

So somewhere around 1:00 in the morning I found myself sitting on the floor, putting together a play table and chairs set and I paused and looked up for a moment. My mother was on the couch wrapping, my father and sister were bickering softly over the batteries for a toy train, my bother in law was putting some thing together with a booklet of instructions, a pile of screws, nuts and bolts, and a small assortment of tools and Enya's Greatest Hits CD was playing on the stereo (yeah, we were going for 'mellow' over 'festive' at that point). And suddenly I realized -- when my nephew came downstairs the next morning to his eyes something magical would have occurred. Santa would have come and left all these presents. He wouldn't know that "Santa" was his auntie, grandma, grandpa, mother and father -- just as my mother and father had been "Santa" for my sister and I.

In that moment *I* had become Santa Claus and more than that -- I had become "magic". I was doing something that, to my nephew's understanding, could not have been accomplished through anything else other than magic.

Now obviously my nephew's grown up and he no longer believes in Santa Claus but that doesn't stop me from remembering the years I spent as "Santa" and as a magical being. And it also doesn't stop me from still being magic despite the fact that my nephew no longer believes.

Any time I do something to help someone out it can be "magic". Whenever someone in need of any sort gets the help they need when they need it can seem serendipitous or "magical". We all can be the right people in the right place at the right time to provide just a little bit of "magic" in someone else's life and we can do it year round.

A lot of people think that this means the giving of money or food and, with the economy the way it is, they may sadly shake their heads and say they simply can't afford it this year. But there are more ways to be magical than with just cash or canned goods. Look inside -- -do you perhaps have a talent you can offer? Do you sew or knit or do car repair? Can you offer that talent to a person or a group in need? Do you simply have time and are in good enough health to offer yourself -- can you help stock shelves at a local food pantry? Or sort donations to a local charity? If you do not have a talent or much time can you simply be a listening ear to a family member or friend who maybe just needs someone to talk to? Is there someone you've been meaning to try to reconnect with? Can you reach out to them?

"Magic" sometimes needs a little work. "Santa" may be able to deliver toys all in one night but 'Santa Stressfactor' and her family had to stay up late and work their butts off to make the magic happen. Magic sometimes requires a little effort and a little work but it's worth it. And more to the point, we have the ability to keep the magic flowing all throughout the year -- long after the tinsel is put away, the ornaments have been boxed up for another year, the lights come down, and the tree gets recycled.

I'm reminded of the story I was told when I joined the Brownies years and years ago... Two little girls were visiting a relative and that relative related to them the legend of the magical beings known as Brownies who would help out homemakers by helping to keep their houses and farms clean. The little girls wanted to see a Brownie so they were told to go into the woods to where a small pond was, turn around three times and look into the water and they would see a Brownie. The little girls did as bid but when they looked into the water they saw..... Their own reflections.

This year I encourage you to be Brownies, fairies, elf lords, elves, Santa and Mrs. Clauses, Jinn -- be anything you want but be the magic in someone's life -- even if it's someone you've never met and will never meet.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The First (and hopefully last) Things I Will Ever Write About "Twilight"

Okay, I will admit, I haven't read the books and I haven't seen the movies and I doubt I ever will because there is one, big, huge flaw at the heart of the series that I just can't swallow....

A 150 year-old vampire going to high school.


Seriously, and be honest... strip off the rose colored glasses of your past... would you REALLY, WILLINGLY, go back to your high school days? The peer pressure, the cliques, the judgementalism... is that something you'd want to experience again?

Not to mention the fact that, after 150 years one would hope that Edward would have spent at least part of that time actually, you know, studying and learning stuff. If I was ever granted immortality I would probably take to learning about darn near anything just to stave off the boredom. Economics? Done. Law? I'd be freakin' Perry Mason with fangs. Literature? I'd quote War and Peace from memory. You get the picture. And that's not counting the common sense and "street smarts" one would pick up after 150 years. How much do you think you'd learn about plain, old, human nature after all that time?

Compared to that high school would be a mind-numbing SLOG! Heck, I doubt many people could stand to sit through a high school class after being out of high school for even ten years!

So, yeah, Twilight officially lost me right from the opening premise. I don't care if it's an "epic romance" or not. Anyone who would willingly subject themselves to high school over and over again is a putz.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

Make no mistake -- I am of the "Muppet generation". I was one of those kids who grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I remember being a little kid and endlessly watching the trailer for The Muppet Movie and impatiently waiting for the movie to come out...

It didn't disappoint me as a kid and it still doesn't disappoint me all these years later.

But somewhere along the way it felt like the Muppets lost their path. Even though I was an adult (technically) I went to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in the theatres and it made me tear up. It was a lovely story lovingly retold with the Muppets and that was fine... But then they followed it up with The Muppet Treasure Island -- which I talked a friend into going to see with me -- and there was something... lost this time. Where was the zaniness? Where was the wild and weird scripting? The Muppets needed to be themselves -- their own, established characters -- rather than playing adaptations of characters written for something else. It added an extra layer that didn't need to be there. Kermit needed to be just Kermit, not Kermit playing Captain Smollett. After that the Muppets just passed me by. They faded away -- seemingly having no place in this modern world -- only existing in the past as DVD box sets of the original Muppet Show were released.

And then came news of a new movie... The Muppets. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best and, as the first trailers started coming out, I was heartened to think that maybe the best was not behind these felt creations.

The day before Thanksgiving I headed to the theatre with family to see if the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie, et. al. that I remembered were back. And the final verdict?......

It doesn't knock the first movie off it's pedestal but The Muppets gets more right than it gets wrong.

The scriptwriters and stars perfectly understand that the Muppets are about zaniness, and wackiness and breaking the fourth wall and impossible visual puns. They understand that the Muppets simply exist in the world and no one questions them. No one questions a blue-eyed, blonde haired, talking pig working as a plus size fashion editor for Vogue. No one questions a... whatever the heck Gonzo is... becoming a plumbing magnate with a chicken for a secretary. No one questions that Walter (a Muppet) and Gary (a human) are brothers. THAT is the world of the Muppets. Stuff happens. You roll with it. If you're thinking about these things then the movie isn't doing it's job.

And that's the other thing this movie gets right -- the heart. The Muppets fight and squabble and argue -- they're a family, of course they do! But the Muppets maintain a higher standard. They don't hurt people, they don't offend people, they don't call people nasty names -- it's just not in them to do those things. They turn the other cheek and when someone knocks them down they'll just pick themselves right back up again. The Muppets always win because they refuse to quit. When the going gets tough the Muppets will just keep going. It's a lovely, sweet, message that still has a place in the world today.

On top of all this the writers have crafted a number of other messages. Walter, the idealistic Muppet, discovers that sometimes reality doesn't match your dreams and that dreams also don't just get handed to you -- sometimes you really have to work for them.

He also finds his place in the world after much searching -- even if finding that place means going in a different direction than his beloved brother. It's a lesson that, sooner or later, all kids learn. It doesn't mean that family doesn't matter or that family members don't still love one another it's just that one has to make their own place in this world.

On the other side of that coin Gary (Jason Segel) has spent years sheltering and protecting his brother Walter and he must come to let go of Walter and pursue his own dreams and his own place in the world.

And on top of all of that we have Kermit -- who let his "family" slip away and now is finally realizing the scope of all he has lost. Getting them back won't be easy and it may not be possible at all. Does he have the courage and the will to take on this fight? Well... he's Kermit after all.

All of these messages weave in and around one another and strangely never overwhelm the film. And that takes a deft touch.

There are also several new songs from Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie and these turn out to be good additions to the Muppet song book. They don't have the lasting legacy of "Rainbow Connection" nor the surprisingly philosophical bent of "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" but, as compared to some animated movies lately, they are invested in the movie. Unlike many movies which seem lately to just shove in some pop-style song into a sequence without the song having much to do with the movie or the characters the songs here further the plot or they tell us something about the characters or how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking. The songs are also very much in the old musical bent. "Me Party" has a disco flavor and is probably the most singable outside of context but "Life's a Happy Song" feels like something out of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical and you probably won't find yourself belting it out at karoke night. If there is a complaint it is that there aren't enough new songs and the movie pads things out by using existing songs like "We Built This City" by Starship. But honestly, this is me being a bit nitpicky.

The movie also is maybe a bit too nostalgic in that it plays a lot of tributes to the original Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie which younger viewers aren't going to get but hey, minor quibble really. Also, I have to say that the characters of Walter, Mary and Gary do seem to overwhelm the Muppets at a few points. Walter at times borders on an author self-insertion style character which can be dangerous. These are the things which hold the movie back from being quite as brilliant as the first one but, if I'm honest, I'd probably put The Muppets in above even The Muppets Take Manhattan.

If you want a wacky, zany, inventive comedy with a lot of heart and emotion and that also has a good message presented without artifice or a sledgehammer to the skull then go to see The Muppets. The kids will have a good time and so will the parents. There's something here for everyone making it a truly "Family" film.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"He Did a Good Job Cleaning Up the Place..."

And now for the final part of my season 3 overview... some of my favorite host segments.

As I said in the first part of my overview, season 3 produced a lot of good host segments but there are a few I keep coming back to again and again.

One of these is Servo's ballad to Tibby -- which I linked to in the second part of my overview.

From that same episode -- Gamera -- comes Crow and Servo making an impromptu voodoo doll to express their dislike of the little boy from the movie...

From Gamera vs. Barugon comes the 5000 piece fightin' men and monster set...

Both of these episodes also come highly recommended to watch the whole of and not just the host segments.

The same can not be said of ep. 305 -- Stranded in Space. Even with the riffing the movie is dull as dishwater. The third host segment (which unfortunately I can't link to directly) is a delight if you grew up with TV detective characters of the 1970's and early 1980's (and I did). Joel plays a crime kingpin with the bots as his bots and orders the execution of a number of famous TV detectives. The bots are a little confused, though, by Joel's use of slang for 'killing'. Go seek it out, it's funny.

Another one from a movie I found dull and also another host segment I can't link to directly is the second host segment from ep. 307 -- Daddy-O. The bots recreate a drag racing scene from the movie in their own inimitable style.

And another one I can't link to directly -- the opening from ep. 309 -- The Amazing Colossal Man. the bots build a cardboard fort in which they hide out and from which they mock Joel.

Then there's "Old Joel Robinson Had a Farm" -- from ep. 310 -- Fugitive Alien.

"Joel Robinson is DEAD!!!".... or maybe not. From ep. 314 Mighty Jack.

Also from the same episode one of my favorite songs... "Slow the Plot Down".

Ep. 315 -- Teenage Caveman is another rather dull flick but the host segments -- pretty much all of them -- are terrific as they feature a running battle between Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester. Especially great is where they do a parody of the music from the Star Trek original series episode "Amok Time".

And in another one I can't link to directly, ep. 318 -- Star Force: Fugitive Alien II's first host segment has Servo blowing a gasket due to the horrible nature of the movie. Joel rushes to revive him while Crow channel William Shatner from Rescue 911.

Finally there is ep. 323 -- The Castle of Fu Manchu. This episode has a reputation of being bad. As in the film is so bad even the riffing team can barely make it enjoyable. The film has been accused by fans of being incomprehensible, plotless, and having nothing happen.

Now, I disagree with pretty much all of this. The film *does* have a plot... but it's a needlessly convoluted one. And stuff *does* happen it's just that it happens intermittently. Really Castle of Fu Manchu's biggest sin is that it's *boring*. The action sequences are few and far between and when they do show up we don't care about the characters so we don't care about any threats to them. Christopher Lee phones in his performance as Fu... long distance... on a bad connection. Seriously, a man who made a sub-career out of playing villains couldn't intimidate a water bug here. And in the meantime viewers are stuck with characters who repeat information that we've already been told or shown.

As such, the film really isn't the worst one the team has ever had to tackle BUT it is dull and the riffing just isn't fast or funny enough to cover that fact. The guys really probably shouldn't have done this tough of a movie this late in the season when they were likely starting to burn out.

The thing about this one, though, is that it has some of the most fun host segments as they all build upon one another and tell a kind of 'story arc' as Joel and the bots slowly start to fall apart. Could it be that the Mads might actually.....*gasp*.... WIN?! Skip the film segments, watch all the host segments and find out.

And that's all from me for now. Have a Happy Thanksgiving (if you celebrate it).

"...Just Another Face in a Red Jumpsuit..."

As promised my list of things from Mystery Science Theater 3000's third season that you shouldn't skip.

I say "things" because, and here's where season 3 is a little different, this was really the first season where there were a number of host segments which were better than the movie riffing and several shorts where the short combined with the riffing to blow the feature film it was paired with out of the water.

First -- whole episodes...

Ep. 301 -- Cave Dwellers: The season opener gets off like a pistol shot. It's fast and hilariously funny and it is obvious everyone is on their game. The host segments are silly and satirical at the same time and the theatre riffing is top notch. You'll be laughing till you cry by the end of it. The film is a real "winner" as well (and by that I mean 'loser') -- a fantasy 'epic' that is more like epic fail. Bad acting, plot holes you could drive a truck through, and characters who are just ridiculous. My favorite character is actually Thong, the hero Ator's wordless sidekick. Why do I love Thong so much? Because he's an utter jerk. Seriously. At one point Thong is told flat out that Ator is walking into a trap. Does Thong even *try* to warn Ator before the trap is sprung? No. When Ator is first captured does Thong try to rescue him? No. When Ator and a bunch of villagers are taken to a place of sacrifice to be sacrificed to a giant snake (puppet) Thong waits until every single one of the villagers is sacrificed before he acts to save Ator. In short, Thong is a butthat. Oh, and the "cave dwellers" of the title? Yeah, they only appear at the beginning and middle of the film and probably have a screen time of about five minutes total.

The Gamera Run: I couldn't pick just one of the Gamera movies -- the riffing on all of them is just too good. Sure, some are stronger than others and some of the host segments are a mixed bag of merely amusing to outright hilarious but the five Gamera movies represents something unprecedented in the history of the show. Never before and never again would the team do a run of direct sequels like this. In fact, as a sign of the Gamera movies' place in the show's history this past summer all five were released on DVD in the show's first ever themed box set. You can find them as MST3K vol. XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera. And the DVD box set is pretty nice. I have to admit I didn't have much interest in many of the extras offered but just having the five riffed movies in nice, clear, sharp quality was worth it. Another reason these hold a special place for me is more personal -- I was one of those kids who grew up watching the Gamera movies on Saturday morning from a local, independent TV station. I met Gamera before I ever met Godzilla and my love of goofy, rubber suited monster movies was cemented. I love Gamera in spite of the cheesiness and also because of the cheesiness. The excellent riffing by Hodgson, Murphy and Beaulieu is just icing on the cake of my childhood memories. Sweet, satiric icing.

As an incentive here's the justifiably beloved "Tibby" song from Ep. 302 -- Gamera:

Ep. 321 -- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: It was the gang's first attempt at doing a 'Christmas' episode and they hit a home run on their first time at bat. There is almost an insane balancing act done here of making fun of the movie and spoofing some Christmas social conventions but without ever turning nasty or mean spirited about it and the team makes it look effortless. And the riffing for this weird little movie is a laugh riot. If you're someone who gets the holiday blues or whose family gets you down then seek out this gem to lift your spirits. The movie itself is the ultimate in cashing in on the cheap. I can only imagine the writers sitting down over a three martini (or more) lunch and coming up with this plot: The children of Mars are depressed. They see TV programs from Earth and want to have fun and play like the Earth children do. So the leaders of Mars get together, go to Earth, and kidnap Santa Claus to bring toys and Christmas to the Martian children. One of the Martians, though, has a grudge against Santa and is determined to see the jolly old fellow dead. Hilarity ensues.... unintentional hilarity. The movie was obviously trying to capitalize on the "space" craze with the Martian plot and it tried to do so as cheaply as it could with lousy costumes and cheap sets filmed entirely on a soundstage somewhere. On several occasions one actor completely steps on another actor's line and they don't bother to reshoot the scene. At one point "Santa" also seems to lose the plot or the script one or the other (or maybe both) and, again, the scene isn't reshot. I also, must confess, that I actually *did* see this film once when I was little on that aforementioned independent, local TV station. I don't remember most of it and it turns out there's a good reason for that. Still, this is a perfect movie for the guys to riff and by the time they're done with it Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is nothing more than a smoking crater.

Part the Second.... The Shorts:

Ever since the first season the MST3K-ers had used serial installments and short films to to pad out the time when a feature film ran too short to fill an episode. Season 3, however, featured some of the finest (and by "finest" I mean bizarre, out-of-date, and unintentionally hilarious) examples of the genre. There are three, though, that I truly loved...

Catching Trouble (second short for ep. 315 Teenage Caveman) While the riffing on this one is pretty good it's the short itself that if funny in that 'appalling' way. Viewers watch tracker "Ross" in the Florida Everglades as he hunts down and captures animals for zoos in obviously stages scenarios. Even if you're not a backer of PETA you'll probably find this one shocking thanks to the passage of time. Catching Trouble, however, would not be complete if it were not watched with the following host segment -- "Catching Ross". The guys get something of an unholy glee out of 'capturing' a doll meant to represent Ross. It's definitely more entertaining than the slow Teenage Caveman where even Joel, Kevin, and Trace seem to struggle to make the movie funny.

The Home Economics Story (short with ep. 317 The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. Yeah, that's an obscenely long title) This one would be funny enough on it's own but being as I am the female of the species this short's casual sexism and perpetuation of "suitable" jobs for women in the 1950's is a scream. Viewers are treated to what is essentially one big commercial for the University of Iowa's Home Economics program -- which teaches girls how to be fashion designers, design home appliances, work in school and hospital cafeterias, run restaurants, and be interior designers... at least until they get their M-R-S when they'll be expected to apply their knowledge to creating a comfy home for their family. Add to that Joel and the bots sitting in front of the screen making fun of the 'college experience' and the short's sexist attitudes and it is, in short (heh) awesome. It also definitely beats out the feature film -- one of Roger Corman's early efforts. One of my favorite lines (and don't ask me why)... Servo: "Would she smoke thin, black cigarettes and reject the Triune God?"

Mr. B Natural (short with ep. 319 War of the Colossal Beast) This one is pure, 100% cheese. Like The Home Economics Story this one was created as one long commercial (for Conn band instruments). In this outing a "Spirit of Music" named Mr. B Natural (played by a woman, of course) works to convince a boy that he can be the hit of the school that he longs to be if he learns how to play an instrument. The riffing that Joel and the bots do onscreen for this one is through the roof. Indications that the little boy is hallucinating, castigation of "Mr. B Natural", and popping the bubble on popularity are just some of the directions the jokes take. The writing team was clearly inspired here. For an added benefit watch the follow up host segment where Crow and Servo do a hilarious debate on whether Mr. B Natural was a woman or a man.

And, as I realize this post is getting a little long I'm going to leave it here for now. Tomorrow I will finish up season 3 by covering a few of my favorite host segments which can (and in some cases should) be watched independently of the movies they are paired with.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"He Worked at Gizmonic Institute...."

Season 3 over, finally! Okay, actually, I finished it up a while back but it took some time for me to put my notes in order. Anyway... the overview....

Season 3 might be best summed up as... 'Forward, into the past!'... and I'll explain that in a minute.

With season 3, though, the creative team started out the year with a certain amount of stability. There were no more cast changes nor would there be until mid-season 5, the sets were pretty well... uh... set and the same could be said of the robot puppets as well. Also, after a whole season of working together, the cast had settled into familiarity.

Stability, however, does not mean that the show was static. MST3K broke new ground as they increased their episode production from 13 episodes per season to 24 -- even more than they had done at KTMA in their initial run! They also decided to tackle their first Christmas themed episode and they experimented with riffing bad films and their equally bad sequels.

All of this security seemed to put the gang into a reflective mood, though, as they looked back only three short years ago to how they had begun on the little, local, independent TV station of KTMA. As a result the original team members decided they wanted another crack at some of the movies they had riffed at KTMA to do a better job at it now that they had more experience under their belts. As a result, out of the 24 new episodes this season 9 of them were recycled from KTMA -- Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gaos, Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera vs. Zigra (sensing a theme here?), Time of the Apes, Fugitive Alien and Starforce: Fugitive Alien II. The result of all of this was some of the show's fan favorite episodes, host segments and songs -- stuff that is still quoted and laughed over today.

Season 3 would also end up having some of the best-known riffed shorts with the likes of Mr. B Natural and Appreciating Our Parents among others. As for the films well, season 3 wasn't as genre diverse as others seasons were or would be. The slate came down heavily on 'science-gone-wrong', Cold War analogy sci-fi, and (thanks to the KTMA do-overs) badly dubbed and worse edited Japanese imports. This was okay, though, since, in my opinion, the gang really did some of their best work within the sci-fi genre. There's something about extra large humans, arachnids, traffic cones and/or turtles that seems to inspire the riffing.

One of the most noticeable things was how much tighter the writing became on the skits. The host segments for season 3 produced far fewer clunkers and even for the less amusing installments at least the skits tended to have a beginning, middle and end rather than meandering around before finally just coming to an end.

If there is one complaint to be had it is that the end of the season is noticeably weaker than the the beginning. The last feature -- Master Ninja II-- goes out with much more of a whimper than a bang in my opinion. This is understandable though since tackling 24 bad movies in one season was quite an undertaking. Still, they hopefully learned from the experience and paced themselves a little better when season 4 rolled around.

Usually I finish up with a few episodes that were the highlights of the season for me. This time I'm putting those in a separate post since I have a *lot* to say. You've been warned.....

Tune in tomorrow for Stressfactor's list of "Things You Can't Miss" from season 3 of Mystery Science Theatre 3000

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Signs That You Are Now a Dog Guardian

1) It is cold, windy and rainy outside. Instead of being curled up on your couch with a nice mug of hot tea thinking about how nice it is to be curled up on your couch with a nice mug of hot tea instead of being outside you are preparing to go outside to walk the dog.

2) You are preparing to go walk your dog out in the cold, wind, and rain.

3) Said preparations involve dragging out the 'stomper boots' that you have not had out since the last 11 inch snowfall.

4) You put on said 'stomper boots' only to feel something hard inside. You take off the boot, shake it out, and find a piece of kibble inside.

5) You put the 'stomper boots' back on, layer up, and, against your better judgement go out in the cold, wind and rain.

6) You know it's only going to get worse from here -- see reference to 11 inch snowfall.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

This is Halloween

Hey! Geek Dog!

Remember a few weeks back when I was posting about movies I remember from Halloweens when I was a kid? Well, it's time to get back to it....

Oh, come on! This one isn't even scary! In fact, it's a comedy. It's called The Ghost Breakers......

....and it stars Bob Hope.

Everyone's a critic.

I don't care we're watching it anyway...

The Plot: Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) is a radio personality in New York. When he makes a broadcast that offends a mobster he heads to the mobster's hotel for a confrontation. He accidentally steps into a conflict between two other men and believes himself to have accidentally shot one of the men in his fright. He ends up stowing away in the steamer trunk of a woman named Mary Carter who has just inherited an island and a castle just off the coast of Cuba. By the time Larry is cleared of killing he's already fallen for Mary and is determined to help her solve the mystery of the haunted castle. If he's not careful, though, the castle will end up with a new ghost... namely his own.

My Halloween: I remember this movie being shown on the independent TV station around where I grew up. It was a staple in the run-up to Halloween along with the later remake of it Scared Stiff featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 1940's The Ghost Breakers though was always the version I preferred.

While I have seen this one again since those long-ago days of my childhood it's been several years since I sat down to watch it and really.... it's a bit of a shame. It's a fun little movie but sounds a sour note with the recognizably horrible portrayal of African-American actor Willie Best's character of Alex.

In the film Alex acts as Larry Lawrence's valet and right-hand man but the terrible, stereotypical, Hollywood patois Best is stuck with just induces cringing. Which is quite sad because, underneath it all or perhaps through it all it is quite apparent that Best is a fine comedic actor. He keeps up with Hope on every level and if Hollywood and society of the time had not been so hidebound and prejudiced Best almost certainly would have been a star.

As for the rest of the film, Paulette Goddard as Mary Carter is charming if a bit useless around the edges. Like African-Americans women in Golden Age Hollywood films were often limited by their roles. Still, the beauty and charm that made Goddard a star and a household name back in the day shine through here.

The movie was and obviously remains, though, a starring vehicle for Bob Hope. Hope plays just another variation on his own stand-up persona -- that of a self-deprecating fellow with a cowardly streak that he manages to overcome. It was a character that Hope would play again, and again over the years with little variation. There's nothing really new here... not even the jokes many of which are old Vaudeville standards or leftovers from Hope's old comedy routines. Still, Hope's own natural charm is in full display here and it is that charm that carried his career until his passing in 2003.

Where the film really excels is in the set design and atmosphere. Entirely studio bound it lacks the 'staged' feel that a lot of later studio pictures would have. The black and white does the film favors by helping to disguise the sets and lending the whole thing a creepy atmosphere but there is still no denying that the matte painters and set designers of the era did a bang-up job here.

Normally I would say that this is a great film to show little kids. They'll likely love Hope's broad performance and they'll find the ghosts and zombie of the film spooky but not overly scary but Willie Best's role is a bit of a stumbling block. On the other hand, Best was a consummate professional and it seems a bit unfair to deprive his memory over a role that he had little choice in the matter over. For actors like Best the Hollywood system and society was stacked against them and it was either take roles such as this and try to do the best they could with them and fight to try to change the system from within or give up acting altogether. I would say sit down with your kids before and after watching the film -- explain about the abuses in Hollywood at the time, point out where Best's role was entirely stereotypical but then also point out the areas where Best's performance really shines. In short, use this as a teaching moment and a time when the whole family can gather together around a movie to put you in the Halloween spirit.

Until next time this is me and Geek Dog signing off.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cinematic Titanic: Let's Go on With the Show....

With this being an October show the Cinematic Titanic troupe gave this performance the appropriate atmosphere by choosing two films featuring those old horror standbys -- Dr. Frankenstein and vampires. Or, to be more specific, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and Blood of the Vampires. The first film is a 1974 Italian production while the second one dates from the 1960's and was shot in the Philippines with a Filipino cast.... despite supposedly being set in 1800's Mexico. Oh, yeah, and some members of the cast play servants... in blackface. Soooo not even kidding on that. So yeah, you know these films are bad and well deserving of whatever hilarious heck the Cinematic Titans choose to put them through.

The gang doesn't jump into the movies right away; oh no. First comes the "talent show" portion of the evening. Each member of the group is given five minutes or so on stage to do whatever they want to with whatever particular talents they have. In addition, they are joined in this portion of the show by Dave "Gruber" Allen -- an old friend of many of the members, a fellow stand-up comedian, and kind of quasi-MC/roadie for Cinematic Titanic.

Each of the performers played to their strengths or else displayed hidden or new talents. J. Elvis Weinstein helped out considerably by providing background vocals and/or bass guitar for a couple of his cohorts and his solo in the spotlight featured a live rendition of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 theme song (which the audience enthusiastically joined in on the "La-la-la's"), Frank Conniff did a more traditional stand-up routine but with his own skewed spin on things, Mary jo Pehl provided an introduction for Gruber with her own dry, witty style, Trace Beaulieu read two poems from his own book of children's poetry -- Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children, and Joel Hodgson went back to his roots with a magic trick and a little comedic audience banter.

With the opening out of the way it was time to start carving up the movie. The gang took their places on stage and things got off to a roaring start. Both the movies were, of course, horrible. Really, really, horrible -- which the audience had expected -- but the riffing was truly awesome. The Cinematic Titans were focused on the job at hand but it was also obvious that there were aware of the audience and they fed the energy from the room into the delivery of their jokes.

In addition to the energy the live format also made the performance unique. In the first movie Frank Conniff got tongue tied and missed a riff -- stuttering over the words until he finally just gave up. In response J. Elvis Weinstein casually looked over and said "Nice recovery though -- really." In the second movie Joel Hodgson missed two riffs -- which caused him to turn to the audience and remark on their somewhat lousy track record that night with a sum total of three missed riffs. At another point one of J. Elvis's riffs fell flat with the audience just not getting the joke. At the "dead air" he turned and said "No one gets it? Really?!" It really brought home the fact that every live performance would be a little different and that the gang could, at any time, choose to go a little off-script. Also, it brought the audience into the performance as well. We, sitting in the seats, may have been the audience but with our laughter and good-natured boos (usually researved for bad puns or deliberately lame jokes) we were also a part of the performance itself. Our reactions helped shape the experience both for the other audience members around us and for the riffers onstage.

If I had one complaint it was that the theatre's sound system didn't seem to be quite up to the task. While I could hear the riffers just fine there were a great many points where I couldn't hear the movie very well at all.

Still, did I have a good time? You bet your sweet bippy.

Did I laugh? Till tears came to my eyes.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

You might think that the idea of live movie riffing seems strange -- or that it wouldn't work but I can attest that it does work and it works in a way that few might expect. The performance becomes a collaboration and there is nothing quite like getting to be a part of that collaboration.... But the idea of live movie riffing is a little bit strange.

Monday, October 17, 2011

All Hands on Deck.... for Cinematic Titanic!!

So things have been a bit quiet again at the house of Compound Geekery but there was a good reason for that. I, your humble hostess, was preparing for an epic quest. As my journey was to take me many miles I supplied myself with clothing

and rations;

and I loaded and prepared my trusty steed St. Andrew's Cross.

I handed care of Geek Dog to a kindly, older couple in the village until such time as I could return....

Uhhh, yeah... I would put a picture of Geek Dog in here except she's.... kinda still mad at me for leaving and not taking her with me....

And thus I set off into the wilds of the Midwest. I traversed the plains where miles passed without any signs of civilization; corn and wheat fields the only indication that people lived here and eked out an existence on the land. I crossed rivers wide and rivers narrow until at last, tired and worn I reached my destination... the city where five people of exceptional talent in humor and sarcasm were rumored to be plying their craft.... I came to see CINEMATIC TITANIC!

Okay, okay, I promise not to try to be funny anymore.

So some of you might be asking what the heck Cinematic Titanic is. I'll try to be brief...

In 1993 Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 left the show. About a year and a half later at the end of the 6th season Frank Conniff left the show and in 1996 Trace Beaulieu bowed out. While the show would continue on these three spent the next several years kicking around Hollywood -- mostly behind the cameras as writers, producers and consultants for various movies, radio, and TV shows. The group all kept in touch,worked together fairly often and Hodgson and Beaulieu even renewed their friendship with Josh "J. Elvis" Weinstein thus bringing back together the three who had launched the show in the first place.

In 2007, with the Hollywood writers strike going on Joel Hodgson reached out to the gang with a chance to do it all again. Weinstein, Conniff, and Beaulieu signed on along with Mary Jo Pehl who had stayed with MST3K until the final end. Thus was Cinematic Titanic born.

Hodgson wanted to return to the roots of the original idea -- finding bad old movies that few people had heard of and exposing them to audiences with their own, unique, riffing style. This time around, though, there would be no TV station, no network and no executives; they were going to run everything themselves.

They arranged for filming space and started out with a handful of studio produced DVD's but Hodgson was already aiming at the next stage of development.... live shows. It wasn't as big of a step as it might seem -- back in the heady early days of MST3K the gang had done a couple of live shows where they riffed in character. Additionally, all five of them had begun their careers as stand-up comedians so they had experience with live performances.

Starting almost immediately, the troupe began performing live. Gradually, over the last couple of years they have phased out the studio DVD's in favor of producing DVD's of their live performances. They have a standing schedule in which they do a live performance once a month in a different city and each time they only stay a day or two at most.

So THIS... this was my chance... and I took it.....


Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The Blob" Trivia

Here are a few interesting extras.

In the movie Creepshow the film segment titled "The Lonely Death of Jody Verrill, has a certain kinship to The Blob. Although the Stephen King short story the film segment is based on was supposedly inspired by another short story by H.P. Lovecraft there are certain similarities in that the somewhat dim-witted and poor Jody Verrill is infected with the alien plant when he touches a meteorite that lands on his property. Just as the presumably poor old man is consumed by the Blob after he pokes open the meteorite that lands on his property.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 also seemed to have a little tribute to The Blob. Peter and Mary Jane are out in the park together when they see a meteorite fall to Earth nearby. The meteorite proves to contain the Venom Symbiote which initally appears to be a black, blobby substance. The scene echoes the beginning of The Blob where Steven Andrews and his girlfriend Jane are out in the woods when they see the meteorite containg the Blob fall to Earth.


As we move into October I thought I might use the month to take a look back at some of the "spooky" movies which left a lasting impression on me as a kid.

First up......

1958's The Blob.

Joining me on this journey will be my trusty new sidekick Geek Dog!

Are you ready sidekick?

Awww, come on; it's a 53 year-old movie! It won't be THAT bad.


So this one left a lasting impression on me when I saw it at the tender age of about five or six years-old. In fact, it left an "impression" in the form of nightmares for several nights running. My sister had convinced me to join her in watching several monster movies which the local independent TV station was running during the month of October. And yeah, this one scared the bejeebers out of me.

The Plot (for those who have been hiding under a rock for the last 50 years and don't know it) A meteorite crashes to Earth carrying an alien substance. The substance quickly begins to grow as it moves through a small town, consuming people. A small group of teenagers led by Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut)are the only ones aware of the threat...

To this day I still remember the thing that terrified me most about the Blob... it was the fact that there didn't seem to be anywhere "safe" from it. Other monsters -- Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman -- they were more corporeal; you could run into a room and lock a door to keep them out (or at least slow them down) but the Blob? No way. It would ooze under doors and through the cracks in windows and through the grating on heating and air conditioning vents. Nowhere was safe from the Blob. THAT freaked me out.

Also, unlike a lot of other monster movies of that era and afterwards the Blob had no motivation. It wasn't a thinking, sentient thing. It didn't hunt it's victims down it just kind of meandered around and ate what it ran into. It was a predator of opportunity. That made it seem much more random and much harder to defend against. You weren't going to "outthink" it and you weren't going to "reason" with it. It was much more like a force of nature.

So, believe it or not, what with one thing and another.... I never saw this movie again. It scared the crap out of me as a child and while I was young I never wanted to see it again. When I got older I was able to laugh at how silly it was to be scared of the film but it never really crossed my mind to try to watch it again... until now.

So I sat down with a DVD of the film and..... Was genuinely surprised. Did it scare me again? Well, no. But it was a far better film than I had anticipated it to be.

In the intervening years I've seen a lot of 'B' movies from the 1950's and 1960's. And I mean a LOT. The vast majority of them are unintentionally hilarious now and I fully expected The Blob to be like that -- unintentionally hilarious schlock. It's not.

Oh sure, the film has it's problems but it also has it's triumphs. Then 27 year-old McQueen couldn't pass for an 18 year-old if he tried but, hey, this isn't the old film that had that problem. And unlike those other films McQueen actually puts some effort into the film and turns in a surprisingly natural performance with some great nuances. For example, when Steve Andrews sees the town doctor killed by the Blob he reacts with horror and is sickened by it. He is speechless and obviously at a loss for a moment. It is the most human reaction I've ever seen out of a lead character in a horror movie of this era. And this carries through the rest of the film. When Andrews is going back over things -- trying to reassure himself that he really saw what he saw -- McQueen puts a slightly shell-shocked tone into his voice. You really believe this person is struggling to deal with all of this... and that's what you might expect if a young person really were dropped into such a situation. The unfortunate thing is that the 'soaring strings' romantic music kind of ruins the tone of the scene. There is another moment when Andrews tries to convince the police of the danger where he admits that he's scared stiff. Now there's something you just didn't see out of your average heroic lead in monster movies of the day.

There are some other reversals as well that are a lot of fun. For example, the teenagers go around trying to warn people. One couple knocks on the door of a house to warn the inhabitants only to find they are having a loud, raucus, party and all the adults there are drunk off their heads. In other words, the teenagers are being the sober, responsible ones and the adults are behaving like teenagers. In a similar scene, the kids try to warn a bar owner but he belives they're just trying to convince him to serve them. Again, the teens are being responsible and the adults think they're after alcohol. And at the end of the film the high school principal, Jane's father, who has been accusing Andrews of being a bad influence, smashes a window to break into his own school in order to help save his daughter. In essence, he becomes a school vandal -- what he had accused of others.

There are other nice touches as well... one of the cops, instead of being the typical close-minded, "all kids are hooligans" type proves to be fair minded and compassionate. Another cop is found to be playing a chess game over the radio with a dispatcher from the police department in a neighboring town. His fellow officers actually look at him highly for taking up chess instead of ribbing him about trying to get high minded. The scene also speaks quietly to the lonliness and isolation of the small town cops and the quiet nature of the town with so little crime that the cop has time to play chess.

The other thing that surprised me is how few on-screen deaths there actually are. I thought I remembered a number of Blob attacks but really we only see a few on-screen (and not much shown of those), a few off-screen and the rest are just situations where we're allowed to assume the Blob has eaten someone. For example, Andrews finds his father's grocery store unlocked. When he goes inside he trips over the broom of the guy who is supposed to clean-up and lock-up the store. Implication? The Blob ate him. Likewise, one of the cops comes into the station and remarks that he passed by the local bar and found it unlocked with all the lights on, the TV going, the cash register unlocked but no patrons and the bar owner not in sight either. Again, we're led to believe the Blob ate them all.

Also, for a film of this era, the usual trite Cold War metaphors are nearly nowhere to be found. The movie focuses much more on the pull and push of adults vs. teens. A little Cold War creeps in a bit at the end but it doesn't last long enough to ruin the mood of the movie and it's pretty light and easy to gloss over.

So, after all these years, was it worth getting scared over? Kids today probably won't be and adults certainly won't be but that doesn't mean that it isn't a worthwhile film to watch. It retains enough intensity to keep you glued, some truly good performances (but not by the annoying little kid playing Danny. Ugh.), some special effects that still hold up pretty well (and some that don't), and just enough scary stuff that it actually might make a pretty good movie to introduce kids to the concept of "horror" without leaving them in nightmares for nights to come.

Oh, and one more thing.... The movie has the chippiest, boppiest theme song I think I've ever heard to a sci-fi horror movie. I'm not sure if this was an act of genious on the producer's part or if it was simply insane.

Seriously, I feel like dancing to this.

Until next time it's me and Geek Dog signing off.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Compound Geekery's New Mascot... Update!

In the absence of any suggestions for an internet handle for my new mascot I have opted to call her......


So, here's some backstory on Geek Dog.

She was rescued from a puppy mill... and for those of you unfamiliar with this vile, horrible practice, you can read about it HERE.

Geek Dog was acquired at only 18 months old and in that time had already been bred to twice. The vet at the rescue operation reported that she had been bred on her first heat cycle -- something that no reputable breeder does.

Due to her circumstances, Geek Dog was sadly irreperably damaged psychologically. She has some behavioral problems and a deficency in socialization skills.

In short, she's a dog that really doesn't know or understand she's a dog or how to be a dog.

She came to me recently when her behavioral problems became too difficult for her owners to deal with. Since that time I have been working with her to try to help her overcome her issues.

Periodically here on Compound Geekery I intend to give updates on Geek Dog and how she is progressing.

One of her problems is an aggressiveness toward other dogs when she is being walked on leash. So today was a first big step in that I sent her to doggie daycare. Initial reports are that she is showing NO aggressiveness toward the other dogs at the doggie daycare (yay!) but nor is she showing any curiosity toward them or a desire to play with them.

Baby steps. Baby steps.

I hope that, over time, she will start to learn how to play with other dogs and start learning the socialization skills she should have learned as a puppy.

And just to climb up on my soapbox for a moment...

If you are looking for a pet PLEASE consider rescuing one from a local animal shelter. These are often good dogs and cats looking for good homes and with love, attention, and training even bad behaviors can often be at least smoothed over a bit if not actually eliminated.

If you are determined to buy a purebred buy only from reputable breeders and check into the background of their breeding operations. Go to their operation and check it out for yourself. Talk to people. Get the straight dope.

Above all, beware buying from "pet shops" -- these often acquire their dogs and cats from puppy and kitty mills. Even if they say they don't get them from mills do some investigating, check into things, do not accept their word at face value.

Do your part to help stamp out puppy and kitty mills by refusing to support their operations.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Jumpsuit...

Going to get a little... indelicate here for a time. There will be general discussions of female undress and bodily functions.

Back out now if you have delicate sensibilities.

So over the weekend I accidentally stumbled onto the blog Palid Stallions; dedicated to all things 70's. I spent a chunk of my more formative years in the 70's and early 80's so, although the blog is written by a guy, there's a lot there that this gal remembers not too fondly.

Among those things were the fashion faux pas of the jumpsuit.


I wore some jumpsuits in my day (kiddie size and style of course) and there was one big, tremendous drawback that no one ever talked about... Going to the bathroom.

There's nothing like all the time and trouble one has to go through to undo a whole host of buttons, belts and/or straps just to be able to relieve oneself. Not to mention the fact that, with many jumpsuits one is basically left in a state of near complete undress just to go to the bathroom. Yeah, there's nothing like the feeling of vulnerability that leaves you with in a public restroom.

So to the dead jumpsuit may I say... you aren't missed. And don't come back.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Good Samaritan

Okay, I'm going to get political for a moment here. Back out now if you want to.

Still here?


Here's a problem I have with *some* in the Libertarian leaning wing of the conservative political movement...

The Good Samaritan.

They like to trot out this parable/analogy about why the government should not be involved in things like health care or Social Security payments and such. They argue that people, communities, churches, organizations, etc. should be responsible for helping others out -- just as the Good Samaritan acted out of the goodness of his heart. That, if left up to others, communities will pick up the slack and take care of those in their communities... somehow.

But here's the thing all those people seem to forget....

In the story Jesus told *two* people walk past the beaten and robbed man. Those two people could have helped but they didn't do so. Why didn't they? Well, we're really not given reasons why but I can imagine a few... "He probably deserved it." "It was his own fault for traveling alone." "I'm in a hurry." "I don't have the time or the money to help out right now." "I don't want to get involved." "Surely someone else will come along and help; I don't have to." Etc.

It is implied that the beaten and robbed man was Jewish. Those who didn't stop were Jewish -- i.e. they were part of his "community". They didn't help. The one who stopped, the Samaritan? Yeah, he *wasn't* a part of the "community".

And sure, it's one thing for a community to chip in and help out to pay for heart surgery for some little baby born with a potentially fatal heart defect. Or to hold fundraisers for the beloved, retired school teacher who needs help paying for treatments for her breast cancer. But what happens when it's the town drunk whose liver is failing? Will they be so eager to help out when he needs money for treatments? Or is there a temptation to simply say "He brought it on himself." Or "He gets what he deserves." Or even to attach riders to the help? "Well, we're going to help you out here BUT you have to get sober and go to AA meetings otherwise we're not going to help you and you can just die."

So tell me again how the "community" will pick up the slack. Tell me again how so very many people will band together to take care of those around them out of the goodness of their hearts.

Two people had a chance to help and they walked on by on the other side of the road....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Source Code for Your Life

So in all of this watching of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 I've come to realize something... there is a kind of 'Pop Culture Source Code' for my life. There is pretty much one place where I discovered a lot of the pop culture elements which have woven their way into my heart.

Think about that... ONE place. One thing that was responsible for programming all of the useless, trivial crap that I just love unaccountably.

I suppose it's no surprise that it was a TV station. Not just any TV station though. You see yes I am old enough to have grown up mostly in the days before cable. I got three networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- but where I lived I also got two independent stations... and it was one of those independent stations that was responsible for all of this.

That independent station introduced me to:

F Troop
Beverly Hillbillies
Bugs Bunny
Abbott and Costello
The Three Stooges
Star Trek
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Gilligan's Island
Get Smart
Creature from the Black Lagoon
The Blob (the original. And it scared the crap out of me as a kid. I had nightmares for a week.)
and far too many more to name...

Everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Brilliant comedians, classic animation, rubber suited monsters and everything in between. And I LOVED it. I loved it as only a kid can love something -- with no filters and no critique. There was no analyzation there was only "Is it interesting?" If the answer was "yes" then it was good. It didn't have to make complete sense.

And this early exposure has stuck with me. I still run across this stuff today and sometimes I see that it really hasn't stood up to the test of time well. Or that something that is funny to a child becomes childish to an adult. Even when something I loved as a child disappoints me as a adult it's still there in my memories. The original context and the original love and nothing can change that. Nor should anything change that.

This is my "Source Code" -- this is what is imprinted on the hard drive of my psyche. And maybe this early exposure is what caused me to lean towards the things I like today. I still love a good (or bad) giant monster movie. I still love seeing good dancers cutting a rug in Fred and Ginger style. I went to see the Star Trek reboot movie a few years back and loved the little touches that hearkened back to the original series. I love hearing variations on "Who's on First" done with impeccable comic timing. I love a good slapstick. And "What's up doc?" will almost universally bring a smile to my face no matter who is saying it. I've been wired up by Saturday and Sunday afternoons in front of the TV watching that little, local, independent TV station for better or worse.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Inspired Lunacy

THIS is why I love the Muppets...... and OK Go..... But mostly the Muppets.


I know, lack of posting again. Things have been a little busy and on top of that there have been a few new DVD sets come into my life which I've been busy trying to make my way through.

Hopefully, more new stuff coming soon!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"...There Was a Guy Named Joel; Not Too Different From You or Me"

And at last it is time to look at the second cable season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Some appear to think of this season as the one with the "Biker Trilogy" -- so called because the riffing team would tear into three 1960's era biker movies in fairly close succession. Others think of this season as the "Robert Lippert Season" as four of the thirteen movies riffed here would be produced by Robert Lippert (and all would contain massive amounts of padding in the form of either long, aimless, walking scenes or long, aimless, rock climbing scenes. In point of fact, "Rock Climbing" would become a callback riff in later seasons and would crop up again almost 20 years later... but that's a story for another day...). For me, however, if I wanted to give season two a "theme" I would call it the season of nihilism... and we'll get to why in short order.

It becomes clear, right off the bat, that the show is not and really probably never will be still or static. There was almost always something changing even if the changes were small and subtle. For season two small and subtle was certainly not the case. With the departure of Josh Weinstein two new people joined the on-air cast to replace the one loss. Where Weinstein had portrayed both Tom Servo and the mad scientist Dr. Laurence Erhardt the decision was made to split the parts. Comedian Frank Conniff came on board as Dr. Clayton Forrester's new lackey, Frank, and Kevin Murphy went from behind the camera to in front of it (sort of) as the new puppeteer and voice of Tom Servo.

Despite being somewhat new to audiences both of these guys had a history with the team -- particularly Kevin Murphy. Murphy had been an old colleague of Jim Mallon, who became producer on MST3K, and Mallon had hired Murphy to help him out at the Minneapolis's KTMA where the show was born. Murphy had been on set from day one running the cameras and lights (if you watch the end credits for the KTMA episodes you will find Murphy listed as "Cambot"), helping with the scripting (what little there was back in the day) and as an extra puppeteer (since in the KTMA days Josh Weinstein operated and provided voices for both Tom Servo and Gypsy any time Servo and Gypsy had to appear on-screen together someone else had to operate Gypsy while Weinstein provided the voice. Most often that someone else was Murphy). When the show moved to cable Murphy went along, continuing to hold various jobs behind the scenes -- including being a regular member of the writing team. It was only natural, then, for him to finally move in front of the camera in the form of Tom Servo.

As for Frank Conniff, while he was not involved in early production of the show the tight knit comedian community in Minneapolis meant that he was known around. In point of fact, Trace Beaulieu knew him well enough to give him a shout-out back in the KTMA days. In the first tackle of the movie Mighty Jack Crow remarks that a character "looks like Frank Conniff". With his addition and Murphy's move to puppeteer the cast would remain stable for the next several seasons.

There were other changes for the opening of the second season as well. The Deep 13 set was given a little makeover and the Satellite of Love Bridge set was completely revamped.

As for the season itself -- the guys seemed to make an effort to vary their material. The first cable season was heavy on old sci-fi and horror films as well as featuring mostly black and white films (out of thirteen movies only three were in color... a fact that the riffing team themselves kind of acknowledged on-screen at one point). For their second season they mixed things up with seven color films out of thirteen, one (bad) comedy, three aforementioned biker films, at least one adventure film and one movie that.... well, honestly, I don't even know how to categorize Rocket Attack U.S.A. (No, seriously. It's part Cold War drama -- only badly done. Part spy story -- bdaly done. And part piece of propaganda -- really badly done). Of course, though, the tried and true movies were the sci-fi and monster flicks.

And here's where we get to the nihilism. Whether by accident or design a number of the movies shown for this season had really downer endings. I doubt I'm spoiling anything for anyone by remarking that five of the thirteen films feature deaths of either: all the main characters, the primary protagonist, significant secondary characters or, in one case, the annihilation of New York City. Not kidding on that last one.

For me, personally, films have to be really good to pull off a downer ending without leaving me with a lingering edge of depression. I'm no Precious Pollyanna who always wants the happy ending but a film has to earn the emotional payoff of a sad or bittersweet ending. And for the bad films featured on MST3K there's no way they earn that emotional weight. As a result, no matter how good the riffing is I'm always left with a lingering slightly bad taste in my mouth. The funny just rarely balances out the depressing weight of a bad film with a horrid ending.

On the whole, however, audiences can see the improvement the guys made over the first season to the second. The rate of jokes speeds up markedly and those jokes are more pointed and funnier. More to the point, the skits for the host segments take a big jump up in quality. There are still a few clunkers but most of the sketches earn a grin or a chuckle if they don't earn a belly laugh and at the very least they get points on the sheer cleverness of the writing.

The cast changes also fold in without a blip. The various members shift smoothly and quickly settle into on-screen chemistry that would become famous for years to come. It's actually a testment to the professionalism of the group despite the fact that many of them did not come up in the world of episodic TV.

In the final round up, for me, this isn't my favorite season. While I can see the improvements and I applaud them many of the movies left me cold and not even the jokes and pointed satires of Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, and Trace Beaulieu could save them for me. Your actual mileage may vary though.

Favorite Episodes:

Lost Continent. The movie that would put rock climbing on the map. The film and the riffing start out kind of slow for me but as the actual action in the film picks up so do Joel and the bots' jokes. They even manage to make the interminable rock climbing scenes entertaining... mostly by threatening to lose their marbles.

Godzilla vs. Megalon. As a gal who grew up watching old Japanese monster movies on a small, local TV station on Saturday afternoons this episode is close to my heart. I was and remain a fan of all those cheesy flicks -- Godzilla and Gamera and King Kong Escapes (A.K.A. King Kong vs. Mechakong) -- but I take no offense when the MST3K team punctures them with verbal barbs. In fact, I enjoy it and there's a lot here to enjoy as the jokes are really very clever and Lord knows the movie gives them plenty of material to work with.

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. See above. This one isn't quite a sharp as the previous but it's still loads better than many of the other offerings this season.

There is one cautionary note which must be made here... the MST3K editions of the Godzilla movies can be difficult to find... legally. Back in the day Toho -- the studio who created and owns Godzilla -- licensed out the movies to various American companies. In turn those companies put together English dubbed versions of the films (some better translated and dubbed than others). In more recent years Toho has been not renewing those licenses when they have lapsed and thereby regaining control over their most famous movie monster.

In the last round of Godzilla films there was a concerted effort on the part of Toho to restore Godzilla to his fearsome, force to be reckoned with, status as opposed to the softer, more 'savior of mankind' status he had gained over the years. It was hoped that this would help the character be taken more seriously. Connected to that Toho has, since 2006, been digitally remastering all the old Godzilla films and releasing them on DVD in their original, Japanese, format in an effort to kind of erase the badly dubbed American versions. As a result while the MST3K team had the rights to riff the movie back in the early 1990's thanks to American distribution companies those rights have now reverted back to Toho and reportedly Toho has no desire to see either the bad English dub versions OR the MST3K comedy take on the films perpetuated. Without the rights to the films these episodes cannot be released on DVD.

While they do pop up on internet sites like YouTube or DailyMotion from time to time Toho usually quickly has them taken down for copyright violation. So while the two are some of my favorite episodes for this season watching them absolutely legally is technically impossible.

And as a personal note -- while I understand Toho's motivation I honestly don't think them allowing the MST3K versions of the film to be released would hurt them any. I've run into many fans like myself who can appreciate the movies on both levels. I actually like to watch the original versions in Japanese with English subtitles because they are often less silly and make more sense than the English dub versions -- as well as being more true to the Japanese culture that spawned the films to begin with. At the same time I get a kick out of the pure ham-and-cheese of the English dub versions which inspired the MST3K riffing team. It's not an either/or situation.

Now, on to season three... and backwards to KTMA..... Huh?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Smooth Operator

So one of the things which had me busy recently was this:

Yeah, in a moment of abject nostalgia for my childhood I got the entire first season of The Equalizer on DVD from my local library.

It's not the first time I've gone all nostalgic. The thing about it is that, quite often, I find that the stuff I enjoyed as a child really doesn't hold up with the passage of time. Shows that I can remember looking forward to watching way back when turn out to be trite, cliche ridden, lacking depth, and/or poorly scripted and acted. and yet, I continue to go back to my past to look at these things again. One might think I was a glutton for punishment.

Ah, but once in a while.... I find the true gold that time does not tarnish. Such is The Equalizer. And I have to admit I was surprised. Yes, I really did go into this expecting that I would be disappointed but from the moment I sat down with the first disc to the time when I popped the last disc from my DVD player I was enchanted.

For those of you not in the know or too young to remember this show "The Equalizer" was actually one Robert McCall (played by British actor Edward Woodward) a former spy for an unidentified espionage agency. It is never really clear what finally caused McCall to give up the spy business but it is strongly hinted that at least one major event and several minor ones convinced him that he was on the wrong path and that he had much to atone for. In his past was a failed marriage and a son from whom he was estranged and now, in his middle years, was attempting to reconnect with.

In an effort to balance the scales of the things he did which he felt were wrong he set himself up as a troubleshooter for those who had nowhere else to go. A sort of 'court of last resort'. McCall used his skills, knowledge, and occasionally even his old agency contacts to see that justice was done -- even if that justice didn't exactly come from a court of law. Independently wealthy (although from what source his income derived is never really stated), McCall often took cases for free or at least a nominal fee or some sort of tit-for-tat deal. McCall took on drug dealers, abusers, crooked businessmen, assassins, gangs, and even other spies just to name a few.

The show ran from 1985 to 1989 and so, like many shows from that era, it features the slick, superficial look of a lot of shows of the 1980's -- expensive, flashy cars, expensive, flashy clothes, good looking men and women, a kicky soundtrack... and no heart. What sets The Equalizer apart from those others shows are three things -- 1) Heart 2) Edward Woodward 3) The character of Robert McCall.

The heart and the character of McCall are actually closely intertwined in the show. While the people who come to McCall for help are often defined only by their problems and are not terribly deep McCall quite often takes their plight to heart. He cares about them very much and it shows and so we as the audience care about them just as much. The writers were quite careful to include a heaping helping of compassion and empathy in the series which sets it apart from other shows of the time period. And related to that McCall's own seemingly bottomless capacity for that compassion makes him a more sensative hero.

Along those lines, the character of McCall himself is a flawed person -- again, something that makes him far more interesting as a hero as the writers cannily play up. He has a failed marriage, he has had lovers in the past that he feels he failed to protect, he's done terrible things in the name of "peace" and he now questions whether some of those things were necessary. He has blood on his hands and like with Lady MacBeth it simply will not come off. He has a son whom he loves but whom, in his devotion to his job, he allowed to slip away and now struggles to reconnect with. He has determined to leave his life of espionage behind and yet it still follows him and occasionally threatens to draw him back. He is also not the typical young hero. He's well into middle age and time has taken it's toll on him. He exhudes a sense of a person who has lived a difficult life and struggles to deal with the fallout from that life. All of this draws the audience into his existence deeply even today. This is the key to why the show still works -- because the core of the character of McCall still works. The audience can still recognize and relate to his flaws because they are problems which exist in all times and eras.

Finally, there is Edward Woodward. A respected and award winning actor, it would have been easy for someone of his calibre to simply "phone in" his performance. With shows like The Equalizer they were often run far more off of their "look" and premise than they were of the actors in them. Woodward could have easily let the trappings of the show carry it along and it probably still would have been a hit for the network. He did not, however. Instead, Woodward put himself into the role fully and as a result he breathed real life into the complex character the writers crafted. Woodward brought charm, charisma and most of all a genuine sense of humor that ranged from sly and snarky to jolly. All of those things still shine through today and this is also what makes the show still eminently watchable today.

Sadly, it appears as though only the first season is available on DVD but if you're a fan of 1980's Cold War intrigue, or a fan of USA Network's series Burn Notice then check out The Equalizer -- you'll find that Burn Notice owes quite a bit to Edward Woodward's Robert McCall.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Getting Serious (and a Little Political) for a Minute

You still have time to back out because here's something that I've just got to get off my chest.... and I'm one of those gosh-darned liberal hippies.....


One of the two things in this life that is certain if you believe the old adage.

Now here's the thing....

Everyone is fighting over taxes. Everyone bitches about taxes. Everyone would like to find a way to pay fewer taxes.....

Except me.

No, I'm not lying here.

Am I happy when I get a refund on my taxes at the end of the fiscal year? well, yeah.

Do I wince a bit when I have to OWE money to the government at the end of the fiscal year? Well, sometimes. Depends on how much I owe and what kind of thing I may have had my eye on for purchasing for myself in the near future. Or how much I may have had to shell out recently for car maintenance or like things.

But I don't bitch about it endlessly. And I don't go out a seek tax loopholes I can exploit so that I can pay LESS taxes.

And do you know WHY?

Because I've got all I've ever asked for.

I never asked to be rich. I never thought I would EVER be "rich". I probably never WILL be "rich"; and those are the plain and simple facts.

When I set off to find a career all I ever wanted was a good job, a decent place of my own to live in, enough money for food and to pay my bills, and to afford transportation in the form of a car.

I have all those things and I have had them for years now.

My taxes run the government. My taxes pay for upkeep on the roads I drive on. My taxes pay for the police who protect me and others in my community, the firemen who will be there if I ever need them and who are there when others in my community need them, the teachers who teach in the schools and even though I don't have kids of my own I recognize the importance of well educated generations to come. My taxes pay for my mother's Social Security checks and my mother's Medicare. My taxes help to feed those who aren't as lucky as me in having a job that meets all my needs. And my taxes go toward programs which help those people get into better jobs or get more education so that they can move up in the world and then maybe have their own dreams met.

So.... I guess what I'm trying to say is....

I'm ready and willing to actually pay MORE in taxes if it means keeping up services and infrastructure and a safety net for those less fortunate than me. My attitude is that if you have more than enough then it's fair to pay what you can to help those who DON'T have enough.

Not everyone in this world is lucky enough to have friends and family to help out when needed. Non-governmental charities do what they can and go as far as they can but they can't cover everyone and they can't be everywhere at once.

I'm willing to pay my fair share and I'll do so gladly. I don't care. I'm not bitching about my tax rate because I have what I want out of life and anything over and above that the government is welcome to in order to keep things running.

I Know, I Know.....

Blog's been dead lately. Sorry about that. I've got a few too many irons in the fire but it's a GOOD thing.

Report of stuff and some junk soon....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stay Classy(cal)

I like classical music. This wasn't always the case. As a youngster my school always went to those symphony field trips which were supposed to infuse us with a love and understanding of classical music. Didn't take.

It wasn't until my college years when all of these studies recommended studying to classical music as a way of increasing retention of information that I started dabbling in it. It was also around that same time that I made some very close friends who were music majors and so, of course, were steeped in music culture.

So, I started with the "greats" -- guys like Beethoven and Bach and Mozart -- but thanks to my friends I found some of the less widely known guys like Bruckner (more on him in a future post).

One who was in the middle was Antonin Dvorak. Most people if they know Dvorak at all know him for his Symphony #9 -- "From the New World". And honestly, that way my first exposure to his work... but it wouldn't be my last...

On a wandering path that I won't bother to tell I eventually stumbled into Dvorak's Stabat Mater.... and was blown away.

A little background here -- the Stabat Mater is based on a long, religious poem possibly written by a monk (but there are disagreements), that recounts Mary, the mother of Jesus's experiences at seeing her son crucified. The poem is in Latin and so is Dvorak's adaptation.

Dvorak started writing the music to the piece after the death of his youngest child while still basically an infant. He didn't finish it at that time and put it aside. He later returned to it and finished it after the rapid deaths of his two remaining young children.

Even without knowing the background one can hear, can *feel* the grief and sorrow that pours out of this music. It is power and passion in both sadness and hope. It hits like a hammer to the heart and it steals your breath away. I mean that literally. The first time I heard this piece in full I had to stop and just take deep breaths because it hit me that hard. It isn't often that music moves me like that but this piece did. And that is the greatest compliment I can think of to pay to the memory of Antonin Dvorak.

So do yourself a favor and seek this piece out and listen to the whole thing. Here's just one movement of the piece to give you some idea....

Monday, July 11, 2011

No, I Haven't Left Town....

Been busy... Gotta work for a living. Bah! BUT I'm (slowly) working my way through season 2 of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 AND a little something else arrived in the mail lately that I'm also working my way through slowly... More details to come!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy Fourth everyone!

Hope you have a good day.

And if you mess around with fireworks be careful and don't blow yourselves up, okay?

Compound Geekery Film Fest! "Spider-Man 2"

2004 saw the sequel to the summer blockbuster Spider-Man.

Let's just jump right into this one, shall we?

The Plot: Two years have passed since the events of the first movie. Peter Parker has a small, run down apartment in the city and struggles to balance his life with work, going to college and, of course, being Spider-Man.

In addition to this his relationships with his friends are also strained -- Harry Osbourne is still obsessed with the idea that Spider-Man killed his father and he accuses Peter of protecting Spider-man because the wall-crawler helps him earn his pay with the photographs he takes; and Mary Jane Watson has grown tired of waiting for Peter and is dating another guy. And if that were not bad enough, Peter's beloved Aunt May is also in financial straights and is also still mourning the loss of Peter's beloved Uncle Ben -- a death that Peter still blames himself over.

In the midst of all of this, Peter meets and befriends famed scientist Otto Octavius -- who is about to unveil a new fusion device to create abundant, cheap, and clean energy. Tragedy strikes, though, and Octavius's machine goes out of control. In the ensuing destruction Octavius's beloved wife is killed and the four computerized arms Octavius used to work the machine are now fused to his back.

Unbalanced, and with the machines whispering in his head, Octavius decides to turn to crime to get money to rebuild his experiment and try again. This brings him into conflict with Spider-Man.

As Peter's life spirals out-of-control, though, he finds his powers as Spider-Man waning. Disgusted with forever being the loser in life Peter finally gives up being Spider-Man "forever". Bad timing for Peter since Octavius has made an unholy bargain with Osbourne to capture Spider-Man for Osbourne's revenge.

With the city and Mary Jane in danger can Peter rediscover the hero within himself?

My Take: At one point in time I considered this movie the best of the Spider-Man franchise... and to a certain extent it still is but, after the passage of time a number of cracks begin to show in the film.

One of the biggest problems with this movie is that it completely fails to understand that character of Peter Parker. In the comics Peter was the perpetual "lovable loser" whose actions as Spider-Man always seemed to throw a monkey wrench into his life. This is balanced, however, by Peter's quick wit and sarcastic attitude as Spider-Man. In the films Peter comes off less as the "lovable loser" and more as an emo dork mostly by dint of the removal of Spider-Man's snappy banter. In the comics Spider-Man tends to keep up a running line of comments and insults designed to drive his enemies crazy while maintaining his own sanity. In the movie Spidey is nearly silent during all the fight scenes and when he does speak it isn't with a quick one-liner or a clever insult. On top of this pretty much ALL the humor in the movie comes AT Peter's expense. We don't laugh at the situations he finds himself in nor do we laugh WITH him... no, we laugh AT him because Peter Parker is a big ol' dork. It really doesn't endear the character to us.

There are also a lot of plot holes which tend to get noticed on repeat viewings. For example, Octavius's arms are an amazing invention in and of themselves and could revolutionize a number of dangerous jobs. He could make a mint off of marketing them but nope, they get ignored in favor of the big, dangerous, fusion reactor. Also, the artificially intelligent arms seem to convince Octavius to continue his experiments and, honestly, what do artificially intelligent arms WANT with a fusion reactor anyway? Why encourage this? Come to think of it -- what WOULD artificially intelligent arms want out of life anyway?

And then there's Mary Jane. *Sigh*. The character pretty much exists as an object in this film. She is the object of Peter's desires and later she becomes the bait in Octavius's trap for Spider-Man. She drifts along through most of the film, letting others define her and waiting on approval or approbation from those others. Despite Peter's constant waffling on their relationship and despite her repeated telling him that she's tired of not being able to depend on him she keeps going BACK to Peter and keeps giving him more chances despite saying that she won't. It is only at the end that she seems at all proactive in matters... but before that she has to play the screaming damsel in distress -- putting the final capper on her trifecta of female character tropes.

The film is also filled with rather heavy-handed, schmaltzy, moments, at least one deliberately cheesy musical montage which, all things considered, doesn't really doesn't belong in this film, and a complete lack of emotional subtlety in several scenes. Oh, and the script also beats the "Spider-Man No More" motif into the ground like a tent peg.

When it comes to some aspects of the movie, though, I admit I'm torn. On the one hand, the character of Otto Octavius -- a pretty much out-and-out villain in the comic books -- becomes much more sympathetic in the film. It is interesting to actually get to know him as a person rather than a cardboard cutout of a villain but on the other hand making him a kind of victim of his own mental unbalance caused by the robotic arms also kind of dilutes his villainy. I also love that the script writer worked in some nicely subtle themes of hubris with Doc Ock. In Greek drama and literary tradition hubris was an overweening pride which caused one to eventually try to set oneself up on the level of the gods. At which point the gods would smite said mortal for getting above their station. It's a common theme -- myths like that of Arachne and Niobe display this -- and that's what we get here with Octavius. His pride in his work and his absolute self-assurance cause him to ignore the fears and cautions of others and in the end it costs him dearly. Of course it also doesn't hurt that Alfred Molina turns in a really nice performance here at Octavius.

And that leads me to the performances... Really, Molina is the best of the bunch. Up to that point actors playing villains in comic book movies tended to take things over the top, ham it up, chew the scenery, etc. Molina resists that temptation. Oh, make no mistake, he takes it up TO the top here but he wisely doesn't step over the line. It makes for a really refreshing villain.

Toby Maguire, having come to prominence in the award winning Cider House Rules stepped into the Spider-Man role and certainly brought vulnerability and a dorky kind of charm but... it wears thin. Particularly here where he spends most of the movie alternating between two facial expressions -- a goofy grin and soulful, blue, whipped-puppy-dog eyes. The latter one gets overused waaaayyyy too much and becomes annoying rather than affecting.

Kristen Bell... well, we've already gotten into the problems with her character of Mary Jane and her performance plays up to the role but never exceeds to try to elevate the character above the script.

James Franco as Harry Osbourne is... well, kind of uneven. Franco here can't decide if he wants Harry to be quasi-slimy businessman or young man haunted by the death of his father and driven by revenge to the point of it eating up every good think in his life. In years since this film Franco has turned in some much better performances so I tend to blame a combination of the script and him being an actor who needed a little more seasoning for his problems here.

Spider-Man 2 being a movie about a guy who swings around New York on webs also stands or falls on the special effects. The good news is that seven years later a lot of the CGI still holds up pretty well. The bad news is that some of it doesn't. There are several sequences which now look like video game footage... and not in a good way. Also, there is a scene in which a powerless Peter rushes into a burning building to rescue a little girl. The green screen work with the fire is really, painfully obvious and the filmmakers might have been better off going with more practical effects and using a stuntman for the whole scene instead of part of it.

Overall.... eh, it's an entertaining enough film and it's still the best of the three under the helm of Sam Raimi as director. The franchise is due to be rebooted with a new movie already in production. We'll see if a second go-round gets more right or more wrong with the characters.