Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cinematic Titanic

Before reviewing the work for CT, here's a quick look at some of Joel's other post MST3K projects...

Joel's X-Box R&D, TV Wheel and Statical Planets
     X-Box, the early prototype to the TV Wheel was simply a stage that rotated around a stationary camera. At each new stop a new set and skit. The show opens with a documentary type -making of- feature. But the comedy itself is too rough around the edges. The concept is brilliant, ahead of its time, but the execution on this "test" is lacking

     With "TV Wheel" the kinks were worked out, which results in smoother, sharper production all the way around. Talented folk like David Cross, Nick Bakay, Jud Apatow and Paul Feig worked on this. Joel as host has an easy, natural relationship with the camera, he comes off very intelligent and confident (He's much too hard on himself in this regard. He doesn't consider himself a great host or an actor - but he has a cool and breezy screen presence that can't be down-played)

     The (live) comedy is funnier too. A skit with a bartender table puppet which features David Cross was a kick - as was the bombastic living "Gag Catalog" and a silly take-off on the Thunderbirds. While not every sketch works, there are enough big laughs to make it worth the watch and I wish HBO had picked this up, as I would have enjoyed seeing it grow, show after show.

     Finally: "Statical Planets". This was a short preview of a supposed movie Joel had planned. How this odd ball sci-fi parody could have been expanded into a feature film is beyond me. But as a 15 minute bit, it's bizarre, fun and reminds me a lot of a Devo video. Frank Coniff's there as a King and as the Frank Army. Joel plays a caveman rocker who saves the day. Strange and playful, Statical Planets was... interesting.

     All told: Mileage will vary on these shows, depending on your appreciation of Joel's surreal, skewed vision. And whether you are a "the glass is half empty, or full" type of person; - as it can be very hit or miss. I've got a twisted brain, so I generally enjoyed myself. Though Mr. Hodgson doesn't capture  lightning in a bottle as he did with MST3K, these projects were strange and wonderful. Grades: X-Box D+  /  TV Wheel (HBO version) A  /  Statical Planets B+

Star Wait
     "Star Wait" is a documentary style DVD which focuses on those geeks who stood in line at Grauman's Chinese Theater for 6 weeks to see Star Wars. They did this under the pretense of doing so for charity, but we all know the truth - they would have camped out for the movie anyway. Being a MSTie I can appreciate a nice obsession,  but holy hole in a donut Batman! these folks exists on a whole different level of freakdom. Even to the point where it makes me uncomfortable to watch 'em.

     So why did I watch? Because for the first two chapters (nearly 19 minutes) we are treated to an audio track recorded by the original big 3: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Josh "J. Elvis" Weinstein. Now this is some nerd fuel I can get behind!

     Having MST3Ks founding fathers together again was a huge treat and was more than worth the paltry $3 I spent at Target for the disc. The trio slip comfortably back in the groove with similar chemistry seen during the KTMA season. Trace takes a back seat to Joel and Josh's high spirited banter. Which is strange considering what a pro he was over the years. He does get in one nice quip -"When did standing in line get so complicated?"- but it's Joel and especially Josh who utter the best lines.

     J. Elvis makes funny observations about "hair Unicorns" and the "exclusive internet". After a convoluted look at the Star Waiters name tags; Josh remarks... "He needs an extra badge that says - Ask me about my badge". And Joel gets in a wry shot at the geeks hopeless attempts at trying to pick up passing women -"I think the R2 D2 cookie jar is going to lure her over"

     Mr. Hodgson and Weinstein clicked in the old MST days. The two obviously enjoy making each other chuckle and they really really should work together more often. Just as Bill, Mike and Kevin make an awesome team, Joel and Josh are a dynamic duo and would be brilliant on any commentary track. (Editors Note: Of course, they and Trace would team up with Mary Jo and Frank on CT)

     As for the rest of DVD? I don't know I don't really care (Though I'm curious to hear Dana Goulds chapter as it was he who inspired the "Go to bed old man" riff). Yeah I'm a freak too, but a freak for MST. Joel, Josh and Trace are the reasons why I bought the disc and they made me more that happy with the purchase. Grade: A+

And Star Wait leads us to Cinematic Titanic and their premier release:

The Oozing Skull
"It's like there’s a game show in my head and I'm always wrong!" - Josh
     Within seconds after popping this into my DVD player I was struck by a tidal wave of nostalgia, as Joel's new riffing project is everything I loved about MST3K: The perfect blend of humor, the high brow and the low, the esoteric referencing and observational. The props (including at least one hysterical walk on) the shadowrama –which only adds to the funny and helps facilitate new discoveries on repeat viewings- and at the top is the talent associated with CT.

     I absolutely love these people, their voices, their delivery and timing. You might fear that 5 commentators would make for a crowded, noisy experience. But no, the pacing is smooth and the group never steps on each other’s lines.

     Joel is a true genius and his type of humor is right up my alley. When he follows up a beautiful “Mod Squad” riff by noting… “Oh I’m old”, I howled. So am I Mr. Hodgson, we are in the same age group, grew up with the same toys, TV shows and music and that will always endear me to you and your comedy.

     Josh is one of the funniest men alive, a quick wit and sharp as a tack. Mary Jo made me laugh often, she’s hilariously matter of fact (loved her line about “smooth dollar bills”), Frank brings a skewed childlike madness (“He’s dead, there’s no way we can ride him into town”) and when Trace gives a quick giggle it brought forth memories of Crow. The troupe work so well together, a sequence where they all join in on an old Nancy Sinatra song, is only one priceless example of many.

     I am in Heaven, wonderful, blissful, giddy Heaven. Thank you Cinematic Titanic for bringing back a style of humor I’ve missed and loved so much. I loved the short host segments, I loved hearing the word "dickweed", the quick "voice on the phone" bit and the long Slinky theme. I can’t wait for the next one!

The Doomsday Machine
“It’s like watching someone else watch ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’” - Frank
     I never thought it was possible that there would be anything that could challenge “Monster A-Go Go” for lamest ending… Doomsday Machine might have actually accomplished the feat. Sexism, a sick whiney rapist type is one other distasteful aspect to this low budget space adventure, which focuses on the last survivors of Earth.

     As bad as the movie is, the riffing is stunning. While I don’t feel it quite reaches the heights found on their previous effort, it still is amazingly funny (add the classic style of CT to Rifftrax recent run of brilliant releases –Cloverfield, Spiderman 3, the shorts- and it’s a new golden age for MSTies). Mary Jo especially delivered some of the best quips in this episode. From her comment after a Chinese man is killed early on, to the bit about the chair with the spring under it at the end… she had me roaring with laughter. I loved it when she and Frank quibble over who brought the data and her clever slap at the films sexist attitudes -“Next thing you know they’ll be wearing pants and wanting to vote!”-

     But the whole crew does a bang up job. Trace references Alice Cooper, which made this A.C. fan very happy. Joel is always a delight -“Ah, he hits girls like a girl!”- and Josh not only does a killer Elton John impression but he provided me my biggest laugh when he slams the movies ending by replacing himself with a fake Josh (complete with space helmet). Boy, I was breathless during this bit, and I like how Trace started chuckling while speaking his lines.

     One of my favorite gags, which date back to the MST3K days, was when the camera goes from character to character and the riffers each add a thought. They do this a few times here and it’s always a hoot (the best sequence culminates with Frank having the old guy wondering where he put his oxygen mask). Doomsday is another winner –but if you don’t like puns, brace yourself, especially during the credits. 

Wasp Woman
“Just filling up my nostrils with your perfume before I go back to ratshit central” - Trace
     Comedy is a difficult animal to cage, let alone review. While I find CT rib cracking funny, there are others who sit in a cone of silence, scratching their heads and wondering what the heck I’m finding so hilarious. As they say, humor is subjective and even fans of the MST3K brand can’t come to a unanimous decision on what’s the best episode. So why do I dig the Titans?

     I dig Joel’s animal voices ”Oh yeah I swear it’s like kissing god”, said the rat. And his pop culture mindset that matches my own (See how he latches onto familiar musical que’s… The Outer Limits, Batman and Hawaiian Eye). I adore Frank’s ‘skewed innocent’ outlook on things - During the credits he warns, “This is what happens when you don’t spay or neuter your insects”- as well as his delightful puns ”Twas Beauty killed the bees.”

     I get a kick out of Mary Jo’s matter of fact observations -“What kind of weirdo says weirdy?”- and Trace giving voice to the characters, as when he has an investigator offer -“But I sure love barging in cold”- And J. Elvis, well I love everything J. Elvis does ”I hope the counterman gets back soon so I can get some condoms and a cherry phosphorous.”

     I enjoyed this return to Corman’s creature feature cheese. My favorite-riffed moments involve an upper crust character and his pipe – especially when he’s sneaking about in a lab, and the ‘driving around trying to find a missing scientist’ scene. The second half is stronger than the first. There are two skits: The board meeting is okay while the spot on Buddy (er Biddy) Rich bit was a slice of subversive and profane genius. I loved it though I’m sure the language will cause a stir and upset some folks (Comedian Dana Gould played Rich. He is best known for inspiring the old MST riff, “Go to bed old man”). 

     In closing, why do I dig Cinematic Titanic? Wasp Woman is why. It gives me a buzz. It lightens my load… it’s just damned note-perfect!

Legacy of Blood
“Whoa, was dad watching a lot of “Scooby Doo” before he died?” – Mary Jo
     Terrible melodramatic flick about a family forced to spend a week in an old Mansion after their father (John Carradine) dies. One by one each is knocked off and the ‘who done it’ is one of the goofiest reveals ever. Apart from being a tedious soap opera, the picture looks washed out, Mary Jo says it best – “This is the most black and white color movie I’ve ever seen!” (So true, you can’t even tell that pretty Brooke Mills (Leslie) had stunning red hair). And yet as bad as this film was, it wasn’t a distraction and the collection of oddball characters gave the Titans much to work with.

     Especially in regards to crazy Johnny, played by the beefy Richard Davalos (The good brother in “East of Eden”, and the guy on the cover of the Smiths album, “Strangeways, Here We Come”) Davalos chews the scenery with zeal and every time he’s on the screen the laughs jump to the stratosphere. Many of the cast have MST ties: Merry Anders (Woman of the Prehistoric Planet) Faith Domergue and Jeff Morrow of “This Island Earth” fame and John Russell, who was Mr. Tropp in “Untamed Youth”, but strangely, not one of the CT cast seems to notice, not even Frank (which was a surprise).

     Still, the riffing is razor sharp! Mary Jo especially gets in some memorable zingers (I loved that bit after they find the guys head and she quips, “Lets go put this in a horses bed”). But all 5 do great work: Trace delivers some hilarious lines about incest, Frank does a great tribute to himself and Josh wonders why the over acting Leslie doesn’t meet Lee Stasberg in her dreams?

     There’s a lot of variety in the riffing, the delivery and timing by is impeccable and huge guffaws are frequently had. As good as it is at the start, the riffing is killer down the stretch. They even get each other chuckling as when Joel attempts the old line, “Or is it” and falters, Josh enjoys a laugh along with the rest of us! Highly recommended.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
“You stupid fat bastard, you’re killing us with your Pollyanna routine!” - Frank
     This release has sparked much controversy and debate since it is a do-over of what many consider an MST3K classic. Some hated the idea, others welcomed it. As for myself, I had this thought after going through the mountain of CDs and Tapes I’ve recorded (of songs I’ve written) and noticed that many of those CDs are filled with different versions of the same musical number. I’ll fiddle with lyrics, tempo and chord progression and try different arrangements. Even when I nail a definitive structure, I’ll come up with dozens of different mixes. It struck me that maybe the reason I'm more receptive to the idea of revisiting an old experiment, is that I don’t see the creative process as something static, and am open to the idea that there can be several viable versions of the same artistic product. So Joel and company want to give it another go? Super, I’m all for it.

     Comparisons are inevitable and while the MST3K version of SCCTM features those classic host segments, host segs make up on average only about 15/20 minutes of airtime. So while that’s a nice side dish - there’s still about an hour and 15 minutes of movie to riff on, and that’s the meat and potatoes of an experiment, that’s the work that has to click to make for a great episode. While MSTs Santa/Martians is decent, riff wise the Titan’s effort towers over its sister.

     The work opens up with some mention of their past effort, Trace even has to be dragged back into the theater. Once they get going in earnest, I was offered one sharp quip after another. There’s some updated pop culture references (Frank observes that Dropo is like a green Dane Cook) as well as a variation of an oldie… (Frank again, got me laughing with his blunt statement about a rocket, he doesn’t even try to be clever and offer the standard, “Good morning!” – In fact Frank was on fire throughout).

     The delivery is breezy and self-effacing (Josh’s bit about the kids echoing a Titan's riff and adding, “we suck”). My favorite sequence was when Torg attacks Santa’s Workshop - man I was in stitches from start to finish. There is also some new never before riffed scenes and one cute host segment with Joel handing out gifts.

     I didn’t suffer any echoes of riffs past, I didn’t feel like my memories were trampled on, after all, it’s not like the original has up and disappeared, there’s room for both. This is funny, that’s all that matters, that’s why I buy these things, to laugh. Bravo Titans for another stunning release!

Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks
“Well I’m all out of Sorbet so I’ll just have to use this rabbit crotch to cleanse my pallet” - Joel
     Frankenstein, a movie filled with Eegah’s (yet there were no references to that episode) packs in the riffs, but strangely there were also more dead zones in my laughter than usual. There were too many jokes that didn’t light my fire and even a clever bit with a silhouette floundered: The “Breast Blimp”, which floats in to cover unsightly nudity, was a great idea in theory that didn’t work in practice. Perhaps if they hadn’t set it up during the intro and just let it pop in unexpectedly (with a flying sound effect and note of surprise or disappointment from the CT crew), the gag might have come off funnier?

     Never the less, even though it was a bumpy road for me, this castle of freaks offers up some gut busters. Among them the great music quotes (One Step Beyond, Loving You, “What’s this all about…”, “Alfies?”), a cute Artemis Gordon quip, Joel’s record scratching bit and Josh earned one of the biggest laughs of CTs short history with a riff concerning his days at MST.

     As with SCCTM, there is one skit, a slight but amusing piece lead by Trace and his love for Frank…enstein. I also really enjoyed the way they were cracking up over each other’s jokes, hearing their laughter tickled me and added to my fun The riffer’s individual comedic mindsets work in the shows favor, Josh in particular deserves a special mention, as his material was smart and edgy. Also I liked that they’ve created their own running gag (ala MSTs “He Died as He Lived” or the “Jim Henson’s “such and such” babies”) with the “The last thing a “so and so” sees”.

     Even though I felt there were a few draggy moments; and it wasn’t as steady as their last 2 efforts, the 6th release from the Titans is still a solid one with much mirth and merriment to recommend in it.

Blood of the Vampires
“Oh boy it’s the Catholics, and you do not want the Catholics on your ass” – Joel
     The Titans return to form after turning out a lesser effort in their last release. Return to form? No, they hit a monster grand slam, as this Vampire flick is arguably the best release from the fab five so far. The riffing is especially clever and as with MSTs “Sinbad”, it expertly taps into the vibe of the film. For one - this is a movie set in Mexico, but played by Filipino actors, some of whom are in blackface! It’s the kind of movie that hands itself over on a silver platter, and for the most part the Titans do not let anything slip by them (the only riff I anticipated and didn’t receive was a reference to the sister’s boyfriend looking like a Filipino Elvis… Buuut, Mary Jo did note the Wayne Newton connection on the other male lead, so that makes up for it)

     In addition to the hilarity of the actors in blackface, the Catholics take a lot, and I mean a lot of ribbing, especially at the end. Boy, the CT crew was relentless. Being Catholic, part of me thought it was really sharp and hilarious, the other part started feeling guilty about laughing so hard (please don’t smite me Lord!) – Frank’s early line about the guy needing a wad of cash to get himself into Heaven had me rolling (and in case your not sure why, read this Wiki on Indulgences, in particular the chapters on abuses and the Protestant Reformation).

     There were also a few nods to MST past and I love the line that appears to take a sly dig at message board critics, but which also acts as a self-effacing quip… “Hey they’re only showing silhouettes of the performers, that’s lame!” - Joel. The only out and out failure was the skit in the middle. It felt off. It wasn’t especially funny and was awkwardly played. Aside from that, this release was genius.

East Meets Watts
"Uh sir, you just ate a cat turd" - Josh
     I enjoy live comedy whether I'm actually in the audience or watching on TV/DVD - something about the interplay between act and audience, the spontaneous laughter... It adds to my enjoyment. And because this is live we get Joel correcting a flub, Frank thanking the older members of the audience for getting a joke and one of the funnier spit takes you’ll ever find. Unfortunately we lose also a riff that Mary Jo fumbles (the curious soul in me wonders what it was?)

     I saw this one in Seattle and it was fun to remember the jokes and the crowd reactions (they are pretty much the same, though my group got a bigger kick out of the Eegah callback). The sound mix on the disc is good. The audience isn't obtrusive. There were about 3 jokes I couldn't understand clearly - but that also happened with MST’s studio mixes. I have a nice sized television, so the picture wasn't cramped and it was cool seeing the Titans (not shadows) on screen.

     There is a quick intro at the start - disappointingly they didn’t add in the opening skits (I would have loved to have had Frank’s ‘Convoluted Man’ included). Humor wise it felt the same as it did the first time I heard it. The biggest laughs are had during the first half of the movie, but there are goodies throughout. They toss out a few naughty words, just to warn those of you who might be offended by an “S” bomb. All in all this was largely a success and I wouldn't cry if they decided to release everything this way. Comedy always works well live… even via DVD. “What a fun afternoon, I wish every day was grave staring day!” – Frank

The Alien Factor
"I'm surprised they didn't write 'Ambulance' on the side with a Sharpie" – Mary Jo
     The second live release is one of the Titan's finest efforts. The film itself is a "Wurwilf" level treasure. While it does feature tedious walking scenes... the non-acting, the Moog score ("It's like the worlds most depressing Ice Cream Truck" – Frank) and loopy looking creatures all "factor" in to making this the funniest bad movie the troupe has riffed on so far. And thankfully the riffing follows suit: From the 3 Dog Night bit to the sequence with the kids and the ball. Trace’s electric elephant to Joel's animated 'Magician Drake Unger' shtick - all of it had me in stitches.

     The Titans are amped up and seem to be feeding off the audience’s energy. Their delivery is full of vim and vigor and while they fluff the timing here and there (Mary Jo steps on one of Josh's riffs and Joel comes in too early on delivering a line), these weren't major gaffes and we don't lose a riff as we did in "East Meets Watts". The sound mix was solid, while the crowd was lively, they never obscure the jokes.

     Another goodie, their best yet IMHO, with very few dead spots. I'm enjoying this live stuff. Hearing the laughter, not only from the audience but the Titans themselves makes it all the more fun. So, 2 releases in, I'd chalk the endeavor up as a win.

Danger on Tiki Island
"I need a virgin, a piece of string and a cardboard box" – Trace as Esteban planning a trap for the monster
     Another Hemisphere flick from the Philippines is yet another solid released from the CT crew. The movie offers up much, including a guy who loses a fight with a butterfly…. Seriously. I love Joel’s line here, "Should we help him or laugh?" The plot concerns a group (including the guy from MSTs "The Eye Creatures") who visit an island riddled with mutations, including writhing trees and a goofy rubber faced monster that looks like a melted green version of Jeremy Hilary Boob (Yellow Submarine). While I don’t feel this matches the "Alien Factor", it’s still loaded with laughs. The humor sometimes leans on the adult - due to the inclusion of a female character with a raging libido, and that naked natives are sacrificed to the creature (the nudity is brief and is all back-shots). It never gets overly dirty and it’s actually pretty funny to hear the gang let lose in such a way.

     The live debate is no longer a debate; this format serves the Titans well. Most of all in the person of Frank Coniff, whose exuberance and laughter keeps the atmosphere bubbly. That’s not to slight the other talents folks in this troupe, they trade quips smoothly and only on a few occasions flub a line (and then, only in a minor way in this release).

     In addition to the main event we get an extra, titled "Between the Riffs", which features cast members reviewing one another - peppered with a few shots of fans hailing the wonderfulness of the live show. Sure it sometimes comes off like a commercial, but so what, it's great to have an extra and these are interesting people to listen to. I hope we get more.

War of the Insects
"Why is the American actor being dubbed?" – Trace
     This Japanese movie about angry, mutated bugs hell bent on genocide, is a laugh on it's own. And by far, the star of this shit parade is the character of Charlie. The paranoid, panicky, mad man (who sometimes stops acting mid-scene) provides ample inspiration for our brave riffers. And it's no coincidence that the effort loses the tiniest bit of steam down the stretch when he says sayonara.

     Save for the fair final 15 minutes, War is a perferctly brilliant release. Right out of the gate Frank delivers a hilarious dart directed at the nice title font. From there we meet the buggy Charlie and the steady laughs continue once we enter the Hotel Bougen... where we find a slappy maid, Japanese Hitler and a scene that leads to a joke drawn from the song "Turning Japanese". The references are stellar, Mary Jo earns a round of applause after a clever nod to "Citizen Kane" - and interaction between riffers adds to the fun, as when Josh gets a laugh at MJs expense after she muffs a line and he quips… "Well, they all can't be sentences". Yup CT is solid gold once again. And while I understand that they are primarily a live act, I sure wish we could get more releases.

"This is a matter of national herpetology!" – Mary Jo, as concerned snake scientist
     Sam Chew jr. (the smug guy from MSTs Being From Another Planet) stars as an expert in snakeology, who is called in to investigate some rattler related deaths. Along the way to solving this mystery, he sleeps with his photographer, befriends a drunk doctor with a bad haircut and upsets a corrupt Colonel (whose office was built with Lincoln Logs!) All in a days work for our intrepid hero.

     Yeah, the movie is a goof-fest, one of those flicks that gets the audience laughing even when the CT crew isn't making with a joke. And overall this is another solid release with many a cute and clever quip (ala Frank's observation of, "Georgia O'Keeffe's Leftovers"). Though it does take a small dip in the middle section -- and the crowd was sometimes not feeling it as much as I was (Mary Jo's line, "I'm scared and my blood sugar's low”, had me howling -- but maybe that's just extra funny for diabetics). Rattlers (and the audiences appreciation) bounces back during a trip to Vegas and finishes strong -- making for another recommended release from the Titans.

And sadly, that was it. The troupe called it a night, with 3 shows left unreleased... Astral Factor, Doll Squad and Samson and the Seven Miracles (which ran into licensing issues). I wish I could have seen and heard those 3, but I am grateful for what I did get and that I got to see them live, got to meet these folks who brought so much light and laughter into my life.

Thank you Joel, Trace, Mary Jo, Frank and Josh!