Category: Movies

Heart of Frankenstein

Watched Young Frankenstein tonight -- it's that time of year.

Certainly one of Mel Brooks's all-time greats. And certainly there's plenty of pure spoof and slapstick, with corny jokes and wonderfully, gorgeously over-the-top performances from its impeccable cast.

But there's something in there that keeps it from being the straight-up trifle that, say, Spaceballs is (and I like Spaceballs). It doesn't have the social satire of Blazing Saddles, but it does have heart.

It's not just that it's a love letter to the original Frankenstein films (and the whole Universal Monsters line), though it's certainly that, too. It's that it's a story about family, about fathers and sons. For all that Frederick tut-tuts that it's Fronkensteen and his grandfather's work was doo-doo!, he's already followed in his footsteps to become a neurosurgeon and the very first thing he does in Castle Frankenstein is ask where his private library is. He's well on his way to taking over the family business before he ever chants "Destiny! Destiny! No escaping that for me!"

And of course, crucially, the difference between Frederick and Victor is that Frederick shows love to his creation -- even risking his own life, as the Monster points out in the climax. Because as anyone who's read Frankenstein can tell you, Frankenstein's crime isn't in creating the monster, it's in abandoning it. Mel Brooks carries that sentiment to its logical conclusion and gives us a Frankenstein who is a good father -- and so instead of the standard Tragic Ending where Everybody Dies, we get the standard Comic Ending where Everybody Gets Hitched.

Plus I doubt it's a coincidence that Wilder and Brooks wrote it around the time the former was raising a daughter and the latter fathered a son.

Such as Seals

Welp, another Halloween, another Rifftrax Live. This year: Birdemic.

It is increasingly clear to me that House on Haunted Hill is far and away the best movie Rifftrax Live has ever done.

I mean, House on Haunted Hill has Vincent Price and a handful of other colorful characters, is competently written and directed, and is unironically fun to watch all by itself.

Birdemic...Birdemic doesn't even have the homemade charm of Manos.

I mean, it is homemade. It's homemade as hell. But it's homemade in an era when any-damn-body can make a homemade movie.

Manos was shot on a shoestring budget with primitive equipment in 1966. Birdemic was shot on a shoestring budget with primitive equipment in 2010. Manos took effort to make; it's surprising the damn thing was finished at all.

Referring to Birdemic as "finished", on the other hand, makes for liberal damn use of the word "finished".

Not only does it feature CG that actually looks substantially worse than if they had just used stock footage or rubber birds (and presumably cost more, too, unless it actually came with the video software they used to make the movie -- which, to be fair, is a distinct possibility), it is the most amateurishly, sloppily edited film I have ever seen, and that's coming from a guy wearing a Crow T. Robot T-shirt who has namedropped three separate Rifftrax Live events so far in this post. I have seen some bad movies, is what I am getting at.

Manos -- well, the entire damn film is dubbed because it was shot without sound. And yet, the inevitable sync issues aside, the audio editing is solid. The audio of Birdemic cuts out, constantly -- just straight-the-fuck-up cuts out. No sound. And that's without getting into the multiple scenes where you can't hear what actors are saying because they're shooting on a windy beach, the multiple times actors clearly flub their lines and they don't reshoot, and the bits where going from one character to another comes with a very long pause in the dialog and a substantial difference in background noise.

Of all the bad movies I've ever seen, this may be the only one where I wasn't struck most by the quality of the acting, the writing, the shooting, or even the effects (and trust me, all of them are pretty terrible), but the editing. It is shoddy, shoddy work. This movie makes Sci-Fi Originals look like...well, at least as good as House on Haunted Hill.

Birdemic 2 is slated for a 2013 release.

Argo

The other flick I caught last weekend was Argo. I hadn't seen the last two movies Affleck directed, but I hear they're good, and I enjoyed this one.

Nitpicky stuff out of the way first: I thought he piled too much on at the climax. I sincerely doubt that -- minor spoiler -- the real-life Houseguests had guards speeding after them with machine guns on the tarmac.

I was also a little disappointed that they filed the serial numbers off the fictitious Argo film. In the movie, it's just a generic sci-fi B-movie -- but in real life it was a failed adaptation of Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, with production designs by Jack Kirby. I can see why these details were changed, and they're not essential to the story of a CIA exfiltration operation masquerading as a film crew, but I love that background and have been fascinated by it since I first read about it in a 2007 Wired article. Indeed, there's currently a Kickstarter going to make a documentary about the aborted Lord of Light movie.

But those quibbles aside, Argo succeeds on its own merits. It's well-acted and suspenseful, and brings attention to a largely-unknown sequence of events that happened as part of the better-known Iranian Hostage Crisis. And it's a truly crazy story -- the kind that would be unbelievable as the premise for a fictional spy movie. Truth, as they say...

And even if it's disappointing that the likes of Kirby and Zelazny don't get their due in the movie, legendary makeup artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) sure gets plenty of props.

All in all, Argo is recommended. I caught it at a matinee; it's not going to lose much if you wait to see it at the cheap theater or on Netflix or what-have-you. In the meantime, check out that Wired story; it's fantastic.

From Straight to Bizarre

The trailer for the documentary about Zappa's independent labels. You can get it on Amazon but I'm not convinced it's legit. Seeing as how it refers to itself as a DVD-ROM and is listed under Books. Not sure where you can find a legitimate copy; if anyone does, be sure to let me know and I'll update this post.

ParaNorman

It was a busy weekend! I had a friend in from out of town, then had my cousins over for cartoons and games, then had more friends out of town and went drinkin' with them.

Caught a couple movies, too, including ParaNorman at the cheap theater. I liked it!

First of all: it's a kids' movie that does shit you're not supposed to do in a kids' movie. My favorite gag involved the rather gruesome image of the ghost of a dog who had been hit by a car. It's funnier than it sounds.

The flick does some fun things with genre conventions, has the usual kids' movie message that it's okay to be different, adds the rather more complex message that bullying is caused by fear and begets more bullying -- but mostly it's just a damn pretty, weird, creepy, funny, unconventional kids' horror movie, from a couple of directors whose resumés include Flushed Away, Coraline, and Corpse Bride.


Playing: Oh so very many things. This weekend we threw down on Scott Pilgrim, Gears of War, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (purchased used -- my boycott remains unbroken), and most recently Batman: Arkham City, which my cousin loaned me. I was going to buy the PC version to use with my sweet PC graphics card, but on finding out it had SecuROM I decided not to pay for it and just borrow the Xbox version instead -- you listening, Square Enix? Of course you're not.

Dinah Moe Humm

Another old favorite from Over-Nite Sensation, and probably my favorite dirty song of all time.

Looks an awful lot like a commercial DVD; I try not to post too many of those but it's late and I'm tired. Baby Snakes, maybe? I'll see about looking it up later.

Anyway, as always with stuff that's available commercially, I encourage you to support the Zappa family and purchase it.

Serenity

Watched Serenity again. Spoilers for a movie from 2005 follow.

I hadn't actually seen it the full way through since the theater in 2005 -- and that was before I'd watched the series.

It's a decent enough movie, but heavily compromised.

Because Firefly is not a show about big adventures or high stakes. It's a show about a family surviving together.

On that score, Serenity fails. Book and Inara are barely in the damn thing, and the rest of the crew not named Malcolm Reynolds don't fare much better. For a movie that revolves so heavily around River, we get precious little of her as a character -- we see her as sleeper agent, killing machine, and damaged person, but barely a shred of who she actually is. Right at the end of the movie, when Simon and Kaylee are going to bed and River's peeking down at them, not creepy but just a little curious -- that is the most fundamentally River Tam moment in the entire movie. And it's barely there. She's unrecognizable as the same River from the show -- indeed, when I started watching it, I spent most of the series wondering when she was going to start showing off her crazy ninja skills. The answer is "for about three seconds in one episode near the end."

And then there's the MacGuffin.

Speaking of things that are significant in the movie and barely even crop up in the series: the Reavers. They're in two episodes. And yet are fundamental to the plot of the movie.

And the movie revolves around a twist that, really, does not much qualify as a twist.

Was anyone in the audience even remotely surprised to learn that the Alliance created the Reavers? Because, having never watched one single episode of the series at the time, I can honestly say I wasn't.

Indeed, the single most implausible thing in this movie about space smugglers, assassins, and cartoons with subliminal messages activating sleeper agents to flip out and kill everybody is this: two Confederate soldiers are surprised by the existence of a government conspiracy.

Now, here's the thing.

Here on Earth-that-Was, there's a vocal contingent of people who believe that 9/11 was an inside job.

There's a vocal contingent of people who believe that our black President is a Secret Kenyan Muslim -- and yeah, those people are mostly from the region of the country that rebelled against the Federal Government. But they're not veterans themselves, they're people still holding a grudge a hundred and fifty years later.

Hell, the guy from Megadeth is convinced that Obama deliberately orchestrated the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin as a conspiracy to ban guns.

So yeah, the idea that nobody in the 'verse has ever floated the idea that the Alliance created the Reavers? Never mind faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity on a ship that doesn't rotate, or the sheer number of other ships the Serenity constantly bumps into in deep space -- that's the most implausible thing about this entire mythology.

If anything, Mal and co should have been saying, "Holy shit, those crazy assholes on the Future Internet were right!"


I haven't read much of the followups, post-movie. I picked up the first issue of each of the comic miniseries and couldn't get engaged -- I find it incredibly off-putting when an artist slavishly reproduces the likenesses of actors instead of just drawing the characters.

That said, I thought Serenity: Float Out, by Patton Oswalt and Patric Reynolds, did not commit that sin and was an excellent read. And managed to give a good little send-off for Wash and a little hint of where the story goes next.

I never got around to reading Shepherd's Tale -- it's still on my to-do list; doesn't appear that it ever came out in paperback -- but I do quite like Chris Samnee. I'm told it still doesn't answer the fundamental questions about Book, which is probably for the best; one of the best bits in the movie is where Mal tells Book he'll have to tell his story someday and Book responds that no, he won't.

While Whedon's tendency to leave his biggest mysteries dangling instead of resolving them can be vexing, I think it's good storytelling instinct -- how many stories can you name where a big mystery gets resolved and it's just a disappointment? (For a recent example: that other River, on Doctor Who.)

Similarly, I picked up the first issue of the new Dollhouse miniseries because it was focused on Alpha, and -- spoiler for a TV show from 2010 follows -- the only question dangling at the end of the series that I was interested in finding out the answer to was what happened to him, what made him change. The comic, pointedly, picks up his story after he's already changed, with no explanation.

Joss Whedon, you sneaky bastard.

Maybe we really will get a reunion someday, see what happens next, with the (surviving) cast intact. Whedon's certainly got the money and cachet to do it, since Avengers. But obviously I'm not holding my breath.

Meantime, Nathan Fillion is Castle, and I'm perfectly okay with that.

(Still hoping for that Dr. Horrible sequel, though.)

Shooting Yourself in the Hoof

You know how a single ill-considered comment can overshadow absolutely everything else you say in an interview?

Well, if you've read the news today you can probably think of a pretty good case-in-point, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

Last Thursday I went to a Rifftrax presentation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, which ended with a fan video entitled Take It Easy, Torgo Style which I duly posted here.

The fellow in the video is Rupert Talbot Munch, who runs the site torgolives.com and who is working on an honest-to-God sequel to Manos, featuring as much of the original cast, and their families, as he could find.

The other night I poked around his (turn-of-the-century throwback red-on-black Flash) site and, after a series of dead-end "Coming Soon" links that directed me back to the main page with its autoplay music, eventually ran across a link to a Fangoria interview with Munch.

Now, Munch seems like a neat dude. Clearly he's an über fan; he's got a good costume, a sense of humor, and has shown legitimate dedication in getting the band back together and getting this sequel made. Plus a documentary. Plus...well, this is where everything goes wrong.

And if that wasn't enough, Munch and co. have been busy spiffing up MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE for high definition. "We, the people who represent the original cast and all things MANOS, have been working on the HD restoration for over 14 months," he says. "Recently, some kid who found a print of MANOS at an auction is trying to cash in with the same idea. Myself and Joe Warren do not acknowledge, recognize, or approve of what this kid is doing. In the end, we just ask that the fans hold onto their money and wait for our version. It will include tons of never-before-seen footage, plenty of extras, cast and crew commentary, interviews...plus surprises. And the proceeds will go back to Joe Warren and the MANOS faithful."

Now -- possibly due to how legitimately difficult it is to find the link to this article from the torgolives site -- there are only 5 comments at the bottom of the article. And four of them are eight months old and the fifth is from me. But I do think it's telling that four of them (including mine) are negative responses to that one little paragraph out of the entire article.

Let's back up a bit. The "kid" he's talking about is Ben Solovey, and the restoration project he's talking about is Manos in HD.

Solovey, as Munch notes, got his hands on a work print of Manos and decided to restore it; he wrote about the experience.

Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60′s, a contemporary of 1962′s Carnival of Souls and 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him.

[...]

If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. [...] It's all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it's memorable.

[...]

So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I've resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.

[...]

In addition to making a digital restoration of Manos of sufficient quality to produce a new print or digital projection files, I will be creating a limited run Blu-ray and making the restoration available for repertory screenings. While it remains to be seen if this film is for anything but a niche market, I also feel that if I don't restore it no one else will.

Film restoration is something that too often falls by the wayside in troubled economic times. Though it's doubtful I will change anyone's minds about Manos, I would like to send a message that every film, regardless of the place it holds in movie history, deserves a fair shot to be maintained and presented in the best way possible.

Now does that sound to you like "some kid trying to cash in"?

Because, okay, first of all? If a guy were looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and he told you he had a plan to release Manos: The Hands of Fate on Blu-Ray...well, look, that's a pretty fucking terrible get-rich-quick scheme, is what I'm getting at.

Yes, Solovey wound up exceeding his Kickstarter goal by some $38,000 -- but he had no idea that was going to happen when he bought the print. Even with the extra money, it's not clear if he's turned a profit or simply put that money back into making the project better than he had originally planned.

Point is, this sounds a lot more like a labor of love, born of a genuine desire to preserve a historical curiosity. And Munch kinda just pissed all over it.

And here's the thing: Manos has a pretty fucking small fanbase. If "fanbase" is even the right word. There is a whole hell of a lot of overlap between Munch's audience and Solovey's audience.

And I can relate to Munch realizing this and being upset -- to him, Solovey is unwelcome, unexpected competition, and threatens not just his bottom line but the exposure of a project that, to him, Joe Warren, and the rest, is also a labor of love.

But dude, one fan dumping on another fan? Very bad form. And incredibly off-putting to the fellow fans who you are trying to convince to buy your product instead of his.

So Mr. Munch, if you're reading this? (Not implausible, really; I'm often surprised by what kind of searches pull this site up.) Here's how I think you should handle it:

"We are aware of Ben Solovey's unofficial restoration project; he is not affiliated with myself, Joe Warren, or the Search for Valley Lodge team. We wish him the best but believe our restored version will be the superior product, as we have access to a higher-quality print, a larger restoration team, and many of the original cast and crew members."

Something like that. Make your case, explain why you think people should buy your version instead of his -- by all means! Nothing wrong with some friendly competition! But don't insult the guy. Don't mock his skill or his motives.

And I also get that Joe Warren may have a sense of ownership over his father's film. That's totally understandable! But the thing is, he doesn't own Manos. Manos belongs to all of us -- and that's not in some fanboy "Star Wars belongs to all of us" sense; Manos is public domain and legally belongs to all of us.

Somebody besides you and Warren wants to restore Manos? He has every right to. Somebody else wants to adapt it as a Zelda 2-style iPhone game? Totally acceptable too. And -- not to put too fine a point on it -- some guys from Minnesota want to put it on a show where a couple of puppets make sarcastic remarks about it? Yeah, that's legal too.

And so while, again, it's totally understandable if Warren has a sense of ownership toward the property, and is miffed when somebody else exploits its public-domain status without his family's blessing -- well, if somebody hadn't exploited its public-domain status without his family's blessing, we wouldn't be having this conversation. If Manos hadn't entered into the public domain and wound up in a box of movies that eventually made their way to Frank Conniff and MST3K, there would be no Manos sequel, no Manos restoration, no Manos documentary -- because nobody would know what the fuck Manos was.

All of this may seem a little harsh, but really, if you ever read this, Mr. Munch, I'd like to repeat that you seem like a cool guy, I love what you're doing, and I look forward to seeing your finished work. I just think you've made a pretty unfortunate misstep on this -- unfortunate enough that it overshadows all the cool stuff you talk about in that interview -- and in the future I'd advise a couple of things:

  1. Remember that Ben Solovey is a fan just like you and me, and just like you and unlike me he has put a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making something lasting out of this silly-ass movie.
  2. And dude, seriously, do something about that website.

A Frank Frazetta of Frank Zappa

Image: Portrait of the Master
Image courtesy of manosinhd.com

Caught the Rifftrax of Manos: The Hands of Fate this evening. It was great fun; all new riffs, plus two fun new shorts.

Also, it closed with this:

Back to the subject of Zappa: Zappa, because he appreciated things that were awesome, was an MST3K fan. Purportedly he once described the experience of watching the show and suddenly hearing a reference to himself as "unsettling". (Unfortunately I can't seem to find the interview where I originally read that at the moment...)