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Saturday, Nov 29, 2008

It’s said that you can’t go home again. Other maxim-mized clichés include the inability to revisit past glories and the ever popular suggestion regarding letting sleeping dogs remain within their current supine positioning. But when you’re Joel Hodgson, famed comedian and creator of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ve already bucked one Thomas Wolfe-inspired trend. Why not take your newest version of that hilarious in-theater riff-a-thon and tackle a title that made MST famous - fans and fancy pants be damned! Thus the decision to return to the days of Patrick Swayze, catalog daydreaming, and the madcap extraterrestrial antics of an overgrown green idiot named Dropo.


That’s right, Cinematic Titanic’s last offering for 2008 is a revisit of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a crappy kid vid creation that sparked one of Hodgson’s original series’ Season Three highlights. Gone, of course, is the attempt at a new Christmas Carol (based on that other holiday favorite, Roadhouse), a discussion of off the radar TV specials (“The X-Mas that Really Kicked Ass”), and a nice bit of cool Yule logging. In its place is a racier, edgier take on the material, the CT crew finding plenty of adolescent-to-adult affronts in this uninspired space epic. Fans who were afraid of a mere recycle and unnecessary regurgitation will now have to suck it up and gauge which edition - old school or new breed - is better.


As for the film itself, we are treated to a dull little sugarplum piffle involving the angry red planet, a leader desperate to bring joy to his sullen alien offspring, and one of the kindest, dullest Kris Kringle’s on record. When King Martian Kimar sees how sad his son and daughter truly are, he goes to Chochem (Mars’ answer to a shaman) for advice.  Discovering that his kids need fun and freedom in order to thrive, Kimar comes up with a daring plan - head down to Earth and kidnap the universe’s symbol of glad tidings - the one and only Santa Claus.


With the help of henchmen Stobo and Shim, the stale stupidity of castaway Dropo and the always upset, desperate for power Voldar, the Martians find two Earth kids (Betty and Billy Foster), force them to fess up to Santa’s location, grab the jolly old elf, and head home. Once back on Mars, however, one of Kimar’s minions prepares for a double-cross, while our apple-checked champion grows bored of making toys via technology.


On any filmic scale, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not merely horrible, it’s horrendous. It’s like watching a half-witted home movie made by people who have neither a home or moviemaking skills. Documentarian turned editor turned flop-meister Nicholas Webster proves here that working for Uncle Sam’s war effort during WWII lends little in the way of cinematic vision or professionalism. He utilizes cardboard backdrops and pipe cleaner costuming to turn his interstellar story into tired, two-dimensional dross. It’s a good thing the actors are coated in layers of baby diarrhea tinged make-up. That way, we can’t see how red faced and embarrassed they must have been. No one is safe - not John Call’s Santa, not Leonard Hicks’ Kimar…heck, not even a prepubescent Pia Zidora as a barely recognizable Martian girl with a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.


Of course, what really distinguishes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from other, happier holiday fare is the total absence of that mandatory mistletoe movie must - Christmas spirit. Our benevolent being with a belly like a bowl full of jelly is decent enough, but refrigerator box robots, creepy old alien sages, and a villainous Village People reject with a man-love moustache and mayhem on his mind do not an engaging Noel make. While the plot is busy lapping itself, offering kidnapping after snatching after hostage crisis as a means of moving the story alone, any sense of magic and wonder slowly dissipates in a fog of failed ambitions and staid Saturday Matinee mediocrity. No wonder kids in the ‘60s went hippie. This conservative claptrap would turn even the staunchest Neo-Con into a member of the counterculture.


As with his previous comedic outing, Hodgson has often said that the cast’s ability to mock a movie is inversely proportional to how atrocious it is. The worse the outing, the better the belittling - and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is no exception. In fact, the notion that a similar selection of performers could once again pick apart this movie in equally effective fashion says as much about the Cinematic Titanic talent pool as it does Claus’ crappiness. Right from the start, we get a “haven’t we seen this before” reference, before diving right into the ridicule. Along the way, former MSTers J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl peel back the layers of lousiness inserting their own off the wall (and frequently off-color) takes. There is some very racy stuff offered this time around.


What many fans will miss, however, is the lack of holiday-themed skits, the kind of material that made something like the crazed carol “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” so memorable. This version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does offer one of the new series’ minor ‘movie-stop’ moments (times when someone else will ask that the film be halted so they can offer up a scripted comedic bit). In this instance, Hodgson delivers his presents for the festive season - and not everyone is happy about it. Elsewhere, we get more introductory bits between the crew and the security team, including a failed escape attempt by Trace (the key word here being “failed”). With more movie available than ever before - no commercials means no ‘editing for time’ constraints - this version of the title truly lives up to its ‘worst film ever’ classification.


Still, it’s slightly surreal to hear voices that originally eviscerated this seasonal stool sample going in for an amusement Mulligan. It must have been a tough decision, especially when considering fan expectations and potential MST cult criticism. Certain episodes of the celebrated cowtown puppet show symbolized everything that was perfect about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a concept and a creative enterprise, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was among that noted number. Cinematic Titanic took a massive risk remaking this iconic installment, and that they succeeded so well speak volumes for their individual abilities and satiric skills. While it’s probably true that a trip back into one’s past is more problematic than therapeutic, this updated look at a piece of MST history is a retread well executed…and well worth it.


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Sunday, Nov 23, 2008

For fright fans, Dario Argento’s career as a movie macabre master started going downhill right after the release of his spectacle splattefest Opera. With the advent of videotape, and the steady release of his past efforts onto the format, a whole new audience was appreciating his work, and Hollywood was starting to take notice. Invited to America to continue his career, he made the interesting anthology entry based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes, and helmed a US based thriller entitled Trauma. Neither film was a hit, and Argento was angered by issues of studio interference and MPAA censorship. He had been burned back in the ‘70s when companies such as Paramount and Fox decided to distribute truncated versions of classics like Suspiria. Now, he needed a project to propel him back into the good graces of his always agreeable European constituency – and a book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini seemed to hold the answer.


Dealing with a subject described as “art enchantment” - a surreal fugue state where individuals feels emotionally overwhelmed and personally connected to paintings, sculptures, and other aesthetic works – this ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ seemed to be the perfect idea for a film. Of course, it would take some tricky special effects to realize his goal, and Argento needed an actress he could trust to take on the grueling, slightly gratuitous lead. He envisioned a woman who was young enough to play the ingénue, sturdy enough to pass for a cop, and complex enough to handle the several personality changes that occurred throughout. Even worse, this performer would have to lay herself bare during a trio of tawdry rape scenes. With an air of oddness that only Freud could successfully decipher, Argento flummoxed convention and hired his 21 year old daughter Asia. Long a fixture in the film world, this would be her most demanding role to date.


And thus cameras rolled on the icon’s big creepshow comeback, a psychological thriller that took both parts of that label all too seriously. A strange combination of police procedural (Asia is Anna Manni, a policewoman on the trail of a serial rapist), character study (after suffering at the hands of her subject, Anna starts to slowly unravel), and exercise in exploitation (women are brutalized and butchered by this maniacal blond sadist), the results divided even the most ardent aficionados. Some saw it as a return to past glories. Others argued that, while decent, it forewarned of worse things to come. Indeed, in the next decade, Argento would release four more career confusing efforts – his overdone and sexualized Phantom of the Opera take, a good giallo called I Can’t Sleep, the static CSI statement The Card Player, and a weird homage to a long time idol entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? So oddly enough, The Stendhal Syndrome appears as his last legitimate offering, a movie mythologized all the more by its odd home video treatment.


Somehow, Troma got a hold of this film, and released it way back near the beginning of DVD. The 1996 package was pretty good, containing a commentary by the director, an interview with the filmmaker, and lots of company come-ons. Fans frothed however, citing the fair to middling transfer and the overall lack of respect offered by the infamous B-movie factory. Over the last 11 years, they’ve hoped that a company like Blue Underground would salvage this forgotten film and bring it back to the state of semi-respectability it so richly (?) deserves. Those prayers were answered back in September of this year. The Big Blue U indeed stepped up and delivered a two disc digital package that illustrates the best that the medium has to offer, while questioning the extent to which businesses will invest in context for the fans. Now, a Blu-ray version of this title is available, and it too begs the question of product vs. pitch. 


If the film had been more endemic of Argento’s lush, luminous style, the lack of all format support would be unconscionable. But Stendhal stands as a decidedly different effort for the director, a movie made up of particular movements, each one attempting to address a different aspect of a woman’s destructive descent into madness. Viewed in parts, we see the suggestion that rape reduces a female to a series of onerous questions. There is doubt of self, doubt of sexuality, and doubt of safety. All three of these misgiving are illustrated here, as daughter Asia goes from confident cop to psychological mess in the span of two event filled hours. The transformation is both physical and mental. At first, Anna Manni is a long haired brunette, a capable officer working a high profile case. Post attack, she cuts off her overflowing locks and takes on a more tom boyish persona. Finally, after a terrifying confrontation in a water main, our heroine becomes a femme fatale, long blond wig providing a post-modern noir nod.


Within each section, Argento hints at the horrors going on in Anna’s head. Initially, everything revolves around the title issue. The use of then new CGI to realize the symptoms of the syndrome is unique and, though dated, gives the visuals an excellent otherworldly quality. Asia also does a good job of expressing the emotional distress that surrounds the problem. When she swoons over a classical canvas, we believe the delirium. She is also a brave actress, allowing herself to be very vulnerable and physically ‘open’ during the rape scenes. Actor Thomas Kretschmann (who would later rise to notoriety in big budget films like Blade II and Peter Jackson’s King Kong) is an amazing villain – the kind of debonair demon that you can easily see as a smooth talking psychopath. The interaction with his victims is noxious, and he really helps establish the lasting effects of his horrific crimes.


The second phase takes us through a denial of femininity, as Asia goes guy to try and hide her pain. This is a very interesting segment, one where Argento pulls back on the dread to deliver some drama and dark humor. When a previous paramour makes a pass at Anna, she responds with belligerence and foul-mouthed dominance. Equally, when boxing with an old male friend as part of a workout, her love of physical brutality is obvious. All throughout the first two acts, we sense a rematch with out rapist, and long for the moment of mandatory cinematic comeuppance. As a director, Argento toys with us, leaving us guessing right until the very end as to how this confrontation will play out. Even after it’s over, we still wonder if there’s not more to the story. As with most works by the Italian maestro, a climatic moment usually triggers another tangential terror.


Which brings us to the third phase in Anna’s story. Feeling slightly more empowered, and working through the leftover trauma with her specious therapist (a real red herring if ever there was one), we see an attempted reclamation of her beauty and allure. The long headdress is initially shocking, since it tends to hide most of Anna (and Asia’s) inviting ethnicity. This is crucial in understanding where the character is headed. The color of the wig, the newfound lust and desire, the overwhelming possessiveness – all of these facets are supposed to provide subtle insight into the shifts our lead is experiencing. Since he’s a master of pacing and paradigm, Argento lets issues lie, creating tension by building on both expectation and the unanticipated. Even after the denouement, when we learn just what’s been going on in Anna’s head, our director is not done. We watch as our fractured female is swept up in a sea of men, the patriarchy once again arguing for its role as protector and provider of the species.


As a result, it’s hard to call The Stendhal Syndrome “horror”, though it definitely deals in dreadful things. This is more like a literal psychological thriller, a film that rises and falls by the sinister and sick psyche of its characters. As it moves from element to element, as it references Argento heroes (there’s a lot of Hitchcock here) and establishes its own inherent greatness, we sense the struggle inside the director. For over three decades, he was viewed as a fantasist and fabulist, someone placing the surreal inside the scary to create a kind of dream theater of nightmare novelty. But Argento got his start making standard crime films, giallos that mimicked the mean-spirited narratives of the yellow covered pulp novels the genre took its name – and inspiration - from. To be pigeonholed because of his rare artistic flourishes was unfair, and yet all throughout this film, such flashes also appear. The contradiction would soon cause his canon to crash.


Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray DVD doesn’t go into a lot of perspective or overview. Instead, Argento appears and discusses the production – including how uncomfortable he was directing daughter Asia. The author of the book which inspired the director – psychological consultant Graziella Magherini - explains the Stendhal Syndrome while F/X guru Sergio Stivaletti talks about the confusing world of computers. We also hear from AD Luigi Cozzi and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Their anecdotal insights help us understand how hard it is for Argento to complete a project. Apparently, forces both normal and unexplainable are against him. As for the long debated technical aspects of this release, this latest Blu-ray release is outstanding. Grain is minor, with an enormous clarity of detail. It too carries over the filmmaker’s original vision, and is presented ‘uncut and uncensored’.


Some may complain about the sound situation, however. The original DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in both English and Italian, but neither the 7.1 DTS-HD and 7.1 True HD has an alternate option. Fans of foreign films hate when studios forgo the native language of the filmmaker in order to cater to a less informed fanbase, but in this case, the decision is mostly understandable. Argento typically hires a multinational cast, so while his movies are made in Italy, his actors are versed in several tongues. Picking just one does a disservice to all. Even then, he usually films in English, even if performances begin in various ethnic takes. Whatever the case (research indicates an original Italian track), the expanded sound is amazing. There is a spatial clarity and attention to aural detail that can’t be ignored. And of course, Ennio Morricone’s amazing score is accented perfectly.


Still, it’s hard to fully fathom where The Stendhal Syndrome resides inside Dario Argento’s reputation. Many will marvel at the avant-garde aspects of this feature and wonder why the director ditched them for a hoary old period piece (Phantom) the next time out. Some will see it as a misogynistic mess, a film that forces females into the role of subservient sickos who can’t suppress their inner whore long enough to avoid the suffering. Gore fiends will enjoy the novel kills, including the slo-mo bullet time, and Argento’s directorial flourishes still mandate attention, even within this far more realistic setting. Either as signature or stumble, art or atrocity, there is no denying that as a filmmaker, the man responsible for brining Italian terror to the mainstream remains an important cinematic fixture. Thanks to the efforts of Blue Underground, his legacy will remain intact, if not necessarily indestructible.


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Saturday, Nov 22, 2008

Living down a legacy can be hard. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s almost impossible. Long before there was South Park, Comedy Central, Team America: World Police, and the millions of dollars with the success of same, the University of Colorado students went off on a Spring Break jaunt to make a movie. The result was the wildly ambitious and decidedly dark comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. That was 1993. When no other company showed interest in releasing and/or distributing the film, Troma Entertainment came to the rescue. Since then, there has been an uneasy alliance between the camps. And with the release of the excellent 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition DVD, the duo once again become the focus of one company’s continuing commercial sustainability, and their own incomplete past.


The story for this wild musical ride is oddly compelling - and based on real events. Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma.


And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga.


Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things.


Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and - above all - a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at film school), he manages to corral Cannibal’s potential calamities and make the chaos work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, memorable, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.


This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions.


But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with the noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor - and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks - a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.


Surprisingly, Cannibal! The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful - if immobile - roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.


The question then becomes, should fans once again dip into their W. Bush Administration tapped wallets and spring for yet another DVD version of this title? The answer, oddly, depends on how much you love the movie and your completist need to see now mega-famous superstars feign interest in a movie made 13 years ago. Parker and Stone appear in new interviews, and both seem slightly disinterested in revisiting their history. Of course, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman is there to lighten things up with his irreverent Q&A style. In the end, we get some quality information. Elsewhere, a new commentary features some stars from the film, and it’s as chaotic and crazed as the now infamous “drunken” track featuring Parker, Stone, and some pals doing shots. Both are offered and provide a combination of anecdotes, riffs, and curse-laden cutdowns.


Sprinkled liberally across both discs are a host of deleted scenes. Some are fascinating; some seem like cutting room floor fodder. In addition, there are a few Behind the Scenes featurettes showing us how different F/X were achieved, as well as the oddball production path the film took. Finally, the DVD contains a look at a local production of Cannibal! The Musical. It seems that, every year, amateur theater companies put of versions of the film, with varying degrees of success. We even see one show where Lloyd Kaufman made a stand-up style cameo as a judge. Overall, the 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition of this film offers enough new material to spark the interest of even the most casual lover of Cannibal!‘s craziness.


Yet one still walks away wondering how long this first taste of fame will continue to haunt the boys. As the first release in Troma’s planned “Tromasterpiece Collection” (complete with clever PBS-style logo), the import of Cannibal! The Musical cannot be understated - not to Parker and Stone, and definitely not to the company who came to their rescue. The edgy agreement between the two means that there will always be a place in the corporate cornerstone for another digital version of this hilarious, half-baked gemstone. And when the results are as winning as these, the men behind South Park really shouldn’t care. Sure, all of this can seem like the stalker-esque girlfriend who won’t take the hint post-breakup, but first love is always the strongest, and most unwieldy. That’s a perfect description of Cannibal!‘s unique charm, and Troma’s treatment of same. 


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Sunday, Nov 16, 2008

In commemoration of PopMatters’ look at the 40th Anniversary of The Beatles “White” album, Short Ends and Leader looks back at our review from November 2007 of the Fab Four’s farcical masterwork, Help!

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.


After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.


It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.


Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.


Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.


And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.



With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.


As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!


This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   



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Saturday, Nov 8, 2008

Has it really been 20 years? Was it really just two decades ago when a local Minnesota UHF station, desperate for some cheap weekend programming, hired a few provisional stand-ups and gave them access to a few minutes of programming and their b-grade matinee movie archives? And was it really the tale end of the Reagan era when Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and behind the scenes studio technicians Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon, got together with some hastily cobbled together puppets and a crappy piece of schlock and made the practice of talking back to a bad movie screen cool? Indeed, the KTMA phase of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on 24 November, 1988, and the rest is, how they say, basic pay cable channel history.


It’s definitely been an unusual and uneasy legacy: A few station switches; a cult phenomenon; a rumored acrimonious breakup between the original partners; the ascension of head writer Mike Nelson into the show’s new star, critical acclaim; the final gasp of Sci-Fi fandom; the rebirth as competing entities Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic; a few DVD releases. Indeed, for anyone who has worshipped the efforts of what used to be known as Best Brains (or a close collective facsimile thereof), keeping track of all the continuing comedy has been a chore in and of itself. While Nelson, Murphy, and current co-conspirator Bill Corbett deconstruct every new release in their audio only format, Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu have recruited Mary Jo Pehl and (TV’s) Frank Conniff to jumpstart the silhouetted satire routine.


And with its fourth independent installment, the lamentably awful Legacy of Blood, Cinematic Titanic finally finds its groove. Previously, the quintet battled between reverence to the past and placating the present. Fans wanted backstory, clear indications of what the group were doing and why they were returning to familiar territory. What was the Time Tube, and why the weird warning light “skits” in the middle of the movies. Well, all those who wondered about the internal workings of the CT situation, pay attention. Before the horrific thriller from 1971 unravels, the collective have a conversation with the crew which may fill in many of the blanks. While not 100% satisfying, it sets us up for all the underground bunker commentary to come.


As for Legacy, it’s beyond horrific, the kind of And Then There Were None rip-off that made Agatha Christie cry in her Mousetrap. When the patriarch of the rotten Dean family dies, the siblings all show up for the reading - or in this case, the listening - of his will. They are joined by their respective spouses, repressed memories, and the most unhelpful set of servants ever. Naturally, the dead man’s estate stipulates that they all must spend a week at his home, and that if any of them should die, the other’s split the money evenly. Before you can say “Miss Jane Marple”, relatives are reeling, freshly killed corpses pushing up the alcohol fueled daises. Eventually, one remaining Dean is left, and when the murderer is finally revealed, we get a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. Or maybe it’s just gas.


Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the standard story set up legalese, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking and scandalous into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Director Carl Munson was clearly a fan of the Method style of acting. He lets every member of his ‘Where Are They Now’ cast crow and carry on like mourners at a New Orleans wake. And then they REALLY start to overact. As part of the onscreen interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan’s over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on.


Instead of terror however, Legacy of Blood is all talk.  Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and sordidness will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop. Naturally, this makes for perfect Cinematic Titanic fodder. The gang can’t ignore the unctuous sexual sleaze pouring out of every character, and their quips about said horniness are classic. Sure, some of the material crosses over into the more “adult” oriented element of their demographic, but it’s nice to hear some borderline blue humor from the gang. Equally funny are the fill-in bits, with Trace offering up a goofy game show were Josh must guess which item WON’T kill him, while Frank is busted for that most heinous of show etiquette violations - gum chewing!


But it’s the back and forth between cast and celluloid that keeps the Cinematic Titanic series fresh and fun. The sequence where the chauffer character Frank is seen lounging among his collection of Nazi paraphernalia (including a lamp made of human skin - yikes!) is one of the series’ best, and nothing says ‘stupidity’ like the bad indecipherable accent attempted by Munson pal (and exploitation titan) Buck Kartalian. While most of Legacy of Blood - a retitle from the original Blood Legacy, go figure - is antiquated e- performers pitching fits of hopeless thespian histrionics, there are small moments which remind us of why films like this are just asking for a sassy dressing down.


With 20 years comes a lot of history - of missed opportunities, of unofficial classics, of times when it seemed the subject and the subjected meshed in perfect comedy clarity. Cinematic Titanic provides glimpses of such splendor. It reminds us of the reasons we fell in love with Hodgson’s homespun experiment in the first place. It’s the kind of entertainment that speaks to a specific ideal, that angers some purists while pleasing those with a much smaller motion picture axe to grind.  As they continue to create their own unique revamp of the pristine MST format, there will probably be stumbles and struggles along the way. And anytime you take on the distribution yourself, you’re bound to get lost in the self-produced melee. But fans both young and old understand that there’s nothing better than the original. With Cinematic Titanic, and Legacy of Blood, you get the closest of reproductions.


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