TV

'Mystery Science Theater 3000: Turkey Day Collection (XXXI)' Is Comedy Worth Being Thankful For

Featuring episodes from both Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, this Turkey Day Collection is a feast for comedy fans.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Turkey Day Collection (XXXI)

Director: Various
Cast: Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Josh Weinstein, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Patrick Brantseg, Jim Mallon, Don Scardino, Gumby, Pokey, Joe Clokey
Length: 480 minutes
Studio: Best Brains
Year: 2014
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA Rating: NR
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2014-11-25

There was a time when the funniest show on television was a little show based solely around making fun of bad movies. Much like any number of thousands of late night TV shows since Vampira took to the airwaves, this public access-cum-basic cable movie show featured host segments with elaborate, colorful and weird characters quipping about the featured films. Mystery Science Theater 3000 carried this trend three steps further with the space-borne human host and two of his robot friends actually apparently sitting in the theater watching the movie with the at-home audience and making fun of the film even as it unspools.

Fans circulated tapes of the show and kept its legend growing for 11 full years and even spawned a feature film. But throughout all of those years, the best day out of all 365 was Thanksgiving, or “Turkey Day”, when Comedy Central (formerly The Comedy Channel) would air episodes as day-long marathons packed with some of the best laughs the network ever achieved. Since the advent of DVD, the “Best Brains” have been releasing multiple feature length episodes in four pack collections. The most recent is this Turkey Day Collection, the 31st installment, which celebrates none other than Turkey Day itself just in time for Thanksgiving 2014.

There was no specific or unique set of episodes chosen for each Turkey Day. Although generally the funniest programs were chosen, any and all were applicable, so while this set of four films surely pays tribute to the annual celebration, in fact these four wouldn’t constitute a quarter of a Turkey Day marathon. In short, this collection of Jungle Goddess (1948), The Painted Hills (1951), The Screaming Skull (1958) and Squirm (1976), though all funny, are no more or less representative of the Turkey Days on the whole than any number of other episodes out there. While both Jungle Goddess and The Painted Hills (both “Joel” episodes) might have aired during the Turkey Day marathons, The Screaming Skull and Squirm were culled from the last two seasons, both of which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. In short, in spite of the subtitle, this 31st collection isn’t really about Turkey Day until you get into some of the extras.

What makes this set worth having for Thanksgiving (and beyond Thanksgiving) is the plethora of extras found on each disc. Once again, the set comes in a handsome collector’s tin with four mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. On the discs themselves we get new introductions by creator Joel Hodgson along with robot friends Tom Servo and Crow. These introductions give a bit more background into the films being skewered while continuing to be funny (as one might hope and respect from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys).

Some of the best (and most nostalgic) inclusions are the old bumpers shown during commercial breaks on each Turkey Day. These evolved through the years from simple one-off jokes to evolving stories that fit perfectly into the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. This is, after all, a fictional science fiction TV show with its own story arcs and continuity, all wrapped around the films they happen to be mocking each week. However, purists will point out that not every bumper segment is actually included in the lot called “Bumper to Bumper: Turkey Day Through the Years”. This collection includes only those filmed by the cast and not those featuring Adam West and other actors. The well-done documentary “Inside the Turkey Day Marathon” does briefly mention these additional bumpers with no small amount of disdain, so their exclusion does make some sense. That same documentary does live up to its name as it traces the show's Thanksgiving marathons throughout the years with interviews with the cast and crew and copious clips from the past. So, yeah, it’s safe to say that it’s pretty damned funny.

As for the films themselves, they range from the “poorly done” to the pretty damned terrible. The one exception to this rule is the Gumby and Pokey short Robot Rumpus (1957) which is featured within the same episode as The Screaming Skull. While this may not exactly be a miracle of storytelling, it is a skillfully stop-motion animated adventure for kids that is not exactly ruined by the riffing of Mike Nelson and the ‘bots -- enhanced might be a better word. Further enhancing the short is a documentary called “Gumby and Clokey”, featuring Joe Clokey discussing the creation of Gumby and Pokey, focusing on Robot Rumpus and beyond. The Screaming Skull also gets its own documentary called “This Film May Kill You: Making The Screaming Skull”.

The latter documentary comes off as an apologist’s reversal of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mockery to give a more balanced look at this admitted B-Movie (designed as a tool for scaring kids and teenagers). However, this documentary is sometimes just as ironically funny as the film itself, especially when The Screaming Skull is identified as an unofficial remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).

The Painted Hills is a Lassie vehicle that stars the original animal actor (Pal) who played Lassie, although in this film the dog’s name is “Shep”. Go figure. The Painted Hils is standard '50s “all ages” fare and still manages to give Joel, Crow and Tom Servo plenty of material for laughter. This one is preceded by another short, the painfully ridiculous “educational film Body Care and Grooming (1947), which almost seemed to be made for the trio to make fun of.

Squirm is not a great film, but it is more entertaining on its own than many of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 choices. This feature is accompanied by an interview with star Don Scardino as well as yet another short, the 1940 joke called A Case of Spring Fever. The short centers around a man who is frustrated by springs and then must face a world with no springs whatsoever. Once he’s learned his lesson, he simply will not stop talking about springs, much to the delight of the animated imp who granted his backhanded wish. While Squirm is hilarious on many levels, A Case of Spring Fever gives Mike and the ‘bots plenty of material for their own sketches.

Jungle Goddess is a hilariously oblivious, vaguely racist — okay, more than vaguely — adventure film about two great white hunters invading the “Heart of Darkness” in Africa to find a tribe ruled over by a blonde haired American woman whom they worship. In that one of the Great White Hunters happens to be played by George Reeves, you can be sure there are lots of Superman jokes to be made.

Then there’s the first chapter of the not great Bela Lugosi serial known as The Phantom Creeps. This episode is marred by its almost too much amount of black and white. Is the “Shadowrama” a contributing factor to the better (and more endurable) episodes being in color? Perhaps. Then again, maybe black and white enhances great movies, but makes bad movies even worse.

Regardless, each of the four episodes included in this 31st collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a winner; or, at least, is made so by the glorious filmicide performed by first Joel and the bots, then Mike and the bots. Packed with extras, “The Turkey Day Collection” is a mighty fine entry into a collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but still isn’t sequential within the saga of the show, skipping from season to season. Not all four of these were even possible to feature in the actual Turkey Day Marathons, but these are four funny episodes and that’s something to be thankful for.

Splash Image: Promotional shot courtesy of Shout! Factory

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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