Cinematic Titanic Docks At Frankenstein’s Castle Of Freaks, Part 2

I don’t think I wrote this review yet. I’ve been caring for sick people for the past several days and my mind is about the state it would be after doing a lot of time-traveling.

Oh, yes, here it is. Check it out. I’ll wait.

Back? OK.

So, this is good. The team is really humming along; we’re getting a much better, cleaner sense of their characters, their sense of humor, etc. We’re getting a little more backstory, and a cute little device called “the breast blimp”.

I’m very, very glad they’ve kept it clean, although Joel actually swears once, and I think there was a political joke or two–but really minimal stuff. That’s good.

The pacing is really good, too. It isn’t boiling hot at the beginning but the laughs are pretty steady.

I think that the live performances the crew is doing is also a big help; there’s a real polish to this episode. I’m looking forward to the rest of 2009.

Sorry for the light review, but y’know, I’m running out of things to say besides “funny” or “less funny” or “more funny”. I’ll have to see if I can’t raise my game….

Cinematic Titanic Docks At Frankenstein’s Castle Of Freaks

The latest CT is here! This time it’s the 1974 Italian horror flick Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks that’s up for mocking. You may recall that we were somewhat disappointed in the previous entry (Santa Claus vs. The Martians) but it must be conceded that expectations were impossibly high.

Well, we’re away from the cultural landmarks now, and having a great time with this bit of silliness, which involves a the Frankenstein clan happily at work using body parts the way the Barbarienne uses Lincoln Logs.

No final verdict yet: Fatigue set in and we paused before finishing, but I’ll update this post when we do.

Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (again)

There are many great episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. There are some, however, that stand out. Manos, The Hands of Fate, for example. Teenagers from Outer Space. And of course, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

Redoing a classic is always fraught with peril but the Cinematic Titanic trailer was hilarious, boding well for this particular remake. The verdict?

Somewhat surprisingly, the weakest of the new releases. They did manage not to repeat a single joke, however.

The challenge with all movie riffing is that it ebbs and flows. You can’t really blaze your way through 80 minutes with wall-to-wall jokes. Hitting a good rhythm is a challenge. The last several episodes started out all six-guns firing and then tapered off, sometimes too much, surging toward the middle, and usually dragging a bit by the end.

I gotta believe this is the most difficult aspect of riffing. A little ebb is good, particularly at a point where the viewer needs to concentrate on the action or dialogue–as a prelude to setting up jokes later on. Putting a bunch of jokes into a kind of cohesive whole keeps the audience involved when the jokes are looser.

Case in point, the original Claus had a running gag about “lentils”. Teenagers had “TORCHAA!” Even Manos had Torgo. This new Claus sorta has Droppo, but the unfunny clown is unfunny no matter how you mock him. (See Catalina Caper, or any other flick where there’s someone trying–and failing–to be funny. And also note how few episodes are based on actual, attempted comedies. Far worse and harder to watch than any cheesy horror film is a failed comedy.)

So the good things about this episode were that the jokes were pretty steady. There was less in the way of long ebbs (though a few). At the same time, the jokes were mostly solidly in the chuckle categoy.

And there was some excitement CT was trying to generate over the fact that they could show the whole movie, whereas on MST3K, they had to cut parts to fit into the format. (No worries, though, the episode is still under 90 minutes.) But by the end? They were just bitching about how long the movie was.

This is a fine line, but it’s not really riffing to bitch about how bad or long a movie is. It’s just complaining. “You’re coming in too cheap!” in the trailer is funny–funny even when you see it a 4th or 5th time in the movie. And there’s a point about 2/3rds of the way through where they act like the movie’s ended and then get pissed when it’s not: It’s an old gag, but it works well.

Joel’s Christmas gifts segment was awesome. I think it’s a mistake for CT not to exploit the wild creativity that was a good third of MST3K’s charm. And we are seeing more personality and a bit more of the backstory, so this is good.

I don’t want to harp on it, but there were about five political jokes. One of these, paralleling John McCain’s Vietnam adventures, was hilarious. There was another really good bit, too.

The rest, though, sort of fall into the clap humor. “Why can’t they do that to Ann Coulter?”, for example. Yeah, okay. Why not reference Rush Limbaugh when they’re taking the pills, while you’re at it? (Actually, I think they did take a shot at Limbaugh….)

As I’ve said before, this stuff leads to comedic laziness.

Anyway, overall amusing but far from hilarious. (The Boy liked it better than I but I didn’t hear that much laughing coming from him, either.)

Cinematic Titanic’s Legacy of Blood

Episode 4 of the new riff delivery system that is Cinematic Titanic was made available for download yesterday, and I dutifully downloaded from EZ Takes and burned a DVD.

We watched this 1971 horror mess with the good humor of Joel, Trace, Frank, Josh and Mary Jo. And Josh was on fire this time, I must say.

The story is a creepy “rich man’s relatives gather in his possibly haunted house to collect their inheritance…if they survive” kinda deal with a creepy incest subplot and lots and lots and lots of talking.

It’s sort of Manos: The Hands of Fate without all that searing white-hot action.

You know how bad this movie is because the cast is actually all-pro, including some folks still working today. Faith Domergue, the maelstrom’s #1 pointy-breasted poster girl, for example, is one of the first to get killed. And the seemingly immortal John Carradine plays the, uh, dead guy.

But the cast is rounded out with hard-working TV actors, like Ivy Bethune who had a bit part in this year’s Get Smart, and muscle-man Buck Kartalian who has been on “ER” and “How I Met Your Mother”. Brooke Mills plays the absolutely stunning crazy chick in serious lust with her creepy brother.

John Russell was a western veteran, winding his career down with Pale Rider, as was John Smith, star of “Laramie”. Jeff Morrow was last seen (in the riff world) with Faith Domergue in This Island Earth. (Her character is identified as “Veronica” but the credits have her as “Victoria”.)

And then there’s Merry Anders, who I’d bet money one of my parents worked with after she left the business. (One thing about living in L.A. is that a lot of former actors settle here even after they retire. And most of them die right around here, too.)

Anyway, I’ve noticed a pattern with the CT movies, which is that they start off blazing, and this one is no exception. At the beginning, the end, and a few spots in the middle, the laughs come so fast you either have to rewind or commit to watch again.

At the same time, there are a few lags, like the badness of the movie bogs down the riffers.

There are probably fewer lags in this than in the previous three films. The sketches are starting to hit the mark pretty consistently, though there could be a few more, and the ones they have could be longer. The timing is improving, as we suspected it would. There’s a more natural rhythm; everyone seems to be getting more comfortable working together.

The Boy was less than enthusiastic about watching, saying the old stuff (MST3K) was funnier. But he laughed a lot and slapped his thigh more than once; I think he just misses the puppets.

I’m not missing them as much as I used to, but the “plot” of the show is trickling out excruciatingly slowly. Apparently the crew has been captured and sent forward in time (or maybe just abducted by aliens?) who need their riffing talents to save humanity.

What’s good about the new set-up is the use of the silhouette approach to rig up sets that would be otehrwise challenging. For example, in this episode, it looks like there’s a tank to one side of the movie room.

This episode stands out because, I think, it’s probably the most re-watchable episode to date. I’m not 100% sure of this, but this is the first one where I was thinking “I could watch this again” while the episode was running.

So, good job to the CT crew, and keep the shows coming!

Cinematic Titanic Stings The Wasp Woman

The first fifteen minutes of this is blazingly funny. Non-stop, high-octane riffing. (Actually, the last fifteen minutes is also terrific. And the in-between 50 minutes are pretty dang hilarious.) Maybe the best yet.

In the latest Cinematic Titanic, the guys take on Roger Corman’s ‘50s classic The Wasp Woman. “Classic” may be too strong a word here, but actually, it’s a real movie with a beginning middle and end, real actors, and a real plot which makes sense, after a fashion. In typical Corman low-budget style, of course, it has little in the way of action, giving lots of space for riffing.

More coherent than The Doomsday Machine, and less oozy than The Oozing Skull, I’m sensing a new Golden Age Of Riffing with this latest one. Josh seemed a little subdued this time, and the “Board Meeting” and “Buddy Rich” sketches still didn’t quite come off–though the Board Meeting just needed a little more tweaking to go from mildly amusing to a gem–but overall the flow is flowing, and the shape is shaping up.

Oh, and unlike most movies, the mixing is kick-ass. You can hear what the guys are saying, you can hear what’s going on in the movie, the music is often obnoxious but, hey, it’s B-movie music, and it doesn’t blow your eardrums out so that you’re fiddling with the remote constantly.

Problems? Well, while I’m still not crazy about the political humor (Trace! A John McCain is old joke? Really?) they’ve kept a lid on it. I know this stuff goes down big at the cons and live performances, guys. Hell, even I’ll laugh and clap with a bunch of other morons at a reference like that. It just falls flat in the living room.

Worse, for me, though, is the swearing. I’m no shrinking violet. I can quote Chapter and Verse in “South Park”. Hell, I could probably act out the entire movie, complete with musical score, which isn’t something I’ve been able to do with a musical since The Muppet Movie.

But one of my favorite aspects of the old MST3K was the gentle ribbing and walking-the-line profanity (“Is dickweed a bad word?”) and the clever censorship. (Remember City Limits where Joel opens his umbrella to cover the nudity?) All that stuff was funnier than working without a net is.

Now, I’ll admit, Trace’s line about “I’m just going to fill my nostrils with your perfume before returning to the world of rat shit” was pretty good. But there was another “shit” right after that, and then the Buddy Rich sketch with the “goddamns”.

It’s a slippery slope. You could doubtless do 80 minutes of political clap humor and working blue, and probably some people would eat it up. It’s a way to go, and it’s gotta be easier than actually being clever. But it won’t fly here.

P.S. We sill miss the robots.

Cinematic Titanic Sinks Again! The Doomsday Machine

Update and bump: See the comments for more information on Rifftrax, which I may have misrepresented in my description. Conor from RT sets me straight.

So, I finally
got the DVD for the latest Cinematic Titanic experiment. I so wanted to go to the live show which was playing at the Ford Theater here, but the tickets sold out lightning fast. With any luck, the fact that they’re recording nearby will mean that they have more live shows in the area.

What’s especially cool about this one, delayed though it be, is the sense I got that the CT crew was actually listening to me. Well, not just me. (Hey, why not just me? I’m the god! I’M THE GOD!!!) But I suspect some others had similar complaints and they responded.

To wit: The show opens with the five cast members (Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu and Mary Jo Pehl) silhouetted, as before, but now with their picture underneath briefly as they speak. It’s a little thing, but it helps.

The sound mixing is awesome. That whole problem with MST3K, where you had to crank up your TV just to hear the movie and the riffing, then got blasted by a commercial–okay, you don’t get blasted on the MST3K DVDs, but there’s still a lot of noise–that’s just plain gone. I don’t know if I mentioned it last time, but this time was even clearer, if that’s possible.

And Mary Jo Pehl just comes alive on this feature. I was somewhat concerned on the first episode. She didn’t seem to have much riffing time. In this one, she scores more than a few good shots.

Finally, there’s a backstory of some sort. There was just a teaser for it this time, but it seems as though our five heroes have been snatched by future people (in the future!) and are watching bad movies to…uh…save the earth or the space-time continuum, or somesuch. This provides a pretty good setup for a “Thunderdome” joke–and, by the way, forced perspective works wonders when you’re dealing with silhouettes–and will, I think provide more opportunities for insanity in the future.

I mean, as fun as the movie riffing is, one of the problems that occurred during the original show is that the movies are so bad, you literally start hoping for some sort of break. And with no commercials, the only breaks here are when they stop the movie to discuss something.

That aspect, by the way, of stopping the movie to discuss things worked way better this time.

This movie was one of those movies. Not all of it. It starts out deliriously goofy. The opening scene is, I’m sure, from a completely different movie (a Japanese spy flick?), and then, about 10-15 minutes before where a good movie would have had its climax, it once again goes to a completely different movie.

What actually happened was that the movie was filmed in the late ‘60s, ran out of money, and then resumed shooting five years later, with none of the original actors. I’m not making this up. The movie just grinds to an absolute, merciless halt. The riffing is inspired, but it’s still hard to watch.

One of the all time greatest MST3K episodes was based on Manos: The Hands of Fate, which was similarly hard to watch. I had to see it several times before the pain stopped and I could learn to laugh–and love–again.

This kind of raises an issue I have maintained for years: That it’s equally easy (if not easier) to riff on good movies. Riffing on Citizen Kane, for example, would be hilarious. I think Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy, and some of the other MST3K guys do that on Rifftrax. (They’ve got Alien, 300 and The Sixth Sense, for example, up there.) I’ve never used Rifftrax because it seems too complicated and it’s got “digitial rights management” (DRM). Yeah, just what I need: A computer to tell me I don’t have the right to watch what I’ve just paid for.

Also, confronted with quality movies being riffed on suddenly doesn’t seem as interesting in practice as it sounded in theory. I don’t know why.

In any event, there’s the sheer joy of the low-budget film watching. The cardboard tombstones, the lizards being shoved into tiny models, or, in the case of this movie, the high-school gymnasium converted to serve as the inside of a very small spaceship. Said spaceship itself taking the form of five different models during the movie.

Rambling aside, this is a strong episode. It opens fast and funny, has some callbacks to familiar friends (“Don’t ever look at me!!”), works well with the new set (like Josh reacting to being “splashed” with water, or walking off the set to be replaced with a completely different actor), and just plain feels right. The real problem they’re going to have is keeping up with my expectations.

And CT assures me it won’t be four months till the next one, so, yeah: Life is sweet.

Cinematic Titanic Sinks The Oozing Skull

Well, it finally arrived. And…? And…?

Well, it’s been 20 years about since the Satellite of Love launched. Our beloved crew is older, wiser, and technology has moved forward a lot in 20 years.

Can you go home again?

Well, Cinematic Titanic is like going home and finding things better than you remember them.

Don’t get me wrong: Episode 1 is not perfect, and we all missed the campy set up and in-between sketches that were standard on MST3K. Also, it feels like a first episode in some ways, like the cast hasn’t got their rhythms down perfectly yet.

But in terms of riffs-per-minute? Sheer comic gold. About as good as anything MST3K ever did.

So, how does it work? The five principals (Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo and Josh) sit along the edges of the screen and riff. The resolution is such that you can actually make them out better than Tom and Crow from the original series (but we do miss the puppets). Sometimes Trace will use the Crow voice and it’s sort of bittersweet.

With five people there is a different dynamic, and there’s a lot to be explored there. This first episode, besides being funny in itself, promises greater things.

To spice things up a bit further, there are guest appearances (Stephen Hawkings in this episode), and they stop the movie from time-to-time. There’s a scene in this one where a character has acid poured on his face, and Joel stops it to ask if it’s really necessary. The gentleness of Joel’s character made a great foil on MST3K and it still works here, as the others scold him for stopping the movie. (You don’t really see anything as far as acid being poured on anyone’s face, by the way. The whole show is pretty family friendly.)

At another point Trace stops the film on a close-up of Regina Carroll so he can fix her makeup, after which Frank quips something like “If that doesn’t get us on Bravo, nothing will.”

Oozing Skull itself is a fairly standard “let’s transplant someone’s brain so they’ll live forever” plot. In this case “someone” is the beloved dictator of a middle (far?) eastern country (“Postcardia!” as Trace riffs when a picture of a Taj Mahal type building is shown). But it’s a sort of no-holds barred ‘70s version of the story that includes a mad scientist, an evil dictator, a platinum blonde bimbette (the director’s wife, no less), a disfigured giant, a dwarf, a dungeon, a lab, and graphic-ish brain surgery! There’s also two romantic sub-plots, betrayals abound, and the mad scientist has a pain-ray-gun.

It’s a myth that only the worst movies can be riffed on. (I have a dream of seeing the crew do Citizen Kane.) The movies must attempt a plot, have the right amount of dialog, and if they have no action at all, they can still be hard to watch, riffing or no. Skull is particularly rich in plot and action, just a little confused and more than a little hampered by a low budget.

This makes it a perfect movie for riffing, and riff they do. It’s definitely a multiple-watcher.

If I had but one request, one dream come true, it would be this: Stay clear of the political humor guys. There are a couple of instances where Frank riffs on Bush and, really, it’s not good. Yeah, I’m sure it gets applause when you do it live. But it’s “clap humor”, not real humor, and I’d rather have a dozen more references to Ray Stevens and Ginger Baker.

For $16 (including shipping and handling, with luck to be dropped to $13 for download-and-burn once they work out that out), you could do a lot worse for a night’s entertainment.