Saturday, June 26, 2010

S02E03 - Jungle Goddess


Short: A mad scientist plans on using his latest inventions - a giant robot and a newly discovered formula that can place people in a state of suspended animation - to become rich and/or rule the world, but his wife and a scientist who once worked with him plan to stop him by informing the government of his inventions. Undeterred, the mad scientist fakes his death and starts planning his means of covering his lie up.

Film: An arrogant pilot and his friend fly their plane to the continent of Africa to search for a crashed plane that carried the female heiress of a rich mogul, hoping to obtain a reward in exchange for her whereabouts. Upon landing near the site of a crashed plane, they are taken captive by a local tribe, where they discover that the heiress is alive and is considered a goddess by the tribesmen.

Movie Review

Another season, another serial short series. This time, instead of dull action of Commando Cody's Radar Men from the Moon, we get The Phantom Creeps, starring Bela Lugosi in yet another typecast role. Bela plays a mad scientist (big surprise) who wishes to use his inventions to (what else?) take over the world. Or is it get rich by selling his evil inventions to evil governments? I'm not exactly clear on his motivation, but then again, with writing this obtuse, neither is this serial short.

Because this serial is as generic as they come, many of the same tired cliches and tropes are employed here. We have the giant robot that's slow and lumbering and yet is expected to be a deadly threat on a battlefield (see also: The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy). We have Bela Lugosi hamming it up with his thick accent as a mad scientist with no clear motivation except vague sinister intention (see also: The Corpse Vanishes*). We get poorly defined protagonists who offer no screen presence and are utterly forgettable (see also: The Mad Monster). In addition, this serial episode ends on a cliffhanger that I swear is identical to two - count 'em, two - cliffhangers in Radar Men from the Moon. This serial isn't just generic, it's downright lazy.

*Is it just me, or does Bela like doing projects with the naming scheme "The [NOUN] [PRESENT TENSE VERB]"?

About the only thing worth talking about in this serial are the mad scientist's inventions, if only to highlight how ridiculous they are. The first one shown is a giant metal robot which, as mentioned, is meant to be a destructive weapon in great numbers in a war zone but moves so laughably slowly that the enemy would die from laughter before the mechanical thing got anywhere near them. The goofy-looking head only makes it look less threatening. The second invention is even more silly, and it's a spider-like creature that is "attracted" to a small disk that looks like a communion wafer. Upon reaching the wafer, the spider explodes and...I can't believe I'm writing this...and causes any living thing it touches to be placed in suspended animation. If that doesn't sound patently absurd, I don't know what is. But hey, this serial is running with this idea, so let's see where they take it in the next episode, where the heroes escape the plane crash with parachutes, I'm sure.

And now for the feature film, Jungle Goddess, the movie that does one thing and one thing well, and that's stereotypes. A preposterous artifact of the late 1940s, this film should be studied if only to show that yes, people once held these views without irony or shame (if, of course, a better print than the one that Best Brains have is found, preferably one that doesn't look like the sun is burning everything to a white crisp). From women to Africans to whites, no stereotype is left unturned in this piece of schlock.

The story itself is paper-thin: an arrogant pilot convinces his partner (a pre-Superman George Reeves) to help him search for a plane carrying the daughter of a Dutch millionaire that crashed before World War II. Upon finding the plane in the jungles of Africa, they are captured by a primitive tribe and find that the heiress is now worshiped as a god by the tribe. The arrogant pilot is to be put to death for killing a tribesman with his gun (of course), but the jungle goddess wishes to return home, so she hatches a plan to escape with the two pilots. Sexism and racism ensue.

Let's look at the racism first. Naturally, the movie takes place in Africa. Just...Africa. No need to name a country, since Africa is one big country, right? And of course the tribe is a typical Hollywood African tribe, where non-white actors dress in silly costumes and yell vaguely African dialects like savages. It would be comical if people back then didn't take these portrayals seriously. And I haven't even mentioned the tribesmen obviously seeing a white woman as a goddess (because white is better than black!), or the doting servant woman who's as thick as a brick, or the evil witchdoctor who wishes to control the tribe himself. Why should I bother mentioning these things, when they're pretty much par for the course!

The "white devils," or the male pilots, don't fare much better. Their racism is a lot more subtler than the exaggerated portrayal of the African tribesmen, though their actions make it clear that they see themselves as superior. The most hilarious example of their bigotry is when they discover that the land near the tribe possesses a radioactive element that is worth a lot of money. What is the purpose of this plot device? Nothing except that the white men can be rich when they return back to civilization and tell everyone about this untapped reservoir. Apparently, that ranch in Colorado is more important than the livelihood of the tribesmen.

Finally, the women portrayed in this flick are the typical weak, pathetic creatures that early cinema likes to indulge in. Funnily enough, there are only two women in the entire movie: the goddess and her servant. The latter is a stereotypical ignorant black girl who needs her white master to be someone important. The former is a girl who is meant to look tough (she's the goddess of a tribe with a witchdoctor who hates her, after all) but is so weak she ends up twisting her ankle upon leaving the village with the two pilots. Sexism at its best. Geez...

Normally I would by now point out something worthwhile about the film, but honestly there is nothing at all decent in this movie. The characters are flat, the story is barely there, and the stereotypes are too obnoxious to ignore. It's not as bad as The Mad Monster, but it is still a wretched piece of cinema that, outside of curiosity on how low Hollywood's standards sunk, deserves to be dead and buried.

MST3K Review

I liked this episode, for some reason. Many of the riffs weren't as good as some past episode, but many other riffs were gut-bustingly funny. At the least, I laughed out loud more times during Jungle Goddess than I did during The Sidehackers. Even the accompanying short got some laughs out of me, primarily thanks to Joel and the bots' overdone Bela Lugosi impersonations. I'm not sure how long it will take for those impressions to grow old, but at least for this episode, they did their job.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

S02E02 - The Sidehackers


A member of a sidehacker racing team becomes familiar with a traveling biker entertainment gang when the gang's leader needs his bike fixed. The hot-tempered gang leader tries to convince the sidehacker to join his group, but to no effect. When the sidehacker later on turns down the advances of the gang leader's girlfriend, a horrible lie leads to the sidehacker's idyllic life being shattered and seeking revenge against the ones who had destroyed everything.

Movie Review

What kind of film were they trying to make here? That was the question that ran through my mind as The Sidehackers unfolded, mostly in the latter half of the film. The movie's title would indicate that this is some kind of sports film, but the movie itself says otherwise. Of course, if the film itself is good, then that would excuse that kind of disconnect between title and film, but the overall result presented here is not something to be proud of.

As mentioned above, one would think Sidehackers was a film about the eponymous sport of motorcycles with side carts (the so-called "sidehacks"). But the sport plays very little of a role in the story, if any. In fact, its only use is to pad the movie's run time, and boy, does it pad. The sidehacking races just go on and on and on with absolutely no relation to the narrative other than a flimsy reason to tie the protagonist and antagonist together. And the sidehacker bike's appearance at film's end also serves no purpose other than to remind the viewers that the movie is named after a niche sport.

Outside of these races, the movie is a generic biker film that tries to one up other biker films with unsettling brutality. Said brutality is, of course, the deaths of the two main females, particularly the girlfriend of the film's protagonist. In a set of scenes that are jarring compared to the rest of the film, the hero's girlfriend is viciously raped (no nudity, but little is held back) and strung up on the ceiling after she is killed. The villain's own girlfriend, who is abused throughout the film, ends up getting choked by the villain during a fit of madness. To say this film is misogynistic is putting it lightly.

And let's not forget about the characters themselves, who inhabit a set of personalities that try to have depth but end up over the top. The prime example of this is the movie's villain, JC, who chews enough scenery to make a whole new film; if not for the rape scene, he would make this movie hilarious. The hero tries to hard to be a gruff hard-ass with a soft spot in his heart, and the two girlfriends, despite their polarizing characters, still end up portrayed as attachments to their male counterparts. The only truly annoying character is one that appears near film's end and who burns his hideousness into the audience's minds with his terrible joke-telling. Everyone else in the movie doesn't have anything interesting to truly distinguish them.

In short, the film fails at being a sports film and fails at being a good film in general. Outside of the sidehacking, the generic biker narrative is completely uninteresting beyond an unnecessary rape sequence. Some people might choose to elevate it a little because of its interesting decision to go with a nihilistic ending, but that only makes a terrible film a miserable one.

MST3K Review

With the "season shock" between seasons one and two finished, now I can judge MST3K's episodes on their own merits, and while The Sidehackers does offer some good riffs, it isn't one of the strongest episodes in the series. This episode actually became infamous because before this film, Best Brains would never watch a movie before writing their riffs; they always wrote their jokes while watching a movie for the first time. The brutal rape scene in Sidehackers convinced them to change that policy and watch a movie in its entirety before committing to using it in the show. The movie's nihilism streak, coupled with the rape scenes that they had to excise, likely contributed to the riffing's overall subdued feeling.

On a positive note, I did enjoy the one riff done by Cambot, the bot only seen in the show's opening. The parody on the EPSN sports tracker was brilliant.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

S02E01 - Rocketship X-M


A group of astronauts board the Rocketship X-M for the Earth's first manned voyage to the moon. On the way, disaster strikes as the engines malfunction, forcing the crew to reconfigure their fuel balances. Their on-the-fly calculations accidentally end up sending the hapless astronauts to an entirely different place than they had intended, leading to them discovering a horrific past for one of the solar system's planets.

Movie Review

This movie is boring. That word pretty much can sum up the entire film, but since I'd like to make a bit more effort than that, I shall. Still, one cannot deny that most of this film is filled with tedium that would make Project Moonbase proud. Even with the recognizable and entertaining Lloyd Bridges starring, Rocketship X-M fails to tell an engaging story, from beginning to its patently absurd ending.

Likely the biggest contributor to the story's failings is that there isn't much of a story to begin with. In what seems to be a recurring problem with movies on this show, the story is a paper-thin premise stretched well beyond its ability to tell an engaging narrative. Hence, the first half of the film, if not more, fills each scene with padded exposition and faux drama that end up doing nothing to move the story forward. Almost two-thirds of the movie deal with the crew talking to reporters on the ground, the ship taking off, the rocketship breaking down, the crew reconfiguring its fuel, and putting the recalibrated fuel into effect, something that could've been done in a much smaller time frame.

The second half of the film (or is it the final third?) is where the story goes from padded to ridiculous. In an attempt to slap an anti-nuclear war message onto the film, the astronauts miss landing on the moon and instead find themselves on Mars, where they witness an advanced civilization that has become "primitive" due to nuclear war. The idea of a rocketship "missing" the moon and somehow finding themselves on Mars, as well as the heavy-handed moral, is absurd enough that it detracts from the movie's finale, in which the remainder of the ship crash and die upon returning to Earth. The silly final speech by the mission chief doesn't help matters, either.

If there is one positive I can give this film, however, it is its marked attempt at realism. Shot several years before the first moon landing, Rocketship X-M nevertheless does a decent job at portraying space travel. Sure, not all attempts succeed; for example, meteors flying past the rocket make whooshing sounds in airless space, the crew treats its liftoff in the same manner of trying to catch a departing bus, and there's no way to defend the absurdity of the rocket somehow missing the moon and finding Mars. However, the film does deserve some credit for trying to portray varying degrees of gravity, and though the fuel reconfiguration scene is painfully dull, it does show the usefulness of actual scientists.

Unfortunately, the latter scene also demonstrates that familiar monster in films of this era: sexism. One female scientist is part of the crew, and when she and the chief male scientist attempt to recalculate the fuel, the male scientist overrides her calculations. When she objects then apologizes, the male says nonchalantly, "For what, for momentarily being a woman?" This sexism rears its head once again when the woman relays her fears about the fuel mixture, and the male quips about her "woman's intuition." But, in an interesting twist, the sexism is averted when the woman proves to be correct in her fears, although this aversion is far more subtle than the actual display of sexism.

Additionally, the characters are nothing to write home about. Lloyd Bridges seems to be the only one who attempts to give his character anything resembling a personality, and he still ends up being more annoying (though not as annoying as the Texas astronaut whose whole character is predictably defined by his home state). The female scientist does try to be more than the passing love interest, though the film gives her nothing to work with, and the head astronaut/chauvinist is too predictable to be anything more than a given set of tropes. All other characters offer nothing memorable over the course of the film.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Rocketship X-M is this piece of trivia regarding its production: in an effort to beat the delayed picture Destination Moon to theaters, X-M was made over a span of a grand total of 18 days. While it's certainly impressive that they managed to get some semblance of a movie out of those near three weeks, the results are still nothing to crow about and make it an interesting but unmemorable artifact of cinema.

MST3K Review

Wow. Just, wow.

First of all, let's talk about the MST3K show itself. I don't discuss the host segments that occur between the movie because, quite frankly, they're not my cup of tea. I know a lot of people see these host segments as part of the show's charm, and I did see a lot of great segments back in season one. However, for me, the main attraction is and has always been the feature film and its riffs, and that is where I judge an episode's strength. The host segments, if anything, are a bonus for me.

With that said, the show has certainly upgraded from the previous season to season two. A cleaner look, more polished segments, and the introduction (and loss) of a couple characters. One newcomer here is Frank Conniff, who plays TV's Frank and Dr. Forrester's newest assistant. Why? Because Josh Weinstein (Dr. Erhardt) has left the show. And that also means Tom Servo, voiced by Josh, gets a new voice...and it's the familiar (to me) Kevin Murphy. By now I've gotten used to Trace Beaulieu voicing Crow instead of Bill Corbett, but I could never really get used to Josh as Servo. He did nothing wrong - in fact it did the best he ever could - but for some reason Tom's voice was always the most jarring, though this might've had to do with the fact that his jokes often fell flat the most. Kevin, on the other hand, is a much more vibrant voice for Tom, and though this has much to do with my familiarity with Kevin's voice, it is clear to see that he is an improvement over Josh.

And now for the After watching the relative looseness of the first season, the first episode of season two was like night and day. Gone is the lighthearted and almost sloppy feeling that plagued many season one episodes; replacing it is a rehearsed performance by Joel and the bots that flows much more smoothly. And while Rocketship X-M is not exactly a classic episode in the show, it is a gem compared to season one and contained some strong riffs that really benefited from the more planned performances.

In many ways, this was the perfect means of re-introducing us to MST3K and its new overall look and feel, as well as make us look forward to the next episode in the series.