Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cry Reptilicus: The Return of MST3k, Part 1


The 'boooots aaaaare baaaack iiiin town!

In December 2015, Joel Hodgson closed out the most successful video-based Kickstarter campaign to date with $5.7 million in fan donations to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show he created for Minneapolis UHF station KTMA back in 1988. The runaway success cannot be overstated. Hodgson originally thought he'd hit a three-episode goal of two mil, but the excitement of a fresh take on the beloved series enticed tons of MSTies, myself included.

Put it this way: the closing credits of episode 1101 include a Revival League list hasn't gotten past the people whose first names start with A. The list of contributors is 48,270 strong. It's going to be a long wait to get to the Js, which is especially poignant since Joel has passed on the Gizmonic-brand jumpsuit to a man named Jonah.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3k for short) survived multiple shifts in personnel and two cancellations from cable stations to reach the massive cult it has developed. There has also been a crate-load of digital video releases from Rhino! and Shout Factory devoted to the original series' ten-season run. There's a lot of passionate devotion to specific episodes, specific hosts, specific Mads, and specific personalities. But series creator Hodgson, who left the series in the fifth season and made a return to shadowrama with Cinematic Titanic, has given his blessings to the new staff living in Deep 13:


The 14 episodes of the eleventh official season open as well they should, with the invitation to "Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)." The premiere even harkens back to the original's model exterior of "the big G," before taking us where no MST3k has gone before: into Gizmonic Institute's very own ground control room. There we are briefed on the hotshot back-jack sky pilot known as Jonah Heston, who is hauling a valuable supply of meteors to help Gizmonic through financial jeopardy. Little does Jonah know that the distress call he just answered will take him on the dark side of the moon, where the descendant of Gizmonic's greatest enemy awaits to carry on her father's legacy of Deep Hurting.

Enter Kinga Forrester of the Moon 13 research station, who has successfully space-napped Jonah with intent to profit off the cinematic torture she will inflict on him. Although she has stars in her eyes, Kinga and her assistant Max, who tries in vain to be called "TV's Son of TV's Frank," download via liquid media one Reptilicus, whose biggest name is Dirch Passer, a legend of his native Copenhagen and the most prolific Danish actor in history. It doesn't get any more esteemed than that.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, though, does possess an array of nerd-friendly casting choices as well as some choice cameos which I refuse to ruin for you. Podcaster extraordinaire Jonah Ray Rodrigues fills out the yellow jumpsuit with amiable glee, whilst Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) and Patton Oswalt (Reno 911!) were sure things the moment the news broke that they were the new Mads.

The real trick is the casting of the robots, as Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett lasted long enough in their tenures to leave indelible marks. Murphy established Tom Servo early on via a deep, TV pitchman tone and rapacious self-confidence, whilst Beaulieu was a sharp vocal impersonator (of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, especially) and always the most audibly puckish of the in-theater gang. The Mike Nelson years showed Murphy, Beaulieu and Corbett more or less speaking in their natural tones, but even those had their distinct personalities.

Baron Vaughn (as Servo) and Hampton Yount (as Crow) don't stand out as much as their predecessors (which also includes Josh Weinstein's original voice of Servo), although Crow's flair for mischief does give Yount an advantage at times. Vaughn's Servo still has that "Hey, world, look at me!" charm, but without Murphy's down-from-the-mountaintop authority. Whereas Jonah Ray shows a disarming ease filling in for Hodgson and Nelson, the real surprise is Gypsy's newly-modified voice, an actual female for once in the presence of Rebecca Hanson (who also appears on-camera as helper clone Synthia). No longer the dim Richard Basehart obsessive of yore, she actually drops by in-theater with "the payload" and gets in a honest belly laugh as opposed to the confused maintenance bot who couldn't hack it during Hercules and the Captive Women.

These are mostly just general impressions based on the handful of episodes I watched thus far. I really want to get a deeper look at the entire fan-funded inaugural season and pull my weight as a reviewer and a fan, even of many of the actors whose names may not ring bells for modern audiences. Besides, Caroline Munro is featured in two of these experiments, and my heart's a-fluttering. Let's begin with a breakdown of the first two installments of MST3k: Moon 13: The Return.


EPISODE I: REPTILICUS

Flimsy plot synopsis: The fossils of a mysterious creature are discovered on a mining excavation and regenerated in a laboratory. Unfortunately, the creature comes alive and wreaks havoc on nearby Copenhagen, leaving men of both science and military uncertain how to stop this "Reptilicus."

Reptilicus is actually a fascinating case in the annals of B-cinema, an attempt by the Great Danes to replicate the "atomic monster movie" formula which worked well in both the U.S. (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and Japan (Godzilla). Danish studio Saga co-produced with American International Pictures and went so far as to film two separate versions of the film that could play to their respective native tongues. However, co-writer/director Sidney W. Pink, who produced the trend-setting 3-D smash Bwana Devil, turned over to AIP head Sam Arkoff a disaster, with comically pronounced Danish accents and equally rickety special effects. Pink filed suit to prevent Arkoff and co-writer Ib Melchior from tampering with Pink's cut of the film, but after many testimonies from others in the industry, the case was dropped and Arkoff's alterations were made.

This producer's cut of Reptilicus is the version screened for Jonah and the returning tag team of Tom Servo & Crow T. Robot, and the riffing here is as exquisite as ever. With a newly-assembled writing team headed by bad movie specialist (hear: The Flop House!) and Daily Show staffer Elliot Kalan, the pitch of the riffs is a return to the awestruck sarcasm of Hodgson's glory days rather than the meaner edge of the Sci-Fi years. The difference is notable in the way the trio tackle the comic relief of Dirch Passer as Petersen, the Danish Andy Griffith (also "Al Capp's Lil' Abner"). No doubt added to provide some slapstick respite in the early stages of the movie, Passer isn't as over-the-top as Droppo or as insufferable as the guys from Attack of the Eye Creatures, but his tomfoolery sticks out like Gypsy's freshly-Midwesternized voice.

Fooling around with a telescope while eating a sandwich, the security-tasked bumbler Petersen prompts this jest from Servo: "And Jethro discovers he is the half-brother of a piece of cheese."

One of Arkoff's major additions to Pink's film was the use of animation for Reptilicus' acid attacks, with green slime trailing down the screen to add unconvincing menace. Its resemblance to Nickelodeon gak is seized upon, as is the realization that Monster Energy may as well be brewed in Reptilicus' stomach (what, no Slurm jokes?). By the time this trick is repeated thrice, Jonah realizes that "The slime doesn't hurt anybody. It just transitions into another scene."

Indeed, it does. We never see the aftermaths or anybody writhing in pain from being doused in Reptilicus' biological weapon. Indeed, the most gruesome sight in the film is a cow's decapitated head to give the impression that the giant reptile has massacred a farm's worth of livestock: "That cow had a month to go before retirement, too!"

Bent Mejding plays the strapping young hero Svend, who initially unearths the remains of Reptilicus whilst mining copper and basically spends the rest of the movie as the resident chick magnet: "Even his collar has a collar!" Dr. Dalby, who devises the means of regenerating Reptilicus through nutrient-supplemented bathwater, invents "Reptiliberry Cherrysaurus" and sleeps on the job at the wrong time, thawing out the creature. The central figure of scientific authority, though, is Professor Martens (Asbjorn Andersen), who has two perky daughters and a heart condition. One of the girls, Lise, chances upon the dried-out monster carcass: "What did you to my [birthday] pony?"

And then there's Gen. Grayson, an American army official played by the very Danish Carl Ottosen. Whether reading his own biography in the paper or proving too numbly masculine to comfort Lise when her father is hospitalized, the zingers that follow him are uproarious.

One of the highlights of the in-theater riffing is Tom Servo's hover skirt, which allows him to fly towards the screen when the opportunity arrives for a close visual laugh, like when he is drawn towards Grayson's slicked-up hair and recoils with disgust: "Did you make a vow not to wash your hair until Reptilicus was dead?" Crow gets his own prop-based humdinger during Reptilicus' attack on Copenhagen, the trio intervene on a possible argument between Gen. Grayson and Prof. Martens and, as mentioned earlier, the feminine Gypsy finally becomes one of the boys ("Now, you're Mr. Filing Cabinet!").

The pop culture references are plentiful, with special nods to Tom Carvel, Blazing Saddles and Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and the music-based riffs diverse and giddy, from Glenn Miller to Prince (saluted twice), Frank Sinatra to Olivia Newton-John, Bobby "Boris" Pickett to the Village People. Even better, the revived series' first original song in the first between-movie host segment is a riotous rap number tracing monsters of all nations. Although there are a couple of noticeable lulls where one would expect an obvious joke, this sit-through of Reptilicus packs plenty of easygoing laughs.

It should be noted that Shout! Factory, who have licensed not just MST3k but a few of the titles featured, Reptilicus included, offered their HD-friendly widescreen transfer of the movie for the show. This is another breakthrough for MST3k, as previous seasons simulated the channel-surfing appeal of these off-guard B-movie riffs by retaining full-frame images suitable for vintage TV sets. In our LCD age, this time we return to This Island Earth grandeur for this entire season. We don't exactly get 2.35:1 Cinemascope (maybe in the future with luck), but here we get real compositions and remastered visuals.

Back in the Joel Hodgson days, they'd lampoon drive-in concession ads by jettisoning hot dogs and popcorn into space. As this new iteration of MST3k now proves, there's no new tradition like an old tradition.



EPISODE II: CRY WILDERNESS

Flimsy plot synopsis: Private school moppet Paul Cooper believes in Bigfoot after befriending him last summer over a dozen cans of Coca-Cola and a transistor radio, but he's naturally the only one. So when Sasquatch sounds a distress call one night, warning Paul that his ranger dad is in mortal danger, the boy runs away and meets up with not just his pappy, but also a way-too-jovial Indian companion and a mercenary big game hunter who also realizes Sasquatch might just be real...real killable.

Boutique label Vinegar Syndrome has anted up this film for the new MST3k as opposed to Shout! Factory. The invention exchanges have been carried over from the original series, and if you are familiar with Patton Oswalt's stand-up, Kinga and Max's latest get-rich-fast scheme is going to be even more of a treat. Jonah comes up with a new Turkey Day device that turns carving the bird into murdering Janet Leigh in the shower. I am also happy to report that I am getting more familiar with Vaughn & Yount's vocal tics as Servo & Crow, although there is a three-headed cameo for those who fancy MST3k's later years.

But the movie is once again the kind of rubbernecking schlock which is where the action is. If Reptilicus brought back memories of Sandy Frank's Gamera and the lower-tier Universal monster movies which were routinely roasted on the Satellite of Love, Cry Wilderness is the successor to J.P. Simon's Pod People. Somehow, Cry Wilderness director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen was given special thanks in the credits to Sleepless in Seattle; if his career is any indication, maybe Nora Ephron was able to make an entire movie out of unused footage from Joe Vs. the Volcano.

Schlossberg was a savvy cinematic recycler whose 1985 omnibus film Night Train to Terror was pieced together from three existing movies: the Cameron Mitchell vehicle Cataclysm (The Nightmare Never Ends), the Schlossberg-produced Dark Side to Love and an unfinished project called "Scream Your Head Off" starring Richard Moll. Cry Wilderness, meanwhile, seems to consist mostly of original 35mm footage shot for one particular movie, but is padded with library-sourced inserts of various wildlife to nudge it closer towards feature length ("At some point in your life, you might have to resort to YouTube to finish your film").

Making Cry Wilderness even more interminable are the stereotyped characters, from the annoying adolescent lead on down to three random bikers who show up apropos of nothing. There's even a swishy-looking mayor who keeps a swimsuit-clad blonde around for show. The saddest case is John Tallman as Jim, the mystical Native American who also doubles as a laugh track. Maybe watching Powwow Highway beforehand kind of kills this goofy characterization for me, as Gary Farmer seemed a lot more natural and humorous playing the spiritually-aware yet childlike Cheyenne in the Buick "pony." That was a really joyful experience, as Cry Wilderness tries desperately to drum up interest between travelogue montages of various critters.

Once you get beyond the footage of antelopes, lemurs and skunks in their natural habitat, there's the little issue of Sasquatch, or "Homo-erectus Galifanakis," to deal with. You will believe the friendship between Paul and his mythical caretaker...until you realize Bigfoot has basically sent the kid to a death trap, himself. Then it stops being whimsical completely. Mr. Cooper's certain doom is a letdown when it finally arrives, and could've easily been avoided had Paul simply stayed away.

Take it from Servo: "Watching this movie is cinematic puberty. Nothing makes sense, and it never goes the way you'd expect."

The riffs come at you at a faster clip in this second episode, such is the incomprehensible nature of this particular slab of nature (even Patton Oswalt is thrown for a loop 45 minutes in). The opening scenes in the boys' school are ripe for Hogwarts call-outs. Paul hitches a ride from a trucker whose nondescript country song of northwest pride makes Jonah feel like he's "living upstairs from Rascal Flatts." A recurring joke stems from one commenter observing that Paul's dad may have to wing him with his rifle for the boy's own good ("Bang!"). The mean hunter in the mesh shirt, Hicks, researches Bigfoot after discovering a suspicious set of footprint: "Embrace the prophecy of Time Life books!" A Werner Herzog impression, some Purple Kush-flavored dope humor and the apparent lovechild of Louis C.K. and Chris Elliot are thrown in also whenever the commentary threatens to lag.

There's even a Rowsdower allusion, although Bigfoot's vocal resemblance to "warwilf" goes unnoticed.

Reptilicus and Cry Wilderness are a great one-two punch to start off MST3k: The Return. The former feels comfortably cheesy and jovial, setting the bar for later episodes to match, whilst the latter takes on a more idiosyncratic B-movie and reaps major dividends. The next installment of this complete series rundown marks the revenge of Ib Melchior and also includes some of the biggest names ever to appear in a MST3k feature since Gene Hackman. Join me again, won't you?





Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection



MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE TURKEY DAY COLLECTION
(Unrated, Best Brains, Inc./Shout! Factory, 480 mins., video release date: November 25, 2014)

I'm excited about the newly-revived Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well I should be. For you see, I'm not just a spectator...I'm also a donor! 


Joel Hodgson's record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to reintroduce his once cable-broadcasted cowtown puppet show to the Millenial generation reflects the goodwill MST3k has built up since the tapes were kept circulating. There has been the long-running RiffTrax for those weaned more on the Sci-Fi era iteration of the program, with Mike, Kevin & Bill. And there was Hodgson's own return to movie riffing with Cinematic Titanic, which reunited the original Mads Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Josh "Elvis" Weinstein alongside Pearl herself, Mary Jo Pehl.

But ever since the final axe fell on MST3k, the show's initial charms may have been diminished. Hodgson may have unwittingly rejuvenated the "creature feature" movie-hosting format which was once the domain of late-night local television. Not unlike what more glamorous personalities like Elvira or Vampira were up to, MST3k shone a sarcastic but sincere spotlight on arcane exploitation titles. It also worked on the level more sophisticated viewers must have felt at one point whenever they tuned into something so tacky and tedious they couldn't bear it no more. And holding it together was the handmade grandeur of the series' designs, from the wisecracking robot sidekicks to Hodgson's Gizmonic devices to the models used in the opening credits.

The series attracted such a critical and cult success that the Comedy Channel/Comedy Central would give the show its own day-long seasonal celebration, a tradition known fondly as the "Turkey Day Marathon." From 1991 to 1994, the network would host a day-long chain of reruns which, or at least starting its second year, led to the premiere of one new episode (and in ‘92, it was book-ended with two of them!). There were newly-filmed host segments and bumpers to transition each episode and provide a blast of funny during commercial breaks. In 1995, before the start of the seventh and final Comedy Central season, the 24-hours-plus feast was pared down, perhaps another sign of the show's cancellation. The Sci-Fi Channel even tried to do its own special Thanksgiving marathon, but it was a mere seven episodes deep, just like in ‘95, and even then they pre-empted it by airing a couple Star Wars movies.

But, to quote Crow T. Robot himself, "there's no tradition like a new tradition," and Shout! Factory revived Turkey Day in 2013 by streaming six selected episodes featuring Joel Hodgson himself as the host, alongside his robot friends. The Kickstarter campaign for the new MST3k coincided with Turkey Day 2015. And as I write this, the new season will be arriving on Netflix in nine days, and I confess this review is a roundabout way to honor this occasion by once again dipping into one of Shout! Factory's DVD sets.

The 31st official boxed set of episodes was dubbed The Turkey Day Collection, released on Thanksgiving Day 2014. Needless to say, the company has kept the compilations coming so that there are now 38 multi-disc (read: four or more) home video releases of the program, discounting a basketful of individually-released titles. At this rate, nearly the entire cable-sanctioned run of MST3k has been released, although one hopes for a boxed set containing Attack of the Eye Creatures (season 4), Girls Town (season 6), either The Deadly Bees or Quest of the Delta Knights (season 9), and Danger: Diabolik (the series' finale). At least I do.

But this "Turkey Day Collection," while a decent cross section of episodes from the Joel and Mike years, is not exactly a reflection of the worst or even the most flamboyantly cheesy movies ever mocked during those ten seasons. The 20 fan favorites which are streaming over on Netflix is its own Turkey Day marathon, spanning from earlier Joel-centric discoveries like The Sidehackers (a bikesploitation/vigilante flick which featured the tender ballad "Only Love (Pads the Film)"), Catalina Caper (a beach blanket zero with Little Richard and Carol Connors as musical guests, as well as Servo‘s beloved "Creepy Girl") and the immortal Pod People ("Trumpy, you can do stupid things!") to the schlockiest of the Sci-Fi seasons, namely Space Mutiny ("We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese!"), Werewolf ("This is absolutely fascinating") and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders ("Rock & Roll Martian!").

There's even Manos: The Hands of Fate for that extra, existential touch of Deep Hurting.

Volume 31's experiments, meanwhile, run the range from somnambulant (The Screaming Skull) to mediocre (Jungle Goddess, The Painted Hills) to actually entertaining (Squirm). The latter, of course, is Jeff (Blue Sunshine) Lieberman's nature-on-the-rampage cult favorite, shot on location in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which was given a new life thanks to an Atlanta Braves sportscaster Skip Caray. Unlike Laserblast, which was given the same three-star rating by Leonard Maltin as he awarded Squirm, or Boggy Creek II, this isn't another dull hicksploitation worthy of rousing "Sweet Home Alabama" references from Kevin Murphy, but a quirky little gem with some skin-crawling Rick Baker effects (many of which were edited for the MST3k airing), legit shock moments (that tree crashing the house is, to borrow one description from the movie, "a dilly") and a very unlikely but well-rounded hero in Don Scardino.

"You can't goof on something that's already a goof," Lieberman has once said in his defense about the MST3k treatment of his film. That's not completely true, since self-deprecation wouldn't exist without it, and then I'd never have changed my Twitter profile name to Niltsson Pickett. Besides, if Leiberman was that miffed by Best Brains, I can only imagine the aneurysm he'd get if ever watched the Nostalgia Critic's episode on The NeverEnding Story III...which he wrote!

But even though the gang gives Squirm an honorable quota of hits for their penultimate performance, the humor which misses is decidedly more mean-spirited than I'd imagine Joel-era MST3k would stoop to, especially the knocks against both Geri and Alma Sanders (Patricia Pearcy, Fran Higgins). Pearcy is likened to that venerable Virginian character actor Brad Dourif early on, but that's nothing compared to a trinity of grossly unflattering likenesses ("A moldy Slim Jim!") she's barraged with in the dark. The worst of the jibes at Alma, whose platform shoes and patched pants are ripe targets, simply deem her mannish. At these moments, Mike, Kevin and Bill simply sound like, for lack of a better term, dickweeds.

The best of the host segments revolving around Squirm isn't so much Servo's coming down with a case of Southern Belle's Disease (cf: the Sanders sisters' dotty mom), but a joke on the implausible nature of the worm's homicidal tendencies which is like a passage from a certain Thomas Rockwell book. The best of the in-theater riffs involve the character of Roger (R.A. Dow), a whipping boy yokel who betrays his sympathetic side by making a creepy pass at Geri on a fishing expedition and whose petty nastiness blooms once he's attacked by the ravenous worms. Why did they do it? "Well, he's got a layer of topsoil, honey. You can't blame them." A couple of well-placed Hamlet allusions, a memorably blue twist on motherly concern and a patented end-credits roundabout (always a reason to make it through any MST3k experiment, especially during the Mike years) are also hilarious.

Without a doubt, what makes the episode truly memorable isn't so much Squirm itself as the short film preceding it, the immortal A Case of Spring Fever. From the producer of Hired! comes this frightening, Faustian nightmare in which a golf-happy schlub named Gilbert curses the existence of sofa springs and is paid a visit by Coily, a single-toothed imp who removes all traces of spring from Gilbert's life. Thus, the phone doesn't work, his watch stops, all doors refuse to close, and there's no brakes on his car. All the while, Coily cackles: "NO SPRINGS!" Can you bet on how insufferable Gilbert will become once he realizes the folly of his wish? Squirm is Ravadem Patel compared to Coily, who along with Mr. B Natural, Joe Doakes and Johnny At The Fair are the Brains' own Glengarry leads.

The Painted Hills, flashing all the way back to season five, also leads off with a classic 10-minute attack, this time on Body Care and Grooming. This instructional short from 1947 has all the hallmarks ripe for dismantling: squeaky-clean conformity, scolding narrator, bright-smiling extras, even a Carnival of Souls-style camera trick or two. Easily the most pretentious of all the films on this set, Joel and friends go to town on the latent sexism, repression and OCD beneath the life lessons on display: "We just took your libido and starched and pressed it!"

The movie itself is a feature-length vehicle for Lassie, the last of seven produced by MGM starting with Lassie Come Home (1943). Though played once again by canine star Pal, with Rudd Weatherwax giving the cues, the collie in The Painted Hills is named Shep, I guess because the notion of Lassie becoming a snarling vigilante needed sugarcoating. Yes, Roddy McDowall's former best friend enacts vengeance when her aged owner Jonathan (Paul Kelly) is murdered over a gold claim by partner Taylor (Bruce Cowling), who for me can be summed with "Phil Hartman is Fred Dobbs." Shep convinces boy sidekick Tommy (Gary Gray) of Taylor's guilt, but when nobody believes him, it's up to Shep and him alone to avenge Jonathan's death.

One can imagine Joe Camp was severely influenced by The Painted Hills more than any other Lassie film when he conceived Benji, what with his Candy Snatcher villains and traumatic dog abuse. Here, Lassie is quite literally flung by the unscrupulous Taylor and poisoned, too, which leads to some black comedy when Tom Servo pushes Crow's animal-loving buttons: "Two paws in the grave...She will make an attractive rug." The notion that Lassie's an alcoholic and a serial killer ("Life is pain, Tommy!") also get bandied about. But the jokes here fly by thick and fast compared to Squirm, which increases the batting average and also nets tons more belly laughs: "First thing I'm gonna do is buy me a montage!" Also, the series' best mondegreen in the presence of one "Pile-On Pete."

The host segments include another debate, a la Mr. B Natural's sexuality, over whether sloppy or neat is more attractive, as well as Crow's riotous history lesson on president Rutherford B. Hayes ("he was admitted to the bar, although he did not drink lustfully from it"), whom the doomed prospector in The Painted Hills resembles. Since Joel is on board, we also get the requisite invention exchange, including Dr. Clayton Forrester's unorthodox new energy source, at the expense of TV's Frank.

Continuing the theme of memorable MST3k shorts, season nine's The Screaming Skull starts off with a half of a Gumby cartoon, 1956's Robot Rumpus. Art Closkey's anatomically-incorrect claymation is perfectly harmless ("Mom threatened to make me into a bowl!") until Servo and Crow are scarred by the image of a wily android snatched up by the jaws of death, his head mounted like a trophy above the garage door. Alas, the feature itself is a tough sit, the story of an already mentally-distraught newlywed (Peggy Webber) convinced that her husband's late former wife isn't ready to move on, an attitude shared by menial-working manchild Mickey (cf: Roger from Squirm, or even the dread Torgo). Director Alex Nicol plays the "wide-awake nightmare" himself, and while he does generate creeping atmosphere in mundane isolation, if only to stretch it out like the rubber band from Are You Ready for Marriage?, the script falls apart in the all-important third act.

The film's producers gimmicked up the works by offering to pay funeral expenses for anyone who dies of shock watching The Screaming Skull. In between the film, Servo half-heartedly prank calls the studio to receive his own casket. A lot of practical jokes occur between Mike, the Bots and his captors in the interim, from bogus costume parties to Crow's head being painted up like a skeleton. But Nicol's dragging, dreary spook show is best summed up by this particular quip: "The movie that dares to graphically depict sometimes seeing peacocks and sometimes not seeing peacocks."

Lastly, the "Turkey Day Collection" returns to the second season of MST3k from 1990 with Jungle Goddess, preceded by the first in a Bela Lugosi-flanked serial called The Phantom Creeps. Ralph Byrd and George Reeves, the one-time Dick Tracy and the soon-to-be Superman, set out to locate a missing heiress who has been adopted by an indigenous tribe of African natives as "Mata Greta" (Wanda McKay), "white goddess." Byrd's Bob is the knavish, trigger-happy heel who threatens to undo the escape plan cooked up by Reeves' Mike and Greta, who is easily wooed back to civilization by the promise of a nice hamburger sandwich and some French-fried potatoes. Oh, and hats. 

Jungle Goddess contains copious amounts of wildlife stock footage, provocative scenes of tribesman doing the "dance of death" and plenty of "Oh, brother!" moments like when Greta twists her ankle on the run, not to mention Bob and Mike's constant fights over who gets to carry the revolver. In other words, it's a perfect fit for the Joel Robinson days of MST3k. Take Greta‘s flashback to how she got shanghaied in the jungle: "There I was, surrounded by salad fixings for miles," Crow mock-narrates, "and no Mandarin orange vinaigrette in sight." Host segments include a sitcom version of an imperialist fantasy, Joel demonstrating various camera scopes (such as the "Scopes Monkey Trial Scope, or Inherit the Wind-owrama") and an infomercial for the detonating spider Bela deploys in The Phantom Creeps. 

Jungle Goddess was the third episode broadcast for the inaugural Turkey Day ‘91, and among the extras on this 31st volume set are wry but gracious interviews with Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Joel Hodgson reflecting on their own Thanksgiving traditions as well as the legacy of the Turkey Day marathon. The Painted Hills disc collects the various host segments and bumpers from three years' worth of Dr. Forrester's attempted holiday takeovers. All four movies come complete with new Hodgson introductions, and alongside theatrical trailers, The Screaming Skull gets its own making-of featurette and there are interviews with Squirm star Don Scardino and Joe Closkey, son of Art.

If the bonus features aren't as exhaustive as the best MST3k releases, that's because the combined effect of these four episodes is tryptophan for the soul. But Shout! Factory have done Turkey Day right by simulating an experience at the dinner table with this compilation. Treat yourself to some dark meat carved from the collie, generous helpings of candied worms and French-fried sweet potatoes and a slice of Pokey Pie before you fall asleep in front of the Screaming Skull parade float, with visions of Coily the Spring Sprite bouncing in your head.


 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mischief

MISCHIEF
(R, 20th Century Fox, 93 mins., theatrical release date: February 8, 1985)

I spent the inauguration day of Mr. 45  watching Better Off Dead, but there was nothing nostalgic about it. The effect felt like putting an old friend out to pasture after having been bitten by a slavering zombie. It should have felt like a reason to believe, but failing that, it became a requiem for whatever amber waves washed over the detritus of pop cultures past.

2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Porky's, and so when I revisited it, I tried to understand how something like that could have been such a blockbuster given that it was riding coattails of previous heavy-hitters like American Graffiti and Animal House. I still don't consider Bob Clark's movie to be in the same league as Lucas or Landis. Not even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I really like, could compare to either of those, let alone Diner. And dopier fare like The Last American Virgin, with its unearned "poignancy," or Zapped!, aka "Carrie in Charge," just leaves me cold.

To cut a long intro short, I don't fetishize the 1980s model of mindless adolescent entertainment as much as others do. If pressed to do so, I would look to 1985 as the definitive year of the teen comedy, because overall they were far more diverse and refreshing than the umpteenth "let's get laid" jaunt. Yes, you still had Porky's Revenge and Fraternity Vacation and Hot Chili and whatever other sludge was at the bottom of that well. But there was reason to be cheerful in the deathless deluge of teen capers that were still made-to-order.

Heaven Help Us, itself an evocative boys' club caper located in parochial school, may be the most underrated of the pack because script, direction and acting were all at peak warmth. Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing incorporated old-fashioned romance into its sexual confusion and "snob vs. slob" antagonism. Vision Quest had Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, which went a long way towards humanizing another athletic perseverance curio. Better Off Dead made surreal strides towards being a live-action cartoon, although I think Joe Dante bettered Savage Steve Holland with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Just One of the Guys has its minor merits, as does watching both Fred Ward and Lori Laughlin in Secret Admirer.

Even Back to the Future, despite its sci-fi trappings, sprung a novel twist on the "coming-of-age" template by placing a contemporary boy in a 1950s environment to play matchmaker to his future parents, Zemeckis & Gale milking the scenario for all the metaphysical and hormonally-conflicting anxieties they could.


Between the poles of hackneyed and inspired came Mischief, which is where '80s nostalgia meets '50s nostalgia and threatens to cancel each other out. Norman Rockwell's Porky's, the critical consensus was likely to refer to it back then. The writer and executive producer, Noel Black, once directed Pretty Poison and made a music-only short film which was a smash at Cannes. Then in 1983, he directed Private School, to a lowest-common-denominator majority. It had Linda Barrett, Mr. Hand, Emmanuelle teaching sex ed, the aforementioned Modine, topless Betsy Russell, and a bawdy ol' Harry Nilsson break-up anthem for its opening credits, the single best musical cue of any teen sex comedy of its time. And yet, the Porky's curse was still casting a pall over the movies geared towards teens.

Whereas Noel Black once possessed enough clout to make Private School seem like the proverbial thankless task, the director of Mischief is Mel Damski, who delivered his own turkey the same year as Black with Yellowbeard. There's nothing in his biography worth mourning. 

Mischief was also looked at by film reviewers in '85 as less the progeny of American Graffiti and more like a blue spawn of TV's Happy Days, with Doug McKeon from On Golden Pond in the Ron Howard role and first-timer Chris Nash as Henry Winkler. This is another modernized "period piece" that communicates its story purely though signifiers and stereotypes, only the seams stick out more by virtue of its Johnny Come Lately development. There's even a snippet of Rebel Without a Cause thrown in to set up an impressionable chicken race which is a transparent excuse for one of those most egregious teen comedy clichés: the "hilarious" destruction of a borrowed car.

You don't need to be Janet Maslin or Owen Gleiberman to stifle a yawn at the predictability factor here.


McKeon plays Jonathan Bellah, the self-described "dreamer" who would've been played much more colorfully in a contemporary setting by Anthony Michael Hall. He's got the rolled-up khakis and dentist's heir glow of the introverted geek. Nash is Gene Harbrough, the new kid in Nelsonville, Ohio, with the whole PG-friendly greaser accessory kit (slicked-up hair, leather jacket, blue jeans, motorbike) and stern concert violinist father, who we realize too late is played by Terry O'Quinn(!) Gene is Jonathan's new neighbor, and the awkward kid finds a big brother surrogate in the hip stranger. More pertinently, he finds a new tutor.

The reason for that is Marilyn McCauley, the local sexpot, played by Kelly Preston with deliberate shades of both Norma Jeane and Cybill Shepherd from The Last Picture Show. Jonathan wants a shot at her in the worst way, and bored Gene decides he'll make it his mission in life to turn the spaz into a stud. Not that Gene will have to go away empty-handed, as he himself is smitten with Bunny Miller (Catherine Mary Stewart), a perky sweetheart in an arranged courtship with loutish preppie Kenny Brubaker (D.W. Brown). On the margins of these competing courtships is ugly duckling Rosalie, a soda shop waitress who is biding her time until she can shed the braces and thick glasses and emerge bodaciously as the Jami Gertz we all recognized back in 1987.

The plot synopsis needn't go any further, and sadly, despite all the names I just listed in the cast, neither the characters. That's the fault which damns Mischief in the worst way: the rigid confines of these characters slouching and strutting through the equally limited plot. Jonathan realizes his wildest fantasy come true, but it means shattering both his naiveté and his appeal. Gene wastes no time establishing his delinquent-with-the-heart-of-gold bona fides and is ridden with angst over Bunny's inability to stand up against Kenny. Marilyn's more experienced ways throw Jonathan for a loop at the last moment, and he counters perfidy with petulance in the vomit-inducing tradition of Boaz Davidson, although Mel Damski directs his actors far better.

Earnest and laconic is the way Black fashions his script, which helps out immensely in the friendship that develops between Jonathan and Gene. Yet his oft-risible dialogue often betrays the loose tone and Damski's direction can't rise above anything better than workmanlike. These combine to give the scenes between Jonathan and Marilyn, which are the crux of the movie, a toxic sense of apathy. From the way Jonathan cavalierly clutches at Marilyn's breast after taking a pratfall to their inevitable bedroom encounter, in which Jonathan bluffs his way out of his lack of rubber-centric preparation but still climaxes traditionally, Jonathan's sexual awakening feels at once passé and piggish.

All Mischief truly delivers on is the Eisenhower-era nostalgia, from the sock hop outfits to the tacky Studebakers (I can hear Kathleen Turner laughing in my head), from the county fair kissing booth raising awareness of polio to the long-needled immunity shots (where's Wade Walker when you need him?). Just like American Graffiti and Lemon Popsicle, the period oldies are ladled over liberally: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Mickey & Sylvia, a little Elvis, and Bill Haley's Comets giving Jonathan an ultimatum to "See You Later, Alligator" as he sneaks out through Marilyn's window. If you can get past some minor issues with the film's stated setting of 1956 clashing with the release of a few 45s (particularly the late Berry's), you can enjoy the swinging soundtrack on its own terms.

Other than those chestnuts, Mischief goes according to plan for anyone who has seen enough teen farces. Jonathan takes his first swig of hard liquor and commanders Gene's trusty but anachronistic Triumph, with obvious results. The conflict involving Kenny is good for a salacious prank at the expense of his dad's department store, but mostly it's tediously prolonged fight sequences and upturned milkshakes. And when the heroes find themselves in romantic straits on prom night, the one who's been recently kicked out of his house is forced to sleep out in the barren countryside.

With a better-than-average cast on board (Catherine Mary Stewart, despite being raised in Edmonton, credibly plays the all-American girl here as well as she did in The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet) and a willing assemblage of pros to make the pastel-pretty visuals come alive (including DP Donald Thorin, set decorator Ernie Bishop and costumer Mina Mittelman), it's a shame Mischief works only on a strictly superficial level. This is yet another film that takes an obviously '80s (or '70s, in the cases of Davidson and Lucas, who gets ribbed right at the opening) sensibility to '50s growing pains. Two schools of "they don't make 'em like they used to" thought combined to excuse a film which begs to have been made better than it did.

If that's your kick, then seek out Diner or Heaven Help Us, instead.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Home + The Id


HOME
(Unrated, Inception Media Group, 87 mins., DVD release date: Mar. 1, 2016)

THE ID
(Unrated, Hutson Ranch Media, 87 mins., DVD release date: October 25, 2016)

It has been a brutal series of months since my last review, so it's only fitting that I return to the fray with yet another two-in-one, thematically-paired, no-holds-barred SHOWDOWN! 

Previously, I decided to evaluate the early '90s transitions of two B-actors into more hands-on filmmaking: Keith Gordon, who played the misfit in Dressed to Kill, Christine and Back to School; and Steven Antin, who played the meathead in The Last American Virgin, The Goonies and The Accused. The winner of that bout turned out to be Mr. Gordon with his wintery-wartime adaptation of William Wharton's A Midnight Clear.

Gordon directed a promising ensemble (Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg, etc.) to their best abilities, displayed a breathtaking visual style and showed admirable humanism towards both sides of the armed conflict. As hindsight beckons, I find A Midnight Clear to be one of my favorite movies of 1992, and an underrated gem I wholeheartedly recommend. On the opposite end was Antin's maiden voyage into screenwriting with Inside Monkey Zetterland, a headache-inducing vanity project directed clumsily by Jefery S.F.W. Levy and showing no empathy towards Antin's proxy's struggles with work and family, as well as boasting unfocused, improv-heavy exaggerations from an overqualified cast (Martha Plimpton, Rupert Everett, Sandra Bernhard, Katherine Helmond, etc.).

The irony is that Sofia Coppola, back when she was still being raked over the coals for The Godfather Part III, would go on from her minor role in Monkey to make this kind of movie with elegance and insight as both Lost in Translation and Somewhere. And funnier, too.

So with the Revenge of the Nerd having come to pass, now we flip the gender and confine the action to one universally-beloved genre touchstone. Thus, I welcome you to MISS ELM STREET 2016!

Wes Craven passed on in August of 2015 of brain cancer and the sting of his death still lingers. I had nothing but the utmost respect and adulation for the man, who remained a vital force in horror for three decades on the strength of the controversial Last House on the Left, the commercial Scream series and the slasher-defining surrealism that is 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. 2016 was a pivotal year for me, since I got to meet Robert Englund, Ronee Blakley and Amanda Wyss at Texas Frightmare Weekend (as well as Mitch Pileggi, Matthew Lillard and David Arquette). My only gripes were that I missed Lance Henriksen's table and wasn't able to reacquaint myself with the fourth major figure of this micro-Nightmare reunion, Heather Langenkamp, whose I Am Nancy screened at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2011.

Freddy's first victim and Freddy's first victor are the subjects of this dual-review, which flashes forward 32 years in time from Craven's masterpiece of fantasy terror.


Langenkamp began her screen career with walk-on gigs for Francis Coppola's two S.E. Hinton-based youth pictures, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, but those were sadly excised. Then she made her starring debut in Nickel Mountain, a love story involving diner owner Michael Cole and pregnant teenager Langenkamp. Alas, it was Langenkamp in the buff that was the only thing which was memorable about that one, and another instance where, like Diane Franklin's back-to-back exploitation movie roles of 1982, a budding talent was being trivially misused. Luckily, the comely Tulsa native won the coveted role of lieutenant's daughter Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the rest is history.

Well, chances are you may not recall that Langenkamp was the endangered princess in ZZ Top's video for their 1985 hit "Sleeping Bag." If you aren't familiar with 1980s sitcoms, maybe you forgot that she was once Marie Lubbock in the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us which once aired on ABC-TGIF (around this time, sadly, Langenkamp was attracting overzealous fan mail). And in her spotty career, mostly for the small screen, she played a different Nancy in a teleplay based on the Tonya Harding controversy and was cast against her wholesome, chipper type in an after-school special ("Can a Guy Say No?") where she played temptress to...Steve Antin, in another rare moment when he didn't play a macho creep. And his dad was Beau Bridges, go figure.

Langenkamp settled down and started a family with Oscar-winning effects artist David Anderson and has herself done cosmetic work for some prestige pics (Cinderella Man, Star Trek into Darkness) in between sporadic returns to independent film acting. Amanda Wyss, meanwhile, has popped up on my site a couple of times in Better Off Dead and Shakma, which ought to give you a clue as to how this blonde bombshell of the 1980s kept on in the wake of Tina Grey's ill-fated, post-coital beauty sleep. Yes, she was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High a couple years earlier, stating rare autonomy in a sideline girlfriend role: "I don't want to have to use sex as a tool, Brad." But she also closed the decade out by giving in to erotic impulses in To Die For, a yuppie Luca Westerna who emasculated her beau by hissing "You fuck like you have your nose in a book."

Where do you go from there?

Wyss persisted in the 1990s with guest roles on TV and bit parts in action schlock, her claim to fame at this point being Randi MacFarlane in the Adrian Paul era of Highlander. In the previous decade, though, Wyss threatened to break out of cult stardom with appearances in the likes of Silverado and Powwow Highway, where her pluck and beauty were undeniable. She had the charisma and tenacity to become a great journeywoman among her 80s starlet peers. And yet, to this day, she remains just another best kept secret. Wha?!

Now we come to 2016, in the wake of Heather Langenkamp further questioning/solidifying her place in pop culture history with I Am Nancy, an assemblage of candid interviews, convention footage and comedic clips (including well-edited Paul F. Tompkins stand-up), and Amanda Wyss finally getting some overdue leading roles now that she's in her mid-fifties. And their roles are juicier than ever in the cases of HOME and THE ID. UCLA grad Frank Lin [giggle], who previously directed Fabio(!) in an ethnically-diverse rom-com called American Fusion, helmed the former; Thommy Hutson, who looks eerily like Ira "Will, the Wizard Master" Heiden, makes his debut with the latter following extensive production/writing work on such franchise retrospectives as Crystal Lake Memories, More Brains and Never Sleep Again (he also wrote the book of that same name focusing exclusively on the making of Nightmare 1).



Langenkamp previously played a distressed mom in Jonathan Zarantonello's The Butterfly Room opposite Barbara Steele's wicked witch-next-door. In Home, she's the mater of an interracial lesbian nuclear family. Didn't see that coming! The shock of Miss Wyss as Meredith Lane in The Id comes purely from the psychological toll exacted on her by her invalid dad, who makes Burt Young's serially abusive, gun-polishing mook from Amityville II: The Possession look like Ward Cleaver. Whereas Home is a spookshow about an overnight caregiver in the recent tradition of The House of the Devil and Babysitter Wanted, The Id is an eerie chamber drama in which the aging caretaker ferociously claims a life of her own, even if it means murder.


Like in Babysitter Wanted, the central character of Home is a young woman of strict Christian breeding who clings to her scripture in the face of unnerving terror. With her missionary father away in India, Carrie (Kerry Knuppe) arrives at the recently-purchased house of her mother Heather and her lover Samantha. Since a Kerry plays a Carrie and Samantha is played by Samantha Mumba, aka Irish Rihanna, you can deduce who plays Heather. Hint: her last name's not Locklear. There's even a Lew (Temple) and an Aaron (Hill), in case you doubt this movie's attempts at naturalism.

Lin treats Carrie's fundamentalism as a form of teenage rebellion (abstain from fleshy lusts, she certainly doesn't) and Heather becomes an apologist to atheist Samantha for such defiant acts as dressing formally for Sunday dinner and saying grace, not to mention Carrie's irresponsibility in looking after Samantha's moppet daughter Tia (Alessandra Shelby Farmer, who screeches more in repose than in jeopardy). Eventually, once Samantha and Heather leave for a business trip, Carrie and boyfriend Aaron become internet-trained exorcists as random phenomena suggests the previous homeowner, an occultist/ventriloquist, still holds a grudge. 

Home spices up its gumbo of funhouse clichés (spooky dolls, spooky paintings, spooky upstairs noises, spooky children, and so on) with welcome quirks and attempts at intimate domestic drama which sadly don't go all the way in alleviating the solemn familiarity of it all. Once again, like with Monkey Zetterland, the decision to encourage ad-libbing doesn't graft structure or depth upon the strained relationships of Heather/Samantha, Heather/Carrie, Samantha/Tia, and Carrie/Tia, despite mostly solid performances from the cast. Heather Langenkamp, in particular, has matured with greater warmth than ever and Kerry Knuppe shows the same potential Langenkamp did back when she was a dream warrior.

The improvisation backfires completely in the case of Lew Temple, who plays an elementary school guidance counselor who awkwardly introduces himself to the gay couple and whose earnestness carries a lecherous subtext. This character may have been intended as comic relief, but the humor falls flat.

Frank Lin pulls a fast one on viewers by treating Old Man Roberts as a red herring of a poltergeist, with a big reveal that is truly shocking if as anemically handled as the character dynamics. But there isn't any freshness to the atmospheric slow-burn style which makes up the majority of the film, which was definitely not the case with either House of the Devil or Babysitter Wanted. Lin just goes through the motions, as TV sets power on of their own accord and glass shatters from on high. This isn't as oppressively mundane as any of the Paranormal Activity movies, but it's no more novel. 


Home is more commendable for its tokens of acceptance rather than its fright potential, whereas The Id gets much nastier in the battle of wills between sheltered, doting Meredith Lane and her sarcastic, belittling Father (Patrick Peduto). Lin shuttles Langenkamp out of the ensuing panic, but Thommy Hutson refuses to shy away from Amanda Wyss' deteriorating faculties. The moments of respite wherein Meredith numbs the pain with television and erotic fantasies in the bathtub are capsized by the karmic wave of Father's cruelty. Even his incontinence becomes a snickering form of one-upmanship.

Meredith refuses to be patronized by well-meaning social worker Tricia (Jamye Grant), who stops by every morning to drop off food, but she's nostalgic to the point of desperation and pitifully unable to follow up on any stand she takes against her dad. Not just any desire to leave the house, but even the act of wearing lipstick stirs him into a mocking fit. In Better Off Dead, Lane Meyer's shrine to Wyss' Beth was an caricature of romantic idealism; Meredith Lane's room of high school memories is decidedly more tragic in its codependence, especially after her senior year sweetheart Ted Harborough (Malcolm Matthews) calls her up one afternoon.

For all the dementia and hostility Father shows daughter, Meredith is about to pay it back in the name of stunted independence.

Clearly having studied his De Palma as well as his Craven, Hutson plants his tropes on firm psychological topsoil and splits his screens for symbolic clues and stark contrasts. He strips his leading lady of all glamour and focuses the camera harshly upon her; even when she's dressed up in her old prom night gown, the bags under Meredith's eyes leap out just as much as the red of her fabric. The unreliability of Meredith and the irascibility of Father creates a mysteriously hostile bond, though Father does quote fanatically from the Book of Revelations and uses almost every vulgar word for "loose woman" he can think of. Father is right to assume that Meredith is still "daddy's little girl," meek as she is given that she's been withdrawn so long. Meredith is right to presume sexual jealousy in her father's acidic outbursts, because if his current state is any indication, no woman on earth could stand being married to Mr. Lane.

Patrick Peduto is also rendered compellingly unphotogenic as the Father, but unlike Wyss, he has no grace notes in Sean H. Stewart's screenplay to seize. He simply slanders the women in his life and flaunts his superiority over Meredith with all the subtlety of Montgomery Burns.

The movie follows a trajectory worthy of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, as Meredith sinks further into madness even after she's cut the umbilical cord. How one will react to the latter half of the film, which uses phantasmagorical "Boo!" moments and sepulchral voices liberally, depends on the identification one feels towards Meredith. The movie pushes her into areas of outright nastiness which threaten to undo all the goodwill Wyss builds up, including some obscene yearbook annotations which renders Meredith irredeemably perverted in her longing for aged Ted, who is now a doofy, bald-headed husband. On the way to its fateful conclusion, the movie demonstrates the same kind of nihilism cloaked in morality as Father, which is all too easy and way too much. 

The Id works best as a belated showcase role for Amanda Wyss, and it's clear she and Thommy Hutson have thought about the character very deeply. She plays Meredith so close to the bone, it's the celluloid equivalent of osteoporosis.

So who makes the best impression after 32 years of "One, two, Freddy's coming for you" chant-alongs? This isn't as cut-and-dry as when I championed A Midnight Clear over Inside Monkey Zetterland. Heather Langenkamp's innate maternal instincts and time away from the spotlight makes you treasure her all the more, whereas Amanda Wyss' hard work and perseverance has rewarded her the role of a Lifetime. The films themselves have to be taken into consideration, too. Home is hardly as ambitious as The Id, even though I appreciate its minor idiosyncrasies in the wake of Hutson's caged cauldron of resentment. But all the depth I craved in Lin's film is more ample in Hutson's movie, and Wyss deserves to be in the same Fangoria Chainsaw Hall of Fame as Nancy on the strength of Meredith Lane.

I'm tempted to call it a draw, though I really should settle for Amanda Wyss. Nancy was a symbol for homely young girls across the world to act on their survivalist impulses, and Langenkamp will go down in history for it. Wyss deserves better than being that one chick who dumped both Judge Reinhold and John Cusack, as well as finding a new life away from Tina. The Id, whatever its flaws, has opened doors for her to do so, and it's about time.

So congratulations to Amanda Wyss, Miss Elm Street 2016. No longer the girl in the rubber bag, now she's proudly wearing the tassel.



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sing Street


SING STREET
(PG-13, The Weinstein Company, 106 mins., theatrical release date: April 15, 2016)

In the 1970s, Van Morrison mused on the transcendent promise of rhythm & blues in his own thickly-brogued, folksy fashion, rekindling the romantic charge in Jackie Wilson's honeyed voice as well as his own passion for live performance as channeled by the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. To cite one of Van's influences, Sam Cooke, he could no longer fight the feeling, and the It's Too Late to Stop Now LP of 1974, as well as its three-volume companion piece released over 40 years later, is on par with the Cooke who played the Harlem Square Club or James Brown at the Apollo back in the 1960s.

Fellow Irishman John Carney aims to capture that same revitalization of spirit through song, which is tricky business since his forte is narrative filmmaking. Through sheer force of intimacy, 2007's Once managed to convey that passion through the professional and romantic union of a busker and an immigrant on the streets of Dublin. It was also hailed as a miracle for the movie musical format due to its naturalistic, nuts-and-bolts scale. Carney's third film is a period piece set in 1985, neither the freshest or the most honest era for pop music let alone nostalgia. Not only that, but it's a teen film set in 1985, the year the genre exploded for the American market.

Chalk it up to Carney's grounded sincerity and filmic lyricism that Sing Street, were it time-warped back into the heyday of Hughes, could've usurped 92% of its competition on the strength of imagination alone.

Lots of youth-oriented pictures in the first half of the 1980s touted music-as-escape, the majority of which simple-mindedly reduced the concept to flashy montages or raucous house parties or dance bonanzas. In the hands of hucksters, such freedom came across as trivial. John Carney communicates the shared bond people can form over late night turntable binges, as well as the inspiration it can yield. There is a moment a little over 30 minutes in where two boys spin Joe Jackson and The Jam, crack jokes about rabbit pellets and brainstorm an original song. Carney fluidly expands that confidential moment of creativity into a band practice of the same tune and goes further from there. The rhythm of the film and the song interlock gracefully, and you can sense the main character's growing confidence handled with majestic precision.

Carney's human touch is more than fitting given that budding singer/lyricist Conor Lawlor's dizzying coming-of-age is all for love, specifically one for the beguilingly beautiful older girl who stands in waiting across from Conor's parochial school on Synge Street. She's Raphina, an aspiring model with a drug-dealer boyfriend whom she claims will whisk her off to London, land of opportunity. Conor asks if she'd be interested in being a video vixen in the meantime for his rock band. Before he knows it, Conor and his new friend, prepubescent entrepreneur Darren Mulvey (Ben Carolan), are hustling to form said group and produce said video for a non-existent song.

Advised by his college dropout brother Brendan and allied with homely multi-instrumentalist Eamon, who names the ragtag five-piece band Sing Street, Conor's individuality blossoms upon exposure to the likes of Duran Duran, Hall & Oates and The Cure. The band practice Conor & Eamon's new songs and film a second video on the way to their first gig at the midterm dance. Conor falls deeper for the orphaned Raphina whilst having to confront his own disintegrating family unit as well as the pressures from draconian school headmaster Baxter (Don Wycherley) and ruffian classmate Barry (Ian Kenny).


Forget all that you can read about Sing Street being a youthful version of The Commitments (do watch for Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conor's ma opposite Aidan Gillen), because this is on a higher level of cinematic nirvana. Think more of Bill Forsyth, who made the winsome Gregory's Girl in 1981. Think more of John Duigan, author of the affecting Danny Embling saga with The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Imagine a School of Rock if it had been written by Richard Linklater as well as directed by him. Carney's charm is reminiscent of those films, so rich with character-building sensitivity and mundane-seeming quirkiness and a naturalistic, guileless treatment of growing pains. It would seem to be a dreamer's version of a depressing reality, especially given how Dublin appears a one-horse town (the end credits offer an assurance that things have progressed in the economy and educational system), but there is way too much courage, wisdom and tenderness in Sing Street's slice-of-life playlist to ever write off as sappy, closet-pretentious button-pushing.

As Conor himself puts it to his bandmates, looking for the words to clarify Raphina's diagnosis that he's not happy being sad, "it means that I'm stuck in this shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies...I'm gonna try and accept this and get on with [life] and make some art."

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a terrific discovery as Conor Lawlor, the pint-sized New Romantic whom Raphina pet-names "Cosmo." More than just another lovesick archetype, Walsh-Peelo turns Cosmo's clumsiness into the stuff which makes him secretly the coolest kid on the block. It's got nothing to do with the fact that he walks into Christian Brothers School one day resembling a junior Nick Rhodes (although I smirk every time I notice it), but it's the incremental integrity and bottomless joy of discovery he demonstrates. Getting the girl may be a top priority, and rooting for him is an irresistible inevitability, but if he has more songs in his heart, then he truly deserves his name written in the cosmos.

Lucy Boynton perfects that same attractiveness of soul and body as Raphina, a sophisticated 16-year-old whose innocence is renewed by the affections of Conor. The Sing Street band mates, trained musicians all, appear to have less material to excel with than the leads, but John Carney does right by them regardless. Mark McKenna has that droll, lanky demeanor which automatically signals introversion, but there's a spark in his Eamon that makes him an invaluable asset for Connor. Percy Chamburuka gets a great introduction as "golliwog" keyboardist Ngig, whilst Karl Rice & Conor Hamilton shine as the elementary-aged bassist Garry and drummer Larry. Rice's impromptu costume for the band's first video shoot turns out be a corker, and he also dances with an elderly lady on the shuttle.

As Brendan, Jack Reynor plays the kind of boisterous, slacker savant that Jack Black does so well, but while he gets a handful of opportunities to demonstrate such (there's a putdown of Phil Collins worthy of Black's overbearing clerk from High Fidelity), Reynor also gets at the inner resentment brought on by his dysfunctional parents and his kid brother's prodigious ascent. When Conor sings "You just can't stand the way/That I turned myself around" in one song, it feels closer to his relationship with Brendan than Raphina. But Carney shades in lovely bondings between Conor and both these respective muses, and Reynor finds the soul in his own character as much as Walsh-Peelo and Boynton.

And then there's that soundtrack, which is another impeccable touch to add alongside Carney's proficiency with his actors here: "Rio," "A Town Called Malice," "Maneater," "Steppin' Out," "In Between Days," Motorhead's "Stay Clean," Genesis' "Paperlate," Flash & The Pan's "Waiting for a Train," and Spandau Ballet's "Gold." All of these top-notch selections are matched by the original compositions which take cues from the hits on show, written by Carney with assistance from Gary Clark of "Mary's Prayer" renown. "The Riddle of the Model" flaunts John Taylor-style slap bass and Walsh-Peelo's spot-on impression of Phil Oakey's monotone. "Up" takes flight both lyrically and musically, and "Brown Shoes" is a singular kiss-off anthem from Conor to his tormentors (although skinhead Barry is sold on being a roadie). But Clark's solo compositions, the gorgeous "To Find You" and the giddy "Drive It Like You Stole It," are the surest and best candidates for Oscar consideration, even with Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 singer who starred in Carney's Begin Again, collaborating with "Falling Slowly" award-winner Glen Hansard for "Go Now."



The synergy of song and plot in Sing Street is intoxicating. Conor and Raphina exchange a possible video idea for "Drive It Like You Stole It" modeled on the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from Back to the Future. An unspoken betrayal reflecting cruel reality is wrapped around Conor's fantasy of the video during rehearsal, where a group of oblivious teens fail spectacularly to emulate the '50s choreography from the movie. In Conor's mind, there is peace between his parents, Brother Baxter does back flips and Brendan comes through for true love with switchblade and motorbike. Only one of the latter will happen in the end, which isn't hard to guess, but I've never seen a reverie on film this magnificent. 

Sing Street is one of 2016's most pleasant little miracles. Like the best of its decade's pin-up pop, it has been blessed with an everlasting hook and a vivacious sense of itself. Carney weaves proven material both in teen movies as well as his own oeuvre into the best long-form music video never made in the ‘80s. It may hit the sweet spot for the fanatically nostalgic, but a coming-of-age movie this superior deserves its own DIY cover version, no vampire teeth required.



Monday, October 24, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows


TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
(PG-13, Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Films, 112 mins., theatrical release date: June 3, 2016)

It must be just like the endtimes to see a Michael Bay production brought to the screen by Nickelodeon Films. The shock of Bay directing under Steven Spielberg's auspices for the Transformers assembly line is now a thing of the past, even if Platinum Dunes is still pillaging innocent memories of everything from Friday night to Saturday morning. Besides, any functional adult can now appreciate the riskier jokes from Animaniacs or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? they were once too young to comprehend. But Nickelodeon has long since been removed from gross subversion ever since Ren & Stimpy got the axe (I like Spongebob, but did you ever seen him whiz on the electric fence?), and Michael Bay's idea of family fun is to patronize every age bracket instead of just the manchild.

Granted, I am totally non-acquainted with the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon Nickelodeon does air, nor did I bother to watch the preceding live-action TMNT movie. Judging by the reactions to that 2014 moneymaker, I wouldn't care to remember even had I screened it. Apparently, the Jonathan Liebesman-helmed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a joyless experience that made the comparatively grittier Steve Barron prototype from 1990 look like Schumacher's Batman. But at least they weren't extraterrestrials, because then I genuinely would've had some post-Transformers stress disorder, a very real form of shell shock.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows suggests these turtle boys (the producers) have cut the diehards some slack. The tone of the sequel is closer in spirit to the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson animated series which defined the property in the late 1980s, going so far as to import the beloved theme song ("They're the world's most fearsome fighting team"), and the script incorporates several familiar-sounding characters. Casey Jones, the hockey-masked vigilante played by Elias Koteas in those ‘90s movies, debuts in Bay's universe here, as do mutant antagonists Bebop & Rocksteady, brain monster Krang and Baxter Stockman, who is represented here as a nefarious black scientist like in the original comics, but loses his prized creation, the Mousers, familiar to his backstory.


Baxter (Tyler Perry) mobilizes the Foot Clan to free the captured Shredder (Brian Tee) from armored transport, but the plan is intercepted by investigative journalist April O'Neil (Megan Fox) and relayed to the four half-shell heroes following a pizza-related blunder at a Knicks game. A freak transportation accident sends Shredder to Dimension X, where he is swayed by Krang (Brad Garrett) to retrieve the pieces of a portal which will allow the grotesque being world destruction. To ensure success, Krang spills the "secret of the ooze" so that Shredder may transform a pair of fugitive henchmen into, respectively, hybrid creatures Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus). It is up to Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard), as well any willing human allies, to dismantle either the portal or Krang's mighty Technodrome.

The ever-endangered April is rescued from a scoop gone awry by the passenger of Shredder's prison van, renegade security officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). This time around, the goalie-masked crusader is less a sullen vigilante and more a beleaguered scrappy, a department underling with dreams of becoming a true detective. Casey poses no threat to Raphael's ego and is taken aboard as a partner fast due to April's solidarity with the Turtles. Casey's only real motive is validation for his fantastical story about that Tortugas van with the grill that shoots manhole covers and the robotic arms swinging nunchakus on the side, which he doesn't get from Police Chief Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney).

The directing gig for TMNT: Out of the Shadows has somehow wound up in hands of a filmmaker more promising than the promo-centric hacks Bay's production company usually employs. That would be Dave Green, whose 2014 feature debut Earth to Echo paid direct homage to Spielberg, but here the only allusion to the maestro behind E.T. is when orange-coded party animal Mikey runs into Bumblebee at a costume party. Green is, as far as Michael Bay productions go, not a total stooge and doesn't redden your eyes during the all-important action sequences, dialing down on the over-editing and disorienting staging as opposed to what Bay typically accomplishes. It's paced briskly, too, and with a lot less of the jejune mogul's patented mean streak to stink the film up like eau d'égout.

Or at least as far as Green's work is concerned. The screenplay by returning scribes Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, meanwhile, bears all the worst traits of working by committee. The movie's subtitle reflects the lip service paid to the friction within the four "brothers" to either carry on as concealed weapons at the beck and call of a capricious populace or exploit Baxter's synthetic experiments under the chance at normality. They could've more aptly titled it "There's No I in Turtle Power" given the more protracted but equally futile strain for de facto leader Leonardo to manage the conflicting personalities around him, especially the short-fused Raphael. Donatello is a witless expository technophile, and Michelangelo, the one with the potential for dim-witted good cheer on the scale of Bill & Ted, is shockingly unfunny.


For all they're given to work with, the flesh-and-bone actors may as well be CG-inserted to match their blocky, bulky co-stars. Megan Fox continues to give the impression of pouting plasticine, the spunk that once spurred her to rake Bay over the coals now so diluted that she'll forever inspire genuine reappraisals of Jessica Alba every time she's on screen. Poor Stephen Amell, meanwhile, never once convinced me that I wasn't watching the second coming of Chris O'Donnell. One can only pray Will Arnett's well-worn presence as the vaingloriously bogus hero, self-nicknamed "The Falcon," will inspire impressionable youth to seek out the complete Arrested Development so they may watch him be typecast properly. Ditto Tyler Perry in the role of Smart Brother once played by Bebop himself in Undercover Brother. In my mind, Perry's more of a burlesque performer than a comic genius, but that's a minor strength here among a predominantly flat cast.

As for Laura Linney, give her the Frances McDormand Honorary Award for Most Overqualified Supporting Actor and be on your way.

This MSG-enhanced sequel just feels so crushingly prefabricated from the self-referential dialogue (Mikey mourns over a planned hip-hop Christmas album), workhorse pop music cues (Lionel Richie's "Hello," Edwin Starr's "War," Elvis Presley's "Little Less Conversation," and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" ALL need to be retired for a while) to the finale which blatantly rips from The Avengers, not to mention Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc.. It's as if they started off with minimal inspiration despite the increased awareness of the franchise's history, resulting in a disposable act of obligation rather than entertainment, a cut-rate Franken-sequel as regrettably overbearing as the new iteration of these happy-go-lucky crime-fighters as the Incredible Hulk's droppings. I wish Dave Green all the luck in the world that he might someday gain a possible mentor in Steven Spielberg, so that he no longer has to bet on the Bay.


Friday, October 21, 2016

An Enchantéd 100th Episode Tribute to Olivia De Laurentis.


Diane Franklin, Savage Steve Holland, Olivia DeLaurentis


Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin
X. The Future of Enchantéd: Olivia DeLaurentis


When I first began this project, Diane Franklin simply served as the muse for my writing abilities. The dream of Monique Junet was renewed, and it was her warmth and wisdom which has kept me steadily evaluating Diane's "1980s babe" stature as a whole. Such reverence has been incredibly beneficial to me, but I haven't been so successful at leaping over hurdles in my endeavors. One of the biggest problems was that I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible, but realizing I had to enforce strict rules upon myself, particularly the decision to focus on feature films alone, be they theatrical or made-for-television. It hasn't turned out as well as I hoped, and a real reason is one Diane herself makes plain in the last chapter of her book:

Diane Franklin was finding it harder to advance her acting career.

One of the most unfortunate stigmas young actors encounter is that industrial predilection for typecasting. From The Last American Virgin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Diane was constrained to a certain archetype, namely that of the "ingénue," even with the mid-1980s likes of Better Off Dead... and TerrorVision demonstrating an incredible yen for comedy. And while I have watched enough of her to know that she had the chops to make for a brilliant adult star, Diane's legacy is tied down to a series of movies which only see her as merely "That Girl." Once you realize the inequality of countless performers reflected in someone whom you honestly wanted to succeed, that muse starts to slip away.

Diane Franklin's transition to Diane DeLaurentis began after How I Got into College, and the stunning young performer with the curly brunette hair began a respectable domestic life as a dyed-blonde acting coach, full-time family woman and suburban expatriate. In short: she disappeared, bowing out of the public eye to an audience of seemingly few of great faith. And yet somehow, this undervalued movie star never really left the minds of an her generation, and the result has been Diane's recent blitzkrieg of autobiographies, radio programs and convention appearances. What's even more promising was the knowledge that she was getting back her acting groove, that her second wind as a legitimate, mature performer could actually arrive through the efforts of one amazingly passionate and powerful person: her teenaged daughter, Olivia DeLaurentis.

Thanks to Stuart Morris of Misty Moon Film Society/Gallery.

Olivia was born on April 23, 1996, and much like in Diane's own life story, there was a natural talent just waiting to emerge and be nurtured. In her youth, Diane navigated multiple avenues as a model, commercials star and high school drama student. And Olivia's development appears to just as all-encompassing, with one of her earliest roles being The Cat That Looked at a King, an combination live action/animated short produced exclusively for the 40th anniversary home video release of Disney's Mary Poppins. This was based on the original P.L. Travers novel Mary Poppins Opens the Door from 1943, the third in said series, and featured Julie Andrews reprising her famous role alongside such talents as Tracey Ullman, Sarah Ferguson and...David Ogden Stiers, Mr. Al Meyer, himself.

"Right off!"

Olivia looks stunning in a junior Marlo Thomas fashion, so the genetic and professional similarities between mother and daughter are further delighting. However, at the age of 12, Olivia DeLaurentis had precociously developed a drive as an honest-to-goodness, jack-of-all-trades filmmaker. Not just an actor, but also director, writer and editor, thus making her the California suburban equivalent of Robert Rodriguez. In 2008, Olivia made The Adventures of Lass with the help of family, friends and pets. In two subsequent years, she spun that off into sequels, Sweet Potato Rush and Going to America. According to the IMDb, the Lass trilogy is a satire of dysfunctional foreign families migrating to United States. You can see a clip for yourself in Diane Franklin's recent acting reel:


The promise of Diane's daughter is very much worth taking into consideration, as she has already notched several festival nominations in Los Angeles and the United Kingdom. This year alone (it is 2014 as I begin writing this), both she and Agoura High schoolmate Jeremy Elder were awarded the Dominique Dunne Film Festival award for Best Documentary for Cinco, a profile of Despicable Me creator Cinco Paul and a supporting star in one of Olivia's films. And she was also awarded the Jim McKay & Mike Wallace Memorial Scholarship, news which I need to dearly thank Diane Franklin herself for relaying to me in person before the ceremony took place:

Diane's enthusiasm for her daughter has been nothing short of endearing, yet as much as I dream of sharing that glow with her, the fact remains that Olivia's work remained hesitantly unavailable for me to really process. I never asked Diane, who has produced Olivia's short films with her husband Ray, for screener copies and I haven't had the chance to trek out to see them in their many exhibitions. Even a fellow fan I met in San Francisco proved to be somewhat stingy in letting me know these were available to watch online. A vital part of Diane's story which I never thought I would ever see for myself remained out of my reach, and I felt like I've exhausted all I can say about Diane based on her 1980s resume.

Olivia DeLaurentis

Thankfully, Olivia DeLaurentis has uploaded her post-Lass oeuvre to the hosting site Vimeo. The opportunity to pay honest and heartfelt tribute to two generations of incredible beauty and talent has presented itself. Thus my impulse is to dive right in and give each of Olivia's short films their due, hopefully doing right by her and Diane in completing one's exposure (although Diane has a couple of movies in development to keep the series running a little longer) and charting another's beginnings (please read to the end for more information). It's all so stereotypically Semisonic, this fateful development.

Without further delay, and with the blessings of both Mrs. and Ms. DeLaurentis, I present to you my latest entry in the Enchantéd retrospective: Five Long Shorts (And Five Matching Briefs) from Diane & Olivia DeLaurentis.


I. HUMANIZED

Our semi-complete origin story of Olivia DeLaurentis begins in the future, 2035 to be exact. A war has been waging against rebel androids and man for three years, so the latter team decides to send one of their own back through time to retrieve the access code to a valuable disintegrator. The code was once the high school locker combination of resistance leader Alexis Winters(!), and because her memory has been erased, a cyborg called the X-1 has been dispatched with a "primitive emotional program" in order to gain her trust.

The fifteen-year-old Alexis, alienated from her family and her school, is pursued by the X-1 under the guise of Mac (Drew Cullinan), a laser-shooting postal worker whose software doesn't extend to social graces, thus a most reluctant friendship is formed when the X-1 starts to incapacitate her foes, be they the mean girls who push her around or Alexis' wannabe stepmother Bree, a bar-hopping plastic surgery disaster. But Mac's slow process of humanization clashes with his mission, and as days pass, chances are the vulnerable Alexis is going to be betrayed for the extinction of the human race unless Mac learns from the true meaning of failure.

Basically, Humanized is a young girl's equivalent of the Terminator 2 buddy dynamic. With his perpetually wide eyes and piercing voice which resembles the speech pattern of Beldar Conehead, Mac is less adept at fitting in than the Schwarzenegger prototype, blending mostly though sheer belittlement. But they do get along, although not without some friction. Mac bluffs his way into spending the night at Alexis' house, gets confined to the guest room and utters the deathless line "I am enjoying our restraining order slumber party complete with boundaries."

Olivia's blend of energy and empathy does set the tone for her future short films, and as a teen actor she appears to have picked up a few welcome lessons from John Cusack. The writing itself is where Olivia really comes into her own. Mac's cybernetic database allows him to deduce how to impress teenage girls through such advice as "purchasing nutrients," "do not contact mothership" and "eliminate the cyborg that lives with her." Putting the plan into action, though, his insufficient knowledge causes him to miscalculate even the simplest acts of chivalry. Picking her up from school in a red Honda SUV similar to another student's ride, Mac assures Alexis that he is of "minimal guilt," which...you can guess what that means.

Also worth commending are the montage scenes of Mac shadowing and bonding with Alexis, where Mac's further idiosyncrasies play out and there's even a pretty cool cameo from a woman only heard in voiceover, Mrs. DeLaurentis herself (nearly getting in a car wreck due to reckless Mac). She's even given a hometown legend salute in the pizzeria.

In short, this is a focused and fun starting point into the young filmmaker's catalog and proof that Olivia DeLaurentis is not a talent to be missed. Another touch to look out for is the soundtrack, which ends with a tune from Olivia's favorite comedy duo. Next to Diane, the other recurring adult player in the repertoire, Steven Houska, has a brief part as the neglectful father with the Bluetooth headset, a perfect transition into the first of the interstitial segments... 


a. Dad
This Mad Libs-indebted goof on a sins-of-the-father melodrama is also known as the "Llama Movie." See for yourself, as it may be your regular Satyr-day night thing. Sarah Crosthwaite co-writes and co-directs with Olivia, playing the straight-laced younger sister alongside Olivia, Diane and Max Kennedy as the impressionable youngest child. My close friend Dana Saravia ought to get as much of a kick out of the inclusion of Neil & Tim Finn's "Nothing Wrong with You" as I did. Filmed for the 2012 Agoura High student film festival.

Violet Young (Olivia DeLaurentis) dancing with Claude Rains.

 II. MY BETTER HALF

A fugue state is defined as a type of psychogenic amnesia stemming from one's loss of identity, often associated with spontaneous travel which is blacked out of mind. Violet Young (Olivia), a straight-A+ student who has denied herself a social life for the perks of higher education, is warned of this disorder by her counselor (Bill Wise), a transvestite surfer dude whose desk is cluttered with Darth Vader figurines and a Billy Bass perched on a mini-Hulk pinball machine. However, his definition is more aligned with average, everyday schizophrenia, or to invent a new clinical term for it, Fredophilia.

That's because Violet's repressive super-ego has caused her to imagine a subconscious prankster named U2 (Cullinan), and like Phoebe Cates' Lizzie before her, Violet is exhibiting indecent, demented behavior she frantically, futilely attributes to an invisible manchild. Diane Franklin gets the Marsha Mason role as Violet's hyper-masculine mom, such a relentless scold that her husband (Houska) is reduced to being Mr. June Cleaver. "He's wearing an apron," snarks Mrs. Young in a hush, "You don't want to end up like that!"

U2, a neon-dyed Peter Pan in Goodwill glam, only wants what's best for Violet, who is forbidden from school dances, on the cusp of driver's ed and diverted from her talents as a fashion designer. If that means wrestling her with a boa (which onlookers can only see as her doing frustrated pirouettes), habitually stealing cars or calling her through a banana, then this cuckoo life coach surely will help Violet realize her own personal fulfillment is hardly as nutty. 

My Better Half plays as a more confident variation on the fractured fairy tale of Humanized, and Olivia's generosity with character quirks and unique comic portrayals is reminiscent of Savage Steve Holland's amiable absurdity. The understatement she displayed as Alexis Winters has given way to a broader but equally precise show of rampant, robotic neurosis. Olivia has upped her game in terms of physical comedy to match the lunacy, the highlight being when she knocks herself out with a frying pan and lumbers puppet-like down the stairs of her mansion, her Stepford Father looking on with mortification.

Drew Cullinan also feels more natural in front of the camera here, and makes a case that he could improve upon the late Rik Mayall's Rotten routine. Playing the roles of Violet's misfit friends are Sydney Heller (Olivia's co-conspirator at Barely Legal Comedy) as the academically jealous Cindy ("I write poetry about your body being found in a ditch") and Sarah Crosthwaite as OCD-addled Christian athlete Annie, each making an excellent impression. As for Diane...well, I get the feeling she is a spiritual godmother to all of the young actresses. Her sourpuss streak is luminously spot-on, and Steven Houska also makes the most of his expanded screen time as the emasculated hubby.

Olivia the filmmaker has also markedly improved, exhibiting a deft touch with the montage at the very start by giving us a compact knowledge at Violet's study-centric all-nighters. The temp soundtrack backing her up is also the best of her films, especially if you're an art rock nerd like me who fancies Sparks, Brian "Baby's on Fire" Eno and The Modern Lovers. The homecoming ball is set to the tune of Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself," natch, as the Violet triggers independent-minded revolt amongst her peers and does the one-girl rhumba in a sexy costume she literally stitched together in her sleep.

Fuguing hilarious. 



b. Agouraphobia

A comedy trailer in which Olivia teases her own Agoura Hills environment, caught in a rat trap of sealed fates, multiple iPads, "long shorts," and heated debate over semi-fast Mexican restaurants. "No one escapes from Stalag 16," her peers and the prophecies warn her, but can she defy the Big Pig in the Sky and, once and for all, break away?! Tune in next life for the thrilling conclusion.

Sarah Crosthwaite, Diane Franklin, Sydney Heller, Steven Houska


III. ROYAL EFFUPS

The Adventures of Lass trilogy was an indication that Olivia had a yen for crackpot revisions of historical developments, although sadly it is not available to watch. Instead, her next mini-movie, Royal Effups, is a Monty Python-style burlesque of the Enlightenment in 17th century Europe, an "Idiocracy: The Early Years," if you will. Set a half-century before the Intellectual Revolution, the first thing you'll notice is that even medieval babes like the fine, faire Princess Joanna were peasants once.

In a time of free amputations and children selling potato-shaped stones as food (it's a shame they didn't serve moss on the side to garnish them), a poor girl from Lemmingsville named Jane Iver (Olivia) dreams of being a Feudalist Tart. Upon inventing a heretofore unknown taste sensation called "candy," she is summoned by the royal cardinal (Evan Laffer) to be the arranged bride for King Ferdinand VIII.V. Alas, she has just been married into the royally insane, as Ferdinand's surname is an indication of his age.

Now officially betrothed to a child (Kyle Lewis) only interested in her candy, Jane is run further ragged by the rest of the monarchy, including a declaratorily conniving close heir in pirate wear (Cullinan's Duke of Transvestia) and Elizabeth the Cursed (Sydney Heller), the smeared-lipstick simpleton whose mental deficiencies stem from being the daughter of the Earl and Earless of Incestia (Houska and Diane).

Running about ten minutes less than My Better Half, the more loosely-structured Royal Effups embraces its dumbed-down premise with gusto. Ferdinand's chalice is a sippy cup and he rubs hard candy all over his chest after getting a huge bowl from Jane in exchange for a necklace. Jane herself binges on sweets for supper, although the cross-dressing Tranvestian would sooner she wash them down with vitriol. Sadly, we never quite see the Earless of Incestia pull back her hair or exaggerate her deafness enough to justify her position, but the celibate Cardinal does stick his fingers in his ear when Jane threatens to explain coitus and flicks about holy water to suppress any erotic tension. This time around, Evan Laffer is the film's MVP (although Sydney Heller and Drew Cullinan are incredible foes) and will return in a future paragraph.

There's an early visual gag which suggests the Imbecilic Revolution made ripples across the Atlantic, but we never do get to see any satisfying satire from this connection. I hope for a deleted scene of the pint-sized emperor holding a ridiculous public assembly or palace monologue. Royal Effups is a time-traveling variation on Olivia's subversive adolescent angst, this time putting Cinderella in a kingdom of pumpkinheads and watching her squirm and bluff her way into affirming her own grasp of power. The wit and the triumph which paid off splendidly in My Better Half is there, especially when the Cardinal confesses his crush on Jane at the least possibly requiting time.

Also, pip pip and Golden Crisps for the soundtrack, which is duly orchestral but contains many familiar modern melodies from the stables of Jimmy Eat World, Jason Mraz, Eric Clapton, and, of course, Queen.

I'd rank it only slightly behind My Better Half, but it's still goofily, gallantly imaginative and Olivia's personal artistic voice still registers above the royal ruckus.


 c. Recruiting Violations

Olivia's Gwyneth Diaz goes scouting for colleges, but learns that it's better to call them than vice versa, especially when they phone you up after midnight on a studying bender. The admissions reps who phone her each represent a passive aggressive form of unsavory interest, concluding in a failed romantic misunderstanding/rejection from Bay Area University. It's scarier than the remake of When a Stranger Calls, to be sure.

Olivia DeLaurentis, Evan Laffer
IV. LOVECHILD

The fourth of the "long shorts" takes us to the 46-minute mark, thus making Lovechild feel like the alpha of the bunch by virtue of its plotting and length. Once again, Olivia has fashioned a farce based on personality crisis, only this time her character is more in control and demonstrates more agency. As an actress, Lovechild may be her single most substantial vehicle, although My Better Half is still determinedly on the Honor Roll. It's an amalgam of both Charles Dickens and Harold Gray in terms of story ideas, but an influence which I hinted at in the earlier reviews finally swims on deck. And that influence is, blessed be, Better Off Dead.

Olivia's character is named Layna Meyers, whilst Diane Franklin herself plays Jenny Meyers, which is a pluralized direct tribute to the role Kim Darby played in that 1985 favorite, which was as Christmas-related as Lovechild. The dynamic between real-life and onscreen parent and child is also more pronounced than before, so there is a added layer of poignancy in this film which I cannot be a Scrooge about. As someone who came into this project holding firmly onto the elder DeLaurentis' festive spirit, it's a little hard to be objective because the chemistry is profoundly authentic and their hearts in the absolute right places. Forgive me for saying this, but one viewing will make you want to go out and hug the both of them.

Especially Diane, whose Jenny Meyers has been injured on the job at a factory run by crooked millionaire Gregory Rhodes (Houska), who has unjustly fired his entire staff after a disastrous crane accident. Because of this miserly misdeed, Jenny can't claim worker's comp and owes $10,000 in back rent summed up in an eviction notice. But she doesn't know that latter fact, only her thespian daughter Layna is keen to it, thus sparing her any more indignity.

Irate and vengeful, Layna hits upon an ingenious scheme to milk Rhodes for damages, pointing to a 17-year-old tryst as research for the role of her lifetime: Rhodes' illicit, long-orphaned teen daughter. With the help of her best friend Reagan (Tyler Matylewicz), the gay son of a right wing pigeon, she pulls all the right strings to land at the callous CEO's doorstep. Layna learns that she's not his lone black sheep, as Rhodes has a son named Plato, or Plates (Evan Laffer) who has been repeatedly expelled from boarding schools and is caught up in his own brooding, Machavellian angst. But with her own weekly allowance of $3,500, Layna only needs to keep up the charade for a month to clear her mom's debts. But as she is confronted with her own transgressions whilst bonding with her sexually confused, arch-martyr half-brother, can Layna improv her way back out of the ruse in time?

Fittingly enough for a movie which opens with an on-the-fly rendition of A Christmas Carol, Lovechild is its own improvisational Christmas pageant. And yet it comes together a lot better than its loose beginnings imply, another token of Olivia's single-handed skills on the order of her last three films. The character moments continue to find just the right mix of embarrassment and sweetness, and Olivia's writing has many effective dynamics besides the aforementioned mother/daughter bond. Layna's liaison with Plates is especially ripe for schadenfreude. Her machination drives the boy so mad, he raids the kitchen sink for anything that will hinder his love-damaged dementia.

Steven Houska's Rhodes also allows for the recurring star to open himself up more in terms of dramatic material, striking a note of convincing vulnerability when he recounts the real love he felt for Layna's pretend mother and the shame of his fatherly confidence gone sour. His money-throwing notion of defective responsibility is, in a way, humanized.

The clever black comedy as much as the conflicts are as universal as they are individual, and are relaxed enough so that it doesn't leave a ham-fisted bruise. There's an intelligence behind Olivia's talents which makes the silliness stem from authentic surroundings. Sure, she can aim at easy targets (we'll get to that in a few) and make as juvenile of humor as the "big boys" in comedy, but if the teen flicks of her mother's past are any yardstick, then Olivia is a preternatural heir to the primo youth movies of John Hughes and Rob Reiner.
 
d. Dealbreaker

A confessional board game bought at an indie Chinatown voodoo shop worries Olivia-as-Jamie. Rightfully so, if you've seen Gremlins, but instead the twist of this five-minute filmlet is basically the opening skit from Movie 43 about the perfect bachelor with the physical malady filtered through a Freaky Friday/Big-style shot of supernatural fantasy. Drew Cullinan returns as the dashing mystery date, who loves Bowie but has inherited the butt of Barf from Spaceballs.


Jeremy Elder, Adam Fisher, Diane, Olivia, Steven Houska

V. DEVON BRIGHT & THE SENSITIVE BOYS

Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Epicene Theater (may as well be), comes the newest, truest and bluest romantics ever assembled. Meet Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys, too chaste to chase just any young girl, but one whose purity comes from Nicholas Sparks stories and can cry just a little to make them demonstrate the proper use of Kleenex.

Fawns, Cougars and even caged tigers from all correctional facilities hear the hyper-compassionate cry of this latest breed of teenage wildlife: cherubic tube-top victim Kendall Bae (Adam Fisher), tough-talking softie Ashley (Jeremy Elder) and the central low-thario, the most valiant knight in shining capris to come to your emotional rescue, Devon Bright (Drew Cullinan). They are at the height of their fame, thanks to canny marketing agent Rick Martini (Houska), deceptive mothering on behalf of estrogen pill dealer Mrs. Bright (Diane) and an audience who capriciously get full body tattoos and scream their fanaticism to Ed Gein degrees. And that makes Kendall Bae sad.

Devon Bright is also broken up when he fails to avert his eyes during a detour through the ghetto and sees...like, omigod, a bum! This harsh reality presses Devon to abandon the incubatory safety of his family mansion and group bed to investigate further, first by engaging with a delusional hobo psycho (David Neale) whose oracle is Cap'n Crunch and then coming tear-to-tear with his disgraced progenitor and hero, Jesse Holiday (Christopher Mathieu). The green-eyed golden boy whose career stalled thanks to green soda, Jesse now rules his own street-smart trio of down-and-out child celebrities and initiates Devon into the X-Faction.

I am old enough to remember that made-for-MTV mockudrama 2gether, way back when Justin Timbaland was a distant dream of the future. You know, the one that had such dead-on style parodies as "Rub One Out," "U + Me = Us (Calculus)" and "The Hardest Part of Breaking Up (Is Getting Back Your Stuff)." Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys takes that conceit fourteen years later in a present day universe of Directioners and Beliebers, and Olivia fashions it into another skewed but relatable journey for independence.

Backing her up is brother Nick DeLaurentis on the composing side, and the two original songs they have come up with are more purposefully bad than you would expect a satire of banal teenybopper pop to be. It's a moderately successful joke to hear neutered Iron Johnny Angel catchphrases ("I won't eat red meat/No, it's all about soy"), but not so over-the-edge as to make for genuine novelty.

Having now grown up enough to employ liberal profanities and a fondness for punk rock (Dead Kennedys poster, seedy scenery, Television and Marilyn Manson cues), 18-year-old Olivia seems ready to rumble in the comedy ring. But off-hand references to the choosey pitfalls of fame and the gullibility of pop crack addicts don't land with the blows they ought to pack, even when voiced by mincing caricature-com-conscience Kevin (Sean McSweeney), a reformed crack baby who evinces a genuine love for Devon's positive pabulum.

Devon Bright's guppy-out-of-pond sojourn results in a literal poor man's victory at the end, busted down to strutting in the park with his codependent siblings to shallow tweens who shrug off their social awareness. The satire runs through a series of tenuously-grasped poses towards a fitting but limp dead end.

There are some hearty laughs to be had, though, like the benign inner city pressure Devon encounters set to a thrash cover of "A Whole New World" from the Aladdin soundtrack as well as the proposed concession to ethnic diversity which is met with a defensive shriek by the homogenized Brights. The funny foreigner character at the end, though, is more hackneyed than I expected. The performances also strike me more as a serviceable collection of improv troupe tics in need of a human touch, especially in the central trio of stars. This is not Spinal Tap, to put it lightly.

Strangely, this is the first of Olivia's movies where I found myself willingly wanting more of her mother, who proves the most sustainable resource in the film. Diane's mixture of natural buoyancy and instinctive wryness gives her an advantage as the sidelined Svengali. Mrs. Bright's introduction is simultaneously sexy and sardonic. 

Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys is a minor diversion by comparison to her last four efforts, and whilst she still demonstrates chops with non-sequiturs, sharp one-liners and good-hearted rebellion, I can only anticipate Olivia's growth in the college circle and cheer on her great crowd leap forward. The evidence I've gathered here is enough to ensure her promise rings.


 e. Chapman Application Movie
Olivia's parents play their own worrying selves as their daughter suffers an amnesia-inducing mule kick to the head. A concise formal parody of handheld identity crisis and frenetically-edited B&W flashback stock footage that ends with an even more satisfying near-hit than Devon Bright. Sarah and Cinco co-star. Music via Weezer and The Buzzcocks. Length at two minutes long, so here's to the lost 30 seconds of footage gone the way of The Magnificent Ambersons. Vaya con dios.

I highly recommend checking out Olivia's most recent sketch comedy with Sydney Heller at Barely Legal Comedy as well as After Dark with Julian Clark, plus I'll leave you with one more bonus sketch, in which Diane Franklin compliments her own daughter's breasts: