Sunday, March 28, 2010

The View From Home 3: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XVII (Shout! Factory)
Release date: March 16
Standard list price: $32.99

Aside from, perhaps, the wheel, the cotton gin and the printing press, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of man’s greatest creations. OK, well, at least it should be the top 100.

Such hyperbole is not uncommon among Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanatics, or “Misties,” as they’re lovingly called. Surely you know of the show, even if you don’t know it by name: It’s the ingenious concept wherein a man and two makeshift robots, marooned on a satellite for eternity, receive an endless supply of horrible B-movies from a mad doctor and proceed to heckle, or “riff” the poor films to our great amusement (the bad movie in question takes up most of the screen space, while the silhouettes of the guy and his robot friends line the bottom in a faux cinema setup).

The show ended its 11-year stint on television in 1999, but enthusiasm for it has hardly diminished. Its creators, writers and stars have gone on to lucrative post-MST3K projects – mostly doing the same thing under a different brand – and fans worldwide continue to clamor for the show, attending conventions and plopping down up to $200 for out-of-print DVD collections.

For longtime Misties looking to relive their favorite episodes – or MST3K neophytes newly seduced by the show’s power – each DVD box set is an event. Which episodes will make the cut this time? Will there be more Joel Hodgson episodes (Hodgson, the show’s creator, also starred until 1993) or Mike Nelson ones (Nelson took over Hodgson’s place, and the MST cult remains hotly divided over his capacity to fill the creator’s shoes)?

Rhino, the show’s longtime DVD distributor in the United States, passed the gauntlet in 2008 to Shout! Factory, which has released the past five four-disc sets. Like the previous collections, there’s no rhyme, reason, theme or chronology to the selections in the newly released Vol. XVII, which plucks episodes from seasons 4, 9, 10 and, most notably, the very first episode of the very first proper season of MST3K, titled The Crawling Eye, which aired on the long defunct Comedy Channel in 1989.

So this box set has historical importance, even if the episode in question shows just how wet behind the ears the now experienced riffers were. The episode established the structure and formula of the show (though the low-budget set is a flimsy cable-access affair): Hodgson and his homemade robots, Tom Servo and Crow, exchange an invention with their nemesis Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) before beginning their latest “experiment,” or B-movie stinkburger. They take regular breaks from the movie to present full-color comedic sketches, which often bomb, especially in the humble beginnings of Season 1.

In a newly recorded interview for the DVD, the 49-year-old Hodgson acknowledges that there was a learning curve for movie riffing. Watching this disc, it’s easy to see it. The intervals between jokes are much too long and the humorous jabs are less adventurous. Some are hopelessly dated -- I cringed when Hodgson and the ‘bots joke derisively about the idea of an “all weather channel” on TV.

It gets a lot better, though, as any Mistie will assure you, and this box set is a worthy addition to your MST3K library. The Season 4 entry The Beatniks is a classic hoot. It’s a ridiculous social-problem melodrama about a group of wayward youths: The hot jazz on the soundtrack tells us they’re delinquents even before they stick up a convenience store.

When one of the gang decides to abandon the thug life for a record-industry tart and a career singing Dean Martinesque love songs, it comes back to haunt him. Joel and the robots get great mileage out of the fact that while the characters in the film are many things, they are most definitely not beatniks (“This is one from Ginsberg’s ballad years!” Crow quips).

The later episodes in the set rank just as high in the laugh ratio. In Season 9’s cult favorite The Final Sacrifice, a wimpy beanpole of a hero joins forces with a brutish, hard-drinking trucker to form an unlikely buddy movie duo and quell a cult of executioners. It’s ripe for mockery, and the jokes practically write themselves.

I’m especially fond of this box set’s closer, the Season 10 episode The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, about the titular madman, who successfully becomes part catfish in order to – take over the world, one assumes? The movie was shot in and around Marineland, Fla., not one of our state’s proudest cinematic exports, and its ancillary characters include a racist sheriff and his black assistant (The human characters in most of these movies are usually stupid, contemptible or both).

It all makes for a wonderfully ironic white-trash setup for jokes referencing Warhol and Basquiat. Dr. Z makes for a memorably bad creature, his suit of fur resembling something out of a moderately priced Halloween shop, filed under “generic monster.” He doesn’t lurk and threaten so much as waver and stagger, the actor obviously uncomfortable in his uniform – which prompts Mike and the robots to riff, “He’s the Gerald Ford of monsters.”

MST3K Vol. XVII will no doubt sell well among the throng of Misties. Some will call it the greatest MST3K collection since the last one. At least until Vol. XVIII comes out. We’re waiting.

Dillinger Is Dead (Criterion Collection)
Release date: March 16
SLP: $21.99
This uncategorizable eccentricity from Italian subversive Marco Ferreri is one of only a few in his 30-plus film canon to see a U.S. DVD release, and it’s easy to see why.

Michel Piccoli plays a gas-mask designer living with two beautiful women (Anita Pallenberg and Carla Petrillo) he virtually ignores. Over the course of one night, he discovers a pistol possibly owned by John Dillinger. He proceeds to construct, deconstruct, cook with (!) and spray-paint the weapon while watching, and interacting with, old home movies of himself.

By the time this nearly silent movie reaches its calmly violent climax, the gun in question has been so rebranded as a cartoony art object that we almost forget its purpose – a purpose Ferreri uses to launch a surrealist cinematic Molotov at domestic complacency and narrative film in general.

Free-form and experimental, Dillinger Is Dead is as far from cause-and-effect storytelling as you’ll find, though in its idiosyncratic way, it echoes Buster Keaton’s poker-faced humor as much as it does Canadian avant-gardist Norman McLaren’s zippy abstraction.

The DVD includes newly recorded interviews with Piccoli and film historian Adriano Apra and a choice roundtable discussion with Ferreri’s industry friends, filmed just days after his 1997 death.

The African Queen (Paramount)
Release date: March 23
SLP: $19.99 single disc, $34.99 limited edition box set

It’s almost hard to believe that The African Queen hasn’t been officially released as a region 1 DVD yet; for years, it has been the only movie on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list to not have felt the comfort of a Best Buy shelf.

Held up in legal limbo for years, this John Huston masterpiece from 1951 has been digitally remastered using state-of-the-art technology, thanks to a restoration process that spanned six years.

The single-disc DVD edition includes the comprehensive making-of documentary Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen, and a limited-edition box set includes an audio disc of the Lux Radio Theater’s recording of The African Queen, a reproduction of Katherine Hepburn’s out-of-print book about the production of the film, collectible postcards and more.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox)
Release date: March 23
SLP: $17.99

Judging by the 93 percent positive ranking on the film critics’ aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it appears I’m once again in the minority when it comes to Wes Anderson’s gorgeously composed but cerebrally esoteric cinema.

Still, fans of Anderson’s will no doubt love his quirky adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s like any other Wes Anderson movie, in which characters speak softly but carry a big dictionary -- only this time with talking animals (kids will no doubt love the existentialist angst!).

Its plot is simple enough: The titular character, a newspaper columnist voiced by George Clooney, steals from and consequently battles the three nasty farmers who toil near his new home, leading to a mess of trouble for his already fractured family unit. I actually admire the way Anderson molds a popular children’s story into his own distinct, mannered style, but the main stumbling block for his Fox is that it’s simply too busy a picture.

The film is directed with such exhaustive, manic energy that it feels twice as long as its 87-minute running time, overstaying its eccentric welcome.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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