Tag: AVClub

The Movie I’ve Loved the Longest

The AVClub got me started on this. What film have I loved the longest? Hmm, let me see…

I turned six years old in October of 1977. I was old enough to remember seeing Star Wars in the theater, but I have to confess that at the time it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Sure, I had Star Wars sheets and games and assorted gimcrack because other kids I knew had Star Wars stuff and I didn’t want to feel left out. (That’s how capitalism got me.) But I didn’t see a picture that I both loved at the time and continue to love until 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back came out.

In 1980, I tasted the power of the dark side, and I liked it.

I didn’t see the movie right away, and because of that, I learned a hard lesson about spoilers. Some kids I was playing with on the playground were kicking around the new Star Wars picture, which I hadn’t yet seen because lines at Santa Monica’s theaters were blocks long. And one kid said, “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.”

Another kid replied. “No way!”


“That can’t be.” I said. “Darth Vader’s a machine. How can a machine have a kid?”

“That’s what Darth Vader said.”

“You’re crazy.”

For another six weeks I was in denial. Then I saw the picture and spent the next three years puzzling, the way people slightly older than me puzzled over the Kennedy assassination, over how it could possibly be true. (I made color coded charts.)

It was the first time I’d ever allowed a movie to matter to me like that, and it was fun. In spite of all my disappointments with the sequel, and with the prequels, and even despite my adult understanding that the original Star Wars is, though energetic, simplistic and laden with clunky dialog, I’ll still screen The Empire Strikes Back with unqualified pleasure.

Are You Pondering What I’m Pondering?

A couple of days ago I did the Jeopardy Online Test. I most likely passed, but I’d be a damned sight happier if I hadn’t vapor locked on the Oscar Wilde question.

History tells us that when Europeans forget how to stop pursuing policies that have no chance of working, things get ugly. (Not that we don’t really suck too.)

Barack Obama’s choices to do his inaugural benedictions make me wonder if only awful preachers volunteer to do the job.

My love of history and my love of movies are both satisfied in this AV Club discussion of capturing history on film.

Literature is doomed. Has been for centuries.

Jacob Soll’s review of Ben Kafka’s book about paperwork’s meaning in the modern world. Yes, I am nerdy enough to think of this as a must read.



Should Podcasts Be Reviewed?

“You shouldn’t review podcasts because no one gets paid for them.”

So say the embittered subjects of an Onion AV Club Podmass review, employing an argument that gets credit for novelty, if nothing else. The logic of this is that critics function as a kind of consumer watchdog, preventing people from wasting their money on substandard work. Since there’s no potential for wasted money, there’s no need for the watchdog.

All that is fine if the transaction between audience member and artist is considered in strictly financial terms, but that’s hardly the limit of our outlay when it comes to works of art. The crucial commodities we sacrifice to entertainment are our time and our attention. At this moment, I can listen to music, read a book, watch television, take in a play, read a blog or web page, go to the movies, watch a movie at home, listen to the radio, watch Youtube videos, or listen to a podcast. Each of those options comes with a cost. Read the book, skip the videos; listen to a podcast, forget the movie tonight. And since life is distressingly finite, we know there’s only so much of this material we’ll be able to get to in a lifetime, however well we maintain ourselves. It’s frustrating to think about how much we’re inevitably going to miss, really. Podcasts aren’t free. A minute of a podcast and a minute of The Godfather cost exactly the same: one minute.

And because the gatekeepers are vanishing from the production end of the arts (or seeing their power reduced, anyway), critics perform a valuable service, steering us toward worthwhile experiences and away from those that’ll make us regret, in our final moments, the time we spent on that. That’s why, and I’m saying this only partly because my own work is about to become available to print and online reviewers, I offer my cheers to the critics who wade through all the art, whether free or dear, to find the good stuff.

P.S. The author of the opening quote has no reason to feel so gloomy. Though he claims the negative review “seriously harmed” his career, I’m not sure it needed to. I’d never heard of him before this, and had he not taken to whining (never an attractive response), I might have checked out the show just to see if I agreed with the harsh assessment. Maybe I’d have disagreed and taken to the web to write a defense of the man’s work. Sometimes the best work is, after all, the work that starts a fight. In the end, his work was reviewed in an often read feature, a fate which, given the volume of material that passes unremarked in the world, makes him luckier than he thinks.

AVClub’s 10 Essential Trek Episodes

I quibbled a bit, actually a lot, with their list of MST3K episodes, but the only complaint I have about the AVClub’s Star Trek list is the inclusion of the Season 3 episode “Spock’s Brain”, an episode I haven’t seen since high school and haven’t missed. If Zach Handlen were to compose a list of episodes that we could do without, “Spock’s Brain” could assume its rightful place.

You’d be better served by any of the episodes Zach Handlen lists in the second ten. My favorites in that group would be “Errand of Mercy” and “The Doomsday Machine”. (They really should have piled on more Norman Spinrad during the series.)

The Ten Essential MST3K Episodes

Last week, the AVClub came up with their list of the ten essential episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And while I liked the episodes they listed, my list differs enough that I felt compelled to share. My picks had to meet three criteria: they’re funny on their own, accessible to newcomers, and bring us to an encounter with something truly weird and memorable.

1. Manos the Hands of Fate: This wasn’t where I started, but, like Neo following the path to the Architect, I was fated to come face to face and knees to knees with Torgo. That the AVClub’s critic remembers the episode primarily as mere venting by Joel and the Bots makes me wonder if the movie so damaged his brain that he forgot riffs like “Beep-Beep. Way to go, Steve!”, “When are you going to kill me, boss?”, or the classic “PULL MY FINGER!” Until you’ve seen Manos, you haven’t really experienced MST3K.

2. Eegah: A coworker of mine introduced me to MST3K via Eegah, which marked the first time I saw actor Richard Kiel sans the metal teeth. Because Kiel plays a caveman who expresses himself only with grunts, howls, and the occasional made-up word, Joel and the Bots are free to riff his responses with impunity. (Pauses and inarticulate sounds are the oxygen that feeds a good riff.)  Toss in a doughy, weird-faced, would-be teen idol, a dune buggy, and two of the worst songs ever committed to film (yes, including Cool As Ice) and you’ve created a magical playland for a boy and his puppets. Watch out for snakes.

3. Gamera: Peter Jackson had Lord of the Rings. Joel Hodgson had the Gamera series. Gamera, who loves children almost as much as he loves making movies that bore them and empty their souls.  Gamera, who provided the boy and his puppets with a nemeses worthy of their comedic talents and forced them to stretch as they riffed through increasingly bizarre encounters with the superturtle and his ray shooting foes.

4. Cave Dwellers: Sword and sorcery pictures, particularly those shot for couch change in Italy, served the Best Brains boys well. Cave Dwellers is a sequel, but if you haven’t watched the first Cave Dwellers flick, fret not. One of the characters from this movie will narrate a ten minute flashback that tells you everything you…actually, didn’t really need to know. (Key riff: “Jeez. Tolkien couldn’t follow this plot.”) The movie goes off the rails way before the hero hang glides over the enemy’s castle dropping bombs (yes, bombs). So there’s no way to describe the strangeness of the movie’s climax. But Joel and the Bots make us laugh, which keeps madness at bay. Afterwards you can work out on the Charismatic Soloflex of Zantar 13.

5. Warrior of the Lost World: A charmless guy rides an ostensibly intelligent motorcycle through a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by thugs from seven different kinds of dystopia movies, death engines made from dump trucks, and Donald Pleasance. Clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Warrior of the Lost World failed mainly because of something the director forgot: casting a lead actor whose range extends beyond grumbling and sneering.

6. Outlaw of Gor: Remember what I said two paragraphs ago about sword and sorcery movies shot for nothing in Italy…well here we go again. Outlaw in some ways out craps Cave Dwellers. Both films have the standard features: muscled hero, swords, a supposedly competent heroine who nonetheless has to be rescued, and a silly sidekick; but Outlaw also has 100% more butts, boobs, and buffalo shots, 300% more gratingly awful friends for the hero, and a googleplex more Jack Palance, who’d fallen a long way from cutting down guys in the middle of the street in Shane. As Mike’s song so aptly puts it “It’s breatikaboobical, chestakamammical, pendular globular fun!”

7. The Starfighters: This one came to me on the same tape with Eegah. The special place the movie holds in my heart I attribute to my misspending many hours of my life watching its star, future congressman “B-1” Bob Dornan, make strident speeches on C-Span to a nigh-vacant House of Representatives. Unlike Dornan’s speeches, which were primarily meant for paranoid right-wing fanatics who never tired of hearing who died how during the Vietnam War, The Starfighters is never all that clear about who its intended audience is or how it expects them to react to the incidents in its story. Because its central themes and tensions are classified far above our level, The Starfighters leaves us a lot of stock footage of F-104s flying, landing, refueling (they refuel so much Mike and the Bots run out of jokes for it), a limp love story, and some lame hijinks from the supporting cast. Keep an eye out for the Poopie Suit.

8. The Violent Years: Ed Wood, Jr. once wrote a “girls gone bad” movie. This is it. These busty girls who were already no-damn-good are led further astray by a bustier crime boss (who may be a communist). The crime boss induces them to “rape” a teenaged boy, who actually seems to welcome the attention, trash a classroom (without really damaging anything), and end up in a shootout with the cops. The movie is basically I Accuse My Parents with the genders switched, but the extra added Ed Woody Goodness gives Mike and the Bots more to play with.

9. The Final Sacrifice: Meet Canadian arch-villain Garth Vader, the weedy son of Larry Csonka, and Canadian arch-hero (and three time beer-swilling champion of Moose Hat, Alberta) Zap Rowsdower. It’s The Final Sacrifice, a movie that Canadian content laws may still be forcing our northern neighbors to endure unriffed. This movie, which concerns a cult that’s trying to raise a lost civilization somewhere on the outskirts of Quesnel and the young boy whose courage inspires doughy, bewhiskered men to try to stop them, provides a target rich environment for Mike and the Bots. (Favorite Riff, while Zap Rowsdower looks at a sunset. “Is there beer on the sun?”)

10. The Girl In Gold Boots: You bet your sweet bippy this is a bad movie, which delves into the seamy side of the sex and drug industry and fearlessly exposes the bad dancing people could get away with in 1969. (“Do the Wounded Turkey!”) Think of it this way: Mike and the Bots never got to rip on Showgirls. This is about as close as they’ll ever get, and it’s magic. Beware the icky elf.

Evil Developers Threaten Something Dancing Teens Love…zzzzzz

The upcoming movie Step Up 4 tells the story of a group of teen dancers who…take a guess…stage a big dance number to save their neighborhood from the predations of a developer.

Most bad movies are bad in the same way. Bad horror movies almost always need someone get killed by investigating a scary noise, preferably just after having sex. Bad cop thrillers have to have a police captain tell the protagonist that he’s a good cop who lets his emotions get in the way. Most bad 80s teen sex comedies involve a pack of silly twerps trying to sneak into a breast exposure festival in Florida or California. The associations are natural: horror movies sort of have to have killers and scary noises,  cop movies often revolve around troubled cops, and teen sex comedies focus on boobs.

But what is the deal with bad dance movies and evil developers? How did they become the go-to villains in so many dance plots (Breakin’, Breakin’ 2, The Forbidden Dance, Step Ups 3 and 4)? Real dancers don’t often spend their time entangled with the affairs of real estate developers, except once in a while as trophy dates. Nor do I remember a time when tightly choreographed dance numbers actually saved a threatened building/neighborhood/habitat. I grant that a big dance number allows for a better climax than could be achieved in Historical Preservation Society Gets An Injunction Under Municipal Zoning Code NE-1240J: The Motion Picture, and I can even a dance contest saving one building in one movie. But how did dancing-as-developer-scourge survive as a trope in dance features long enough to become a cliche?

If anyone has an answer, put it in comments. In the meantime, the skipsters at the AVClub do us all a service by listing ten ways to make better dance movies than the ones we’re getting. Among their suggestions: talk to real dancers, expand beyond dance prodigies, and dump the developers.