Emma. (B+). Did we really need another movie of the beloved Jane Austen novel? I guess the box office will tell. This is a fine and, I believe, faithful adaptation of the book, so being an ardent disciple of the divine Miss Austen I quite enjoyed it. Anya Taylor-Joy was an interesting choice for the title role; her large, wide-set eyes give her a somewhat exotic appearance that may have worked better in her other movies like The Witch and Split, but she does a good job on the whole. In this version, I think Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria) at least looks quite a bit younger than he was in the novel (and the familiar 1996 movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam), and perhaps as a result this Emma–Knightley combination actually generates a little romantic heat. What else to say? The music stands out; there’s quite of bit of it, and a lot of it sounds like religious music of the period (or at least some long-past period). In this version, Emma’s older sister and her family come to Highbury for a visit and make a vivid impression; I don’t remember them from the book or prior movies. Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, or period pieces, or romantic comedies, I think you should like this movie.
P.S. Yes, the title of the movie really does have a period at the end, which I noticed on the opening title card. According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film has a period attached to signify it being a period piece.”
Knives Out (B). Director Rian Johnson (Star Wars Episode VIII) got quite a cast to sign on for this stylish new mystery movie. The whole Thrombey family has gathered at the spooky old country home of wealthy patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire) for his 85th birthday party. Then, as so often happens after these dreary affairs, the maid finds poor Harlan dead in his study. Was it suicide or foul play? The list of suspects is long: Harlan’s uptight daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday), her caddish husband Richard (Don Johnson, Tin Cup), Harlan’s hangdog son Walt (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), Harlan’s needy, new-agey daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense), plus a few grandchildren (including Chris Captain America Evans) and a couple of servants. Enter private investigator Benoit Blanc, who is played by Daniel Craig (The Invasion) and sports the broadest Foghorn Leghorn-style southern accent I think I have ever heard. Blanc quickly attaches himself to Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) as possibly possessing the key to the whole affair. It’s a fun and twisty ride. As is normal in mystery or caper films, I didn’t really understand what happened, even after it was all explained, but happily there’s this amazing new website called google.com that helped me find people to explain it to me after the fact.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour (B). The principal creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Hodgson, is on the road doing live shows in venues around the country. I think I heard this is supposedly going to be Hodgson’s last road show. Anyhoo, my sister and I caught the show last weekend in Dallas’s fancy opera house. The show is basically a live recreation of an episode of the MST3K TV show, with Joel and his two robot sidekicks (Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo) riffing on a terrible movie and occasionally taking little breaks to do (allegedly) comical skits. The terrible movie for our show was a cheesy 1986 Karate Kid rip-off called No Retreat, No Surrender (featuring a young and villainous Jean-Claude Van Damme, Timecop), and the riffing was very amusing. I’d probably give the show a B+ or an A- based on the riffing, but the skits were unfortunately unentertaining (just like they usually were during MST3K’s TV run). Note that Joel is the only person from the original show involved in this production; the robots are voiced by two new guys, and two new actresses participated in the skits. I think it was a pretty clean show, too, if you’re thinking about taking the kids. Definitely worth catching if they come to a town near you. Looks like they’re about to do a bunch of shows in Florida if you’re down that way!
Untamed Youth (B). This delightful youth-exploitation film from 1957 stars blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) as a would-be rock-and-roll singer. Unfortunately she and her sister are arrested in some backwater burg, and the crooked judge sentences them to be slave labor on a farm run by the judge’s co-conspirator. Entertaining episode, and the disc features a short interview with Mamie as a bonus feature.
Hercules and the Captive Women (C). This is a cheesy European Hercules flick from 1961. The title is inapt because there are no captive women in evidence. Sure, the evil queen of Atlantis is trying to sacrifice her daughter to the gods throughout the whole movie, but that’s just one woman. (Apparently the movie was sometimes called Hercules Conquers Atlantis.) Anyway, this is a pretty average outing for Joel and the robots, and the extras on the disc are also unremarkable.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die (A-). Now we’re getting somewhere! Mike and the bots have a great time skewering this 1958 horror cheapie. A cute-ish blond girl is doing a little water-witching around her aunt’s dude ranch when she discovers an old chest containing the 400-year-old head of some evil guy who got himself executed by Sir Frances Drake. The head can hypnotize people into doing its evil bidding, and of course its top priority is getting the water witch to find his long-lost body! The riffing is great, and even a couple of the host segments are funny as Mike encounters the supposedly super-intelligent Observers.
The Pumaman (B+). Another fan favorite, this is a super-cheesy 1980 superhero movie about a guy who supposedly has the powers of a puma and who must use them to fight evil forces led by the great Donald (Halloween) Pleasence (whose name is misspelled Pleasance in the credits). The guy is more Greatest American Hero than Superman, and his Aztec mentor constantly has to bail him out of trouble. The extras on the disc are a bit unusual. One is a complete and unriffed version of The Pumaman; why anyone would want to watch it, I can’t imagine. The other is a lengthy interview with the actor who played the Pumaman. He was a New York City lawyer who tried acting for about ten years and then went back to lawyering. He was a good sport to be interviewed for the disc because he really didn’t appreciate the MST3K guys making fun of this movie!
Destry Rides Again (B). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this 1939 Western starring Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) and Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution)—I had never heard anything about it and saw it pretty much on a whim. But I must say that I rather enjoyed it—much more than the Dietrich movies in “The Glamour Collection” that I watched so long ago. It’s rather tongue-in-cheek, as Westerns go. It’s set in a typical rough-and-tumble Western town, with a typical villain, his typical gang of ruffians, and an atypical saloon songbird named Frenchie (Dietrich) who helps the villain fleece people in crooked card games. When the town’s sheriff disappears under not-very-mysterious circumstances, the new sheriff sends for assistance in the person of Tom Destry (Stewart), son of a well-known lawman now deceased. But Destry quickly becomes a town laughingstock when he refuses even to carry a gun. Can he defeat the bad guys with nothing more than his wits? And maybe woo Frenchie on the side? It’s sort of goofy, but enjoyable. Worth a look, especially since it’s only 95 minutes long!
The Movie Snob takes in another Fathomevents event.
Rifftrax Live: The Giant Spider Invasion (A-). This is the last Rifftrax Live event of the year, and it’s a good one. The opening short clip is fairly meh; it’s a bizarre explanation of how the nation’s telephone system worked back in the days of party lines and rotary phones. Did I mention it involves lots and lots of creepy marionettes? But the main event more than makes up for the lackluster appetizer. The Giant Spider Invasion is a uniquely terrible 1975 monster movie starring Alan Hale (Skipper on TV’s Gilligan’s Island) as the sheriff of a small town that’s getting invaded by some extraterrestrial tarantulas and one truly giant spider that will eat you if you cooperate by climbing up into its mouth. They riffed this movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it was one of the all-time great MST3K episodes. This all-new riffing experience from the Rifftrax guys was just as funny. If you can’t catch it at the theater (there’s an encore performance tomorrow night), it’ll be worth downloading from the Rifftrax website. Warmly recommended . . . unless you have arachnophobia.
The Muppet Movie (C). I’m continuing my romp through the classics with this recent offering from fathomevents.com. Although I enjoyed the muppets TV show in my youth, I never saw this, their first theatrical release, which came out in 1979. Turns out I didn’t miss all that much. It’s the story of how Kermit the Frog (voice of Jim Henson) decided to follow his dream of being an entertainer, left his swamp, and hit the road for Hollywood. It’s a road-trip movie, with Kermit picking up a band of oddballs (Fozzie Bear (voice of Frank Oz), Miss Piggy (Oz), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), etc.) along the way while simultaneously being pursued by a fast-food-frog-legs entrepreneur (Charles Durning, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who wants Kermit to be his front man, er, frog. The jokes and sight gags really aren’t all that funny, but the frequent musical numbers tend to be better (especially Kermit’s wistful “The Rainbow Connection”). There are loads of celebrity cameos, including Edgar Bergin, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Big Bird, and even Orson Welles, but only Steve Martin’s rude waiter is very funny. I’m glad I saw it, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. (I might look for “The Rainbow Connection” on iTunes, though.)