Their Finest (B+). It doesn’t have the grabbiest title, but this picture by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is my favorite of the year so far. The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) has moved from Wales to London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But his dour art isn’t selling, so Catrin gets a job as a screenwriter on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. She clashes with the obnoxious head screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), learns to massage the bruised ego of past-his-prime movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle), and generally gets a crash course in the trials and tribulations of moviemaking. Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa) pops up unexpectedly as a pompous war minister. The sexism of the era is conveyed effectively without being overdone. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (D). The first Guardians movie was a surprisingly fun, comic space opera. The second, unfortunately, is neither fun nor funny. The relentless special effects and earsplitting soundtrack add up to, as another critic put it, a “visual and aural assault”—and one that lasts over two hours, for good measure. There’s a lot going on here, but the main plot involves the encounter between affable space scoundrel Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Five-Year Engagement) and his long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China). It’s always great to see Russell doing his amiable big-lug routine, but even he can’t save this bloated trainwreck. Almost lost in the clutter are nice supporting performances by Michael Rooker (Tombstone) as the blue outlaw who raised Peter and Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) as a beautiful gold alien whose genetically perfect species is remarkably inept at tracking down and blowing up the Guardians. Skip it.
Rifftrax Live: Samurai Cop. (B+) This is a solid effort by the riffers at Rifftrax. (I saw the live show last night, but you can catch a rebroadcast next Tuesday night if you like!) They started with an amusing short, an old black-and-white educational film in which a surly student learns about good manners from a preachy chalk drawing come to life. Samurai Cop itself is a terrible 1991 knock-off of Lethal Weapon and other buddy-cop movies. A Japanese gang with almost no Japanese members is getting into the L.A. drug scene, and a muscle-bound samurai cop with long, flowing hair and no discernible martial-arts skills comes up from San Diego to help out. He and his African-American sidekick mostly drive around shooting people, but the samurai cop occasionally takes a time out to awkwardly hit on or make out with various women who are unfortunate enough to cross his path. The riffing was very funny, and the movie was amusingly inept in its own right, so I give it a solid thumbs-up.
Be aware, however, that the Rifftrax show is rated R. I was surprised to see that on my ticket, and it turned out to be because the movie has a lot of profanity in it–also some clumsy sexual banter, and some scenes in which the hero and heroine make out while wearing very small swimsuits. (According to IMDB there is nudity in the original movie, but the Rifftrax folks deleted that out.)
To my surprise, the red-headed gal who runs with the bad guys in this movie was Gates McFadden’s stand-in on Star Trek: The Next Generation and actually had small parts herself in no fewer than 43 STTNG episodes! How about that?
The LEGO® Batman Movie (C). I thought The LEGO Movie was kind of cute, but this sequel really didn’t do it for me. The animation was kind of cool, but as usual in modern action movies everything moved so fast during the action sequences that I couldn’t even keep up with what was happening, much less appreciate the artistry. The movie was crammed with references to all the previous incarnations of Batman, including the campy Adam West TV series, and I have to admit I did laugh out loud a few times at some of the off-the-wall references. And it was kind of fun when the Joker managed to unleash a vast array of bad guys from The Phantom Zone, including Godzilla, King Kong, The Wicked Witch of the West, Voldemort, and even Sauron himself. But the movie felt overly long, and the plot about Batman’s learning to work with others and to open himself up to a new family was pedestrian. There was plenty of star power behind the voicework, though: Will Arnett (Blades of Glory) as Batman, Michael Cera (This Is the End) as Robin, Rosario Dawson (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) as Commissioner Gordon, Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I) as Alfred the Butler (rather than Voldemort, for some reason), Siri herself as the computer, and Zach Galifianakis (Birdman) as The Joker, just to name the main ones.
The Edge of Seventeen (B-). This new tale of teen angst stars Hailee Steinfeld (Begin Again) as Nadine, a miserable and thoroughly unpleasant high-school student whose entire wardrobe seems to consist of barely-there skirts and shorts. Nadine doesn’t get along with either her mom or her older brother. To make matters worse, her only friend in the world starts dating said older brother, which only makes Nadine more miserable and, amazingly, even more unpleasant. Really, Nadine is so obnoxious and filled with self-loathing that I found it very hard to empathize with her, She seemed borderline mentally ill. The movie’s bright spot is Nadine’s friendship with her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Management). Bruner’s dryly sarcastic responses to Nadine’s various crises had the whole theater laughing out loud. Basically, all the scenes involving Bruner are great, and the rest of the movie is so-so. And please note that the R rating for language and sexual content is well deserved.
Rifftrax Live: Time Chasers (B-). Well, I didn’t actually see this 2016 show live; I just recently saw it on DVD. But I was really, really looking forward to it because the guys riffed Time Chasers back in their Mystery Science Theater glory days, and in my mind it was one of the funniest MST episodes of all time. Time Chasers itself is a hilariously low-budget 1994 time-travel movie about Nick Miller, a nerdy physics professor in Vermont who turns his little single-propeller airplane into a time machine with what looks like a Commodore 64. Unfortunately Nick’s physics prowess far exceeds his common sense, and he rashly sells his invention to an evil corporation called GenCorp, embodied by its tangibly evil CEO J.K. Robertson. The scene in which Nick visits the CEO in his “office” – a stairway landing in what I’ve read is the opera house in Rutland, Vermont – is one of the all-time greats. So, Nick has to do more time traveling to try to stop himself from selling the time machine to GenCorp in the first place.
Unfortunately, the riffers just don’t do as good a job shredding Time Chasers as they did on Mystery Science Theater so many years ago. While watching the movie, I often remembered the wisecracks from the MST version, and the new jokes just weren’t as good. Don’t get me wrong—it was still an entertaining experience, if only because the movie itself is such a target-rich environment. I just thought the Rifftrax version didn’t live up to the MST original. There’s also a short about a chimpanzee that becomes a fireman, but it was nothing in particular to write home about either.
The Slime People (D). This first-season offering just isn’t very good. The movie is horrendous, about a handful of humans trying to survive an attack on Los Angeles by subterranean slime people. Tedious in the extreme, and the riffing isn’t all that great either. The highlight of the disc is actually a short interview with a woman who was in the movie, reminiscing about the experience and how horrified she was when she first saw the finished product because it was so bad.
Rocket Attack U.S.A. (C). This second-season effort is not great but at least it’s better than The Slime People. The 1961 film is a Cold War relic mainly about a spy sent to Moscow to figure out if the Soviets are planning to launch a nuclear attack. Answer: Yes. The first half of the movie features some pretty funny riffing by Joel and the robots, but they seem to lose steam towards the end.
Village of the Giants (C). This okay episode features an old movie starring a young Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys), a very young Ron Howard (TV’s Happy Days), and a timeless Toni Basil (the 1982 hit song “Mickey”). Howard is a brainiac kid in the little town of Hainesville. He accidentally invents a substance that, when eaten, makes the consumer grow to enormous size. Unfortunately, Beau and his gang of unpleasant punk teenagers get a hold of the growth formula and proceed to terrorize the town. Expect lots of unconvincing special effects and lots of whining from Beau’s gang about how adults are always pushing young people around with their rules and such.
The Deadly Mantis (B). My grade may be slightly inflated because of the weakness of the other movies in this collection. This is a 1957 creature feature about a giant praying mantis that was frozen in arctic ice millions of years ago. Somehow it gets defrosted and runs amok killing people. There is very little plot beyond finding and killing the mantis, which seems to take an unduly long time. The riffing is pretty good. The two extras are an introduction by Mary Jo Pehl and a short documentary about Mantis producer William Alland, neither of which is of any special interest.