Since I can only handle this horrible timeline of ours up to a certain point, I’ve been keen to find things that will keep me just ever so slightly distracted. Just enough to forget that the United States is finally becoming the country The Simpsons always said we were. Going through the entire Mystery Science Theater series while I work has been a great adventure in necessary distraction. This is also one of the best television shows of all time, and it’s been fascinating to revisit seasons 1 through 10, after the new Netflix season was released to such an excellent reception (I liked it, too).
Because watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 isn’t just watching Mystery Science Theater. It also means sitting through some of the worst films ever made. The key phrase is “some”, which is an element to the show that I haven’t thought about in years. The truth is that not all of the movies featured on the show over the years, even going back to the show’s KTMA public access days in the late 1980s, occupy the same plateau of cinematic shittiness. I’m not here to make the case that films like The Final Sacrifice, Squirm, or Gamera are “good” movies. At the same time, I don’t think you can paint the vast library of B-or-lower movies that make up MST3K with the same brush. This isn’t something I just discovered. It has just been a very long time since I’ve watched this show in any sort of order. Over the course of doing that, and as I get to the halfway point of the ninth season, I’ve found myself appreciating some of these movies a little more.
If nothing else, I find myself appreciating the effort of simply making a film. I forget sometimes that just getting a movie shot, edited, and released is an achievement unto itself. Many of the films that make up the MST3K archives are movies that simply suffered from having to make do with very, very little. The Final Sacrifice fits this bill. Shot on a budget of approximately 15 grand in Southwestern Alberta, I’m not going to tell you this is a great film. It’s not even a very good one. At the same time, it’s impossible for me to not at least admire some of the film’s “action scenes.” Or the fact that the movie, as terrible as its execution might be, is at least coherent. Would the movie be any better with a slightly bigger budget? Movies implode or suffer for all kinds of different reasons.
I’ve noticed that many of the worst Mystery Science Theater 3000 “experiments” collapse largely from the inclusion of extremely annoying child actors.
Categorizing all of the movies MST3K ran over the years as “terrible” is only somewhat accurate. Doing so can also rob you of the weird chance to examine why that movie is terrible, and why it was a logical fit for Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’ve been soldiering through the series for a couple of months now. Thank god my wife became a fan. Most of the movies I’ve watched through the show have proven to be pretty terrible. However, those reasons can vary impressively from one film to the next. There are also degrees of cinematic ineptitude that prove to fit the concept of Mystery Science Theater better than others. A fair number of the science fiction movies MST3K highlighted suck for no other reason than for being completely and utterly devoid of joy. Even with riffing, these movies can be difficult to sit through. Cheesiness is easy to mock. Dreariness can be another story. I’m astonished that the writers and performers of the show’s various eras survived all of them with sanity intact.
There are several places to get your fix of Mike/Joel/Jonah and the bots. Netflix has the new season, along with a grab bag of episodes from seasons 1-10. Shout Factory also has around 80 episodes available for free through their website, or through their AMAZING streaming channel (get it now). If you have some time, watch a few. Some of them are going to be unspeakably bad on every imaginable level. Others are going to be ancient victims of specific faults, such as a low budget, or an appalling (even for that film’s specific decade) attitude towards women, or humanity in general. The movies with specific faults are interesting to deconstruct beyond the riffing. At least, it’s interesting to me. If nothing else, taking a closer look at some of these movies can offer the opportunity to appreciate just how diverse Mystery Science Theater 3000 could be, and still is, in terms of what it could hold up for varying degrees of mockery.
As far as the legacy of the show is concerned, just about everything is fair game, under the right circumstances. There is something oddly encouraging about that.
Transformers: The Last Knight (2017): C-
Without the Transformers films, which Bay has continued to pump out for exactly a decade at this point, it’s difficult to imagine his directing career would be in anything less than complete shambles. Bay’s specific type of blockbuster has come and gone as a trend. Bay is really the only idiot left standing to make big, loud movies that absolutely despise intelligence. That doesn’t mean bad movies or shitty blockbusters are going to disappear, when he finally decides to pack it in. It just means that most of us have moved on.
Bay hasn’t moved on. Transformers: The Last Knight is a largely joyless piece of evidence to that end. There really isn’t a lot to tell you at this point. You already know what’s going on here. Mark Wahlberg is in it. There are some giant robots. It’s never a disappointment to hear Peter Cullen speak as Optimus Prime, regardless of the staggering stupidity behind the words themselves. A few actors from previous installments show up (like John Turturro, who makes just about anything a little better by merely existing around it). Cities are casually leveled. Plot holes abound. Anthony Hopkins babbles a lot of stuff about Autobots and Decepticons that sounds pretty cool because it’s Anthony Hopkins.
And so on and so forth. I sat through it with relatively minor emotional damage. For whatever reason, this specific franchise has never really bothered me. Neither has Bay. Take away the budget and he’s an astonishing mediocrity. His particular brand of cinematic spectacle is coming to an end, and again, I think he’s pretty aware of that. The Last Knight is a sad man holding on desperately to a bygone era. For completely frivolous, minor, and largely personal reasons, I enjoyed enough portions of this movie to where I can give just a slight nudge above the D+ mark. But just barely.
Jules and Jim (1962): A+
One of the cornerstones of the French New Wave, Jules and Jim is still an effective piece of cinema. Furthermore, it remains an effective piece of storytelling in its depiction of a doomed, intense love triangle at the dawn of the First World War. Catherine (played with cutting, eerily confident sorrow by Jeanne Moreau) is the one piece of the triangle that doesn’t figure into the title of Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece. At the same time, she is easily the most important character in the story. Even as we learn more about Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), perhaps at the expense of being able to discover even more about Catherine, the movie never lets us lose sight of her importance. Her spirit and tangible existence drives virtually everything in this film.
Without question, Catherine is an enigmatic figure. As Jules and Jim takes us through its excited, creative pace, utilizing many of the French New Wave’s most essential elements, our thoughts turn to Catherine. That doesn’t mean Werner or Serre give poor performances, or that their work lacks a memorable element. They are important to this film’s continued accessibility. Nonetheless, Jeanne Moreau gives Catherine an air of mystery that quietly dominates this film. That mystery isn’t shallow either, even if we leave the film wishing we knew more about her.
Cries and Whispers (1972): A+
Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film, which eventually lost the 1974 Best Picture Oscar to The Sting (I guess that’s fair) is not a horror film. Still, as is often the case with Bergman’s best works, it’s hard to find films of any genre that encapsulates dread as effectively as Cries and Whispers. The tension in this movie will be almost more than you can stand. A family drama, Cries and Whispers might be one of the slowest ninety-minute films anyone has ever made, or will ever make. The dedication to detail in the dialog, and in the characters themselves, remains astonishing after all these years.
In particular, Harriet Andersson as Agnes, one of the sisters who make up this sad, sobering depiction of humanity in its spectacular array of fears and weaknesses, gives one of the great performances of the 1970s. She is also a notable part of the tension which builds and builds in this film. It pays off in a way that leaves you as close to broken and afraid as any film can take you. This tension exists in the dialog and pacing. It can also be found in the things that are not said by these characters, and by the things that we are not permitted to witness. From those long, deep spaces of possibility, Bergman pulled out a story of anxiety and regret that is still pure, almost intoxicating emotional devastation for the viewer.
The Butcher Boy (1997): A-
The Butcher Boy might be the darkest of Neil Jordan’s decidedly offbeat career as a writer and director. It also might be the funniest film he’s made to date, but you’re definitely going to want to have an eccentric approach to humor for that.
The Butcher Boy takes an extremely depressing story about a young boy (Eamonn Owens, whose frantic, harrowing performance ranks right up there with the best child actor performances of all time), and wraps it in elaborate fantasies and broad comic overtones. Francie Brady is an odd child from the beginning of the film. His wretched family life leaves him with the need to disappear into elaborate waking fantasies. As things get worse for Francie, culminating in the loss of one parent, and the abusive, erratic emotional distance of another, the fantasies begin to occupy deeper, lengthier periods of time. More often than not, they feature the presence of an obscenity-laced depiction of the Virgin Mary (played quite wonderfully by Sinead O’Connor). Each fantasy, coupled with the cruel reality that forces Francie to seek sanctuary with these daydreams in the first place, pushes him further into madness. Jordan’s direction and writing (co-written with Patrick McCabe, who also wrote the novel the film is based on) manage to find humor in a lot of Francie’s situations.
The impressive thing is in how this humor doesn’t punch down, or make light of Francie’s increasingly horrible situation. At the same time, it’s not a style of humor for everyone, but it’s something memorable, oddly beautiful, and weirdly compelling. Not everyone will appreciate something like this, but just about everyone should watch this at least once.
Wonder Woman (2017): B+
The burden placed upon Gal Gadot’s shoulders with Wonder Woman’s first theatrical film (shame on D.C. Comics for taking so goddamn long) is a unique, unreasonable one. Not only does Wonder Woman have to be a stunning first time out for the iconic heroine (because anything less than that will somehow justify the shitbird opinion that a female-led superhero movie can’t be critically and/or commercially successful), but it also has to jumpstart the at-present-laughable DC Cinematic Universe. It is a tall order for any film.
On both of those fronts, Wonder Woman is a glorious, uplifting success. The film isn’t perfect, but guess what? It doesn’t need to be. Furthermore, it gets close enough that as of this point in time, it is the only movie in the DC Cinematic Universe whose overall quality rivals anything you can find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Framing the entire film around Gal Gadot’s definitive, historically brilliant portrayal of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman is a heroic epic that allows us considerable time to appreciate what Gadot brings to Wonder Woman as a character. This is brought together almost seamlessly with distinctive, grand action sequences, villains worthy of a goddess, and a supporting cast highlighted by Chris Pine being the charming, tired, gung-ho love interest we figured he was going to be (no, really, he’s fine, but anyone could have played his part).
I’m also personally never going to tire of Danny Huston playing monstrous assholes.
Wonder Woman is everything the DC Cinematic Universe has failed at thus far. It is spectacle with something resembling a soul. No doubt, you can attribute that quality to not only Gadot’s performance, but to the direction from Patty Jenkins, who in the past has directed unforgettable character studies like Monster. The film also features doses of humor that have been sorely lacking in these films. As a whole, it has finally cracked open the potential of DC Comics to have a film universe that can stand side-by-side with Marvel. Whether the momentum established here continues is anyone’s guess, but between Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and Ben Affleck’s Batman, I at least have a couple of excellent reasons to continue paying attention.