MCC Home Video Scorecard #11: Where the Movies Begin or End

MST3K The Return!

Repeat to yourself, “It’s just Netflix, I should really just relax!”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. In this batch: frankly, I’ve procrastinated returning to this idea for so long that my list has grown out of control and consumes far too much of my MCC idea back-burner file, so I’m dumping all its current contents here, zipping through whatever recollections have stuck with me, and resetting the counter to zero. Three cheers for fresh starts!

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Starting with the best of the better movies I’ve watched at home over the past eighteen months, in no strict order:

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return — I had to skip the Kickstarter campaign because of my personal moratorium (which may actually end this year — more news soon, hopefully), but I’m elated it was a success thanks to thousands of fans less conflicted than me. I was shocked that it’s on Netflix where I can access it, and don’t think I didn’t as soon as I could. But I’m only six episodes into the 14-episode Season 11 because I’m pacing them two weeks apart so my mind can have time to savor each and every one individually. (I may need extra time to recover from the Star Wars ripoff StarCrash, costarring Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff, which at one point had me laughing myself breathless.) Our rookie Satellite of Love captives Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, and Hampton Yount have nailed the rapid-fire pop-culture riffing spirit and tone of the originals but updated it for a whole new generation — fewer nods to Frank Zappa, more to The Simpsons and The Force Awakens. My only nitpick so far comes whenever Jonah tries too hard to cram a 300-word punchline into a three-second quiet space. Sometimes “Brevity is the soul of wit” is more than just a Snapple bottlecap platitude, youngsters.

Apocalypse Now — One of numerous long-standing gaps in my film-watching has at long last been filled, though part of me wishes I’d seen this as a teen instead of Full Metal Jacket first. Definitely the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen from both Martin Sheen and The Marlon Brando, whose dark, bacchanalian, amoral Vietnam village of the damned is one of the most harrowing visions of tragically lost humanity ever committed to film. And this was just the original theatrical cut. Sometime I’ll have to take a day off work to dive into the director’s cut and see if I can survive the journey a second time without spending the next three days dressed in black and mourning for the demise of so many souls real and fictional.

The Host — Not the American YA flop, the other Korean one. I remembered seeing trailers for this at a south-side art-house theater that closed years ago, but I never expected to have a reason to track it down. After Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer made its mark on my psyche, his previous, unconventional, unpredictable monster film returned to my radar and cemented him as another must-see director for my mental list. So yes, I am excited for his next film Okja to hurry up and get here.

Spartacus — I loved The Front Page. I super-loved Paths of Glory despite that one time Parks & Rec used it as a punchline. And once again here’s Kirk Douglas, the greatest actor I never watched in anything as a kid, flooring my adult self and making me regret my viewing choices in decades past. Did I really need to see five of the Police Academy films before age 18 but zero Kirk Douglas works? DID I REALLY? WAS IT WORTH IT, KID ME?

Warrior — If you thought Mad Max: Fury Road would’ve been better if Tom Hardy had ever gotten really angry in it, his burning intensity here as a MMA fighter with a secret mission and no time for theatrics or mercy could power a small state for months. And it’s always great to see Joel Edgerton making up for those hours of his life he lost reciting two or three lines in the Star Wars Prequels. The fact that he holds his own against the rage of Hardy is an impressive feat, not to mention how Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time comes off as remarkably better than just the average Concerned Wife.

John Wick — Okay, now I get the hype and I’m on board. Haven’t watched the sequel yet because I’m worried it won’t live up to this, but Keanu has atoned for those two ridiculous Matrix sequels and we can stop mocking him for them now. Bonus points for bringing in both Lieutenant Daniels and Lester Freamon from The Wire, plus a formidable Adrianne Palicki who hopefully made ABC execs rue the day they turned down Marvel’s Mockingbird series proposal.

Sing Street — Why nothing from this film showed up in last year’s Best Original Song Oscar nominations is a mystery known only to the hollow voters who overlooked it. As the young fictional Irish band works through their various phases and imitates half the bands I liked best in high school, I couldn’t help seeing myself not only in the teens trying to sort out their own musical preferences and paths with sometimes painfully awkward results, but in the loser older brother whose impeccable tastes in vinyl provided the very inspiration that broadened their scope and their squad goals. It’s the most invigorating teen-music flick John Hughes never made.

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Other things that were good but didn’t leap to mind as quickly and I had to think harder before writing much of anything:

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? — We need more useful documentaries like this. We rarely get complete stories as to why a given high-profile film turns out awful, let alone a tell-all about one that collapsed under its own bloated before it could harm the innocent public. Copious interviews with would-be director Tim Burton, several attempted screenwriters including but not limited to a candid and incredulous Kevin Smith, producer Jon Peters checking in from some bizarre mental plane far removed from our own, fans, pundits, and other crew members who put in hundreds of hours of labor before someone realized they were collaborating on a fiasco and had to be stopped. It’s a shame Nicolas Cage himself couldn’t chime in with his thoughts because I suspect they would’ve made Peters seem rational by comparison.

Last Day of Freedom — Animated documentary interview with a man once torn between wanting to do better by his Vietnam-scarred brother and wanting to do the right thing after said brother murdered an elderly lady. It’s short, it was Oscar-nominated, it’s heartbreaking to realize there was no happy ending for our interviewee or his brother no matter what he did, but some of the worst parts weren’t his own fault despite the guilt that weighs on him.

The African Queen — The last time I’d watched a Katharine Hepburn film was when my mom made me sit through On Golden Pond at the drive-in when I was 9. No, Cate Blanchett in The Aviator doesn’t count. Like Kirk Douglas, she’s another one I’ll have to catch up on. It’s wish-list additions like this that make me wish I made more time for TCM.

Working Girl — Part of my ongoing attempt to see as many Academy Award Best Picture nominees as I can before I die. I’ve seen all nominees from 1997 to the present, from the very best to the most excruciating. I used to try working through them backwards chronologically, but I’ve been stymied for years because the obscure 1996 British indie improv drama Secrets & Lies is out of print, available only on DVD and VHS at high-end collectors’ prices, never released on Blu-ray and not even legally streaming anywhere. There’s a wretched-looking print someone tossed up on YouTube, but that’s not how I movie. Meanwhile, Working Girl was agreeably entertaining ’80s dramedy despite how Melanie Griffith’s feminist winner wins mostly by lying a lot until she repents with only temporarily inconvenient consequences. Hurray for strong women!

White Christmas — An awful lot of lying, cheating, and sneaking for a holiday film, especially in light of a scathing takedown of its largely reprehensible characters my wife recommended to me, but Bing’s charm goes a long way and he croons those carols like no one else does anymore, so there’s that.

The Fast and the Furious — The original, the one that started it all, the mediocre characters that presumably grew more complicated and beloved over the course of the next sixty-three films while my favorite parts — the trailers — just got better and better. I’ve only seen two of these, so I don’t have grounds for placing the entire series in context. Yet.

What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy — Riveting documentary about two older German friends who were both the son of actual Nazi officials. One accepts and repudiates the horrors in which his dad participated and was guilty of perpetrating; the other, despite tremendous evidence to the contrary, insists his Nazi dad was basically not guilty and/or just doing his job and/or A Good and Decent Man. His is a perfect illustration of the psychological phenomenon nicknamed the “backfire effect”, which you can learn more about in a recent incisive installment of Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal.

* * * * *

Less enamoring fare, from head-scratching to UGH:

It’s Such a Beautiful Day — My son has become a big fan of idiosyncratic animator Don Hertzfeldt, whose most recent short World of Tomorrow was a baffling yet intriguing Oscar nominee. The boy loved this previous off-the-wall sci-fi short much more than I did, which led to a debate afterward in which I struggled to retrieve my atrophied English-major vocabulary and construct some elaborate, refined way to tell him “I don’t get it.” If you’d care to join me here in Old Befuddled Squaresville, Hertzfeldt is also responsible for one of the most outlandish Simpsons couch gags in the show’s 98-year history:

Sixteen Candles — My intake of John Hughes films was well below the recommended cool-kid minimums for an ’80s teen outcast, so I missed this back when I was part of the ostensible intended audience. I’m amused that the first several minutes of montages are the most ’80s-tastic montages of all things ’80s and ’80s-adjacent, and the soundtrack was pretty killer, not an unusual feat for Hughes. Ultimately as an adult, though, teen-sex romps aren’t my thing at all. Admittedly it helped me add slightly more pop-culture trivia to my repertoire so that I understood what I was looking at when a toy vendor at the recent Superman Celebration had among their wares a Long Duk Dong Funko Pop. I realize that sentence is gibberish for many of you, and for that I’m kind of sorry.

Southpaw — In which Jake Gyllenhaal struts and poses and punches and tries to regain his lost respectability as beleaguered boxer Billy Hope (of the On-the-Nose Island Hopes) in a film where the sterling performances can’t quite elevate the riches-to-rags-to-riches clichés or overcome the fact that I watched the far superior Warrior first.

The Witch — What parents who banned Harry Potter from their house think Harry Potter is like. This was a four-dollar Black Friday DVD I picked up because I’m a sucker for films in which a cast carries their own unique patois, slang, and/or accents setting them apart from other films (see also: Attack the Block). It also gave me the chance to view another preternaturally mature performance from young Anya Taylor-Joy, who was the best thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Probably too disturbing for me to endure a second watch, but I have to give props to the enormous, exacting research writer/director Robert Eggers put into this creepy artisan horror flick.

Oldboy — Not the Spike Lee remake, but the Park Chan-wook original. I wish I could unsee the disgusting climax, but at least I got to check out the famous hallway melee that was remade into every Marvel Netflix series ever.

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The ones whose memories are fading, perhaps because my brain would be better off without their memories:

Pleasantville — Something about the central conceit of “modern teenagers teach the uptight ’50s why sinning and selfishness are better ways of life” kind of set me off, but I forget the specific wording of my spoken-word rant at the time. Parts of that previous sentence were close enough. They made me miss the irritated stylings of Don Knotts something fierce.

The Giver — Another unconvincing YA sci-fi dystopia gets tossed on the pile. Jeff Bridges cashes another easy paycheck as a southern man of wisdom. Meryl Streep goes out of her way not to win an Oscar for once. And a climactic sledding scene may be the first of its kind since Cool Runnings.

The Darjeeling Limited — The panoramas of India are a good reason for expansive cinematography, but they were more interesting to note than the three neurotic stars blocking them in the foreground. I feel like for some reason I should see all of Wes Anderson’s films, but I’m at a loss as to why I feel that way. I just checked his filmography and I’m surprised to find the only one I’m still missing is The Royal Tenenbaums. Soon perhaps this unconscious, low-priority side quest might be over at last. For the record, so far The Fantastic Mr. Fox is winning his oeuvre.

* * * * *

The Department of So Bad It’s Almost Good But Not Really:

The Sum of All Fears — Ben Affleck: good Batman, great director, lousy Daredevil, just-okay Jack Ryan. Lots of white-collar white guys yell at each other a lot in a frequently nonsensical film that only adapts maybe fifty of Tom Clancy’s 1000 pages. That last number is no exaggeration. I spent literally months reading a paperback copy of the novel in high school in between assignments. When an author spends something like 100 pages or more describing in intricate, almost fetishistic detail how every single component of a nuclear bomb functions in relation to every other component, so that when things go wrong you now have enough of a layperson’s education in nuclear warfare technology (minus some added fakery so it’s not actually a working instruction manual) so you can understand exactly why it went wrong the way it did…well, that’s the kind of experience you carry around with you for the rest of your life. And when people ask me why I haven’t read many literary classics like War and Peace or anything by the Austens, I can tell them in all sincerity, “Sorry, man. Tom Clancy got in the way. Don’t even ask me how.”

Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift — And here’s that other one I’ve seen. Before director Justin Lin gifted us with the way-cool Star Trek Beyond, he had to start somewhere with the major studios, and here he was on the third Fast/Furious, the first of four he helmed to box office superstardom. Well, this one not so much. Someone decided it would be funny to haze Lin by giving him the unenviable task of trying convince the audience that future NCIS New Orleans star Lucas Black would be remotely believable as a rambunctious, deeply southern, 23-year-old high-schooler who can be taught to hold his own against Japanese street racers in general and the Yakuza in particular. His pals Bow Wow and Sung Kang (who had the honor of graduating to the main F+F team later on) assist where they can, but so much of this is preposterous and goofy and an affront to serious cinema and flat-out guilty fun anyway, kind of like a good MST3K episode except the commentary is do-it-yourself, though the bar is set so low that this would make a great Level 1 training film at movie-riffing school.

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