DVD Review: “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXIX”


And the riffs just keep on coming. Between the news that the Rifftrax guys will be hosting a new miniseries on the National Geographic Channel and the latest release of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” DVD sets from Shout! Factory, it’s a good time to be snarky.

After 28 installments and over 100 films, the Shout! Factory sets have this down to a science; like its predecessors, “Vol. 29” features four films, spanning the MST3k-verse from the uneven first season through the Golden Age on Comedy Central, and finally one from the Sci-Fi Network years. Sprinkle some bonus features on top, and you’ve got some cheesy goodness in store.

Original host Joel Hodgson, who seems to have really embraced the “MST3K” legacy in recent years, provides new introductions for the first two films in the set, “Untamed Youth” and “Hercules and the Captive Women.” “Untamed Youth” is a classic ’50s troubled-teens drama with Mamie Van Doren, who appears in a new interview on the disc talking about her experiences as a ’50 starlet. (It does not sound fun – when she wanted to start a family, the studio immediately dumped her.)

The “Hercules” movies are among my favorites in “MST3k” and “Captive Women” is classic Italian-dubbed sword-and-sandals badness. The disc also includes a surprisingly engaging interview with artist Steve Vance, who draws the delightful ’50s-style mini-posters that Shout! Factory includes with each film.

“The Thing That Couldn’t Die” (not to be confused with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”) is a slow-moving late ’50s horror film. The disc includes an entertaining making-of doc — at one time, strangely, an overstretched Universal Pictures shut down production on every film except this one, because it was so far under the radar.

But the jewel in “XXIX” is one of the best episodes of the Sci-FI Channel era, “Pumaman.” An incredibly cheap “Superman” knockoff from 1980, it boasts some of the worst “flying” visual effects imaginable, and a hero who wears a cape and sensible slacks. It is pure gold, and the disc includes an interview with star Walter G. Alton, Jr. How Alton became Pumaman is an odd story — he was a New York attorney who, when his firm refused to make him partner, decided to take a break and try acting. After “Pumaman,” he wisely went back to the law.

Alton also continues a run of MST3K “stars” who clearly bristle at the idea of the show making fun of their work. To quote from the opening theme song, they should really just relax. The show and the disc sets have brought a whole new audience to films that would have otherwise been forgotten. The Shout! Factory disc even includes an “Un-MSTied” version of “Pumaman” in its original form, although anyone who could sit through that would really be some kind of superhero.

“Enemy,” “The Past” kick off next Sundance Screening Room calendar


Madison film fans, don’t expect to get a break after gorging yourself on great movies at the Wisconsin Film Festival. On April 11, the day after the festival ends, Sundance Cinemas is jumping right into a new Screening Room calendar of independent, foreign and documentary films. And several weeks they’re booking two films a week instead of one. So no slacking.

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“The Face of Love”: How can two Ed Harrises be such a bad thing?

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“The Face of Love” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1;32, two stars out of four.

It would seem that all you would have to do is point a camera at Annette Bening and Ed Harris and you’d have yourself a movie. Both actors seem incapable of seeming inauthentic on screen — Harris has been a charimsatic character actor for 30 years now, while Bening creates satisfyingly complex women nearly every time she’s on screen. Just put them at a dinner table, give them something to say, and they’re off.

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Unwrapping the layers of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”


The movie at the creamy center of the confection that is “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is perhaps the most purely fun film Wes Anderson has ever made, outside of “Fantastic Mr. Fox!” Stolen paintings! Shootouts! Ski chases! It’s an unabashed yarn, with Ralph Fiennes as the elegantly flappable hotel concierge at the center of it all; Basil Fawlty, Man of Action.


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Instant Gratification: “Mud” and four other good movies to stream on Netflix Instant


Pick of the week: “Mud — Writer-director Jeff Nichols’  terrific films feels like a modern-day updating  of a classic boys’ adventure tale mixed with a true slice of Southern life, as two boys help a mysterious stranger (Matthew McConaughey in mid-career Renaissance) hiding out on a remote island. The film’s understanding of its characters and their environs feels authentic; this movie was made by people who’ve been there.

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Chat about “Stranger by the Lake” at Sundance Tuesday night


It’s still a pretty cold March in Wisconsin. Wouldn’t you rather spend a couple of hours on a French lakeside beach, with the sun, and the sand, and the . . . murder?

“Stranger by the Lake” has all this and more — and by “more,” I mean “explicit sex scenes.” So the faint of heart might want to skip this one. But for those who aren’t deterred, “Stranger by the Lake,” set at a secluded sliver of beach frequented by gay men, is an engrossing and chilling psychological drama about desire and self-destruction. My full review is here. 

I’m hosting a post-show chat after the 7:05 p.m. show on Tuesday, March 25 at Sundance Cinemas, 430 N. Midvale Blvd. We had a lot of fun talking about “The Great Beauty” last month and I’ m thinking “Stranger” will foster some interesting convo as well. Just attend the screening and meet me in Sundance’s Overflow Bar (across from the box office) afterward — probably around 8:45 p.m.  Hope to see you there!

Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “Tanta Agua”


Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale March 8, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

Tanta Agua” (2:15 p.m. Saturday, Sundance Cinemas, and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Chazen Museum of Art)

Boy does anybody have a good vacation anymore in foreign films? In “The Amazing Catfish” a family’s beach vacation is tainted by the fact that their mother is terminally ill, while in “Club Sandwich” a mother has to contend with her son’s burgeoning sex drive while at a resort motel.

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UPDATED: 27 sellouts so far at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival


New additions to the list this week including both screenings of “Rich Hill” and one screening of “The Rocket.” I’ll update this list of sold-out films at the Wisconsin Film Festival every few days or so. Remember that “sold out” means advance tickets are gone, but some rush tickets will likely be available at the venue on the day of the show. Visit wifilmfest.org for tickets and more information.

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