Poultrygeist (2006)

Director: Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Jason Yachanin, Kate Graham, Allyson Sereboff, Robin Watkins, Joshua Olatunde, Rose Ghavami, Caleb Emerson, Lloyd Kaufman, Khalid Rivera

This is what I call thinking outside the box of chicken nuggets! Troma Entertainment has always been one to embrace what is considered bad taste, so a movie set in a fast food restaurant isn’t much of a reach. They’ve been at their game for a while now, more than enough time to perfect the recipe. “Poultrygeist” represents decades of going “too far” and then continuing down the road a few extra miles. It creates the perfect blend of the usual Troma ingredients (sexual innuendo, profanity, extreme violence, broad overacting, and scatological humor), resulting in a greasy and delicious treat that hits all of the right pleasure centers.

In Tromaville, New Jersey, young lovers Arbie (Jason Yachanin) and Wendy (Kate Graham) have sex in an Indian burial ground. Naturally, this does not turn out to be the smartest of moves. Firstly, they are not alone, as they spot a man masturbating as he watches them. Secondly, just after they have left, a hand reaches up from underground and kills the pervert by punching a hole from his rectum all the way through his mouth. We reconvene one college semester later. Arbie returns to the scene of one of his great life experiences to find that nothing is the same. The burial ground has been paved over, with a fast food chicken chain restaurant called American Chicken Bunker standing in its place and a line of bleeding heart protesters picketing outside. That nothing appears to be sacred would be bad enough, but Arbie also discovers Wendy among the protesters with her new lesbian girlfriend, Micki (Allyson Sereboff). Genuinely hurt, Arbie decides the best way to exact revenge is by taking a job at American Chicken Bunker.

Of course, it would be a pretty short movie if the madness were limited to the protests outside. Arbie’s co-workers at ACB include his manager Denny (Joshua Olatunde), a redneck named Carl Jr. (Caleb Emerson) with a particular “preference” for animals, and a gay Mexican named Paco Bell (Khalid Rivera). If you’re keeping score, you’ll have noticed right away that, in addition to Arbie and Wendy, most of the main characters in this movie are named after fast food franchises. One of the exceptions to this is Hummus, a burqa-wearing Muslim who works alongside Arbie and the others at ACB. She’s also the one who’ll take the initial blame when things start going wrong. Already one harbinger of doom has arrived on the scene in the form of porn star Ron Jeremy, dressed up like Crazy Ralph from the original “Friday the 13th.” Arbie meets two more soon after, one in the form of a “sloppy Jose” sandwich haunted by the spirit of the newly deceased Paco. The other is the restaurant mascot, Col. Cluck (Lloyd Kaufman),  a 60-year old man with a background story (and tattoo) so similar to that of Arbie’s that the audience will figure out the connection long before Arbie does. The warnings either arrive too late or fall on deaf ears, because the carnage continues. Hummus has just gotten through cleaning up the mess made by Paco’s death when Carl Jr., who chose the wrong frozen chicken to have intercourse with, makes a mess ten times larger.

Unfortunately, both Wendy and Arbie have been duped into being here by the actions of the same person. Micki is neither a lesbian nor a true activist against the mistreatment of chickens, and has instead been paid by General Lee Roy (Robin Watkins) to sing the praises of American Chicken Bunker, thereby ensuring that the easily-swayed protesters join all the regular customers inside the place for some quality fast food. All he’s really done is sign everyone’s death warrant, including his own. Having bitten into some tainted chicken meat to prove it’s safe and delicious for everyone, the General literally lays an egg in the bathroom. He manages to kill the resulting zombie chicken embryo, but not before it spews green slime all over him, zombifying him. All of the customers have become zombies, too, and it’s up to Arbie, Wendy and Hummus to stop them. Zombie chicken versions of the dead General, Denny, and Carl Jr. all run amok and must be killed. While Micki and the older Arbie are helpful at first, they aren’t long for this world, either. Hilariously, Hummus gets two explosive death scenes, one where she drinks steroids meant for the chicken and she literally blows up, and the second where she detonates C-4 strapped to her body, destroying the restaurant and allowing Arbie and Wendy to escape with a five-year old survivor. But they are spooked when the girl lays an egg, and they crash their getaway vehicle in appropriately over-the-top fashion.

“Poultrygeist” is another satisfying experience from the good people at Troma Entertainment. Although set in the same town of Tromaville, it shares no continuity with other films by Lloyd Kaufman and the gang. Despite this, there are plenty of references, such as Arbie’s ‘I ♥ the Monster Hero’ T-shirt from “The Toxic Avenger,” posters for “Tromeo and Juliet” and “When Nature Calls,” and DVD copies of “Terror Firmer.” Additionally, the car crash at the end is lifted directly from “Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.”

This movie gives its audience everything it could want and more. You have the usual onslaught of violent images (decapitations, impalements, meat grinder misfortunes, etc.), coupled with an unexpectedly large and hilarious amount of musical numbers. Some may actually find themselves struggling through these early parts of the movie prior to the carnage, but not me. When the actors themselves are not contributing to the soundtrack, various American punk bands take over. The best of these is “Poultrygeist” by Calimari Safari (a.k.a. New Found Glory).

If there are lines of political incorrectness to be crossed, “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead” makes sure to cross as many of them as possible. The topical humor is a risk, though only because it dates the movie. No comedian ever did his job right by playing it safe, and Lloyd Kaufman makes no exception with “Poultrygeist.” As addictive as fast food but far more healthy for the soul, it’s guaranteed to fill you up… with laughter.

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

Directed by: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Mitch Cohen, Mark Torgl, Andree Maranda, Pat Ryan Jr., Jennifer Babtist, Robert Prichard, Cindy Manion, Gary Schneider

In 1984, a low-budget horror movie laid the groundwork for the future of an entire film studio. No, not “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” This monster flick, which can officially be referred to as a horror comedy, even spawned a kid-friendly cartoon series. Nope, not “Ghostbusters.” We’re talking about “The Toxic Avenger.” Troma Entertainment’s pride and joy, “The Toxic Avenger” marked a change in direction for the company, which had until that time focused mainly on sex comedies. In the 30+ years since, Troma has primarily relied on the horror genre while still producing comic gold. Though it failed to catch on at first, this radioactive cult classic has since acquired a massive fanbase and continues to fascinate newcomers to this day.

Melvin Ferd (Mar Torgl) is a skinny, big-toothed nerd working as the janitor of a health club located in one of the shitholes of the world: the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey. This crime-ridden city is the kind where the same young punks who torment Melvin at the health club also routinely commit vehicular homicide. One day, the tricks they play on Melvin go one step too far… out of a second story window and into an open vat of toxic waste. What should kill Melvin instead transforms him like some kind of comic book superhero into the muscle-bound, violence prone Toxic Avenger (Mitch Cohen), or Toxie for short. Fortunately for Tromaville, Toxie is able to focus his need to smash things on those who truly deserve it. His first victims, a gang of drug dealers threatening to castrate a cop, are left with mops placed over their lifeless faces as a sort of calling card. His second set of victims are a group of robbers terrorizing customers at a fast food restaurant. Toxie escorts a beautiful blonde blind woman named Sarah (Andree Maranda) from the scene after dispatching of the villains, who killed Sarah’s seeing-eye dog. Eventually, Toxie and Sarah will form a romantic relationship.

As with any superhero who became what they are due to the actions of a villainous foe, so must eventually come the hero’s revenge. If Toxie actually kills the two girls from the group of hit and run artists, neither death is actually shown. He burns Wanda (Jennifer Babtist)’s rear end with a sauna heater and corners Julie (Cindy Manion) in the basement of the health club wielding a pair of scissors. In any case, neither is ever seen again, so they may as well be dead. There is no ambiguity in the fates of Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard, who resembles Corey Feldman from “The Lost Boys” with that red bandana). They are both killed after stealing a car from an old woman.

While many become fans of Toxie’s actions, not everyone is amused. Corruption moves all the way up to the top in this town, and the obese Mayor Belgoody wants to put a stop to it before he’s next on Toxie’s hit list. He makes his move while Toxie is experiencing a crisis of conscience, and finds him in a tent with Sarah at a secluded spot outside the city. Bringing the National Guard with him, the Mayor moves in for the kill, but he hadn’t counted on the citizens of Tromaville standing in the way as a human shield. The Mayor is ultimately killed when Toxie rips out his guts.

It wouldn’t truly be a classic early 80’s horror flick if there weren’t at least one future Hollywood star present. In the Director’s Cut, as Toxie first begins his pursuit of Julie inside the health club, a young dark-haired woman draped in a blue towel is briefly shown walking in, screaming at the top her lungs at the very sight of Toxie and then running away as fast as her legs will carry her. That young lady is none other than future Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei.

After hearing about it for years, I finally saw “The Toxic Avenger” for the first time in 2015 on Netflix. Knowing that there were sequels, I sought them out soon after. Let’s just say I was unimpressed by “Part II,” never finished “Part III,” and so have never gotten around to watching the fourth film in the series. I think I’ve seen enough to reason that there never should have been any sequels. The original “Toxic Avenger,” on the other hand, is better than I could have imagined. It establishes exactly the right over-the-top tone in order to get away with some of its more daring plot points, such as the gruesome hit-and-run murder of a kid on a bicycle. It is such campy fun that I was compelled to own it on DVD. I personally thank Lloyd Kaufman and all else involved for dreaming it up and bringing it to life. You want a more ringing endorsement than that? How about this, then: “The Toxic Avenger” is one of those precious few movies that you MUST see before you die.

Ant-Man (2015)

Director: Peyton Reed

Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña

Size doesn’t matter. Movies like these are made for the big screen, but are no less enjoyable at home. You can even catch some things you might otherwise have missed in staring at a larger image. Since the inception of the film series known as the Marvel Comics Universe in 2008, I’ve missed the theatrical runs of only two out of the dozen movies released thus far. The two MCU movies I did not see theatrically both have heroes who use their size to their advantage. I felt justified in waiting on 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” based on the recasting of the big green monster, which has largely left that (average) solo film expendable. Size is also at the very heart of 2015’s “Ant-Man,” the only other MCU film I managed to miss until it came to DVD. After so grandiose a chapter as “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” it makes sense to go smaller in scale. What better way to do that than with a hero who can shrink himself down to the size of an insect?

“Ant-Man” begins with an introductory scene in 1989, where Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)  is seen taking a moral stand by resigning from SHIELD. Present are founding SHIELD agents Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (John Slattery). The fourth person in the room is agent Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan). More on him in a bit. The dispute at hand is over Pym’s shrinking technology. SHIELD would very much like to make use of it but Pym, believing it to be too dangerous for anyone to use, refuses.  This is my favorite scene for a number of reasons, among them the effects used to de-age Michael Douglas to appear more or less as he did in 1989. By 2015, Pym has had time to develop his own company, Pym Technologies, only to see it ripped from his control by former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). To make matters worse, Pym’s estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) has gone to work for Mr. Cross. However, both father and daughter share the same concerns about Cross’s attempts at recreating the shrinking technology with a project he calls the Yellowjacket. Pym recognizes that the Ant-Man will almost surely need to be resurrected for the first time since the end of the Cold War and the loss of his wife Janet van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp. But Pym has grown too old to be the man for the job and Hope, who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, is simply not expendable.

In each Marvel superhero’s origin story, there has been some form of a redemption angle present. In the case of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), his way of bettering himself is to leave his criminal past behind him and do right by his ex-wife and daughter, to become a true role model for his little girl. This is made difficult by the fact that his record makes it nigh impossible to obtain a real job, and by his old crew dangling the prospect of a new job in front of him. What Lang doesn’t know is that the house he is breaking into is Hank Pym’s, that the item he is after is the Ant-Man suit, or that it was Hank Pym himself who contacted Lang’s crew in the first place. The whole thing was a test to see if Lang can infiltrate Pym Technologies and steal the Yellowjacket suit before Cross gets it into working order. Part of this sequence involves breaking into the headquarters of the Avengers for a crucial piece of tech. Anyone who sees “Ant-Man” without having previously seen “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will be somewhat confused by the appearance of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as an official team member.

Unfortunately, Pym’s and Lang’s efforts are not in time to prevent Cross from perfecting the Yellowjacket suit, however they are able to crash the unveiling ceremony. Mitchell Carson, now a high-ranking member of Hydra, intends to purchase the Yellowjacket and weaponize it. Instead, once the Hydra agents have been dispatched and Cross has fled the scene in his Yellowjacket suit, Lang gives chase while Carson flees with a vial of Cross’s formula. Several amusing bits arise, including the reveal of Pym’s tank keychain as being a real tank that’s been miniaturized. Meanwhile, Lang is arrested for at least the second time by his ex-wife’s new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). This time it’s particularly untimely, as Cross has taken Lang’s daughter captive. When Lang does make it back to the house, the fight they engage in escalates, eventually involving a toy Thomas the Tank Engine which becomes enlarged. Cross is finally eliminated when Lang performs the same act of “self-sacrifice” that Janet van Dyne did to disable a Soviet nuclear missle, shrinking himself down to the point-of-no-return subatomic level to disrupt Cross’s suit, rapidly shrinking Cross’s body to the point of killing him.

All is not lost, for there ARE sequels to be had. Miraculously, Lang is able to normalize himself, leaving Pym to wonder if his Janet is still alive out there somewhere. As I said, further adventures of the Ant-Man are already in the works. Post-credit scenes point to Lang’s involvement in “Captain America: Civil War” and a second solo adventure in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” I’m certain Mitchell Carson’s hasty exit means we’ll see him again soon enough. I hope so, because I’ve been a fan of Martin Donovan ever since he played DEA Agent Peter Scottson in Seasons 1 and 2 of Showtime’s “Weeds.”

Well before “Ant-Man” had even gone into production, the movie had already generated a fair amount of controversy. This was due to the film’s original writer/director, Edgar Wright, quitting the project. I know I’ve had a couple of disputes on the subject. I was always of the opinion that the director shouldn’t matter, so long as the story is good enough. I imagine that some were thinking that an Edgar Wright “Ant-Man” might have been akin to the artsy Ang Lee “Hulk” movie from 2003. While that might have LOOKED better, it’s not what the MCU necessarily needs. The movie as it stands is more than good enough. It’s one of Marvel’s most entertaining movies so far, although both “Iron Man” and “Captain America” rank higher as origin stories. Still, while the other guys are off defending the Earth against invading alien forces and rogue A.I.’s, this superhero adventure proves that with small size comes big heart.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Director: Dean Parisot

Starring: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell

Before I became a fan of film in general, I was a “Star Trek” fan first. Though set in a thoroughly alien future of the 23rd (and later 24th) century, there was something undeniably relatable about “Star Trek.” Most of all, I loved the original six films, although I was also very wild about the original TV series, “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” and even the earliest years of “Voyager.” Still, despite being indoctrinated at the age of four, I can’t say I’ve ever been as dedicated as some Trekkies are. I may have browsed the convention scene a time or two, read a few of the novels and collected many of the action figures, but I don’t eat, sleep, live and breathe “Star Trek.” Yet, I completely understand and relate to the mindset of those who do. We know it’s “just a TV show,” but that will never stop us from reliving our favorite moments for years to come. That sentiment is at the very heart of the clever, witty and highly entertaining parody known as “Galaxy Quest.”

Eighteen years after the cancellation of the still-very popular TV series, “Galaxy Quest,” its former stars still make the rounds at the conventions. Most of them seem less interested in reliving the past than in seeking an opportunity for a quick buck… because they’re not likely to find it elsewhere. Series star Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, eats up the attention. He lives for this stuff.  Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) is resentful of the stereotype that her character, communications officer Tawny Madison, projects as a “dumb blonde.” Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who played the alien first officer Dr. Lazarus, absolutely despises his character’s catchphrases and the special makeup appliances he must wear to get into the role. If it weren’t for the intervention of his cast mates, Alexander would likely find the nearest exit out of the building. Rounding out the cast are Fred Kwan (Tony Shaloub), a.k.a. Tech Sgt. Chen whose duties are akin to that of a “Star Trek” chief engineer and transporter chief), and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), a former child actor whose youth prodigy/pilot character Lt. Laredo is reminiscent of Wesley Crusher from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

At a particularly disappointing convention, during which Jason’s ego takes a big hit, he meets what will become the movie’s supporting characters. First, he is approached by a young and enthusiastic fan named Brandon (Justin Long), with whom just about any sci-fi fan who has ever attended a convention can easily relate. Later, another group in full “Galaxy Quest” costume claims to be in need of his help. They say they are Thermians from the Klaatu nebula. Jason just figures that these people want him for some photo op, but it turns out that they actually are aliens. The Thermians are the answer to what might happen if our TV signals ever reached another civilization. They have interpreted the “Galaxy Quest” TV series as historical documents of real-life events, and their entire society is based on it. They’ve even built a working replica of the NSEA Protector, the space vessel driven by our heroes on the show. The Thermians are in a bit of a quandry, as they are negotiating with a particularly nasty creature named Sarris (Robin Sachs). He wants a device known as the Omega 13… which existed on the show, but was never used. Trouble is that Jason doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation, and orders Sarris’s ship fired upon, requesting to go back home. Reluctantly, the Thermians agree. It’s only then that Jason realizes that everything he’s just seen was real.

Excited over the whole experience, Jason can’t wait to tell the rest of the cast, who’ve been around him long enough that they believe he’s either drunk or it’s a put-on… possibly both. But the Thermians show up once again, saying they still need help negotiating terms of surrender. Knowing the cast’s inability to pass up a job when one comes along, Jason convinces everyone to tag along, including Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), host of the convention and a former guest on one episode of the TV show. Once onboard, everyone is hesitant to go along, but eventually relent out of a feeling of responsibility once they see how dedicated the Thermians are to the “Galaxy Quest” way of life. The negotiations do not go well, in part because the actors don’t know how to control the ship. They barely escape with their lives, but the ship sustains heavy damage after traversing through a mine field. On a nearby planet, they find a replacement for their damaged reactor core, but Sarris and his men have boarded the Protector, captured Mathesar (the Thermian leader) and are in the process of torturing him for information about the Omega 13 device. To spare Mathesar’s life, Jason reveals the truth about “Galaxy Quest” and its cast.

The situation looks grim, with Sarris setting the ship to auto-destruct and planning to release both the cast and the Thermians into space. This is the moment when our heroes must all step up and become more than the sum of their parts, when they must commit the most selfless and meaningful act of their entire lives, Brandon included. Jason and Alexander role play a scene from a “Galaxy Quest” episode where they fight with one another. This distracts their guards long enough for them to turn the tables and vent their captors out into space. Alexander, after rescuing the Thermians from certain asphyxiation, finally owns the role of Dr. Lazarus and all of the silly catchphrases that go along with it when he witnesses a Thermian gunned down right in front of him.

Remembering that he had accidentally handed Brandon his communicator when they’d bumped into one another at the convention, Jason radios Brandon for help concerning how to locate and turn off the auto-destruct. While Brandon gives directions to Jason and Gwen, he also muses about his theory concerning the Omega 13: that it is a device capable of creating a 13-second time jump. After stopping the auto-destruct and destroying Sarris’s ship, Jason makes use of such a time jump after Sarris, disguised as Fred, kills everyone on board the command deck. With the crisis averted, the crew separates the ship, bids the Thermians farewell and returns to Earth, literally crashing that day’s convention. The crew emerges from the ship to the delight of the crowd, as does Sarris whom Jason eliminates with one quick blast from his laser pistol. The crowd roars even louder, with some of the girls in the audience even fainting as Jason and Gwen share a kiss. Having learned many lessons from the experience, including humility, Jason encourages the cast to share the spotlight with him, and everyone takes a bow. Later that year, “Galaxy Quest” returns to the airwaves with all-new episodes and two new cast members: Guy assumes the role of the ship’s security chief and Laliari (Missi Pyle), a Thermian who elected to stay with the cast due to her romantic bond with Fred Kwan, is cast as a character bearing the same name.

Jason Nesmith is  easily Tim Allen’s best film role. I also get a kick out of Sigourney Weaver’s turn as an actress famous for a very anti-Ellen Ripley role. You get the sense that Gwen DeMarco might possess a toughness that is more in line with Weaver’s “Alien” heroine. She finds her role on the show completely redundant and is further humiliated when magazine articles, instead of interviewing her about her acting career, tend to focus on her other assets. Of course, the main draw, as he is in any other movie I’ve seen him in, is Alan Rickman. Whether as a hero or as a villain, you cannot help but love the guy. I only wish I’d reviewed this movie sooner so that the timing of it would not have been directly influenced by his recent passing.

I’ve seen some “Star Trek” fans include “Galaxy Quest” on their lists of favorite “Trek” films. This is something which I refuse to do, and I rationalize that this way: As great a movie as it is, you don’t rank “Spaceballs” along with the “Star Wars” films, do you? Certainly not, and therefore the same logic must apply to “Galaxy Quest.” That being said, “Galaxy Quest” is such a wonderfully imagined film that you wish there actually was a TV series to binge-watch afterwards. I love the cheap look of the sets, props and aliens… all as they would look if part of a low-budget TV show. The humor of “Galaxy Quest” works best when you have intimate knowledge of the numerous in-joke references to “Star Trek.” One can’t help watching the situations that the cast finds themselves in and not think of how the original “Trek” cast might have behaved under similar circumstances. For example, surely there would come a point where William Shatner would have his shirt torn open, as demonstrated by a corresponding scene involving Jason Nesmith’s encounter with a rock monster (itself a reference to a deleted scene from the Shatner-directed “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”). There would also be ample opportunity to simultaneously point out everything that is illogical about the story while simultaneously not having a care in the world. Because, after all, it’s just a movie.

1941 (1979)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy, Elisha Cook Jr., Bobby Di Ciccio, Dianne Kay, Slim Pickens, Joe Flaherty

Somehow I doubt that anyone in the late 2030’s will be brazen enough to write up a satirical comedy set in the weeks following 9/11. In fact, no amount of time would be good enough not to count as “too soon” for something like that. We do have this comedy set just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and there were those in 1979 who found it distasteful, disrespectful, and otherwise just plain wrong. Some who weren’t offended simply didn’t find it very funny. As a result, “1941” was neither a critical success nor as much of a financial winner as it was hoped to be. Yet the talent both in front of and behind the camera combine to make it the cult classic that it deserves to be.

Beginning on the morning of Sunday, December 13, 1941 (i.e. six days after Pearl Harbor), “1941” opens with a hauntingly familiar piece of John Williams music. Sure enough, there’s actress Susan Backlinie, spoofing her role as the girl who gets eaten by the shark at the beginning of “Jaws.” This time, she is lifted out of the water by an emerging Japanese submarine, which is commanded by Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune). The Japanese think they’ve arrived off the coast of Hollywood, their assigned target. Close, but no cigar. With an equally inept Nazi (Christopher Lee) along for the ride, they eventually capture a man by the name of Hollis Wood (Slim Pickens), but find him most uncooperative.

The storyline within “1941” which connects most of the others together is the love story between lowly dishwasher Wally Stephens (Bobby DiCiccio) and reluctant USO girl Betty Douglas (Dianne Kay). Wally gets into it with an Army Corporal nicknamed “Stretch” (Treat Williams), who also has designs on Betty. Wally has also done nothing to impress Betty’s father Ward (Ned Beatty), who is in some hot water of his own with his wife Joan (Lorraine Gary). She’s pretty pissed that Ward has allowed the Army to position a tank on their front lawn. Joan doesn’t like the idea of her house being on the front line of a potential Japanese offensive. It should come as no surprise that the house will not survive the entire film.

Another pair that I enjoy “1941” for are Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen. Matheson plays Captain Loomis Birkhead, a role similar to his “Animal House” character in that he’s hopelessly obsessed with getting laid and can only come up with the most harebrained schemes imaginable to get who and what he wants. His current object of desire is Donna Stratten (Nancy Allen), secretary to Major General Stillwell (Robert Stack). Birkhead knows all about how Donna becomes sexually stimulated by airplanes, and makes it his mission to get her into one. The only factor he hadn’t considered is that she needs for the plane to be in flight, meaning that he’ll have to fake his way through piloting one.

The wild card comes in the form of Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi). The first time I ever saw “1941,” I did so because of Belushi, having enjoyed him immensely from “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” If there were as many as I expect that there were who did the same, I have to wonder if they were disappointed to find that “1941,” while highly satirical, isn’t half as loony tunes as “Animal House.” That should not be a mark against it, however, and Belushi does a great job as always. The guy could make you laugh just by raising an eyebrow. As Wild Bill Kelso, he’s the one who comes charging in all gung ho, leaving a path of destruction everywhere he goes. If not for his antics and keen observation, it’s entirely possible that the Japanese might succeed in their mission in spite of themselves.

There are two scenes in “1941,” co-written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, which always seem to stand out. One takes place inside a movie theater, where tough guy General Stillwell won’t allow anything that’s going on outside to interrupt his enjoyment of “Dumbo,” during which he is openly weeping and singing along with the songs. I’d never seen Robert Stack in a situation like this before, and it has always stuck with me. The most elaborate and impressively choreographed scene in “1941” has got to be the USO dance hall, which descends into all-out chaos by the end of it, with everyone fighting everyone else and Wally, Betty, and Corporal Asshole in the center of it all.

I can understand why some might not find “1941” all that funny. National tragedies like Pearl Harbor are always going to be a touchy subject. At the time, some of the more patriotic members of the Hollywood community such as John Wayne and Charlton Heston urged Spielberg not to make the movie. It would have been yet another tragedy had Spielberg listened to them, because “1941” is a satisfying film in many respects. Perhaps not an all-time classic but in the grand tradition of epic comedies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” it’s a terrific example of a spot-the-stars movie. By the time it’s over, you’ll want to volunteer for repeat viewing.

 

Star Wars - The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Praise be to the most dedicated of “Star Wars” fans whose love for the franchise has never wavered in spite of its many recent wrong turns, nonetheleast of which was the pretty, yet creatively bankrupt prequel trilogy. Those who squealed with glee at the very first images of the trailer for “The Force Awakens” have seen their undying faith rewarded. The seventh entry into the long-running film series, and first chapter in an all-new trilogy, does more than restore “Star Wars” to its former glory. It may well have provided it with one of its greatest chapters yet.

Almost entirely ignoring the prequels, “The Force Awakens” picks things up in a post-“Return of the Jedi” universe essentially in real time (i.e. approximately thirty years later). Although the Empire was defeated back then, they were not completely eliminated. In their place is the First Order. Also not extinguished is the Dark Side of the Force. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found this out the hard way when his Jedi-in-training were slaughtered by the one Dark Side-leaning pupil among them. Feeling responsible, our favorite Jedi has chosen exile. Even his closest friends and family are uncertain of his whereabouts, and it is the search for Luke which drives the plot of “The Force Awakens.”

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke’s student gone bad, is among those who would like to learn the location of his former master, albeit only to destroy him. To this end, the leader of the Knights of Ren tracks the movements of a droid named BB-8 to the desert planet of Jakku (a dead ringer for Luke’s former home of Tatooine). BB-8 is carrying one half of a map to Luke’s supposed location There, the droid is aided by a Stormtrooper gone AWOL named Finn (John Boyega) and a spirited young girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley). The pair find the Millennium Falcon… a ship known to both of them through tales of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire from a generation ago… and flee the planet. It isn’t long before Rey and Finn run into the Falcon’s former pilots, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who join and assist the new generation of heroes on their journey.

In one of the film’s more heavily criticized moves, the villains once again have an ultimate weapon,  a planet-sized monstrosity that dwarfs either of the two Death Stars. Its main firing mechanism is powered by draining the energy from a nearby star, hence its name: “Starkiller.” Also, as with both Death Stars, the Starkiller conveniently has an overlooked weak spot for the good guys to exploit. This is only a problem if you get too nitpicky about the similarities between the original “Star Wars” and this movie. I didn’t mind so much because my attention was focused more on the new characters of “The Force Awakens,” in particular Rey and Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren, being a follower of the Dark Side, is a Darth Vader worshiper. Alone in his quarters, he sometimes seeks counsel from Vader. As Vader did, Kylo Ren faces inner conflict. But, while Vader was a good man seduced by the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is an evil soul struggling with the temptations of Light. He is very much like his idol in one respect: Kylo Ren is in the hearts and minds of all the other characters even when he is not present. His betrayal of Luke had a ripple effect, ending the marriage of Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher) and sending the former back into a life of piracy.

Although we find Rey on a world similar to where we found Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Rey appears to have been leading a life of greater hardship. Whereas Luke grew up with an aunt and an uncle, no such family structure appears evident for Rey. She’s got it so bad that she scrounges through the wreckage of old Empire starships just to have enough to exchange for food rations. You’d think she’d jump at the first chance to get off that rock but, in her naivety, Rey is waiting for whomever originally left her there. While we exit “The Force Awakens” having gleaned a bit of Kylo Ren’s history, there’s a lot about Rey’s story which… while strongly implied… has been left up in the air for Episodes VIII and IX to expand upon, and that’s how it should be. One thing we do know is that, as Vader once said of Luke: “The Force is strong with this one!”

When this movie was first announced, my lack of faith was disturbing. My attitude had been affected by the disappointment I’d felt (and still feel) as a result of the prequels, and a complete indifference towards all other “Star Wars”-related material released in the last ten years. But, the more I was seeing and hearing about this movie, the more it reached out to that part of me that still remembers the excitement of seeing the original three films for the first time. “The Force Awakens” is the “Star Wars” movie I wished I had gotten in my late teens. At the risk of being accused of a knee-jerk reaction, I’m calling it my second favorite “Star Wars” film behind only the flawless “Empire Strikes Back.”  If I can find anything to gripe about, it’s the lack of memorable new tracks in the John Williams score (something that “Empire” had in spades). So what if the plot is a little derivative? It captures the essence of “Star Wars” in ways which the prequels never could. It has awakened in me a new hope for the future of the franchise.

Mitchell (1975)

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

Starring: Joe Don Baker, Martin Balsam, John Saxon, Linda Evans, Merlin Olsen

A movie about a cop who champions the side of law & order by working slightly outside the confines of both shouldn’t be that hard to pull off. Clint Eastwood did it, turning 1971’s “Dirty Harry” into a classic and reprising the role four more times. But, while Harry Callahan’s methods were at times questionable, he was always a likeable character. Joe Don Baker did it with 1973’s “Walking Tall,” likewise playing a sympathetic hero. The title character of “Mitchell,” also played by Baker, is anything but that. The end result is less surprising than it is (unintentionally) amusing.

Mitchell, an out-of-shape plain-clothes detective, begins investigating the shooting death of a burglar at the home of Walter Deaney (John Saxon). Mitchell belives that Deaney did not kill the man in self-defense as is his testimony. We know that Mitchell’s suspicions are correct, because we see the unarmed trespasser being shot by Deaney in the film’s opening scene. However, Mitchell is discouraged from pursuing the case any further due to Deaney being under the watchful eye of the FBI. Naturally, Mitchell is bullheaded enough that he prefers to continue his pursuit of Deaney, but he reluctantly takes a stakeout job at the home of James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam), a smuggler of various illegal items (including drugs). While all of this is going on, Mitchell is also fooling around with Greta (Linda Evans), a “hooker with a heart of gold,” who looks less like a hooker and more like a centerfold for one of the many porn magazines in Mitchell’s home. Once Cummings is introduced, the only real contribution to the film that Deaney has left is to be the guy paying Greta’s bill before he unceremoniously disappears from the movie.

On the condition that Mitchell would allow him to go free, Cummings opts to use Mitchell as a chauffeur in a drug trade so that Mitchell can arrest Mistretta (Morgan Paull) instead. However, the sly Cummings pulls a double-cross on BOTH men, alerting Mistretta to Mitchell’s true identity and replacing the heroine shipment with chalk. After Mitchell fights off and kills Mistretta and his men in a gunfight, he goes after and kills Cummings and his bodyguard on their boat.

Filling the requirements of a movie set in December with the inclusion of a decorated tree in one scene and two other mentions of the word “Christmas,” there is very little about the original release of Mitchell to recommend it unless you’re a John Saxon fan who just has to see everything the man’s been in. The story itself is boring as hell. Joe Don Baker is certainly no help, playing a complete swine of a lead character. Nope, when a movie is as lame as “Mitchell” is, you have two options left available. Either you can eject the video and forget you ever tried to watch it, or you can stay the course and laugh your way through the grueling experience. That’s where “Mystery Science Theater 3000″(MST3K, for short) comes in.

Picked as the subject for the twelfth episode in the fifth season of MST3K, “Mitchell” becomes not only watchable, but downright hilarious as Joel Hodgson and robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot riff the hell out of it, much to the chagrin of its lead actor. It’s been too long for me to remember which movie wound up as my introduction to MST3K, but I know that “Mitchell” was definitely one of the first. It would probably be advisable to sample a few others first before seeking this one out, though. “Mitchell” is also notable as the episode in which series creator Joel Hodgson handed the reins over to head writer Mike Nelson, who would continue watching crappy movies with his robot companions throughout the rest of the series’ run. To this day, “Mitchell” remains one of my favorite MST3K episodes, and is the ONLY way that one should EVER watch this Christmas turkey.