RiffTrax DVD Reviews: The Best of RiffTrax Shorts: Volume 1 & Volume 2 (2009)

Now Available to Own
(10 Titles from the New RiffTrax DVD Line)

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Trust me, it's never a good idea to heckle comedians since it kills it for everyone as-- a few years back-- we threw down some serious coin to get good seats to see Jerry Seinfeld only for him to be upstaged by a ridiculous drunk dude in the front VIP row who ticked off the master of "nothing" to such an extent that the show was over in 40 minutes flat. However, comedians aside-- heckling movies is a different story altogether.

Of course, it's frowned upon for good reason in crowded theatres since the only thing worse than a bad movie is one wherein the misery of the experience is magnified by annoying chatterboxes and patrons who spend the entire time playing with their cellular phones. Yet on the flip-side-- nothing is more fun than having a theatre to yourself and a few friends or watching a movie at home with others and letting the jokes fly.

Obviously sometimes it's hard to restrain yourself at the theatre as I discovered over the course of the last year at two crowded screenings where-- instead of the usual suspects of catching a flick with a mere handful of Phoenix film critics in the early afternoon-- we were sharing space with rowdy evening audiences all fired up for Twilight and Knowing. And while I have no idea how I managed to control myself during the sparkly vampires of Twilight who just loved to play a mean game of baseball-- despite a colleague's attempt every two minutes to crack me up in a way that made me nervous we were going to get jumped by tweens in the parking lot-- when the last thirty minutes of Knowing rolled around, I got the worst case of the giggles imaginable. And at the Cage flick, I had to stifle the urge to yell out "it's a cookbook" to the point where I nearly had to leave the auditorium.

Why the fierce urge to heckle, you might ask? Well, for one thing bad entertainment is way too unbelievable to be taken seriously and this is especially the case when you're confronted with so much stimuli on a daily basis that movies start to blend together and five bad ones in a row can feel like dental torture unless you bring out the laughing gas. However, the main reason I'd say my mind just instantly goes for the jokes (aside from scribbling them down for reviews) is because like so many others, I spent a large amount of my formative years watching the three funniest movie commentators on the planet via the eleven year run of the Peabody Award-winning, Emmy nominated Mystery Science Theater 3000 a.k.a. MST3K.

Headed up by its lead writer Michael J. Nelson (or Mike Nelson depending on the box or the press release)-- MST3K treated us to the loopy requisite B-movie premise we frankly could've cared less about that involved Nelson being forced a la Clockwork Orange to screen some of the world's worst B-horror and science fiction movies on a regular basis while trapped in space. Surviving the works with his wisecracking Gilligan's Island like robots (with a much higher IQ than Gilligan or Ginger) that were played by Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo and Bill Corbett's Crow-- the three treated movies like basketball games.

Yet instead of play-by-play catch-up, cliches about "taking it one game at a time," too many utterances of the phrase "pick and roll" and the senseless name dropping of Kobe Bryant every five minutes whether or not he's even on the floor-- the human and his trusty robots provided their own running commentary of the movies. In doing so, they leave no-joke untried and sometimes either let the ones that may not have been successful drop or pick up the threads later by way of so many pop culture references it would've made the heads of the Gilmore Girls spin with Exorcist-style envy.

After their show and spin-off film ended and left fans hungry for more-- the three stars took their act to the World Wide Web thanks to the advent of MP3s. And while some may miss the outline of the familiar robots and Mike on the screen, the quality is at an all-time high as now the guys can revel in much more freedom. With the ability to ridicule higher profile works and box office hits including hundreds of television shows and movies such as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Transformers since they no longer have to worry about licensing (as likewise R rated works are finally in the rotation) and fans who pay anywhere from roughly a dollar to four dollars can simply sync up the MP3 downloaded files to their own DVD or Blu-ray disc of the same title-- the phenomenon dubbed RiffTrax has become a growing cult hit.

Yet for those-- like this reviewer-- who still struggle to give up the tangible ownership of a DVD or CD in favor of MP3 downloads, good news has arrived. Thanks to Legend Films-- ten titles have been released in RiffTrax's all-new DVD line of budget priced movies. So far we've been treated to the classic and obviously favored B-movies like Night of the Living Dead, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Reefer Madness that they were able to license and contain on disc. Although in order to hear something different from their campy oeuvre, I decided to request screeners of their two volumes of vintage Short Films instead.

Kindly including a few of the other titles which I hope to review down the road-- as well as aspiring to hear their takes on some of the films I've been suffering through in the theatre over the past few years via MP3s available on their website-- I was thrilled to find the humor was all still there as they lend their unique blend of commentary to outdated public service short films and educational programs from the '40s through the '70s with titles ranging from Buying Food to Each Child is Different.

In one they're practically given enough material to work with simply by the host alone as the infamous Bob Crane (note-- if you're not sure what the "dark side" of the Hogan's Heroes star was like, see Auto Focus) teaches lessons on patriotism as they shudder by the creepy implications of scenes and joke about the need to up a restraining order with the one-liner, "Yes, I'm Bob Crane lecturing on how to be a good person."

Yet admirably they dig deeper in their humor to unleash some great off-the-wall first person jokes in another as they comment, "I'm going to stay here at my desk and wish computer solitaire was invented," and in doing so, the discs which average roughly one hundred minutes consistently cracked me up throughout since they went beyond what was predictable.

After children in a school learn how to be clean and polite from watching a puppet show about Mr. Bungle and one student is scolded not to run, we hear their mock narration of "he would hang himself later that day" as they continue with the pop culture jokes likening one cast member of a workplace falls warning video to Jerry Lee Lewis, one kid's appearance to Dennis the Menace and then explain that another video has a soundtrack that was chosen by Quentin Tarantino yet borrowed from Ken Burns.

Moreover, the impressive ease with which their (obviously) planned out and studied humor manages to still sound fresh and spontaneous to ensure that they don't step over each other's jokes or leave too much dead air makes the short films a great example in particular of their versatility to switch from B-horror movies and science fiction to warnings about the neighbors and moral quandaries. And to this end, they quickly adjust to each disc's nine varied shorts and an animated version of the guys in a never-before-released take on Shake Hands With Danger on the first volume.

While I'm definitely looking forward to exploring the camp classics for which they're most famous-- after earning their comedy merit badge braving the same terrain in the acclaimed MST3K, it was a wonderful catharsis to spend a bit of "summer vacation" reliving the awful shorts of a youth spent in public school and an early part of my career viewing meaningless job training videos during orientation at every new gig. And this is all the more important since--finally with the convenience of RiffTrax-- we're able to get some of the giggles out of our system to help us fare much better when we see something so obviously ready to be riffed such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past or The Perfect Sleep on the big screen where heckling is not an option.

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