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The Shelf: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, MST3K Volume XXIX, THE FRESHMAN

You guys like comedy? I like comedy. A lot, in fact. This week, we’ve got three very different comedy releases that nonetheless tickle the funny part of your brain in a way that elicits an involuntary reaction. You know, laughter. I thought that by over-explaining it, I’d have taken the whole fun out of it. Success, I think. We’ve also got some other, non-comedic releases, in case you don’t feel like laughing. We’re equal opportunity.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Maybe a half-hour into Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir by former debauched stock trader Jordan Belfort, I thought “Boy, this guy’s a piece of shit.” And that never really went away through the next two-and-a-half hours, as we watch Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cronies become more and more debauched and get ever-closer to their inevitable downfall, like some kind of douchebag Icarus, flying too close to the Quaalude-scorched sun. But, even at three hours and never changing my opinion of the character once, save my hatred getting stronger, I found myself really enjoying a look at people more ridiculous than any you’d expect to still be breathing.

Feeling a lot like a companion piece with Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street is a frantic and kinetic coke bender of a movie that takes you on all the highs, highers, and highests of a group of Wall Street traders who make millions in profit from shilling crappy stocks to naive people. They take way too many drugs, sleep with way too many hookers, treat people way too much like assets, and eventually get in trouble with the feds. Belfort gleefully talks to the camera about how much money he was making and all of the insane and irresponsible things he spent it on. While he never really cares how depraved he is, and in fact is pleased with himself about it, we get to test our own mettle and breaking point. I would never do any of the stuff he does, but it takes a long while for me to be physically affected by watching it all.

Scorsese is fascinated by this type of character, the immensely flawed family man, but what separates Jordan Belfort from Jake LaMotta or Henry Hill is that at no point does he try to make Belfort sympathetic. He’s certainly pathetic, but we never pity him. Sure LaMotta’s a cruel and violent wife-beater and Hill is a drug-addicted gangster, but we at least pity them when their lives start careening toward the brick wall they didn’t realize they’d built; Belfort is just an amoral, giggling assclown whose hubris has gotten immensely out of control, but who relishes in the horror he’s inflicting on himself and others.

What makes the movie work is just how funny it is. You can’t help but laugh at these people who have their priorities so incredibly far out of whack. DiCaprio’s performance is truly amazing as he bellows a call for continued anarchy to his underlings and engages in one thing after another. He’s matched by the genius of Jonah Hill’s progressively more irritating sidekick who somehow manages to be even more despicable than Leo. The much-talked about ‘lude scene in which DiCaprio literally crawls his way back home in an effort to stop the feds listening to a phone conversation is rightfully remembered as the centerpiece of the film. It’s a brilliant marriage of time-dilation, physical comedy, and point-of-view storytelling.

While it maybe could have been a bit shorter, or even a lot shorter, Scorsese and DiCaprio show us the excess of excess and a lifestyle that any sane person would run away from like the plague.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 vol XXIX

I find it very difficult to believe Mystery Science Theater 3000 is 25 years old, and even harder to believe it’s been off the air for 15. It’s still such an enormous part of pop culture, and of the humor of so many people of my generation and those slightly older than I. How many times have you gotten together with a group of friends to watch a weird or stupid movie and laid into it just because you want to be as cool as Joel, Mike, Tom, and Crow? I basically live my whole life trying to be as cool as those guys. This is why I love that Shout Factory is doing their damnedest to put out every episode, and the fact that they’re up to the 29th volume of releasing four-plus episodes at a time. It’s very impressive, especially considering that, since volume 10, they’ve included extras of some note or another on each and every disc and specially-designed episode artwork too.

Volume XXIX has four supremely funny outings, two Joels and two Mikes. The Joels are Untamed Youth from the show’s first season on the Comedy Channel (before it was Comedy Central), and Hercules and the Captive Women from the show’s mighty fourth season, which also gave us the likes of Monster-a-Go-Go, Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster and, of course, Manos: The Hands of Fate. The two Mikes are from the Sci-Fi Channel years that finished off the series. They are The Thing That Couldn’t Die from Season 8, and The Pumaman, a personal favorite of mine, from Season 9. Reviewing an episode of MST3K is almost impossible, because even if you don’t think it’s a particularly good one, there’s still at least ten jokes at which you’ll chuckle mightily. Suffice to say, each of these episodes packs in the funny in a big way, and even Untamed Youth has a lot of great stuff, even though I’m generally not a big fan of that first Comedy Channel season.

As the above trailer mentions, this set has some excellent extras. Joel Hodgson gives introductions to his two episodes, and he’s funny and informative in them. On Untamed Youth, he also tells us about his one-man show Riffing Myself, which he’s been touring with over the past year. Also on there is an interview with actress and former (though she clearly still thinks she is one) sexpot starlet Mamie Van Doren. On Hercules and the Captive Women, there’s a featurette about the DVD range’s box and poster artist, Steve Vance, as well as a slideshow of his work. The Thing That Couldn’t Die has the theatrical trailer as well as a featurette about the film from Universal historian Tom Weaver, and The Pumaman has an interview with that movie’s star, Walter George Alton, a featurette about MST3K‘s use of the Nanites, and the un-riffed version of The Pumaman.

In all, another solid outing for fans of the series with some truly classic and should-be-classic episodes. Highly recommended.

Please read my interview with Joel Hodgson from last year regarding the 25th Anniversary.

The Freshman

Silent film legend Harold Lloyd might not be as well known a figure as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but he absolutely should be. Lloyd specialized in playing the perfect embodiment of the 1920s pre-depression mentality of going and getting that which he desires. He’s so dag-blamed likable! Things didn’t always go his way, and in fact most of the comedy of his films came from the fact that things aren’t going his way, but he always had a positive outlook with a big smile and spectacles over his wide-eyes.

His 1925 outing, The Freshman, represents his biggest box office hit and arguably his most indelible, save Safety Last, which gave us the famous building-climbing finale. In this film, Lloyd plays the titular new kid on campus as he tries to become the Big Man as quickly as possible. Trouble is, for all his spirit, he doesn’t have much in the way of suaveness. He’s also, and I think a lot of us can relate to this, a huge nerd and can’t compete in sports the way he wants to. He tries to pledge a fraternity and ends up being ridiculed and he knows the only way he can be somebody is to play in the big final football game. Through a lot of hilarious turns of events, he ends up with the chance to become who he’s always wanted to be, via the longest touchdown run in the history of anything.

Silent movies aren’t always the easiest for modern film-goers to watch, but Lloyd always populated his films with a lot of set pieces and usually a big, stunt-filled final act, and this film is no exception. At only 76 minutes, even the grumpiest of talkie fans will be able to watch and enjoy.

Being a Criterion release, this Blu-ray/DVD combo features a lot of great extras, including a commentary by Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann, and film critic and game namesake Leonard Maltin; three newly-restored Lloyd shorts (The Marathon from 1919, and An Eastern Westerner and High and Dizzy, both from 1920); a visual essay, vintage interview and introduction clips featuring Lloyd; and even his famous 1953 appearance on TV game show What’s My Line?. It’s an excellent release and a truly endearing and funny film.

Also Available

Key & Peele Seasons 1 & 2 – The complete first two seasons of the brilliant sketch comedy show starring Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Liam Neesons.

The King of Comedy – Martin Scorsese’s troubling comedy about a wannabe (Robert DeNiro) who kidnaps his idol (Jerry Lewis).

The Great Beauty – This year’s winner for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Persona – Ingmar Bergman’s trippy examination of an actress and her nurse whose identities begin to blur as they spend too much time together at the former’s estate.

Ms. 45 – Abel Ferrara’s hyper-violent take on the Death Wish films has a woman begin taking her revenge on men who’ve abused her. And men who are about to abuse her. And men who’ve never done anything to her at all.

Beneath – Larry Fessenden’s gory dark comedy about six kids in a rowboat attacked by a giant carnivorous fish.

Continuum Season 2 – The further adventures of a cop from 2077 who is stuck in current-day Vancouver trying to put away criminals from the future. Syfy hopes you don’t remember Timecop. Or Time Trax.

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