Friday, December 05, 2008

Review: The Best of Rifftrax Shorts Volume One

Those of us who are fans of the classic series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" know that some of the best comedy came from their riffing on those old public domain "educational" films, the kind of thing that your teacher would show in class to kill twenty minutes when they needed to grade papers (or were hung over.) These lessons on good citizenship, the virtues of listening to your teacher, and the need to avoid drugs always seemed to be just perfectly deranged in such a way that lent itself to MST3K's commentary. Sometimes it was the bizarre obsessions of the characters in the film, who seemed utterly devoted to springs or workplace safety or watching out for trains ("Why don't they look?") Sometimes it was the worldview of the shorts, which seemed so relentlessly cheerful that dark humor was just about the only defense. And almost always, it was the fact that cheap public domain educational films hired hilariously bad actors.

MST3K has been off the air for almost ten years now, and the last three seasons of the show on the Sci-Fi Channel rarely featured short films. The fine folks at Rifftrax have noticed this gap and have been producing downloadable media files of short films, complete with mockery, but for those of us who like to watch these things on TV, the old-fashioned way, it's been a long drought between goofy short films with built-in heckling.

So it's nice to see Mike, Bill and Kevin returning to the one part of the MST3K oeuvre that hasn't been covered by and Cinematic Titanic by releasing a DVD that collects their available-for-download short films (one that you can buy here, if my review makes you inclined to do so.) This DVD collects nine of their short films, and I gotta say, there are some instant classics in there. "Drugs Are Like That", "Down and Out", and "Patriotism" each proudly carry on the tradition of shorts like "Mr. B Natural" and "Why Study Industrial Arts?" (and trust me, if you're a fan of the old MST3K series those things would mean something to you.) The other shorts are great too, but those three probably make it worth buying right there. And as an additional bonus, the menus play three of the songs that Mike, Bill and Kevin wrote as the Rifftones for QuickStop Entertainment's "Song Fu" competition.

The DVD also includes an all-new short done exclusively for the DVD, and while "Shake Hands With Danger" is just as funny as the other eight (and probably funnier than "The Trouble With Women", the weakest of the nine), my only advice to the Rifftrax crew would be to go ahead and leave off the "digital avatars" when it comes time to release a Volume Two. (Which I, for one, would love to see...) They're pretty much unnecessary (the first eight shorts don't have them, and I didn't find myself missing them) and they were actually a little distracting, since the short had to be resized and played on a smaller screen-within-a-screen so that we could see the CGI riffers. Nice idea, worth trying, but it's not needed. Next time just have a brief live-action introduction from the actors, and call it good.

But trust me, that minor quibble doesn't in any way compromise my basic point: Great DVD, well worth buying.

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