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DVD Review: Rifftrax Shorts Vol. 1 and 2

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The Rifftrax train continues to mirthfully chug right along, and now they're bringing their video content to bigger screens. Previously available as video-on-demand titles or download files, Rifftrax video offerings are now seeing the first wave of titles to be released on DVD. The effort started with their first collection of shorts, which has now been expanded to an additional volume. The two volumes collect a wide assortment of the entries from their web site, as well as a few extras.

For those who might not be as familiar with the shorts, here's some background. Back in their previous incarnation as the hosts for Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (Crow, during the Sci-Fi Channel years) would often find themselves watching short, mostly educational films before their feature movie would begin. These "shorts" helped pad broadcast times when dealing with shorter films, and also hearkened back to the golden age of drive-ins when cartoons, newsreels or other shorter material would be shown before and in between features.

The shorts riffed here are now mostly or all in the public domain. And they're also particularly awful, veiled propaganda films from their sponsored companies. In other words, a winning combination to receive the heckling that only the Rifftrax guys can dish out.

The Shorts – Volume One

Buying Food – It's not as easy as you think.
It Must Be The Neighbors – A street-ful of neighbors don't want to admit that their yards are filthy, until their kids finally shame them into being responsible adults.
Patriotism – Bob Crane shows a group of kids what patriotism is all about (…), which incidentally involves just about anything you care to think up.
Down And Out – The world's clumsiest, most inobservant man demonstrates why he should never be hired for any job, anywhere.
Skipper Learns A Lesson – A belligerent, racist dog eventually learns to suppress his hate long enough to play with the other dogs.
The Trouble With Women – Women, Sheesh! I mean, really, what's their deal?
Right Or Wrong – A delinquent little brat finally gets hauled off to the slammer for not actually doing that much.
Drugs Are Like That – You know when you're watching two kids babble on incoherently about nothing? Drugs are like that.
Shake Hands With Danger – Regardless of the title, this film actually doesn't want you to shake hands with danger.

The Shorts – Volume Two

One Got Fat – It isn't actually about getting fat, but rather monkey-children riding around recklessly on their bikes. Okay, one of them actually is kind of fat…

Lunchroom Manners – Kids take it upon themselves to keep things civil in the lunchroom.
Each Child Is Different – But each child is equally screwed up.
Why Doesn't Cathy Eat Breakfast? / Petaluma Chicken – A double feature! Cathy doesn't eat breakfast and no ones knows why (and she won't say)! The brave, comely lasses of Petaluma build a bigger, better omelet!
Act Your Age – A boy builds complicated charts and graphs in an attempt to figure out his age. The janitor looks on with bemusement.
Safety: Harm Hides At Home – The main harm hiding in this short is the school crossing guard who becomes a "safety super hero" and randomly shows up in kids homes. Creepy crossing guards hide at home.
Coffee House Rendezvous – Coffee is the new swinging drink that all the hep cats are digging. Use it to caffeinate your next folk music night at church.
Are You Popular? – I think we both know the answer to that. Go and hide your shame.
Good Health Practices – Two kids with no parents showcase their new, healthy, kids-only utopia.

Video / Audio

Let's be clear, the video on this release looks downright awful. But to be even more clear, that's part of the charm. These are old educational films with all the sweeping grandeur and clarity you remember from the barely functional classroom film projector of your youth. There are often more scratches and debris marks on the film than there are people. Film breaks are common, and therapeutic. Out of sync audio disconnects you even further from reality, and warbly monophonic sound thankfully muffles the inane dialogue.

But the better comparison is to the files which the Rifftax guys have on their site. The download versions have been available for some time, and in various formats to suit your educational film-watching needs: whether on the go with your iPod, at home with a nice tumbler of bourbon, or alone in front of the ominous glow of your h4ck3r screen. Even though they've been generous with offering both divx and mpeg-2 files on the high end, they've still been noticeably blocky. The DVD version – barring everything I've already mentioned – at least gets us to as good as its gonna get, which quite frankly is just fine. The lack of visual and audio polish suits its purposes admirably.

The only actual problem with the presentation is that the audio mix between the original content and the Rifftrax commentary is often mismatched. To help us hear the riffs, the audio of the original film is brought down, so the effect becomes a roller coaster of volume levels. Much of the time this isn't a problem, but there are several spots (in several shorts) where it's just not smooth. Generally speaking, it is a step below the audio mixing we were used to with Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Bonus Materials

There are not too many bonus materials to speak of, but all are included on Volume 1. "Shake Hands With Danger" is an exclusive short to the collection, and features computer animated versions of Mike, Kevin and Bill watching the movie. The animation is a gimmick that hopefully will not need to be repeated, as it actually distracts from what's going on. The characters are fun for a few seconds, and then just remain crudely animated and in the way of the point of the presentation. Fortunately, the short itself is a good one, so if you can overlook the cartoons flailing around the edge of the screen, it's still enjoyable.

In addition, Volume 1 also contains original songs by The Rifftones (again, Mike, Kevin and Bill) that play during the menu screens: the main menu, and each of the short selection menus. The songs are fun, and worth the time to just sit and listen. Volume 2 dispenses with the original tunes, and opts instead for stock music beds.

Conclusion

The shorts from Mystery Science Theater 3000 were always a highlight of the show, and that spirit has been translated over to Rifftrax admirably well. Small, bite-sized bits of irreverent commentary that are perfect for short attention spans. Each volume contains about an equal number of successes and duds (there are some films you just can't "fix"), with the scales tipping largely in the favor of success. Consider these your quick-fix introduction to Rifftrax if you've yet to make the jump.

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About David R Perry