This Week in Rixflix #5: April 7-13, 2017

I will admit that I was a bit distracted from watching other films last week, what with the new, eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 lurking in wait for me by week's end on Netflix.

Actually, I didn't have to wait that long to watch most of it because I was one of the 48,270 people who took part in the Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $5 million total to bring MST3K back as a show. As a result, I got my name in the end credits (there are so many names they split them up between shows; mine shows up in Episode 11), got a whole bunch of goodies like a T-shirt, keychain, soundtrack, and coffee mug (some items still pending), and got to download the entire season in DRM-free files 24 hours before the season premiered on Netflix. (Creator Joel Hodgson made us promise to watch the show on Netflix as much as possible, though, and to save watching the files for a rainy day in the future when we are without internet.)

Best of all, though, we backers got to see the pilot on the Sunday before the Friday, April 14 premiere, as it streamed for us for 24 straight hours, during which I watched the pilot three full times, took part in an exclusive live viewing Q&A chat with Joel and Jonah Ray on YouTube, and then did a side-by-side comparison of the episode next to my DVD copy of Reptilicus, the film torn to shreds by the riffing in the pilot. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we got 48 hours to stream the entire season exclusively, followed by the early downloads on Thursday. Having been a hardcore MSTie ever since the show's first Comedy Channel season in 1989-1990 – unfortunately, I have never lived in Minneapolis, so I didn't see any of the original season's episodes until later –  the events of this week have almost been a dream come true (apart from actually being on the show).

But I did cram in a bunch of films in the two days before that Sunday (7 in all), and then in the brief moments between MST3K showings (I did need a few breaks... didn't want to totally burn out, you know), Jen and I finally watched the Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds doc that was far to painful to view when we recorded it in late December a week after their deaths (which I will write about at a later date), and a few other palate cleansers (and some Canadian cartoons, but more on that next week) that happened across my path. But the overriding theme was the buildup to MST3K, and I can tell you, writing this a few days into the following week, that theme has not let up for me at all. Each day, there has been a little bit of MST3K for me.

The rest of my life might be shit right now, but at least I have the Satellite of Love again...

This week's feature-length film count: 14; 12 first-time viewings and 2 repeats.
Animated shorts seen: 6
Highest rated feature-length films: The Winding Stream (2014), Night Will Fall (2014), and Bright Lights: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016) – 8/9
Lowest rated film: Reptilicus (1961) – 3/9
Average films per day in April thus far: 2.23
Average films per day in 2017 thus far: 3.08
Consecutive days with at least 1 feature-length film seen: 121

Dead West (2016) Dir.: Jeff Ferrell – The poster of this movie offers up a glaring example of how one (i.e. me) should pay a little more attention to even the most generic artwork when browsing for a movie to watch on Netflix. My eye caught the title, Dead West, the cowboy hat, the gun, and the ominous posing of the figure, and immediately thought the film might be a dark horror western. What I didn't pay enough attention to in the poster was the modern gun in the figure's hand, for Dead West is indeed a dark horror western, but a current one that could even happen in your neighborhood. The low budget, overlong (seriously, two hours) and quite often ponderous story of a serial killer practicing his grim trade in the bars and hotels of the American West, searching for true love but always ending up disappointed in the women he meets, the filmmakers seem to wish they could emulate Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in style, but have no idea (or the resources) to pull off such a feat off satisfactorily.

I like that the lead actor, Jeffrey Arrington, is basically an everyman schmo in the looks department (the actor may not feel that way, but hey, he's the one who let the camera film him), but I find his character, Tony, more creepy than charming as he sweet-talks his future victims into making the last mistake of their lives. (In much of the promotion and reviews for the film, his character is described as "charming".) And he does it all with dialogue that fails to convince much of the time. The classic "western" tone of the story comes into play in the form of the brother of one of Tony's former girlfriend/victims, who longs for revenge and hits the road to track down the ladykiller and end his reign of terror. I won't say what happens, but rest assured, it will be handled in an unsatisfying fashion, and if you are coming to this film for gore effects, you will not have that great a time either. Though there are a couple of twists that I did find interesting before the end, overall, I felt the film was a disappointment, even if I had no pre-conceived notions going in, apart from the mistaken thinking about it being a dark horror western. With some judicious pruning of about 20 minutes or so, this might have ended up becoming a semi-decent feature, but in its current released form, it is not charming at all, and the only form of danger it conveys it that of being deadly dull. – TC4P Rating: 4/9

Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul (2017) Dir.: John Edginton – Joe Cocker has been in the mix of the music of my life since I was a kid. You Are So Beautiful was known to me before I was a teenager, but it wasn't until I saw John Belushi pull off his amazing impersonation of Cocker's idiosyncratic stage style on Saturday Night Live (on an episode on which Joe Cocker sang) that I really knew who he was. When I saw Woodstock on network television, I got to see Joe in one of his most famous performances, and around that time, he was making a comeback that went through the 1980s. Best of all, though, I had the pleasure to see him live in concert in Anchorage, Alaska, in a fantastic July 24, 1990 show that Joe co-headlined with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. (The opening act was Nicolette Larsen, who was adorable and delightful, and who sang with both headliners later in their respective parts of the show.) The concert took place a month and two days before Vaughan, one of my main guitar heroes at the time (as he still is now), was killed in a helicopter accident in Michigan. But this is about Joe Cocker, who only died relatively recently (in Dec. 2014), and while I had several Cocker albums in my collection over the years, I never really thought much about who he was a person. I knew he had troubles and battled the bottle for many years, but I just kind of accepted that he was this cool musical presence in my life, and never dug into it very much.

Along comes Mad Dog with Soul, a pretty comprehensive documentary about his life, with a pretty even focus across all the various periods of his career. Especially fun was learning about his pre-Woodstock years as a young man growing up in Sheffield, England. I guess that I always figured Joe was this being from outer space who came down with this amazing voice and style intact, but it was eye-opening to see his early years of struggle with his own teenage band, his off-kilter approach to everything not necessarily making things smooth for him in society, and his daytime job as a gasfitter while he worked the clubs in a variety of bands, which resulted in an unsatisfying recording contract that eventually withered. When he formed the Grease Band in 1966, he seemed to find the musicians he needed to propel him to stardom. His first 1969 album, With a Little Help from My Friends (and its Beatles-covering, massive hit single of the same name) set him up for his appearance at Woodstock and then his famously crazed Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which also brought great notice to his bandleader, Leon Russell. He had several big hits along the way, but by the mid-'70s, the cracks began to show. Alcohol and heroin addiction took over his life. While he cleaned himself up and launched his comeback that led to Up Where We Belong winning Grammys and an Oscar, he also wrestled with his demons for many years afterward. Continuing to perform and record to the end, when he died in 2014, Cocker's iconic stature was such that it is almost disgusting he is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I felt that before I saw Mad Dog with Soul, but thanks to how deeply the film digs into his roots and helped me to understand the artist so fully, his eventual inclusion is now a cause with me. Joe must be honored... – TC4P Rating: 7/9

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) Dir.: Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook – Over a decade ago when I still lived up in Alaska, my best friend was dating another friend of mine who had a young daughter named Grace. Little Grace was awfully fond of an animated movie about wild horses called Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and at a series of parties over the period of a year or so, Grace would pretend that I was Spirit the Stallion, and would feed me hay and lead me around with invisible reins. (Grace would actually call me, "Spiwit: Stallion offa Cimmawon" but we adults would further garble the language to insist she was saying "Scallion offa Cinnamon".) It wasn't horsey of the sort that many kids play; I never got my back broken by having to ride some little kid around on it. The play was more respectful and gentle, and I remember being told when I didn't show up for one party that Grace asked if Spirit was going to show up that night. That kind of thing just about broke my heart hearing it.

Here's the catch: while I am a huge animation fan, I had not actually seen Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron at that time. Nor had I seen it until last week, when it popped up in an early morning Saturday showing on HBO. Now's the time, I said. Grace and her parents were down here at Disneyland in late February, and I revealed to the now-teenage Grace that I had never seen the film. She was shocked by this, and last week, I decided to make things right. Now, while I knew it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, I was still not expecting myself to actually enjoy the film. I was also dreading having to listen to anthropomorphized horses talking to each other through 90 minutes of film; yes, much of the animation I watch does have anthropomorphized animals discussing all manner of things, but I was worried about the tone of the film. To my surprise, Spirit mostly keeps the horses as they normally behave, except for a few facial expressions that I have never seen on a real horse, and with a greater understanding of the human world around them as well.

Otherwise, this is a remarkably natural film in regards to the basic behavior of the wild horses, and the more than slightly preachy tone of the narrative luckily falls into my general worldview (white man mostly horrid, Native Americans murdered and robbed of their lands and cultures, animals and natural resources ravaged and abused). I thought the color palette was lovely, and the combination of hand-drawn and computer animation to be lovingly mixed and thoroughly engaging. A bit overlong considering its target audience, though that was not much of a problem for me, with the only things that really bothered me being the Bryan Adams' song score (which had to have felt dated already in 2002, the year of its release) and the narration by Matt Damon as Spirit telling his tale (without actually speaking directly in front of the camera), which I felt was fairly unnecessary, though again, not enough to stop me enjoying the film. There you go, Grace... I have finally caught up to you. – TC4P Rating: 7/9

Now, back to MST3K...


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