This Week in Rixflix #6: April 14-20, 2017

So, the big Mystery Science Theater 3000 reveal happened to the public, and by the time Easter weekend finished, I had watched the remaining episodes via Netflix. Using my iPad at night, I even watched a couple of them a second time (not counting the first episode that I saw again and again and yet again the previous Sunday).

I will write more about the show in a separate series I am planning to start soon, and despite MST3K basically stealing my brain and attention for the past fortnight, I will mention that I still managed to see a fair amount of feature films throughout the remainder of the week. Most notably of that bunch, I finally watched Kubo and the Two Strings. As a stop-motion aficionado ( nut), I have once again had to kick myself over and over mentally for not having seen Kubo on a big screen in a theatre in the first place. Likewise, for also not having seen it multiple times in such a setting. The film is genuinely one of the coolest, most engrossing films I have viewed in a very long time, and its arrival on Blu-ray at my household will be immediate following my next spurt of employment.

I will post a couple of articles on Cinema 4: Cel Bloc in the very near future that recap and review the two dozen or so National Film Board of Canada animated shorts that were aired by TCM the previous weekend, all of which I watched while juggling MST3K episodes on release weekend. Please keep your eyes peeled for that at, but just in case it takes a little longer to make those articles live than I am planning, also please keep those eyes on ice after you peel them.

This week's feature-length film count: 17; 14 first-time viewings and 3 repeats.
Animated shorts seen: 27
Highest rated feature-length film: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) – 9/9
Lowest rated feature films: Crossroads (2002) and The Colony (2014) – 4/9
Average films per day in April thus far: 2.3
Average films per day in 2017 thus far: 3.02

Kismet (1955) Dir.: Vincente Minnelli – In the past couple of years, I have repeatedly confused the different filmed versions of Kismet. I have recorded the 1944 Marlene Dietrich version at least thrice when the one that I needed to check off my watchlist was the Howard Keel musical version from MGM in 1955. Finally, I trapped the little bugger and quickly dove into the proper Kismet at last. This film does fall into my "put off for too long" category, though I will say that having now seen it, I merely thought it was a good film but not nearly as engaging as I had hoped. The sets and costuming are, assuredly, quite wonderful to behold, and I truly did enjoy Keel's lead role as a poet known as the "King of the Beggars" who uses his wits and his skill with words to position his daughter for a better life as the wife of the Caliph. Keel is quite fun and able in the role, as is a pre-Family Affair and Jungle Book Sebastian Cabot as a grumbly wazir (who, fortunately, does not try to sing). There is a chance that if I manage to record this version of Kismet properly a couple more times in the future that I may grow to like it even more, possibly even to loving it. As it stands right now, my TC4P rating is a solid 6/9.

Bright Road (1953) Dir.: Gerald Mayer – I have recorded this film a couple of times before, but have deleted the recording each time either out of need for DVR space or disinterest at that particular moment. Well, I finally got interested enough to watch it, and now I regret not having visited Bright Road earlier. An early '50s attempt to engage a broader segment of the population beyond the white audience, with the lovely Dorothy Dandridge as a schoolteacher (at a segregated schoolhouse, of course) who has a sweet but troubled student in her class who doesn't quite connect with learning in the normal way. (Gee, I wonder why I connected to this material so quickly? Hmmm...) The always marvelous Harry Belafonte is the principal of the school who allows Dandridge some room (eventually) in trying to figure out the utter puzzle sitting at the little desk before her. It's a quietly paced, often sad tale, but the lead actors do wonders in working with their young cast to make the film a rewarding experience. Surprisingly for a film that is not a musical, Belafonte sings a haunting ballad during one scene that once more reminded me that he had some range beyond his more familiar calypso hits. TC4P rating: 7/9

Fort Dobbs (1958) Dir.: Gordon Douglas – The other tall, western-prone Clint. Someday, I will write more about actor Clint Walker's influence on my youth. He is somewhat of a forgotten man these days, but as a kid in my earliest years, he loomed like a 6-foot, 6-inch god before me on the TV screen. I saw old episodes of his series, Cheyenne, in syndication, and I also remember watching his extremely short-lived series, Kodiak (which lasted all of 4 episodes). I recall the show pretty clearly as we were very excited because the lead character was an Alaskan State Trooper. (For newbies to this site, I was born and partially raised in Anchorage, Alaska.) I also saw Walker in numerous films and TV movies in the '70s, the most memorable of which (for me) were Night of the Grizzly, The White Buffalo, Snowbeast, and the murderous construction equipment epic, Killdozer! (Yes, yes, more on that last one at a later date; I've been itching to talk about that absurd flick – though based on a sci-fi short story classic – for quite a while now.) 

Walker is now long retired from acting and a shocking 89 years old, so I will have to rely on his back catalogue. I have been able to see a couple of his earlier films recently, including Fort Dobbs, a small but gritty western from 1958, one of three in a row that he did with director Gordon Douglas. Walker is a man on the run from the law for shooting down a man (though it was in self-defense) but despite this, he comes to the aid of an entire town fleeing from renegade Comanches (as opposed to regular Comanches). He also has to forge a relationship with the wife (Virginia Mayo) and son (Richard Eyre, the annoying kid genie from 7th Voyage of Sinbad) of the man he shot. Walker is his usual, physically daunting heroic self, but speaking of A Family Affair earlier, that show's dad, Brian Keith, shows up in Fort Dobbs as a truly despicable and obnoxious cad who runs up against Walker when he plans to sell some newfangled repeating rifles to the very Indians that are attacking the town. While at first the film makes it seem they will be friends, their eventual rivalry is quite welcome as everything livens up each time Keith grits his teeth and says something mildly threatening. It's a darker turn from another favorite actor of my youth. The film overall is no great shakes, merely just more western product, but its cast makes it enjoyable enough. Sometimes, mere western product is what the town doc ordered. And if anything, Fort Dobbs once more reinforces my faith in my solo cult of Clint Walker. TC4P Rating: 6/9

The Mind Benders (1963) Dir.: Basil Dearden – When Ben Mankiewicz listed off similar films to The Mind Benders that dealt with brainwashing, he hit the usual suspects, such as The Manchurian Candidate (from the year before this one), A Clockwork Orange, and The Parallax View. And yes, The Mind Benders (especially owing to its name) does deal directly with influencing someone's actions using sophisticated scientific techniques. Lead actor Dirk Bogarde's character is indeed brainwashed to believe that he no longer loves his wife, in an effort (requested by Bogarde) to not only prove that one's mind can be turned completely away from his most strongly held beliefs. But he is also doing it to clear the name of his mentor, who committed suicide after using sensory deprivation therapy but whom the police believe did himself in to escape being caught as a Communist double agent. (Got all that?) 

It's a very twisty, absolute odd experience, but in going back to my opening sentence about the films that Mankiewicz reeled off, the one film he did not mention was Ken Russell's 1981 science fiction opus Altered States (which was penned by the great Paddy Chayefsky). While Altered States was not about brainwashing, but more about the de-evolution of man back to a primordial form – hence its not being cited by Ben M. – it is the film that bears the most resemblance to that which we encounter in The Mind Benders. The use of sensory deprivation equipment is completely the same, and the results of Bogarde's trip also reduces him to a proto-Jekyll and Hyde state, only without the elaborate makeup effects or the appearance of a recognizable monster as in Altered States. But the emotions that his torture bring about in his dealings with his wife are nearly as raw and almost unbearable to watch in moments as any I have seen onscreen, and they made this film truly shocking and memorable. A must-see again for me. TC4P Rating: 8/9

Sandy Wexler (2017) Dir.: Steven Brill – Man, I am reluctant to give this film a good rating, simply because it is Adam Sandler, and it is so hard to recognize when he is being completely shitty or when he is merely decent anymore. In a Netflix Original that premiered that weekend, Sandler plays the title role, a talent manager in the early 1990s who is completely inept at keeping his small stable of talent employed but whose utter sweetness and naiveté keeps them coming back to him. Sandler falls for a songstress played by Jennifer Hudson, and if you are thinking this is a romantic pair that could never, ever happen, well... yeah, I was thinking that too. And the romance part is downplayed through most of the film, but you can never doubt that something will probably bring them together by the end. Sandy Wexler features about a zillion cameos by celebs, and I guess their inclusion is what brings the film to a full two hours in length, where it really should have been a nice 1:35 or 1:40 instead. 

Surprisingly, as much as I wish Sandler would break away from his nebbishy sad sack with a goofy, stuttering voice character, he actually gives Sandy more depth than I was expecting, and there are enough good lines and jokes to just about balance out the film's faults (and it has plenty of those too). I kind of saw the film as existing somewhat in the same world as Judd Apatow's Funny People (which was also quite overlong, had Sandler in the lead, and was possibly the last thing I actually liked him in as well). I am certain there is a lot of Jerry Lewis in Sandler's conception of his main character, and since I was a Lewis nut as a kid, I am able sometimes to see past the whiny stuff that drives other people to distraction, and lie in wait for the hero to emerge from underneath the nerd outfit. I kind of did that here, as enough of the film's other characters give a serious bullying, both physically and verbally, to the poor guy that I couldn't help but root for Wexler to succeed. Surprisingly, I thought the film was good enough for me to actually give a Sandler joint (and not one done for a big league director like Apatow or P.T. Anderson) a positive rating. Miracles do happen. TC4P Rating: 6/9

Crossroads (2002) Dir.: Tamra Davis – Because I am looking out for you guys, I sometimes have to perform the impossible. This time around, I tackled a multiple Razzie-awarded flick that just happen to drift across my path early one morning. I saw Crossroads sitting before me on the channel guide screen, and after checking to see if it was actually the swell Walter Hill blues guitar flick featuring Ralph Macchio and Stevie Vai, I instead saw it was the flop Britney Spears flick from the early part of this century. A lesser man would have wimped out at the prospect of sitting through what must be a total "chick flick," but not this guy. I knew it was on my watchlist, as all films that have been nominated for Razzies are, and so I found myself adopting a "now or never" stance. Later that afternoon, I dug right into what must be the far lesser Crossroads and found out... that I was completely right.

Even with Zoe Saldana as one of the three leads, Crossroads is a dull, utterly predictable mess. It's a road picture where three former childhood besties who have fallen out long before high school graduation find themselves drawn back together by the absolutely most boring things ever placed in a time capsule and then buried for ten years. The one played by Taryn Manning wants to throw caution to the winds and drive from Georgia to California with a hunky guy (a much younger Anson Mount) that she has heard may have killed someone. The reason? To attend an open audition at a recording studio in L.A., though they never really show Manning having any real chops as a singer, despite the girls being involved in a couple of musical sequences (of which Britney is the centerpiece anyway, of course). Somehow, Manning convinces Spears (who wants to find her long-lost mom in Arizona) and Saldana (who is engaged to a guy who is supposedly doing some work in L.A. but is stupidly cheating on her – c'mon, douchebag, it's Zoe Saldana – instead) to travel together to renew their friendship. 

I never knew just how badly someone could fuck up I Love Rock 'n' Roll until you have heard Britney robotically mumble her way through the song in an absolutely unbelievable karaoke number. For a film that is really meant to push Britney product including more albums, the music is so shoddily produced as to make it hard to believe she was ever a major pop star. Most unfortunately, one has to hear the inane lyrics to her semi-hit, I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, both spoken as poetry and then sung at least twice in the film and credits. This fluff came from the laptop of Shonda Rhimes, a few years before Grey's Anatomy started. I do not watch anything that Rhimes currently produces or writes, and so I am not going to criticize her writing beyond this film, which is pretty much generic pabulum and completely forgettable apart from its most ridiculous, jaw-dropping moments. Still, I have seen far, far worse films, and I will cut director Tamra Davis a little slack for helming CB4 way back in the day and Dirk Gently episodes most recently. Thus, this one gets a below average rating of 4/9.


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