(Not So) Random Film of the Week: Smash Palace

Smash PalaceThanks to a few oddball decisions (some made by people connected with his first film) Roger Donaldson’s second feature film, 1981’s Smash Palace almost didn’t get made. I’ll let you go check out the excellent making of feature on the Arrow Academy disc for the full story, but let’s just say everything worked out in the end and we have a strong followup to Sleeping Dogs to chat about for a spell. Donaldson’s film is a wrenching, raw look at a marriage fallen apart thanks to a lack of communication and what happens when decisions made by the adults in the room spiral past the point of reasonable discourse.

Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence), a former race car driver looking to restart his career is married to Jacqui (Anna Marie Monticelli), a former nurse he met while recuperating in France after an accident that took him off the track. They eventually wed and moved to a remote spot in New Zealand where Al runs the titular wrecking company. Jacqui despises the run-down location and dull (to her) lifestyle, berating Al for not taking  a solid ongoing offer to sell the business. Despite the tension, love for couple’s daughter, Georgina (Greer Robson), or Georgie, keeps things mostly in check. Unfortunately, Al’s best friend, local cop Ray Foley (Keith Aberdein) catches Jacqui’s eye and ear (Al talks a lot, but tends to ignore his wife because he’s happy in his work) and the two get romantically involved. When Al discovers this, he lashes out (in a hard to watch scene) and yes, Jacqui leaves him for Ray, taking Georgie with her.

 

(Thanks, Arrow Academy!)

 

Things go sideways and downhill from that point on even though Al gets back on the race track with a car he spent a year building. Recklessly, he makes a series of somewhat terrible decisions, some of which where his hand is forced and others where he just reacts out of pure but flawed human instinct.

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(Not So) Random Film of the Week: Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs ArrowBased on the novel Smith’s Dream by C.K. Stead, director Roger Donaldson’s 1977 film Sleeping Dogs is not only a remarkable first feature film, it’s shockingly prescient on a number of fronts. Before I get to the film proper, I’ll note that I chose neither this nor Donaldson’s outstanding second feature, 1981’s Smash Palace because of their implied or direct relevance to some of today’s often depressing news. My movie backlog is just so huge that I decided to grab two films off the top of the stack and these Arrow Academy releases were right on top of that stack. Boo-yah, I guess? Additionally, I’d heard good things about both a while back from a few people who didn’t spoil the stories for me other than to note that both were important films from New Zealand that would be well worth watching. Those people were correct, as these two films are simply superb despite their less than Hollywood budgets.

The government in New Zealand is under chaos after oil talks break down, gas is severely rationed and it seems civil unrest is brewing partly as a result of a rather stubborn prime minister determined to keep the peace (or what he sees as peace) at any cost. Meanwhile, rudderless after breaking up with his wife, a man named Smith (Sam Neill) is driving down a highway when he spies a small island in the distance. At a tiny village’s tinier restaurant, he inquires about the ownership of the island and is given directions to a house owned by two Maori men and is told to bring a bottle of whiskey with him. Smith trades the bottle for the island and run-down house on it, but the motor boat he needs to get there? That costs him his car. Well, at least he gets a free cute dog out of that part of the deal, as it’s forced on him during the trade.

 

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Blu-Ray Review: Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso_AA001Movies that make you want to see lots of other movies are a very good thing, especially if those movies you end up seeing are plenty you’re going into cold knowing you’re going to like them thanks to that one film that introduces you. Speaking of cold, guess who’s laid up with a bad one and is banging out his work from a partially prone position? Anyway (*cough!*), Cinema Paradiso is one of the all-time greats for such a cinematic education because it’s such an excellently crafted film that it’s worth watching a few times because of all the note taking you’ll very likely end up doing. I’ll save you a tiny bit of time and point you to this IMDB listing which should open up quite the rabbit hole to disappear into for a bit.

Arrow Academy’s solid restoration of the original 124-minute Cannes cut and the extended 174-minute Director’s Cut will fit nicely into your collection and as you can probably tell, is absolutely worth a purchase. Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore’s film is one where every shot is effortlessly composed and there are moments where you’ll find yourself mildly to moderately in awe at the perfect camera placement that fits in flawlessly with the music (by Ennio and Andrea Morricone). The film is mostly told in flashback as a famous director Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin) returns to his childhood home after 30 years away upon hearing an elderly friend has passed away. We learn that Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) was a projectionist at the titular theater as well as a mentor to the younger Salvatore (or Toto, as he’s called) from the age of six (Salvatore Cascio) to his teens (Marco Leonardi).

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Blu-Ray Review: Zoology

Zoology_AA018Sometimes, being way, way out of the loop on a film is the best thing that can happen because when you miss all that buzzing and screeching, you get to go in totally cold and be nicely surprised by the results. This is exactly what happened when I finally sat down to watch Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s wonderful, bleak deadpan fantasy Zoology, another solid Arrow Academy release (also available on DVD). This is one of those films with a standout role for a “woman of a certain age” that’s somewhat remarkable until you realize your going into the film with that sort of prejudice might also make you not enjoy it if you think too hard about stuff like that.

Anyway, right off the bat, you’re made to feel sorry for poor Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a sad-looking middle-aged put-upon employee at a dreary Russian zoo. Her somewhat nasty co-workers openly make fun of her frumpy looks and lack of a social life, she lives with her elderly mother and a dying old cat and just as you’re about to throw yourself out the window from the gloom of her daily routine, she faints at work one day and later finds out she’s grown a tail. The doctor she sees sends her off to get an X-ray and Natasha meets radiologist Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), who initially seems nonplussed about her extra appendage. The pair strike up a fast friendship which leads to more, but that’s (almost) all you’re going to get out of me because you kind of need to see how this one plays out.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Witches

The Witches_AANot at all to be confused with the exact same titled Hammer Film Productions horror flick released in 1966, The Witches (aka Le streghe) is a very fine and very unusual surprise from Arrow Academy that’s worth a look if you like oddball Italian film anthologies that just so happen to feature the lovely Silvana Mangano. Yeah, Clint Eastwood is on the cover as well. But trust me, he’s not why you’ll be watching this hidden gem at all.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis had the idea to bring together five top directors (Luchino Visconti, Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rosso, Vittorio De Sica) and set them the task of crafting am anthology film themed around Mangano portraying a different type of witch in each chapter. The results range from bizarre to compelling, but title aside, this isn’t a horror film at all. It’s more a showpiece of Mangano’s acting talents as well as a not so subtle look at some of the actress’ struggles with fame and fortune (be it up or down)throughout her career.

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Random Films of the Week: Some Fine Die-ning

Another somewhat random grab from the backlog? Sure, why not? I’m cheating a little thanks to just going with all Arrow Video/Arrow Academy releases, but I heartily recommend everything here for one reason or another.

The Assassin_AA006The Assassin (L’Assassino) – Elio Petri’s (The Tenth Victim, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) first film is a total knockout all the way as well a great classic that can now be rediscovered in its restored form. Marcello Mastroianni plays Alfredo Martelli, a man arrested as the prime suspect after his older lover (Micheline Presle) is found murdered. During the investigation, the film dips into his past as bits of Alfredo’s life play out and his mental state begins to crumble from the relentless pressure laid on him by the police. Did he do it? Well, that would be telling and you won’t get a peep out of me, pal.

The black and white cinematography is beautiful, there’s a jazzy score that features a main title theme that will stick in you head for days, and every actor here is spot on. The Arrow Academy BD/DVD only has a few bonus features, but the real treasure is Petri’s film itself. The odd thing here is most of it takes place over the course of a day or two, but Alfredo’s memories (and Petri’s camera) capture what seems like a week’s worth of external events before all is said and done. But this is most definitely intentional, as is that ending that seems to be open to interpretation if you take it too seriously.

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Random Films of the Week: Disk-y Business

Yeah, yeah. I’m still alive. I’ve been in a bit of a personal and creative funk for a few key reasons, some of which are health related with the rest fall squarely into the Nunya Bizness section of the classifieds. In any event, watching the news has been detrimental to my mental, but it’s a case of not knowing what’s going on is far worse than shoving one’s head into the sand. The problem here is the too smart for their own good “political junkies” posing as journalists tend to treat this all as a big, fun horse race crossed with story time and it’s a failure of  insane proportions because no one seems to want to interrupt that yakky daily narrative and let all the shoes that need to drop do so when the appropriate truths are revealed.

In the meantime, I’ve been dipping into my Blu-Ray and DVD backlog when I’m not gaming or too depressed after watching the latest soliloquy from some news show hosts who’d make perfect babysitters because after 20 minutes of them blathering away on some otherwise well-written preamble, I’m ready for a nap. Anyway, enough perambulating around myself – let’s go to the movies!

Ruby 1Ruby – Not to be confused with Abby (which NEEDS a full on restoration one of these days!), this interesting but flawed Piper Laurie vehicle is an odd bird that combines supernatural revenge horror elements. mild gore and a bit of demonic possession lifted from The Exorcist, albeit not all that well. Curtis Harrington’s 1977 flick does have its moments, but you’ll need to tap yourself on the skull with a small hammer when the film starts going off the rails with the plot contrivances.

VCI’s restoration job is decent but not flawless (kind of like the film) and the Blu-Ray/DVD combo means you can keep one disc in that old player you’ve kept around just in case you need it. What, you don’t own a second disc player? Eh, whatever. Just pretend you do for my sake. Or hell, you can give a friend one and keep the other unless you just buy the plain DVD release if you’re that stingy.  Either way, VCI will be happy.

 

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Blu-Ray Review: The Apartment

The Apartment BRI’d forgotten Billy Wilder’s forever brilliant The Apartment was a perfect seasonal movie for those of us isolated types looking for a lift as well as anyone else who has cold and loathsomely lonely winters. Granted, the first time I saw it (I think I was maybe 10 or 11), I was too young to understand much of what was going on. During these darker days as I age none too gracefully, Jack Lemmon is sort of my spirit animal, so this five Academy Award-winning film has become a personal favorite.

Poor C.C. Baxter (or “Bud” to some) toils away at his data collection job at a huge New York City insurance firm, often keeping late hours with no overtime thanks to his nearby apartment being used as a hot spot for a trio of philandering company executives, Mr. Dobsich (Ray Walston), Mr. Eichelberger (David White), and Mr. Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman). Baxter is hoping to climb the corporate ladder a bit faster by doing this (yes, he even has a calendar to keep track of who gets his place and when). But he’s also so accommodating that he even cleans up afterwards and takes suggestions from his cheating superiors such as restocking his liquor supply and buying cheese crackers without asking for a dime in return. Things get even more complicated after the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) gets wind of Baxter’s bachelor pad and dangles a big promotion over his head if he can get access to the place for his own affair. Baxter agrees to the trade, but finds out that Sheldrake is romancing Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the cute elevator girl he’s been chatting up.

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Blu-Ray Review: Whisky Galore!

Whisky Galore_AF004If the great Ealing Studios’ 1949 version of Whisky Galore! didn’t exist, director Gillies MacKinnon’s excellent 2016 version would be an even better film than it is. That’s an odd compliment, I know. But the original film’s boozy aroma lingers heavily in the corners of this newer version, smiling down on MacKinnon’s capable cast as it plops down on a bar stool with a sigh of contentment. This newer film has a fine cast and some absolutely gorgeous cinematography (it’s enough to make you want to consider a move to wherever in Scotland it was shot just for the rocks alone), as well as humor that goes down smooth with a bit of water added.

While not exactly laugh out loud funny through and through, there’s one early scene that had me doubling over with a good belly laugh. As soon as it’s announced that the small village is completely out of whisky, one old chap gets up, walks out of the pub he and his friends inhabit daily, walks over to a his home and promptly drops dead outside as it begins to rain. For some reason, I found this hilarious as well as the following scene where his friends gather around his coffin to send him off. I’m guessing it’s because I’ve heard people say they’d “literally die” if they didn’t have a particular guilty pleasure handy, but seeing it happen was actually amusing and made me think how many real-life friends would drop like that over booze, chocolate, or bacon if they were suddenly taken away.

Hey, I’m a practical man. Less friends means less gifts to buy this holiday season, folks.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Legend of the Holy Drinker

TLOTHD_AA016
Based on Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella, Ermanno Olmi’s 1988 film, The Legend of the Holy Drinker is about as good as it gets if you’re looking for a bottle of melancholy to sip and sit with that’s also a fine whine of meditative work featuring a flawless performance by Rutger Hauer as the titular homeless drunkard, Andreas Kartack. The film’s somewhat romanticized but still realistically grimy Paris (which looks lovely that way) works well as a character of its own with a solid cast that helps create some of the drama and dilemmas Kartack faces after a stranger gives him 200 francs with the simple request that he repay it by donating the money to a local shrine.

Kartack ends up running into what could be called a run of really good luck for a homeless guy who sleeps under a bridge as in no short order he finds a temporary job, affords himself a few necessities such as a shave, decent food, and the company of women. But his drinking gets in the way of his quickly repaying the loan as does part of his past when he meets up with the lovely Gabby (Sandrine Dumas), a woman he’s got a particularly messy past with. Saying more would ruin the film’s quiet surprises, but Olmi’s assured direction flows along with the wine and supporting actors as Kartack’s luck swings in a few directions.

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