Random Film of the Week: Hard to be a God

(Thanks, kinolorber!)

Imagine an episode of Game of Thrones as performed by the cast of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade minus the fantasy elements and with an even more staggering attention to medieval detail and you’ll maybe grasp a small potion of the late Aleksei German’s outstanding, brutal (yet beautiful) Hard to be a a God. This 2013 film (the director’s last) isn’t for the easily disturbed but if you’re willing to sit through the almost three hour running time, you’ll likely find yourself glued to the screen from beginning to end.

While it may not look like a sci-fi film, right from the start you’ll see subtitles that note the story takes place on an earth-like planet going through its medieval phase about 800 years after ours. A group of scientists have been send there to observe the planet and gently nudge it forward without using technology or politics as it goes through what should be a renaissance phase. Unfortunately, things kind of get a bit out if hand when intellectuals of all types become targets for murder by a tyrant’s roaming militia intent on keeping the people uneducated and (mostly) harmless. Actually, about 28 minutes in, you get a reminder that you’re on another world thanks to a quick shot of something mechanical making itself known. But even then, the illusion of an incessantly nasty age isn’t at all broken.

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Random Film of the Week: Alien Resurrection

(Thanks, Forever Horror!)

So, I think it was around spring 1997 and I’m sitting in a movie theater when “surprise!”, a that teaser trailer above for Alien Resurrection pops up like a chestburster. I recall some people in the theater being either not too thrilled or just plain shocked that there was another film on the way. I also recall my eyeballs didn’t pop out like they did when I saw the ALIEN³ teaser trailer six years previously, but I think my new-ish eyeglasses kept them from ending up on the floor. Actually, I was more amused than shocked by what I saw (so there!).

I saw the first ALIEN back in 1979 at age 15 (in dangerous Times Square, baby!), ALIENS was a day one view when it premiered in 1986 (there’s a funny story about screening that I’ll tell one day). The third film was, I thought, going to be the last one when it landed in 1992 and yes, I bade the franchise a fond farewell thinking it had run its course. Welly-well-well, imagine my surprise when 20th Century Fox trundled out the ALIEN name for one more installment that turned out to be less scary than the others and actually somewhat more amusing while unsettling on a few fronts in terms of the visual vibe it delivered. How the heck does that work and how the heck did I find myself bopping into a theater in November 1997 with a wry grin not expecting anything other than to be somewhat giddy partly because I knew some in the audience wouldn’t appreciate this Resurrection at all?

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Random Film of the Week: ALIEN³

(Thanks, THX1968!)

 

Alien 3_bI think it was sometime in mid-to late 1991 when I first saw the teaser trailer to ALIEN³ and had my eyeballs pop right out of my head followed by my jaw hitting the floor way too hard in the theater I saw it in. Ladies and gentlemen, do you know how hard it is to clean sticky goo off your eyeballs after they’ve rolled underneath a movie theater seat? Trust me, it ain’t easy. That and yuck-o, stale popcorn and half an old hot dog have the tendency to rather easily get into a fallen jaw if you let it sit down there for more than a minute flapping away in shock mode. Hey, I was busy trying to find my darn eyeballs, thank you much.

Needless to say, I was kind of shocked by this news that we’d get a third film in the franchise and it was coming in under a year. I wasn’t sure I liked the “On Earth, Everyone Can Hear You Scream” tagline at all and yes indeed, I thought bringing that cranky xenomorph to Earth was a bad (not a bad-ass) idea for a few key reasons. Although at that point, I was kind of screaming myself.

It seems 20th Century Fox may have agreed (or at least was pulling a fast one on us because they didn’t really have an idea about the film they were planning to make), as a few months later, this was the follow up trailer:

 

(Thanks, Media Graveyard!)

 

After gathering up my eyeballs and jaw again and handing a few people in the theater their eyeballs that rolled under and around my seat (which was quite interesting as I had to wait until the guy who picked up one of my eyeballs by mistake returned it or today I’d be the Jane Seymour version of myself or something like that), I took time to take in the trailer. Bald Ripley. Bald bad men, some bald men screaming and running, NO weapons at all and a reused music cue from the previous film had me both puzzled and really curious as to how the helllllll Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley character was going to get out of this new mess. That said, the art direction and sets looked solid and that finale bit with the Alien getting too close to Ripley had me intrigued as hell, as did my wondering who the heck was this David Fincher guy directing the film.

There were other trailers and eventually TV spots that arrived before and after the film was released, but I was sold before that point to the point that even if I didn’t like the final product, I had the feeling it would be really interesting and maybe even impressive.  Let’s just say I kind of got my money’s worth more on the visual side of things and a temporary gumball substitute for an eye after I picked up the first round object that I could touch after they popped out again.

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Blu-Ray Review: BASKET CASE

Basket Case_LE_AV119“What’s in the basket? Easter eggs?”

Absolutely, lady, absolutely. Wow. Sometimes you get hit in the head by a fly ball you didn’t see coming and it’s actually a good thing. I didn’t know Frank Henenlotter’s still hilarious and unnerving 1982 feature BASKET CASE had gotten a superb MoMA restoration last year until I overheard two guys talking about it and I just had to walk up and ask if it was true. It indeed was and now thanks to Arrow Video, you can get yourself a copy of this cult horror hit and see what the fuss is all about. Or just see it again as a fully restored masterpiece of low-budget movie making madness.

If memory serves me correctly, I actually saw the film for the first time way back during its initial 1982 run at the Waverly theater, but I think it was the disappointing edited version that came off as a bit crueler and cruder. I say “think” because it was a midnight showing and I recall falling asleep at one point and missed about 10 or so minutes. Oops. A few years later, upon renting the unrated version on VHS (I think it was from one of the legendary Kim’s Video locations in NYC), I was shocked to see footage I hadn’t recalled and the film was actually much funnier than I’d remembered.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: The Aftermath

The Aftermath VCIThere’s a great bonus on the BR/DVD version of The Aftermath that’s well worth watching before you see the main event. That would be the 1973 student film, The Night Caller, directed by Dan Gilbert and inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story, Night Call, Collect. The same guy who co-wrote and stars in that main event, Steve Burkett, also plays the lead in this short and it seems the plot is something of an expansion of a few ideas from the short as well as some of Burkett and co-writer Stanley Livingston’s own work.

That said, this shot in 1978/released in 1982 film was also something of a passion project for Burkett, as it was made for not a whole lot of money (and it shows), features a few of Burkett’s friends and family members along with the always fun to watch Sid Haig as the film’s main, mean villain. On one hand, it’s not the greatest action film you’ll ever see. However, it’s a case of a killer “B” flick with an oddly effective sting that happens to wear its battered heart on its bloody sleeve.

Burkett plays Newman, an astronaut returning to Earth after a lengthy journey with two others, Mathews (Larry Latham) and Williams (Jim Danforth!). They can’t contact anyone on the planet and after an explosion, the ship crash lands in the water somewhere near Los Angeles. Williams is killed and initially, Newman thinks he’s the sole survivor until Mathews washes up shortly thereafter. The men spend a harsh night outdoors where they’re attacked by crazed and somewhat violent (zombie-like?) mutated savages and it’s only when the dawn breaks they find out there’s been a big ol’ nuclear war while the men were away that’s wiped out a good chunk of humanity.  So much for that homecoming parade, right?

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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: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Inferno_AA023Sometimes, life can be a mystery… and sometimes, you kind of know what you’re getting into but still step into that trap door straight to hell.

In 1964, stoked after the huge box office success of Dr.Strangelove, Columbia Pictures was poking around the film world looking for something guaranteed to be the next big movie and had the wild idea to extend unlimited funding to a new project directed by the great Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique). Based on some striking test footage, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno was, for all intents and purposes, going to be an innovative and mature film that had the potential to make millions for the company while making an even bigger star out of Sissi trilogy star Romy Schneider. Three weeks into production and 185 cans (about 14 hours) of film later, one of the main cast members quit, three production separate teams of 150 people were out of work, and Clouzot had a heart attack that ended up shutting production down for good.

Those cans of film were sitting somewhere in France for decades thanks to the insurance company that ended up with them, but thanks to the obsessive persistence of Serge Bromberg and a meeting with Clouzot’s second wife in an elevator, we have this somewhat spectacular documentary (co-directed by Ruxandra Medrea) that sheds a bit of light on the destined to fail project. While the documentary is quite amazing, you’re in no way getting anything close to a completed version of Inferno despite all that footage that was shot. Most of it was camera tests of actors, loads of exterior tests, and visual effects shots galore in assorted states of completion. All of it was silent, although parts of a separate soundtrack were found and added into the documentary along with parts of the script read/reenacted by Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin. That said, there’s a lot to absorb here, but the overall takeaway seems to be “Here’s what happens when you throw money at a problem and it doesn’t solve itself, folks.”

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Blu-Ray Review: Animal Factory

Animal Factory_AV115Way back around in oh, 2000 or 2001, I was working in a small independent game shop in NYC when in walks Edward Furlong wearing dark sunglasses with some woman I didn’t recognize in tow. I think he popped in to get away from a few fans who recognized him on the street (this sort of celebrity sighting thing happened a lot on St. Mark’s Place) and if I’m not mistaken, I think one or two other people in the shop knew who he was within a few seconds of him popping in.

Long story short, he hung out for a few minutes and didn’t say much (and I don’t recall if he bought anything), but he eventually left, leaving his sunglasses behind. I do believe my boss ended up keeping them after a few days when they weren’t reclaimed. Anyway, that’s the shortest celebrity story I know, but I have a few more that may pop up if and when the time comes. Living in this city, one tends to stumble into the occasional interaction that’s more than the usual fan on the prowl experience. Oh yeah, we’re supposed to be doing a movie review now, right?  Let me get my review hat on. A minute, please… there we go.

Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory is a pretty darn good prison flick based on the Eddie Bunker novel and yep, the Arrow restoration is pretty solid overall. It features Furlong, along with Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo, an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke and a few other surprises (for example, Tom Arnold in a somewhat short cameo). Furlong plays young Ron Decker who ends up getting 10 years on a drug conviction. He ends up meeting with Earl Copen (Dafoe), a long time convict who decides to keep Decker close and under his protection for a few reasons (and not the ones you might be thinking, you dirty birds). While Ron is seemingly safe from harm, he ends up getting on the bad sides of a few other cons as well as some prison officials and you get a pretty impressive mix of drama and violence with plenty of tension as the glue holding things together.

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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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