(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: Deep Red

Deep Red ArrowI clearly wasn’t ready for Dario Argento’s Deep Red way back when I saw it on a somewhat beat-up rented VHS tape back around 1990 or ’91. While the 1975 film had some primo scares (such as that freaky clockwork dummy scene and the genuinely gory brilliance in its stylized murders), the story seemed to be a bit chopped up to the point of distracting me a wee bit too much. Hey, I often tend to pay attention to the plot more than the violence in most horror films, so sue me. Flash forward to Arrow’s 2016 UK restoration (finally getting a North American release) which adds back in scenes that were cut and makes one of Argento’s best early films even better. Granted, it’s not going to be for everyone (yes, it’s quite violent), but as with many gialli, you more or less know what you’re getting and you’re going to get it but good (and in both eyes, at that).

David Hemmings plays Marcus Daly, a British jazz pianist who ends up being the target of a killer after he sees said killer killing the hell out of some hapless victim. During the initial police investigation, Daly’s photo is snapped by snippy, snoopy reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who inadvertently puts Marcus in grave danger after posting his handsome mug in the newspaper. As in his earlier The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’ Nine Tails, you get leading men who get in well over their heads once they try to do a bit of extracurricular detective work and yes indeed, Daly gets put through the wringer but good. This is also another Argento film where a woman saves the lead from certain death, with Nicolodi’s Brezzi making a strong impression as a gal who’s no screaming wallflower at all.

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Not So Random Film of The Weekend: The Zero Boys

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Ooh, it’s my first entry in this soon to be never-ending series. Be gentle!

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While it’s certainly an entertaining popcorn and beer-worthy flick with great camerawork, direction and an appropriately 80’s blend of synth-heavy and orchestral scoring courtesy of Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer, there’s something a wee bit “off” about Nico Mastorakis’ 1986 film The Zero Boys  that keeps it from total greatness. Don’t get me wrong, folks: It’s certainly got just about everything it needs to be a perfectly fine cheesy action flick and even adds in some mildly disturbing  moments that lend it a solid horror vibe. However, there’s very little in the way of gore here and you certainly don’t want to go in expecting a ton of exploitative nudity even though you’d think a film such as this made at this point in time would include a moderate heaping of both as par for the crowd-pleasing course.

In fact, according to an interview on the Arrow Video Blu-Ray, Mastorakis deliberately made the film this way as a sort of counterbalance to his far more brutal 1976 film Island of Death. If you take away the expletives and make a few minor edits, you pretty much have a PG-rated flick that you could easily show on a regular network or basic cable channel these days. Amusingly enough, by comparison, an average episode of Gotham has a load more violence than what you’ll see here (I kind of liked the first two seasons, but the show’s gotten a bit too grim as a alternate world take on its source material, but I digress…).

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Let’s see now: Bandanna? Check. Attitude? Check. Gun? Check. I think that’s everything, but you know how these things go (until they don’t go the way you think).

That’s not to say the film is totally tame, mind you. It moves from high action and a slightly comedic tone at the start into those more moody and serious scare scenes with relative ease and works well enough on that level. In general, Mastorakis’ films tend to go in all sorts of directions as they blend drama, comedy, action, sexy stuff and lots of suspension of disbelief common to genre films. Of course, if you pay too close attention to the writing, some parts don’t click as well as they should because the story needs to move along, damn the continuity consequences or assorted logic fails. In other words, this is one of those films where any sort of overthinking makes it a lot less fun.

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Blu-Ray Review: Killer Klowns From Outer Space

Killer Klowns BRIf ever there was a film where the title tells you everything you need to know while also telling you it’s a film you kind of need to see out of sheer curiosity, it’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space. yeah, yeah, I know a lot of you hate clowns in real life and nope, this film probably won’t be the one to endear you to the red nose and greasepaint cause. That said, if you love great practical effects, practical jokes, bits of stop motion creativity, 80’s gore FX and one damn catchy main theme song, this one has all those and more.

Arrow Video has once again pulled out all the stops with this restoration, adding a ton of special features that add to the big top thrills and chills. If you’ve never seen this one before, it’s worth checking out because it’s great for a few laughs and still works as one of those films that didn’t need a sequel (although there have been a few rumblings about one over the years).

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Blu-Ray Review: Scalpel

Scalpel BRJohn Grissmer’s 1977 film Scalpel is a pretty neat psychological thriller that also works as an entry level ‘light’ horror flick for those skittish types not quite ready for gore galore, but who won’t mind a tiny bit of depravity in the plot.  Arrow Video has not only put out a stellar restoration, they also got respected cinematographer Edward Lachman to supervise am equally gorgeous second transfer that’s been color corrected back to his original theatrical version.

While there are some flaws in the storytelling, it’s a solid enough film to recommend thanks to the no-nonsense performances and relatively brief 95-minute running time.  Having the choice to see both versions on a single disc along with some very nice bonus features makes this yet another Arrow you’ll want to add to your quiver.

When plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Reynolds (Richard Lansing) encounters a badly beaten stripper with a completely ruined face, he comes up with a plan to reconstruct her to look exactly like his missing daughter (Judith Chapman) in order to claim the $5,000,000 inheritance denied him, but given to her by her grandfather.  He’s also got more disgusting designs on his mind, but you’ll have to see how that plays out.  After the young woman is out of surgery and healing up, Reynolds takes her out of the hospital and to his home, eventually telling her his plan and offering to split half the money with her.  After some weeks of coaching, the girl is ready for her close up with Reynolds’ extended family.  While their ploy succeeds to some extent, things get a wee bit complicated when Reynolds real daughter (also played by Chapman) shows up shortly thereafter. Oops, and yep, the plot thickens.

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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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