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Planetfall

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/19/07 21:07:03

"I loved every blasted minute of this movie."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Even when "Planetfall" doesn't work, it works. There are many moments throughout the film where, as a film, it stumbles - too unfocused, too clumsy, too cheap. And yet there isn't a minute of this film that doesn't grab your interest. It's a go-for-broke no budget indie production so loaded with charm, style, and plenty of fun that not even do the hiccups not matter, but they only make you love the movie even more.

Produced by a handful of Minneapolis filmmakers over a four year period, "Planetfall" is a true labor of love, and it shows. The film, a clever mix of sci-fi and spaghetti western, is not shy about its shoestring roots; the film's visual effects are never going to be as sharp as that of even a modestly budgeted Hollywood picture, so instead the film aims for a stylized look that celebrates the efforts of the local effects crew. The movie knows how hokey it looks but refuses to care, plowing forward with an admirable gusto. Indeed, by the time we get to the flying-car chase sequence, we want to stand up and cheer for the production team, who have made a movie that might not look believable, but at least looks fantastic.

Like other similar homegrown projects which use limited effects power, "Planetfall" uses a soft, hazy look (think "Sky Captain" done on someone's home computer) to mask its low grade CGI problems. It's a choice that works, thanks to the keen artistic eye of the effects crew (made up of friends, local video production folks, and even a group of eager college students, all volunteering their time) who deliver some stunning background shots and impressively designed "holograms" to keep things looking nifty in between the shots of extras sitting around in Halloween masks.

Vastly improving the film's chances of success are two key post-production elements: a powerful musical score by Jon Heagle (complimented by a terrific closing theme tune) and ace sound mixing from a crew lead by Darin Heinis. These elements, when combined with the effects filtering, makes the movie look grander in scope than it actually is.

A project like this would be dead on arrival if not for its screenplay, and while the story is admittedly one large jumble (it was repeatedly rewritten on the fly throughout the production) and while the script is wildly inconsistent in tone (credited writers Matt Saari and Michael Heagle were assisted by pretty much the entire cast and crew, serving up a line here, a plot point there), not once does the jumble become dull or irritating. Confusing, perhaps. A bit long-winded and ramshackle, no doubt. But boring? Never, never, never. In this regard, "Planetfall" captures the spirit of its Italian western inspirations, being a movie whose scenes live and breathe for the moment.

The plot involves the last shipment of a drug called Psylenol, a psychic-powers booster recently banned by the government. The shipment, worth trillions (!), has crashed on Zita, a grimy little planet in the middle of nowhere, and two ace bounty hunters - Lux (Heidi Fellner) and Wendy (Leitha Matz) - are on separate courses to find it, each running into her own snags, such as psychic monks, a slimy army of "Psion" soldiers, even interference from the President himself (Z-movie legend Ted V. Mikels in a brilliantly silly bit part).

Plot points come straight out of Italy: Wendy's partner in crime is Gorton "Ugly" Hex (Alan Struthers), and as his name implies, they practice the same switcheroo bounty hunter swindle that had Eastwood rescuing Wallach from the noose decades ago. The story itself is set in the dusty days just after a civil war, which brings to mind more of those Leone memories.

But despite its spaghetti roots - Heagle directed under the giddy pseudonym Gianni Mezzonotte - "Planetfall" is not limited to that genre. Some scenes crackle with sci-fi action, others offer up a little we're-just-making-this-movie-to-have-a-good-time comedy. The aforementioned car chase is set in a city ruins straight out of "Blade Runner," and a nightclub sequence is obviously inspired by the "Star Wars" cantina scene. A throwaway gag involving bad television plays gives the moment a satirical edge. And Heagle's previous film, "Go To Hell," was released on video by Troma; "Planetfall" repeats that similar anarchic style. (Heagle's work isn't anywhere as cheap as the usual Troma fare, nor does it aim for the lowbrow gross-out moment, but there is an anything-goes style at work that fits right at home with the underground cinema genre.)

Typical to homegrown filmmaking, the acting is all over the map. Some players take the over-the-top approach, as in Elijah Drenner's deliciously hammy turn as a sleazy presidential aide, or Charles Hubbell's performance as a baddie so villainous he deserves a moustache to constantly twirl. Others, including Fellner and Snype Myers (who plays Lux's bad boy romantic interest) take a middle of the road approach; Fellner and Myers do fine by this, although several supporting players stumble, revealing an amateurish quality to their scenes. Again, it's an inconsistency that trips the film repeatedly, yet never causes the movie to go down for too long.

Deserving the most mention are Matz and Struthers, who are lucky to nab the movie's most thoroughly enjoyable roles. Matz goes the low-key route in bringing her stogie-chompin' badass heroine to life, and she's such a great screen personality that every one of her scenes hooks you in. Struthers, meanwhile, goes for slight camp without overdoing it, and the result is a carefully constructed piece of comic relief that makes us smile with every minute he's on screen.

It's clear that everybody's doing it all just to have a good time (for most involved, the movie was a hobby and not a paid gig), and that good cheer is downright infectious. "Planetfall" is a gigantic chunk of fun and one heck of an achievement for a group of pals tossing together a sci-fi epic in their spare time. If only more homemade flicks could be this cool.

Reprinted with kind permission from DVD Talk.

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