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Planetfall

Heretic Films // Unrated // February 27, 2007
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted February 20, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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.

The DVD

Video & Audio


The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation does a fine job highlighting the best of the movie's effects shots and filtered imagery, although it also goes to show the flaws of the digital video format as well. The transfer is clean and free of any defects, making the film look as good as it ever will.

For the soundtrack, pick between a rich Dolby 5.1 track or lesser (yet still impressive) Dolby stereo. Both tracks highlight the excellent post-production work put into the feature. Optional English subtitles are offered.

Extras

Start yourself off with three - count 'em, three! - commentary tracks. The first (and best) is a solo effort from Heagle; the second features Fellner and Myers; the third is from Matz and Troy LaFaye, a producer and supporting player on the film. It's a lot of information to take in all at once, so pace yourself.

Most impressive is the hour-long making-of documentary "Planetfall: Perils and Pleasures of Fiscally Feasible Filmmaking," which packs everything you'd ever need to know about the movie, from its origins as a barely-there idea based on a set of costumes owned by the producers to its sold out screening at a Minneapolis theater. A mountain of on-set footage compliments honest interviews that discuss the best and worst of homegrown cinema. If you didn't love - or at least admire - the movie before this documentary, you will after.

Eight deleted/alternate scenes, featuring unfinished effects, are of interest but do little to de-complicate the insane final plot.

Struggling filmmakers, want to know how to cut corners? One tip: if you can't afford locations, consider making a trade. The producers of "Planetfall" needed to film at the historic Pickwick Mill, so they offered to film (for free!) a short travel documentary for the mill's gift shop. The result is "Pickwick Mill: A Guided Tour with Alan Struthers" (21:13) which goes over the ins and outs of the Minnesota tourist destination. Including the doc on this disc is a brilliant touch.

"My Name Is Still Gianni" (3:40) finds cast and crew whimsically remembering their experiences working with the legendary Italian filmmaker Gianni Mezzanotte.

"Fans of Style: Designing Planetfall" (8:14) offers an inside look into the crafting of the on-the-cheap props and costuming from prop masters/costumers Gordon Smuder and Jennifer Menken. Again, local filmmakers should take notes: anything can become a sci-fi prop with enough creative effort.

In "Corpse Grinding: An Interview with Ted V. Mikels" (6:48), we take a tour through Mikels' office, still loaded with film prints, posters, and a classic Moviola. Mikels discusses his history in independent cinema, and he's such a nice guy that we'll instantly forgive him for making movies as bad as "Astro-Zombies" and "10 Violent Women."

Finally, "Discovering Rosemount Ruins" (6:13) is more goofiness, a witty "In Search Of" spoof examining the mysteries of one of the movie's key locations. Shot on home video, it looks like the result of general spare time goofing around, but funnier.

All bonus material is presented in 1.33:1 full frame with footage from the movie properly letterboxed, except for "Gianni," which is shown in a non-anamorphic letterbox, and the Mikels interview, which surprisingly comes with a lush anamorphic transfer.

Final Thoughts

"Planetfall" is scrappy, crazy, and always big fun. And how terrific to see a project like this get such a lavish, loaded DVD presentation. Highly Recommended to anyone interested in something outside the Hollywood norm.
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Highly Recommended

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