The Major Release: Samson

Your Alternative: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965, d. Carol Reed)

The Agony and the Ecstasy comes at the tail end of Charlton Heston’s iconic run of Cecille B. DeMille style Old Hollywood epics; movies like The Ten Commandments (‘56), Ben-Hur (‘59) and El Cid (‘61). They were grandiose recreations of Biblical and historical tales, all featuring Technicolor flair and some of the flashiest movie stars of their age (unlike Samson’s garish digital photography and Billy Zane). The Agony and the Ecstasy is no different, pitting Heston’s restless Michelangelo against Rex Harrison’s stingy Pope Julius II, the religious leader who commissions the artist to paint the Sistine Chapel. It’s a bold, audacious American movie, casting one of the blondest stars of his time as the olive skinned, Italian artist. But where historical accuracy falls short, Heston more than makes up for it in chemistry with Harrison. The two are just a joy to watch, bouncing off one another as the Pope struggles to come to terms with the painter’s vision. Michelangelo is equally challenged to find the heart of a good man inside of what appears to be an egomaniacal, economically ignorant tyrant. The themes of struggling with creation – both tangible and spiritual – are still as poignant as they were 53 years ago.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is available to stream on Amazon.  

May 22

 

The Major Release: 15:17 To Paris

Your Alternative: An American In Paris (1951, d. Vincente Minnelli)

15:17 To Paris was a rough sit even for the staunchest Clint Eastwood defenders (a group this writer is a card-carrying member of). Essentially coming off as a nationalistic travelogue, the experimental aspects of Eastwood’s latest were admirable (especially for a filmmaker his age), and you could feel the good intentions behind his profiling of these “American heroes”, but the non-actor performances are stilted and some of the dialogue is utterly atrocious, telegraphing its right-wing agenda. So, instead you should take some time out to celebrate an ex-GI who puts down his gun and stays in Paris to become a painter. When the GI in question is Gene Kelly (who falls for Leslie Caron), you know there’s going to be much more dancing than there is suppression of terrorists. As lush and rich as classic Hollywood musicals come, fans of La La Land (’16) will catch quite a few inspirations Damien Chazelle swiped for his own modern tale of lovelorn artists.

An American In Paris is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Major Release: Game Night

Your Alternative: The Last Supper (1995, d. Stacy Title)

With The Last Supper, director Stacy Title said she intended to make Arsenic and Old Lace for the ‘90s”. There are certainly strands of a particular insanity contained in this dark satire about a group of liberal roommates who invite racists and Republicans (which become interchangeable as the movie goes on) to dinner, only to judge and murder them for their backward views. More a skewering of Blue State elitism than it is a Regan-voting conservative’s worst nightmare, there’s a ton of laughs contained in this acidic portrait of bougie political battle lines. 

The Last Supper is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: Red Sparrow

Your Alternative: Black Book (2006, d. Paul Verhoeven)

Considered by many to be his defining late period masterpiece – though this writer would probably choose Elle (’16) as the director’s crowning twilight achievement – Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book combines his trademark perversity with a truly stunning piece of pulp fiction, chronicling a Dutch resistance spy (Clarice von Houten) and her attempts to infiltrate the Third Reich, using her most potent weapon: her sexuality. Von Houten is one of Verhoeven’s ultimate powerful temptresses (a character archetype he practically perfected), and the auteur both punishes and rewards her efforts with both gallons of literal shit, and a triumph over her enemy. Only, the victory may come at the expense of sacrificing a fascist whose humanity she discovered in the process. Though Red Sparrow (which is still totally worth your time, mind you) is Diet Verhoeven, Black Book is aged proof that there ain’t nothing like the original formula, baby.

Black Book is available to stream on Amazon.

May 29

 

The Major Release: Annihilation

Your Alternative: The Relic (1997, d. Peter Hyams)

Peter Hyams is one of the more unsung heroes of ‘70s and ‘80s genre cinema, having both directed and photographed his own big budget ventures into sturdy pieces of pulp craft, via the space Western Outland (’81), and his Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines-fronted buddy cop movie, Running Scared (’86). The Relic is Hyams’ ‘90s action/horror hybrid, as Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller take on an evolving, carnivorous lizard God eating the shit out of folks at a Chicago museum. Gory, relentless, and filled with rather tense set pieces, The Relic was never destined to become a classic, yet that’s what makes it a quintessential piece of Hyams’ filmography. All his movies are constructed with a “functionality first” mindset, and there’s something admirable about his steadfast commitment to delivering cutthroat storytelling you’d be gladly pay to see at a matinee.

The Relic is available to stream on Amazon.  

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