Slaughterhouse-Five 1972 *****

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE-POSTER_final-Art_Lucas-Peverill_20The moment that I gave up on terrestrial broadcasting of feature films was at some point during a BBC broadcast of George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade. Edited for content, with sweary dialogue, plot-driven nudity and whole scenes missing, then finally panned and scanned in a way that rendered the compositions meaningless, seeing this film cut to ribbons made a decision for me; no more trusting the authorities when it came to providing cinematic content.

Watching Slaughterhouse-Five now is something of a revelation. George Roy Hill’s 70’s output needs no excuses; post Butch Cassidy, he followed up with great star vehicles The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, Slapshot. But for the key role of Billy Pilgrim, a metaphorical time traveller, he went with Michael Sachs, an unknown who won a Golden Globe nomination here for a strong, subtle performance. Sachs plays Billy Pilgrim, a man who, not unlike a literary Doctor Who, finds himself unstuck and moving back and forward in time. Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really sci-fi; the action moves, briefly, to an alien planet where Billy is put in an alien zoo and encouraged to mate with Playboy Playmate Valerie Perrine, but that’s essentially the last ten minutes. Otherwise, this film is largely a historical and personal meditation on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, evoked using real, sobering footage here.

Seen in HD, Slaughterhouse-Five has a crisp, clean look by the wizardly Miroslav Ondricek, with technical specs through the roof; The great Dede Allen (Reds, The Breakfast Club) edits, with smash cuts back and forward in a fragmented timeline. Glenn Gould provides a remarkable soundtrack that, together with an imaginative sound-editing palate, makes Roy Hill’s film more like playing an album that watching the movie. And the digressions are intense as a 70’s movie might promise; a scene in which Billy’s wife crashes her car, dislodges her exhaust, and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after driving the wrong way down a freeway is crazily downbeat, not least because the previous scene shows how joyful she was when Billy gifted her the same car. There’s all kinds of pleasures here, not least in the acting, with Ron Liebman and Eugene Roche particularly strong as the two experienced soldiers that Billy bounces between morally, Platoon-style, and John Wood as a British officer with a practical, worldly view that Billy finds hard to understand. And a final scene, as Dresden is looted and Billy finds himself trapped beneath a stolen clock, perfectly encapsulates the idea that although Billy moves freely in his mind, the physical world can still trap him in a moment in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant adaptation that even the author was delighted with; it distils key moments from a sprawling text, and creates something cinematic that is probably easier for us to get our heads round in 2020 than in 1972. A Cannes winner of the time, Slaughterhouse–Five is one of the best grown-up movies you’ve never seen, a wise, satirical and important story that sees several great talents realise a difficult text. And if you’ve only ever seen it on tv, it’s worth taking another look. So it goes.

Demon Seed 1977 ***

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With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (NA-no award)

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The cancellation of both a blockbusting James Bond film and the South by Southwest festival circa March 2020 should give pause to all lovers of cinema; a viral outbreak takes no prisoners, and worse things are happening worldwide, to be sure, but the disruption of the cinematic calendar does not bode well for a business already wrestling with falling attendances; the disruptive antics of Netflix now seem somewhat unnecessary at a time when the whole year’s schedule seem under threat.

A tactical retreat to home entertainment is the only excuse for watching Pacific Rim: Uprising, a sequel which has seemed like in-essential viewing until now, and seems even less essential after last night’s viewing. 2013’s Pacific Rim was a real time-waster for Guillermo del Toro, a Transformers-style punch up between giant robots and aliens. It presumably made enough to make an off-brand sequel viable, and so Pacific Rim: Uprising offers a smaller scale conflict without zeroing in on anything particularly interesting.

Much as the dreadful Independence Day: Resurgence tried to establish continuity by having characters look lovingly at photographs of Will Smith, Stephen DeKnight’s film features John Boyega looking wistfully at photographs of Idris Elba, who presumably didn’t need to produce a letter from his parent or guardian to avoid this mess because his character died in the first film. Charlie Hunnam survived whatever happened in Pacific Rim, but presumably had such a roster of awful films to make that he couldn’t fit this sequel in. Instead, Boyega is paired with Amara (Cailee Spaeney), a sassy street-orphan mechanic, as they armour themselves in giant robot costumes to defend earth from aliens.

Apart from Charlie Day’s weird alien sex scene, the sole positive here is Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, and seemingly intent on mirroring the least successful era of his father’s career, the ‘bit part player in 1950’s sci-fi’ phase. Eastwood is actually a more-than-decent performer who seems to be contend with sixth banana roles in franchises like this, Suicide Squad or Fast and Furious. His appearance and delivery are striking, but when you’re playing support to John Boyega or Charlie Day, there’s not much a guy can do.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is a brightly-coloured and technically adept movie, and yet is fully deserving of the uncovered ‘NA-no award’ classification. The multi-cultural cast lack any actual characters, the action is expensive and yet bland and forgettable, and the whole project feels lifeless and drained of emotion. Cinema is still the place where exciting and original IP is created, and such lavish yet disposable efforts as Pacific Rim: Uprising may feel like fiddling while Rome burned if and when the going gets tough for cinema circa 2020.

 

Color Out of Space 2020 ****

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Of course, in 2020, we drop the “The’ from the title, and the spelling is Americanised, and that’s not all that’s new; Lovecraft’s short story is really just a jumping off point in terms of narrative elements. A meteorite, a blasted heath (still named Arkham), mutated animals; Stanley remixes the ingredients and adds a strong family drama, with the aptly-named Gardners facing all kinds of weird distortions in nature. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) want to protect their kids, but she slices off a couple of fingers while cutting vegetables, and when she gets back from hospital, things have changed for the worse. There a strange purple hue on everything, the family dog is missing, and there’s all sorts of arcane creatures flying from the hole where the meteorite landed.

Stanley puts the wit back into the horror genre with his deft handling of the ideas here; Nathan’s deep horror at his tv interviews being tarnished by the on-screen description ‘UFO witness’ catches the right vibe of vain indignation; there’s tension about what will happen next, but despite their protests, the Gardners recognise are going to hell in a hand-basket, and there’s not much more they can do than struggle. Effects are carefully eked out, the visuals are unique and imaginative, and the whole package just works; horror films change over the decades, but Color Out of Space feels like the first real horror film of the 2020’s.

In the UK, COLOR OUT OF SPACE comes to Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on 6th April 2020 and is available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSAmzDB. The Blu-ray edition features exclusive UK artwork by Dude Designs. A limited Special Edition Blu-ray will also be available exclusively from HMV, as part of their First Editions range, featuring a fold-out poster and booklet and slipcase. Available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSHMVAll.

 

Terminator: Dark Fate 2019 ****

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Why make another Terminator movie, and why now, in 2019? The blunt answer is that the first two Terminator movies are still stone cold classics in an action genre where fashions change rapidly. Dark Fate brings back the three key figures in the franchise in Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, none of whom are getting any younger, so if there was ever going to be a franchise capper, it’s now or never.

Dark Fate wisely ignores the mind-numbing scribble of character development in terms of resistance fighter John Connor that took place in the last three movies. In fact, the character is killed off in the opening scenes, shot by a terminator (Schwarzenegger) on a Guatemalan beach in 1998 while his mother (Hamilton) looks helplessly on. This could have felt like a let down, like killing Newt at the start of Alien 3; after all, we’ve been substantially invested in keeping Connor alive, so it’s something of a bummer to see him die. But his death opens up some prime real estate in terms of new and revived story developments, and Tim Miller makes the most of a chance to repurpose the vibe of the original films with new ethnically and gender-diverse characters.

In a fresh Mexico City opening, we meet Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who works in a mechanised car-plant, and finds herself caught in a scrap between two terminators sent from the future; soldier/assassin Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and Rev-9 (Gabriel Lunas). Rev-9’s pursuit of Dani spills out onto the highway for a big-scale chase with explosions, fireballs and all the action that you’d expect a Terminator movie to deliver; if you didn’t sign up for large-scale physical destruction, you can probably still catch Downtown Abbey in the screen next door. Sarah Connor is to the rescue, and Dani and Grace join her for a race to find the terminator who killed her sone before Rev-9 gets to them first.

Dark Fate has Cameron’s name attached as producer, and it doesn’t let the memory of the original films down by cannily referencing the original look (old-school armoured grunts in the flash back/forwards), and savvy feel (neat techno details like Sarah Connor hiding her phone in a foil potato-chip bag). It takes a good hour to get to Schwarzenegger’s terminator, but the pace doesn’t lag and Hamilton takes her place at the centre of the film with aplomb; she drives the emotional pull of the film, mourning her son and hunting down the future terminators with verve. “You don’t fight it, you run from it,’ Connor notes of the terminators, and the real key ingredient here is the sense of momentum that the last three Terminator movies lacked.

Any movie that starts with the lines ‘there once was a future…’ knows that there are inherent paradoxes in any time-travel story, but when the action hung on the premise is so large in scale, Terminator:Dark Fate will satisfy the fans in a way that the franchise hasn’t since 1990. Maybe the terminator will be back some day, but not with this cast, so to paraphrase C3P0, it’s time to take one last look at some old friends.

The Return 1980 ***

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I’ve been impressed by fellow blogger mikestakeatthemovies for his ability to come up with obscure titles featuring top-drawer talent, films like Dark Places or Contact on Cherry Street, suggesting a secret history of Hollywood stars. He’s well worth a follow. But perhaps some things should stay secret; that’s a reasonable reaction when confronted by such a strange proposition as The Return, which surfaces after decades of shame in a truly horrendous print on Amazon Prime. Wrongly listed as being from 1970 when it’s actually from 1980, Greydon Clark’s sci-fi melodrama is clearly a Close-Encounters rip-off that’s undercooked in many ways, but over-compensates in terms of familiar faces.

The subject is, surprisingly enough, cattle mutilation. In fact, the whole film seems to have been constructed in order to give every member of the cast the chance to say the words ‘cattle mutilation;’ several times over. Martin Landau has a weird line to the effect ‘everybody is all jazzed up about cattle mutilations’ which he says on regular occasions throughout the film. Other improbable stars who try their luck at discussing cattle mutilations include Cybill Shepherd and Jan-Michael Vincent, both in limbo between other, much more recognisable projects for television. Shepherd was post her collaborations with Peter Bogdanovich and pre-Moonlighting, while Vincent was post Hooper and pre Airwolf. They both look less than pleased about appearing in such grade A shlock as The Return, but they both grin and bear it as Wayne and Jennifer, two adults who realise that they have forgotten that they were encountered by aliens as children.

This doesn’t make much sense, but even less when set against a plot with sees Jennifer’s father (Raymond Burr) on the trail of a light-sabre wielding prospector played by Vincent Shiavelli, whose striking countenance is immediately recognisable from his iconic role as the subway ghost in Ghost. Could The Prospector be the key to the solving the spate of cattle mutilations that everyone’s talking about? Why is there a tunnel of light in his mine-shaft? What do we gain from seeing Jan-Michael Vincent ride a motorbike through a plate-glass window?

MST3K made comedic hay from Pod People, a Alien knock-off that was swiftly repurposed as an ET knock-off, creating memorably abrupt changes of tone, and The Return seems similarly discombobulated; that’s presumably why its cinema release back in 1980 didn’t happen. Films quite often have mistakes, but The Return really doesn’t even begin to make sense. If the unseen aliens are peaceful after all, why do they need lumps of cow-meat thrown down a tunnel to them? The Return is a film of remarkable awfulness, and one can only imagine how thrilled Cybill Shepherd must be to see this get a fresh re-release via streaming services. And who are the couple featured in the cover-art below? They look like Jodie Foster with toothache and Richard Benjamin’s creepy half-brother…

Ad Astra 2019 *****

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The title means ‘to the stars’; James Gray’s Ad Astra is the director’s best film to date, a sprawling road movie in space that’s huge in scope yet offers tight personal focus. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) recovers quickly from a substantial fall caused by a cosmic blast, and is recruited to travel from the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then to one further destination, some 21 billion miles from home.

Via space monkeys and lazer-gun toting pirates, McBride arrives the remnants of previous mission the Lima project, which seems to be the source of the potentially world-ending energy. This is a familiar Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now up the river scenario, simplified but not minimalized by having the Lima under the control of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is also Roy’s father. Roy’s emotional reaction to universe-changing yet private events is closely monitored, and there’s a specific moral about the nature of emotion; Ad Astra is a thoughtful film in the vein of Interstellar or Solaris, but has the visual pizazz and appeal of Gravity.

As in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Pitt excels as a man out of time, and out of step with the world around him. But he also exudes a noble professionalism that makes Roy McBride a classic cinematic hero, and the set pieces, particularly an assault on a departing spacecraft, are intense to watch. A technical marvel, Ad Astra is a brooding sc-fi drama that’s substantially more than it’s beautifully wrought parts.

Liquid Sky 1982 ***

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Liquid Sky sounded like quite an amazing movie when it first came out in 1982; aliens who invade New York to harvest the opiate produced at the moment of orgasm from beautiful clubbers? Sign me up, thought my 13 year old self, only to be somewhat stymied and baffled by the art-house, post-Warhol leanings of Liquid Sky itself. Don’t expect any aliens, in fact, there’s only a paper-plate flying saucer, and special effects are restricted largely to basic chroma-key which interrupt rather than illustrate Slavia Tsukerman’s sci-fi drama. The focus is not really sex, or sci-fi, but drugs, specifically heroin and cocaine, both of which seem to be widely popular in the slice of NYC rooftop club-land featured. Margaret (Anne Carlisle) plays both Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who get caught up in the alien’s enthusiasm for heroin; with glass shards appearing embedded in the heads of victims, who then vanish into thin air, it’s clear that there’s something allegorical going on, but Liquid Sky is too slippery to allow an easy definition. Whatever’s going on, the costumes are wild, the NYC club scene is well caught, and the print on Amazon Prime is surprisingly good; Liquid Sky has become a huge cult movie, and if you’ve never heard of it, broad-minded viewers will always find something outré in this weird and occasionally wonderful film.

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen 2017 ****

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The late Larry Cohen’s name may not mean much to your average multiplexer, but his name is synonymous with the kind of imaginative, off-the-wall and defiantly original fare that’s worth putting money down to see. Cohen was an artist and a commercial film-maker, who write every day, played the system, and won; repeatedly, over decades. Writer/director Steve Mitchell knows that the films are all elsewhere; a few tantalising clips are all that are needed, but King Cohen is a talking heads documentary and all the better for it. And what heads! JJ Abrams throws the first ball, with a story involving Cohen, a broken down car and a mutant baby doll, and it’s clear that Abrams was severely star-struck. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Landis and others play tribute, but it’s Fred Williamson that steals the show with his smoothly-delivered recollections, which don’t match up exactly with Cohen’s version of events. Even hard-core cineastes and horror fans are likely to learn something new here, about Cohen’s prolific tv work, his debut feature Bone, or his habit of shooting on the fly that led him, quite literally, to J Edgar Hoover’s door. Despite mainstream success, he remained a maverick and an underground film-maker; after years of searching I finally bought my copy of God Told Me To from a pop-up street-vendor of obscure movies in NYC’s Union Square, within sight of the Chrysler building where he used the construction scaffolding to shoot action scenes for Q-The Winged Serpent. This rapid-fire doc should encourage fans and casual viewers alike to check out the canon of this unique, idiosyncratic talent.

Memory: The Origins of Alien 2019 ****

Anyone who saw the recent documentary about the much vaunted failure of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make Dune will have been struck by the contribution of the late Dan O’Bannon; his vision of the director sparking lightning bolts from his eyes suggested something more than the usual gushing EPK quotes. Fresh from his dissection of Alfred Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho, Alexandre O. Phillippe turns his attention to Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 shocker; hardened veterans and Space Marines alike will find something new in this considerations of the myriad elements that gave Alien such a rich and striking look.  Critics in 1979 complained about the derivative nature of Alien, but O’Bannon’s claim was that he stole from everyone. So while fans will know the debt Alien owes to It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Planet of the Vampires and Dark Star, the allusions to various comic books are less familiar, and the Memory title relates to a script by O’Bannon where the crew are picked off, not by a creature, but by their own failing memories, something of a Tarkovsky nod. There’s a focus on HR Giger, original crew members discussing how the chest-buster scene felt when filming, and Scott’s own classical influences are nailed down to specifics. A picture emerges of a fortuitous film that pulled together a number of varied talents; Scott handing a book by Francis Bacon to Giger on-set explains a lot about the serendipity involved. Memory: The Origins of Alien has such a wealth of strong visual material to consider that it’s worth a trip to the big screen to fully immerse oneself in, although streaming will allow fans to freeze frame pictures and documents; even if the final conclusions aren’t quite as compelling as might be expected, Memory is an essential document for all who respond to the primal call of the Xenomorph.

 

Memory: The Origins of Alien will be released in UK cinemas from Aug 30 2019 and on streaming, DVD and Blu Ray on September 2 2019. Thanks to @scifibulletin @AimPublicity and @Dogwoof  for supplying access and for sending me a disc!

Click the link below to check when the film is viewable in your country.