The Bride 1985 ****

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As a schoolboy avidly reading the trades to find out about the next big release, there were few films that loomed as large on my radar as Franc Roddam’s The Bride. The cast, the entire notion of the film made for perfect tabloid fodder; big names, a high concept, but a film that eventually limped out, killed by negative press and general disinterest. Viewed in 2019, that’s a real shame because The Bride is a stunningly made and original film that was never likely to capture the public fancy, even with such an exquisitely modish cast.

This is a re-telling of the Frankenstein story of Mary Shelley, but starts where most films stop; Frankenstein and his monster in the laboratory, the Bride wrapped in bandages, brought to life by flashes of lightning. The Baron is played by Sting, pop icon with The Police, but no mean actor in Brimstone and Treacle, less so in Dune. The Bride is Jennifer Beals, still super-hot from her Flashdance sensation, and whose unfamiliarity works well for this role; her first appearance, sans bandages, is when she walks naked into the Baron’s living room, unaware of the effect her nudity causes. Meanwhile Clancy Brown is a good choice for the monster, although the make-up is unimpressive, while Tim Spall is a hunchbacked assistant and Quentin Crisp barely says a word as a lab helper.

The story then splits to follow the monster as he befriends a circus dwarf and gets a job at a circus run by Alexis Sayle and Phil Daniels, and The Baron’s My Fair Lady-esque attempts to civilise his new creation; she hisses at a cat and claims she thought it was a ‘tiny lion’. Things turn sour in both cases, and the scene is set for a battle between creation and creator. The Bride has ambitions to being a feminist revision much like Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, and does nicely by making Dr Frankenstein the real monster, something Sting actually does well with in the final scenes. Audiences probably wanted something sexier than recasting a classic character as a toxic male, or more sensational that the pathos-drenched tears of a monster, but shorn of expectations, Roddam does pretty well to revise a familiar story with fresh detail.

Even sour-puss critic Leslie Halliwell attested to the arresting quality of The Bride’s opening scene, and the set for the laboratory is truly impressive. But The Bride constantly has style to burn, and the locations, sets and costumes are first rate. The wisdom on the film is that the story and acting let things down, but that’s no-longer the case; doubling down on single elements of classic stories is much more fashionable in 2019 than in 1986, and The Bride is far better than the reputation suggests.

Stateline Motel 1973 ***

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Also known under the underwhelming title Motel of Fear, Maurizio Lucidi’s Stateline Motel is a rather cool little melodrama, ruined for your home viewing by this hideous print on Amazon Prime. Looking like the disregarded holiday snaps of an extremely amateur photographer, Stateline Motel is of interest primarily to connoisseurs of murk, but for those prepared to look beyond the abject, miserable presentation, there’s some narrative gold to be mined.

More recent efforts like Deadfall or Reindeer Games have a similar vibe; Stateline Motel is a Canadian-set, Italian financed melodrama the follows crooks in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Fabio Testi plays Floyd, jail-bird partner of Eli Wallach’s Joe, who both have blood on their hands and some priceless jewels to split after a Montreal store-raid; Joe takes the bus across the border, while Floyd takes the car. Driving like a diddy for no obvious reason, Floyd totals his car and is forced to check into the motel of the title, where Michelle (Ursula Andress) is undressing five times nightly, distracting him from his share of the loot. Floyd and Michelle inevitably get it on, but when he wakes up, the jewels are gone…

Stateline Motel is no masterpiece, but it’s actually pretty compelling in the final straight as Joe closes in and the plotlines finally intersect before a cool final twist; it’s tough, hardboiled stuff, the kind of thing that Tarantino’s best films ape effectively. Testi and Andress are fine, and Wallach is a nasty bad-guy, with another Bond- girl Barbara Bach also in a key supporting role.

With horrible dubbing, gibberish subtitles and a dismal print quality, Stateline Motel perhaps is not the ideal place for genre fans to gain a taste of the 1970’s, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to justify a watch. It’s just a pity more time and effort hasn’t gone into restoration; the cast deserve better than this.

Moby Dick 1956 *****

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Is John Huston’s Moby Dick a neglected masterpiece? If it’s not, you can call me Ishmael; this adaptation of Herman Melville’s literary opus was much derided on release, and gained little more respect when re-released in the 1970’s in a vague attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Jaws. And there’s a specific reason why everyone hated Moby Dick; it looked awful.

Blu-ray may seem like a specialist format to some; most movies look pretty good in the 1080p definition of a streaming service. But Moby Dick has looked dreadful since before most of us were born, and that’s because the innovative cinematography of Ossie Morris required considerable restoration. If you think you’ve seen this movie, think again; lovingly restored and presented on blu-ray, Moby Dick is something of a revelation.

Gregory Peck takes the lead as Captain Ahab; he doesn’t appear for a good chuck of the film, but the first view of him, erect like a masthead, makes a big impression. He’s setting sail with a tough crew of sailors including Boomer (James Robertson Justice), Stubb (Harry Andrews) and the man whose name launched a thousand coffee-shops, Starbuck (Leo Genn). Even more impressive is the taciturn, tattooed face of Queequeg, played by Friedrich Anton Maria Hubertus Bonifacius Graf von Ledebur-Wicheln. They’re in search of a great white whale, one which has made of with Ahab’s leg and makes off with considerably more by the time the film is over.

Peck was largely perceived as being too young for Ahab, but he’s pretty good here, and the age difference doesn’t seem to be an issue. Ray Bradbury provides some choice dialogue, notably a wonderfully unexpected soliloquy for Orson Welles as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon from a nautical pulpit in one of the opening scenes. This is a literate film, made off the coast of Ireland, and for once, the production values are up to the task, with little back projection and a few jaw-dropping shots. There’s a few shots, notably the ropes catching on the whale’s back, which seem to have echoes in Jaws, but Huston’s film has a salt and grit all of its own.

Moby Dick’s reputation has collapsed due to poor presentation; it looked washed-out on tv and DVD releases, and this restoration is essential for film-lovers. It restores Huston’s vision, it showcases some great acting, and it’s the one and only show in town in terms of making great drama from one of the great American novels. If you’re looking for a gift for a film-fan who has seen everything, you can bet they’ve never seen anything like John Huston’s Moby Dick.

Le Mans ’66 aka Ford vs Ferrari 2019 *****

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James Mangold’s expensive race-car drama faces an uphill struggle. A last minute title-change from Ford vs Ferrari eats into valuable public awareness. An early trailer that didn’t make it clear which sides stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale were on, or whether they were competing against each other or not. And following in the slipstream of Ron Howard’s Rush, an excellent two hander with a similar Grand Prix pedigree, which hardly anyone saw despite being a pretty good sports film. So is Le Mans ‘66 the story of Carroll Shelby or Ken Miles? Is it meant to appeal to the public or awards juries? And how many non-petrol-heads will want to see a film about a 24 hour car race?

The good news is that, much like Ken Miles’s disastrous start at the fabled Le Mans race in 1966, where he struggled to get his door properly closed, Mangold’s film gets over teething problems to be a worthy winner on and off the track. Bale does his immersive thing as Miles, a maverick British driver deemed too risky by Henry Ford Jr (Tracy Letts) as he prepares to take on Ferrari as a leading sports-car manufacturer. The one man who believes in Miles is Shelby, played by Damon with some James Stewart charm, and he fights to keep Miles in the hot seat through dangerous development sessions. With the big race looming, the suits wants Miles out, and the bond between the two men is tested…

Le Mans ’66 is a real old-school classic film, with big star performances, no swearing or sex, lots of character detail and elaborate, hugely impressive recreations of classic race action. Bale and Damon both excel, and there’s a touch of executive producer Michael Mann’s obsessiveness in the way the men risk everything for their goal. Although the story development is a little lumpy in places, there are unexpectedly moving moments, like when Miles works late on his car in an aircraft hanger, listening to a big race on the radio. As the lights of the planes illuminate the hanger, the silhouettes of the stationary cars seem to come to life in one of several stand-out moments of movie magic.

Le Mans ’66 might not sound great on paper, and there’s clearly been uncertainty about how to market the product. But it’s easily Mangold’s best film, should play as a feel-good public hit, and has the craftsmanship to launch a strong awards campaign. Even if you couldn’t care less about car-racing, Le Mans ’66 transcends the sports movie clichés to make something supremely rousing out of a long, hard drive.

Leon: The Director’s Cut **** 1994

leonThe director does indeed seem to have been cut from the package accompanying this blu-ray release of Luc Besson’s celebrated film; there’s barely a glimpse of the French auteur, while star Jean Reno and musician Eric Serra are front and centre of the extras provided here. Given the general obloquy surrounding Besson’s reputation at the time of this new release, perhaps that’s understandable, but it would be a shame to consign Leon to the dustbin of history; it takes more than one person to make a film, and Leon is notable for a trio of iconic performances from Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, the latter setting a gold standard for manic villainy that’s rarely been bettered.

The rangy-looking, punkish Reno plays the title role; Leon, pronounced more like Sergio Leone that Leon the pig farmer. He’s a hit-man of remarkable effectiveness, introduced in a generic but effective series of track-downs. Operating in a sunny New York, Leon retires to his apartment between jobs, only to find himself drawn into a violent stramash when he takes pity on precocious kid Mathilda, played by Portman. When her family are eliminated by Norman Stansfield (Oldman), Mathilda’s last hope is to knock on Leon’s door; he lets her in, not only to his apartment, but to an array of weapons and a philosophy that would befit a samurai; the knife comes last. Of course, Leon and Mathilda’s relationship is frowned on, not least by Stansfield’s government colleagues, who want them both eliminated.

Those who seek to psychoanalyse Besson, to prove him innocent or guilty of actions elsewhere, will find plenty of evidence to consider in Leon; this director’s cut, some 23 minutes longer than the original, makes explicit that Mathilda sees Leon in a sexual way, and also makes explicit that he does not share her view. That was implied in the version originally released as The Professional in the US, but it’s probably worthwhile to have this spelled out. Either way, the film retains an uncomfortable edge that adds to the plotting; given how effectively Leon’s story plays out, it’s strange that Besson has never taken an espionage/assassin story so seriously in the many films that followed.

If Besson’s reputation is problematic at the time of this blu-ray’s release, Leon: The Professional is, like the central character, beyond reproach. Reno was never better than this, silent, dexterous, unexpectedly comical and a consistent, powerful presence. Portman makes Natalie seem both grounded and real, while Oldman gives the kind of huge, villainous performance that makes a great movie flow; snaffling drugs like sweets, playing an invisible piano, his manic energy is balanced by Reno’s absorbent hero. And Leon has never looked as good as it does here, the blu-ray fully capturing the canyon streets of NYC, a breath-taking, outsiders view of a dark and dangerous city hidden by shafts on sunlight.

Salt and Pepper 1968 ***

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Continuing with my selective Sammy Davis Junior season, this Richard Donner film was presumably enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, One More Time in 1970. There’s something of a lurch of tone between the two films, much like the one between Our Man Flint and In Like Flint; the sequels killed each franchise by toning down the expensive action and doubling down on silly comedy. Salt and Pepper plays better than One More Time, yet there’s still more than enough cultural dissonance to make it a revealing snapshot of swinging sixties mores.

Salt and Pepper are Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford, two nightclub owners in London’s seedy Soho district, a ‘legitimate sewer’ says Pepper. There’s quite a few exterior shots which give a picture of the strip-joints and clubs at presumably a prosperous time for exploiting women, an establishment called The Strip-It features largely. The characters are always in trouble with the law, and the laughs start when a Chinese call-girl is murdered in the club. This sparks action, in that the boys have to find the real killer before the police pin the killing on them, but it’s also notable that there’s no sense of gravity or sadness about a woman’s death. In fact, it’s genuinely disturbing that Pepper attempts to chat up the girl, unaware that she’s dying; ‘She’s stoned,’ says Pepper. ‘Maybe god has sent us a gift?’ asks Salt with a cheeky smile. ‘No, we’ll return this package unwrapped,’ says Salt, as if passing up an opportunity to force themselves on semi-unconscious women was something unusual and sad.

Salt and Pepper has a real setting, but the behaviour captured is extreme and cartoonish, an issue which is never resolved. Comic subjects include such jovialities as police station bombings, and the japes run all the way up to government level where we see the prime minister prepare to fire nuclear weapons on Scotland for reasons too convoluted to explain. Lionel Blair stages a musical number while Jeremy Lloyd, Graham Stark and Geoffrey Lumsden wander around as Central Casting stuffy Brits. John Le Mesurier plays a villain complete with a pirate’s eye-patch, pursuing Sammy and Pete as they scoot down Carnaby Street around in a yellow mini-moke kitted out with oil slicks, machine guns and other familiar accoutrements.

Donner would go on to capture another racially charged partnership in Lethal Weapon, but judged by today’s standards, Salt and Pepper is notable as one of cinema’s most  cess-pits of toxic masculinity. It’s not just women that are treated as a non-precious commodity. ‘I was a fag here for two years,’ says Pepper of his alma mater, prompting some world-class bug-eyed mugging from Salt and the reply ‘You’re secret is safe with me.’ White, heterosexual men rule the roost, set the agenda, and everyone else is just decoration. MeToo has licenced a few sanctimonious bores, but if you want to see why such movements are absolutely necessary, Salt and Pepper captures the rancil feel of a time, leaving the worst possible taste in your mouth.

https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Sammy-Davis/dp/B0096HLH00/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=salt+and+pepper+1968&qid=1573379365&sr=8-2

One More Time 1970 ***

One More Time‘We know what turns you on’ says the opening song in One More Time, but if stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Junior actually do know what turns us on, there’s little evidence of it in this slapdash comedy. Writer by the brother of Dr Who’s Jon Pertwee, Bill, and directed by Jerry Lewis, it’s a sequel of sorts to 1968’s Salt and Pepper, but is mainly designed as a showcase of the talents, resistible as displayed here, of Davis Junior.

Davis and Lawford are Charles Salt and Chris Pepper, two hipster nightclub owners who fall foul of the law in some kind of Merrie England as featured in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Lawford plays a double role, Pepper and his twin brother Sydney, who is murdered with a deadly dart and replaced by his brother, swapping the dead body for his living one to investigate the crime. Although the two are supposedly best buds and partners in crime, Chris Pepper doesn’t tell Charles Salt, and allows his friend to think that he’d dead.

This means a good hour or so of Sammy Davis Junior wandering around an English country house vaguely synching to some incredibly maudlin tunes; a sequence in which Davis descends a staircase singing Where Do I Go Now? seems to last for weeks. The personable Lawford is stranded with some character comedy, which isn’t his strongest suit; Lawford can barely be bothered playing a thinly veiled version of himself, so playing another variation on the same person is something of a strain to watch. Meanwhile Lewis indulges himself with some strange set-pieces, including snorting snuff and a lengthy parody of the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001 as Davis reacts to a country-house bedroom with the same awe that Kier Dullea reacts to the Monolith. It’s an odd, vaguely racist scene which fits with the general indignities that Davis goes through here, having drinks thrown over him, called a ‘chocolate dandy’ and generally side-lined in a way that constantly has him breaking the fourth wall to complain.

One More Time is probably best remembered for one single scene, seemingly improvised without reason, in which Salt finds a hidden doorway that leads to a cellar where Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) are working; the gag seems to be that Gothic horror lies beneath traditional British values. Otherwise, when the words ‘that’s it’ appear instead of “the end’, One More Time must have had even the most hipster-cat audiences begging for it to stop; with Lewis directing Davis Junior well beyond excess, it’s the audience who must truly have felt mugged. As a side-note, One More Time offers a good argument against smoking; everyone quaffs fags like their lives depend on it, and there’s even huge close-ups of full ashtrays to present bona-fide testimony to the performers’ enthusiasm for cigarettes.