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.

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.

Dolemite Is My Name 2019 ****

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Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.

Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.

What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.

Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80182014?source=35

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.

Red Heat 1988 ***

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Arnold Schwarzenegger may not regard Red Heat as one of his smash successes; there’s no sequels or lasting impact on popular culture. But Walter Hill’s film was substantially ahead of the curve when it comes to portrayal of the Soviet Union on-screen, arriving during the Glasnost period and just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. With half a dozen writers toiling on the script, it’s clear that Red Heat wasn’t the easiest of productions, but seen from 2019, it’s a pretty slick retreat of Hill’s 48 Hours with a few political allusions.

Moscow cop Ivan Danko (Schwarzenegger) is on the tail of the Georgian drug-dealer who killed his partner; the trail takes him to Chicago where he teams up with lovable misogynist slob Art Ridzik (James Belushi). The duo have cops at their heels in the form of Peter Boyle and Laurence Fishburne, while Gina Gershon makes an early impression as the dealer’s moll. Any cultural complications are swiftly ironed out in a climactic bus chase that seems to demolish half of Chicago, but eventually sends Danko back to the Moscow with all scores settled.

Red Heat was made before Schwarzenegger discovered his gift for comedy, but he’s pretty good here as a straight-man with real gravity, never deviating from his quest and with no time for distractions; ‘Capitalism’ is his one word response when disdainfully viewing a tv set blaring pornography. There are shards of political commentary in the way that Danko is seduced by elements of American culture, despite his partner being a poor advert for them. Remaking 48 Hours along political and cultural divide isn’t a bad idea at all, and there’s some vestiges of the laconic humour of Troy Kennedy Martin (Edge of Darkness) in the dialogue.

The salty badinage between the cops makes this something of a guilty pleasure for men; the unreconstructed sexism seems late in the day even for 1988. But the action is shot with Hill’s customary drive and impact, from the nude bath-house brawl to the final night-time city chase, complete with the chicken-game punch-line. Red Heat is a slick, effective cop movie for guys, one that looks better now on blu-ray than it did at the time, and which reveals that Schwarzenegger could actually act given the right role.

This new Blu-Ray, DVD and 4KUHD release comes out in the UK on October 21st 2019 and features a slew of extras, with docs on the star, the political context, production arm Carolco and stuntman Benny Deakins, who died during the production and who the film is dedicated to. It’s a shame they could have found more enthusiastic contributors to discuss the film, because Red Heat is a smarter movie than it gets credit for here.

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…