Terminator: Dark Fate 2019 ****

terminator

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 *****

ad astra

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.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.