Monday, April 23, 2018

#2,498. Domino (2005)


Directed By: Tony Scott

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramírez




Tag line: "I Am a Bounty Hunter"

Trivia:  The first words heard in the film, "Heads, you live. Tails, you die.", are spoken by the real life Domino Harvey







We’ll call this “In Defense of Tony Scott’s Domino”. 

Upon its release in 2005, Domino was savaged by the critics. The Washington Post compared its hyperkinetic style to “a ferret on crystal meth”, while The Boston Globe attacked director Scott himself, saying his “pornographic lust for bloodletting, gunplay, and out-of-control camerawork far exceeds his abilities to tell a story”. The most brutal thrashing may have come from The Detroit News, which called Dominoone of the most awesomely awful films ever made”. 

To put it as succinctly as possible, I disagree. 

Fast-paced and frenzied, Domino has the look and feel of a modern exploitation flick. It is a highly-stylized action film posing as a biopic, and I loved every insane minute of it! 

Domino was inspired by the real-life story of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate, Darling), who tossed aside her posh Beverly Hills existence to become a professional bounty hunter. Despite her good looks and slender frame, Domino (Kiera Knightley) uses her tenacity to impress Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke), one of L.A.’s most prominent Bounty Hunters. As a result, Ed makes her part of his team, which includes his second-in-command Cholo (Edgar Ramirez) - who quickly develops a crush on Domino - and their Afghanistani driver Alf (Riz Abbasi). Together, the group successfully rounds up a plethora of criminals, and it isn’t long before Ed, Choco and Alf see Domino as “just one of the guys”. 

Ed and his crew report directly to Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo), a bail bondsman. It’s a relationship that works well for both parties, but when Claremont’s significant other, Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo’Nique), tricks the bounty hunters into helping her steal over a quarter of a million dollars, Ed, Choco, and Domino find themselves in hot water with a shifty Las Vegas casino owner (Dabney Coleman) and a ruthless Mafioso (Stanley Kamel), both of whom want their money back, and are willing to do whatever it takes to recover it. 

Kiera Knightley is strong as the title character, a former fashion model who turns her back on the 90210 lifestyle forced on her by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) to join the “macho” profession of bounty hunting. Though slight in stature, Knightley proves throughout Domino that she can play it tough, and kick ass with the best of them. I also loved seeing Mickey Rourke in a major supporting role (a few years before his breakout performance in The Wrestler); and the sexual chemistry between Domino and Ramirez’s Choco is tangible, to say the least. 

The rest of the cast is also impressive, especially Delroy Lindo and Christopher Walken (who appears briefly as a network executive producing a TV reality show about bounty hunters), yet it’s Mo’Nique who steals every scene she’s in (at one point her character even turns up on The Jerry Springer Show). And keep an eye out for former Beverly Hills 90210 stars Ian Zierling and Brian Austin Green, playing themselves in some of the film’s most outlandish sequences. 

To support these colorful characters, Tony Scott employs tons of slo-mo; oodles of jump cuts; a camera that rarely sits still; and a spirited narration track (provided by Knightley). Scott’s vast array of stylish bells and whistles never lets up for a second, and infuses Domino with an energy that, at times, is quite mesmerizing. 

But it’s the individual “WTF” scenes - so gloriously bizarre you can barely believe what you’re seeing - that make this 2005 film such an unforgettable motion picture experience. Domino giving a lap dance to a gang leader (in exchange for information) is intense enough, but even this bit of awesomeness pales in comparison to what follows it. There’s a crazy-as-shit burst of graphic violence (set aboard a Winnebago) that involves the removal of a limb; a tense stand-off between Ed’s bounty hunters and Edna Fender (Dale Dickey) that practically tears a mobile home to shreds; and - perhaps strangest of all - a drug-infused encounter with a wandering preacher (Tom Waits) in the middle of the desert. Like the best exploitation movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Domino continually surprises you with its surreal twists and turns, and I, for one, never tired of how marvelously it shocked me into submission. 

A word of warning: Domino is not an honest account of its title character’s life, nor does it provide any insight into what makes a bounty hunter tick. In addition, the film features a large number of supporting players (more than mentioned above) and story enough for two full length movies, so it does get a tad confusing at times. There’s also a good chance director Scott’s hyperactive approach to the material will wear some viewers out. But as straight-up entertainment with a healthy dose of social commentary (Scott and screenwriter Richard Kelly slip an examination of class values and the crippling effects of poverty into the mix), Domino is an absolute winner.







Friday, April 6, 2018

#2,497. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)


Directed By: Bill Morrison

Starring: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula




Tag line: "Film Was Born of an Explosive"

Trivia: The film contains rare footage of the 1919 World Series - known for the "Black Sox" betting scandal







It is estimated that 75% of all silent films - most printed on highly flammable nitrate stock - have been lost. We learn this little factoid early on in writer / director Bill Morrison’s 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, which makes everything that follows it all the more incredible. 

Founded in 1897, Dawson City, a tiny metropolis situated in Canada’s Yukon Territory, saw its population explode during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century (at its height, 40,000 people called Dawson City their home). As a result, the town grew very quickly, with saloons, gambling houses, brothels and even a few theaters popping up. 

In the first decades of the 20th century, moving pictures were all the rage, and several venues in Dawson City exhibited them on a regular basis. Because the town was so far north, it sometimes took two or three years for Hollywood’s newest releases to reach it. In many cases, the residents of this Yukon community were the last to receive the prints, and since they were, at that point, considered “outdated”, the studios and distributors didn’t want to pay for their return. So, once they finished their theatrical run, the film reels were crated up and stored in the basement of a burned-out library. 

Within 10 years or so, this basement was filled to capacity, and a bank manager (whose facility was hired by the distributors to ensure the movies didn’t play past their rental period) again asked the powers-that-be in Hollywood if they wanted their films back. They didn’t, but instead of destroying the reels like the studios instructed him to do, the banker donated the crates to a local hockey team, which used them as landfill for the construction of a new ice rink. The building that surrounded the rink eventually burned to the ground, and the crates stayed buried under the ice until 1970, when an excavation crew finally uncovered them. 

It proved to be quite a find: over 500 reels of nitrate films dating as far back as the mid 1910’s. The reels were then shipped off to a historical society, which cataloged each one, discovering some movies that were believed lost (and a few that most people had forgotten ever existed in the first place). 

This story in and of itself is enough to make Dawson City: Frozen Time a worthwhile documentary, but it’s how director Morrison approaches the material that carries this remarkable film to a whole new level. Instead of relying on narration and talking heads, Morrison lets the recovered movies speak for themselves, relating the history of Dawson City itself (recounted in great detail via newsreels and appropriate excerpts from dramatic films) as well as other historic events, like the 1914 Colorado miner’s strike; the end of World War I;, and the infamous 1919 World Series (see John Sayles’ Eight Men Out for more on this), footage of which was rescued from the Dawson City site. 

By dedicating so much time to the movies themselves, Dawson City: Frozen Time does more than relate the tale of an extraordinary cinematic discovery; it demonstrates what was gained by this endeavor, and what might have been lost had the reels remained buried forever. 

It’s because of this that Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary movie buffs and historians alike will stand up and applaud. The cache in Dawson City was a truly amazing find, and made for an equally amazing motion picture.







Sunday, April 1, 2018

#2,496. The Magic Sword (1962)


Directed By: Bert I. Gordon

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Estelle Winwood, Gary Lockwood



Tag line: "Feats beyond description! Spectacle beyond imagination!"

Trivia: In addition to her credited role as "The Hag", Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) also played the sorceress who kidnaps Princess Helene







I wish I had seen The Magic Sword when I was a kid. With its tale of knights, dragons, sorcerers, and ogres, this 1962 fantasy is the kind of movie I would have loved back then! 

Though he has never met her, George (Gary Lockwood) is deeply in love with the Princess Helene (Anne Helm). When she is abducted by the evil sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), George vows to do whatever is necessary to ensure the Princess’s safe return. Armed with magical weapons (one of which is the titular sword) that he stole from his adoptive mother, the sorceress Sybil (Estelle Winwood), and with the help of six brave knights he rescued from captivity, George sets off for Lodac’s castle, intent on saving the Princess and making her his bride. 

But the journey will be a perilous one. For starters, George and his men join forces with the treacherous Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), who also plans to marry the Princess. Even more dangerous are the seven curses of Lodac, which George and the others must overcome if they’re to have any chance of rescuing the Princess. Should they fail to reach her in time, the Princess will be fed to Lodac’s pet dragon! 

Bert I. Gordon keeps the story moving, and fills The Magic Sword with one cool bit of fantasy after another. The battle with a giant Ogre (Jack Kosslyn), one of Lodac’s curses, is exciting; and some of what the lead and his knights encounter during their travels is even kinda frightening (there’s a hideous old hag played by Vampira herself, Maila Nurmi; and a magical spell of Lodac’s burns the flesh off two of George’s knights). There’s even comic relief, with Estelle Winwood’s somewhat forgetful sorceress doing what she can to help George, but more often than not making a mess of things (Winwood, so funny as one of Max Bialystock’s “customers” in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, was perfectly cast as Sybil, and plays the part wonderfully). 

Even by today’s standards, the effects look pretty darn convincing (Lodac’s dragon is especially impressive), and the story of good versus evil will surely appeal to viewers of all ages. Whether you’re young or young at heart, The Magic Sword will be well worth your time.







#2,495. Final Destination 5 (2011)


Directed By: Steven Quale

Starring: Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Arlen Escarpeta



Tag line: "Death has never been closer"

Trivia: Many of the main characters are named after famous horror directors









Like the previous entry in the Final Destination series (i.e. 2009’s The Final Destination), director Steven Quale’s Final Destination 5 was shot in 3-D, which means a plethora of sharp objects and mutilated body parts fly off the screen towards the audience. 

Well, as it was with The Final Destination, I didn’t get a chance to see this 2011 film in 3-D, but I’m happy to report that Part 5 features plenty of surprises, and more than enough gore and carnage, to ensure that the 2-D crowd is just as entertained as its three-dimensional counterparts. 

While he and a busload of his co-workers are on their way to a company retreat, Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto) experiences a vision in which the bridge they’re crossing collapses, killing most of them (only Sam’s girlfriend Molly, played by Emma Bell, survives the ordeal). When it looks as if his premonition is about to come true, Sam and several others, including his friend Peter (Miles Fisher); Peter's girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe); their boss Dennis (David Koecher); and co-workers Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), Nathan (Arlan Escarpata) and Isaac (P.J. Byrne), hop off the bus and rush to safety. 

But instead of a new lease on life, the group realizes, with the help of local coroner Bludworth (Tony Todd), that they’ve only managed to temporarily cheat death, and it won’t be long before the grim reaper comes back for each and every one of them. 

Anyone familiar with 2000’s Final Destination and its sequels knows exactly what to expect from this 2011 entry: a blockbuster-sized opening catastrophe followed by smaller, yet equally as intense kill scenes. Hell, thanks to movies 1 - 4, we even know the order in which the “survivors” will meet their demise. With the exception of The Final Destination, it’s been a solid formula thus far, and I was amazed how, after four films, the creative minds behind Final Destination 5 still found new and imaginative ways to skewer and pulverize the human body, starting with the impressively-realized suspension bridge disaster (which looked authentic enough to give me goosebumps) straight through to the individual scenes where death catches up with the characters one by one. And like the other Final Destination flicks, you may have a hard time picking your favorite Part 5 kill (mine comes early on, and involves a college gymnastics practice). Throw in a twist at the end that made me positively giddy, and you have a movie that satisfies on every possible level.

Like most modern horror films, the blood and gore in Final Destination 5 is computer generated, but even this doesn’t spoil the fun. And Final Destination 5 is fun with a capital “F”!







#2,494. Rage (1972)


Directed By: George C. Scott

Starring: George C. Scott, Richard Basehart, Martin Sheen



Tag line: "They called it an accident. He called it murder. It was their conspiracy. It was his son"

Trivia: First theatrical film directed by George C. Scott








George C. Scott was a hell of an actor; along with his bravura performance as the title character in 1970’s Patton, he was terrific as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1984’s A Christmas Carol, my favorite film version of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale. In 1972’s Rage, Scott not only played the lead, but also tried his hand at directing, and thanks to a solid cast and some nerve-racking sequences, this drama / thriller proved he was just as successful behind the camera as in front of it. 

While out camping one evening, sheep rancher Dan Logan (Scott) and his son Chris (Nicolas Beauvy) are exposed to an experimental nerve gas, which was accidentally released by a military helicopter. The next morning, Chris is non-responsive, and is rushed to the emergency room where Dr. Holliford (Martin Sheen) looks after him. Telling a concerned Dan he has no idea what caused Chris’s illness, Dr. Holliford recommends that, as a precaution, the elder Logan also check himself into the hospital, so that they can run a few tests on him and make sure all is well. 

Unbeknownst to Logan, Dr. Holliford is an Army officer, and involved in the military’s attempt to conceal the accident. Several days pass, during which time Logan (still in the hospital) receives no updates whatsoever on his son’s condition. Frustrated and angry, he sneaks out of his room and searches for answers. What he finds instead is the truth about the cover-up, at which point Dan Logan decides to take matters into his own hands. 

Scott delivers a searing performance as Dan Logan, especially in the film’s last 20 or so minutes, when his character is in full revenge mode (Logan is downright cold-blooded in these sequences, a few of which are shockingly violent). But there are also large chunks of Rage where Scott is not featured at all, when the movie instead focuses on the cover-up, and it’s in these scenes that the fine supporting cast takes center stage. A young Martin Sheen is convincing as Dr. Holliford, the army officer who is a master of deception; and Bernhard Hughes is equally as good playing Dr. Spencer, a member of the public health service, which has sided with the military. In addition, Richard Basehart is excellent as Dr. Caldwell, Logan’s personal physician and longtime friend who eventually realizes there’s more going on than he’s been led to believe (Dr. Caldwell tries to tell Logan the truth, but is prevented from doing so). 

Rage does have some pacing issues (a late scene where Logan breaks into a laboratory drags on longer than it should), and Scott utilizes slow-motion a little too freely (at one point, he employs it when his character spits while chewing tobacco). The entire opening sequence, before Logan and his son are infected, is also undermined by the film’s score (it overpowers every scene). 

Fortunately, the movie’s strengths are more prevalent than its weaknesses, and the superb cast plus a very intense storyline do their part to make Rage an effective enough thriller.








#2,493. Free Fire (2016)


Directed By: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer




Tag line: "All guns. No control"

Trivia: Olivia Wilde was cast in the lead role, but dropped out







Certain things grab my attention, and in the case of Free Fire it was the little snippet on the Blu-Ray cover that one of its executive producers was Martin Scorsese. For me, Scorsese is the consummate cinephile, and the fact that this 2016 film bears his name was enough to convince me it was worth checking out.

The setting is 1970s Boston. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are trying to secure weapons for the Irish Republican Army. With the help of Justine (Brie Larson) they’ve arranged a meeting with Vernon (Sharito Copley), a wealthy South African arms dealer who has agreed to sell them a shipment of M-16 assault rifles. Both parties meet late one evening in an abandoned warehouse to make the exchange. 

To help move the rifles, Chris and Frank have brought along Stevo (Sam Riley) - Frank’s drug-addicted brother-in-law - and Stevo’s friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). As for Vernon, he’s joined by his partner Martin (Babou Ceasay), a couple of hired guns (Jack Raynor and Noah Taylor), and the smooth-talking Ord (Armie Hammer), who will act as mediator. 

Tensions flare up temporarily when Chris and Frank discover Vernon has changed the deal on them (he’s brought AK-47s instead of M-16s), but just when it looks as if things are calming down, the negotiations take an unexpected turn. Minutes later, guns are blazing, and with hundreds of bullets flying in such a confined space, odds are very few of the combatants will make it out of this unfortunate predicament alive. 

The creative team behind Free Fire did an outstanding job capturing the look and feel of the 1970s, from the polyester-rich clothes right down to the musical soundtrack (I’ll never hear John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” again without thinking of this movie). As for the cast, it’s tempting to try and select one or two of the performances as “standouts”; Sharito Copley is hilarious as the megalomaniac Vernon, as is Gillian Murphy as the hard-nosed Irishman who, in every situation, refuses to back down. Armie Hammer is also good as the wise-cracking Ord, and Brie Larson holds her own surrounded by what is otherwise an all-male cast. But the fact of the matter is that Free Fire is a true ensemble piece. Every performer shines, and whether you like their character or hate them (Sam Riley’s Stevo is a slimeball), not a one is boring. 

Though it takes place in a single setting, Free Fire manages to maintain a consistent level of intensity throughout. You wouldn’t think a 90-minute standoff could accomplish this, but this one does, and the smart, witty screenplay co-written by Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley is a key reason why (along with the action, the film is damn funny, and features plenty of dialogue that will have you laughing out loud). 

Loaded with humor and excitement, Free Fire is the kind of movie Martin Scorsese himself turns out on a regular basis. 

And that is no faint praise.







#2,492. Erik the Conqueror (1961)


Directed By: Mario Bava

Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler



Tag line: "He Lived Only for the Flech and the Sword"

Trivia: Prior to its U.S. release, 17 minutes were cut form this film








It was his work in horror that earned Mario Bava the honorary title Maestro of the Macabre, but the famed director also tackled a few other genres over the course of his career, including Sword and Sandal epics (The Giant of Marathon), Westerns (like 1964’s The Road to Fort Alamo), spy thrillers (Danger: Diabolik) and even sci-fi (Planet of the Vampires). 

With Erik the Conqueror, Bava took a stab at an historical action movie, and like each and every one of his pictures, it’s the imagery that makes this 1961 film so memorable. 

It’s the 8th century A.D., and the Viking king Harald (Polco Luill) has established a small outpost on the shores of Britain. Unlike other chieftains, Harald’s intentions are peaceful, but that doesn’t stop the British Lord Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) from attacking him, which he does against the wishes of his own master, King Lotar (Franco Ressel). Harald and many of his followers are butchered during the melee, yet Harald’s young sons, Erik and Eron, manage to survive the ordeal. Eron is taken back to the Viking homeland, while Erik remains in Britain, where he’s adopted by Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe), the wife of Lotar. 

Twenty years later, Erik (George Ardisson) is an honored member of the British Court, and is granted the title Duke of Helford, while his brother Eron (Cameron Mitchell) becomes the new king of the Vikings. With the help of the deceitful Sir Rutford, Eron - eager to avenge the death of his family (Eron believes Erik died in the raid) - leads his armies into Britain and captures Queen Alice. When she is transported to the Viking homeland, Erik sails north to rescue her, and is aided in his quest by the lovely Rama (Alice Kesslan), the twin sister of Eron’s new bride Daja (Ellen Kessler)! 

With Sir Rutford pulling the strings, Eron and Erik prepare to square off against one another. Will they discover their familial bond in time, or are the two brothers destined to destroy each other without ever knowing the truth? 

The story isn’t original; the basic premise behind Erik the Conqueror was lifted from Richard Fleischer’s 1958 movie The Vikings. But Bava’s keen eye for visuals helped carry this entire production to another level. Even the simplest of scenes, like an early moment along the shoreline (where Queen Alice first sets eyes on a young Erik), is strikingly vibrant. In addition to its imagery, there is a Viking dance sequence that is well-staged, and the various action scenes are exciting (the storming of a castle late in the film is particularly thrilling) and occasionally quite violent (a woman and her infant are both speared during the opening battle). 

As with his horror movies (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath), Bava’s prowess as a visual artist is on full display throughout Erik the Conqueror, taking what otherwise might have been an average action/ adventure and transforming it into something much more substantial.




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Sunday, March 18, 2018

#2,491. Cecil B. Demented (2000)


Directed By: John Waters

Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt



Tag line: "Long live guerilla film making!"

Trivia: Maggie Gyllenhaal handpicked Jonathan Fiorucci out of the extras to be the guy she makes out with in the film's climax









God help me, I adore Cecil B. Demented

I love this 2000 film a little more every time I see it, and with all due respect to Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, this 2000 homage to underground cinema is my favorite John Waters movie. It will forever hold a special place in my heart. 

Fed up with all the sequels, remakes, and cookie-cutter flicks that studios churn out on a regular basis, wannabe underground director Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) and his ragtag band of followers - including former porn star Cherish (Alicia Witt); drug addicted actor Lyle (Adrian Grenier); militant African-American Sound Engineer Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma); Satan-worshiping make-up artist Raven (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and homosexual hillbilly / driver Petey (Michael Shannon) - pose as the employees of a Baltimore-area Cineplex that’s hosting the premiere of Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock’s (Melanie Griffith) newest big-budget rom-com. Bound and determined to make his own underground movie, Cecil and his crew (which he’s nicknamed the “Sprocket Holes”) kidnap Honey Whitlock and drag her to the abandoned grindhouse theater that serves as the group’s headquarters. 

Cecil hopes to convince Miss Whitlock to play the lead in his latest opus: a violent, over-the-top hate letter to the studio system. Though reluctant at first, Honey does eventually agree to be Cecil’s new star, but when he and his Sprocket Holes arm themselves and hit the streets for some “location shots”, the pampered A-lister can’t help but wonder if this illegal underground production will have an adverse effect on her career. 

Cecil B. Demented boasts one great scene after another. The kidnapping of Honey Whitlock gets the movie off to an exciting start; and the extended sequence where Cecil and his cohorts introduce themselves to the frightened Honey is not to be missed (each character sports a tattoo featuring the name of their cinematic hero. Cecil has “Otto Preminger” inked across his forearm, while cinematographer Pam, played by Erika Lynn Rupli, clearly loves Sam Peckinpah, and producer Dinah, portrayed by Harriet Dodge, is, by all appearances, a Samuel Fuller fanatic). 

In addition, Cecil B. Demented has plenty of moments that made me laugh out loud, like when the Sprocket Holes invade a showing of the director’s cut of Patch Adams; and a sequence during which Cecil and his crew are chased by the angry patrons of a family-friendly movie house (to escape, they duck into in the grindhouse theater across the street, where they’re protected by an audience watching a Hong Kong Kung-Fu picture). 

There are tons of great lines as well (“Before I was a drug addict”, Lyle tells Honey at one point, “I had so many different problems. Now I just have one - drugs! Gave my life a real focus”) and I absolutely love the profanity-laced hip-hop tune “No Budget” (co-written by Waters and performed by DJ Class and Mayo) that plays during a key scene. All of the actors are solid in their roles, and there are some fun cameos, including Waters regular Mink Stole as Mrs. Sylvia Mallory, the upper-class spokesperson for a children’s charity; and Patty Hearst as the mother of costume designer Fidget (Eric Barry), the youngest member of Cecil’s crew (Fidget has William Castle’s name tattooed across his chest). 

With all of the above, plus a few truly Waters-esque moments (the patrons of an adult theater masturbate profusely while watching a porno starring Cherish and a gerbil) and a grand finale that’s positively batshit crazy, Cecil B. Demented is not to be missed. From start to finish, this movie is a delight, and is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any movie fan (one that will surely last for days).







#2,490. Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974)


Directed By: Brian Clemens

Starring: Horst Janson, John Carson, Shane Briant




Tag line: "The Only Man Alive Feared by the Walking Dead!"

Trivia: Ingrid Pitt has said in interviews she refused the Wanda Ventham cameo role







Released by Hammer Studios in 1974, Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter stars Horst Jansen as the title character, a 19th century soldier who, with the help of his hunchbacked accomplice Professor Grost (John Cater), roams the English countryside, destroying any vampire foolish enough to get in his way. 

Joined by a young woman named Carla (Caroline Munro) who they freed from the stocks (she was imprisoned for dancing on a Sunday), Kronos and Grost travel to a small village, where, according to Kronos’s friend and former comrade Dr. Marcus (John Carson), a number of pretty young women have died mysteriously.

Based on the circumstances surrounding their deaths (each victim was bitten on the lips, and their corpses appeared to be much older than the girls actually were), Grost is convinced that a vampire is on the prowl, and he and Kronos set to work trying to track it down. But will they learn the true identity of this evil predator before it strikes again? And even if they do, will they know how to kill it? 

Having already released a string of successful vampire films (starting with Horror of Dracula in 1958), Hammer mixed things up a bit with Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter. As with the Dracula series, this 1974 movie features a handful of gothic set pieces, the most interesting being the ancestral home of the Durward clan, where the reclusive Paul Durward (Shane Briant) resides with his sister Sara (Lois Daine) and their sickly mother (Wanda Ventham)). But unlike the studio’s previous entries, Captain Kronos was primarily shot in the great outdoors (in the picturesque Black Park area of Wexham, Buckinghamshire, which also stood in for Transylvania in some of Hammer’s earlier Dracula movies). 

Even more intriguing are the vampires themselves, which are far from traditional; unlike Christopher Lee’s Dracula, the vampiric foe in Captain Kronos attacks in broad daylight, and cannot be killed in the usual manner (as Grost tells Dr. Marcus at one point “There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey. Their methods and their motive for attack can vary in a hundred different ways”). What’s more, the bloodsucker haunting this particular village isn’t a bloodsucker at all! Instead of plasma, this vampire drains the life force from its victims, which – according to Grost’s theory - it needs to maintain its own youthful appearance. 

In addition, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter has its share of action scenes (there are a handful of well-choreographed swordfights) and boasts several strong performances, including Horst Janson as the enigmatic lead (we learn very little about Kronos’s background) and John Cater as the slightly deformed expert who advises Kronos on how to deal with the threat that’s terrorizing the village. 

The initial plan was for Hammer to turn Captain Kronos into a series. Unfortunately, it was the victim of bad timing; by the mid-‘70s, the studio’s gothic horror films had run their course, with each new release (this one included) taking in less and less at the Box Office. As a result, this was the only Captain Kronos ever produced, and that’s a damn shame. Equal parts exciting and intense, and with a truly unique approach to the vampire subgenre, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter deserved better, and I find myself wishing the studio had greenlit the project 10 years earlier. 

Had they done so, it’s possible that, with Captain Kronos leading the way, Hammer’s horror output might have stretched well into the 1980s.







Tuesday, March 13, 2018

#2,489. Corvette Summer (1978)


Directed By: Matthew Robbins

Starring: Mark Hamill, Annie Potts, Eugene Roche




Tag line: "A Fiberglass Romance"

Trivia: Both of this film's leads, Annie Potts and Mark Hamill, were in car accidents prior to principal photography








Had it not been for Luke Skywalker, odds are most people would have never heard of Corvette Summer. Even today, it’s remembered as the first film that Mark Hamill made after his career-defining role in 1977’s Star Wars, and while this 1978 comedy may not have been a $200 million box-office phenomenon like George Lucas’s space fantasy, it’s actually not a bad little movie in its own right. 

Hamill plays Kenny Dantley, a Los Angeles-area high school student who loves cars. Kenny spends the majority of his senior year restoring a 1973 Corvette Stingray that he and his shop class rescued from the wrecking yard. Once the vehicle is road-ready, shop teacher Mr. McGrath (Eugene Roche) takes his class on an evening field trip to Van Nuys Boulevard, giving each student a chance to get behind the wheel and take the Corvette for a spin. Unfortunately, fellow student Kootz (Danny Bonaduce), the last to drive it that night, leaves the vehicle alone for a minute or two, during which time it’s stolen by car thieves. To make matters worse, the police tell Kenny and the others that, in all likelihood, they’ll never see the Corvette again. 

But Kenny, who loves that car more than life itself, refuses to give up hope, and after receiving a tip that it’s been spotted in Las Vegas, hitchhikes his way across the desert. During his travels he meets Vanessa (Annie Potts), a prostitute-in-training who takes an immediate liking to the young man. Once in Vegas, Kenny searches frantically for the Corvette, but with Vanessa’s help he may just discover that there’s more to life than sports cars. 

Hamill does a fine job as the shy, somewhat awkward lead character (Vanessa’s early attempts to lure the inexperienced Kenny into her bed end in disaster), and we root like hell for him to find his beloved car. The best performance in Corvette Summer, however, is delivered by Annie Potts, making her big screen debut as the wannabe hooker with a heart of gold. Well before Kenny realizes how special she is, we the audience have already fallen for Potts’ Vanessa, whose bubbly personality and street-wise sensibilities win us over in a big way. 

The movie does feature a few solid action scenes (the best being an extended sequence where Kenny, after spotting the Corvette at a car wash, hops on a bike and gives chase) and a plot twist that took me by surprise. But without Annie Potts (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Vanessa), Corvette Summer wouldn’t have been half the movie it is. 

Over the years, Mark Hamill made several attempts to break free of his Star Wars alter-ego, playing a pacifist soldier in Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One as well as a pothead cameraman in Lindsey Anderson’s 1982 comedy Britannia Hospital (he also had a hilarious cameo in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). In recent years, he’s lent his voice to a variety of animated movies and TV shows, garnering praise for his portrayal of The Joker in several DC Comics productions, including 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. And while audiences will likely always associate him with the role of Luke Skywalker, his other projects - Corvette Summer included - prove that Hamill is capable of so much more.







Sunday, March 11, 2018

#2,488. The Death of Louis XIV (2016)


Directed By: Albert Serra

Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d'Assumçao, Marc Susini



Premiere: The movie premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Trivia: Per the annual Sight & Sound poll, this was the 10th Best Film of 2016








Jean Pierre Leaud grew up in front of a camera. He was a boy of 14 when he played Antione Doinel, director Francois Truffaut’s alter-ego, in The 400 Blows, a character he would portray four more times over the course of his career; and in Truffaut’s Day For Night he was a precocious young actor whose sexual appetites disrupted an already-troubled movie set. 

Now, almost 60 years after he made his screen debut, Leaud stars as the title character in 2016’s The Death of Louis XIV, playing an elderly monarch coming to terms with the fact that he has very little time left. 

The year is 1715. After returning from a hunting trip, King Louis XIV of France (Leaud) feels a sharp pain in his leg, the result of a small wound. His physical condition further deteriorates when a fever sets in, and his doctors remain by his side day and night, doing what they can to nurse their king and master back to health. But when his leg turns gangrenous, the doctors realize that the King’s days are numbered, and advise his ministers, and the entire court, to prepare for the inevitable. 

As you can tell by that rather sparse synopsis, The Death of Louis XIV is by no means a grand eulogy; it is a methodically-paced, understated film, with many scenes of doctors crowding around the King’s bed, offering him water and rubbing ointment on his leg while they bicker back and forth as to what course of treatment would be best. Still, despite director Serra’s simplistic approach to the material, The Death of Louis XIV is a beautiful motion picture. The costumes (created by Nina Avramovic) and set pieces (decorated by production designer Sebastián Vogler) are exquisite, and do their part to bring the 18th century to life. 

That said, the film’s most engaging aspect is the performance of Jean-Pierre Leaud, who captures, in equal measure, his character’s emotional strength and physical frailty (at one point, the King ignores his doctor’s wishes and demands to attend a council of ministers, only to change his mind a minute or two after he’s been helped to his wheelchair). Every so often, the King, in spite of his constant pain, experiences a moment that brings a smile to his face; he sheds a tear of joy when his beloved dogs come rushing to his side, and sits up proudly when he hears the drums of St. Louis’s Day banging in the distance. Leaud perfectly conveys every facet of this complex individual’s personality, allowing a glimmer of the strong monarch that Louis XiV once was to shine through while, at the same time, reminding us that the end is very near. 

King Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years, from 1643 to 1715, making his the longest recorded reign in European history. He led his country through three major wars, and was a patron of the arts as well as a visionary (it was he who expanded the Palace of Versailles to its present state). His exploits have been the subject of a handful of movies, including Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 film The Taking of Power of Louis XIV and 2014’s A Little Chaos (written and directed by star Alan Rickman). While The Death of Louis XIV puts the focus squarely on Louis’ final days, Leaud’s magnificent performance nonetheless stands as a monument of sorts, a tribute to a once-powerful man who, by all accounts, met his end with dignity and grace.







Friday, March 9, 2018

#2,487. Dark Side of Genius (1994)


Directed By: Phedon Papamichael

Starring: Brent David Fraser, Finola Hughes, Glenn Shadix




Tagline: "Creating an erotic masterpiece can be murder"

Trivia: Second directorial effort for noted cinematographer Phedon Papamichael







The story is established as the opening credits play: inside an artist’s studio, a topless blonde (Tina Cote) lays on a couch, posing for her portrait. Images of the girl slowly smoking a cigarette are interspersed with close-ups of paint being mixed on a palette, and the occasional brush touching canvas. 

There is no dialogue - the soundtrack features classical music - but before this tranquil scene of creativity is over we will bear witness to a shocking murder: the artist (his face concealed at all times) walks over to his model and puts one hand around her neck. There’s a quick shot of a cutting blade, a splash of blood, and the terrible deed is done. 

Thus begins director Phedon Papamichael’s Dark Side of Genius, a sedate but sexy 1994 mystery / thriller about art, love, and the fine line that separates brilliance from madness. 

Seven years pass. The artist, Julian Jons (Brent David Fraser), recently released from a psychiatric hospital, is once again painting, and is working closely with art dealer Leon Bennini (Glenn Shadix), who has managed to sell Julian’s latest creation to collector / businessman Samuel Rourke (Seymour Cassel). Critic Jennifer Cole (Finola Hughes) finds that she is also drawn to Julian’s work, and wants to interview him. Though it takes some time to track him down (Julian has become a recluse since re-entering the art world), Jennifer does eventually meet Julian, and sparks fly between the two. 

Both her roommate Carrie (Moon Unit Zappa) and her boss at the magazine (Patrick Bauchau) warn Jennifer not to get emotionally involved with the troubled Julian, who has yet to come to terms with his checkered past. But is Julian truly as dangerous as he once was, or is someone else now pulling his strings? 

Dark Side of Genius features a superb supporting cast: Moon Unit Zappa does a fine job as the film’s comic relief, bringing humor and a streetwise sensibility to Carrie, while the always-reliable Seymour Cassel keeps us guessing as to what his character’s true intentions might be (why has he taken such a keen interest in Julian’s work?). Equally as good are Patrick Richwood, portraying a jealous, self-absorbed contemporary of Julian’s; and Glenn Shadix, whose Bennini is a less-campy version of the character he played six years' earlier in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice

As for Brent David Fraser and Finola Hughes, they generate plenty of sexual tension as the leads, and there is a tangible chemistry between the two. Fraser’s performance is especially strong, and the actor perfectly conveys the fear and confusion brought on by the memories of his character’s previous actions. Yet along with the pain of his personal demons, Julian’s fractured recollections serve as his chief inspiration (each and every one of his paintings is a portrait of his victim). But while Julian is clearly haunted by his past, there is more to his story than meets the eye, and Dark Side of Genius manages to surprise us on occasion with a few well-plotted twists and turns. 

Though by no means a fast-paced thriller (director Papamichael takes his time building up the film’s artistic angle), Dark Side of Genius is engaging enough - and features the right amount of sexual energy - to keep your attention throughout.