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.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

An Update, and an Explanation

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there has been a delay in my march to 2,500 movies. For over a month, I’ve been stalled at #2,486.

Why, with only 14 more films to go, have I been sitting tight for so long? As close as I am, why put it off any longer?

it goes like this….

Since the 3rd week of January, I have been trying to squeeze as many 2017 films in as I can before finally posting my top 10 list for the year (which will be made public the weekend of the Academy Awards). Ever since I started all this in 2010, I have been so deep in the challenge that I haven’t been able to keep up with each year’s new releases. In some cases, I didn’t even compile a yearly Top 10 list until 12-18 months later (It wasn’t until late 2012 that I put the finishing touch on my 2011 list).

Well, I had made a promise to myself months ago that 2017 would be different. Not only would I post my list earlier, but I would also see as many 2017 movies as possible before doing so. As a result, I have been watching 2017 movies non-stop for weeks now (in fact, 2017 will be the first time in 10 years that I’ll be able to post a top 20 list, as well as something I’ve always wanted to do: A top 10 documentaries list), and it’s because of this that I’ve put my challenge on hold.

So, my march to 2,500 (well, with 14 to go, I guess it’ll be more of a short walk than a march) will continue after The Academy Awards on March 4th.

In the meantime, if you’d like to follow my progress as I make my way through all these 2017 films, you can follow me on Letterboxd, where I’m keeping a running list of the titles I’ve seen thus far. You can check that list out here - https://letterboxd.com/dcoshockhmp/list/2017-movies-ive-seen/detail/

Thanks to everyone who has been following my progress over the years, and I’ll see you here again in early March!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

#2,486. Better Watch Out (2016)

Directed By: Chris Peckover

Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould

Tag line: "You Might Be Home But You're Not Alone"

Trivia: Director Chris Peckover tried to obtain the rights to the Wham! song "Last Christmas", but singer George Michael didn't want it associated with such a "dark" movie

Ah. Christmas… the best time of the year! 

Carolers… decorations… good will towards your fellow man… etc., etc. 

All that stuff is great, but the real reason I love the season is it gives me a chance to watch a slew of Holiday-themed movies and TV specials, and like most film fans my definition of what constitutes a “Christmas Movie” is a bit broad, so a number of different genres make up my December viewing schedule. 

First up are some of my childhood favorites (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and the criminally underappreciated ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), followed by a few different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (My favorite is the 1984 TV movie with George C. Scott, but I also enjoy Rich Little’s Christmas Carol, an HBO special I first caught in the early ‘80s; as well as the hilarious Blackadder’s Christmas Carol). 

After that, anything goes: Action (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon); Comedy (the beloved A Christmas Story, Elf, Bad Santa, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation); Fantasy (Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, The Nightmare Before Christmas), and, of course, horror. 

Now, there are plenty of entertaining holiday fright films to choose from, including Gremlins, Saint Nick, P2, A Christmas Horror Story and even the incredibly flawed Don’t Open Till Christmas. But to be honest, only two horror movies have been regular fixtures on my yearly Holiday schedule: the original Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night

Well, I’m happy to report I now have a third film to add to the mix: director Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out. From this point forward, it just won’t feel like Christmas without it! 

For a while now, pre-teen Lucas Lerner (Levi Miller) has had a crush on Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), his 17-year-old babysitter, and with his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) heading out to a Christmas party that evening, Lucas intends to to turn on the charm and finally land the girl of his dreams. His best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenhould) remains skeptical; along with being 5 years older than Lucas, Ashley also has a boyfriend, Ricky (Aleks Mikic), and what’s more, she’s heading off to college in a few days’ time. But Lucas believes his plan is foolproof, and the moment he’s alone with Ashley he begins to make his move... 

But a frightening turn of events temporarily thwarts Lucas’s amorous advances, and before long he and Ashley find themselves hiding from a mysterious intruder. Will the two manage to outwit the invader, or is there more to this terrifying situation than meets the eye? 

There’s much more to Better Watch Out, actually; a major twist just before the halfway point takes the story in a very different direction. Under normal circumstances, a shift like the one that occurs in this movie is difficult to pull off, but thanks to the film’s excellent young cast, we buy it hook, line, and sinker, and are more than a little anxious to see how everything plays out. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenhould, both of whom co-starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, deliver strong performances. DeJonge’s Ashley is no pushover, and proves time and again that she can take care of herself, unlike Oxenhould’s Garrett, who does whatever his best friend tells him to do (even when he knows it’s wrong). 

The true standout, however, is Levi Miller, who shows incredible range in the role of the precocious Lucas, a 12-year-old who is intelligent for his age, yet not nearly as mature as he thinks (he is equal parts sinister and childish, often shifting from one to the other within the same scene). Madsen and Warburton also do a fine job in their brief appearances as Lucas’s parents, but it’s the youngsters that make Better Watch Out such a noteworthy horror film. 

Throw in some effective situational comedy, a remarkably clever script (even when you think you’ve seen it all, the movie finds a way to surprise you), and a handful of grisly scenes (the worst of which, a nod to John Hughes’s Home Alone, makes us squirm even without the gore), and you have the makings of a Holiday horror classic. 

And that’s exactly what Better Watch Out is destined to become.

Monday, January 8, 2018

#2,485. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Directed By: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire

Tag line: "Four Days, Three nights, Two Convertibles, One City"

Trivia: Benicio Del Toro gained forty pounds for his role as Dr. Gonzo

I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time”. This is what director Terry Gilliam said while promoting 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and based on the reactions of critics and audiences alike, I’d say he got his wish! 

While a few pundits undoubtedly enjoyed the film (Empire Magazine went so far as to rank it 469th on their list of the 500 Greatest Movies Ever), some reviews were positively scathing. Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas one out of four stars, and called it “a horrible mess of a movie”, while Mike Clark of USA Today declared it “simply unwatchable”. There were audience members who agreed with the critics; a co-worker at the time told me it was the worst film he’d ever seen, and the only movie he ever walked out on. 

Without a doubt, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is unusual and, at times, even off-putting, but Gilliam throws enough at us to keep us engaged, building suspense as we wonder what sort of mischief his depraved leads will get into next. 

Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson and inspired by his own experiences, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set in the early 1970s and features the exploits of journalist Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego, played by Johnny Depp), who, along with his Samoan lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and a trunkful of illegal narcotics, heads to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a dirt bike race that lasts for several days. 

But truth be told, Duke doesn’t give a damn about the race, and instead spends his time in Vegas ingesting cocaine, acid, ether, mescaline, and a human adrenal gland! Along the way, Duke and Dr. Gonzo encounter a variety of people, including a hippie hitch-hiker (Toby Maguire), a teenage artist (Christine Ricci), and a pretty blonde reporter (Cameron Diaz). They even crash a DA’s convention, sitting in on attorney L. Ron Bumquist’s (Michael Jeter) impassioned speech on how best to spot a drug addict. 

Haunted by everything from hallucinations to paranoia, Duke experiences all that Vegas has to offer, wondering the entire time whether or not he’ll make it out of the city alive. 

With Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam established himself early on as a master of the bizarre, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas went a long way to strengthen that reputation. In what is one of my favorite sequences, Duke and Dr. Gonzo – having just arrived in Vegas - are checking into the hotel. As they approach the front desk, Duke, who is already hopped up on drugs, begins to hallucinate; the face of the desk clerk, played by Katherine Helmond, morphs before his eyes, and the tacky patterns on the lobby rug leap off the floor and climb the walls. The horror continues when Duke and Gonzo make their way to the bar; shortly after they walk in, every patron transforms into a hideous reptile. This is but one of many strange scenes scattered throughout the film (a visit to the Bazooka Circus Casino is a definite highlight), with Gilliam constantly turning and tilting his camera, keeping us off-kilter as we experience first-hand his main characters’ warped view of reality. 

Depp and Del Toro are perfectly twisted as the two leads; the distorted manner in which they move while under the influence is often quite hilarious (At one point, Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo slowly leans backwards, continuing to walk until he finally falls over). In addition, the film contains a number of memorable cameos. Aside from Maguire, Ricci, and Diaz, Ellen Barkin appears briefly as a waitress threatened by Dr. Gonzo, while Gary Busey portrays what is arguably the oddest highway patrolman in cinematic history. 

It’s easy to see why people might have a strong negative reaction to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its structure is chaotic, and it doesn’t so much tell a story as present the experiences of two individuals who show us time and again that they aren’t exactly pillars of the community (a scene in which Depp talks about prostituting Ricci’s teenage character catches us off-guard, though I’m sure that was the point). 

Still, despite its more aggressive elements, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an effective critique of ‘70s excess, and even though I’ve seen the movie a few times now, I still get a kick out of it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

#2,484. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

Directed By: John Hough

Starring: Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke

Tagline: "They don't call them that for nothing"

Trivia: Selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas, 1996

In the summer of 1974, my family took a trip to the San Francisco area to visit my Aunt and Uncle. I was a few months shy of my 5th birthday, yet I remember, quite vividly, accompanying my father and uncle to a small convenience store one sunny afternoon, during which we passed a billboard advertising the movie Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (part of the reason this stuck with me over the years was that my uncle read the title aloud, and made a comment about how pretty Susan George was). 

A few weeks later, after we returned home, I was reminded of this incident when, while sitting in our living room, an ad for this same film popped up on television. 

Wow”, I thought at the time, “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry must be the most amazing movie ever made!” 

Still, despite these early experiences with its advertising campaign, today was the first time I’d actually seen Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in its entirety, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with my pre-five-year-old self that it was “the most amazing movie”, its dynamic car chases coupled with a handful of interesting performances made for a very entertaining watch. 

In need of some quick cash to overhaul their new vehicle, race car driver Larry (Peter Fonda) and his mechanic Deke (Adam Rourke) pull off a major heist, stealing thousands of dollars from a neighborhood supermarket. Alas, the pair’s getaway doesn’t go as smoothly as they hoped. First, Larry’s one-night stand, the attractive but ornery Mary (George), tracks him down - none too happy that he left without saying goodbye – and insists on tagging along with the two thieves. On top of that, Sheriff Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) is hot on their trail, determined to bring all three of the fugitives to justice. 

But with a couple of souped-up cars at their disposal, as well as a detailed escape plan, Larry and Deke are confident that, even with their unwanted passenger, they’ll have no problem staying one step ahead of the law. 

Neither Fonda nor George is at the top of their game in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Fonda is too laid-back to be believable as a speed-crazy crook, and George (whose American accent occasionally slips) goes way over-the-top early on. But despite their mediocre performances, the two have undeniable screen chemistry, and we root like hell for them to get away with the loot. Faring slightly better is co-star Adam Rourke as the well-prepared sidekick trying to work through a few problems of his own; and the always reliable Vic Morrow is excellent as the cop who refuses to give up (ironically, Morrow spends a good portion of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry flying around in a helicopter, the very thing that would take his life a decade or so later on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie). 

Also solid in supporting roles are Kenneth Tobey as the uptight Chief of Police (his run-ins with Morrow’s Sheriff Franklin, who isn’t nearly as straight-laced, bring an added layer of tension to the proceedings) as well as the uncredited Roddy McDowell, who has a brief but memorable appearance as the supermarket manager forced to turn a great deal money over to Larry and Deke. 

That said, the real stars of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry are its high-energy chases. Director John Hough got a bit creative when shooting some of these sequences, many featuring stunts that look plenty dangerous (in one scene, Larry, while trying to outrun the police, swerves into oncoming traffic, causing a pair of buses heading directly for him to scatter. Shot from inside Larry’s car, we see that one of the buses actually sideswipes his vehicle before careening off the road). Hough managed to generate tons of excitement with the film’s high-speed pursuits, a few of which clearly inspired key moments in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, his entry in 2007’s Grindhouse (the final chase in that movie is surprisingly similar to a scene in this one). 

So even though it took me 40+ years to get around to watching it, I’m happy to report that Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was well worth the wait!