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 an excuse 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 holiday fright flicks 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 say 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! 

Pre-teen Lucas Lerner (Levi Miller) has 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, 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. Lucas, however, is convinced his plan is foolproof, and the moment he’s alone with Ashley he begins to make his move... 

But Lucas’s amorous advances are put on hold when an intruder breaks into the house, forcing he and Ashley into hiding. Will they somehow 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 this one is difficult to pull off, but thanks to the film’s excellent young cast we buy it hook, line, and sinker. 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 Lucas 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. Lucas is equal parts sinister and childish, and often shifts 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 gory payoff), 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) - The Films of Terry Gilliam

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 throughout, 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 centers on 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 runs for several days. 

But truth be told, Duke doesn’t give a damn about the race; he instead spends his time in Vegas ingesting cocaine, acid, ether, mescaline, and even 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 hallucinations and paranoia, Duke experiences everything that Vegas has to offer. But will he 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 a hotel. As they enter the lobby, Duke, who is already hopped up on drugs, begins to hallucinate; the face of the desk clerk, played by Katherine Helmond, morphs in front of his eyes, and the tacky patterns on the rug leap off the floor and climb the walls. 
The horror continues when Duke and Gonzo make their way to the bar, where 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 some people 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 made 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, a sunny afternoon when I was accompanying my father and uncle to a small convenience store. During that short drive, 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'd returned home, I was reminded of this incident when, sitting in our living room, an ad for this same film popped up on TV. 

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

The studio's ad men would have been proud! 

Still, despite these early experiences, today marked 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 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. 

Unfortunately, the pair’s getaway doesn’t go as smoothly as they'd 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 and a detailed escape plan, Larry and Deke are confident that, even with their uninvited passenger, they'll have no problem staying one step ahead of the law. 

Neither Fonda nor George are 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 an undeniable chemistry, and we root like hell for them to get away with the money. 

Faring slightly better is co-star Adam Rourke as the well-prepared sidekick trying to work through some 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 bring an added layer of tension) as well as the uncredited Roddy McDowell, who has a brief but memorable appearance as the supermarket manager forced to turn over the cash to Larry and Deke. 

That said, the real stars of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry are its high-energy chases. Director John Hough let his creativity run wild when shooting these sequences, many of which feature stunts that look damn dangerous; in one scene, Larry, while trying to outrun the police, swerves into oncoming traffic, causing a pair of buses heading directly towards him to scatter. Shot from inside Larry’s car, we see that one of the buses actually sideswipes him 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, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was well worth the wait!