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 all-time favorite John Waters movie. 

Fed up with all the sequels, remakes, and cookie-cutter flicks the studios churn out on a regular basis, wannabe underground director Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) and his rag-tag 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 employees of a Baltimore-area Cineplex that is 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 laugh-out-loud moments, like when the Sprocket Holes invade a showing of the director’s cut of Patch Adams; as well as a sequence where 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 are protected by an audience watching a Hong Kong Kung-Fu picture). 

There are tons of great lines (“Before I was a drug addict”, Lyle tells Honey, “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, 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 featuring 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 blast!

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

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 - of all things - 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 mysteriously died.

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 shot primarily 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 every step of the way. 

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 Hammer’s horror output could have stretched well into the 1980s, with Captain Kronos leading the charge!

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 - as well as 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 size). 

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 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 and 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.