Friday, March 31, 2017

Night of the Comet (1984) ***

On a balmy, 1980's night in L.A., crowds gather to watch the sky as earth passes through the tail of a comet. They are expecting a spectacular meteor shower, but get more than they bargained for. Everyone watching gets turned into dust. Those who are only partially exposed become zombies. Only people who were completely shielded by metal are saved. This includes Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), and a few others, who must now navigate this (almost) empty world.

1984's “Night of the Comet” is a sci-fi-ish cult classic along the lines of “Repo Man” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” and it succeeds for the same reasons those films succeed. It doesn't take itself too seriously and spend a lot of time trying to make its wacky premise make sense. On the other hand, this isn't some self-aware parody, constantly winking at the audience to let us know that it is in on the joke. “Night of the Comet” is a B-movie that worked hard for its “B” and is proud of it. It isn't trying to be an “A” movie, but it doesn't try to make fun of the B-movie genre either. It just puts its half-baked, low-budget story out there and says, “This is the best we could do on $700,000.”

It turns out, their best is not all that bad. The film is shot quite beautifully, with colorful shots of the sky against L.A. skyscrapers, and expansive shots of the empty cityscape. (They shot many of these scenes on Christmas Day, when downtown L.A. was relatively empty.) The acting is nothing to write home about, but then the script doesn't really demand much of these actors. They run here, they get shot at there, they show a little leg in this scene here, and everyone goes home happy.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) **

There's no reason that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” shouldn't be a perfectly delightful noir comedy, with stars like Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. Unfortunately, all that talent is wasted on a tale that doesn't really amount to much.

Downey plays Harry, a small-time thief who stumbles into an acting opportunity. He is whisked out to L.A. to rub elbows with pretty people, and there he stumbles into a murder mystery, or a pair of murder mysteries, to be precise. The first involves the daughter of a famous actor ( Corbin Bernsen). The second involves the sister of his old, schoolboy crush (Michelle Monaghan) from Indiana, whom Harry randomly runs into at one of those L.A. parties. Helping Harry sort through all these corpses is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a private-eye/tough-guy-for-hire, who guessed it, gay. For some reason this is supposed to be hilarious. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is full of more gay jokes than a junior high locker room. Maybe this sort of thing was funnier in 2005.

Even with the dated gay jokes, this movie should be a good time. Kilmer and Downey are both witty as hell, and play well off each other. Michelle Monaghan is pretty as can be (although it's the typical Hollywood bullshit to cast a woman 11 years younger than Robert Downey, Jr. as his high school classmate.) The story just never earned my interest, however, and at the end of the second act, I seriously considered just popping the DVD out of the player and going to bed. It's sad when you've watched more than half of a movie, and don't really care about how it ends. I did stick around for the ending, though, and it wasn't worth it.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” expends tremendous effort being clever, and no effort on an interesting plot, or building characters we can care about. It tries to be a winking parody of noir cinema, with its Raymond Chandler references and pulp fiction plot, but I think it's mostly a mess. If you want a more genuine homage to the noir genre, check out another film from 2005, Rian Johnson's "Brick" or the outstanding 1973 Chandler adaptation, "The Long Goodbye".

2 stars out of 5

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cloverfield (2008) ***1/2 and 10 Cloverfield Lane *****

It helps to know that “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not a sequel to “Cloverfield,” nor are the two movies directly related or even similar other than both being produced by J.J.Abrams. The word Cloverfield, in fact, has nothing to do with either movie. It's the name of a street where Abrams used to work, and the name is simply a brand, like “The Twilight Zone.” Based on these two films, I'd say it's a brand worth watching.

2008's “Cloverfield” is a found-footage movie about a monster attacking New York City. The conceit is that you are viewing a videotape found in some rubble. The footage is captured by a group of friends who are celebrating at a party when the attack hits. In the midst of the devastation, four of them (including Lizy Caplan and TJ Miller) have to make their way across Manhattan to rescue a friend. Director Matt Reeves does a pretty good job with the found-footage approach, if you can ignore the fact that TJ Miller's character is supposedly filming everything while running for his life. The monster is really cool-looking, and the film teases us with only brief, partial glimpses of it for quite a while. This is a pretty tightly-wound action movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It's well worth 3.5 stars out of 5.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is something completely different, a claustrophobic, psychological potboiler with a cast of only three. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a girl leaving her boyfriend in south Louisiana. As she hits the open road, she gets in a crash and wakes up in a concrete room, wearing a knee brace that is chained to the wall. She is terrified, of course, and when she meets her rescuer/captor?, Howard (John Goodman), she is not reassured by his bizarre manner. Howard is gruff and paranoid, and he eventually explains to Michelle that she is in his bomb shelter, hiding out from some sort of chemical or biological attack aboveground. The tension in the little shelter builds, as Michelle tries to figure out if Howard is a psychotic monster, or if his story of an attack is true, which of course, is even more horrifying.

This movie can best be described as “tight.” The performances, the visuals, the pacing, everything is perfectly calibrated to create dread and keep you guessing. This is one to get on DVD in case you're ever stuck on a desert island, or in a bomb shelter. 5 stars out of 5!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Get Out (2017) ****

I want to be careful not to tell you too much about the plot of “Get Out.” The surprises in the film are too juicy to ruin them for you.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are a young, mixed-race couple in love. They embark on a weekend trip for Chris to meet Rose's parents for the first time. The parents don't know, yet, that Chris is black, but not to worry, Rose says. “My dad would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Sure enough, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage fall all over themselves to show Chris how accepting they are, calling him “My man!” and referencing the story of Jesse Owens. It's mostly the usual awkwardness that occurs between well-meaning members of different races, and Chris is pleasantly resigned to it. Still, things seem a little strange at the Armitage estate. The only two black people there, the maid and the groundskeeper, are absolutely bizarre in their smiling, mannequin-like politeness. Then a bunch of family friends show up for a yearly get-together, and things start to get really bizarre.

And scary. “Get Out” establishes early on that it will be delivering some frights. Writer/director Jordan Peele maintains a constant level of creepy dread, punctuated by the occasional well-timed startle. The movie also delivers a healthy dose of laughs. Kaluuya is the perfect straight man, but his friend Rod (LilRel Howery) provides tear-inducing comic relief. Bradley Whitford is also quite funny as a white liberal straining to show how open-minded he is.

“Get Out” enjoys quite a few laughs at the inappropriate things that come out of the mouths of even well-intentioned people. The jokes are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times, and I think it's fair to say that white people come off pretty poorly in the film. In this day and age, racial comedy has pretty much been done to death, and Peale could be accused of some laziness in this aspect of the film. Technically, however, “Get Out” is superb, beautifully filmed and perfectly paced to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's just scary enough to be a true horror film, but funny enough that even non-horror-fans will love it.

4 stars out of 5