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Friday, May 4, 2007


It’s the night of the big interstellar star show, and poor Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) has to work. Holed up at the local movie house (where she’s an usher), she calls her sister to let her know she’ll be home a little later than usual. Sam (Kelli Maroney) is equally upset. She is being forced to spend the evening kowtowing to her stepmother’s mindless friends. As the big event finally arrives—Earth is passing through the tail of a massive, mysterious comet—something strange happens. Everyone on the planet just disappears—everyone except Regina and Sam, apparently.


At first, they figure they’re alone. Then Regina runs into an angry zombie with murder on his mind. Eventually the sisters make their way to a local radio station, where they confront Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who’s also running from the fiends. Together they decide to look for others. Unfortunately, there are more than monsters posing a potential threat. A group of scientists is seeking human subjects for evil experiments, and Regina, Sam, and Hector will make terrific blood banks. Seems that after this Night of the Comet, no one is safe—not even the ones who managed to survive.


Night of the Comet is such an amiable ‘80s artifact that you can almost visualize Cindy Lauper making out with Duran Duran while Naked Eyes sings “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” Playing on several still-fresh genre types from the time period—the zombie movie, the post-apocalyptic survival epic, the quirky teen coming-of-age title—writer/director Thom Eberhardt (kind of a forgotten filmmaker, even with credits like Without a Clue and Captain Ron to his name) decided to approach each and every element in his motion picture mash-up with a fair amount of ironic humor and a sense of sly subversion.


Sure, there are members of the living dead present, but they are articulate, mobile, and very, very pissed. Yes, the planet will be instantly de-populated when it passes through the tale of an obscure comet. But this is L.A., baby, a locale with endless shopping and lots of creature comforts. And, granted, our heroines seem like a couple of kids just looking to get laid and have a little fun. Yet in Regina and Sam, Eberhardt finds character first, classification second. They may look like runners-up in the ersatz valley girl competition of 1984, but they really stand out as complex, confused personalities.


Better still, Night of the Comet knows what to do with each and every one of these cinematic scenarios. The first 30 minutes of the movie are masterful, setting us up for the pseudo-horror humor to come. Eberhardt establishes Regina’s stubbornness, her desire to determine her own life. Similarly, Sam seems ditzy and devil may care, but once her stepmother literally slaps her down, we witness a limited lifetime of disappointment in her fiery eyes. Both Catherine Mary Stewart (Reg) and Kelli Maroney (Sam) are sensational, walking a fine line between being too smart and resorting to adolescent irrationality. Their scenes together have a nice comic crackle and, when we witness the implied end of their time together, it’s a stunning, shocking moment.


Eberhardt makes an intriguing choice here—he keeps Sam dressed in her pep club cheerleader-like outfit throughout the entire first half of the film, suggesting her archetype on the surface while disavowing its reality within. Reg, all big hair, sharp shoulders, and even larger attitude, is more enigmatic. We never get a hard bead on what she’s supposed to represent but, in Eberhardt’s mind, she’s a standard action hero given a girly makeover. While the rest of the cast sits around staring, Reg is the first one in, dealing with issues and applying her Army brat training with gusto.


From a plot perspective, Night of the Comet is really divided up into three separate acts. The first, prior to the precarious cosmic event, has the feel of a John Hughes comedy gone gallows. There are bitter feelings all throughout the subtext of these scenes and we really get to know our leads very well. Part two presents us with our metropolitan Mad Max meat. We’re introduced to the zombies, the well-meaning trucker (Eating Raoul‘s Robert Beltran) who wants to help the girls, and the City Limits-like band of fey gang members who threaten our ladies’ trip to the local mall. This is the action portion of the film, Eberhardt’s attempt to set up all the possible situations that can occur come Act III.


With the arrival of this final section, Night of the Comet unfortunately goes a tad catawampus. There’s an attempt to mix in some science-gone-sinister overtones while fooling us into feeling our heroines are in actual danger. It’s perhaps the only weak element in an otherwise strong genre effort. Perhaps due to budget limitations or a lack of imagination, we don’t get the fierce fireworks we’ve come to expect from this final confrontation. Instead, it’s a couple of quips, a run through a hallway or two, and a minor car explosion.


Still, Night of the Comet deserves its current status as a forgotten cult classic. In an era when terror was decidedly slice and dice, when sci-fi smelled like Ewoks, and the end of the world was draped in as many mind-blowing car chases as possible, Thomas Eberhardt and his incredibly talented company (including interesting turns by Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis as maniacal medicos) wanted to shake things up. Indeed, when the first draft of your script is entitled Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies, you’re not trying to make a totally serious speculative scarefest.


Though it may not be the most influential film or the best example of how the cultural conceits of the ‘80s seeped into every aspect of the pop landscape (including film), Night of the Comet manages to make its many diverse and delightful points in increasingly inventive and entertaining ways. Go in expecting too much and you’ll be pretty disappointed. If you enter remembering the time and the place evoked and recognizing the skill in selling all the varying ideas, you’ll really enjoy the ride. Night of the Comet is the kind of movie that recalls the wide-eyed optimism of the initial phases of the Greed Decade. It’s a surefire schlock sensation.


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Friday, May 4, 2007

In recent posts I’ve been complaining about the difficulties of using pop-music for any purpose other than identity construction and signaling. I realize that I’m being somewhat hyperbolic about it—obviously the uses we make of music are much more diverse and complicated than that. My main concern is that the identity use overwhelms the others, that self-consciousness about cultural consumption obviates the specificity of the culture consumed.


So perhaps I should be encouraged by this study, summarized by BPS Digest here, which identifies three main uses for music: as background to other activity, as a mood regulator (here are seven ways that happens, at least for Finnish teens), and to provide intellectual stimulation in the contemplation of the performance or the substance of what’s heard (this is strongly correlated with high IQ). So that’s good; no mention of identity at all. But that may be a consequence of the study’s method, which seems to be simply asking people how they use music. It’s likely that few people would confess to using music to make people think they are cool, because most people refuse in general to cop to the synthetic nature of their identity, to the various ruses we use to build up the pretense of ourselves.


This study, about using music to meet people, is more in line with my fears. The researchers correlated adolescents’ song preferences with their judgments about personality types.


What some music preferences mean for personality:
  * Likes vocals: extraverted
  * Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  * Likes jazz: intellectual


But I have to say, I’m rather skeptical about these inferences. I strongly doubt it’s sufficient to match genres to types; more likely it’s entirely driven by context, by where a genre is perceived to fall on a continuum of respectability within a certain community. In fact, the whole gist of my suspicion is that genre has no meaning independent of such interpersonal contexts.


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Friday, May 4, 2007

Please, don’t be intimidated. I, too, approached Bitch with caution, wary of man-hating columnists and Bush-bashing feminazis. But surprise! My shameful stereotypes were blown to bits after reading this self-proclaimed “feminist response to pop culture,” and so I apologize to Bitch senior editor Rachel Fudge for all of my unprovoked generalizations. Bitch is one heck of a magazine.


The colorful and eye-catching cover was what first struck my interest and, looking back at its previous 34 issues, this seems to be a trend. Every issue has a theme; this season’s is “The Super Issue,” with articles on superheroes, supermoms and super-cool art. Previous themes: “Green,” “Masculinity,” and “Fake.”


 


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Thursday, May 3, 2007


This is the sound of one hand clapping, or a tree falling face first in the woods and no one around to pick up its plop. Let’s be honest – it’s all about the arachnid this weekend as Spider-Man 3 opens to less than enthusiastic reviews. Of course this means the movie will make $469 ka-trillion before all is said and done. But what it also means is that very few film fans will be sitting around at home waiting to see what HBO or Showtime has to offer. So it’s fairly brave of the major cable outlets to present such positive fare. Maybe they believe in the need for counter-programming, or perhaps they’re gambling on word of mouth being as caustic as the critics’ opinions. Whatever the case, the Saturday night selections are all pretty good (one Friend based offering excluded), including SE&L‘s selection for 5 May:


Premiere Pick
Monster House


Starz strikes paydirt for the second week in a row, offering up what was easily 2006’s best CGI flick. Reminiscent of the classic adventure tales from decades past, Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis gave director Gil Kenan free reign to reinvent the 3D animation genre, and his efforts are outstanding. Concentrating on character first, spectacle second, the first time feature filmmaker delivers a wonderfully moody and mysterious tale, a motion picture overloaded with creative concepts and inventive ideas. Sadly, it wasn’t the massive box office hit the studios look for, and lost the Academy Award to the lesser, if still lovely Happy Feet. If you’re not racing to your local B&M to pick up a copy of this classic after partaking of this weekend’s pay channel premiere, there is something definitely wrong with you. Animation doesn’t get much better than this. (5 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Break-Up


We here at SE&L have a strict anti-Jennifer Aniston policy, so it really pains us to mention this mediocre comedy from last year. Apparently, no one sent director Peyton Reed (Down With Love) the popcorn movie manifesto. He tried to turn an awkward A-list vehicle into The War of the Roses in a condo. Audiences didn’t care for either idea.  (5 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

X-Men: The Last Stand


Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick. (5 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Bad News Bears (2005)


Parlaying some of his success after School of Rock into a regular mainstream gig, Indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) decided to destroy the memory of this ‘70s sports satire. In its original form, the Walter Matthau version was a slam on sports obsessed adults living their lives through their kids. This new version is all PC potty jokes. (5 May, ShowCase, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
My Left Foot


Daniel Day Lewis was a hardworking British actor when he agreed to take on the role of Irish author Christy Brown, a choice which would win him worldwide acclaim (and a well deserved Oscar). But imagine the shock of filmgoers, used to seeing Lewis as prim and proper in your typical Merchant Ivory drama, suddenly shifting into a handicapped scribe stricken with cerebral palsy. In a brave performance that avoided pathos and schmaltz, the star discovered the inner dignity of the man, and never let that feeling go. Director Jim Sheridan surrounded his lead with amazing supporting talent, including Brenda Fricker, Fiona Shaw, and Cyril Cusack. But it’s young Hugh O’Connor that steals the show as an adolescent Christy. Lewis has often said it was the lad’s interpretation of the character that inspired his work. The results speak for themselves. (8 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Boom!


TiVo Alert! TiVo Alert! Fire up those DVRs and get ready to have your minds blown by this notorious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Featuring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and more misguided counterculture conceits than any one film can fathom. The result is something so bad it’s ridiculous. Right up there with Jackie Gleason’s Skidoo for best camp cult crap. (6 May, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

The Ground Truth


The debate over the War in Iraq always seems to be missing a certain voice – that of the troops who’ve already served. In this stunning documentary, they finally get a chance to have their say – and what they expose will haunt your dreams for days to come. While most came back in one piece, almost all have had their psyche scarred forever. (7 May, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch


John Cameron Mitchell is a genius at capturing both the glamour and the horror of kitsch, and his brilliant rock and roll musical is his perfect presentation of same. As the title character, the filmmaker will have you laughing, clapping and cringing – all at the same time. While some may balk at the transgender elements, the amazing score filled with memorable songs will more than cover such discomfort. (9 May, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Hard Day’s Night


The impact of the Beatles on popular culture can never be diminished. While the ‘90s saw several scholarly attempts to downplay their importance - some even going so far as to suggest that they were nothing more than the ‘60s version of a boy band (yeah…RIGHT!) - they remain a formative fixture in music. If you want proof of their importance, look no further than this amazing motion picture by former UK commercial director Richard Lester. Capturing the youth craze known as Beatlemania at the very height of its hysteria, this movie more than anything else cemented the band’s myth as amiable ambassadors of the emerging counterculture. With songs so timeless they sound fresh and inventive 40 plus years later, and attitudes that exude charm and charisma, it’s no wonder the Fab Four remain the gold standard in sonic significance. (8 May, Flix, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Born Losers


The TCM Underground strikes exploitation gold this week as Tom Laughlin introduces the world to his emotionally wounded Vietnam Vet Billy Jack as part of this standard revenge flick. Featuring a femme fatale who defines ‘asking for it’ and a lot of proselytizing about how good kids can go bad, this is one baffling biker epic. And of course, our viewing would not be complete without a little Laughlin butt-kicking. (4 May, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

The Christine Jorgensen Story


While it can’t compare to Let Me Die a Woman, this supposedly serious take on the world’s first publicized sex-change candidate is sufficiently surreal. Granted, Woman director Doris Wishman gave audiences actual surgical footage to seer into their brains, while this 1970 sudser is happy just to suggest and imply. John Hansen is especially good in the title role. The rest is freakish fun. (8 May, Drive-In Classics/Canada, 10:45PM EST)

The Postman


Talk about your revisionist history. Audiences and critics couldn’t ladle enough hate onto Kevin Costner’s failed follow-up to his Oscar winning turn behind the lens, Dances with Wolves. This post-Apocalyptic Western about rebuilding the US mail service as a means of jumpstarting civilization was long, boring and overrun with artistic arrogance. Now, some find it to be a forgotten masterpiece. Yikes! (10 May, TNT 1AM EST)

 


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Thursday, May 3, 2007


Somewhere inbetween the train and the plane, there was this: a display case at the airport with a critter labelled in two languages.



For those lacking short sight or else familiarity with the exotic, the words in English and Japanese spelled out “Armadillo”; but what the sign was really saying was: “Traveler beware: it’s illegal to buy stuff outfitted with the skin of this precious beast.”


Of course, given that the stuff on display was stuffed, it is hard to ignore the fact that this is one of those cases in which the message has been killed by the messenger.


Irony incarnate.






You know, when that happens there’s always a little egg to be toweled off of someone’s face, but on the other hand, whose? Whoever came up with this caveat is nowhere to be fingered and, their surrogate—the display case? Well, you are never really going to win an argument with a box of glass, are you?


So while I riff on the fantasy of marshalling all my logic, employing my considerable rhetorical skills, and arguing till I’m blue in my normally pinkish face, well . . . at the end of that tirade, this armadillo is still going to be stuffed and boxed and served up under glass.


Making matters infernally, consternatorily worse, lodged within this ironic display is our modern condition: society’s annoying penchant for failing to satisfy our sense of justice; its refusal to conform to most everyone’s inherent morality. Despite the fact that that is one of the functions it was designed to address.


Geez, ironies abound. Will they ever cease?






Imagine my disappointment at getting hipped to the true nature of life as I trudged from passport control, past duty free, and along the electronic conveyor toward the plane. But one takes life’s lessons where one can find them.


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