The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5

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The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #49

Sex. Murder. Mystery.
Welcome to the party.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 2005 (France)
US Release: 21st October 2005
UK Release: 11th November 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Zodiac)
Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever)
Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Source Code)

Director
Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys)

Screenwriter
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)

Based on
Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a novel by Brett Halliday.

The Story
After accidentally getting cast in a movie, fugitive crook Harry Lockhart is given on-the-job experience with private eye ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. When the pair become witnesses to a murder that it looks like they committed, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that they’ll have to untangle to save themselves.

Our Heroes
Harry Lockhart is our narrator: a crappy thief who stumbles into an acting audition while on the run from the cops, and ends up whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in a mystery movie. To help him prepare for the role he shadows Gay Perry, a top L.A. P.I., who’s consistently, hilariously sarcastic. Also, homosexual.

Our Villains
It’s a murder mystery, so, that’s kind of a spoiler. Also: almost not the point.

Best Supporting Character
Harry happens to run into his childhood crush Harmony Lane, now working as a waitress in L.A. Soon she’s asking him to investigate her sister’s recent suicide, which she thinks was actually a murder. That subplot isn’t at all related to the main case. Nope.

Memorable Quote
Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
Harry: “Bad.”
Perry: “Excuse me?”
Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep—”
Perry: “What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.”

Memorable Scene
Arriving back at his hotel room after they’ve witnessed the murder, Harry goes into the bathroom to take a leak. As he’s doing that, he glances round… and sees the girl’s body in the shower. He turns to look at it in shock… and pisses all over it. Cue hilarious exchange when he phones Perry for help.

Awards
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Supporting Actor (Val Kilmer), Supporting Actress (Michelle Monaghan), Music)
1 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award (Overlooked Film of the Year)

What the Critics Said
“the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it’s also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist’s expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it’s not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. […] Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance. The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another.” — Jake Farley, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

Verdict

One-time “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” Shane Black made his directorial debut with this satirical neo-noir, which can be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s career for the third or fourth time (it led directly to him being cast in Iron Man). The film’s best quality is probably its humorous dialogue — choosing just one memorable quote was hard, though many come in lengthy exchanges. Downey Jr is hilarious, of course, but even he’s outmatched by Val Kilmer as sarky investigator Gay Perry. Even more impressively, love interest Michelle Monaghan holds her own against them both. The plot may be so confusing it’s easily forgotten, but the whodunnit reveal is beside the point when the journey there is so entertaining.

#50 will… retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

2009 #8
Richard Donner | 110 mins | download | 18 / R

Lethal WeaponLethal Weapon comes from another era — an era in which R-rated films were still allowed to be blockbusters. One only needs to look at the classifications attached to the most recent instalments of formerly-R-rated ’80s franchises — primarily, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Die Hard 4.0, both PG-13 — to see how things have changed. Of course, maybe they have just cause: Watchmen, the first proper R-rated blockbuster for a while, has been labelled a box office disappointment (because that’s what $150m worldwide in two weeks is these days).

I digress. Though, my mind frequently wandered during Lethal Weapon — often to Die Hard. This may predate the Bruce Willis franchise by several years, but it’s a testament to the fame of that film’s Christmas setting that my first thought was they’d ripped it off (Lethal Weapon, like Die Hard, begins with a classic Christmas song over an urban setting). And my next thought was, did they not have a costume budget? The film opens with a young girl, lazing provocatively with one tit out… at first, before Donner makes sure to show them both off thoroughly before she hurls herself from a building; and then we find Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the bath and Mel Gibson’s Riggs wandering around showing his arse off. Nudity is fine in its place, of course, but here it’s so gratuitous that it sets a low tone — to be fair, one the film does little to belie.

More seriously then: the plot is full of holes with great gaps in its logic, especially as it heads towards the climax. There’s also no mystery — the investigation is just an excuse to string together action set pieces and comedic buddy scenes, neither of which are much cop, and most of the story is conveyed in a couple of info-dumps that supporting characters volunteer for no definite reason. The dialogue and performances are appalling — “may I remind you of some stuff you already know, that’s convenient exposition for the audience, thoroughly explaining the troubles of the main character and the scene you just saw”. I’ve seen better episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Their motivation makes about as much sense too — “tell me the truth!” “But they’ll kill my daughter!” “We can protect her!” “No you can’t!” “Tell me!” “Oh OK then.”

The villains aren’t just poorly drawn, they’re barely sketched at all. There’s an early scene where we see how Hard they are, then they just turn up in time for the climax and do little more than get chased around and die explosively, and in the wrong order to boot. At the very end, our heroes capture the one remaining bad guy… and then have a fight. Why? Because they do. And then all the police turn up and just watch this punch-up going on. It’s the thinnest excuse for a final fight ever put on film, and consequently the least tense — none of those officers are going to let the villain kill Riggs, and even if he did beat or kill him he’s not going to escape. There is literally no point to it. It’s appalling writing, and dire filmmaking to have left it in.

Oh, and Murtaugh smashes a car into his own front room for no reason.

Lethal Weapon probably wants to be a lot better than it is. Was it supposed to be a drama about these two cops with any old investigation plot stuck on, or a standard action-thriller with too much time spent on character? At best, it falls somewhere between the two — they’re not real characters (i.e. it wouldn’t pass as a drama if you cut out the thriller), each being made up of several stock Action-Thriller Hero traits; but nor is the plot the main focus, what with it being rather generic and not especially interesting or at all complex. The leads’ repartee and bonding is more interesting than the actual plot, and is surely the explanation for the film’s enduring popularity and three sequels, though to be honest I didn’t get it.

I’d always thought Lethal Weapon must be alright — after all, as I said, it’s had an enduring popularity and was written by Shane Black, who went on to both write and direct the thoroughly wonderful (and underrated) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr being fantastic a good few years before his popularity resurgence in Iron Man) — but having seen it, I struggle to see why people like it to any significant degree.

2 out of 5

ITV1 are showing Lethal Weapon tonight at 10:15pm.
Lethal Weapon is on Watch tonight, Tuesday 23rd September 2014, at 10pm.