Monday, October 26, 2015

Put a Fork In it

Anyone who ever took an acting class, particularly during a summer program or high school elective, is probably familiar with Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology.  The 1915 project is a collection of first-person poems that when put together, paint a deep and sad portrait of the humans that make up a small town. Budding young thespians have, for generations, been assigned a page or two as a monologue. Perhaps one of those young would-be actors was Scott A. Meehan, a writer/director who made his only (thus far) film with 2000’s The Mystery of Spoon River.

Quick Plot: Emma Masters is a corporate attorney trying her darndest to work off her small town history in big city Chicago.  Her rhythm of angry phone calls and people flinching at her power is disrupted when her younger sister calls in need of some legal assistance.

Hopping in her sleek convertible, Emma makes her way back to Spoon River to help her brother-in-law/ex-boyfriend Jesse get out of a confusing murder charge. Jesse was out raccoon hunting one night with his pal Skeeter (because any movie with a bumpkin better have a Skeeter) when they were spooked by some kind of ghostly activity. A gunshot went off, and the police eventually discovered the fatally shot body of a game warden who happened to be black.

Enter a Gail Weathers-y reporter to misinterpret the term “coon hunting” and set off a chain of drama in the otherwise quiet hamlet. Rumors of a racially motivated murder bring in a skeevy team of FBI agents, struggling politicians looking to grab some good PR, and sad little chapter of the KKK. Stuck in the mess is Emma as she tries to save Jesse by digging up the dark secrets of Spoon River.

How to describe The Mystery of Spoon River...

Let’s say you have a friend--or maybe carpool mate- who really likes stand-up comedy. He’s not the funniest guy in your circle or even your Buick, but his heart fully belongs to the art form so much that one day he announces he has rented a theater and will perform an hour-long set. He hasn’t had much or any professional practice, but you know that he’s been rehearsing with a hairbrush microphone in front of his bedroom mirror for years.

You go to the show because all of the good excuses for not going were already taken by the rest of the carpool team. The programs are printed on good quality thick paper stock. The ushers are polite even if they have no idea what they’re seating you for. The chairs are more comfortable than you’d expect. The lighting is good. The sound design isn’t terribly muddled. The production, in a word, is professional...ish.

That’s essentially The Mystery of Spoon River. The lead actors are capable enough, while the ones who show up for a scene or two are, well, less so. The location is rather beautiful and feeds perfectly into the atmosphere of this middle-of-nowhere town rotting away from within. 

But you know, the movie...

Meehan clearly had ambitions. He wanted to explore the idea of a town with secrets eating away at itself, which is great in theory but bad when executed without skill. There’s so much going on between the ill-defined murder, random cemetery loiterer, political drama, greasy FBI witch hunt, and occasional ghost sightings. Early on, we’re introduced to a circle of powerful men who run the finances of Spoon River. 80 minutes later, they come back into play via a 50 year old anecdote told by another character. Meehan has potential in how he tries to lay out Spoon River’s complicated past, but it’s clearly far more interesting and clear to him than it ever comes across to its audience.

High Points
From its rotting cemeteries to autumn leaves, the look of The Mystery of Spoon River is quite striking and goes a long way in establishing the titular town

Low Points
...a town where a lot is going on but none of it seems very interesting

Lessons Learned
The War of 1812 was so long ago

The word “everything” means the universe of all things

You can’t stir an empty pot and expect to end up with mashed potatoes (unless it’s a really awesome bewitched pot)


I have a feeling that the only audience that would actually care about or enjoy The Mystery of Spoon River is that same population of once-young-wannabe-acting students who skimmed through Masters’ poems long ago. It’s too light to be a horror film, too dark to be your grandmother’s mystery, too good to be so-bad-it’s-good, too spoon to be fork, and so on. I enjoyed the film for its earnestness, and at less than 90 minutes on Netflix Instant, it won’t ruin your life if you take the gamble. But I have a hard time thinking of who else might get something out of this one. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Editing For Dummies

Let it never be said that I have good taste. 

I just need to put that statement in print before detailing how much I enjoyed today’s rather terrible feature.

Quick Plot: Rachel is a “journalist” (I say it this way because her credentials include “finishing journalism school”, so forgive my distrust) renting a home in a mysterious New England village in the hopes of writing a (journalism) article on its history of isolation and ergot poisoning. Her roommate is a bland wannabe screenwriter named Greg who spends most of his time asking Rachel what she’s doing. 


Rachel finds one chatty villager (and that’s how they all refer to themselves) named Paul and played by “that guy!” Richard Riehle. Paul warns Rachel that nobody else in town will talk, and that her life is in danger. He mentions the town’s history of ergot poisoning, and how her life is in danger. He also tells her not to trust anybody and that her life is in danger. 


Also, her life might be in danger.

For someone like me, The Secret Village is a gift from the heavens. 


Writer/director Swamy Kandan was, I’m guessing, super stoked to make a movie. Perhaps he got even more excited when he found a box called “sound cues” and proceeded to--


--use them. A. Lot. 

The Secret Village is in no way a good movie, but boy was it made for me! Kandan uses every possible filmmaking tool at his disposal to make EXTREME editing and post-production choices, inserting flashbacks, stock music, oddly cut flash forwards, and a twist ending that M. Night Shyamalan probably toyed with in middle school. 

It all adds up to something bizarrely earnest and even more terrible. Aforementioned laser sound cues were not an exaggeration: they happen, and it’s just as ridiculous as you think. In a good way. Providing you love bad movies. 

Wait, if you don’t, why do you read this blog?

High Points
Everyone, from the actors to the guy charged with lint rolling the black robes, certainly seems to be trying their best

Low Points
But you know, that doesn't mean they do a good job

Lessons Learned
Savvy 21st century journalists research most of their stories via soccer mom minivan transportation

If someone says they’re from “the cape,” they probably, like, oops, totally mean Cape Cod

New England gravestones from the long ago era of 1999 tend to age at an expedited rate, rendering them akin to ancient markers or Halloween props


It’s wrong of me to recommend The Secret Village to anyone with actual taste, but those who love a hard-trying bad movie will certainly get plenty of chuckles out of this one. You can’t say it doesn’t try. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

I See No Aliens! No Really: They're Invisible, I Don't See Them

When TCM Underground airs a film whose description boils down to "alien zombies in business suits," you're not going to get much of an argument out of me.

Quick Plot: In the years following the nuclear devastation of World War II, many scientists became hesitant to continue exploring atomic physics. After his colleague Karol Noymann is killed in a lab explosion, Dr. Adam Penner decides to step away from science altogether. 

Things change significantly when Adam is visited by Karol's reanimated corpse, now occupied by an alien invader issuing a warning: tell the world to surrender or his space companions will take over the rest earth's dead bodies and wreak havoc upon the entire planet. We are invisible aliens who have been living on the moon, and now, we want to eff you up.

Shockingly, the general public doesn't quite buy the initial message.

A few demonstrations are in order, as the aliens make some pit stops at large sporting events to spread their message. For added dramatic effect, they also begin destroying major buildings, bridges, and dams across the world. Worst of all, they make good on their promise to take over recent corpses, lumbering through the streets in the guise of the deceased.

Yes indeed, Invisible Aliens is an early zombie film, and surprisingly good one at that. While the selling point for me may have indeed been "alien zombies in business suits," the final product is creepy, quick, and rewarding. Director Edward Cahn attacks the material from a smart and timely standpoint, making our main characters an interesting assortment of post-war types. We start with the scientists dealing with the guilt of atomic warfare and now having to re-enter the aggressive developments to save the world again. Later, a regular ol’ American soldier becomes a key player in addressing the morality of zombie/ghost/alien warfare.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Invisible Aliens--this here early zombie film that I’ve never heard mentioned in film discussion before--was viewed by a young George Romero some time before hauling a film crew to Pittsburgh. While there were certainly zombie movies prior to this one, the shambling corpses on display here are easily the closest thing I’ve seen a genuine precursor to Night of the Living Dead. When you smartly stuff that narrative into a swift 67 minutes, you’re doing a lot right. 

High Points
While the effects are certainly dated, the basic concept and design of these invisible corpse renting invaders is quite unnerving 

Low Points
This really has nothing to do with the film, but when I google image search “invisible aliens,” all that comes up first are stills from what might be the most infuriating film I’ve ever reviewed here, The Darkest Hour. Yes, it has invisible aliens, but it’s also THE STUPIDEST THING YOU SHOULD NEVER SEE.

Rant. Over.

Lessons Learned
It's pretty difficult to convince the American public that the planet is about to be invaded by invisible space invaders who possess corpses without a hint of evidence

Invisible moon people do not lift their feet when they walk

The best place to start spreading a message of planetary invasion is Syracuse, NY


Any zombie lover who hasn’t seen Invisible Aliens should definitely carve out a whopping 67 minutes to sneak it in. This isn’t the best sci-fi horror film to come out of the ‘50s, but it’s far better than many and offers a whole lot to enjoy in its brief running time. In the current open encyclopediac culture of cinema, I’m surprised it’s not discussed more often. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

...Unless They're Hot Men With Ponytails

Has there been a modern actor who gives more to his roles than Antonio Banderas? The man somehow manages to act to the tippy tip of his ebony ponytail, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the many steamy thrillers he did in the ‘90s.

And also, elaborate European photo shoots

Quick Plot: Dr. Sarah Taylor (fresh off rocking the cradle Rebecca De Mornay) is a criminal psychologist trying to figure out if rapist/murderer Harry Dean Stanton is actually crazy or faking insanity for his upcoming trial. Being a career woman, her home life is naturally lonely and sad. Sarah’s apartment is home to an affectionate cat (yes, you should be worried) and a few pictures of her ex-boyfriend, who mysteriously vanished without a trace a year earlier. She also has a deadbeat alcoholic dad trying a little too hard to return to her life.

One night, Sarah has a wine-fueled meet-cute with a handsome stranger named Tony played with all the smoldering sexiness that can be contained by Antonio Banderas’s ponytail holder. 

The pair begin what may very well be one of the most complicated relationships I’ve ever seen portrayed in a mainstream film. After a successful date, they go to a carnival where Tony shows off his shooting skills to a nervous Sarah. While we’re not talking Darkman TAKE THE F*CKING ELEPHANT levels of tension, Sarah is rattled and proceeds to call everything off, storming out of Tony’s sparsely furnished industrial loft with attitude, only to turn around and come back in for some aggressive industrial loft cage sex set to the tune of your typical ‘90s saxophone solo.

Things keep getting weird for Sarah. Following a mysterious delivery of dead flowers, she receives a serial killer style note pointing her towards a newspaper obituary of herself. Also, her slaughtered cat shows up in a parcel. 

Now, it’s personal.

Despite the fact that Sarah is working on a high-profile case of an imprisoned murderer, the cops’ reaction to her receiving threats and a dead cat is essentially “here’s the business card of a private investigator that can probably do a better job than we can.” 

Much mystery follows, and it’s a pretty fun ride. What kind of dark secrets are lurking in Tony’s body hair? Could upstairs neighbor Dennis Miller be jealous to the point of kitticide? Has Sarah’s dad returned with other motives than reconciliation? Is Harry Dean Stanton (side note: I am apparently incapable of not writing his name as “Harry Dead Stanton”; sorry Hank) using some outside clout to scare his doctor to his side? Can you ever trust a former cop who drinks chamomile tea?

These questions and many more are answered in a rather glorious manner with Never Talk To Stranger’s gleeful finale, one that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. The best part about the insane zaniness of it all is that when you think back on the film, the bizarre twist (and I do mean bizarre) in no way comes out of nowhere. Savvy viewers shouldn’t be shocked.

Even though it’s REALLY kind of ridiculous.

There were a lot of steamy dramatic thrillers that came out in the ‘90s, and most of them involved the kind of poster art that gave us serious closeups of its stars staring out at the potential audience, sometimes with unclothed but still PG-13 rated body parts padding out the frame. Never Talk To Strangers is indeed one such film, but unlike many of its peers, it delivers on its promise. Is it a masterpiece? Heavens no. Does it involve Antonio Banderas pouring wine with the same kind of machismo you’d normally find in a Rambo movie? Yes indeed. 

Isn’t life grand?

High Points

Perhaps even more notably, this film has a montage that involves Rebecca De Mornay and Antonio Banderas involved in slow-motion trust exercises, playing in the snow, and bedroom sex that finds the oddest use of a satin sheet I've ever seen, and easily an early influence on The Human Centipede

Low Points
I suppose one could find fault with the odd pacing of the film’s first hour, which has a bizarrely hard time finding any kind of basis in keeping Sarah’s career, budding romance, and death threats in a kind of tandem that makes sense

Lessons To How You Know You’re Watching A ‘90s Movie
Dennis Miller plays the ex-love interest and now slightly sleazy platonic friend who ends up in the hospital

One could go to an airport and randomly choose different flights to board two minutes before take-off with only the slightest security check

A garbage disposal in every home was simply the lay of the land


Sadly Never Talk To Strangers seems to be a hard find. It’s a shame because this is the kind of film that’s perfect for one of those “everybody rediscovers it on Netflix and talks about how bonkers it is for a week” renewals. I can’t recommend anyone spends hard-earned cash on this, but if you can track it down at your local library (WHICH SHOULD BE YOUR BEST FRIEND ANYWAY) or video store, it’s more than worth a watch with a vintage bottle of pinot noir as recommended by a sexy Spanish man with a ponytail and ridiculous apartment.

And if you can't track down the film but need some sort of fix, I give you this: