Posts in: October 15th, 2010

Strange Invaders (1983)

Strange Invaders tries to serve up something resembling an homage to the cheesy, low-budget sci-fi films playing at 1950s drive-ins. On that level, it’s hard to judge if it was a conscious choice on director Michael Laughlin’s part to make nearly every scene much longer than it needs to be and give it the lugubrious pace of a Bert I. Gordon film. Whether conscious or unconscious, the film doesn’t work as a result. It lacks the wit and absurdity of a Zucker brothers spoof, it lacks the satirical edge of something like Night of the Creeps or Gremlins, so what’s left is a straight-up homage to ’50s B-movies that’s equally as bad as its predecessors.

Paul Le Mat is game as Charles Bigelow, a Columbia University entomology professor whose ex-wife (Diana Scarwid) disappeared while on a routine trip to her hometown. So Charles travels to rural Centerville, Illinois, a seemingly idyllic community with a dark secret: aliens invaded in 1958. Other than making the town feel like a Rod Serling creation, it’s unclear what impact the aliens had on the town. However, Charles soon realizes its creepy citizens don’t want him to leave, either. He narrowly escapes, and while on his way out of town, he sees one of the aliens.

Terrified, Charles returns to New York. He teams up with Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), a cynical reporter for a National Enquirer-like tabloid. She nearly laughs him out of the room when he approaches her about the aliens, but a series of strange happenings change her mind. It seems the aliens have followed Charles back to New York and want him dead—and now Betty, too, because she Knows Too Much. While on the run, they dig up information about what may have happened in Centerville, and they find themselves with no choice but to return and face the alien menace.

That probably sounds like a compelling story. It should be—it has all the elements of good/goofy sci-fi. Really, the only thing that kills this move is its glacial pace. Clearly shot on a low budget, Laughlin had to make some choices. It’s obviously not going to be as action-packed or effects-heavy as, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is parodied briefly in the opening scene), because the money’s not there. He wastes Le Mat and Allen, though. Both seem to be having fun, but this movie lacks the fast-paced, ratatat dialogue usually employed by producers like Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff to give a sense that something interesting is happening. Instead, it seems like everyone took a few Quaaludes before cameras started rolling. They speak very slowly, and long stretches of silence fill gaps between conversations. Le Mat and Allen try, in vain, to bring some energy to their scenes together, but they’re inhibited by a combination of poor editing and the dullness surrounding them.

This movie’s low budget and bizarre story sensibilities reminded me of filmmakers like John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. However, those directors did a much better job of working with actors and had a much clearer vision of what they wanted to accomplish cinematically. Laughlin’s adrift here, and Strange Invaders suffers as he tries to figure out not only what he wants his film to say, but how he should say it. This script and these actors would have been better served by someone more competent at the helm. Then again, Laughlin produced Two-Lane Blacktop, so maybe stilted conversations punctuated by long stretches of silence is his artistic vision. That’s fine for a bleak, existential road movie, but it doesn’t work here.

Don’t waste your time seeking out Strange Invaders. Other filmmakers have covered the same ground with much better results. It’s disappointing that the film wastes so much talent and potential.

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Love Life of a Gentle Coward [Ljubavni život domobrana] (2009)

Love Life of a Gentle Coward finds the source of its comedy through a deft exploration of gender roles in the modern world. It benefits from a strong screenplay by Pavo Marinković (who also directed) that, in some ways, feels like the sort of comedy Woody Allen would make if he were still in his prime. Aside from its neurotic examination of romance, the film works as a fairly deep rumination on the way social expectations have muddied the relationship waters.

The titular gentle coward, Saša (Nenad Cvetko), works as a meek culinary critic for a struggling newspaper. He’s a divorced father, intimidated by his ex-wife’s new beau, uncertain of how to act around anyone—especially women. His love interest, Ines (Dijana Vidušin), once played professional volleyball. A career-ending injury has left her unhappily working as a no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades in an all-male athletic club. After a particularly stressful week, Saša goes for a massage at the club. Ines is the masseuse.

A relationship starts to develop. Saša feels inferior not just to the men Ines has been involved with, but to Ines herself. Cvetko’s scrawny frame and sunken, sad eyes resemble a Croatian Steve Buscemi, which aids the character. He’s intimidated physically by nearly every character in the film, but Ines gives him some confidence. “Your balls are different,” she states after Saša’s self-pitying rant about his inability to stand up to the men threatening her at the club.

It’s a somewhat crude statement of theme. Saša spends most of his time thinking about how he lacks balls, but he’s ballsy in a brainy way. During their awkward first date—at an empty five-star restaurant he’s reviewing—Ines’s reaction (“I’d like a kebob from the stand across the street”) inspires a hostile screed against the snobbery and exclusionary tactics of fancy restaurants. It’s the sort of thing Saša’s editor has clamored for (“You keep writing essays. People want opinions. Badmouth, like a real journalist!”), but it’s too aggressive. Especially in light of the fact that the restaurateur is related to a vicious political candidate.

Politics play a role in the film that’s largely unnecessary to the story, but vitally important to its contribution to Croatian cinema. As you may know, Croats have had some…trouble. Marinković wisely relegates the political chicanery to the story’s background, but the upcoming election casts a long shadow over all the characters, no matter how seemingly apolitical.

Before long, Saša’s inferiority complex and somewhat pathetic attempts to both impress and protect Ines put the relationship in jeopardy. It’s here that Love Life of a Gentle Coward has ample opportunity to plunder bland American romantic-comedy clichés, but Marinković defies clichés at every turn. The end result is a film that’s rewarding for anyone who appreciates the odd mixed messages each gender receives about its role in society and relationships, yet it remains distinctly Croatian.

If you like your romantic comedies dark and male-focused, Love Life of a Gentle Coward is the best recent example that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it.

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