MVFF '09: Dark and Stormy Night, The Missing Person, The Red Machine


I hesitate to refer to these movies as leftovers because they're actually some of the highlights of the festival for me, but through my own fault, they just fell on the wayside as I was covering the Mill Valley Film Festival. So now I'm posting my late reviews of Larry Blamire's B-movie spoof Dark and Stormy Night, Noah Buschel's noir deconstruction The Missing Person, and Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm's period heist flick The Red Machine.

Coincidentally, all three films happen to sport a very retro feel and make use of outdated lingo effectively.

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Dark and Stormy Night

Larry Blamire continues with this film his spoofing of classic B-movies following the semi-popular Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (and its lesser known sequel), culled from the tradition of the Dark House pictures. The plot is of the familiar Agatha Christie variety: suspicious characters trapped in a closed-off space, dying one by one while an investigator at the center tries to crack the case before it's too late. Everyone's a suspect because everyone has a motive. In this case, a generous inheritance. In Blamire's hands, this is the perfect set-up for some off-kilter hijinks.

The mystery plot stops being interesting some ways in, but that's expected when a film deliberately switches between genre cliches to keep itself afloat. It adopts those murder mystery tropes and turns them into old-timey gags, which is just bloody marvelous. A dead body with a "You're next!" note pinned on it turns into a classic "Who's On First?" routine, with everyone reading the note assuming that the "you" is them. In a running gag, someone always turns up dead when the lights go out (the light switch was flipped); the joke is that the deaths get increasingly elaborate as the darkened period shorter.

Blamire's cast of characters are just a colorful name short of being Clue pieces, using all the stock murder mystery suspects. There's the maid, the creepy butcher, the big game hunter, the psychic, the eccentric aristocrat and even an escaped mental patient—don't forget the thunderstorm, being yet another familiar character to add. The troupe of actors playing them recreate the period's acting style with hysterical accuracy, to the point where sometimes it's hard to tell if a line reading is supposed to be humorous or not. Does it matter? The dialogue is a  winning combination of screwball banter and self-aware irony, with ridiculous lines that Ed Wood would mistake for literary smarts: "From the angle of the knife, it looks like he was stabbed in the back!"

While the story is fast and loose and not too engaging, credit goes to how fresh the wit is maintained throughout the film, only drying up in certain scenes that are unnecessary to begin with. When it just relies on the actors being together in a room tripping each other up, it's a regular crackerjack, see?


The Missing Person

Of all the latest attempts to update, modernize or contextualize the noir genre, The Missing Person has what is probably the most original take of them all. I'm not entirely convinced that it works all the way, but somehow that makes the film all the more fascinating; as if its presence, temperament and movements are a commitment to being as enigmatic as the nature of the genre it borrows. Film noir often gets bottled as a seedy trek through the realm of amorality, but that literal crime-at-the-turn-of-a-corner interpretation is what shapes ordinary suspense thrillers, which often ignores the poetry of noir's best. The Missing Person is interesting because it does the complete opposite: it strips the genre of its pulp roots and makes a vested interest in only the inner-self wringers and the artsy milieu. It's as much—actually, more—about what mood it wants to leave behind as it is about what plot points it wants to get across.

The film begins like any other textbook noir, with an alcoholic private eye (Michael Shannon, in a role that fits him as snug as Jake Gittes fit Jack Nicholson) hired to find a missing person. It's a familiar scenario that later leads to a more unfamiliar investigation. Before you know it, the shadows of a day that has sadly come to define our 21st century—you know what day I'm talking about—plays into the story and our characters are left facing the weight of emotional closure.

What actually happens, or how the case concludes, seem so terribly trivial when it's looked back upon. Writer/director Noah Buschel makes it more rewarding for us to savor the scenes of Shannon's gumshoe John Rosow (a phonetic anagram of "sorrow"? Maybe I'm projecting...) drinking in bars, acting as window dressing for the robust cinematography; as jazzy tunes set the ambiance and Shannon fires off Bogey one-liners that don't always come out smoothly from his mouth. Buschel very cleverly exploits Shannon's naturally gauche demeanor to craft a noir hero that looks like he doesn't know what he's doing—and often acts the part, too.

Maybe I'm selling it short by making it sound more elusive than it really is. I mean, okay, it's a pretty damn elusive film, but it's fairly instinctual to connect to. It's about grief and placement and all that petty existential shit we worry about in our lives, transplanted into the world of vague instructions, secret dossiers and disembodied phone calls. It's captivating, but also emotionally restless; like the burn of bourbon that refuses to leave your throat. I want to taste it again, just to know if I drank it right the first time.


The Red Machine

One of the most purely entertaining films of the festival, this Prohibition-era tweak on the heist movie takes place in 1935, with World War II just on the horizon. Operating at a disadvantage due to the Japanese’s unbreakable codes, the Navy sanctions a mission to steal a code machine from a Japanese Naval Attache’s home in Washington D.C., enlisting the help of detained safecracking-wisecracking thief Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Capello). Guarding him on the mission is Lt. F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), who’s somewhat disgraced among his peers for a past incident in Japan that we only learn through flashes.

While its heist is smalltime (the target is in a relatively low-security residence rather than elaborately guarded), keeping the film fun is the challenge of having to steal the code machine without having it appear missing, lest they start a foreign relations nightmare. It also just so happens that the residents are familiar with Coburn.

Eddie and Coburn are the classic buddy movie duo, the former being a shrewd opportunist while the other’s all-business. What keeps Coburn from being a one-note straight man is a subdued stonewall performance by Perkins, who slowly chips away Coburn’s stiff demeanor as we find out more about the Japan incident—and it’s a more earnest backstory than you’d first expect. The period setting itself is surprisingly easy to buy, adding novelty to the admittedly simple story, despite the fact that it’s mostly limited to interiors. This is largely thanks to Eddie’s constant spout of period lingo, which Capello pulls off with just enough pulp attitude to go along with—even if they come off as forced at times.

I don’t foresee The Red Machine grabbing a whole lot of people, but it’s a solid small-scale heist movie that really nails exactly what it sets out to do. More than likely, it will brighten up those intrigued enough to seek it.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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