Talking Movies

October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

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Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

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July 18, 2013

The Frozen Ground

Nicolas Cage’s Alaskan state trooper hunts down John Cusack’s sadistic serial killer in a dramatisation of the real-life Robert Hansen case in early 1980s Alaska.

IMG_2828.CR2Teenage prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is found by police officers in an Alaskan motel room; handcuffed, badly beaten, and distraught. She claims she was raped by pillar of the community Robert Hansen (John Cusack), so the brass instantly dismiss her accusations. However, after the discovery of a dead girl in the Alaskan wilds, state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcome (Nicolas Cage) reopens Cindy’s case as he suspects that there is a serial killer targeting young prostitutes like her, and that she is the one that got away… But keeping Cindy safe while he builds a case against Hansen without enraging the local PD is complicated for Halcome both by Cindy’s distrust and her pimp (50 Cent) forcing her to work the streets; because Hansen is prowling those sidewalks eager to find the loose end that could unravel his secret life.

This is the second film in as many months about a family man who secretly mass murdered his way thru the 1970s and 1980s, but this is not The Iceman. Hansen dominates his religious wife Fran (Katherine LaNasa) but keeps his true darkness hidden, and we never get any real sense of his inner life. By focusing on the procedural element of Halcome’s investigation Antipodean writer/director Scott Walker produces a cold detachment which feels oddly like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV show. Patrick Murguia’s murky handheld camerawork is of course radically different, but at times you can feel you’re watching a basic cable version of Criminal Minds; a feeling reinforced when overly cautious DA (Kurt Fuller) rubbishes the report by one of the FBI’s new ‘profilers’. And that’s before noticing the supporting TV faces: Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Michael McGrady (Hawaii Five-O), Brad William Henke (LOST).

At some point Hudgens will stop trying to shock us to shed her Disney image, and we’ll finally be able to judge if she can actually act. But that point is still in the future. Her (flagged as ‘all-the-way’) drugged-up striptease here is mightily uncomfortable, as is the amount of offhand female nudity given that the film ends with a montage of the victims to whom the film is dedicated; mostly sex-workers, which renders such gratuitousness earlier tacky at best. Indeed it’s quite shocking how McGrady’s vice detective tolerates public prostitution, even down to negotiating with the Mob over questioning their hookers who work off-street, so long as things are kept reasonably under control. Differently shocking is Radha Mitchell’s thankless role as Mrs Halcome, who explicitly prioritises keeping one distressed hooker out of her house over catching a prolific murderer. Such considerations only come to mind because the sadism of Hansen is presented to us in vignettes played merely for tension rather than character analysis.

Walker stages a tense chase finale, and a nice tactical gambit from Halcome’s boss (Kevin Dunn), but his film while satisfying lacks true insight.

3/5

May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

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Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

June 14, 2012

How Endings Start

The lyrics of a Metric song set me considering exactly what a movie needs to do so that you can’t leave early because you need to know how it ends.

I’ve only walked out of two films in the cinema, and both of those were because I had to be somewhere else urgently. Oddly enough, both of them were also films that were so out of whack with the three act structure that I didn’t feel I was going to miss a revelation by leaving early. Perhaps the devotion to the three act structure which I’ve rampaged against previously on this blog is down to that notion – that if you start with a beginning, move on to a middle, and finish with an ending, most of the audience will feel unable to leave before the end because they’ll have been sufficiently hooked by the narrative structure to need to follow it to its logical conclusion, even if they don’t like the film, indeed, especially if they don’t like the film.

I have given up on two acclaimed films after 100 or so minutes because of a complete lack of interest, despite their three act structure. The meme-monster Downfall I found to be tedious beyond repair because every 10 minutes seemed, like a variation on a musical theme, to bring a scene in which the paranoid Hitler ranted about whoever had ‘betrayed’ him this time “Of all the people who could have betrayed me at this moment in time, INSERT NAME would have been the last I would have expected.” The English Patient saw me switch off during the scene where Willem Dafoe had his thumbs cut off, as I realised that not only did I not care what happened to any of the characters, but that nothing that happened next could recompense me for the boredom of getting that far.

I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to these films, which some good friends adore, but the simple fact is that they failed to hook me. So, what is the hook? I think the hook of a movie might be usefully compared to the cold open of a TV show. An episode of CSI or Criminal Minds can often force me to watch it, almost against my will, by hooking my interest with a bizarre cold open – my mind shouts not to change channels because it wants to know how such an odd crime could have been committed and by whom. The great opening of a TV show is not that dissimilar to the first 10 pages of a movie script which is tasked with introducing a world, some likeable characters, and how that world is now going to change.


Of course the simplest way in a movie to hook the viewer is a trick still used quite often on TV shows of starting with an outrageously high-stakes or simply baffling scene, and then flashing ‘2 days previously’ as the episode builds to that conclusion. A trick inherited from the noir movies of the 1940s. Think 1948’s classic suspense The Big Clock which begins with Ray Milland on a window-ledge of his own building trying to evade capture and narrating the question the audience is asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Safe’s previously discussed opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual noirish hook but it was still devoted to presenting an overly dramatic high-stakes scenario so that after some mucking about in time we mutter like a 1940s cinemagoer ‘Ah, this is where we came in’.

But if presenting a snippet of the ending at the beginning (almost an ironic anticipation of Godard’s dictum about a movie needing a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) is the surest way to hook the audience to want to know the ending it must be admitted that some films are so disastrous that they can be enjoyed anyway you care to. I for instance have never seen the first or last hour of Pearl Harbour, but I have repeatedly laughed myself sick at the absurdist hour of CGI bombast in the middle where Tom Sizemore fires at attacking Japanese planes with a shotgun and someone sincerely yells “I think WWII just started”. Likewise I’ve long since reduced The Matrix Reloaded to a number of de-contextualised action sequences with no Frenchmen or Architects anywhere.

As the Prophet Chuck on Supernatural said “Endings are hard”, but hooking the audience so they care enough to want to know the awesome/atrocious ending is an equally dark art.

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