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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April 10, 2014

Calvary

John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

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Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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