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

August 26, 2014

Let’s Be Cops

Two struggling friends from Ohio pretend to be LAPD cops, and are played by two TV actors pretending to be film stars. Is that meta?

lets2Justin Miller (Damon Wayans Jr) is a struggling video-game designer. He has a pitch for a tense realistic video game called Patrolman, but his boss Todd (Jonathan Lajoie) would rather check his phone than listen to it. Justin’s roommate Ryan O’Malley (Jake Johnson) lives off the proceeds of an unfortunate advertisement and ‘coaches’ local youngsters, including Little Joey (Joshua Ormond), as a way to relive his glory days as a college football quarterback. After being humiliated by Russian mobster Mossi Kevic (James D’Arcy), and being shunned by their old college buddies when they misinterpret masquerade ball for costume party, they discover their costumes hold the secret to self-esteem and pretend to be cops. Soon Justin is wooing waitress/make-up designer Josie (Nina Dobrev), and Ryan is helping Officer Segars (Rob Riggle) take down Mossi; which turns fun make-believe into dangerous reality.

Let’s Be Cops isn’t very funny. Some sequences (especially Justin’s second presentation) telegraph their punchlines, while others; the unfortunate name-tag of Chang on Justin’s uniform, invading the flat of nymphomaniac Annie (Natasha Leggero) to do a stakeout, impersonating a Dominican gangster Pupa (Keegan-Michael Key); just lead to quite uncomfortable routines. Perhaps it’s asking too much from director Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Role Models) and his co-screenwriter Nicholas Thomas (a former Playboy Entertainment executive), but haven’t we already seen a movie featuring the demented antics of cops trying to be cool? Wasn’t it called Superbad? And wasn’t everything that Seth Rogen and Bill Hader did in it far funnier than anything Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr do in this movie? The most interesting performance here is Riggle’s swivel on a nickel between boisterous bonhomie and wounded professional outrage.

Vampire Diaries star Dobrev is wasted as the token love interest, even though this will probably do more for her post-TV career than her far more interesting but smaller part in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. D’Arcy and Andy Garcia are victims of this movie’s thriller structure sucking out what little comedy oxygen there was.  I don’t watch Johnson’s shtick for free on New Girl so I can’t recommend paying to see it in a cinema. Wayans Jr’s shtick is far more interesting because it’s so puzzling. He prances around, flaps his hands, whinnies, and screams – what precisely am I supposed to be laughing at?  That, as Josie states, he’s a straight man who employs gay mannerisms? Is that funny? Am I misinterpreting in seeing here a coy way to laugh at gay people without laughing directly at them?

Let’s Be Cops isn’t a very memorable comedy, but neither is it truly obnoxious. It’s just well-staged mediocrity whose American success confirms a growing transatlantic chasm of comedic tastes.

2/5

January 17, 2014

Top Performances of 2013

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2013. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page (The East) Page is extremely menacing as the forceful Izzy, so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but almost mythological in her convictions and actions as lieutenant of eco-terrorists The East.

Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) Acting plaudits mysteriously went to Jessica Chastain’s petulant heroine, but it was Ehle’s humane turn as the wiser, more plausible agent that gave the film its emotional grounding.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (White House Down) Giving it EVERYTHING, she’s so ferociously committed, especially in scenes of betrayal and redemption, that her dignity makes all the nonsense around her plausible.

Runners Up:

Melanie Laurent (Now You See Me) To an extent Laurent is playing French Agent Mulder. She wants the criminals she’s hunting to employ real magicks – and her willingness stands in for the audience perfectly.

Elizabeth Debicki (Gatsby) Short-shrifted by Baz ,who deleted her final scene, the Aussie newcomer stood out as Jordan Baker, her drawling accent, flapper look, and careless air redeeming part of the film’s mess.

Lola Creton (Something in the Air) As the most sensible of all the young socialist revolutionaries we meet in early 1970s France she’s later sadly abandoned by the script, but has impressed enough to be missed…

Also Placed:

Rila Fukushima (Wolverine) As the petite samurai who teams up with Logan she’s instantly adorable as a warrior with a softer side.

Gal Gadot (Fast 6) Gadot is there for her looks, but she manages to inject an unexpected undercurrent of sadness to her part.

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Best Supporting Actor

James Franco (Spring Breakers) Franco’s turn as bling-adorned terrible rapper Alien, constantly muttering “for real” and “spring break forever”, was a terrific use of charisma to glamorise a seedy criminal.

Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) A Fassbendering Kingsley showed great range as he found very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tested the President live on TV.

Sam Shepard (Mud) His mysterious neighbour was a tour de force as he brought to life a character who keeps to himself yet has acquired over his life insight, wisdom, and ruthlessness he employs to guard a select few.

Jacob Lofland (Mud) Neckbone rode a motorbike and pilot a motorboat but he was a contemporary Tom Sawyer and newcomer Lofland was wonderfully naturalistic as the more cautious of the two teenagers.

Runners Up:

Keith Carradine (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Carradine puts his now considerable gravitas into his toughened by life mentor who has been hurt by his charges but is still deeply invested in assuring their happiness.

Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra) He was hysterically funny as a plastic surgeon whose eyes never seemed to quite fully open after a facelift and who seemed barely conscious at times as he pushed pills.

Samuel L Jackson (Django) An almost unrecognisable Jackson was sensational as the house slave Stephen, in the best acting performance he’s given in years he was racist beyond belief because it secured his status.

William H Macy (The Sessions) His priest was vital to the success of the film, as he counselled its crippled hero he mixed sincere but inept attempts at being matey with a forgiving theological approach.

Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Foster gave an unshowy performance as the taciturn face of the law, but it was a performance that didn’t seek to conceal a far sweeter note than his usual hard man.

Also Placed:

Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) Clarke was on fine form as the torturer par excellence who burns out from the job.

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) His radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was a very funny slice of TLJ with extra intelligence.

David Schwimmer (The Iceman) He was unrecognisable as the inept Jewish mobster trying to pass himself off as being Italian.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan) Arnie freaked out – in German! I want to see newly cuddly Arnie speak German more often.

Jim Carrey (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) Carrey is wonderfully callous and rude as an obnoxious David Blaine type.

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Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) Essaying a comic Blanche DuBois  she was able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. More extraordinarily she was also able to retain audience sympathy despite being vicious.

Brie Larson (Short Term 12) Larson is terrific as chief counsellor Grace, enigmatic even to her live-in boyfriend, she’s an unknowable figure who reveals little of herself for most of the film, and can switch from companionable and warm to commanding and cold in a second when needed.

Jennifer Lawrence (Catching Fire) Lawrence nuanced her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of her surrogate little sister, slain District 11 tribute Rue, was devastating and her final gesture in the Quarter Quell iconic.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed) Sullenness has never been so loveable. A sub-plot that’s dispensable puts a lot of pressure on a slight plot, and it’s hard to think anyone else could’ve pulled off this role. Plaza makes her intern both understandably saddened by her life and internally driven.

Runners Up:

Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) Gerwig was wonderfully convincing as the immature but winning graduate who hasn’t been as successful as her peers and desperately bluffs while she flails about trying to be an adult.

Rooney Mara (Side Effects, Aint Them Bodies Saints) Mara’s patient was compelling thru all her medicated character changes, while her domesticated outlaw gave nuanced glimpses of savagery behind the facade.

Amy Adams (Man of Steel) Adams was a fantastic Lois, abrasive, charming, romantic, and finally cinematically we got a reporter who discovered Superman’s true identity by dogged investigating!

Also Placed:

Mary-Louise Parker (RED 2) Parker had a tricky role as the overtly unnecessary element in a spy caper but she managed to pull it off with some remarkable absurdist comic timing in many of her scenes.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) McConaughey confirmed his renaissance by deploying all his charm and naivety to dramatic import as the superstitious fugitive hiding out from the law and Texans, and bonding with Ellis, as, with irrepressible romanticism, he waited for his true love Juniper.

Michael Shannon (The Iceman) Shannon was chilling as the cold-blooded contract killer, not least as he displayed little conflict; a stunning scene in which he gave James Franco time to pray to God confirmed this; yet his love for his family kept you rooting for his Atlantic City property scheme to pay off.

Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) Douglas gave his best sustained performance since Traffic in an uninhibited performance, unafraid to show the ‘vanity gone mad’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice, that created a character of insatiable appetites, misused talent, and confused religiosity.

Runners Up:

Casey Affleck (Aint Them Bodies Saints) Affleck was on fine form as an outlaw possessed of such romantic passion that his violent outbursts seemed less criminal than regrettably necessary to find true love.

Tye Sheridan (Mud) Sheridan gave a subtle turn as the teenager enduring the disintegrating marriage of his parents who reacted to the loss of his riverside life by appropriating Mud’s belief in everlasting love.

John Hawkes (The Sessions) Hawkes’ performance was showy in the sense that he physically discomforted himself to play the real-life polio victim and poet, but it only worked because he was so very funny.

Also Placed:

Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 3) Sure he complicated Stark with some panic attacks but the real triumph was the envelope-pushing abrasiveness to a helpful kid that only Downey Jr could get away with.

Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) Goyer’s script too often merely sketched personalities but luckily once Cavill donned the suit he transformed vocally and grew into the role as a rather good Superman.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby) DiCaprio did his damndest to just ignore Baz’s shtick and play F Scott’s Gatsby, and if you’ve seen Revolutionary Road, you’ll know he can perform the novels, not bad scripts.

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