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Column Fri Sep 05 2014

Life After Beth, A Five Star Life, The Last of Robin Hood, The Congress & The Identical


Life After Beth

I firmly believe that the only genre that more difficult to get right than horror is horror comedy. And we're still living in a post-Shaun of the Dead world, in the same way we were living in a post-Reservoir Dogs world for 10 years after that landmark film. As a result, the zombie comedy has had its fair share of hits and misses since Edgar Wright's 2004 master class is finding the humor in horrific situations, rather than simply cracking jokes, acting silly, and having every character act like exaggerated versions of human beings. With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to Life After Beth, from writer-director Jeff Baena (a credited writer on I Heart Huckabees and boyfriend to Life After Beth star Aubrey Plaza).

The film begins with the untimely death of Beth Slocum (Plaza), whose boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) really really misses her. In the period right after Beth's passing, Zach and her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) actually get closer as their shared love of Beth brings them together. Then suddenly, Mr. Slocum stops returning Zach's calls and the family hides when he comes to their house. After about three minutes of investigating, Zach discovers that the Slocums are hiding a returned-from-the-dead Beth, who they consider a miracle from the heavens, but is actually her being a zombie who can still talk and reason and not eat human flesh (at least not right away).

I suppose on a certain level, Life After Beth could be seen as a metaphor for how we idealize those who are no longer with us and forget just how miserable they made us when they were around. But that interpretation of this film doesn't really make sense because it's acknowledged that Beth is not the same person she was before she died. Beth's memory of the weeks leading up to her death is fuzzy, so Zach conveniently doesn't mention that the two were on something of a break when she died, so they weren't technically dating.

Before long, other dead people in this community start returning, forgetting that they have died, and try to pick up their lives and jobs as if years haven't passed. After some time, they also start to crave human flesh, but that almost seems like a minor threat compared to the heartbreak Beth is causing Zach by acting so aggressive and mean to him. The basic problem with Life After Beth is that once the premise is suitably stated, it doesn't have anywhere to go. Actually, that's not entirely accurate; there are many places this strong setup could have gone, but it's like writer-director Baena thought the premise was strong enough to carry the day and didn't bother to write a second half to this movie.

Also left swinging in the breeze with nothing to do are supporting cast members, including Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines as Zach's blissfully ignorant and painfully not fleshed-out parents, as well as Anna Kendrick's Erica, an old crush of Zach's who pops up as a possible love interest just as Beth starts to act crazy and hungry. But the bottom line is that Life After Beth isn't funny about 90 percent of the time, doesn't really break any new ground on the zombie front, and feels like a wasted opportunity for this talented young cast to mesh with these great comedy vets. As it is, it's a lazy, frustrating, sometimes anger-inducing mess of a film that I'm sure was a blast to make and no fun to watch. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

A Five Star Life

One of the strangest and funniest aspects of A Five Star Life is its claim in the opening credits that it was produced with the support of "the Leading Hotels of the World," which is actually an association of high-end hotels that are regularly visited by people known as "mystery guests." And although you'd expect that these plush establishments would be made to look like touchstones of fine living, in fact, some of them are judged rather harshly during the course of the story. And while the hotels' names aren't specifically mentioned during the film, if you want to know where they are, just sit through the end credits, where they are curiously listed.

These highly trained, top secret evaluators put five-star hotels to the test to determine if they are worthy of their rating, and according to this film, Irene Lorenzi (played by the great Margherita Buy) is one of the toughest judges around, but at the cost of anything resembling a fulfilling personal life. In a strange way, the film has the trappings of a romantic comedy but without an actual love interest. There's old boyfriend Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) to whom she's still close, but he's in the early stages of a romance with Fabiana (Alessia Barela). There's even one moment on one of Irene's work trips where she meets a mysterious, handsome gentleman who seems primed to seduce her, but at the crucial moment where they might land up in one of their rooms, he confesses that he's happily married and says goodnight.

A Five Star Life is about a woman in her late 40s who sees different types of relationships all around her and is attempting to discover if any of them are right for her. Her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) has a husband and two children, but seems woefully unhappy while she never stop imposing her choices on her sister, wondering when Irene is going to settle down since she's no "spring chicken." It isn't until a trip to Berlin where Irene meets British author Kate (Lesley Manville), whose life and beliefs seem to be a template for a happy life, but even that brief example of happiness for Irene bottoms out almost as soon as it settles into her head.

Director and co-writer Maria Sole Tognazzi (The Man Who Loves, Past Perfect) refuses to let Irene get comfortable in any of her life decisions. Just when she seems to have a workable schedule that allows her some free time to socialize, two co-workers quit, thus tripling her workload (albeit for considerably more money). She attempts to form a closer bond with her young nieces by taking them on a work trip in Italy, but even that takes a turn for the worse. Irene has built a career of holding things around her to such an impossible standard, and this detail-oriented lifestyle has clearly seeped into the rest of her world.

A Five Star Life is also something of a travelogue film, and truly the opulence and service on display is exceptional, which makes it all the more strange that as soon as the audience is ready to book that trip to Italy or Morocco or Paris or Shanghai, Irene swoops in and begins telling us where these grand hotels have gone so wrong. Apparently in one establishment, the wine was served 2 degrees too warm — the horror!

As someone exposed to countless, predictable on-screen tales of lonely people with great jobs, with love presumably right around the corner, it's refreshing to see a character like Irene, who never wants us to feel sorry for her. She tells those around her that she is okay living alone, even if occasionally she gets lonely, and after a while we start to believe her. She is something of a closed-off person, but there are moments when we see that she does actually care about others. When she spots poor treatment of a young couple at one of the hotels she's visiting, she makes it very clear to the manager that she'll be knocking down their rating and that just because the couple has never been to a five-star hotel before doesn't give the staff the right to treat them like lepers.

Margherita Buy absolutely sells and saves this film from delving into cliche and makes A Five Star Life into something close to life affirming. Its actual message lies closer to a philosophy that it's sometimes alright to be content with your life but still hold out hope that it might get better when you're least expecting it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Last of Robin Hood

I've actually read reviews for this film that accuse it (in a negative way) of being sleazy and tabloid-ish, only focusing on the tasteless bits of the last couple years in the life of famed actor and action hero Errol Flynn. To that I respond: no shit, because there's really no other way to examine this or most other parts of Flynn's life. Christ, the man titled his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways for very specific reasons, several of which are lovingly re-created in the film The Last of Robin Hood, from writers-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who collaborated on the wonderful film QuinceaƱera, and are/were affiliated with "America's Next Top Model" in some way).

The film concentrates on Flynn (played with the appropriate charm of a former swashbuckler by Kevin Kline) and the final love affair of his life, with would-be actress-dancer-singer Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning), whose mother Florence (Susan Sarandon) often accompanied the pair on movie shoots, trips and other social gatherings to make their being together seem more sanctioned. In truth, Florence was living vicariously through her largely talentless daughter, who was all of 15 when she started sleeping with Flynn and only 17 when he died in 1959. The press didn't pay much attention to Aadland (or Flynn for that matter) before his death, but the coupling was thrown into the tabloid spotlight when he died, and Florence in particular was attacked viciously in the press (rightfully so).

Much of The Last of Robin Hood is told in flashbacks as Florence is granting an interview to author Tedd Thomey (who went on to write the book The Big Love about the affair), and the way the relationship is portrayed is very loving, but it's also clear that Flynn is something of a predatory force when it comes to young women. Thanks to Florence, Beverly had a fake birth certificate that made her seem older so she could receive roles in films legally, but it also gave Flynn plausible deniability if he got caught. If anything Kline is perhaps a bit too spot-on charming and makes it too easy for us to forgive the fact that he's playing a statutory rapist. Not that the filmmakers attempt to make light of or dismiss that fact, quite the contrary: it's brought up more than once.

Fanning is actually quite good as Beverly, and I was especially impressed when she's called upon to "act" with about as much conviction as Beverly could ever muster. At the same time, Beverly is in no way portrayed as a victim; she plays the part of the doting girlfriend quite convincingly, and she clearly loved Flynn despite his elicit behavior. Beverly is portrayed as a woman with class, dignity and forgiveness (mostly aimed at her spotlight-craving mother) in her heart. Never is there a suggestion that she was after Flynn's money or was comfortable achieving any amount of fame as a performer that wasn't earned.

The Last of Robin Hood is sometimes tough to feel comfortable embracing, but only because of its torrid subject matter. The performances are quite good, the depth to which the filmmakers look at the practices of powerful men are not always pretty but usually honest, and in the end, it doesn't feel criminal for the audience to root for this girl to come out of these events with her reputation untarnished (sadly, that isn't what happened). We know that Beverly's story isn't unique; it just got more attention than most because of Flynn untimely death (he was only 50) after an alcohol- and cigarette-fueled life. This is a far easier film to enjoy than you might think, and if you're a fan of tales of old Hollywood, fasten your seats belts...

The Congress

I'm not sure I could pass a test on all that happens in The Congress, but I know that I liked what I saw. The set up is deceptively simple. Actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself, a woman who gained immense fame because of The Princess Bride and then never capitalized on it — at least that's her story according to her manager Al (Harvey Keitel). Instead, this version of Wright opted to spend time with her kids, Sarah (Sami Gayle) and the sickly Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee). And now that she's past her prime role-getting years in the real world, Al offers her an alternative that apparently other actors are secretly taking advantage of.

As explained by "Miramount" studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, in full scumbag smiley mode), Wright will have her entire body scanned digitally so it can be reproduced in any movie, as any character, at any age the role calls for. The only stipulation is that the real Robin must vanish from public sight so that people don't know the person they're seeing on screen isn't the real her. The idea of her playing the Princess Bride again is too intriguing not to consider, and eventually she concedes. The scanning process is portrayed in such a way that is meant to convey that she's not just having her image copied, but that she's having her soul removed to an extent. Director Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) drags out this first part of the film a bit too much, but it's meant to feel like Wright is signing her soul away to the devil, so there's no real reason to rush that decision.

While the first half of The Congress is fairly straight forward, the second half feels partially drug induced. Jumping ahead 20 years, the world is a different place. Thanks to a successful sci-fi franchise, Wright is one of the biggest film stars in the world even though she hasn't actually acted. For reasons not completely apparent, Wright is invited to the Futurological Congress, a mammoth hotel populated with folks on every type of drug under the sun. But to get there, she must become an animated character and travel through various animation landscapes to reach her destination. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this environment is the introduction of Dylan Truliner (voiced by Jon Hamm), an animator who tells Wright he's the one who paved the way for her meteoric rise in this false-star system. Wright soon finds out that the studio wants her to be their spokesperson for a new drug (Miramount is apparently moving away from film and into pharmacies).

I'll admit, once Forman (loosely adapting the novel The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote the novel Solaris) moves away from the discussion of Hollywood's treatment of older actresses, I grew slightly less connected to this material. The Congress is undoubtedly a visual joy that never stops being creative and surprising, but in terms of its most meaningful content, that's all in the first half of the story. A late-film appearance by Paul Giamatti as an ailing doctor is a welcome treat and a reminder that this is a film about great actors, who remain great with age, despite what studios tend to favor. There's something beautifully bold about that stance, and while it's hardly a new idea, Forman and his animators have certainly found a unique approach to the subject matter.

Above all else, Wright's performance (both vocally and in bodily) is truly outstanding. A lot of actors get slapped with the label "brave," but an actress of her standing spending so much of a film being told that, at her age, she's irrelevant and that she's made bad career choices certainly qualifies as courageous. The Congress is certainly never boring, even when it doesn't always make sense and frequently defies logic. And now that the summer is done, isn't it time we consider turning our collective brains back on? The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Identical

I have a feeling a few of you aren't going to believe the film I'm about to tell you about actually exists. And I'll admit, my fear is that it's going to sound so strange and unbelievable, that you'll feel compelled to see it while it's in theaters, and I certainly can't stop you from doing that. But rest assured that if you do, you're in for one of the most bizarre and horrible movie-going experiences you'll likely have had in quite some time. Consider yourself both warned and primed, should you decide you can't resist the unnatural pull of... The Identical.

This is the story of Ryan Wade, who was separated as an infant from his twin brother (not literally, they weren't conjoined twins; this movie isn't that much of a freak show) and given away by his desperately poor parents to a childless couple, the Rev. Wade (Ray Liotta) and wife Louise (Ashley Judd) during the Depression. The twin brother, Drexel, grew up to become a mega superstar singer whose music sounds an awful lot like Elvis Presley; to make things stranger, he also looks remarkably like The King. Not surprisingly, brother Ryan (both played by indie singer Blake Rayne), grew up looking a whole heck of a lot like Drexel, and when he decided he wanted to sing, he sounded like him too. Because the good reverend made a promise to Ryan's parents not to reveal their identity until they were dead, the brothers have no idea the other exists. And while Ryan does write and perform a few of his own songs, he ends up making a living as a Drexel impersonator, hand selected by Drexel himself in a contest.

Set primarily in the 1950s and early '60s, The Identical moves into even more bizarre territory when Ryan pushes his manager to let him sneak a few of his own original songs into the set list of Drexel material, which isn't met with enthusiasm, and so Ryan quits the impersonator racket to launch a fairly successful music career of his own, with the help and support of his wife and high school sweetheart Jenny (Erin Cottrell) and drummer/best buddy Dino (Seth Green). Where to begin...

First off, let me begin by saying that immediately after I saw The Identical, I said to a colleague who had seen it with me that I bet that the lead actor was an Elvis Presley impersonator who wanted to do his own music, and that somehow that story worked its way into this film. I didn't know the first thing about star Rayne or the history of this film, but it turns out that's almost exactly how this goofy-ass movie came into being. I don't know if the backstory about Ryan being pushed by his father to go into the ministry and Ryan rebelling against it is true, but it hardly matters. That particular storyline is just an excuse to tap into a faith-based storyline that isn't pushy or committed enough to even bring in the religious demographic.

What's even stranger is that this story is set in a world where the Beatles and other big music acts exists, meaning that, presumably, Elvis Presley exists as well, to hear both of these clowns rip his music right the hell off. The fact that The Identical even exists is a curiosity, but the deeper you get into the plot, the stranger it all becomes. The trajectory that Ryan's life takes (very little of Drexel's life is on display for whatever reason) is practically pretzel shaped. It doesn't help that Blake Rayne is a terrible actor (turns out Rayne took acting lessons after he was cast; no shit), and while he has a lovely voice, even when he's singing his own, non-Drexel music, the tunes aren't particularly inspired or inspiring.

I could almost see The Identical becoming a cult hit, but that would entail people seeing this film more than once, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. First-time director Dustin Marcellino and screenwriter Howard Klausner (Space Cowboys) really have a stinker on their hands as a film, but as a sideshow curiosity, this one might have some traction. I don't analyze box office or predict a film's success, but if you put this movie in front of the right, social-media-savvy people, this could become a "thing." Let's do what we can to keep that from happening.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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