Thoughts on “Life After Beth” – From EIFF 2014

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Beth PosterJeff Baena’s first feature as director is a respectable zombie-comedy, unfortunately hampered by a sense of deja vu when it comes to the material. There are a few clever ideas here, but an over-reliance on the old familiar tropes, and the ubiquitous use of comedy character actors all vying for attention does make it a bit of a mixed bag. Having said that, the film is well crafted and easily passes the laugh test by proving itself consistently amusing and playfully irreverent. Don’t expect to be blown away, and you might find it a decent piece of entertainment and a fine way to spend an evening at the movies.

Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a college student grieving the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who has recently passed away from a snake bite she received while hiking. Beth’s parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) invite him for dinner and to help pack up Beth’s belongings, and they bond over memories of her life while smoking some pot. Visiting their house again the next day, Zach is wildly confused when he sees Beth through a window, and he demands to know what’s going on. Initially convinced that her parents are involved in some kind of insurance scam, he eventually comes to understand that Beth, along with several other members of the local community, has actually come back from the dead. She seems normal enough, although her obsession with the attic is new, and she’s suddenly become freakishly strong and bad tempered. Zach thinks she’s a zombie, her parents think it’s a miracle, and nobody seems sure of whether or not they should actually tell Beth that she’s technically dead…

Beth Zack Kiss

Technically necrophilia.

Life After Beth benefits from a likable supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, and Matthew Gray Gubler as his overbearing, gun-happy brother. DeHaan himself doesn’t strike one as an obvious choice when it comes to playing comedy, but his performance in the lead role is suitably energetic, and for the most part he hits the right notes and delivers on laughs. As Beth, Plaza does a really good job. Her character’s slow escalation from confusion, to indignation, to eventual rage and outright hostility is handled very well. We get the sense that even when alive Beth may have had a few screws loose, but as a zombie she’s both unhinged and dangerous. Reilly and Shannon are also terrific as Beth’s distressed parents, showing signs of extreme denial as they try their best to keep their daughter in the dark over what’s happened, even as she starts to decompose…

"What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!"

“What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!”

There are some nice little touches to zombie mythology here too, as the living dead are not portrayed as outright flesh-eaters, but rather slightly lost and irritable souls who simply want to get back to their old lives. While the plot is vaguely reminiscent of films like Dead & Buried and Shatter Dead, its tone is resolutely comic, with a heavy dose of deadpan irony. I liked the fact that the zombies only relax when listening to smooth jazz and muzak, which is a nice idea, and a pleasing nod to the mall music from Dawn of the Dead. It’s also satisfying to see the gradual changes the zombie phenomenon has on the world the characters inhabit, from a brief shot of a background extra running for his life early in the story, to the eventual arrival of the military as things spiral completely out of control. Baena keeps the action limited to suburbia, thereby giving the story a more closed feeling and allowing Beth’s return to appear as something of a small-scale problem in an otherwise problem-free world. The characters are less worried about ‘zombies’ as they are about ‘the Beth situation’. It’s nothing which we haven’t seen before, but it’s well handled and provides the film with a little more atmosphere and suspense.

When erotic games turn deadly...

When erotic games turn deadly…

One of the problems is a general sense of familiarity to the story. Anyone who’s au fait with zom-coms and zombies in general may not find much new here to chew on. Couple this with an ending which seems very rushed and slightly too Pollyanna-ish, and the film feels distinctly by-the-numbers. Admittedly, for the most part, the movie is completely acceptable, zipping along with snappy one-liners and good sight gags, occasional gore and special effects, but it never quite seeming to become more than the sum of its parts. Despite being well constructed and with some strong performances (especially from Plaza and Reilly), the whole thing somehow manages to keep you at arms length.

Beth and Zach 2

“We are emo!”

The issue facing any contemporary zombie film, comedy or otherwise, is a market which is now so stuffed with new additions to the genre that in order to get noticed you need to have something genuinely fresh and interesting to offer. Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, which resuscitated the genre back in 2004, and Return of the Living Dead, which set the bar high as one of the first and very best zom-coms, are inevitable. Life After Beth is not in the same league as either of those films, although I felt that it had more soul and more interesting characters than 2009’s Zombieland, which struck me as a fairly cold and empty exercise in stylized violence, even if it was a superficially entertaining one.

Zack Funeral

Zach takes a moment to contemplate how totally empty and mean spirited “Zombieland” was.

Beth doesn’t really offer us anything new then, instead ploughing a well furrowed path while covering for its lack of originality with reliable comedy actors and well timed jokes. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re likely to enjoy the film on its own terms (and it is perfectly enjoyable). However, if you’re looking for anything exceptional here, keep looking. No doubt there will be another zombie film coming along next week, and the week after that… and after that…

Just checking...

Just making sure.

Thoughts on Gerard Johnson’s “Hyena” – From EIFF 2014.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Hyena PosterBack in 2009 I covered Gerard Johnson’s first feature, Tony which I liked very much; a kind of low-key psycho-thriller set around a London housing estate and featuring a knock-out performance from Peter Ferdinando. With Hyena, Johnson is once again working with Ferdinando, who stars as the amoral police detective Michael Logan, working as part of a special drugs taskforce, whose extreme lifestyle of near constant drug and alcohol abuse and shady, underhand tactics threaten to upset what little balance exists in his life. The film is a significant step up in scope and ambition for Johnson when compared with Tony, and while I admire it for its confident stylistic flourishes, unflinching brutality, and for Ferdinando’s excellent performance, there are problems with pacing and character which ultimately undermine its strengths and have the effect of making it an oddly frustrating experience.

Set in London, the film follows Michael as he trades favours and information with gangs in exchange for drug money, clashes with his superior officers and hangs out with his disreputable colleagues on the taskforce, snorting cocaine, drinking huge quantities of booze and dividing up the spoils of corruption. After witnessing the violent murder, at the hands of Albanian gangsters, of the member of an established Turkish drug ring with whom he has close ties, Michael immediately and characteristically shifts his allegiance to this powerful new gang. By coincidence, he is ordered by his boss to investigate the Albanians’ operation, and look into evidence of sex trafficking, thereby blurring the lines between his role as cop and criminal. As the plot progresses, Michael must deal with an internal police investigation into his methods, and also come to terms with the consequences his actions have on the people who get caught in the crossfire.

Hyena club raid

“The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus.”

To begin with the positive: Hyena looks and sounds pretty terrific. The style of the film is established from the opening scenes of Michael and his crew gearing up for a raid and bursting into an underground nightclub while bathed in electric blue neon, savagely beating the clientele in a balletic slow-motion montage. The direction is energetic and confident, with hand-held camera work giving a sense of urgency to events. Matt Johnson provides a low-key, pulsating electronic score which nicely complements the overall atmosphere, and could stand as reason alone to check out this film. Ferdinando is excellent in the lead role, his knack for totally inhabiting his characters provides Michael with a realism not often seen in cinema and the film is stronger for his presence. The supporting cast provide admirable performances also, especially MyAnna Burning as Michael’s occasional girlfriend, and Elisa Lasowki as a victim of the Albanian sex trafficking system, whose plight gives Michael reason to question the moral vacuum he inhabits. The colour palette of the film is all intense blues and reds, which could be read as representing Michael’s duality, his position in the police, heaven and hell, or it may just be a stylistic choice, but either way it works to give the film a distinctive look and feel, and this is where Johnson succeeds admirably. The world the characters inhabit seems complete: scary and tough.

The problems with Hyena stem mainly from the nature of the main character, with whom I really found no sympathy. It is impossible when watching this film not to consider the parallels between it and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (and I make the distinction between Ferrara’s original and Werner Herzog’s playful remake) since they tread such similar territory.

When I met Johnson after first seeing Tony he spoke of his next project as a “British ‘Bad Lieutenant’… a ‘French Connection’ in London,” and Hyena is undoubtedly, demonstratively indebted to both those movies. The main difference, however, is that while Keitel’s lieutenant undergoes a powerful catharsis and redeems himself, Ferdinando’s Michael goes through the motions, but never really seems to learn anything. Ferrara’s film was lightening in a bottle and probably that director’s finest work, so it’s not exactly fair to compare the two, but looking at them together illustrates Hyena‘s real problem; we never really care much about Michael or see a side of him which lends us to sympathize with his situation. Johnson and Ferdinando don’t give the character any kind of back story or reason for his addictions and corruptions, and the languorous pacing of the film means that while we spend a lot of time watching him, he basically remains a mystery in terms of motives and history (while of Keitel’s character we can at least be sure that he has lost God). This may, of course, be the entire point. To know nothing of a character can give us the chance to learn as we go along, but the way Michael is written keeps us from ever getting into his head; he expresses regret and emotion one minute, but then seems to get on with the business at hand immediately afterwards, leaving us wondering if he’s really human.

"Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!"

“Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!”

The film is a little under two hours long, and as sign of how episodic and baggy it feels, it really does feel like two hours. The festival guide suggests (rather ominously) that the film’s pacing is “organic and adventurous”, but this could easily be a euphemism for ‘drawn-out and ill-considered’, as the narrative never seems to take off and fly, presenting instead a series of confrontations and set-pieces which work well individually, but do not weave together to form a satisfying story. Towards the end of the film Michael rescues a young woman who has been forced into prostitution, and attempts to save her in his clumsy efforts towards salvation. This plot device is as old as the hills, and it really doesn’t feel fresh when it’s used here.

The film is pretty unflinching in its use of violence, not gratuitously so, but enough to give the gore-hounds a certain satisfaction. One memorable scene involves a group of gangsters holding a conversation as they lean over a bathtub to slice a victim’s corpse into parts – the kicker being that the men are naked as they do so, yet appear so relaxed that they might well be playing cards – and it’s scenes like this which give the film an occasional darkly comic edge. The same cannot be said for an agonisingly ill-judged and needless rape scene which fails to elicit the intended response simply by dint of the fact that its graphic detail distracts us from the role it plays in the plot, essentially providing reason to mistrust the film, rather than follow it.

Hyena thugs

“Very sexy.”

Hyena, then, is a film which it is easy to admire in many ways, but very difficult to actually like. Johnson is clearly a talented director, getting the best from his cast and crafting a seedy and unpleasant world for them to stumble around inside, but the question remains: Who is this film really for? Police procedural thrillers thrive on anti-heroes and no-nonsense detectives, but Hyena‘s central character is not well formed enough for us to understand him as such. Horror fans will enjoy the gore and dark humour, but such scenes are relatively intermittent and not the focus of the narrative. Those seeking a Ferrara style redemptive drama will enjoy the obvious nods to his best work (Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant) but the film lacks the structure and pace required to work as such a genre piece, and moreover it is void of the catharsis and moral vision which those films held at their core. As we watch Hyena unfold, we also watch it start not to work, and while I enjoyed the film as a visual experience and a chance to enter a world I know nothing about, I found very little there to care about. It pains me to say it, but I’m not sure who I would recommend this film to. At the same time though, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Johnson does next.