24 October 2014

Capsule Reviews: Life After Beth, The Riot Club, Stretch

After several months of relatively regular activity, the autumn has brought with it not just dying leaves and encroaching nights, but a much fuller schedule. As a result, expect activity to maintain the current, frustratingly limited pattern. Hopefully the festive season will bring some rest-bite, but for now, these smaller, bite-size updates are a fair approximation of the blog’s immediate future. 

Stretch (Joe Carnahan, USA, 2014)

It’s disappointing to watch any artist regress, but particularly despairing in the case of “Stretch”. It’s not that the picture is stunningly terrible (indeed it has numerous merits), but after 2012’s phenomenally poised and fairly profitable “The Grey”, it’s inexplicable that director Joe Carnahan should slither back to the cartoonish violence of his earlier career. “Stretch” is visually excitable and occasionally smart, but every frame tries too hard to shock. It’s obvious that Carnahan wanted the movie to become an underground favourite, the sort that cineastes guiltily produce from their shelves in a haze of beer and marijuana, turning to their friends and uttering “you gotta see this”. This is precisely his mistake. Directors don’t make cult movies. Audiences do.

Stretch (Patrick Wilson) is an unfulfilled chauffeur, up to his eyes in gambling debt and romantic woe.  In order to try and square his books with some nasty bookies, Stretch agrees to ferry around an eccentric billionaire for the evening (Chris Pine), but things inevitably go wrong.

Carnahan has a history with flashy violence, and whilst it’s perfectly suited to the comic-book aesthetic here, there’s a stale odour to the contemptible amount of bloodshed and depravity on show. To label it as indicative of a post-Tarantino Hollywood seems the fairest approximation, meaning the picture is seeing release maybe 15 years too late. It’s a pity, because Carnahan has a dashing visual eye, and the casting of Wilson is superb, the handsome but human performer making for a delightfully approachable deadbeat. Pine has chops, and is initially rather fun, but his one-dimensional loony quickly wears out his welcome, amid a cavalcade of weird facial hair, butt-plug gags and “Eyes Wide Shut” referencing demands. Jessica Alba is more natural than expected as Wilson’s eyes and ears off the street, but the movie is never quite sure what to do with her, and the writing leading up to her denouement is a coincidence too far. “Stretch” wants to be that weird, gung-ho actioner you share with your bros, 2014’s entry into the annals of fandom (the movie has been dumped unceremoniously onto VOD by Universal).  Unfortunately it’s trying too hard, telegraphing its intentions immediately, and ultimately forfeiting the option of quirky surprise. Gives good cameos, mind. 

Grade- C

The Riot Club (Lone Scherfig, UK, 2014)

Based on Laura Wade’s acclaimed stage-play “Posh”, “The Riot Club” seems like a most distasteful cinematic proposition, a theatrically originated, piece of liberal propaganda, forcing us to spend time with a bunch of vile, over-privileged nincompoops. It’s probably this outer, but falsely assumed agenda, which left the film maligned upon the festival circuit and whimpering at the UK box-office.

Shame on the marketing then, because “The Riot Club” is actually a skilfully written episode rooted rather perfectly within the realms of exploitation cinema. Its politics are obvious, but Wade never lets soggy monologues or traffic light characterisation invade the piece, instead reveling in the vile idiocy of upper class adolescents. The middle act is a confidently mounted bit of genre film-making, escalating from the utterly farcical to the furthest reaches of black macabre. Some of the acting’s a little spotty, and virtually every subplot detached from the “riot clubbing” rings hollow, but there’s pummelling veracity in the University carnage, and bite to the dialogue, which each prove winningly striking. Also, credit must go to Wade and Scherfig for unloading an ending, no matter how predictable, that has the strength of its convictions. 

Grade - B-

Life After Beth (Jeff Baena, USA, 2014)

“Life After Beth” does enough right to makes its many failings all the more jarring. Following in the footsteps of Edgar Wright's “Shaun of the Dead”, Jeff Baena’s picture takes the “rom-zom-com” (urghh) full-circle, by situating its familiar machinations within the sun-drenched, suburban world of teenage heartbreak. Zach (Dane DeHaan, not a naturally warm or comedic presence) is distraught when squeeze Beth (Aubrey Plaza) fails to return alive from a hike, the victim of snakebite. Zach finds solace in the form of Beth’s understanding parents (played wonderfully by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), but is perplexed when they suddenly begin to shut him out. The reason? Beth’s returned, unaware of her own death, and with other deceased sorts following.

One can’t fault Baena for ambition; his film defiantly attempts to explore love, regret, parental blindness and the amusing potential of Armageddon in under 90 minutes and on an obviously minimal budget. The director deserves credit for trying to really understand his characters, allowing the talented cast a multitude of truthful and honestly dramatized incarnations of sadness to play with. However, there’s the overarching feeling the writer has spread himself a little too thinly, each separate indication of excellence rarely building or fortifying what precedes it. It becomes tough to discern what’s at the core of Baena’s work, the feature oscillating too aggressively between the second chance offered by Beth’s resurrection and the budding, increasingly wasted chance to see a boyfriend and father bond over shared loss. I’d rather have watched either of these individual films, than sit through a half-hearted cocktail which tickles both. The uncertainty is compounded by a conceptually amusing but stingingly desperate finale, rifling through a parade of mirthful zombie tropes, and abandoning the chance to comment more substantially. Reilly’s character arc essentially boils down to a surprising but inherently cheap knob gag. That’s not the end he deserves, but it is indicative of Baena’s lack of controlled vision.  Special mention must go to Aubrey Plaza, who after years of unimpressive, distasteful onscreen bitchery, shows a majestic knack for slapstick. If she makes a habit of substituting callous one-liners for game tomfoolery, well then, I finally might be willing to call myself a fan.

Grade - C

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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