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‘Life After Beth’ zany zombie film

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FILM REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNE/For 21st Century Media

Once upon a time, zombie films were a subset of the horror genre. They were invariably scary. After all, who wants to be devoured by a walking cadaver?

However, these days, zombie films take many forms, even the comedic.  Such is the case with the new release, “Life After Beth.”

As the film opens, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza from television’s “Parks and Recreation”) is very much alive. The robust young woman is hiking alone through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The flick segues to her funeral, where it is revealed that she died from a fluke snake bite.

Her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan, the Green Goblin in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) is consumed with grief. Zach’s own parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) seem unable to relate to his sense of bereavement.

So, Zach begins to regularly visit Beth’s dad, Maury (John C. Reilly) and mom, Geenie (Molly Shannon) to commiserate with them. He begins to become close with them, particularly Beth’s dad. The two play chess and smoke marijuana together. Zach expresses his sense of guilt that he had routinely rejected the various activities, which Beth suggested that they do together. This included turning down her invitation to join her on the fatal hike. He also confides that shortly before her death, the relationship had become rocky. Beth had suggested that they start seeing other people.

Abruptly, Beth’s parents stop answering the door when Zach stops by. Moreover, they won’t accept his telephone calls any more. Naturally, Zach is hurt and confused by the Slocum’s sudden and inexplicable remoteness.

Eager to resolve this conundrum, Zach returns to the Slocum’s home. Peering through the living room window, he sees Beth. What is going on? He bangs on the door until Maury answers. Of course, Maury insists that Zach is mistaken and vehemently disclaims that Beth is alive.

Zach visits Beth’s gravesite. He sees a big, empty hole there, devoid of any corporeal remains. Apparently, Beth has dug herself out of her subterranean repose. Now revived, Beth has no recollection of ever having died. She also doesn’t recall that she had broken up with Zach and regards herself as still very much in love with him.

Initially, Zach is elated by Beth’s return. However, he learns that Beth’s persona has been transmogrified. Now, she has wild mood swings and is often subject to violent outbursts. Moreover, Beth is now suffused with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. She also consumes the upholstery in Zachary’s car.

It turns out that Beth’s resurrection is not an isolated aberration. A deceased mailman, Zach’s dead grandfather, and various other long-gone characters start showing up. Their behavior is also bizarre.

“Life After Beth” has some laugh out loud moments. When Zach suggests that the Slocum’s recently fired Haitian housekeeper, Pearline (Eva La Dare), might be responsible for making zombies, Maury shoots back dismissively, “Pearline couldn’t even make a bed.” Undaunted, Zach visits her family’s home. She is long gone. When Zach wonders aloud whether Pearline could have been responsible for the sudden increase in zombie sightings, an unspecified family member responds through the screen door with indignation. He challenges whether Zach thinks that all Haitians practice voodoo. It is a well-constructed vignette. It is unfortunate that the film doesn’t have more of them.

“Life After Beth” boasts a committed performance by Plaza. She captures Beth’s myriad mood permutations. Plaza and her co-protagonist, DeHaan, exhibit a nice chemistry together. Paralleling all the zany zombie shenanigans, their characters seem to genuinely care about one another.

Films like “Life After Beth” aren’t necessarily intended to be illuminative or didactic. They don’t always impart any grand message. However, I couldn’t help taking one away from this film. Just because two people love one another, doesn’t mean that they have any chance of a compatible romantic relationship. If you are a human, sustaining a love affair with a zombie is a hopelessly futile aspiration.

“Life After Beth” is intermittently amusing. The lead performances are engaging. Jeff Baena co-wrote the stellar screenplay for “I Heart Huckabee” with director, David O. Russell. Alas, he comes up short here. In his directorial debut, Baena is plagued by his own screenplay. It reflects a poor synergy between its narrative elements and persistently disconcerting tonal shifts. As a result, “Life After Beth” is a marginally entertaining and decidedly uneven film.

**1/2  R (for  pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use) 90 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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‘Game Stands Tall’: Formulaic, but entertaining

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

Football winning streaks are a noteworthy phenomenon. The New England Patriots have the NFL record with 21 consecutive regular season victories. The Oklahoma Sooners have the collegiate record with 47 straight regular season wins.  The De La Salle High School Spartans eclipsed both streaks by a wide margin. Over the course of twelve seasons, from 1992 through 2004, the Bay Area team won 151 consecutive games.

The Spartans were coached by Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who is the film’s central figure. The film depicts Coach Ladouceur as a soft-spoken, benevolent, and high-minded individual.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is inspired by the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes. He covered the Spartans as a sports journalist with the “Contra Costa Times.” Hayes followed the team for practices, meetings, and games during their undefeated 2002 season. His book is limited in scope to the period before the streak ended.

“When the Game” opens with the Spartans annihilating an overmatched  opponent to win its 11th straight California state championship. It places the viewer in the position of rooting for Goliath to smite David, the puny little shepherd boy, who was too small to even don armor.

However, the cinematic version of “When the Game Stands Tall” uses the winning streak principally as a back story. The vast bulk of the film takes place after the streak is abruptly ended. It focuses on the team’s losing skein and their efforts to get back on track.

Of course, since this is a sports film, the team must overcome adversity. Coach Ladouceur suffers a crippling heart attack after furtively smoking a cigarette. Are we really supposed to believe that Coach Ladouceur indulged in a single isolated cigarette? How will the team fare while their putatively saint-like coach is recuperating?

“When the Game Stands Tall” also depicts the off-field struggles of several players. The team’s star running back (Alexander Ludwig) is routinely bullied by his overbearing blowhard of a father (Clancy Brown, essentially reprising his role from “Friday Night Lights”). In a dubious act of achieving an unfair competitive disadvantage, De La Salle  busses two Afro-American players (Stephan James, Jessie Usher) cross-town to their campus. Will their athletic heroics enable them to earn collegiate scholarships and escape the ghetto? Then, there is the coach’s son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), a receiver on the team. Their father-son relationship is at odds with their coach-player dynamic.

The film persistently asserts that Ladouceur was far more interested in molding the characters of his players than winning football games.  Forgive my cynicism, but I do not believe that a coach can sustain a 151-game winning streak without focusing obsessively on the actual outcome of games.

Viewers should also be forewarned that this sanitized PG vehicle is a not-so-subtle Christian movie. It is co-produced by Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures. They are involved with making faith-based flicks. Previously, they made “Facing the Giants,” another flick about a high-school football team, which also embodied strong religious overtones. At one juncture, a player matter-of-factly declares that he and his girlfriend have take a purity pledge.

The iconography of this film is at times repugnant.  De La Salle High School is an elite, private Roman Catholic High School. The camera frequently flashes on Jesucentric imagery, which festoons the school’s hallways. The film seems to subliminally suggest that God is on the side of the Spartans because their coaches and players are more devout. Assuming arguendo there is a Supreme Being, who governs the universe, somehow I suspect that he has more important things to worry about than which high school football team wins a given game.

The film makes a point of establishing that Coach Ladouceur also teaches a class in religion. He is fond of quoting Matthew 23:12 for inspiration. For those whose memory of the New Testament is a tad rusty, the section exhorts, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” This Biblical text is used as a rationale for a pivotal on-field stratagem.

If you didn’t know otherwise, watching Jim Caviezel in this film, you would swear that he is portraying a zombie. Soft-spoken? No-this guy is more like a walking dead. Once again, Caviezel’s performance is preternaturally devoid of emotion.  Caviezel considers it sinful to kiss or touch a woman other than his wife. That is certainly his prerogative. However, it seems incongruous that he never kisses or hugs his screen wife, portrayed by Laura Dern. It makes their relationship seem emotionally distant and detached.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is cloyingly sentimental and manipulative. The film’s moral formulations are deeply disturbing. The blatant product placement for Dick’s Sporting Goods brings the film’s earnestness into question.

However, the film does present some exciting game footage. If you can get past its numerous flaws, “When the Game Stands Tall” is a reasonably entertaining, albeit formulaic, sports flick.

** 1/2  PG (for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking) 115 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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