Life After Beth

A quirky premise isn’t enough to carry an entire film.

A boyfriend unsuccessfully copes with his girlfriend’s passing and resurrection during a zombie outbreak in Life After Beth (2014). Written and directed by Jeff Baena, this comedy-horror manages to be neither terrifying nor funny. Life After Beth has its moments, but its poorly thought out horror elements interrupt and undermine what could have otherwise been an interesting exploration of love, loss, and regret, and the importance of letting go.

Young Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is devastated when his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), dies from a snakebite. His parents, Noah (Paul Reiser) and Judy (Cheryl Hines), urge him to move on. Zach becomes suspicious to the point of paranoia when Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), abruptly stop speaking with him and cloister themselves in their home.

Things get complicated when Zach discovers Beth has returned from the dead. Her parents consider it a miracle, but Zach just can’t accept the new status quo. Beth’s strange behavior, as well as the appearance of other long-dead people from his past, has him asking questions. His testosterone-fueled brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), springs into action as the zombie apocalypse unfolds. Can Zach discover a cure for the zombie outbreak and save his lost love?

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Child’s Play: Are You My Best Friend?

A murderous doll with the ability to control smart devices runs amok in this fresh reboot.

Written by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, Child’s Play (2019) is a remake of the 1988 horror film of the same name. In this version, Chucky is a sabotaged smart-toy who learns violence is cool by watching human behavior. As such, the supernatural elements of the original have been removed. What remains is a contemporary morality play about the dangers of smart technology and our addiction to electronic devices.

Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) is a single mother living in a distressed urban neighborhood with her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Andy’s loneliness leads Karen to give him a Buddi doll (voiced by Mark Hamill) for his birthday. Though visibly dysfunctional, the doll (which calls itself Chucky because it has to, I guess?) imprints on Andy and quickly becomes overprotective.

Andy soon meets two other kids in the apartment building, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), and the trio play pranks on Karen’s jerkish boyfriend, Shane (David Lewis). Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) suspects something is amiss. Can Shane and friends rein in Chucky’s violent tendencies before it’s too late?

Child’s Play is the latest horror-franchise reboot, and it was only a matter of time. In the horror pantheon, I would put Child’s Play on a second or third tier behind obvious powerhouses like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th. Its premise of a killer doll is just a little too campy, and the original films do play up the humorous element. Still, Child’s Play has a reliable fan base.

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Son of a Gun – Amateur Effort Sours an Otherwise Promising Film

This indie film based on a Civil War legend had potential but ultimately fell below the standards of a made-for-TV movie.

A Confederate surgeon invents a battlefield legend to protect a young woman from an intolerant society in Son of a Gun (2019), written and directed by Travis Mills. This indie production reels in its audience with an interesting premise but from the first scene to the last, falls short in nearly every category of filmmaking.

The year is 1863. Union and Confederate armies are locked in deadly combat near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Battlefield surgeon Legrand Capers (Miles Doleac) is pulled away from a wounded soldier to tend to a young woman (Jessica Harthcock) at a nearby farmhouse who was shot in the abdomen by a stray bullet. Months later, he returns to learn the woman is pregnant, yet she insists she’s a virgin. The stray bullet, passing through the soldier’s scrotum, must have somehow impregnated the woman! At least, that’s what an elderly Legrand Capers (Cotton Yancey) tells a group of old-timers at a tavern.

Things get complicated when the film unravels three separate versions of events, with different actors and actresses playing the various roles. Each version leads the audience further away from fantasy and toward the scandalous truth. Finally, as Capers is dying of tuberculosis many years after the war, he is confronted by the family’s former slave, Mamie (Nancy Lindsey), who knows what really happened.

Son of a Gun’s use of multiple perspectives and multiple casts to tell the story was unique and not as confusing as it sounds. The actor who played middle-aged Capers, William Shannon Williams, was subtly charming and fit the role well, as did actress Nancy Lindsey. For the most part, the performances were fine. It was the amateurish sound and editing that cheapened every scene.

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The Front Runner

The birth of the modern political scandal is recounted in this stylistic and overlong drama.

Written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner (2018) dramatizes the news media’s role in U.S. Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign implosion. Filmed like a docudrama, the 113 minute period piece alternates between Hart’s campaign and the journalists covering it, to the detriment of both perspectives.

As the film opens, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is riding high off an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful primary campaign for president. Flash forward four years, Hart prepares to make another run for it with his veteran campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), and a cornucopia of campaign staff, including body man Billy Shore (Mark O’Brien) and a fictional scheduler named Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim). Hart tries to maintain a cozy relationship with the press, including with inexperienced Washington Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie).

Things get complicated when Hart attends a party on a yacht called the Monkey Business and reporters at the Miami Herald begin receiving strange phone calls about Hart cheating on his longtime wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). Frustrated, Hart challenges AJ to “follow him around.” Miami Herald reporters Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) take this as an invitation and begin surveilling Hart’s apartment, where they see Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) leaving at night. Can Hart extinguish this media firestorm before it’s too late?

With a cast of literally dozens of minor characters competing for screen time, your effort to keep track of them all will be as ambitious as the filmmakers’ efforts to tell this story from every imaginable angle.

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Finding Josephine: ‘A’ for Effort, ‘D’ for History

A lovesick woman dons a Confederate uniform to find her husband in this indie Civil War drama.

Written and directed by country musician Rory Feek (cowritten by Aaron Carnahan), Finding Josephine (2019) purportedly follows the true story of Josephine Robison, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Confederate Army to find her husband. In many ways it’s a typical love story, but the film tackles issues of gender and sexuality during the war, topics usually avoided in this genre.

Finding Josephine is framed by the director’s personal story about how love letters he allegedly found in a farmhouse in Tennessee led him to write a song that sparked the love between him and his future wife, who tragically died of cancer. The film was originally supposed to be released in 2016, but the death of his wife postponed it. Feek inter-spliced their personal story with the film, topping it out at 81 minutes.

The year is 1864. Josephine Robison (Alice Coulthard) works on her family farm, while her husband John (Mitch Eakins) is off fighting in the 3rd Tennessee Regiment. Unable to bear her loneliness, she disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Confederate Army, where she hopes to find him. Her journey takes her all the way from the back roads of Tennessee to the trenches around Richmond, Virginia.

Along the way, Josephine falls in with a small group of soldiers, including a gruff old man named Tally Simpson (Boris McGiver), a sadistic sergeant named Sturgill Marks (Jessejames Locorriere), and a boy named Whit (Matthew Alan Brady). Every moment threatens to expose her secret. Can she survive the war–and her fellow soldiers–to be reunited with her lost love?

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Zac Efron steals the show as serial killer Ted Bundy, and that’s the problem.

Written by Michael Werwie and directed by Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) is based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall. While ostensibly about Ted Bundy’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, whose call to the police eventually led to his capture, the film focuses too much on Bundy’s dark charisma and courtroom antics.

The film opens at a bar in Seattle in 1969, where single mother Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) meets handsome Theodore “Ted” Bundy (Zac Efron) for the first time, and the audience is mercifully spared the usual nods to 1960s counter-culture. Ted gets along well with her daughter, Molly, and seems to embrace the fatherly role. Things turn dark, however, when Ted is arrested at a traffic stop in 1975 and charged with kidnapping Carol Daronch (Grace Victoria Cox).

Though conflicted, and despite the protestations of her best friend, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan), Elizabeth is in denial that Ted could have committed the horrible acts of which he’s suspected. She grows increasingly distant as Ted’s legal troubles multiply, and he is accused of multiple murders. In prison, Ted rekindles an old flame with Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), while trying desperately to keep Elizabeth’s affection. Can Elizabeth break this destructive emotional bond and move on with her life?

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Field of Lost Shoes

An emotional tribute to young cadets who fought and died in the American Civil War.

Written by Thomas Farrell and David M. Kennedy and directed by Sean McNamara, Field of Lost Shoes (2014) tells the story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. Despite an obviously low budget and inexperienced cast, the film is charming and emotionally engaging; one of the better Civil War films to be released in recent years.

Robert (Nolan Gould) is a freshman cadet, or “Rat”, who falls in with a tight group of upperclassmen, including John Wise (Luke Benward), an ex-governor’s son, and Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman), an aspiring sculptor and the first Jewish cadet at VMI. The war forms a backdrop to schoolboy antics like hazing, stealing food from the Institute’s enslaved cook, Old Judge (Keith David), and pursuing a romantic interest with the local girls, including Libby Clinedinst (Mary Mouser).

War comes knocking on their doorstep, however, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) sends Franz Sigel (Werner Daehn) and Captain Henry A. DuPont (David Arquette) with an army to subdue the Shenandoah Valley. Opposing him with a much smaller force is Confederate general and former U.S. vice president John C. Breckinridge (Jason Isaacs).

Breckinridge badly needs reinforcements, and he reluctantly sends for the VMI cadets, who his battle-hardened veterans regard as nothing more than children playing soldier. Will the cadets get there in time, and more importantly, will they prove their worth on the battlefield?

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