January 13, 2009

Two Straight-to-Videos Worth a Look: Good Life and Netherbeast Inc.


Reviewer: James van Maanen

The Good Life
Rating (out of 5): ***

Netherbeast Incorporated
Rating (out of 5): **-½

All movies are a gamble but straight-to-videos (STVs) seem even more so. There are few places to look for reviews and the often paltry (and sometimes dead wrong) descriptions available will either give too much plot away or leave you thinking, "Huh…?" Two STVs that made their debut last week might jostle your movie viewing a bit -- if you're inclined toward an update/rethinking of the vampire legend, handled in a comic/corporate vein, or are in the mood for a quiet, sad and often strangely beautiful slice-of-life in a downtrodden Nebraska small-town.

The latter is what you'll find in writer/director Stephen Berra's oddly gripping The Good Life, which tells the tale of a young man who works in a gas station by day and moonlights in a movie theatre, while coming to terms with first love, family and the town bully. As played by the sweet-faced Mark Webber (The Hottest State), who's nearing 30 but looks more like 17, the character (who also has a surprising physical impairment not immediately obvious) commands the movie, winning our sympathy and maintaining it throughout.

The starry cast surrounding him includes Zooey Deschanel (the first love--and she sings beautifully, too), Harry Dean Stanton (who owns that movie theatre), Chris Klein (the bully), Bill Paxton (as a Judy Garland aficionado; old movies are a running theme); Wristcutters' Patrick Fugit (best friend), Drea de Matteo (sister), Donal Logue (nasty brother-in-law), Bruce McGill (sports coach) and Deborah Rush (mom). The downtrodden economy forms an important backdrop, as does our country's nutty and overbearing need for sport competitions. If the ending is a bit of a cheat (yet appropriate and believable), the movie itself is full of quiet, sad beauty. For all its flaws, I can't get The Good Life out of my memory and so will probably watch it again someday soon.

nether As a vampire movie lover from way back, I always hold out hope for the latest bloodsuckers-with-fangs romp. Oddly, Netherbeast Incorporated offers neither the sucking nor the fangs. But it may be worth the watch simply for its off-the-wall humor and its ability to conjure an entire history of vampirism in the USA (including Robert Wagner offering a new "take" on one of our country's illustrious Presidents). The cast (including Judd Nelson, Dave Foley and Jason Mewes) is solid, as is the writing by Bruce Dellis, with serviceable enough direction from Dean Matthew Ronalds. The "mythology" of this particular strain of vampires is given quite an embellished history, which works well for awhile. But even a comedic vampire tale needs a decent story and some suspense, and mostly this is missing from Netherbeast Inc. Enlarged from a five-minute 2004 short film, the movie is a prime example of why, so very often, less is more. Still, there are enough laughs here, even in the extended form, to warrant a viewing-with-caveat.

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Posted by cphillips at January 13, 2009 9:13 AM
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