Warm Bodies

A zombie romantic comedy? Well, yes. And an entertaining one, too!

Warm Bodies owes its charm to its central character R, played by Nicholas Hoult. He’s a zombie who has the ability to be objective about his plight. (We learn his thoughts via voiceover.)

He finds humor in the slow, plodding gait of his fellow zombies (and himself). He chuckles inwardly about the vague grunts that pass for communication among the walking dead. He also reveals that he is lonely.

When a group of normal humans (who live within a fortified enclave, following the vague event that has decimated civilization) venture out and encounter zombies, the results are not good. The zombies launch a ruthless attack, but R chooses to spare one young woman named Julie, played by Teresa Palmer.

He does eat her boyfriend’s brain, which causes him to experience the late boyfriend’s memories, many of which are about Julie. (Don’t worry about the brain eating scenes; this is not a gross-out movie.)

After Julie escorts him back to the abandoned jetliner he lives (okay, exists) in, his attempts to communicate his affection are best delivered by songs he plays on old vinyl LPs.

Eventually he leads her back to the enclave and, later, manages to slip within the walls himself. This sets up the climax involving the zombies, the even more ruthless skeletal zombies and the normal humans. The leader of the normals, played by John Malkovich, is also Julie’s father.

Warm Bodies (rated PG-13) is a lightweight film targeted to young adults and teens. It’s also okay for most pre-teens, despite its low-level gore and violence. This movie’s slugline could be “zombies are people, too,” as R is revealed to have human emotions despite his condition.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to mention that the film has some parallels with a famous classic play about a certain “R & J,” but Warm Bodies has a much gentler ending.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stand Up Guys

An action comedy with three of our best actors as senior citizen crooks who get together for one last fling—can’t miss, right?

Stand Up Guys is not a total misfire. It has its moments. But it’s not as funny onscreen as it might have been on paper. The movie starts slow and has pacing issues throughout, but it is a suitable amusement.

Al Pacino is a paroled prisoner who, upon his release, is met by his old partner in crime played by Christopher Walken. Another bad guy has ordered Walken to kill Pacino by 10:00 a.m. the next morning or he (Walken) will be killed.

The two old chums go out for drinks, drugs and hookers. When his initial sexual effort fizzles, Pacino gobbles a handful of Viagra (or similar) pills to get the job done. The result is a successful hookup, followed by a visit to the emergency room for treatment of priapism. (Look it up.)

After they bust their old driver (Alan Arkin) out of a care center, they head out for more adventures including a return trip to the brothel and a joyride in a stolen Dodge Challenger (new version). More adventures lead to return visits to Walken’s favorite diner to satisfy Pacino’s ravenous appetite. He never knows when Walken will pull the trigger, but he behaves as if it’s inevitable.

I enjoyed Walken’s low-key performance and Arkin’s energetic performance, but grew weary of Pacino and his character early on. It seems like he’s trying too hard in this role. Julianna Margulies has a small, mostly forgettable, role as Arkin’s daughter.

Stand Up Guys is not a good as it should’ve been. It will not overwhelm you in any way. But if you are a fan of any of the three lead actors, you might actually like it!

Gangster Squad

With classic elements galore, Gangster Squad delivers the goods. Sean Penn turns in a killer performance as a boxer turned mob boss in mid-20th century Los Angeles. His character is almost cartoonish, like a Dick Tracy bad guy. Josh Brolin, as leader of the secret Squad, is not unlike Dick Tracy, with a Tess Trueheart type wife.

With a hint of the colors of retouched picture postcards and the requisite armada of late 40’s automobiles, Gangster Squad is drenched in nostalgia. The wardrobes (including men in hats), the red lipstick, the smoking, comments about WW II, the music all do a nice job of capturing the era. Josh Brolin’s opening and closing narrations echo another staple of this genre.

Penn’s character Mickey Cohen controls not only vice but also the majority of police and political leaders in metro LA. Nick Nolte, looking healthier than in his other recent roles, is the LAPD chief (not been bought off by Cohen) who anoints Brolin’s character John O’Mara as leader of a secret gangster squad.

O’Mara recruits a team of cops to shut down Cohen and his operations. Ryan Gosling is a cool LAPD detective named Jerry Wooters who successfully hits on Cohen’s babe, Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone. He eases his way into the squad and becomes a vital team member.

The squad operates almost like the Mission Impossible teams of prior movies and TV shows. They even have a tech guy, played by the nerdy Giovanni Ribisi, who plants a microphone in Cohen’s digs and listens in from a remote shack.

The Gangster Squad and Cohen’s crooks trade punches throughout the film until the last round, when the knockout blow is finally delivered.

Gangster Squad is an entertainingly violent movie that’s not quite a classic, but has all the LA period piece cops and robbers stuff. One quibble is the casting of Emma Stone as the babe. A more mature, less innocent looking actress may have been more effective in the role.

Word is that the movie was originally slated for a September, 2012, release. But because of its violent content (and one particular sequence) was retooled and held back after the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Nonetheless, Gangster Squad is action-packed with great characters, a strong cast and a good story. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

Zero Dark Thirty

The mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden was long and arduous. This fictionalized telling of a mostly true story reminds us how hard America worked to get its revenge for the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.

The depiction of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, looks like video of the real thing. But it is not. It’s a movie—a remarkably well-done movie. This final half hour of Zero Dark Thirty is the money shot, the reason to see the film.

Zero Dark Thirty’s central character is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. She’s a CIA operative who is the driving force behind the search for Bin Laden. She is not a real person, but a combination of several people who have shared their information with the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal.

Zero Dark Thirty shows the CIA torturing those they believe have information. One operative tells a detainee, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” Depictions of waterboarding in the film are followed later by footage of President Obama stating, “America doesn’t torture.” One agent, as he is about to leave a CIA Black Ops site at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, says he’s going stateside because he has “just seen too many guys naked.”

Solid information is hard to come by. A planned meeting with a supposed informant at another base in Afghanistan results in an explosion that takes several lives. An angry meeting at CIA HQ reveals the frustration of the search with the shouted words, “Bring me people to kill!”

Then, when indications are strong that Osama is in the Abbottabad compound, the CIA waits for authorization from the White House to strike. Maya begins a daily update on the glass window of her office of the number of days from the time he has been located. When the number of days top 100, frustration mounts.

Finally, the raid is authorized and on 5/1/11, the deed is done.

Zero Dark Thirty may not be the best movie of 2012, but its slow buildup to a big payoff demonstrates excellent filmmaking skill. Credit director Kathryn Bigelow, as Oscar winner two years ago for The Hurt Locker, for another memorable film. Chastain is the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar and deservedly so.

Zero Dark Thirty is powerful stuff. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Not Fade Away

How many young American males started playing guitars or drums in the 60’s and then formed rock groups? After seeing the Beatles and the Stones, as well as successful American rock groups, and the responses of girls to the bands, it was almost a natural progression.

Not Fade Away is autobiographical fiction that tells the story of a young man in a rock band in New Jersey in the second half of the 1960’s. From the rehearsals in garages, to the first gigs in basement corners, to meetings with agents, to the eventual journey to the west coast.

Writer/director David Chase was in such a band. The story is not particularly compelling, but Not Fade Away captures the mood and feel of the 60’s with amazing accuracy. Arguments with parents about the Vietnam War and comments from dads about long hair are parts of the 60’s many of us recall.

Of course, the centerpiece of the movie is the music. I loved hearing forgotten 60’s hits like Pretty Ballerina by Left Banke and Itchykoo Park by Small Faces.

Not Fade Away is a period piece that is more about recapturing the feel of those memorable years in Chase’s life than it is about characters and plot. For most baby boomers, especially those who loved the music of the era, Not Fade Away is a fun trip back in time.

Promised Land

If you enjoyed last year’s negative political ads, you’ll love Promised Land. Except, when you saw the ads, you were told who paid for them.

The messages of Promised Land concern obtaining natural gas via the process known as “fracking.” Message #1 is that the natural gas companies are ripping off farmers by offering lowball payments for the gas beneath their properties. Message #2 is that fracking is an environmental threat.

Promised Land features Matt Damon and Frances McDormand as gas company agents who descend on a small Midwest farm town. At a town meeting, a local geezer played by Hal Holbrook rains on the parade of riches the farmers and the townsfolk anticipate by mentioning the dangers of fracking. John Krasinski appears as an environmental activist who opposes the gas company. He also is also Damon’s rival for a bit of romance with a local barfly/schoolteacher, played by Rosemarie DeWitt.

The script, written by Damon and Krasinski, presents its messages in an entertaining fictional narrative. Promised Land will likely reach a larger audience than would a message documentary such as those made by Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

But with any message movie that is totally one-sided (like Promised Land), my suggestion is “be skeptical.” Things are rarely as black and white as they are sometimes presented. (Another incidental message of this movie is “beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)

Damon and Krasinski deserve credit for bringing attention to what may or may not be an issue worthy of your consideration. On the other hand, the manipulative story telling is so heavy handed that it has the feel of a negative political TV ad.

Who is behind this movie? Who benefits most should its messages resonate with a significant number of citizens? The coal industry? Electric utilities? The Sierra Club? Farm communities? Monsanto? People with existing natural gas wells? Stay tuned to find out.

Promised Land had the opportunity to open the country’s eyes to a possible environmental danger. But because the message is so clumsily delivered, the film is likely to resonate mainly with those who are already tree huggers and not so much with a general audience.

The Impossible

The killer tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 is the real star of The Impossible. The tsunami horror that was frighteningly depicted in the 2010 movie Hereafter is multiplied and intensified in The Impossible. Add to that horror… the horror of not knowing whether your family members survived the ordeal.

Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor are mom and dad to three young boys on a Christmas holiday trip when the monster wave hits. After the water finally subsides, mom is severely injured. With help from one son, she makes it to a treatment center, where the medical staff tends to those who are hurt.

Meanwhile dad and the other two sons await word regarding mom and the other son. Dad sets off on a quest to learn his wife’s fate and locate her. He accepts the offer of a stranger (played by Geraldine Chaplin) to watch the younger boys while he searches for his wife and older son.  Later, he is unable to locate those two younger sons, adding to his worries.

Any parent who has ever lost a child, even for a moment, knows the pangs of fear that overtake the mind and body during those times. Any child who has ever been separated from a parent also knows the terror that each of these three children knew during this ordeal. Watts and McGregor as the parents and Tom Holland as the oldest son each are superb at bringing these emotions to the screen.

My only complaint about the film is that timeline is not exactly clear. When the narrative moves straight ahead with no sidebars or flashbacks as in The Impossible, the passage of days and nights should be more plainly delineated.

The Impossible is based on a true story. The family survives, despite injuries. But the mood at the film’s end is more melancholy than upbeat. The fact that the tsunami killed so many thousands keeps the tone somber and respectful.

The story is presented with a bit of Hollywood plot enhancement, but stays on its consistent path without being especially stylish. It is the acting and the effects that make The Impossible a compelling movie to watch.