Gravity

gravity-bullockposter-fullGravity is the thrilling adventure to beat this year, and by my forecast, I think the skies are clear for this thriller from Alfonso Cuaron.  Known for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, Cuaron has spent the last few years piecing Gravity together, a film that features only two actors and a whole lot of outer space.

Sandra Bullock, in what will likely turn out to be the performance of the year and possibly her career, tackles the challenge of portraying astronaut Ryan Stone who attempts to make adjustments to a satellite alongside fellow spaceman, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).   Soon enough a whirlwind storm of debris dices through their ship and sends Stone spinning wildly out of control into space.  Her only communication with NASA will soon dissipate once she floats too far out and her oxygen tank levels are already low.

This is about where the theatrical trailer for the movie leaves you hanging. The synopsis and trailer both left me wondering, what story could be left to tell?  Where can the movie possibly go after that point?

Cuaron is no dummy and he quickly turns Gravity into an eye-popping 3D adventure that not only fails to overstay its welcome at a quick 90 minutes, but gives us a taste of what space may actually be like.  How will Stone survive her impossible situation?  That is the question.  The movie takes us through her journey which essentially amounts to a one woman show that Bullock handles unflinchingly.

But let’s not forget Clooney who actually pours a great deal of humor into an extremely tense film and gives the weightlessness some grounding when it can really use it.  Make no mistake, this is Bullock’s ‘Cast Away’ and she nails it.  So does Cuaron who keeps the events, which had the potential to come off as repetitive, in check and moving at all times.  This is a theatrical experience if ever there was one, and the amount of time and effort that had to go into a visual movie like this is staggering.  It’s so technically precise from top to bottom.  The 3D is especially utilized well and enhances the film.

But at the core of this odyssey, and beyond all of the production values and whiz-bang “I’ve never quite seen this before” marveling, is a story of survival and a very strong actress that carries the entire movie.  Look for all this year’s award accolades to fall to Gravity, and watch Miss Bullock accept her second Oscar in a few months time.  Gravity is a movie to experience (in the theater, in 3D).

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Prisoners

prisoners-posterReligious symbolism clashes with the harsh brutalities of a world bent in two by purely evil forces in the drama Prisoners which seeks to frighten, disturb, and wring us out emotionally. The redeeming qualities, however, unleash some terrific acting performances and unsettling suspense throughout a 2 1/2 hour runtime that manages to fly.

Two missing six-year-old girls from two different suburban families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) – (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are the center of an investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).  There is only one clear suspect to Keller Dover (Jackman), and that is a mentally challenged, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom Keller believes abducted the girls in his RV.  Loki, however, can’t find any substantial evidence to support Jones as his man.

A spiraling investigation leads Loki and Keller to desperation in their own ways.  As each day passes, the girls are certainly closer to death if they aren’t already.

Directed with a great deal of feeling by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners resists the route of typical revenge actioners and actually heads up the drama in very realistic, albeit overwrought, fashion.  The premise manages to carry the film for quite a while leading to a satisfying and physically draining conclusion that answers nearly every question the audience can throw at it.  While the film lends itself to being picked apart due to the nature of an unfolding mystery, the picture is held together so well by alarmingly good performances for thinly drawn characters that have little range on paper, yet bloom onscreen.

Jackman is the angry autocratic father.  Gyllenhaal is the determined investigator.  Bello is the weeping wife.  None of the characters have lives outside of their predicament.  Yet the acting is so very good that I failed to notice it much until further reflection.

This is obviously the kind of film gunning for awards attention, and for the most part it deserves it.  Jackman and Gyllenhaal especially deliver strong performances worthy of consideration.  The film as a whole could be a little tighter, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was glued to the screen the entire time, even when I wanted to look away.  Prisoners is a mostly fascinating drama that delivers a strong hit to the gut.

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Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim I remember when I first saw Independence Day.  It was the weekend of July 4, 1996, and my friends and I were packed into the Stuart Theater in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.  the place was crowded, the floor was sticky, and the excitement was palpable.  This was in the days before the internet went mainstream, and movie trailers could only be seen on TV.  Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to ID4’s release my school was buzzing with all kinds of talk about what would surely be one of the coolest movies we had ever see.  Spaceships. Aliens. Explosions. Jeff Goldblum.  Will Smith.  Brent Spiner!  Could this movie be any cooler? And there we sat, riveted to our seats as the massive alien spaceships began settling over earth cities causing pandemonium in the streets below.  We cheered when Smith punched an alien, took out a cigar, and said with cocky John Wayne-confidence, “Welcome to earth.”  We gaped as enormous fireballs engulfed buildings, streets, and entire metropolises.  We jumped when an alien popped out of its biosuit inside the Area 51 laboratory.  And when the movie was over, we clapped, cheered, and rose to our feet in exuberant jubilation.  Independence Day not only lived up to the hype, but blew my mind into the stratosphere.  No, it didn’t have the most compelling storyline or complex characters.  The dialog was cheesy.  The aliens weren’t all that scary, and the comic relief was a bit too corny.  But none of that mattered, because the movie was just so much fun.  It gave me and my friends exactly what we were hoping for:  good guys, bad guys, aliens, and tons of explosions. And it was awesome.

So why bring all this up in a review of Pacific Rim? Because the two are so similar in tone and substance they might well have been cut from the very same cloth.  This story, about robots called Jagers fighting monsters called Kaiju, is one that has been rehashed innumerable times on the big screen.  The characters are about as one-dimensional as can be, and any description of them requires no more than three words each (including the article): The reluctant hero. The grizzled leader. The plucky scientist. The plucky jock. The wise father. Any standard action movie character checklist would be full of marks, but these cliches are part of what makes Pacific Rim such a fine achievement.  Director Guillermo del Toro, whose previous films include Hellboy 1 and 2, Mimic, and the freakishly outstanding Pan’s Labyrinth, foregoes deep, layered plots and complex subtexts for a straight-out, full-on action flick that caters to the little kid in all of us. Just like Independence Day and countless others before it, Pacific Rim knows exactly what it is and delivers on that promise in spades. Audience members are treated to some of the most gargantuan battles to ever grace a movie screen, with clearly delineated bad guys to jeer and good guys to cheer.  It’s summer popcorn fare at its finest, and a joy to behold on as massive of a screen as possible.

Aliens, 2. Robots, 1. Let's do this.

Aliens, 2. Robots, 1. Let’s do this.

Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, the reluctant hero with a past that haunts him and a future that looms as bleak as his haircut. A former superstar Jager pilot, he’s recruited for one last-ditch attempt at stopping the Kaiju invasion (something about a rift in spacetime that opens a portal between dimensions…but it’s really not that important) by the no-nonsense tough-as-nails director of the Jager program named…wait for it…Stacker Pentecost played by Idris Elba, who will soon no doubt be showing up in an Old Spice commercial near you.  (If there’s a hierarchy of manly names out there, Stacker Pentecost would rank one notch above John St. John and right below Bigg McLarge Huge.)  Together they and their team of international, interracial, and intergenerational Jager pilots must take down the Kaiju or else risk the end of humanity as we know it.  Toss in a dash of Ron Perlman as the shady but hilarious Hannibal Chau, mix in two parts awesome CGI and one healthy dose of ear-busting digital sonic punishment and you’ve got a recipe for one of the coolest movies I have seen on a big screen in a very long time.

What makes Pacific Rim so enjoyable isn’t necessarily what it contains, but what it lacks.  There are no scatalogical one-liners, no apocryphal political maneuverings, and no complicated explanations trying to shoehorn real-life physics into a sci-fi story.  The female gender is, sadly, woefully underrepresented, but Becket’s co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is a tough, capable woman who easily holds her own in a fight and remains 100% clothed the entire movie–just as a PG-13 action flick marketed towards kids should be.  In fact, there’s no romantic subplot at all which may or may not be a boon to the wives and girlfriends who will undoubtedly be dragged to Pacific Rim.  Though I daresay they might enjoy the movie for what it is just as much as their male counterparts. The special effects on display here are as good as it gets, and the camera wisely lets many of the Jager/Kaiju bouts play out like violent watery ballets instead of a mishmash of quick cuts and closeups that render all the action well-nigh incomprehensible.

Del Toro has crafted a fantastic love letter to Godzilla movies of yesteryear, while exchanging their men in rubber monster suits for blisteringly realized CGI and intricate miniature work.  Pacific Rim is a movie that reminded me what it felt like to be a kid, wide-eyed and full of wonder, marveling at what I was seeing unfold before me.  And sometimes that’s all I want from a movie.

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Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters

H&G PosterWhen last we met, we covered the evolution of various supernatural critters from detestable to desirable. Vampires are a particularly striking example of an archetype that began as walking, rotting corpses, and rose to be portrayed as superior to humans in almost every way. And now, with Warm Bodies, zombies have begun to travel the same road. But as this happens, producers of fiction lose a useful tool in the form of a creature that can be killed without remorse. This leaves writers searching for a new archetype to fill the role of humanity’s enemy. Sometimes what they come up with is surprising.

Writer/director Tommy Wirkola has found an unlikely replacement:

witches. His latest work, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, starts out with an abridged retelling of the classic children’s tale of two kids who are apparently abandoned in the woods, find a house made of candy, and are captured by a hideous, cannibalistic crone, until they knock her into her own oven. This refresher is graphic, brutal, and not for children. Hansel and Gretel then vow to spend their lives hunting down and killing witches, and we are treated to a montage of newspaper clippings and wood-cut drawings, showing their exploits over the next fifteen years.

We don’t have to think much for this movie. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) narrates “We learned two important things that day (when they escaped the witch as children). One, never walk into a house made of candy. And two, if you’re going to kill a witch, set her ass on fire.” Good advice.

Gemma Arterton, up to her usual awesomeness.

Gemma Arterton, up to her usual awesomeness.

The main story deals with the twins working a case in Augsburg, investigating the disappearances of 11 children. The witches in this movie display many of the traits we’ve seen in vampires and werewolves in recent years: super human strength (why? Because it’s cool), animal-like movements (why? Because it’s cool), and an apparent black belt in jujitsu (why? … must you ask?). Hansel and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) save a beautiful young woman named Mina (Pihla Viitala) from being wrongfully executed as a witch. Hansel announces to the obligatory mob of villagers that when a woman engages in the black arts, a nasty rot sets in. That’s right, the witches in this movie are essentially walking, rotting corpses. Sound familiar?

Jean Grey gone bad. Or did she already do that?

Jean Grey gone bad. Or did she already do that?

Is it a good movie? No. But the real questions is how well do the witches satisfy that part of us that just wants to weild a shotgun, as zombies used to do for us? The best thing about this movie is that it’s not afraid to be politically incorrect. The witches are plentiful. They’re ugly. And they’re decidedly unsympathetic. They’re a bit harder to kill than zombies, but the writers always find a way. All this movie really is is a big, silly bonanza of over-the-top stunts, awesome weapons that could never exist and dazzling fireballs. (It’s even sillier than Van Helsing, if you can believe that). It’s the kind of movie where people get knocked through walls, jump up and keep fighting.  It doesn’t need to be good; it’s a blast.

But are the witches really all subhuman monsters? Are there none we can identify with? Are all those female

Bad witch.

Bad witch.

movie goers who spent their teen years fantasizing about being witches and making love potions going to be left out in the cold?

Well, we eventually learn that, in fact, Mina is a witch, a “white witch” who uses her powers for “good.” Good witches don’t have the rot set in. So how do we tell a good witch from a bad? We look at their outward appearance. How delightfully shallow. Of course, even Mina admits that there are not many good witches, so the good news is most of the witches are just going to be fodder for the awesome fight scenes.

To be fair, there are some clever ideas in this movie, such as the glass milk bottles that bear pictures of the missing children, or the subplot in which Hansel has to take an insulin shot every day, due to all the candy the witch made him eat as a child to fatten him up. There is also a fresh take on the reason the twins’ parents abandoned them in the forest that fateful night. But this is also one of the nastiest movies I have ever seen. Not only is it excessively gory, but the subject matter is pretty intense. There are graphic scenes of children being starved and terrorized by the witches (I understand there were some scenes cut out that were even worse) and one of a witch magically forcing a teen boy to shoot his own mother. Rape is also hinted at. After all, the original “children’s tale” is pretty nasty when you think about it. The Brothers Grimm tended to live up to their name.

Good witch. See the difference?

Good witch. See the difference?

I expect witches’ time on popular fiction’s crap list will be briefer than that of some other creatures, if only because we’re so accustomed to seeing pretty witches save the day. So what’s going to come next? Maybe vampires will cycle around for another run. Personally, I think I’ll stick with my old standby: zombies.

 

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World War Z

World-War-Z-posterFurther global annihilation awaits audiences this weekend in the form of World War Z, a massively expensive summer tentpole picture geared toward action-seekers and zombie fanatics, though it’s likely to please one of those crowds more than the other.  The film is based on a novel by Max Brooks of which I conquered a mountainous six pages.  That’s not to the novel’s detriment.  I merely put it down and never picked it back up.

No matter.  The screenplay divided up by three writers apparently ditched the source material and instead journeys with Gerry Lane played capably by superstar Brad Pitt.  Gerry has one of those professions never fully explained, but he is recruited out of retirement by the United Nations on a global quest to track down the origins of a zombie virus that has catapulted the planet into chaos.

The film opens with Gerry and his family—wife and two young daughters—traveling in the car when the outbreak hits.  Cars slam into each other.  Crowds flee in the streets.  Hordes of rabid human undead attack civilians on the run and spread the pandemic.  Within seconds, humans are fed on and turned to monstrous, speedy, lethal cannibals.

Gerry is offered a secure naval base shelter for his family in exchange for his efforts to track the down the spread of the virus.  He joins a military strike force and globe-trots from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem in search for answers that might allow him to find a cure for the spreading contagion.

Unfortunately for World War Z, the film has arrived following a wave of negative buzz after its production budget ballooned to unfathomable proportions for this type of zombie apocalypse thriller.  A third act rewrite and reshoot didn’t help matters especially when rumors spread that Brad Pitt quit talking to the director, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher), and threatened to walk out on the film.  Consider all the rumors hearsay.  What we finally have onscreen is pure unrelenting entertainment from start to finish, a film that easily outguns and KO’s all alien superheroes and fast car lovers.

world-war-z-brad-pittWorld War Z is a superb suspense-thriller and manages to succeed against all odds even for a PG-13 zombie film.  Whether Forster, his editors, or his writers pulled off the magic required or blind luck intervened, this was not the choppy moviegoing experience I was expecting.  The computer-generated mounds of zombies featured in the trailers raised I Am Legend-sized visual doubts, but actually turn out to be quite freaky physical specimens, which are (in individual cases) actually human actors sporting incredible makeup and prosthetic enhancements sans much of the gore fans have become accustomed to.

Believe me when I say the lack of blood never once hinders the film from its storytelling ambitions, nor from rampant intensity and scares.  There are plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments.  Several sequences mount tingling suspense.  The filmmakers have flat-out created a well-structured thriller that flows neatly across continents from start to finish atop Brad Pitt’s shoulders.  Its his show and he does create a genuine character that the audience can root for as he struggles to return to his family and save the world.

At a tight 2 hour running time, World War Z delivers the goods and winds up a fine summer blockbuster filled with big action, big thrills, and the kind of suspense this season has been lacking.  Despite the lack of blood, the movie has plenty of guts, and it knows how to turn up the intensity to eleven.  Skip the 3D conversion and forget about a faithful adaptation to novel.  If you can do so I’m betting you’ll eat it up.

 

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Man of Steel

man-of-steel-poster-600x886Warner Bros. really wants Superman to turn into the next Dark Knight franchise and Zack Snyder’s mega opus Man of Steel makes a serious run for your money.  It’s a gargantuan exercise in Transformer-sized destruction masquerading as a modernized take on the most popular superhero of all time.  Can the caped do-gooder savior survive a dead-on serious interpretation courtesy of the 300, Watchmen-helmer with the guiding hand of producer Christopher Nolan?

As a matter of fact—he can, but not without a few scars and lacerations.  Man of Steel is admittedly somewhat of a choppy mess missing much of the beating heart a Superman film desperately needs more than an alien super-punch.  Snyder attempts to restructure Kal-El and his battle against the alienation of being, well, an alien.  The film lifts off immediately in a big way—Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his mother are introduced on planet Krypton (very Avatar-esque) in the middle of a planetary Armageddon.  Krptonians haven’t been able to deliver a natural born child for many years until Jor-El’s wife delivers a baby that is immediately shuttled off to Earth in the hopes of giving him a chance to survive before military leader/lunatic Zod (Michael Shannon) can find the child and turn him to mush.

Fast forward.  Kal-El (renamed Clark Kent on Earth) is a 33-year-old man-alien in hiding as a savior-to-be.  Through flashbacks, Snyder introduces Clark’s restrained hostility and his heroic efforts to save others in need despite his father’s disapproval.  Kevin Costner, superb yet limited in the film as Pa Kent, instructs Clark that the world isn’t ready for the unveiling of Clark’s identity and incredible abilities.  The film bounces around important highlights from Clark’s life before plunging into the efforts of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the willful reporter who stumbles upon Kent in the Fortress of Solitude.  Kent discovers his past.  Lane discovers the story of her career.  Bring out the cape and the romance.

Kent dons the infamous suit just in time to do battle with Zod who manages to find Earth with his evil cohorts in an attempt to reclaim that last artifact of Krypton following its destruction: Clark/Kal-El.  In the process, Zod wants to also level all of Earth and rebuild Krypton.  With no earthly measures able to stop Zod and his troops, Superman locks fists with beings just as powerful as he in the hopes of saving the third rock from the sun before it is wiped out.

I have to give Snyder credit for taking a full bludgeoning swing at the infamous DC universe character and despite a few strikes, he manages a base hit—one that nearly shatters the ball.  You couldn’t pack any more action and mayhem into the final hour of this movie.  If there is anyone left alive in the massive destruction of Metropolis by the time the film is over, consider Superman back for another go-around as the world’s alien savior.  Fans looking for action will feast on this film.  Fans looking for a little more character development will find a lot to be desired with Snyder’s film.

Granted, another origin story for Superman in 2013 wasn’t going to be an easy task.  Most viewers know the story, the beats, and what must be included.  To retread so much information already committed to film over the course of five previous feature Superman films *not to mention ten seasons of Smallville and however many seasons of Lois and Clark), would have the blind taste of Novocaine.  After a while the filmmakers wouldn’t have realized they were chewing off their own tongues.

ManofSteel-ZodWith flashback sequences utilized for Man of Steel, the required information regarding Kent’s past makes it to audiences, albeit in disjointed fashion that hinders the narrative from ever finding the proper fluidity.  The romance spark between Lois and Clark never fully develops, and everything that must occur feels like a falling gavel.  The filmmakers have sentenced the film ‘that this must take place!’  However, Snyder still captures the parallels of Christ and Kent’s battle against vengeful (sinful) temptation when ultimately he must be the burdened savior of the world that his father sent him to be.

The battle of give-and-take for audience expectation hits the film hard in the gut without bringing it to its knees.  When the film isn’t showcasing the highlight reel, some great moments and performances sneak through.  Most notably of course is Henry Cavill as the latest actor to adorn the costume.  He fits it well.  The actor comes across as charming, powerful, and certainly human.  For my money he is a great Superman in a not-so-great movie.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe are also especially good here.  Even when they all have less to do, they provide the necessary supporting talent the film really needs.

The film’s greatest disappointment arrives in the form of Michael Shannon whose one-note expression gives the villain Zod little to do.  Perhaps the script shortchanged him, but for whatever reason I found Shannon lacking in terms of a death-blow adversary.  Was he too serious that the performance came off campy?  I don’t know.  A second viewing might sort that out for me.

Another critical factor in lessening the film’s impact has to be enormous action that meanders more in silliness than importance.  The fighting feels ongoing, but never immediate.  Honestly.  The destruction in the film morphs into the Octomom-love-children of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and well, Zack Snyder.  Visually, yes, this is a mammoth spectacle to behold and I have to say that the special effects will likely drown out any other film this year.  Or next year.  But Snyder’s movie endeavor, at 2 1/2 hours, had no limits in the action department.

Yet Man of Steel still manages to fly.  I walked away satisfied, but without the butterflies.  The film is flawed for sure, but this team can take flight with a clear-cut adventure  for the sequel now that the dust has settled on the choppy origin story.  I’m guessing the film will take place ten years in the future when the rebuilding of Metropolis has a chance to finish.

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Warm Bodies

WB posterBefore we begin our discussion of Warm Bodies, I want to say few words about vampires. Why vampires? Because zombies and vampires have a great deal in common, especially if you look at their history. In ancient times, vampires bore more resemblance to zombies than to anything we would call a vampire today. They looked – and smelled – like the reanimated corpses they were. At dusk, they would claw their way out of their graves and stagger about, seeking to feed upon the living. And they did not wear Vampire perfume.

The reasons for their existence also intersect. Everyone today is used to zombies being created by a virus. But you probably don’t know that vampires, too, have been through this phase. You are probably familiar with the 2007 zombie movie I am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. You might not know that this is a remake of The Last Man on Earth, directed by Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price220px-Lastmanonearth1960s (1964), which was based on the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). Of course, neither Last Man, nor the novel had a single zombie. That’s right, in those stories, a disease turns the living into vampires. For some reason, they are still repelled by crosses and mirrors. Go figure.

Bella Lugosi started a change in the vampire’s image in 1931, and people began to think of vampires as dapper gentlemen. Another significant milestone came with Interview with the Vampire (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1994), the first major motion picture to focus on the vampire’s point of view. Interview included, among other things, Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire whose conscience is haunted by the people he has to drain to survive. Instead of rooting for Louis’ destruction, moviegoers felt bad for him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like one of Hollywood’s most bankable heartthrobs. This was the fulcrum in the swing from vampires as dangerous to vampires as desirable. More recent vampires are genuine bring-home-to-mom material, and in fact are often kinder and more thoughtful than humans. In fact, in certain series, e.g. Underworld, vampires don’t even drink human blood. The subject of how they survive is kind of glossed over, leaving us to assume that vampires exist only to look sexy, twirl pistols, and spout the angst of a prolonged adolescence.

SeleneA lot of people are really enjoying this desirable vampire craze, of course. Nothing has generated so much drooling female hysteria as the smut series we call Twilight. But as much as Interview gave us, it also caused us to lose something. Vampires as they once were provided no end of engaging stories and wish fulfillment, because they were enemies you could kill without remorse (because they were already, you know, dead). Everyone loves a story of human struggle and triumph, especially with some combat thrown in, but when such stories involve human enemies, that raises all kinds of pesky moral issues, along with the occasional libel suit. If we have to sympathize with vampires now, who can we kill without remorse?

Zombies to the rescue! I’ve already expounded on the flood of zombie flicks we’ve seen in the 19 years since Interview. Zombie movies are the perfect genre. They’re quick and cheap to make, they don’t need to be good, and they are the perfect form of escapism, because not only do they provide an army of unfeeling, unthinking enemies, they also bring about the downfall of the Man. That mortgage you’re stressed about? Forget about it! That cubicle job you have to go to everyday? Not anymore! You now need concern yourself with three things: Food. Shelter. Zombies. So pick up your shotgun or chainsaw, and go have a head-splattering, limb-severing blast, all amid a playground of empty mansions, unguarded stores, and abandoned Ferraris.

This brings us to Warm Bodies. We join our narrator, a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who remembers only that his name started with R, as he shambles through a crowd of other zombies, who occasionally manage to squeeze single words from their rigor mortized throats. We also meet Bonies. Bonies are what zombies will eventually become. They resemble the more skeletal monsters from The Mummy and are conceptually the same thing as the re-deads from the Resident Evil games. Our hero makes his home in a disused airplane, where he collects trinkets, listens to vinyl and wishes to be alive again.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers, including lovers Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), leaves a fortified compound to scavenge supplies. They are busily ransacking a pharmacy, when a pack of zombies, including R, takes them by surprise. R is momentarily knocked down and watches Julie, rhythmically firing her shot gun, and apparently falls for her. In the following moments, R kills Perry, and proceeds to consume him. He narrates that when a zombie eats someone’s brain, that zombie experiences that person’s memories.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

He concludes “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to feel what you felt … to feel a little less dead.” The zombies come out the clear winners of this skirmish, and Julie is left standing alone, her magazines drained and her throwing knives spent. R approaches her before most of the others have left their kills and speaks her name, having learned it from Perry’s brain. To her astonishment, he rubs blood and grime over her face, and tells her “Come … s-safe.” With few options, she follows him and realizes the other zombies assume she is a new “addition to the family.” He takes her home and promises, in what sentence fragments he can manage, to keep her safe. However, she initially refuses to interact with him other than by curling into a ball and crying. He comments “I can tell when a girl needs her space. There’s other ways to get to know someone. Like eating her dead boyfriend’s brains.” He has saved several pieces from the attack, and over the next few days, he learns more of Perry and Julie’s story, and becomes increasingly remorseful for killing Perry. During this same time frame, R(omeo) and Julie(t) begin to talk more and grow closer.

R begins to change. His heart begins to beat, he begins to experience warmth and cold, and he begins to dream (“The dead do not sleep”). What’s more, as R changes, it also seems to affect the other zombies. Significantly, the zombies in this movie lack the wounds other zombie movies like to put on their zombies.  No lips missing, or ribs showing or anything. From the beginning, I wondered if being a zombie was any different from having arthritis and Alzheimer’s. We actually don’t get any clues as to how any of these people died (supposedly, none of them remember). The implication seems to be, at least at the symbolic level, that these zombies only ever “died” in that they forgot what it was to be human. As they start to remember, they start to move less stiffly and form sentences. Meanwhile, Julie begins trying to convince her father (John Malkovich), who runs the compound that the zombies are not the enemy and want to help.

All this is thrown together pretty loosely. For example, there’s never really a good explanation of how the humans and zombies end up allied against the Bonies. But I’m not complaining. I have to admit, the end of Warm Bodies really did bring a smile to my face, even if there were some holes in the plot. After so many zombie flicks tried to out do each other with bleakness and cynicism, it was cool to see one where there actually was a cure found — and it wasn’t some magical batch of chemicals, but simply, well … a little TLC.

But geez, now we’ve also lost zombies as unfeeling enemies that we can kill without remorse! If bothzombies love 2 vampires and zombies are now eligible mates with hopes, dreams and humanity, what supernatural creatures can we still use as fodder for the part of us that just wants to wield a shotgun? Hmm … maybe witches? More on that next time.

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Fast and Furious 6

fF6Like exhaust through a catalytic converter, so are the days of the Torretto family.

Six installments.  Six.  Car drive and car drive fast.  This concept has spanned SIX! feature films.  As of late the crash-mania squealing-tire saga has only gained further momentum.  Vin Diesel, the legitimate star of the series, announced that next summer’s greenlit Fast 7 (set up at the closing credits of this current installment) will begin a new trilogy.  Heaven help us all.

The crew of the massive blockbuster Fast Five returns for round 6 or Furious 6 as its titled in the opening credits and the results are exactly what you expect.  Just don’t try following the titles of these movies.  And be sure to remember that The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (or Fast 3) from seven years ago takes place after all previous Fast & Furious features including this sixth entry.  Still up to speed?

Picking up immediately where we left in Fast 5, Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) gains a new partner in Agent Riley (MMA beauty Gina Carano, Haywire) and sets out to court Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel) living peacefully on a tropical island with his newfound lady friend (and Hobbs’ former partner) Elena (Elsa Pataky).  Hobbs needs Dom to recruit his team once more to take on the international threat of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a really bad terrorist with a really bad device that is capable of something very bad and might be used by said bad terrorist or sold to another really bad terrorist.

Why would Torretto be interested?  Why even bother confiding in his F&F-chum-for-life Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) who just had a new baby boy with Torretto’s sister (Jordana Brewster)?  Because Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom’s murdered lover (as it happened in Fast 4) is still very much alive and may in fact be working with Shaw.  Dom needs to know for sure and “you don’t turn your back on family, even when they do.”

fast-furious-6Walker, Diesel, Johnson, and Carano welcome Ludacris, Sung Kang, Tyrese, and Gal Gadot in yet another family reunion full of physics-defying metal on metal stunts and set pieces linked to moments of eye-rolling blabbering buffoons yawning us to death about family values.  Justin Lin, the confident man behind the action of the last four F&F films, smolders a not-so-subtle subtext of family and loyalty over car mangling.  Dominic, our antihero, may be an outlaw, but he has a code and he protects his own which adds a great deal of honor to his outlandish escapades.  The villain Shaw, on the other hand, plays by-the-numbers and finds his team members to be no more than disposable pawns in his strategic chess game that he always holds the upper hand in.

Who cares?  I don’t and neither do viewers.  They want “vehicular warfare” and they do get it, bigger and better than usual which is a major compliment coming off the high of Fast Five.  But I have to admit I’m fatigued of this series which now throws a few too many big wrenches at my head in terms of plot.  Believe me.  I’m not referring to the stunts, which feature only slightly more lunacy than the story.

The plot is a gigantic mess of pointless setup met with needless execution. Follow the events of Fast 6 and you will scratch your head over the decisions the characters make in an effort to string together some large action sequences.  Potential SPOILERS ahead.  Stop here. I know I’m criticizing a live-action cartoon that delivers exactly what is intended, but bear with me.

Point 1:  Hobbs recruits Dom and a team of international criminals he set to take down in the last movie.  Why?  Because there needs to be a movie, not because he wouldn’t work with an actual military unit or strike force or… something like that.

Point 2: O’Connor decides to infiltrate a stateside prison as an inmate in order to get close to a former villain from the series who may have some information on what happened to Letty.  Why?  I don’t know actually.  This is the most idiotic development in the movie.  The mission would likely get O’Connor killed and it nearly does.  But the funny thing is that the information is of zero importance.  The characters already know where Letty is, have seen her and know that she is alive and likely has memory issues.  Torretto goes and finds her on his own before O’Connor even returns from his adventure.  Dom instructs his buddy to spare him the ‘vital information’ that was worth dying over.

Point 3:  For being the smartest villain in the room, Shaw is a moron.  He says he doesn’t care for his team members and finds them to be replaceable.  Except for Letty, the smart-mouth, authority-defying brain batter mess that generally serves little purpose for Shaw throughout the film.  Torretto offers to walk away from Shaw and leave him alone if he can have Letty back.  Shaw refuses.  Idiot.

Point 4: Torretto and Shaw, in multiple instances throughout the film, have a chance to take each other out either directly or through their cohorts.  They don’t take the shot.  Then there’s the back and forth of the heroes having Shaw and letting him go.  And having him and letting him go.  Dumb.

Fast and the Furious 6Point 5: The action has zero consequences and the cartoonish nature of the series removes any and all suspense or tension.  Multiple fistfights occur in this installment.  Heroes and villains bludgeon each other with nary a bruise or scratch.  At one point, Diesel’s character dives headfirst into the skull of any angry giant thug man and walks away unscathed.  As insane as the car stunts become, whether the heroes are facing off against tanks or airliners, the action reaches such high levels but rarely evokes actual danger.  Characters consistently fight through hell but never show injury until the final blow—if they do in fact die.

That’s where the series has really worn me out.  Bang bang boom, but no one gets hurt until they die.  This roadrunner-coyote cartoon chase only entertains for so long when there’s no suspense or actual imminent danger to the characters.  I know other PG-13 action films have dealt with the same problems, but none are as numb to reality as the Fast series, at least to my present knowledge.

Justin Lin has a balancing act with these films and he succeeds with a far more prominent and successful use of humor this time around, but there are simply too many characters and subplots to juggle at this point.  The action even suffers in terms of the different bobbing heads we are forced to jump back and forth with.  Do I commend the action?  Yes.  But somewhere down the line I became numb to it.  The F&F fans should rejoice, however, as this is probably a franchise high for them, even though I found it a step down from Part 5.  If you want bloodless carnage, mindless action, and by-the-numbers soap opera, then Fast 6 will serve you plenty.

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