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Column Fri Feb 01 2013

Warm Bodies, Bullet to the Head, Stand Up Guys, 56 Up & Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

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Warm Bodies

I firmly believe that if you give this zombie rom-com a shot, you'll really like it. I want to be perfectly clear about that up front, because I'm genuinely surprised how many people are inflexible when it comes to zombie films. There is no point in making zombie movie after zombie movie (or TV series) if you aren't going to mix things up within a certain framework established in George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. That groundbreaking film is a perfect jumping off point, but there's room for variety and even improvement.

The makers of Warm Bodies are perfectly aware that the premise (from Isaac Marion's novel) of a zombie and human falling in love is preposterous, but writer-director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) doesn't let that keep him from taking the story and the romance seriously. He's committed to making us believe in this relationship — one that leads to a potential cure for being undead. Borrowing heavily from the plot of Romeo and Juliet (right down to the names of the lead characters — R played by Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer's Julie), Warm Bodies is told to us from R's point of view, complete with narration by Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) that sets up just how much he remembers from his pre-zombie life (not much), how he communicates with his best zombie friend M (Rob Corddry), and how the world of zombies and humans is divided.

R's narration is just the right balance of snarky and informative, and we quickly learn that a few zombies can actually manage words, and there are levels of zombie-dom, including the skin-and-bones death machines known as "bonies," who will eat anything with a heartbeat. We find out that R has ambition; he wants to be a better class of zombie that isn't all about eating humans. He listens to classic rock on vinyl in an abandoned airplane (he pretty much spends most of his time wandering around an abandoned airport).

We also meet Julie, who has lived her entire life under these conditions. Her father (John Malkovich doing the paramilitary thing) is the head of a population of humans fortified against zombies, and she sometimes goes out of the fortress with other humans for medical supply runs. During one such run, her party is attacked by zombies, including R, who eats the brains of Julie's sort-of boyfriend (Dave Franco) — apparently when zombies eat brains they absorb the memories of that person. He takes an injured Julie back to his plane, he says to protect her. And the courtship begins. As he spends more time with her, his speech improves, color returns to his face, and he's able to walk less like a zombie. And it's soon revealed that his heart begins beating again, thus indicating that zombies might be cured by love. Awwwww.

It sounds silly, I know, but Levine is smart enough to not let things get dumb while taking full advantage of the winning chemistry between the leads. The films becomes less about zombies and more about a young man who doesn't know how to talk around girls. Sure the zombie stuff stays strong, especially when the airport zombies start to organize and begin a raid on the human compound. But Julie manages to get R in front of her father in hopes of convincing him that the zombies are not all bad. I especially liked Julie's best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton), who grills the transforming zombie about his intention toward her friend. Tipton continues to show some of the great comic timing she displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Wisely, Levine doesn't lean too hard on the comedy, instead relying on the relationship and action to lead the charge. Hoult is stellar as he gradually (almost frustratingly) allows himself to become more human from scene to scene. His inability to communicate as much as he'd like and occasional desire to, you know, eat people are perfectly realized as both sources of humor and pity. We're rooting for him to get better faster, and when Julie and Nora give him a "human makeover" so he can walk around their camp undetected, we're excited that he's almost there. I wish Malkovich's character had been a little more fleshed out and just in the film more, but I think that about him in just about every movie. Warm Bodies is sweet and funny, and I think might mark the first zombie movie you can take your parents to (or parents could take their older kids to). That might negate the point of a zombie movie, but I fell for these characters and their dilemma.

To read my exclusive interview with Warm Bodies stars Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Bullet to the Head

I find as I get older that getting more of the same from an actor or director bores me more than it used to. And the good news about Bullet to the Head, the latest film from director Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Warriors, Streets of Fire, 48 Hours, Red Heat), is that it's something of a change of pace for star Sylvester Stallone. This is not an explosion romp in the vein of Stallone's Expendables movies, and he's playing a character that is, in very few ways, traditionally likable.

Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a New Orleands hit man who won't kill women or children, but outside of those parameters, he'll kill anyone. When his partner (John Seda) is killed after they complete a job, Jimmy suspects that he might be considered a loose end by the crime boss who hired him (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Meanwhile, D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Fast Five's Sung Kang) has also lost a partner and is in New Orleans looking for the same man as Jimmy. They form a shaky alliance in their search for the crime boss and his brutal button man (Conan The Barbarian's Jason Momoa, who does a great turn as a villain), and they spend the rest of the film fighting with each other, trading unfunny dialogue and shooting people.

Based on the graphic novel written by Matz, Bullet to the Head frankly feels like a subpar, direct-to-video release released in the mid-1990s. Everyone involved (except maybe Kwon) has done far better work and there's very little that we haven't seen in hundreds of other action films in the last 30 years. I like what Stallone is pulling off here as far as his performance, but when you place him next to the likes of Christian Slater, there's only so much the guy can do to improve this film. The Walter Hill fan in me was the most disappointed, since there's nothing really special about the way this film is directed aside from the somewhat brutal nature of some of the violence.

Honestly, I have very little to say about Bullet to the Head because even after seeing it twice (the first time at Butt Numb-a-Thon, the second earlier this week just as a refresher), it just didn't open itself up to interpretation or contemplation. No, not every movie does, but this one barely offers even characters, much of a plot, or one-liners that will be remembered. There is an all-too-brief axe fight; I will give it that. But this is also the kind of film that thinks that one guy who uses his smart phone to do police work is high falutin'. It's tiring.

But it's clear that Stallone isn't sleepwalking through this one; he's trying to make something of Bullet to the Head, even if nobody else can be bothered, including the esteemed director. Hell, for all I know, this is the first Stallone film of late that will bring fans of Stallone's earlier action work back the theaters. But it didn't work for Schwarzenegger a couple of weeks ago, and I thought The Last Stand was the better movie of the two. If you're typically pre-disposed to enjoy just about any Stallone movie put out or if you're a die-hard fan of Hill, you may be able to tolerate this one, but I was bored by it.

Stand Up Guys

I've seen a lot of people suppose that Stand Up Guys is about a punch of old guys doing wacky stuff, and while the film certainly isn't a master work, it's not Gumpy Old Men either. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in most scenes, the movie isn't even trying to be funny, although there are some laughs. What the film is about is three elderly former gangsters trying to recapture old times and come to grips with the fact that they are in the final chapters of their respective lives. Despite a few silly moments, the film has a melancholy current running below the surface, probably there because one of the men has been charged with murdering the other.

Stand Up Guys opens with Val (Al Pacino) being released from a 28-year stint in prison. He kept his mouth shut to protect the boss like any good criminal does, and now he's out — met by his best pal Doc (Christopher Walken, far from the weird-guy mode we saw in Seven Psychopaths). But during the job that got Val arrested, he shot the boss' son, and hasn't been forgiven. In turn, Doc has been told to kill Val within 24 hours of his release; he knows it's not right but the boss has leverage on him, so he has to go through with it. Val has lost most of his spark in prison, but a trip to a brothel gets him energized, and eventually the two men go rescue their former third man, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), from his retirement home, and the three go seeking adventure.

What happens instead are conversations about regrets, old glories and what it means to be loyal, all the while Doc is waiting for the right moment to off his friend, who (no surprise) kind of knows it's coming. There are distractions, such as a diner waitress that Walken seems close to, a hooker whom the boys save and help get her revenge on some men who treated her bad, and some awful original music by Jon Bon Jovi.

The screenplay from first-time writer Noah Haidle has a few nice touches, but director Fischer Stevens smartly relies on his actors to fill in the gaps, pump up the energy, and save the film from being a complete disaster. These are actors who are always easy to watch, either because they're giving us more of what we've come to expect from them or because they're trying out something different. I think completists of Walken or Pacino films will be pleased; the rest of you, I make no promises. I will admit, I thought Stand Up Guys had a hell of an ending, but getting there feels like it takes a very long time.

56 Up

Familiar to anyone who has seen any entry in director Michael Apted's "UP" documentary series knows the Jesuit theory: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." The original concept was to interview 14 children from various backgrounds and upbringing (although all but one are white, and there are only four females) and quiz them on their hopes and dreams for their future. Some had clear visions that they managed to more or less stick with; others are still drifting and barely making ends meet.

But every seven years, Apted (a researcher on the original "Seven Up" television documentary) has gone back to these people examined where they are in the world at that moment. Some of the subjects dropped out (most of them have since come back, with all but one of the original 14 represented in this latest chapter), most complain in some way about the impact being in this series has had on their lives, but as one subject puts it, they now all seem to have some warped sense of loyalty to Apted and his project.

One subject who has been absent since, I believe, 28 Up is Peter Davies, who makes it clear that he's only returning to promote his band. Apparently he was hounded by the conservative British press for criticizing the Thatcher administration, and dropped out. But he's hardly the first to come back to promote a cause or themselves over the years, and he certainly does a great job of catching us up on the second half of his life so far.

Another nice portion of 56 Up is the combining of scientist/professor Nicholas Hitchon (who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) and Suzanne Dewey, who comes from both a family with money but also a home broken up by divorce around the time of the second film. The two had never appeared on camera together as adults, but apparently they became good friends over the years, and thought they'd try something different. Their comparing and contrasting on the series is remarkably entertaining.

As we're learned from the other films, most of the subjects are dealing with the exact issues the rest of us do from time to time — money, illness, marriage, divorce, religion, and the very real question: "What the hell have I done with my life?" It's actually something of a miracle that none of the subjects have passed away over the years. Audiences seem to worry the most about Neil, a child of some means whose struggle with mental illness and social awkwardness drove him into homelessness for a time. Most remarkably, he's now a local politician with a flair for the work and a dream of becoming a Member of Parliament one day.

One of my favorites has always been Tony, an East End kid who worked briefly as a jockey and went on to run bets at the horse track from bettors to bookies and eventually became a London taxi driver. An admitted adulterer in a previous film, he now cries when he discusses how good his wife has been to him over their long marriage.

One thing that has changed with 56 Up is that Apted feels much more present. Although we never see him on camera, he narrates the film (as he has with most of the films), but we also hear his voice a great deal during the interviews, challenging his subjects about choices and opinions. He calls one person a racist, and he seems somewhat right to do so. I can only imagine what his relationship is like with these folks or what those initial calls are like when it's time to re-assemble the troops. Some seem to be in a perfect state of agony, while others seem more than happy to see Michael.

Needless to say, I hope there are still films left to be made in the series (it's my understanding the Apted has a plan in place in case he can't continue shooting.) There's not really any need to go back and watch all of the other parts before diving into 56 Up; Apted and his team do a great job distilling the previous works into nice recaps and reminding us the high and low points of their existence so far. It's been said before by better people, but watching these films every few years is like catching up with old friends — some are living boring lives, while others are quite content with being extraordinary. I rarely refer to a film as a "must see," but I'll make an exception in this case. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Oscar Nominated Shorts — Animated

I love that in the last few years, there has been a concerted effort to make all of the Oscar-nominated shorts (animated, live action and documentary) available for public viewing in theaters prior to the Academy Awards on February 24. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that short films are a major part of the process for filmmakers getting noticed in the hopes that they one day might make features films. South African director Neil Blomkamp made several science-fiction-themed shorts before getting tapped by Peter Jackson to make District 9; more recently, Andrés Muschietti made a creepy little film called Mama a couple years back, Guillermo del Toro saw it, and just a couple weeks ago, the feature version of Mama was the number one movie at the box office.

This year's Oscar-nominated five animated shorts are a great bunch, and the programmers of this year's collection added a few additional, highly accomplished shorts to push the running time to closer to 90 minutes. Two of the shorts may be familiar to some of you already. Originally running before the last Ice Age feature was Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare," an inspired work that has the youngest Simpson being dropped off at the Ayn Rand School for Tots where she attempts to save the life of a butterfly from a cruel baby with a hammer. The score by Hans Zimmer elevates this dialogue-free offering (come to think of it, I believe all of the nominated shorts are talk-free).

One of my favorites this year is the black-and-white Disney film Paperman (which recently became available online and originally played before Wreck-It Ralph). It's an unconventional love story that will make environmentalists and other fans of recycling insane, but it's a cute story about a man trying to get a woman's attention by trying to soar dozens of paper airplanes from his office window to her office across the street. A bit of Disney magic makes sure the film has a happy ending, but it's really a fun little work.

One of the most inventive shorts is Head over Heals, which, having just seen the trailer for Upside Down, reminds me a great deal of that film. It's a stop-motion tale of a couple that share a home, but one of them lives on the floor, while the other lives on the ceiling. They both have their own furniture and living arrangements, while also sharing a few appliances, but they go about their day moving around each other. The metaphor for a couple that only really exists together rather than sharing a life is clear, but his is a clever representation, and the romantic conclusion makes this one a winner.

I was particularly moved by director Minkyu Lee's Adam and Dog, which is literally about the first man and the first dog ever on earth and their early bond living in the Garden of Eden as best friends until that pesky Eve showed up. It's actually a beautifully rendered work. The final animated nominee is Fresh Guacamole, a funny, smart stop-motion offering that simply shows us how to make the tasty dip in an unconventional way with equally unusual ingredients.

Rounding out the program are Dripped, the story of an art thief that is actually a tribute to cubism and the works of Jackson Pollack; Abiogenesis, which gives us an alternative take how life on a planet might have begun; and the sweet fairy tale The Gruffalo's Child, featuring voice by Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltraine, Rob Brydon, John Hurt, Shirley Henderson and Tom Wilkinson, featuring a mother squirrel telling her children about the legend of this mysterious creature and its search for the Big Bad Mouse. The creature design reminded me a lot of the drawings in Where the Wild Things Are, and that's a good thing.

It's a terrific collection, and while actually watching the nominees doesn't necessarily give you an advantage in your Oscar pool, it will open your eyes to some great up-and-coming talent. Both the Animated and Live Action Shorts programs are opening today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, while the two-part Documentary Shorts films (these tend to run longer, so they've split them into separate shows) open today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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