Warm Bodies (B-)
U.S.: Jonathan Levine, 2013, Lionsgate
Warm Bodies is an attempt to do for zombie movies at least part of what the Twilight series did for vampire and werewolf pictures -- mix them up promiscuously with teen romance -- as well as to attract at least part of that huge teen and twenty-something audience out there with something funnier and hipper and (what's the word?) edgier. In some ways it does, especially when Warm Bodies turns its undead hero into a vinyl album Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen fan, playing "Shelter from the Storm" and "Hungry Heart."
That hero is a spookily handsome zombie-boy of the future, named R because he can't remember the rest, and played by Nicholas Hoult, the one-time child star of About a Boy. The heroine is a very pretty live-human girl, named Julie (Teresa Palmer), whose father is a zombie-hating militia leader, General Grigio (John Malkovich, at his gun-craziest ). These two culture-crossed lovers meet in the semi-ruins of a city shot in Montreal, where rival packs of zombies and humans rove the streets and try to stay alive -- after R captures Julie's boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), and eats his brain. (Talk about edgy.)
Something about Julie appeals to R, however, and he only pretends to kill her (to fool his zombie fellow rovers). He leaves her brain alone and takes her to his digs, an abandoned plane where he plays his vinyl record collection and love blossoms. R has a zombie buddy called M (Rob Corddry), and Julie has a human gal pal called Nora (Analeigh Tipton), and they try help the lovers build their bridge over bloody waters: perhaps erasing the gulf between the living and the undead, except for those even worse zombies called "boneys." Boneys roam the deadly city, killing indiscriminately, and they're impervious to the charms of vinyl and Romeo and Juliet stories.
All this is told to us by R, who narrates the tale with unusual recall and literacy for somebody who's undead and has a poor memory. But it's the spirit that counts. Obviously, there are analogies here -- and the bridge being built is also between outsiders or misfits, and "normal" people. Warm Bodies is a tenderer and smarter movie than most teen-slanted shows -- certainly than most zombie movies -- and it has better dialogue and livelier scenes than we're used to. The acting is better than the norm, especially Corddry, Palmer and Tipton -- and Malkovich, of course. The visuals are both realistic and fantastic, cast in bluish, cool tones by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.
The source of Warm Bodies is a novel by Isaac Marion, and the adaptation is by director-writer Jonathan Levine, who's made one hip, funny urban high school romance, The Wackness (on which I was mixed) and one comedy-drama of illness, death, friendship and love, 50/50 (which I liked very much). I liked Warm Bodies too, though I thought it needed a tad more sharpness, darkness and cynicism to set off the tenderness and romance. Something more than a jolt or two and scary stuff from those damned boneys. Of course, it's hard to top brain-eating for dramatic contrast.
Jack the Giant Slayer (B-)
U.S.: Bryan Singer, 2013, New Line Home Video
Zillions of dollars have been spent on Jack the Giant Slayer -- a new Bryan Singer-directed version of the oft-told fairy-tale about a boy and his beanstalk -- in order to make it the most fantastically spectacular and expensively outlandish version of Jack and the Beanstalk you could possibly imagine: a Jack and the Beanstalk with all the scope and none of the sense of a classic war epic.
That money has bought a lot of towering castles, awesome mountain scenery, jaw-dropping effects, star character actors keeping a straight face (the best of them are Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy and Ian McShane), and lots of maniacally elaborate special effects -- of which the most maniacal are the movie's CGI-engendered giants. It's all designed as a kind of a fairytale Die Hard, and in a way it is.
But, in the end, the whole thing often doesn't amount to a hill of beans. (Sorry.) Jack and the Giant Slayer has some entertaining stuff -- stunning scenery, action, costumes and castles -- and occasionally even some good writing or acting. But what all that money (reportedly somewhere around $190 million) hasn't bought is an idea worth having or a script worth filming. The story is shallow and predictable -- even though four writers, including Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects, and David Dobkin of Wedding Crashers -- labored over it.
The story, which you've heard before, is treated with an odd respect, as if it were Beowulf or Le Morte d'Arthur. It begins with Jack catching sight of a beautiful princess and defending her from boors, then trading his white horse for some beans, which are dropped to the ground, sprout and send that humungous beanstalk whooshing up to the sky, past the clouds, to Giant Land (or Gantua), a vast mountainous landscape filled with great stone heads spitting out waterfalls, and huge, slovenly, heavy-muscled, tooth-challenged giants.
Since the stalk took the princess up to Gantua, her disturbed father, King Brahmwell (McShane) sends some knights -- and Jack -- on an expedition to bring her back. The troupe includes the good knight Elmont (McGregor), the bad smarmy knight Roderick (Tucci), our boy Jack and some hapless carriers. Soon good guys are battling bad guys, expendable cast members are hurtling to their deaths, a magical crown is passing from hand to hand, the Giants are getting set to wage war and gobble the losers, and the beanstalk may come crashing down any moment on the Castle of Cloister.
The movie's budget does give us a hellishly exciting movie spectacle. But it doesn't give us a hero and heroine who are interesting. The two leads are plucky farmhand and bean-counter Jack, as played by Nicholas Hoult and adventurous Princess Isabelle, as played by Eleanor Tomlinson. They look good. But their emotions are minimal, even when the whole kingdom is crashing down around them or when the scary giant team of Gen. Fallon and Gen. Fallon's Small Head (voiced by Bill Nighy, with the extra head supplied by John Kissir), show up to look ugly and bite off human body parts like bon bons, or when more beanstalks start shooting up to the clouds.
The movie is physically beautiful, and every once in a while McGregor or Tucci or McShane remind you how good they can be. But it's difficult to watch without noting the absurdity of making a $190 million show based on Jack and the Beanstalk. (Extras: featurettes; gag reel; deleted scene.)
Identity Thief (C-)
U.S.: Seth Gordon, 2013, Universal)
Identity Thief apparently made viewers laugh. But for me, it was one of those movies that went wrong early and never got itself right. It's a glossy, messy comedy about identity theft, starring Jason Bateman as the victim Sandy Bigelow Patterson, and Melissa McCarthy as his nemesis "Sandy Bigelow Patterson" -- the mysterious woman who's spending all his money, maxing all his credits cards and ruining his whole damn life.
The movie was directed by Seth Gordon, who guided Bateman in another ridiculous and mean-spirited comedy, Horrible Bosses. And, despite a good cast (especially McCarthy) and a capable crew, it's a stinker. The script is predictable and senseless. The visual gags are dopey and garish, and they come at you like a storm of whoopee cushions. At one point, a snake crawls down Bateman/Sandy's pants, maybe looking for some good lines. McCarthy/Sandy has a misbegotten hotel orgy with Eric Stonestreet as the rowdy, big-bellied "Big Chuck." And, through all this certifiable inanity, the two Sandys mop up cliches on the road, where they're mysteriously joined by two hit-persons (played by T.P., a.k.a. Tip Harris, and Genesis Rodriguez) and a violent skip tracer (Robert Patrick), all waving guns.
But, if Identity Thief is almost hysterically awful, the actors -- Bateman, McCarthy, Stonestreet and several of the others -- somewhat redeem it. If Melissa McCarty didn't exist, she's probably have to be invented: She's close to the ultimate brassy, bouncy, comical tough gal and a half, a triumph of hard-edged personality over the usual vacuous movie prettiness.
In Bridesmaids, a movie where everyone was good, McCarthy still managed to heist a hefty chunk of the picture by giving writer-star Kristen Wiig's maladjusted maid of honor a lesson in chutzpah. In Life Is 40, she out-funnied any two 20s you can name. Here, McCarthy steps out of supporting buddyhood for a while to take a lead, though it's not really a romantic lead. (It's a John Candy-style lead). And she plays her part as well as it could be played -- which is no huge achievement.
The movie begins with that falsely promising scene when Diana calls up Bateman's pushover business guy, Sandy, in Denver (Diana is in Winter Park, Florida) and artfully pretends to be an anti-identity thief operative, thereby snookering him out of his Social Security number. The phony Sandy then goes on a shopaholic's rampage, just at the touchy moment when the real Sandy is driven to leave his old corporation (partly run by Jon Favreau as a smirking, bonus-happy Ayn Rand fan named Cornish) in order to help start a new one, at the behest of Daniel Casey (John Cho).
Suddenly Sandy's world goes kaflooey. When his alter-ego's shopping spree (plus a violent altercation and arrest) comes to light, the cops show up at his new company (led by Morris Chestnut as Detective Reilly). Suddenly Sandy goes from a six-figure-salary business wunderkind to a schmo-in-dutch with a bunch of maxed and worthless Visa and MasterCards, all thanks to Diana and his own dopey indiscretion.
Up to that point, Identity Thief looks as if it might be a good movie, or at least a bad funny one. But then, in a bewildering, mind-numbing plot twist, natty Denver Detective Reilly explains that his hands are tied, that these cases take forever, and he can't somehow cooperate with the Florida cops (or the credit card companies) to stop Diana running wild with Sandy's card. Instead, Sandy, one of the last guys you'd want to send on a cross-country pickup of a psychopath, drives off, in all his obvious street-unwisdom, to find the credit swindler, bring her back, and get her to confess to his bosses.
This bizarre twist and what went on before has the effect of making the police look ridiculous and the credit industry impotent. But it does allow screenwriter Craig Mazin (who has committed a couple of Scary Movie scripts and The Hangover 2) to turn the whole thing into a cross-country road comedy -- swiping from, among others, Midnight Ride and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Indeed, Mazin and Gordon jam in so much laughlessly derivative humor, pseudo-sentiment, mean gags and bursts of phony schmaltz that the movie almost always seems like some other movie that just wandered in, spewing imitations of the Farrelly brothers or their imitators on a bad day. The ending, both schmaltzy and cynical, is as wrong-headed as everything else.
But, bad as this script and movie are, the actors sometimes pump it up and squeeze out some laughs, especially McCarthy, with her screaming pink cupcake of a house, her loud trumpeting laughs, her nonstop cons and her favorite maneuver when hassled: a quick mama-chop to the throat. McCarthy is an actress who steals shows effortlessly.
A Good Day to Die Hard (C)
U.S.: John Moore, 2013, 20th Century Fox
A Good Day to Die Hard is the fifth of the Bruce Willis Die Hard movies -- and it's obviously, irretrievably, die-hardishly one too many. It's not that the franchise has worn out its welcome (though many seem to think so), or that Willis (in his signature role of tough, hard-bitten, never-say-die NYPD cop John McClane) has worn out his. Nor is Willis' age (57) any impediment to our enjoyment, or at least to mine. (I was more put off by the relative youngster, Jai Courtney of Spartacus, whom they brought in to play McClane's long-estranged son.) But this movie -- its script, its ideas, its characters and its overpacked, overviolent, under-thought action sequences -- is too much, too loud, too everything-we've-seen-before.
The earlier shows in that series were, some of the time, entertaining and exciting -- and occasionally ridiculous. This new movie is just ridiculous. We get McClane, and McClane's son Jack -- the younger McClane absent from the series till now, though he has risen through the CIA far enough to be entrusted with the fate of the world. The two are up against the Russian government and the police and massive firepower and assorted crooks and a billionaire Russian dissident scientist (Yuri Komarov, played by Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others) whom they're trying to spirit out of the country.
Some of the reasons the original Die Hard worked is that there was a story of some interest in between the action scenes, and antagonism of some snap between Willis's working class New York cop McClane and Alan Rickman as the snobby terrorist. A Good Day to Die Hard has a superficial international intrigue plot going, but, as usual with lots of today's action movies, it has empty characters, spiritless dialogue and (here we go again) it makes no sense.
Except in box-office formula terms. In the movie, because it's necessary to bring on a younger co-hero to satisfy the demographics marketing gang, McClane has been supplied with this two-fisted CIA son Jack (Jai Courtney), seemingly incommunicado with his dad for decades. But McClane has been recently afflicted with fatherly twinges (at a shooting range, yet) and he decides to visit son Jack in Russia.
By an amazing coincidence, the first of many, John shows up at a Russian courtroom at just about the time that CIA Jack is escaping with the renegade billionaire Komarov. And John tags along as the bunch flees through Moscow, crashing and banging and trading fire -- but arousing no reaction we can see among the drivers of all those endangered vehicles, even during full collision.
At that moment, in that chase, with the older McClane bouncing blithely off the car roofs, the movie lost me, never to return -- mostly because it was nonsensical, but humorless. Director John Moore (who made Behind Enemy Lines and the remakes of The Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen) and writer Skip Woods (who wrote The A-Team and Swordfish) don't seem to have humor of any kind in their bags of tricks this time. Meanwhile... Crash! Bang! Kerplunk! On and on they come, defying traffic laws, defying world history and current events, defying sanity, defying the very legacy of Die Hard and its die-hard characters. It's as if the entire city of Moscow had been forsaken by everybody except the good guys, the bad guys and a lot of innocent bystanders, milling around, wondering when they get to say something, growing old -- and maybe dying hard.