Warm Bodies (2013) – Jonathan Levine
A movie that doesn’t quite hit every note it’s trying for, but then it’s trying for some pretty non-traditional notes. Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from his About a Boy days, is R, a shambling, brain eating zombie who suddenly develops a strange attachment to a particular human, a girl played by Teresa Palmer. The movie is too slow in places; the sequence when R has Julie hidden away in an abandoned plane goes way too long. And then there’s the annoyingly clichéd Bonies, a more monstrous type of zombie, who I ended up wishing just hadn’t been in the movie at all, though that would require a little tinkering with the plot mechanics at the end. Someone said the movie would have been better as a short and I think that’s probably right. But it has definite pleasures. Hoult’s voice over is witty and dry, Rob Corrdry is great as another slowly awakening zombie (“Bitches, man,” he growls at one point) and John Malkovich is actually giving something of a real performance as the leader of the human resistance (“Now he’s triggered something in ME”). Teresa Palmer is very good; it’s easy to see why R falls for her when you see her dancing to Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. And, really, enough good cannot be said about Analeigh Tipton, who steals every scene she’s in as Julie’s off-kilter best friend, Nora. On the whole, I enjoyed the film, occasional missteps notwithstanding. Certainly a fresh premise and mostly executed very well.
No (2012) – Pablo Larrain
Ever see one of those movies that everyone seems to love and you just sit there wondering why? That was my experience with the Chilean movie No, which currently boasts a Rotten Tomatoes score over 90% and got a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the last Oscars. I set in the theater wondering what the hell movie all those people had seen, because the one I watched was unremittingly dull and uninteresting. The movie tells the story of a group of unlikely allies who came together during a referendum on Pinochet; their goal was to get him ousted via the “No” votes of the populace. It was a long shot, but worth a try. With the help of Gael Garcia Bernal’s ad exec, they set out to change the public’s mind via a series of television ads. The main pleasure of the movie is that the entire thing is shot on crappy video, ala the television of the day. Moments when the light blows out the screen are . . . kind of a thrill . . . I guess. But the script is awful. There’s no tension, no suspense; we should be way more conscious of the danger these people are living in and of the total menace of the Pinochet administration. But the attempts to go there are lame and dull; likewise the “conflict” within the group rings completely false and feels totally manufactured by lazy scriptwriters. In fact, about a half hour in I started battling sleep; I can’t remember the last time I nearly went to sleep in a movie. And I can tolerate some incredibly languid movies. I didn’t almost go to sleep in To the Wonder, for God’s sake. The movie really takes off when it shows, at great length, a lot of the original commercials from the era. Seeing all this archival footage made me wish they’d just made this movie as a documentary; the commercials are the best thing about the movie. Also, more points deducted for setting things up nicely for a perfect, perfect ending and then fumbling and going on. Seriously, it would have been so poetic and great to have the movie end like five lines before it does. How you get that close to a great ending and then screw it up I don’t know, but they did it. In short, okay, getting lots of praise, but I say skip it. When someone asks you to watch this movie, just say . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . oh, forget it.
To the Wonder (2012) – Terrence Malick
Ben Affleck, an Oklahoman environmental engineer (or something) meets Olga Kurylenko, a European single mother, on vacation. The two come back to Oklahoma and, for a couple of hours or so, their relationship ebbs and flows, as Javier Bardem drifts around the periphery as a Catholic priest facing a crisis of faith. There’s almost no dialogue; the film’s emotions and thoughts are communicated only through Malick’s elliptical, gorgeous visuals, poetic, occasionally labored voice-over, and a sweeping and gorgeous score by Hanan Townshend, who I think may be a composer to watch, based solely on this film score. The movie was filmed in and around Bartlesville, OK, which is around an hour from where I live. I can definitely tell you, if you’re interested in veracity, that the film accurately captures the scenery and, to some degree, the pace of life in Oklahoma, at least my area of it. A lot of people didn’t love this movie; I’m not sure I loved it, but I certainly liked it an awful lot. The visuals and score are gorgeous, of course, but the performances are what makes the film stick in the mind. Olga Kurylenko is a thing of beauty and wonder as Marina; it’s the kind of performance that should be nominated for an Oscar, but never will be. She absolutely inhabits every emotion Marina feels with a rawness and vividness that’s stunning, whether she’s watching her husband ogle another woman with distress or spinning exuberantly through the aisles of the first American grocery store she’s ever been to. Bardem is really quite excellent as well; there’s heaviness and despair to his mostly silent performance as Father Quintana. The film could have used a few cuts here and there (which is hilarious given Malick’s predilection to cut his movies to hell and back). And Ben Affleck is simply not good enough to be able to stay afloat in a movie this elliptical, where the actors are asked to express powerful emotions in only fleeting moments, without any great lines or great space to dig deep. He’s a hole in the screen and comes really close to crippling the movie a few times. But I found it engaging, gorgeous and, ultimately, very moving as it comes to a close. The movie is drenched in spirituality and in the idea of love. It’s destined, I think, to be a “spiritual classic” if nothing else. Look for it on Art & Faith’s movie list in ten years or so.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) – Derek Cianfrance
This film, which is obviously hoping against hope to become a classic, is the story of a stunt motorcycle rider, masterfully played by Ryan Gosling, who takes up bankrobbing in order to support his young son and an ambitious, conflicted police officer, brought to astonishing life by Bradley Cooper, who’s never been better, and, ultimately, their high school age sons. It’s a swirling, ambitious movie and its steadfast resolve to be serious, beautiful and moving is worthy of praise. A lot of people didn’t like the third act, but I thought it was fine, if not as good as the first two acts. The first act has a bang up conclusion that I won’t spoil that neatly sets up Bradley Cooper for the second act. In this second act, Cooper is better than he’s ever been. Gosling got some Oscar buzz when the movie came out, but Cooper’s is the real performance; his character just keeps unfolding and revealing surprising details. Special kudos to Ray Liotta; this movie proves one thing: he needs to be in a lot more movies – a LOT more. The film doesn’t quite have the passion of its convictions and after over two hours of dark, tragic musing on the failures of its characters, it has the nerve to try to pull a happy ending out of the blue. The last five minutes are almost totally unmotivated and not at all of a piece with the rest of the movie. We needed, after the drama we’d been through, to get a truly dark, tragic ending, but Cianfrance decided against it for some reason (and he was wrong). But it’s definitely a masterful, beautiful and powerful film. Cianfrance clearly wanted to make a classic; I think he’s done it.
War Witch (2012) – Kim Nguyen
This Canadian film, which tells the story of a young girl kidnapped from her African village and forced to serve as a child soldier, was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the last Oscar ceremony, though Amour, unsurprisingly, beat it out. It’s an enjoyable and interesting film without, in my opinion, being really great or even really good. The hook to the plot is that the main character sees ghosts, which enables her to help the ragtag rebels she’s fallen in with to avoid government ambushes. The film has some really good stuff; in particular the ghosts are beautifully rendered and creatively too. I’ve never seen anything quite like them, lo-fi though they are, and I literally jumped the first time I saw one. The middle third, in which the girl escapes and tries to make her way back home with an older boy who wants to marry her, is charming and surprisingly funny. But the movie has too many serious flaws to be great. Rachel Mwanza, the lead, is very good when she’s supposed to be playing affectless and despairing, but when called upon to really show emotion, she falls flat, which kills at least two pivotal scenes. Then there’s a death, about two thirds of the way through, that should be really visceral and horrifying, but it’s filmed in a really annoying way that removes all the impact from it. There’s some good stuff here, but I wouldn’t nominate it for an Oscar. Or, for that matter, recommend that you see it. Oh, yeah, lest I forget; there’s a sex scene here you will not frigging believe. That’s all I’m gonna say about THAT.