Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

 

 

In a post-apocalyptic zombie world, R (played by Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who is trying to cling onto his humanity, rescues human Julie Grigio (played by Theresa Palmer) from an zombie attack. The two form a relationship that offsets a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

When Twilight first came out in 2008, there was a common critique going around that the day-walking glittering vampires depicted in the film were not true vampires. It was an interesting point that I had no answer for at the time, but it got me thinking a lot. Is it okay to change the rules for a movie monster? If vampires can walk during the daytime, does that negate the established rules for a vampire? If zombies can sprint after you, are they still technically zombies? And more so, within in it’s own narrative goals, does committing to the traditional definitions of a movie monster even matter?

Warm Bodies settled this question. We’ll come back to this later…

It is artful how much humanity they were able to inject into Nicholas Hoult’s lead zombie character R. They use every cinematic trick in the book including close-up reaction shots, going into his thoughts and dreams and even a witty dry voice-over device. Furthermore, R does something at the beginning of the film that would have easily lost the audience to care about him but yet the film still had me rooting for him and his romance with Julie.

I never could have imagined a love story being played from this angle. This film is very aware of this and proceeds to guide the audience by drawing from recognizable story tropes such as teen romance, zombie horror, apocalyptic science fiction and a fairy tale aesthetic. In this stir fry chop suey fashion, there is a genuine love story running as a thorough line but the story tropes are tossed around for laughs. It’s a fun experience as you see the film’s play on these different story tropes. I.e. “Oh, it’s the musical montage where they fall in love. Oh, he just did the thing that will make the girl go away! Oh, that’s how he’s going to win her back!”

On a side note, Rob Cordroy is funny as the comic sidekick. As this film is meant to be a parody of Twilight, it’s kind of funny how Theresa Palmer looks like a blonde Kristin Stewart.

So finally, does committing to the traditional definition of a movie monster matter? No, it does not matter. The key is setting up your monster to suit the goals of the story. In this case, it’s humanizing the lead zombie character and making us believe that someone might fall in love with him. The film takes its time to set up its own rules and slowly supports its goals like a well-written thesis paper. The creation of the Bonies (the zombies that are “zombie-er” than the “normal” zombies) is a smart idea and it fits rather neatly with providing a more evil, scarier embodiment to act as the antagonist. Yes, these filmmakers changed the rules, but justifiably so.

In the end, it works. I laughed plenty of times. It’s smart, knows its audience and very clear on it’s goals. Sitting in the theater, I heard separate ‘girl laughs’ and ‘guy laughs’ from different parts of the theater throughout the screening. And that’s a key thing about Warm Bodies, the tone is so mathematically tweaked to a tee that both the girlfriend and boyfriend can enjoy it as a date movie together. There is something fun to enjoy for everybody. Yes, even the horror purists too.

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

As the result of a childhood wish, John Bennett’s (played by Mark Walhberg) teddy bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), came to life and has been by John’s side ever since – a friendship that’s tested when Lori (played by Mila Kunis), John’s girlfriend of four years, wants more from their relationship.

When telling a joke, first you setup the premise, which lays out the confines of what the audience is about to laugh about. Afterwards, you deliver the  punchline. The punchline is an unexpected surprise connected within the confines of the original premise.

My major problem with Ted is that it tells jokes that delivers punchlines that are outside of its original premise. The result is still a laugh, but in retrospect it’s a laugh that does not feel earned because the surprises are coming randomly from left field. Sometimes, the jokes even break character (i.e. a group of bullies beat up a child, a child tries to join in to beat him as well but is rejected by the bullies and the kid that is being beaten up… that would never happen!). As it went from gag to gag, my mind kept looping back and thinking how most of the jokes were unearned laughs, resulting in a somewhat empty experience. It’s like that scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon where a laugh has long died off and you hear people’s coughs echoing in the theater.

The more I thought about it, it was all lacking in the writing. The story needed more character and plot and it seems Seth MacFarlane only delivered the bare minimum without fully exploring his own concept. Every time John chooses to spend time with Ted instead of Lori, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. We know Lori is frustrated with John, John knows this but he does not do anything different. So nothing is moving forward and we start to wonder why Lori is being so patient with John. Even the subplot with Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy stalker trying to steal Ted felt like a cheap writer’s trick to force a third act finale set piece.

I do think Mark Wahlberg is great at comedy, as exemplified in the past with his performance in The Departed where he was creepily funny. He was also the only reason that The Other Guys was funny as the straight-man, also because he was yelling at Will Ferrel the whole time.

Ted has some great jokes, even though my two favorite gags (the Thunder song and the girl-naming bit) from the movie are in the trailer. The fact that it’s all being said by a computer generated teddy bear makes it so much more psychotic. Ultimately, Ted feels lazy and having such a creative premise it makes me think about how much better it could have been if Seth MacFarlane put more effort into the writing. It just needed that little more.

And no, I am not familiar with Family Guy.

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

 

Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire who was imprisoned in a coffin but is unearthed and makes his way back to his mansion now inhabited by his dysfunctional descendants. He soon runs into trouble revitalising the family’s canned fish business, as his jealous ex-flame and imprisoner Angelique Bouchard, runs the rival company.

A screenwriting teacher of mine used to stipulate that for each scene you write in a screenplay, you must ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene? How do I want the audience to feel in this instance?” For Dark Shadows, I imagine it would be a difficult question for the screenwriter to answer and he would end up thinking for a long time the right combination of words to describe the specific feeling.

The story structure of Dark Shadows is an issue common amongst TV-to-Film adaptations. It reminded of Andrew Lau’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of the Japanese anime Initial D, where they tried to cram the first season into one cinematic film experience. Dark Shadows has a meandering TV show-like storyline where it plants several subplots that it doesn’t have enough time to develop within the span of a theatrical film. There is a delayed sense of driving action in this enclosed world. For instance, considered that all the evil things she has done to him, Barnabas has a lot of patience with Angelique. It would have made complete sense if Barnabas set out to kill her on a quest of revenge right after he is unearthed in the 70’s. They stylistically choose not to do that, which explains this heavy sense of TV pacing in this movie.

The ephemeral tone is what really drives the movie. It’s tongue-in-cheek at times with the 70s, there are fish-out-of-water jokes and people are murdered at the drop of a hat. There is a very “anything goes” tone and the weirdness of it all kept me entranced, anticipating where it was going to go. It was very funny, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way, but in a cerebral way. It’s hard to describe but there is structure in its chaos and it’s existence alone is something to be marveled at.

The cast and performances were noteworthy, mainly because of how specific they were to building the tone of the film. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas completely straight, much to many of the movie’s fish-out-of-water gags. Maybe because he looked so much like Nosferatu in his appearance and in some of his physicality (notice how he wraps his arms), if they ever made another post-modern silent movie like The Artist, Depp would fare well in a silent film performance.  I really liked the amount of humanity Eva Green was able to inject into Angelique Bouchard. She finds a human center to such an evil character and we see the motivation behind her irredeemable actions. I’ve complimented her performances three times now and she’s slowly becoming a favorite. Lastly, it was nice seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in a film again.

I do wonder what people who have seen the original series would have said about this movie. I’m too young to know. Personally I  had no prior knowledge of the original television series and for anybody who aren’t ready to put in the effort and fill the gaps mentally, they will probably be disappointed by the film adapation. It’s a very odd film operating on an obscure frequency and it wouldn’t have been made without the prior financial success of Burton-Depp collaborations. In a sense, they’re both getting weirder together.

If Tim Burton’s goal was to adapt the original Dark Shadows tone to film, then he accomplished it. Is that a worthy justifiable goal? Does it justify the TV-like tone? I can’t say but I would rather see Burton experiment with something than just slapping the usual “Tim Burton Brand” onto something.

The film worked on me, but I honestly cannot say I’d watch it again. As a movie about a vampire, it might not have longevity.

Casa De Ma Padre by Matt Piedmont

Casa Di Ma Padre by Matt Piedmont

Plot summary: Casa De Ma Padre tells the story of Armando Álvarez (played by Will Ferrell), who must save his father’s ranch from a powerful drug lord.

I am not a fan of Will Ferrell’s comedy. The only two Will Ferrell performances that I liked were his parts in Stranger Than Fiction and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The only reason I took interest in Casa De Ma Padre was that the trailer had me on the floor when I first saw it on Apple Trailers. It’s my belief that you should never totally write somebody off. So I decided to check this one out.

So thoughts? It’s not as funny as it ought to be. I laughed a total of four times – the 2 major laughs was over the song number “Yo No Se” (Spanish for “I don’t know”) and a gag with an animal puppet. The film relies mostly on all the B-movie gags done in the faux trailers in Grindhouse to give you a B-movie feel – bad cuts, blaring continuity errors and entire reels missing. That B-movie gag has officially run its course.

There was something admirable about Will Ferrell learning Spanish just to be funny in a film. The language barrier forces more discipline in Ferrell’s comedic performance than the usual “Will Ferrell Random Comedy Theater”. Often times, it’s too easy when a comedian can stop committing to a moment and go into another bit right away to milk a laugh.

The story for the most part is relatively serious, which I did not expect for a Will Ferrell movie. The actors are all playing it straight but partly because we’re experiencing the story through its sometimes intentionally erroneous subtitles, it’s not being played straight enough for it be ironic. It’s like watching a big inside joke that you can’t laugh at because everybody else won’t let you in on the joke. Strangely, I found myself going along with the story instead of the jokes and sat through the rest of the film to see how the story would play out. Perhaps if the story was more comedic in its own structure, the gags would have been punctuated for a more comedic experience.

Casa De Ma Padre is not terrible, but it was a weird experience and I cannot fully recommend it on the basis that it’ll make you laugh. In the end, the whole essence of the film’s humor is unfortunately all in the trailer itself.

Here’s the trailer that floored me:

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

Confession: I have a very big soft spot for buddy cop movies and have seen way too many that is considered healthy for a normal bloke by civilized society. I like the setups, the witty banter, the themes of overcoming differences and looking inside the friendships and brotherhood between men. Some noteworthy examples of mine are The Hard Way, The Last Boyscout, Curry and Pepper (with Stephen Chow and Jacky Cheung), the Lethal Weapon series, Tsui Hark’s Double Team (no cops but it technically counts),  Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… the list goes on. Even though it was probably for the better how things turned out, I was really rooting for Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 5 script to be filmed. Yes, see what I mean?

Now with my bias established, on with the review…

First off,  I’m unfamiliar with the original show, all I know is how much Johnny Depp hated being on the show but it was where he did his 10,000 hours of honing his craft. The idea of cops going undercover as students seems like such a far-fetched and out-dated idea that it would only seem to work as a comedy. So the question is… does it work?

Suffice to say, it really does. I laughed a lot more than I expected with 21 Jump Street. In many ways this is what Cop Out failed to do. 21 Jump Street does do  the genre convention gags and references movies but unlike Cop Out does not focus the entire movie on them. The convention gags (I am not going to spoil any of them here.) are handled well with balance. It never goes overboard with its meta sensibilities and still manages to deliver surprises.

Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) are two believably stupid characters. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. Jenko and Schmidt start off as classmates, one is a jock and the other is a geek who both end up befriending each other in police school when they need each other’s strengths. That bromance story is something that I never really get tired of. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. There is a decently written plot and it provides some nice twists and turns that genuinely surprised me. I’m going to spend the rest of the review mainly talking about the comedy writing

The time change between the present and the 1990’s is also addressed and 21 Jump Street does it in an interesting way: it addresses the idea of popularity and how it has changed since the 90s. Nerds (specifically hipsters) have become cool and jocks are out. It becomes the best gag in the entire movie and is the source of many of the best jokes. When the reversal of popularity dawns on Channing Tatum’s Jenko, he’s suddenly become the social outcast.

This is proof that you should never ever write anybody off because chances are they will find their niche and surprise you. This is the Channing Tatum’s greatest role yet and probably the best thing I have ever seen him in since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Tatum is doing a parody of himself and plays it absolutely straight to a cheeky level. He’s the good looking straight man hero, he knows it and the film knows it. As he gets more mad at being ostracized and left out by his nerd friend Schmidt, we laugh harder at him struggling and attempting to process that anger. A funny noteworthy scene is where Jenko enters a room and starts beating Schmidt with stuffed toys and humping him as he is on the phone with the love interest Molly (played by Brie Larson). There’s no dialogue, it seems like a friend messing with another friend but we get totally why Jenko is beating him. The fact that Schmidt is unaware makes it totally funny. 

There’s a trend of lazy writing going in comedies these days with the Judd Apatow movie trend, where he turns on the the camera and lets his actors improvise too often. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but overall he relies on it too much. I’ve read a draft of the Funny People screenplay and it was clear that they just wrote down the gist of the scenes and improvised their way through shooting. I bring this up because it came very apparent to me that 21 Jump Street seemed it was really written by writers who stayed up late at night on expressos chiseling the right zingers.

The issue with improvised lines is that they draw a lot of attention to themselves because often the audience instinctually feels that the camera is lingering for something that’s not moving the story forward. Many of the comedic zingers in 21 Jump Street were throwaway lines and there is something very artful about them. Jokes come and just past by. You have to catch them or many of them will zip by. It was a more engaging experience that way and I found myself finding new funny lines on a second viewing.

I laughed throughout the entire movie (last movie where this happened for me was 2010’s Morning Glory) and still am currently quoting lines with friends. It was equally enjoyable on a second viewing and I actually noticed new things that made me laugh. I would recommend this to anybody but especially for anybody is a fan of the buddy copy genre.

Please sign me up for the sequel!

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?