Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Warm Bodies ★★★

A Zom-Rom-Com 

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It seems as though audiences cannot get enough zombie-action these days, between the countless sequels of the Living Dead films, and The Walking Dead TV series (which is based on yet another medium telling zombie stories, comic books). After a certain amount of time it can feel like if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Until, of course, a movie like Warm Bodies comes around to reignite your interest in the genre.

One could argue that the premise is the Twilight equivalent for the zombie-genre and to a degree, you would be right. But Warm Bodies, while certainly a romantic comedy, never takes itself too seriously; it knows it's ridiculous. That being said, there's room for some sentimentality, if you're looking for it, as well as a simple message about embracing people's differences instead of constantly fearing them. 

The film centers around a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult), who, by his own admission, is conflicted about eating people. He provides the narration for the film, explaining that he doesn't remember his former life, only that his name began with the letter R. He has a best friend named M (a surprisingly timid, but very funny Rob Corddry) whom he mostly just grunts and moans back and forth with, and spends most of his time living in an abandoned airplane listening to vinyl records. When he and his zombie brethren go out for a routine snack, he sees Julie (Teresa Palmer) and instantly falls in love. He abducts her and the two embark on a newfound friendship shortly thereafter. 

The more time R spends with Julie, the more he begins to change, eventually developing a heartbeat. The idea is that the zombie population is not just a group of human flesh-eaters, but actual people too. It's cheesy, yes, but also a lot of fun and a refreshing take on this tired genre. Hoult does a good job of delivering one-liners, both within the scene and in his narration, and is perfectly cast as the one zombie to give us a view of the world through his lens. Palmer, meanwhile, is fine but not all that memorable, and doesn't really do much except play the attractive blonde whom R has fallen for.

At times it feels like there may have been more of a movie - there's a minor subplot involving Julie's former boyfriend (Dave Franco) that never really resolves itself emotionally - but for the most part, Warm Bodies works as a fun zombie movie told from the zombie's perspective.

Warm Bodies will be released Friday, February 1st 2013

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Side Effects ★★★½

Showcasing Paranoia Without Being Paranoid 

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

We've all seen those commercials advertising some new drug that helps with some disease or condition. If you're like me, you often laugh you when hear the list of long side effects the drug can have, oftentimes those effects being worse than the actual disease they're supposed to treat. That's the idea behind Side Effects, the latest paranoia thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, and perhaps this distinguished director's final film.

Rooney Mara continues to prove herself as an actress, this time around playing Emily Taylor, a severely depressed woman coping with the four year imprisonment of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum). When Martin is released, Emily's depression worsens to the point that she seeks the counsel of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), after a failed suicide attempt. When he prescribes her with a new antidepressant, sinister things begin to happen, causing Dr. Banks' reputation to come under investigation and Emily's sanity to be pushed to the limit.

After Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion, it's clear that he is a man well-equipped for creating a sense of paranoia and dread on screen without making the movie feel too paranoid for its own good. He paints a portrait of the time in which we live where there's a prescription drug for virtually everything out there, and chooses to show us the possible ramifications of our choices. There are moral questions posed early in the film about the best ways of treating mental illness, and the nice thing about Side Effects is that you can approach these questions in multiple ways.

The argument could be made that it is a study about America's addiction to prescription drugs and the overall power pharmaceutical companies have in our current culture. For better or worse, physicians are always looking for new ways to treat illness, mental or physical, and Side Effects offers somewhat of an inside look into how certain decisions are made regarding the treatment of a patient. Or, you can look at the film as a study of depression and the long-term mental effect it can have on a person, in this case, Emily. You could even look at it as an examination into the life of a psychiatrist and the types of moral questions he or she faces on a daily basis.

The direction the film goes in may not be what people are expecting but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If this film is truly Soderbergh's swan song, it's not a bad note to end on. But the thrills, twists and turns that Side Effects offers makes me hope that this is not the last we have seen of this prolific filmmaker.

Side Effects will be released Friday, February 8th 2013

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Farewell To Fringe

A Show That Brought New Meaning To The Term "Cool"

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Last night, after five seasons and one hundred episodes, Fringe said goodbye forever. This was one of those shows that gained a cult following over the years, to the point that when it was in danger of being cancelled, the fans were able to keep it on the air. It was also - regardless of whether or not you're a science fiction nerd - one of the most unique shows to ever air on television.

For the uninitiated, Fringe was about an F.B.I. Agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who is selected by her superior, Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), to be part of the Fringe Division at the F.B.I. Olivia recruits Walter Bishop (John Noble, who is absolutely brilliant), a scientist responsible for many experiments which have lead to the so called "Fringe Events", the result of which led to his incarceration in a mental institution. Lastly, Walter's son, Peter (Joshua Jackson, bringing more to the character with each season), is brought in to "translate" his father's often gibberish-like musings.

It started off slow - the first season being heavily overseen by its creators, J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci - and, as a result, was a mixed bag of goodies that first year. Abrams had stated that he wanted to have a less serialized show on the air (referring to Alias and Lost), which would usually mean that there would be a handful of mythology episodes with the rest being standalone, mystery-of-the-week type episodes. Not so. Instead, (according to Abrams) there would be plot points in every episode that propelled the overall story for those who were watching every week. For those that weren't, the episodes could be viewed as their own self-contained story. In other words, Fringe began as something of a hybrid, if we're using the typical model most shows follow.

Starting with season two, however, Fringe became something more. Abrams helped map the season out, but the showrunning duties fell to Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman. (Pinkner had been selected as showrunner during season one and he later promoted Wyman to co-run the show with him). From this point on, the stories - from the cases the Fringe team would investigate to the character and season arcs - became unbelievably inventive. The groundwork had been laid toward the end of season one for certain storylines that became part of the show's charm, not the least of which was the relationship between Walter and Peter.

Noble and Jackson became the perfect dynamic-duo, if you will, their characters not having anything in common at first and evolving into depending on one another. Walter, a flawed father in many ways during Peter's childhood, tries to make amends with his past. Peter, reluctant to even talk to Walter in those early episodes, comes to respect, admire and yes, love, his father. In an odd way these two become a metaphor for the show itself: learn to accept the unknown rather than reject or be afraid of it.

In addition, Olivia herself was something of a unique heroine on television. She was never exploited for her beauty, never relied on men to save her, and also never portrayed as a tomboy, a trap many shows with female leads tend to fall into. She simply was Olivia Dunham: the agent who saved the world time and time again with her Fringe-like abilities. It's not too often that writers can get a female lead so right - shows like Alias and Chuck, for example, had strong female leads but each week managed to find ways to put them in revealing clothing of some kind - and praise should be given to Pinkner, Wyman and rest of the writing staff of Fringe for creating, and maintaining, such a great character.

A show with this many plot-twists demands grounded characters like these to keep us engaged. That was never more evident than in this final season, which jumped ahead twenty years to a time when the Observers - the bald-headed, fedora-wearing, albinos who could travel through time and space to "observe" major events in human history - had taken over and where our characters, frozen in amber for 21 years, had to find a way to stop them. This final year was very much a dystopian cautionary tale, by far the darkest year of the entire series. But I, like so many others, stayed with it because no matter how dark and tragic things got, Olivia, Peter, Walter and Astrid (Jasika Nicole, Walter's assistant) were there to anchor me in some degree of familiarity.

After everything these characters lost, particularly this season, the finale episode entitled "An Enemy of Fate" was moving, action-packed, rewarding and quite simply, perfect. This was a show that was in danger of being cancelled after season two and on. Each year Fringe took more risks, exploring alternate realities, reset timelines, shape-shifters, and future insurrections. Like Peter himself, the show (by conventional standards) should have never existed, but it did, and it fought back from the brink of death each season. It was wacky, it was dark, it was funny and at times devastatingly sad.

The best way to describe the tone of this beloved show of mine can be found in a line from last night's finale, in which Peter and Walter are arming themselves to fight the Observers. Walter instructs Peter to hold on to bullets which, when they hit an Observer, will cause them to "float away like balloons". Peter asks, "If we shoot them, they're dead. Why would we want them to float away?" Walter replies (with perfect delivery by Noble), "Because it's cool."

From now on, when I'm asked why I have such affection for Fringe, that perfect line will be my response.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty ★★★★

A Decade-Long Hunt For Justice

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Opening with haunting audio of victims trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and offers a chilling portrayal of the cost at which this pursuit was achieved.

Jessica Chastain plays a C.I.A. officer named Maya, a woman so determined to find bin Laden that all we come to know about her is her drive to find him. Whether or not Maya is based on a specific person, or several, remains to be seen, but Zero Dark Thirty itself should be remembered as perhaps the closest retelling of the last ten years that we will ever see.

There have, of course, been some controversies over the nature of torture depicted in the film, which unfortunately take away from Zero Dark Thirty's importance. There have not been any post-9/11 films that have so perfectly captured the tone of what America was feeling for so many years. There was anger, confusion, dread, frustration, sadness and above all, a need for answers. Whether or not America used torture to gain intelligence regarding bin Laden's location is not the point of Zero Dark Thirty; it's one aspect of the film that leaves opinion up to the viewer. This is a film about the pursuit of justice and the sacrifices people like Maya and other characters made in order to get it.

The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and writer, Mark Boal, whose previous collaboration The Hurt Locker won best picture in 2009, know how to tell stories about terrorism and the realities of living in the current political climate that we do. When retelling a story, there are always liberties one takes, especially in film, which seems lost on those who criticize Zero Dark Thirty as 'un-American'. Think of this film less as strictly fact (though, there are many facts that are accurate) and more as a commentary about American attitudes.

Maya is the embodiment of those attitudes. She's meant to be the mirror with which we look at ourselves. We wanted answers; we wanted bin Laden. It's not spoiling anything to say that by the end of the movie, we get him, but what we're left with is not a dead body to gawk at, but instead an image of Maya wondering, "What now?" You're likely to feel the same way by the time the credits roll.

Zero Dark Thirty is currently in wide release.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I Am Not A Hipster ★★★★

Struggling To Find Meaning After The Death of His Mother

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

When we first meet Brook (Dominic Bogart), an indie-rock musician living in San Diego, we see many of the attributes of the modern day hipster: he rejects virtually anything that could be considered mainstream, rides a bicycle instead of driving a car, wears thick-rimmed glasses, and just does not seem to care about anything. The title of the film, of course, suggests that these traits are all part of a facade that Brook is putting out into the world. We come to learn that Brook, for the past year or so, is still devastated by the loss of his mother.

Throughout I Am Not A Hipster, we're given just enough detail about this woman (shown very briefly in flashback with no dialogue) to know that she meant the world to Brook and his three sisters. It informs everything that Brook does and says, making him both a fascinating character study and a guy a you would love to hit square in the face quite frankly. For most of the movie, the best parts of Brook are seen when he's with his sisters, who show up to spread their mother's ashes in the ocean. Of the three of them, Joy (Tammy Minoff) is the one who has the most screen time with him, rightfully so as Minoff beautifully balances understanding her brother while also giving him the wake-up call he needs. 

What I love about this movie, as well as the music throughout it, is the fact that it managed to use the medium of film to convey all the emotions I've ever felt listening to some of my favorite musicians. I tend to be on the fence with Radiohead depending on the album, but an example of what I'm talking about could be found in their song "Fake Plastic Trees". For me, it's a song that, regardless of the lyrics, is about loss and hope living in harmony. I can't quite describe everything I feel when I listen to something like that, but those same emotions bubbled to the surface while I was watching I Am Not A Hipster

My favorite scene in the movie is an example of these conflicting emotions when Brook, his sisters, and his estranged father finally go the beach to put their mother to rest. Carrying the urn out to sea, Brook drops it in the ocean when a wave hits him harder than expected. What follows is a conversation between father and son that is so perfect I was moved to tears. This is one of the few character study films (if such a sub-genre exists) that knocked me out by how terrific and understated it was.

I haven't seen many films that tackle the relationship between loss and creativity so well. I Am Not A Hipster should be considered a lesson to aspiring filmmakers. Anyone who has ever experienced a tragedy and created something - be it a song, a film, a novel or anything else - knows that the key is not to be consumed by grief, but instead to use it as your fuel. I won't discuss spoilers here, except to say that Brook is an example of that journey, a character worth your time in a film that is truly special. 

I Am Not A Hipster is currently available on demand.