Thursday, February 7, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Hearts & Brains

‘Twas the week before Valentine’s Day and all through the Cineplex, several scary creatures were stirring: zombies, giant spiders and, perhaps most terrifying of all, Julianne Hough!

Zombies have replaced vampires as the monsters du jour on movie and TV screens, largely due to the massive success of AMC’s The Walking Dead.  Adding welcome doses of romance (yes, really) and humor to the genre is the current Warm Bodies.  Clearly targeted at the tween fans of the recently concluded Twilight Saga (and released by the same studio), it depicts the blossoming love of an undead boy for the ex-girlfriend of the guy whose brain he just ate.  Brains have been zombies’ chief dietary staple since at least 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, and Warm Bodies proposes a novel hypothesis that zombies inherit the memories of the living.

British actor Nicholas Hoult plays R., a bored “walker” who spends his days wandering the remains of a decimated airport and collecting mementoes from the pre-apocalyptic world.  Hoult is memorable as the sexually-questioning student who befriends Colin Firth’s gay professor in A Single Man and also headlines next month’s big-budget Jack the Giant Slayer, by gay director Bryan Singer.  Here he gives his most endearing performance to date as the fine young cannibal suddenly smitten by Julie (Teresa Palmer, vet of I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).  Unbeknownst to R., Julie is the daughter of the living’s leader (a game and very good John Malkovich), who has walled off their city from the zombie-infested world and has a zero-tolerance policy toward brain-munchers.

The initial, uneasy alliance between R. and Julie grows into a Shakespeare-lite love story complete with a balcony scene.  In the process, R. regains his heartbeat and starts to become human again, as do those fellow zombies who witness his and Julie’s romance.  Unfortunately, this marks them all as menu items for the Boneys, ghastly skeletal creatures (brought to pseudo-life by so-so digital effects) who have completed their zombie transformation and, we’re told, will eat anything with a heartbeat.

Jonathan Levine, who adapted the screenplay from a young adult novel by Isaac Marion and directs, has a definite knack for stories about young people facing life or death situations.  His last film was 2011’s acclaimed 50/50, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt deals with a cancer diagnosis.  Warm Bodies takes place on a grander scale but is in essence a similar story about a 20-ish guy who steps back from the brink and learns to live, and love, again in the process.  Despite being slow in spots, it has enough gore (albeit minimal given the film’s PG-13 rating) and scares to keep the guys interested while being the rare female-skewing horror movie thanks to its genuinely moving — not to mention beatingheart.

Spiders, which premieres this Friday in numerous L.A.-area theaters and premium Video on Demand, certainly lives up to its title.  Chock-full of supersized arachnids infused with alien DNA who fall to Earth from a crippled, Cold War-era Soviet space station, it evoked for me pleasant childhood memories of watching such "giant monsters on the loose" B-movies as Them!, Tarantula and The Giant Spider Invasion.

When the station crash lands without warning in a New York City subway tunnel, Transit Supervisor Jason Cole (Patrick Muldoon, who previously battled giant bugs in Starship Troopers) understandably suspects a terrorist attack.  The truth soon becomes known once a worker he sends to investigate is killed and military scientists descend on the site.  Most inconveniently, the situation causes Cole to be late for his daughter’s birthday dinner, infuriating his already estranged wife, Rachel (Christa Campbell).  Conveniently, though, Rachel is a city health inspector and she becomes convinced Jason is telling the truth about his excuse for being tardy when dead bodies filled with spider eggs start turning up.  Jason and Rachel find themselves thrust into the major responsibility of not only saving their daughter but everyone else in the Big Apple from the eight-legged horde and their monstrous queen.

Several elements raise Spiders a notch above what could otherwise have been cheap Saturday night programming on the SyFy channel.  Most critical perhaps are the excellent special effects, which make the spiders appear more organic than most digitally-created critters (note how the real parked cars move up and down when the spiders crawl on them).  Another merit is Lorenzo Senatore’s hi-def cinematography.  Finally, the film’s NYC setting looks and feels completely authentic despite the fact that most of it was shot in Bulgaria.

Director and co-writer Tibor Takacs (best known for the pretty bad but beloved-in-some-circles 1987 horror movie The Gate) dispenses with much of a set up to the plot and continue to keep things moving along throughout. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Spiders; just wait ‘til Julianne Hough arrives next week in the sure-to-be-sappy Safe Haven.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Warm Bodies: B
Spiders: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.

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