Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Cinema in the Dark Double-Feature
Love and Death: Beautiful Creatures (2013) & Warm Bodies (2013)
Reviewed by Anthony Servante

In Beautiful Creatures, our narrator Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams of leaving his hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina. When his ex-girlfriend tells him to go to hell, he responds that he intends to—after making a stop in New York. It’s quips like these that drew me to the main character. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, we are treated to allusions to Naked Lunch, Slaughterhouse Five, Charles Bukowski, and Boo Radley. Our narrator is no literary slouch.

Then the new girl Lena (Alice Englert) joins Ethan’s class, and he is charmed. You see, Ethan has been dreaming of the girl for weeks and voila! she appears. A quick romance and the secrets start to be revealed. Firstly, Lena is a Caster (they don’t care for the name “witch”, which she likens to a smart person being called a geek), and in a few months, on her 16th birthday, she will have to choose the good of evil side of casting. It’s bad enough that Casters cannot fall in love with mortals, but it is Ethan who is the lynch pin in her choice.

Cue the supporting players.

On one side we have those who would have Lena choose the dark side: Serafine (Emma Thompson having a hoot of a time between playing a God-Fearing church mom and the powerful dark Caster trying to add Lena to her little group of evil-doers); and Ridley (Emmy Rossum), Lena’s cousin who chose the dark path on her Sweet 16 and has been leaving a trail of dead male admirers ever since, and she has her eye on Ethan.

On the other side we have the good guys: Mason Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, stealing scenes and sinking himself into the pivotal role in the storyline), the family patriarch who wants to keep Lena away from the dark side, and Amma (Viola Davis), a Seer who communicates with the dead and has a secret connection to the casters; she also takes care of Ethan as his father who is mentioned quite a bit never seems to be around or seen throughout the movie.

The special effects are minimal, with good cause. This is not a movie focused on impressing the audience with its CGI budget; the effects are modestly worked around crucial scenes and thereby enhance the storyline. One scene, for example, has Lena and Ethan having an argument which explodes into a passionate kiss against the Gatlin sign on the road out of town; the sign bursts into flame as they kiss. In another scene, Ridley seduces Link (Thomas Mann, recently in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) in an alleyway under a spotlight where she is filmed as a black and white femme fatale—dressed like Jessica Rabbit; as they make out, the film switches back to color. Or just a simple spell to make it snow in a very poignant moment. The story always came first and there were no superfluous effects just for show. An impressive feat for a film budgeted at 60 million bucks.

Ethan though is the glue that holds this film together. His charisma and witty charm disarm the troubled Lena who falls in love with the lad even as she knows she may very well be dooming him. The actor Alden Ehrenreich reminded me of Leonardo Dicaprio’s evil twin brother by way of the Great Gatsby (whom Dicaprio is playing in the 3D film). Initially, I was a little put off by the voice-over narration by Ethan, but we soon learn that he is the focus of the movie and he sustains it against a superb supporting cast. Damn if we don’t root for him to make it to New York. But first we must see how his own family, especially his dead mother, fit into the whole Ravenwood curse.

Those filmgoers expecting a copycat version of Twilight, only with witches instead of vampires and werewolves, are in for a disappointment. Beautiful Creatures is a character driven story, and the love story has twists and turns that keep the viewer off-balance, at once in laugher, and the next in tears. And no stinkin’ special effects was going to ruin that story, only underline it. The final scene with Ethan yelling is an instant classic.

Grade: A


Warm Bodies postulates the question: Can love bring the dead back to live? The answer is yes. But first let’s talk a little about these dead. There seems to be degrees of decomposition and mental faculties. On one side of the spectrum there are the rambling corpses who feed on the living (we also learn why they like brains so much, and it ties nicely to the overall plot) but who communicate via grunts and one-word sentences; on the other side there are the “bonies”, skeletal black creatures presumably the ultimately rotted corpse without flesh and without conversation.

Which brings us to our love birds.

R (Nicolas Hoult), so called because he only remembers his name starts with R, rescues Julie (Teresa Palmer) from his fellow zombies in the one and only flesh-eating scene in the movie. After munching on Julie’s boyfriend, R whisks Julie off to his pad, an abandoned airliner, where R lives like Wall-E, hoarding curios he has picked up from his raids and massacres around the city. The longer he spends with Julie, the more human he becomes: his heart begins to beat again, and his facial blemishes and scars begin to heal. Even his fellow zombies begin to feel that certain something when they see R holding hands with Julie rather than eating those dainty digits.

Julie goes home to a town reminiscent of The Walking Dead’s Woodbury on steroids. This place is protected by a small army led by Grigio (John Malkovich), Julie’s dad, who’s been killing zombies ever since he lost his wife to the “disease” of death. R is heart-broken and he, too, returns home to encounter his friend M (Rob Corddry, who has all the best lines and acts like it) who has gathered a huge following of zombies who are also undergoing a similar change in the beating heart department.

M tell R that the bonies are looking for him and Julie because they want to stop this newfound “life” that the undead are experiencing. R must find Julie and warn her. The bonies are headed for Julie’s home. Grigio hears of the zombies and bonies (he refers to them as skeletons) heading his way and prepares his inadequate army for a final stand.

So, the final battle between the bonies, humans, and zombies should have been quite spectacular. Maybe they didn’t have the budget for it, but it was above average. After all, the movie was really about R and Julie, right? Maybe not. When the story turns to what makes a person alive and where is the threshold, the line back into the living after being a corpse, the movie gets damn interesting. When the zombies start sleeping and dreaming, we want to see more of the psychological side of their change as well as the physical. But maybe they didn’t have the budget for it.

Strangely, the movie has a clear-cut ending. No sequel bait here, although a good (or bad) screenplay writer could whip up something, I’m sure. But Warm Bodies as a stand-alone gets high marks for delving into territory I’ve not seen before in books or movies. A few hiccups here and there: a few zombies increase their vocabulary quite quickly as they change back to life, but the rest remain tongue-tied—probably due to budgetary constraints; and the bonies are never explained (my assumptions above are my own). But no biggies. Warm Bodies delivers an interesting point of view quite unique for this genre. It is touching, funny, and believe or not, quite philosophical.

Grade: B+

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