Chief Justice Michael Stailey must continually remind himself, "Don't be creepy...Don't be creepy...Don't be creepy..."
There's nothing hotter than a girl with brains.
We've seen Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so why not Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: An Undead Love Story? Thanks to George Romero and Seth Grahame-Smith, the afterlife continues to generate big business for Hollywood. Sadly, of the umpteen hundred zombie films to be released each and every year (those of you who keep tabs on our Upcoming Releases calendar know I'm not exaggerating), the majority pale in comparison to the classics. Enter aspiring writing Isaac Marion, whose website-posted short story I Am a Zombie Filled with Love went viral and drew the attention of Atria Books and independent producer Bruna Papandrea. Together they convinced Marion to expand the tale into a novel (titled Warm Bodies), which Bruna would then develop as a feature film. Not a bad way to break into the business. Especially since the project turned out as well as it did.
Facts of the Case
R (Nicholas Hoult, Jack the Giant Slayer) is dead. Living dead. Not sure how, but there's nothing he can do about it now. Julie (Teresa Palmer, I Am Number Four) is alive. One of the few remaining humans. Daughter of zombie resistance leader Grigio (John Malkovich, Con Air). We know how this goes. Zombies feast on the brains of humans and the population eventually dies out. No surprise there, after all this is a zombie apocalypse. But something else is at work here. Remember the phrase "love conquers all" or in its original latin "omnia vincit amor"? Virgil first wrote those words in 70 BC. So there must be some truth to them, because zombie boy R falls hard for Julie, even more so after consuming the brains of her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco, Now You See Me) who he just killed. Now, instead of being compelled to feast on the living, R's only thought is to protect Julie, something she finds way too disturbing. Can a dead boy and a living girl find love? And if that love is true, could it possibly spark new life in a once dead heart?
I could easily spend three paragraphs setting up the plot for Warm Bodies without spoiling anything, but the film needs to be seen to be appreciated. Much of that appreciation is owed to the work of twenty-something writer/director Jonathan Levine, who adapted Marion's novel, assembled a fantastic cast, and captured an effortless tale which elicits laughter as often as it catches you off-guard and tugs at the heartstrings.
Levine's first professional gig was serving as assistant to writer/director Paul Schrader on the Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus. What better mentor to have than the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, before directing Cat People and Affliction? Education is one thing. Execution is another. Levin surfaced on Hollywood's radar at Sundance 2008 with The Wackness, and followed that up three years later with the emotionally charged 50/50. Which brings us to 2013 and Warm Bodies, the completion of a cinematic hat trick.
Listening to the commentary, Levine is highly respectful of Isaac Marion's source material and yet unflinching in his decision to deviate from the novel in order to deliver a more compelling film. Few can argue with the results. This tight little romantic thriller trims any extemporaneous subplots and character development to deliver a lean satisfying experience. By casting Nicholas Hoult as R, the character owns the heart and soul of the movie. By casting Rob Corddry as R's best dead friend M, he becomes the film's near mute conscience. Together they're as effective in communicating ideas and intention as Buster Keaton and Chaplin were in the silent film era. Although you have to watch the gag reel to appreciate how much effort it took to nail those scenes together without laughing uncontrollably.
Yes, there are allusions to Romeo and Juliet, but to be honest that didn't really dawn on me until the balcony scene. I may be a bit thick though, as the characters are named R and Julie, whose best friends are M (Mercutio) and Nora (Nurse) respectively. Still, Shakespeare has nothing on the tension between Warm Bodies aimless shambling zombies and their counterparts the "boneys," which is what they ultimately become when the last vestiges of humanity are stripped away. Levine and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) shot the horror elements three ways, as hard R, R, and PG-13, if only to see what the studio and MPAA censors would let them get away with. While you won't see any gore on the scale of The Walking Dead, your mind can certainly fill in the blanks as to what's happening just out of frame. More importantly, the tension of those scenes drives the undercurrent of the entire picture, such that while we're enjoying the humor of these developing relationships, there's real danger lurking around every corner.
The one character I had a difficult time connecting with was Teresa Palmer's Julie. Much of that is due to the fact that every time I look at her I see Kristen Stewart. Can't help it. The two are practically interchangeable in this paranormal romance genre and my loathing for The Twilight Saga kept me from fully appreciating anything Teresa was accomplishing on screen. She and Nicholas have undeniable chemistry as Julie and R, which is critical to selling the story, so in that respect mission accomplished. But in terms of respecting her performance on the same level as Hoult and Rob Corddry, not even close…and this is coming from someone who for the longest time was annoyed by Corddry's schtick. With M, he's made me a believer. Hoult I've been a fan of since About a Boy; his consistency is impressive and timing impeccable, so no surprise there.
The real standout here is Jonathan Levine. Filmmakers who can effectively tell stories as both writer and director are a rare breed. Is Warm Bodies a perfect film? No. Everything gets resolved a bit too easily and neatly for my tastes, but the experience leaves a lasting impression. With no less than five potential projects on his plate, I'm curious to see where Levine goes next and how far he stretches himself. This could be the beginning of a very long career.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Warm Bodies gives us production value galore. Shot on location in Montreal at their abandoned air terminal and the vacant Olympic stadium, there's a palpable sense of reality you can't achieve in a green screen environment. Martin Whist continues his impressive production design coming off career highs with Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods and JJ Abrams' Super 8. Yes, there is a great deal of color correction and atmospheric enhancements at work here, but it's hard not to love what someone can do with all of these amazing resources as his disposal. The CGI zombie battles leave a little to be desired, but visual/makeup effects wiz Christophe Giraud (300) and his team did what they could with the budget they had. For a DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix, we're not talking Disney magic here. The dialogue and atmospherics are well-balanced and, despite a heavy voice over presence, never suffer a lack of focus. Where the track shines is delivering a beautifully crafted pop culture soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Guns N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen), complementing a surprisingly memorable score from composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. Apparently, the novel used Frank Sinatra tunes to underscore most of the story, but Levine and company upped the ante and it pays offs.
Summit outdoes itself in the bonus features department for a release of this stature. Most indie genre pictures are lucky to receive a commentary and some EPK featurettes, whereas Warm Bodies goes all out Charlie de Lauzirika.
* Commentary—Jonathan Levine, Nicholas Hoult, and Teresa Palmer drink mid-morning margaritas and dissect the picture with gusto, sharing all sorts of production and personal stories. Granted, you have to be able to stomach Teresa's high energy Aussie wit, which often borders on downright sorority girl obnoxious. By contrast, Hoult is classic Brit sarcasm and Levine is party boy American. It's an interesting dynamic, but certainly adds a lot to our appreciation of the film.
* Featurettes—Seven distinct making-of segments totaling 85 minutes detail everything the origins of the Isaac Marion's story and casting, to production design and location shooting.
* Deleted Scenes—Jonathan provides commentary for several unused segments all of which were well-intentioned but wisely excised.
* Video Diary—Teresa Palmer's 13 minute Flip video home movies provide even more personal time with the young actress, her dog, and her seemingly limitless positive energy.
* Zombie Acting Tips—Rob Corddry, Teresa Palmer, and Nicholas Hoult appear on a segment of "Screen Junkies" giving tongue-in-cheek insight into portraying the perfect zombie.
* Gag Reel—Five minutes of screw ups, crack ups, and camera mugging, which I'm sure plays much better at the wrap party than it does here.
* Theatrical Trailer
* iTunes Digital Copy and UltraViolet Download
Every once in a blue moon, a movie comes along that completely surprises you. In an era where the market has hit zombie saturation, I'm amazed that a sweet simple story in the hands of a talented young director armed with a great cast can spin cinematic gold. Regardless of your genre predilections, Warm Bodies is worth your attention.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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