Archive for February 2013

Would You Rather

February 17, 2013

would-you-rather-jeffrey-combs_510x248Ah, it’s always good to see Jeffrey Combs, especially in a film of some quality. The busy actor, best known for his iconic work as Dr. Herbert West in three Re-Animator movies, is diabolically front and center in the indie thriller Would You Rather. Combs plays Shepard Lambrick, a decadent moneybags who invites financially strapped folks to a dinner party and then obliges them to join in a competition. The winner gets his or her money problems sorted out. The losers … well, when candidate Iris (Brittany Snow) asks Lambrick what happens if you don’t win, his reply is simply “You don’t win.” Of course, it’s a tad more complicated than that.

The game and the movie’s title take off from the popular children’s thought experiment, wherein the choice is usually “Would you rather do this unpleasant (or gross) thing, or that unpleasant (or gross) thing?” Here, though, the players at the elegant dinner table are surrounded by bulky armed guards (in tuxedos, though; this is a classy environment, after all), and “elimination” from the game means elimination from breathing. Iris is there because she desperately needs money for her brother’s bone-marrow transplant; others in the game have similar hard-luck stories, including a recovering alcoholic (John Heard), an Iraq war vet (Charlie Hofheimer), and a gambler (Robb Wells).

Early on, Lambrick offers the alcoholic, who’s been dry for sixteen hard years, $50,000 if he finishes a snifter of brandy. Lambrick also waves $10,000 at vegetarian Iris and coaxes her to eat steak. He’s just warming up; the real plates on the menu include electrocution, stabbing, whipping, drowning, and self-mutilation. To his credit, director David Guy Levy doesn’t rub our faces in gore — most of the harsh stuff goes down off-camera. This isn’t a blood-soaked charnel-house mind-game like the Saw flicks; it leans more towards psychological violence. Most of it unfolds around the dinner table, in the fine tradition of “bottle episodes” on TV or low-budget filmmaking.

Would You Rather is a minor compelling entry in the subgenre of puppetmaster thought-experiment thrillers (another recent one was Compliance, based on a true story), and the actors have all been coached to keep their voices down; there’s little irritating hysteria, just ordinary people trying to stay in the game. Except for Iris, we don’t learn much about why the contestants have wound up in desperate straits, though there are teasing hints here and there. We root for Iris by default because we know what’s at stake for her, and Snow does a fair job of not squandering our inherent sympathy for Iris; she makes Iris a decent person, not insufferably so.

But if you’ve read this to the end it’s because I didn’t bury the lede: Jeffrey Combs is pretty much the reason to see this (or just about any) film. Combs knows how to be overtly creepy, but he’s done that in so many roles he no longer needs to make a big show of it. His Shepard Lambrick is quietly reasonable within the insane context Lambrick has created. Lambrick has more money than he knows what to do with, and he enjoys spending it by putting people to the test. Combs brings out Lambrick’s one-percenter vibe by making it seem that his little game is simply undiluted capitalism: If you’re better than anyone else at doing terrible things, you get the grand prize. Combs presides over this financial morality play with spirit and wit, a dry sense of self-amusement. He deserves to be far better known and appreciated outside of horror-fan circles.

Warm Bodies

February 2, 2013

Warm-BodiesA young man in a hoodie shambles aimlessly through an airport. He can’t remember his name, but he thinks it begins with an R. The R may as well stand for Romeo, because he soon finds his Juliet, though he has to eat her boyfriend’s brains first. Warm Bodies is a “zomromcom,” a term inaugurated by 2004’s witty modern classic Shaun of the Dead, and while this film isn’t as funny, it’s more romantic and has some intriguing twists on the zombie theme. R (Nicholas Hoult) is a relatively thoughtful and sensitive zombie — he provides self-deprecating narration, and he collects things that remind him of when he was alive. He stumbles across Julie (Teresa Palmer) when she’s on a run for medicine in the city. He seems taken with her even before he consumes her boyfriend Perry’s gray matter and experiences Perry’s memories of — and feelings for — Julie.

In 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, we were told that zombies eat brains because it alleviates “the pain of being dead.” Warm Bodies pushes that notion further towards an emotional anodyne: eating brains takes a zombie out of his listless existence for a while, like a drug. R and a few other zombies of his acquaintance (including Rob Corddry) may be zombies, and they may kill and eat humans because they have to, but they’re not as far gone yet as another kind of zombie. “Bonies,” these others are called — skeletal ghouls who “gave up” and have become true anti-life monsters. Compared to them, R looks pretty decent, and Julie (who doesn’t know R ate her sweetie’s skull meat) allows R to look after her after he rescues her. Eventually she develops feelings for him, which is unfortunate, because her father (John Malkovich) is the gung-ho leader of a militaristic band of zombie-killing survivalists.

Warm Bodies isn’t a romantic twist on the zombie movie so much as a zombie twist on the romance movie. There’s a nicely fragile rapport between Hoult (who’s delivered on the promise he showed in About a Boy a decade ago) and Palmer (who resembles Kristen Stewart but has more verve and humor). R and Julie look good and feel good together. We’re asked to believe that their love not only slowly heals R but inspires his fellow zombies to do likewise. Mostly we do. We can take or leave the implied message that we must embrace life to avoid being dead — literally, in this case — but R and Julie are a strange enough couple to make the bromide go down easy. The movie also appealingly suggests that if you were a bit of an outcast in life, you’ll manage to resist becoming one of the Bonies — you’ll try to find ways to make death interesting, like piling up snow globes or listening to Guns ‘n Roses.

This is director Jonathan Levine’s second horror-themed film, after his debut, the slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane; some might also count 50/50, with cancer as the remorseless serial killer. Levine’s work here is amiably rumpled, relaxing into the scenes of R playing his old ’80s vinyl records for Julie or haltingly trying to converse with her. The movie doesn’t stand out much in memory — nothing in it really pops — but it’s enjoyable while it lasts. It provides a surprisingly nuanced showcase for Rob Corddry, who is often pretty funny but too often lapses into a cartoon of himself. Here he gives us an amusingly polite zombie, and his first non-conversation with R strikes the tone the movie needs. They could be just two regular guys mumbling at each other at an airport.

Warm Bodies is not anything like the Twilight of zombie movies — for one thing, it doesn’t take itself stupidly seriously enough for that — though some horror fans offended by the softening (and sparkle-fication) of vampires in that series may likewise bristle at this film’s apparent thesis that even if you’re a zombie, all you need is love. Zombies, such people may say, eat people; that’s all. (The villain of the piece, the gun-happy Malkovich character, agrees with them.) Some of us horror fans, though, get tired of the binary us-vs.-them formula and welcome some shading, especially in a subgenre as exhausted lately as the zombie film. When World War Z opens this summer, it’s possible I’ll be looking at some of the zombies slaughtered by the heroes and thinking “Wait, one of them could be R.”