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Friday, March 15, 2013

Warm Bodies

Not just another Twilight knockoff.

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Set after the events of a Zombie Apocalypse, Warm Bodies tells the story of a most unusual star-crossed romance between Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human girl, and R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie boy. Is their burgeoning love doomed to fail, though, or might it be the unlikely key to the salvation of human kind?

What we thought

While Warm Bodies may well look, at first glance, to be little more than yet another Twilight cash-in, it's inspiration is clearly far, far older – and more classic – than that. It is, in effect, very clearly William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (hint: check out the names of the two main characters) but with zombies and more gags. It's also Romeo and Juliet transformed from a tragedy into a comedy, as is ends up saying the precise opposite of Romeo and Juliet's ultimately tragic message.

It is also very clearly heavily indebted to two far more recent stories – and, again, neither of which is Twilight. First and foremost, however much the PR-machine behind Warm Bodies is trying to push the film as the first ever rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy), that title clearly belongs to the already classic rom-zom-com, Shaun of the Dead. And no, there is no way in hell that writer/ director Jonathan Levine is unaware of that Simon Pegg/ Edgar Wright sleeper hit, seeing as how (if you excuse the rather disturbing pun) its finger prints are all over Warm Bodies.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sessions

Sex! Comedy! Drama! Hippy Priests! Polio! Ladies and gentlemen... The Sessions!

That this story about a man completely immobilized by polio is uplifting without ever being mawkish is miracle enough, but that it's also one of the best and funniest sex comedies to come along in a long, long time must be too good to be true. Well, it isn't. The Sessions is a genuinely wonderful film filled with wit, warmth and three seriously terrific performances.

John Hawkes stars as Mark O'Brien, the real life man on whose essay/ memoir the film is based, a 38 year old man who spends most of his days immobile in an iron lung after contracting polio at a young age. Despite being entirely dependent on assistants and living a clearly painful existence trapped in his own body, Mark becomes desperate to lose his virginity. After "striking out" with one of his pretty assistants, he decides to enlist the services of a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt). Along the way, he befriends Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a hip, compassionate priest who actually encourages Mark on his less-than-traditional quest.   

Dramatically, The Sessions bears something of a resemblance to the spectacular French film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was itself about an almost entirely paralyzed man finding a new lease on life, and like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly it manages the far-harder-than-it-looks trick of being life-affirming and uplifting, rather than mawkish and vomit-inducing. Indeed, while the subject matter is hardly easy going, writer/ director Ben Lewis has a very deft touch with the drama that stops it from ever falling too far into either overly manipulative sentimentality or overly overwrought miserabilism.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jews and Questions: My latest article for Jewish Life Magazine

Hey guys, thanks to the popular requests of at least one of you, I am going to post quick reminders of my non-entertainment-related writings that have recently been published elsewhere.

To kick this off, we have my latest article for Jewish Life magazine. Starting on page 16 of both the print and online March 2013 editions of the magazine, you can find my article about the importance of questions in Judaism under the title of "Mah Nishtana: What the Seder Has To Tell Us About The Importance of Questions to the Jewish Character." Print editions of the magazine are available for free in various Jewish institutions, shuls and schools throughout South Africa and for a low price in many general supermarkets as well. Easier still, check out the new website at and view it online or download it in PDF format.

Here is a very small sample from the beginning of the piece...

"Once you get past the first cup of wine, the salt water and the tiny samplings of vegetables that only make you hungrier for a main meal that seems further away than ever, the Haggadah launches straight into what the whole rigmarole is all about in the first place: recounting the story of the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt. This being a Jewish story though, we begin with neither a “once upon a time...” nor even with a “long time ago in an ancient civilization not so far away...” but with a “why.”

Mah nishtana, ha-lyla ha-zeh, mi-kol ha-leylot – literally, what has changed, this night, from all other nights or, as it is usually idiomatically translated, why is this night different from all other nights. It might seem an inconspicuous start to the annual retelling of one of the defining stories in Jewish history, but considering that it is the events depicted in the Exodus that solidified the Jews as a nation – rather than as a ragtag bunch of monotheistic believers – it could hardly be more appropriate to frame the definition of the Jewish nation through a device that is so central to the Jewish character.

Indeed, the mah nishtana is only the beginning of what is a night full of questions. As the many, many symbolic practices of the seder are specifically tailored to have children ask about them – What's with the four cups? Why do we lean? How come you just broke that matzah? When do we eat? - the story of the Exodus itself is told not as a pure narrative, but as one that is filtered through a discussion between some of our greatest sages..."  

Check out the print or online versions available now!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Guilt Trip

Another new movie and another one also up at Channel 24. Don't worry, I'm sure I'll have more old reviews soon!

What it's about

A chemical biologist (Seth Rogen) travels across country with his mother (Barbara Streisand) to reunite his mother with her long lost love and to finally find a buyer for his revolutionary new cleaning product.

What we thought

At the outset, there is little that isn't terrifying about the idea of spending an hour and a half on a cross-country road trip with Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand, especially with the latter in full-on stereotypical Jewish-mother-mode. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with either Rogen or Streisand (I especially don't get the hate that Seth Rogen so often gets) but given the wrong material, they can both be very, very annoying and a film with so hysterical a title as “The Guilt Trip” doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

The bad news then is that Streisand is unfortunately often unbearable as she takes the neurotic yiddishe mama stereotype to screamingly overbearing extremes. It's especially hard to buy into her alienation from her son – which happens to be the central theme on which the whole film hangs – as she does come across as little more than an unbelievable cartoon character. This would be fine, of course, if her character was particularly funny – see George Costanza's absurdly overbearing mother on Seinfeld, for example – but the writing here is very far indeed from the hilarious heights of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld at their best.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

What's this? A new movie? You better believe it...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

Detailing the events that lead up to The Wizard of Oz, we meet the Great Wizard himself as a younger man named Oscar Diggs, a small-time magician working in a travelling carnival as he tries desperately to hit the big time. Opportunity comes a' knocking, however, after he's transplanted to the magical land of Oz and is greeted as the great saviour prophesied to kill the Wicked Witch and to bring peace at last to the land – but to do so he has to first decide whether his destiny lies in being a great man or a good man.

What we thought

It's astounding how in the 75 years since the release of the classic 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's beloved children's novel, there has been a noticeable reticence to try and return the Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the big screen – or, for that matter, to even tackle Baum's (and others') many Oz sequels. There has been the odd sequel or homage to the Judy Garland-starring masterpiece, but none of any note. If you wanted more of Baum's fantastical world you had to rely either on the novels themselves or on various stage adaptations or even on the really rather good Marvel Comics adaptations of the novels.

So beloved and so untouchable is the original film that it's only now, in 2013, that we finally get to see a major cinematic expansion of this classic fantasy world. With this then, comes big expectations and even bigger reservations as director Sam Raimi (Spider-man, The Evil Dead) audaciously dares to try and live up to one of the all-time great Hollywood productions.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

A Twilight rip-off or perhaps something more...

Beautiful Creatures is a film that clearly hopes to capitalize on the rapidly aging, but still devoted Twilight audience but, though it may look like little more than a Twilight knockoff, it ends up beating its "parent" franchise at its own game.

We once again have a forbidden relationship between a normal human and a paranormal creature of the night, with the only real difference being that the latter is a witch rather than a vampire. Oh and the small-town, human outsider is the guy this time round but, really, the whole set up of Beautiful Creatures is basically Twilight 2.0.

Put aside the film's basic premise though, and it quickly becomes clear that this is one knock off that improves on the "authentic" original in every conceivable way. The Twilight films have largely gotten a bad rap for doing precisely what they set out to do, but there's no doubt that they work for their target demographic and only their target demographic. Beautiful Creatures, on the other hand, should work for that same audience of die-hard Gothic Romance fans but should also satisfy audiences looking for some nicely schlocky, witchy, b-grade fantasy fun.