WARM BODIES: 3 STARS

The lead character of "Warm Bodies," a new zom com from director Jonathan Levine, is a romantic at heart-his dead, unbeating heart.

George A. Romero would barely recognize the zombies in "Warm Bodies." They run, they fight like UFC fighters and when they eat brains they take on the memories of their meal and that's essentially where our story begins.

Nicholas Hoult plays R (pronounced "arrgghhgghh"), an existential zombie who wants more out of life... or death, or whatever it is you call his current state. "Why can't I connect with people?" he wonders in the narration. "Why is my posture so bad? Of yeah, I'm dead." There's been a plague of some sort which has left him and most of the population hungry for brains, while the sole human survivors live behind a giant wall.

Zombies and humans alike are terrified of the Bonies-evolved zombies who'll eat anything with a heartbeat. "So will I," says R, "but at least I'm conflicted about it."

On a feeding trip R encounters a team of humans on the search for supplies. One zombie attack later he has eaten the brains of Perry (Dave Franco). When he gets a glimpse of Perry's girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer) he loses his appetite. Perry's memories come flooding into R's zombie brain and he begins to feel something he hasn't felt for a long time-human emotions.

It's "Walking Dead" meets "Romeo and Juliet" with a twist-it just might be that love and hope can still set hearts a flutter, even ones that haven't beaten in a while.

"Warm Bodies" is essentially one joke-the zombie as a metaphor for awkward teenager love-but it's a pretty good one and well performed. The movie doesn't exactly make sense, particularly if you're a zombie fan of either the Romero or "Walking Dead" schools, but no matter how fast and loose it plays with the established mythology of the undead it's still a new twist on an old form.

Also, any movie with the line, "I know it's really hard to meet guys now... in the apocalypse and everything," is OK by me.



STAND UP GUYS: 3 STARS

A movie called "Stand Up Guys" that contains the line, "They're the kind of guys who take your kidneys and don't even try to sell them," sounds like maybe it's about gangster comedians. Or witty wise-guys. Or hilarious hit men. Instead it's an occasionally funny, but mostly heartfelt look at friendship disguised as a buddy movie starring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken.

Pacino is Val, a career criminal and "stand up guy" who did a twenty-eight year stretch in prison rather than implicate his partners in crime. He soon discovers, however, that his first day of freedom may become his last day on earth. His old boss Claphand (Mark Margolis) has hired Val's best friend Doc (Walken) to kill him in revenge for the death of his son almost three decades ago.

Doc is conflicted about the job, even though Val seems to understand the twisted logic of the underworld vendetta. With just ten hours until the deadline (literally, Val must be dead by 10 am) the old friends go on a spree, breaking their friend Hirsch (Alan Arkin) out of his retirement home and going on a last caper or two.   

"Stand Up Guys" is just slightly less than the sum of its parts. The leads-Pacino, Walken and Arkin-combined bring with them a century or two of screen work, and it shows. It's a pleasure to see these three old pros cut through this material like a pizza cutter through tender dough.

It's too bad then, that the material contains Viagara jokes that would seem more appropriate in a "Grumpy Old Men" movie. That and the long shadow of Tarantino that blankets almost every scene leaves the film feeling less than original despite the engaging performances.

It is, however, almost worth the price of admission to listen to Christopher Walken talk about watching television, or "cable teeVEE" as he pronounces it.


WEST OF MEMPHIS: 3 STARS

This new documentary about the gruesome murders of three children, the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols and James Baldwin, the court case that found them guilty and, finally, the evidence that suggests otherwise, is an engaging but ultimately frustrating experience.

From the film's opening minutes it becomes clear that the fates of the accused were predetermined. In the opposite of a fair and balanced journalistic moment a television newsperson reporting on the final days of the 1994 trial, says that the people of West Memphis (which is in Arkansas, not Tennessee) will rest easier when these suspects are found guilty. It's an effective illustration of the prevailing attitude of the time. Despite flimsy evidence the three didn't stand a chance of acquittal because they were perceived as different and dangerous. They fit the profile. One prosecutor even says, "You look inside Damien Echols and there is not a soul in there."

The murders and trial are a starting place for Berg's doc. The bulk of the 146 minute running time is comprised of the seventeen year fight to prove the innocence of the West Memphis 3, a battle which attracted the attention and support of high profile show biz types like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and "Lord of the Rings" director and producer team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.    

Much of "West of Memphis" is compelling stuff. The evidence is laid out in a clear and interesting fashion, using first hand interviews, crime photos (including unforgettable and upsetting police photos of the three dead eight-year-olds) and information form private investigators paid for by the wealthy celebs who stood behind the three even though it "felt like treading water for years without the shore getting closer," as Walsh writes in an e-mail.    

Compelling and frustrating though the story may be, sometimes real life gets in the way of a satisfactory conclusion. The outcome of the seventeen-year crusade to get a new trail is well known, so no spoilers here-unless you haven't read a newspaper or seen the news in years. Instead of being granted a new trial the three were offered an Alford Plea, a little used petition that sees them released from prison on the proviso that they plead guilty to the crime. It's a slippery way for the state to release the men, but erase any possibility of them suing for wrongful imprisonment.

As a filmgoer it's hard not to feel a let down at the end of the film. The three are free, and according to the evidence presented in the film, they deserve to be, but the manner of their release is frustrating.

Ditto the real life reluctance to pursue another suspect, Terry Hobbs, the man who is presented as the most likely killer. Hobbs is interrogated at length in the film but the police, having closed the case, are not interested in pursuing anyone else for the crime.

So, by film's end, we have three innocent men free after almost two decades behind bars, a smug judiciary confident they have done their job despite evidence to the contrary, a possible suspect on the loose and three dead kids for whom justice was never properly served.

Real life doesn't always work it the way we want it to and neither do documentaries.  "West of Memphis" is interesting, but unsatisfying.