Sunday, June 23, 2013

Avoiding the Horde in World War Z

      If you're a fan of Max Brooks' 2006 novel (I thought it was decent), and you've been waiting in anticipation for a big-budget screen adaptation of the sprawling narrative, you should leave your excitement at the door. Because World War Z the film is an entirely different story about the zombie war, where the infected move and think like a colony of quick-moving ants and hop, skip and spring like cheetahs injected with adrenaline. It's way more Left for Dead than Night of the Living Dead. It's also much less contemplative on the social and political issues of the war and focuses much more on the world-wide carnage and cool action set pieces full of CGI and Brad Pitt running for his life. And that's okay: World War Z is a satisfying summer blockbuster that exchanges the book's slower-paced story format with non-stop tension-slathered situations, a film that's well made and entertaining yet doesn't quite cross the threshold of being great.
     After the opening credits, showing the typical quick newsreel footage of different places around the world, thing's start off with a loud Bang. Literally, as Gerry (Brad Pitt), his wife (Mireille Enos, who's so great in AMC's The Killing), and two young daughters are stuck in traffic in Philadelphia when a loud explosion occurs and people start running for their lives. Not ten minutes into the film, and we have our first action set piece: Gerry and his fam witness the insanity first hand, as the Olympic sprinter zombies smash through windows and windshields as they speed their way through gridlocked city streets. It's quickly very certain that this isn't your parent's zombie movie; everything happens with a blink of an eye: the "turn" after being bitten is only 12 seconds before you're fully zombified, twitching like your neighborhood crack addict.
     In one similarity to the book, scenes change from one world location to another, showcasing just how widespread the panic and devastation is. Gerry used to work for the U.N., so conveniently he gets chosen to travel from country to country to find where the "virus" originated. One location generally provides a clue that propels Gerry to the next location, and each country and city--whether it be South Korea, Jerusalem, or anywhere in America--generally shows us an exciting scene of Zombie action. Two come to mind the easiest: as seen in the previews, the horde that forms a living tower, crawling and jumping over each other to reach the top of a massive barrier wall, is frightening because you realize--like flies and maggots on a rotting corpse--that nothing stops these damn things. Another scene that takes place on a passenger jet is full-on intensity, rivaling last year's The Grey in showing why it's realistic to have a fear of flying.
     World War Z is directed by Marc Forster, who consistently makes good (but not great films): Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, one of the best Will Ferrell films, Stranger than Fiction, and the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond films, Quantum of Solace--these cinematic experiences all have a common thread. They are all worth your time, yet are missing just a little something, like a Zombie that can't quite reach its victim through the metal bars of a prison cell. This film showcases some solid aspects of his direction though: the world-wide tale is ambitious, full of fun zombie action, and there are plenty of quiet moments where you wonder what is lurking around the next corner. Brad Pitt has always been an actor that's totally under-appreciated. To me--look at Seven, Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Moneyball--he's one of our best actors. Always in control in every situation, his quiet performance isn't showy or over-the-top. It's realistic and, especially in the final third of the film, powerful.
      World War Z is a film that is told in three distinct acts, and the last portion of the film is a complete departure from the apocalyptic action of what came before it: it's slower and more thoughtful, and it actually works as a much more intimate look at the zombies and how they operate. It's also not the original ending of the film. Much has been said about the production woes on the set of World War Z: the budget ballooning from $125 million to $200 million (or more), a huge battle that was cut entirely from the film, seven additional weeks of re-shoots months after the filming was already concluded, and script re-writes including a brand new ending from the always-in-demand Lost writers--these things all spell major trouble.
     And sure, the film has some issues. Sometimes it can be over-ambitious--jumping from place to place, it's easy to get viewer jetlag (and hard to connect with characters we barely meet). The scenes between Gerry and his family have minimal impact, because we barely know them before flesh starts getting torn. And--my biggest problem--its PG-13 rating. Obviously, a $200 million dollar summer blockbuster has to make money, so an R rating would have made it tough to get a good return on investment. But this is a movie about zombies, so when the camera cuts away from teeth gnashing into necks, knives cutting off limbs, or bullets to a zombie's cranium, something gets lost in translation. The fear of the living dead is a primal sort of terror, a fear of being brutally eaten alive or violently transforming into one of the horde. With World War Z, we settle for an ambitious but neutered zombie story, an admirable attempt at a mega budget undead summer movie that sacrifices true terror with just enough tension.     (B)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Upstream Color: An Experimental Film About Parasites, Pigs, and the Connections Between People

     It's been nearly ten years since writer/director Shane Carruth broke onto the scene with Primer, a wicked cool sci-fi movie about time travel that cost less than $10,000 to make and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Like any great puzzle, Primer took immense concentration to figure out, and it shot Carruth to the forefront of young filmmakers willing to work with big ideas while using a small budget. Film fans couldn't wait to see what he would come up with next. Then they waited...and waited...and waited. They waited nearly 10 years, until January of this year when his newest creation, Upstream Color, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I'm not sure a viewer could say it was worth the wait if they were into narrative cohesion; in fact, I'm not sure a film such as this deserved to be judged at all: an abstract collage of scenes (sometimes connecting and sometimes not) featuring beautiful images and an incredibly weird plot propel Upstream Color into the realm of great American experimental film--key word "experimental".
     If you don't enjoy being challenged or confused while watching a movie, feel free to stop reading now. Because Upstream Color could take a dozen watches to truly figure out its intricacies (not that many will be willing to do that). The tagline sure doesn't give anything major away: "A man and a woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives." If you said you knew exactly what the film was about after watching it, you'd be lying. But there are many possibilities: the connections people make with each other, the connections humans have with other animals and nature, the mutual craziness that comes with love, the technique of making film a more visceral watching experience. These are all viable ideas.
     The plot basically concerns two people, though others play integral roles. Kris (Amy Seimetz), who works with computers, gets abducted by a man known as "Thief" and drugged with some form of larva (Thief shoots it down her throat) that completely alters her consciousness. Essentially, Thief now has complete control over Kris, and he makes her perform mundane tasks--like handwriting the book Walden page by page or taking sips of water--while he empties her bank accounts and the equity from her house. This first 30 minutes is the best and most intense part of Upstream Color. Once she is released from her trance, she is obviously completely devastated, remembering only tiny flashes of what exactly happened to her. Later, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, the director, writer, producer, cinematographer, composer, and production/sound designer of Upstream Color), who may or may not have experienced a very similar situation.

     As they begin to really get to know each other, they realize that their connections are certainly more peculiar than mere coincidence: memories involving an orchid-like flower, childhood incidences, and a mysterious man known as "Sampler"--who uses different sounds to lure people into his pig farm to perform operations involving the creepy larvae--start to invade their every thought and dream. Yeah, it's not really like anything you have seen before. And I don't even know if I can say that I really liked it. But it's unquestionably one thing: watchable.
     An easy comparison, in terms of the direction, is Terrence Malick, whose films have a dream-like quality that you experience rather than just watch. It's the same way here with Carruth's creation: nearly every shot and every sound is filmed in a way which is rarely seen or heard. The film also becomes a bit scatter-shot, without much of a conventional plot or scene structure, causing the viewer to become discombobulated but still utterly fascinated. The ideas at hand are deep and varied, and the feeling you get while watching is one of complete originality. You also couldn't fault a viewer who finds the entire film a bit too weird and eerie. But it still shows that the ultra-talented Shane Carruth is a director worth seeking out, as Upstream Color--like an intricate maze--is a rewarding piece of art.     (B+)     

(Upstream Color (2013) and Primer (2004) are both available on Netflix Instant)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel is Merely O.K.

     Out of all of the superhero comics and films of the past fifty years or more, is there any caped hero more cherished or more loved than Superman? But he's also the one who is the most divisive among the rabid fan base of comic lore. In 2006, director Bryan Singer (who had already showcased his big budget hero aptitude with X-Men and X2) tried his hand at adapting Super's story with Superman Returns, a film that was decent and decently received by critics and fans. It was also lighthearted, big and bright. Flash to present day, 2013: Hollywood tries yet again to adapt a version of Kal-El's story, this time enlisting slo-mo-obsessed Zack Snyder (whose film career peaked with his first film--2004's Dawn of the Dead remake) to form a darker, more dangerous take on the man from Krypton. Luckily, there isn't much slow-mo. Unluckily, Man of Steel serves as a passable summer action film that fails to excite or incite tension, a movie that tries to be dark (like Nolan's Batman trilogy; he's a producer here) but instead ends up drab.
     Finding an actor that can portray America's favorite superhero is no easy feat. This time, it's British actor Henry Cavill, who does a serviceable job as Earth's salvation yet doesn't particularly bring any amount of charisma to the character. He zooms and flies around, ponders at the sky above him, wondering why he is the man who was sent to Earth to potentially help the greater good. But before he can bash and punch any bad guy (or girl) that threatens the human's safety, Man of Steel begins by showing how Kal was sent to our world to become Clark in the first place: Jor-El (Russell Crowe, who gains your attention without much effort, since most everyone else isn't incredibly exciting) has one last chance to save his race as the planet Krypton crumbles around him. He needs to send his son, Kal-El, to a planet where he can thrive. But General Zod (Micheal Shannon, whose usual insanity is utter brilliance, but here is too subdued) has other plans. It doesn't really matter what--this prologue is packed full of bombastic sci-fi action, all ending with Zod being banished into space and Kal-El slamming to Earth. I think we all know that banished space psychos don't stay banished for too long.
        Through flashbacks we get the general gist: Kal--now Clark--has been adopted by a caring Kansas couple (as the dad, Kevin Costner gets to give plenty of vague insight about potential and becoming the man Clark was meant to be...typical superhero back story). He has trouble not showing his incredible power: saving the kids on a crashed school bus, avoiding getting back at the bullies even though he could rip their throats out. As a man, Clark becomes a bit of a Nomad, catching work at a dive bar or on a Deadliest Catch-esque fishing boat deep out to sea. All is well and good for the loner, until an alien ship is discovered deep under the ice, reporter Lois Lane (portrayed by Amy Adams, whose romantic connection with Cavill is shaky at best) starts getting up in his business, and a distress call allows Zod to try and take revenge.
     It's all just kinda...been there, seen that. The second half of the film deals with Zod and Superman battling with their brains and their brawn, and it's here that many of the films problems arise to the surface: first, is it possible for a superhero franchise to come up with a story that doesn't involve an alien ship beaming some form of laser into the Earth, either to extract its resources, destroy its core or alter its gravitational pull? It's getting kind of tiresome that the biggest threat to humanity is hardly ever a well-developed character and is typically a scientific object (I thought Star Trek into Darkness nicely avoided this earlier in the summer).
     Secondly, I feel like it may be nearly impossible to make a Superman film that has actual, palpable tension. The hero is nearly indestructible, and the viewers know that basically any threat that is thrown in front of our red and blue salvation will be taken care of with ease, or only a little bit of difficulty. Plenty of action scenes in Man of Steel pit Superman against Zod and a few of his select followers, and the action completely consists of Superman Zipping through the air, bashing into people and objects, demolishing buildings and vehicles, smashing back and forth. It's all CGI in front of green screens, and although the special effects look good, they do nothing exciting to propel the story forward. There's barely any innovation, just an all out punching and throwing assault between Superman and Zod that grows tiresome after a couple of minutes.
     And speaking of General Zod again--and although Micheal Shannon was fine as the film's villain--I was definitely hoping for more. In nearly every single film and television role that he is in, Shannon displays an insanity and exciting unpredictability that inches you to the edge of your seat: as ticking time bomb Agent Van Alden in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, as the schizophrenic psycho in the hilariously freaky Bug, or the father who is obsessed with tornadoes in Take Shelter, he is always incredibly watchable. Here, he's just a typical superhero villain that is spayed by the film's script and rarely has a chance to display his ferocious intensity.
     If it feels like I've been a bit too hard on Man of Steel, it's actually pretty understandable: just in the past couple of months, we've seen summer blockbusters that just did it so much better, like Tom Cruise's Oblivion, Tony Stark's innovative Iron Man 3, and especially Star Trek into Darkness. All three contained at least some of the childlike wonder that accompanies the best big budget films of the summer movie season. Man of Steel--for the most part--lacks it. It tried to fit the story of Superman into the Batman Begins mold, and although nothing is particularly less than decent about it, it could have been so much more. News of a sequel have already been announced. And like the "S" that sits at the front of Superman's suit, maybe it's a symbol of Hope that next time they can do a little better.     (C+)

Friday, June 14, 2013

This Is the End Lets You Forgive This Crew For "Your Highness"

     For me, going to comedies in the theater is typically a tricky proposition. My enjoyment of a film can take a sharp nose dive is everyone sitting around is me laughing obnoxiously over every little joke, funny or not funny. I went to This Is the End because early word was very positive and I'm a huge fan of the Seth Rogen / James Franco stoner odyssey Pineapple Express, one of Franco's best performances in any of his films. And not only was I not disappointed, but This Is the End is oftentimes a hilarious comedy about the Apocalypse that is full of super funny meta self-characterizations that let the actors poke fun at themselves at nearly every turn.
     The set-up is quite simple--the script, partially written by Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, gets to the point quickly--and it's clear from the very beginning that every actor in the film is playing an exaggerated version of themselves. Some of the first lines poke fun at Rogen's trademark Heh Heh Heh laugh that many find annoying but some (myself included) find charming. Rogen's at the airport to pick up his friend Jay Baruchel who's in town to visit (This Is the End is actually an extension of a 2007 short film, titled Jay and Seth verses the Apocalypse). Once they get home and smoke enormous amounts of weed, Rogen decides to bring Jay to a house party over at James Franco's killer contemporary pad.
     The party is a pretty funny parody of what a gathering of young celebrities would look like: massive amounts of booze, drugs, and scantily-clad women flow out of each and every room. Michael Cera pops up in a particularly laugh-out-loud role. As Jay wanders around the party, it's clear that he isn't into the Hollywood culture. Upon meeting Jonah Hill (who is actually quite brilliant in his over-portrayal of his nice-guy image), Jay decides that most stars are sell-outs and fakes. He sets off to find a convenience store--he's got a mad case of the munchies, after all--and Rogen follows him.
     What follows is a film full of very high highs and rarely any low lows. While at the store, the pair witness something that seems inconceivable: a few of the fellow patrons--with a loud Bang!--are beamed up to Heaven, bathed in a bright blue light. The Rapture is occurring, and they clearly weren't chosen. All "Hell" breaks loose, so they drop their snacks and rush back to Franco's pad where...nothing has changed. Everyone's still dancing, laughing, and partying hard. What the two just witnessed, did it actually happen? Or was it just a side effect of being really really high?
     The cast is particularly great at creating personas that are just a little more over-the-top of their normal  portrayals, while also poking fun at their personal life. Two people in particular: James Franco and Danny McBride. With the world ending just outside of Franco's door, the group pool their supplies, lock the doors, and decides to wait it out. Franco is similar to his completely out-of-it character in Pineapple Express, a guy who takes offense but can spit out absolutely hilarious lines like the rest of the comedic actors. He also has a weird obsession with Seth Rogen that the film plays for laughs. After the first night, the group wakes up to find that another actor has been in the house the entire time. It's Danny McBride, whose every career move will always be compared to his take-no-prisoners brilliant portrayal of failed baseball pitcher Kenny Powers on HBO's wonderful Eastbound and Down, and his persona in this movie is even more insane. Him and Franco bicker beautifully at nearly every turn, and their talking then screaming argument about McBride masturbating everywhere around the house is completely gut-busting. Not to say the other members of the holed-up cast aren't funny: Jonah Hill, Jay and Seth, and Craig Robinson (best remembered from Hot Tub Time Machine) all have at least a scene or two (or ten) that will bring a smile to your face.
     Most of This Is the End takes place inside of Franco's massive mansion, and the film is better for it. These guys are at their best when they're all in a room, arguing or quickly playing up their movie star personas. It falters a bit when the camera leaves the house and focuses on the demonic creatures and situations that are happening in the outside world. One such scene happens soon after Jay and Seth's stoned-and-starving store run, and the movie could have really taken a turn for the worse at that point. Luckily, it didn't. Rogen's script smartly keeps the pace fast and much of the action inside the ever-more claustrophobic walls of Franco's home.
     If you can't stand these guys (like Rogen's laugh, Jonah Hill's sarcasm, or McBride's all out assault of bad taste and vulgarity), This Is the End certainly won't change your mind. The film is more about these stars acting the way that they act--only it's in the face of being left behind by God after The Rapture. It even goes into the reasons of why this group of seemingly good men--actors that bring joy and smiles to the masses--didn't get beamed up above the clouds to witness all the glory of God. Franco is certain he didn't because he once banged "Linsey Lohan at the Chateau Marmont", a great joke for anyone that's opened an US Weekly.  But the real reasons are more complicated than that: and they are full of great laughs in one of the best comedies so far this year.     (B+)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Purge Doesn't Quite Live Up To Its Cool Concept

     Picture a future that looks a lot like ours on the surface. There's still a gargantuan gap between the richest people in the neighborhood and the poor and down-trodden, but unemployment is at an all time low of around 1%. Crime still occurs, yet hardly ever: there is no need for a concealed weapons permit or to even to lock your car door after you slam it. All is well in America--better than ever, it seems--due to one 12-hour period that happens annually: The Purge. This purge allows all crime (including murder, though the film never goes into the specifics of more disgusting crimes, like child molestation) to be legal during those 12 hours. You can drive around, shooting all of your fellow employees, or you can take a machete to your neighbor's yelping dog. Think of it as a cleansing time for anyone with sociopathic tendencies. During this time, all police and emergency services are suspended: 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. This is the interesting set up for The Purge, a thriller that starts off really strong but slowly (or quickly, considering the film is only 85 minutes) falls into a predictability that purges much of the movie's excitement.
     James (Ethan Hawke) is a family man who loves the annual purge more for the dollar signs than for the cleansing of the soul: he's a home security salesman, and in this story (obviously), making your home a fortress of the latest protection technology is of utmost importance. He's one of the leading salesman for his company, and he has one of the biggest houses in his upscale suburban neighborhood, most of which is equipped with his expertise. Things begin briskly--with hours and then minutes before the annual purge begins--as we meet James's family: his wife, Mary (Lena Headey, of Cersei Lannister fame) holds a nervous tension about the yearly event. His 18-year-old daughter, Zoey, is the typical rebellious type--wearing a short skirt and making out with her older boyfriend, she'd rather spend The Purge texting emoticons than watching the violent news coverage. Most importantly, we have younger Charlie, who questions the need for The Purge and also has a cool camera-equipped Roomba-esque remote control robot that roams the house, spying on anything interesting.
     As the clock strikes 7 P.M., James enters the code, the house goes into lock-down mode--complete with metal gates that slam shut over every door and window--and the security cameras pop up on the many screens on the one wall of his McMansion. And when those gates slam shut, it also shuts out the possibility of the film taking a wider view of the futuristic concept that was so intriguing. No need to spoil the specifics, but the rest of the run time involves a hurt man begging to be let in, a group of characters that doesn't bring much new to the home invasion sub-genre of horror films, and a few predictable twists that are not un-enjoyable but also aren't surprising in the least.
     Ethan Hawke is always pretty good in these types of roles: a man with a brimming intensity that sometimes can show to the surface with his excitement. The other cast does their part with nothing special or overly praise-worthy. The characters that pose a threat to the family are creepy, but a little over-the-top: they're like a cross between the preppy tennis-outfit-wearing teens of Funny Games (I couldn't help but think how Ryan Gosling would have been perfect bringing his intensity to the intruder role) and the violent invaders of The Strangers. And speaking of those two films, The Purge succumbs to the genre conventions in its final act and has trouble separating itself away those similar movies. And nearly everyone falls into the horror film trap of making completely idiotic decisions: Don't open that door! Don't make so much noise when you're trying to be quiet! Finish people off when you stab them!
     The film was written and directed by James DeMonaco, who guided Hawke in 2005's Assault on Precinct 13. He definitely has a knack for setting up intense scenes where the tension is completely palpable. One of the more creative aspects of the film is Charlie's remote control robot that crawls from room to room, and it's not giving anything away to state that it plays an interesting role--especially with the unique camera angles. A couple of the action scenes are very well staged, too: specifically when Hawke has to creatively take out two intruders in his billiard room. Instead of relying on shaky cam (like so many other action thrillers), the violence is clean and concise.
      There's no doubt that DeMonaco put in an admirable effort. There is a major problem though: his script gives us so many things to think about--the fact that The Purge may be the Government's way of ridding the country of the homeless and less fortunate, the notion that different races are more targeted, the fact that top-level government officials are safe from the violence--that when the film turns into a typical home invasion thriller, it's hard not to feel let down by its semi-wasted potential. The Purge could have been an epic sci-fi film with big ideas that was smart and exciting. Instead, it's just a decent action thriller about the steps you take to protect your family and your home.     (B-)