Friday, June 28, 2013

World War Z Review

I didn’t have much confidence in World War Z.  The project was plagued with issues: police confiscating actual rifles that were found on set, ballooning production costs, myriad re-shoots, and an incomplete third act.  My adoration for lead Brad Pitt wasn’t enough to make me more than wary about the final product.  It turns out that any and all trepidation I had was for naught; World War Z is a terrifying, thrilling, exciting zombie action film that is quite good.

Let’s address the “Z” word right off the bat.  I suppose technically the creatures featured in the film are just “infected” and not “zombies” per se, but I’m going to call them that anyway (the film does so as well for the most part).  I’m not here to argue the definition of “zombie.”  Ultimately it doesn’t matter because they’re not real, but most people would classify zombies as being relatively slow and decrepit.  What permeates WWZ is the complete opposite; these zombies are FAST…VERY FAST.  And they’ll dive-tackle their prey like a football player on massive steroids.  As can be seen in the trailers, they can act in a massive swarm, piling over each other like a human wave or forming a tower like the fire ants in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  It’s utterly and completely insane.  And VERY terrifying.  Whether or not the CGI swarms work for you, the image is horrifying and one that’ll shake you to your core.

Considering that this film is rated PG-13 there is very little blood or gore on screen.  Because of this, we don’t get to see gruesome zombie kills and attacks as in AMC’s The Walking Dead.  We see people get tackled and attacked and then violently turn (this isn’t just the normal “person dies from a fever and then wakes back up”…when someone turns it is within seconds and they’re body contorts violently accompanied with torturous screams), just sans blood.  To be honest the lack of blood was noticeable but it didn’t really bother me all that much.  Sometimes what you can’t see is more disturbing than what you can see, and in some instances this works out pretty well.

I’ve never read the book upon which this movie is based (although I have read Max Brook’s other zombie book, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” which is pretty fantastic), so I cannot provide insight on how it stands up (although I am aware that the film has very little to do with the content of the book).  Gerry (Brad Pitt) is a former UN investigator who’s been to some of the worst places on Earth.  Quite early in the film he and his family get caught up in what becomes a world-wide pandemic of flesh-craving, sprinting zombies.  They make it from Philadelphia to Newark, New Jersey and must survive until a UN rescue helicopter can get to them.  Gerry is one of the last people on the planet that can help figure out how to combat this sickness.  He’s sent with a small team of Navy SEALs and one of the world’s leading viral researchers across the globe to find patient zero – the one who started it all.  From there the film hops from location to location across the planet, with Gerry in constant danger, having to piece together the puzzle that is this viral outbreak.

What I appreciated most about World War Z is the film’s originality.  I won’t spoil the specifics, but there were multiple things in the film that I had never seen before in a zombie movie.  To go along with this idea, the characters, for the most part, are quite smart and the decisions they make make sense (which doesn’t happen often in films of this nature)…save for one side character who is infuriatingly clumsy.  I must also commend the film’s finale; much ado was made about Damon Lindelof being brought in to pen the third act, but I felt that what he brought to the table in terms of the final set-piece was fantastic.  The end is sort of an anti-climax, which upon my initial viewing left me a bit let down…but after a second viewing and some time I’ve learned to appreciate what they were going for.  This isn’t a normal summer tent-pole film with a bombastic, over-the-top action finale.  In the world that was built, with the characters we’ve come to know, something of that nature just wasn’t possible.  The finale introduces a concept that I’ve never seen before in a zombie film and allows for a potential sequel down the road.

While World War Z gets a lot right, there are a few bumps in the road.  Much of the action takes place close to the camera, with director Marc Forster using his Quantum of Solace shaky-cam all too much.  I assume this was done to hide any potential blood, gore, and violence (a la The Hunger Games) but it was still hard to follow the action and figure out what was happening.  There are two plotlines that were all but dropped by the end of the film; the situation with Gerry’s family and a small boy that they took under their protection while in Newark.  While the family stuff comes back by the end, they’re missing from the entire third act of the film.  Just a scene or two with us checking in with them would’ve been quite helpful in reminding us what Gerry’s fighting for.

World War Z is probably the biggest surprise for me so far this year in terms of just blowing any and all expectations out of the water.  I went in expecting a mess of a zombie film, but what I saw was a quite competent, thrilling, scary and incredibly entertaining action film that left me wanting more.  There is just so much to love about the film and so little to hate that I have to whole-heartedly recommend it.  In a summer filled with bombastic action films, WWZ is a nice change of pace…mainly due to its unique finale.

World War Z is an intense, thrilling, and action-packed zombie-apocalypse film that’s just damn good.

The Bearded Bullet

Man of Steel Review

My connection with Superman does not run deep.  I never really read any of the comics growing up and hadn’t seen any of the Christopher Reeve films until recently – I watched Superman and Superman II back-to-back and thought they were good but great (I know, probably blasphemous, right?).  I had seen Superman Returns only once several years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit from what I remember; I still don’t understand the hatred that it receives to this day.  I mean, even in last year’s fantastic Ted, Seth MacFarlane made sure to throw in a joke about Brandon Routh and “that god-awful Superman movie.”  That said, what really had my juices flowing about Man of Steel was the creative team behind it; David Goyer writing (who helped to co-write The Dark Knight trilogy), Christopher Nolan producing (the man needs no introduction), and Zack Snyder (one of my absolute favorite directors) directing.  Add in an absolutely stellar cast and they pretty much could do no wrong.  And guess what?  They didn’t.

The influence that this incredible creative team exerted upon this film comes through in spades.  Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder took Kal-El’s origin story and made is realistic as possible; yeah, he’s an alien from a distant planet, but they took this super-powered alien and planted him in our world and explored the ramifications of such an event.  Through a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the film, we learn about Clark and his struggles growing up with his amazing powers.  His human father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) mentored him in his early years, imparting key advice – that everything will change for him and the entire world when his powers become known.  This leads to a life of mediocrity for Clark, as he moves from job to job across Canada, revealing his powers only when life-or-death situations arise.  And when he does reveal himself to the world, and namely the American military, they react accordingly; with extreme trepidation and a healthy dose of fear.  Luckily, this initial prejudice dissipates as Clark proves that despite their inability to control him, we, as a country and species, have nothing to fear from him.

On the surface, Man of Steel is a superhero action film…that is hidden within a greater science-fiction epic.  The film opens with Kal-El’s birth on his home planet of Krypton – one of the most visually stunning extraterrestrial environments I’ve ever seen.  We quickly get into some action via the menacing General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cronies who start a civil war over the future of their dying planet.  The action on Krypton is face-meltingly gorgeous through and through, and the same goes for the Earth-bound majority of the film.  Snyder very rarely dips into the slow-motion well that he mined gloriously for 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and to a degree Legends of the Guardians.  Fist-fights (of which there are numerous) tend to be a little close to the camera but comprehensible for the most part – which is what really matters.  Any scene where Kryptonians collide will leave your jaw on the floor; a showdown between two of Zod’s soldiers and Clark in the middle of Smallville is hands-down one of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen in any superhero film…or action film in general.  Snyder does a fantastic job of making these super-powered people feel as real as possible; when Clark gets punched across the town by Faora it looks and feels real.

While all of the action scenes are glorious to behold, within them lives my only real issue with the film - the wanton destruction that permeates every conflict between Clark and Zod’s minions.  I’m no Superman expert, clearly, but to me it seems that Clark doesn’t even really attempt to steer destruction and carnage away from Smallville and/or Metropolis.  A major battle occurs in each, with Clark actually bringing the fight himself to Smallville.  Gas stations explode, an IHOP gets demolished, and dozens of cars are blown up with seemingly no remorse.  In the third act finale, what seems to be a large portion of Metropolis is completely and utterly demolished.  Granted, a lot of this isn’t Clark’s fault, but a climactic fight between him and Zod causes entire skyscrapers to collapse…and Supes doesn’t even flinch.  All I can hope is that this issue is brought up and dealt with in the sequel; perhaps Clark accepts responsibility and helps rebuild the city.  Maybe Lex Luthor steps up (there are myriad references to the super-villain throughout the film) and gets wealthy from rebuilding.  I just don’t hope that it gets ignored in future installments.

Much ado is being made about the film’s final moments.  I won’t spoil what exactly happens, but Clark makes a decision that is incredibly polarizing.  Personally, I had no issue at all with what transpired; it may go against one of the major tenants of the character, but I feel like there was no other option for Clark.  What transpires can allow for the already-green-lit sequel to explore the ramifications of his decision and how it affects him as a person.

The film ultimately hinges upon the relationships within; Clark and Lois, Clark and the Kents, Kal and Jor-El, and even Zod and Jor-El.  While each existed on different levels, for the most part they worked.  A lot of emotional weight is placed upon the Clark/Kents relationship, with the bond between Clark and his father, Jonathan taking center stage.  A key moment in the film hinges entirely upon this bond and I felt it worked incredibly well.  It doesn’t and won’t work for everyone, but I felt that the handful of flashbacks to Clark’s childhood did a fantastic job of building this relationship and the values that Jonathan tried to impart upon his son.  Clark and Lois are together for a large part of the film and I felt their chemistry immediately.  Much like in Captain America, by the time the two leads kiss it feels incredibly earned and meaningful.

As with most action and superhero films these days, many comparisons can be drawn to previous films.  Several moments in Man of Steel seem to come directly out of the The Dark Knight – both feature an interrogation-room scene, have a villain demanding something from the hero within 24 hours or bad stuff will happen,  and both end with our hero doing something questionable for the greater good.  There were also echoes of The Avengers (an alien-invasion scenario in the third act) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (the villains attempting to essentially make our world theirs).

Despite these immediate comparisons (of which some are knowingly thin), I think the aspect I enjoyed the most is the originality of its structure.  Something like 2009’s Star Trek flows quite linearly; we open with an action sequence (as does Man of Steel) and from there were bounce from Kirk to Spock and back as they each grow up on their own planets.  Man of Steel jumps right into Clark as an adult.  As I mentioned before, current events are inter-spliced with flashbacks to Clark’s childhood, with them complimenting each other quite well.  I’m sure you could edit the film to play out linearly, but this non-linear narrative adds just a little uniqueness to a film that is ultimately a loud, pretty, bombastic action film.

It would seem that Man of Steel is a love-it-or-hate-it film…I fall into the “love” category.  It has its flaws, yes, but it is incredibly entertaining, with some outstanding action sequences that left my jaw on the floor.  The same can be said about the stunning visual effects that allow these super-human beings to feel grounded in our reality.  Warner Bros. and DC seem to be wholly embracing the dark/somber tone that The Dark Knight trilogy delivered to us, and while it may not exactly fit every character in their pantheon, it suits this film well enough and will hopefully continue on to the inevitable Justice League film.

Man of Steel a jaw-droppingly gorgeous summer blockbuster with some real emotion and heart.

The Bearded Bullet