Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World War Z (2013)

Love them or hate them, zombies are everywhere nowadays. The last few years have seen the flesh-eating undead enjoy a dramatic spike in popularity, to the point that somebody even rewrote Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice to include zombies, for crying out loud. And while we're talking about zombie-oriented literature, let's talk about World War Z. Published in 2006, World War Z was author Max Brooks's follow-up to his satirical Zombie Survival Guide. It takes the form of an oral history compiled a decade after the zombie apocalypse. The book was warmly received by critics and spent four weeks on the New York Times best seller list, so naturally, somebody had to make a movie adaptation. After languishing in developmental hell for years and going through multiple rewrites before it finally entered production, World War Z is finally upon us. And to tell you the truth, it's a war that probably shouldn't have been fought.

Meet Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations investigator who has retired from his job to spend more time with his family. Stuck in a seemingly innocuous traffic jam on the busy streets of Philadelphia, the Lanes soon find themselves fleeing for their lives when zombies swarm the streets. Their numbers growing with every person they attack and infect with the zombie virus, the Lanes narrowly escape thanks to an extraction helicopter sent by Gerry's former UN colleague Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena).

Finding a modicum of safety aboard a Navy vessel off the coast of New York, Gerry learns that millions around the globe have already been infected and that there is seemingly no way to stop the zombie plague. He finds himself called back into duty by his old UN bosses, tasked with shadowing a team of soldiers and medical staff as they locating a "patient zero" and the hope for a cure. Fearing that his family will be dumped at a refugee camp if he doesn't, Gerry reluctantly agrees and follows a haphazard trail of clues that lead him from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales. But with every step he takes, an ever-growing zombie horde comes closer and closer to consuming the world.

I'm honestly not sure where I should begin with World War Z. The biggest problem with the movie is that it's just so boring and forgettable that by the end, all you're left with is a great big pile of disappointment. It's even worse once you consider that something good could have come out of the premise regardless of how they approached the source material. There are even some moments that actually work. But World War Z comes across as something that some filmmakers and a studio threw together before they lost the rights to the book. For shame, Hollywood.

The movie was directed by Mark Forster, who does a decent enough job at the helm. Some of the set pieces ― the initial chaos at the start of the movie, the Jerusalem siege, and the plane ride to Wales ― are all very well done. They're tense, exciting, and just plain cool. The bad part, however, is that the rest of the movie is so dull that I'm getting bored thinking about it. There are precious few scares, and Forster doesn't build quite the atmosphere that he probably could have. And outside of the occasional sequence like the ones I mentioned, it basically comes down to Brad Pitt looking at things, people running away from zombies, Brad Pitt talking to soldiers, an action sequence, Brad Pitt walks around, Brad Pitt calls his family, something happens briefly, and that's it. That's pretty much the whole thing. I have no problem with quiet moments in horror/action movies, but Forster doesn't do enough with them to make them anything other than boring. They drag the entire movie down with them. I'm just amazed that someone actually made a zombie movie that featured what looked like a tidal wave made out of zombies and it still ended up more boring than not.

I think a lot of it has to do with the number of times the script was rewritten. Credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof from a story by Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, the script suffers from a case of too many chefs in the kitchen. I understand why they would move away from the concept of the novel, because the only way to do a proper adaptation of it would be as a mockumentary. (Though in all truthfulness, a zombie movie done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary could have been cool.) But the movie as it's presented onscreen is basically a cross between disaster movies, zombie movies, and Contagion with a dash of I Am Legend thrown in for flavor. And had it been simply Contagion with zombies, World War Z could have awesome. But you've got so many writers putting their own spin on things that it waters the movie down and makes it a mess.

Even the movie's cast is forgettable. Nobody contributes anything memorable, with Brad Pitt being the only person who stands out simply because he's the only actor in the movie I've actually heard of. It's nowhere near Pitt's finest work, but that's because the character he plays is so ill-defined that they could have left him out o f the movie altogether and you'd probably never notice. And you probably would forget about the character if he weren't being played by an A-list mega-star. Pitt's trying his hardest, though, so I guess I can't fault him for that.

At least the movie's got some great 3D effects going for it. I don't know for sure whether the movie was converted into 3D during post production or shot in that format, but either way, it looks really good. The 3D helps give the feeling that you're at risk of being swallowed up by thousands of ravenous undead, that they're on all sides and they're after you. After seeing a few really lackluster 3D movies this summer, it's good to see one do it right.

It's just a shame that World War Z didn't get more than that right. I'm sure that Max Brooks isn't too upset with how it turned out, since the movie's release probably led to the World War Z novel and The Zombie Survival Guide selling a ton more copies and put some cash in his pockets. But it's just disappointing to see a movie with such promise fail to rise above mediocrity. And at this point, I think I'm pretty much over zombies. They've run themselves into the ground, and I'd like to see some other classic monster have the limelight for a little while. Zombies are old hat, the Twilight movies ruined vampires and werewolves for me... I've got it! We could use more Frankenstein movies! Get on that, Hollywood!

Final Rating: **½

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Seventy-five years ago, two cartoonists from Cleveland wrote and drew a story for a new comic book called Action Comics. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster surely could not have known back in 1938 that their story's protagonist would become a major cultural icon. Decked out in blue tights and a red cape, the character helped put superheroes on the map and changed the face of American comic books. Needless to say, that character is the one and only Superman.

Superman has become so popular over the years that he's transcended comics. He actually has a whole host of fans who've never even touched a comic book, let alone read one. I'd say it's primarily due to his presence in other media. There's a ton of Superman cartoons, Superman TV shows, and perhaps most famously, a number of live-action Superman movies. However, the quality of those movies has been... well, mixed, to say the least. Richard Donner's 1978 movie and its sequel are classics, some of the best superhero movies of all time. But much like what happened when Joel Schumacher took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton, the third and fourth movies underperformed and effectively ended the franchise. Even Bryan Singer's Superman Returns wasn't enough to resurrect it.

That's where Christopher Nolan comes in. After concluding his epic "Dark Knight Saga" last year, he was brought in by Warner Bros. Studios to help reinvigorate Superman much in the way he did Batman. With Nolan assuming the role of producer and Watchmen director Zack Snyder at the helm, Superman is getting his much-ballyhooed (and at this point much-needed) cinematic reboot in the form of Man of Steel. So let's dig in, shall we?

The distant planet Krypton is in dire straits. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the planet's greatest scientific mind, has discovered evidence of an impending environmental catastrophe that will destroy the planet sooner rather than later. But his attempts to warn the Kryptonian high council are ruined when the planet's military leader, the megalomaniacal General Zod (Michael Shannon), seizes the opportunity to stage a coup and plunge Krypton into civil war. In the midst of the chaos and with precious time remaining before the end of the world, Jor-El straps his infant son Kal-El into a rocket and launches him to the relative safety of Earth.

Baby Kal-El's ship lands near Smallville, Kansas, where he's found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). The Kents adopt him and raise him as their own, naming him Clark. But try as they might to keep his alien heritage a secret, it becomes harder when he starts developing superpowers during his adolescence. Naturally, that's a weird time to not only find out you have super-strength and X-ray vision, but that you're not even human. It's because of that that the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) doesn't feel like he fits in.

Clark roams the country doing odd jobs, never allowing himself to stay in one area for long as he searches to find his place in the world. But the values and sense of justice that the Kents raised him with always come to the forefront, as Clark routinely finds himself performing good deeds and using his powers to save others from disaster. He tries keeping his identity a secret, but it proves harder than he thinks after an encounter with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), an intrepid reporter investigating an ancient Kryptonian spacecraft found buried in the Arctic.

He tries dissuading her from publicly exposing him, but an even bigger threat soon presents itself. General Zod and his army have escaped the interstellar prison they were left in just as Krypton exploded and followed the ancient spacecraft's signal back to Earth. Believing Clark to be the key to reviving Krypton and their dwindling race, Zod has no qualms with destroying all of Earth to get what he wants. Clark is left faced with the quandary of choosing his heritage or protecting his home.

Judging by the reactions I've seen online, Man of Steel has been a very divisive movie. There have been just as many people singing its praises as there have been people who disliked it. But I'm among the seemingly less-vocal band of moviegoers that thought the movie was somewhere in between. There was quite a bit that I enjoyed, elements that were fun, entertaining, and engaging. But there were also those parts I felt held the movie back from achieving its full potential, thus leaving me disappointed as well.

With Zack Snyder in charge as director, you're pretty much guaranteed that, if anything, the movie's going to be insanely stylish. All of his movies are like that, and Man of Steel is no different. And personally, I thought Snyder's work was great. He keeps the movie rolling at a brisk pace, with even the slower moments never feeling like they're dragging or wasting their time. And he really ups his game during the movie's third act, which sees Superman battle Zod's forces in Smallville and Metropolis. These sequences are very exciting and cool, but the downside is that there's so much carnage on the screen that by the end, it makes you feel burned out. It's like a Michael Bay movie on steroids.

And while Snyder obviously gets what makes Superman such an iconic character and tries crafting an epic tone for the movie, one gets the feeling that some of the cynicism he brought to Watchmen has bled over into this project. The movie comes off a lot darker than I'd expect out of Superman. That sort of thing might work for Batman, but Superman is a character that's all about hope and bringing out the best in people. That idea was paid some lip service and occasionally seems to want to break through, but there's also a feeling that because of Batman's popularity and Christopher Nolan's presence, the movie has to be this so-called "realistic" superhero tale similar to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Does Superman have to be realistic? What's wrong with a little happy-go-lucky fantasy?

I also thought that some parts of the script serve as a stumbling block as well. Writer David S. Goyer is no stranger to superhero movies and to his credit, a lot of his script for Man of Steel isn't bad. Like Snyder, he obviously gets Superman is having a fun time putting his own spin on him, Goyer builds the characters in a way that you become invested in them, but the real problem is that the character development stops dead about halfway through, just as it's getting somewhere. As the third act begins and Superman goes to war with Zod's army, the movie becomes Zack Snyder's attempt to destroy as many buildings as possible before the movie ends. I wanted to see more development because I've seen proof that you don't have to sacrifice characters for action (and vice versa). You can have your cake and eat it too sometimes.

Even the movie's 3D effects are disappointing at times. It's another casualty of a mediocre post-production conversion, with only a few scenes having any sort of real depth. While these moments are admittedly really cool, there are not quite enough of them to justify paying the extra surcharge. If you're not a big fan of 3D, don't feel compelled to see it in that format. You don't need to if you don't want to.

But if there's one element of the movie that I thought was one hundred percent awesome, it's the cast. The actors and actresses are all great in their own ways. Amy Adams isn't given as much to do as I'd hoped, but I still thought she played Lois Lane well. I can also say the same thing for Diane Lane, who is charming and sweet in her role as Superman's human mother, while Antje Traue makes for a damn good villain as Zod's chief lieutenant.

And while Kevin Costner is fine as Jonathan Kent, he's outshined by Russell Crowe. He brings a stoic wisdom to Jor-El, and you can see just how much his character believes in what he's doing. His Jor-El makes it obvious he loves his son and believes in him, which really gives the character a huge boost.

I also liked Michael Shannon, who abandoned the theatricality Terrence Stamp brought to the role in Superman II and made General Zod his own. He gets a little hammy at times (like the "I will find him!" scene that's in the ads), but Shannon still makes Zod a threatening, sometimes scary villain.

But if Shannon had big shoes to fill as he played the character made famous by another actor, Henry Cavill has even bigger shoes. Cavill doesn't have the same dry humor that made Christopher Reeve so captivating to watch, but then his Superman isn't the same as Reeve's either. Cavill plays the role well, bringing a certain seriousness to it. He does a respectable job conveying how unsure he is with his place in the world, while simultaneously having a compulsion to help people no matter what. Cavill does his absolute best as Superman, and if he had a better script to work with, this probably could have been the better portrayals of the character.

I unfortunately didn't think Man of Steel was all that was hoping it would be. I didn't think it was terrible and I don't regret having seen it. I actually enjoyed some parts, but it's just that the enjoyable parts are weighed down by disappointment. There's talk that the movie is supposed to be the start of the DC Comics equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if that's the case, things are off to a rocky start. But to its credit, Man of Steel did leave me wanting to see where a sequel would go, so I guess it succeeded in that aspect. As it stands, though, the movie is okay at best. It's just another run of the mill summer blockbuster where smashing stuff rules above all. Is it so hard to do something more than that?

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Purge (2013)

We live in a weird society. It seems like you can't go a few months without hearing about a wannabe terrorist leaving a homemade bomb in a crowd, or some lunatic barging into an elementary school or a movie theater with a machine gun and racking up a double-digit body count. Events like these and the oversaturation of media coverage have an effect on people, which ends up being evidenced in pop culture. Take, for example, the new movie The Purge. Its basic concept tries awfully hard to feel timely and relevant considering just how crazy things have been lately, but it ends up hitting a brick wall at 100 miles an hour.

Within the next few years, the United States will come under the control of an organization known as the New Founding Fathers of America. After their installation, the New Founding Fathers instituted "The Purge," an annual program meant to allow a catharsis, so people can vent all their dark fantasies and negative emotions. During the 12-hour period that the Purge is in effect, all crime ― up to and including murder ― is absolutely legal, while all emergency services are temporarily suspended. No cops, no firefighters, no paramedics, no help. And the Purge has actually been successful too, as America has actually prospered, with violent crime and unemployment at all-time lows.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a home security salesman who's made a fortune by exploiting his customers' fears of the Purge and selling them security systems that turn their homes into veritable fortresses. With this year's Purge about to commence, James corrals his family into their suburban home and activates their security system. But just as the Sandin family begins to settle in for what they'd hoped would be a relatively safe evening of simply watching Purge coverage on television, a battered and bloodied man (Edwin Hodge) runs by the house, begging for help. James's young son Charlie (Max Burkholder), unable to ignore the man's pleas, quickly unlocks the front door and lets him in.

The stranger's presence immediately throws everything into disarray. It turns out he was being hunted by a gang of masked hooligans who are bound and determined to kill him. The gang's leader (Rhys Wakefield) politely requests that the stranger be turned over to them, but when his request is denied, he and his gang choose to simply break in and take him by force. The Sandin family is faced with no options but to defend their home by any means necessary.

The Purge is unfortunately one of those movies that has an intriguing concept yet lacks something in the execution. It's not a tremendously bad movie or anything, but it didn't bring much to the table that I hadn't already seen before. The movie honestly plays out like your standard home invasion thriller. It hits pretty much all the same notes, a lot of the same tired tropes and clichés that you'd come to expect from such a movie. This ends up making it sadly predictable at times, which hurts the movie's effectiveness more than a little bit.

The movie was written and directed by James DeMonaco, whose efforts on both fronts are a mixed bag. As far as his direction goes, it's... okay, I guess. There's a few sequences that I thought were pretty good, but for most of the movie, he's doing just enough to get by. DeMonaco plays a lot of the home invasion thriller clichés straight, which did more harm than good. If he'd deviated from those clichés and played with the audience's expectations, it might not have been too bad a flick. But if you can see a lot of it coming a mile away, then what's the point?

But while DeMonaco's direction is still relatively serviceable, his script could have used a wee bit more work. The characters are poorly written for starters, with the kids being of especially little consequence. They actually disappear for long stretches, with only the son making any sort of real contribution to the movie at any given time. That's more than I can say for the stranger who the son lets into the house, who has maybe two scenes in the whole thing before the climax. I understand that the Sandins not knowing where he's at and trying to find him is the main gist of the plot, but you'd think DeMonaco would have at least given him something to do.

And DeMonaco could have eliminated the entire concept of the Purge altogether and it wouldn't have affected the movie much. It could have played out like that movie The Strangers and had the gang attacking the Sandins just for fun. Instead, it turns the movie into a weird amalgam of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and the Star Trek episode "The Return of the Archons" that's set in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood. The idea of the Purge and its sociological ramifications are something I would have liked seeing explored further. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to set this up? How did America ever agree to it in the first place? And how does it cause crime and unemployment to plummet? These are questions that DeMonaco barely ever addresses, and never comes even close to answering. He sets up the Purge to do some kind of social commentary, but fails to do anything with it. He just gets lost and trails off after a while.

DeMonaco could have done a lot more with the idea of the Purge than he actually does. We never really get any real sense of scale or scope regarding just how big the Purge gets. We're given the occasional hint through some brief expository dialogue and the occasional bit of stock footage repurposed to look like it came from security cameras during the Purges of years past, but we never see just how deep things run. We never see what kind of effect the Purge has on anyone outside of the Sandin home. We're told that it's totally changed the American landscape, but we never really see it. And that's one of the big problems with how DeMonaco brings his movie to life: he avoids the tried and true law of "show, don't tell." The movie's viral marketing websites show us more about the Purge than the movie ever even remotely thinks of doing, and even then, a tremendous amount is left to the audience's imaginations.

I'm also disappointed by how DeMonaco failed to get the movie's chance for social commentary off the ground. You create a world where one night of chaotic lawlessness every year actually has a beneficial effect on the country, and you don't explore anything with it? Surely you could make an entire movie based on the week up to and week after the Purge to show just how it affects and changes people. The moral and ethical ramifications of the Purge are worth investigating, and DeMonaco never comes close.

I also had mixed feelings about the cast, who are actually fairly unremarkable for the most part. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey are good, but any actors could have played these parts. They don't do anything particularly noteworthy, which is unfortunate because I typically enjoy Hawke and Headey's work. They're at least better than Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane, who play the kids. They're practically non-factors and don't contribute much at all to the movie. There are actually periods where you forget they're in the movie altogether. And the same can be said for Edwin Hodge, who only pops up in the movie once in a blue moon and isn't given much to do when he does.

But I will say that I really enjoyed Rhys Wakefield as the leader of the gang. He's guilty of some overacting, sure, but I thought Wakefield was effectively creepy more often than not. He carries himself with a charismatic swagger and gives off an air of menace that I thought was convincing. I really bought that he was kill anyone that stood between him and what he wants. For all the negative things I've said about The Purge, Wakefield is one of the positives.

And while I have indeed spent much of this review pointing out all of the places where I thought The Purge struggled, I still enjoyed the movie. It had some moments that I thought it pulled off well, and I thought the concept was intriguing despite all my complaints about how poorly I thought it was executed. It does just enough to justify seeing it once, perhaps renting it or catching the movie whenever it premieres on cable. The Purge might not have lived up to my expectations, but it's still worth checking out. And let's hope that by 2022, we've got hoverboards and flying DeLoreans instead of the Purge. I'd rather have a happy future.

Final Rating: **½