Saturday, June 22, 2013

Apocalypse Z

It's Brad Pitt versus the 'zombie apocalypse' in Marc Forster's 'World War Z,' which took its name from Max Brook's masterpiece of pseudo non-fiction, an oral history and geopolitical analysis of the worldwide zombie war told from the perspective of a member of the UN Postwar Commission (Brooks himself) who traveled around the world collecting first-hand accounts from survivors a decade after the global cataclysmic event.  The movie's production problems are well documented, which resulted in a major shift in its narrative format, not to mention script rewrites and numerous reshoots which ballooned its budget to around $200 million.
While Brooks's narrative structure comprised of a series of snapshots of the zombie apocalypse from key participants at various points of the world, the movie took a more linear approach by focusing solely on the journey and experiences of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN 'hot-spot' investigator reluctantly called out of retirement to investigate the cause of the global pandemic.  If you drop the conceit that the movie is a faithful adaptation of Max Brooks's novel and see it for what it actually is, which is a movie loosely based on the book, or a movie that's only 'inspired' by the book, you might enjoy it a little bit more.

Brad Pitt is in fine form here, grounding the movie with a sympathetic and believable protagonist battling to save his family and, by extension, the rest of the human race.  And as Segen, a young Israeli soldier who crossed path with Pitt's character through a confluence of unfortunate events, newcomer Daniella Kertesz reminded me of a spunky young Lori Petty (aka Tank Girl) with her rebellious, feisty 'don't mess with me' post-punk feminism.
Tight, well-paced and riveting, WWZ worked for me because, despite its obvious detour from its source material, it truly captured what a global zombie pandemic would be like.  The panic, chaos and sheer pandemonium as the hordes of zombies bear down on their prey have great urgency and feel authentic.  While previous movies like '28 Weeks Later' and 'The Dead' tried to capture the feel of a worldwide zombie-virus outbreak, WWZ blew them away with its sheer size and scope.  WWZ is truly epic.  Such set piece scenes of zombies breaching Israel's 100-foot walls by instinctively building 'pyramids' and flowing over an overturned bus like tidewater leave an indelible image in my mind.  Then there are the inadvertent stupid mistakes with tragic consequences, like what happened when a young optimistic Harvard virologist stepped off the plane on a dark rain-slicked airbase in S. Korea, or how an uplifting act of solidarity and brotherhood via singing in Israel can lead to catastrophe.
The movie is also vindicated, in this reviewer's mind, by combining the zombie genre with the virus outbreak genre (two of my favorites).  The final act of the movie set at a WHO lab facility in the UK is more reminiscent of movies like Michael Crichton's 'The Andromeda Strain' and Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion,' as Gerry Lane desperately tries to 'run the gauntlet' in one of the building's zombie-infested levels to obtain what he needs.  It also turned out to be the most suspenseful part of the movie, reminding me of that nail-biting scene in Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' when the two kids were trying hard not to serve the velociraptors their dinner.
Grade: A-

Reach up and touch the sky, er, the chopper.
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Man of Steal

DC's most iconic superhero gets another makeover in Zack Snyder's 'Man of Steel.'  Henry Cavill's Superman is the third incarnation of the Kryptonian do-gooder on the big screen, following Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh, who only got to wear the red-and-blue tights once in Bryan Singer's 'Superman Returns.'  So why reboot a movie that made $200 million domestically and nearly that internationally?  Other than the fact that 'Superman Returns' cost $204 million to make and hence was considered a failure domestically, Warner Brothers wanted the franchise to be more akin to 'Dark Knight' and less like 'Lois and Clark.'  You know, the popular '90's TV series in which Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher were all lovey-dovey on each other.  In other words, they wanted to ramp up the action and dial down the romance.
'Man of Steel' achieved all this and more.  Henry Cavill is more rugged and muscular than either Reeve or Routh.  With Christopher Nolan ('Dark Knight' trilogy) producing and Zack Snyder ('300' and 'Watchmen') directing, this latest version is darker, grittier and more brooding than any that came before.  Even his suit is darker hued than those of his predecessors.  The movie also earned points for skipping much of the backstory, relying instead on a series of flashbacks to tell the story of young Clark's time on earth living with Ma and Pa Kent through selected highlights in his life.  Even at over 2 hours, the movie is tight and efficient in its storytelling, with every scene setting up for what will come later.  The movie's prologue, for instance, tells the story of Krypton's doom and the last days of his parents, Jor-El and Kara, but also sets the stage for the coming battle between Kal-El and General Zod.

General Zod.  I guess this would qualify as a remake of Superman II, the 1980 Richard Donner movie starring Christopher Reeve and Terence Stamp as Zod.  I fondly remember that movie and regard it as the best of that series, but Michael Shannon did a great job in the role of the Kryptonian villain in any case.
So why did I accuse 'Man of Steel' of being a thief in this review's title?  Because while the movie is indisputably exciting and action-packed, there is something too familiar and derivative about it.  The bio-mechanical designs of the Kryptonian sets, spaceships and smaller craft look like they've been ripped from 'The Avengers,' 'Prometheus' and 'The Chronicles of Riddick' to the point that I'm beginning to think H.R. Giger-influenced concepts are overused in Hollywood.  Then there are the numerous action sequences resembling those from all the recent Marvel movies: the jerky stop-and-accelerate movements, the asphalt-cratering pile driver landings, the sheer scale of the mass destruction wreaked in an urban landscape.  It's as if Zack Snyder watched Joss Whedon's 'The Avengers' and thought: "I think I'll do him one better!"
Regardless, 'Man of Steel' is an enjoyable romp and breathed new life in the Superman saga.  While the mythos of Batman is bleak and rather depressing, the world of Superman has always been a hopeful (and romantic) one.  After all, Superman represents "Truth, Justice and the American Way," does he not?  If nothing else, 'Man of Steel' whets our appetite for 'Justice League,' DC's answer to 'The Avengers,' due out in 2015 if David Goyer is to be believed.
Grade: B+
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Apocalypse Later, Dude!

The end of the world has never been funnier than in 'This is the End,' Seth Rogen's and Evan Goldberg's directorial debut about world-ending cataclysm during a party at James Franco's pad in the Hollywood Hills.  The movie starts off with Seth Rogen reconnecting with an old friend from way back when he was in Canada (Jay Baruchel), who reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged into Seth's new rich-and-famous lifestyle when they crashed James Franco's house-warming party, a party also attended by Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Jason Segal, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr and David Krumholtz; in other words a veritable 'Who's Who?' of anyone who ever appeared in a Judd Apatow movie.  The only exceptions were Barbados-born pop star Rihanna and Wallflower/Harry Potter-alum Emma Watson. Another Apatow collaborator, Danny McBride, showed up the next day, but you probably already knew all this from the movie's trailer.

'This is the End' is inspired by a 2007 short by Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel called 'Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back,' ahem, 'Jay and Seth versus Evil,' which they developed into a full length parody of apocalyptic sci-fi and the supernatural.   In portraying themselves rather than fictional roles, the actors also get to parody themselves and have some fun while at it.  At its core, the movie is about six people drawn together under trying circumstances (if 'Doomsday' qualifies as such) who have to band together to survive the Apocalypse, but it also riffs some of Hollywood's more familiar tropes.  When people are zapped into Heaven, they look like they're abducted by aliens.  The movie also pays homage to William Peter Blatty's 'The Exorcist' and throws in various movie and pop-culture references ranging from 'Max Max' cannibals to a well endowed giant lava demon (think a raunchier version of the stay puft marshmallow man from 'Ghostbusters') to a Backstreet Boys reunion.  You have to see it to believe it, or not.
Chances are, if you decide to see 'This is the End,' you are already predisposed to like the kind of irreverent, subversive, 'did I just hear them say that?' phallic humor in stoner comedies such as 'Superbad,' 'Pineapple Express,' 'Your Highness,' 'Hot Tub Time Machine' and 'Zack and Miri.'  These movies are unapologetically offensive and we really should hang our heads in shame for enjoying them.
Grade: B+
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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Survivor: Planet Earth

Being the son of a big Hollywood star can be a curse as well as a blessing, as Jaden Smith found out in ‘After Earth,’ a sci-fi movie about survival, father-and-son bonding, and mastering your own fears.   Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who hadn’t had anything resembling a hit since ‘Signs’ over 10 years ago, ‘After Earth’ departs from his usual formula in that it comes without the trademark Shyamalan twist in the end.
Certified ‘rotten’ on Rotten Tomatoes with a 12% score and negative pre-release buzz, ‘After Earth’ was declared DOA before it even hit theatres.  So why did I bother to see it?  Because my morbid curiosity demanded it, and I wanted to see for myself if it really is, as some critics said, even worse than ‘Battlefield Earth,’ perhaps the worst big budget sci-fi movie of the last 25 years. 
So with my expectations thus diminished, I found that ‘After Earth’ isn’t as bad it’s made out to be.  I’m not saying that it’s good, mind you, but it wasn’t horrible.  Jaden plays a young Ranger cadet (Kitai) whose father is General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a living legend in the Ranger Corps. because he’s the only one who mastered the art of ‘ghosting' in the face of the 'Ursa,' a monstrous creature unleashed by an alien race to conquer Nova Prime.   When their ship crashes on Earth (now a 'Class 1' quarantined planet inimical to human life) enroute to a training mission with a captured Ursa, it is up to young Kitai to save not only himself but his gravely injured dad.
‘After Earth’ isn’t really the apocalyptic sci-fi film as portrayed by its marketers but a wilderness survival story with sci-fi trappings.  If you look at it as such, you will find the movie more enjoyable.  It is also a tale of a son’s struggles to live up to his father, perhaps echoing their relationship in real life.  Though Will Smith took great care not to overshadow his son, acting rather woodenly on limited screen time and leaving his son the spotlight, Jaden just couldn't take advantage and step out from his father’s shadow.  With furrowed brows and a youthful petulence, Jaden seems to be rebelling against the role as much as his overbearing dad in the movie and makes me wonder if he truly wanted to be an actor, or just doing what mum and dad expected.

Grade: C

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Carmageddon It?

It is virtually unheard of in Hollywood that a movie in its sixth installment is not only going strong but still gaining momentum.  While most franchises end in trilogies, 'Fast & the Furious' breaks the mold, with no end in sight.  How something that started as a niche genre revolving around illegal after dark street racing can have so much box-office muscle ($170 million domestically in only its second week) is mindboggling, so I decided to watch 'Fast & Furious 6' to see what all the hoopla is about.
Before 'Fast & Furious 6' I've only seen the first two films, which I thought were okay but did not compel me to keep following a team of criminals who use their unique skills and nitrous oxide-boosted cars to pull off multi-million dollar heists, while always outrunning the law and even managing to, in the case of Paul Walker's FBI undercover agent Brian O'Connor, get them to betray their law-and-order cause and switch sides (having a hot sister played by Jordana Brewster helps).  But with 'Fast & Furious 4' and 'Fast Five' being the international smash hits (no pun intended) that they were, I thought it merited another look.

To say that F&F6 is action-packed would be an understatement.  The movie revved up the action even more from its predecessors, if that were possible.  This time, Vin Diesel's team is enticed out of retirement by The Rock's DSS agent Hobbs to pursue a team of savvy and elusive high-tech criminals who commit their crimes through vehicular mayhem, led by a former British SAS major named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans).  So F&F6 essentially became a Bond movie, but instead of a tux-wearing, martini-sipping international man of intrigue backed by MI6, we get a tank-top wearing, word-slurring bald cholo and his team of multi-ethnic misfits. 
And herein lies the movie's appeal.  The somewhat interchangeable characters in F&F may be 'crooks,' but they are eminently relatable and 'down-to-earth'; you can't help but root for them.  Dominic (Vin Diesel) is the perfect anti-hero, a flawed protagonist you can sympathize with.  He may be a heist-pulling  lawbreaker, but he operates within a personal 'code of honor' and mostly steals from bad guys like drug lords.  He treats his team members like family, and would do whatever it takes and even risk his life for them.

It doesn't matter that the movie has a paper-thin, pseudo-espionage plot centering on the theft of a NATO computer chip to build a device called 'Nightshade' that could paralyze power or networks (or whatever, it wasn't entirely clear) in a large swathe of territory.  All this is besides the point.  F&F6 is all about the fast cars, faster women, and the men who love them both.  The adrenaline-pumping chase scenes we've come to expect from F&F are there in abundance, including one with a tank that could do something like 70 mph.  Car wars, baby!  And then there's not one but two vicious, no-holds-barred cat fights between Michelle Rodriguez's Letty and Gina Carano's character (who cares what her name is), a DSS agent partnered with The Rock.  All this good stuff just makes me want to overlook the fact that F&F6 violates just about every law of physics (especially those pertaining to leaping from high speed vehicles - don't try this, kids) and is ignorant of how real world agencies operate (Diplomatic Security Service, really?).  Well, almost.

Grade: B

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