Sunday, June 23, 2013

World War Zzzzzz...

What does $200 million of Paramount’s money get you these days?  Certainly not a fantastic Star Trek movie – that was proven last month.  World War Z proves that it can buy you a gaggle of screenwriters, if you define a “gaggle” as five or more.  The completed movie, however, proves that said gaggle of screenwriters can’t guarantee you an interesting, much less coherent, screenplay.

It’s been said that when a popular genre reaches a point where filmmakers are producing comedies or parodies of it, that’s a sure sign the genre has all but “played out.”  While World War Z may not be a parody (Warm Bodies, from earlier this year, would better fit that bill), it’s at least a sign that the zombie genre is almost dried up from a dramatic viewpoint.  If the old saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth is relatable to filmmaking, then a slew of names under the “written by” credit should be taken as a cause for concern.  Brad Pitt’s production company won a bidding war five or six years ago for the rights to Max Brooks’ (son of Mel) novel about the oral history of a worldwide zombie pandemic.  Of course, this film bears no resemblance whatsoever to that novel, outside of its title and the fact that there are zombies in it, but Hollywood knows best, so out goes all the introspective, human stories and in goes swarms and swarms of computer-generated zombie termites, crashing helicopters, artillery fire and nuclear explosions.  Heaven forbid should somebody make a movie about people describing their experiences in such a fantastically terrifying time as a zombie apocalypse – nobody would want that, right? 

Pitt cast himself in the lead role, that of one Gerry Lane (a name which, for some reason, planted a Beatles’ song in my head and never let it go), who before his recent retirement, was some sort of go-to investigator-type guy for the United Nations at one point, although the movie doesn’t bother explaining any more than that to us.  He, his wife and two daughters manage to escape Philadelphia, by way of Newark, as the pandemic breaks out, narrowly and miraculously avoiding swarming death several times before being rescued and taken out to a helicopter carrier which serves as… Oh, screw it.  None of it matters, because you’ve seen all this before!  Did you see 28 Days Later?  Then you’ve seen this.  Did you see the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead?”  Then you’ve seen this.  The filmmakers have spurned a totally original take on the zombie-movie provided to them by the source novel for which they paid an astronomical sum of money, and instead chosen to make a zombie flick as they imagine Roland Emmerich might have.

Okay, sure, the zombies here evoke “hive” or “swarm” behavior, similar to flocks of birds or colonies of insects, presaged by images of those creatures in the opening credits.  This could be construed as slightly different from some other zombie flicks, but why do they behave this way?  Well, not only is that never explained, we’re also never even given a hint about what actually started all of this.  Oh, sure, there are couple lines of dialogue about somebody biting a doctor in Korea, and the Indian Army “fighting the undead,” but those plot points are never explored.

Gerry’s wife and kids? What about them?  They’re nothing more than a plot device, giving Gerry a reason to call back to the command ship and serendipitously get information that leads him to the movie’s next CGI-created set-piece.  Heck, for all we learn about those characters, “wife and kids” is really all the identification they require.  When a senior military official refers to them as “non-essential personnel” at one point, I wondered for a second if it was meant as a joke.

Why Brad Pitt would be so devoted to such a project that he would throw a good chunk of his own money at it sort of baffles me, too.  Don’t kid yourself, folks – Pitt considers himself a “serious” actor, and maybe with exception of Troy, has never done the “summer blockbuster” movie before.  What’s even more baffling is how the movie we finally get to see is a lot LESS a spectacle picture than was originally intended.  The final forty minutes of the movie are a complete rewrite/reshoot, eliminating a third act that would have centered around a massive zombie battle all throughout Moscow (a good portion of which was actually even filmed, but now won’t see the light of day) into the more intimate, thriller-type ending we get now.  I’ve read of how the original ending played poorly with test audiences, as well as Paramount executives, and how screenwriter Damon Lindelof, the man who made such an absolute mess of the Prometheus script last year, was brought aboard to formulate a new ending.  While that ending is the most zombie movie-like story arc of the entire film, it’s too little/too late by that point.  We’ve learned so little about Gerry, much less the characters who inhabit the medical research facility in which he finds himself, that it’s hard to feel much dread over what possible horrible fate may await him.

I’ve said in some previous review that once you’ve seen one zombie movie, then for the most part, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all, and that remains so.  Given that semi-debatable fact, the only thing that can differentiate one zombie flick from another is the stable of characters inhabiting the story.  Since I really don’t know any more about Gerry Lane, his wife and/or his kids at the end of this movie than I did at the beginning, much less any cause for the pandemic, was their any point in my seeing it, other than to see that Paramount was willing to spend $200 million to convince me zombies can clickity-clack their teeth and swarm like ants…?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Man of Steel" lives up to the hype

As one raised a Southern Baptist, and who has lived in the heart of the Bible Belt his entire life, I’ve always thought I have a fairly good notion of how I believe people in general would react to evidence of, or contact with, an extra-terrestrial intelligence.  The short answer is that I don’t think folks would handle it very well at all (the Robert Zemeckis film Contact depicted that possibility more believably than any other film of which I can readily think).  So many of us are unable to conceive of anything greater than ourselves or our image of God, or even worse yet are conditioned by religion and societal norms to consider such thinking as heresy, that having evidence to the contrary dropped in our laps would most likely result in some pretty ugly reactions.  This is the premise from which director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies) approach their telling of that story with which we all are so familiar, how an alien baby came to Earth, adopted it as his home and became its champion and protector.

Man of Steel (an interesting title, not even mentioning the name he’ll have assigned to him by humanity) begins with a prologue depicting the few days leading up to Krypton’s demise, with Russell Crowe as Jor-El, an eminent Kryptonian scientist, and his wife Lara, both of whom have bucked their society’s notions of reproductive morality and produced a child the old-fashioned way when Jor-El deduces that Krypton is doomed to destruction due to environmentally-disastrous practices.  We see General Zod (Michael Shannon), commander-in-chief of Krypton’s military, attempt to assume control of the government and save their people in his own way.  This vision of Krypton is one we have not been shown in previous iterations of the Superman story, as the twenty minutes or so of the prologue gives us so much more of Krypton’s technology, government, wildlife and landscape than Superman: The Movie gave us thirty-five years ago that we can feel more sense of loss when this civilization comes to an end. 

The film, however, doesn’t go sequentially from there to baby Kal-El crawling from his spacecraft into a Kansas cornfield.  No, it quickly jumps to young-adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, an excellent casting choice), already grown and off into the world, attempting to find some sense of self.  Since we all know the Superman story, we really don’t need to have it all spelled out note for note again, and to their credit, Snyder and Goyer don’t even try.  We revisit important moments in the Superman/Krypton/Kent family mythos via flashback when those moments apply to current happenings in the film, a brilliant move on the filmmakers’ part.  As Clark comes to critical points in the plot, he’ll recall life-lessons instilled in him by his adoptive father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, whose understated acting style is the perfect tone for conveying fatherly wisdom), and his Earthly mother, Martha (Diane Lane, in some fairly-impressive aging makeup in later scenes).

The second and third acts are of how Clark’s existence, but not his identity, is revealed to the world by the arrival of Zod and his henchmen, having escaped from banishment to another dimension before Krypton’s destruction.  Zod’s vision of “saving” Krypton’s civilization require Clark/Kal-El’s death, and subsequently, Earth’s destruction, leading first to mankind’s question of accepting Kal-El as trustworthy, then to an all-out battle for Earth’s survival.  I liked how the movie takes a little time, even during all the carnage, to show how we might would go from hostile distrust of a being such as Superman to even accepting him, using a few Army officers’ coming to grips with him as a metaphor for society in general.

Oh, and Michael Shannon as Zod is fantastic, folks.  Shannon always has a borderline-psychopath look in his eyes, and he must be aware of it, as he always seems to find some way to utilize that physical characteristic to some advantage in whatever character he’s playing. Mania does not always necessarily equate to evil, and Zod honestly believes he’s pursuing a noble cause, and that his zeal in pursuit of that cause makes his actions just.  I think Kal-El/Superman even realizes this on some level and knows he must destroy Zod, anyway.

I suppose my only complaint (and I’m a little reluctant to use that word) is Amy Adams being cast as Lois Lane.  I’ve not been very happy with any of the actresses cast in that part in any of the previously-produced Superman films, with Kate Bosworth being the biggest joke of them all, and I was hoping Adams would break that streak for me, as I’m such a fan of hers.  Alas, the streak continues, but I’m not totally sure if my hesitation in accepting her is any fault of her own, or am I just unsatisfied with how David Goyer wrote the character.  The character isn’t anywhere near as annoying as Margot Kidder’s Lois, and is even written as having some empathy and restraint, but she still whines and cries a bit too much.  But, I guess if this is the biggest quabble I have with the movie, there must not be very much to quabble about.

Man of Steel is most certainly a product of the time in which it was made.  It seems that superhero films of this day and age must portray their primary characters full of angst and self-doubt, and loved ones will die, and there must be orgies of carnage and property destruction, and sure, those qualities are all present here.  That said, I found all of them appropriate here, and without any sense of stereotype.  First Contact, when that time comes, WILL result in mass hysteria and destruction in some form or another, so seeing New York City (and let’s face it, gang – that’s what “Metropolis” is) almost razed to the ground when aliens do battle there sorta makes sense.

While the term “reboot” has been applied to this film, that term often is self-defeating.  Sure, by definition, it means that it’s a new starting point for a potential series of stories, yet it seems that most folks never, ever allow themselves to forget the history of the source material, or keep that history from skewing their opinions of the new product, generally to the negative.  I admit I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion (Casino Royale in particular), but I’d like to believe myself objective enough to overcome such gut-reactions.  Seeing this film with fondness or nostalgia for the Christopher Reeve films of the 70s and 80s, and expecting something similar would be a great mistake on a viewer’s part.  This movie is a science-fiction film at heart, and I suggest you see it with that mindset.