Review: “World War Z”

World War Z

Just when you had forgotten about The Walking Dead, the zombies pull you back in.

One of the many zombie-related books to be released over the last few years is Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. Although I actually own Brooks’ previous book, “The Zombie Survival Guide”, I never got around to reading the book this film is based on. Turns out that was probably for the best, as the film takes more than a few liberties.

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator, who is forced to discover the source of a deadly zombie virus after it wreaks havoc on a worldwide scale. While his wife (“The Killing”‘s Mireille Enos) and children are safely tucked away on a rescue vessel, Gerry travels to South Korea, Israel and other destinations tracking down any possible clues on how to beat the virus which has already killed billions.

There are certain expectations that come with making a zombie movie, one of which is the need for gore. While blood certainly isn’t needed for suspense or even action, a film about the undead pouncing on innocent people and biting them kind of lends itself to that expectation. In what can only be called an effort to maintain a PG-13 rating, “World War Z” is almost completely without any gore. The only scene I can remember involving any kind of bodily fluid is when a zombie’s bloody spit ends up on Brad Pitt. Director Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”) tries to do his best with these kid-friendly limitations, but it makes certain scenes a little harder to comprehend. One such scene has Gerry cutting off the arm of a soldier in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, but it’s not until a minute later that the audience fully understands what just happened slightly off camera.

“World War Z” never spends too much time in one place as Gerry seems to be only minutes ahead of the zombies in each of his locations. It’s almost as if his arrival is a beacon being lit for the local zombies to attack. This rushed feel throughout the film is somewhat exhausting because we never get to enjoy an environment fully before being whisked away on what feels like the next level of a video game.

The good side to this approach is that the film has a large collection of secondary characters who are more interesting than Pitt’s Gerry. James Badge Dale, David Morse and the stunning newcomer Daniella Kertesz give the film an extra flavor to make Gerry’s travels more memorable. Though these characters are more interesting than the film’s protagonist, it is important to point out that Gerry is at least smarter than most people in zombie films. He often takes precautions that only the audience ever points out in tales of the undead.

Although the film is a little too watered down, there are some genuine moments of suspense to be had. A plane sequence near the end of the film provides a setting rarely thought about in horror films. On top of Forster’s zombies running like Zack Snyder’s did in “Dawn of the Dead”, these guys lunge towards their prey like a predator in the wild.

Most zombie films think small settings like hospitals or malls, but the global perspective of “World War Z” is a refreshing idea for a genre that is seriously lacking in most things fresh. As previously stated, the execution could have been better, but the film definitely gets points for originality in that regard.

“World War Z” probably won’t please fans of the book, as it cuts out many characters and the horror staple of gore. Aiming for a large audience, the film makes for a decent night out, but sacrifices its true potential on the altar of the almighty dollar.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Man of Steel”

Man of Steel

What happens when two aliens fight over the future of the human race? Metropolis insurance companies lose.

Seven years after the last attempted Superman film, DC and Warner Bros. have teamed up with Batman director Christopher Nolan and “Watchmen”-helmer Zack Snyder to bring a more mature addition to the Superman legacy.

For years, Superman films have been lighter than Nolan’s recent Batman franchise. Perhaps a darker tone could benefit a series whose last “star” was Brandon Routh.

“Man of Steel” follows the rise of Superman after his childhood in Smallville, Kansas and before his days at the Daily Planet. Moving from town to town, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) searches for a place to belong. Eventually this leads him to a harsh winter climate where he comes across a ship from his home world of Krypton and the nosy reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), investigating it.

Shortly after this discovery, General Zod (Michael Shannon), an old enemy of his father’s (Russell Crowe), arrives looking for trouble. Aside from Clark, he and his followers are the last survivors of Krypton and they seek to build a new home on top of the ashes of Earth.

Back in 2006, there were three main criticisms of “Superman Returns”. First, the film was too long/boring. Second, the villain was barely noticeable. Last, but not least, there was almost no action in the entire 154-minute film. Returning to the present, “Man of Steel” is basically getting put down in reviews for answering these same problems. I guess you really can’t please everyone.

As “Superman Returns” was clearly an homage to Superman from the 1960’s and 70’s, “Man of Steel” has Zack Snyder bringing the character into the 21st century. This includes quality computer effects (something the Reeves films surely could have used), a plethora of fighting scenes and camerawork that would qualify as “kinetic”.

In some ways, the film has a distinct similarity to Nolan’s first Dark Knight entry, “Batman Begins”, but has enough of its own flair to make the comparison mild at best. This Superman is darker (but not brooding) and focuses on the theme of Clark struggling to find his identity. Though the film has wall-to-wall action, there is a lot of heart in the scenes between Cavill’s Superman and his father, Jor-El, as well as his adoptive parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner).

One of the biggest differences with this adaptation is how the Daily Planet figures into Superman’s early career. It isn’t until the end of the film that Clark assembles his goofy human persona of the news reporter. A more interesting and refreshing dynamic is found in Snyder’s portrayal of the Clark/Lois relationship, as Superman’s identity is less than impossible to determine.

For those who enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s scores for the Christopher Nolan films “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises”, the composer puts together another incredible body of work here. Seeing the film in the relatively new Dolby Atmos sound design certainly made the WWWAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH’s come to life for me.

In addition to the score, the film is also elevated by the great performances from its cast. Crowe shines the brightest, but every character seems to be perfectly cast, perhaps save Amy Adams. There was a lot for Henry Cavill to live up to, however his Clark/Superman was very enjoyable to watch. I look forward to seeing more of his mask at the Daily Planet in the sequel, but he delivers what he must for this installment.

I could probably sit here and talk about the things I loved in this film for a while, so let me just cut to a couple of things I think future films could improve on. First, Snyder needs to tone down the movement of the camera. Sure, the action scenes look pretty good, but we don’t need a quick-pan-zoom-in-zoom-out in every single scene. I’m convinced the zoom button on the camera went through several replacements throughout the filming process. It’s fine to move the camera around, but don’t overdo it to where its movements are so noticeable they take the audience’s attention from the film.

My second gripe, and I’m not even close to being the only person to bring this up, is that Superman needs to be shown saving a few more civilians. There is mass devastation to American infrastructure in this film, but it barely registers with our hero that other people might be dying. There are, of course, excuses to make for the fact that he is almost never shown helping someone while wearing his costume, but it’s still something to think about.

This review has already run too long, but there’s a lot more to discuss with “Man of Steel”. Feel free to share some thoughts in the comments section so I can ramble on some more guilt-free. If you’re still reading this review, thanks for sticking with me.

As he has been for millions of people over several decades, Superman is the savior of this summer season. After a few disappointing releases (and with only a handful of summer films to go), “Man of Steel” sits on the throne of the 2013 summer blockbuster season.

Grade: A-

Later this weekend I’ll be posting a review for the Brad Pitt-starring “World War Z” so come back and check it out. Again, thanks for sticking around ’til the end of this long review. Happy viewing.

Review: “Fast and Furious 6”

Fast and Furious 6

Back with yet another cleverly titled sequel, the Fast and Furious franchise is once again breathing life into the careers of Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson.

As those who saw 2011’s “Fast Five” know, the series once known for illegal street racing is now more of an MTV version of “Ocean’s 11”. In this installment, Dominic (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Walker) reassemble their crew from the last film in order to take down an international criminal (Luke Evans) who knows the whereabouts of the previously-thought-to-be-dead Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). In exchange for their help, a government agent (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) will give them pardons to redeem the team from crimes committed in the previous sequel.

The first thing that has to be said about this movie is that’s stupid. Very stupid. The average action film these days will have a certain amount of things happen that wouldn’t actually occur in real life. This makes for more interesting action sequences and an overall exciting time at the movies. However, that approach can only get a film so far. Around the time that Dom drives a car 80 miles an hour into a guardrail to propel himself to catch Letty, who has been thrown from the top of a tank with great force, only for the two of them to land on the windshield of another car without a scratch, you’ll either love “Fast and Furious 6” or punch your friend in the face for talking you into paying to see it.

The worst parts of the film are when director Justin Lin and his team feel they need to provide over the top CGI to make a chase scene interesting. Fortunately there are a couple of action sequences that come off as fairly realistic, the best of which being a hand-to-hand fight between Rodriguez and MMA fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano. As Carano’s acting talent improves, she could become a great asset for future action films (Hello, Lara Croft?).

As for the few scenes of the film not involving exploding airplanes on 40-mile runways, there’s a lot left to be desired. You shouldn’t really expect a good script in a film that has a 6 in the title, but some of the stuff found here is laughable. There’s even a character with long-term amnesia. In 2013!

There seems to be a myth that “Fast Five” and this current film turned a laughable franchise into something of a great action series. Personally speaking, this is not the case. These films are as mediocre and “dumb fun” as they’ve ever been. The only things that have really changed are the scale of the story and the size of the cast.

“Fast and Furious 6” isn’t a terrible film. If you can sustain ludicrous action sequences and poorly-written dialogue, you might even say it’s a really fun movie. Just don’t try to say it’s a great film.

Here’s to hoping films 7, 8 and 9 actually live up to the hype.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Star Trek Into Darkness

Set Phasers to Lens Flare

Once again, JJ Abrams takes us into his interpretation of Star Trek, where the inside of a spaceship is brighter than the stars it is passing by. Sorry, I’m trying to get all references to lens flare out of my system so we can all move on.

There. Much better.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” opens with the Enterprise crew visiting a primitive planet to stop a volcano from killing the locals. In the process, they fail their prime directive and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is once again reprimanded for ignoring regulations. Around the same time, a bombing by one of their own rocks Starfleet and leads to the deaths of many of their senior officers. Kirk is then reinstated to lead a vengeful mission to find the man responsible (Benedict Cumberbatch).

If you don’t want to know who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing (hint: It’s not John Harrison, the name he is originally given in the film), then I suggest you stop reading now and come back later. It hasn’t been the best kept secret, but I’d rather have a pointless disclaimer than ruin the film for someone.

The great thing about “Into Darkness” is that we finally get to see Kirk not being the douchiest character known to man. Sure, he got to be more likable by the end of the 2009 film, but he still didn’t seem like much of a leader. Here we get to see Pine playing the character a little more maturely and Kirk even starts to form a serious friendship with Spock (Zachary Quinto). Other characters who finally get to breathe a little are Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and, to a lesser extent, Scotty (Simon Pegg).

Although many of the original Trekkies don’t care for how much this new series resembles Star Wars with its big space battles, these scenes are pretty well done here (especially a scene where one ship overtakes another mid-warp). That being said, I do hope in the future these films find a way to make a story happen on a planet not called Earth. There’s minimal trekking going on and it seems a more accurate title for the series would be “Starfleet”.

Hopefully all of our Cumberbatch spoiler people are gone because I want to talk about his portrayal of the legendary Star Trek villain Khan. Once made popular by Ricardo Montalban, Cumberbatch doesn’t look a thing like the original villain. Nor does he really act like him, aside from being wrathful and overall not a person I would want to upset. However, the actor’s interpretation of the character is very fun to watch. Without chewing up the scenery, Cumberbatch delivers a deliciously evil bad guy that makes Eric Bana’s Nero seem like a cat stuck in a tree. There are two complaints I have about Khan, neither of which are the fault of the actor. 1) If JJ Abrams wants to pull off the “Can we trust him or not?” idea halfway through the film (you’ll know it when you see it), it would have been better to not make Khan look like the devil himself leading up to this point. 2) Why is the character not in the film more? Khan has maybe 4 or 5 scenes where he’s talking a substantial amount of time and the rest of the film he is given relatively no dialogue. To use an analogy from the Nolan Batman films, Khan is the Joker, but he gets as much screentime as Scarecrow.

The biggest problem with “Star Trek Into Darkness” is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a new Star Trek film or just a remake of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. If the whole point of an alternate universe in the 2009 film was to destroy expectations and make your own films, why would you copy several scenes and lines of dialogue from 1982? Despite this confusion, “Into Darkness” does provide many of its own ideas and pulls off a very exciting sci-fi film.

This is a promising sequel for the Star Trek franchise, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next few years, as JJ Abrams will now take over the Star Wars sequels.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review: “Snow White and the Huntsman”

Fairies, dwarves, and trolls. Oddly enough, no vampires. I thought this was a Kristen Stewart movie.

In the latest installment of competitive studios banking on the same idea, “Snow White and the Huntsman” sets out to prove itself superior to this year’s other Snow White offering, “Mirror Mirror.” While the latter was a light-hearted family film, “Snow White and the Huntsman” aims more for the gothic fairy tale angle.

After an evil witch named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) takes over her father’s kingdom, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is imprisoned in a tower. Upon escaping years later, she retreats into the dark forest where Ravenna sends the skillful Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve her. Spoiler alert: Things don’t go the way the now-queen planned.

Between the dangers of the dark forest and the more magical world of the fairies and dwarves, the film is incredibly well-designed. The darkness is darker and the light is brighter, as each scene’s design communicates the right tone.

Unfortunately, appearances can only get you so far. The film is deeply flawed once you get past the set designer’s imagination. It’s not a good sign that director Rupert Sanders’ IMDB page shows a big goose egg for previously directed features. Also, there were 3 writers working on this film who, between the 3 of them, have written maybe 2-3 good scripts.

Flaws in the writing come in all shapes and sizes. The weakest love triangle in recent memory, a cringe-worthy battle speech by Kristen Stewart and miles of loose ends inflict a lot of damage on the film as a whole. It’s hard to care for characters who are only skin deep, which is most of them.

For what it’s worth, the actors try their hardest to overcome the lackluster script. Stewart is better than her “Twilight” reputation, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. The best work is given by Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth. They are also the ones with the best backstory/development. Funny how that works.

One of the most bothersome things about the film is that there were obviously scenes cut from the finished product, some are even in the majority of trailers. Did these characters have more development left on the cutting room floor? Were storylines more conclusively drawn together? The film simply had too many unnecessary scenes. At just over 2 hours, it feels about 15-20 minutes too long already.

At the end of the day, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a painfully average film. It’ll get you through a rainy afternoon, but it suffers the same problem many other films face these days: it is unmemorable.

Grade: C+

I’ll try to write a review for “Prometheus” in the next day or two. Watching it the other night has triggered my need to re-watch the original Alien films, and I am currently addicted to Battlestar Galactica so that’s turning me into a Netflix junkie.

Happy viewing.