Tuesday, 25 June 2013

'World War Z' (2013) Review


Zombies are a staple of horror cinema. They’re one of the only movie monsters to stand the test of time and still hold a profit. Sure Twilight technically has vampires in it as well as werewolves but the quality of those films aside, the monsters aren't presented as monsters and instead take the role of the protagonist and ask the audience to root for them. Zombies achieve the most commercial success out of any of the established demons of entertainment, being used in film, video games and one of the most successful television shows on air. Some claim that zombies are on their way out and currently are experiencing over-saturation that will eventually decrease their entertainment value as a story device. Unfortunately those people have been claiming for almost a decade.

Zombies: Dying out since 2004

Although zombies have maintained commercial success in the film industry, the quality of these films can be said to have depreciated with the better zombie stories being either a deviation from the horror genre delving slightly into parody or are simply told in a different medium such as television or video games. Notable examples of this are 'Zombieland' and 'Warm Bodies'. The last film I can remember with a bare bones, no fluff, pure zombie fueled story was 'The Crazies' but that film came out 3 years ago, almost no one saw it and was itself a remake. That is of course until I saw this movie.

'World War Z' is a curious film. It's based on the novel of the same name by Max Brooks, although it reportedly deviates greatly from the original source material. It's a zombie movie that doesn't identify itself as a horror movie, but doesn't hide from that association either. It uses the unrealistic and impossible conflict of zombies but  presents it as not only a realistic one but also sells it as a plausible one. Surely a film with this many inconsistencies must then itself be another of the mind numbing unfocused street trash that often occupy the summer season.

Pictured above: Mind Numbing Unfocused Street Trash

Actually? 'World War Z' for the most part pulls off all it's crazy stunts.

The film begins with a montage opening credits which switches between clips of wildlife living in their respective habitats (ants crawling on a leaf, lions running across a plain) and news reports of a violent epidemic. This pretty much sums up the films representation of zombies as being both a force of nature and a super disease, it also gives the identity the film tries to work with attempting to be part supernatural horror movie and part sci-fi thriller. 

While the film juggles these well it also attempts to play off an narrative, with no definitive setting. That's not just concerning the place in which the story is told, which moves from country to aircraft carrier to country. World War Z also doesn't define itself chronologically. The technology of the film is in no way advanced, safe for standard military equipment, the most advanced of this being a satellite phone. There's not mention of Wi-Fi, the internet. Computer's themselves are out of sight and any television depicted may very well be said to have existed 20 years ago. This is in no doubt intentional as the story itself is the main focus of the film and the story isn't exactly dependent on a particular time period.

Speaking of the story, the plot of the film is relatively simple. Not that that's a bad thing. It revolves around main character Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, whose task it is to discover both the origin of the zombie apocalypse and a way to combat it. It's never outright told why the character is chosen for this aside from a few throw away lines of dialogue about his adventurous past working previously for the U.N and it does beg the question as to why this apparent family man is the best for the job. Although the numerous references to the character's past gives the impression that an extraneous prequel is to be expected.

'World War: Why?' (2017)

It is instead shown on multiple occasions where the character portrays an intelligence and resourcefulness that is no doubt a result of that aforementioned experience. It's a refreshing portrayal of a main character who we are given a reason to understand their capability without daunting exposition. It follows the tried and true rule of film making "show, don't tell" making use of the visual medium. 

"GET HIM! HE KNOWS WHAT HE'S DOING!" - said the government.

Upon his adventure the character goes to numerous locations around the world, establishing the threat as a world wide event. The reasons for each of these locations is well communicated and are furthermore substantive enough to warrant the change in location. This leaves the audience to never go "Wait, why are we here again?" for either ignorance of mere confusion. 

Every location is then spent a reasonable amount of time in, being not too short or too long avoiding the feeling that the change in location was inconsequential or unnecessary. They are book ended by action set pieces that lead into the different scenery but never serve as the primary motivation for the change in scenery.

The film also avoids the feeling of becoming formulaic and without peril as the longer it goes on the more danger increases. Although the world's greatest resources are at our heroes disposal, it isn't lost on the film that at this stage that doesn't mean much and what little it does mean is shown to depreciate over time. Although the film is extremely tense in some scenes, it balances this with light dialogue, with characters joking in between serious conversations.The film takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, ensuring not to overwhelm the audience.

As I mentioned earlier the film treats zombies in an interesting way. It relies on your understanding of zombies to a certain extent while still explaining the inner workings of the creatures in this universe as the characters themselves are understanding them. The most explanation is done near the end and is not done in a way to induce eye-rolling. The zombies are depicted in familiar fashion as horror movies prior have depicted them when characters are in enclosed locations, whether it be a hospital or an apartment, playing upon claustrophobia and restriction. It is in these scenes where the "monster" aspect of the creatures is amplified. Otherwise the zombies are treated as a spreading infection depicted in insurmountable hoardes. Both portrayals are sufficient in providing the thrills and drama necessary for the scenes to work and to present the zombies as an incredible threat and both help to keep the film feeling fresh instead of dull. 

Zombies are dangerous both divided and united.

I should also note that the film does somewhat delve into the story mechanic of any apocalyptic film of the conscious human threat, with the average person doing horrible things once society crumbles. It's present but it's so brief that I almost forgot it writing this review.

Of course the film is not without it's problems. The film does not exactly excel as far as character work. There's no notable arc to be told here as the main character is already as capable as he can be. The most that can be said for his development is briefly near the end of the film, but this is so brief that it doesn't exactly register as strongly as seemingly intended. Secondary characters suffer as the only notable characterization that they have is in moments that they have with the main character. These are fine with regards to establishment but since so little time is spent with them it's difficult to connect with them as much as we'd like to. This is similar to 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' in which most if not all of the secondary characters were cardboard cut out caricatures, although it is less extreme in this film.

Visually the film somewhat falters. On the large scale the zombies are less than stunning as in their hoardes the zombies are digitally inserted. When in a large group it can all seem like a massive brown blur with no discernible features. When the hoarde is separated, the effect worsens as the quick paced individual zombie looks too unrealistic to be threatening. However when the film presents the zombies in it's claustrophobic horror movie settings, proper old practical effects are used with delightful rotting skin and jagged teeth.

Depicted above: Massive brown blur.

Furthermore the film has some difficulty with its action and suspense shots. There are shots in particular in which it feels as if this could be avoided. The film is hell bent on not displaying blood and gore, no doubt to secure a pg-13 rating. Because of this certain aspects of the scene are not visually present and leave the viewer frustrated. Other times the camera is much too close up and it is difficult to discern what precisely is going on, however this can be said to portray the chaos of the action.
World War Z is a creative zombie summer movie with a large scale that feels natural and earned. The simple plot, so-so character work and convoluted camera work keep it from being great but the film feels genuine by not trying to be more than it is, and what it is, is smarter than anyone expected, complete with an intelligent main character to boot.

Abritrary Numerical Rating: 8.5

Sub-review note: A while back Cracked.com made note of 5 actors who do the same thing in every movie. Brad Pitt was noted of having something of an oral fixation, always putting something in his mouth. The biggest fear I had in this film was that he would not live up to expectations in this regard. I'm ecstatic to say he does not disappoint.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

'Man Of Steel' (2013) Review

Recently it was announced that Walt Disney acquired the rights to produce and distribute ‘Star Wars’ films from Lucasfilm and had planned to begin production of said films for a 2015 release date. I remember thinking at the time that I could not think of another property that would put such pressure on a film maker than ‘Star Wars’. A property that in the last decade had delineated it’s fanbase through the production of mediocre iterations in the franchise and left them to cling their hope to their slowly fading nostalgia. It truly did represent to me a bold and frightening film making endeavour and for the life of me I could not find its equivalent.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The bravest/stupidest man in Hollywood.

And then I remembered a movie called ‘Man of Steel’.

Man of Steel is faced with a similar, albeit less intense, problem. To date, many people will tell you that of the 5 major release Superman films that preceded ‘Man of Steel’ only two were worth the price of admission. And yet audiences still hold the character to a high standard. People expect quality from a Superman film, regardless of the depreciating quality of his films (see Superman III with Richard Pryor(?) or his inability to connect with modern audiences (see Superman Returns with Superman’s bastard child (?). When it comes to Superman movie audiences suffer from battered housewife syndrome. He used to be so good to us and deep down we know he didn't mean to hurt us.

This is mostly due to the fact that the character is a cinematic and pop culture icon but it’s also due to what Superman represents. The absolute optimism towards human nature is embedded within Superman’s character. He is meant to act as a symbol for good and an ideal of hope. Most films seem to forget this and instead suffer from a misplaced obligation to adhere to the principles of films past rather than the character himself. In order for a Superman film to be “good” it needs to not lose the character it’s trying to represent and what he represents.

How do you make the movie about a superhuman boy scout?

For the most part? ‘Man of Steel’ does this in spades. However, there are notable detachments and problems within the film.

The movie begins with something not seen in Superman films prior. It depicts Kal-el’s home planet of Krypton and truly establishes Superman as a being from another world, one with similar social issues. The film seems to suggest that Krypton is what is to become of Earth through scientific advancement and human evolution. Without going into too much detail, I’ll say that it becomes evident that life on Krypton reaches its limitations.

It was fun being an advanced race while it lasted…

In an attempt to salvage the best aspects of Krypton, the baby Kal-el is sent to Earth where he is expected to thrive and be admired instilling within the people of Earth the means to avoid the mistakes made by the people of Krypton. It is from this that the aspect of Superman as an ideal to strive towards is first established a theme that is successfully brought out in the film at different stages and is mostly driven by Superman’s biological father Jor-el. Russel Crowe’s role as a scientist frustrated by the limitations of his people is an apt one, with the actor providing a solemn yet ferocious performance but sadly does not break out into song.


Superman’s development’s on Earth are chronicled by a series of flash backs in which actor Henry Cavill is saddled with representing a man who has his entire life battling the identity crisis inherent with being born on a now non-existent planet and having the ability to heat objects just by staring. The flash backs depict moment in Clark’s life that have defined his current predicament as a man who wanders around without a home or a dog in the yard, much akin to the flashbacks of ‘Batman Begins’

 “I walk this lonely road…”

His disconnect from humanity is compounded by his compulsion to do good, a compulsion that causes Clark to use his extraordinary abilities. Abilities that he has been taught by his adopted father Clark Kent to hide due to the seemingly paranoid view that should the world be aware of his true heritage he would not be adored but instead he would be met with disdain, fear and other negative reactions as well.

It is within these propositions of character that the film succeeds in establishing this Superman. As a son of two worlds he experiences the struggles that arise from such a situation and the film depicts this aptly.

As Superman goes through his internal development his abilities also develop. Specifically with regards to his aerial abilities. The film remembers that Superman has to bound before he can fly. The best modern day depiction of the thrill of a first flight and the fulfilment of the ultimate fantasy has rested with 2008’s ‘Iron Man’. That title now belongs with ‘Man of Steel’ which depicts flight as something that is realistically awe inspiring. 

You will believe a man can fly.

However the film halfway through stops focusing on the development of the character and instead brings light to the plot which at this point in the film had only been briefly touched upon with a few lines of dialogue in the films introduction. The focus shifts to the plot with the arrival of General Zod, the main villain of the picture who is portrayed by modern day movie magician Michael Shannon. Michael Shannon is an actor who is famous for his appetite for gravitas. Every morning he wakes up to a glass of over the top and a box of scenery and starts chewing.

 Krypton General: Morals optional

Imagine my excitement when I was privy to the information that he would be playing the psychotic General Zod. A ruthless militaristic powerhouse with no concern for the lives of innocents and a self imposed importance. However the character is written in a much more sympathetic manner. Although the character is still ruthless his motivations are portrayed well as Shannon is much more solemn than his roles in films past. It’s not a bad performance; it’s just not what I expected.

Upon the arrival of General Zod the film places in a few scenes in which the plot is now developed. The characters establish their stances and the conflict arises. It all feels very basic and run of the mill but it provides a serviceable second act.

However it is in the third act in which the film falters.

Upon realizing the characters have a conflict they then set out to resolve this conflict with fists, laser eyes, and eventual flight fights! The fights themselves are exciting, however even though they are designed using CG the fights are difficult to see. The most apt similarity I can draw them to would be to the fight scenes in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy. It’s very close up and results in confusion as to who is hitting whom.

But more so than confusing the fight scenes feel uninspired and ridiculous. This however, is no worse than in superhero films of the past such as Hancock, Iron Man 2, Batman Begins or even the Avengers. The characters go to their final meeting ground, usually a city or a metropolis *wink* and proceed to thrash each other with no regard for the innocents the hero has so established himself as wanting to protect. You get a few throw away lines with Superman telling people to get to safety much akin to the scene in Avengers in which Captain America instructs the police officers to direct people to safety. You’re meant to assume that every building has been evacuated and that no one is hurt when they’re toppling. Panic in the streets is shown to depict the mortality of the situation contrasting this and the viewer is left frustrated and annoyed.

Pictured above: Superhuman Reckless Endangerment.

Most people, like me, usually take this as par for the course with the summer blockbuster and admittedly if you can put aside the fact that innocents may very well be being hurt with the hero seemingly apathetic to that fact then you’ll be smiling the entire time. However my suspension of disbelief depends on the tone of the movie up to that point. With that in mind, the films portrayal of a Superman with the utmost regard for human life causes the final fight scenes to feel disconnected from the first half of the film which seemed to understand this character so well. The final scenes of the fighting however feel earned and a return to the film that began. It boggles the mind why the gratuitous and empty action scenes were in a movie that feels more thoughtful than expected.

The end of the film is jarring as it comes so swiftly and shifts the tone drastically both visually and thematically, moving from the dark aftermath of a ruined cityscape immediately to a bright field where the characters make light quips. It’s meant to be days and perhaps months after the battle but instead it feels like it was mere seconds after.

Overall the film succeeds in being a different Superman film. It has its own identity and is memorable. It also succeeds in its portrayal of the character. The supporting characters of Ma Kent and Perry White always feel natural and enjoyable with Clark’s interactions with his mother feeling loving and Laurence Fishburne rocking a diamond earring. Both he and Diane Lane provide the best performance they can with their limited material however, their scenes are short and far and in-between. One expects that their roles will expand in future films.

I’ll close off by saying that the film succeeds in the one part in which I would've been mortified had they failed (yay for hyperboles!). That is with the portrayal and construction of Lois Lane. Amy Adams is perfect as the ruthless reporter without much care for authority and with a fiery wit to make a man fall in love. She’s very much a part of this film and that makes me happy. Superman himself is portrayed well by Henry Cavill who has to change his character throughout the film, a character who in this film is written to be more interesting and entertaining than previous iterations. 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6/10