Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z

Alternate Title:  2,564 Days Later

One sentence synopsis:   A former UN operative must travel the world to find the source of a zombie plague overwhelming the entire world.

Things Havoc liked:  I loved Max Brooks' World War Z, one of the finest works of fake-nonfiction I've ever seen. For those who haven't read it, World War Z is a retrospective oral history, purportedly by a UN journalist, recording the stories of various civilian, military, and government officials, as well as ordinary people, in the aftermath of a worldwide, decade-long war against a zombie apocalypse. Exhaustively researched and tremendously detailed, the book comes the closest I've ever seen to making something as insane as a zombie apocalypse actually plausible, treating the subject with absolute seriousness and a clinical, sociological, and even historical view of what a worldwide war, given these premises, would actually look like. It's a book I can go back to and re-read over and over again.

World War Z, the film, has nothing whatsoever to do with this book. And yet I put all this in the "good stuff" category.

The premise is the same. The Zombie plagues explodes out of control in largely the first few minutes of the movie. Where it comes from and how it functions is a mystery, at least initially, and we see the desperate efforts being made to evacuate cities and whole nations in something approximating order. Yet rather than jump from person to unit to country to scene, this time we follow a single man, played by Brad Pitt, a former government official who, in the absence of most major governments, is simply the best option to travel the planet and try to figure out what can be done to save the world. Simple? Maybe too simple? It's all in the execution. Pitt, who I frankly find boring sometimes, here plays the character perfectly straight. Levelheaded and reasonable at all times, all without seeming superhuman or some kind of monosyllabic movie-stoic, Pitt does an impeccable job playing someone just trying to find a way to save the planet while keeping his immediate loved ones safe. The duality between these things is not overplayed, as the government forces he works with act as reasonably as they can under the circumstances, and the movie wastes no time with absurd subplots or hackneyed drama about how the zombies "aren't the real enemy". As this was a common staple of Romero's films, it's nice to have a movie that actually understands that flesh-devouring monsters from beyond the grave can certainly hold one's attention as far as villains go.

And these are not the zombies you've seen before, not even in 28 days later or the other fast/other zombie films. The trailers have all showed the various human pyramids and dogpiles that the zombies get into, but what this movie gets across very well is the raw sense of inexorability that the zombies propose. Hordes, literal hordes of them spill over every barrier, overwhelm every defense, pouring like raging torrents down streets and over walls. A particularly excellent segment midway through the film leads our hero(es) in a running battle against a tide of zombies in the Old City of Jerusalem, overwhelming every barrier in their path and consuming the IDF as they go. I've always privately wondered about the logistics of a worldwide zombie contagion, relative to the various weapons humanity has to destroy one another, but this particular plague was able to convince me of the viability, given the evidence on-hand.

But the real triumph of World War Z is its tone. Other than Pitt, the movie is mostly populated by unknowns and character actors such as David Morse (of the Hurt Locker and Green Mile), Fana Mokoena (of Hotel Rawanda), Peter Capaldi (of In the Thick of it) and Pierfrancesco Favino (of a whole bunch of assorted stuff). Without exception, every single one of them plays the material sermon-straight, professional men and women doing professional work. Particularly good is unknown Daniella Kertesz, who plays an IDF soldier picked up by Pitt almost by accident, and who accompanies him through the rest of the film largely for lack of any other option. A lesser movie would have presented this situation as one of romantic tension or some such comic/tension-relaxing relief. This movie, exhaustively-paced as it is, and understanding that global catastrophes do not tend to permit such distractions. Yet neither does it seem like the movie is shortchanging us on character (unlike last week's Man of Steel). Instead the job of characterization is so well done through limited time and dialogue, and the characters themselves act with such reason, decision, and competence, all without seeming wooden, that the movie wisely trusts the audience to fill the blanks in themselves as it rolls through to the next sequence.

Things Havoc disliked:  World War Z had a hellish production history to it, and seems to have come into being thanks mostly to a single-minded effort by Brad Pitt himself. Insofar as development hell movies go, this is one of the better, but the signs of the rushed production still linger. Many of the scenes from the trailer appear only in truncated form in the final movie, with obvious ADR changes and sudden drops. The editing mostly keeps up, preventing the film from becoming a mess, but there's still a few lingering issues that still seem a bit off. An early subplot with a Hispanic family that takes Pitt's family in during the initial stages of the emergency seems to be dropped in a rather perfunctory manner (albeit one that does make sense), and I had a few questions as to the UN's use of resources in shipping such a small group of people from ship to shore and seemingly back again. Nothing enormous though.

There's also the question of the last third or so of the film, where the movie shifts a bit from action-suspense to straight suspense, to the point where it comes about as close to a horror movie as I like to go. Don't get me wrong, the transition is both logically consistent and extremely effective, but it does render the overall flow of the film somewhat uneven, wherein the big action beats all come in the first half, and the slow, laborious stuff is saved for the end.

Final thoughts:    All that said, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. World War Z is, despite all my expectations, an excellent film, arguably the best zombie film I've ever seen, and certainly in the conversation for that title with the other shining examples of the genre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later). Despite all the nightmares that attended getting it to theaters, the end result is a pounding, tense, relentless action-thriller, bereft of the cliches that so mire the genre and fully cognizant of the spirit (if not the letter) of the book it was based upon. Those who go into it expecting anything resembling the source material will be disappointed, as ultimately they should have expected to be. The original book, while amazing, was patently unfilmable in any format other than a 12-hour Ken Burns-style documentary. But leaving the burden of source aside, what we are left with is an incredibly tightly-made film, crafted with care despite the chaos, one far better than I had anticipated it being.

In a summer season characterized thus far with nothing but disappointment and mediocrity, this was the last place I expected to find excellence. But when you see as many movies as I do, you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Final Score:  8/10

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel

Alternate Title:  Clash of the Titans

One sentence synopsis:   Superman fights the forces of the genocidal kryptonian, General Zod, who has arrived to wipe out humanity and restore Krypton.

Things Havoc liked:  2006's Superman Returns was a tremendously disappointing film for a large number of reasons, but one scene in particular from it remains etched in my mind. Early on in the film, as Superman flies about the Earth, righting wrongs and saving lives, he encounters a maniac who has bolted a minigun to the roof of a building, and is raining fire down on helpless police below. As Superman lands to confront him, the enraged madman turns the minigun on Superman, firing thousands of rounds into him uselessly, moments before dismounting the gun and firing a pistol at point blank range into Superman's face. We are then treated to a slow motion shot of the handgun bullet bouncing off of Superman's eye. A stupid, throwaway moment of no further consequence? Yes. But it was also a moment (the only moment in that wretched film) wherein I got the sense of grandiose wonder that should come from the titanic, unbridled, raw power of Superman.

So now I'd like you all to imagine a movie comprised entirely of this.

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan's take on the flagship character of DC comics, is a thunderous film, in the literal sense. I thought myself no longer capable of being enthralled by pure action any more, not with the man-weeks worth of fights I have seen on the screen, but I was simply wrong, for I have never seen something quite like this movie's unrelenting pace of violence and punishment. The action in this movie, and there is so much of it, is precisely what I think most people missed from Brian Singer's failed version of Superman, action which defines Superman as something utterly alien to this Earth, irreducibly above men, and with villains to match. Every scene, every combination, every single blow of the dozen-odd combats that fill this film is filmed and delivered with such raw force as to jackhammer into the viewer a sense of scale I've rarely if ever encountered in an action movie. Cities burn in this film. They are crushed beneath the forces of the universe itself, as Olympian Gods stride across the world bringing death and ruination to their enemies. A sequence midway through the film where Superman and another Kryptonian engage in a crust-shattering fistfight while under the active fire of tank-killing attack aircraft, or one later where they do not even bother to bat the flying cars raining down on their shoulders out of the air, in favor of bringing skyscrapers down onto one another, are truly like nothing I've ever seen before. There are many films who seek to have an epic feel for their action, generally by self-awarely highlighting one "signature" moment for the audience. No such thing here. The film rains titanic, mythological-scale action down upon the audience in a relentless torrent, drenching us in its sense of scale, and leaving us (or me at least), half-stunned at the revelation, always buried in the back of my mind, of just what this version of Superman is.

And who this new Superman? Why he's Henry Cavill, of 'the Tudors', 'Stardust', and the surprisingly underrated 'Immortals'. Unlike Christopher Reeve, Cavill does not portray two different characters in Clark Kent and Superman, as Superman does not exist when the movie begins, and Clark Kent, like many young men, doesn't even know who he is yet. He certainly looks the part, and if the movie surrounds him with better actors given weightier material, then it is only in keeping with the traditions of the franchise. One better actor is Russell Crowe, playing Jor-El, whose role (for obvious reasons) wanes as the film progresses, but who receives much more material than I expected, including a backstory that ties fairly convincingly in to our villain (more on him later). Another (astonishingly enough) is Kevin Costner, who still doesn't know quite how to deliver a line naturally, but manages to sell himself as Johnathan Kent quite satisfactorily by simply playing an older version of his stock Field-of-Dreams characters from long ago. As this is roughly how Pa Kent is supposed to sound, I'm quite all right with it, and his (surprisingly limited) scenes with the younger Clark actually manage to be downright moving. Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, hits just the right note, as someone long-since used to the odd nature of her son, having made the adjustments necessary to keep going. Standouts among the rest of the cast include Christopher Meloni (the third consecutive movie in which he has strongly impressed me) as a military officer trying desperately to contain the damage the invading Kryptonians are causing, and Lawrence Fishburne in a completely pointless, but still effective role as Perry White.

But the meat of a superhero film is often its villain, in this case General Zod, played by Michael Shannon (of Mud and Boardwalk Empire). I admit, I wasn't fond of his take on Zod at first, not because he failed to live up to Terence Stamp (whom I adore, but was admittedly camping the hell out of the role), but more because he seemed too wooden, his acting style too shallow for the role. But as the film progressed, I must admit, he grew on me, especially as his later appearances (as an older, wearier Zod) took on more of a patina, as it were. The film does give Zod some legitimate background, mad though it might be, and Shannon's screams of Dune-style vengeance notwithstanding, the character is actually fairly restrained, at least most of the time.

I mentioned the action before, buttressed as it is by effects, both visual and audio. The visual effects are seamless, of course, but the design is something to be seen. Kryptonian ships and technology are distinctive and very alien, employing strange, three-dimensional pinforms in place of screens or projectors, and presenting a strong sense of cohesiveness for a world we barely get to see. As to cinematography, Zach Snyder (oddly enough) chose this movie to put down the slow-motion controls, and pick up instead the Firefly-style tracking shots and foreground-background focus switches for his effects shots, a decision I don't pretend to understand, but can't deny the effectiveness of. But of all the various crew elements, it's the music, composed of course by Chrostopher Nolan's pet composer Hans Zimmer, which really drives this film. The soundtrack, particularly the main theme of the piece, is, if anything, even more evocative than John Williams' famous Superman march from thirty+ years ago (yeah, I said it!), and perfectly captures the tone and feel of the film as presented. Indeed, this film might well be Zimmer's strongest work, and given that Zimmer scored (among other things) Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the freaking Lion King, that is not a statement I make lightly.

Things Havoc disliked:  I've always held that it's fair game to criticize a film for being bad, but not for being something other than the perfect film you had in your mind. Movies exist on their own, and it is not reasonable to object because they are not some other, different movie, which may or may not exist. For this reason, I have long rejected criticisms of Superman movies in particular based on nitpicks of setting or plot ("everyone would recognize Clark Kent despite the glasses!") as having missed the point. The premise of a Superman film must be accepted in order to appreciate the film at all, and to do otherwise is the same as objecting to a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony because it did not have pretty graphics.

But... all that said... this was not the movie I wanted.

I know, I know, I'm a huge hypocrite. Bear with me. This movie had, when the marketing campaigns began, the single most effective movie trailer I can remember seeing, one that instantaneously put this film on my radar as one to not miss. It wisely took several of the strongest elements of the film (Zimmer's score, Crowe, Costner, the pre-Superman life of Clark Kent), and brought them front and center, resulting in a film I could barely wait to see. This is a terrible mindset to walk into a film with, as the movie in your head is almost always (Avengers is one of the only exceptions) going to far exceed the one on the screen. I recognize this, and yet at the same time I can't overlook the major flaws that stood out as I was watching the film. Not details of costuming or physics, for such things are irrelevant, ultimately, but the simple nature of what this film was and what it was not.

Despite the trailers, this movie spends nearly no time at all on characterization, and that, ultimately, is the decision I cannot understand. Batman Begins and the Dark Knight (to cite only Nolan's films) knew that superheros are interesting only insofar as they can be characterized properly, and that action, no matter how tremendous, does not sell a film. Nolan and Snyder here not only seem to disagree with that analysis, but actively sought to disprove it, by providing mountains of the finest action I've seen in a decade or more. And yet the shortchanged characterization, mostly told in flashback, makes the film seem highly unbalanced. We gloss over Clark's search for his origins, in favor of plunging directly into the conflict with Zod, pausing only periodically to show us retrospective scenes of Clark and his parents dealing with the inevitable problems that a Kryptonian child would have on Earth. None of these scenes are badly done (an early one showing a young Clark's inability to handle the sensory overload of his own Kryptonian body was particularly creative), but they are not the central focus of the film, and given that all of the great comic book films of the last seven years or so (Iron Man, Avengers, Thor, Batman) understood the need to make such things the central focus of their respective films, I'm baffled as to what these great filmmakers could possibly have been thinking.

Yes there are other issues I could point to. Amy Adams is simply not up to the task of replacing Margot Kidder from the original Superman films, although she wasn't as bad as Kate Bosworth. Several lines, particularly early on, do not land softly, and fall into the category of "obvious expositionary scenes". The Jesus-metaphors for Superman (always an element in his mythology) are a little thick here as well, from details like his age to shot construction at various points. But honestly, none of that matters to me as much as the missed opportunity to give Superman the character weight that many comic readers erroneously assume he is not capable of bearing, the sort of weight the trailers for the movie appeared to promise, and that never was forthcoming.

Final thoughts:    What do you do with a movie like this? A movie made with such consummate skill and sure-handed direction, that you cannot help but stand in awe of the production, whose flaws, major though they may appear to you, are less mistakes, and more active decisions on the part of the filmmakers to focus on this thing and not that one? What is fair here? To condemn the film for not being some other, wholly chimerical movie, that you imagined it might be? Or to forgive the film its flaws despite the fact that there were large sections of it that had you shaking your head and even cringing? How do you represent being simultaneously disappointed and awestruck by a movie? I don't know the answer. I've gone back and forth on this film since the moment I walked out of it, willing at times to give it a five and council against getting one's hopes up, willing at other times to give it an eight and praise it as an superbly-executed film which does precisely what it sets out to do. These are my reviews, yes, that represent my opinion, and yet I've always sought to separate out my own biases from the actual qualities on-offer. Maybe that's impossible here. Maybe it was always impossible.

Ultimately though, I suspect that most people's reactions to Man of Steel will be as intensely personal as mine was. I've spoken to many so far who watched the film, none of whom pointed to the same things as either flaws or moments of genius as anyone else. Things I glossed over as unimportant stood as towering bastions of rage-inducing tyranny to others, while matters I considered vital to the understanding of the film's qualities were utterly irrelevant to others. I strongly feel that most of those who have raged against this movie because of some flaw in logic or physics have missed the point entirely, and are engaged in nitpicking, but I accept that those people probably think the same of my analysis, and with good reason. As such, I'm left after all the song and dance with my original reaction to the film. Almost every aspect of the characterization the film did try worked flawlessly. I simply felt there wasn't enough.

And in the end, you can complain about any number of things in a movie, but if a film leaves you wishing there had been more of it, then honestly, how bad could it really have been?

Final Score:  7/10

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pain and Gain

Alternate Title:  The Land of Sun and Steroids

One sentence synopsis:   Three bodybuilders hatch a plan to kidnap and steal the life of a wealthy real estate magnate.

Things Havoc liked:  I don't think anyone's neutral on the subject of Michael Bay.  I'd present the debate that concerns his work in a balanced manner if I could, but my utter hate for the Transformers series makes it very difficult to do so.  Leaving that abomination aside though, I just don't care for Bay's style of frenetic, hyper-kinetic action edited with a lawnmower.  Bay admits openly that he makes movies for teenage boys, and while there's nothing wrong with that, the fact remains that teenagers have awful taste, a fact I was aware of even when I was one.  The only movie of Bay's I've ever liked was The Rock, and that one only because of the endlessly entertaining performances of Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery.  So imagine how much I was looking forward to this one...

Well... hell...

Pain and Gain stars Mark Wahlberg, a guy I can't ever decide if I like or not, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a guy I absolutely unironically love, along with Hurt Locker and Adjustment Bureau's Anthony Mackie as three stupid, sleazy bodybuilders, all of whom shoot enormous amounts of steroids while spouting awful lines stolen from bad TV self-help guides and politician apology press releases.  Wahlberg here turns in the best single performance I've ever seen him give, a manic, ego-fanatical self-help 'roidster who convinces himself that he deserves success because of some half-mangled nonsense about the American dream.  But his type-A intensity manages to convince both his compatriots and largely everyone else that he has the X-factor needed for success, even though his confidence is not even slightly backed up by accomplishment or brains.

But even Wahlberg can't compete with Johnson, who plays an ex-con bodybuilder who discovered Jesus while in prison for cocaine abuse and burglary.  The Rock has always been a very self-aware actor, who understands (at least in good movies) that his physical presence is sufficient to sell any scene requiring mass, but that comedy requires he play not with but against type.  As such, his character here is a maniac, hopped up on alternatingly absurd draughts of cocaine, Jesus, and cocaine.  His bizzare, almost mice-and-men-like reaction to Wahlberg's increasingly insane "plans" gives his character just the perfect touch of hilarity, rendering the entire character into a hilarious, farcical cariacature, which is of course the point.

I mentioned above that Bay has a style to him and that I hate it, but this is not the Michael Bay I remember.  The editing is reasonably paced, and takes its time with properly-framed sequences, a simple matter of competence than I honestly believed was entirely beyond Michael Bay.  The movie is based on a true story (a fact it reminds us of repeatedly as things get weirder and weirder), but the material is so deranged that it becomes truly unpredictable, at least to me.  Add in a superb soundtrack, and we have a film that could easily have been made by Oliver Stone.

Things Havoc disliked:  There's a few aspects of this movie that I'm not clear on, such as why the crime victim (Tony Shaloub at his most un-Monk-like) is so reviled by everyone, or why the police don't take his claims of assault seriously when he's been clearly beaten, burnt, and run over with a car.  I suppose the general incompetence of the police is another theme that this movie's working with, but it's nonetheless somewhat jarring in a movie where the protagonists are this generally stupid.  There are also a few moments where some of Michael Bay's bad habits rear their ugly heads again (mostly in flashbacks), but nothing overly jarring.

Final thoughts:    I've heard this film described as some sort of anti-American rant on the part of a Michael Bay disgusted with his own crapulence, but such sentiments derive from too many martinis at the post-movie hangout.  Pain and Gain is not classic cinema, but it's one of the funniest movies I've seen in a good long while, and proof positive that when he desperately wants to, even Michael Bay can produce quality work.  Presently the movie is in the process of being savaged critically, a reaction that I have to imagine is derived from a general critical contempt for Bay and all his works.  I can't exactly fault the theory (some people do just need to hang it up), but if Bay can produce more works like this one, I might well be tempted to call myself a fan.

And if not, at least it's one year we don't have to watch Shia LeBoeuf.

Final Score:  7.5/10


Alternate Title:  Venue for Shirt Removal, Volume XIII

One sentence synopsis:   Two boys from rural Arkansas befriend a drifter with a violent past, and try to help him reconnect with his old girlfriend.

Things Havoc liked:  At some point, some years ago, Matthew McConaughey decided that he was tired of playing leading men, and began instead playing scuzy people engaged in sleazy business.  As I hated every movie he served as the leading man of, I felt this was an excellent idea, and have followed him through such films as Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike.  While Mud is not quite a step forward along this career renaissance path, as it casts him in the role of a heroic, misunderstood loner who removes his shirt (of course), it still represents an improvement over his earlier work, if only because Mud, despite what the trailers would tell you, is not about McConaughey at all, but about a pair of teenage kids played by unknown child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Yes, Mud, pitched to audiences as a crime drama, is really a coming of age story centered around two kids named Ellis and Neckbone, boys from the rural backwaters of Arkansas who live in fractured or fracturing homes and who meet and gradually become entangled in the lives of drifter Mud, his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his 'father' Tom (Sam Shepard) and the men searching for him (led by the seemingly immortal Joe Don Baker).  While Mud forms the focus of the plot, he's hardly the main character, and fortunately the two kids (particularly Lofland) act nearly everyone else off the screen.  Too many coming-of-age movies are maudlin reminiscences on what some middle-aged writer thinks it was like to be young, or require the actors in question to recite dialogue which no teenager has ever uttered.  Not here.  Ellis and Neckbone have exactly the perfect combination of deep worldliness and astonishing naivety that many teenagers have but do not commonly evidence, and their conversation and demeanor, around one another and around the rest of the cast, is so perfectly right that it essentially carries the film.

Not that the boys don't have help.  The movie has a large, ensemble cast, including Deadwood alums Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis' separating parents, and soon-to-be-Zod Michael Shannon as Neckbone's adoptive uncle.  Every one of these people, including those listed further above, carries just the right note for the area.  Poor they may be, and redneck, but the movie never makes them into stereotypes, either in the drunken asshole sense, the bible-thumping fanatic sense, or the wise, magic poor man sense.  It may sound like nothing, but a movie that manages to portray a dozen different characters as fully, believably human, is a rare commodity.  And the film has the sense to simply let the characters interact and see where they go, rather than trying to drag things out through "shocking revelations" or sudden twists of plot.

Things Havoc disliked:  Of course the director can only restrain himself for so long.  The entire climax of the film (which I shall not spoil here) needed to be rethought, and the notion of the bounty hunters come to town to look for Mud was simply unworthy of a film so staunchly real.  I do not deny that there are armed men for hire in the world willing to track a fugitive down and kill him (a number of them are on reality TV), but surely they do not conduct themselves the way they are portrayed as doing here.

But the other issue is McConaughey.  No, he doesn't do a bad job, far from it.  His character is reasonably interesting and works well off the kids (basically the only characters he ever meets).  The issue is that his character was just not well thought out.  He is a criminal and a killer, yes, but the movie immediately neuters this by constructing a set of circumstances around his crimes obviously contrived for the sole purpose of making him "still a good guy".  It is churlish to criticize a movie for not being another movie, but it strikes me that a far more interesting film could have been made about the same characters interacting with a killer who was a real killer, not some sanitized saint who poses no threat to anybody but them what deserve it.  At the very least, the film could have tried to ratchet up the uncertainty factor with Mud, but unfortunately it seems so afraid that people will spend some length of the film disliking McConaughey enough that it won't take any dramatic chances with his character.

Final thoughts:    Fortunately for the movie though, all of the characters besides Mud himself are so real and so interesting in their realness, that the film doesn't really suffer from turning Mud from a character into a plot device.  The movie is not long, but the pace is slow and lugubrious, and lets the tension build naturally and not from plot absurdities, at least most of the time.  What we're left with is a character study with multiple, interesting characters, all of them played well, and with dialog and shot construction that is both interesting and true.  What more, honestly, do you want?

Final Score:  7/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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