Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: World War Z

When it was announced that World War Z was officially going to be hitting theaters this year, it cemented 2013’s status (in my mind at least) as the year of the long gestating disaster; Troubled productions of movies no one wanted to see. The biggest is, of course, Ender’s Game, a movie about which rumors have been swirling since the late 90s, but World War Z might be the most public. Scripts and rumors have been bouncing around since 2007 and talks of it’s multiple scripts, actors and writers dropping in and out of the project have made it a laughing stock before it even hit. But that doesn’t need to be bad; both Titanic and Apocalypse Now were made under similar circumstances, but they are exceptions, rather than the rule. So how did World War Z turn out?

Well…in a sentence? It’s a train wreck. A near complete mess on almost every conceivable level. A completely failure as an adaption and a disaster when taken strictly on it’s own merits. I’ve no doubt I’ll see worse movies this year, but none that so willfully and blindly waste their own potential. The only thing that might save it from being a staple of ‘worst big budget zombie movies ever’ lists is that it’s too boring, dull and forgettable to be still in anyone’s mind the next time such a list is compiled.

The plot, theoretically but not really adapted from Max Brooks’ book of the same name, is devoted to Brad Pitt as Gerry, a former UN Investigator who is living in Philadelphia when, surprise surprise, a zombie outbreak hits. Gerry tries desperately to protect his family…when he gets them airlifted to a completely safe battleship out in the middle of the Atlantic and is immediately sent back to go try and find a cure for the whole zombie thing.

And we just ran headlong into the first major problem with the movie; it has absolutely no idea where to put its focus. The movie wants to be a character focused story on the lead and his family, but it also wants to imitate it’s globe trotting source material. The result is that every so often during the movie, we cut back to his family on the battleship doing something totally fucking irrelevant. The only things his family’s actions do the change anything are set off a problem (in a way that makes his wife look like a moron) and alter the precise location the movie’s incredibly truncated ending takes place.

This also has the net effect of completely destroying the movie’s pacing, but that damage was done 10 minutes with the incredibly rushed way the movie goes about it’s story. Each scene moves so fast that not a single plot point or character beat manages to sink in and it feels like the movie wants itself to be over as fast as possible, which is bad enough but it means that the occasional check in with Gerry’s family stop the movie cold. It doesn’t help that the screenplay is exceptionally weak and the direction tops out at mediocre and bottoms out in shaky cam bullshit that makes it impossible to tell what’s going on.

It’s also a bizarrely toothless movie, in both story and presentation. Early on in the movie, a family is killed (offscreen, like you do) but the kid who’d been briefly and poorly characterized, survives without explanation, which signaled to me that all you needed in this movie was a name or a backstory and you’d be completely safe, a theory that held up throughout the entire movie (the kid, incidentally, hangs around the entire movie and adds nothing aside from me constantly wondering why someone who just watched their parents die was so goddamn cheerful).

But the way the action happens is also completely toothless. Remember all that insane, over the top gore and violence that made the stupid, but entertaining, 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead so enjoyable? Completely gone. Most of the action takes place offscreen or hidden behind shaky cam, and what we do get to see is almost completely bloodless. And by the by, I’m not going to apologize for expecting my movie about the flesh eating undead who have to be put down by having their brain destroyed to be fucking gory.

And none of this even addressing how unoriginal this whole movie is. Yes, all of the zombie clichés get a workout, but there are whole concepts and sequences lifted from other better movies, the most blatant (and bizarre) lift being from Snakes on a Plane of all things. The movie has maybe 2 original and interesting sequences, but both undercut by internal circumstances. The first is a cool sequence involving the ‘zombies as fire ants’ concept (which is one I kind of like, or at least think deserves a better movie) which is heavily undercut by how stupid the setup to it is. The other is a kind of interesting take on their cure concept which is undone by how long it takes to get going.

As I said in my review of Much Ado About Nothing (a movie with 1/100th of the budget and production time, but with 20 times the talent, brain and drive of this one) almost all of the big budget movies of 2013 have been either disappointing or flat out bad, and World War Z is thus far the worst of the bunch. It’s still up in the air to see if movies like Pacific Rim, World’s End or Elysium can turn that around, but as for World War Z? You should avoid it like the zombie plague.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and at this point he kind of just wishes the zombie craze would just die down…so to speak.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare adaptations are a notoriously hard thing to get right, especially these days and especially when set in the modern day. Not only are the vast majority of the plots of Shakespeare plays well known to modern audiences but they also look kind of silly when set in modern day. You also have to contend with well known previous adaptations looming large over your film; Much Ado for example has an excellent Kenneth Branagh adaption from a couple decades back. Still, there is something about Shakespeare that makes his stories and characters timeless, which means that people are constantly trying to readapt and reinvent his works, and I’m always rooting for them to succeed. And Joss Whedon, and his assembled cast, certainly succeed here with flying colors.

The plot? Why do I even need to tell you, it’s a Shakespeare play. And frankly, its one of the plays I like better. I’ve always been more fond of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories than I was of his comedies, but Much Ado About Nothing is one of two exceptions (the other being A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s about the usual things; love at first sight, marriages, tricking people into being together, but it’s set up in a way that I like, especially with the exceptionally snarky romance between Beartrice (here played by Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof).

Which I think, to segue as awkwardly as possible, is one of the keys to this movie’s success; It has an absolutely superb cast. Yes, everyone likes to roll their eyes at how many times Joss will reuse his cast members from previous movies and TV shows (which is certainly present here: I count at least 9 people from other projects helmed by Joss), but he does it well, as the cast members he reuses get him and his approach, and here they are especially game for the material.

Denisof and Acker in particular work very well, their natural chemistry bouncing off each other while they dive not only into their dialogue, but also a pair of hilarious physical comedy sequences, with admirable gusto. At first it was weird seeing Fran Kranz, who previously played a stoner for Joss in both The Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse as a straight heroic role, but he does exceptionally well, even as the movie is aware (as most modern adaptations are) that his romance is not exceptionally interesting. Clark Gregg is a good father figure to the entire cast, putting real emotion into a couple of the heavier scenes. Reed Diamond is a good choice to play the Prince, even as his screen time and dialogue are limited. And it must be said, Nathan Fillon and Tom Lenk work so well together as bumbling cops that I really wish they’d gotten more screen time; why can’t we try to get Tom Lenk to appear on Castle?

If there is a weak spot to the cast, aside from Hero who is a weak spot not so much due to her actress but because she’s not really much of a character, it’s Sean Maher as the villain. It’s not necessarily his fault, and he’s certainly better than Keanu Reeves was in the same role in the 1993 film, but his character’s explicitly stated motive is ‘Cuz I’m a jerk’ and Maher isn’t really able to try and put any more nuance into that, even as the script and direction works to.

The film is also solidly directed; Joss is a good director and he always has been, and he shines here in subtle ways. His decision to shoot the film in black and white was an interesting one, as was his decision to fade to white instead of black between cuts, but they both work as highly stylized choices that help the movie feel more like a unified whole. It all works around Joss’ excellent direction, that seamlessly transitions between the comedic dialogue and the more serious sequences.

What I think I like best about the movie is that it trusts its audience. It never bothers to explain why they’re calling what is clearly just a house in LA Messina, or why people are being referred to as Princes or Dons, or trying to explain why it calls a gun a sword (yes I’m still a little irritated about Baz Lurhman putting sword on the side of the gun). It knows that we know it’s a Shakespeare play and doesn’t feel the need to explain itself beyond that.

With the exception of Iron Man 3, all of the big budget movies of the year have been either disappointments or just flat out bad. When that happens, it’s up the indie scene to pick up the slack, and Joss and co. have done just that, making what is not only undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year, but also one of the funniest and most endearing. If it’s playing near you, you need to go see this. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and it’s nice to see Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker get together without one of them suddenly dying horribly.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Note: Upon seeing the first publicity photos for this movie, a close friend and I noticed that A, Superman’s costume had a giant crotch and B, all the details on the suit pointed straight to his crotch. My friend, being a mature adult, therefore dubbed him Supercrotch and I, also being a paragon of maturity, agreed. So, I will be referring to the lead character as Supercrotch. I also might make occasional references to his crotch at other points in the review. I apologize in advance.

Superman is one of the hardest characters to get right in film. Part of the problem is simply that he is, without question, the single most iconic superhero in the history of the genre, a cultural icon on the level of Mickey Mouse. What’s more, the character has been famously adapted before, by legendary director Richard Donner, into a film that not only defines Superman in film, but also in comics and TV shows to a big way. Being too married to that version of Superman is what killed Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, trying to be too tied to a legacy it could never live up to. Man of Steel on the other hand seems to be intentionally going the other way, trying to be nothing like the Donner films in style and aesthetic. So how did it turn out?

Well, for the last half hour, it’s pretty damned awesome. The big final Supercrotch vs. Zod punch up is amazingly well put together, as are the huge fights between Supercrotch and the other members of Zod’s crew. They can, and will, go down as some of the best fights in Superhero film history. Superman vs. Zod in Superman II. Wolverine’s Rampage in the School in X2. The Catching People Chain in Iron Man 3. The ENTIRE Third Act of The Avengers. Man of Crotch’s third act will sit alongside them, and rightly so. And if the rest of the movie was that good, we’d have a modern classic. Hell, if the rest of the movie was half that good, I’d be giving this movie a positive review. Unfortunately the rest of the movie is basically a complete disaster.

The plot? I’m not going to recount the plot. It’s a Superman origin story, we all know the plot, so I’m just gonna skip straight into the issues, the biggest one being the structure and pacing. The issue is that the movie knows full well that we all know the origin story, so rather than front loading it with Clark Kent is a kid, it skips straight to when Supercrotch is an adult and on walkabout, doing good deeds. Okay, that’s a good idea in theory, but rather than stick with it, they constantly flash back to when Clark was a kid growing up and it shoots the pacing and structure straight to hell.

There are, in fact, a lot of attempts to set itself apart from the Richard Donner classics in the movie that both benefit and hurt the movie as a whole. The design on Krypton is a big one, as it seems to be working as hard as it can to look like anything other than the Crystal Infused Krypton of Superman, and the end result is rather interesting, even if it does look like a mashup of The Matrix, Avatar and an H.R. Geiger sketchbook. It also has a radically new backstory for Krypton and why it fell, which are unique and make Zod, and his goals, much more interesting than they might be otherwise.

On the other hand, the new look of Supercrotch’s outfit is just incredibly weird looking, but that seems to be more from having overthought it than anything to do the original movies. The design on the other Kryptonians is fine, a little one note but it looks fine.

The actors all acquit themselves nicely, but they actually play into one of the more subtle issues with the film. Henry Cavill is actually a really good Supercrotch, and Amy Adams is a good Lois Lane, but they have precisely zero chemistry and I never once feel like they’ve got a reason to fall in love, much less that they actually are. Michael Shannon is a great Zod, but he doesn’t really get much screen time outside of the big third act fight and the Krypton opening. Russell Crowe as Jor-El gets more screen time than you might expect and he’s pretty good, but he’s saddled with one of the most accidentally hilarious sequences in the movie. Speaking of parents, while both Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are good as Jonathan and Martha Kent, the movie has absolutely no idea what to do with them and no clue who they are are, aside from living Norman Rockwell paintings. And while I really like Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White, he’s not really in the movie; He and all the other Daily Planet people are basically just extended cameos, that once again shoot the structure and pacing of the movie to hell.

Outside of that though, there’s not a whole ton to say on the movie’s good points. The script is on the weak side, but nothing too bad, at least nothing that takes me out of the movie. Snyder’s direction is great in the action sequences but it leans on the bad side during the non-action parts. But really, aside from the poor structure and pacing, Crotch of Steel’s biggest problem is that it’s just so dreary. It’s got a thuddingly serious tone, that never manages to have any real moments of levity or joy that might break up the seriousness. The closest is the obligatory ‘learning to fly’ scene, which is, as a result, incredibly out of synch with the rest of the movie. I don’t mind dark movies (still love No Country for Old Men), but here the lack of levity manifests itself as a lack of any real characterization and a dreary color pallet.

Ugh. This is the kind of negative review I hate having to give. Crotch of Crotch is a failure, and I can’t recommend you see it, but it comes so close to working that I kind of wish I liked it more. It’s got a killer final action sequences, but it is a goddamned LONG and often tedious movie to get there. So, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. See ya next time.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he really thinks Superman sucks at the secret identity thing in this movie. Just flat out sucks at it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Directors Retrospective: Michael Bay Part 1

Michael Bay is a…divisive artist, to say the least. This is merely my experience, but I can’t think of any other artist who so is so consistently financially successful and so consistently critically despised. Despite the critical hatred for his output, he is not only one of the most successful, but one of the most influential, modern directors. The way modern blockbusters are shot and edited, and especially the way they sound, have unquestionably been influenced by Bay. And not for the better.

Me, I despise him, but unlike his contemporaries in the so called ‘hack pack’ of directors that do exclusively terrible movie (which includes Brett Ratner and Tim Story) he has a distinctive and recognizable style. He’s a nearly unwatchably terrible director, but he’s endlessly fascinating. So naturally, I was interested enough to decide to do a director’s retrospective.

It was a decision I would come to regret.