24 June 2013

Review: World War Z

(Dir: Marc Forster, 2013)

I'm going to kick this review off with this obvious debate - slow zombies vs fast zombies. Fast zombies, although not exactly a new invention if you explore the annals of classic b-movies, really came to prominence this century mostly thanks to 28 Days Later. That film was successful from a visual perspective due to Anthony Dod Mantle's bleak realist cinematography, but the crazed running "infected" somewhat jarred if you were expecting actual zombies (by which I mean traditional). Reinvention of our fears and our horror icons is par for the course, but aside from the intensity of the prologue in 28 Weeks Later or the entirety of [rec], which realised the visceral claustrophobia of shooting first person handheld in a dark closed environment under attack, these faster zombies have been less than satisfying. At times they just seem like infected people rather than the cold corpses that zombies started out as.

So what is it about slow zombies? There's a hopelessness and despair in their aimless lumbering. Humanity feels like it's sinking into a vacant rotting nothingness. But more importantly when they attack it's like a slow suffocating horror, as victims are overpowered in almost slow motion before being ripped to shreds. It's surely like the realisation of drowning; unable to escape as a crushing weight envelopes and takes everything away from you. There's an elemental doom in such a demise that isn't felt with fast zombies, who are more akin to life on the African plains; all adrenalin fueled hunting as a necessity. They suit society's continual degradation of patience and need for everything now, but really what is there to differentiate them from that crazy chainsaw wielding maniac (or similar) doggedly chasing teenagers?


World War Z, by going down the route of the fast zombie, never really feels like a zombie film until a well executed climatic sequence. The zombies are almost inconsequential to the whole film, bearing in mind everything plays out like a world-ending virus and the marketing seems keen to distance itself from the z word, yet the film itself is at pains to make sure we know these are meant to be zombies. The biggest problem is the way they move, in fast, violent, almost unnatural motions that smack of cgi. There's nothing less scary than watching a horde of computer generated infected people amass in an unnatural manner, like ants, to get over a giant wall to attack the other side, even if the idea itself is kinda unnerving. And as much as I want to complain about the lack of flesh being torn by hideously rotting corpses, I have to remember this isn't Zombie Flesh Eaters, this is big budget summer blockbuster territory and we're lucky it's a 15 certificate in the UK and not a sanitised 12A.

What actually works is the story. Brad Pitt's Gerry essentially travels the world to find a cure and try his best not to get bit. The opening sequence when it all kicks off in New York city is a pretty terrifying recreation of what happens when a city combusts due to an event like this, but by not focusing on this one location and giving the film constant momentum it's a far more engaging affair. Pitt is believable in the role as someone who can think on his feet and survive in situations like this. The book was evidently a difficult one to adapt due to it's constant shifts in perspective (I've not read it), but a decent job has been done at creating a through story that works, whilst touching on certain key aspects and leaving room for more to be covered in already announced sequels. And the aforementioned climactic sequence is a suitable pay off in terms of quiet, clinical tension.

It seems that going into World War Z with low expectations helped. As a zombie film it's poor and thoroughly makes the case for both slow zombies and practical effects, but as a disaster movie of sorts it's far more interesting and with a lead actor whom always engages. It reminds me of why The Walking Dead works so well (first season aside) - the focus is primarily on characters and story, with gore splattered violence a secondary factor that regularly rears its putrid head. If World War Z had more of the latter it would work on another more interesting level, but that was never going to happen and so we're left with a film that's still better than we could've actually hoped for.

21 June 2013

Review: Man of Steel

(Dir: Zack Snyder, 2013)

Let's be honest, Superman has been sorely missed from our cinema screens these last seven years. Since the under-rated Superman Returns we've had a glut of superhero movies, with it becoming the de facto blockbuster movie of this age. Whether it's the endlessly fascinating darkness of The Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel's (initially) exciting rise to dominance, the varied adventures of X-Men, Spider-Man and certain others we'd care to forget (Green Lantern I'm mostly thinking of you!), comic books are now de rigueur source material. But none of these possess the same gravitas or magnanimity as the man of steel. When it comes to superheroes he's not just the real deal - is there any better distillation of what a superhero should actually be?

Man of Steel places Superman into today's modern age, aiming for something a little more gritty and less fanciful, but retaining the look and feel of the character. It's an origins story that arguably doesn't need re-telling (does anybody not know it?) but placing everything into context again always helps when there's new faces filling familiar roles. And lest we forget, a comic book character manages to survive eighty years by constant reinvention and refreshing. The film sees Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggling with his identity, knowing there is no-one out there like him, but certain there's something to find out about his past. And when he obtains this knowledge what then? Well, it can only lead to one thing but it's fledgling steps. This isn't about Superman fully realised with his keen humanistic senses fully honed, this is a man struggling to find himself and donning a suit to react to a threat because he's a decent man. The awareness and humility comes later.

The most interesting angle here is how chief villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) is driven by a singular purpose deeply rooted in his biology, concerned only with saving the existence of Krypton. If this comes at the expense of another planets destruction then that's an irrelevance. This unwavering determination, hidden behind the icily unnerving stare that inhabits most of Shannon's characters, not only makes him a credible foe but elicits a small wave of sympathy in that he has no possibility of deviating from course. How this forceful approach affects Clark's view of his true people and the decision he has to make when the weight of two civilisations are resting on his shoulders, is enough to truly shape a man when he finds out who he really is, whilst offering ironic analogies around real world militaristic politics.

 

The man himself is portrayed (initially at least) as someone lost at sea, desperately looking for that beacon. There's an almost lack of personality to him with occasional hints of humour (see the truck stop scene), but again this is about development. The anachronistic littering of childhood flashback scenes throughout helps balance this, as Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane) guide their young "son" to be all the man he can be. Their gravity is appreciated but more Costner wouldn't have gone amiss. Likewise the presence of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gives an even greater sense of the need for thoughtful consideration of what it means to be great and truly represent his people. Cavill fulfills the requirements for brooding angst sufficiently, but where he excels is physically, with the imposing chiseled muscularity that convinces that this is someone who could save the planet if need be. This is not the same lighter-hearted character of Christopher Reeves' days, but one who thoroughly suits Cavill's modernity.

In an attempt at enhancing realism some camera choices are unwise, with too much inexplicably shaky handheld camera usage, whilst the camera has a tendency to flit around in a manner akin to the recent Star Trek films, most likely to emphasise how hard it is to keep up with these characters. The possession of powers beyond what humanity knows ensures the (many) fights are destructive beyond rational comprehension. Many of these scenes are impressively staged, becoming a thrilling blur of digitally twisted metal and rubble, but despite being more engaging than usual, the continual flow of such scenes pushes the levels of tolerance towards the end. Regardless, the climactic scene in Metropolis thoroughly shows up The Avenger's not overly exciting similarly staged invasion of New York.

Man of Steel retains the sense of comic book wonder to be expected from Superman, but pushes itself into a slightly less fanciful world informed by how we've recently approached his bat-aping caped compatriot. This helps us buy into the depth but allows for some of the lighter, almost cheesier moments that might be expected with these characters. What is difficult to escape is the awkward patriotism - his position as the all-American hero is intrinsic to his development and growth into Superman whilst being representative of the time in which he was conceived, but in any future films this needs to be rapidly quashed as his position on Earth is untenable if he's not a hero for the world. 

Don't be fooled by the overload of CGI, be it on Earth or the initially awkward but actually fascinating prologue on Krypton, and the obsessive fixation on destructive fight scenes; there's a lot more to enjoy here which bodes well for sequels if they can curtail these elements and have a story with more intrigue. In short, I loved Man of Steel.

16 June 2013

Review: After Earth

(Dir: M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)  

I'm going to begin this review with a related two part question. i) What the hell is Will Smith doing with his career? Returning to acting after a four year break with last year's Men In Black III was probably wise, if completely uninspired, and following that up with the title role in Django Unchained would've been just what he needed, but instead he left that project for the not exactly inspired After Earth. ii) What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? After appearing out of nowhere to wide acclaim with both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but falling to unfair criticism for some intriguing films (I'm thinking The Village and Lady In the Water), Shyamalan seems to have gotten lost down an increasingly mundane rabbit hole somewhere, whilst running further from his strengths by adapting The Last Airbender and making After Earth. Sadly it seems he actually listened to the critics and lost faith in himself.

Like the recent Oblivion (review here), After Earth is another original big budget science fiction movie, something we continue to need but which worryingly seems a perilous business decision when confronted with such poor box office. Set a thousand years in the future, Earth is but a distant memory for mankind thanks to our predilection for destruction. Inhabiting a new planet / solar system means a different type of life and threats, the greatest being Ursa's, a creature who relies on the fear of its prey in order to hunt and kill. Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (yes, seriously) a revered General capable of never showing fear, who with his keen to impress son Kitai (Jaden Smith), crash land on a quarantined Earth with an Ursa and must fight to survive on this now alien landscape. 

 
After Earth is actually a far simpler film than that description makes it sound. After a short set up we're quickly intruding on a lush green Earth, and bar a few flashbacks it evolves into the Smith's show. Jaden becomes the lead trekking through the wild with a destination that must be reached, as Will is confined to the ship's wreckage, but as this is the future communicating with each is of course not an issue. The futuristic set-up that's been established seems almost perfunctory, it only really adds intrigue to some of the Earth bound scenes via the 3D digital displays in the ship, or Kitai's smart suit and the cutlass he gets to use. As you'd imagine some of the nature based cinematography is fantastic, but likewise there are other scenes, such as the senior Smith trying to calm his son as the ship comes down to Earth, that also work well. But then After Earth overdoes it on the CGI animal front, with some just not looking convincing and seriously detracting on the threat we should feel. 
 
Jaden is only fairly capable in the lead, lacking the personality that let him carry The Karate Kid. For a large portion of the film he veers closer to irritating, and it's only as we're into the second half that being in his presence ceases to be such a chore. The (clich├ęd) emotional weight he's carrying certainly doesn't help. If this is supposed to be the film to convince that he should be a leading actor, it's not successful. Yet amazingly Will fares a lot worse, hence my concern at the outset of this review. His role as the emotionless, stoic general is entirely one-note, as he treats his son like someone in his command. It's frustrating to watch as we know this character should be so much better as it's Will Smith on the screen, but there's just nothing there. The slivers of emotion that they try to interject get lost. The only notion of a familial connection between the two is physically, and as the story relies on the whole father / son aspect to work, this is something of a major failing. 

As films about trekking through the wilderness go, After Earth is vaguely interesting mostly because of the futuristic spin, but it never gets particularly exciting or does anything original. As it progresses it does become more enjoyable, which mostly seems due to the lack of significance Smith Sr plays in proceedings. But all in all it's an average film that falls apart from the emotional angle. In terms of Shyamalan's involvement, that's indiscernable - much like The Last Airbender this could've been directed by anyone as there's no personality or essence of passion to it. I really hope he goes back to writing and directing something akin to his earlier work as we need more creative minds like his in the industry. But the biggest irony of all; this is based on a story by Smith and yet this is one of the worst roles of his career. Go figure.

2 June 2013

Review: The Purge

(Dir: James DeMonaco, 2013) 

The Purge is a film full of interesting ideas even if it has a number of issues in execution. The premise itself is fascinating; in the near future in a vastly "improved" American society and economy, citizens are allowed an annual twelve hour period in which they can purge themselves of the anger and frustration that's been building up over the past twelve months in any way they please. There are no laws and no emergency services. Everything illegal is permitted. An intriguing idea but something with a lot more depth than at first glance.

The first thought is what does it take for society to get to the point where murder and other crime is briefly legal and almost encouraged by the government. No actual details are given about the "new founding fathers" and what actually took place to start this, it kind of doesn't matter to the immediate story in the film, but how do you get a country to 1% unemployment and where does this acceptable attitude to violence come from? Humanity itself is of course extremely violent by nature but this also suggests there is something more ingrained within this culture. I was reminded of The Running Man, where society regressed to watching humans killed for entertainment like in Roman times. This is just an extension of that.

 
On the next level down it becomes an issue of class warfare. The rich and privileged feel it's their duty during this short window to hunt down and kill the poor who aren't contributing to society. It's likely a deep seated feeling in culture that here is given its "acceptable" outlet. It doesn't matter who these people are, even if they are struggling military veterans for example, it's simply that they're perceived to be doing nothing to justify their right to exist. But this also goes the other way, as an opportunity for those who are doing even better than you to be punished for daring to be more successful. The irony being that for a society built on capitalism and embracing personal success, some highly achieving people still can't deal with others doing just that bit better and will take the opportunity to exercise pain on them.

With all these intriguing ideas on hand it's disappointing that The Purge doesn't totally deliver, resulting in something of a bog standard home invasion thriller. Not that this is bad as it is entertaining, but the story of the Sandin family (Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder & Adelaide Kane) trying to defend their large locked down home on this fateful night, and put into a position of deep ethical dilemma, feels wanting for more. The characters are all likeable enough but after a fairly slow start it ends up a pretty standard action thriller about fighting for survival, with enough scenes of slightly creepy darkened corridors and the tease of masked maniacs on a killing spree hidden around the corner. These masks are faintly unnerving, but most notable is the face of our chief antagonist (Rhys Wakefield), who unmasked has the most sinisterly polite smile. This works but without being scary, which is maybe something that would've helped. 

The Purge has the potential to be so much better than it actually is. As a generic home invasion film it's entertaining enough without breaking new ground, but the core concept and ideas layered within are really fascinating, offering much to think about. They just deserve more from the film they're in. Nonetheless there's a lot more that could be done with this concept in future films by focusing on other people / participants, and that's something I'd like to see. 

1 June 2013

Review: Fast & Furious 6

(Dir: Justin Lin, 2013)

Against all odds the Fast & Furious franchise is now proving to be the modern action movie model that all others should be aspiring too. Quite how it came to this is still something of a mystery, considering a pretty decent first movie and a handful of extremely lacklustre sequels, but the fifth film was a hugely entertaining and satisfying revelation in comparison, surprisingly so! We certainly have the return of the original key characters, as well as throwing in a couple of characters from the sequels, to thank for making this so successful; the filmmakers have created a sort of family that we clearly want to be continually welcomed into.

But that's not just it, there's another sizeable reason why these films are now working - Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. His initial presence in the last film as special agent Hobbs, which he reprises in this sixth film, is inspired casting and a great way to add something to the series. Last film we wanted to see him fight Vin Diesel, however there's a nice change where he's gone from foe to reluctant teammate of the Toretto crew. Johnson just makes every film he's in better. He has the personality and the sheer presence, regardless of his acting ability, and there's no difference here - I'm a fan of the "Sumerian Thor" and this series is all the better because he's now part of it.

 
If you watched the fifth film it'll rapidly become evident not to expect anything different in part six, except it's all amped up to the next level here. The story is functional but does the job of (forgive the pun) driving the story forward. There's a bad guy to catch but notably the one key cast member who didn't return in the last film, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), has risen from the dead and is on the side of villain Shaw (Luke Evans) and thus there's a little more intrigue aside from just stopping him.

But let's be honest, although the family side is important, how much do we care about all this when there's exotic sports cars to be raced, all manner of things to be blown up and insanely ridiculous stunts to amaze us with. It's hard to fault any of this because it delivers with confidence. These films know what they are so push it to the limit, which is why watching a tank chasing some classic modified sports cars down a sunny highway makes perfect sense, and if you think not then you're watching the wrong film. And even better that much of this is done using practical effects rather than relying on CGI.

Expectedly Fast & Furious 6 is a hell of a lot of fun. It's difficult to actually complain about any of the ridiculousness because that's the point, so it's best to just embrace it and check your brain at the door. However as someone who lives in London, seeing the film mostly set in the city was somewhat distracting and less exciting than the sunny exoticness of Rio in the last film. But that's just a random personal complaint. The rest just picks up where part five left over and gives us more Rock and throws in Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano too. I didn't really expect anything more so job happily done. And if the only purpose of the scene during the end credits is to create excitement for the next film then consider me excited!