Friday, July 26, 2013

World War Z Movie Review

From the moment I heard about a World War Z movie I was beside myself with enthusiasm and anticipation. That was all destroyed when I saw the first trailer for the 2013 movie. I'm a fan of Max Brooks World War Z novel, and I had high hopes for a good movie but it was blatantly evident just from the teaser trailer that the movie would have little, if anything, to do with the book. I became dead set on boycotting the movie based on the trailer. Curiosity got the best of me and I went to see World War Z in theaters and I have to admit, I'm glad I swallowed my pride.
Life for former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family seem content. News of a mysterious infection that is rapidly becoming a worldwide pandemic is everywhere, and it's not long before the Lane family sees the plague hit their Newark, New Jersey home. Infected people quickly become rampaging mindless zombies. After barely escaping the chaos, Gerry is persuaded by the UN Deputy Secretary-General to go on a mission to investigate the disease in exchange for keeping Gerry's family safe. What follows is a perilous trek around the world where Gerry must brave horrific dangers and long odds to find answers before the entire world's human civilization falls.
Max Brooks' novel reads like a non-fiction book. It's a series of oral interviews conducted by an agent of the UN Postwar Commission with people who have interesting personal stories about the global zombie war (World War Z) and gives a broad overview of the fictional event that nearly wiped out humanity. If I were in charge of the world, World War Z would be a sort of mockumentary with interviews and footage from the zombie war. District 9 did something like this and it was fantastic! Had World War Z been structured similarly, the movie would probably have appeased a lot more fans.
While World War Z is absolutely a zombie movie, it doesn't revolve specifically around the zombies being gross and killing people. That is present and there is plenty of it, but the movie focuses primarily on the outbreak and public panic. There's a crisis and people panic and there are innumerable complications that arise from it; stampeding panicked mobs, traffic jams, looting stores for medicines and emergency supplies, people so on edge that they accidentally kill each other for fear that someone might be a zombie, etc. This is played out really well; it's actually more unsettling to watch society collapse under insane panic than it is to see a twitchy, screeching zombie tackle someone to the ground and bite into them.
Fans of blood and gore horror movies will probably be a bit disappointed with World War Z; there is hardly any blood and gore in the movie. Generally zombie movies will focus a lot on the violence and try to generate some kind of shock value from  seeing limbs torn off or blood gush and splatter from wounds. Yes, I suppose that can be fun for some viewers, but again the zombie mayhem wasn't the primary focus in the movie. This easily could have achieved an R rating by focusing more on individuals resisting zombie attacks and the bloody conflict that would ensue, but the movie has a broader scope. Taking the time to focus on the open wounds of a few individuals would have detracted from the macro-level scale of the film. It also kept the film in the much more marketable rating of PG-13. Besides, zombie blood and gore effects are so simple to make that even low-budget independent films can pull it off easily. Having a zombie film without those sorts of effects and still manage to put audiences on edge suggests that the director, Marc Forster, did an excellent job.
I loved the mood of World War Z. It was remarkably tense. I've had several people say they haven't been so on edge during a film since they saw Ridley Scott's Alien movie. I have to agree! The movie focuses a lot on mood and atmosphere and amps up the tension substantially. Many contemporary horror movies don't focus enough on creating that sense of dread and palpable foreboding. Not only did World War Z do this, it did it very well! There's a scene where Gerry has to navigate through a building full of dormant zombies and the slightest stimulus will wake them. Every little sound is like a death sentence. That is what horror movies are supposed to be like and this movie achieves that sense of tension exquisitely.
The mood, setting, and tension are beautifully done, but the script and characters are kind of flimsy. The script does an excellent job of establishing the world setting and the "rules" for its particular brand of zombies. The story itself is pretty repetitive. Gerry arrives at a place that has the situation mostly under control, and then all hell breaks loose. He arrives somewhere else that is reasonably calm and contained, then things fall apart. It sticks to a fairly predictable pattern throughout the movie. The characters weren't developed in much detail. Sure, Brad Pitt plays his role well, but the character isn't very deep. His family members even less so. I wouldn't really have cared had his family died at the beginning of the movie. Gerry's wife seems to be present exclusively for the purpose of having Gerry call her between scenes to let her know he's still alive. Again, the movie is focusing primarily on the setting and atmosphere, but I think the overall quality of the film would have been improved if Gerry at least had been fleshed out more as a character.
The special effects were pretty impressive for the most part. Yes, there are scenes that are obviously achieved by CGI, but for the most part, it all looks pretty convincing. My favorite scene is in Jerusalem where countless hoards of zombies are trying to get over the large wall built around the city and they mindlessly pile on top of each other trying to chase a single target. The zombies actually pour into the city looking for all the world like a cascading river of bodies flooding the streets. What's more, the scene takes place during the day where nothing is left to the obscurity of darkness. It's incredible to watch and made me wish each shot would last a little longer so I could just watch and appreciate how amazing the movement and detail is.
If you are a fan of the World War Z book, you really should try to distance yourself from the book and just go watch the movie. It's pretty good on its own even if it has little to do with the book. The setting is remarkable, the tension is palpable, the visual effects are excellent and have made World War Z one of the most expensive zombie films to date. The story and characters are a bit weak, but most everything else in the movie is pretty solid. If you've read the book or even Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide (both of which I recommend), you may notice some subtle references in the movie here and there. I think the World War Z movie will ultimately be accepted into the zombie movie cannon. I recommend seeing World War Z, but it can probably wait for a home video release; the cinematography is good, but I don't think it gains anything significant by being on a big screen.

Here's the trailer for World War Z so you can catch a brief shot of that cascading river of bodies scene:

What is your favorite zombie movie? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Adventures of Mark Twain Movie Review

Many years ago my family saw a remarkably charming stop-motion animated TV Christmas Special by Will Vinton and his "Claymation" puppets. Will Vinton is known for animating the California Raisins in 1980's commercials. The Christmas Special was hilarious and the animation was fascinating to watch. Watching it annually has become a family tradition at my house. Turns out that a few years prior, Will Vinton's Claymation team created a full length movie called The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). I've seen a clip from it on YouTube called "creepy, disturbing children's cartoon" or something of that ilk. It is indeed creepy, so naturally I had to see the whole movie.
Mark Twain (James Whitmore) is disgusted with the human race. He is intent upon finding Halley's Comet and crashing into it, thus achieving his "destiny." He takes off in a Jules Verne-inspired airship to pursue the comet, but finds stowaways Tom Sawyer (Chris Ritchie), Becky Thatcher (Michele Mariana), and Huck Finn (Gary Krug) after takeoff. The three children try to convince Twain that his judgment is wrong and that he still has much to offer to humanity that might make a difference. Their efforts aren't just charitable; if they fail, they will share Twain's fate. Along the way they use a magical portal called an "Indexivator" a device that permits them to see and enter scenes from the writings of Twain. Hopefully this will allow the children to get a detailed overview of Twain's philosophy and help them convince the famous author to land.
I confess I am not the greatest fan of Mark Twain's fiction, though I adore his quotes and one liners. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is such an arduous read with its stylized writing. I appreciate the innovation and the story, but I always found it difficult to get into the book itself. Incidentally, I had a similar reaction to The Adventures of Mark Twain. Why are Tom, Huck, and Becky, characters from Twain's book, in the same world as Mark Twain himself? Why does Twain have a huge whimsical airship that would seem more at home in a Dr. Seuss book? Why is there a magical device on the airship that lets you enter the worlds of fictional writing, and how did that even come to be? I don't know, and the movie doesn't seem to know. It's almost as if fanciful concepts were thrown together for the sake of making a fanciful children's movie.
But I don't think this makes a good children's movie. Twain was a thinker and a philosopher. Many of his ideas and viewpoints are depicted in the movie and those will go way, way over the heads of the target audience. It tackles concepts such as life, death, the fleeting existence of man, the nature of God, heaven, hell, love, married life, and pessimism versus optimism. They certainly aren't bad things to discuss, but they are deeper concepts than what seems reasonable for a movie aimed at young children; kids will barely be able to wrap their minds around these ideas if at all.
Through the Indexivator, our heroes see and visit vignettes taken from "The Mysterious Stranger," "The Diaries of Adam and Eve (Letters from the Earth)", "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" a rendering of Twain's first story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and references are made to Twain's other works, such as "The Damned Human Race." I'd never even heard of most of those titles, and you'd be hard pressed to find a six-year-old, or even an eight-year-old who's familiar with these works. The movie seems to be missing its target audience completely.
As I had expected from my experience with the aforementioned Christmas Special, the stop-motion animation is remarkable. If you remember the Gumby cartoons you may recall that the end result can be a bit jerky when using clay models in stop-motion animation. That doesn't really happen here; everything moves very smoothly. Often there are shapeless lumps of clay that will move and form shapes, other times there is beautifully subtle details like water flowing downstream that are captivated with moving clay in subtle ways. It's very impressive.
There are times the animation is so abstract that it becomes downright creepy. The scene from "The Mysterious Stranger" would have scared the bejeezus out of me as a little kid. The character of The Mysterious Stranger is creepy, frightening, and the stuff of nightmares. His soft, eerie voice coupled by the fact that he has no head, just a moving mask on a pole is weird enough, but the fact that it is an all powerful god over a tiny island of land in an empty oblivion makes it even worse. I'm an adult and I felt creeped out watching it. It's a fascinating bit of animation, but I really don't think it's something that ought to be shown to small children.
The Adventures of Mark Twain is a dichotomous mess. On the one hand, it's got some amusing, fanciful qualities that will keep young viewers entertained, but on the other hand it gets deeply philosophical, dark, and even a bit disturbing. It evens out to be an interesting movie that doesn't seem to know where it's going, and misses its target audience by a mile. I don't recommend seeing this with small children present. The script is riddled with much of Mark Twain's wit and wisdom, and fans of Twain will appreciate the many references to his writings, even if young audiences will not. Over all I can't really recommend The Adventures of Mark Twain unless you are an enthusiastic fan of stop-motion animation, of Mark Twain, or of philosophy. If you do appreciate any one of these things, this is a movie you shouldn't miss.

Here is the "Mysterious Stranger" scene to give you a taste for the dark and fascinating animation this movie showcases:

Are you a fan of Mark Twain's writings? Which of his stories is your favorite? Comment below and tell me why.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Island Movie Review

Director Michael Bay is notorious for making movies with lots of high intensity action and tons of special effects. Not all of his movies are good; in fact some are just flat out stupid. Even when the movie is ridiculous and hard to take seriously, it cannot be said that the action isn't awesome. Somehow I missed the release of The Island (2005). I've had several people recommend it to me in the past few weeks, so I made sure to see it. It's pretty interesting for a Michael Bay movie.
Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) is a resident of a seemingly Utopian, but contained, facility in the year 2019. Like all of the inhabitants of this carefully controlled environment, Lincoln hopes to be chosen to go to "The Island," reportedly the last uncontaminated spot on the planet. But Lincoln soon discovers that everything is not what it appears to be. He makes a daring escape with a beautiful fellow resident named Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson). The two are relentlessly pursued by the facility's administrator, Dr. Bernard Merrick (Sean Bean), and his hired mercenaries. Lincoln and Jordan race to find help and protection in a world they know nothing about.
Surely you've seen a Michael Bay movie before. Transformers, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor probably come to mind. If you've seen these movies then you already know they are special effects intensive, feature lots of action, and an uncommonly high number of explosions. That's basically the main reasons to watch a Michael Bay movie. The man is a genius when it comes to orchestrating beautiful pyrotechnic stunts.
In The Island, however, it's almost like he's done a double feature of some sort. The first part of the movie is similar to the "escape from paradise" movies that were popular in the 1960's and 70's, like Logan's Run or Fahrenheit 451. It acts as a creepy, yet relatively calm, science fiction parable, which later shifts into a high-tech adrenaline-pumping action movie. The second half is more like a Michael Bay movie. Both "halves" of the movie are great fun individually, but they contrast each other so much in terms of pacing, theme, and tone that I'm not sure if they work well together. It's almost like watching a double feature with the same cast.
The Utopian facility at the beginning of the movie is not terribly complicated to figure out. The inhabitants are childlike and blissful, all except for the few troublesome characters like Lincoln who wants bacon for breakfast but is given oatmeal. This causes him develop something that all closed systems fear, curiosity. McGregor and Johansson do a phenomenal job of playing characters raised to be docile, obedient, and frankly not very bright. It's great to see how Bay gradually thrusts upon them carefully controlled amounts of knowledge which both moves the plot forward and shows the characters losing their illusions.
The second part of the movie is an insane series of chase scenes by train, car, and hover-cycle, that showcase some stellar special effects with absurd urgency. How our heroes discover the underlying truth about their world while moving so fast is beyond me. Maybe people in the facility aren't as slow witted as we thought. Car chases on highways are difficult to film, but Michael Bay has a knack for filming great chase scenes. There are a good number of crashes, explosions, and cliffhangers which by every right should have killed everyone involved. Yet our heroes escape and keep going. How? I have no idea. But it was really fun and exciting to watch!
I didn't feel like The Island draws much of a conclusive ending. The climax of the film certainly fulfills the requirements of the second half of the story, but it leaves questions raised in the first half unanswered. We get a satisfactory ending to all the action, but it's as if the movie completely forgot about the first half. That's part of the reason why I think each half of the movie is good, but they don't quite work well together.
The Island is a fun movie. It's got lots of crazy action, some good acting, reasonably decent writing, good directing, and a story that is as illogical and full of plot holes as any other Michael Bay movie. If you're looking for something deep and intellectually stimulating, you shouldn't bother with a Michael Bay movie. The Island was fun and exciting. That's all it is, and that's what Michael Bay is good at. Like any good sci-fi movie, The Island should cause you to reflect on contemporary issues. If you don't think of something like stem-cell research or government monitoring, you might be missing one of the few intellectually stimulating bits of The Island. I recommend seeing this movie; it's not a classic for the ages, but it's achieves what it sets out to do. I think it might even be worth owning a copy for the next time you're in the mood for a crazy action movie.

What's your favorite "escape from paradise" movie? I kind of liked Logan's Run. Comment below and tell me about yours!

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Movie Review

There are countless scores of movies that have been made based on books, but I can't think of many examples of a movie that was written and directed by the same person who wrote the book. Stephen Chbosky wrote a young adult dramatic novel called The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 1999, and in 2012 released the movie based on his book. I had never heard of the book before, but was captivated by the movie trailer.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a shy teenager without friends that has just started high school. He misses his best friend, who committed suicide, and he writes letters to an unnamed friend describing his feelings. Shortly after school starts, Charlie befriends high school seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his half-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie develops a strong interest in Sam, but lacks the confidence to ask her on a date. Even as he struggles with depression and a haunting past, Charlie is buoyed by Sam and Patrick and several other self-identified  nonconformists, including a sexual steamroller, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), in whom Charlie finds his tribe and finds himself.
A lot of teen movies I've seen focus on how great it is to be a teenager, how fun it is to have friends, how great high school parties are, and about experimenting with newfound freedoms and exploring themselves. The Perks of Being a Wallflower technically has those sorts of elements in it, but it's much more mature than the usual dizzyingly fun teen movie. Here we are shown how being a social outcast is emotionally taxing on a person. Here we are shown very real and unflattering issues that teenagers are frequently faced with and the often ugly aftermath of those issues. Charlie is pressured into trying drugs, for example, and rather than depicting it as being a fun experiment without consequences Charlie ends up in the hospital, trying to remember what happened without telling the police too much incriminating information. While the movie touches on a lot of difficult issues, it's refreshing in how grounded and realistic it is.
The three main cast members, Lerman, Watson, and Miller, were fantastic casting decisions. I heard that Emma Watson is a fan of the book and was very interested in the role of Sam. She's a very talented actress and it's great to see her moving beyond her iconic role as Hermione in the Harry Potter films. As Sam, Watson plays a  flirtatious but insecure free spirit. She also pulls off an American accent quite well. I've not been all that impressed with Lerman in other films I've seen him in. He was okay in Hoot and in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. He did an exceptional job in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He is immediately likable, while holding onto some deep darkness that can't be fully revealed until the end.
Miller plays a likable gay teenager who is giddy, comical, and steals most scenes as Patrick. Miller brings texture to the witty and sensitive gay quipster; he's not just a token gay character. Patrick is observant, supportive of his friends, has well defined morals and standards. He is wise to how people behave, and offers advice to Charlie when Charlie is socially lost and confused. While there is no interest in each other beyond friendship, Charlie and Patrick become loyal friends who support one another during painful low points in each other's lives. While Patrick doesn't hide his sexual preferences, it's good to see a gay character who isn't a stereotype and is more complex than the token "gay character."
The Perks of Being a Wallflower novel, which I have since read, is an epistolary book that is made up of letters from Charlie to an unnamed friend. Instead of trying to mimic the book's epistolary voice, we are told this story through the usual cinematic points of view; by way of Charlie's eyes, using voiceover narrations, flashbacks, and a hovering camera that often captures some interesting angles. The book details the battles that Charlie and his friends all fight at school, home, and in their heads. That sort of thing rarely transitions well into a visually based media like movies, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower manages to capture the essence of its source material while tactfully omitting small bits that were less crucial to the plot and character development. I can't imagine anyone who is a fan of the book being disappointed by the movie.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a solid PG-13 rating. There are a fair number of scenes that include drug and alcohol use and some sexual references. The movie isn't visually explicit, and manages to address topics of sex and abuse while still remaining safely within its PG-13 rating. I don't think the grittiness and brutal honesty of its themes should deter you from seeing this film, but it's still not something I'd want to show younger audiences.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a good movie. It shows us a very down to earth story about high school life; not a dizzyingly happy or romanticized tale of the teenage years seen through rose-tinted camera lenses glasses . It's pretty dark at times, but retains an optimistic feel thanks to Charlie's wise perception of people. It's an above average independent film, and I think I can say I enjoyed it a bit more than the book upon which it is based, even if it lacked some of the narrative qualities that only a book can express. I recommend seeing The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's well worth the price to rent, and if you enjoy heartfelt coming-of-age dramas, it's worth getting a copy for your movie collection.

What's your favorite coming-of-age movie? Why do you like it more than others? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Here's the trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

 What's your favorite coming-of-age movie? Why do you like it more than others? Comment below and tell me all about it!