Tuesday, August 27, 2013

World War Z

Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, Max Brooks (based on the novel by). Starring Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane).

Bottom line: Standard big budget zombie movie; it has its thrilling moments but it isn’t particularly innovative and, yet, I've seen it twice.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry, a top former UN war crimes investigator. He left the service to spend more time with his wife and two daughters. A strange infection, initially thought to be rabies, envelopes the world in zombie chaos so, in exchange for the safekeeping of his family, Gerry goes back into service searching for the source (and a cure) for the plague.

This is a very global movie. We have the American Gerry, working with the UN as he drives from Philadelphia to Newark to a military base in Korea to Israel to Whales ultimately finding himself in Nova Scotia. If you notice in the trailer, Brad Pitt asks a man, “How do I get into Moscow?” The man answers, “Moscow is a black hole.” In the movie, they say India instead of Moscow. From what I hear, it was one of several production decisions made for marketing purposes.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the positioning of Israel. A week before the outbreak, the soldiers from the Korean UN military base send out an email with the word “zombie.” Everyone but the Israeli president ignores the email who orders the construction of a massive wall around Jerusalem. A week later, the zombie scourge planet is enveloped in the zombie plague. “What made you believe the memo,” asks Gerry. He explains that during WWII, they could not believe that Jews were being sent to concentration camps and they could not believe they would be attacked during the 1974 Olympics and they could not believe that they would be attacked despite Arab troop movements. He explains that there had to be a change otherwise, they could quite possibly be destroyed. What is the downfall of Jerusalem? They let anyone into the city. While charitable, once a Palestinian group starts singing songs of praise using a megaphone, the noise draw zombies who overrun the wall.  

Gerry meets an Israeli soldier named Segen (Kertesz). In a dash to escape, a zombie scratches her hand and, to prevent the spread of the disease, Gerry cuts it off. To what extent can we examine this sequence with respect to the larger role Israel plays in the movie and to what extent can we look at this as a statement about US/UN/Israel relations? Allegedly, North Korea pulled the teeth out of every one of its citizens to prevent people from spreading the disease through bites. We hear this story from a former CIA agent (who was caught selling guns to North Korea) whose teeth have been removed. The role each of the nations seem to play within the movie is interesting. It's one of the reasons I've seen this twice (and why I wouldn't mind seeing it again).

I don’t really have too too much else to say about this movie. Brad Pitt does a great job. It doesn’t feel like a long movie. It is more thrilling than scary. It would be fun to see on a Friday night or Saturday night in the   comfort of one’s home.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bad Movie Showdown

After posting my review of Pacific Rim, my brother-in-law, Gorka, commented that a comparison of Pacific Rim, Transformers, and Battleship should be done. It would be a showdown of the “best bad movies.” I can dig it but how shall we do a comparison of this sort? After all, with so much of the budget (read, all of it) spent on special effects and so little of it (read, none) on dialog or plot, the determining factor might simply be which movie is the least offensive. Let’s start with the movies’ focus: computer graphics (and I throw cinematography into this category).

In the department of computer graphics, the clear loser is Battleship. It’s a muddy incomprehensible mess that seems to be made out of Transformers leftovers. Transformers gets some points because the graphics were so good, especially for the time. It seemed to kick off a trend of massive special-effect-budget movies. The action however, can be unclear; there is so much going on that you can’t really parse the images. So, in the category of computer graphics, the winner is Pacific Rim. The graphics are really good and the cinematography is such that it highlights the effects; lots of slow tracking shots and super-long helicopter shots give you time to feast your eyes. After all, what’s the point in spending a hundred millions dollars on animation if you don’t get the experience? So, the ranking so far: 1) Pacific Rim 2) Transformers 3) Battleship.

Plot and dialog wise, these movies offer slim pickings. It’s like asking which has the best customer service, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or United Airline. The thing that really bothered me about Battleship was the veteran subplot. There is a man, an Iraq war veteran, in the military hospital. Along with his legs, he has lost his will to fight. He doesn’t have any feelings of self-worth. What made me mad about this is that because they pulled the disabled-Iraq-veteran-card, unless I want to be a total jerk, I have to sympathize. Can you guess what happens? In a key moment he pulls out a giant machine gun, and wearing his prostheses fends off waves of robots. It’s cheap and offensive. Now, when you think about it, Transformers focuses on two things: graphics and Megan Fox. Transformers is classy like that. Is there much else going on? No. Pacific Rim once again pulls ahead of the rest because ‘offensive’ isn’t the first word it makes me think of (‘unnecessary’ would be the first but that’s beside the point). A generic fight against an alien threat is generic enough to get away with anything. The movie can and quite literally does say, “We’re due for another attack.” The plot, correction, anything other than graphics, is like duct tape linking one CGI sequence to the next. The difference between these movies is the type of duct tape used: Battleship uses cheap plot devices, Transformers uses sex and Pacific Rim uses a bare bones scenario.

What else do we have to talk about with these types of movies? They are flashy, expensive blockbusters. They aren’t trying to be much more than a summer distraction. What is the hierarchy of “best bad movies” among these three? Pacific Rim wins because dialog and plot don’t detract from the really good graphics. Pacific Rim has enough confidence in its computer animation that it doesn’t hide any effects behind choppy camera-work. Transformers comes in second because, while it has solid graphics, its miserable sexist attempt at plot brings the experience down. Even outside this comparison, Battleship is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The graphics are shoddy as is everything else in this “movie” (if you are generous enough to call it that).

What do you think about these three movies? What other movies do you think can be included in the mix? Maybe, someday, there will be a movie that is just of a fight between all the aforementioned movies presented in 3D and smell-o-vision (for extra sensory overload).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Wolverine

Directed by James Mangold. Written by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank. Starring Hugh Jackman (Logan), Tao Okamoto (Mariko), Rila Fukushima (Yukio).

Bottomline: One phrase: giant samurai ninja robot.

I was sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Pittsburgh and one of the in-flight shows was Inside the Actors Studio with an interview with Hugh Jackman. He explained how he was excited about the opportunity to portray Logan, or Wolverine, in the then upcoming movie The Wolverine. It kinda made me want to see the movie even though I thought it would be bad. I was correct but what do-ya-expect from a comic book movie, right?

As a quick side note, I think it might be interesting to make a compilation of prequels that add or remove “The” to the franchise. The Wolverine and Fast and Furious are two that come to mind. The Smurfs is a reboot of Smurfs. Evil Dead is a remake of The Evil Dead.

Another side note, if you aren’t familiar with X-Men or Wolverine, he is a mutant who has the ability to quickly heal. At some point, some evil scientists replaced his skeleton with an indestructible metal so Logan (aka Wolverine) is essentially immortal. How exactly is a fight supposed to be suspenseful? In the one movie, for example, he survives a handgun shot to the forehead. Nevertheless, as my fiancĂ©e points out, we see in the trailer that “he isn’t healing like before”. They do take his immortality away from him for part of the film. This is more reasonable than a character like Superman; the only way to hurt him physically is to get a piece of his planet from across the galaxy. It may just come down to my fear that if I was in the X-Men world, I would either be a non-mutant or have a lame power. Similarly, I would totally be a Muggle if I lived in a Harry Potter world. Anyway, back to the movie.

It seems like any Wolverine introduction has Logan wandering in the woods, being all mopey and mysterious until invariably he gets into a bar fight and flees after nearly killing everyone. The Wolverine is no different except that, this time a martial arts expert, red haired Japanese punk named Yukio (Fukushima) rescues him. She explains that a man named Yashida (Yamanouchi) is dying and wants to say goodbye. Through a series of redundant flashbacks, we learn how Logan and the man met.  Long story short, Logan saved him from the atomic blast in Nagasaki. Yashida went on to found a massive electronics company of the same name. Now, Yashida wants Logan’s healing abilities and P.S. the Yakuza is trying to kill Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Okamoto). Logan fights waves of Yakuza (and then ninjas) who are trying to kidnap Mariko, who is arranged to be married but falls in love with Logan (surprise surprise) even though she was in love with the leader of the ninja clan (the same ninja clan trying to kidnap her). Whew, let me catch my breath. The Wolverine made me realize something about film. A great movie shows you, a bad movie tells you and a really bad movie tells you again; The Wolverine has so much dialog about things I do not care about.

The action in this movie is expectable for a PG-13 movie. Did you know that a PG-13 movie can say the f-word once? Movies like The Wolverine will position that one usage for maximum ‘awesomeness’ too and it is something of a game of mine to anticipate when it will come up. I won’t spoil the fun for you (if you wind up seeing this movie). It bothers me that PG-13 movies can say the f dash dash dash word once and still be considered PG-13. Do we want to reserve certain words to only be used in certain tough guy situations? If that line where Wolverine says “F you” is made out to be special and cool, it just gives profanity a cult appeal (in the minds of the young male target audience). Now that we are on the subject of offensive material, let’s talk about women.

Logan, from what I recall, was in love with another mutant Jean Grey (Janssen). At the end of X-Men 2, Grey turned into something of a bomb. Logan has to kill her to save everyone else. In his guilt, he dreams of the situation that the two were sleeping together and he was having a nightmare. In his sleep, he extended his claws and accidentally stabbed her. She died and he feels bad. I’d like to know that we know her less as Jean Grey and more as breasts. Whenever she appears on-screen, the frame is divided half to her head and half to her cleavage. In any case, he dreams about her because he loves her and she loves him. But, of course, it doesn’t stop him from sleeping with the docile Mariko. Jean Grey is now the perfect woman: she loves Logan and will wait for him, alone, for eternity. Meanwhile, because he is still alive, Logan can go adventuring and sleeping around until he decides he wants to settle down. With regard to Mariko, the movie ends with her asking, “Can I ever expect you to come and visit” to which Logan grunts, says, “I am a soldier,” turns and gets on his plane. Here we have another woman loving Logan who must now wait for him. Will she ever move on and find another significant other? Doubtful.

Now we do have the punky-alternative Japanese woman, Yukio, accompanying him on the plane. She says, “I am your bodyguard.” Throughout the movie Yukio has been staring at him wantonly (and this scene is no different) but she will never have him because Logan doesn’t want her. The only reason she is on the plane is that she wants him but can’t have him. If she did have him, then she would have to wait somewhere.

The icing on the cake is the female villain mutant: Viper. She explains to Logan that she is immune to all poisons and venoms...including that of men. “Die mutant, bitch!” Logan replies. This is the only female mutant villain, mind you, and what makes her totally evil is that she cannot be seduced by men. She deserves to hang for that. She gets even worse as she sheds her skin (and her blonde hair) making her this androgynous beast and not the attractive androgynous kind but that asexual kind.

Logan’s relationship with women is more about the thrill of the hunt, Jean and Mariko are set aside because, having been granted Logan’s essence, they are no longer objects of attraction. It’s the thrill of the hunt, if you will.

Ok, ok, ok. I know what you might be saying, what do you expect from a movie like this? It is a comic book action movie. How many X-men movies featuring Wolverine have there been anyway? The action in this movie is good and comic-booky featuring a fight seen on top of a bullet train.

The cinematography wasn’t my favorite; the camera was ‘in the action’ so it was really shaky. Shaky camera has its time and place but with a superhero movie, it feels like they are just trying to hide poor fights scenes instead of make a realistic, gritty vibe. Batman Begins made me feel this way too.

Overall, The Wolverine isn’t any earth shattering experience but a regular comic book movie: action and sexism. I didn’t really expect much and didn’t really get much. While I wasn’t disappointed per se, I wouldn’t recommend The Wolverine unless you are a solid fan in which case you’ve probably watched it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud. Written by Ken Daurio (screenplay), Cinco Paul (screenplay).Starring Steve Carell (Gru), Kristen Wiig (Lucy), Benjamin Bratt (Eduardo/ El Macho).

Bottom line: Pretty lame movie. I didn't really want to see it and I wish I hadn’t.

Steve Carell as the criminal mastermind, Gru, returns in Despicable Me 2. He retires from the exciting life of super villainy to raise his three daughters in peace. A secret formula for a chemical that transforms ordinary animals or people into murderous purple monsters has been stolen and Gru, who has been recruited by an international organization that captures super villains, is on a mission to recover the formula and save the world.

I like Carell as Gru as far as it goes. I believe that he is genuinely trying to make children laugh. I didn’t like many of the jokes but I do support the noble intent. Just like the first one, I thought the three girls were adorable. There is a scene in the beginning during Agnes’s (the youngest daughter played by Elsie Fisher) birthday party. Gru tried to order a fairy princess actor to make an appearance but when the actor cancels, what is he to do? He dresses up in the costume and throws fairy dust everywhere. Agnes jumps with joy before turning the other attendee’s attention to cake. Before leaving, she leans over and says, “Pssst, I know it’s you, Gru. I just acted like that for the other kids.” How sweet! The interactions between Gru and the girls are happy, pleasant and sincere. I wasn’t a big fan of Gru’s new super spy partner Lucy (Wiig). I found her goofy and unnecessary. There was a romantic subplot between Lucy and Gru and between the eldest daughter and some ‘dreamy guy’ but it isn’t anything to write home about.

The jokes in Despicable Me 2, overall, were lame standard fare in terms of children’s movies: pelvic thrusts, fart jokes, getting hit in the groin, fat people jokes, etc. Now, why, for all that is good in the world, must we have silly dancing sequences? This movie has three! I’m just going to let this subject go because, I believe, I have addressed it in previous reviews, but it suffices to say that I find such scenes uncomfortable not amusing.

The majority of this movie is goofy and unnecessary so feel free to pass on Despicable Me 2. It doesn’t do the original justice. If I had kids, I wouldn’t take them to see this movie; it just goes to the lowest common denominator for a cheap, immature laugh. I’m giving it a half a point for its efforts at trying to be a pleasant movie and one point for the animation and the few funny jokes.