From Zero to Zombie

I did not come up with that title. I wish I did, but I didn’t. It’s from a review I read of World War Z that said something along the lines of “things go from zero to zombie in about five minutes.”

It’s a very accurate assessment of the opening few minutes of the film. The fit hits the shan (if you know what I mean) in about five minutes flat. Ominous opening credits, then we meet Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family (wife and two daughters), and then it’s zombie invasion time.

It is no secret that World War Z had a troubled production history. In many ways I’m amazed it even got made. There were many script rewrites and reshoots, the film was delayed several times and the budget, originally around $125 million, ended up ballooning to around $200 million. There is no question that World War Z is the most expensive zombie movie ever made.

This interests me because a big-budget film adaptation of Max (son of Mel) Brooks’ 2006 novel wasn’t exactly a sure thing to begin with.

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I love this book. I’ve read my fair share of zombie fiction, and World War Z is probably my favorite zombie novel. The main challenge of adapting it into film is its structure. As you can see from the subtitle “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, Brooks’ approach to telling the story is somewhat unconventional.

Instead of a straightforward, linear narrative, Brooks frames the novel from the point of view of an agent of the UN Postwar Commission, who is conducting a series of postwar interviews with survivors from around the world, who recount their often-harrowing encounters with the undead. Brooks paints a frighteningly convincing portrait of mankind on the brink of extinction, and he grounds the story in reality in a way many zombie stories don’t. For example, one former soldier tells how he survived the catastrophic Battle of Yonkers, and how the military’s high-tech weapons and tactics proved useless against the undead (wounding them was ineffective, various heat-seeking technologies were useless because zombies have no body heat, and zombies have no self-preservation instincts and don’t care when their fellow zombies get killed).

Brooks portrays the zombies as a truly unique enemy, and in so doing provides a vivid depiction of what an actual, global zombie pandemic would really be like. The personalities of the book’s many different narrators really shine through, some are sarcastic or bitter, others are quieter and more reserved. It really gives the book a lot of variety and sets it apart from myriad other tales of zombie apocalypse.

The movie, on the other hand, is a far more conventional one-man-saves-the-world kind of thing.

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This doesn’t really surprise me, since the novel in its original format would be pretty close to being unfilmable. I mean, I suppose it would be possible, but telling the story in film the way Brooks does on the page would be more suited to a TV series where you can take the time to really hash out each individual story. In two-hour film format, that would be extremely difficult to achieve.

Apparently realizing this, the makers of the movie opted for the more accessible route of ONE MAN SAVES THE WORLD. It’s an understandable decision, but a little risky.

I really want to emphasize how amazed I am that this movie even got made. Zombie fans are something of a niche audience, and some of the best zombie movies ever made were made outside of Hollywood (George A. Romero’s first couple zombie flicks were mostly independently financed). Although I suppose that the success of The Walking Dead TV series has proved that there is a wider audience out there for the good old brain-munchers, but a big-budget summer blockbuster zombie film is definitely a risky proposition.

It’s even riskier when you consider how changing the book around as much as the movie does risks alienating fans of the book, who you have to figure will represent a pretty decent percentage of the target audience. And then you make the film PG-13 instead of R, which is understandable from a studio perspective (PG-13 ratings are far more commercially viable), but risks further alienating the target audience, who (reasonably) expect their zombies to be pretty R-rated (I mean, zombies DO eat people).

So what you’ve got with the film version of World War Z is a big-budget film adaptation of a book that strays heavily from its source material, that had a somewhat niche audience to begin with, and that also dumbs down the violence inherent to the subject matter (the book was frequently pretty graphic, as is customary to zombie stories).

All of this combines to make World War Z the movie a pretty tough sell in this day and age, which is why I am still a little flabbergasted that this movie exists.

Perhaps even more perplexing are the facts that the movie made $66 million its opening weekend (the best opening weekend gross of Brad Pitt’s career) and is actually pretty good.

It’s not perfect, mind you. The plot is a bit slapdash (the movie’s four credited screenwriters didn’t give it much of a coherent plot) and I kind of wished it had been more violent but it was still an entertaining and exciting film.

Is it weird that I wished for more violence? The action scenes in the film are intense and well-executed, but the film overall is almost entirely bloodless. It’s telling that the most expensive zombie movie ever made is also probably the tamest in terms of gore. There’s a scene near the end of the film where Pitt’s character is looking through a zombie-infested World Health Organization building, and the walls are squeaky-clean. I couldn’t help but think that in just about any other zombie movie, the walls would have been drenched in blood.

In an odd way, I kind of wished they were. Is that weird? I think that’s a little weird. Help me out here zombie fans, am I alone in hoping that the eventual Blu-Ray release of the movie will feature a more violent extended cut?

But like I said, it’s still an entertaining movie. Brad Pitt is likable and endearing in the lead role. I found him easy to root for, and the appealing performance of the actress who played his wife (Mireille Enos of AMC’s TV series “The Killing”) even made me care about his family.

I even liked the zombies pretty well, despite the lack of gore dripping from their eye sockets and the fact that these are FAST zombies instead of the more traditional slow, shambling, Romero-esque flesheaters of Brooks’ novel.

The film’s signature visual, the ZomPile (as I am calling it) also looked pretty cool.

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I thought it looked kind of hokey in the trailers, but for whatever reason it looked better to me in the finished film than it did in the trailers. It’s a weird portrayal of zombies but it’s certainly unique. I’m pretty sure the brain-chompers have never done anything like that in a movie before.

Again, the movie is very flawed. The plot feels pasted together and to me it didn’t have the same sense of scope as Brooks’ novel did. The origin of the zombie virus is never really explained and the film also never really bothers to explain why Brad Pitt’s character is so important to begin with.

But it is well-made and certainly never boring. I find it hard to hate a movie that launches into full-on zombie mayhem in about five minutes flat, and to its credit the movie does have a LOT of freaking zombies (see above photo). As a movie it was good fun. If you’re a fan of Brooks’ novel you should still check it out. It’s worth seeing for zombie fans and Max Brooks fans, as long as you don’t go into it expecting a completely faithful adaptation of the book. I’m amazed and actually pretty happy that it got made.

Here’s hoping for that unrated Blu-Ray.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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As American As It Gets

I didn’t use to like Superman.

I thought he was boring. I didn’t like his “kitchen sink” powers. It always seemed to me like having every kind of superpower was somehow cheating. I didn’t like how much of a goody-two-shoes he was. I get that he’s an American icon and everything, I just never found him very interesting.

But I have a somewhat newfound respect for Superman.

I think it started with Superman Returns.

I know, I know, it isn’t cool on the interwebs to admit that you actually liked Superman Returns, but I did. I liked it a lot. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s overlong, the plot is a bit hokey, and Kate Bosworth admittedly may not have been the best choice for Lois Lane. But I still found a lot to like about the movie. I thought it managed to be a very human story. I rooted for Superman the whole way through. It helped that Bryan Singer is a good director, and he directed the film with what I thought was a very genuine appreciation and care for its many iconic characters. Kevin Spacey was also great as Lex Luthor.

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Warner Bros. also does a really good series of DC comics animated films, many of which feature Batman and Superman.

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Like this one. Seriously, check these out. They’re all really good. Great voice acting and animation, lots of action, and fun stories, many of which are directly based on specific, well-known stories from the comics.

So I’m actually a fan of Superman now. And 2013 brings us Man of Steel, a megabudget remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever they’re calling it these days. The success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy helped convince Warner Bros. to greenlight a new Superman project, with Nolan overseeing the film (he produced it and has a story credit). Zack Snyder, best known for his other comic-book adaptations 300 and Watchmen, was chosen to direct the film from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, who co-wrote all three of Nolan’s Batman films.

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Snyder is a somewhat polarizing director. Some people like him, some people hate him. His detractors argue that he’s all style over substance, preferring glossy visuals to telling a good story. I’m mostly a fan, since I liked 300 and Watchmen and his remake of the classic George Romero zombie flick Dawn of the Dead was also pretty solid, especially as far as horror remakes go. Though Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch was really, really bad.

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Ugh, so bad.

Anyway, Man of Steel caused something of a stir when it was announced that British actor Henry Cavill had been chosen to play the most American of superheroes (aside from Captain America, anyway). One review I read of the movie described Cavill as “blue of eye and square of jaw”, which, as you can see from the poster above, is an apt description both of Cavill and the Man of Steel himself.

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Also he’s dating Gina Carano.

Snyder’s film also boasts an impressive cast, including Russell Crowe as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his earth parents, Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and a perfectly-cast Amy Adams as Lois Lane.

The film is an origin story in the most literal sense, since it begins with nothing less than the birth of the Baby of Steel himself in the very first scene. There’s an extended prologue on Krypton, where we find out that Jor-El’s son is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. They grow babies or something, which was a little weird but whatever. We also discover that Krypton’s core is shutting down, which will lead to the planet’s destruction. Jor-El and his wife send their son blasting off to Earth in the middle of a coup led by Michael Shannon’s thoroughly evil General Zod, who is none-too-pleased with recent events. I won’t go into much more detail here since you should really go see the movie.

But it was an effective prologue, both for setting up the rest of the story and as an introduction to the world of the film. It also gives us some cool glimpses of Krypton itself, including some various Avatar-esque winged creatures and flying spacecraft. Jor-El’s Kryptonian battle-armor is also extremely cool.

This prologue also demonstrates two things about director Zack Snyder. Say what you will about his abilities as a storyteller, the man 1) has a hell of an eye for eye-popping visuals and 2) knows how to film a damn fight scene. I’ll talk more about the action later on, but suffice to say that this movie has some of the best comic-book style epic smackdowns between superpowered beings that I have ever seen in a movie.

After the prologue, we skip ahead to Clark Kent as an adult, he’s a drifter, trying to find his place in the world while knowing how different he is from everyone else. The film shows us flashbacks of his childhood and his discovery of his abilities when he was just a young boy in school. To me, these scenes really emphasized just how much of an outsider Clark really is. He didn’t really have many friends in school, everyone thought he was weird. We all think it would be awesome to have superpowers, and in some ways I’m sure it would, but it never really occurs to us how hard it would be to discover you have these abilities as a child growing up.

I also liked how the filmmakers explained certain elements of Superman that I had always found puzzling. Such as, if Superman can hear everything at once, how does he not get completely overwhelmed by it? How does he even have superpowers in the first place?

The film explains these things in a way I really liked. It shows how his mother, played very touchingly by Diane Lane, helped him focus by just listening to the sound of her voice. It’s not a very specific explanation as to how he learns to focus and control his abilities, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a very human explanation, showing how Jonathan and Martha Kent’s love for him helped him focus and really discover who he was.

It humanized Superman a lot to me, which is something I had had trouble with regarding Superman in the past, that he was so godlike he was hard to care about because nothing could hurt him. Man of Steel makes him vulnerable. Some would argue that Superman shouldn’t be vulnerable, but I really liked this take on the material. There weren’t a whole lot of scenes showing young Clark with Ma and Pa Kent, but what scenes there were I found moving. Snyder also doesn’t let these scenes slow the film down, but to me they lasted as long as they needed to.

Eventually, Clark discovers his Kryptonian heritage and General Zod reappears with a suitably nefarious plan for world domination. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but I found it very satisfying.

Man of Steel is in many ways a different take on the Superman mythology. There’s no Kryptonite, no Lex Luthor (although the name Lexcorp does appear on the sides of a few semi-trucks), not much Daily Planet, and no nerdy Clark Kent glasses (not until the end, anyway). But the film still tells a complete story in a way that honors the legacy of its iconic protagonist and his equally iconic supporting characters.

The acting is solid throughout, and Amy Adams is particularly good as Lois Lane, making Lois tough and likable without being annoying or overbearing (“What can I say, I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flak jacket,” she tells one soldier). She’s also smart. I mean, sure, she requires rescuing a few times, but never due to her doing something stupid. I hate it when screenwriters make characters do something dumb just to create drama, it always feels forced.

David S. Goyer wisely avoids this. He also gives the traditional Clark/Lois relationship a twist by (spoiler alert) having her discover who he is fairly early on in the film, which provides a fresh spin on the relationship between them, and also cleverly eliminates the pesky “how does Lois not know Clark is Superman” question.

And the action. Boy howdy, the action. One valid criticism of Superman Returns is that it didn’t have Superman really fighting anybody, which is mostly true. There were some good sort of “save the city” action scenes, but there weren’t really any super-powered beatdowns.

Well have no fear action fans, because Man of Steel delivers on that front and then some. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what it would really look like if two (or more) superpowered beings just threw down and beat the holy hell out of each other, look no further. The epic battles in Man of Steel could have been lifted directly from the pages of a comic book.

The best way I can think of to describe the fights is to liken them to this fight scene from the Superman/Batman animated movie I pictured above. So take a few minutes to watch Superman and Darkseid beat the living crap out of each other. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, now picture that sort of thing, but in LIVE ACTION with REAL people getting tossed through REAL buildings and REAL stuff exploding all over the damn place, and you’ll have at least an inkling of what the superbattles in Man of Steel are like. Needless to say, the film’s special effects and overall visual presentation are top-notch throughout.

I’ve heard people say the film is too dark for a Superman movie. I disagree. Sure, it may be dark for a Superman movie, but to me that doesn’t really mean the film is dark per se. does that make sense? I dunno, I just think people complaining that it’s too dark are just looking for something to complain about. It’s nowhere near as dark as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, though the influence of Nolan’s films is pretty apparent (you could call Man of Steel “Superman Begins” if you really wanted to).

The film has done better with viewers than it has with critics. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 56% approval rating (a “rotten” score despite being mostly positive) but if you peruse the user reviews on IMDb you will see a lot of ratings of 8/10, 9/10, and even 10/10.

In conclusion, see this damn movie. It’s another example of summer blockbuster escapism done right, and it and Star Trek Into Darkness are my two favorite films of the year so far.

“I grew up in Kansas, General,” Superman tells a skeptical army officer late in the film. “I’m as American as it gets.” You’ll be right there with him.

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And you gotta love this retro poster.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Why Fast Seven Will Be a Must-See

I was a bit late to Fast and Furious 6 since I was out of time when it opened on Memorial Day weekend, but I finally caught up with it this last weekend and I’ve gotta say, Holy Crap. I am still riding that adrenaline high.

But first, story time. Fast Six is, obviously, the sixth film in the franchise which began with The Fast and the Furious all the way back in 2001. The second and third films weren’t really direct sequels to the first one, bringing in new characters and whatnot. The first direct sequel to the first movie was actually the fourth movie, simply titled Fast and Furious. This movie brought back all the original stars from the first movie. It became a modestly-budgeted hit so Universal upped the budget for 2011’s Fast Five, which ditched most of the street-racing elements from the previous films and was more of a setpiece-driven heist movie. Now 2013 brings us Fast and Furious 6, which picks up right where Fast Five left off.

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Whew. Now that that’s out of the way, I must confess that I have only seen the fifth and sixth films. I really didn’t care much about the franchise until Fast Five came out. Heck, I didn’t even really care about Fast Five until it came out and got surprisingly solid reviews. I decided to check it out, but even then I didn’t bother until it came out on DVD.

When I finally did see it, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a well-made, solidly entertaining action film. One thing about it that I’ve thought about a lot is that I really didn’t give a damn about any of the characters. Fast Five featured a large ensemble cast with pretty much every major character from the previous films. I had no idea who most of them were. The plot itself was straightforward enough, they were trying to steal $100 million from an evil drug baron. But there were a lot of character-based subplots that really had no impact on me whatsoever. Much is made in the film about family and brotherhood and so on and so forth but I really didn’t care about any of it.

The interesting thing to me about this is that, the way I see it, my not caring that much about the characters wasn’t really the movie’s fault. It’s clear that the filmmakers cared about these characters, and if you were a longtime fan of the franchise I saw no reason why you wouldn’t be happy with this film. Fast Five isn’t really all that bad at characterization, my indifference was due more to the fact that I hadn’t seen any of the previous films. The characters were all likable enough and they each get their time in the spotlight. I rooted for them, I just wasn’t particularly invested in any of them.

I had a similarly detached enthusiasm for Fast Six, which I was looking forward to as a fun summer blockbuster, but expected to not care about the plot very much.

Also, Dwayne “Don’t-Call-Me-The-Rock” Johnson.

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One of my favorite aspects of Fast Five, and one that got a lot of critical praise, was the addition of Dwayne Freaking Johnson as the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails Agent Hobbs, who kicks off the sixth movie’s plot by recruiting Vin Diesel and his crew to help him track down a new group of bad guys, led by an ex-SAS soldier named Owen Shaw. Also, Agent Hobbs’ new partner in this movie is played by Gina Carano.

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This is Gina Carano, in case you were wondering. She’s an ex-MMA fighter who made her film debut in a little movie called Haywire last year. She’s…well, look at her. She’s badass! Her role in Fast Six is fairly minor, but she does get not one but TWO fight scenes with Michelle Rodriguez. And she certainly looks good alongside Dwayne “Samoan Thor” Johnson.

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I’d watch a movie that was just these two fighting crime any day of the week. The “Samoan Thor” thing came from the movie, by the way. Much as I would like to take credit for it, I cannot. Also, if you haven’t seen Haywire it’s really worth checking out.

In one sense, my response to Fast Six was much the same as my response to Fast Five: lots of fun, but I remained largely indifferent to most of it. Much hullaballoo is made over the return of Letty, Vin Diesel’s character’s old girlfriend played by Michelle Rodriguez, who apparently was thought to have been killed in the fourth movie, and whose return was teased at the end of Fast Five. She’s back, and she’s working with the bad guys! OH NOES!!

Part of me was like “Eh, who cares?” and the other part of me was like “Michelle Rodriguez vs. Gina Carano! Awesome!” I think it’s safe to say that these two thoughts balanced each other out in the end.

But enough about plot and characters! What about the action??

Well, it delivers.

And then some.

Suffice to say that Fast Six has some of the most outrageously entertaining action sequences I have seen in a long time, quite possibly ever. This kind of movie is why I love action movies. The action scenes in this film are expertly choreographed, and edited in such a way as to ensure that you can easily follow the chaos unfolding on screen.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of modern action films is that the superquick editing and shaky camera work make it difficult to follow what’s going on. It’s a legitimate complaint, I suppose, though to be honest that kind of style has never really bothered me much. It can be off-putting at first but I don’t find it hard to get used to. But still, Fast Six does an admirable job of making huge chaotic action setpieces easy to follow. Director Justin Lin is showing himself to be a fine action director, and he deserves credit for coordinating massive chase scenes that are fun and intense without being confusing or overwhelming. Well, they can be a bit overwhelming at times, but in a good way if you’re an action fan.

How else to describe the film’s EPIC final battle, in which a massive plane is attempting to take off but finding it difficult due to the fact that the heroes have attached their vehicles to it by shooting titanium cables into the plane’s wings, and the cars are dangling off the wings with people fighting BETWEEN THE CARS IN MIDAIR while at least three more individual battles are happening inside the plane? Words seriously do not begin to do this scene justice. It’s one of the most terrifically exciting action sequences I’ve seen in quite some time. I have no idea of the logistics involved in staging such a massive sequence, but the filmmakers pulled it off marvelously.

Also, this happens.

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Don’t see Fast Six for realism. This is the kind of movie in which cars flip upside down and skid on their roofs for several meters and the occupants look only mildly annoyed, and robotic humanoid Paul Walker is capable of thrashing roomfuls of thugs.

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Yes, this guy.

See it for fun. See it for spectacle.

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See it for this guy.

The stunt work in this film also deserves credit for pulling off all kinds of crazy shit. There’s one stunt in particular during the big highway chase that was so ludicrously awesome it had people in my theater (myself included) clapping and cheering, and at least one audible cry of “WHAAAATTT???”

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It isn’t this particular stunt, but it takes place during this sequence. Also, the interwebs inform me that a real tank drove over approximately 250 cars during the filming of this sequence.

If you’re an action fan there is no way you will not enjoy this film. The plot is ho-hum and the characters again meant little to me, but the action is expertly staged and the film is never less than entertaining.

And referring back to the title of this post, make sure to stay through the first part of the closing credits, or you might miss a surprise cameo from one of my favorite action stars, whose identity I will not reveal but whose first name…

…starts with a J.

Until next time, true believers!