I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z (2013)

Sorry, Sam, but snakes don’t cut it anymore. Marc Forster’s got motherfuckin’ zombies on this motherfuckin’ plane, in the ultimate revenge fantasy of economy class on a harrowing Jerusalem-Cardiff flight. These dead don’t walk; they run, necks outstretched, with cloudy eyes staring but unseeing, clicking their teeth like hungry, rabid rodents. Blind, ravenous, guided by sound and attracted to loud noises, the creatures move in terrifying swarms that pour down city streets like flooding rivers, take down flaming helicopters, crawl ant-like up walls, and scramble over barricades. And they’re awesome.

World War Z is a surprisingly entertaining, fitfully exciting extravaganza that’s more substantive than the usual summer fare. Forster’s big-scaled zombiepocalypse is imaginative and intelligent, gripping and grown-up, filled with small details and quiet, simple moments as much as spectacular set pieces of terror and mayhem that are cleverly conceived and sleekly crafted. An expertly paced globe-trotting mystery, the film owes more to medical thrillers like The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, or Contagion than it does to George Romero’s seminal works and other zombie films, with the exception perhaps of Danny Boyle’s near-masterpiece 28 Days Later. Tension, suggestion, and silence, interrupted by creaking doors, crunching glass, even a soda can rolling across a cafeteria floor, can be a lot more effective than rotting flesh, leaking pustules, and gore.

The unusually seriously-minded blockbuster could have gotten lost amid its purported $200 million budget, but stays anchored by a solid lead performance by producer and star Brad Pitt, a deeply comforting presence at the center of the chaos. He plays Gerry Lane, a U.N. investigator turned househusband—‘cause that’s believable, right? WWZ plunges us straight into the thick of apocalyptic chaos. One of the most impressive and memorable large-scale sequences in the film comes early. Caught in downtown Philadelphia rush-hour traffic, Gerry, his wife (Mireilles Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerrins and Abigail Hargrove) bear unwilling witnesses to an unsettling scene of zombie mayhem and mob panic. Society literally collapses around them in chilling clarity as explosions and then a stampede of the dead and undead alike interrupt a seemingly routine traffic jam. Those bitten “turn” in a matter of seconds, making for a couple of tense scenes built around suspenseful countdowns.

Quick on his feet and endlessly resourceful, Gerry manages to get his family out of the city and on its way to Newark, NJ, where they wait to be extricated, and we feel the weight of both terror and small acts of kindness. In a scene carried by impeccable production values and the film’s careful, creative cinematography, a rundown apartment building is turned into the skin-crawling setting of scares and chases through long, dark corridors and up and down shadowy staircases bathed in the blood red glow of emergency flares and the disconcerting, intermittent glare of flickering fluorescent bulbs.

The characters are flown to an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Atlantic, an impromptu command center for what remains of the U.S. military. We find out the president is dead, Washington is overrun, and big cities all over the world have fallen. The nations best equipped to deal with the encroaching onslaught are Israel and North Korea, who have protected themselves either by putting up a massive wall, or pulling out the teeth of its entire population (no teeth, no biting, no zombies), respectively. Gerry’s old boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), enlists his former troubleshooter by a persuasive mix of guilt-tripping and strong-arming. In no time, the disaster specialist is on his way to stop the epidemic by finding the proverbial Patient Zero and a possible cure, while his wife hangs around the military base and hopes really hard zombies don’t learn how to swim.

What ever happened to self-interest? I’m assuming any man with the means to stop the apocalypse would do so to save his own life—not to mention the future of humanity. But it takes Gerry a standard-issue dutiful wife and a pair of generic, adorably smart and respectful children to get off his ass. Civilization is disappearing as we speak? That’s fine, but mess with his family’s Sunday brunch and you’re in trouble.

The movie’s title wasn’t kidding; this is a battle fought on a planetary scale. Gerry and various sidekicks, some military and others scientific, hopscotch the globe in search of the origin of the infection, starting with South Korea, where the first known zombie infestation began, at a ghostly military base where it’s apparently always night and always raining.

Then it’s off to Jerusalem, where horror and humanity intermingle as the city becomes a safe haven for all healthy humans, and cheering Israeli Jews and Palestinians find common cause against the flesh-eating horde camped out outside the separation wall. The film’s single biggest set piece, a show-stopping spectacle, unfolds as the lurching, screeching, soulless creatures, awoken from their slumber by the noise, form a gigantic, growing mound and come teeming over the wall like a boiling mass.

In contrast, the finale is a small-scaled, careful cat-and-mouse game between Gerry, a handful of doctors and a few dozen sleepy zombies in a research lab of a World Health Organization facility in Wales. The coherently and elegantly executed climax is intimate, intricate, and genuinely suspenseful

The movie doesn’t give in to self-important allegorical themes and shallow quasi-philosophical debate over the decaying undead as metaphor for a cornucopia of cultural, social, political maladies. We live in a world of global anxiety and media distraction—as the opening sequence makes abundantly clear—medical and environmental hazards battling celebrity gossip for ratings. WWZ doesn’t feel the need to make a political or social comment as much as wonder how the world’s ideologically disparate governments and people would respond to apocalypse by zombies.

Pitt plays the thoughtful, proficient problem-solver with a scruffy, unkept, everyman air the kind Redford used to embody; he’s brave, noble, kind, and calm in a crisis, in short a human-scaled hero whose desire to protect his family trumps his desire to save the world. WWZ picks up a scattering of interesting characters and actors along the way: Gerry’s sister-in-arms Segen, a tough, indefatigable Israeli soldier played by the stone-faced, scene-stealing Danielle Kertesz; a resourceful senior Mossad agent (Dutch filmmaker Ludi Boeken), an Army Ranger played by Matthew Fox and his gung-ho captain (James Badge Dale); and, perhaps most intriguing of all, David Morse’s rogue CIA operative, whose twitchy, traumatized, toothless character seems to have walked onto the set of WWZ from some weirder, darker, less mainstream film.

Forster has created a zombie film for people who don’t generally like zombie films. His movie doesn’t traffic in the gratuitous gore for which the genre is known and loved—or hated—and the blood is kept safely off the screen. While I’m sure the studio’s reasons for the PG-13 rating were mercantile and not aesthetic—fewer restrictions on age, more tickets sold—the camera wobbles, wiggles, and swings, only occasionally causing mild confusion by obstructing our view of not only blood but everything else as well, but most of the violence takes place just outside the frame. And oftentimes what you don’t see can be a lot scarier than what you do.

WWZ was loosely adapted—by every writer in Hollywood if you are to believe the rumors—from Max Brooks’ (son of Mel and the late Anne Bancroft) book, a sly pseudo-history composed of data and anecdote; the film drops the oral history structure to focus on the Lanes. Plagued by a troubled history of massive re-writes, re-shoots, and re-cuts, the movie features a much worked-over script by a small army of screenwriters, including Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play) and Lost writers Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof. The postproduction patchwork, however, goes undetected for most of the film’s duration.

The one misstep impossible to overlook comes in the movie’s underxplained, curtailed conclusion. WWZ doesn’t end as much as just stop, with a rushed, muted finale. And while I’m not a big fan of neat, tidy, tacked-on Hollywood endings, Forster’s film reaches a thoroughly unsatisfying dénouement. The world has undergone unspeakable destruction and devastation, and civilization lies under the smoldering ashes of large-scale extermination. So now what? For once I think a sequel might actually be necessary.

After the incoherent shambles Forster made out of Quantum of Solace, this film comes as a striking surprise. A seamless mix of CGI and intensely choreographed “real” images, WWZ fits nicely within the boundaries of commercial entertainment. And if it doesn’t quite revive the swollen carcass of zombie cinema, it has a hell of a great time trying to bring the undead to life again.

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