Monday, June 24, 2013

"World War Z"

 3 / 5 

What an odd way for the world to end, not with a bang or a whimper but the snarl and growl of zombies.  If the concept seems fairly ludicrous, it's to the great advantage of World War Z that things move so briskly and often incoherently (thanks to the liberal use of ShakyCam® ™) that there is rarely time to think about exactly what is going on.

Brad Pitt stars as a former United Nations worker who (I think) has retired or quit or possibly been dismissed because (I think) he got weary of seeing so much desperation and carnage in the world.  Or maybe he violated some rules.  I'm not exactly sure.

One day, his family is going on vacation (I think) or possibly to the grocery store when they decide to make a rather ill-timed detour right through the heart of downtown Philadelphia.  Never mind that the news has been reporting that there is a lethal virus spreading rapidly because before anyone knows it, Brad Pitt and his attractive family are fighting zombies.

As they escape the first onslaught in a motor home they (I think) stole off the street, Brad Pitt gets a call from his former boss saying that they need his help to identify the virus and help stop it (I think that's what he does), because his powers of observation are unparalleled in the universe, and it's going to take a very keen observer to investigate the source of the zombie virus.

But they end up in Newark, N.J., and even though there is a mass riot going on and death and devastation everywhere, they have to stop at a supermarket because Brad Pitt's daughter has asthma and forgot her inhaler, a plot point that is never once brought up again in the course of the movie.

They manage to get rescued and they are taken to an aircraft carrier where Brad Pitt starts flying all around the world, managing to pilot a military aircraft even though (I don't think) he's a pilot.  Brad Pitt can do a lot of things in World War Z.  He can figure out how to make a bayonet, and knows how to wrap a thick magazine around one arm in case he gets bitten (I guess he knows zombies prefer the left arm), and he knows how to figure out a way to defeat the zombies even though he is a U.N. observer of some sort, and it can be assumed that every other great mind in the known universe is trying to find the answer to this problem.

In World War Z, Brad Pitt understands things no one else understands, because he is the hero.

He goes to South Korea, then to Jerusalem (where the movie almost veers into political territory until the zombies start rampaging again), then he ends up Cardiff, Wales, of all places -- which may be the very first time I've seen Cardiff, Wales, as the background for a mega-budget action-horror movie.

For about half of its running time, World War Z moves at an unrelenting pace, which is pretty good because it doesn't give much time to wonder why, if they're being chased down dark corridors by zombies, Brad Pitt's wife thinks it's a good idea to light a flare.  If I were being chased down a dark corridor by a zombie, I'd probably do as little as possible to attract attention.

Eventually, the lighting pace has to slow down a bit.  And.  It.  Does.

The movie goes from hyperactive to almost somnambulant in the last half, which probably isn't a surprise given that this part of the movie takes place in a mostly abandoned laboratory facility run by the World Health Organization.

There aren't a lot of movies that can claim to take place against the enviable backdrop of the World Health Organization office in Cardiff, Wales.  So, World War Z gets some points for that.

The biggest problem is that in its second half, World War Z seems to be just making things up as it goes along.  Zombies who were previously unstoppable monsters become sloppy, nearly comatose giggle-inducers.  A nuclear bomb goes off, but we never learn where or why.  A whole gaggle of new characters is introduced whose only role seems to be to stare at TV monitors.

It's not a mess, exactly, but World War Z is mostly only engaging and amusing when it should be awe-inspiring and unforgettable.  There are certainly moments of epic visual marvel, like zombies crawling over themselves to get past a massive wall erected around Jerusalem.  But why that wall was built, and how that wall was built is a plot point you'll have to hear to believe.  I could repeat it here, but not only would it be a little bit of a spoiler, you probably would think I'm making it up.

World War Z is entertaining and a fun way to pass a couple of hours, but zombies are supposed to be the brainless ones, not zombie movies.

Viewed June 23, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Man of Steel"

 2 / 5 

It's no small accomplishment that Henry Cavill makes an excellent Superman in Man of Steel.

For millions of people of a certain age, watching an actor other than Christopher Reeve play Superman is as disconcerting as going home and finding Angelina Jolie in the role of your mother, but Cavill makes it feel all right.  He also manages the extra super-human feat of being the very best thing about Man of Steel, a movie that fails to inject new life and relevance into this 75-year-old hero.

Superman, it's made clear countless times in Man of Steel, has been sent to Earth to help save us. Why, then, does he spend so much time destroying everything around him?

In one of the movie's countless and interminable battle sequences, Superman not only fails to save his fellow man, the best he can do is offer up a helpful verbal warning to get inside and lock the doors.

This is not a Superman who steps in to save innocent bystanders and pull kittens from trees, he's a new Superman created for a hyperactive generation of youth that has enormous ambivalence about the world in which they live. In a way, Man of Steel may be the Superman they deserve, which just makes the concept even more depressing.

Directed in barely coherent fashion by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is so impatient to distance itself from its cinematic predecessors that it even dispenses with opening credits (instead lavishing much attention on the logos of the production companies that funded it) and substitutes generic orchestral ramblings for the kind of musical score Superman deserves.

As the film opens, Russell Crowe is Jor-El, the scientist on Krypton who warns that the planet is self-destructing, and in the first of many ham-fisted efforts to incorporate political commentaries, explains that Krypton's rapacious energy needs have led to the planet's demise.  In walks General Zod (Michael Shannon, who screams impressively throughout), establishing Man of Steel's central villain, while Jor-El and his non-descript wife send their child to Earth, and Krypton vanishes.

Though it lavishes much attention on Krypton, once Man of Steel gets to Earth, it makes little narrative sense: Clark Kent has already grown and acquired a massive, hairy set of pectorals, but can't forget his tortured childhood, so the movie bounces back and forth, back and forth, never settling on anything for long.  There's some intriguing stuff here, like how a young Clark is scared of his own powers, especially his creepy X-ray vision, but the shaky, dizzying camera never focuses long enough to really let any of it sink in.

Instead, we move right on to the introduction of a very modern Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who quickly comes to know Clark's secrets almost before he does, and stumbles onto a story so huge ("Alien Man Walks Among Us") that even her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) thinks it's far-fetched.  Narratively, it's all a jumble, and though it comes together after a fashion, Man of Steel never makes a compelling case for why it couldn't just tell the story in a simple, linear form.

Filled with whip-pans and extreme closeups that often make the action downright impossible to follow, Man of Steel temporarily manages to capture some of the essence of Superman in the scenes where Clark learns of his past, meets the spirit of his long-dead father, and understands that his task is to help lead Earth to greatness.

But the movie never lets him do that.  Superman gets no chance to just be Superman before General Zod comes crashing back onto the scene, and for more than half of its very long running time, Man of Steel devolves into one thundering, destruction-filled fight after another between Superman, Zod and his minions.  Since none of them can be killed (or, at least, easily), exhaustion sets in rather quickly.

Along with that exhaustion comes another, unexpected feeling: uncomfortable worry over the hundreds of thousands of people who must be getting killed by the destruction Superman causes both in his hometown of Smallville and in Metropolis.

If 9/11 cast a bit of a shadow on the climactic scene in The Avengers, it hangs over Man of Steel in an ugly, disturbing way.  Individual shots seem designed rather pointedly to recall some of the more harrowing images of human suffering from that day. Time after time, we see buildings of all shapes and sizes explode, implode, collapse and crumble, and get shots of people fleeing the carnage while characters emerge from the ruin covered in concrete dust.  This is fun?

Once Metropolis is reduced to rubble, Superman doesn't get a moment of introspection, never sees the destruction he has wrought as any sort of moral dilemma.  I kept waiting for a moment in which Kal-El would look at the devastation and feel the sort of anguish that made him defy his father and turn back the clock in 1978's Superman: The Movie.

It may not be fair to raise the specter of that far superior film, but as with any piece of literature (and comics are most certainly literature) that is adapted over and over, it's impossible not to compare retellings, and this one falls short on many levels, and fails to understand some of the basic ideas of who Superman is.

After all, he fights for truth and justice -- forget the American Way, if you're so inclined.  By any account, we live in a world where both of those attributes seem to be in short supply, and Superman, more than any other hero, can remind us why they matter.

Man of Steel, though, insists on making Superman conflicted about his mission, more focused on his own uncertainties than on the pure joy of being a man who can fly, much less inspire people.

Despite the frenetic, breathless way in which Man of Steel forces a darker, glummer Superman, watch Cavill's face as his Clark Kent/Kal-El learns to fly for the first time.  He smiles the kind of smile that Superman should have, he exudes the supreme confidence that Superman embodies.  He's the reason, despite being utterly disappointed by Man of Steel, I'm looking forward to a sequel: If Henry Cavill gets the chance to show us the super man Clark Kent has become, the next movie could be something really special.

Viewed June 14, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, June 8, 2013

"The Purge"

 3 / 5 

I wanted to like The Purge a lot less than I did.  I wanted to find it offensive and reprehensible, vile and thoughtless.  But even if The Purge doesn't quite manage the biting social commentary it hints at, there are interesting, provocative thoughts here, and a thriller with a half a brain is far better than most.

The Purge covers some of the same territory as such allegedly serious-minded fare as Michael Haneke's Funny Games, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs -- both films that have ardent admirers that I've never been able to get all the way through.  There are also some resemblances to the execrable 2008 "thriller" The Strangers, a movie that existed solely to delight in the extreme misery of others.

The Purge is better than any of those movies, and I found it less vulgar and misanthropic than any of them because it starts with a better premise: A few years from now, Americans are so disgusted with the state of their country they willingly accept an outlandish compromise from a group of politicians who rather optimistically call themselves "The New Founding Fathers."  The idea is that once a year, it's every man for himself in a night of extreme violence known as "The Purge."

During the Purge, virtually all crime is allowed (there are a couple of exceptions that exist solely to try, unsuccessfully, closing many of the logic loopholes a premise like this opens up), the idea akin to instant Darwinism: Those who are wealthy, smart, sane or lucky enough will survive the night, and those who aren't, well, good luck to you.

Even if it plays its political ideology a little heavy handedly, the setup of The Purge is terrific, and the first forty minutes or so of the movie are its best.  James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) live in the Pottery Barn splendor of a massive McMansion with their two kids, technology obsessed Charlie (Max Burkholder) and pouty, teenaged Zoey (Adelaide Kane).  Dad makes his living selling high-end security systems specifically designed for Purge Night, which line his pockets and those of the company he works for.  The neighbors are bitchily aware that their need to purchase the pricey systems is what keeps the Sandins in such splendor.

The results of Purge Night are presented as undeniable facts: Unemployment is at 1 percent, productivity is higher than ever, and America the Beautiful is back to being just that.  Crime is low because once a year, the criminals mostly do each other in.

So, as the Sandins settle in for a night of minor worry deep within their bullet-proof fortress, they're at t the top of the elite heap, even if their neighbors are more than a little jealous.  Nothing can harm them, and that's the beauty of the Purge; those who can protect themselves are immune both to the violence itself and to the nasty ethical implications associated with it.  They can just watch awful people do awful things to each other on TV and then, 12 hours later, pretend it never happened.

But during this Purge Night, a desperate, hunted stranger makes his way to the Sandins' house, and young Charlie lets him in.  That opens the family up to a number of problems, exacerbated by one other (rather silly) intruder in their midst.

All of that makes for a great, tense first half, but when the violence begins, director James DeMonaco loses a bit of control.  There's some, but not much, dramatic tension to be had in a family defending themselves against a gang of thugs.  It all becomes about who does what to whom, and how violently, and that causes The Purge to run out of steam prematurely.

After a solid 30 minutes of carnage, The Purge tries to get back into the territory of political and social commentary, but it has a difficult time finding its footing.  More importantly, it forces the audience (at least the one I saw it with) to cheer and glorify much of what they're seeing; while the act of making the audience complicit is potentially interesting, The Purge seems to want the audience to root for the bad guys to be sliced and diced, which is disappointing after the time it takes introducing some insightful moral and ethical quandaries.

Yes, The Purge is, in the end, a violent exploitation film.  But like some of the best exploitation films, it approaches its topic from some interesting angles.  It reminded me of an extended, ultra-violent version of a great Twilight Zone episode, one in which the point is somewhat muted by engaging in the very acts it purports to be satirizing.

The Purge never quite hits the very high marks it has set for itself; some may say it never even comes close, though I was more forgiving, because the fact that it even dares to try makes it more worthy, and more satisfying, than most modern thrillers.

Viewed June 7, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, June 2, 2013

"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks"

 4 / 5 

"The truth has consquences," reads the tagline for the surprisingly compelling documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, whose title is a sly play on reality: the secret-stealing organization it refers to isn't the beleaguered website, rather the U.S. government.  That fact has been overlooked by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who condemned the film without seeing it and by doing so proved the movie's point: There is no such thing as the simple truth.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden makes the "We steal secrets" declaration in the movie, and its appearance in the title showcases the complicated ways in which truth has a way of hiding in plain sight.

Beginning with a cursory but helpful history of Wikileaks and its record of success in securing sensitive documents from anonymous informants, We Steal Secrets quickly focuses on two key moments in recent Wikileaks history: the release of disturbing "Collateral Murder" video footage from a U.S. Apache helicopter, and the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic messages, or cables, that shed light on U.S. government actions during the Middle East wars.

Many of the Wikileaks documents were provided by U.S. Army Pfc Bradley Manning, and his motivations, along with the complicated motivations of Assange, form the emotional backbone of We Steal Secrets.  They are the real interests of Oscar-winning director, Alex Gibney.

There are bigger questions here, and the movie doesn't avoid them altogether, including the extent to which the leaked documents compromised government activities and individual safety, and whether Assange is an actual journalist or simply a rabble-rouser.  The ethical question that really seems to concern Gibney is why anyone would do what either of these men -- much less our entire society -- did.

Were Assange and Manning cut from the same cloth, isolated loners desperately seeking attention?  There's little doubt that's what both of them wanted; they have said as much, Assange through his earlier (alleged) hacking activities and his insistence that the public "demands" Wikileaks have a face; Manning through the desperate, heartbreaking revelations he communicates to an unknown accomplice through instant messages.  They both believe that the public has a right to know the unvarnished truth about government activities.

It's chilling to watch Assange argue that it doesn't matter if Wikileaks compromises the safety of one person or hundreds, and equally provoking to see the way Manning almost gloats about the ease of securing the confidential material.

The seemingly cursory ways in which both of them discuss and then dismiss ethical questions is a revelation, one that the technology in use gives even deeper resonance: We live in a time when we do things simply because we can, not questioning the long-term consequence.

Lots of time in the movie is given over to the allegations that Assange raped two women in Sweden, and while it may at first seem both puzzling and telling that a relatively even-handed documentary, it becomes a demonstration of the film's balance that the salacious personal details of Manning are matched by those of Assange -- that he falls victim to the very notions of objective truth he claims to uphold.   For the first 40 minutes or so, it's hard not to be on Assange's side and admire him; as the film continues, he becomes a less and less trustworthy character, and his refusal to participate in it is noteworthy: Assange seems to have been more focused on becoming a public figure than serving the public interest.

For in the end, what interest has been served by Wikileaks?  Has it been a great liberator of the truth, or has it turned into the very Orwellian mechanism of fear and oppression that it was created to prevent?  The movie has no dearth of disillusioned voices, and as Assange becomes stranger and less stable, it's he who makes us doubt everything he's done before, not the malicious intent of a filmmaker.

We Sell Secrets suffers a bit from a lack of focus; it's never quite clear where Gibney's own sympathies lie, and some historical discussion of the importance of leaked information in affecting change would have been helpful -- though further boosted the film's already slightly bloated length.  (The Pentagon Papers are mentioned in news headlines, but their influence is never discussed.)

What really makes We Sell Secrets special, though, is the emotional weight it finds in the stories of two people desperate to leave a mark in the world.  At first curiously, then resonantly, Gibney chooses to end the movie by quoting Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" essay -- a rumination on how little any of our activity on Earth could possibly matter ... and how much it does.

The arguments about Wikileaks as a force for good or a terrorist organization are the wrong ones. The real discussions should be about why technology has made us more disconnected from each other, less willing to trust than ever before, always ready to doubt, to fight and to tear down the work of others.

Viewed June 2, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset 5