World War Z

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For a zombie movie, the PG-13 rated World War Z is among the tamest in the genre. There are scenes of horror and hysteria, induced by mobs of undead going berserk as panicked citizens flee–some do escape, others are bitten and transformed into zombies themselves. The only sure way to kill them is a bullet in the head. In that sense, this follows the zombie playbook. Otherwise, there isn’t the level of gore to which we’ve become accustomed coming from this genre. Indeed, the focus isn’t on the subject’s goriness, but the human drama that unfolds around it. World War Z is less about zombies than it is a portrait of human despair and one man’s quest to rid the world of the plague, fueled only by his love for his family. This movie is really about a father and husband’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Themes don’t get any more profound.

The world has been overrun by a terrifying virus that turns its victims into raving, run-amok zombies. Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family learn that firsthand when they find themselves in the midst of a zombie attack and a military crackdown in Philadelphia. Because of his UN status, Lane is able to secure safekeeping for his family aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, which serves as a kind of floating safe zone, before he embarks on a globe-trotting hunt for a way to stop the pandemic. Along the way, the film lingers on details of survival–on how a family that takes in the Lanes on the day of Philadelphia’s collapse clings close to their radio for news and on American soldiers in a remote South Korean military base and how they’ve barricaded themselves against the zombies waiting outside. And, of course, there’s the depiction of Jerusalem, sealed off the outside world by newly built steel walls, and housing a diaspora of Jews and Palestinians. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse but, because of its real-world geopolitical considerations, World War Z also feels like a convincing depiction of a humanitarian crisis.

The direction by Marc Forster, while never inspired, is dependably utilitarian. Forster follows the paces outlined in this adaptation, which only takes its cue from Max Brooks’ novel in its premise and global overview, and he lets Pitt anchor the material and deliver one of his sturdiest performances. Over 20 years, Pitt has become of Hollywood’s best and most compelling actors; there’s both conscience and conviction at play in his work. It was front-and-center in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and it commands this film as the story tapers down from the large-scale chaos of its first half to a third-act stand-off set inside a WHO research lab. Sure, there are the alternately obligatory and frightening depictions of zombie carnage, civilian breakdown and military resistance, but they pale in comparison to Lane’s personal journey. Pitt’s soulful performance lends World War Z real heart and strength. When the end credits roll, you really wish that the movie were longer, extending and deepening its investigative mystery as Lane (and the rest of us) learns step-by-step the origins of the plague and its nature. The story’s premise, the seriousness and intelligence of this adaptation and Pitt’s performance towering over it all could’ve handily accommodated an epic of that scale. Were it so.

Grade: B

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse


The Grey

Leave it to the bleakest of movies to be about Faith. The meaning and purpose of Faith in a higher power to deliver one from suffering comes up often in director Joe Carnahan’s absorbing wilderness thriller The Grey as its beleaguered plane-crash survivors must fend off a pack of arctic wolves hell-bent on picking off them off one by one. Principally, Faith is on the mind of Ottway (Liam Neeson), a marksman hired by an oil rigging outfit in the snowbound wilderness and a loner patterned after the classic noir mold — that is, self-reliant and goaded on through life by his own private agenda.

Ottway is haunted by thoughts of a woman he still loves and with whom he has no hope of reuniting. He wanders his territory, rifle in hand, protecting the oil riggers from predator wolves who’ve encroached onto the company’s land. But after the plane ferrying Ottway and his fellow ragtag crew of bedraggled oil workers crashes on a desolate plain, it’s the humans who now find themselves the trespassers in the wolves’ domain. With no help forthcoming, the survivors must trudge the indefinite distance from the crash site to civilization, across forbidding, wind-blasted expanse and wilderness forest, all the while falling prey to wolves with a newfound taste for human flesh.

Ottway assumes the role of the group’s leader. He’s no more familiar with the terrain than the others, but he is the closest the men have to a wilderness expert. That’s not to say there isn’t dissent in the ranks: The ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo) mocks Ottway’s attempts to find safety and even the very idea that the group has any chance of making it out of their predicament alive. A little of Diaz goes a long way though — Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (on whose short story The Grey is based) err in packing in too much of Diaz’s generally cliched shows of grandstanding at the expense of developing a more nuanced chemistry among the men. As a result, the men — among them the sensitive Hendricks (Dallas Roberts), the companionable Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the gentle giant and token minority Burke (Nonso Anozie) and the young punk Flannery (Joe Anderson) — are little more than pieces in the screenplay’s easy-to-fit puzzle box of character dynamics. In various tense conversations and campfire monologues, they reveal just enough to humanize themselves before each meets his grisly end in the next man vs. wolf standoff. Here is where The Grey cannot measure up to superior survivalist adventures like Flight of the Phoenix, The Great Escape, The Wages of Fear, Le Trou and so forth; the latter films benefitted from finely tuned and differentiated supporting characters, each one adding color and depth to the ensemble, making our investment in their go-for-broke scenarios that much deeper.

The Grey is a lesser achievement and might have been standard-issue B-movie fare were it not for Liam Neeson, who’s towering presence and gravitas turn the movie into a worthy study of heartbreak, courage and mortality. As resourceful and commanding as Ottway is, he is also a broken, desperate man with the barest wisp of regard for God. And, in one of the movie’s most nakedly honest and wrenching scenes — he rails at the heavens, daring God to intervene in his plight. Most startling in this scene isn’t Neeson’s acting chops — they’re considerable — but Carnahan’s choice to insert a reverse shot of a blank, impassive sky. He could have shot this moment entirely as a close-up on Ottoway, a statement of his encroaching madness, but he stages it as a two-character exchange, albeit with a second character remaining mute, a mystery. The result is a powerful, intimate spiritual plea, something we rarely see in this — or any — Hollywood genre nowadays.

Indeed, The Grey is a rarity in important ways. For one, this is a decidedly bleak film, damn bleak — one that goes against the grain of the dominant Hollywood instinct for last-minute rescues, miracles and uplift. It’s not nihilistic exactly, but it’s not feel-good either. The film maintains a brave existential detachment in tone, a kind of Camus-esque acceptance of the brutality of fate as demonstrated in one scene in which the camera simply holds on a character over a single take, one that lasts for what feels like an eternity, as he resigns himself to death.

From what I just said, The Grey might seem like too much of a downer. But it has ample rewards too. Aside from Neeson’s top-caliber performance (one that’s on par with or surpasses the best performances in any given year), the movie’s got several excellent set pieces, from the solidly terrifying plane crash (though, eliciting terror from turbulence is among the suspense genre’s more delightfully simple tricks) to the series of deadly ambushes by the wolves and one white-knuckle, high-altitude scene of characters clambering across a gorge on a tenuous rope. And, while silver linings are in short supply here, what The Grey ultimately offers is something far richer — it offers a chance to become involved with one man’s search for inner strength. How rewarding you find that will depend perhaps on your own search for the same.

Grade: B

Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Joe Anderson, Anne Openshaw, Ben Bray, Nonso Anozie

Open Water

Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are your typical work-obsessed couple drifting apart in the American suburbs. But, when left to fend for themselves in tropical, shark-infested waters, they cling to each other so desperately, it’s almost sad and touching. That is, until those fins break the surface again, triggering panic on the screen and setting our nerves on edge. “Open Water” is a textbook example for how to build and sustain tension, develop character and even sneak in wry social commentary over a tightly wound eighty minutes.

Gutsily made by husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Open Water” disarms the viewer (à la “The Blair Witch Project”) with its no-frills, home-video ethos, but, make no mistake, this is shrewdly calculative filmmaking. The story is straightforward, opening in Susan and Daniel’s leafy, SUV-appointed home as the cell phone-toting couple pack up for an island vacation, wondering if they’ll still get email where they’re going. In a few deft strokes, the filmmakers establish their couple and whisk them off to their tropical getaway.

Kentis and Lau assuredly develop the couple’s close-knit but none-too-romantic routine, intimately conveyed by actors Ryan and Travis. To soothe away workaday stress, they embark on a deep-sea dive. From the movie’s premise, we know that this is an ill-fated outing, that the couple will be left behind by a bungling boat crew. But we watch anyway, uneasily but riveted, as the movie puts its pieces into place. Then, from their initial petulance at finding themselves abandoned, through their spasms of antagonism, their attempts to cope and overcome and, finally, their realization that all is futile against a menace largely unseen, “Open Water” becomes an expertly modulated horror movie.

Perhaps the greatest irony in “Open Water” is the claustrophobia of its setting. The sea that looks so limitless and wide-open eventually feels so confining, availing the characters with the barest hopes for survival, not least of which is that its predators simply stay away. The water’s lapping and splashing sickens us as much as it does Susan and Daniel, and the predators most definitely do not stay away. Kentis and Lau know that horror can never be fully realized till the lights are out, and they gain maximum fright wattage out of the all-enveloping darkness of night with only flashes of lightning to orient us. At this point, the filmmakers teasingly cross-cut to scenes of island revelry, but the festive music is muted, faraway, thereby punctuating the ever-growing distance between Susan and Daniel and the lives they’ve left behind. It is here that the absolute meaninglessness of the material world, one of comfortable jobs, SUVs and cell phones, is most keenly felt, pitted against the cunning and merciless forces of nature.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Chris Kentis
Cast: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein

Cabin Fever

Peter Jackson has hailed “Cabin Fever” as “brilliant.” And those of us with an unquestioned love of gore will likely embrace Eli North’s movie with the same giddy enthusiasm. In essence, his movie isn’t a far cry from Jackson’s own “Dead Alive” (1992)—his whacked-out horror spoof about humans who become ravenous zombies after being bitten by a satanic monkey. A deliriously unhinged nuthouse of a movie, “Dead Alive” makes a terrific double bill with Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” (1987), with everybody’s cult hero, Bruce Campbell, trapped inside a cabin, gamely mowing down zombies of his own. North retains the cabin setting of Raimi’s movie but replaces Jackson’s monkey with a just-as-fearsome flesh-eating virus, unleashing it among a bunch of bungling teenagers trapped in the deep woods. In that sense, “Fever” also harkens back to “Friday the 13th” and the whole spate of “teensploitation” horror flicks that followed in the wake of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” on through the mid-80s to mid-90s heyday of Wes Craven, by way of the biological gross-out of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982).

“Cabin Fever” is a rollicking nostalgia ride through that hallowed tradition of gore flicks that holds our childhood memories in such thrall. North and co-writer Randy Pearlstein have the uncanny talent for weaving into their narrative every cliché, plot device and nuance from the horror cannon of the last 25-or-so years. As an homage, it’s energetically made, enjoyable while it lasts, but never breaking new ground or leaving behind much of an imprint.

Five horny, party-hardy co-eds take off for a week of sex, squirrel hunting and campfire stories at a secluded cabin. When a local hobo crashes their party, raving and stumbling in the throes of what is clearly an evil virus, things heat up. One-by-one, they begin to fall ill, panic and paranoia set in, and, in their blundering efforts to seek help, they only turn the already-freakish locals against them. The pathology of this virus isn’t clear other than it turns you into a raving lunatic and your skin into hideous bacon strips. North, in that sense, has commandeered the makings of crackerjack medical horror, with its slow-burn dread, then grafted it onto far less interesting teen-scream material.

Scott Kevan’s cinematography and Nathan Barr’s score, with help from David Lynch veteran Angelo Badalamenti, are effectively eerie and evocative. On their lead, North builds a genuine sense of creepiness and foreboding. Certainly, “Fever” packs its share of jolts and none-too-shabby black humor, both worthy of a place alongside Romero. But after all the noise dies down and “Fever” cools, resolving itself as predicably as any “Elm Street” installment, what do we have? A remembrance of past frights, I guess, but as a horror yarn in its own right, it just bleeds into the background.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Eli Roth
Written by: Eli Roth, Randy Pearlstein
Cast: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern

Bubba Ho-Tep

Elvis lives and so, apparently, does JFK in writer-director Don Coscarelli’s pseudo-horror indie lark, “Bubba Ho-Tep.” Based on Joe R. Lansdale’s short story, “Bubba Ho-Tep” tries ineffectually to be both a lyrical character study and a darkly satirical horror flick. As the latter, the movie demonstrates all the zeal and invention of a tired carnival act, and, in trying to mine heartfelt pathos from its depiction of two lonely curmudgeon-icons, it digs up only platitudes and schmaltz.

Bruce Campbell, something of a cult item himself and delightfully campy performer, plays a crochety, limpdicked Elvis, facing the twilight of his years in an old-age home. As “Bubba” tells it, Elvis, tired of his fame, switched places with an impersonator decades back and took to a more anonymous life on the Elvis-impersonator circuit. An injury, though, has landed him in these drably lit, antiseptic surroundings, rhapsodizing about erections and other bygone triumphs, nursing regrets about a wife and daughter left far behind. Elvis finds a sympathizer in a fellow resident (Ossie Davis), a black man convinced he’s Jack Kennedy.

“Bubba” starts off tantalizingly enough with black-and-white newsreel footage reporting the discovery of a cursed Egyptian mummy. That opening holds such lip-smacking promise of thrills to come that it’s a real letdown as Coscarelli’s script devotes much of its subsequent energies to Elvis’ plodding backstory, and to the derivative characters and circumstances surrounding his life at the home. We get the saucy nurse, the flinty doctor, the buffoonish hearse drivers, medicinal penile gel and even ruminations of what kind of shit a mummy might produce. This is all meant to be outrageously funny, but it isn’t quite, because “Bubba” never achieves that unfettered, freefall zaniness that it desperately needs to thrive and distinguish itself. Indeed, its script is too square and well-mannered, choosing instead to sentimentalize its offbeat characters—a fatal mistake since he never develops them beyond the realm of well-trodden clichés. He wastes precious storytime on tiresome jibes about Elvis’ once all-conquering penis, his schmaltzy ponderings over his past, and Jack’s own paramoid musings about Castro.

Once the mummy—an ill-developed creature himself, given to foppish headwear—lets loose inside the old-age home, “Bubba” still doesn’t wake up. Apart from a pitched battle scene between Elvis and a monstrous, winged beetle, the action scenes are predictably staged, leading to an appropriately limp finale. The Campbell-Davis pairing is inpired, but Coscarelli’s plotting and characterizations are too unadventurous for their dynamic to amount to much. Similarly, he peppers his movie with flash cuts and other run-of-the-mill shock tactics to distract us from the flimsy, half-baked goings-on. Still, if seeing Campbell in a bouffant wig and sporting the King’s sneer and swagger does it for you, then “Bubba Ho-Tep’s” charms—such as they are—may not be all lost.

Grade: C

Written/Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy

A Tale of Two Sisters

Dread may be our most primal response to the unexplainably grotesque. If you reflect on the high water marks of Hollywood’s post-60s horror canon, you may find that the best–among them “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” and the more recent “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others”–all masterfully elicit and sustain dread. David Lynch, not really a horror filmmaker, has traded in the elements of horror from the beginning: Consider that cavernous thrum and echo that reverberates through the sound design from “Eraserhead” to “Mulholland Drive” and which foreshadow the nightmares, murders and dangers that saturate his dread-filled cinema.

As “A Tale of Two Sisters” attests, Korean writer-director Ji-woon Kim has well absorbed the lessons of Kubrick and Lynch. This tantalizing blend of psychological horror and chamber drama is propped up on the question of what is imagined and what is real–similar to M. Night Shymalan’s design for “The Sixth Sense” or Alejandro Amenábar’s for “The Others.” Unlike those filmmakers, though, Kim doesn’t strive to create fully rounded, sympathetic characters. Instead, he goes for a macabre fairy tale dynamic within which his main characters–a pair of adolescent sisters traumatized after their mother’s death, a sinister stepmother, and a guilt-ridden father–function more as archetypes in the Roald Dahl mold.

Kim concocts a puzzle box of a story–turning the past and the present, dreams and memories into slowly cohering pieces–as Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim), just released from a mental asylum, arrives with her sister, Soo-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) to live at her father’s country house. Tensions begin brewing between the sisters and their stepmother (a terrifically chilling Jung-ah Yum) who may or may not be responsible for their mother’s gruesome demise. Soo-mi, who is deeply attached to her curiously quiet sister, seems troubled by her burgeoning womanhood (much is made of menstrual blood), terrorized by her stepmother and by nocturnal visions of her dead mother, all while her father hovers ineffectually in the background. “Two Sisters” teases us with bits of information, never providing quite enough to substantiate its weight of psychodrama and its final-act revelation feels tacked on just to tie up the frilly ends of its plotting.

Story weaknesses might easily undo your average Hollywood horror outing, but in “Two Sisters,” story is merely as a springboard for Kim’s bravura filmmaking. His movie is a delirious mélange of styles that absorbs us for two solid hours. Depicting the placid environs of his setting, Kim crafts a lovely, unhurried naturalism before he guides us through his forboding interiors wherein his movie becomes a kaleidoscope of color schemes and visual tones, from the retina-searing crimson of pubescence and death, the creams and blues of memory, to the bleaker hues of stepmotherly deception. Kim’s tour de force culminates with a Lynchian descent into madness, in which the sepiatoned past collides with its blood-spattered consequences in the present. “Two Sisters” poses gross questions of causality and character development, but when a filmmaker can wield his palete with such joyous and assured fury, who knows how to spook you with bursts of cinematic dread, you don’t ask questions. You just enjoy the ride.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Ji-woon Kim
Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-Young Moon

Best Worst Movie

Michael Paul Stephenson’s enjoyable, sometimes fascinating, “Best Worst Movie” chronicles the making of the horror cheapie “Troll 2,” and how, in the twenty years since its critically panned release, this so-called “worst movie ever made” has spawned a significant worldwide cult. Stephenson can claim personal authority with his subject since, as an eight-year-old, he was himself part of “Troll 2’s” cast. By and large, though, he keeps his own opinions under wraps, and lets his documentary’s motley assortment of characters tell the story. Front and center among them is Dr. George Hardy, now a successful dentist in small-town Alabama, who played the lead in “Troll 2.”

“Best Worst Movie,” in a sense, is Hardy’s story as Stephenson’s cameras follow him through a fling with a kind of revisionist stardom thanks to “Troll 2’s” growing internet fan base. We watch as Hardy, a cheerful and unassuming gentleman, reacts with puzzlement then delight at the wild reception he receives nationwide while making appearances at “Troll 2” revival screenings. These opening sections of “Best Worst Movie” feel weakest because they lack tension between the subject and his environment — the stuff of great drama – as Hardy and his movie are met with unbridled adoration by one and all. But, then, gradually, a sense of reality creeps in, and heartbreak as it dawns on Hardy that, beyond a very narrow segment of film buffs, he and his movie are about as well regarded as last week’s leftover pizza. Those moments of realization ground Stephenson’s documentary with a humility and wisdom that give it a resonant, poignant quality, however bittersweet.

Stephenson explores intriguing themes about the nature of bad cinema, about notions of cult celebrity, and why legions of enthusiasts rally around certain admittedly awful movies – of which “Troll 2” seems to be the reigning king. “Best Worst Movie” succeeds in much the same way as recent documentaries like “King of Kong” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”; they all reveal and humanize little seen communities in our shared culture, and offer deeply felt answers to pressing questions about fame, success, and finding purpose in life.

For Hardy, the journey to cult celebrity and back offers a hard-won realization that stardom, for all its tempting thrills, can be equally demoralizing. For others in “Troll 2’s” cast and crew, the cult status with which they’ve been conferred is met with various and surprising reactions, from actress Connie Young’s bemused embarrassment to Italian director Claudio Fragasso’s intensely conflicted feelings over being regarded as the maestro of bad cinema. But where Stephenson’s film really plumbs its darkest, richest depths is in the portraits of co-stars Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, and Margo Prey – all of whom seem to be living on the margins, whether retired, withdrawn or recovering from illness. The bare honesty of their personalities speaks both to their courage and to their willingness to share their most private insecurities and regrets.

“Troll 2” is a terrible movie, but it’s the best kind of terrible – unselfconscious and made with utter sincerity, as if the fate of humanity depended on it. Listening to the testimony of the movie’s true believers, from film critics to cult-movie fans, I began to wonder if, on the scale of good to bad – from, say, “Citizen Kane” on one end and “Troll 2” on the other – art from either extremes can and must be appreciated in their own, albeit polar opposite, ways. Whether a brightly radiant star or a powerful, all-consuming black hole, both elicit our awe and our admiration, do they not? Perhaps the anti-masterpiece deserves a place in our hearts as much as the masterpiece.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Written by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Cast: Michael Paul Stephenson, George Hardy, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Jason Wright, Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Claudio Fragasso