Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mother Nature is a serial killer.

A few weeks ago, World War Z was barely on my radar. I had no interest in a gore-free, PG-13 zombie movie, and the reports that the movie was basically an adaptation of Max Brooks' book in name only, as well as the much-publicized decision to scrap and reshoot the third act, did little to change my mind. That the film's director is Marc Forster - a director I consider not just bad but incompetent and bizarrely overpraised - was also not an encouraging sign. After reading a good deal of positive reviews and, especially, hearing good things from horror-loving friends, I decided to give World War Z a try. After about ten minutes, I was very surprised to find that, not only was World War Z not bad, I was actually loving it. The rest of the movie never disappointed me; it's not perfect, but if you can put aside your expectations, it's consistently thrilling, clever and often very creepy. I never expected to say this, but World War Z is the best popcorn movie I've seen so far this summer.
After a great opening credits sequence, with news clips about real-life fears like climate change and overpopulation set to a Carpenter-esque synth score (credited to Marco Beltrami and Muse - this piece sounds more like Muse), World War Z introduces us to our hero, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). We quickly learn that Lane used to work as an envoy for the United Nations, but retired to become a stay-at-home dad to his two daughters. As in Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds, just as much time as needed is spent on establishing the characters before we're hurtled into the action; the escalating sense of chaos as Philadelphia is quickly overtaken by zombies is very well staged, especially when Forster cuts away from the standard shaky-cam, rapid-cut coverage of the action to wide aerial shots that survey the scope of the rapidly spreading epidemic. There's never been a zombie movie with the budget of World War Z, and while the narrative doesn't reinvent the wheel, to see the a zombie movie unfold on a literally global scale is a treat for anyone who ever imagined what the original version of Day of the Dead might have been like if Romero had the money.
While World War Z doesn't match Romero's level of, er, biting social commentary, it works because it treats zombies as a credible real-world threat - even if it's not a faithful adaptation of the book, it's true to Brooks' straightfaced take on a seemingly ridiculous hypothetical situation, not to mention his emphasis on the importance of commonplace but essential components of survival like staying hydrated and preventing infection (the everyday kind, not just the zombie kind). The movie's also a nice antidote to the hypermasculine, increasingly dumb redneck soldier bullshit of The Walking Dead. It's not inconsequential that Lane works for the U.N., and as the film takes him to South Korea, Jerusalem and a W.H.O. office in Cardiff, meeting soldiers, scientists, and government officials attempting to deal with the zombie crisis, there's a subtle but surely not accidental emphasis on the importance of nations working together to solve problems that threaten all of humanity. Better yet, the movie consistently creates situations where resourceful thinking is a better survival tool than blasting one's way through a zombie horde. I'm not saying World War Z is An Inconvenient Truth, but with the voice of progressive activism represented by a badass, machete-wielding Brad Pitt instead of Jeffrey DeMunn in a Hawaiian shirt, a few zombie-loving kids might be inspired to learn a thing or two about the World Health Organization or the U.N., and that ain't bad.
Admittedly, the PG-13 rating and general lack of zombie carnage is noticeable, and the way the movie is carefully cut to pull its punches is distracting and sometimes irksome. On the other hand, what the movie lacks in viscera, it makes up for in intensity - there are action sequences in this, like the scene in Jerusalem or one set aboard a commercial airplane, that are among the most suspenseful and expertly staged I've seen in recent years (this doesn't make up for Monster's Ball, Marc Forster, but keep up the good work). And the movie doesn't shy away from its pulpy antecedents - I was pleasantly surprised that the word "zombie" is used frequently instead of "walkers" or some other dumb euphemism, and the movie isn't above classic B-movie scare tactics. I can't lie, I'd probably give the movie an extra half-star if it was rated R, but I also appreciate that this is a zombie movie I can share with my young, horror movie-obsessed son when it comes out on Blu-ray.
And, surprisingly, the redone third act works, focusing on a pretty clever solution to the problem and the emotional through-line of Pitt getting back to his family - as Damon Lindelof actually managed to save a screenplay, I hope the internet gives him a break for a while. The family stuff, in particular, rings very true, largely thanks to Mireille Enos as Gerry's wife Karen, who does a lot in her handful of scenes to build a convincing relationship with Pitt. And I also absolutely loved Daniella Kertesz as Segen, an Israeli solder who is a total badass even, or especially, after she's badly wounded. I can't explain why - we learn basically nothing about the character - but after one big action sequence, I was actively worried that Segen hadn't survived and very relieved when it was revealed that she did. Of course, a lot of the credit for World War Z working as well as it did goes to Pitt, who produced the movie and who stuck with it through its troubled production - if I hadn't read so beforehand, I'd have never guessed that the movie went through such drastic changes. And I have to assume Pitt is also largely responsible for the movie's humanitarian streak - the movie urges us to take care of each other and not lose hope, not just with zombies but whatever might be coming, which would feel trite if it weren't clear that its star and producer believes it. When most of the summer's movies have made a lot of noise but very little on their minds, it's refreshing to see a blockbuster that not only delivers on the spectacle but is actually about something that matters.

Monday, June 17, 2013

It's still there. It's still there. It's still there. It's gone.

(A warning: While I'm not going to get into overt spoilers, stop reading if you'd prefer to go into Before Midnight without knowing anything that happened to Jesse and Céline after Before Sunset faded to black.)

In my review of Before Sunset, I mentioned how I originally saw it and Before Sunrise when I was younger and less experienced in relationships and life than the characters, and I wondered what Before Midnight would tell me about what life might be like in a few years. So I was surprised to find that, though Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) are now in their early forties and I'm 29, I related to Before Midnight far more immediately than I expected. Perhaps it's true that, as some of my friends have suggested, I'm in the throes of an early mid-life crisis. Where the first film was about a perfect moment and the second was about whether it's possible to recapture the connection Jesse and Céline shared that night, Before Midnight is about the choice between fighting to preserve a romantic ideal of love alive through all of life's mundane and dramatic obstacles, loving a long-term relationship for what it is, or leaving. For anyone with a certain amount of relationship experience and general life baggage, Before Midnight will cut deep, but in the best way possible.

The movie begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece, as Jesse says goodbye to Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his son from his first marriage. Jesse did miss his plane nine years earlier, leaving his wife for Céline and eventually moving to Paris with her after the birth of their twin daughters. Director Richard Linklater and his two lead actors once again wrote the screenplay, and they smartly allow us to gradually fill in the important details of the past nine years, rather than forcing a lot of awkward exposition at the start. The characters have grown as we might have guessed, with Céline still the activist who feels despair at her self-described Sisyphean attempts to make the world a better place, and Jesse still the charming, if self-satisfied, romantic. It's true that, as the characters observed in the last film and again in this one, we basically stay the same throughout our lives; what has changed are the characters' circumstances, the responsibilities of raising two children and, in Céline's case, the struggle to balance her own self-identity with her roles as a wife and mother, not to mention the idealized version of her that Jesse has written into two novels. While most relationship movies rely on affairs or other contrivances to create drama, it's a pleasure to watch these two fully developed characters grapple with the simpler, more universal problem of continuing to learn how to grow together.

By now, it's clear that Hawke and Delpy know their characters inside and out, and their easy chemistry as Jesse and Céline flirt and bicker (often at the same time) is a joy. The physical familiarity between the two characters, the way they hold and sometimes lean on each other, rang true; this is the first of the films with a love scene, and it feels like they know each others' bodies well, which can't have been easy for the actors to fake. There's a scene involving nudity that is probably the least gratuitous nude scene I've ever seen; it perfectly gets the point in a relationship where partners can hang out in the buff in the most casual, unerotic way possible. The scene fits perfectly with the main question Linklater and his actors pose, namely, how do we keep a romance alive when we're no longer falling in love but are in the thick of it, when we think we know everything about the other person there is to know? There's a great scene where Céline and Jesse are having dinner with their fellow guests at an elderly writer's summer estate where each guest offers their perspective on love. Linklater gives equal voice to sentimental and pragmatic notions of love; the film repeatedly returns to the idea that with love, as with all of life, all things are uncertain and possibly fleeting. Existential doubt has rarely been presented with such warmth and generosity of spirit.

The movie builds to a protracted argument, which is triggered by Jesse's suggestion that he should live closer to his son but, as with most relationship arguments, is really about a dozen other things. I generally resist using this term, but it's one of the most realistic blowouts between a couple that I've ever seen, perfectly capturing how a person can express a profound truth about the relationship in one breath and make a completely off-base, defensive accusation in the next. It's often hilariously relatable - as I've been known to make a dramatic exit only to return a minute later, I cracked up both times Céline did. At the same time, it gets pretty brutal, largely because each actor is willing to strain our affection for these characters we've fallen in love with - it's painful to watch Céline purposefully insult Jesse to get a rise out of him, or to watch Jesse turn self-righteous in order to evade the hardest questions. At the same time, if one were to film any of us having an argument with our partners, I can't imagine the results would be flattering. Some of the reviews I read of Before Midnight in advance made it sound like the movie built towards Bad Timing levels of emotional violence, but it's not nearly that raw. Frankly, I feel bad for anyone who is that disturbed by the reality that couples, even great couples, sometimes have painful arguments; they've got some rough times ahead.

Though Linklater and his cast don't pull any punches about how hard it can be to make even the best relationships work, Before Midnight still ends on a note of hope. I suspect that these movies are the work of a director and two actors who, with each new chapter, try harder but continually fail at hiding the fact that they're unabashed romantics. These films are clear-eyed but never cynical. I suspect that we'll find Jesse and Céline still together in nine years, but even if they aren't, the movie suggests, that doesn't take anything away from what they've shared (and shared with us). And if this turns out to be the last chapter in the story, it ends on a perfect note. These characters once agreed to make the most of the one moment they'd share; now, having built a life together, they're left with the hope that they're still living in that moment.

Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room, didn't ya, you bastard!

When I asked my friends recently to vote for a horror series for me to review, Tremors (can one call it a trilogy?)* won by a decent margin. After rewatching it, I have to insist that, while Tremors is very good and one of the best giant monster movies, it's barely a horror movie. Perhaps it's because I watched movies like Alien and Jaws when I was very young, but even as a kid, when I saw Tremors after those movies, I never found it scary. I suspect that director Ron Underwood and screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock weren't really trying to frighten audiences; for a movie about giant worms attacking the residents of a small desert town, Tremors is actually very lighthearted, even gentle.

What Tremors is is a Hawksian siege movie in the vein of Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, movies about unlikely heroes banding together to protect their towns from outlaws; Tremors simply substitutes "Graboids," as one character dubs them, for outlaws. Our heroes are Earl (Fred Ward) and Val (Kevin Bacon), two hired hands who are attacked by the Graboids on a work site and try to warn, then protect, the nearby town of Perfection, Nevada. Earl and Val are the kind of male protagonists we don't see much of any more in studio movies, even genre movies; they're grizzled, vulgar, unshaven and a bit dim. If Tremors were made today, it might star The Rock and Vin Diesel, who, despite their impressive physiques, can't compare with a chainsmoking Fred Ward for pure manliness. This was the same year Ward played Henry Miller, making Ward's 1990 about as good a year as any actor has had. Bacon is good too, even though Tremors is one of the least useful tools in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, unless you like to go through Reba McEntire just to make things interesting. But I digress. The point is, Val and Earl sleep in their truck and eat baloney and beans for breakfast, and they embody a long-absent and much-needed representation of masculinity in film - shit kickers who rise to the occasion.

I'm stretching here to get about a thousand words out of Tremors, but bear with me. John Carpenter also used the Rio Bravo template, most famously in Assault on Precinct 13 but also in genre movies like Prince of Darkness and, of course, his remake of Hawks' The Thing From Another World. Tremors owes a lot to Carpenter in the way that it blends a Western aesthetic with Creature Feature thrills (it also features Victor Wong, who was in Prince of Darkness and Big Trouble in Little China). Where Tremors departs from Carpenter is also why I don't consider it a horror movie. In Carpenter's movies, the progragonists isolated together against an external threat causes them to gradually (or, in the case of The Thing, rapidly) turn against each other. There's very little interpersonal conflict in the town of Perfection, Nevada, even after the shit hits the fan. Everybody cooperates on plans to defeat the Graboids and escape, and unlike, say, the characters in Night of the Living Dead, nobody is jockeying for alpha male status. In another movie, the survivalist gun nuts played by McEntire and Michael Gross would be in conflict with the other characters, but aside from some mild teasing and one brief standoff between Gross and Bacon, everybody gets along famously. It seems antithetical to the entire history of post-1960s horror movies to not use that setup and, especially, two very conservative supporting characters to interject sociopolitical subtext into the movie. Underwood doesn't seem to have any interest in that; indeed, Tremors seems to be completely free of subtext. The Graboids represent Graboids.

If that weren't reason enough to not classify Tremors as a horror movie, there's the also the very low body count to consider - only one of the main characters is killed, along with a handful of peripheral characters in the first 20 minutes. While a movie like Jaws, even after countless viewings, can still make my heart race from Chief Brody just barely defeating the shark in the nick of time, there's very little suspense as to whether Earl, Val and the rest of Perfection will defeat the Graboids - at one pont, Val actually punches one in the face. The filmmakers clearly didn't have any desire to wring suspense out of the possible deaths of its characters.

However, they do clearly have a blast showing off their huge, animatronic sandworm effects, and even 23 years later, the Graboids still look pretty slick. The effects team included two of KNB's co-founders, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, and the creatures were designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis, who worked on Aliens and all of the subsequent movies in that series. Their work on Tremors, which was released a year before T2 and the practical-to-CGI paradigm shift, represents one of the last great all-practical productions. Both the large Graboids and the smaller heads that emerge, like the xenomorph, from the creatures' gaping maws are surprisingly believable - amazing how helpful dirt and K-Y Jelly are in selling a creature effect. While Tremors was a throwback even in 1990, its low-key pleasures are even easier to appreciate today, as the "bigger = better" mentality dominates megabudget popcorn movies more than ever. What Tremors lacks in scale, it makes up for tenfold in character. Replayed constantly on cable in the early '90s, it's a nostalgia staple for many, many people my age; luckily, unlike too many of the movies we loved as kids, Tremors holds up.

*I've learned that Tremors cannot be called a trilogy because of the existence of Tremors 4, which I was not aware of until now. God help me.