Chuck Koplinski: Epic scope, uncommon intelligence save 'WW Z'

Beset with an ending that had to be reshot over seven weeks at great expense, causing the release date to be pushed back, which only contributed to its already skyrocketing cost, "World War Z" has been plagued with no shortage of problems.

Burdened with a budget somewhere between $170 million and $200 million, the film has quickly gone from being what Paramount Pictures thought would be the start of a profitable trio of movies to potentially being a very expensive millstone around the studio's neck. Things have become so desperate that star and producer Brad Pitt has taken to showing up to introduce the movie at advanced screenings, pulling off the unenviable hat trick of appearing in Atlanta, Chicago and Austin in one nine-hour span. When one of the most recognized movie stars on the planet is willing to put himself through the wringer like this, you know Paramount is sweating bullets.

To say that the film is not completely successful is to fault its ambition, which exceeds its grasp. In attempting to capture an international pandemic, director Marc Forster does a fine job of giving the movie the proper sense of scope that a tale of this size demands. It's a globe-trotting exercise, what with our hero, U.N. Special Operative Gerry Lane (Pitt) required to travel to Philadelphia, South Korea, Israel and East Europe over the course of a couple weeks in an effort to find the source of the disease so that a cure might be found. No expense was spared in shooting at these locations or recreating them, which underscores the film's epic ambitions effectively.

The plot is simple and straightforward as Lane follows the bread crumbs from one locale to the next, encountering spastic, speedy zombies at every stop along the way. When broken down, the film is nothing more than four extended set pieces, all of which successfully build upon one another to a satisfying climax. The Lane family's escape from the former City of Brotherly Love gets things off to a rousing start, while a sequence that sees our hero fleeing from South Korea in a huge air transport is helped along with a much needed dose of dark humor. Equally effective is the fall of Jerusalem in which the city, now walled in, is overrun.

However, the highlight of the film is a sequence that finds a stowaway zombie wreaking havoc on a plane Lane is on, turning everyone in biting distance into a member of the undead. Our hero's solution is inspired, fantastic and fatal.

Again, all of these sequences are well-executed but hindered by Forster's rapid editing style which rendered "Quantum of Solace" visually incomprehensible. The effect is almost as bad here, but the fact that things move so quickly from one big scene to the next serves as a balm.

What saves the film in the end is the uncommonly intelligent approach to the material. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard do a masterful job of adapting Max Brooks' novel, which is a collection of first-person accounts. The book's smart, fresh approach is retained here, and at times, it's inspired, particularly when the solution to the plague is revealed during the harrowing climax.

If anything, the movie leaves us wanting more, and it feels as though the story would have been better served as a miniseries. (Apparently, much of the political subtext of the story was cut due to budget issues, much to Pitt's disdain.)

While not a completely successful film, the tone and approach of "World War Z" injects new life into a genre that, much likes its subjects, seems unstoppable. As Lane states during the movie's final moments, "This isn't the end," as the door is left wide open for future installments.

Here's hoping this saga continues, albeit with a steadier hand at the helm.

'World War Z' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Elyes Gabel, Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove.

Directed by Marc Forster; produced by Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Pitt; screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, based on the novel by Max Brooks.

A Paramount Pictures release. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.) At AMC Village Mall 6, Harvest Moon Drive-In and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Frances Ha" lives, dies by its main character. (2-1/2 stars)

You can see the fingerprints of many other filmmakers all over Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha."

With its New York City setting and flighty protagonist, self-absorbed characters and black-and-white cinematography, it's impossible not to think of the work of Woody Allen, Henry Jaglom or any of the directors who came to prominence during the French New Wave when watching it.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with paying homage to the artists who have influenced you, the film comes off as a step backward for Baumbach, who impressed in 2010's "Greenberg," an edgy, honest movie that dealt with a man uncertain about how to go about living his life.

"Frances Ha" covers much of the same ground but with a distinctly different sort of protagonist at its core. The driving force behind the movie is Greta Gerwig, the indie darling who is Baumbach's muse, credited as co-writer here. The actress has been a mainstay in the independent film world since 2006 and makes an impression each time she appears on screen, what with her fresh, girl-next-door beauty and her sunny disposition. There's no question she's an appealing actress, and the good will she fosters helps us stick with the title character long after our patience has run its course where her scatterbrained behavior is concerned.

Frances is fully aware that she's not quite with it. Twenty-seven years old and living in New York City, she's barely hanging on as an apprentice at a dance company while sharing an apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).

However, when her bestie moves out to a better place in trendy Tribeca, our heroine stumbles into a downward spiral that finds her sleeping on a couch in an apartment shared by two male buddies and paying $950 a month for the privilege, before bunking up with a colleague from the dance academy and ultimately ending up working for room and board at the college she graduated from six years earlier. A truer statement was never spoken than when she says, "I'm not a real person yet."

This is much the same set-up as Gerwig's previous film, "Lola Versus," in which she played a heartbroken woman drifting aimlessly about the Big Apple. Yet, while her character there was a bit of a sad sack, Frances is far perkier, if a bit more clueless. (I kept thinking the film should have been called "Annie Hall: The Early Years.")

Ultimately, the movie becomes a bit of a frustrating exercise as her increasingly ludicrous actions run counter to the character's intelligence. A spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris for the weekend and her resistance to looking for a job just to make ends meet wind up making us want to stage an intervention for the poor girl rather than chuckle at her flights of fancy or supposed determination.

Fans of the HBO series "Girls" will see Frances as a kindred spirit, a confused young woman who just needs time to find her way, and in that sense, there's a timeliness to the project that makes it relevant.

However, for those who might find the character to be immature and a bit hopeless, after seeing her urinate on the tracks of the New York City subway, sorting the junk drawer in your kitchen may be a better use of your time than sitting through this overgrown child's misadventures.

"This is the End" effective, comedic look at end of days. (3 stars)

I would be willing to bet that movie studios dread it when a major star whose films have generated big box office approach them with a vanity project.

These are movies that are personal in nature and tend to have no superheroes, car chases or explosions in them, meaning they're going to bomb at the box office. If you faintly remember Russell Crowe's ill-fated 2006 feature "A Good Year" (he's a businessman who inherits his uncle's winery - ring any bells? I thought not), then you know what I mean.

That being said, it's obvious that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's "This is the End" is the exception that proves the rule where vanity projects are concerned and the kind that studios would love to see more of.

Made for a relatively modest $32 million, the movie is basically an extended therapy session for Rogan and his friends as they play themselves on screen, venting and screaming at one another things they wished they could say in real life but don't.

In the film, they have nothing to lose as the End of Days has occurred, which puts a bit of a damper on James Franco's housewarming party where the crew has assembled. Those in attendance include Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera and Emma Watson among many others of the young Hollywood crowd.

If none of these names sound familiar, well, then this film wasn't pitched toward you, and seeing "Before Midnight" would be a better option for you this weekend. If you're still reading, that means you know who these performers are, and you know what to expect from a movie jam-packed with actors and actresses of this ilk. There is, on average, a joke about the male member every 6.5 minutes, drug-related humor abounds and there are at least three extended comedic scenes that I cannot properly describe in this publication.

While there's nothing new where jokes of this sort are concerned, it must be said that they're delivered with the sort of vicious energy that hits the mark, especially an increasingly heated exchange between Franco and McBride over a pornographic magazine that left me in tears, gasping for breath.

And while the gags work more times than not, what's most engaging about "This is the End" is the way in which these well-known celebs portray themselves on screen. Self-deprecating humor abounds, particularly where Cera is concerned. The boyish actor, who came to prominence in "Juno," is seen as a coke-addled, sex-addicted bore, who readily earns the grisly fate that awaits him when the Earth opens up and the Hollywood Hills are on fire, having been raked by demons that are now roaming the Earth's skies.

In an interview, Rogen has stated that 50 percent of what we see on screen was improvised and that often conversations between actors had to be halted because they would become too intense. No doubt, a bit of catharsis was being experienced on the set.

Though the film overstays its welcome, there's no question it delivers more than its fair share of fun. In making this vanity project, it's obvious that little in the way of ego was involved as Rogen and his cohorts portray themselves at their worst to great effect.

And if heaven is anything like it's portrayed here, spending eternity there will be well worth the wait.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and via his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film

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woopitydo wrote on June 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

"However, the highlight of the film is a sequence that finds a stowaway zombie wreaking havoc on a plane Lane is on, turning everyone in biting distance into a member of the undead. Our hero's solution is inspired, fantastic and fatal."


 


Please, please tell me you did not just spoil the movie for me.....