Post Date Jun 21

World War Z

World War Z Movie ReviewParamount Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense, frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Walking out of “World War Z,” I realized I probably haven’t felt this edgy and paranoid after a movie since … “Aliens,” maybe? And that was when I was an impressionable teenager in the San Fernando Valley, way back in 1986.

The reports are well-known by now about how the production was plagued by extensive rewrites and weeks of re-shoots _ including an entirely different ending _ which sent the blockbuster’s budget skyrocketing well beyond the $200-million mark. Whatever changes director Marc Forster made with a writing team that includes Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) and who knows how many others, they seem to have been the right ones. As a viewer, you’d never know there was turmoil; the switches are seamless.

As both thrilling spectacle and escapist summer entertainment, “World War Z” is enormously effective, with Brad Pitt at the center hopscotching the globe in search of the origin of a zombie apocalypse. A pandemic is quickly spreading worldwide, turning terrified humans into ravenous predators 12 seconds after they’re exposed and leveling major cities in no time. It’s powerful in its propulsive energy, in both the sense of panic it creates off the top and the quieter, creeping feeling of dread that permeates the final act. I must admit I haven’t read the Max Brooks book that the film is based on, but I understand from friends who have that the tweaks in voice and narrative structure still result in a blast of a film.

“World War Z” startles you just as much in what it doesn’t show as what it does; this is a PG-13 zombie flick, after all, so it’s low on the gore. But the repercussions of this fight for survival are clear and inescapable, often lurking just outside the frame.

The visuals are never short of impressive and often are dazzlingly disturbing; the action is worlds more inspired than Forster’s James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” These aren’t shuffling, lumbering zombies but convulsing, flailing, ravenous freaks. Individually, they’re shocking in their spastic unpredictability; en masse, they are a menacing swarm, working together in a frenzy to create fear. There’s obviously a great deal of CGI at work here in the larger attacks on entire cities, but one scene in particular in Jerusalem, in which the zombies instinctively use each other as a ladder to scramble over a giant wall that’s (supposedly) a fool-proof means of keeping them out, is especially spectacular.

(Three words: exploding zombie helicopter.)

“World War Z” is, however, a tad low on the character development. More than a tad, actually, and the fact that we don’t get to know these people very well keeps us from becoming deeply moved by their peril. Pitt, as former United Nations field investigator Gerry Lane, accomplishes a lot rather efficiently in conveying authority, in establishing a calming feeling in a sea of chaos and carnage. This is not one of his showier or sexier roles by any means, but he gets the job done, often through the sheer power of his magnetic presence. But if you take a step back and actually, you know, think, you realize he’s functioning in the cliched position of being pulled out of retirement for that tried-and-true one last job.

Pitt (who also serves as a producer on the film) also has some lovely, intimate scenes with Mireille Enos, who gives a natural, stand-out performance as his wife and the mother of the couple’s two daughters. Watching them together is also a bit frustrating, though, because you know Enos is capable of even more nuance, more humanity, if only she’d been given the chance. Similarly, strong character actors including James Badge Dale and David Morse appear in roles that are brief but so memorable, they leave you longing for more. Only Daniella Kertesz, as a young Israeli soldier who starts out as Gerry’s protector but becomes a crucial figure in his plan, is afforded the opportunity to show what she can really do.

Even Brad Pitt can use a little help every now and then.


Post Date Jun 20

Monsters University

Monsters University Movie ReviewDisney Pixar
Rated G.
Running time: 103 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

The thing that sets Pixar films apart from other animated movies _ the force that delights us and tugs at us all, regardless of who we are or where we come from _ is story. Story has been paramount above all else and a signature of this production company since its inception two decades ago.

It’s also something that, sadly, has been in diminishing supply in the past few Pixar offerings: “Cars 2,” “Brave” and their latest, “Monsters University.”

This prequel to the 2001 charmer “Monsters, Inc.” doesn’t feel as flat and phoned-in as “Cars 2,” which remains the weakest Pixar movie from a creativity standpoint. But it pales in comparison to the best the studio has had to offer, which is especially disappointing given both the inventive premise and unexpected emotion of “Monsters, Inc.”

It is essentially “Revenge of the Nerds,” with fur. And scales. And whatever gooey, gelatinous substance comprises the outer coating of various other oddball creatures in this crazy parallel world. Director Dan Scanlon’s film is chock full of the sorts of clever details, colorful characters and lively pacing you’ve come to expect from a Pixar picture.  And Billy Crystal and John Goodman enjoy terrific, spirited banter once more as they lead a strong voice cast.

It’s all enjoyable enough. It just never digs deep enough to move us.

“Monsters University” follows Crystal’s Mike Wazowski and Goodman’s James P. “Sulley” Sullivan years before they’d become the master scarers of Monsters, Inc. _ when they were just college freshmen at the start of their careers. (If you’ll recall, these are the creatures who are the best at scaring little kids, whose screams serve as a crucial energy source.) Young Mikey, a tiny, lime-green ball with one eye and spindly limbs, doesn’t look terribly intimidating, but he’s smart and resourceful and he’s got moxie on his side. Naturally, he clashes on the first day of classes with Sulley, a big, blue wall of fur and a legacy who doesn’t feel the need to work terribly hard.

When their rivalry gets them both kicked out of the school’s prestigious Scare Program, Mikey comes up with a way to get back in: They’ll join a fraternity and compete in the annual Scaring Games. (Helen Mirren is witheringly dismissive as the voice of the centipede-like Dean Hardscrabble, the only character who might be even remotely disturbing for the littlest viewers.)

The house Mikey and Sulley reluctantly pledge is a paltry crew of misfits _ the Tri-Lambdas of the monster world, if you will. They include an octopus who’s a middle-aged former salesman (Joel Murray), the bickering, two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean P. Hayes and Dave Foley) and the doughy, five-eyed Scott “Squishy” Squibbles. (Peter Sohn) Their letters are Oozma Kappa which makes them _ that’s right _ OK. (Much of this stuff is funnier if you were in a house yourself in college. The dorky Delta Gamma in me enjoyed the cute, matching sweaters these guys wore.)

Naturally, the powerful and popular fraternities and sororities underestimate and bully them from one elaborate challenge to the next. But the Oozma Kappas have heart, dammit! So you won’t be terribly shocked that they shock the world.

Somewhere, though, amid the slapstick and festivities, there’s a message about coming to terms with what you’re best at doing and learning to do it the best you can. It’s unusually sobering but useful advice, especially in this economy, as well as in an overly coddling world in which kids get trophies merely for showing up.

Post Date Jun 17

The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring Movie ReviewA24 Films
Rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

The sense of detachment that is a signature of Sofia Coppola’s work – the coolly distant, stylishly dreamlike way she regards her characters _ works to her detriment in “The Bling Ring.”

In previous films, including “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere,” the aesthetic results in an unshakable melancholy; we share her characters’ loneliness and need to connect, we’re with them in feeling lost within fashionable crowds and glittering trappings.

Here, the San Fernando Valley teens who get off breaking into celebrities’ homes are so vapid, Coppola’s tonal choices as writer and director only accentuate how empty they are _ which renders the film itself empty as a result. Coppola has said she didn’t want to pass judgment on anyone involved in bringing this true-crime story to the big screen, which is admirable. But at the same time, she also doesn’t provide much insight. These people are no different at the end than they were at the beginning: they learn nothing, they regret nothing.

We’re left wondering, why do they go to the trouble and risk of pulling off this string of burglaries? Just for the stuff …? That very well may have been the case in real life, but it doesn’t make for the most compelling viewing. Coppola doesn’t seem terribly interested in discovering whether there’s any “there” there.

But “The Bling Ring” is certainly watchable in both its artfulness and its gaudiness. This is the last film of the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides, who also shot Coppola’s “Somewhere”; Christopher Blauvelt shares d.p. duties. And gawking at all the goodies provides a brief and fleeting thrill – all those Louboutins and Louis Vuitton bags. Paris Hilton, a frequent Bling Ring target, even opened her home to Coppola and her crew to shoot the scenes in which she’s victimized. (As you can imagine, it’s simultaneously hilarious and horrifying in its excess.) Ever fashionable herself, Coppola teamed up with costume designer Stacey Battat to recreate the luxurious wardrobes of hot young Hollywood staples including Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom and Audrina Patridge. (Well, hot back in 2009 when the film takes place.)

The Bling Ring’s mastermind, Rebecca (a chillingly self-possessed Katie Chang), and her insecure, worshipful sidekick Marc (newcomer Israel Broussard), start smaller, though, breaking into random cars and friends’ homes. But their love of clothing design and celebrity culture inspires them to think bigger, Googling stars’ addresses and breaking into their high-end abodes when online entertainment reports indicate they’ll be away at an event or a movie shoot. Damn Internet, with its seemingly useless information.

Soon they include their equally empty pals in the scheme: wannabe model-actress Nicki (Emma Watson, continuing to shatter her good-girl Hermione Granger image); Sam (Taissa Farmiga), Nicki’s wild roommate and fellow homeschooler; and hard-partying rich girl Chloe (Claire Julien). These characters _ whose names have been changed from the real-life figures _ are essentially interchangeable in terms of how they react in each situation and what they do afterward: post Facebook pictures of themselves club-hopping in their purloined party wear.

Their mid-burglary commentary on the items they find can be amusing, but it all should have been funnier, sexier, sharper. Rather than providing any observant commentary on the entitlement of an impatient, demanding generation, the plot consists of one break-in, followed by another, and then another, without much tension, progression or arc.

Any semblance of satire comes from Watson’s character, who might even believe her own hype when she insists she wants to use her newfound notoriety to start a charity. The “Harry Potter” star effectively masks her British accent with a hard, nasal SoCal one, and has shown some impressive range lately between this, “This Is the End” and last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

And like the rest of her leggy, young cohorts, she wears the clothes well. That’s about it.

Post Date Jun 7

The Internship

The Internship Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, some crude humor, partying and language.
Running time: 119 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“The Internship” reunites Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, stars of the smash hit “Wedding Crashers,” with glimmers of their old banter and none of the bite.

Similar to Eddie Murphy’s hard right turn from daring and profane comedy to family-friendly romps, Vaughn and Wilson have gone all soft and gooey here. Maybe it’s an inevitable product of getting older and having to adapt to survive; maybe they genuinely wanted to try on the father-figure role for size. Either way, it’s entirely too safe and not enough fun, keeping it squarely within the confines of director Shawn Levy’s oeuvre (the “Night at the Museum” movies, “Real Steel”).

Essentially a two-hour-long promo for Google – as if the ubiquitous search engine needed it – “The Internship” finds Vaughn and Wilson out of work as longtime watch salesmen when the iPhone makes their product obsolete, according to their no-nonsense boss (a woefully underused John Goodman). This is actually a rare, insightful nugget within the premise; the rest of the movie is feel-good fluff.

Vaughn’s fast-talking Billy McMahon (as if there were any other kind of Vaughn character) tracks down Wilson’s Nick Campbell at the mattress store where he’s stuck working _ the best scene in the whole movie, thanks to Will Ferrell as Wilson’s boss. Billy tells his longtime pal he’s lined up an interview for them … to intern at Google.  If they’re accepted for the summer, they’ll have to compete against hundreds of brilliant and far more technologically savvy college students for the chance at full-time gigs.

Naturally, they get in, and find themselves functioning as tried-and-true fish out of water in this familiar formula. Also totally unsurprisingly, the Google campus itself is depicted as a rainbow-hued Shangri-La by the bay, with sand volleyball courts and bike sharing, free snacks and nap pods.

Immediately, Billy and Nick get lumped in with the other misfits, including perky cosplay girl Neha (a hugely likable Tiya Sircar) and meek homeschooler Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael). Among the other supporting cast, Max Minghella is the arbitrary bully of the intern class, Aasif Mandvi is the program’s condescending coordinator and Rose Byrne is the uptight, overworked Google exec with whom Nick has a thoroughly unbelievable romance. (This needless subplot seriously reeks of pandering to female filmgoers.)

A few scattered laughs aside, “The Internship” is mostly way too lame and predictable, with the outcasts banding together to beat the smug shoo-ins. It’s also a good, solid 20 minutes too long, with one or two challenges too many, one or two montages too many. Individual scenes that might have had some clever notions in them drag on, as well. The night Billy and Nick’s team has a spontaneous outing on the Google bus to San Francisco — and ends up at the tamest strip club in the history of mankind in this decidedly PG-13 affair – features a couple of amusing ideas but then feels as if it will never end.

It’s as if everyone involved, including Vaughn as co-screenwriter, was so enamored of their precious comic gems that they couldn’t possibly jettison any of them for the sake of lean and lively storytelling.

Vaughn and Wilson still share an easy chemistry, despite the weakened material. The actors retain a firm grasp on their respective personae: Vaughn is the brash but charismatic smart-ass who’s always hustling, while Wilson is the laid-back and wryly sardonic sidekick who woos the women with sweetness. No one is stretching very far or wandering outside of his comfort zone. But the edge that made “Wedding Crashers” such a thrill – the selfishness and slight meanness that made these guys such a crackling team – has been obliterated with a few simple keystrokes.