So guess what? All the doom-and-gloom talk about World War Z's troubled $200 million production — its production shutdowns, whole weeks of shooting in Prague left on the cutting room floor, rumors of clashes between Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster — was just that: talk. Far from being the apocalyptic implosion entertainment journalists have been anticipating for over a year, World War Z is a coherent, suspenseful zombie thriller that's also something more.
It's a genuine epic, the maximalist yang to The Walking Dead's claustrophobic yin. Where AMC's megahit drama focuses mostly on the relationship dynamics of a core group of post-zombie-apocalypse survivors in backwoods Georgia, Forster takes us globe-trotting, showing us people who aren't just fleeing for their lives but genuinely fighting to retake the planet. That involves some macro-view political commentary, though not nearly as much as in Max Brooks' 2006 novel of the same name.
Unlike fellow summer blockbusters Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z dispenses with exposition and almost immediately plunges you into the chaos. Gerry (Pitt), a family man who used to be a UN crisis negotiator, flees Philadelphia with his family as a worldwide virus spreads, killing people then reanimating them as the ravenous undead. These scenes very much evoke Steven Spielberg's family-on-the-run dynamic, a la War of the Worlds. As in that film, often considered the first blockbuster allegory of 9/11, the breakdown of society isn't conveyed so much by CGI panoramas of burning buildings — the images of wrecked cityscapes in Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel that are rightly being referred to as "destruction porn" — but by an on-the-ground view of the human consequences. We know all is lost when Pitt's Gerry shoots an attacker during a looting spree at a convenience store, then lays down his gun to surrender to a policeman, only to have the cop storm right past him to take part in the looting himself.
Eventually the family drama takes a back seat to a global view of how humankind as a whole would react in the face of imminent extinction. Like Independence Day, World War Z suggests that a crisis of this magnitude would actually unite the world in a holistic effort to fight back, making it, for better or worse, one of the more optimistic blockbuster films in recent memory. Once Pitt's Gerry safely stashes his family aboard an aircraft carrier, he flies to South Korea, Israel, and Wales to piece together how to cure the zombie virus.
The sequences in Israel are particularly complex. On the one hand, the movie's suggestion that the Israeli government knew about the zombie apocalypse before anyone else, and shut their borders accordingly, echoes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews somehow knew about 9/11 in advance. Except that World War Z's portrayal of the Mossad, of a tenacious Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) who won’t even let a severed hand stop her, and of Jerusalem as a welcoming ecumenopolis, is very positive.
Since the human characters are so very much at the forefront of World War Z, the zombies do inevitably get short-shrift. Forster seems content to just give us quick glimpses of them, often clustered together in CGI hordes like insects working in tandem. Expect none of the fine makeup you've become used to on The Walking Dead. In fact, close-up shots of the zombies show them chomping non-stop, even when they're just biting air, as if they're Hungry Hungry Hippos in human form. But focusing attention more on the human characters actually ratchets up the suspense. A scene in which infected souls turn into zombies then start biting fellow passengers on a commercial airliner is absolutely terrifying. As is the final set-piece, which I will not spoil for you here. Those moments of tightly-wound dread show that World War Z, unlike the zombies it depicts, or most other summer blockbusters for that matter, is far from brain-dead.
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Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Authorities in the Bahamas on Sunday pressed on with their investigation into the crash of a Cessna aircraft that took the lives of singer-actress Aaliyah and eight others shortly after takeoff on a flight bound for Opa-Locka, FL. Reporting on the tragedy, Boston Globe music critic Steve Morse commented today (Monday): "It ended the life of a singer who brought a special elegance to the hip-hop/soul genre, as well as a unique charisma to the screen." In addition to recording two hit albums, Aaliyah, born Aaliyah Haughton 22 years ago, had also starred in last year's Romeo Must Die and had completed filming the movie version of Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned, in which she played the title character. She had also signed to appear in the next two sequels of The Matrix. Her death extends the sizable list of performers who have died in the crashes of small private craft, including Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), Patsy Cline, Rick Nelson, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ronnie Van Zant, and John Denver.