Category Archives: Film

Why World War Z Wimped Out

I eagerly awaited this week’s release of World War Z, the film based on the Max Brooks novel. The New York Times Bestseller is an oral history of mankind’s war against the zombie apocalypse, written in the style of a report with interviews from survivors all over the world. While American characters are frequently the focus of the story, readers get perspectives from South Africa, China, Russia, South America, and all over the world. The tone is realistic and journalistic. The novel is remarkable in several ways:

  • There is no main character. The narrator is almost completely removed from the action. If anything, mankind is the main character. That’s some feat, pulling off a compelling book without someone to root for. But Brooks keeps the tension by making readers wonder how humanity will overcome the challenges from both zombies and from other humans.

  • Social commentary. Most zombie stories carry the same moral: what makes humanity special is the ability to reason. Zombies represent humans minus this gift. But World War Z digs a lot deeper into more cutting issues, including America’s dubious role as “world leader,” the savagery that humans will employ to save themselves, and the power of unconventional thinking.

  • The novel avoids many zombie clichés. Some elements are common to all zombie fiction: the viral origin, the brain as a target, the general uselessness of conventional weapons, worldwide epidemic. However, Brooks puts his own spin on a lot of things (hint: zombies don’t need oxygen, so the sea ain’t safe!). He did incredible amounts of research, so not only does the novel feel realistic, it is actually based on solid information.

I saw the film this afternoon. My expectations were…wary. First bad sign: a PG-13 zombie movie. I certainly don’t need blood and guts to be entertained. But what makes zombies so fearsome is the visceral way they attack and devour. For a zombie film to be effective, viewers need gore. Sure enough, the film featured lots of cutaway shots and off-screen brain-munching, and was therefore bloodless and only occasionally scary. And from what I saw of the previews, it appeared to have all the soulless sheen of a Big Hollywood Production.

After seeing it, here’s why the film wimped out:

  • Main character. The film attempts to make a main character of Brooks’ narrator. Brad Pitt plays the character ably, but there’s not much of interest to him. He’s a generic, Big Hollywood Hero. And the characters around him are totally forgettable. They emerge long enough to move him (and the plot) forward, then die or are abandoned.
  • Complete lack of all that cool stuff from the novel. All the edgy stuff from the novel like pharm companies getting rich off of fake vaccines, a snarl of political issues, and the brutal efforts to reclaim the world are all missing. The focus of the film is on finding a cure, so the “war” against zombies never actually happens (or at least viewers never see it).
  • The film embraces clichés. Good guy hero with emotional scars, called on to save the world? Check. Worried, ineffectual wife and whimpering daughters to fight for? Check. Swarms of secondary characters, human and zombie, to aid/annoy the hero on quest? Check. Unfunny wisecracks by tough guy commandos to lighten the mood? Check. Disproportionately white cast? Check (Side note: there was only one black character in a grocery store in Newark. Come on!). Overall, the film took every opportunity to make a predictable, safe, Big Hollywood Blockbuster. May the production company enjoy their millions.

I am NOT one who demands that a film adhere strictly to its source material. Many fine films have been made from fine books. Some films are better than their novels. (The Prestige). But everything that made the book an engaging read was eliminated in this film, and that’s what left me disappointed.

The film wasn’t a disaster. Brad Pitt makes the character sympathetic, if not interesting. And I was excited to see Marc Foster at the helm—he’s done great stuff in the past. And his artistic touch was evident in some of the lighting and some intense dream sequences. And the band Muse contributed to the more ambient sections of the soundtrack, and they’re the band to write a soundtrack for the apocalypse. It wasn’t a terrible movie, just a disappointing, wimpy one.

Here’s what I’d love to have seen: a mock-documentary. Make it much, much closer to the novel. It’s not like mockumentaries are unprecedented or even all the unusual to American audiences. It would lack a main character (and a Leading Man Role), so I can see why Big Hollywood would back away from that idea. But I would be riveted to my seat watching a series of interviews serving as voiceovers to the scenes from all over the world. Show me Patient Zero in a peasant hut in China. Show me the massacre at the Battle of Yonkers. Show me zombies, frozen in Minnesota in the winter. Show me the damn underwater zombies, pounding on the submarines! It would not have been an easy film to make, but it would have been a more compelling and much braver one.

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Gettysburg Revisited

So I was home sick last week (for only the 2nd time in 12 years) and there’s something about staying home sick that makes us revert into little children.  I was pretty sick as a kid, and so in a strange, unwelcome way, this sick day was a chance for me to flashback to my childhood. With many hours to kill and a desire to watch something I didn’t really have to watch, I popped in my DVD of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg has a prominent place in my life. I’ve been watching the film since its release in 1992. Before I was ever able to visit the battlefield, my mother’s cousin, who lives in southern P.A., sent me an envelope full of photos of key places, along with descriptions. Then, in high school, I read The Killer Angels and had my first visit to the battlefield. I then attended Gettysburg College my freshman and sophomore years, and during my spare time I wandered every inch of the National Park, often spending hours of alone time in the eerie, hallowed places. I taught myself to run by the Eternal Peace Light and Reynolds Woods; I huddled in the Pennsylvania Monument during a windstorm to meet my parents when they came to visit; I conducted interviews for an Anthropology 101 experiment with the tourists at the High Water Mark. The battlefield, the stories, the heroes, Gettysburg is in my bones.

I was a little wary of putting the DVD in the player. I haven’t watched the whole film in at least ten years, I suspect. My critical abilities are a lot sharper than they were a decade ago. When we’re children, we accept wholly the things that are important to us. The nuance of more sophisticated criticism (“I enjoyed this actor’s performance, while the other one seems stilted.” “I thought perhaps the musical score was overbearing,” etc) isn’t developed. And I suspect kids are better than adults at repeatedly viewing or reading the things they love. At least, I know I am. When I reread a book or rewatch a film now, it’s a pretty significant event. When I was twelve, watching Gettysburg or The Neverending Story or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade again for the umpteenth time was hardly noteworthy. So I put the DVD in, huddled under my blanket with my tea and my animals, and watched.

The verdict: while my grown up critic saw things that the twelve year old didn’t, I was nevertheless swept up in the epic that captivated me as a young man. Sure, the acting ranges from competent (C. Thomas Howell) to stunning (Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, and especially Richard Jordan, in his final performance). And there are Law and Order moments, where characters explain things that they’d never realistically explain to one another. There’s the question of PG violence– the movie was made for TV, and as a result, there is very little blood, masking viewers from the real horrors of war.

But the sweeping depictions of battle and heroism, the moving score, and the attention to minute historical detail made for a powerful viewing experience. And then there are the stories: Chamberlain, the professor colonel who rises to great glory at the Battle of Little Round Top; Robert E. Lee, the infallible general/god whose one moment of overconfidence dooms the Confederate army; Longstreet, the general whose mind is bent towards strategy over heroics, forced to command doomed attacks and take the blame for their failures; Armistead, facing Fate and his best friend on the battlefield; Pickett, young, cocky, eager to fight, and irrevocably scarred by Lee’s misuse of his division. To me, Gettysburg has never been an exercise in dry historical recitation. It isn’t “the turning point of the Civil War,” as every high school textbook will tell you. It is the collision of many men’s fates on a single battlefield.

Gettysburg is by no means worthless dreck; I’m certain other boys my age gorged themselves on far trashier fare as kids. But the film isn’t without flaws. Who cares, though? My realization after watching: when rewatching or rereading the stories that formed us in youth, criticism is meaningless. That film formed some of my fundamental ideas of heroism and warfare and kindled my fascination with the Civil War. And no amount of critical analysis can take that away.

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An Unexpected Blog Post

My first blog post here was back in August, about the announcement that The Hobbit was being made into not two, but three films.
Well, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has now been out for nearly a month. Most of us who have hoped to see it have seen it. What did we see?
Ian McKellan is Gandalf again, and his portrayal of Gandalf is a touch lighter, more playful than in the first films. The two principal character newcomers—Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, are both very believable. Armitage’s proud portrayal of Thorin was compelling, as well. Thorin is proud and prickly, but sympathetic, and Armitage evokes all those feelings. When I heard Freeman would be Bilbo, my first thought was “My God, he already LOOKS like a hobbit. Just give him prosthetic feet and a wool coat and I’ll believe it!” And sure enough–.
The scene stealer (as usual) was Andy Serkis. His Gollum performance is right on par with what he did before, perhaps even better. The Smeagol/Gollum split is distinct, both facially and vocally, and he uses it to great comic/horrific effect. Though Gollum isn’t on screen long in the film, his presence dominates my memory of the film.
All the other goodies are abundant, as well. Lush New Zealand landscapes, sweeping musical score (including some refreshing updates on old themes) from Howard Shore, and seamless visual effects. There’s so much to love about the film.
So…much…
And that’s also the chief complaint against the film, that there’s just so much. The Hobbit, the novel, is a story for children, told in 300 pages with a single narrative. It’s an epic, but a small, focused one. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is a three-volume, multiple narrative, sprawling epic across Middle Earth. Sure, it took Peter Jackson three films to tell the story, but it took Tolkien three books to tell it, as well. The Hobbit should be small; The Lord of the Rings should be big.
But this film feels as big as the LotR films, or at least it’s stretching on its tippy-toes to be so. And here is where the film feels tedious. There are scenes when old characters are introduced that interrupt the narrative flow, such as an unnecessary stop in Rivendell to see Elrond and Galadriel and bicker with Saruman. There are scenes where new characters are introduced (Radagast the Brown) who only seem to bog the story down with additional back story and information, and distract from the quest.
“But wait!” you protest. “Be patient! Jackson is surely setting up developments for the next two films!”
I agree! But there’s just…so…much.
I don’t blame Jackson entirely, though. He’s kind of been pushed into this. The first three films set the bar very high for Quality (which he could have matched with The Hobbit) and for Size (which he couldn’t). If he’d made a single-film version of The Hobbit, even it were great, people would leave feeling unsatisfied. So his choices were to leave the audience feeling hungry or leave them feeling overstuffed.
No, I don’t fault Jackson for cramming The Hobbit with unnecessary stuff. My only objection to his direction was his tendency to blur the line between the heroic and the ridiculous. In the heroic mode, seemingly average, normal individuals take on tasks bigger than themselves and rise to the challenge. Bilbo represents this. However, there are moments in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I found myself doubting the plausibility of the characters’ actions. This was most pointed in the Goblin caves. The dwarves, who had been set up as a group of ragtag refugees, definitely NOT warriors, slay dozens upon dozens of useless goblins. Sometimes, to make things efficient, they simply take ladders and other parts of their environment to sweep the foes into the pit. I’m not looking for Black Hawk Down here, but battle scenes should leave me pumped up and breathless, not scoffing.
That said, go see it. You probably have already. Just be sure to stock up on popcorn and patience before you go in.

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Solomon Kane–Coming to a Theater Near You?

Solomon Kane (2012)

When I heard there was a film version being made of Robert E. Howard’s “Solomon Kane” stories, I was ecstatic! I went back and reread some of the tales, relishing Howard’s rich language and riveting storytelling. Solomon Kane, one of Howard’s best characters, was a Puritan holy warrior, devoted to rooting out and destroying the evil forces that lurked just yonder in the dark forest. Throughout the course of his tales, his deeds cause readers to question whether he is a shining force or light or a lunatic with a gun and a cross. And when I heard the talented cast included James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, and Pete Postlethwaite (sniff…we miss you) — sold!

This was 2009.

The film did its thing in Europe, met with modest reviews and sales, and was soon forgotten, by myself as well. It became one of those “whatever-happened-with-that?” things.

But good news!

I learned from Black Gate recently that Solomon Kane will be released in the U.S. next month. Spread the word, dust off your cutlass, blunderbuss, and crucifix, and prepare! Even if it’s terrible (which most critics and viewers are saying it isn’t), it should be a great time.

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The Ho33it?

Hello World!

Without any ado, this is my new blog about anything fantasy related. Myth, Fantasy and sci-fi classic texts, book reviews, movie reviews, gaming, various conjurations of the mind, literary stuff, and some writing-related matters– blogging can be a journey that takes you there and back again…

So while the news is fresh (ish), let’s talk about Peter Jackson’s pair of upcoming Hobbit films Hobbit trilogy.

http://scifimafia.com/2012/07/confirmed-the-hobbit-will-be-a-trilogy/

Despite the fact that The Hobbit is less than 1/4 the size (by page count) of the Lord of the Rings (300 to 1300), it will receive the same number of films (3). So where does the material come from? According to Jackson:

We recognized that the richness of the story of The Hobbit, as well as some of the related material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, gave rise to a simple question: do we tell more of the tale? And the answer from our perspective as filmmakers and fans was an unreserved ‘yes.’

As a LoTR fan, I simply love the idea of more, more, more! But as a fan of things being done artfully and gracefully, I can’t help but wonder if Jackson is going to lose all but the most devoted fans by stretching this story beyond its natural size.

Now, as someone who seeks to make a living off my creative endeavors, I certainly understand the impulse. The three LoTR films made piles of money, and the Hobbit ones should be no different. And I bear no malice against those who make piles of money creating something meaningful, beautiful, and entertaining (yes, I placed a lot of conditions on that). But is this a story that *needs* to be told? I’ve always felt that in the greatest stories, there’s an urgency that if the story isn’t told, and told properly, the storyteller would simply explode, or else wither up and die.

Any thoughts? Does more Hobbit make you merrier? Or is PJ going to milk the franchise into embarrassment?

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