Reading at the Movies: World War Z

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Their presence in fiction mirrors the reality in which we reside; a reality that reflects the fact that zombies are everywhere. In fiction they’re a world wide threat bent on nothing in particular except eating people. In reality we just have an over saturated amount of TV shows, books, comic books and concept art that caters our cultures insatiable and weird appetite for these cannibalistic corpses. I’m part of the problem too, I love a good zombie movie and can appreciate the moral and logistical quandaries that they present to those attempting to survive in their world. World War Z is the best zombie story I have ever consumed. Let me be clear, I am currently talking about the novel by Max Brooks in which an unnamed (and certainly not Brad Pitt) UN worker travels around the world AFTER the big Zombie war interviewing survivors. Like anything that becomes remotely popular it demanded a cinematic representation! And so we got a film with the same title….and that’s about it.

 

World War Z (film) stars Brad Pitt as a UN worker by the name of Gerry Lane whose task it is to finds himself thrust into the center of a massive scale zombie epidemic. He is tasked with finding the origin of the disease with the hope of figuring out just what can be done to stop the spread of the infection. This takes him all around the world, where he observes a few different temporary solutions that various cultures have enacted to help protect themselves…all of which end up failing. It’s a sort of follow-the-bread-crumbs adventure in which Brad Pitt straps magazines to his forearms as a type of makeshift armor to prevent being bit. Honestly that was my favorite part.

 

World War Z (novel) is narrated by an unnamed UN worker that is tasked with traveling around the world to interview survivors of the zombie war. The novel starts out with the war being over. Humanity won the fight against the zombie threat, but just barely. Each chapter is an oral report of how a different culture or people group witnessed and consequently survived their particular encounter. The accounts range from a colony yuppie campers attempting to flee north in their caravan of luxury motorhomes to a Japanese teenage gamer who must figure out a way to escape from his skyscraper home. Major battles are discussed in great detail and the entire course of the fight is laid out in different styles and flavors for the reader to savor.

 

Brad Pitt’s starring vehicle hovered around the 200 million dollar mark to make. It was ok. It was an honest to goodness zombie fest in which millions of zombies ran very quickly towards the protagonist at almost every turn. The film managed to gloss over the intricate details laid out in the novel and replace them with faster enemies and bigger explosions. It was a visual effects feast that practically begged you to just switch off the part of your mind that yearns for a plot within a story. Sure there was a goal Gerry was trying to attain, and it had to be done quickly, but it is nestled safely under an enumerable amount of human corpses. It had it’s merits, and while the large scale attacks were impressive to look at, they had little effect on my emotional reaction to the film. It was the tight, claustrophobic scenes that amped up the suspense.

 

The Novel offered a large series of individual stories that, when combined painted a picture of the full scale that the fictional zombie plague had on a vast number of cultures and individuals. Each account has it’s own protagonist and their own setting. Some read like a pulp adventure novel while others are absolutely chilling in their dissection of human nature. While the zombie threat is ever present and the main focus of the novel, it isn’t the sole enemy. Some accounts take into account the psychological damage associated with seeing your loved ones turned into monsters, it looks at the depravity of humanity, at times allowing for very little room to distinguish between the real horrors of humanity and the fictional horror of the zombies. Unlike the film, the book uses the traditional “slow zombies” and manages to make them terrifying. The narrator of the book takes a back seat to the survivors, the everyday people that did what it took to survive.


The World War Z novel was so good it ought to have it’s own movie. As it stands it does not have that. Aside from a few, almost coincidental similarities, the novel and film that share a name are worlds apart (within the scope of the zombie genre). Where the film was your run-of-the-mill action film with a massive budget, the novel presents you with a great number of individual stories, each interesting and unique, but working together to form the most compelling Zombie story I’ve ever experienced.

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Spending Quality Time with “Mama”

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Thanks to the magic of the movies, we’ve become accustomed to all manner of spectres, ghouls and monsters. It takes far more to spook an audience today than it did in the golden age of the original Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and  Dracula. Blood is simply corn syrup or CGI, and we, the audience, know that. We understand there is no actual danger on the screen that can harm us, so we’ve required more to scare us. This has cheapened the genre into shocking the audience (which certainly has it’s place) or by using cheap “jump scares” to achieve that coveted cash cow genre tag that has become horror. The PG-13 horror movie has become a novelty. It has morphed into the stepping stone for young children to acquire a taste for the more gruesome offerings in the R rating. This wasn’t always the case, and while the things that scare each individual person are as polarizing as the comedy genre, there are some decent PG-13 movies that manage to elicit that icy tingle that crawls uninvited up your spine. Mama is a movie that remained solidly in it’s PG-13 rating, but still gave me that tinge of adrenaline and discomfort that I absolutely love while watching a movie that’s supposed to scare me.

 

Moma tells the story of a two sisters who survive a tragedy that leaves both parents dead. The two spend (off screen) five years in the woods, being cared for by an entity known as “Moma”. When they are found the two girls are almost completely feral. They have lived like animals through some very critical years of their development. Their uncle and his girlfriend take the two in to raise them as their own, with consequences far more dire than they anticipated.

 

Guillermo del Toro has a knack for seeking out spooky projects to fund. The Orphanage is one of my favorites in the genre, and was also produced by del Toro. For this film he hands the reigns to Andrés Muschietti allowing them to expand upon the short film he and his sister, Barbara Muschietti  (who co-wrote the film) created. For his first full length directorial movie he created a sleek, spooky and visually fulfilling little dark fantasy feature. Jessica Chastain plays the punk-rock girlfriend to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Lucas, the uncle to the two girls. Seeing Chastain as a “punk rocker” was kind of a strange role, but as the film progressed she made it work, and her character arch was probably the most compelling in the movie. Isabelle Nélisseplays Victoria, the younger of the two sisters and the one most attached to the entity that raised them. She is fantastically creepy. She’s not like your typical scary-movie-evil-child. She’s a little girl that was raised to have animal-like mannerisms and is devoutly attached to her mother figure…who just so happens to be a ghostly and violent apparition. Speaking of the titular monster; Javier Botet manages to pull off some of the freakiest movements since The Exorcist. He is capable of moving his body so dramatically that the only CG needed for the monster was to make the hair flow through the air. The movie employs a fantastic blend of CG and practical effects.

 

I alluded to the fact that I considered this movie more of a dark fantasy than a horror. I stick by that judgement. It’s an interesting movie, and it’s entertaining but it also manages to spook me at all the right times. It’s fantastically creepy and beautifully crafted. While not the crowning jewel of the horror genre, Moma manages to lend more credibility to the milder horror genre without compromising on it’s premise and execution.

 

Returning to Video Game High School with season 2

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While I tend to focus the vast majority of this blog on feature films, I found myself bending slightly by reviewing the “movie” version of the web series Video Game High School. What was presented on Netflix as a feature film, was actually the entire first season of Rocket Jump Studios internet series. I was completely unaware that the series was in existence until stumbling across it on Netflix. While it took time for me to get into the cheesy, albeit enduring premise, I ended the evening in awe of the writing, acting and overall production. It has more cheese than nachos on the moon, but that’s part of what made the show. Imagine my surprise when the second season suddenly popped up on Netflix! It took very little time for me to consume the, considerably longer, next chapter.

The series picks up exactly where season one left us. “The Law” is shunned and trying to win back some cred, BrianD is still trying to prove himself and define his relationship with Jenny Matrix, who in turn has to deal with her mother becoming VGHS FPS coach. Ki and Ted also try to figure out both where they stand with each other and where they want their Video Gaming careers to head. The second season has a pretty great arch that encompasses each main character, while not compromising the individual storylines.

The show boasts the same sharp writing that made season 1 one of my favorite comedy series, and it only gets better with this recent addition. With the season consisting of longer episodes, it felt much more like a standard sit-com, as far as time was concerned, but the freedom that the creators have over their environment offers a chance for jokes to run so rampant that it’s near impossible to catch them all. Brian Firenzi returns to his role as “The Law”. He was the main villain in season 1, and returns as a… well I guess just a jerk. He’s often times a villain, sometimes a hero and almost always a loser. He’s also absolutely hilarious. The main characters are funny, but a ton of credit is due to the supporting cast. The video game references and gags come at you non-stop, it’s a show geared towards nerds and game lovers, but has a level of chemistry that can be enjoyed by anyone. Like I said, it’s incredibly cheesy, but well worth your time.

Reading at the Movies: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest animator alive today. He has created some of the most intricately beautiful scenes and characters known to the art, and he makes it look effortless. He attends each of his films with masterful detail, placing each from under an artistic microscope and attending to the seemingly mundane details that he thinks are true to the nature of the characters he bestows life. Howl’s Moving Castle, while not my favorite Studio Ghibli production, boasts his signature animation, lovable and broken characters, and a soundtrack that is capable of sweeping the most dedicated realist into a land overflowing with wonder and magic. While it’s a very unique film, like many movies these days, it was first a book.

 

Diana Wynne Jones was an author of fantasy novels, and in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle possessed a dry wit that translated spectacularly on the page, but seems to have been watered down for the screen. The novel version of Howl is wrought with play-on-words, twists, this was something not entirely lost in the film, but was a much larger tone. Her usage of words was to the plot like the perfect amount of spices to your favorite dish. Jones’ craft shines through at each turn of the page, not as a heavy handed fantasy that pervades the market today, nor as a light and substanceless young adult novel. Rather she finds a happy medium where magic is neither silly nor cataclysmic. It is an element that is neither rare nor extremely prevalent

 

The novel boasted a whimsical, albeit odd, tone with memorable characters and something that made the fantastical workings of an eccentric young wizard feel almost ordinary and apart of everyday life. Miyazaki has proven to excel at portraying the whimsical on screen, but he’s also proven to be exceptional at finding the beauty in the ordinary. Howl was the perfect fit for an adaptation. The truest bond to the book that the animated feature has is in the two main protagonists. Sophie, a teenaged girl that finds herself cursed so she looks and feels like an old woman. And the titular wizard Howl; a young wizard feared by the locals as a ruthless evil warlock, but in actuality is no more than an adolescent teenager himself. The two characters in both novel and movie bring out the best and worst in each other. The two artifacts of literature and film stay amazingly true to each other until about halfway through. The book focuses on the witch of the waste as the main villain, while the film focuses on a war between kingdoms and the destructive power of Howl’s powers. This was a mistake. While I love the movie, the direction that the book takes is more fun, it’s more interesting and it’s far less confusing.

 

You’ve probably seen Howl’s Moving Castle, and if you haven’t you should. It’s beautiful and one of the best animated films to come out in the last 10 years. That being said, the source that it gleans it’s inspiration is an even tastier morsel to consume. My friend and fellow writer, Paul Boyne, creates posts in which he compares and contrasts two films into a “double feature” his most recent also focused on my favorite Miyazaki film : Spirited Away

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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While recently discussing emotionally devastating movies to watch (I know, right?), a number of titles got tossed around, but I finally settled on a documentary feature on Netflix entitled Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally taxing films I have ever seen. I was told to watch the movie without looking at any synopsis for the film, and I didn’t. I went into it blind and would strongly encourage anyone else that wants to watch it to do so as well. That being said, stop reading this right now and go watch it. Once your eyes have dried come back here and we can discuss it further. If you prefer, you can just keep reading, as I anticipate some of you will do. I won’t give away much in the rest of my review, so if you decide to keep reading I won’t blame you.

 

The movie is about Dr. Andrew Bagby. Bagby was a man that was loved by just about everyone that he that had the pleasure to know him, he was kind, witty and smart. The film seeks to memorialize him by talking with everyone that he knew. The filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, was one of Bagby’s best friends growing up. That’s why, when the news of Andrew’s untimely murder reaches him, he sets out to preserve his friend’s memory. Yes, Andrew Bagby was murdered. While the initial intent of the film was to record numerous people talking about who Bagby was to them, it turns into a fascinating and absolutely heart wrenching look into the faults that face the legal system. As the film progresses, details about the incident that left Bagby dead. Slowly Andre’s parents become the focal point as Andrew’s former girlfriend and accused murderer comes forward with the news that she is carrying Andrew’s child. Andrew’s parents then proceed a long legal battle for custody of their grandson.

 

The pure emotional energy is overwhelming. Those interviewed for the film express a great deal of joy in reminiscing about Andrew Bagby, and then instantly crumble into to tears. The movie is a case study on injustice, and pain and hatred and anger and loss and devastation, so much so that the weight of it is shared with the viewer. I normally am turned off from films with a political agenda, whether I agree with it or not. But I have to recommend this movie based solely for it’s genuine emotional value. Very few movies have had the effect that Dear Zachary had on me. It highlights both the evil in the world as well as the hope. When people grieve they find the darkest parts of themselves seeping out, and this film is all about grief in the most horrendous of circumstances. It is, however about hope and determination. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but one I would recommend.

 

“Dear Mr. Watterson” is a letter with no reply

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Art is a universal concept for expressing an innumerable amount of ideas. The mediums by which art is expressed are as far ranging as the imagination. Some are held in high esteem and others are only considered art by those that practice their particular medium. There is one form of art, that is cheap, inexpensive and loved by millions. Cartoons, referring to drawn comic strips that use a limited number of panels or space to connect a string of thoughts or a singular idea using a mixture of still images and text, has captured the attention of the world throughout generations. Bill Watterson gave us one of the best comic strips of all time with Calvin and Hobbes. The strip, for the two of you that aren’t familiar with it, follows the adventures of an overly imaginative six year old named Calvin and his pet Tiger named Hobbes. They embark on philosophical and imagination fueled treks across universes while rarely leaving their neighborhood. In the film Dear Mr. Watterson new filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder uses interviews and nostalgia to fuel his own adventure; one that seeks to summarize the emotions surrounding this iconic comic.

Funded on Kickstarter Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary in which Joel Allen Schroeder interviews Comic strip artists, fans and historians. He respects Bill Watterson’s thirst for privacy by not attempting to interview him, but digs into the mania surrounding Calvin and Hobbes. The documentary is served up in a number of segments ranging from topics about licensing and copywrite all the way to the decaying nature of the newspaper comic page. Mr. Watterson’s reclusive nature is absolutely evident throughout the film, and is noted by almost everyone that is interviewed. We’re introduced to a person with a rich philosophy on art and human nature, but he only speaks through his creation. We are served a tiny glimpse into a vast and interesting world, one that in some aspects is dying with the newspaper business and in others is striving in the digital age.

 

The movie itself is propelled primarily by a strong sense of nostalgia. Too much of the content was a nudge to audiences that sought to say “remember how good that one strip was?” when it could have been spent divulging further information on both the industry and the history surrounding comics and Calvin and Hobbes in general. It’s a phenomenal strip, to be certain, but we all know that and as fun as it is to see someone reminisce about cutting out sunday papers and tacking them to their wall, a documentary should be first and foremost informative, otherwise I would much rather simply discuss the comics with people that I know. That isn’t to say that the film completely squanders it’s opportunity; far from it. Though the transitions from segment to segment are largely self serving to Schroeder, he certainly includes some interview gems. In particular the ones that speak to the climate surrounding the comic industry shortly before Watterson retired.

 

While perhaps relying too heavily on nostalgia, Dear Mr. Watterson manages to take a beloved piece of art and puts it under a lens that allows us to view it more in depth than we might have otherwise done. Calvin and Hobbes is universally loved, and Schroeder does his best to let you know that he loves it just as much as the best of them. We’re given a rare glimpse into the mindset of cartoonists, and allowed to hear from those that worked right alongside one of the greatest comic artists of all time.

 

Web Slinging with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

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This weekend I watched my fifth Spider-man movie in theaters. I had no real intention of seeing it, but was invited at the last minute by a friend that had an extra ticket, so I, naturally agreed. There are few movies that I would pass up to see for free in theaters, and Spider-man anything would never be on that list. I had decided not to spend money on it because of the recent poor reviews, most of which stated that this was a disaster not unlike the unfortunate Spider-Man 3 that Sam Raimi dissapointed audiences with in 2007. The Spider-Man character is just about on everyone’s top ten favorite super heroes list, which is exactly why they keep making these movies. The recent reboot of the series seemed unnecessary, but proved to be quite good, despite similarities to the last series. And so, with a positive results the creative forces decided to jam pack as much as they could into the sequel. While not detrimental, it proved, at the very least, distracting.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts off with a flash back to Peter’s parents escaping from, we-aren’t-sure-what. There is a big spectacle as Peter’s father struggles to upload a mysterious file while fighting a villanous man that intends to bring their jet crashing to the ground. The file is uploaded. With that distraction gone we jump directly into the life of present day Spider-Man, which is really all we wanted anyway. Peter, during the opening spidey-sequence rescues an engineer from being run over, and in doing so introduces us to the movies big villain. This engineer, a nobody by the name of Max, becomes Electro. Electro is basically electric force in human form. Peter then must wrestle with the death of his Gwen Stacy’s father, the return of a child hood friend who is dying of a genetic disease and the unknown reasons his parents abandoned him. The movie throws around more plots than the vials of plutonium that are stolen at the start of the film… which is a lot.

 

First, the good: Visually, the movie is fantastic. The action sequences are well produced, smooth and exciting. The actors gave it their all, with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone absolutely killing it with their chemistry. Jamie Foxx was almost a little too cartoon like with his character… but it worked. This was a step away from the darker hero movies of late and a step back about two decades into a more fantastical hero universe. I particularly loved the score and sound effects associated with Electro. Albeit a little corny, the music had me grinning. Garfield presents a fantastic Peter Parker, one that encapsulates the youth of today. Even though the Raimi series doesn’t seem to be much of a distant memory, Garfield pulls the character into 2014 flawlessly.

 

The bad: There was too much trying to be accomplished in this movie, and because of that issues got muddled and things didn’t make sense. In particular, Peter’s search for why his parents left him was a waste of time. There was a large portion of time and emotion devoted to Peter discovering what his parents were doing and what happened to them for very little pay off. The second plot I took issue with was the Green Goblin. Dane DeHaan did a fine job playing Harry Osborn and the Green Goblin, but it felt rushed and unplanned. We go from meeting the cahracter for the first time, and having him be a good friend of Peter’s to a murderous goblin a little too quick and with too little explanation.

 

The Spider-Man curse is packing the stories too tightly. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a blast to watch, but it was bogged down by confusing plot points and unexplained circumstances. That being said, what it got right was keeping the pace exciting and visuals stunning. Also I loved the return to a more fantastic, amazing heart of the super hero genre.