Bloodless zombies would appear to be that latest trend if April’s Warm Bodies and this week’s World War Z are anything to go by. No blood means studios get a lower censorship classification and – hopefully – a bigger audience. But the absence of viscera also appears to bring with it a loss of metaphoric power. These zombies don’t mean anything very much; they certainly don’t have anything to say about the world we inhabit, or the fears we share. They are vehicles for jumps, scares and gotcha moments (or in the case of Warm Bodies, not even that).
In World War Z, co-producer Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, not a Beatles song but a disillusioned former UN troubleshooter trying to start a quiet life with his young family in Philadelphia. A rapidly spreading outbreak of a mystery rabies-like disease turns his – and everyone else’s – life on its head. In a matter of seconds the bite victims become almost unstoppable predators, hunting the healthy in growing packs.
[pullquote]The Hunt felt like a beat-up in more ways than one[/pullquote] Lane and his family are evacuated to an aircraft carrier where the last remaining evidence of authority attempts to restore order. There he unwillingly submits to his old boss (Fana Mokoena) and agrees to help trace the source of the disease and maybe find a cure. With the help of a handful of Navy SEALS and a bright young endocrinologist (Elyes Gabel) he travels to South Korea where the first reports of the outbreak only to find on his travels that things are far worse than anyone can imagine.
Brad Pitt is chased all over the planet by zombies in World War Z, Will Smith’s son Jaden chases all over the planet looking for a beacon disguised as a pizza cutter in After Earth, Remembrance and Camille Rewinds are the arthouse reviews, and @sakura59 sums up the Sydney Film Festival.
The first thing to know about The Karate Kid is that there is no karate in it. This remake of the eighties favourite sends twelve-year-old hero Jaden Smith to China where they hurt people with kung fu instead. It was originally going to be called The Kung Fu Kid until someone in marketing realised certain synergistic opportunities might be missed by the less credulous target market. So there we are.
I have mixed feelings about this film. I have no great love for the original (despite adoring my occasional nickname “Daniel-san”) so am not much bothered about the updating. Director Harald Zwart managed to get my pulse going a bit faster than normal, which doesn’t happen very often these days, and there are some nice scenes that take advantage of some interesting Chinese locations. But this is basically a pre-teen Rocky with some pretty realistic smacks and I’m a little uncomfortable about that.
This week, three films which trade on a twist or revelation (to varying degrees of success). First, Seven Pounds reunites the creative team behind 2006’s excellent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoying entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mysterious benefactor Ben Thomas who appears to be looking for deserving strugglers who need a helping hand (like a researcher for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the circumstances are slowly unravelled a darker picture emerges.
Put together with considerable talent and passion by all concerned (supporting performances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth mentioning), Seven Pounds suffers from a maddening script and, frankly, a totally misguided conception which someone should have put a stop to much sooner. Yet, it continues to look beautiful, and the performances remain first rate, right up until the most lunatic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.
Seven Pounds is reminiscent of Iñárritu’s masterpiece 21 Grams and is similarly about atonement – but the only atonement required here should come from screenwriter Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile previous credit is an episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).
There’s an example of real writing on display in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adaptation of his own stage play which was produced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a progressive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by harridan headmistress Meryl Streep of abusing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, witness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s mother (little-known Viola Davis more than holding her own in this heavyweight company) the investigation is played out.
Only it isn’t really an investigation – just a hunch followed by political and emotional manoeuvring to provoke the downfall of a possibly innocent man. There are many complexities to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sensitive soul looking for a father figure, Hoffman insists he is simply innocently tending his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her knowledge of human nature trumps all.
When Doubt was playing on Broadway many critics drew parallels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little distance the broader implications of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.
Shanley hasn’t directed a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves capable enough here, although the film never really escapes the stage. But it’s an intelligent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grateful for it.
The most successful twist of the week comes in the unassuming Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a genial family drama, 60s coming of age story and political history lesson. In the small industrial town of Latina, founded by the fascists in the 30s and remaining sympathetic to Mussolini’s rule, two brothers compete politically and romantically. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi brother, a fiery leftist with a roving eye. Younger brother Assio (Elio Germano) tries the seminary and fascism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beautiful Francesca (Diane Fleri), distracting them both from the important political matters at hand.
When it comes, the twist is like a kidney punch, sucking all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these characters with their passionate, expressive, emotional Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care – something that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was never likely to achieve.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.
I want to apologise to regular readers for the poor quality of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I submitted it but the combination of only one day in Wellington before deadline meant I had to write it and send it before returning to work on Tuesday. It could definitely have used an extra polish.
Finally, we have a week with only one new film in it: a chance for me to stretch my legs, extemporise, riff a little, get my hands dirty. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this, to prove I can be a real film critic and write erudite and cultured prose; place a film in its wider social, political and cultural context; discuss mise-en-scène and diegetic register, all the while providing a riveting (and undeniably “correct”) perspective on the film’s merits and qualities. Cool.
Unfortunately, the film that stands alone this week is the Keanu Reeves remake of the 1951 classicThe Day the Earth Stood Still and frankly its hardly worth the bother. The original film was a pulp parable playing on the nuclear paranoia of “duck and cover” America: an alien lands in Central Park to tell us that he’s going to destroy the human race because we don’t deserve to live (we are warlike, brutal and selfish creatures you see, and the earth is too precious to be left in our care). But, the stern humanoid alien Klaatu softens on contact with a human child and realises that our capacity for change makes us worth persevering with. Naïve but satisfying.
The new version keeps the guts of the story intact (ecological doom and homeland security make up the new paranoia) while overblowing everything else to giant size. Reeves deadpans his way through as Klaatu (sensibly staying well within the limits of his range) and he’s joined by the mid-market star power of Jennifer Connelly, “Mad Men“ ‘s ‘Don Draper’ himself (the unfortunately named Jon Hamm), Kathy Bates and a miscast John Cleese. Kid duty is done by Will Smith’s little boy Jaden who made such an impression in last year’s The Pursuit of Happyness.
I had high hopes for this, based on some evocative trailers, but the reality is a disappointment. The plotting is messy and inconclusive and the effects look murky and rushed. The whole thing looks like someone lost confidence half way through shooting, then decided to cut the budget in half and hope for the best.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 17 December, 2008.