World War Z

So I am used to zombie movies that function in a slightly different way, that being said, this film works pretty darn well. There were stories about behind the scene problems and re-shoots on the movie. Originally this was to have been released last Christmas. The CGI Zombie attack clips on the walls surrounding Jerusalem seemed to undermine the idea of the film, making it look a little odd.. In the end those film clips make up a small portion of the movie and they work well enough to give us the idea of how a massive group of infected /dead people could suddenly be a threat rather than something to just be avoided. The script problems don’t seem to have effected the tension level and the PG-13 rating is not as off putting for a horror action film as I thought it might be. This is definitely not a gore movie but it is a tight action film that provides plenty of suspense and enough creepiness to keep the average film goer satisfied for it’s running time.

It is probably fortunate that I am unfamiliar with the source material. Everyone who has read it says it would be impossible to make as a single film, so clearly there has to be a simplification and an “inspired by” qualification of the movie. The zombies here are much like the infected humans in the “28 Days/28 Weeks” mode, they are Fast and Furious (although they don’t steal cars or look like Vin Diesel, OK, some of them do). In most of the zombie films I’ve seen, the survivors try to hunker down and ride it out. They are subject to stress and fear and it is usually the internal strife that causes the drama in the film. Ultimately, they have to escape or fight and some live but most die. There never seems to be much hope for the world after the whole thing starts. In this story, we see the outbreak take over very rapidly. I still have some questions about how that could be the case when most of the incubation time takes a few minutes. I’m not sure who boarded all those zombies on flights, but I guess the airlines were desperate enough that as long as a person was ticketed they could get on a plane, in spite of wanting to bite everyone else in line.. TSA is once again shown not to be very effective. The logic aside, when the big cities start to see the spread of the infection and the rapid growth of the dead population it is pretty scary.

Brad Pitt is the hero of our story. He is a U.N. Health Specialist. It is never quite clear what his specialty is or why his assistance is so necessary that a special operation is arranged to save him and his family. The family set up is solid and the outbreak is handled smashingly well. The opening act of the movie pulls us in quickly and those other pesky questions seem irrelevant. There are three pretty effective chase sequences that feel very intense. The first one features a series of car crashes that are realistic, sudden and perfectly imaginable in the circumstances. Along the way, the family picks up a boy that they take on responsibility for as one of their own. All of this mostly moves to the background once the second act commences. The second act consists of a series of chases and attacks in a variety of situations. Some of them are simple and one of them is very elaborate. The influence Pitt’s character has seems to be substantial even in the parts of the world that are cut off or over run. It does seem at times as if the story gives him cache when it is convenient and none when it suits the story for dramatic purpose. This is not a story of survivors holding out against the oncoming hordes, it is a globetrotting race against time and every stop features some new wrinkle to the plot.

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of chases and escapes and attacks. It may seem a bit repetitive after a while. Each one is staged differently so they don’t seem too recycled, but there is only so much you can draw out of the concept.  The attack on the plane was one of the most innovative and the result does stretch credulity quite a bit. Still it gets us to the third act where we begin to see some plot ideas from earlier in the movie begin to gel. The film seems set up to allow the story to continue, so don’t be too surprised that the zombies are not wiped out and a cure does not seem likely. The trick here is a little bit different and I thought it made the movie work a little better in the end. The action in this act is a lot more direct and visible since it is contained in a well lit location and we have clear objectives that are being pursued. If this was the section of material that had to be re-written, then they did a solid job making it work in terms of drama and action.

Pitt was the only recognizable actor in the cast so that must be where the money went (OK, David Morse is in it for about 80 seconds but his exposition was so vague that it did not matter ). Everyone else was just fine but only one other character is given a chance to shine a little bit in the movie. The Israeli soldier Segan is just as tough as Pitt’s character and doesn’t have any back story, but she manages to broaden our interest in the rest of humanity by her willingness to fight on despite a dramatic turn of events. You can see that this is a big movie, there are cities being torn apart and naval ships put at the disposal of some of the survivors. Plane crashes and nuclear explosions seem to occur every few minutes and the production design was usually convincing. It’s a crackerjack entertainment that has some big gaps in it’s plotting but it overcomes those weaknesses with some effective tension and suspense sequences. I still think I will be heading over to my son in-law Drew’s house when the Zombie Apocalypse shows up. He is better armed than Brad Pitt is and I think our chances would be stronger in the long run. Besides if Brad shows up, we’ll know where all the zombies are, right behind him.

Monsters University

After the debacle that was “Cars 2” it would be understandable that Pixar fans would be concerned about an unnecessary sequel to a fantastic original film. While the sequel route worked with “Toy Story”, it certainly did not feel like there was more follow up story for Monsters Inc. Fortunately, instead of inventing a new challenge for the characters in the original film, they have chosen to visit their roots and explore the characters from an historical perspective. This preserves the world in which we first met Sully and Mike but it allows us to see them from a different perspective. I think it was a wise choice. While “Monsters University” lacks some of the dynamic story telling and emotional heft of the first movie, the prequel wisely sticks to character development and humor. The plot is less important than the jokes and the personalities of our two friends and assorted other characters.

Billy Crystal puts so much into the character of Mike Wazowski, that he feels new and fresh despite the fact that we already have one movie story behind us (or is it in front of us?). Mike seems to be the smart kid with big ambitions who just seems to not quite fit in. We get to see where his dream comes from and how he doggedly pursues it. Along the way, some old rivalries and new friendships are started. College is the place where people go to reinvent themselves and Mike has every intention of doing just that. He longs to be a “Scarer” at Monsters Inc., and excels at his academics at the same time that he continues to struggle with his place in the school. John Goodman is back and he plays it more like a second fiddle this time. It is Mike’s story, and although he has important story moments, the plot ultimately depends on Mike. This is where the characters meet and it is great to see how they manage to become friends in spite of some of the things thast seperate them in the beginning.

While it is not quite “Animal House” the story does center on the antics of a group of outsiders trying to fight the powers that be. The humor is closer to “revenge of the Nerds” with little touches of the Disney/Pixar magic thrown in. The tables set up in the quad that solicit the freshman to join a club or activity are very funny. There is a reference to some of the usual college traditions, like football chants and good luck touching of school icons. Anyone who has gone to a college that has a real campus life will recognize the stereotypes and the obligatory processes that student struggle with. Most of them are handled hilariously here. Early efforts in the classroom fall away to the usual Fraternity hijinks that make a movie like this work. Imagine trying to establish a coll persona and having your Mom pop up to take your picture. 

Once again the animation is top notch but there was nothing spectacular in the vision of the movie that draws attention to itself. The challenges that the competing fraternities and sororities have to go thru are all similar to something that might be done in the non-monster world. The main differences were not the ideas but the fact that the participants were monsters. There are some funny bits based on the idea that the monsters will have an allergic reaction to some of the obstacles or that there is a massive monster librarian. To me the thing that was most effective about the animation was how much emotion they could get onto the face of a one eyed creature. Mike is very expressive despite having half the tools and none of the unique characteristics of the other creatures. There are plenty of nods to the original film along the way and everything seems to fit together pretty well.

I was a little surprised at how the major conflict at the end was resolved. There is a consequence to trying to take a shortcut and Mike and Sully both learn that, but they learn it cheerfully. The end credits contain a series of visuals that bridge the story and turn what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. Also, there is a stinger joke and if you leave before the credits are done you are going to miss a pretty good laugh. Monsters University is not an instant classic like “Ratatouille” or “Up” or and of the “Toy Story” movies, but it is an immensely charming entertainment that has clever humor and is integrated well with characters that we already know.

As always, a Pixar feature is accompanied by a short that has plenty of whimsy and charm. It is not laugh out loud funny as some of the older Pixar shorts are. This one tells a sweet little story about two umbrellas that catch each others eye and the struggle they go through to meet. It is five minutes of mild pleasure that looks like it mixes computer animation with actual footage of the real world (although I simply think that is the excellence of the Pixar design fooling us).