Monday, July 01, 2013

World War Z (Marc Foster), White House Down (Roland Emmerich), The Loves of a Pharaoh (Ernst Lubitsch)


If you lobotomized Steven Soderbergh's Contagion and pumped it full of steroids you'd probably get something better than Marc Foster's latest multimilliondollar extravaganza, where the virus stands (or rather sprints) on a pair of athletic legs and flashes a set of gnashing chompers that never quite stop, even when incinerated. 

Based loosely (very loosely, apparently) on the bestseller by Max Brooks (which I haven't for the record read) the filmmakers have decided to jettison the episodic wide-ranging stories that composed the book (with its implicit criticism of government incompetence and American isolationism) to focus on the heroic (and largely fabricated by the scriptwriters) efforts of one man played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the picture (hence his expanded, pro-active role). 

So whadda we have? Fast zombies--I hate sprinting zombies (as some regular readers may be well aware). Brooks reportedly took his cue from the George Romero films and made his zombies (or 'Zekes,' as they're called here) shuffling carnivores, this being the more realistic alternative as it's hard to believe the undead (or virally infected) would be healthy enough to do a hundred-yard dash, or leap vast chasms, or make like an ant bridge (in this case ant tower) and scale impossibly high walls--they're sick, not super-powered. Not to mention the movie loses the undead's most unsettling quality: their preternatural serenity, their utter indifference to whether the prey will escape or not.

Charles Dickens put it best (from Oliver Twist): 

He could trace its shadow in the gloom, supply the smallest item of the outline, and note how stiff and solemn it seemed to stalk along. He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed--not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell.

Love that phrase "that would have been a relief." Mere mortals and animal pursuers put effort into their hunt; only the supernatural, beyond science and logic, is confident--no matter where the prey goes, no matter what the prey does, the undead will catch up in the end. A zombie moving fast is merely acting out its insecurities; a storyteller who refuses to deal with a proper zombie's patient pursuit is a lazy storyteller, who prefers cheap quickie shocks over the exquisite shiver of mounting dread.

Foster gets his best effects by emulating Dickens; in the hallways of abandoned apartment buildings, in a nighttime airfield, in the stillness of a Zeke-infested laboratory, the eerie silence evoked prior to the attack is far more effective than the attacks themselves, which collapse into a series of shaky-cam footage, edited ADHD style (it's as if the cameraman had turned Zeke as well, and couldn't help convulsing).

Other puzzlers: the Israelis took years building their defenses, then forget to add watch towers and video cameras to the top of their walls? Pitt rescues a Latino boy, who doesn't seem the least bit traumatized about losing his whole family (he seems more plot function than flesh-and blood, the token ethnic hired to make the cast more diverse)? The World Health Organization people spend millions on their state-of-the-art lab, and can't be bothered to put intercoms inside their vaults?

Otherwise--well, there doesn't seem to be an otherwise, and Pitt, who looked as if he was making modest strides forward with Burn After Reading, Moneyball, Tree of Life, and Killing Them Softly, takes a giant leap back. Dead on arrival folks; pay your respects and move on.

White House Dumb

(Warning: plot twists and devices discussed )

"What do they call White House Down in Paris?"

"Die Hard with cheese."

Not a fan of John McTiernan's 'masterpiece' (prefer the Hong Kong action filmmakers active during his heyday) but at least McTiernan was competently versed in the basics of action filmmaking, his sequences coherently staged, shot and cut.  This movie features a far less engaging lead (at least Willis had that jokey regular-dude persona, a leftover from his Moonlighting days) and a pair of criminally underused villains (at least Alan Rickman got to sport a cunningly broad Californian accent). Add Emmerich's mediocre brand of action filmmaking (y'know the drill: mostly shaky-cam footage, edited incoherently) with a generous dollop of digitally enhanced stunts and effects (say what you will about Die Hard, at least most of the stunts were done on-camera).

Channing Tatum plays police officer and former soldier John Cale (why 'Cale?'--because it's good for you?), who's at the right place and time to apply for a job as White House security (terrorists have just taken over, and Cale gets to show his chops); Joey King plays his insufferable daughter, Emily, who's been estranged from him ever since he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan. King's an expressive actress (she plays the China Girl in Oz The Great and Powerful) but she's poorly served by the script here, which presents her as a standard-issue helpless female hostage who thinks more about her political blog's hit counter than about her and her father's safety (she uploads incriminating footage of the terrorists at work, which they promptly view on nationwide TV), and when asked to run whines "I can't leave him!" at the least convenient moment (she makes you want to call out: "Go you dumb kid or you'll get them all killed!").

Intelligence isn't necessarily a requirement in these movies, but White House Down hits a new low: would a president trust a man who's suffered a tremendous personal blow (that may possibly have been said president's fault) to keep running his security operations? Would a villain planning a successful takeover of the White House use such a mix-and-match group of operatives (the Delta Force guy is a good choice but--redneck gun nut?)? Would an earnest do-gooder really be that clueless with regards to the motives of his adversaries and bosses--not suspect that perhaps they would be somehow be involved with each other? Would a Hollywood filmmaker be this shameless, to the point where all that stands between the White House and an incoming bomb-dropping F-22 Raptor is a teenaged pain-in-the-neck doing her flag-twirling routine with the Commander-in-Chief's banner? 

There's the school of thought that says: "it's only a movie; shut up and turn your brain off for a while." I'm happy to hand over my brain to those in charge but before I do I'd like to know just how competent they are--heard horror stories about the last time someone did so and his brain was dropped on the floor where someone slid on the juices. Come to think of it, that might be what had happened to Emmerich and company, right before they made this housewreck of a picture.

Too much woman, not enough girl

Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of a Pharaoh would come as a surprise to those who know him mostly by his lighter-than-air comedies. Not a lot of humor in this film, except for the disturbingly buffoonish performance by Paul Wegener in blackface as Samlak, king of Ethiopia. The film is really a love triangle between the young Egyptian Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), who loves the escaped Greek slave Thonis (Dagny Servaes) who loves him back, who in turn is loved (unrequitedly) by Amenes (Emil Jannings), pharaoh of Egypt. 

It's a neat little melodrama where Jannings plays yet another bastard, a despotic ruler who is willing to threaten the life of Theonis' lover if she doesn't marry him. The girl here remains relatively spotless; it's her effect on men and not anything she wants in particular that causes all the trouble--every time men look at her this blank expression comes into their faces, as if their minds were being sapped (judging from the photo above she does have some appeal, if not necessarily actual allure).

What does convince is Jannings as the pharaoh. Jannings has often been accused of being a ham, not without cause; here though he delivers an early version of the fixated male that he will bring to even sharper detail on the big screen eight years later, in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel; watching his bewilderment, as if some spell had taken over his body and he can't understand why, you start looking at Servaes again, wondering if maybe she's some kind of enchantress after all. It's more his destructive obsessiveness than any obvious sexuality on Servaes' part that validates her fatale status.

Lubitsch films the gargantuan sets and ten-thousand cast battle sequences with impeccable taste, if not any especial flair--you can tell he's no D.W. Griffith, with a determination to write "history with lighting." More memorable is the love triangle, which flails melodramatically for most of the picture before plunging finally into disaster. By film's end several thoughts stay in mind: that the girl for all her sexual purity and relative innocence stands at some level justly accused of being the source of all Egypt's troubles (making you wonder just how pure or at least sincere she really was); that Ramphis for all his sense of honor and bravery is perfectly capable of betraying father and country for the sake of a woman, like any lovestruck hero; and that Janning's Amenes for all his cruelty sups full of the pathos of his situation (from pharaoh to outcast and back), and finally attains the dignity of a truly tragic figure. Not perhaps Lubitsch's best work (I'm personally partial to voting Trouble in Paradise to that lofty status, though any half-dozen titles including The Shop Around the Corner constantly vie for the position in my head), but an impressive, sobering work nevertheless. 



Giancarlo Angulo said...

I'm not sure but I think the walls were finished in a couple of months and not a couple of years.

Noel Vera said...

I'd install a few video cameras tho, wouldn't you?