Little time for drama as “World War Z” commences

With zombies by the millions, maybe even billions, on the rampage on a global scale, “World War Z” would seem to be the ultimate walking-dead movie. Adapting the sprawling Max Brooks novel for the screen would be challenge for the most accomplished of scriptwriters, and the fact that four people were credited with the story and screenplay is a testament to the scope of this project.

As it is, focusing on one central character, a United Nations investigator, would require action in numerous locations throughout the world, and the constant perils therein. That is a pretty full slate anyway, so this story structure eliminates the human conflict that has enhanced the episodes of “The Walking Dead” and added depth to the iconic “Night of the Living Dead.” Thus this streamlined approach, the work of the writing team of Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”), cuts short on drama and ratchets up the suspense and terror.

Having Brad Pitt starring as that main character, Gerry Lane, is a big advantage  in “WWZ.” He is a commanding presence with an ability to keep a cool head in the most dire of times, attributes that come in handy for someone tasked with saving the world.

Pitt’s Gerry is a man who has earned a lengthy and early retirement, having risked his neck many times while dealing with various problems throughout the world. But his blissful life with his wife Karin (Mareille Enos) and daughters Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) comes to an explosive end on a street in his hometown of Philadelphia. Amid the death and panic, the Lanes manage to escape and make their way to Newark.

Meanwhile, Gerry is being summoned the U.N. Deputy Director Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to help track down whatever this plague is that is turning people into zombies. The Lanes are airlifted out of Newark to an aircraft carrier a few hundred miles off the coast of New York.

Gerry is presented with an offer he cannot refuse. If he accompanies a scientist and SEAL team on an investigative tour to find the source of the pandemic, his family will be given safe haven on the carrier.

From this point, “WWZ” becomes a travelogue in which Gerry spends most of his time fleeing from multitudes of zombies, these of the fast-running type rather the the lurching kind. Gerry and the team make a stop in South Korea, where in one of the few respites he chats with an ex-CIA agent (David Morse), who directs him to Jerusalem. It seems the Israelis in an act of incredible foresight have constructed a huge wall around the city, making it one of the few uninfected heavily populated areas on the globe.

Now, zombies do not engage in teamwork, driven only by their insatiable need to bite, eat and otherwise draft other humans into the Z world. But their growing numbers make them a formidable force, as unorganized as they are. Even Jerusalem is eventually vulnerable.

The scientist checks out early in one of those comically macabre ways, and soon Gerry’s best ally is a young Israeli soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz), whose bitten hand Gerry amputated, saving the young woman’s life.

There are harrowing scenes of zombie swarms and a horrifying airliner crash that Gerry and Segen experience, more than earning their combat pay. They eventually end up at a World Health Organization facility in Europe, where Gerry finally gets a chance to test his theory on getting an upper hand on the zombies. Problem is, a key section of the facility is occupied by very bored zombies hankering for some live bodies to pursue.

There are enough moments of tension and horror to keep the audience on edge, but the conclusion really flattens out, an abridged epilogue that seems like a segment of TV news teasers. It is a sublime winding down of the story, even though the Gerry voice-over insists the war is not over. But for Gerry, it looks like he’s earned some R&R with his family.

Special effects overwhelm everything in “Man of Steel”

The problem with rebooting a franchise is that the story is already known. From the acting standpoint, the only interest is seeing various interpretations of characters. Unfortunately in “Man of Steel,” some proven performers like Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon and Amy Adams get little chance to put some juice into their roles. The movie is an extravaganza of explosive special effects that trigger deja vu. As buildings topple in Metropolis, one cannot help but think: Didn’t we see this in “The Avengers”?

So we have Zack Snyder (“Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch”) directing, David S. Goyer (credited with the story in “The Dark Knight”) writing the script and Christopher Nolan attached as producer. But let’s face it: What lifted Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” above the growing pile of CGI-laden superhero action flicks was an exceptional award-winning villainous performance as The Joker by the late Heath Ledger. If “Man of Steel” was going to make its mark, beyond the financial readings, and make us forget the lighter-toned Christopher Reeves-starring Superman movies, it needed a standout performance that is sorely lacking.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman certainly has the physical attributes for the role, and has proven with his work as Charles Brandon in “The Tudors” that he can flesh out a role. Aside from the physical demands, wherein he grimaces and yells, he does not have much to do. His best scenes are with Diane Lane, who plays his Earth mother Martha.

But there is zero chemistry between Cavill and Adams, who plays Lois Lane. Adams’ finest moments are in the first half of the movie when she is following leads in trying to track down the mysterious Clark Kent, confirming her earlier belief that he is some sort of alien. After that, she seems to be a throw-in, serving only to be a distraction and love interest for Clark. In a “what the heck” plot development, as Clark agrees to surrender to General Zod, the general also demands that Lois surrender to him. Why Zod would need Lois when he clearly has the advantage over Clark is one of the head-scratcher aspects of the script.

Even the confrontational scenes between Crowe as Jor-El and Shannon as General Zod lose their edginess. For one thing, Zod has been genetically engineered to be a warrior, so it seems futile as Jor-El seeks to convince him to show compassion. For another, in the later confrontational scene, Jor-El isn’t even really there — he is a computer-programmed hologram. This is why it generated chuckles when Zod finally realizes he’s wasting his time arguing with a computer-generated image.

The fight scene between Reeves’ Superman and Terrence Stamp’s Zod in the 1981 “Superman II” does pale in comparison with the massively destructive match between Cavill and Shannon in “Man of Steel” (If you look closely at “Superman II” you can see the people in the scene are actually cutout figures). But as usual, excessive editing muddies up the chaotic hand-to-hand combat, making it difficult to see which one is crashing through a building.

For all its spectacular imagery, “Man of Steel” lacks any pulsating emotion. The lasting impression is that of things exploding and buildings crumbling as people flee. If there is a follow-up to “Man of Steel,” the makers should take time to watch Reeves’ take on Superman. Cavill doesn not have to do a direct copy, but it would be helpful to add some clumsy charm to the role that made Reeves the standard Clark Kent/Superman.

 Miscellany: Glen Mazzara, who scripted a lot of “The Walking Dead” episodes, reportedly is going to pen a screenplay for a prequel to “The Shining” for Warner Bros. The movie so far is titled “The Overlook Hotel.”

Interesting premise in “The Purge” goes awry

Writer-director James DeMonaco tries to blend a thriller-horror movie and social commentary in “The Purge,” but plot sloppiness and implausible behavior send this promising idea off the rails.

“The Purge” is the type of story that might have been a “Twilight Zone” episode with its blend of terror and cautionary messages about misguided attempts at behavioral engineering. In fact, the main plot concept was explored in the 1970s futuristic story “Rollerball.”

In the not-so-distant future, the United States is thriving. Unemployment is almost non-existent, as is crime, while the economy is flourishing. But the new leaders of the country — tabbed the New Founding Fathers — based upon the notion that human beings still nurture a need to commit violence, allow one night in late March for what is called The Purge. For 12 hours, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., all law enforcement and emergency services are suspended and people are allowed to commit any crime, including murder, without being arrested or charged. Similarly, in “Rollerball,” the game of rollerball, fraught with violence and death, is used as a means of people, as spectators only,  relieving tension, with the participants of the sport suffering all the pain and misery.

Of course, The Purge really has two meanings. The primary one is that this one night allows people to purge the pent-up anger and aggression, a release. The underlying objective is to eliminate from society those who are weak and vulnerable.

Thus the class aspect is set in motion. Those who are well enough off financially can arm their homes with security systems, fortify themselves with weaponry, and hunker down for the 12 hours, sometimes hosting parties, and watching the bloody chaos outside via surveillance cameras. Other more adventurous people can elect to arm themselves heavily and go out to hunt people. Those without the means to protect themselves are the sitting ducks.

“The Purge” focuses on one seemingly perfect family. James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) are a happy, well-to-do couple. James is coming off a very successful year of selling home security systems. The Sandins have two children — daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), a sometimes pouty and rebellious teen, and son Charlie (Max Burkholder), a pre-teen who is obsessed with monitoring his vital signs and spends a lot of time working on a creepy toy that is a half-burned baby doll attached to the chassis of a small military tank that he has rolling throughout the house via remote control and has tiny cameras in the contraption so he can see where it is going.

There is a little family tension in that Zoey has a boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller), who at age 18 is deemed too old for Zoey by her father. Yet he manages to spend a lot of time secretly in Zoey’s bedroom. This little subplot blows up in a totally silly scene that serves no other purpose than to provide Zoey with a life lesson that her boyfriend is a total idiot.

In the hours before The Purge, Mary encounters one of her neighbors, Grace (Arija Bareikis), one of those irksome types who can deliver verbal jabs with a sincere smile. She makes digs to Mary about the recent addition to the Sandin home being paid for by all the neighbors who purchased the security systems sold by James and his company.

James arrives home pre-purge in a giddy mood, given the financial rewards he is about to receive. He views The Purge as an opportunity for a family night. Lock down the house and gather in the living room to watch movies on DVD. However, the kids do not embrace this idea.

The Sandin home also has extensive surveillance camera coverage, and Charlie is watching the monitors when a terrified man is seen running up the street, begging for sanctuary. Charlie disarms the security system long enough for the man to make it inside.

Soon a group of young people have gathered outside the Sandin home, some in masks, and the leader of the group, known as Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), looking into one of the cameras, delivers the ultimatum — bring out the man you have taken in or else we will have no choice but to break in and take him ourselves.

James initially is eager to turn the man over to these people, but he is surrounded by a family that sees the inhumanity of that move, and he has a change of heart.

So “The Purge” becomes a home-under-siege thriller. James and Mary arm themselves for the assault while the young people frolic outside. At this point, viewers might wonder why this group is wasting time hanging around one house in pursuit of one victim when it has 12 hours to move on and go on a rampage and wipe out more people.

Once the attack starts, the movie pulsates with tension and violence and the young killers are seen as nothing more than privileged hooligans. The inevitable twist at the end is no surprise to those who have been paying attention. DeMonaco tries to wrap things up with a message about how low human beings can stoop. By that time, even the acts of passion seem meaningless, as we are ready to wish the whole neighborhood would implode.

Lack of orginality drags down “Black Rock”

Strides are being made — slowly — in the horror/thriller realm of movies that break away from the standard plot device in which only the “nice” women, who eschew partying and messing around, are worthy of surviving and conquering evil.

“The Descent” in 2005, a breakout film in which its mostly female cast of characters did not consist of camp counselors, sorority house members or smug cheerleaders but women of different lifestyles sharing an adventurous spirit, also showed signs of deviation by offering up characters who were flawed, making it difficult to guess which ones might survive.

Katie Aselton, director and co-writer of the indie film “Black Rock,” said in an interview she liked the emotional tension between the characters in “The Descent” and used that subtext in her script. It’s a useful plot device in horror and thriller movies in that the characters, who are having  difficulties with one another, are thrown into a perilous situation that forces them to set aside animosity and distrust for the sake of mutual survival.

Unfortunately, by employing that character set-up, Aselton, who collaborated on the script with her husband, writer-director Mark Duplass (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”), gives “Black Rock” a derivative feel. This is too bad because other aspects of “Black Rock” showed promise that it might stand out as a small but effective chiller.

As it is, “Black Rock” borrows from the well-worn blueprint of scary movies with it taking place in a secluded, undeveloped area, in this case an island off the coast of Maine, accessible only by boat.

Aselton also stars with Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell, portraying three young women who get together for a little camping trip on this island, where they had spent many happy times earlier as children. Sarah (Bosworth) arranged for the trip but tricked Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Bell) by telling each of them it was only going to be a twosome with her. Abby and Lou had a falling out over a man, and now Sarah, by bringing them together in a place of pleasant shared memories, is hoping for a reconciliation.

Of course, just as Abby and Lou are warming up for a confrontation, the interruption occurs. They encounter three young men — Henry (Will Bouvier), Derek (Jay Paulson) and Alex (Anselm Richardson) — who are on a hunting trip on the island.

Unlike other wilderness-based chillers in which these armed guys represent an immediate intimidating and sinister presence, the initial encounter between these characters is cordial, as Lou knows the older brother of one of the men.

Soon the six people are sitting around the campfire, drinking beer — which will change the tone of this gathering. The men say they met while serving in Iraq and insist they were unfairly dishonorable discharged from the service.

Naturally, the effects of the alcohol take over and intentions are tragically misinterpreted and the party explodes into a men-versus-women match to the death — with the men having an overwhelming advantage of being armed. The only weapon the women has is that they know the island, and each has a little map showing where some old buried items are located — which now may come in handy.

The Aselton-Duplass script does display a fresh concept in that each woman does not fall into a set pattern of behavior — i.e. a whiner, a useless panicked one, or the always resourceful one. Sarah, Abby and Lou each have their moments of clarity, then at times become temporarily unhinged. In this way the viewers do not know which one will emerge with the clearheaded thinking or courage to ward off the stalking men. Abby and Lou soon find themselves having to boost each other’s sagging hopes or be the one to calm the other down.

“Black Rock,” which was presented at the Sundance film festival and can be seen on pay-per-view, shows some promise for Aselton, whose previous directorial effort was a dramatic comedy “The Freebie,” given the small budget. A little more originality in its subplots and its conclusion might have lifted it to a more respected status in the horror-thriller genre.