World War Z (2013)

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Despite its very ISCFC-like bad guys (hordes of the undead) you’d think this would be perfect fodder for us, but its status as an A-lister-starring, multi-million-dollar production leaves it out of our wheelhouse. But then I remember we’ve covered all sorts on here, including one TV series, so I decided to give it a go anyway.

Two of my favourite books of recent years are “World War Z” and “The Men Who Stare At Goats”. While one is fiction and one isn’t, they’re both basically unfilmable, being made up of non-narrative sections, and having no real throughline to them. Well, not one that could support a film. Hollywood decided, due to their popularity, to have a go at filming them both, and as far as “…Goats” is concerned, I think they failed. It fell between too many stools and the narrative they forced on it didn’t fit the story. “World War Z” does, at least, progress in time, but how did they do with it?

The narrative imposed on this is having a UN investigator go to the places that the book mentions, showing how the zombie outbreak has affected different countries and cultures, and trying to figure out a way to stop it. The book is interviews with survivors, which makes more sense than Pitt having to propel himself across a rapidly disintegrating world in a huge unwieldy aircraft. Because this is a big budget Hollywood film, he has a family which he had to leave behind (on an aircraft carrier), so we’ll get the occasional cut-back to them, looking worried.

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It’s a film of set pieces, really. And they’re often amazing – the initial outbreak in Philadelphia, the passenger jet and what happens in Israel are all absolutely fantastic spectacles. The unending sea of undead is very obviously CGI, but if you can squint and look past that, it’s an amazing alternate view of a large group of people.

The problem is, everything that’s not a set piece. Reading a little about the movie, it “suffered” an enormous amount of pre-release editing, last minute script changes, delays and so on, and what comes across on screen as weirdly disjointed begins to make a lot more sense. There’s no real arc to any of it – the presumed defeat of the zombies happens entirely offscreen, and the film ends minutes after Pitt figures out a way to not defeat them as such, but to level the playing field a little. His family are threatened with being moved off the safe aircraft carrier to an unsafe location on an island; but when they are moved, it’s fine and looks rather lovely when we see it, and provides no threat whatsoever (at least, no threat they show on screen).

It’s difficult to review this on its own merits because it’s taken some fantastic source material, thrown out all the interesting stuff and just turned it into a fairly standard movie. Good looking, amazingly competent Hollywood star cruises unharmed through world of CGI zombies. But I’ll try. Even as a standard movie, it has the problems listed above – disjointed, distracting CGI, the feeling that it’s ended about a third of the way through the story.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too hard on it. I wasn’t bored through the 2 hours of running time, and there’s a few great performances dotted around in there. I don’t think there was any one big decision that ruined it or anything, just a series of little compromises and poor choices that ended up with a film which looked nothing like the source book, to the point where you’re left wondering why Brad Pitt felt he needed the book’s title to sell a big-budget zombie film starring himself. If someone had stopped everything and gone “what are we doing here?” at some point, I get the feeling it could have been greatly improved, but $200 million movies have their own weird momentum, I guess.

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It both could and should have been great, but we ended up with something which I imagine pleased no-one.

Rating: thumbs down

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Killing Them Softly (2012)

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Ever wondered what comes after capitalism fails, after the greedy have taken advantage of the system so much that it haemorrhages until it can no longer sustain all of its parts? You could do worse than check out this statement on such an unfortunate event. This is the beginning of the end of an empire, a look underneath the surface and between the cracks. They say it rolls downhill but what happens when it can’t roll any further, what happens at the bottom when the well runs dry? When the going gets tough men have to get tougher or they’ll be chewed up and spat out.

A forcibly unapologetic statement on the effects and short-sightedness of greed, Killing Them Softly is the third film by Australian auteur Andrew Dominik and the second pairing between him and Brad Pitt following the poetic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s very clear that these two work well together and Pitt certainly enjoys himself as the cool hitman and central ‘take responsibility for your actions’ metaphor Jackie Cogan.

The third adaptation for Dominik, this time based on the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. The setting is shifted from Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election with plenty of Obama austerity speeches dotted throughout and served up on a sledgehammer such is the nature of the point being made.

Nice guy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) hosts tables for mob card games but soon becomes the fall guy and public example when his night is hit by two small time crooks. Pitt’s Cogan is subsequently called in to investigate and resolve with necessary retribution by the un-named mob spokesman (Richard Jenkins) who seems keener to stress frugality over results.

Dominik again proves how adept he is at the helm by creating a stunningly beautiful picture that highlights the murky underworld of crime under the rapidly approaching cover of poverty. There are two stand out assassination scenes both totally different in execution, one dances with the elegance of a ballet in a hail of slow-mo bullets and exit wounds and one rolls around in the muck like a filthy crippled pig, but both are equally effective in highlighting his technical and artistic ability.

He also persuades human performances from his all-star cast to breathe cigarette smoke life into grotesque and desperate characters. James Gandolfini in particular with a stand out turn as washed up, hooker-addicted New York hitman Mickey who Cogan soon realises is not up to the task at hand so devises an adhoc counter scheme to remove him from the job.

Instead of following the usual 1st-2nd-3rd act formula we’re dropped into a point in time and then removed a few days later after this particular situation is over. We feel as if life goes on for those involved and achingly so, in fact we’re glad we’re not them and we don’t have to experience what they do any longer. This film doesn’t make gangsters look pretty and it doesn’t make their line of work fashionable, after all they have to tighten their belts like the rest of us in times of recession.

You would be forgiven for thinking of Scorsese when hearing the fast, wise-guy dialogue and there are shades of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis in its setup but this is all Dominik in voice and execution. Effectively this is less a story and more an allegorical talkie piece with generally two or 3 main characters on screen at any one time constantly spitting dialogue and driving home the point the film sets out to make. Finely capped by a cynical, brilliant speech Dominik achieves simply by telling the truth and without the need to labour it. When the gloves are off each man has to take responsibility and survive however he can even if he has to drop his morals to do so. America is a business after all.

– Greg Foster

Killing Them Softly on IMDB
Buy Killing Them Softly [DVD]