World War Z and White House Down

World War Z
 
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) used to be an investigator with the United Nation’s World Health Organization but quit to spend more time at home with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters.  While driving through downtown Philadelphia, the family is stuck in traffic when an explosion rocks the city, followed by crazed men and women attacking anyone they can reach.  Gerry watches as one of the men bitten by an attacker twitches and seems to be having a seizure.  Within 15 seconds, he is as crazed as his assailant.  Getting in an abandoned RV, Gerry and his family drive out of the city as quickly as possible and are contacted by his former WHO boss Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena).  Thierry arranges for a helicopter to pick up the Lane family on top of an apartment building in Newark, New Jersey.  From there, the helicopter flies out to sea and sets down on a naval ship acting as the United States military command center.  Thierry tells Gerry most of the major cities of the world have been hit hard by whatever is causing the hyper aggressive illness.  Gerry is pressed to rejoin the WHO and find out where the plague started and try to find a treatment for it.  At first he refuses to leave his wife and kids but is told he and his family will be removed from the ship if he doesn’t cooperate.  Seeing no other choice, Gerry is quickly loaded on a transport plane headed for a South Korean military base where an email was sent out that referred to victims of the disease as zombies.
 
“World War Z,” based on a book by Max Brooks, has had a troubled life.  The shooting script wasn’t ready when filming began and the end of the film had to have three writers to make sense.  Fans of the books were unhappy when they heard the movie would significantly modify the story.  An original budget of $125-million ballooned to nearly $200-million in part because of seven weeks of reshoots in Budapest, Hungary.  All this and more turmoil led many to speculate the film would be dead on arrival.  But much like the flesh-chomping zombies in the story, “World War Z” is still alive and kicking…and biting.
 
While the film isn’t terribly scary it does a fantastic job of creating tension.  You are either tense because you’re expecting an attack at any second or you’re under attack and wonder how anyone will escape.  I often found myself forcing my shoulders down from around my ears because I was bracing for an expected attack or protecting myself from a current attack.  The film spends a great deal of time in tight, confined spaces that are often dark.  Hallways of apartment buildings, government labs and enclosed walkways feel like a disaster about to happen.  Even wide open spaces like an airbase runway can feel too small and restricted when a wave of the undead is looking to snack on your entrails.
 
Aside from the zombie attack scenes, the rest of the movie is divided up between Lane trying to investigate the cause of the outbreak and domestic scenes with his family.  The idea of a sequel is planted early and often in “World War Z” as Lane never does find out where the infection started and he’s sent in new directions based on the information he receives.  Much of this provides the audience background on the plague but it does bog down the pace of the movie a bit; however, there’s never a zombie attack very far in the future.  The family sections ground the film in reality as its understandable how anyone would take a huge risk to make sure their loved ones were protected from a worldwide threat.  Lane doesn’t want to be a hero but heroism is thrust upon him.
 
While the filmmakers have struck the right tone with the characters, the zombies are a little less realistic, specifically the giant groups of zombies.  Several scenes in the film show masses of zombies charging into crowds or hurling themselves at walls trying to climb to the top.  These large groups are obviously CGI and the animation doesn’t look quite right.  There’s not enough texture to the images to give them reality.  It sometimes looked like the zombie masses had a layer of powder on them, causing a slightly blurred and indistinct image.  When there are smaller groups that are obviously real people in makeup, the look is sharp and crisp which just makes the big crowd scenes that much more fake looking.  There are even times when a real actor does a stunt that is far too dangerous, like jumping at a full run off the roof of a building, where the person is replaced by CGI and that doesn’t look quite right either.  The movements of the CGI character become too jerky and obviously phony.  You’d think with a movie that cost nearly $200-million they would have spent enough to make sure the zombies multitudes would look believable.
 
“World War Z” is rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.  The zombie attacks are vicious and unrelenting and the battles between humans and the undead are equally so.  There is surprisingly little gore but some images are a bit disturbing.  We see a room full of people who became zombies and were incinerated.  There are piles of ash and bones but one hand is still moving even after the fire.  Some of the more graphic events occur off screen and are suggested by sound effects.  We see a survivor of a plane crash with a metal piece of wreckage sticking through his midsection.  Foul language is infrequent.
 
If you’ve watched an episode of “The Walking Dead,” you’ve probably seen far more gore than is on display in “World War Z.”  Events like a zombie killed with a crowbar to the head and a woman having her hand cut off to prevent a zombie bite from changing her are all handled out of the viewers’ sight and suggested with sound effects.  I both appreciated the effort to stay tasteful and wished some of it had been visible as I’ve gotten used to seeing such actions on the TV show.  Despite the lack of gore, “World War Z” is still a good action thriller and a decent monster movie.  Just don’t expect to be impressed by the number of decapitated heads rolling around as there isn’t even one.
 
“World War Z” gets five guitars.
 
White House Down
 
John Cale (Channing Tatum) works for the US Capitol Police force and is assigned to the protection detail of House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins).  He wants to be a member of the Secret Service and gets a meeting with deputy director Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  He doesn’t realize it until the meeting but John knows Carol from college before she was married.  This history doesn’t help because Carol knew John when he was a bit lost and trying to find his way.  The interview doesn’t go well and John leaves the meeting dejected.  In the hall waiting for him is his daughter Emily (Joey King) who, despite her young age, has a keen interest in politics, especially the current presient, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx).  John made special arrangements to bring Emily to the White House because of her interests and because he’s trying to repair his relationship with her that has been strained by his being in the military in Afghanistan when she was a baby and his divorce from her mother Melanie (Rachelle Lefevre).  After the interview, John and Emily join a tour of the White House and run into President Sawyer.  As the tour progresses, an explosion occurs in the Capital Building Rotunda.  The White House is put on lock down and Secret Service Director Martin Walker (James Woods) and other agents escort President Sawyer to his underground operations bunker.  When they arrive, Walker kills all the agents and holds Sawyer at gunpoint.  At the same time, a group of technicians working on the White House theatre sound system break out weapons and take out all the security throughout the building.  The tour group John and Emily are with are herded into a room and held at gunpoint.  Emily isn’t with them because she needed to use the bathroom before the attack began.  John is frantic to find her and escapes from his captors, kills one of them and grabs a gun.  While he begins to search for Emily, he winds up saving the President from Walker.  He’s able to contact Finnerty and let her and the military leaders she is with know the President is safe for now but his focus is finding Emily before she gets hurt or worse.
 
You’d be forgiven if you think you’ve seen this movie before.  “Olympus Has Fallen” had a very similar story with less familial involvement.  Still, “White House Down” has a few differences that set it apart; namely, the chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.  It is sometimes played for laughs and other times used to try and make us go “awww” as the two men discuss being fathers.  The humor works far better than the efforts at tenderness.  
 
But no one comes to “White House Down” with a desire to watch two men bond over their children.  Audiences want to see stuff blow up real good and it does frequently.  There are several major battle scenes along with smaller fights throughout the film.  It all looks good with the CGI meshing nicely with the live action.  “White House Down” manages to avoid the animation problems of “World War Z.”  It’s probably easier to make an exploding helicopter or collapsing Capital dome look real when compared to a human body.  Still, in the battle of CGI, “White House Down” wins.
 
The film also manages to capture the essence of the very competitive network and cable news operations.  While none of the reporters shown on screen is actually a character, you get a good idea of how franticly the news readers are trying to scoop each other and have the best position with the White House behind them.  As is often feared in real life, the news coverage puts some of the hostages in danger; but, as this is in general a feel-good movie, it doesn’t lead to any real harm.
 
Despite the presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Joey King’s characters, “White House Down” is largely a sausagefest.  No women do anything that could be considered brave and King’s Emily is the focus of rescue efforts.  While her character is a strong and brave little girl, she is still in need of rescue.  None of the soldiers trying to take back the White House are women.  None of the generals making decisions are women.  None of the terrorists are women.  As often happens in action films, women are seen as a thing to be protected and incapable of protecting themselves or others.
 
“White House Down” is rated PG-13 for some language, a brief sexual image, sequences of intense action violence and intense gunfire and explosions.  There are numerous gun battles and fist fights in the movie but none are gory.  We see a couple of people blown up by bombs but again there is no gore.  I have no recollection of any sexuality shown on screen but there is some mild flirting that mentions getting to “second base.”  Foul language is scattered.
 
“White House Down” is a big, dumb, loud action picture that won’t improve anyone’s life to any huge degree.  It doesn’t examine any issues, it doesn’t suggest any solutions and it virtually ignores half the world’s population by marginalizing women.  That being said, it is an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours and allows the viewer to turn off the mind and just enjoy the mayhem and carnage.  There are worse ways to waste your time.
 
“White House Down” gets five guitars out of five.
 
Three new films hit theatres this Independence holiday week.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.
 
Despicable Me 2—Now that Gru (Steve Carell) has forsaken a life of crime to raise Margo, Agnes and Edith, he's trying to figure out how to provide for his new family. As he struggles with his responsibilities as a father, the Anti-Villain League -- an organization dedicated to fighting evil -- comes calling.
 
Kevin Hart:  Let Me Explain—This concert film captures the laughter, energy and mayhem from Hart's 2012 "Let Me Explain" concert tour, which spanned 10 countries and 80 cities, and generated over $32 million in ticket sales.
 
The Lone Ranger—Native American spirit warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid (Armie Hammer), a man of the law, into a legend of justice.
 
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
 
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
 
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