It’s been a while since we’ve had a decent zombie apocalypse film – especially if, like me, you didn’t comprehend the cult appeal of “Zombieland.” But “World War Z,” the latest in this summer’s unyielding parade of disaster films, is, surprisingly, a good zombie apocalypse film, probably the best since “28 Days Later.” It’s often implausible and has more cheese than a Velveeta factory, but it’s an example of great trashy escapism – breathlessly paced, kinetic and undeniably suspenseful.
Brad Pitt, wearing a drooping, hangdog countenance that bears all of the world’s indignities, plays Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations investigator out for a drive with his wife and two daughters, when all of a sudden Armageddon rolls into town. The undead run through the streets, toppling buildings, smashing cars, chomping into the living and turning them into the newest inductees in the zombie army. Airlifted with his family onto a safe naval base in the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry is summoned, along with a greenhorn scientist, to follow a tip in South Korea that may indicate the beginning of the zombie pandemic, and hopefully lead to a cure.
Gerry’s journey, which includes a memorable foray into a fortified Jerusalem on the brink of zombie terrorism and a frantic flight on a Belarus airplane, is filled with well-staged perils involving a savage and ever-multiplying enemy force. The zombies in “World War Z” are a far cry from George A. Romero’s lumbering lummoxes of yore: These folks are fast, ferocious and filled with piercing, dinosauric shrieks that curdle the blood. And they look great in 3-D too, plunging directly at us for some thrilling scares.
The common problem with “World War Z” is the incoherence of much of its action scenes, which whiz by in snap-cut blurs, hoping we get the gist of the scene by piecing together its fragments. But that’s not good enough; sometimes we need to see the forest, and not a few snippets of tree trunks.
That aside, director Marc Forster, who began making small indie films like “Monster’s Ball” and graduated into a Hollywood hired hand with 2008’s “Quantum of Solace,” has become a dependable blockbuster craftsman; the use of 3-D here is far more compelling than its superfluous usage in the recent “Man of Steel,” for instance.
Despite the progressively impossible scenarios Gerry is forced to overcome in this horror dystopia, we all know that his death at the hands of the evildoers is about as likely as James Bond’s – or Superman’s, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t go along for the wild ride, gripping our armrests when we’re not jolted from our seats.
“The East,” which is the latest sensational film from writer-star Brit Marling, depicts a different sort of terrorism: acts of environmental terror, or “ecotage,” led by radical collectives of off-the-grid anarchists.
Marling plays Sarah, a covert investigator for a private security firm, whose latest assignment finds her infiltrating one such organization, called The East. It’s “led,” as much as a commune can be led, by Alexander Skarsgard’s Benji, a Charlie Manson doppelganger with penetrating eyes and a roguish charisma. If there’s a second-in-command, it’s Izzy, played by a tougher-than-nails Ellen Page. The group organizes what they call “jams” – coordinated, risky attacks on corporate polluters, deceptive pharmaceutical companies and other monolithic multinationals whose avarice has facilitated human suffering.
The East views their newest member with skepticism but eventually welcomes her into the fold, placing her in key positions on dangerous jams, not knowing that everything she sees is reported back to the giant corporation that employs her, presided over by the always-brilliant Patricia Clarkson. “The East” has much in common with Marling’s previous film, the equally complex and provocative “Sound of My Voice,” in which she played a cult leader investigated by documentary filmmakers. The anarchist group in her new film is cultlike as well, as evidenced by a mesmerizing scene in which its members, muzzled in straight jackets, feed each other from bowls by clutching wooden spoons in their teeth. Also as in a cult, it becomes harder for members, like Sarah, to leave it, or even to escape for a moment of privacy. And the longer she falls under its ideological trance, the more she begins to adopt its views.
Sarah’s wobbling allegiances may mirror our own. This is a movie with a thorny moral calculus and no obvious good guys and bad guys; it’s as difficult to defend the East’s violent attacks as it is the callous destructions of the malicious profit-mongers they target. And in Marling’s wavering commitments to both sides, she becomes a conduit for her film’s audience.
You may be surprised where you land politically when the film ends, but then again, “The East” is filled with surprises; it thrives on the unexpected, both in its narrative as well as its larger themes, making it the great thinking person’s thriller in a summer movie season slated with fluff.
In the new Israeli chamber drama “Fill the Void,” set in Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox Haredi community, the title refers to the tragic space left by Esther (Renana Raz), who dies during childbirth. The son survives, leaving the father, Yochay (Yiftach Klein) scrambling for a new mate; his family can barely sit through the late Esther’s shiva without contemplating his future.
His strongest offer comes from a former childhood friend living in Belgium, which would uproot Yochay and son Mordechay. The thought is mortifying to Esther’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), who tries to push her younger daughter, 18-year-old Shira, onto Yochay in a customary arranged marriage. The two parties are clearly not enamored with each other, and their scenes together are awkward to say the very least, but they’re torn about their responsibilities to their respective families; “Fill the Void” becomes an aching study of duty vs. love, the crucial choice their extreme religion forces them to make.
Writer-director Rama Burshtein is herself a Haredi woman, and indeed, it takes a passionate member of the tribe to make a film with such truth and insight into the rituals and customs of a lifestyle that looks foreign to most of us. She even includes scenes that stray from the central storyline, just to reveal character and community through environment: One of the film’s great asides shows the head rabbi interrupting an important meeting about Yochay to help a lost old woman choose a new stove for her apartment – a moment as real as it is absurd, in the grand scheme of things.
“Fill the Void” feels as real as a fiction film can possibly be, and it does so while eschewing the trendy, shaky-cam “naturalism” that’s so popular with filmmakers grasping for docudrama authenticity. Instead, she shoots everything in precise geometric compositions and tight, uncompromising close-ups, emphasizing the very pores on her characters’ skin and the hairs of their Orthodox beards, with natural and unnatural lights glinting off the many surfaces.
She takes care to emphasize the spaces between her characters, assessing the enormity of unspoken pain tactfully absorbed in the middle of Yochay and Shira’s confused, fumbling attempts to consider their potential nuptials. She turns this austere story into a sensorial feast, with every sound and visual obstruction resonating deeply into the film’s impressionistic fabric. As a graduate of Jerusalem’s most prestigious film and television school, Burshtein was no doubt introduced to Ingmar Bergman, whose late-period, cloistered dramas like “Cries and Whispers” and “Autumn Sonata” look like touchstones for “Fill the Void.”
But the reason the movie works as well as it does is not the masterpieces it conjures or the specific community it unmasks for the secular world at large. On the contrary, it’s the universality of this story’s emotions that makes it work: the sacrifices for the greater good, the hurt of losing a loved one, and the daunting nature of starting over, while gazing into the void of an uncertain future. These are terrifying thoughts for anybody to ponder.