Instant Gratification: “World War Z” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

World-War-Z

Pick of the week: “World War Z” — My full review is here. That rare summer blockbuster that doesn’t insult your intelligence (like this summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” this fresh zombie thriller has Brad Pitt globe-hopping a planet covered in zombie hordes, who don’t just chase the living but swarm en masse like fire ants. This leads to some well-executed setpieces, including a massive attack in Israel and a satisfyingly low-key climax in which Pitt plays cat and mouse with zombies at a World Health Organization facility. Note: Netflix also has the unrated version available for streaming.

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On “destruction porn” in summer blockbusters, and in praise of the third-act downshift

World-War-Z

I was reasonably depressed by this article from New York magazine’s Vulture site last week, an interview with Damien Lindelof about the “new rules of blockbuster screenwriting.” The paramount rule seems to be to wage a war of escalation against every other blockbuster out there, going for splashier effects, bigger stakes, and even grander scale of destruction. That’s why the Earth has been destroyed or nearly destroyed a dozen times over at the movie theater this summer.

“We live in a commercial world, where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct,” Lindelof says. “Did ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ need to have a giant starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”

Lindelof, who co-wrote “Into Darkness,” seems to have at least mild misgivings about this approach, especially the proliferation of what he called “destruction porn” in movie trailers. But he should have even bigger misgivings, because this seems like an unsustainable model to me.

First of all, and most importantly to Hollywood, it seems unsustainable from a pure business perspective. At some point, you can only go so big. At some point, one smashed building pretty much looks like another. And we seem to be seeing audiences getting exhausted at the prospect of box-office apocalypse week after week — they turned out big for “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek” earlier in the summer, but bailed on “R.I.P.D.” and even “Pacific Rim” to some extent as the months wore on.

Secondly, and more importantly, it seems unsustainable from a creative perspective. If your focus is only on getting bigger and louder moments in your film, you run the risk of exhausting or turning off your audience. You start pushing out things like character or story or humor, and in the end, it’s still those things that hook audiences. “Man of Steel,” which I liked more than a lot of critics, is a quintessential example of this. It had a great battle in Smallville, then moved to the large-scale destruction of Metropolis, with skyscrapers falling down all around Perry White and Co. It was a big, epic, barnburner of a climax.

And it wasn’t enough. We still had another protracted, landscape-wrecking fight between Superman and General Zod to go. Maybe there are moviegoers who love that kind of excess, nonstop action and CGI destruction, but that’s not the vibe I felt from that “Man of Steel” audience. The vibe I felt was “Geez, enough already.” There’s nothing wrong with a little meaningless spectacle, but meaningful spectacle is preferable.

Which is why I’m happy to see something of a backlash brewing in some blockbusters — not a big one, but enough to make me think that there are some filmmakers that are tired of being stuck in an arms race of constant, endless escalation at the movies. Instead, I’m starting to notice more “third-act downshifts,” where big summer movies build to a climax that’s unexpectedly low-key.

This summer, that movie was “World War Z.” Here’s a movie that had some big setpieces — the zombies scaling the walls in Israel, the attack in Philadelphia — and was supposed to end on the biggest one of all, a battle between humans and zombies in Moscow. Instead, that ending was scrapped and “Z” went another way. The climax was instead a protracted, rather elegantly executed piece of suspense, where Brad Pitt slips into a World Health Organization lab where all the scientists have gone zombie to steal a potential cure.

After all the large-scale, top-down carnage throughout the film, it was an absolutely unexpected and refreshing way to end a big summer movie. And “World War Z” ended up being one of the big hits of the summer.

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Another franchise that has perfected the third-act downshift in recent years is the James Bond franchise, which is weird, because Bond films always used to end with 007 saving the world, usually by infiltrating the villain’s secret base. But look at how the Daniel Craig 007 films have ended, with a gun battle over a briefcase of money in a collapsing Venice apartment building (“Casino Royale”), a gun battle in a highly-flammable hotel (“Quantum of Solace”) and a showdown at Bond’s ancestral home, where the only thing at stake is the lives of Bond and M (“Skyfall“).

All exciting sequences, all action-packed, but none of them have the expected fate-of-the-world-at-stake hijinks. The Bond films have realized, especially with “Skyfall,” that the smart movie is to escalate the personal stakes, not the global stakes. You can still have your excitement and good-versus-evil struggle, but it will mean something to the audience.

Because, honestly, Damon and company? Part of being entertained is being surprised, and audiences have come to expect that “destruction porn,” like the last big hill on a roller coaster. And while both might provide a momentary thrill, it dissipates awfully quickly.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, June 21-27, 2013

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All week

“World War Z” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) My full review is here. The cinematic apocalypse this week is a zombie invasion, where seemingly half the globe has turned into fast-moving, chomping undead. Hardly a novel idea, but the movie has some inventive and thrilling action sequences.

“Monsters University” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) Pixar’s focus on sequels and prequels to its established franchises (“Finding Dory” is next) is distressing for what used to be the most innovative animation house around. Still, Mike and Sully are two of Pixar’s most endearing characters.

“The Bling Ring” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) Sofia Coppola’s fascinating with the privileged and famous continues with this fact-based drama about a group of rich kids who rob the gargantuan closets of Paris Hilton and others.

“Much Ado About Nothing” (Sundance) My full review is here. Joss Whedon’s joyful adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” was shot on black-and-white in just 12 days at his house, but this is no goof, but a smart, disciplined, and incredibly fun film.

“The East” (Sundance) Zal Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Voice” was one of the best paranoid thrillers of recent years, and he hits the same vein here, with collaborator Brit Marling starring as a corporate spy infiltrating an anarchist movement.

Sunday

“Quantum of Vengeance” (1 p.m., High Noon Saloon) — Not a sequel to the weakest of the Daniel Craig 007 movies, this locally-made sci-fi film from Ben Wydeven follows a woman using time travel to prevent her father’s murder. There’ll be a post-show Q&A and copies of the film available for purchase. $5.

Monday

“Alien” (9 p.m., Memorial Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St.) — In space nobody can hear you scream, but everybody can on a crowded Terrace for Lakeside Cinema’s presentation of the chilling original sci-fi horror movie. Free!

Wednesday

“Schindler’s List” (1:05 and 6:55 p.m., Sundance) — I’m curious how Steven Spielberg’s harrowing Holocaust drama plays for the Sundance Classics crowd, who tend to show up more for sheer entertainments. But it’s an undeniably great film, and I know at least a couple of people who have never seen it who are going.

“World War Z”: The undead are Pitted against the living

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“World War Z” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 1:55, three stars out of four.

Having just seen the world get decimated last week by fire, brimstone and well-endowed demons in “This is the End,” I wasn’t sure if I was ready to reboot for yet another end-of-the-world tale (this one a lot more serious than “End.”) But Marc Forster’s “World War Z,” based on Max Brooks’ clever bestseller, delivers the doomsday goods, with a fresh take on the zombie thriller that’s just smart enough to stand apart from the blockbuster pack.

Zombies are so well-known to moviegoers that I should start by classifying this batch — they’re the fast-running kind, who tackle their prey like lions taking down a springbok on the savannah. They don’t eat their victims (lucky for a movie that wants a PG-13 rating), but bite quickly, deliver the zombie virus, and move on to the next target.

We see this process take place in a well-choreographed early scene in Philadelphia, where thousands run from the zombies through the city streets, thousands turning into hundreds as the fast-moving virus creates new hosts. Caught in the chaos in former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family. They escape the carnage for Newark (not the first place I’d choose for a safe haven), and then are airlifted to an aircraft carrier, where a deal is struck. If Gerry travels the globe searching for a cure, his family can stay safe and sound on the ship.

Like the James Bond of undead pathology, Gerry hops from location to location, from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales, stopping just long enough for a vital clue and an action scene before moving on. Fortunately, the action sequences are all inventive and well-executed, with the zombies not just attacking but swarming en masse.

In the film’s showpiece, thousands of zombies attempt to breach a wall surrounding Jerusalem by climbing up the side in a giant mound, like ants. But just as effective is a scene when a zombie gets on board a commercial airplane, creating an undead wave that starts in coach and scuttles forward. (Will they show that scene on the in-flight movie, or worry that nervous travelers have enough on their plate?)

Through it all, Pitt plays a low-key intensity, trying to piece together the clues to find a way to stop or at least delay the spread. The ending of “World War Z” feels a little muddled, as if it’s both trying to provide a satisfying conclusion and leave the door open for a sequel. But the ride along the way provides enough thrills without insulting your intelligence.