Friday, March 28, 2014

Double Feature Review: World War Z and Pacific Rim

World War Z

Synopsis: Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) races to find a way to combat growing hordes of zombies as a plague causes the world to descend into chaos.

The bad news first: I think I'm going to make an unprecedented statement here, so prepare yourself. Ready? The biggest similarity between World War Z and the book on which it is based is the title.

All right, so maybe that's been screamed ad nauseum from the raw throats of millions of angry fans of Max Brooks' phenomenal take on an undead pandemic. In truth, I wasn't overly concerned that the movie didn't do a Ken Burns style oral history to bring Brooks' work to the screen. There are plenty of movie adaptations that have been excellent and memorable stories despite straying from the original source material. Jurassic Park is a beloved adaptation of Michael Crichton's work, but it charts a much different path from the novel while keeping the core characters and premise of a dinosaur zoo intact. But World War Z really does abandon far too much of the original material to make it a decent adaptation.

Though it takes some inspiration from the book, the movie fails to incorporate its plethora of fascinating characters, imagery, and humor. Everyone waits around patiently for Brad Pitt to solve everything, offering some token assistance here and there, so the strength of the supporting characters is pretty much nil. The movie also takes itself a little too seriously in its portrayal of a worldwide emergency, depriving it of the satire so often present in the zombie genre. This tone is further undermined by the portrayal of the zombies as literal waves of humanity.

World War Z also suffers from a severe wind-down in its pace. It gets frantic start, spanning giant swaths of the globe, only to give way to a glacial climax where Lane's biggest challenge is getting past a single zombie who might best be described as a lab coat with novelty chattering teeth.

And, as a more minor nitpick, the movie makes the transparent effort to keep things within the realm of a PG-13 rating. Which means that the blood spatter and gore that practically defines this genre is sanitized to the point of distraction.

The good stuff: The initial scenes of the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are very well-done. There's a slow buildup as the panic sweeping the city slowly reaches Gerry and his family while they're stuck in traffic. There's a good mixture of human kindness and brutality on display, a blending of the desire to help out someone in need (even if an entire city is in peril) and "everyone for themselves" attitudes. Arguably the best scene in the entire movie involves Gerry's encounter with a gun-toting young man in a pharmacy. His motives and actions leave enough unsaid that he's an endearingly mysterious character.

Some scenery and aspects of the story clearly reflect inspiration from the book. The ragtag evacuation fleet in the Atlantic, with the flagship holding civilians and military and a pile of rescued items of particular significance, shows just how quickly a refuge had to be thrown together. The particularly disturbing detail of North Korea removing the teeth of all of its civilians isn't in the book, but it's has a similar feel to the atmosphere of Brooks' globe-spanning tale. So is a shot of dozens of airliners scrambling to leave a Tel Aviv airport as zombies pour onto the runway.

The movie also deserves some credit for adding a unique spin on the zombie genre. I won't spoil it, but it manages to add a believable defense against zombies that adds another layer to the usual "shoot 'em in the head" strategy.

Verdict: This falls far behind 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in its more serious handling of a fast zombie/infected outbreak. But if you don't go in expecting a carbon copy update of Max Brooks, you'll probably still enjoy it.

Pacific Rim

Synopsis: After a devastating series of attacks by monstrous aliens (Kaiju), mankind fights back with an army of giant robots (Jaegers).

The bad news first: You go into the movie knowing full well that you're in it for the fun and creativity of watching giant robots fighting big monsters. The movie makes the wise decision to open with a thrilling sequence based around this premise: an explanation of how the first Kaiju attack devastated San Francisco, the badass deployment of a Jaeger to face a Kaiju threat, and a no holds barred beatdown between the two.

But then it runs out of steam for quite some time. You have to scoff at the sudden switch in strategy from "Let's build awesome giant fighting robots" to "Let's build a totally ineffective wall," and the fact that this bit of the story seems like little more than a way to shoehorn in a bit of immigration symbolism makes it even more out of place. The movie churns out a long line of action movie cliches, ranging from the intra-team rivalry to the latent demons one character must overcome. There are a few scenes that stress the fine line between paying homage to Independence Day and ripping it off, like the inspiring speech before the big fight or the devour-all-the-resources-and-move-on comment.

Beyond that, you have Charlie Day pretty much playing Charlie Kelly as an eccentric scientist feuding with a snooty British academic about studying the Kaiju. It gets a little annoying.

The good stuff: It has ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS. The on-board computer is voiced by GLaDOS from Portal! Even if you're not one of the unabashed nerd to whom these features are clearly meant to appeal, it's impossible not to be wowed by the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights in this movie. Every second is awe-inspiring and creative.

For the most part, the movie never tries to take itself too seriously. It knows this is an incredibly silly premise and that we're not expected to care too much about San Francisco and Hong Kong and the rest getting smashed up as they become impromptu arenas for these battles. Much has been made of few plot holes, but the narrative doesn't get too lost in the fact that people bought a ticket to see a robot beat a giant creature with a freighter. From the first scene, you're wondering why they don't just seal off the evil monster portal; the movie addresses this question in a believable way.

Pacific Rim places itself only a few years into the future, so it's also quite enjoyable to spot existing technology from scene to scene. My favorite is the use of the Crawler, the giant movable platform used to bring Saturn V rockets and the space shuttle to the launch pad, in a new role as a Jaeger deployment device.

Verdict: ROBOT-MONSTER FIGHTS! If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, give it a try.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top 10 Strangest Pre-Breaking Bad Roles of Breaking Bad Actors

Breaking Bad concluded in September, but some of the buzz around the show has continued. The popularity of the final season inspired plenty of people to watch it, and a spinoff around character Saul Goodman will be starting up this fall.

At this point, I'm probably going to limit my blog posts on Breaking Bad to two more posts: one more "defining moments" post on the last eight episodes and this idea, which grew out of the various jokes about the previous roles of the actors (one of the best suggestions linking Walter White with Bryan Cranston's other famous role has Breaking Bad as a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle).

So with no further ado, here are the top 10 strangest pre-Breaking Bad roles of Breaking Bad actors.

10. RJ Mitte: Jock on Hannah Montana

Mitte's first on-screen role was a background, non-speaking part on the hit Disney Channel show that starred Miley Cyrus back before her tongue went all Venom-y. He's credited only as "School Jock," wearing a letter jacket in one scene. A few years later, Mitte started playing Walter White Jr.

9. Anna Gunn: Jerry's Girlfriend on Seinfeld

This is probably one of the better known examples. In her pre-Skyler White days, Anna Gunn was one of the 57 girlfriends Jerry has in the course of Seinfeld. She plays this role in the episode "The Glasses," in which George thinks he sees Jerry's girlfriend Amy making out with Jerry's cousin.

Anna Gunn has been in the film and TV industry since 1992, when she appeared on an episode of Quantum Leap.

You may have also spotted her in the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State, playing a character named Emily Reynolds.

8. Aaron Paul: Johnny Knoxville Wannabe on The X-Files

A few years ago I watched all episodes of The X-Files and tallied up a body count of all the people, aliens, and creatures to die over the course of the popular show. I also checked the IMDB page on each episode and made a note of any before-they-were-famous types to make an appearance.

One of them happened to be Aaron Paul, giving us a glimpse of what Jesse Pinkman may have been like in high school. He plays David "Sky Commander Winky" Winkle, a student who puts together videos on teenagers doing stupid things for a project he dubs The Dumb Ass Show. He also antagonizes a classmate with a variety of insect powers, earning him a retaliatory back rash.

If you were home sick at the right time in the year 2000, you may have also seen him make it all the way to the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right using his birth name of Aaron Sturtevant.

7. Matt Jones: Deep-Frying a Turkey on Gilmore Girls

According to his IMDB page, Matt Jones didn't really come onto the scene until he began playing Brendan "Badger" Mayhew in Breaking Bad. But he does have a single role from 2002: a fellow named Morgan in an episode of Gilmore Girls. He apparently doesn't have any lines; Morgan doesn't appear in a transcript of the episode, though Jones is part of a family that deep-fries their turkey for Thanksgiving.

6. Steven Michael Quezada: "Mexican" in Beerfest

Before Albuquerque's film industry became especially prominent with Breaking Bad, the city hosted the comedy troupe Broken Lizard (best known for Super Troopers) as they made the 2006 comedy Beerfest. Steven Michael Quezada won a small role, credited only as "Mexican," as one of his earlier roles prior to playing Hank's partner Steven Gomez.

It's also worth noting that Quezada, an Albuquerque native, was elected to a school board seat in the city in February of 2013, during the break between the first and last halves of the show's final season. I couldn't find a screenshot from his appearance in Beerfest, but that picture up top is from the ABQ's schools website.

5. Laura Fraser: "The Future" in Vanilla Sky

I never saw Vanilla Sky, the bizarre sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz. It might be known mostly for a scene where Cruise's character runs through a deserted Times Square (and the movie's decision, unorthodox at the time, to not edit the World Trade Center out while many other films and TV shows in late 2001 were doing so after the buildings' destruction).

Laura Fraser, nearly a decade before playing Madrigal Electromotive's nervy and scheming executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, is the voice of the unseen entity that speaks to Cruise and delivers the last line in the movie. She's credited as "The Future."

4. Bryan Cranston: Villain in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

Bryan Cranston's more recent alter ego of Hal on Malcolm in the Middle might lack the villainy that comes to characterize Walter White, and many of his other roles involve rather kind-hearted people. It's not like he never played the bad guy, though. He voiced a couple of villains who fought a group of teenage superheroes in the campy series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

There was also that time he walked on the Moon. Cranston played Buzz Aldrin in From the Earth to the Moon, the terrific miniseries on the early days of the space program.

And he was that one-armed officer who sends Tom Hanks et al out after Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.

3. Giancarlo Esposito: Big Bird's Camp Counselor on Sesame Street

Even in his first appearance, it becomes clear that Gustavo Fring's genial kindness is only the crunchy candy shell over a core of cold ruthlessness. So it's a little disconcerting to see him palling around with Big Bird, especially after his role as a meth kingpin working behind a fried chicken franchise front.


Giancarlo Esposito got the part of a camp counselor on the popular children's show after running out of options in the acting world, but admitted in an Onion AV Club interview that it was a pretty great experience. He was also one of the voices in the chorus that sang the theme for The Electric Company.

2. Dean Norris: Martian Mutant on Total Recall 

Dean Norris must have a thing for science fiction. I'm not just saying this because the guy who played Hank Schrader once played a Martian mutant named Tony in the film Total Recall.


He also played an officer in Starship Troopers.

He apparently really likes the Terminator series. He was leading the SWAT team that found a dying Miles Dyson at Skynet HQ in Terminator 2...

...and returned in the short-lived series The Sarah Connor Chronicles to play a nuclear power plant manager in a couple of episodes.

1. Jonathan Banks: Helping Girls Understand Periods

Yes, the actor behind the coldly efficient yet warmhearted fixer Mike Ehrmantraut had his first credited screen acting role as a doofy high school boyfriend  in Linda's Film on Menstruation, a 1974 public service announcement on...well, you know. Skip to 11:05 to see Banks ask if vaginas can control the weather.


I'm going to wager that Jonathan Banks is able to look back on this and laugh. He's been in comedy roles, after all, like that time he played one of the air traffic controllers in the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!