Archive for the ‘one of the year's worst’ category

Gone Girl

October 4, 2014

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Gone Girl is the most loathsome movie I’ve seen in the twenty-eight years I’ve been reviewing films. What’s worse, I’m sure its director, David Fincher, would be jazzed by my reaction. But he shouldn’t be: he has brought considerable craft and resources to bear on a creepy, ugly thing, a pretty hate machine, a bruised corpse on a coldly gleaming autopsy table (which fairly well describes the film’s color scheme). It reduces everything and everyone to shit, and then rubs it in our faces. It’s the kind of movie that Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange would make about human relationships and marriage, and its nastiness is not mitigated by art of any sort, or entertainment other than a detached buzz over novelist/scripter Gillian Flynn’s laughable plot twists.

Flynn’s script, brimming with l’esprit d’escalier dialogue reflecting a cynical writer’s idea of how clever people talk, sticks more or less close to her novel, from what I gather. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). It’s a very long movie, at two hours and twenty-five minutes (and feels longer), so it probably doesn’t constitute a spoiler to say that the entire movie isn’t about chasing Amy, and that we shouldn’t trust our initial assumptions about Nick. Yes, if Maleficent was a #yesallwomen movie, Gone Girl is a #notallmen movie. Men’s-rights activists and incipient rapists and abusers should love it.

Much more than this I cannot reveal without blowing the movie’s raison d’être, and many people not culpable for the storytelling or aesthetic choices in Gone Girl have done honest work — including newcomer Carrie Coon as Nick’s sardonic sister and, incredibly, Tyler Perry as a high-powered lawyer who takes Nick’s case — so their work doesn’t deserve to be spoiled. That does leave me some leeway, though, to object to such details as how even the early, supposedly affectionate sex between Nick and Amy carries the sordid chill of the morgue; or how a later sex scene turns egregiously gory (it’s far worse than most violence that the usual moral guardians object to in slasher films but will excuse in this higher-toned Hollywood movie); or how the film depicts low-income motel-dwellers as thuggish thieves without blinking (the gross elitism of the writer and director really stands out here); or how a certain character’s perfidy reaches levels that require the diabolical planning acumen of the fucking Joker. Indeed, Gone Girl gives us Affleck-as-Batman versus Superman a year early: his adversary can do anything, can convince anyone of anything.

So this pulpy tripe — framed, I guess, as meta-commentary on pulpy tripe, which I submit amounts to the same thing — is what’s being peddled as a serious movie, one with not even Mad-magazine but Crazy-magazine-level “satire” of the media that feels a clean two decades off, complete with Missy Pyle as a fulminating Nancy Grace caricature. The paparazzi and news vans descend on Nick’s flyover town as if there were nothing else going on in the country, and we spend too much time watching Nick being groomed for media appearances. You see, Flynn and Fincher (how tempting to refer to these twin sociopaths with the portmanteau Flyncher) are saying, it’s not important in our degraded culture whether someone is innocent, but whether he or she appears innocent and whether the media buys into that.

Fincher’s Zodiac was a true-crime masterpiece of dread and obsession, but it’s clear by now that he’s a top-rank shiner of expensive shoes, a director drawn by technological challenges as well as a general dim view of the world, and after the cheap tricks and galloping misogyny of Gone Girl I’m pretty much done with him. (As for Gillian Flynn, from whom the blessings of this squalid story flow, she can go right to Hell and stay there.) This rancid saga, grindingly unpleasant to the eye and freezing to the touch, seems contrived to titillate audiences with fashionable bleakness, a dash of flesh, a cascade of blood, a wide streak of conservatism cloaked in the cold leather of faux punk rock. If this is what hits the top of bestseller and box-office lists these days, American literature and cinema deserve to burn to the ground. Pass the matches.

Let’s Be Cops

August 16, 2014

media_lets_be_cops_cbGiven what’s unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as I write this, a comedy called Let’s Be Cops seems hideously ill-timed, at least if you go by the advertising. The premise put forth in the ads is simple: a couple of schmoes pass themselves off as policemen, get off on the privilege and power of their new position, and get into all kinds of slapstick debauchery. The actual movie, though, gets all of that stuff — which, if the script went into it deeply and sharply enough, could actually threaten to be subversive satire — out of the way fairly early, clearing the way for an idiotic and dull farce pitting our faux heroes (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) against mobsters of possibly Russian, or vaguely Slavic, origin. See, they pretend to be cops and then have to step up and actually do what cops are supposed to do! Get it?

I can’t adequately express how soul-sucking the crime subplot is here. The crime subplot has derailed many a promising comedy; I wished, for instance, when sitting through Date Night that the movie would forget about its mobster storyline and just let Steve Carell and Tina Fey riff and improvise. By the same token, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are amusing enough when simply roaming Los Angeles in their fake cruiser, so why not let them? The desperately tired plot, which also involves a corrupt detective (Andy Garcia, in and out in about three scenes), just leads to uninspired shoot-outs so routine that they might as well be abstract color and movement for all the emotional impact they pack.

Wayans’ character works at a videogame company, and his big idea for a game puts the player in the shoes of a purportedly realistic patrolman having supposedly realistic adventures. The game actually looks like every other escapist first-person-shooter game, and so does the police action in the movie. Let’s Be Cops would have some point, some satirical juice, if it set up its two idiot protagonists as wannabe-cops based on what they imagine police work is from all the movies they’ve seen, and then harshly showed them what actual police work entails — going into scenes of very human despair and squalor. But that wouldn’t make for a rowdy Saturday-night farce — not that the movie ends up being one anyway, since it pulls its punches while remaining squarely sexist, racist and homophobic, and not even in transgressive ways that might be cleansing and redemptive, just lazily status-quo.

It’s something, I guess, for the black guy to take up with a white girl (Nina Dobrev, not allowed to show a fraction of what Vampire Diaries fans know she can do) and have it be no big deal. Some things are changing. And I liked how she’s allowed to contribute to the heroics by plying her trade — she’s an aspiring make-up artist — to make Wayans look like one of the mobsters’ scary couriers. (The courier he’s made up to look like is played, with welcome idiosyncrasy and improvisational flavor, by Keegan-Michael Key.) We don’t have to look at the head mobster (James D’Arcy) holding a gun to Dobrev’s head until one fake cop or the other mans up and shoots him. That job — the manning up, that is, not the Dobrev-menacing — is left to actual cop Rob Riggle, most likely doomed to play military, cops, or other alpha-male stereotypes until some imaginative director rescues him.

That director certainly isn’t Luke Greenfield, who acquits himself here with the same blandness and unfailing ability to miss the point (and the laugh) with which he directed The Girl Next Door ten years ago. The Girl Next Door was an R-rated movie about a porn star in which we never saw the porn star naked — not that I’m pining for nudity, but a movie with raunchy subject matter would do best not to chicken out of it — and Let’s Be Cops never hits the delirious highs or revolting lows that a truly daring cop comedy could go for. No, it sticks to its witless, anti-comedy gangster plot, involving a generic Slavic community that Nina Dobrev’s character doesn’t seem to be a part of, even though the actress is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently. But then this would have to be a movie that showed the slightest affinity for being culturally astute or for giving its actors something interesting to do.

About Alex

August 11, 2014

large_aboutalex_web_3About Alex isn’t actually about Alex (Jason Ritter), a lonely twentysomething leaving the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s mainly about his annoying friends from college, who have all drifted into disappointing lives since graduation. When they get the news about their troubled classmate, they converge on Alex’s cabin in the woods, where monsters and demons kill them — wait, no, I’m remembering more entertaining movies. At the cabin, the twentysomethings argue and bare their souls and dance to old music and pass a joint around and more or less re-enact The Big Chill.

Every other review of About Alex has mentioned The Big Chill, and so I was going to do my best not to, but I’m not strong enough. If you hated the yuppie self-absorption of The Big Chill, you will melt into a radioactive heap of rage and loathing in the presence of About Alex. If you liked The Big Chill, well, you’ve already seen it once, right? About Alex was written and directed by Jesse Zwick, whose father Ed Zwick created the sensitively irritating ’80s TV show thirtysomething (a.k.a. The Big Chill: The Series) along with Marshall Herskovitz; both men also produced this film, so we must assume their appetite for whiny entitled twats wasn’t sated two decades ago.

The movie does improve on its ancestors in that it isn’t lily-white. Of the young cast, Nate Parker is African-American, Max Minghella is part Chinese, and Aubrey Plaza has Puerto Rican ancestry. It doesn’t matter a whole lot, though, because none of the characters are written as anything specific. For a minute, I thought Alex would turn out to be a bisexual with a crush on Nate Parker’s aspiring novelist character, but no, there are zero non-heteros in this group.

We watch as the talented cast try and fail to breathe life into overwritten clichés. The most overtly annoying of the group, a womanizer played by Max Greenfield, actually comes off as one of the most interesting, since he gets some much-needed tension going. But he’s also that time-honored theatrical group-dynamic boogeyman the Truthteller — the one who digs out what everyone else is too repressed to say out loud — and in case we didn’t get it, he straight-up tells us: “I’m a Truthteller.”

Nice to meet you, Truthteller. Meet your fellow stereotypes the Neurotic, the Frustrated Artist and His Maybe-Pregnant Girlfriend, the Yuppie Scum and His Too-Young Girlfriend, and Alex, who gets scarcely any traits at all, clichéd or otherwise. Alex is merely a void around which the other characters can circle the drain of timeworn drama. One gets the impression that Alex has been kept alive — unlike the suicide, also named Alex, whose death brought the Big Chill group together — so that About Alex wouldn’t be considered a flat-out unofficial remake of The Big Chill. He certainly serves no other purpose. And even though we get a lame college-flashback bit near the end, we have little sense of why Alex was friends with any of these douchebags, or why they were friends with each other. They’re just thrown together to be even more annoying as a group than they are individually.

Transcendence

April 20, 2014

20140420-203047.jpgIn the slack and dozy sci-fi drama Transcendence, Johnny Depp speaks in the same mechanical drone when he’s human as when his consciousness exists only as a series of bits and bytes. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has already “uploaded” the mind of a monkey to a supercomputer in his lab. When he’s shot by an anti-AI terrorist group, Will’s mind is likewise digitally preserved, and he gets his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to put him up on the internet, as though he were a kitten video someone could post on YouTube. Gee, does that mean Will is responsible for the recent Heartbleed virus?

Transcendence is a goofball futuristic think piece without an eyedropper’s worth of (intentional) humor in it. The well-meaning Will, it turns out, loses his humanity once he dies and is reincarnated as a ghost in the machine. He games the stock market to bankroll a vast facility to pipe more power into himself. This power he uses to work on nanotechnology that saves people’s lives but also connects them to his consciousness. In his delusions of benevolent AI godhood, Will doesn’t realize he’s ramping up to a planet entirely jacked into himself — and, oh yes, he’s starting to pursue the new hobby of creating humans.

This would all fit better in a Wired op-ed than in a movie, especially one that loses track of its protagonist so quickly and focuses on the various people, including Evelyn, who debate over whether Will should be stopped or, indeed, can be stopped. The debaters also include Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as fellow researchers and Kate Mara as a dour leader of the anti-AI movement. We’re meant, I think, to be frightened by Will’s overstepping human ethical bounds, but Depp stays so bland throughout that Will never really seems a threat. And the script, by Jack Paglen, short-circuits itself by beginning five years after the movie’s events, effectively spoiling its own ending.

This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who served as cinematographer on almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Nolan takes an executive-producer credit here). Usually cinematographers-turned-directors at least manage a decent-looking first film, but Transcendence is drab and grayish, with occasional abstract images of rain falling (to be fair, this does assume some thematic relevance later) but otherwise as grim as a London afternoon. The movie has zero momentum or urgency — somewhere around the one-hour mark, we get a title declaring “two years later,” and we sink into our seats and wonder why Will’s facility has been allowed by the government to continue unimpeded for two years. The forces gathered against Will are amazingly ineffectual and dithering. They seem to let things go so far because if they didn’t it would be a short movie.

The dullness reaches new lows during the climax, which involves gunplay yet manages to be anticlimactic, with Evelyn begging Will to upload her into the system so she can plant a virus there. Will’s minions, all of whom have been healed by his nanotech, fall to the bullets and are never heard from again. What happens to, say, the blind guy whose sight was restored? Does he die a blind man? Does he die at all, given that the virus shuts down every computer on earth (again, this isn’t a spoiler, due to the idiotic opening scene)? Or does the nanotech heal the bullet-wounded before the system shuts down? Transcendence ultimately has less regard for common humanity than its putative hero-turned-villain ever does. It says that the lives saved by technology, and the countless lives blighted by the global blackout, mean nothing, and government agents and terrorists unite against a demigod that never seems that bad. The movie’s message is as muddled and scrambled as Will’s source code.

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

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Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.

Saving Mr. Banks

December 15, 2013

safe_imageSomeday, an enterprising film programmer will organize a festival entirely devoted to movies about writers whose work was bowdlerized by Disney. The festival could screen Dreamchild (Lewis Carroll), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), and Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of P.L. Travers’ struggles with Walt Disney over his studio’s adaptation of her book Mary Poppins. In a great example of corporate synergy, the movie arrives just in time to be sold alongside 50th-anniversary DVDs and Blu-rays of Mary Poppins next year at your local Wal-Mart, which might also sell you stuffed versions of the animated penguins Travers loathed so much. From beyond the grave, Disney has his revenge on the recalcitrant and Magic-Kingdom-allergic Travers. She allowed no film sequels to Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks, brought to you by the Disney studio, works as a simplistic Disney-version prequel of sorts.

Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers when her agent implores her to entertain the idea of selling Mary Poppins to Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been after the rights for twenty years. He made a promise to his daughters, he says, and he intends to keep it. Travers packs two tidy bags and grudgingly jets off to L.A., where she’s greeted by a hotel room filled with stuffed Disney characters. Here and there, Saving Mr. Banks is almost a whistle-clean Disney rewrite of Barton Fink, with Walt Disney as both studio head Jack Lipnick and the intrusive creative id Madman Mundt: Travers’ Disney-festooned room is about as disturbing as Barton’s room clogged with mosquitoes and wallpaper paste. But it’s also a smiley-face inverse — Travers’ demons and writerly quirks are destined to be gentled by good ol’ Walt’s intuitive understanding of what’s really bugging the old dame.

Director John Lee Hancock, no stranger to sentimental muck (he made The Blind Side), gives us copious elegiac flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a drunken fantasist who couldn’t hold down a job. The key to Mary Poppins and to Travers, then, is Mr. Banks, who was based on her father; once the movie’s lyricists pen a song in which Mr. Banks redeems himself by fixing a kite, Travers warms up and swallows Disney’s conception, cartoon penguins and all — at least according to this film. This complex woman, a bisexual Zen Buddhist who worked for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, is reduced to a wrinkled little girl who wants her daddy. She resists and maybe resents Disney because his brand of fantasy reminds her of Father (and was far more lucrative), but in the end, Daddy/Disney comes through, even consoling a tearful Travers at Mary Poppins’ premiere.

The movie says that pinched British artistry (actually Australian by birth, though Travers made England her home in 1924) doesn’t stand a chance against vulgar, mass-appeal, glad-handing American showmanship. Judged solely on performances, Saving Mr. Banks is sometimes amusing, if you willfully forget the context; Hanks’ Disney is an amiable yarn-spinner who won’t let his staff refer to him as anything but Walt, and Thompson’s Travers has the sharp wit of the terminally disappointed. They’re playing two vastly disparate icons, though the writing doesn’t help them transcend stereotype — the affable American man who has to defrost the prickly British lady is a trope pretty much as old as cinema. Ultimately the movie, despite its focus on Travers and her sour-faced childhood issues, is a warm tribute to and embrace of the Disneyfication process.

Ol’ Walt knows exactly how to melt Travers: he tells her he can make millions of people all over the world love her father. This, of course, comes at the price of nonsensical ditties and a dance number with penguins and Dick Van Dyke uncorking the worst Cockney accent ever recorded for posterity. It also leads, years later, to a movie that depicts Travers’ daddy as a useless drunk who almost drove her mother to suicide and who finished his time spitting blood in a lonely bedroom. Travers, who died in 1996, would certainly not have cherished seeing her father’s diseased guts laid out for sentimental scrutiny this way, especially not in the service of explaining to audiences why Disney’s triumph over Travers benefited the world and her father’s memory. In real life, Travers hated what Disney did to her creation, and she would have hated what his studio has now done to her.

World War Z

June 22, 2013

world-war-z-portable-20-755x420First of all, zombies don’t run, despite the “Z” in the title of World War Z. The movie’s fast-moving antagonists move en masse and bite people, but they don’t eat people — they’re content simply to spread their pathogen via saliva. That’s the second way the villains in World War Z-for-zombies aren’t zombies. Third, they “turn” within ten seconds or so, and blood-borne pathogens don’t work that way. The biters are sometimes called “the undead,” and a scientist in the movie says that efforts to kill them with lethal viruses failed “because dead people don’t get sick.” But the reason that earlier, more traditional film zombies moved so slowly and clumsily was a little thing called rigor mortis. If you’re bookin’ it down city streets and up the stairs of tall buildings, you’re not dead; you may be something else, like the rage-infected people in 28 Days Later or the depraved sadists in Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic-book series, but you’re not dead. To say otherwise ignores physiological realities like blood circulation.

So, whatever they are, the folks in World War Z are causing mayhem all over the world, and it’s Brad Pitt to the rescue. Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mirielle Enos) and two darling little daughters. Then the epidemic hits, and the UN pulls Gerry back in. Why? Because he has experience in the field, and because he Knows How to Do All the Things. This is fortunate, because on the very first mission the UN sends Gerry on, the accompanying virologist accidentally kills himself with his own gun before he even gets off the plane. At least I think that’s what happens; the director, Marc Forster, is widely loathed among James Bond buffs for his incoherent handling of the action in Quantum of Solace, and World War Z is Exhibit B in the case against Forster directing anything more strenuous than My Dinner with Andre.

World War Z is based glancingly on a novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), generally admired for its attention to the geopolitical fallout of a real-world zombie apocalypse. As far as I can see, the movie uses the marketable title and practically nothing else; there is no Gerry Lane in the book, at least no character who survives multiple conflagrations by the skin of his teeth, including an airplane crash. (The airplane, happily enough, goes down within presumed walking distance of the WHO Center that Gerry had wanted to reach.) The only way a proper World War Z movie could have been made was as a satirical mockumentary, for a fraction of the eventual price (two hundred million dollars). It seems as though, as soon as Brad Pitt got involved, the movie became about a hero who manages to get in and out of every pandemic hot spot and somehow figures out how to save humanity from the biters.

The big money moments involve hordes of biters — sorry, I’m still not allowing them the dignity of the “zombie” label — literally piling up to scale a massive wall in Jerusalem. But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. A later scene in which Gerry and some associates sneak past some biters at the WHO Center achieves more suspense with, say, two or three biters. Meanwhile, safe in a Navy ship out in the ocean, Gerry’s wife sits and waits by the phone. Sometimes it rings and she answers it. Once, she takes the initiative and calls Gerry, at the worst possible time, when he and some associates are trying to sneak past some biters in South Korea. You have to be quiet around biters, you see, because “they’re drawn to sound.” Oh, I see. Completely unlike all those earless deaf zombies who wouldn’t bother you if you were leading a brass-band parade in all those George Romero movies.

Other than almost getting Gerry killed (and mercifully sending us all home early) and handing the phone over to Gerry’s UN superior at one point, the wife is useless. Mirielle Enos (who resembles Jessica Chastain enough to qualify this movie as some sort of weird Tree of Life sequel) may have been an impeccable actress in TV things like Big Love and The Killing, but you wouldn’t see that from what she’s allowed to express here. Pitt has more going on with Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier, who reminded me a bit of Jenette Goldstein’s hardcore Marine Vasquez in Aliens, only without the dialogue or the humor. Come to think of it, Aliens remains the gold standard of humans-vs.-monsters war movies, and World War Z reaches for that here and there, and generally falls on its face. The action is unscannable spinach, the characters are dull, and the climax is the very pinnacle of anti-climax, making World War Z seem like a terribly expensive prequel to the real movie that exists past the end credits.


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