Cinema reviews: World War Z, Before Midnight and more

Another week, another car-crash Hollywood blockbuster. World War Z – it staggers me to say – is worse than Man of Steel. A $200m sci-fi epic with grungy imaging worthy of a naff Euro-pudding bodies forth the tale of a zombie-conquered Earth. Due to a mysterious contagion the planet has fallen prey to ... yes, it’s that plot again: Camus’s The Plague gone popcorn.

Brad Pitt is our only conduit to credibility or caring, like the one familiar face at a doomed party. No fellow star and none but the scantiest prelude and back-story exist to spark our empathy with the characters. Almost instantly we are into the screaming Philadelphia streets, then the command-HQ aircraft carrier, then North Korea, Jerusalem ...

One image of the crazed undead forming a 50-foot-high human pillar, like an uphill river, to climb Israel’s wall is novel and scary. Then it is back to the ill-acted, ill-lit scenes in global panic stations. I spent half the film with my 3D glasses taken off: they further dim an already low-watt spectacle. (Why haven’t the Hollywood optics boffins cured this problem?) People assure me the original novel by Max Brooks is good. Perhaps I’ll reincarnate myself and read that instead. But if I should ever come towards you, during that second existence, with a ragged metronome walk, waving and commending World War Z the DVD, shoot me instantly in the head.

Cuteness is to charm what cultured pearls are to real. The first will do as a substitute if it has been too long for you to remember the second. Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) both had charm – didn’t they? Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, guided by writer-director Richard Linklater, wandered the globe talking, thinking aloud and falling and re-falling in love. In Before Midnight they still prattle, though married with kids. They wander picture-postcard locations (Greece). There are loquacious supporting characters, some young. There are name-checks for Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Balzac ... I kept thinking of Eric Rohmer. I kept thinking, “If only Eric Rohmer had made this.”

What is missing? Freshness. To which you reply: “Well, they’re married, aren’t they?” Yes, but so were Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Voyage to Italy, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, act two, and a fair few Rohmer couples. Wedding rings don’t mean the death of drama. They merely mean people may be less garrulous with their highs and lows. But here an early one-shot conversation in a car lasts 15 minutes. Do you know a married couple that bandies sweet nothings for a quarter-hour?

Later Hawke and Delpy quarrel, make up, quarrel ... That’s better and sometimes funny. By the end, Before Midnight inches towards a dawn of charm. But it’s a troubled trip. Not least among discomforts is the disparity in exposure between the two stars. Delpy, brave girl, does a prolonged topless stint, revealing a thickening midriff and breasts starting “the droop”. Hawke stays immured in his clothes, his tanned face and that suspicious mop of thick chestnut hair – can it really all be his own? It’s the old story. A man’s place is on the fashion plinth. A woman’s place is suffering for art, life, maturity and maternity.

Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian master of Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry, now makes films abroad. It is tough being an artist in Iran. It is tough too being an artist in exile. Deracination can suck the life from you. If Certified Copy – that Juliette Binoche enigma about strangers masquerading as marrieds – was runic and a little airless, Like Someone in Love, made in Japan, is gnomic, anfractuous, inconsequential. The young prostitute-student (Takanashi Rin) meets the elderly writer client, who wants fine talk and food, not just sex, then runs foul of an irate boyfriend disbelieving her story that the old man is her “uncle”. That’s the plot. It doesn’t get deeper or richer. The framing has the cold, mandarin precision of a Mondrian painting. So does almost everything else.

Ill-achieved fiction is shamed, this week, by well-achieved non-fiction. I Am Breathing is a tragic, insightful, harrowing documentary. “Moving” hardly seems the right word – or the tactful one – for a film about someone who cannot move. Neil Platt, young, handsome, bearded, was filmed dying of motor neurone disease. His family visibly – the shooting crew less visibly (attentive but unobtrusive recording angels) – hover around him.

It was Platt’s idea: the film, not the disease. That was God’s idea if you believe in that all-creating prime mover. We the audience sit there helpless, watching the all-sorts sequencing of “home movie” footage: from childhood clips of Neil in a Kermit the Frog suit to the one happy year of marriage MND allowed him to the nearly paralysed, barely weeping face of a man whose last attempts to shape words to his wife – a lacerating scene – precede the pulling of the plug, pre-agreed for the final moment of failing powers.

Before that it is the details that quietly kill. The worst thing for Neil lying in his tube-festooned daytime recliner? “Not being able to scratch an itch.” The best thing? Writing a farewell letter to his son and creating a memory box: a time capsule of his own life.

Fire in the Night
, another Scottish documentary, is in all senses blistering. In July 1988 the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea experienced a blowout leading to an inferno in which 167 men died. Director-producer Anthony Wonke interviews the half-dozen survivors still willing or able to bear witness, though “willing” is tested by the horrors of recall and “able” breaks down, sometimes, in disabling chokeholds of tears. For the drama of the night, and the ensuing days of pillaring flame and vain rescue endeavours, grainy-graphic news footage alternates with subtle, hellish dabs of reconstruction.

This was the primeval era, apparently, of offshore drilling. “No one knew what would happen ... It was as much religion as engineering,” says someone. Another: “We said safety only comes first if it doesn’t interfere with production.” Later soundbites get more extreme. “Jesus wept,” says an observer’s voice, in a newscast, as the disaster-night flames roar bigger. “The top of my head started to cook,” remembers a survivor, who sought an escape route from the sizzling, gargantuan oven on stilts. By the end you feel you have experienced it all yourself. Who needs imagined tragedy when the world supplies the real thing on this scale and to this affect?

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