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Review: ‘Z For Zachariah’

'Z For Zachariah'
‘Z For Zachariah’

In Craig Zobel’s apocalypse drama Z For Zachariah, we’re asked to believe that one of the last women remaining on Earth is the beautiful Margot Robbie. Dressed down in farm girl attire (i.e. lots of oversized plaid and a John Deere-like hat) and sporting a Southern accent that one only hears in the movies when someone certainly not from the south tries to put on a Southern accent in said movie, she’s just one of several issues facing a film that’s languidly paced and unable to draw any imagination from a genre of film that’s spent its welcome in a very short period of time.

While hunting with her faithful dog on the resplendent patch of farmland she calls home, Ann (Robbie) observes a stranger in a hazmat suit walking in her direction. The clicking of his Geiger counter reveals nothing in the air so the man, named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofore), sheds his suit and goes for a dip in the cozy stream nearby. Racing to his aid, yelling that the water is not safe and it comes from a source outside of the area, Ann rescues the man and takes him back to her house where she nurses him back to health. It’s the first hint we get of civilization’s imminent end, as some unspecified radioactive fallout has decimated the population. Ann explains that the reason she survived was the seemingly perfect placement of the rolling hills around her land that must have acted like a buffer in allowing the poisonous gas to settle over the property.

Over time, Ann and Loomis grow romantically attached, even though her strict religious background and preacher’s daughter adolescence causes her to take things in stride. As if this cliched characterization isn’t enough, Loomis is an engineer who helps her restore power to the house and raises the idea for building a water-powered windmill that will give them sustainable energy.

However, their idyll existence is shattered when a second man (Chris Pine) wanders into their homestead and destabilizes, both emotionally and physically, their tenuous relationship. As if the beauty of Robbie isn’t enough, apparently one of the last male survivors is ruggedly handsome Pine who, naturally, tests Ann’s monogamy with Loomis. The three slowly evolve into a family of sorts, wondering how to survive while aligning their own personal agendas for the sultry Ann.

Based on the 70’s novel by Robert Conly (who also wrote the wonderful children’s book on which the animated The Secret of Nimh was based upon), Z For Zachariah certainly feels like a film that would’ve prospered in the 70’s. Released now, and coming along the wave of micro-budget apocalypse films of the last decade or so, Zobel’s effort is too mundane and full of narrative twists that are neither surprising nor interesting. There’s no moral complexity within the characters, and even though all three stars have more than enough charisma and acting chops to embody three-dimensional people we care about, I found myself not really caring about any of them. In a film that hinges on these three being the last few survivors on the planet, that’s a major problem.

Z For Zachariah opens in limited release throughout the Dallas Fort Worth area on Friday, August 28.

Review: ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,’ A Safe and Reliable Action Vehicle

Chris Pine in 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
Chris Pine in ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’
A creaky plot vehicle is covered up with a shiny coat of paint in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which reboots Tom Clancy’s fictional, cold-war CIA analyst for the post-9/11 age of terrorism. The movie travels a familiar route at moderate speed; it never breaks any rules, but neither does it suffer a fatal crash.

The fifth installment in the series — after The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994),
and The Sum of All Fears (2002) — reboots Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) as a young man who quits college to enlist in the U.S. Marines after 9/11. On a military mission in Afghanistan, he suffers a broken back, which sidelines him for many months of physical therapy. His heroic actions on the mission catch the attention of high-ranking intelligence agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him to work undercover in the financial industry.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and Jack is working as a compliance officer at a Wall Street financial institution and notices something is not quite right. His suspicions lead him to Moscow, where he has a deadly encounter with a gun-wielding henchman and encounters wealthy Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), who is the mastermind of a plot that will bring the Western world to its knees.

Cue loud “duh duh duh” music.

Yup, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit wants to have it both ways: to exist in the Cold War days, when Soviet villains with thick accents had huge, almost entirely empty offices with 40-foot vault ceilings and mult-level floors, and plotted world domination; and to tap into modern, primal fears of financial collapse and terrorist attacks that threaten millions. Rather than choosing one extreme or the other, the plot incoporates both narrative threads, which means that much of the movie is spent with one character explaining to another (and to the audience) what is happening and why it’s important.

To avoid telling and not showing, however, all this talking takes place while the characters are running or driving or chasing the bad guys, often in a variety of motorized vehicles, up or down stairs or from side to side, a kind of breathless chant that works very, very hard to push the pace of the film forward. As he proved with Thor, Kenneth Branagh, who directed in addition to playing the Cold War Russian heavy, does not have his own signature style for staging action sequences, so he’s content to adapt the modern action aesthetic of fast-cutting to approximate motion and excitement. It doesn’t suceeed, of course — it rarely does nowadays — but he occasionally includes close-ups of the individuals involved, so at least we have some idea whose life is ostensibly in danger.

All this hurly and burly means that the film is not particularly involving — it’s too busy running to the next plot point to pause and reflect on The Meaning Of It All or What The Heck Is This Guy’s True Motivation For Killing Millions Of People or Why Must Every Important Secret In Every Movie And TV Show In The 21st Century Be Downloaded To A USB Device — but the time passes painlessly, and it occasionally threatens to burst into credibility.

The key members of the cast contribute to the feeling of competence about the movie. Chris Pine brings warmth and conviction to the “new” Jack Ryan, while Kevin Costner well-embodies a mentor who is still extremely capable. Keira Knightley is perhaps over-qualified, but perfectly capable in “the girlfriend role,” and Branagh directs himself with panache

Getting back to automotive comparisons, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit provides a fair degree of value as a rental vehicle. It’s safe and comfortable, but it doesn’t stand out in the flow of traffic.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, January 17.