Movie Review ~ Army of the Dead

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Raúl Castillo, Samantha Win, Nora Arnezeder, Tig Notaro, Richard Centrone, Athena Perample, Theo Rossi, Huma S. Qureshi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 148 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Movie trends go up and down with the tide and I’m a little surprised that the love for zombies in film and television has gone on for as long as it has.  It’s far past its expiration date in my book, getting to the point where I have to resist entirely skipping over a title if I see the ‘z’ word or ‘undead’ anywhere in a plot description.  There just has to be more life, or the afterlife, than munching on brains and finding new ways for those running in terror to be ripped apart or, if fighting back, stop their foe with a sharp object to the head.  After some respectable “of the Dead” sequels churned out by original Night of the Living Dead creator George A. Romero before his passing in 2017, a new generation of films were created to further that legacy and it became difficult to discern what had Romero’s blessing and which were but cheap imitators in name only.

If we were still embracing the term “winning” (and I’m here to tell you, we are not), one could easily say that director Zack Snyder is the de facto champion filmmaker of 2021 so far.  Not only did his long overdue and much anticipated director’s cut of the greatly maligned Justice League debut on HBOMax to spectacular reviews, but he’s following it up two months later with a gonzo zombie film that is the itch you never knew you needed to scratch.  Now, while Snyder has a significant and loyal fanbase that always has his back (for better or for worse), who can say if Army of the Dead would have gotten as much of a buzzed about release if Justice League hadn’t been received so well.  While not related to Romero’s work, I’d imagine that horror icon finding a lot to like about Snyder’s film, which takes it’s time (148 minutes to be exact) to lay out a detailed plot featuring characters that have depth…and it’s not just the living ones.

That’s not to say I was totally in the Snyder camp right away.  An enticing prologue featuring soldiers transporting a mysterious government asset that crashes in the Nevada desert led into a credit sequence that is basically an entire prequel film in and of itself.  What the government was protecting is a quick moving and strong alpha undead that makes quick work of the soldiers, turning them into his hungry minions.  Descending upon Vegas, they soon proliferate a zombie infestation that we see brave men and women trying to control the spread.  By the time we see Snyder’s ‘Directed by’ credit, a wall has been fashioned around Vegas keeping the plague contained…but for how long?

While Snyder has the right idea in his introduction and stages it with typically excellent skill, it’s the credits that feel like he handed duties over to an assistant that didn’t quite have his style down.  Gaudy, gory, and meant to be funny but not getting halfway there, it’s enough to make you think twice about sticking with the movie for the next two and a half hours.  Stick with it.  It’s but a mere bump in the road because once Army of the Dead really gets moving, it becomes a thrill a minute blast following a ragtag group gathered by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat) to take back millions of dollars in cash just sitting in his zombie inhabited casino. 

Led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, My Spy), the group includes mercenary turned mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Nacho Libre), brawny Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick, Spell) who carries around a buzzsaw as his weapon of choice, expert safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, Together Together) who is responsible for getting a chopper on top of the hotel working in time to get the crew out of Vegas before a nuclear bomb decimates the undead once and for all.  Guiding them will be Tanaka’s security agent Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Looper) and Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) who routinely smuggles people through the wall and into casinos so they can steal the remaining money in the slot machines.  To up the personal stakes, Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) is a last-minute addition to the squad, hoping to find a friend that Lilly brought in and hasn’t returned.

If I told you that all of this happens within the first hour and you had 90 minutes to go, would you still be on board?  Hope so because the next hour and a half takes you over the wall and into a decrepit Vegas that has been overrun by zombies.  Adapting to their environment, the stronger have survived and formed a kind of community while others just wait around for the next scrap of unlucky flesh to pass by their vicinity…and then they pounce.  Experienced in the ways of negotiating passage through without becoming lunch, Lilly helps the team into the city and for a while things are going fine…until suspicion amongst the group gets the better of them.  As factions break off and they separate, Snyder easily juggles several action-packed storylines at once and doesn’t short shrift any of his actors getting their moment to shine.  Thankfully, that also means we don’t stick around too long with some of the characters that could grate on us, like Dillahunt’s Martin who is little more than your stock shady inside man sent in to protect his boss’s investment. 

What keeps the film so engaging is it’s unpredictability, you just never know who is going to make it to the end credits and who might be a tasty snack in the first scene.  No one is safe and while Snyder and co-screenwriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold give the characters an appropriate amount of time to mourn, at the same time they aren’t above taking out a team member you would have bet the house had a long life ahead of them.  Going hand in hand with keeping you on your toes is that there are times when Army of the Dead is genuinely frightening. Let’s not forget while zombies are often shown as lumbering slow movers they can also be sprinting fiends out for flesh.  The leader of the legion of undead and his wicked mate have exceptional make-up effects and costume designs – perfect nightmare fodder.

It might be easy to debate the film is overlong and while a trim here and there might have gotten Army of the Dead down to a slightly shorter sit, as presented it doesn’t feel like an excess of overindulgence.  It’s simply a big movie with a big goal and when you go to Vegas, you gamble it all if you want to win.  I think Snyder and company are successful in what they set out to achieve (confirming Bautista is a bona-fide action star, if anything) and you can count on Army of the Dead to play well on any size screen you choose to view it on.   

Movie Review ~ Sparkle

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the 1960s, three sisters form girl group and soon become Motown sensations, but fame becomes a challenge as the close-knit family begins to fall apart.

Stars: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Cee-Lo Green

Director: Salim Akil

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score (6/10):

Trailer Review: Here

Review:  There are two large shadows that loom mightily over this remake of the 1976 film of the same name.  The first is the obvious comparison to that other musical centering on a Supremes-like girl group in the 60’s: Dreamgirls.  If you look at the timeline carefully you’ll note that the original Sparkle came out a full four years before Dreamgirls opened on Broadway…thereby making it the first on the scene.  The parallels between the two are more than a little coincidental but Sparkle takes a harder edge in its latter half that would have seemed out of place in Dreamgirls.  Also, I’d say that Dreamgirls is an outright musical while Sparkle is a drama with the occasional musical number delivered from a stage, nightclub, or church.  The two may be similar in story but their paths diverge, making Sparkle less obviously about The Supremes.

The second shadow is more of a ghost like presence concerning co-star Houston who passed away in February just as the film was moving into post production.  It’s hard to say what kind of press the film would have received had Houston not died but it was her return to the screen after more than 15 years so a lot of attention would have been focused on this project anyway.  Houston also acted as executive producer of the film, having acquired the rights back in early 2000 with the intention to star alongside Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah.  When Aaliyah herself passed away the project was put on hold until now. 

Both of these shadows don’t sink the film that winds up being surprisingly pleasant even though it drifts a bit in the latter half.  It’s a fairly predictable flick and if you can’t see the pieces falling into place long before they do then you need your eyes checked.  Even with its telegraphed plot there is a winning quality to the film that keeps you invested based on the strength of the performances, production design and strong direction.

Like Dreamgirls, the star of the film is another American Idol alum making her screen debut and Sparks is mostly up to the challenge though she won’t be winning an Oscar for her efforts.  It’s not a star-making turn like Jennifer Hudson had in Dreamgirls but Sparks doesn’t embarrass herself, even if the role doesn’t quite fit her like a glove.  With her mega-watt smile the camera loves her and she fits the era well in terrific costumes by Ruth E. Carter.  Her Idol-tuned voice doesn’t truly fit the period (1968) however her vocals near the end have a rousing power to them. 

Speaking of the soundtrack, aside from music cues from actual popular music of that time none of the music sounds remotely late 60’s which is a shame.  Much of the new material was written by R. Kelly and its feet are firmly planted in contemporary pop music.  The music isn’t bad (especially the great “Running” sung by a secondary character played by musician Goapele) but authenticity flies out the window whenever the music starts to play.  Also, I would have bet the ranch that several of the actors had their vocals dubbed but careful inspection showed that everyone was doing their own singing…so basically they were just lyp-synching badly in the film.  Houston even struggled with matching her pre-recorded vocals when filming…which is surprising coming from an artist who famously perfectly lyp-synched The Star Spangled Banner at The SuperBowl.

While watching Houston onscreen I started to miss her presence all over again.  Yes, she struggled with addiction but there was no denying she had a voice that wouldn’t quit.  Her acting was spotty in her limited film career and had she made more films I believe she would have evolved…sadly it wasn’t meant to be.  In Sparkle, she’s the mom to the trio of girls that form Sister and Her Sisters and she takes care of business easily.  She’s the stereotypical single mom who has been-there, done-that and doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps.  At times, Houston plays the role a bit too nasty which makes the inevitable softening of her resolve at the conclusion harder to fully buy.  While Houston works through the material well she appears tired with her eyelids often at half mast and more than a few scenes played with her eyes totally closed.  Who knows what was going on during that period but for a highly hyped return to the screen (and as it turns out her final performance) she’s serviceable but doesn’t ace it. 

Brit Ejogo looks great and sings well as the lead singer of the group.  Without Sparks in the mix she would have (and probably should have) been the star of the show as most of the film revolves around her and the choices she makes as her star rises.  Ejogo has a pretty voice and at times looks an awful lot like Michelle Pfeiffer so you know my attention was rapt when she was onscreen.  Sumpter is probably the best actress of the group and gets to deliver some of the funnier lines as the worldly-wise sister that isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. 

The men in the film are a mixed bag and play their broad characters in support of the females – which is exactly what they should have done.  Epps and Luke play love interests to the Ejogo and Sparks characters and if neither actor gets to dig in deep they make consistent choices throughout.  If you’re going to see Green you’ll be in for a let-down as his appearance is strictly limited to the opening five minutes.  It’s nearly a walk-on role as he opens the movie with a song and then disappears.

Director Akil works from the screenplay his wife Mara Brock Akil updated and for the most part he’s delivered a good-looking, well-formed picture that should please fans of Sparks and Houston.  While some of the plot’s turning points are more convenient than believable (such as Bible-thumping Houston providing Sparks with the lowest cut Jezebel looking red dress this side of Mae West), it all somehow adds up to a harmless watch.