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 ~ Together Together

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When young loner Anna is hired as the surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Stars: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Rosalind Chao, Julio Torres, Tig Notaro, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Sufe Bradshaw, Anna Konkle, Evan Jonigkeit, May Calamawy, Ellen Dubin

Director: Nikole Beckwith

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I don’t want you to run for the hills or race to the comment section when you read this next sentence, but here we go.  In the realm of pregnancy films, it’s time men get their due.  There, I said it, I stand by it, and now I’ll tell you why.   

Over the years in countless films, the male members of the cast have served purposes that have largely reflected on the time the film was made.  Early movies showed men as the sole breadwinner, the one that went to work all day and came home to a clean house with dinner on the table and the kids waiting to say hello before trotting off to bed.  Then came the fight for gender equality resulting in fathers slowly taking on a more balanced piece of the household puzzle.  When stay-at-home moms went back to work, the stay-at-home dad was born and a power balance shifted yet again.  All stages of this were reflected in some part on screens big and small but one thing was always the same: the nuclear family and parenting, with ideas of men raising children on their own by their own choice almost unheard of.  As the definition of “what makes a family” has changed, so have artistic representations of an even more detailed question, “what makes a parent?”. 

That’s the question that seems to be a tiny jumping off point for understanding why a rare gem like Together Together is so welcome and important a release in 2021.  Here we have a successful, stable, single-man approaching middle age (is mid ‘40s still considered middle age? I’d like a ruling on that.) who wants to be a father, hasn’t found the right woman, and decides to seek a surrogate to carry his child.  While this situation is not uncommon, it’s not heard of as often as a woman making similar plans so the people the man meets throughout the film almost have to hear the news twice to understand what they’ve just been told.   

Thankfully, writer/director Nikole Beckwith hasn’t set out to make an awkwardly educational film about gender norms and has instead crafted a genuine, heartfelt love story between two individuals that aren’t even a couple.  Matt (Ed Helms, Vacation) is an app-designer who has hired barista Anna (Patti Harrison, A Simple Favor) to be his surrogate for the child he’s always wanted.  In their first meeting, Beckwith stages Matt’s interview of Anna almost like a strange first date with him asking her questions and receiving the type of slightly off-the-mark responses that should be red flags but somehow seem less troublesome coming from the reserved but honest younger woman.  It’s in this first scene that Helms and Harrison demonstrate a red-hot chemistry, not in a sexual way, but in that friendship rapport which is nearly impossible to capture quite like they have done. 

As both navigate through the pregnancy, Beckwith approaches a number of familiar situations that might seem to be going one direction like every other baby comedy you’ve seen before, which the filmmaker then dovetails out of from the expected territory into new terrain at the last second.  Even when it does fall back on some stale jokes and bits that have been chewed over before in other movies (remnants from previous iterations of the screenplay, I’m sure), the performers are so alarmingly charming that you sort of don’t mind they’re playing for laughs off of material way past its expiration date for originality. 

I feel like I haven’t seen Helms a lot lately but it’s nice to find him back again and playing a regular guy that has some of the same fears and phobias all of us do that pass the big 4-0.  It would have been simple for Beckwith to write Matt with more neurosis about his age and relationship status (and even easier for Helms to play these character blips) but by making him so middle of the road it makes him more relatable to everyone watching, no matter what gender you have assigned to yourself.  The star turn here is clearly Harrison who I liked a lot more in this than I have in Hulu’s Shrill where she plays someone far more caustic and harder to warm to.  Anna has quite the fleet of baggage to drag behind her and Harrison isn’t afraid to show that strain wears on her after a while.  There’s a vulnerability to Anna that’s evident from the start and isn’t constantly hidden beneath a strong veneer, making the performance unique in its approach.   

While Helms and Harrison are two fantastic leads, they have some serious competition from their supporting cast, starting with Sufe Bradshaw (Star Trek) playing their ultrasound nurse who seems to be all business, until it’s time to get real with the couple once she notices a change in their interactions.  Bradshaw is assigned a similar version of the hilariously stern role she played in Veep but it’s the right choice for this observant character.  The deadpan Tig Notaro (Lucy in the Sky) works her magic on the few scenes she appears in as a therapist with the surrogacy program meant to help Matt and Anna with any emotional support they need along the way.  However, it’s Julio Torres that almost can’t help himself from stealing each and every minute of screen time he’s in as Jules, Anna’s moody co-worker.  A former writer for Saturday Night Live, Torres achieves high levels of laughs for his hysterical one-liners and non sequiturs.   

Clocking in at an ultra-trim 90 minutes, Together Together is one of the few movies you’ll hear me say I almost wish was a little longer.  Almost.  As it is, I think Beckwith has gauged the ebb and flow of the emotions of her characters correctly and timed a truly lovely and maybe even perfect finale to roll in at just the right time.  If you don’t get paired up with Together Together now, trust that you’ll find your way to it eventually through word of mouth or by your favorite streaming service suggesting it to you.  A winning combination of actors and script elevate this to a high recommendation. 

Movie Review ~ Lucy in the Sky


The Facts
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Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Noah Hawley

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character.  Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins.  Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy?  I’m not so sure.

Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me.  Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career.  Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead.  She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.

The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth.  I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened.  Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised.  So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.

Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person.  As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space.  Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before.  During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in.  Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.

Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music.  Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making?  Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice?  What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)?  How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark?  Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way?  Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story.  Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.

Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie.  Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement.  I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines.  The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional.  It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward.  Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to.  Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released.  That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach.  It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.

The Silver Bullet ~ Walk of Shame

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Synopsis: A reporter’s dream of becoming a news anchor is compromised after a one-night stand leaves her stranded in downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID or money – and only 8 hours to make it to the most important job interview of her life.

Release Date:  April 25, 2014

Thoughts: I’ll let you in on a little secret…Elizabeth Banks is a secret weapon.  I can recall more than a few movies featuring Banks that I haven’t cared for (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting) but am hard pressed to think of a performance of hers I haven’t liked.  She was wasn’t overpowered by her daffy outfits in The Hunger Games and its sequel, showed off some range in People Like Us, and donned a producers cap for Pitch Perfect.  Though the poster for April’s Walk of Shame is a ghastly mess, the trailer shows Banks comfortably in her comedic element…giving me hope that this R Rated comedy (co-starring the dependable James Marsden, Robot & Frank) will give Banks another chance to shine.