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Posts Tagged ‘Zack Snyder’

If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

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Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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Sometimes you go in to see a film with an almost unshakeable conviction that it’s going to turn out to be nonsense, or worse. In my case, the mystery attached to this is not so much where these sort of certainties come from, as the fact that I invariably end up going to see the film anyway. Perhaps it’s just to see if I was right in the first place, I don’t know. I sort of recall having that sort of feeling prior to seeing Zack Snyder’s 300 back in the middle of 2007. I was in Japan at the time, and the English-language films coming out were somewhat limited, but that really isn’t an excuse, is it?

Anyway, off we went to see the film anyway, and somewhat to our surprise we found it thoroughly, if rather disreputably, enjoyable. I recall that my literary advisor was one of my companions (hello, Rob, if you’re reading this) and even he was mildly impressed by the fact the thing was (very) vaguely historically accurate. We agreed the film had achieved the neat trick of managing to libel the then-current Iranian government with its depiction of troll-monsters and goat-headed guitarists, dismissed the whole thing as silly fun and went on with our lives.

However, a $456 million box-office take has a weight and significance all of its own and I suppose we should not be greatly surprised that a follow-up has finally emerged, fresh and glistening, from wherever it is that Zack Snyder generates his work. Snyder was apparently busy making Man of Steel while 300: Rise of an Empire was in development, but he is still involved as co-writer and producer. In charge of making actors stand in front of the blue screen this time is Noam Murro, whose lack of a Wikipedia entry should tell you something about his CV.

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Rise of an Empire gets straight down to the business of reassuring the audience of the previous film that it will be business as usual this time, too: we are treated to volcanic quantities of spraying blood and jiggling bare breasts within the first minute or so of the film actually starting (both are thoughtfully presented in slow motion, as is quite a lot of the film if we’re honest). It’s not immediately apparent what this film is going to be about beyond random carnage and general naughtiness, but reasonably soon it becomes clear – Snyder and his team are taking a crack at that most ill-favoured of cinematic beasts, the ‘interquel’ or ‘parallelquel’, which is to say that many of the events of this film occur in parallel with those of 300 itself.

So, we are treated to the Battle of Marathon, ten years prior to the shenanigans at Thermopylae, and the death of Darius, father of 300‘s chief villain Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro again) at the hands of Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Following his ascension to the Persian throne, Darius falls under the sway of total and complete nutcase Artemisia (Eva Green), who is a-lusting for revenge against the Greeks following a rough childhood. His transformation into slightly suspect jingly bald megalomaniac complete, Xerxes sets out to conquer the world and kick off the plot of the original movie.

Things go on in this vein. If nothing else this provides the opportunity for virtually everyone from the previous film to come back, even if they died the first time round. Even the bloke who got kicked down the well comes back for a couple of scenes, and there are extended bits, not just for Santoro, but also Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo as David Wenham as the Spartan warrior with an iffy accent and only one eye.

But the bulk of the movie is about an extended naval standoff between the Athenian navy, commanded by Themistocles, and the Persian navy, commanded by Eva Green. This is largely a retread of the plot of the first film, but with boats and rather less of a homo-erotic subtext between the two antagonists, and everyone settles down to a good old-fashioned bloodbath…

For the last week I’ve been going around cheerfully telling people I was off to see the sequel to 300, which I openly confessed I fully expected to be absolutely terrible. Well, I went, I saw it, and I’m pretty sure that by any objective standard it’s a ludicrously bad film. However – and this is one more way in which it resembles its predecessor – it is strangely enjoyable to watch.

Well, always assuming that astounding, non-stop graphic violence and men in leather shorts spouting cobblers about the brotherhood of warriors are your thing. (I didn’t think they were mine, to be honest, but clearly I was wrong.) They are so absurdly, operatically over-the-top that the film is impossible to take seriously, which is actually a good thing: it would just be nasty and objectionable otherwise.

Murro does a decent job of capturing the feel and tone of the original film, although he is saddled with a few problems which would try the creativity of an experienced director. Most obviously, while most of the original cast were clearly very happy to come back, one of them obviously wasn’t, and there is a glaring, Gerard Butler-shaped hole in this movie. Sullivan Stapleton just can’t bristle and sweat with the same degree of charisma, nor can he shout in an inappropriate accent with quite the same degree of conviction.

Some of this is made up for by the presence of Eva Green. I have spoken in the past of the off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent which this actress brings to all her roles, but here she is, quite frankly, off the leash to the point of seeming completely bonkers. Here she is the de facto main villain, but this doesn’t stop the producers giving her and Stapleton an actual sex-stroke-fight-scene together. This seems to be here mainly to a) provide an excuse for Eva Green to get ’em out and b) give a pretext for Green to deliver the immortal line ‘You fight harder than you —-‘ during the final battle.

I suppose the primary mission of any sequel is satisfy anyone who liked the original, and I suspect 300: Rise of an Empire will deliver this in spades. It has the same striking aesthetic, soaring sense of its own profundity, and absurd lack of historical accuracy as the first film (just two examples: there appears to be an oil tanker in the Persian fleet, and the climactic Battle of Salamis, one of the most famous naval battles in history, features somebody riding a horse). And all the previously-mentioned gore and sex, too. For me, 300 has always been a definite guilty pleasure – Rise of an Empire was too, although the guilt was a little more pronounced and the pleasure slightly less. This is a very bad film in many ways: and yet, as a result, a lot of fun to watch. It’s a strange world sometimes.

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