Review: Army of the Dead (limited theaters now; Netflix on May 21)
The Oscar-winning editor and sound-design maestro Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) offered up this important insight about running times a couple of decades back, and it’s worth keeping in mind if you feel intimidated by the length of Zack Snyder’s movies.
“Films with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long,” Murch told novelist Michael Ondaatje in their conversations. “With more points of view you can sustain that juggling act for longer, just because it’s richer and more complex. A symphony can be longer than a sonata.”
Army of the Dead is Snyder’s bittersweet zombie symphony. With an official runtime of 148 minutes (an actual runtime closer to 140, sans credits), it is probably a hair too long. But I can’t easily pinpoint what would make sense to cut.
Certainly not the opening allegro, which sets the stage for the zombie-ravaged Las Vegas and, like the opening of so many other Snyder films, would work as a short story unto itself separated from the rest of the film. Perhaps the andante could use some trims, as it is the slowest part of the movie. But we move with admirable efficiency as Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) learns of his mission (to infiltrate Vegas before it is nuked in order to steal $200 million in the vault of Bly Tanaka’s [Hiroyuki Sanada] casino vault) and assembles his team of crack shambler-killers).
The scherzo is the most playful part of a symphony and that holds true here, as Snyder, headed into the third movement, is simply having fun with all the things zombies can do and all the ways in which they can be killed. Here we have hordes of sleeping zombies, zombies used to clear traps that resemble the treasure room in Raiders of the Lost Ark, pregnant zombies, zombies wearing capes and steel masks to deflect bullets from their precious brain matter. And, oh yeah, a tiger zombie from Siegfried and Roy’s now-defunct show. Sure, you could cut some of the fun stuff here, but what would go?
The final rondo might be the safest place to cut, as the emotional core of the film doesn’t quite sing. But even here, if you start snipping the whole thing unravels. And Army of the Dead is big and fun and kind of dumb, a massively budgeted monument to guts and gore that represents the best of what Netflix can offer to auteurs with the $2 billion or so in revenue it’s generating every month.
That freedom sometimes has its costs. Snyder worked on this film as the director of photography in addition to directing and is deeply committed to shallow focus, often having one person in a shot in focus while everyone else and the background are fuzzily out of focus. This can be a valuable tool in a director of photography’s box, but it felt like the only tool being used for much of this film, and quickly became modestly distracting. When an Easter Egg popped up in the film in the form of a tattered banner proclaiming the genius of magician Larry Fong—the name of Snyder’s beloved real-life DP on 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—it served as a reminder of how much any director’s aesthetic depends on the talents of those around him.
Still, few would dispute that Snyder knows how to shoot an action sequence, how to make action quick, clean, and clear, even when focused on a messy, ugly sort of violence. And like all Snyder movies, there’s a dark, mordant humor to the picture; the safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) is one of my favorite supporting characters in some time, just perfectly silly and funny and serious all at once.
I won’t dwell on Army of the Dead’s politics (wouldn’t be a zombie movie without politics!) other than to say I’m curious to see how folks will respond to this. More specifically, how they’ll respond to how folks across the political aisle respond to it. The subplot in which a phony health crisis (complete with thermometer guns testing foreheads!) is used to control people, crack down on dissent, and imprison illegal immigrants is sure to scramble all sorts of circuits. Metaphors, as always, are tricky: If you have any doubt about that, just ask the directors of The Matrix and They Live how they feel nowadays about who the greatest champions of their films’ messages are.
Got a friend you want to convince to go see Army of the Dead? Excited for the return of Adult Swim classics like Metalocalypse and The Venture Bros.? Share this newsletter with everyone you know to spread the joy! In the words of one immortal: “Don’t cost nothin’.”
HBO Max Versus the Window
As an early millennial—as a Xennial, perhaps, or a member of Generation Catalano—it brought me great joy to see that Adult Swim cult classics Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Bros., and Metalocalypse were all going to get new film releases.
This may not mean a great deal to you, as these properties were never as wildly popular as, say, The Simpsons or even Rick and Morty. I’m not going to blame you for not getting up off your couch and cheering for the resurrection of cartoons about talking fast-food items or a psychotic band of world-saving metalheads. As someone who came of age during the Cartoon Network’s great era of late-night programming, however, I was pumped. (The rebirth of Metalocalypse, in particular, is great news, as that story never really got a chance to be completed.)
And as an observer of the business of Hollywood, I was intrigued. Because another interesting tidbit is that these properties aren’t going to be coming straight to HBO Max, as one might have expected in this age of streaming exclusivity. They will, instead, have windows of physical and digital media sales for the die-hard fans who can’t wait for the programs to show up on streaming and are willing to spend a little more to get them early.
“Rather than send the movies straight to Adult Swim’s sister HBO Max immediately, the pics will get a release worldwide on Blu-ray/DVD and PVOD and electronic-sell-through (EST) with a 90-day exclusive window before hitting the streaming service and Adult Swim,” reported Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro. As the president of Adult Swim told D’Alessandro, this lets the broader Warner Media empire take advantage of the “amazingly dedicated and not-shy” (read: lucrative) uber-fans of the various series in addition to providing content for HBO Max.
As the Entertainment Strategy Guy put it, “It’s almost like someone at Warner Bros has a spreadsheet, does the math and screams, ‘My God streaming only leaves so much money on the Gosh Farm table!’”
Netflix doesn’t really worry about this too much because Netflix has more money than Croesus. On the rare occasions when Netflix does crack open the window—as it’s currently doing by putting Army of the Dead in theaters for a week ahead of its Netflix debut, or as it did when it offered up limited runs of The Irishman a month ahead of its Netflix debut—it does so because it wants to throw filmmakers a bone. It’s a favor to Zack Snyder and his legion of fans; it’s a sop to Martin Scorsese, one of the great defenders of the big screen.
Others are in a trickier spot. The Warner Bros. experiment of releasing its entire slate on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously shows that there are certainly some movies that some people want to see on the big screen (Godzilla vs. Kong; Mortal Kombat), but that audience is relatively limited and relatively frontloaded (GvK declined 56 percent weekend-to-weekend, about standard for a film of this sort over its first two weekends; MK dropped a much more precipitous 73 percent).
That said, HBO Max’s existence leads to experimentation and niche offerings that couldn’t necessarily happen otherwise. When I talked to Sean O’Connell, author of Release the Snyder Cut, he was insistent that Zack Snyder’s vision for Justice League would’ve taken years to come out if not for the existence of a platform that could cater to smaller audiences and a need to fill that platform with original content.
The Adult Swim triptych will be getting a more traditional release, at least for this particular variety of product, and I wonder if that isn’t part of a more general reversion to the norm. (See also: Apple TV+’s decision to release the second season of Mythic Quest in weekly installments rather than all at once.) Releasing product incrementally—whether that means releasing a show week-by-week, as was traditionally done, or by making it available to more people at lower cost gradually, over time—helps keep it in the public eye longer.
And more attention means more revenue, in the long run.
Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead (theaters and HBO Max)
Those Who Wish Me Dead is something of a throwback: a high-concept, mid-budget action-thriller with an A-list star and some top-tier supporting work that clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes. While the new flick from co-writer/director Taylor Sheridan and star Angelina Jolie doesn’t outstay its welcome, it doesn’t leave much of an impression either.
Jolie stars as Hannah, a smokejumper—you know, one of those crazy folks who jump out of airplanes and into raging forest fires—with PTSD. She’s off-duty and overcompensating by doing crazy things like deploying a parachute while standing on the back of a speeding pickup truck, a maneuver that’s as likely to snap her neck as provide some cheap drunken thrills.
Meanwhile, Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen) are hunting the teenaged Connor (Finn Little), whose father was trying to get him to safety via Montana sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal). The pair of hitmen are eliminating prosecutors and witnesses who are trying to take down Arthur (Tyler Perry), a … criminal, I guess? Who has done something that implicates … everyone at every level of government? The stakes here are left intentionally, almost comically, vague, as if Sheridan is saying “Look, I know it doesn’t matter what Arthur has done and you know it doesn’t matter Arthur has done, all that matters is Madea wants this kid dead.”
Indeed, all of the characters are little more than sketches designed to serve the elevator-pitch plot: “Imagine Firestormmeets The Client.” Patrick and Jack are Crack Killers Turned Bumbling Oafs unable to eliminate basically anyone once they reach the Montana wilderness. Connor’s the Steely Kid Who Has Seen Too Much; tough, sure, but still a child and in need of protection. Ethan’s the Cop With A Heart of Gold, worried about his PTSD-stricken ex while also excitedly expecting his first child.
And Hannah is the Crazy, Crusty Hero Working Through Her Demons. With the possible exception of Ethan, whom we get to see at home for a bit with his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore), I don’t really have a sense of any of these people except how they serve a specific function in the screenplay, credited to Sheridan, Michael Koryta (who also wrote the source book), and Charles Leavitt. This is in stark contrast to previous Sheridan-penned works like Hell or High Waterand Wind River, movies featuring protagonists and antagonists who felt real and lived-in, with genuine trauma guiding their actions and their motivations. You could imagine their world beyond what we were seeing on the screen.
Sadly, that’s not the case with Those Who Wish Me Dead. It’s not a bad movie, exactly: Jolie and Bernthal have an electric onscreen presence, and I rarely regret getting to spend a little time with them even in something as thinly sketched as this. But it’s not a particularly good one, either. It’s just kind of … there.
And in its “there-ness” it also calls to mind the high-concept, star-driven action-thrillers of years gone by. You may not regret watching it, but you’ll be hard-pressed to recollect much about it in the years to come.