It has been, oh, 14 and a half months since I last went to the movies. The opportunity has arisen, recently, with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines and, before that, a collective denial/resignation/relaxing of the guard due to fatigue, frustration and, in some cases, willful ignorance. But because of the embarrassment of riches brought to us by the age of streaming services (and because I'm a recluse at heart) I haven't felt compelled to go. Regular readers of this column (if there are any) are all too familiar with my litany of complaints about other people and their poor manners poisoning the theatrical experience; the outbreak of plague was really an excuse to not leave the house.
My anti-social proclivities aside, though, the last year and change has also ushered in an era wherein our choice of entertainments has broadened and deepened, a sort-of return to the halcyon video store days of my (maybe) misspent youth. Back then, at the end of an era, a good video store could provide a self-guided education in world cinema, with opportunities to find value in the finest of art and the trashiest of trash. Of course, streaming services have been around long enough to be taken for granted. But in the wake of the pandemic, with studios temporarily unable to dictate what we will all have access to on a given weekend, not only do we have more choices, but more movies have the opportunity of being seen. It is debatable, for example, that another year of slogging to the multiplex would have presented the opportunity, or left the mental bandwidth, to find and enjoy movies like The Vast of Night, Bad Education, The Assistant, Crip Camp or Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
This period of abundance is not without its cost, though. It's easy to revel in the possibilities, to wander down the virtual aisles of however many streaming apps with which one may have blessed/burdened oneself, marvelling at the notion that, for once, technology has gotten it right. But provided almost infinite options, sometimes the well runs dry or maybe sometimes we get it wrong. And this time I can't blame Marvel, George Lucas or any of my other favorite straw men. Well, I still could but I'll take the fall for this one.
ARMY OF THE DEAD. Zack Snyder's career is a tricky one to parse. I still have an abiding fondness for his Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, as well as his adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen (2009). Pretty much everything else, though, I could take or gladly leave. His 300 (2006) seems to age worse with every passing year. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010) remains somewhat inscrutable in my recollection. And Sucker Punch (2011), well, the less said, the better. His late period work is almost exclusively under the DC banner and the very prospect of it leaves me generally disinterested. I'm sure there's some value/enjoyment to be had, but as the MCU movies are almost universally too self-serious and outsized for me, the dour, unfunny brand alternative isn't much of an alternative at all.
Still, Snyder is an undeniable stylist and when some humor sneaks in, the movies can really get going. So it was with tempered excitement that I approached Army of the Dead, which promised not only a zombie apocalypse but "the greatest heist ever attempted." Turns out to be a little of both and not enough of either for about an hour too long.
Some years after the U.S. government has given Las Vegas over to the undead horde and a few weeks before its planned destruction by nuclear device, a shady casino owner — is there any other kind? — named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches veteran zombie killer/line cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to assemble a team, sneak back into Vegas and liberate the $200 million in cash Tanaka left behind in his vault. Of course, nothing is as simple as it would seem: Zombies have feelings, too; Scott has nightmares and wants to reconcile with his daughter (Ella Purnell); and Tanaka's man in the field (Garret Dillahunt) might be a chaos agent. There's also a quasi-allegorical subplot about the "quarantine camp" adjacent to the city that's being used as a detainment center for immigrants and other "undesirables."
There is fun to be had and the action sequences throb with customary Snyder violence, but the whole thing is woefully unkempt, overlong and needlessly grave. Bautista is learning how to act for the camera, though. R. 148M. BROADWAY, NETFLIX.
THE PAPER TIGERS. As an antidote to the bombast of Army of the Dead, I sought out an independent picture of the type I would be unlikely to see in a theater, ever. This is certainly that and, while good-hearted and well-enough acted, it probably doesn't have much business doing much business.
The three disciples of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) have grown from rowdy kung fu bad boys into middle-aged men with workaday problems. Danny (Alain Uy) struggles to maintain shared custody of his son Ed, despite constantly letting the kid down. Hing (Ron Yuan) lives on settlement checks for a jobsite injury and can't acknowledge the passage of time. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) has forgotten his training and replaced it with Brazilian jiu jitsu (at which everyone seems to unfairly look down their nose). When Sifu dies under suspicious circumstances, the three are brought back together to — rather haphazardly, it must be said — attempt to identify the killer and get their fighting groove back.
This is the sort of movie that I very much want to like but it can't quite meet me halfway. The fights are staged in a low-key, effective manner, but the plot and characterizations don't yield much for us to invest in. It is intermittently silly, maudlin and directionless. By the time it musters some narrative and emotional strength in the final act, it's too little too late. PG13. 108M. AMAZON PRIME.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
CRUELLA. Origin story of the troubled fashion visionary who tried to wear puppies one time and got cancelled because none of you understand couture. Starring Emma Stone. PG13. 134M. BROADWAY, DISNEY PLUS, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
DEMON SLAYER: MUGEN TRAIN. Revenge-minded, supernatural anime. R. 117 Min. BROADWAY.
A QUIET PLACE II. Emily Blunt returns to shush for her life and freak me out even more about leaving the house. PG13. 97M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
RAYA & THE LAST DRAGON. Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina in an animated fantasy adventure with Southeast Asian vibes. PG. 112. BROADWAY.
SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW. It says "Saw," so you know what you're in for. R. 93M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD. Terry Sheridan directs a sure-footed, old-school action thriller with a terrific cast, with Angelina Jolie fighting baddies and forest fire to protect a boy. R. 100M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
WRATH OF MAN. Jason Statham stars as an armored truck company employee who's up to something. R. 118M. BROADWAY.
For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456