Film reviews: Army of the Dead | The Woman in the Window | Rare Beasts | My New York Year | Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In
Zack Snyder takes a more is more approach to zombie movie Army of the Dead, while hammy performances sink Joe Wright’s thriller Woman in the Window, writes Alistair Harkness
Army of the Dead (15) ***
The Woman in the Window (15) *
Rare Beasts (15) ***
My New York Year (15) **
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In (12A) ***
Having recently been vindicated for his approach to DC’s big screen comic book universe with his new cut of Justice League, director Zack Snyder returns to the world of zombies with Army of the Dead, a sort of spiritual sequel to the divisive Dawn of the Dead remake with which he began his career back in 2004. Taking a typically maximalist approach to the genre, it’s essentially a zombie apocalypse Ocean’s Eleven (or more accurately, a zombie apocalypse Kelly’s Heroes), with former war hero Dave Batista charged with putting a team of suicidal roughnecks together to liberate $200m from a Las Vegas casino three days before the quarantined city is due to be nuked.
The film is at its best in its goofy opening scenes depicting the fall of America’s playground following a nearby military accident. As with Snyder’s opening credit sequences in Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen it condenses a lot of set-up and backstory into a bravura slow-motion prologue, this time soundtracked by a loungecore version of Viva Las Vegas and featuring zombie Elvises, zombie showgirls and even a zombie tiger (“One of Siegfried and Roy’s” a character later informs us).
Thenceforth we get a very protracted first act that, ironically, takes an age to set up its mercenaries-on-mission/heist-movie plot, which wouldn’t be so bad if the more nefarious twists being seeded hadn’t already been done before in Aliens. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for Snyder’s more-is-more approach, particularly when it comes to the Grand Guignol gore of zombie hoards on the rampage. And the film has fun establishing its own spin on the genre via an evolved zombie hierarchy led by a leather-caped Spartan flesh-eater (it’s Vegas, remember), something that enables Snyder to pay sly tribute to his own mega-hit, Gerard Butler vehicle 300.
Plagued by re-shoots and behind-the-scenes controversy before being dumped on Netflix with no British press previews this past weekend, The Woman in the Window is an example of how even the most prestigious projects can curdle on their way to the screen. Directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright written by Pulitzer prizewinner Tracy Letts, and starring Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film’s blue-chip production exposes rather than elevates the pedestrian potboiler narrative of AJ Finn’s best-selling source novel about an agoraphobic child psychologist (Adams) who becomes convinced her new neighbour (Gary Oldman) has killed his wife.
The book’s mundane plot twists are rendered even more flatly on film, with Wright taking the story’s overt references to Hollywood’s Golden Age as a licence to craft an overly-stylised riff on Hitchcock that plays more like a bad pastiche than a smart update. The resulting tonal weirdness tips the already hammy performances into the realm of melodramatic hysteria.
Sadly, melodramatic hysteria is also where Billie Piper’s otherwise promising directorial debut Rare Beasts ends up. A raw and erratic relationship drama built around a bunch of volubly vicious characters incapable of preventing their cumulative neuroses from bleeding into their personal lives, it follows Piper’s emotionally damaged single mother as she begins a relationship with an openly misogynistic colleague (Leo Bill). They work alongside each other at a TV production company that seems intent on capturing the zeitgeist by developing awful-sounding projects about the gender wars – a satirical meta-flourish that might have landed with more force if the film itself didn’t also scream its every observation about men and women with an intensity that becomes wearying. Nevertheless, there are individual scenes that showcase Piper’s skills as both a writer of entertainingly lacerating dialogue and a director with a strong visual style.
Based on novelist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about the year she spent as an assistant to JD Salinger’s agent, My New York Year half-heartedly tries to force the relationship between Rakoff (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’s Margaret Qualley) and her old-fashioned boss (played by Sigourney Weaver) to conform to the the sort of semi-abusive, tough-love dynamic familiar from The Devil Wears Prada. That this doesn’t feel appropriate for the characters or the story is perhaps why writer/director Philippe Flardeau gradually gives up on it in order to focus more on Rakoff’s interactions with the obsessive Salinger fans, whose letters she has to read and dispose of as part of her job to protect the Catcher in the Rye author’s privacy. Alas, whatever charm Quelley and Weaver bring is further squandered by the film’s inability to either recreate the dawn-of-the-digital-age mid-1990s setting or evoke the requisite nostalgia for the disappearing world Rakoff’s employer and its most famous client represented.
The latest documentary to explore the life of a mega successful Scottish football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In uses the former Manchester United boss’s recent brush with death (he suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage in 2018) as both a framing device and a motivation for this intimate look back at his life and career. Directed by his son, Jason Ferguson, what emerges is more revealing as a reflective portrait of Ferguson’s fiery tenure as football’s greatest gaffer than an exploration of the personal toll his drive for success may have had on his family. Still, it's a well-made and compulsively watchable doc, even for football agnostics.
Army of the Dead is available on Netflix from 21 May; The Woman in the Window is available on Netflix now; Rare Beasts is on selected release in cinemas and on digital platforms from 21 May; My New York Year is on general release in cinemas from 21 May; Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In screens in cinemas on 27 May and streams on Amazon Prime from 29 May.
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