The Films of Zack Snyder
Dawn of the Dead (March 19/04)
Dawn of the Dead kicks off with a fantastic opening sequence in which Ana (Sarah Polley) encounters two zombies in the form of her husband and young daughter. After fleeing her chaotic neighborhood, Ana hooks up with a grizzled cop named Kenneth (Ving Rhames) and the two head out in search for help. They encounter a trio of survivors - Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his very pregnant girlfriend Luda (Inna Korobkina) - who are heading towards the only safe refuge around, the mall. It's fairly clear that Dawn of the Dead is going for a more contemporary horror vibe, as the self-referential stuff is thankfully kept to a minimum (an appearance by legendary cult figure Tom Savini is one notable exception). While the film is undeniably quite entertaining throughout, it's never quite able to live up to the promise of the astoundingly intense first reel. The remainder of the movie generally plays out like a standard horror flick, with the apocalyptic feel of the opening never allowed to resurface. The comparatively light-hearted nature of the majority of Dawn of the Dead is exacerbated by the fact that there are just too many sequences featuring the characters engaging in small talk. The so-called zombie baby, promised in the film's trailer, is emblematic of the film's refusal to take risks. One would hope such a creation would be running around biting the ankles of hapless victims, but it's instead glimpsed for a second and then killed off-screen. The cast, comprised of many familiar faces (Max Headroom even pops up!), does a better-than-expected job of holding the viewer's interest through some of the more talky sequences. Though Polley is the last person one would expect to see in a trashy horror flick, she turns a potentially dull character into someone we're genuinely rooting for. Rhames is playing his now trademarked bad-ass character, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (c'mon, who wouldn't get a kick out of watching Marsellus Wallace blast zombies with a shotgun?) And Ty Burrell is effective in the obligatory wise-ass role, though his resemblance to Bruce Campbell borders on disturbing (why not just hire ol' Bruce?) As far as recent zombie movies go, 28 Days Later still remains the best - although in all fairness, Dawn of the Dead is surprisingly decent, especially compared to certain recent horror remakes.
As silly as it is stylish, 300 - based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller - follows a small group of hardened Spartans (led by Gerard Butler's King Leonidas) as they take on Persia's seemingly limitless army. Director Zack Snyder has infused 300 with an overblown and thoroughly cartoonish sensibility that loses its novelty almost immediately; there's consequently very little here to draw the viewer in, as the filmmaker generally stresses egregiously broad action sequences over compelling characters or a halfway interesting storyline. Far more problematic is the emphasis on the backstabbing political shenanigans of Leonidas' fellow Spartans, with such sequences essentially grinding the proceedings to a dead halt - something that's primarily due to the overt lack of reality within the film's universe (ie in a movie overrun with goblins and demons, there's simply no place for debates that would surely feel more at home on C-SPAN). The end result is a film that's sporadically engaging but mostly dull (!); for every effective sequence (ie a slow-motion, Oldboy-esque episode in which a grizzled soldier takes on a whole host of attackers), there are two or three more that just fall flat and - more often than not - go on much, much longer than one might've liked (something that's particularly true of a speech towards the end that just feels endless).
Though it boasts plenty of positive attributes and is generally entertaining from start to finish, Watchmen - much like its Alan Moore-penned inspiration - suffers from a pervadingly uneven atmosphere that ultimately ensures that the movie fares about as well as its overrated source material. The storyline follows several has-been superheroes (including Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl, Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach) as
they reluctantly team up following the death of one of their own (Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s The Comedian), with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently revolving around their collective efforts at preventing a criminal mastermind from executing a plan that would kill millions. It's worth noting Zack Snyder's notoriously in-your-face directorial sensibilities aren't quite as problematic as one might've feared, as the filmmaker - working from David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay - generally does a nice job of retaining many of the beats and plot points contained within Moore's work. The patchwork, almost episodic atmosphere that ensues inevitably does ensure that certain interludes are far more compelling than others, with Rorschach's stint in prison and Dr. Manhattan's origin story undoubtedly standing as highlights within the unapologetically bloated production. And while the movie has been outfitted with several unquestionably impressive performances (Haley is especially good as the surly and uncompromising Rorschach), there's simply no denying that some of Moore's indelible creations have been left woefully underdeveloped - with the increasingly muddled motivations of Matthew Goode's Ozymandias emblematic of Hayter and Tse's penchant for omitting large chunks of backstory from certain characters. It's ultimately clear, however, that Watchmen's most egregious failing is in its treatment of Moore's outlandish yet thoroughly satisfying conclusion, as the needless removal of a pivotal third-act element by Snyder and his collaborators is sure to raise the ire of those viewers with even a passing familiarity with the comic. The final result is a passable endeavor that's unlikely to make much of an impact on neophytes, although - admittedly - the film is probably as adept an adaptation of the source material as is possible without going the mini-series route.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Sucker Punch (April 5/11)
A typically overblown Zack Snyder effort, Sucker Punch follows '50s teenager Baby Doll (Emily Browning) as she brutally attacks her evil stepfather and is subsequently sent to a sketchy mental facility - where the character, along with several fellow prisoners, plots her escape by imagining a series of progressively over-the-top fantasy worlds. Sucker Punch kicks off with a dialogue-free, slow-motion-heavy stretch that almost feels like a parody of Snyder's larger-than-life visual sensibilities, with the broadly-conceived opening admittedly (and effectively) setting the stage for a storyline that rarely has any basis in reality - as Snyder, along with cowriter Steve Shibuya, plunges Baby Doll into the first of many imagined realms mere minutes after she arrives at the aforementioned mental facility. It is, as a result, initially rather difficult to work up any interest or enthusiasm for the protagonist's exploits, with the pervasively slick atmosphere compounded by the slow realization that Baby Doll's actions don't seem to have any consequences in the real world. (It does, to be fair, eventually become clear that this isn't the case.) There reaches a point, then, at which the viewer is essentially forced to abandon logic and embrace the movie's gleefully broad, unapologetically in-your-face sensibilities, as the film inevitably does become a surprisingly watchable and flat-out fun piece of work once one accepts its complete and utter lack of reality-based elements. It's only as Sucker Punch charges into its comparatively low-key and incongruously dramatic third act that one's interest begins to wane, which effectively cements the movie's place as an innovative yet consistently inconsistent piece of work.
Man of Steel
The worst Superman movie since 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Man of Steel follows Henry Cavill's Clark Kent as he struggles to find his place in a world that's not his own - with the character's existential musings interrupted by the arrival of a vicious Kryptonian warlord (Michael Shannon's Zod) bent on world domination. There's little doubt that Man of Steel gets off to a less-than-promising start, as filmmaker Zack Snyder, working from David S. Goyer's screenplay, opens the movie with a tedious stretch set on Superman's dying home planet of Krypton - with the overuse of computer-generated effects lending such scenes a derivative and surprisingly campy feel (ie if Avatar had been incompetent and terrible, it might've resembled this). The movie does, however, improve considerably once the action shifts to Earth, with the time-shifting script ensuring that the emphasis on the central character's early days rarely fares as poorly as one might've feared (ie Snyder and Goyer wisely skip over some of the more familiar aspects of Clark/Superman's origin story). Man of Steel's completely watchable atmosphere is heightened by its proliferation of impressive performances, with Cavill's strong work as the title figure matched by a supporting cast that includes, among others, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Costner. (The latter's engrossing turn as Clark's adoptive father stands as an obvious highlight within the proceedings.) It's only as Zod (re)enters the picture that one's interest begins to slowly-but-surely dip, as the film's final hour is devoted entirely to the epic battle between Zod and Superman - with the ineffectiveness of this stretch (ie it's like watching someone else play a poorly-rendered video game) compounded by Snyder's inept directorial choices (ie the shaky camerawork renders the majority of this stuff incoherent). The endless third act ultimately transforms Man of Steel into a disappointing (and surprisingly second-rate) piece of work, with the movie's lack of magic or wonder standing in sharp contrast to the previous portrayals of this iconic character (ie Bryan Singer's Superman Returns is looking positively masterful by comparison).