Gun to my head, I might be able to say something positive about 300: Rise of an Empire. In a vacuum, I suppose I'd call its aesthetic appealing, its production value impressive, or its giant rhinos kind of cool. But these elements cannot be taken alone, embroidered on a gigantic patch of joyless pain that infests your conscious mind from its inceptive moments on.
It's not so much that the 300 sequel fails at its desired conceit — it gives you exactly what it promises: gore, swordplay, angry sex, halfwit maxims about honor and manliness and the love of the fight. It's simply that its desired conceit is dehumanizing agony. Holding too hard and too long to its mission statement to top its Zack Snyder-helmed predecessor in scope, scale, and spilled pints of blood, Noam Murro's Rise of an Empire doesn't put any energy into filtering its spectacular mayhem through whatever semblance of a humanistic touch made the first one feel like a comprehensive movie.
Now, it's been a good eight years since I've seen 300, and I can't say that I was particularly fond of it. But beneath its own eye-widening layer of violence, there was a tangible idea of who King Leonidas was, what this war meant, and why Sparta mattered. No matter how much clumsy exposition is hurled our way, all we really know here is that there are two sides and they hate each other.
When Rise of an Empire asks us to engage on a more intimate level, which it does — the personal warfare between Sullivan Stapleton (whose name, I guess, is Themistokles) and Bad Guy Captain Eva Green (a.k.a. Artemisia) is founded on the idea that she likes him, and he kind of digs her (re: angry sex), and they want to rule together, but a rose by any other name and all that — we're effectively lost. With characters who don't matter in the slightest, material like this is just filler between the practically striking battle sequences.
But when the "in-between material" is as meaningless as it is in Rise of an Empire, the battles can't function as much more than filler themselves. Filler between the opening titles and closing credits. A game of Candy Crush you play on the subway. Contemptfully insubstantial and not particularly fun, but taking place nonetheless.
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Without even a remote layer of camp — too palpably absent as Rise of an Empire splashes its screen with so much human fluid that "The End" by The Doors will start to play in your head — there's no victory in a movie like this. No characters to latch onto, no story to follow, no joy to be derived. Yes, it might be aesthetically stunning (and really, that's where the one star comes in... well, half a star for that and half for the giant rhinos), but the marvel of its look shrinks under the shadow of the painful vacancy of anything tolerable.
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Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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Action fans have been crying out to Hollywood for years to deliver something as gritty, heartfelt, and rip-roaring as 1988's Die Hard. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) has heard those calls and responded with Olympus Has Fallen, a close quarters, man-vs.-an-army thriller that gets it mostly right, thanks to star Gerard Butler's mix of swagger and innate brutality. Why it can't live up to Die Hard (what could?) is in the sensationalism of the scenario: in this version, an office building is the White House, the maniacal Hans Gruber replaced by an endless force of North Koreans bent on America's destruction. Fuqua makes the stealthy techniques of Butler's Agent Mike Banning exhilarating, but pads it with blockbuster-sized bookends and more bloodshed than your typical Saw flick. Think of Olympus Has Fallen as Die Too Hard.
After a routine mission goes horribly wrong, Secret Service agent Banning is relieved of his position as head of security for President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Years after the debacle, Banning finds himself thrown back into action when a group of North Korean terrorists strike D.C., hitting the White House from every direction. The introductory mayhem is one of the more gruesome set pieces in recent memory: a Korean plane swoops over D.C., firing hundreds of rounds into unsuspecting pedestrians; tourists photographing the White House rip off their coats to reveal machine guns, a frontline for the home invasion; unmarked vans throw open their doors, functioning as makeshift tanks that clear a path. It's all out war and Fuqua doesn't hold back in the reality department. The front row of the theater is a splash zone.
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When the action finally hones in on Banning — who shoots his way from behind the gun-toting Korean soldiers to gain entry to the White House — Olympus Has Fallen uncovers real thrills. Butler sells the punches, the stealth, the one-liners, and the gruff patriotism — he's more Jack Bauer than John McClane, a guy who can and will do anything to accomplish the mission. You never doubt him, and even when Olympus swerves in the wrong direction — oh no, a kid lost in the White House subplot! — Butler forcefully grabs the steering wheel and drives it back on course. His character builds to make any absurdity fit the movie's mosaic of action, building with close combat attacks and an interrogation scene straight out of the 24 playbook, and escalating all the way to a bazooka shootout.
If only there was more of Butler in the movie. Olympus splits its time pretty evenly between Morgan Freeman and Angela Basset, government officials spouting every "My… God…" variation imaginable while managing the crisis from a boardroom, and Eckhart's President Asher, who spends a majority of the movie handcuffed to a railing. The terrorists bark threats of nuclear apocalypse, the suits in Washington react. It's all padding to Butler's main quest. Melissa Leo manages to light up the screen momentarily as the captured Secretary of Defense; at one point, she's dragged across the ground by her hair. Her response? Scream the Pledge of Allegiance in an act of defiance. As the movie often does, the scene crosses the disturbing line to circle all the way back to bizarre fun.
In front of the wrong pair of eyes, Olympus Has Fallen could be a provocation of jingoism. For fans looking for a slight actioner with slick production value and a Hungry-Man serving of machismo, it's passable fun. Just don't take the image of the Washington Monument being shot to bits, smashing into helpless American citizens into puddles of blood, as a call to arms.
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[Photo Credit: Film District]
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Years after Earth is destroyed by a hostile alien race (when aren't they
hostile?) a strapping young buck named Cale (Matt Damon) is recruited
for a mission to locate a spaceship that holds the key to human
survival. With the alien baddies on their tail Cale and company are in
a race against time to secure a new home for the Earthlings who have
been left homeless by the Drej.
This brilliant animated sci-fi adventure has the added benefit of a
stellar cast. Other than John Leguizamo who renders a whimsical voice
for the nonhuman navigator Gune the cast refrains from altering their
normal voices instead injecting their regular speech with the type of
emotion sincerity and charm you'd expect from a live-action feature. In
addition to Damon Drew Barrymore is Akima the pilot who catches Cale's
eye; Bill Pullman is the authoritative captain; Nathan Lane is the
suspicious first mate; and Janeane Garofalo is a weapons specialist with
(surprise!) a bad attitude.
In addition to producing "Anastasia " veteran animators Don Bluth and
Gary Goldman are known for creating some of the most popular laser disc
interactive video games and it shows in "Titan A.E." The brilliant
graphics and sophisticated animation here will prompt more than one
double take as you wonder whether what you're seeing is real or
animated. The tapestry that surrounds the characters -- particularly in
the final moments of Earth -- is nothing short of the best animation
ever to hit the big screen. Just one question: What's up with Cale's
naked butt scene and Akima's shower sequence? We haven't seen this much
animated skin since Shelley Winters evacuated the Poseidon.