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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
This Friday, Prometheus — the sorta-prequel to returning director Ridley Scott’s own 1979 sci-fi masterpiece, Alien — invades theaters, with Michael Fassbender as the title ship’s butler and maintenance man, David, who just so happens to be an android (Fassbender has said that he modeled the motions and mannerisms of David after Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis rather than previous big-screen versions of the robotic human doppelgangers). It got us thinking about the movie androids that preceded him, er, it, and how far Hollywood has come in that department.
T-800, T-850, T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Terminator Movies
Super-human powers: Is an expert computer system at its (zillion) core; power source, er, lifespan of up to 120 years; vastly superior endoskeleton to that of humankind; self-healing.
Weaknesses: The human resistance; the noses of dogs; other Terminators (like Robert Patrick’s liquid-metal shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
Notes: We know, we know: Technically, Ahnuld’s Terminator is a cyborg, not a full-on android, but the difference between the two (some humanlike organic composition for the former vs. 100% robot for the latter) is negligible enough for us, for the purpose of this list, to mention Schwarzenegger — who himself may someday turn out to be the greatest android ever!
Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Star Trek Movies/TV Series
Superhuman powers: Positronic brain; immune to all biological diseases (except polywater); can be disassembled for easy storage; waterproof.
Weaknesses: Unable to dream; vulnerable to tech hazards and viruses; cannot swim.
Notes: Armed with nothing more than a pretty bad makeup job and his own (purposefully) robotic performance, Spiner was able to cement a spot in the hearts of many a techie and Trekkie during his lengthy tenure (TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and four Star Trek films) as Data. He also provided countless laughs over the years, of both the intentional and unintentional variety.
Replicants, Blade Runner
Superhuman powers: Superior strength, agility, and intelligence; fully programmable for any mission.
Weaknesses: Voight-Kampff tests; the term “skin-job”; four-year lifespan.
Notes: There will seemingly forever be a lack of clarity as to whether or not Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was himself a replicant, due to everything from the fact there are a whopping seven different versions of Blade Runner to his failure of the Voight-Kampff test. The key people involved in the movie are split on the issue, but for what it’s worth, Deckard was written as a human in the Philip K. Dick novel on which the big-screen version is based. The debate rages on, with full Web sites currently devoted to the topic!
SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), Virtuosity
Super-human powers: Can be programmed with multiple, variable personalities, used advantageously (for evil); tons of RAM capacity; capable of regeneration.
Weaknesses: Denzel Washington; impalement.
Notes: Virtuosity remains something of a disaster cinematically, but the virtual reality-gone-murderous concept makes for quite a mindf***, even if the execution thereof doesn’t quite work. Plus, we’ll watch Denzel and Russell square off all day, any day!
Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Superhuman powers: Super-humanly hot; skill with a Desert Eagle
Weaknesses: Vulnerable to Austin Powers’s “charms.”
Notes: Early on in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Kensington self-destructs after malfunctioning related to a TV remote, and it is revealed that she was a fembot all along. She’s still the prettiest damned robot since Rosie on The Jetsons.
David (Haley Joel Osment), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Superhuman powers: Endless love; ability to not blink; great posture; undrownable.
Weaknesses: Can’t swim; sibling jealousy; has the emotions of a real boy.
Notes: Reaction to this Steven Spielberg-directed (and Stanley Kubrick-hatched) sci-fi drama remains mixed to this day, but there’s no denying that Osment was superb and believable as the main “humanoid,” to an almost disturbing degree — which was thanks more so to his astute interpretation of David than any effects wizardry.
Ash (Ian Holm), Alien (1979)
Bishop (Lance Henriksen), Aliens (1986)
Surrogates, Surrogates (2009)
Gunslinger (Yul Brenner), Westworld (1973)
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.