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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If there's a cinematic alchemy award to be given this year director Bill Condon deserves to take it home after magically turning the tedious Twilight franchise into entertainment gold. 2011's Part 1 was a horror camp romp that turned the supernatural love triangle — the naval gazing trio of Bella Edward and Jacob — on its head. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 continues the madcap exploration of a world populated by vampires and werewolves mining even more comedy thrills and genuine character moments out of conceit than ever before. The film occasionally sidesteps back into Edward and Bella's meandering romance (an evident hurdle of author Stephenie Meyer's source material) but the duller moments are overshadowed by the movie's nimble pace and playful attitude. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will elicit laughs aplenty — but thankfully they're all on purpose.
Part 2 picks up immediately following the events of the first film Bella (Kristen Stewart) having been turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson) to save her life after the torturous delivery of her half-human half-vampire child Renesmee. She awakes to discover super senses heightened agility increased strength… and a thirst for blood. One dead cougar later Bella and the gang are able to focus on the real troubles ahead: Renesmee is rapidly growing (think Jack) and vampiric overlords The Volturi perceive her a threat to vampiric secrecy. Knowing the Volturi will travel to Forks WA to kill the young girl (a 10-year-old just a month after being born) The Cullens amass an army of bloodsucking friends to end the oppression once and for all.
Packed with an absurd amount of backstory and mythology-twisting plot points (some vampires can shoot lightning now?) Condon and series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg mine revel in the beefed up ensemble of Breaking Dawn - Part 2 and thanks to a wildly funny cast it never feels like pointless deviation. Along with the usual suspects Lee Pace adds swagger to the series as a grungy alt-rock vampire Noel Fisher appears as a hilarious over-the-top battle-ready Russian coven member and Michael Sheen returns has Volturi head honcho Aro and steels the show. Flamboyant diabolical and a steady stream of maniacal laughter Sheen owns Condon's high camp vision for Twilight and he lights up the screen. There are a few throw away nations of vampires — the oddly stereotypical Egyptian and Amazonians sects are there mostly there to off-set the extreme whiteness — but the actors involved bring liveliness to a franchise known for being soulless. Even Stewart Pattinson and Taylor Lautner give personal bests in this installment — a scene between Bella and her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) is genuinely heartfelt while Jacob's overprotective hero schtick finally lands.
Whereas Breaking Dawn - Part 1 stuck mostly to the personal story relying on the intimate moments as Bella and Edward took the big plunge into marriage and sex Part 2 paints with broader strokes and Condon has a ball. Delving into the history of the vampires and the vampire world outside Forks is Pandora's Box for the director. One scene where we learn why kids scare the heck of the Volturi captures a scope of medieval epics — along with the bloodshed. Twilight might be known for its sexual moments but Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will go down for its abundance of decapitations. The big set piece in the finale is something to behold both in the craftsmanship of the spectacle and in its bizarre nature.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 had the audience hooting hollering and even gasping as it twisted and turned to the final moments. There's little doubt that even the biggest naysayer of the franchise would do the same. No irony here: the conclusion of Twilight is a blast.
Like the seemingly generic location at the center of the movie The Cabin in the Woods has a purposefully familiar exterior. But it's a facade and in the film's first few minutes writer/director Drew Goddard draws back the curtain to unveil an innovative and unexpected world. The setup is simple: five twenty-somethings head for a vacation in a lone shack upstate but when they arrive things quickly take a turn for the worse. The run-of-the-mill supernatural antics aren't simply for our amusement — there's another force behind the scenes orchestrating the quintet's demise for a bigger purpose. The mystery behind those horror movie tropes is Cabin in the Woods's clever twist a riff that's wickedly funny and endlessly fulfilling.
The first people we meet in Cabin in the Woods aren't the soon-to-be-terrorized young folk but two technicians Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) who coordinate the Cabin's entertaining mischief. They're like employees pulled out of Office Space susceptible to the same droll ups and downs of any job —their gig just involves murdering co-eds. They sit in a control room orchestrating each piece of their plan with well-placed hurdles (cue the creaky door!) and rehearsed extras (enter: mysterious gas station owner). If that screams spoiler don't fret; the who the what the where and the why are all kept secret unraveling in parallel and commenting on the routine horror plotline.
Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon don't let the scary movie thread fall to the wayside painting their ensemble with colorful characters and great talent: despite being stunning creatures the perfect types for a serial killer to chase down with a a giant knife Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are smart savvy and sharp (a tangible sign of Whedon's influence); Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his buddy Holden (Jesse Williams) are big and brutish — but not without personality; and Marty (Fran Kranz)... loves weed. Only after they arrive at the cabin a whiff of pheromonal gas in the air do they transform into the archetypical horror characters. All according to plan.
Cabin in the Woods has its cake and eats it too simultaneously clicking as a terrifying horror film a cackle-worthy satire and a thought-provoking dissection of the genre. Alongside its send-up of the overplayed "cabin in the woods" mechanics are grander ideas. Why do we watch? Goddard evaluates every perspective but never in a didactic fashion. There's a fury of imagination in every scene every joke Goddard and Whedon's script taking every opportunity to push the concept to unanticipated places. Across the board all the actors are able to balance the unusual heightened realism with Hemsworth proving his knack for comedy and versatility as an up-and-comer.
Cabin in the Woods is non-stop fun from beginning to end concluding with a grand finale that no amount of spoilers could ever dilute. At SXSW I called Cabin "the most crowd-pleasing movie of all time" and while that may seem sensationalist I assure I'll be rewatching this one for a long time.
It's easy to hate on the Twilight movies. They're the epitome of indulgent fan-servicing filmmaking alienating anyone on the outside of their cultish fanbase. With consistent navel-gazing screenplays by series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (adapted from the equally shallow source material from author Stephanie Meyers) there's little reason to think future installments could ever transcend their predecessors.
But whereas Twilight New Moon and Eclipse contently burrowed themselves under the forlorn faces and over-dramatic moping of stars Kristen Stewart Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls Kinsey Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh) unearths a saving grace in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1: pure insanity from which blossoms color comedy and scares. The movie is one giant wink to the camera—and it serves the melodrama of Twilight tremendously.
The first half of the not-quite-epic Twilight conclusion kicks off with the wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) a long-awaited event Condon manages to spin into an authentically nerve-wracking and touching sequence. Finally a Twilight movie with an obvious purpose—Bella and Edward have been waiting since Movie One to consummate their relationship (waiting until marriage) but lingering at the end of every daydream every loving gaze every sweet nothing is the gut-wrenching fact that Bella will give up her humanity. Breaking Dawn - Part 1 confronts this dead on with an overtness absent from the previous movies.
While the script is still committed to visualizing Bella Edward and Jacob's uncinematic inner monologues Condon peppers every scene with the zest of ridiculousness saving Breaking Dawn from ever dragging. Edward cracking a bed in half during his first sexual experience is just the beginning—the movie features everything from demon-fearing Brazilian housekeepers to body horror straight out of a Cronenberg film to corny CSI-esque shots of vampire venom jetting through bloodstreams. In one scene Jacob (Lautner) morphs into canine form to telepathically declare (in Lautner's brooding "tough guy" voice) that he is the true Alpha Male of the pack. The moment's hammy and trite but Condon shoots it with all the over-the-top machismo exuding from the wolfpack. Subtle no. Fun yes.
Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is far and away the best of the Twilight series. Sexy silly scary and stupid the movie's tonal balancing act amounts to an Evil Dead for tween romantics. There's gravity to the events we're witnessing on screen (Pattinson and Stewart even have a tense argument that results in an explosion of their previously-presumed non-existent emotions) but a self-reflexive lens keeps the normally-idiotic confessions of love and hushed prophetic warnings of the Cullen family in check. The operatic tale crescendos with buckets of blood and "tragedy" straight out of a high school Shakespeare production—completely in tune with the outlandish plot and a satisfying cliffhanger for Part 2. The movie is weighed down by the baggage that comes with a Twilight movie but the formula is shaken up just enough to inject the undead franchise with a little life.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
G.I. Joe is a top-secret multi-national special forces unit comprised of highly-trained physically attractive military personnel from around the world. Equipped with the latest in superawesome vehicles and weaponry and guided by the tough but fair General Hawk they take on the baddest of the bad guys the kind of terrorists that scoff at conventional organizations. As the General himself so aptly states “When all else fails we don’t.”
That credo is put to the test however when a shadowy terrorist group armed with even awesomer vehicles and weaponry like crazy-ass laser guns and computer-guided zombie troopers infiltrates the Joes’ compound and makes off with a cache of four WMDs each of which is capable of leveling an entire city. Do the men and women of G.I. Joe have what it takes to defeat these menacing new adversaries before they mount their next devastating attack?
WHO’S IN IT?
It takes an elite group of actors to play an elite group of soldiers and the cast of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is stocked with an abundance of Hollywood’s most talented performers all adorned in various types of leather fetish apparel. White Chicks star Marlon Wayans plays Ripcord a flight specialist who can pilot any type of airplane even enemy crafts that respond only to voice commands uttered in Celtic. Channing Tatum star of Step Up and Step Up 2: The Streets plays his best pal Duke a badass infantryman who knows no fear. Preeminent ginger chick Rachel Nichols showcases her fiery crimson locks as Scarlett a shrewd intel expert whose stoic exterior hides a growing attraction to Ripcord. Barking out the orders as General Hawk is Enemy Mine star Dennis Quaid.
On the side of the bad guys is the Baroness played by Factory Girl star Sienna Miller in a push-up bra dirty librarian glasses and a raven-colored dye job. She’s the point woman for McMullen a shady Scottish weapons magnate played by Christopher Eccleston. But McMullen is no ordinary shady Scottish weapons magnate; he’s covertly amassed a huge terrorist empire headquartered beneath the polar ice caps. It’s there that “The Doctor ” a horribly disfigured mad scientist played by (500) Days of Summer star Joseph Gordon-Levitt concocts all sorts of diabolical new weapons and gadgets to unleash on the innocent.
Oh and there are ninjas too. Good guy Snake Eyes played by Ray Park wears sleek black body armor while the evil Storm Shadow played by Byung-hun Lee runs around in a updated version of Elvis Presley’s classic all-white jumpsuit.
Loaded with scene after scene of high-tech action-movie eye candy G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra assaults the senses with such a relentless barrage of over-the-top stunts eye-popping visual effects and stylized fight sequences that only the most coldly cynical of viewers will be able to resist submitting to its visceral charms.
As with most sugary indulgences the sweet dizzying high is followed almost immediately by a painful crash. Feelings of guilt and shame start to simmer as you kick yourself for yielding to such soulless gluttony. The next morning you awake with a throbbing headache and a heart filled with regret. The following day a doctor informs you that you have adult-onset diabetes. So in a nutshell G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the cinematic equivalent of adult-onset diabetes.
The scene where they have the big fight with all the advanced weapons and a whole bunch of stuff blows up. Oh wait that’s EVERY scene.
For the bulk of his performance Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face is obscured by a bulky breathing apparatus and his voice is altered to sound like the computerized movie trailer's narrator. Which makes one wonder why they bothered to hire a name actor for the role in the first place.