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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Green Zone is a story we’ve already heard shot in a manner we’ve already seen and starring Matt Damon in a role he’s already played. Remember those WMDs that were never found in Iraq and later exposed to be the invention of a dubious and poorly-vetted informant? Remember the misguided and hideously botched attempt at establishing democracy after the fall of Saddam and the violent prolonged insurgency that ensued? If you’ve been away from the television for the past hour and somehow managed to forget any of these details Green Zone is here to remind you.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller an Army weapons inspector whose frustration over repeatedly coming up empty in his search for Iraqi WMDs leads him on a quest to track down and expose the people responsible for leading him (and us) down that infamously bogus path. Though his hand-to-hand skills are a notch below Jason Bourne’s Miller’s single-mindedness moral certainty and permanent expression of square-jawed defiance — always threatening another “How do you like them apples?” rebuke — in the face of an insidious multi-level government conspiracy are essentially equivalent to those of Damon’s Bourne trilogy soulmate.
And like Bourne his most dangerous adversary isn’t found on the battlefront but rather within the government he once served so proudly. As Miller delves ever deeper into the Case of the Faulty WMD Intelligence Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) the duplicitous arrogant Defense Department bureaucrat in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq summarily relieves him of his post. (Hint: the better dressed a Green Zone character is the more sinister his ambitions.) But Miller remains undeterred and he goes rogue to locate the CIA informant “Magellan ” a formerly high-ranking Iraqi official whose supposed confirmation of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions served as the basis for U.S. invasion.
We know how the story ends. Green Zone’s pervasive overarching sense of deja vu is accentuated by director — and veteran Bourne helmer — Paul Greengrass who employs the trademark hand-held super-shakycam style which was so fresh and inventive in 2004 but now feels stale and predictable. (Admittedly my aversion to Greengrass’ approach was no doubt heightened by a previous night’s viewing of Roman Polanski’s excellent The Ghost Writer a political thriller as subtle and precise and finely tuned as Green Zone is ham-fisted and haphazard — and which also uses the phantom WMD controversy to far greater narrative effect.)
Green Zone culminates in essentially a violent footrace between Miller and the Army Special Forces as they scour a heavily-armed insurgent stronghold to find Magellan with Miller hoping to secure his potentially damning testimony before the Army can silence him for good. The climactic sequence for all I could tell was either shot in Damon’s backyard culled from Bourne trilogy deleted scenes or assembled from scattered YouTube clips. This punishingly chaotic often incoherent and ultimately exhausting approach to storytelling isn’t cinema verite; it’s dementia pugilistica.
“Extraordinary rendition” is the very real practice of transporting terrorist suspects to a foreign country where they can be interrogated or held for the purpose of gathering intelligence or to face trial. In other words it’s a way to torture someone into confessing terrorist connections. And as the CIA’s head of terrorism Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) explains rendition is a necessary evil in catching the bad guys. But what happens when they nab someone who truly is innocent? Such is the case with Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) an Egyptian-American chemical engineer who is taken while on his way home from a business trip in South Africa and then shipped off to an undisclosed North African city for interrogation. His pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically trying to find him even asking an old college flame (Peter Sarsgaard) now an aide to a U.S. senator for help. Meanwhile Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal)--a CIA field officer who happens to be in the location of the latest terrorist attack Anwar is accused of being a part of—is sent in to observe Anwar’s “questioning” by the local police captain Abasi Fawal (Yagal Nior). Douglas doesn’t really care for the job—and eventually does something about it. The Arab actors far outshine their American counterparts in Rendition—save for perhaps Meryl Streep who could read the Yellow Pages and make it intriguing. Her tough-as-nails bureaucrat is utterly convinced what she is doing is the right thing—and the actress plays it with complete resolve. Metwally (Munich) has the unenviable task of being filthy and naked not to mention tortured throughout most of the movie but manages to bring humility to the role. Nior too commands the screen whenever he is on it. But the other American actors bring Rendition down. Witherspoon is required to play her thankless role without her usual pep and we miss it. Not even her Oscar moment in which she screams at Streep’s Whitman demanding to know the whereabouts of her husband can invoke much emotion. Gyllenhaal is also fairly lackluster as the very green CIA agent who witnesses the horror of torture tactics. When he finally springs into action it’s almost too late for us to care about his character. Sarsgaard is entirely wasted merely the conduit to explain “rendition” to the audience and Alan Arkin as the U.S. senator simply barks a lot. Although South African director Gavin Hood gave us the searing Oscar-winning foreign film Tsotsi he may not yet have enough experience to handle something on a grander scale. Visually Hood knows what he is doing. The camera is fluid and the shots well framed but Rendition fails to inspire in its message. It moves slowly manipulatively—even the torture scenes albeit always hard to watch are almost rudimentary. Plus why see a movie about something you can either read about in the papers or watch on the news? The only time Rendition truly shines is in screenwriter Kelley Sane’s far more interesting subplot revolving around Fawal and his defiant daughter Fatima played with exquisite beauty by newcomer Zineb Oukach. The traditional Fawal is unwavering in his disciples so much so that he has driven his daughter into the arms of a mysterious young man who offers excitement and the promise of freedom. It’s obvious Hood feels more comfortable framing the more intimate small details. In fact had this plotline been the focus Rendition would have soared. The title would have had to change though.