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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For the past nine years, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy has enjoyed lasting celebration for its collection of all-purpose one liners. You'd be amazed at how frequently people manage to shout "Milk was a bad choice!" in regular conversation. But they do. Because they love it. And for my money, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has its own plump share of moments just as funny.
Admittedly, I've never found the original Anchorman to be all that uproarious. Some were hooked straight away, others grew fond of the wacky comedy over the years. But it never rang more than occasionally amusing for me. In Anchorman 2, the laughter is even more occasional. But when it hits, it's arguably more amusing. I'm thinking, foremost, of throwaway gags like the news team cackling over their mutual distaste for workdays, or plunging headfirst into an copy of Garfield at Large. Bits and pieces like these throughout the movie showcase some terrific humor, with a few of the larger conceits — like Ron Burgundy's mid-movie relationship with a beached baby shark — also landing, and hard. Unfortunately, they are separated by long, slow, dry spells. But to be honest, even this movie's dry spells rarely lose watchability.
The biggest shortcoming of Anchorman 2 can be pegged to the transformation of Steve Carell's weatherman character Brick Tamland. When we first meet Brick in the original film, he’s no more than a dimwitted weirdo, exhibiting anxiety and obliviousness in his few choice moments center stage. But such is not the case when we reunite with Brick in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. He's shouting hysterically, can't put a sentence together, and has no understanding of what is going on around him at any given time. And this doesn't work. It's not funny when Brick parades around the office like Godzilla, or takes full multi-minute scenes to wrap his mind around the simplest of concepts. Instead, it's grating. So it's quite the problem that this new Brick gets double the screentime and material of his old counterpart. Paired with an equally empty-headed Kristen Wiig, Brick enjoys his own romantic journey. There is no conflict keeping the two apart; their story just functions as a collection of interwoven scenes of two adults acting like moronic aliens — so it is played entirely for laughs. And, unfortunately, it deserves not a one.
The outstanding negatives end there. It's not always hilarious when Ron Burgundy struggles with the racial divide between himself and his new boss/ladyfriend Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), but it's consistently affable. The rivalry between Ron and ex-wife Veronica's new beau Gary (Greg Kinnear, playing a psychologist with a ponytail — and how) churns out some hearty chuckles. And kudos to the script for handing more material to David Koechner's lovably rancid Champ Kind, although I wouldn't turn my nose up at an Anchorman 2 that had more for Paul Rudd to do.
But the biggest victory of Anchorman 2 is that it actually has something to say about the news. Anchorman (likewise Will Ferrell's follow-up features Talladega Nights and the non-Adam McKay venture Blades of Glory) was primarily about gender roles and America's obsessive definition of masculinity. But Anchorman 2 looks specifically at the media, castigating the news industry for what it has devolved into. The film's message is broad, not especially constructive of a moral or solution, and not at all something we haven't seen before. But hey, it's been a while since Network, so this'll do just fine for the time being.
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The cultural phenomenon that was born from Anchorman is a rarity, reserved for special kinds of comedies that are just weird enough at just the right time. Anchorman 2 has all that weirdness in stock — hell, its climactic scene (the very best part of the movie, hands down) has more insanity in a three-minute span than the first movie does entirely. And in truth, it's worth seeing just for that. But leading up to it, you'll get big laughs, some duller (but not quite dull!) stretches, and some unexpected commentary on how America takes its news. All in all, a good time. Just ignore the Brick parts.
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What no "giant sea pods" this time? Instead The Invasion skews the Body Snatchers scenario by making the alien invasion a virus rather than plant life. Said virus which comes to Earth via a mysterious crash of a space shuttle is transmitted by some form of bodily fluid-to-bodily fluid connection. For example throwing up into people's faces or coffee cups is a fun way to spread the disease. The end result however is the same: Once the infected person falls asleep they undergo a transformation and wake up looking the same but are unfeeling and inhuman—and ready to organize. As the infection spreads and more and more people are altered there are a few humans left fighting for their lives including psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Carol’s only hope is to stay awake long enough to find her young son who may hold the key to stopping the devastating invasion. But we won’t tell you how. OK it has something to do with an immunity but that’s all we are going to say. Nicole Kidman has had a string of bad luck since winning that damn Oscar for The Hours. One wonders if maybe the golden statuette might actually be a curse (Cuba Gooding Jr. anyone?). Still regardless of the movie--be it Bewitched The Stepford Wives or Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus--Kidman manages to turn in a decent performance. The same goes for The Invasion. Her mother bear act is quite believable as she races to find her son (played with spunk by Jackson Bond) while trying to stay awake and pretending to be cold and unemotional among the pod people--oh excuse me the virally infected people. You root for her all the way. Craig doesn’t have as much to do but still delivers when it counts. In a supporting role Jeremy Northam does a nice job as Carol’s ex-husband a CDC doctor who is one of the first to get infected. As does the always good Jeffrey Wright as a very clever genetic scientist. Even Veronica Cartwright one of the survivors in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a cameo as one of Carol’s patients who tells her “My husband isn’t my husband!” Famous last words. Body snatching must be a popular water-cooler topic at the movie studios. Starting with the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy barely escapes his small town with his life running into highway traffic screaming “They're here already! You're next! You're next You're next...” there have been at least two other versions including the above-mentioned 1978 film and the 1993 film Body Snatchers. To its credit The Invasion switches things up a bit nixing the pods and making it more relevant to our current socio-political climate. It even begs the question: Could we be better off if we didn’t have emotions? But the movie is still mired by its derivativeness and too-pat ending—and it also apparently had problems getting off the shelf. Originally wrapped in early 2006 rumor has it the studio didn’t like German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut and brought in Matrix’s Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski for rewrites and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. Again to its credit The Invasion surprisingly feels cohesive despite all the different influences. Let’s just say whoever came up with the tense car chase in which Carol tries to throw off the pod people (it's just more effective calling them that) draped all over the car kudos to them.
The film follows the same tired action genre step by step. Ex-con and single dad O2 (Tyrese Gibson) is trying to go straight for the sake of his young son Junior. But when the kid is kidnapped in what seems to be a typical carjacking O2 has to pull out all the stops to get him back. Turns out O2 had some nefarious dealings with a gang overlord named Big Meat (The Game) who likes to hack off people’s body parts with a machete. And now Meat wants some payback taking for ransom the only thing O2 cares about in the entire world [sniffle]. So what’s a guy to do? Pit rival gang leaders against each other hook up with a beautiful street hustler (Meagan Good) rob safety deposit boxes and get caught in an extended car chase that’s what. "It's either all or nothing " realizes O2. Very prophetic. Waist Deep has got some great character names--Meat O2 Coco Lucky Junior. Too bad most of the performances can’t live up to them. Tyrese (Four Brothers) does try his best though as the hunky O2 making a convincing albeit a tad stiff attempt at playing a father who’s whole life is his son. Good (Roll Bounce) gets to wear tight sexy clothes and strut around as Coco O2’s accomplice and eventual love interest as they rob banks Bonnie and Clyde style. Larenz Tate (Crash) plays Lucky O2’s unreliable cousin who actually isn’t lucky at all caught between a rock and hard place. And then there’s Meat played by big-time rapper The Game in his feature debut. With a battered face and covered in tattoos The Game certainly looks like one mean badass wielding a mad machete. Thankfully he doesn’t have to do much more than that. Here’s a few words of advice to would-be actors who want to play effective bad guys: Less is more. It’s movies like these that really give South Central L.A. a bad rep—shoot-outs in the middle of the street in broad daylight the carjacks the depravity the sad stories of little kids getting shot. It’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy place. Of course actor-turned-director/co-writer Vondie Curtis-Hall (best known for his numerous TV guest spots) doesn’t want it to be showing the grit in all its glory and collecting a cast from the area who could lend some credibility to the surroundings. But Hall needs a few more lessons in how to craft a well-thought action movie. The script is hackneyed beyond the usual taking bits not only from Bonnie and Clyde but also Thelma and Louise Boyz N the Hood--and even a little Shawshank Redemption. Hall’s camerawork is also too frenetic at times almost dizzyingly so with unnecessary close ups and choppy sequences. That isn’t to say some of the gun play and car chases aren’t exciting enough. There just seems to be a lack of experience overall.