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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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Shadows and the dark, the purest representation of mystery, the unknown manifested. Director James Wan is at his best when playing with those simple elements. His sequel to the mostly creepy and mysterious Insidious, simply titled Insidious: Chapter 2, works best when characters must confront the dark. "In my line of work, things tend to happen when it gets dark," says a young Elise Rainier (Lindsay Seim), a medium in Wan's film. She seems to be channeling her director here.
Wan's horror comes from the psychological baggage of his characters. He is more interested in nightmares than in ghosts. "I've seen things with my own eyes that most people have to go to sleep to conjure up," says Rainier's former assistant Carl (Steve Coulter). It's the unconscious that brews up spirits for Wan, hence his interest in childhood traumas and how they serve to encumber our lives and ultimately make them terrifying. Transporting childhood fears to adulthood is key to Wan’s talent, even if he relies on tropes like musical stings, swish pans, and the anticipation of that frightful thing hiding in the dark. Beyond these devices, the Insidious films work best when they play with the edges of threat and mystery. Wan also deserves extra credit for keeping the frights pure and not resorting to gore, a cruel gimmick that hurts the audience more than it thrills them.
The sequel opens with a scene hinted at in the first film: like his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), our hero dad Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) was haunted as a child by a malicious spirit. Enter the younger version of Elise, who lost her life in the supernatural struggle to rescue Dalton in the first film. To find the source of the spirit, young Elise hypnotizes young Josh (Garrett Ryan), and he guides her to his bedroom closet. When she opens the door and pushes aside some clothes to reveal nothing but pitch black, she tells the darkness: "Who are you, and what do you want?"
Those are the film's best moments: when it confronts the sublime via literal darkness and mystery. Wan pushes these moments of dread from the unknown in some scenes to the point of comedy, mostly via Elise's surviving assistants, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). "You can't be in here," one spirit, a little girl in pigtails, tells them. "If she sees you, she'll make me kill you." The threat of the unknown from forbidden trespass is encapsulated in those lines. The fact that Specs and Tucker take this warning very seriously verges on humorous because it satisfies that urge to tell the characters on screen to "get out" before anyone can yell their advice at the screen.
If there is fault in Insidious: Chapter 2, it comes in the form of further rationalizing this world Wan has created with writer/actor Whannell. The better horror movies plummet further into the darkness of mystery rather than trying to shed light on the motivations of evil spirits. This second chapter offers further explanation of the spirit world journey that closed the first Insidious. Though some may find relief in this, over-explanation also saps the film of its creepy energy, which Wan works so shrewdly to draw up.
Even though he leans on some cinematic horror tropes, as noted earlier, the film's eerie atmosphere has a signature stylistic flourish. He uses low angles to present his looming haunted houses in shadowy darkness, but Wan serves up a subtle new ambiance for the genre with the help of production designer Jennifer Spence. Bright patches of color here and there liven up the sets, especially a reliance on red accents, be it on doors, stained glass or parts of clothing. But the rest of his world features darker shades of color, often painted thick on nice solid, creaky wood. There is also a whimsy to his sets featuring clouds of fog billowing from out of nowhere and slow fade outs and fades to black, lending a surreal atmosphere to the happenings in Insidious: Chapter 2. There is nothing like the irrational to pull the rug out of reality and unnerve the audience, and the film is at its best lingering and peering at that edge.
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