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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The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.