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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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
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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It’s hard to believe there is actual innovation happening on television. There are constant remakes like Ironside or abuse of the public domain with shows like Sleepy Hollow and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. However, a few seemingly random shows have managed to sneak through and change the face of television.
Here are some series that have created their own new genres.
Super Fun Night
Rebel Wilson is a genius. She has an understanding of comedy and entertainment few people can dare to grasp. She found success in America with Pitch Perfect and her small role in Bridesmaids. In Australia, she wrote and starred in her own series Bogan Pride. Her new show Super Fun Night focuses on the sadness and pathos of a group of single, socially awkward girls. Despite that downer, these gals have great spirit, good morals and strong bonds of friendship. This pathomedy or Sad-com is unique. It may not win over American audiences but it does allow room for the future for different types of characters like the "best friend" or "wacky neighbor" to be the lead of a television series.
Say what you will about Lena Dunham. Some believe she’s a shamelessly nude, entitled hack and others see her as the mouthpiece of her generation. Regardless of how you feel about her, she has created a whole new genre - the home theater of the grotesque. Even if you hate Girls, you can’t deny that it has created room in television to take it to the limit and break all the rules. Whether it show people doing lines of coke off toilet seats, eardrums ruptured with Q-tips, or Dunham’s breasts, nothing is too much for this series. This brazen honesty has trickled into the mainstream and allowed shows to delve into dark and uncomfortable places and still be funny.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy was witty and chock full of action. It blended punchy dialogue with an evolving, twisting plot that developed over the series with Buffy eventually defeating "The Big Bad." This series has created the teen hero saga. You take a socially awkward or disenfranchised teen, give them something that sets them apart from their peers but makes them able to save lives, then set them up against a mysterious enemy for 22 episodes. It has changed the face of The CW’s line-up and influenced series like Veronica Mars, Smallville, The Vampire Diaries and The Tomorrow People.
Honorable Mention: The musical episode of Buffy, "Once More with Feeling," also reinvigorated attempts at musical television. Before this episode, Cop Rock was one of the only shows to try its hand at a musical TV series. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother went on to have musical episodes. Buffy also set the stage for musical TV series like Glee and Smash.
Seinfeld will be forever remembered as "a show about nothing." Many people scoff at the series finale finding the four leads in prison. What they don’t realize is that the four main characters were self-centered, rutheless and generally bad people. This spawned the Despicable We genre. The entire cast is filled with generally unlikable characters that get into awkward and zany hi-jinks. This helped lead to the success of shows like Will & Grace with their constant insults and self-absorbed issues. It also reached a crescendo in Don't Trust The B**ch in Apartment 23, where Krysten Ritter shone as one of the most likeable, yet despicable, characters on television.
Two & A Half Men
Chuck Lorre seems obsessed with addiction. Two and a Half Men started with the mother of all addicts, Charlie Sheen, playing Charlie Harper, a heavy-drinking, sex-addicted lothario, taking in his high-strung brother and precocious nephew. It became a huge metaphor for life with an alcoholic. His follow-up Mike & Molly began with two characters finding love at a Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The new series Mom finds a mother (Allison Janney) and daughter (Anna Faris) going to Alcoholics Anonymous. This series also made room for a show like Go On, about grief-counseling, to get on the air.
Golden Girls influenced every show featuring four female leads in the nearly 30 years since it premiered in 1985. It was a show about four aged women but manages to resonate with people of all ages. It created a new genre of the quartet comedy. Now ever series with four female leads seems to have the snarky leader, the slutty one, the innocent one and the outspoken one. It influenced shows like Sex and the City, Hot in Clevleand, and even Girls.