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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ParaNorman dares to play to all audiences. Unraveling with a purposefully imperfect stop-motion technique the zombie adventure utilizes striking filmmaking styles sharp wit and scares that will give young ones the willies while tickling the nostalgia bone of any adult who used to stay up past his or her bedtime watching horror movies. The film isn't overtly for anyone; it's simply on a mission to tell a great story. ParaNorman succeeds: embracing a world where bullying is hitting an epidemic level and the social "outcasts" are lashing out the animated movie balances emotional messages with a wild visual ride. Quite out of the ordinary — the living dead being just the beginning.
Norman (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a middle schooler living on the fringes. He sits alone at lunch with his only real friend the chubby nerd Neil; he's routinely beat up by schoolyard bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and the kicker: he sees ghosts — and no one believes him. Norman passes the time by watching old horror movies with the spirit of his Grandma (Elaine Stritch) much to the chagrin of his mother (Leslie Mann) and father (Jeff Garlin). Norman's dad is fed up with Norman's "disturbed" behavior but before he can ship his son off to psychiatric help all hell breaks loose in their hometown of Blithe Hollow. Failing to put together the cryptic words of town crazy Mr. Prenderghast and keep zombies at rest Norman goes on the run from the living dead who take to the streets of Blithe Hollow. Why? The mystery is revealed as Norman embarks on a Goonies-style race around Blithe Hollow.
ParaNorman only loses footing when it's in explanation mode setting up the pieces of the puzzle that will play out in the movie's second half (not unlike most movies of the genre it's riffing on). But the introductions to the colorful cast and horror-inspired adventure brought to life with stunning animation and a muted color palette unlike most kid-friendly cartoons are an absolute treat. Norman is a three-dimensional character both in puppetry and human terms; Smit-McPhee's timid vocals realize the fear of the scary moments and work as perfect deadpan to ParaNorman's comedic asides. The movie advances its risk-taking to a whole other level in the finale offering an explosive crescendo that wows the senses and is sure to bring tears to the eyes. It's a marvel on a technical level — intricate landscapes shot with shallow focus all set to Jon Brion's rousing score — but in the end the film works because it's a great bold story. For a movie grounded in fear ParaNorman stands out as a movie for audiences young and old that's truly fearless.
After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.