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 first Saturday Night Live of 2014 came with a lot of anticipation. Not only was it the debut of new featured player Sasheer Zamata, who was cast after a highly publicized nation wide search for a black female, it was Drake's first time shouldering both host and musical guest roles, after not acting since he was a handicapped high schooler on Degrassi (unless you count his Anchorman 2 cameo). But both SNL and Drake showed confidence in his abilities, having him appear in the cold open as a delightfully delusional A-Rod ("I'm also suing steroids for being inside of me"). The "Piers Morgan Live" opener was also anchored by Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan killing it as Chris Christie, along with Kate McKinnon doing a better impression of Justin Bieber than any male cast member could muster.
Drake's initial monologue seemed as if the rapper was dabbling in stand up comedy as he transitioned into a sketch about his black/Jewish/Canadian Bar Mitzvah. Using the monologue to do a sketch that could have gone anywhere in the show was an unorthodox move (pun intended) that paid off. It answered questions about whether Drake could deliver as a comedic performer, while giving an exaggerated illustration of his upbringing. It also gave newbie Zamata a chance to be seen earlier on, on the arm of Kenan Thompson, who's recently taken his foot out of his mouth about why SNL had not hired any black females until now.
The best sketch of the night came early, carried by Thompson who played rapper/reporter Sway, hosting "Hip Hop Classics: Before They Were Stars." This concept played off of Drake's transition as a wholesome child star into a hip hop artist, showing other famous rappers with that followed similar paths. Playing off equal parts nostalgia and absurdity, it featured Lil Wayne as Steve Urkel, Rick Ross as a Teletubbie, and Flava Flav as the voice of adult Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, among others that were funny even without knowing the references. The sketch appeared to be pretaped, aside from Thompson's spot-on live rendition of Sway ("I'm not saying there's a cat on my head, but if there is I have to feed it").
Weaker sketches throughout the show were mostly a result of risks being taken that didn't land. Freshman featured player Noël Wells tried her hand at Nancy Grace, a role comedic juggernaut Amy Poehler has nailed for years. The sketch had funny points, including McKinnon's commentary as a Colorado baker profiting off pot ("I'm Walter White and this is Baking Bad!") but to say Poehler's act is hard to follow would be an understatement. The "Slumber Party" sketch featured a great premise with Aidy Bryant as a girl at a sleepover who's too into her friend's dad. Bryant nails lines like "If you're looking for your dad he's in the palm of my hand." But the innocence that makes her depiction of a creepy gal pal so funny was compromised by taking it in a sexual direction before revealing she's really a disabled 25 year old. An aggressively flirtatious teen girl crushing on a dad would've been funny enough as is.
This highly anticipated episode of SNL was not the best episode, but it was also far from the worst and served a clear purpose. It put Drake on the map as a talented and naturally charismatic actor and entertainer, as he delivered in sketch after sketch with performances comparable to veteran cast members. Holding his own and even carrying several pieces, he merits a Justin Timberlake level of respect for being able to bring it from start to finish on Saturday Night Live. He will likely host again and perhaps rekindle his acting career.
I'd like to start this recap by thanking the two presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama for all their hard work this week. Without them, 75 percent of Daniel Craig's fantastic SNL episode wouldn't have existed. There would be no opening sketch with a Chris Parnell cameo and a sleeping Obama. There would be no Rachel Maddow Show skit with Jason Sudeikis' surprisingly on-point Chris Matthews impression. And most importantly, we wouldn't have witnessed the greatness that was Seth Meyers' dad-joke-tastic interview with Big Bird. (Yeah, that one.)
After Romney said it was time to cut the large feathered friend off the government teat, Big Bird swooped by SNL to plead his case to Seth. Of course, by plead his case, we mean he spent his interview being adorable, lovable, tall, and surprisingly topical. Of course, Weekend Update kept the magic going with an impression of Cecila Gimenez, the woman who ruined her restoration of a Jesus fresco and turned the son of God into a mouthless werewolf. Luckily, "she" was ready to defend her hilarious painting from Seth's impeccable logic. Kate McKinnon is quickly becoming one of the go-to comedians on the new SNL. But, alas, we must discuss the man of the hour: Daniel Craig. Who knew this guy was funny? Or at least cool enough to hang with the funny people to hilarious effect? His opening monologue was an homage to all this silver screen ass-kicking, and unlike Jimmy Kimmel's self-facing in-memoriam at the Oscars, Craig's in memoriam of all the bad guys he's wasted on-screen was both terrifying and chuckle-worthy. Of course, Craig got the chance to work his chops as an American for a sketch that might be a little New York-specific, but was hilarious none the less. Craig played a Joe Schmo construction worker who couldn't quite get the hang of your average woman-heckling session. Craig also held his own as a divorcee who's introducing his new girlfriend (Fred Armisen in yet another dress) to his friends. Besides her being Fred Armisen in a dress, Regine (the female version of Reggie, in case you were curious) is a stuffy intellectual who only wants to talk about books and drink Henricks gin (with ice on the side). To make matters worse, Craig's sad sap loves nothing more than to kiss Regine's neck and inspire looks of horror (or what Lady Fred Armisen calls an O-face). He wasn't really doing the heavy lifting here, but he certainly added a little something. Of course, you don't bring Bond on and not have him be Bond. So the episode included a skit full of "the Bond girls you don't remember." The skit was so-so, especially Nasim Petrad's Lea Michele impression, which basically consisted of a terrible sweater and singing all of her lines. Stick to the Kardashian Klan, Nasim. And while you'd think two skits about the debates and a visit from Big Bird might be overkill, the veteran sketch show figured out a way to make the most boring debate in decades funny. Twice. First, to open the episode, Chris Parnell returned to deliver his best Jim Lehrer while Jay Pharoah's Obama got sleepy from the Denver altitude and dreams of his wife while Sudeikis' Mitt Romney steamrolled him. There's nothing too innovative here, but it was a well-executed joke born out of everything the majority of Americans were thinking on Wednesday night. The second sketch seemed to be overkill, but was actually more about the Liberal pundits trying to justify Obama's disappointing debate performance. Cecily Strong jumped right into her Rachel Maddow impression (which is worlds better than the choppy dude she attempted later in the episode in a skit about a man who brings his cat to space); Kenan Thompson delivered his Al Sharpton to hilarious perfection, excusing Obama's sleepy delivery with a wacky theory about a Freaky Friday style body swap; but best of all was Sudeikis' exasperated Chris Matthews, which proved that while Sudeikis' good impressions are few, they're solid. As usual, not every skit was a slam dunk, but even the stinker of the evening - the aforementioned space skit - was saved by Bobby Moynihan's hilarious and extremely obnoxious cat lover stuck in space. Plus, I'm prone to give 10 bonus points to any sketch that includes a live kitten with adorable tufted ears. When in doubt, just make it a cat video. Which skit was your favorite? More: Saturday Night Live Recap: Seth MacFarlane Gets Laughs, and the Boys Take Over A History of Saturday Night Live At the Emmys Great Job, SNL! Jay Pharoah Set to Take Over Obama Impression This Fall
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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
Sundance Film Festival officials have announced entries for dramatic, documentary and "American Spectrum" categories of the 2004 festival, which runs Jan. 15 through Jan. 25 in Park City, Utah.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the competitive categories at this year's festival include big-name actors appearing in films by relatively unknown directors, and a record-breaking number of projects from black filmmakers and projects influenced by Sept. 11:
Actor Kevin Bacon and his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, star alongside hip-hop artist Mos Def in The Woodsman, directed by Nicole Kassel. It revolves around a convicted pedophile who returns to his hometown after 12 years in prison and tries to start a new life.
Courteney Cox Arquette stars in November, directed by Greg Harrison, about a Los Angeles photographer who struggles to put the tragic circumstances of her boyfriend's death behind her.
John Curran's Adultery, starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause and Naomi Watts, follows two couples who are friends and whose relationships are intertwined.
Writer/director Rodney Evans' Brother to Brother is about an 18-year-old, gay, black artist who discovers the hidden legacies of gay and lesbian subcultures within the Harlem Renaissance. The film is one of a dozen projects that center on the black experience or are by black filmmakers--the most ever on a Sundance roster, according to the Reporter.
"We have 12 features that are either about, produced by or directed by African-American filmmakers," Festival director Geoff Gilmore said. "What's good is that it indicates that there are a lot of African-American filmmakers working in the independent arena because these are works that would not have been made for studios. It's really of interest to me to see a whole range of people now trying to produce independent work."
Gilmore added that some of the entries in this year's festival are the first generation of post-Sept. 11 films. "These are films by filmmakers that were entirely conceived, developed and then produced following those events," Gilmore told the Reporter. "The insularity of America pre-Sept. 11 and the assuredness that existed in the world at that time followed by the anxiety that exists in the world we are in now. These are films about trying to find things out."
The lineup for the festival's remaining categories and the opening night film are expected to be announced later today. Short films appearing at the festival will be announced Dec. 8.
The Best Thief in the World, Jacob Kornbluth
Book of Love, Alan Brown
Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans
Chrystal, Ray McKinnon
Down to the Bone, Debra Granik
Easy, Jane Weinstock
Evergreen, Enid Zentelis
Garden State, Zach Braff
Harry and Max, Christopher Munch
Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston
Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess
November, Greg Harrison
One Point O, Jeff Renfroe, MarteinnThorsson
Primer, Shane Carruth
Adultery, John Curran
The Woodsman, Nicole Kassell
A Place of Our Own, Stanley Nelson
Born Into Brothels, Ross Kauffman, ZanaBriksi
Chisholm '72 -- Unbought & Unbossed, Shola Lynch
Dig, Ondi Timoner
Farmingville, Catherine Tambini, Carlos Sandoval
The Fight, Barak Goodman
Heir to an Execution, Ivy Meeropol
Home of the Brave, Paola di Florio
I Like Killing Flies, Matt Mahurin
Imelda, Ramona S. Diaz
In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu
Deadline, Katy Chevigny, Kirsten Johnson
Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Robert Stone
Persons of Interest, Alison Maclean, Tobias Perse
Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock
Word Wars, Julian Petrillo
CSA: Confederate States of America, Kevin Willmott
Dandelion, Mark Milgard
Dirty Work, David Sampliner
Everyday People, Jim McKay
Lbs., Matthew Bonifacio
Let the Church Say Amen, David Petersen
Mean Creek, Jacob Aaron Estes
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
MVP, Harry Davis
Open Water, Chris Kentis
Second Best, Eric Weber
September Tapes, Christian Johnston
Speak, Jessica Sharzer