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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Sucker Punch a sprawling and convoluted action sci-fi fantasy is director Zack Snyder’s first “original” film in that it’s based on a script Snyder co-wrote (along with Steve Shibuya) and not a graphic novel or a previous movie. But to anyone who has seen Snyder’s two previous live-action films 300 and Watchmen it will feel awfully familiar: His now-trademark flourishes – gorgeous visuals elaborate action sequences a desaturated color palette a CGI-airbrushed “heightened reality ” abundant slo-mo and fatal self-seriousness – are all conspicuously on display.
It’s all there in fact in Sucker Punch’s opening sequence: a very intense and ultra-dramatic montage set to a haunting cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" and slowed down to a crawl so that we may better admire every super-stylized detail of Snyder’s exquisite handiwork. It depicts a series of wrenching domestic tragedies that result in the film’s teenage heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) being shipped off to an all-girls mental hospital by her malevolent stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) properly setting the stage for the ensuing melodrama.
To ensure Babydoll doesn’t act up again evil stepdaddy bribes a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having the traumatized but otherwise mentally competent girl lobotomized without the required consent of the facility’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). The year is 1967 and lobotomies though still legal are exceedingly rare; as such they must wait five days for the local lobotomizing physician (Jon Hamm) to come and turn Babydoll into a very pretty vegetable. Which is more than enough time for her to retreat into a dreamworld and concoct a vivid fantasy in which she and four scantily clad mates – Rocket (Jena Malone) Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) Amber (Jamie Chung) – conspire to escape the brothel in which they’re imprisoned.
The meat of the escape plan calls for a series of quests in which Babydoll and the gang battle giant samurais World War I zombie troopers futuristic alien robots dragons et al – all while dressed in sleek variants of the archetypal hot chick Halloween costumes (sexy nurse sexy schoolgirl sexy sanitation worker etc.). The sequences are well-choreographed and visually stimulating but have very little connection to the plot – they’re more like beautiful and disposable diversions grandiose music videos in which Snyder is able to cram elements from a broad spectrum of pop culture influences from Hong Kong cinema and anime to Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal without any apparent rules or logic to bind his fertile imagination.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad – honestly it wouldn’t – if Sucker Punch weren’t so punishingly maudlin. Nary a scene goes by in which some poor girl isn’t threatened or smacked or nearly raped. (All the women in the film are victims; the men with the exception of Scott Glenn's imaginary character monsters.) A movie with hot chicks and guns and orcs and robots and zombies should at the very least be fun. But Snyder’s film is dour and pretentious to the point of pain an overstuffed emo tragedy bracketed by ponderous voiceover about demons and monsters and how all of us have the weapons within us to defeat them. Or something like that. Sucker Punch is such a molten-hot mess that whatever Important Message it's supposed to convey ends up hopelessly garbled by the time the end credits roll.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in 1985 in an alternate universe the U.S. is in bad shape. Nixon is running for his third term (!) war is about to break out with the Russians and superheroes have become outcasts in a world so complicated even THEY can’t get enthusiastic about saving it. When one of them a former member of the Watchmen named The Comedian is sent hurtling to his death by an unknown intruder in his apartment it brings his former associates forced into retirement back together (sort of) to help solve this geek-laden whodunit. Among them are Rorschach a sociopath whose face is concealed by a mask that changes patterns with his moods (hence the name); Dan a gadget nerd who used to soar as Nite Owl but now is rendered impotent in every way imaginable; Adrian who lives off merchandising his glory days as “genius” Oxymandias; Laurie aka Silk Spectre II still living in the shadow of her faded superhero mom the aging Sally aka the original Silk Spectre; and above all else Jon Osterman who as the result of a government accident has morphed into the physically imposing almost always naked and very blue demigod named Dr. Manhattan. He eventually leads a life in exile on Mars.
WHO’S IN IT?
Although the busy visual landscape and CGI nature of this sprawling comic book epic doesn’t usually lend itself to memorable acting turns this well-chosen cast acquits themselves nicely particularly Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) who manages to embody Rorschach with a Bogart-like noirish flavor. Haley’s Little Children co-star Patrick Wilson gives a quirky turn as Dan Dreiberg who longs to relive his Nite Owl days but seems stuck in a life cycle that has him spiraling downward into mediocrity. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey's Anatomy) also does a convincingly chilling job as The Comedian a man with very little morals and even less patience. Matthew Goode (Match Point) as the ego-driven Adrian doesn’t make much of an impression. Neither does Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) as Laurie who is pretty to look at but has some of the worst dialogue. As her mother however Carla Gugino succinctly portrays a woman who has seen better days. Billy Crudup has a few touching moments as Osterman but is mostly upstaged by his alter-ego Dr. Manhattan whose ripped physique and superhero powers steal the show. A lot of guys will want to sign up for this kind of CGI makeover.
Director Zack Snyder has taken Alan Moore’s revered “un-filmable” graphic novel and given it a movie life that crackles onscreen. Snyder is the real star of this show who first proved with 300 and now here that he is a cinematic visionary in a class by himself. Watchmen’s effects work is top of the line dazzling.
Snyder is almost too reverential to his source material. The movie is so loaded with plot and individual storylines that at 160 minutes it tends to put your senses on overload. A little less would have gone a long way but still Watchmen is like no comic book movie you have ever seen – and that’s a very good thing.
It has to be the opening sequence in which a fairly powerful intruder beats the whaley out of The Comedian and sends him flying through his high-rise apartment's plate glass window to his untimely demise on the New York pavement below. Gets the blood pumping right away.
After Rorschach has been arrested and thrown in jail he is confronted by all the villains he has put behind bars who all want a piece of him. But he tells them "You think I'm locked up with you but it's YOU who are locked up with ME!" Oh if they only knew.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.