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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Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.