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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Australia is like no other movie this year -- or even this century for that matter. It’s heart and soul live in conjuring up memories of the kind of epic movie they just don’t make anymore. The incomparable Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) proves nobody does this kind of thing better. The story begins just at the brink of World War II as a prim and uptight Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels to the distant and uncharted Northern Territory of Australia in order to deal with her husband’s supposed infidelity. When she finds him murdered however the only way she can save their ranch Faraway Downs is to join a strapping “drover” (Hugh Jackman) in driving 1500 head of cattle to the Australian port Darwin where the military can buy them. Trying to interfere with their mission are the evil land baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who are determined to add her ranch to their collection. As inevitable romance rears its head Lady Ashley must also protect a precocious aboriginal kid Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters) a half breed she is determined to adopt before he is turned over to the state for re-education. Meanwhile the Japanese loom closer. Luhrmann provides a grand showcase for a wonderful array of actors from Down Under including Kidman and Jackman. Kidman who has had a recent dry spell in films is back in form as the rigid Brit who is transformed by her visit. It’s the kind of role Katharine Hepburn did so well in movies like The African Queen. Newly crowned People Magazine “Sexiest Man Alive ” Jackman lives up to the title all brawn and bravado the epitome of the rugged cowboy who becomes the dashing hero. Together the two actors steam it up and redefine what it means to be matinee idols. As the half-caste kid Nullah 13 year-old Walters is a marvel and steals the show. Veteran Aussie actors Brown and Wenham (Lord of the Rings) are properly menacing and hateful while the group accompanying Jackman and Kidman are splendid including: legendary Jack Thompson (Leatherheads) as the gregarious over-the-top Kipling Flynn; Drover’s aboriginal partner Magarri (David Ngoombujarra); and the mystical King George (David Gulpilil) Nullah’s grandfather who seems to show up at the oddest times. There can be no question Baz Luhrmann is the most flamboyant old school director working today. After completing his “Red Curtain Trilogy” of musicals including his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge he goes above and beyond with Australia throwing in everything -- including the kitchen sink. Baz loves old movies and you can tell. Maybe more like Lawrence of Australia this film is a mind-boggling wonder with epic scope and splendor. The spectacular CGI-driven cattle drive and the bombing of Darwin are all done in large strokes. He even throws in an homage to The Wizard of Oz that takes the film to the kind of sentimental heights fans will probably eat up. How contemporary audiences will react to this throwback to Hollywood’s heyday of big brawny cinema is anyone’s guess but the singular vision of Luhrmann is to experience Australia and fall in love with the possibility of grand movies all over again.
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.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.
Steve and Terri Irwin are crocodile relocators in Far North Queensland Australia. They spend a lot of time well relocating crocs--saving a baby kangaroo and charming a few snakes along the way. But all that's about to change. A U.S. satellite has exploded in space and its black box has re-entered the atmosphere and ended up in the gut of a nasty 12-foot croc the Irwins are about to relocate. The FBI CIA and goodness knows what other agencies are out to find the box at any cost because it contains data that could change the world's power structure. When the agents cross paths with the Irwins they become convinced that the two croc hunters are actually spies mainly because as one agent says toward the end of the film "You don't make that kind of money in cable television." That's for sure and that's probably the reason the producers turned The Crocodile Hunter cable show into a movie. It definitely wasn't because the script was irresistible: The plot is as transparent as shed snakeskin and the acting (if it can be called that) is as stiff as the spikes on a croc's back. I'm sure this is the kind of movie that a critic shouldn't take seriously but from its lizard-pooh opening to its crocodile-pooh finish The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course really stinks.
Director/story writer/producer John Stainton was working with Irwin long before The Crocodile Hunter TV show became an international hit. In fact he wrote a movie script for Irwin in the mid-1990s that was scrapped because he didn't think Irwin should be acting. It's a shame he didn't take that thought process one step further; we'd all have been spared an agonizing guided tour of a good idea gone very very bad. The film's stars while appealing enough in the one-hour documentary format simply can't sustain a full-length motion picture and Mr. Irwin would have done well to heed his own advice--"Don't muck with it." Granted at least Stainton was smart enough to present the Irwins doing what they do best--enthusiastically working with wild animals while talking straight into the camera. The task of plot development is left to the other cast members--mainly Australian actors doing caricatures of Americans--who overdramatically play out the goofy spy plot in scenes that are completely separate from the Irwins' animal antics until the last 10 minutes of the film. The Irwin family dog Sui is probably the best actor of the bunch--and the smartest too. Most of the time she looks like she'd rather be just about anywhere else which is the most intelligent thing anybody in this film does.
As if anybody needed it The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course is proof that what works on TV doesn't necessarily make a good movie; the Crocodile Hunter documentary routine quickly grows frustrating in the film because the Irwin scenes do nothing to further what little plot the movie actually has. Plus the reason why the Irwins continually talk into the camera goes unexplained until the very end of the film--and when someone finally mentions the fact that the Irwins have been "filming" their show throughout the movie it's so offhand that it's easily missed. At the same time the spy storyline that drives the plot is trite and because of the movie's bizarre structure it's played out by actors the audience couldn't care less about rather than by the ones they came to see. The spy scenes separate the Irwin segments like commercials--and like commercials when they come on you just want to get up and go to the bathroom grab a snack or feed the dog. The best thing that can be said for Stainton's direction is that at least he's not afraid of the film's ridiculousness. Bad though the movie is in every way Stainton puts it all out there as enthusiastically as Steve Irwin wrestles crocs and that's saying something. The film also gets across the Irwins' admittedly important message about conservation loud and clear but that probably won't be enough to keep its audience from becoming extinct.