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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With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.