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.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
A good magic show isn't all about the payoff — in fact, it can't be. In order to dazzle, mystify, and distract an audience all the way up to the big reveal, a performing illusionist must put on one hell of a spectacle. The nature of this material can vary: For the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel, it's all about the thrill. For Penn & Teller, it's about comedy. For Siegfried and Roy, it's about being as ostentatious as humanly possible. But all three of these ideas, dissimilar though they may be, are rooted in fun — a fact that the magician-stocked heist film Now You See Me seems to forget halfway through its run.
In fact, the Louis Leterrier movie does have a good deal of fun stocked away: its would-be central team of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco play a motley crew of dissimilar magicians who band together after a mysterious meeting to form a Robin Hood troupe of high level criminals. The group, dubbing themselves the Four Horsemen, use magic shows to rob banks and insurance companies, distributing the money to the working class men and women who have been wronged by big business (yet who can still afford a trip to Vegas and tickets to a magic show... let it slide). The team's elaborate performances make for some of the film's best material, second only to the behind-the-scenes squabbling that stems from personal rivalries and ideological differences. Eisenberg's narcissistic card trickster frequently butts heads with Harrelson's no-nonsense "mentalist" and Fisher's daredevil... all of whom look down upon Franco's sleight-of-hand street hustler.
All attention devoted to the Four Horsemen, whose origins are embedded in mystery, is charming and entertaining, thanks largely to the charisma of the players in question — Eisenberg and Harrelson haven't lost their Zombieland chemistry. Unfortunately, we get barely any time to witness this glory, as Now You See Me seems bent on lending its focus to the other side of the story: FBI Agent Mark Ruffalo's pursuit of the criminal team, and his interractions with Interpol Officer Mélanie Laurent and magic-debunker Morgan Freeman all the while. Far less engrossing than any of the Horsemen's antics, Ruffalo's journey plays out like any hot-on-the-chase summer crime thriller, with the hard nosed agent obsessing over the case, entertaining paranoid conspiracies, and alienating his colleagues and cohorts. For a movie that sells itself on its magic and its all-star cast, it doesn't really seem that interested in either, devoting far more time than necessary to the chase. Why, you might ask?
For the big twist. Of course a summer movie, and one delivered on the pretense of magic, has a big twist ending. Whether it needs, deserves, or benefits from one is another question (the answer: No). But Now You See Me seems to put all its eggs in the big reveal basket, investing a crescendoing burn to the identity of the enigmatic stranger who brought the Horsemen together. Meanwhile, it misses out on what every magician knows to be a key component of the act: the act itself. The lead-up is just as important as the ta-da. And while Now You See Me has plenty of magic up its sleeve in the form of its central tricksters, it's too focused on what's behind the curtain to enjoy the show all the while.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com
More:6 'Now You See Me' PostersMelanie Laurent's 'Now You See Me' Mostion Poster'Machete Kills' Trailer
From Our PartnersStars Pose Naked for 'Allure' (Celebuzz)Which Game of Thrones Actor Looks Least Like His Character? (Vulture)
There’s a chance that Thursday night’s X Factor was secretly written by Nicholas Sparks. Along with showcasing a slew of talented singers, the episode — set in North Carolina — introduced a handful of tear-jerking back-stories.
The night doesn’t even ease into the drama: the opening scenes feature 13-year-old X Factor competitor Trevor Morgan unconscious from dehydration and being tended to by paramedics just before he was set to perform. When he finally does take to the stage, Trevor offers an age-inappropriate yet judge-wowing rendition of “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” by LMFAO. Yeses across the board, with Simon Cowell even professing that Trevor would “be remembered for this performance.”
Following the endangered child story is another Sparksian staple: young love. Sixteen-year-old Owen Stuart, a Buffalo native who has traveled down south to make it big as a singer, pledges his undying devotion to the girlfriend he left back in New York. Owen vows to become famous so that he can make a great life for himself and his lady friend, serenading the judges with “Airplanes” by B.o.B. Stuart receives particular praise for his skilled melding of rap performance and singing, earning three yeses — from Simon, L.A. Reid, and Demi Lovato — but a no from Britney Spears. Says the pop artist, “It was a really good performance, but you didn’t wow me.” On his way off the stage after the victory, Owen gallantly promises to impress Britney the next time around. A charmer, this one.
And then the real hard-hitter of the night: wheelchair-bound Freddie Combs, weighing 540 pounds (quite a drop down from his all-time high of 920), moves the judges with a story of his near death. Following a heartfelt expression of gratitude for his wife, Freddie belts “Wind Beneath My Wings,” written originally by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley, but most famously performed by Bette Midler. Not only do all four judges offer a resounding yes, but Simon takes things a step further: he encourages a journey for the both of them — he invests his trust and passions in Freddie so long as he is dedicated to one day walking again.
Following Freddie is a talented 16-year-old girl named Lauren, whose rendition of “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys is perhaps the greatest performance of the night. Still, the sentiment in the stories of her peers help them to stand out more than she does. Despite Lauren’s tremendous skill as a singer, viewers will likely walk away from this episode thinking more about some of the other performers.
But back to Simon's profession of dedication to Freddie. You don’t generally see a great deal of warmth come out of Simon Cowell — the man has made a lengthy and prosperous career out of a frosty exterior. But if this episode of The X Factor is any indication, he’s either softened organically with age, has come to a point in his career where he’s comfortable enough with his established fandom to drop the hardass shtick, or is perhaps concerned that the whole motif no longer works — the ratings of this program might well indicate that. As such, Simon seems quite the softy this time around. He’s kind and supportive to young Trevor, is complimentary and encouraging to the romantic Owen, and goes above and beyond the requirements of his judging position to reach out to, connect with, and call for more than just a performance from Freddie. Simon seems genuinely interested in the betterment of this man’s life, through song or otherwise. It’s sweet, and even more so when you consider the source’s historical screen presence.
However, he’s not still without the edge that built him. The final act of the night faces Simon with an alleged arch nemesis of his: “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie. Twelve-year-old Californian Jordyn Foley claims the stage in a Punky Brewsterian getup — pigtails and all sorts of funky attire — beaming with a childlike merriment that Simon has no real hesitance in deterring. Before she can even name her song choice, he takes a stab at guessing, and is correct. But instead of allowing her to begin her performance unscathed, Simon openly declares his hatred for the song. Not exactly fair to admonish an aspect of a competitor’s performance before he or she even begins — that shattering of confidence is bound to affect everything to come.
But Jordyn is no worse for wear. Despite Simon’s insistence on harping negatively throughout the number, Jordyn delivers an audience- and judge-wowing rendition of the Annie showstopper. Britney, Demi, and L.A. afford her confident yeses. She will be advancing.
Such is the turnout of Thursday night’s X Factor. Who was your favorite act of the night?
[Photo Credit: Fox]
'The X Factor' Recap: Miss Independent
'The Voice' Recap: That'll Do, Pig
'Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars' Recap: Cheetahs and Sequins and Bieber, Oh My!
Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.
A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.