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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Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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To say that Meet the Spartans is a spoof of 300 is to suggest that there is some semblance of a storyline mocking that the 2007 blockbuster epic; I refuse to give it that much credit. Rather this movie is a lame-ass excuse to randomly throw jabs at pop culture and in extreme emergencies “advance” the “plot”--which only really makes fun of 300’s subtexts not its story. It all starts in ancient Sparta where a young Leonidas (Sean Maguire) is groomed to defeat the evil Xerxes (Ken Davitian “the fat guy from Borat ” which is essentially how the movie introduces him) and the invading Persians (led by Method Man). But really Spartans is all about the atrociously unfunny parodies that litter its not-brief-enough 80 minutes: Transformers Stomp the Yard Happy Feet American Idol Dancing with the Stars Ugly Betty Anna Nicole Britney Paris homosexuality bodily functions--they’re all spoofed here! A truly groundbreaking concept indeed. Formerly up-and-coming British actor Maguire (England's EastEnders) must’ve thought a lead role no matter how bad the movie would beget bigger jobs in the near future. Oops! Didn’t he ever hear of Adam Campbell the like-minded bloke whose biggest role since headlining Date Movie was last year’s Epic Movie? In short actors looking to break out should not be tempted by crap like this. It’s the same story: Maguire can obviously act but he makes a complete fool of himself in the process and now must give his career time to recover. He only bears a slight physical resemblance to the actor he’s parodying Gerard Butler (when heavily bearded) and otherwise spends the movie uttering the worst possible lines when not subjecting himself to scenes so mortifying that they’re like some kind of Fear Factor for Actors. Elsewhere the usual D-listers pop up for a shot at regaining quasi-relevance. Carmen Electra now a veteran of this franchise--lucky her!--plays Leonidas' wife and is leaned on for nothing more than her hotness. Which is more than can be said about everyone else from a clearly desperate-for-work Kevin Sorbo (Andromeda) as one of Leonidas’ ‘yes’ men to Method Man whose heretofore-horrible film résumé just got worse. Whereas Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s Scary/Epic/Date Movie spoofs might’ve bore the “this probably wasn’t as easy to come up with as it seems” tag Spartans looks like something from a script they found in the garbage can at a middle school: Not only is it pure trash unworthy of being released but the “jokes ” if you will were seemingly written by and for 13- to-14-year-olds. Not one second of the movie is even implicitly deserving of a snicker; instead it’s actually antagonizing to watch as Friedberg and Seltzer bombard us with scene after scene of the shallowest material ever committed to celluloid. This is the absolute dreg of cinema the lowest of the low not to be confused with “lowbrow ” which would be an unfair compliment in this case. Spartans even fails miserably in trying to make fun of the few pop-culturisms that deserve it and the least the writer-directors could’ve done was hire actors who physically resemble the celebs they’re spoofing! Friedberg and Seltzer are just utterly allergic to originality: Obviously you don’t expect the story to be original since it’s all a rip-off to begin with but they can’t even spin any of it into a single original gag. And they're so lost during the few non-spoof scenes that they resort to the dreaded pratfalls. Seriously these dudes make Uwe Boll look like Orson Welles.