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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Last night, the 21st Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards aired, celebrating 2011's greatest achievements in the world of indie cinema.
Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick) / Beginners (dir. Mike Mills)
Nominees: The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne), Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt), Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Winner: Felicity Jones (Like Crazy)
Nominees: Elizabeth Olson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Jacob Wysocki (Terri)
Winner: Dee Rees (Pariah)
Nominees: Mike Cahill (Another Earth), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground), Evan Glodell (Bellflower)
BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
Nominees: The Descendants, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter
Girlfriend (dir. Justin Lerner)
Nominees: Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey (dir. Constance Marks), Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl), The First Grader (dir. Justin Chadwick), Wild Horse, Wild Ride (dir. Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus)
Better This World (dir. Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega)
Nominees: Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press), Hell and Back Again (dir. Danfung Dennis), The Interrupters (dir. Steve James), The Woodmans (dir. C. Scott Willis)
BEST FILM NOT PLAYING AT A THEATER NEAR YOU
Scenes of a Crime (dir. Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock)
Nominees: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (dir. Madeleine Olnek), Green (dir. Sophia Takal), The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion), Without (dir. Mark Jackson)