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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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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
Gus Van Sant, the eclectic director of such films as To Die For and Finding Forrester, will reteam with his Good Will Hunting stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (yes, Ben's little brother) for a new film, Jerry. According to the buzz at Cannes, the film is being kept closely under wraps, so there's not much known on the subject matter. Could be about a mouse or a TV evangelist or maybe a raunchy TV talk show host. What is known is that the project is being put together by the William Morris Agency Independent department, with co-heads Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson negotiating the deal.
Big brother Ben
Casey's big bro Ben Affleck, after battling the Japanese in the upcoming Pearl Harbor, is set to star in director Martin Brest's Gigli. Brest, who has taken a three-year hiatus since his last film, Meet Joe Black, will direct from his own script about a down-and-out hit man (Affleck) who kidnaps the mentally challenged brother of a powerful district attorney. While waiting for ransom demands, he hooks up with a free-spirited female partner, whom he assumes is a hit woman. You can't say it doesn't sound original. This marks the first time Brest has directed from his own script in 20 years, the last being 1979's Going in Style starring George Burns. And let's hope this one is more memorable.
Bakula will explore new worlds
Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula is taking another strange journey into the unknown as he has signed on to play Capt. Jonathan Archer (in company with other great names such as James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard) on Enterprise, the fifth Star Trek series. Paramount Network Television described the character of Archer to The Associated Press as a "physical and intensely curious captain" who maintains a sense of duty. He also is "a bit of a renegade and is not afraid to question orders or even disobey them if he feels in his gut that he is right." Ah, just the kind of starship captain we need.
Booked on the love "Boat"
Sometimes it pays to take your clothes off. Former Playboy playmate of the year Victoria Silvstedt and actress Vivica A. Fox (Kingdom Come) are joining the cast of the indie feature Boat Trip, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Horatio Sanz. Story centers on two men (Gooding and Sanz) who set out on a Caribbean cruise to find love and romance only to realize they are on a gay cruise. Oh no! Fox will play Gooding's fiancée and Silvstedt plays Inga, the head of a Swedish swim team. Who magically appears on the gay cruise to the Caribbean? Production starts at the end of the month in Germany.
Director Terrence Malick is back once again. He will produce a new adaptation of author Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock. The original 1947 film, directed by John Boulting, starred Richard Attenborough as a small-time gangster in the English seaside town of Brighton who self-destructs after murdering a rival. The strange and elusive Malick will not direct, even though he is officially out of seclusion after directing the 1998 war film The Thin Red Line. Before that, his last film was the 1978 Days of Heaven with Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. Rock is slated for a summer 2002 start date in the United Kingdom.
Cameron and Cousteau team up
Director-producer James Cameron must have a thing for undersea exploration. Remember all that footage of the doomed Titanic in his Oscar-winning film? Now he is teaming up with ocean explorer-environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, to produce a series of undersea exploration specials for ABC. Ironically, the first installment will be about the remains of Titanic - which is easy enough. The series seeks to use the latest technology in oceanic photography to view areas of the deep blue sea never seen or explored before. So, now we can finally see all the weird prehistoric creatures that dwell on the ocean floor.
Kasdan, Goldman do King's "Dreamcatcher"
Director Lawrence Kasdan and writer William Goldman have teamed up with Castle Rock Productions to bring Stephen King's latest novel The Dreamcatcher to life. The story revolves around four childhood friends who share a secret bond after they perform a heroic act. Years later, as they have drifted apart, they must reunite to save the Earth from a mysterious force. Sounds a little like a conglomeration of several King stories, including Stand By Me and It. But with the talent of Kasdan and Goldman, plus the Castle Rock contingency, who've produced probably the best King adaptations such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Misery, this film has every chance to be another winner. Now, let's see whom they cast.
Kudrow looking for "Scouts"
Friends funny lady Lisa Kudrow will produce and star in the dark comedy indie Intense Girl Scouts, about a woman who leads an unofficial Girl Scout troop into doing out-of-the-norm good deeds. Yet, when some of those deeds go awry, she is ostracized and ends up becoming involved in questionable activities with her creepy neighbor-ultimately leading to murder. If anyone could pull this off, it'd be Kudrow, who showed some excellent acting chops in another independent gem The Opposite of Sex. Unfortunately, her bigger features, such as Hanging Up and Lucky Numbers, didn't fare as well. Might be the wisest for her to stick to the little guys.
P.Diddy: "I can act!"
Sure he can. Why not? Mr. bad-boy rapper Sean "P.Diddy or Puffy" Combs has done just about everything else. Having narrowly escaped prison life for real, Combs has decided to play a prisoner in the independent feature Monster's Ball, costarring with Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry and Peter Boyle. The story is about a father and son (Thornton and Ledger) who work at a prison's electric chair facility. Combs will play a death row inmate who is put to death on the electric chair. Thornton's character, a racist, later falls in love with the widow, played by Berry. Combs also will appear in Jon Favreau's movie Made, out this July.
Bell calls "Who Goes There?"
Jamie Bell, of Billy Elliot, is set to star in a World War II drama Who Goes There?, based on the true story of a German U-boat that landed its crew in a Welsh village. Bell will play a boy who befriends a German soldier only to find out his friend is not really such a nice guy. Well, that's a surprise. It will be interesting to see whether the young lad is as good as he was in Billy Elliot. But no pressure, Jamie.
Years after Earth is destroyed by a hostile alien race (when aren't they
hostile?) a strapping young buck named Cale (Matt Damon) is recruited
for a mission to locate a spaceship that holds the key to human
survival. With the alien baddies on their tail Cale and company are in
a race against time to secure a new home for the Earthlings who have
been left homeless by the Drej.
This brilliant animated sci-fi adventure has the added benefit of a
stellar cast. Other than John Leguizamo who renders a whimsical voice
for the nonhuman navigator Gune the cast refrains from altering their
normal voices instead injecting their regular speech with the type of
emotion sincerity and charm you'd expect from a live-action feature. In
addition to Damon Drew Barrymore is Akima the pilot who catches Cale's
eye; Bill Pullman is the authoritative captain; Nathan Lane is the
suspicious first mate; and Janeane Garofalo is a weapons specialist with
(surprise!) a bad attitude.
In addition to producing "Anastasia " veteran animators Don Bluth and
Gary Goldman are known for creating some of the most popular laser disc
interactive video games and it shows in "Titan A.E." The brilliant
graphics and sophisticated animation here will prompt more than one
double take as you wonder whether what you're seeing is real or
animated. The tapestry that surrounds the characters -- particularly in
the final moments of Earth -- is nothing short of the best animation
ever to hit the big screen. Just one question: What's up with Cale's
naked butt scene and Akima's shower sequence? We haven't seen this much
animated skin since Shelley Winters evacuated the Poseidon.
Last weekend, it was a gang of car thieves who raked in the box office bonanza with "Gone in 60 Seconds," but now a badass cop-turned-private eye is here to run the bad guys outta town in "Shaft."
The reinvented 1970s black superstud, as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, is this weekend's heaviest hitter, while Fox's animated sci-fi flick "Titan A.E." and the teen romance "Boys and Girls" starring "Freddie Prinze Jr. also wade into the increasingly crowded summer box office waters.
Meanwhile, Disney is expanding its "Fantasia 2000" onto 1,300 screens nationwide, to offer something else for parents who've already taken their kids to see "Dinosaur" 10 times.
Here's a brief rundown of this weekend's new entries:
SHAFT (See the trailer) The skinny: Director John Singleton puts a 2000 spin on "the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks," except that he's a cop instead of a PI, and he doesn't really get much tail. The upside: The new John Shaft is played by Samuel L. Jackson, the epitome of the fast-talking, street-smart tough guy. And ya gotta love that theme song, which stll holds up 30 years later. The downside: Brandon Gray, editor of BoxofficeMojo.com, tells us: "Much like 'M:I-2,' where the only similarity to the old TV show is the theme song and the exploding messages, the only thing similar in 'Shaft' to the old one is the theme song. It certainly hasn't hurt 'M:I-2,' and it probably won't hurt this one either, at least not in the opening weekend."
TITAN A.E. (See the trailer) The skinny: Director Gary Goldman and animator Don Bluth, the team behind Fox's "Anastasia," reteam for this big-budget, post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature. The upside: Voices by Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Lena Olin, Jim Breuer, Janeane Garofalo, Joseph Corso and John Leguizamo. Oh, my! The downside: Says Gray: "It looks like it was made for the same kind of audience as 'Battlefield Earth,' but it won't have the Scientologists coming out during the opening weekend to beef up the box office. There is no evidence that the public really wants sci-fi animated movies. The only ones I can think of in the past are "Iron Giant," the "Transformer" movies and "Heavy Metal," all of which bombed."
BOYS AND GIRLS The skinny: Another romantic movie starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Claire Forlani. What else do you need to know? The upside: Prinze starred in "She's All That," which was a teen hit two years ago. The downside: He also starred in "Down to You" and "Wing Commander," which weren't hits.
FANTASIA 2000 (See the trailer) The skinny: The non-IMAX version of Uncle Walt's reinvented animation classic goes into national release. Hooray! The upside: Nothing will ever replace the 1940 "Fantasia," but this melange of digital and cell animation is pretty neat nonetheless. The downside: Is Disney trying to snuff out Fox's attempt to get a piece of the animation pie? Do carnivores eat meat? Just as it re-released "The Little Mermaid" on the same weekend as "Anastasia," so comes "Fantasia 2000" to compete with "Titan A.E." Then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Elsewhere, "Gone in 60 Seconds," "M:I-2" and "Dinosaur" are expected to stay within the Top Five, while other recent contenders such as "Shanghai Noon," "Frequency" and "Gladiator" will vie to remain in Top 10 contention.