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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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The romantic action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like nothing — and if you’re a person between the age of approximately 18 to 35 everything — you’ve seen before. British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel is so densely laden with pop-culture references it often times feels less like a movie than a mixtape. Those who share the tastes of the film’s 31-year-old writer and 35-year-old director will find the experience to be exhilarating; those who don’t however will likely be at a loss to comprehend what all the fuss is about.
The list of ‘80s and ‘90s video game nods in Pilgrim alone is daunting: Tekken Super Mario Bros. Tetris Zelda and even retro titles like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are represented just to name a few. To fit all of it in Wright must practically invent a brand-new kind of filmmaking. Using techniques and iconography culled from the holy fanboy triumvirate of comic books video games and anime/manga and armed with a clearly generous effects budget he splatters the screen with a dazzling array of CGI visual aids as the action unfolds: informational pop-ups supply key details on each character as they are introduced; words like “Boom!” and “Pow!” burst forth when blows are landed during fight sequences; a “Level Up!” graphic indicating increased levels of key character attributes appears after the film’s hero triumphs in battle. Even the old Universal Studios logo has been revamped by Wright rendered in the rudimentary graphics and sound of the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Call it easter-egg filmmaking.
At the center of this digital maelstrom is Scott Pilgrim a 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif played by 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif Michael Cera. Unemployed and in no great rush to find work he splits his time evenly between jamming with his middling band Sex Bob-Omb (a Super Mario Bros. reference) combing thrift shops for new additions to his near-limitless collection of ironic t-shirts and pining for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a beguiling New York City emigre whose signature attribute is her constantly-changing hair color.
After a few abortive encounters Scott finally gets Ramona to reciprocate his affections. Thus begins the quest — or "campaign " as gamers call it — portion of the film as Scott soon discovers that in order to secure Ramona’s hand he must defeat each of her seven evil exes (six boys and one girl) in spontaneous death matches of decreasing novelty. (A few of them could easily have been excised without harming the narrative but that might invite the ire of comic book fans who typically demand nothing less than absolute adherence to the source text.) With a variety of found power-ups and an entirely implausible collection of fancy kung-fu moves he faces off against among others a pompous vegan straight-edge (Brandon Routh) a self-absorbed action star (Chris Evans) a spiteful lesbian (Mae Whitman) and a smarmy record producer (Jason Schwartzman).
I expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will polarize audiences and not just because of Wright’s distinctively dizzying directorial style. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it occasionally overdoses on manufactured quirk and is a bit too proud of its cleverness.) The film glosses over Scott and Ramona’s wooing process in its rush to commence with its succession of comic-book battles which grow somewhat tedious toward the end. It’s simply assumed that Ramona would fall for our protagonist as it’s likewise assumed that we already have. But not everyone will embrace Scott’s castrati hipster affect which too often comes across as grating rather than charming. (The movie’s funniest moments come courtesy of Scott’s sassy gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin who is never without a clever barb for his lovelorn pal.) And beneath Cera’s self-effacing sheen exists an unmistakable whiff of pretentiousness that isn’t entirely justified — at least not yet. Far less debatable is the appeal of Winstead whose spunky Ramona appears every bit worth the hassle of fending off seven or more ex-lovers.
God knows what she sees in him.