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
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Well, that was tremendously satisfying.
That's what she said.
After nine seasons on NBC, the American adaptation of Ricky Gervais' beloved British series of the same name, The Office was given an absolutely lovely, sincere, and near-perfect send-off. No, not everything in the episode worked. But what did work — those heartfelt reunions and goodbyes — are what really stood out and what mattered and what made this 75-minute finale so very special.
But, that's almost fitting in a way. The past few years of The Office were pretty bad, but the finale erased all of that. This is exactly what the conclusion was about: redeeming yourself, making peace with something, remembering the good over the bad, and finding the beauty in imperfections. Everyone had their happy ending, including The Office itself.
Picking up a year after the airing of the PBS documentary about them, and a day before Dwight and Angela's wedding, we found our favorite characters at different places in their lives. But the employees of Dunder Mifflin were — and still are — at their core, a family. But, you can't have a family unit without it's papa bear, which in their case is Michael Scott. Yes, the rumors were confirmed and our wishes came true: Steve Carell returned for the finale, and it was just perfect.
After Jim was named best man for Dwight's wedding — or, as the Schrute's call it, Bestest Mensch — and he went above and beyond the call of duty (aw, remember the episode when Jim was terrible at Call of Duty?) by pulling off the Best... Prank... Ever... and surprising the groom with a new Bestest Mensch: one Michael Gary Scott. And their first exchange in nearly two years went as follows:
Dwight: "I can't believe you came." Michael: "That's what she said."
Oh, Michael, you haven't changed a bit. Well, he did a little, in that he now has gray hair and is blissfully happy with a wife and their kids. But at the core, he's still the same old Michael. He still can't dance and he still says things that come out wrong ("I feel like all my kids grew up and married each other... it's every parent's dream!"), but his heart is still in the right place. Please, please let the Emmys at least give Carell one for a guest appearance.
Michael wasn't the only one who got a happy ending so richly deserved. Pam finally made a big, romantic gesture to Jim and decided to move their family to Austin so he could pursue his dream; Dwight and Angela got married; Kelly and Ryan (that's right, Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak returned, too) got back together (even if they did so in the most terrible way possible: by ditching a baby... though would you expect any different from those two?); Andy went from a laughing stock to a hometown hero; Darryl enjoyed his continued success; Toby enthusiastically got invited to hang out; Oscar enjoyed a senatorial campaign (but sadly no showcase of his origami skills) and, in the most touching happy ending of them all, Erin finally got to meet her birth parents (played by Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr.).
But, really, even if they didn't have a big goodbye, all the characters walked away with something: wisdom. Lucky for us, they all got to share a few pearls (major kudos to The Office writing team for this episode, it was some absolutely beautiful stuff):
- "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them." Oh, Nard Dog. Someone should write a song about that.
- "I worked for a paper company all these years, but I never wrote anything down." Phyllis just destroyed me in this episode (she was so concerned about Andy, and she carried her old nemesis Angela down the aisle, and was so genuinely happy to receive her gift of a cute bird statue of herself from her grumpy pal Stanley) and this little snippet was a reminder to us all to take more pictures and write down your memories — you'll really cherish them someday.
- "Yes, I'd say I have gotten along with my subordinates." Dwight, referring to his wife Angela, best man Jim, and his best friend (aw!) Pam, among others.
- "Everything I have I owe to this job. This stupid, wonderful, boring, amazing job." Jim, TV's best crush, always and forever.
- "There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point?" Pam, who grew into her own and allowed herself to find happiness over the course of nine years. As she simply put it, "Be strong, trust yourself, love yourself, conquer your fears, go after what you want." And thank goodness that The Office saw the beauty in ordinary things and ordinary people who were capable of extraordinary things.
Other finale highlights:
- Bringing back characters like Carol the realtor (Carell's wife in real life, Nancy Walls), Elizabeth the stripper, and of course, Mose. - Cameos by Seth Meyers and Bill Hader as themselves. Hey, we'll take as much of those guys on SNL as we can while we can get 'em. - Dwight carrying/dancing with Angela. - The group shot in front of Pam's mural calling for "everyone from the office." Judging by the cameo by Greg Daniels, it was likely everyone from The Office. - Creed's beautiful guitar serenade in the office. - Reminscing about the Office Olympics. - Pam getting in one last "Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam" and taking her painting of the office building with her. - Just. All of it, really. Goodbye old friends. And thank you.
Follow Aly on Twitter @AlySemigran and Hollywood.com @Hollywood_com
More: 'The Office': The 10 Best (and 5 Worst) Episodes The 5 Biggest Character Transformations on 'The Office' Steve Carell is Returning for the Series Finale of 'The Office'
From Our Partners:Watch Justin Bieber Attacked in Dubai (Celebuzz)33 Child Stars: Where Are They Now? (Celebuzz)
In the opening scenes of the new "comedy" Jack and Jill commercial director Jack Sadelstein (Adam Sandler) and his business partners take a break from the set of their Regis Philbin-starring Pepto Bismol commercial to discuss the prospect of landing Al Pacino for a new Dunkin' Donuts spot. Even with the pressure mounting the idea of landing the A-Lister is the least of Jack's worries—his real stress stemming from his heinous twin sister Jill (also played by Sandler) who is scheduled to visit for Thanksgiving. We don't know much about Jill at that point but even the prospect of spending a few days with his sibling prompts the cankerous Jack to chug an entire bottle of the commercial's pink antidiarrheal product.
Turns out the medical cocktail was quite appropriate. By the end of Jack and Jill kicking back an entire bottle of Pepto Bismol may be the first logical step to curing the gut-wrenching feeling induced by the movie's painfully lazy antics. To call the latest from Sandler's Happy Madison Productions (Paul Blart: Mall Cop Grown Ups Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star) a bad movie isn't strong enough. Nor is describing it as a complete void of comedy. And the movie doesn't even come close to a so-stupid-its-funny scenario. No Jack and Jill is honest to goodness mental destruction—a collision of half-baked comedy sketches violent potty humor shrouded racism shotgun celebrity cameos and unapologetic product placement. There is more coherency care and consideration poured in to a child's spin art painting than any moment Sandler or director Dennis Dugan whip up for this film.
From the movie's very first moments to its obvious ham-fisted conclusion the mere presence of Jill sends Jack into a temper meltdown—and it's not hard to see why. Sandler's lady from the Bronx is a loud abhorrent self-loathing woman an obtuse fish-out-of-water who sees no issue with stereotyping Jack's adopted Indian son or using phrases like "make chocolate squirties" after a night of chimichangas (may I recommend Pepto Bismol?). The script would like us to feel sympathetic for Jill as she's turned down by every man she meets adding to her existing physical appearance woes ("I'm too fat!" she declares before hopping up on a horse and crushing it under her own weight). Unfortunately it's obvious that no one behind-the-camera actually gives a damn about her or any of the other characters to help realize that struggle honestly or humorously.
Knowing the movie can't entirely rely on Jill's flatulence to baffle its audience Jack and Jill employs a number of shameless drive-by appearances from across the Hollywood spectrum to replace actual entertainment. Johnny Depp Jared the Subway Guy Shaq Bruce Jenner the Sham-Wow Guy and Drew Carey (who Jill meets while embarrassing herself on The Price Is Right) all stop by for a cheap laugh. Maybe that's a good thing—the cameos are nonsensical enough to distract from Jack and Jill's plot one that trudges along at a glacial pace as Jill finds ways to stay at Jack's house and ruin her brother's life.
Sandler recruited Katie Holmes and Al Pacino to fill the film's two non-twin roles and to the benefit of their careers he gives them little to do. Holmes isn't given a single scene in which she does anything more than rag on Jack for hating his sister or detach objects her son perpetually tapes to his body (a pepper shaker a hamster a bird a lobster). Pacino has a meatier role one that you may even expect to garner a few laughs spoofing his thunderous thespian self who melts at the sight of Jill. But the material director Dennis Dugan bestows on the legendary actor is scraped from the bottom of the barrel. Not even Pacino can make passing off gibberish as a foreign language funny. The saving grace for the movie is watching Pacino go method and pursue Jill as Don Quixote from The Man of La Mancha. At that point the reference is a reminder that out there somewhere beyond the movie theater/black hole playing Jack and Jill is a world full of culture and class.
Jack and Jill isn't really a movie but more of an extended Royal Caribbean Cruises commercial with a Dunkin Donuts dance number set to an extended fart exploding from a dragged-out Adam Sandler's buttocks. The bar for entertainment value has never been set lower than this film an experience so toxic to the mind that along with its PG-rating should carry a warning label from Surgeon General.
Better make it two Pepto-Bismols.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.
After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.