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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Besides the elbow-rubbing and power mongering, let's not forget that the Sundance Film Festival is also about the films.
With that in mind, the annual indie film fest announced today its partial list of films for the 2001 powwow.
The lineup for three categories -- dramas, documentaries and the American Spectrum -- have thus far been announced, and other areas such as premiere, international films and short films will be announced Wednesday.
Films at the festival only compete in the dramatic and documentary categories. Top films coming out of Sundance in previous years include Ed Burns' "The Brothers McMullen" and last year's "Girlfight" from director Karyn Kusama.
The Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 18-28 in Park City, Utah.
In the meantime, here's the complete list of Sundance films in competition and in the American Spectrum.
"30 Years to Life," directed by Vanessa Middleton "American Astronaut," directed by Cory McAbee "The Believer," directed by Henry Bean "The Business of Strangers," directed by Patrick Stettner "The Deep End," directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel "Donnie Darko," directed by Richard Kelly "Green Dragon," directed by Timothy Linh Bui "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," directed by John Cameron Mitchell "In the Bedroom," directed by Todd Field "L.I.E.," directed by Michael Cuesta "Lift," directed by DeMane Davis & Khari Streeter "MacArthur Park," directed by Billy Wirth "Memento," directed by Christopher Nolan "Scotland, PA," directed by Billy Morrissette "The Sleepy Time Gal," directed by Christopher Munch "Some Body," directed by Henry Barrial
"Chain Camera," directed by Kirby Dick "Children Underground," directed by Edet Belzberg "Dogtown and the Z-Boys," directed by Stacy Peralta "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic," directed by George Butler "Go Tigers!" directed by Kenneth A. Carlson "Home Movie," directed by Chris Smith "Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," directed by Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson with "Albert Maysles Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," directed by Stanley Nelson "The Natural History of the Chicken," directed by Mark Lewis "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey," directed by William Greaves "Scout's Honor," directed by Tom Shepard "Scratch," directed by Doug Pray "Southern Comfort," directed by Kate Davis "Startup.com," directed by Chris Hegedus & Jehane Noujaim "Trembling Before G-D," directed by Sandi Simcha Dubowski "An Unfinished Symphony," directed by Bestor Cram & Mike Majoro
"Acts of Worship," directed by Rosemary Rodriguez "After Image," directed by Robert Manganelli "Dancing in September," directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood "Diary of a City Priest," directed by Eugene Martin "The Doe Boy," directed by Randy Redroad "Haiku Tunnel," directed by Jacob Kornbluth & Josh Kornbluth "Invisible Revolution," directed by Beverly Peterson "Jump Tomorrow," directed by Joel Hopkins "Manic," directed by Jordan Melamed "Margarita Happy Hour," directed by Ilya Chaiken "Miss Wonton," directed by Meng Ong "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent," directed by Billy Corben "Roof to Roof," directed by Ara Corbett "Women in Film," directed by Bruce Wagner "Tape," directed by Richard Linklater "Wet Hot American Summer," directed by David Wain.