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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It's impossible to write about The Big Wedding without damning it with faint praise. It has the sort of cast that once would have once been a selling point but is now cause for skepticism, and its sprawling plot is haphazard at best. It's worth a chuckle or two, but nothing happens that you couldn't guess from sitting through the first half hour. It's probably better than writer/director Justin Zackham's script for The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, but you'd have to find someone who actually saw that saccharine mess to know.
Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro star as Ellie and Don Griffin, a divorced couple whose adopted son is getting married. Don is shacked up with Ellie's former best friend Bebe, played by Susan Sarandon, who's become a close mother figure to the grown Griffin brood. Unfortunately for Bebe, the groom-to-be Alejandro (Ben Barnes, wearing a lot of bronzer) never told his Catholic mother back in Colombia that his parents are divorced, and since she's on her way to the nuptials, he asks Ellie and Don to pretend to still be married. Why anyone goes along with this is beyond logic — but logic isn't important here. What is important is that there are plenty of awkward sexual situations (De Niro listing euphuisms for cunnilingus!), bodily functions (De Niro getting vomited on!), and slapstick (De Niro being punched in the face!).
The rest of the plot is rather exhausting to get into and plays on all sorts of icky cultural stereotypes. Alejandro's biological sister Nuria (Ana Ayora) is a gorgeous, hypersexual Latina who doesn't realize she should make men work for it until Ellie tells her about American woman's mores and some sort of possibly feminist jibber-jabber. (If Zackham read any of the hand-wringing essays or books on hook-up culture, he'd realize this is complete BS.) Alejandro's mom doesn't speak English and mostly clutches her rosary while looking on disapprovingly. Topher Grace appears as Alejandro's brother, a doctor who decided at 15 that he'd stay a virgin until he fell in love, an idea that he tosses out as soon as Nuria sheds her clothes to go for a dip in their pond. Katherine Heigl is yet another sibling with problems; she left her husband because they couldn't get pregnant, but now she's upset because he hasn't tried to get in touch with her even though she left him. Amanda Seyfried is Alejandro's fiancée; her parents are WASP-y racists who are apparently horrified that their daughter is marrying someone wearing a lot of bronzer. There's some kerfuffle about Catholicism, so they've hauled in Robin Williams to appear as a priest; he actually plays it pretty straight, which is probably for the best. The themes are: double standards, fear of revealing our true selves to the ones we love, and uproarious revelations. Except not that uproarious.
Based on the French film Mon frère se marie, The Big Wedding is ultimately as forgettable as its generic title. Zackham relies on 360 degree pans and treacly music to try and rouse the audience to care, but that's no replacement for a decent script. The only thing that sticks is De Niro's saucy satyr, which is a refreshing change from his more recent films. Keaton and Sarandon are a pleasing pair, and they deserve not only much better than this, but their own movie about cool female friends in their fifties. In fact, if everything about the wedding was scrapped and this was rewritten as a dramedy about the complicated relationship between these three, you might have an interesting movie.
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The new fall pilots haven't even premiered yet, but already the networks are looking forward to their next big task: finding the right pilots and scripts to order for the 2013-2014 season. Development season is well underway and has been for the past few weeks — although this season is marked by a declaration from some networks (namely ABC and NBC) that the typically order-happy suits would not be as quick to bulk up their pilot orders this year. In other words, less is more.
Most of the majors have already made their first-round choices for specific projects, and the trends that have emerged seem to be all about big-name attachments (e.g. Vince Vaughn, Jodie Foster, Ryan Reynolds), period dramas (e.g. Aztec empire, Cold War America, 1890s Europe), international transplants (from Israel, England and Scandinavia) and — in an interestingly-revived yet well-worn trend — book adaptations (including Dracula and two Sleepy Hollow reboots).
Here's what ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, NBC and more have coming down the '13-'14 pipeline so far:
— Dumb F*ck: Single-camera comedy about an average Joe and his brilliant wife who move in with her intelligent yet emotionally stunted family of geniuses; written by Hank Nelken (Saving Silverman), executive produced by Vin Di Bona, Bruce Gersh, Susan Levison and Shaleen Desai.
— Burns & Cooley: Medical procedural about two New York neurosurgeons who compete as they strive to be the top in all aspects of their lives; written by Meredith Philpott (Awkward), exec produced by Matt Gross (Body Of Proof).
— Founding Fathers: Drama about a war veteran whose Texas hometown is in the hands of a militia group led by his older brother; written by Rich D'Ovidio (Thir13en Ghosts), produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Dan McDermott.
— Untitled McG Project: Retelling of Romeo and Juliet, revolving around two rival families fighting for control over Venice, California; written by Byron Balasco (Detroit 1-8-7), produced by McG (The OC, Supernatural, Nikita).
— Untitled Kurtzman/Orci Project: Drama about a mysterious game; written by Noah Hawley (The Unusuals), produced by Heather Kadin, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci.
— Dracula: 1890s-set period piece about the iconic vampire; written by Cole Haddon, produced by Tony Krantz and Colin Callender; starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors).
— The Blacklist: Drama about an international criminal who surrenders himself and helps the government hunt down his former cohorts; written by Jon Bokenkamp, exec produced by John Davis, John Fox and John Eisendrath.
— Hench: Based on the comic about a man who becomes a temp for super villains; written by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives), exec produced by Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey (Prime Suspect).
— Cleopatra: Period drama about the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; written by Michael Seitzman (Americana), exec produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Dan McDermott.
— Pariah: Drama inspired by Freakonomics about a rogue academic who uses economic theory to police San Diego; written by Kevin Fox (The Negotiator), exec produced by Kelsey Grammer, Stella Stolper and Brian Sher.
— After Hours/The Last Stand: Medical drama about Army doctors who work the night shift at a San Antonio hospital; revisited from last season; written by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah.
— Untitled Parkes/MacDonald Project: Drama about an interpreter at the United Nations who works with diplomats and politicians from around the world; written by Tom Brady (Hell on Wheels), produced by Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Ted Gold.
— Untitled Charmelo/Snyder Project: New Orleans-set drama, described as a "sexy Southern Gothic thriller"; created by Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder (Ringer), exec produced by Peter Traugott and Rachel Kaplan.
— Untitled Rand Ravich Project: Drama-thriller following a secret service agent at the center of an international crisis in Washington, DC; created by Rand Ravich (Life), produced by Far Shariat.
— Island Practice: Based on the book Island Practice: Cobblestone Rash, Underground Tom, and Other Adventures Of A Nantucket Doctor, about an eccentric doctor with a controversial medical practice on an island off the coast of Washington; written by Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza, Beethoven), produced by Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo and Oly Obst.
— The Brady Bunch: Reboot of the series, about a divorced Bobby Brady who re-marries a woman with children of her own; written by Mike Mariano (Raising Hope), co-developed and exec produced by Vince Vaughn (Sullivan & Son).
— A Welcome Grave: Based on the book series about a private investigator who comes under suspicion when a rival turns up dead.
— Backstrom: Based on the book series about a House-like detective who tries to change his self-destructive nature; written by Hart Hanson (Bones), produced by Leif G.W. Persson (novel) and Niclas Salomonsson.
— Ex-Men: Single-camera comedy about a young guy who moves into a short-term rental complex and befriends the other men who live there after being kicked out by their wives; written and directed by Rob Greenberg; starring Chris Smith and Kal Penn.
— Sleepy Hollow: Contemporary reinterpretation of the Sleepy Hollow short story; written by Patrick Macmanus and Grant Scharbo, produced by Scharbo and Gina Matthews.
— Gun Machine: Based on an upcoming novel (of the same name) about a New York detective whose chance discovery of a stash of guns leads back to a variety of unsolved murders; written by Dario Scardapane (Trauma), produced by Warren Ellis (book author), Scardapane, Peter Chernin and Katherine Pope.
— Sleepy Hollow: Modern-day thriller based on the Sleepy Hollow short story, following Ichabod Crane and a female sheriff who solve supernatural mysteries; written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Hawaii Five-0) and Phillip Iscove, produced by Heather Kadin and Len Wiseman.
— The Beach: Based on the 1996 novel and 2000 movie about a group of youths who try to start society over on a remote paradise; written by Andrew Miller (The Secret Circle).
— Hard Up: Single-camera comedy based on Israeli series about four twentysomething guys who are strapped for cash; written by Etan Frankel (Shameless), produced by John Wells.
— Lowe Rollers: Animated comedy about a struggling Titanic-themed casino in Las Vegas; written by Mark Torgove and Paul Kaplan (Outsourced) and Ash Brannon, produced by Ryan Reynolds, Jonathon Komack Martin, Steven Pearl and Allan Loeb.
— Untitled Chris Levinson Project: Cop drama about a detective who puts his life under surveillance when he begins to lose his memory; written by Chris Levinson (Touch), produced by Peter Chernin and Katherine Pope.
— Untitled Friend/Lerner Project: Drama set on an aircraft carrier following young naval officers and a female fighter pilot who tries to solve an onboard murder; written and produced by Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner (House).
— Untitled Ryan Reynolds Project: Half-hour comedy about a disgraced hotelier forced to manage a rundown airport hotel; written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay (Clash of the Titans), produced by Ryan Reynolds, Allan Loeb, Jonathon Komack Martin and Steven Pearl.
— Untitled Jason Katims Project: Romantic comedy about a single female attorney; written by Jason Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) and Sarah Watson.
— Getting On: U.S. adaptation of a British comedy about a group of nurses and doctors working in a women's geriatric wing of a run-down hospital; Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to exec produce with Jane Tranter, Julie Gardner and Geoff Atkinson.
— Buda Bridge: Belgian-set crime drama about a woman who is found dead on a famous bridge in Brussels; written and directed by Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead), produced by Michael Mann (Luck) and Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad).
— Hello Ladies: Comedy about an oddball Englishman who chases women in Los Angeles; written, directed by and starring Stephen Merchant (The Office), produced by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (The Office).
— Angie's Body: Drama about a powerful woman at the head of a crime family; written by Rob Fresco (Heroes, Jericho), directed and executive produced by Jodie Foster, Fresco and Russ Krasnoff.
— Conquest: Period drama about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who clashes with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II; written by Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo.
— Low Winter Sun: Based on 2006 British miniseries about the aftermath that follows the murder of a cop by a fellow detective; written by Chris Mundy; James Ransone, Ruben Santiago Hudson and Athena Karkanis to star.
— Those Who Kill: Based on Danish series about a detective and forensics scientist who track down serial killers; written by Glen Morgan, produced by Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo, Peter Bose and Jonas Allen, directed by Joe Carnahan.
— Untitled LaGravenese/Goldwyn Project: Legal thriller about an attorney who discovers new evidence that re-opens a sensational murder case; written by Richard LaGravenese, directed by Tony Goldwyn, exec produced by David Manson; Marin Ireland to star as female lead.
— The Americans: Period drama about two KGB spies posing as Americans in Washington, DC; created by Joe Weisberg, exec produced by Weisberg, Graham Yost, Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey; directed by Gavin O'Connor; Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich to star.
— The Bridge: Based on the Scandinavian series, about a murder investigation opened up after a dead body is discovered on a bridge connecting the United States and Mexico; written by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid (Cold Case), produced by Carolyn Bernstein, Lars Blomgren and Jane Featherstone.
— Untitled Dr. Dre Project: One-hour drama about music and crime in Los Angeles; written by Sidney Quashie, exec produced by Dr. Dre.
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
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)