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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Sucker Punch a sprawling and convoluted action sci-fi fantasy is director Zack Snyder’s first “original” film in that it’s based on a script Snyder co-wrote (along with Steve Shibuya) and not a graphic novel or a previous movie. But to anyone who has seen Snyder’s two previous live-action films 300 and Watchmen it will feel awfully familiar: His now-trademark flourishes – gorgeous visuals elaborate action sequences a desaturated color palette a CGI-airbrushed “heightened reality ” abundant slo-mo and fatal self-seriousness – are all conspicuously on display.
It’s all there in fact in Sucker Punch’s opening sequence: a very intense and ultra-dramatic montage set to a haunting cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" and slowed down to a crawl so that we may better admire every super-stylized detail of Snyder’s exquisite handiwork. It depicts a series of wrenching domestic tragedies that result in the film’s teenage heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) being shipped off to an all-girls mental hospital by her malevolent stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) properly setting the stage for the ensuing melodrama.
To ensure Babydoll doesn’t act up again evil stepdaddy bribes a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having the traumatized but otherwise mentally competent girl lobotomized without the required consent of the facility’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). The year is 1967 and lobotomies though still legal are exceedingly rare; as such they must wait five days for the local lobotomizing physician (Jon Hamm) to come and turn Babydoll into a very pretty vegetable. Which is more than enough time for her to retreat into a dreamworld and concoct a vivid fantasy in which she and four scantily clad mates – Rocket (Jena Malone) Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) Amber (Jamie Chung) – conspire to escape the brothel in which they’re imprisoned.
The meat of the escape plan calls for a series of quests in which Babydoll and the gang battle giant samurais World War I zombie troopers futuristic alien robots dragons et al – all while dressed in sleek variants of the archetypal hot chick Halloween costumes (sexy nurse sexy schoolgirl sexy sanitation worker etc.). The sequences are well-choreographed and visually stimulating but have very little connection to the plot – they’re more like beautiful and disposable diversions grandiose music videos in which Snyder is able to cram elements from a broad spectrum of pop culture influences from Hong Kong cinema and anime to Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal without any apparent rules or logic to bind his fertile imagination.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad – honestly it wouldn’t – if Sucker Punch weren’t so punishingly maudlin. Nary a scene goes by in which some poor girl isn’t threatened or smacked or nearly raped. (All the women in the film are victims; the men with the exception of Scott Glenn's imaginary character monsters.) A movie with hot chicks and guns and orcs and robots and zombies should at the very least be fun. But Snyder’s film is dour and pretentious to the point of pain an overstuffed emo tragedy bracketed by ponderous voiceover about demons and monsters and how all of us have the weapons within us to defeat them. Or something like that. Sucker Punch is such a molten-hot mess that whatever Important Message it's supposed to convey ends up hopelessly garbled by the time the end credits roll.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.