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 the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
It's easy to hate on the Twilight movies. They're the epitome of indulgent fan-servicing filmmaking alienating anyone on the outside of their cultish fanbase. With consistent navel-gazing screenplays by series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (adapted from the equally shallow source material from author Stephanie Meyers) there's little reason to think future installments could ever transcend their predecessors.
But whereas Twilight New Moon and Eclipse contently burrowed themselves under the forlorn faces and over-dramatic moping of stars Kristen Stewart Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls Kinsey Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh) unearths a saving grace in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1: pure insanity from which blossoms color comedy and scares. The movie is one giant wink to the camera—and it serves the melodrama of Twilight tremendously.
The first half of the not-quite-epic Twilight conclusion kicks off with the wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) a long-awaited event Condon manages to spin into an authentically nerve-wracking and touching sequence. Finally a Twilight movie with an obvious purpose—Bella and Edward have been waiting since Movie One to consummate their relationship (waiting until marriage) but lingering at the end of every daydream every loving gaze every sweet nothing is the gut-wrenching fact that Bella will give up her humanity. Breaking Dawn - Part 1 confronts this dead on with an overtness absent from the previous movies.
While the script is still committed to visualizing Bella Edward and Jacob's uncinematic inner monologues Condon peppers every scene with the zest of ridiculousness saving Breaking Dawn from ever dragging. Edward cracking a bed in half during his first sexual experience is just the beginning—the movie features everything from demon-fearing Brazilian housekeepers to body horror straight out of a Cronenberg film to corny CSI-esque shots of vampire venom jetting through bloodstreams. In one scene Jacob (Lautner) morphs into canine form to telepathically declare (in Lautner's brooding "tough guy" voice) that he is the true Alpha Male of the pack. The moment's hammy and trite but Condon shoots it with all the over-the-top machismo exuding from the wolfpack. Subtle no. Fun yes.
Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is far and away the best of the Twilight series. Sexy silly scary and stupid the movie's tonal balancing act amounts to an Evil Dead for tween romantics. There's gravity to the events we're witnessing on screen (Pattinson and Stewart even have a tense argument that results in an explosion of their previously-presumed non-existent emotions) but a self-reflexive lens keeps the normally-idiotic confessions of love and hushed prophetic warnings of the Cullen family in check. The operatic tale crescendos with buckets of blood and "tragedy" straight out of a high school Shakespeare production—completely in tune with the outlandish plot and a satisfying cliffhanger for Part 2. The movie is weighed down by the baggage that comes with a Twilight movie but the formula is shaken up just enough to inject the undead franchise with a little life.