Monday, March 10, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

It was seven years ago that Zack Snyder brought us the movie 300, his second directorial effort. Based on Frank Miller's comic book of the same name, the movie was a big fat hit and has been hailed by some as being one of the best "guy flicks" of the new millennium. And now, seven years later, someone thought it was time to follow up on 300's success with a sequel. I don't know why it took the better part of a decade to get around to it, but then I don't work in Hollywood, so what do I know? Regardless, 300: Rise of an Empire is a shameless cash-in several years too late, and it's an amazingly bad movie to boot. If you were thinking of seeing it, be warned: it's a waste of time, of effort, and of your money.

With King Leonidas leading his three hundred Spartan warriors into battle at Thermopylae, the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads his navy in fighting the Persians at sea. And much like Leonidas, Themistocles is up against what seems like insurmountable odds. The Persian navy not only outnumbers them, but is led by the vicious Artemisia (Eva Green), who assisted Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) in his rise to the Persian throne after Themistocles killed his father at the Battle of Marathon. Finding he and his navy in an unenviable situation where brute force is out of the question and victory itself may not be an option, Themistocles tries his valiantly to form a strategy that could have an ending in his favor.

I entered 300: Rise of an Empire not expecting much. At best, I was simply hoping for a fun, inoffensive way to kill two hours on a Saturday afternoon. But I was astounded by just how lousy the movie is. It feels like it should have gone direct-to-DVD or premiered on cable instead of getting a theatrical release. The movie is substandard on practically every level, with so few positive elements that one couldn't be blamed for missing them altogether. And honestly, I can say the same thing about this whole movie. If you choose not to see it, you won't miss anything, and you'll be better off for it.

The movie was directed by Noam Murro, a filmmaker whom I've never heard of previously. And honestly, I'm unimpressed. It feels like Murro's efforts were just a dull copy of what Zack Snyder did with the original 300. His attempts at replicating Snyder's style are inadequate at best, lacking the ultra-macho, testosterone-fueled machismo of the first movie. And the action sequences, which you'd think would be the movie's biggest selling point other than it being a 300 sequel, are all lackluster, uninspired, and mostly kinda boring. There's no life, no spark to be found. I honestly just wanted the movie to hurry up and be done.

I was also disappointed in places with the 3D effects. There are some moments where it looks really cool and adds some serious pop, but it often feels unnecessary. A lot of the time, the action is moving so quickly that the 3D doesn't add anything to the movie. One gets the feeling that, like a lot of movies, the 3D was added only to jack up the ticket price at the box office and make the movie a few extra dollars.

And then there's the script, credited to Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, is pretty lame too. It's based on Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes, itself an unpublished follow-up to his 300 comic, and if this movie is any indication, there might be a reason Xerxes hasn't been published yet. The dialogue is banal and corny as hell, the characters are clichéd, and the plot feels like a cut-and-paste of the first movie, only set at sea. Could this have honestly been the best Snyder and Johnstad have done? Because if it is, then all I can do is throw my hands up and wonder aloud why they even bothered at all.

Even the cast is a mixed bag. The majority of the movie's actors are forgettable, and even lead actor Sullivan Stapleton is about as dull as you can get. Stapleton doesn't have anything even resembling Gerard Butler's charisma or passion, making one long for King Leonidas instead of Themistocles. It's not all bad, though, with Lena Headey once again providing a fine performance as Sparta's Queen Gorgo despite being sadly underutilized. The real highlight of the cast, though, is Eva Green, who is fantastic as she plays Artemisia as a cold, heartless, bloodthirsty bitch. Much like Butler was the highlight of the first 300, Green makes Rise of an Empire worth seeing for her crazed, anger-filled performance.

But not even Green could save this movie. It's inconsistent, often boring, badly written, and is honestly just a poor movie all around. I meant it earlier when I said that 300: Rise of an Empire was a needless sequel that only seems to have been made to cash in on the original's success. But I still have no idea why they couldn't have come up with something better in the intervening seven years. I mean, it couldn't have been that hard... could it?

Final Rating:

Friday, March 7, 2014

300 (2007)

Ask a million diehard comic book fans about their opinion of Frank Miller, and you'll probably get a million different answers. But there's one thing about him that I'm sure most people can agree on: whether it's good or bad, Miller's work is most certainly a stylish, gritty type of thing.

Miller's work has brought the comic industry a lot of both good and bad comics, but he definitely has his own unique method of approaching material. It can be seen in his Sin City books (as well as its cinematic adaptation) and his work on Daredevil and Batman, and was put to use when Miller entered Hollywood to direct The Spirit. It even goes beyond Miller's superhero and noir stories, as evidenced by 300.

Published by Dark Horse Comics in 1998, the five-issue miniseries written and illustrated by Miller presented us a fictional retelling of the events leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae. And although it drew some criticisms for various reasons, 300 still sold tremendously well and won three Eisner Awards.

It proved popular enough that Warner Bros. Pictures eventually picked up the film rights and released a cinematic adaptation of 300 in 2007. With Zack Snyder — fresh off making his directorial debut with his remake of George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead — helming the project, 300 was an enormous financial success despite professional critics being divided in regards to it. And as much as I enjoy comic book movies, I can't believe I've actually gone seven years without ever having seen 300. So with the sequel on its way, I might as well go ahead and check it out, right?

The movie takes us to the year 480 BC and the Greek city-state of Sparta, a kingdom of fierce, proud warriors. As part of the continuing conflicts between Persia and Greece, a Persian messenger arrives at Sparta's gates requesting they submit and give their obedience to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the god-king of Persia. Sparta's King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) not only refuses, but is so offended that he dropkicks the messenger and his entire entourage into a pit to hammer his response home.

Although they know Xerxes will surely retaliate, the upcoming religious festival of Carnea prevents the Spartan council from approving Leonidas's plan to lead their full military into battle. Despite this, Leonidas still assembles a band of three hundred soldiers, deeming them his personal bodyguards to get around the council's regulations. His plan is to force the Persians through the narrow coastal passage of Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his tiny group of warriors fully intend to stand tall in the face of an overwhelming opposition.

This wasn't the first time the Battle of Thermopylae had been depicted in film, the tale having previously been told via the 1962 epic The 300 Spartans. It was that movie that inspired Frank Miller to write the 300 comic book in the first place. And with 300, the story is taken deeply into the realm of historical fantasy. It's a testosterone-fueled, over-the-top action flick that, like most of the movies from its director, favors style over substance. And oh my, what style it is.

Though only his second movie, 300 is very much a Zack Snyder movie. Much of the style he's become known for is on display here, with the slow motion and stylized violence that have become Snyder's hallmarks put to good use here. And with 300, he seems to have drawn a little inspiration from what Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City two years prior. Both movies are based on Frank Miller's comic books, both are over-stylized efforts with unique visuals, and chroma-keyed effects, and a faithful approach to the source material.

And while 300 movies slowly at times, it always feels like it's building towards something. And that something is the movie's fight sequences. Snyder directs these moments wonderfully, each of them having a ferocity and excitement that makes the slower moments worth sitting through. The battles are the movie's highlights, the biggest reasons to see 300, more so than the "this is Sparta!" line that was an Internet meme back in 2007 because they're honestly the best parts of the movie.

And while I've never actually had the opportunity to read Miller's book, so I can't actually compare the script to the story he wrote, the writers do a decent enough job. There's truthfully not much of a story, just setups for each battle, but writers Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon do craft a tale that make the Spartans a team of warriors to be respected. The one serious drawback to it is the dialogue, which comes off as kinda hokey at times. But since much of it is befitting of 300's comic origins, it's forgivable.

But last but certainly not least is the cast, all of whom are actually really good. Rodrigo Santoro casts an intimidating presence as Xerxes despite not needing to do a whole lot, while Dominic West doesn't have many scenes, but he's very good in them. His character is a two-faced sleazebag that spends the whole movie undermining Leonidas's campaign, a role that West plays perfectly.

Lena Headey, meanwhile, plays Queen Gorgo splendidly. She plays the Spartan queen as something of a mirror image of Gerard Butler's Leonidas, giving Gorgo with a nobility that has a nobility that has a warrior's spirit beneath it. But 300 belongs to Gerard Butler, who grabs the movie and runs with it. Butler has appeared in over a dozen movies since 300, but he's never matched what he does here. His brings a fire and bravery to Leonidas, a passionate, larger than life performance that is honestly just as much a highlight as the battle sequences.

300 is not a great movie, nor is it even the best one of Zack Snyder's résumé. But it's certainly a fun movie. It's one of those movies that are exactly what you need if you want a movie that'll give you a shot of adrenaline. The movie is one of the manliest flicks I've ever seen, probably the closest Hollywood's gotten to replicating the awe and spectacle of Conan the Barbarian in the new millennium (and that's counting Marcus Nispel's Conan movie in 2011). Did I think 300 was all that I'd heard it was cracked up to be? No. But I did enjoy it, and sometimes, isn't that really all that matters?

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Lego Movie (2014)

I can't say I'm surprised that Hollywood would turn toys like G.I. Joe and the Transformers into movies. With their built-in popularity and unique characters, it makes sense. But I am surprised, however, that they would use other toys from beyond the realm of action figures for movie ideas. We've had movies based on board games in the form of Clue and Battleship, direct-to-video cartoons based on Barbie dolls, and now we have a movie based on Lego bricks. A Lego theme park and dozens of Lego video games I can apparently handle, but I honestly still can't wrap my head around the fact that someone actually made a theatrically-released movie about the popular little building blocks. But The Lego Movie is very real, and was actually a big fat hit both financially and critically upon its release early last month. So being the curious moviegoer that I am, I had to check it out.

Welcome to the city of Bricksburg, where ordinary construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is beginning to realize just how lonely his life is despite being constantly bombarded with propaganda telling him that everything is awesome. His world is quickly shaken up when he encounters a woman sneaking around his construction site late one night. As he follows this mysterious lady, Emmet falls into a hole and emerges with an equally mysterious Lego brick stuck to his back. The woman, calling herself "Wyldstyle" (Elizabeth Banks), reveals that this brick is a mythical artifact known as the Piece of Resistance and realizes that Emmet is "The Special," a hero mentioned in a prophecy told to her by the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman).

The prophecy states that The Special will be the one to use the Piece of Resistance to defeat the tyrannical Lord Business (Will Ferrell). But as his nearly absolute lack of imagination makes itself known, it quickly becomes evident that Emmet isn't very special at all. So until he can realize his true potential, Emmet is taken across various Lego playsets by Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and the "Master Builders" ― among them an over-excited '80s-era astronaut named Benny (Charlie Day), a unicorn/feline hybrid called Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), and Wyldstyle's boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett) ― as they try to avoid being caught by the evil Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and falling into Lord Business's clutches.

The concept of using Lego bricks as the basis for animation is nothing new. People have been making homemade short films with the versatile toys for decades, while Lego themselves have licensed their name to different direct-to-video cartons over the last few years. But The Lego Movie is the first to get the huge Hollywood blockbuster treatment, and it's something totally worth seeing. The Lego Movie is the total package, a wonderful combination of gorgeous animation, entertaining voice acting, and a fun, heartwarming story that gels together to make a truly great movie.

But the movie was in good hands from the start, thanks to the writer/director duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller. No strangers to animation, having worked on the short-lived MTV cartoon Clone High and, more recently, the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies, Lord and Miller have crafted something that can entertain both kids and adults. As far as their direction goes, they do a fantastic job. The movie might be CG-animated, but Lord and Miller make sure it still appears as if it were assembled by hand with Lego bricks. The animation even has a certain clunky feeling to it that makes it feel all the more authentic. It's a real visual treat, full of great sight gags and little things just beneath its surface for diligent viewers to find.

Even the movie's great, immersive 3D enhance the experience, pulling the audience into the world Lord and Miller invite us into. I'm sure The Lego Movie works just as well in standard 2D, but seeing it in 3D makes for a more engaging experience. It works in the movie's favor, that's certainly for sure.

But while the animation is great, the movie was propelled even higher by Lord and Miller's fantastic screenplay. They seemingly take a cue from Wreck-It Ralph by bringing us the moral that anyone can be a hero, anyone can be special. It gets especially schmaltzy towards the end, but the story is consistently amusing and heartwarming. But more importantly, it never stops being funny. Like the sight gags, the jokes come fast and furious, coming at such a high rate of speed that the misses are quickly redeemed by another joke. There's enough going on here that the movie has something for everybody, something to make everyone laugh.

And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the great group of voice actors assembled to lend their talents to the movie. Everyone is on their A-game, but there are some I just have to highlight. Charlie Day plays his "1980-something space guy" character with an abundance of hilarious energy, while Liam Neeson is particularly funny in a dual role as the grizzled, perpetually angry Bad Cop and his cheery alternate personality, "Good Cop." The biggest highlight is Will Arnett as Batman. The movie's version of Batman is what would happen if Christian Bale's version of the character were a cocky, condescending prick, and Arnett plays it with glee, right down to mimicking the guttural growl Bale used when playing the character. I've seen some reviews that have called Batman one of the best parts of The Lego Movie, and between Arnett's voice work and how Lord and Miller have written him, it's hard to disagree with them.

One could view The Lego Movie as being as much an advertisement for Lego bricks as The Wizard was for Nintendo games in 1989, but the big difference is that The Lego Movie is actually really good. The movie is a big "up yours" to the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies, proving that movies based on toys can be entertaining without having to sacrifice emotion or characters. We might only be a couple of months deep into 2014, but this is definitely one of the best movies of this short year thus far. So if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and do so. The Lego Movie's theme song says "everything is awesome," and when it comes to this movie, that's most certainly true.

Final Rating: ****