REVIEW: “300: Rise of an Empire”

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I still remember the buzz surrounding Zack Snyder’s “300” when it hit theaters in 2007. The hyper-stylized comic book adaptation gained an enthusiastic following to the tune of almost $500 million at the box office. Seven years later a sequel came along but minus Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, and director Zack Snyder. Snyder did stay around to co-write the screenplay, but this time the directing reins were given to Noam Murro.

“300: Rise of an Empire” takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film. This time the main character is a Greek General named Themistocles. He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, an actor who I really enjoyed in David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”. Themistocles kills King Darius of Persia as the king’s son Xerxes looks on. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) follows his father’s dying wish and journeys through the desert to a mystical cave. There he submerges himself in a pool of mysterious waters and eventually emerges as the god-king we see in the first film.

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Xerxes returns and declares war on Greece. He takes his army and faces Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (as seen in the first movie). At the same time Xerxes’ naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) takes a fleet and goes up against Themistocles in the Battle of Artemisium. From there the paper-thin plot navigates a series of dull fight scenes, a small bit of political wrangling, and plenty of forgettable exposition. It clearly aspires to be as stylistically hypnotic as its predecessor, but it never comes close.

Under Zack Snyder’s direction “300” had a captivating look. There was something harmonious and almost poetic about his bladed, blood-soaked ballet. Snyder’s camera placements, his use of slow motion, his fight scene choreography – all of it looked amazing despite their being little plot behind it. In “Rise of an Empire” the camera isn’t nearly as inventive. The slow motion is there but sometimes it is used in bewildering ways. The choreography occasionally shines, but it is just as often flat and unimaginative. All of this equals trouble for a movie whose bread and butter is the action.

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As you can expect from a “300” movie the plot is fairly plain although I was impressed with how they set up the sequel. There just isn’t much there after the table is set. Also most of the characters lack any charisma. The film really misses Butler, Fassbender, and company. But there is one cast member who actually saves this movie from completely sinking. Eva Green brings such voracity and spectacle to her character and she has a blast doing it. While Stapleton is quite dull as Themistocles, Green steals every scene with her mad, over-the-top performance. She single-handedly keeps this film above water.

Aside from Green “300: Rise of an Empire” doesn’t have a lot to offer. For those looking for blood and brawn, you’ll get it here at least in some degree. The first film wasn’t great but it handled its simple story well, its brutal visual style was impressive, and the characters had charisma. This time the story is dull, the action is dull, and the characters are dull with the one lone exception. In the end, Green can’t make this a good film, but she does make it watchable.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Rover”

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Director David Michôd made a splash in 2010 with his critically acclaimed debut film “Animal Kingdom”. The movie would capture many people’s attention as well as numerous awards nominations. “The Rover” is Michôd’s sophomore effort and in many ways it is vastly different from his first film. It’s a much more visual experience that employs atmosphere and environment over a stricter and more focused narrative. For some people that seems to have been a turn-off. I found it to be a fresh, unsettling, and thoroughly exhilarating package.

Michôd wrote the screenplay based on a story he created with actor Joel Edgerton. The film begins with the words “Australia. 10 Years after the collapse”. Basically the world economy has crumbled and the Australian Outback has dissolved into a violent dystopia. The rule of law has disintegrated with the exception of small groups of soldiers who occasionally patrol the areas. Two very different men come together on this wasteland. Eric (Guy Pearce) is a bitter and enigmatic loner. He always seems to be laboring to keep his violent anger under control. Rey (Robert Pattinson) is a very simple and dependent American who is left behind by his brother and accomplices after a robbery goes bad.

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Rey’s brother Henry is played by Scoot McNairy who always delivers in small roles like this. After leaving a wounded Rey behind Henry and his crew steal Eric’s car after wrecking theirs. We quickly understand that Eric’s car is extremely important to him, perhaps the last thing of any value that he has left. He sets out to get it back and in doing so crosses paths with Rey. The two develop a tempestuous relationship as Eric’s barely bridled violence clashes with Rey’s emotionally delicate neediness. Eric keeps Rey close as a convenience. He needs to get Rey’s brother while Rey just needs someone to cling to.

The dialogue in “The Rover” is sparse and I had to adjust to its style of storytelling. But I quickly found myself enamored with the effectiveness of Michôd’s methods. I had no trouble comprehending the desolation and rigidity of the world these characters inhabit. I had no trouble seeing the violent complexities of Eric or the fractured yet sympathetic psyche of Rey.

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We are asked to seek answers and information through our senses and I really responded to that. Michôd’s camera frames some truly captivating shots. I’m not familiar with Natasha Braier, but she was credited with the cinematography and I’ll definitely be looking for her name in the future. The two create a visually terrifying dystopian world that is both beautiful and threatening. Filming took place in the Australian desert and the cameras utilize the location to its fullest. All of this contributes to the storytelling but I do feel as if the film withholds small bits of meaningful information. I’m not saying I need or want everything spelled out for me. I think that would ruin the film. But just a touch more background would do wonders.

And how can I talk about the film and not mention the two lead performances? Readers of this blog will know that Guy Pearce is an absolute favorite of mine and his work here illustrates why. He gives one of my favorite performances of the year. He defines his character through several unconventional ways – through expressions, mannerisms, and even his bursts of violence. He hasn’t much dialogue but he doesn’t need it. He is mesmerizing. But for me the real revelation is Robert Pattinson, someone I’ve never believed in as an actor. Pattinson sheds every glimpse of his past “Twilight” pretty-boy status. It’s a very demanding role and I found myself shocked at how well he pulled it off. This could be a turning point for him.

In many ways “The Rover” reminded me of an end-of-the-world western. It quickly initiated thoughts of everything from “Mad Max” to “No Country for Old Men” to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. It’s a grubby, callous, and ferocious film that takes what looks like limitations and uses them as great strengths. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone. It’s grim, violent, and hopeless. But it’s also captivating cinema that I couldn’t turn away from.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS