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 MichĂ´d’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 Salvation”

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Several years ago Westerns saw a bit of a resurgence. It didn’t come close to matching the genre’s popularity of the 1950s and 1960s, but it was great to see the visions for Westerns from modern perspectives. We still get the occasional Western from time to time which brings me to “The Salvation”, a Danish revenge tale from co-writer and director Kristian Levring. The film tips its hat to several classic Western movie tropes, but at the same time it maintains an evocative and unique edge to it.

One of the film’s strengths is found in its charismatic lead Mads Mikkelsen. He plays Jon, a Danish settler and ex-soldier in 1870’s America. With the help of his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), Jon establishes himself and then sends word for his wife and son to cross the Atlantic and join him at their new home in the American West. But shortly after reuniting with his family, an encounter with two thugs ends with his wife and son being murdered. Jon tracks down and kills the thugs responsible.

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But Jon doesn’t realize that one the dead killers is the brother of a ruthless gang leader named Delarue (played with grizzled gusto by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the husband of the physically and emotionally scarred Madalaine (Eva Green). Delarue makes it his aim to find and pay back his brother’s killer. This sparks a conflict with the revenge-fueled Jon that (literally) bleeds into a small town held hostage by fear of Delarue. The town’s weak-kneed sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and opportunistic Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) are little help and they leave Jon to fend for himself.

Mikkelsen is the perfect man for his role. Jon is stern and rugged but also reserved and soft-spoken. Mikkelsen has always been able to convey through expression and Levring often relies on that. The story takes its lead character to some pretty grim places, and a quick gander at Mikkelsen’s filmography will show he’s familiar with taking characters to grim places. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the burly, gravelly voiced Morgan who seems to be channeling a nuanced Jack Elam vibe. Morgan’s character chomps up scenes with a playful abhorrence and he’s a nice counterbalance to Mikkelsen’s Jon.

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Another strong point is the revolving aesthetic that defines the film’s dry and dusty world. In shooting the movie Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser move between classic Western imagery and a type of visual hyperbole. At times the film looks as if it were plucked out of a Sergio Leone picture. Other times things look stylized and experimental. We see it in backgrounds, camera techniques, and color pallets.

One could say “The Salvation” is too generic and clichĂ©, but I don’t think Levring’s approach is that simplistic. The film certainly borrows from or pays homage (depending on how you choose to look at it) to certain Westerns that came before it. Yet the film has a unique feel and an intense visual flair that goes along with its violent self-awareness. Mikkelsen shines, Morgan is a hoot, Eva Green is a boiling mystery. When put together as a whole it is a stylishly focused and concise movie which happily embraces its influences.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

 

“DARK SHADOWS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.

The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.

But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.

After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.

One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.

Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.

“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.