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: “Geostorm”

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Let’s be honest, movie trailers aren’t always reliable. We’ve all seen trailers that excited us for movies which would eventually let us down. We’ve also watched trailers that didn’t impress only to find the movie to be a pleasant surprise. Neither is true for “Geostorm”. The trailer advertised something dreadful and the movie delivered it. At least they didn’t mislead us.

It’s the distant future of 2019 and the United States has developed an elaborate satellite system as a response to a series of devastating weather disasters. The climate-controlling space contraption is affectionately known as Dutch Boy. The mastermind behind it is none other than Gerard Butler. I guess it makes sense. I mean who else would you call to face hurricanes and typhoons head-on?

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Butler plays Jake Lawson, the mastermind behind Dutch Boy until being dismissed due to his problems with authority (reminiscent of every Gerry Butler action movie character). Since then three years have passed and his estranged brother Max (Jim Sturgess) now oversees Dutch Boy. Under his watch a series of deadly weather anomalies occur including a frozen village in Afghanistan and tornadoes of flames in a sweltering Hong Kong. Fearing worst disasters, Max convinces Gerry, errr Jake, to come back and sort out why Dutch Boy didn’t catch the anomalies.

The government launches Jake into orbit where he boards the International Climate Space Station (yep, that’s what it’s called). There he meets his pointedly diverse team of techs to figure out what’s wrong with his baby. Both Jake and Max uncover clues which point to tampering, political corruption, environmental terrorism, blah, blah, blah. And if our brave brothers can’t root out the culprit and fix Dutch Boy in time, a global weather disaster known as a (you guessed it) Geostorm will decimate the planet. Good thing Gerry is on our side.

All of that silliness sets up Gerry’s race against-the-clock space station adventure. Director and co-writer Dean Devlin leans heavily into Butler’s stale action-movie persona not even daring to offer anything new. He’s a tough guy, an anti-authority type, with a good physique and plenty of teeth-grinding one-liners.

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It’s not much better on earth. Max follows a trail of information that could implicate someone in the president’s cabinet whether it be the Secretary of State (a seemingly bored Ed Harris) or even the Commander-in-Chief himself (an equally disinterested Andy Garcia). Thankfully Max has the help of his Secret Service girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and her ridiculously deep security access.

While “Geostorm” doesn’t offer an ounce of intrigue (not even accidently), it does give us plenty of big city CGI destruction, corny dialogue, bland stock characters and unintentionally hilarious plot turns. It plods along failing to muster even the slightest bit of energy. That’s usually the death knell for this type of movie. Turns out it’s one of many crippling flaws that contribute to this being a $120 million disaster. At least Gerry’s consistent.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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“Olympus Has Fallen” – 4 STARS

Olympus posterLet me preface this review by saying I grew up on the action movies of the late 1980s and early 90s. In some ways I cut my movie watching teeth on the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and company – the same movies that Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” undeniably and unashamedly pays homage to. From the bullets and body count to the plot holes and conveniences, “Olympus Has Fallen” mirrors those old-school action pictures. But there is another much more important thing that it has in common with the older films. It’s one heck of a fun and entertaining time. “Olympus Has Fallen” knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets its target, aims for it, and hits it dead center. I’ve always appreciated when a movie does that.

Throughout the reviews I’ve read, there seems to be two main criticisms hurled at this film. The first is that it’s nothing more than a “Die Hard” knockoff. Others blast the film for its blatant flag-waving American patriotism. I find it funny that people have gotten hung up on these two things the most. “Olympus Has Fallen” has its share of problems both structurally and narratively. But these two stumbling blocks for some didn’t hurt my experience in the least. As a matter of fact in some instances they actually helped it.

Look, the “Die Hard” gripe has some merit. In fact you could call this “Die Hard in the White House”. A mysterious terrorist group with North Korean ties attacks Washington DC in broad daylight. It starts with an air assault from a modified C130 followed by a violent ground attack which leaves many civilians dead and the city in chaos. But their prime target is the White House which they manage to take control of in 13 minutes. So much for our impenetrable national security, right? The terrorists seem to have the upper hand except for one small kink – U.S. Treasury desk jockey Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

Now you know how this works, Banning is much more than a pencil pusher. He was at one time President Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) Secret Service head honcho and close friend to the First Family, but an uncontrollable tragedy cost him his job. But you can’t be a one-man army just by doing Secret Service work. Just like Arnie, Sly, and Chuck in so many of their films, Banning is also a former Special Forces Ranger. Like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza, Banning is the lone eyes, ears, and muscle inside the enemy-occupied White House. The “Die Hard” comparisons are unavoidable but is that really a bad thing? “Olympus Has Fallen” is a much better “Die Hard” film than either of the last two “Die Hard” movies. And while this doesn’t do much in terms of originality, it nicely uses several of the key ingredients that made that franchise so great.

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Then there’s the patriotism criticism. I guess I missed the announcement. When did patriotism become a liability or a weakness in a film. I can understand it becoming a problem when a movie beats you over the head with it, but that’s not the case here. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in this movie’s pro-American spirit presentation but I don’t see why there has to be. As long as it doesn’t drown us in it. At one time there was an overload of ham-fisted patriotism in movies but that was a while ago. This was one area where the movie did feel surprisingly fresh. In other words the patriotic angle worked.

“Olympus Has Fallen” is helped by its nice supporting cast. Morgan Freeman is rock solid as always. He plays the Speaker of the House who is elevated to Commander in Chief after the President’s abduction. Melissa Leo was good as the Secretary of Defense even though she’s given a few pretty corny lines to wrestle with. I also loved seeing Robert Forster as a grumbling Army General and Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service.

But this is an action movie and the action is the film’s bread and butter. After a rather slow moving beginning which serves more as table setting, the action kicks in gear when the terrorists attack DC. Now I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the special effects but I don’t see it. With the exception of a few small hiccups, I thought the visuals were quite good. Maybe I got lucky but the DLP digital screen at my theater was ablaze with furious gunfire and massive explosions. The C130 attack, while preposterous, looked great and sucked me right in. There’s also a fantastic shootout on the front lawn of the White House that’s nothing more than old-school, bullet-riddled fun. Shootouts and hand-to-hand throwdowns continue throughout the rooms and halls of the White House with the percussion-heavy score amping up the macho intensity. Once the action starts you rarely have time to catch your breath.

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In an action movie like this one has to know it’s violent. But it should be said it’s really violent. Bodies drop at an alarming rate per minute and there’s no shortage of the red stuff. A lot of blood splatters through a huge variety of violent deaths. Be prepared for the numerous neck snaps, knife stabs, and head shots. Explosions are everywhere from jets and helicopters to buses and garbage trucks. Everything is fair game for Fuqua’s explosive experts.

As I hinted at earlier, this type of movie mandatorily requires some suspension of disbelief. You also must be prepared to deal with certain gaps in logic, tons of action movie cliches, and a few gaping plot holes. These things didn’t take away from the fun I had with “Olympus Has Fallen” but they are the kinds of things that keep it from being a truly magnificent film. There are several head-scratching moments that will pull you out of the film if you allow yourself to dwell on them. Why would the entire White House security code system remain the same even though people with access to them have been fired for a year and a half? Why do these and most other action movie villains insist on dragging out their missions instead of quickly carrying them out before the heroes have time to get in their way? I could go on. There are several in this film but if you can put it aside you’ll have a good time.

For me “Olympus Has Fallen” was a trip back in time through both the film’s high-octane action as well as with its predictable shortcomings. This was the real key to my enjoyment. There was a genuine nostalgic satisfaction as well as an appreciation for a film that sets out to be a specific kind of movie and never deviates from that goal. Now those who find testosterone-driven action flicks with fast moving kill counters to be relics from an outdated genre will have a hard time digesting this film. I can understand that. But this movie really surprised me, certainly not for its perfection, but for its rousing fun factor. There are tons of bullets, loads of explosions, and pride in the American spirit. For me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and at the end of the movie I left with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished Mr. Fuqua!

“CORIOLANUS” – 4 1/2 STARS

The wonderful actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus”, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s 400 year old  play. It’s such an interesting and faithful take on the Shakespeare tragedy. While the film takes place in an entirely different time period than the one the play was written in, it’s still a wonderful examination of war and politics as well as an enthralling look at a truly mesmerizing character. It’s an incredibly unique movie and a challenging undertaking by Fiennes especially since he not only directed the picture but also starred in it.

Fiennes plays Caius Martius, an accomplished Roman general who finds himself at odds with the people of Rome after overseeing the government’s effort to hoard up all of the grain during a food shortage. Martius has no love for the people. He finds them contemptible  and he doesn’t trust them nor does he respect them. After Martius squelches a riot led by an anti-government protest group, two politicians Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) seize the opportunity to gather support from the people by speaking out against him. It’s here that Fiennes the director gives us our first look at the political maneuvering and manipulation that plays such a big part of the story.

But after Rome’s bitter enemy the Volscians begin moving closer to the city, Martius and the army head out to meet them. The Volscians are led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Aufidius and Martius have met in battle several times and have developed a deep-rooted hatred for each other. The two bring their armies and engage in a bloody urban gun battle that results in the Volscians falling back. Martius is welcomed back to Rome as a wounded war hero. He’s awarded the name Coriolanus in honor of his service and is encouraged to run for Consul by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Menenius (Brian Cox), a Roman Senator sympathetic to Coriolanus and his family. But in the midst of his popularity, his pride and stubbornness combined with the ambitions of the self-seeking politicians put him at odds once more with the people of Rome. This time Sicinius and Brutus get what they want and Coriolanus is banished from Rome. Burning with anger and blood-thirsty for vengeance, Coriolanus forms the most unlikely of alliances to pay Rome back for what they’ve done to him.

Fiennes delivers a bold and vigorous performance. He shapes and develops Coriolanus through every scene and we quickly understand that he’s a very complex individual. He’s hampered by his unbriddled arrogance and refusal to compromise the smallest thing that he feels may question his authenticity. He’s also a soldier who loves Rome and a man who loves his family. But even when in the comfort of those people and things he loves, he finds it hard to function as he should. Fiennes perfectly sells all of this to us and I was completely enthralled in the character.

Fiennes is also helped by a phenomenal supporting cast. Gerard Butler gets back on track after a few subpar performances in some really subpar movies. Here he’s really good and I was immedietaly reminded that he can be a solid actor. Vanessa Redgrave was simply fabulous as Coriolanus’ mother. She shares several brilliant scenes with Fiennes that you just can’t take your eyes off of. I also loved Jessica Chastain who gives another understated and measured performance as Coriolanus’ wife. I couldn’t help but find similarities between this and her role in “Take Shelter” even though they are two very different films. Even Brian Cox, an actor that I haven’t always appreciated, is really good here.

One of the first things that you’ll notice when watching “Coriolanus” is that it uses the classic Shakespeare lines and language. At first I wasn’t 100% sure if I liked it or not. It was a little jarring at first seeing it used in such a modern setting. But before long I was perfectly sold on it and I was amazed at how fluid and seamless Fiennes made it feel. Now I admit, there were a few moments where I simply didn’t follow what was being said and a few that just didn’t fit with the current day setting. But these moments were rare and overall it was pretty remarkable what the movie was able to accomplish.

I also have to mention that “Coriolanus” is a really good looking picture. Fiennes doesn’t try to do too much with the camera but he clearly has a good eye for framing shots. The film also has a unique look to it and a lot of that has to do with the decision to shoot in Serbia. The locations have a gloomy almost war-torn look to them and not I’m not just talking about the action sequences. Speaking of that, the movie does feature some pretty gritty action that are made even more believable in large part due to the setting that resembles what Serbia may have been like just a few years earlier. Fiennes doesn’t exclude the blood but he doesn’t load these scenes down with them either. Instead he focuses on Coriolanus and his combat intensity as he leads his men through the streets. It works really well. He also tells a lot of the story through some clever usage of the Roman media, particularly a news channel called Fidelis TV. There’s some interesting commentary on the power and influence of the media and we see it through a host of really effective news clips and talk shows.

I was excited about “Coriolanus” but I was caught a little off guard. The Shakespearian dialogue took some adjusting to at first but as I mentioned, soon I was completely wrapped up in it. This was an extremely ambitious project for Ralph Fiennes especially for his first attempt at directing. But this is an impressive and auspicious debut from this already seasoned actor. On that note, his performance is simply fantastic and he brilliantly portrays one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen on screen in a while. But he’s not alone. The film is also helped by a tremendous supporting cast. I really enjoyed “Coriolanus”. It’s not just a unique and daring movie. It’s also one of the best movies of the year so far.