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Rating History

300: Rise of an Empire
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Zack Snyder's 300 moved me. The film has fallen prey to biting parody in recent years, but I knew then that 300 was one of the era's great cinematic experiences. Movies like that demand to be seen on the big screen. Like both The Matrix and Gravity, 300 was a masterpiece of visual splendor. And it was unique, too; never before or since have I reacted so emotionally to any film's aesthetic. It remains one of my favorite pictures for that reason.

300 received a fair amount of criticism when it was released because of its simplistic narrative arc and grossly romanticized storytelling. But for me, 300 was pure magic. It did nothing more than it set out to do, taking a rather straightforward - spartan, if you will - approach to the Battle of Thermopylae. With 300: Rise of an Empire, graphic novelist Frank Miller and director Noam Murro take this focused scope and blow it up. Unfortunately, this creates far more problems than it solves.

Everything from the Battle of Marathon to the Battle of Salamis is haphazardly squeezed into less than two hours of film. As a result, fascinating characters like Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) are sidelined in favor of hamfisted speeches and brawny chest beating. Simultaneously, almost no time is given to distinguish the Athenians from the Spartans outside of exposition. Where's their poetry? Their sculpting? Their art? That contrast might have given the Athenians a much-needed dose of humanity. Instead, they come off like two-bit knockoffs of their Spartan counterparts.

But this skirts the main issue I had with Rise of an Empire. Some may recall that 300 was divisive for its decidedly East versus West conflict-driven plot. Historically speaking, however, this subtext was first and foremost in the minds of the Persian empire and the Greeks who resisted them. It is an ideological fight that persisted long after the Persian empire crumbled, arguably continuing through to modern day.

With Rise of an Empire, however, writers Miller, Zack Snyder, and Kurt Johnstad push this allegory well beyond its reasonable historical limit. The movie conflates several important and separate ideas, using longwinded monologues to associate a unified Greece with the modern American watchwords of Freedom and Democracy. In one particularly incriminating speech, Gorgo even refers to "our lady liberty." With this change in tone, the movie becomes less popcorn entertainment and more an exercise in unabashed jingoism. And considering the United States' current relationship with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, the "Rise of an Empire" epithet suddenly takes on a far more sinister meaning.

Every time the movie leapt from one momentous but horribly misrepresented battle to another, I could see my Greek history professor suffering a small heart attack in my mind's eye. The 300 franchise was never one for historical accuracy, but there is a difference between fantastical allegory and outright propagandizing. 300 bathed safely in the waters of the former, but Rise of an Empire wades triumphantly into the deep end and nearly drowns in the process.

Consider that not a single Persian character in this movie has any shred of intelligence. Artemisia (Eva Green), a formerly Greek woman who grew up to command the Persian navy, suffers the dimwittedness of her Persian subordinates through much of her conflict with the cunning Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who we knew to be prideful after his pathetic attempt at besting Leonidas in 300, comes off like a spoiled, shortsighted moron.

To complete the insult, nearly every Persian in Rise of an Empire is distinguished from their strangely white "Greek" counterparts by darker skin and stereotypically Middle Eastern garb. Where in 300 the Persians were more mysterious boogeyman than outright caricature, here the light skinned American versus dark skinned Middle Eastern iconography floats obviously to the surface like the mangled detritus of the plentiful shipwrecks of Salamis. The more I think about Rise of an Empire, the clearer its arguably racist but certainly nationalistic intentions become.

I am aware this review doesn't speak much to the content of the film. If you're wondering how the movie stacks up against its predecessor, it doesn't; it is merely serviceable, forgettable, big screen entertainment. The lack of visual novelty in a post-300 world is apparent. Still, the elegant fight choreography can be fun to watch and the cinematography is, at times, reminiscent of cinematographer Larry Fong's magnum opus.

But I must ask audiences to think beyond the film's pretty exterior and see this movie for what it is. Rise of an Empire is a fundamentally manipulative superimposition of modern American ideals onto important but distorted historical events. To me, that is not only educationally irresponsible - it's morally deceptive. And I want no part of it.

Movie Verdict: Meh
Score: 60%

Link to Full Review:

~ Søren

Pompeii (2014)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Let me set the scene. You're a wealthy young woman from Pompeii. You're traveling for days in an uncomfortable horse-led caravan, finally returning home after a strenuous visit to Rome. Along the way, one of your steeds drops to the ground with a desperate whinny. And because for some reason neither you nor any of your Roman military escorts knows the first thing about horses, your entire company is paralyzed with indecision.

Fortunately, a dreamy, impossibly good-looking young slave with perfectly coiffed hair is nearby, and he offers to show you and your compatriots basic equestrian logic: a wounded horse is as good as dead. He approaches the horse, shares a few quiet words with you, and snaps the neck of the beast. It goes without saying, but at this point you've fallen madly in love with him. That you just met him thirty seconds ago is immaterial; this encounter has made you so over-the-moon crazy for this guy that you'd risk anything - your family, your personal safety, your freedom - all for the sake of winning his heart.

I'm sure I've lost most of you with the sheer absurdity of the scenario. Your cognitive abilities have reasoned that this love scene is so trite it puts the Disney princess films to shame. This is a good thing. No one should accept this scene, and by extension, no one should enjoy Pompeii. It brims with these eye-rolling moments, where emotions are artificial and every line of overused dialogue is visible from miles away.

This movie is the consummate offspring of cliché archetypes, absentee character development, and a coincidence-driven story. It treats its audience like idiots, favoring awful revenge and romance subplots over meaningful character arcs. Pompeii is, in the kindest terms, an utterly missable, barely competent bore.

Here's another scene, this one from the first moments of the film. Pompeii opens on a Celtic village somewhere in Brittania. A young boy watches as two cartoonishly evil Roman soldiers (Keifer Sutherland and Sasha Roiz) slaughter his entire family. The boy barely escapes with his life, but soon finds himself enslaved by the very people who massacred his kin. You can surmise the rest of the plot from there.

That boy grows up to be the gladiator Milo, played by Kit Harington. The actor does an admirable job as Jon Snow in Game of the Thrones and could probably carry a quality swords and sandals epic on his own. Pompeii, an abyss devoid of any worthwhile character moments, will not be his big break.

Co-starring is Carrie-Anne Moss, whose resumé speaks for itself. She plays the mother of Harington's helpless love interest, Cassia (Emily Browning). Moss' face was paraded in every ad that I saw for Pompeii, but don't be fooled: her role is both minuscule and inconsequential. Seeing such a talented actress diminished by blatant bait-and-switch marketing is disheartening.

Coming into Pompeii, I was also excited to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje flex his acting talent beyond his one-note villain in Thor: The Dark World. But by the time he makes his first appearance onscreen, I had already given up hope that any new character could transform the movie into a fun popcorn adventure. This isn't Akinnuoye-Agbaje's fault; he gives his tired brother-in-arms character as much of his energetic spirit as he can. But like the slave character he portrays, the actor is shackled by the ideas of a greater power. Indeed, none of the problems in Pompeii are the fault of the cast.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson and his writers, Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, fight an admittedly uphill battle with Pompeii. In an age post-Spartacus, post-Gladiator, and post-Blood and Sand, these dusty roads have been well-traveled. Yet, these intrepid filmmakers imagined they might give the gladiator genre a try anyway.

The problem is that we've seen this all before. Pompeii lacks the novelty of Kubrick's film, the fine direction of Scott's epic, and the carnal escapism of the Starz series. What's left is Pompeii, a hollow shell of its forebears. This is a shame given the unique disaster-laden backdrop of the Pompeii narrative; foregoing the gladiator angle, Pompeii might have benefited from an eruption-centric story in the vein of a Roland Emmerich film. Alas, it was not to be.

Anderson's vision is simply bloodless. I mean this in two ways. Aesthetically, this is a PG-13 effort from Anderson, meaning it lacks the adult language or violent imagery necessary to give a story about embattled gladiators any gravitas. But beyond its kiddy glove approach to death sport, the film also lacks soul. None of its characters are interesting or relatable. They are pallid imitations of real people, motivated by paper thin whim.

Cassia (Browning) and Milo are depressingly lazy amalgamations of gender stereotypes. What's more, they are surrounded by ancillary characters who care more about their fate than the audience does. About halfway through the movie, I leaned over to my friend and said, "I hope everyone in this movie dies." Do not mistake my meaning: I didn't harbor any resentment toward the characters. I just wanted the movie to end, and I figured their meaningless deaths would expedite the process.

There's a joke about how bad Pompeii is, buried somewhere among its ample computer generated ash and rubble. I'm sure it'd involve some snarky analogy between sitting through this film and experiencing the actual eruption of Vesuvius firsthand. But if the filmmakers couldn't be bothered to create a film that did anything new, creative, or interesting, I can't be bothered to make the quip. It just isn't worth my time, or yours. And neither is Pompeii.

Movie Verdict: Fail
RT Score: 40% (38%)

Link to Full Review:

~ Søren

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I saw this Anchorman sequel twice, and both times I could not stop laughing. It's been a while since I've a seen a film with as much pure manic energy as this one. Rest assured, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was well worth the wait. Everyone from the powerhouse comedic team behind the first film is back; director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow return along with stars Will Ferrell (co-writing again with McKay), Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate.

Nine years have passed since we first heard the legend of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), and the update of the film's setting matches that gap. Burgundy and Co. have jumped from the seventies to the eighties. Ron and Veronica Corningstone (Applegate) are married with a six-year-old son, Walter (Judah Nelson, deadpan with hilarious innocence) and life is good, until Ron is fired by his idol, Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford). Burgundy hits bottom, but a proposal from GNN, the world's first 24-hour news network, sends him out to reassemble the news team.

What a wonderful reunion it is. Ferrell, Rudd, Carell, and Koechner are an absolute riot. Burgundy remains the lovable narcissist he always was, and Rudd and Koechner are solid once again as Brian Fantana and Champ Kind, but Steve Carell is something else entirely. Brick Tamland (Carell) was memorably eccentric in the first film, but here Carell devotedly throws the character even further into his own wildly absurd world. Brick is ludicrously enigmatic and Carell's performance glows with utter conviction.

In all honesty, the comedy is often very silly, sometimes sometimes veering into the plain stupid. Yet the pleasant surprise is the smartly subversive satire that McKay and Ferrell infuse into the story. As things start moving at GNN, the film throws some great jabs at the sensationalism in non-stop mass media. When network representative Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) tells Ron and the team "it's total crap and they can't get enough," the truth reflected in those words, especially today, is almost sobering. The ridiculousness of it all is frequently lampshaded, and, even through the retro lens, the satirical content retains its blunt honesty and relevance in the eyes and ears of its modern audience.

Sequels tend to squander the potential of their originals, but Anchorman 2 arrived this December as a welcome exception, a cinematic gift that opened just in time for Christmas. Sure, it follows the path blazed by the original, and, yes, perhaps the first movie is truthfully more quotable (you might not hear a line quite as solid as "sixty percent of the time, it works every time"), but McKay and Ferrell pull off a pretty neat stunt this time around. They prove that more can be better. Absurdity is pushed to the breaking point and then well over it, especially in a fantastically epic reprise of the news team battle royal seen in the first film. The big-headed, bigoted characters, especially Ferrell's, cross the line twice then twice again. This sequel takes the humor of the original, runs with it, converts it into rocket fuel, and blasts it through the stratosphere.

Ron, Brick, Brian, and Champ are all bumbling morons, each of a unique, twisted sort, and the focus on their outright idiocy is ingenious. James Marsden is also great as Jack Lime, the suave golden boy at GNN, and his clashes with Ferrell's Burgundy offer an interesting and rib-splitting glance into yet another media trend: the de facto pattern of the new pushing out the old. You shouldn't count out Ron Burgundy of course, because as the man himself passionately states, he was put on this earth "to have salon-quality hair and read the news."

Tonight's top story? A rare exception to disappointing comedy sequels that breaks its own boundaries and reminds us how much we love the legend of a certain madcap newsman in a maroon blazer.

Verdict: Movie Win
Rating: 80%

Link to Full Review:

~ Nathan

American Hustle
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

American Hustle opens with a balding, rotund, middle-aged man distastefully gluing a toupée to his head. You can taste the plaster fumes as little rivulets drip down his scalp. Then he takes his remaining strands of hair and pulls them over the furry piece now attached to his skin. The scene is uncomfortable, synthetic, difficult to watch. It is a good primer for the rest of the film.

That man, Irving, is played by Christian Bale, and he is the only human character in American Hustle. He has a conscience buried beneath his sleazy exterior, and he is shown to be a family man at heart. His oscillation between these two extremes is gradual and moving. Unfortunately, the people that surround him do not evolve or change. They manifest their desires in hyperbolic expression. From Bradley Cooper as unbalanced Agent Richie DiMaso to Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife, Rosalyn, the entire cast seems to revel in the irrational. Not a single character has any genuinely human qualities.

Rosalyn is a mother, but we know this because are told and not because we are shown. We never actually see her mothering. Likewise, we are introduced to an unstable Agent DiMaso whose actions are erratic and, as far as we know, unwarranted. It is eventually revealed that he took on Irving's criminal case because he was an FBI pencil pusher desperate for a job in the field. Unfortunately, this is also conveyed through expositional dialogue.

Amy Adams is Irving's lover and con artist partner, Sydney. She also isn't given any demonstrable impetus for her fickle accent-tinged behavior. And for what little role Jeremy Renner has in the film, his perfect do-gooder schtick feels contrived and implausible. Simply saying these characters have human qualities isn't enough. These traits must be apparent if we are to empathize with their struggles. If not, the result is a group of characters with whom we simply cannot relate; they are cardboard cutouts, ripe for spectacle and not much else.

The blame for shallow, cartoon-like characterization in American Hustle does not lie at the feet of the actors. Lawrence gives the Rosalyn as much dysfunctional depth as one could reasonably expect, and Cooper shines as he delivers gatling gun dialogue. Both have excellent, often hilarious sparring matches with Bale.

Adams is also fine, although she lacks the crutch of humorous respite from which Cooper and Lawrence both benefit. Through no fault of her own, her scenes tend to be more dramatic than funny. This does not work to her advantage in what is a mostly emotionless film. The supporting cast also stands tall beside the leads; a particularly amusing dynamic blossoms between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (Louis C.K.), and remains one of the standout storylines in the movie.

The problem with the characters in American Hustle doesn't lie in its direction, either. David O. Russell uses clever camera work to keep the film moving and under his hand his star team from Silver Linings Playbook all give fantastic repeat performances. Still, his guidance doesn't solve every problem. The film lacks focus. The main character appears to be Irving, confirmed by the opening and closing scenes, but Russell jump between narrative threads so much it becomes difficult to track or care about the central premise. The story isn't complicated per se, but it convolutes itself with one too many disparate character moments.

The blame for the mostly two-dimensional ensemble, it turns out, lies with the script. Eric Singer co-wrote the film with Russell and neither of them can keep the film on track. Their weak characterizations lead to a hodgepodge of events I never cared about. I was uninterested in whether Irving or Sydney would get away with their crimes. Even though Irving did eventually earn my sympathy, I was mostly nonplussed with his conman antics. In fact, I just generally didn't care about anyone: not Richie's desperate pull for the top of the bureaucratic ladder, nor Rosalyn's spousal troubles with Irving.

Something magical happens in the first five minutes of American Hustle. Just after Irving (Bale) perfects his awful combover, he leaves the dresser mirror and meets Sydney (Adams) in what appears to be a hotel living room. Richie (Cooper) barges in behind her, complete with luscious, impossibly tight curls. The three of them snap at one another and the room burns with energy. Instantly the relationship between Richie, Sydney, and Irving is clear. It is a brilliant way to establish the film.

I kept waiting to see that life reinvigorate the story once again. That never happens. American Hustle is a few scenes too long and a few true characters too short. The result is a passable, if unremarkable, ensemble showcase. To paraphrase a certain hobbit, it is thin. Like hair spread over too much head.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (65%)

Link to Full Review:

~ Søren

Life Itself
Life Itself (2014)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I was in pieces when Roger Ebert died. I have never felt so broken up about the passing of someone I had never met in person. Following his death, I picked up Life Itself, which has now become something of a holy book to me. It is an informative autobiography, manifesting itself as both an invaluable guide to film journalism and, oddly, as a sagely blueprint to being a better person.

But Life Itself, though a beautiful memoir, still left me without internal closure. Ebert's musings about the joys of living haunted me. I was reading them in July 2013 and I knew an important fact not buried in the pages of his book: two years after finishing Life Itself, he would die. This was unbearable. I needed someone to fully acknowledge the passing of one of my heroes, a postmortem epilogue to quench the ache he had left behind. This documentary fills that void. It shows I am not alone in missing that scowling round man from the television, the man whose own words convinced me films were worth taking seriously.

Director Steve James had a vision when he set out to make Life Itself. He had extensive interview questions for Roger Ebert paced out to the roadmap of his movie. But at some point soon after he started filming, James came to understand something important. Ebert, known as a great storyteller to his friends, was going to have the project done his way. Without the ability to speak and with no way to walk, Roger Ebert nevertheless took Steve James' film and made with it what he wanted. And James, bless him, stepped humbly aside for his friend.

It takes courage to do what Steve James did. Few if any filmmakers are willing to remove their own authorship from their movie; professional ego tends to get in the way. But James, a talented and respected director in his own right, knows no one is seeing Life Itself for his name. They are seeing because it is about Roger Ebert, and James is content with that.

This moment of clarity transcends James' filmmaking. It pervades the stuff of the film and allows him to cut incisively to the misshapen core of his subject. There are documentaries that peal back layers of fame to reveal the human underneath, but none of them make you forget you are watching a celebrity the way Life Itself does.

James does not achieve this feat by merely replacing Ebert's book with his film counterpart. Instead, his film complements the source material. Although it overlaps tangentially with the material Ebert wrote, occasionally offering narration from an Ebert soundalike as he reads through passages of Life Itself, James smartly avoids any attempt at historical chronology or simple retelling. Instead, he admits plainly and without words that what was once an attempt to chronicle Ebert's life was now a gift, a band-aid offered to the public to help cope with the departure of a giant.

Through heartfelt testimony from friends, family, and colleagues, the story of Life Itself becomes a unique and telling account of the man from the mouths of those who loved him. It gives insight into his faults and dreams. Embarrassing anecdotes and biting admonishment color James' tribute to the man. Life Itself is a triumph of kind, but fair, portraiture.

Ebert once said, "A lot of critics are almost shy about confessing that they had any emotional reaction. If you laughed, say you laughed. If you cried, say you cried."

So I confess this for his sake: I wept through most of Life Itself, far more than I have at any movie to date. Hearing Roger Ebert speak through his computer one more time filled me with welled-up emotion I haven't felt since last April. If that sounds melodramatic, blame that man himself for my candidness. In fact, blame him for this whole review, this site, and my career. It is his fault I'm a critic, and I thank him every day for it.

There is a moment late in the film where Ebert reveals that his cancer is back and that he only has a few weeks left to live. His wife, Chaz, talks optimistically about radiation treatment. But behind her, Ebert shakes his head at her obstinate positivity before throwing his hands up in exasperation. Watching a man accept his fate so resolutely, and so calmly, was a moment of intense sadness for me.

But it was also a moment of discovery. It was then that I realized I had stopped caring about Roger Ebert the critic, the award-winner, the writer, and started caring for Roger Ebert the person. He could never have communicated this himself; Ebert had a habit of muddling his own self-image with magnificent prose and articulation that only served to remind me of his imposing reputation. Only an external source like Steve James could offer such human perspective to a world in mourning.

How fitting that such acumen came in the form of a movie, and how just that it came from his friend. I daresay Ebert would have liked that.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Review: 100% (97%)

Link to Full Review:

~ Søren