300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300 Rise of an EmpireReleased: March 7, 2014. Directed by: Noam Murro. Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey. Runtime: 102 min.

300: Rise of an Empire is a good sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 film, 300. There are sequels, prequels, and the odd sort-of meanwhile adventures movie, and this happens to be all three. It’s a prequel because it shows some things that started this war, and at the same time reminding us about it because a lot of people would forget after seven years; a meanwhile adventures because it shows what wars happen on the water while the 300 were fighting; and a direct sequel, following what happens after the mighty 300 fell. They have made quite an influence on this film. This follows the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), merciless commander of the Persian navy.

While the first film followed the Spartan warriors, this film follows the Athenians, who are fighting for freedom – and represent a not-so savage Greek race, but still show their body armourless abs. Like I said, this film is largely a meanwhile adventures that takes place on the open seas, and it’s awesome watching war tactics happen on the water. The action sequences are spectacular, beautifully filmed, and have the same visual style as the first (not nearly as fresh seven years later, mind you) and a whole lot of gore. What else can one expect from the mind of Frank Miller? Who, by the way, is the authour of the graphic novel Xerxes upon which this is based. The film is better in 3D because one can easily tell where 3D is implied if one watches this in 2D. There’s splatters of blood, spears flying, and it just adds another great visual layer to the experience. At one point when blood splatters there’s even a smudge on the camera, where you’ll probably ask “Can someone wipe that off?”

The cinematography’s strong, even if there is a constant fogginess about it in the background, because of the mist on the water, and a mild glare when the sun is out. But it’s not noticeable when the fights are occurring, thankfully; probably because the editing is so impressive, and who would try to focus on the glare of it all when there are limbs and heads flying everywhere? I love the fighting tactics of the Greeks. The action scenes are definitely the best part of the film; and the drama is solid, as well.

There’s one particularly memorable scene where the leaders of each opposing country have a battle of power, deciding who will come out on top, so to speak. Sullivan Stapleton is adequate as a character who isn’t very compelling, but he’s great in combat sequences. I don’t think I’d ever rush out to see a film he’s leading, but he’s pretty good. Green is brilliant as her character, and she makes cruelty look sexy. She is just awesome in and out of battle, and a chilling villain at times, fuelled by vengeance. She wants to avenge her former king Darius (killed by Mistokles a few years prior at the Battle of Marathon), a motivation she shares with Xerxes, and to get back at the Greeks who killed her entire village, so she’s putting all Greeks in one category for that one. A lot of these characters are fuelled by vengeance, particularly Lena Headey’s Queen Gorga. She’s great, too, by the way. Xerxes gets a cool, origins story treatment told at the beginning, which is a real treat. I have a feeling the graphic novel is called  Xerxes because the villains have well-thought out development, but the hero’s development is light. Evidently, this works spectacularly as an action film, but it’s not strong in the ‘developing good protagonists’ department.

But this is an action movie, and that’s why you’re going to see this. We’ve seen some of this action before in the first one, but at least some of it feels fresh. It’s mostly just action on boats instead of land, so no phalanx formations this time around. The storyline isn’t nearly as strong as the first. It’s partly because the main character isn’t entirely compelling in his development, and this just isn’t as engaging as the great David and Goliath story that is the 300 Spartans. If you go in expecting more of the same with some fresh material at least in terms of fight location, this is a good time at the movies.

Score: 75/100

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Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelRelease Date: June 14, 2013

Director: Zack Snyder

Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

Runtime: 143 min

Man of Steel is my first film experience with the Clark Kent/Superman character. So, I cannot compare this to earlier Superman films. As an origins story, it does introduce this character in a unique way, but not a way that is particularly good.

A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

As a highly anticipated film, this leaves a lot to be desired. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, just not a great or even a good one.

The narrative is fairly unique, I’ll give it that. It just feels random and disorganized. At one minute, the movie is in the present – and the next, Clark is remembering something from his past. I do like flashbacks every now and then to fill in a puzzle of a movie, but this one just hops around like an Energizer bunny. The main story follows General Zod (Michael Shannon) who invades earth with some seriously sinister plans. Initially, this story is intriguing – but it takes long to get into, and the action sequences are big and stupid. This time around, I don’t know if I’d call the destruction of New York City particularly fun – or even entertaining, for that matter. I don’t think David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan write the most impressive tale of hope and superhuman abilities.

When Clark looks back on his past, it is mostly his father (Kevin Costner) repeatedly telling him that the world is not ready for Clark’s powers just yet. They might never be ready. Clark is struggling with his superhuman abilities. This coming-of-age aspect is something that could hit close to home, in the way that people have to adjust to their surroundings and find a place for them, not in the way that everyone has to learn to deal with their superpowers. This part of the story is powerful, poignant and thought out, and I appreciate it. I just do not appreciate the constant, and sudden changes in tone throughout the feature. It goes from big, stupid action to character-driven drama that feels real. It becomes bothersome quickly, and it does not make for effective storytelling.

Since Superman’s worried about what the world would think of him… Spider-Man and Batman are fairly well-received; it might change the world, but if he just wears a mask, he, Clark Kent, wouldn’t face any backlash or criticism. Masks are good for disguising. Putting glasses on as Clark Kent, and taking them off when the guy feels like putting on his cape and saving the world, is not much of a foolproof disguise. He should also lose the cape, because villains could grab it and throw him around easier. Edna E. Mode of The Incredibles would be sorely disappointed. (“No capes!”)

“NO CAPES!”

Visually speaking, this movie is a marvel. The imagined world of Krypton, and the shots of Krypton exploding, are magnificent, and have gone unmatched so far this year. The cinematography is also impressive, it looks very pure and I love the look of the movie. It’s unfortunate that nothing is really going on under the surface, story-wise. These big-budget blockbusters should really focus more on story, and less on visuals. Of course, that’s wishing for something that won’t happen. I don’t like the story at play here, and the film has an exhausting runtime. Only great movies should be allowed to be this long. There’s just very little here that is impressive. Most of it is underwhelming.

I like the cast. I love Amy Adams as an actress, and she’s great as Lois Lane, a character that doesn’t do a lot here. When she isn’t on-screen, I’m okay with it; because I mostly forget about Lane, not because Amy Adams is not a good screen presence. She is a great one. The chemistry shared between she and Henry Cavill is only okay. Henry Cavill is great as The ‘S’ Man, even if he isn’t funny; he’s stone-cold serious. But he isn’t asked to be funny, and he does bring some power to the role. This is a superhero movie that doesn’t have much humour. It has a few jokes near the end, but they feel out of place, and you’ll only catch them if you’re still awake. I’m not saying that the movie is particularly boring, but it’s very long for such an average movie… Diane Lane is sincere as Clark’s mother, and Kevin Costner is a great, scene-stealing movie Dad. His heartfelt performance will speak to you. Some of the best scenes include him.

I have noticed that DC Comics adaptations are much less funny than Marvel Comics adaptations; so maybe Goyer (and Nolan) need to learn how to write a bit more fun into their screenplay. I like a little joking around in my superhero movies; and if the story were more enjoyable and entertaining, the dark tone would be easier to swallow. I do love Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but those are brilliant and aren’t stupid. This one is big and dumb. Don’t misunderstand me, the story isn’t stupid, the action is. There’s punching and heat rays and more punching. It does not feel like a lot of thought has gone into it. This action also feels incredibly repetitive. And the storytelling is ineffective. I know that Nolan and Goyer are capable of so much more. It shows that it can be smart with its aspect of Clark learning to deal with his powers. So its change in narrative makes it go from stupid to smart, and back to stupid.

I enjoy most villains, as long as they are interesting, either menacing if they are meant to be, or funny if they are meant to be. And they have to be memorable. I love this villain. Michael Shannon is my favourite part of the movie. He is a true actor. His portrayal of General Zod is menacing, chilling, and compelling. Not to mention crazy, because he’s either yelling or flaring his nostrils, but I don’t really mind. I think it’s effective and menacing. Zod thinks his actions are noble, because he’d do anything to preserve the future of Krypton. He does not have morals. I do appreciate the writers’ decision to use Zod as the villain for this origins story, rather than Superman’s best known foe, Lex Luthor. The Mandarin of Iron Man 3 and John Harrison of Star Trek Into Darkness would bow down to GZod. I am ecstatic that Michael Shannon will now be a certified household name. However, in the movie, I do not appreciate the fact Superman’s duels with GZod’s henchmen feel longer than his duel with the actual, primary villain!

I anticipated this not as a fan of Superman, not as a die-hard fan of the superhero sub-genre, but as a die-hard fan of Christopher Nolan. Anything with his name on it, I get excited for – mostly because I trust his judgement. If he wants to spend a lot of money producing a movie, and co-writing one, I’ll pay to see it. I don’t love this. And after thinking about it a lot, I don’t like it much, either. The few worthwhile aspects to this movie is the cinematography, the stunning visuals and Michael Shannon. Overall, it’s an incredibly underwhelming and dis-a-pointing endeavour.

50/100