Saturday, 17 May 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

A largely unnecessary prequel/parallequel/sequel (which actually happens before, during and after the events of the first film) that departs in quite a few ways from the first.

300: Rise of an Empire follow the campaigns of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general as he wages war against the seemingly unstoppable might of the Persian war machine's navy as King Leonidas' Spartans hold the Hot Gates against the land forces. Themistocles finds his match in Xerxes' unhinged naval commander, a traitorous Greek named Artemisia (Eva Green), as he tries to unite Greece to fight as one force against the Persian empire.

All the hallmarks of what made the first film great are present, but are either somewhat lacking or undermined by some other aspect of the film.

To give Rise of an Empire its credit though, it does look good. The stylish and slick action sequences that comprise most of the film, ducking in and out of super-slo-mo as they go, do look excellent and the same crazy excess that made the first look so good carries over. The only issue I would take with the look and visual of this installment is the colour. Where the red and gold filters of the first sat well with the visuals of the blood and glory themes, Rise of an Empire is very cold and blue. In an attempt to match the seas on which they fight for most of the film and it loses something with that. CGI blood just doesn't look as engaging when it's closer to black that red.

The biggest problem is the spot on the testosterone-fuelled blood and guts meter that the first hit so sweetly. In 300, the central characters are the Spartans: a warrior people to whom death in battle is the ultimate goal and the glory of the fight is all that matters. Led by the charismatic and ultra-masculine leader Leonidas, the ultra violence and super-glamorisation of the combat and the money shots of heads taking leave of their necks, it all makes sense then because that's what the Spartans are all about. But with Themistocles and the Athenians, everything is a little bit more political. They fight for freedom and ideals rather than just for the glory of themselves and the fight, so the gratuitousness and pleasure taken by the film makers in the violence just feels a little out of place.

So it would be fair to say that the problem is the lack of a King Leonidas. The lack of someone charismatic and crazy enough to make sense and function in the world that Zack Snyder created is the downfall. Except it's not. Because 300: Rise of an Empire has this crazy bastard at its heart:

Eva Green nails the character of Artemisia so hard you could pin a Greek skull to a ship's mast with her performance. She has that crazy, obscene and just plain terrifying quality that's just brilliantly ridiculous and could only exist in such a comic-book influenced world. She has this swaggering walk and talk that had me convinced I wanted the Persians to just steamroll the Greeks and all their moping about freedom and democracy along with them. When you put  Artemisia's absurdity next to Themistocles' maudlin moaning, all of his scenes just feel like distractions from the scenes with the more fun character.

If you seek out Rise of an Empire, don't expect much. It's still stylish and fun, but not as much as the first. Eva Green stands out as a shining light of craziness in a cast that's taking itself a bit too seriously considering there's a perfectly waxed 8 foot tall guy wandering around in his pants declaring himself a god king.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Blue Ruin (2013)

A broken man, clumsy and visceral violence and a overall atmosphere of bleak tragedy are the main ingredients for Blue Ruin; a revenge film that takes the genre in a melancholic direction and paints revenge as the dishonourable act it can be.

The with a dialogue-free sequence following the life of a drifter on the Delaware coast. He eeks out an existence metres from the joy and happiness of the fun fair on the pier. Eating out of bins, scavenging bottles to recycle for cash on the beach and breaking into homes in order to feed and clean himself make up his day-to-day existence. This broken man without purpose, Dwight, was driven to this life after a tragedy tore his family and his life apart, and now he finally has an opportunity to exact his revenge on those who robbed him.

Macon Blair plays this listless, fragmented man. His Dwight isn't the typical revenge thriller hero or anti-hero. Dwight is a man doing the only thing he thinks will make him whole again and how he deals with the fallout. He's a pitiable shell of a man who doesn't talk much and can't handle a gun. He's not a badass and this isn't Taken.

It's his ineptness that really sells the bleakness of Blue Ruin. The clumsy, and realistic, take on the violence paints the walls of the rural homes a visceral and raw shade of red. There are no drawn out fight sequences, no massive gunfights. Just scared people struggling to find a way to make themselves feel better.

Blue Ruin, with its conservative use of dialogue and uncompromising look at violent revenge, makes a beautifully tragic watch. It presents a damning indictment of America's infatuation with the right to bear arms against one another. When the truth is being decided by the person standing at the right end of the barrel, nobody really goes home a winner.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (2007)

There isn't too much that can be said about Timecrimes without spoiling what exactly transpires in it. To put it shortly and sweetly: Timecrimes is a smart and suspenseful thriller that has an interesting take on time travel movies. It's pretty small in scale (no going back in time to save the planet) and doesn't get too convoluted to follow, a trap that many films like this fall into.

I'll go into more detail and still try to avoid spoilers below, but it really is best to go into Timecrimes completely blind.


Timecrimes is a clever film in that it plays with your expectations well and takes what you think will be a standard time travel plot and puts more than one interesting spin on it. Know-it-alls like myself will probably notice a number of things throughout and think "Well that doesn't make any sense because of [some timetravel techno-babble]" only to later be proven wrong as it all gets meticulously explained away with later developments.

That said, it is straightforward enough and not a headache to follow. It is not like Primer. Primer gets lauded constantly as the thinking man's timetravel movie, but that's just because the logic in it makes sense (i.e. you can't travel back to before the time machine was switched on) and because it's really, really complicated. I'll gladly admit to not having a clue to what exactly goes down in the last twenty minutes of that film, but thankfully I do in Timecrimes. In this case, someone literally draws a concise little diagram for it. If you can figure out a curved line and two x's then congratulations, you can follow Timecrimes.

A slippery, dark slope forms the meat of the film, as Hector tries to fix the problem's he has caused by accidentally going back in time. There are some pretty grim implications in trying to resolve things by messing with what's already happened, what has to happen and what's going to happen. But you also have the question of whether anybody is responsible for these things because didn't they have to happen to make time work? Timecrimes manages to raise some interesting questions about the notion of travelling in time, but uses a deft touch to avoid falling into the ones that can easily unravel the whole piece.