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Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

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300: Rise of an Empire

Eight years after Zack Snyder revived the sword-and-sandal subgenre and inspired millions of men to revisit the gym with his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300, he has scripted a return to ancient Greece. Directed by Noam Murro (Smart People), the movie 300: Rise of an Empire is a self-indulgent video game fantasy at best.

The film opens with a recap of the events of 300 and an introduction to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the new lead, who's head of the Greek army. The action proceeds to explain how Themistokles is not just the hero who led the Greeks to victory over Xerxes, but was himself responsible for the enmity held by Xerxes toward the Greeks.

Artemisia (Eva Green) is introduced as the leader of Xerxes' forces, and the two commence with a series of battles consisting of ships crashing into each other as warriors fight to the death on top of the sinking wrecks.

Here are the rules of Greek vs. Persian combat, as gleaned from 300: Rise of an Empire:

  • Rule 1: Like a friendly game of football, bad guys wear shirts, good guys are skins.
  • Rule 2: Every blow of every sword in every battle must be repeated in videogame style slo-mo.
  • Rule 3: Every scene with any of the Greek army present must have floating sparks constantly distracting from the action on the camera, as if from 10,000 campfires, even when the entire army is climbing wet out of the Mediterranean.
  • Rule 4: If it digitally bleeds, it digitally leads.
  • Rule 5: Nobody important dies without an extended death scene in which they deliver a monologue. Everyone else dies immediately upon the slightest injury.

On the Set of 'From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series'

Zane Holz and D.J. Cotrona as the Gecko Brothers

The Gecko Brothers are back, and attendees of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival can see them first at the world premiere of the pilot episode of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series on Saturday, March 8, 4:30 pm at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center. The debut is part of the new Episodic screening category for this year's festival.

The Episodic category was inspired by previous SXSW featured content, including A&E's Bates Motel and the HBO series Girls. Other series featured at this year's fest will include the educational Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the comedic series Deadbeat, and Austin writer/director Mike Judge's Silicon Valley. The television premiere of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series will be broadcast on Tuesday, March 11, 8 pm CST on El Rey Network.

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series is a re-imagined story based upon the original film but with the addition of new characters and storylines. This includes an intertwining of the Mesoamerican mythology that the main characters, bank robber Seth Gecko (D. J. Cotrona) and his volatile brother Richie Gecko (Zane Holtz), encounter while on the run from Texas Rangers Earl McGraw (Don Johnson) and Freddie Gonzalez (Jessie Garcia).

Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax) has worked with Liam Neeson previously on the movie Unknown, but there is another clear reason Neeson was cast for the role of alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks. The actor has the talent and star power to elevate an otherwise unremarkable, movie-of-the-week script like Non-Stop into a moneymaker with wings. 

The story, penned by a team whose credits include TV's Big Brother and WWE/WrestleMania, lands Neeson in the role of Bill Marks, an air marshal on a transatlantic flight. He's confronted with text messages from an anonymous villain who promises to kill someone on the flight unless the exorbitant sum of $150 million is wired into an account within an unlikely time limit of 20 minutes. With the clock ticking and no clues to help him, he must reveal the hijacker even as the villain's complex plan unfolds to frame him for the deed.

The ensuing tense whodunit occupies the audience with guessing games, attempting to lead them astray with characters that play on ethnic stereotypes and dirty looks as Marks and his allies Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and Nancy (Michelle Dockery) attempt to expose the culprit.

As the flight's body count increases, so does Marks' level of stress, until Neeson is enraged, throwing passengers around like rag dolls and progressing only in cementing his image as a hijacker, already being painted in the media on the ground.

Non-Stop is best enjoyed by those who don't pick apart a script and can allow themselves to be caught up in the tense situation. Collet-Serra has a few tricks to keep the pace moving, including some impressive hand-to-hand choreography within the confines of the plane's lavatory. These tricks make for an enjoyable film, in spite of the descent into monologues as the clock is ticking and swift loss of direction when the hijacker is finally revealed.

Review: God Loves Uganda

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god loves uganda still

Earlier this week, a law was signed by the president of Uganda that makes homosexuality an offense punishable with life imprisonment. While this legislation is being called reprehensible by human rights advocates around the world, many Ugandan politicians and citizens stand adamantly by it, holding fast to Christian-based beliefs that God-approved, male-female relationships are right and everything else is wrong. 

How did such an anti-gay climate -- one that often results in acts of violence committed against both open and suspected homosexuals and their allies -- come about in this small East African nation in the first place? This is the complex and important question that God Loves Uganda attempts to answer. 

Director Roger Ross Williams interviews several observers and activists from both sides of Uganda’s culture wars but largely focuses on the efforts and effects of missionary workers from Kansas City. Part of a megachurch operation known as the International House of Prayer (IHOP), these mostly white and very passionate "soldiers of God" have set their sights on Uganda in particular as a place that needs their spiritual attention. 

Review: Winter's Tale

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Winter's Tale PosterI have to be honest, I initially thought Winter's Tale was an adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Winter's Tale -- I hadn't heard of author Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, adapted into the new movie, until watching the trailer.

It's no coincidence that the movie made its U.S. theatrical debut on Valentine's Day -- a marketing ploy, of course, to get couples to hunker down in the dark for two-ish hours to watch actor Colin Farrell make love look even more confusing than it already is. This says something about Farrell, a chap whose real-life romantic mishaps have made headlines and had heads shaking (lest we forget his public outings with Britney Spears). 

And its hard to forget this in the aptly named Winter's Tale because Farrell plays the burglar-with-a-heart-of-gold, Peter Lake, so much like his public persona: greasy, strangely-cut hair and all... with an Irish accent. 

There really is no need for Peter to have an Irish accent because he was raised in New York City. The same can be said for the movie's female lead, Beverly Penn (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), whose convenient English accent is only briefly explained as a byproduct of her birth across the pond, despite her newspaper tycoon father's (William Hurt) American accent. 

But this is just the tip of the unexplained plot point iceberg in Winter's Tale

This trans-century romance begins on Ellis Island, where baby Peter is left in a model boat and sent afloat into New York Harbor by his parents, who are refused entrance into the country because of his father's supposed illness. Somehow, someway Peter becomes the unwilling scion of the Devil's (Will Smith) minion, Pearly (an over-earnest Russell Crowe). When Peter rejects Pearly as a father figure, he is hunted by even lesser minions and stumbles across a Pegasus-like horse, which he names Horse. How original. 

Oh, that's right, writer/director Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) is trying to shove theological and philosophical metaphors down audiences' throats. Of course, Horse acts as both spirit guide and guardian angel to Peter, and according to a Google search, there is a difference between the two terms. 

Review: The Great Beauty

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the great beauty

With a sprawling and often dreamlike narrative that examines grand themes of life, death and art, The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is novelistic in its storytelling and enthrallingly ambitious. 

Directed and written by Paolo SorrentinoThe Great Beauty was Italy's submission for this year's Best Foreign Film Academy Award and it has made the cut to compete for the Oscar alongside four other films. Mirroring the scope of other lofty Italian films (Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita certainly come to mind) as well as the work of revered writers like Marcel Proust, Sorrentino is passionate and audacious in his approach to a story that is classically familiar in its basic framework and often surprising as well. 

At the story's center is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). He wrote a moderately successful novel as a young man, and following that chose to veer into a life of partying, carousing with beautiful people and rarely making it to bed before dawn. As the film opens he has just turned 65, and after hearing some painful news that reminds him of his younger days and the great love he lost, this well-dressed, smarter-than-average socialite is beginning to tire a bit.

Review: RoboCop

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Robocop

It has been 27 years since one of the seminal 80s sci-fi films, RoboCop, blasted onto cineplex screens. By today's Hollywood formulas, it's the perfect age for a remake that can bring the franchise name to new viewers and cash in on an audience eager to see an updated favorite.  Too often, this results in a disappointing flop like 2012's Total Recall, a development that wouldn't have surprised with Jose Padilha's modern take on the Verhoeven blockbuster.

It is impossible not to compare the two versions, for better or for worse.  Verhoeven's movie had a signature gritty, steely dystopian feel that contrasts against Padilha's sleek modern curves and smooth black gloss. As the first set photos from the new RoboCop made their way to the internets, angry fans denounced the insectile look of the black armor that replaced the familiar brushed steel. Fortunately, a more familiar steel uniform does appear, and the black suit is explained away, eliminating this minor quibble. Drastic changes in the look of the film are surprising given the casting of relative unknown Joel Kinnaman, whose greatest talent appears to be a strong chin resemblance to Peter Weller.

The differences in this remake go far beyond visuals, however. Joshua Zetumer has adapted the original script into something with a vaguely similar plot but drastically altered themes. A PG-13 rating ensures the remake, while more marketable, has lost much of the hyperbolic action.  Padhila's version is also entirely sanitized of the satirical advertising used so effectively by Verhoeven in scene transitions, confining overt political commentary to Samuel L. Jackson's appearance as host of an O'Reilly-esque conservative news program.

I mentioned altered themes, and the most significant concerns the title character. Verhoeven's RoboCop was a machine that begins to remember it was once human. Padilha's RoboCop is a human struggling with the horror of being placed in a machine body and fighting the programming that seeks to strip him of his humanity. This reflects the fundamentally different approach where Verhoeven's film satirizes the unreliability of technology, Padilha's celebrates its ability to perform better, faster than the human brain. 

Review: The Monuments Men

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The Monuments Men posterWhen my friend jokingly asked before our screening of The Monuments Men if this would be like an Ocean's Eleven part 4, she wasn't far off. Actor/director George Clooney assembles a cast of heavy-hitters for this World War II dramedy and only barely taps into their talent. I have a feeling the actors were having a better time chumming around together off the lot than we did watching the resulting movie.

Clooney's film is based on a group of men past conscription age -- art historians, architects and art directors -- who volunteer to go to Europe to save important works of Western art from Nazi capture or destruction. The characters all have names, but with the lack of any real character introduction or development, good luck remembering them. I could only keep the people straight by recognizing the actors involved. 

John Goodman and Bill Murray play architects, Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom) is an art director/possible choreographer, Matt Damon and Clooney play art historians, then there's a Brit in need of redemption (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) and a French museum curator (Jean Dujardin, The Artist). The team goes through basic training, then splits up to recover works of art endangered by the Nazis (specifically the Ghent altarpiece and Madonna of Bruges). Cate Blanchett is the only female with a sizable role -- she actually may be the only woman with a speaking role in the film! -- as a French secretary to a Nazi officer. 

The plot is formulaic, and the script is schmaltzy and heavy-handed. The confused tone reminded me of an episode of Futurama ("War Is the H-Word") that pokes fun at M.A.S.H. with a Hawkeye-style robot who can only switch between irreverent and maudlin.

The Monuments Men knows how it wants you to feel, and it will be explicit about it. Alexandre Desplat's score, far from his best work, soars at a moment punctuated by a remember-why-we're-here-Art-is-important voiceover by Clooney's character, and you are meant to feel sad right then. Too bad the film fails at emotional manipulation... except for the Battle of the Bulge scene with Murray's character silently crying in the shower tent as his daughter (via recording) sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Some of us just tend to get choked up when that song plays.

Review: Labor Day

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Whenever I hear mention of writer/director Jason Reitman's work, I instantly think of this formula: awkward, lonely lead character + quirky and slightly unrealistic story premise = a somewhat enduring dramady of a film. When I saw the opening credits for Labor Day, I actually let out some bizarre open-mouthed gasp because I didn't realize he had written and directed it -- I'd clearly done my research in advance.

I was waiting to meet the outspoken lead, the one who is cool on the outside but incredibly lost and confused on the inside. It was a great surprise to instead encounter Adele (Kate Winslet), a single mother trying to raise her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). We meet these two some years after Henry's father has left them, trying to cope with Adele's social anxiety and fear of the outside world. Henry feels the burden of being the only man in the house, trying to fill a gap he knows cannot be filled.  A monthly trip to the grocery store seems to be routine -- that is, until an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) comes along.

Review: The Past

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the past film posterThe Past opens with an airport arrival scene. A woman  -- she seems happy but anxious -- waits for a man, who emerges into view calm and alone. They greet each other familiarly but with an underlying hesitance, and over the next few minutes exchange sparse, direct words as they hurry to the car through a sudden downpour and proceed to their next destination. 

Because minimal background details are offered in these beginning moments (and fed out very conservatively over the rest of the film) the story immediately feels like a puzzle, and the initial basic questions -- who are these people? where are they going? -- soon make way for much more serious mysteries to unfold.

The plot that writer/director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) does eventually reveal is at first somewhat mundane in its modern glumness. Ahmad (played impressively and stoically by Ali Mosaffa) has returned to France from his home country of Iran to settle the details of a divorce. Four years earlier he left his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) and her two daughters, whom he had helped to raise. 

The marriage didn't end too dramatically and everyone is civil enough, but whispers of unfinished business and repressed feelings fuss just below the surface of every interaction. Closure, if such a thing is possible, has certainly not been achieved, and everyone accepts this transitional and often awkward reality as simply the way things are. 

Realistic in its complicated portrayals of domesticity and relationships and deliberately paced, it's a surprise when the "normal" problems introduced at the beginning of The Past advance to more salacious matters involving jealousy, adultery, email spying and suicide. Without giving away too much, Marie's angsty teenage daughter plays a pivotal role, as does Marie's new lover and his troubled young son.

The Past requires room to breathe and time to find its way towards the larger truth ultimately at the heart of the story, and though it's a demanding experience it's not an unrewarding one. Consistently solid acting (even the young children strike all the right heartbreaking notes) and a narrative that explores the tough and gritty aspects of human tragedy make this a fine, haunting film.

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