Thursday, 6 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

2014, 15, Directed by Noam Murro
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey

‘Show them we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!' bellows - no, not Gerard Butler - but Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, taking lead role duties in 300: Rise of an Empire, a prequel-of-sorts to Zack Snyder’s 2006 mammoth cult hit, 300. Whilst the original focused on King Leonidas, his army of 300 Spartans and their part in the Battle of Thermopylae, the action here is transported to the seas with Stapleton starring as Themistocles, a Greek general who must lead a fleet against Persian forces. Stapleton - spotted in Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Hunter (2011) before making movements to Hollywood in Gangster Squad (2013) - makes an attempt to carve out a character amid the hordes of oiled-up extras befit with rippling torsos, but is met with fiercer opposition than simply the viewing audience; in Eva Green, we have the villainess of the piece, Artemsia - the vengeful, soulless leader of the Persian navy, a screen presence who quenches audience’s thirst for blood more readily than most. Teasing unpredictability with every movement, Rise of an Empire struggles to meet her standards.
Expanding upon the universe introduced by Snyder, director Noam Murro takes time to flesh out backstory (using Frank Miller’s unpublished graphic novel Xerxes as a basis) before ditching the prequel formula around the quarter-way mark, the remainder of the action running parallel to that of 300. Time enough for a strand or two about how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became the God-King we remember him to be, or how Themistocles sought the aid of the Spartans via Lena Headey’s returning yet criminally underused Queen Gorgo; if Butler’s presence is missed, it’s her shortage of presence that is felt.
Despite the unprecedented success of 300, some naysayers criticised the visuals and now with added 3D, the sense is heightened that somewhere nearby lurks a kid clutching a Playstation controller - for a film largely dependent on these impressive visuals to dazzle, it’s unfortunate the universe remains a strangely uninvolving vessel.

But there is no denying the film zips along at one hell of a pace with the well-choreographed action only dulling towards the end as the tempo-manipulation begins to irk (slow-mo conveniently deployed as weapon meets flesh, blood shooting out towards the screen by the bucketful). It's during these scenes that the obscured positives float freely to the surface: a pulsating soundtrack from Dutch composer Junkie XL ticks many right boxes, not to mention the impressive mixing of said score with the sound of sword-slicing; a memorable turn from rising star Jack O'Connell (of Skins fame) as young Greek warrior Calisto counters the more outlandish moments - the success of which solely relies on Eva Green, simply put, giving it hell.

...and yet, for a film depicting the Rise of an Empire, it all feels familiarly one-note.  


You can find my review of 300: Rise of an Empire on Film Juice


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Best Picture Nominee #9

The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest teaming with Martin Scorsese was met with huge critical acclaim, many touting The Wolf of Wall Street – the story of infamous New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort – as his best performance to date. Filled with debauchery galore and at a running time of 3 hours, Martin Scorsese delivered a true classic, with enough memorable moments which would make picking a favourite impossible. A nomination was a guaranteed welcome, but it’s doubtful anybody involved thinks they even stand a chance at a win tonight.

Film: 4.5/5
Chances of winning: 2/5

What will it win? Nothing – but it's okay; it's one of the best of the bunch and would have probably been nominated had there been the five-nomination rule.


Best Picture Nominee #8

12 Years a Slave

Undoubtedly one of the year’s strongest nominees, 12 Years a Slave has all the makings of a Best Picture winner: the sensitive subject crafted in an articulate and astounding way by a director rapidly crawling to the top of his game. Sure, Steve McQueen has a taste for the bleak (Hunger, Shame), but this does not detract from the film’s credibility. Naturally, controversy has hit surrounding its depiction of slavery. But the fact its closest rival is fundamentally a two-hander sci-fi blockbuster speaks volumes about how interesting this year’s race is…
If I was a betting man, my money would be splashed on 12 Years a Slave to beat Gravity to the Best Picture Oscar.
Film: 4.5/5
Chances of winning: 4.5/5
What will it win? The main award of the evening (Best Picture) - yet its other two best chances are slightly shadier: Best Supporting Actress for Lupits N'yongo is threatened by Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) in the ceremony's closest battle, and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley.


Best Picture Nominee #7


It’s great to see Philomena amongst this year’s crop, not only alerting those who weren’t aware of an astounding true story, but championing the British side of things. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script, adapted from Martin Sixsmith’s book, tells the story of political journalist Sixsmith himself (here played by Coogan) and Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), who attempts to find her son who was cruelly taken away from her five decades previous when she fell pregnant in a convent. The film is fantastic, putting the audience through countless emotions all at once, but the nomination - sadly - is a case of filler.  

Film: 4.5/5
Chances of winning: 1/5
What will it win? The suspicious has sneaked in how Philomena could pull a blinder in the Adapted Screenplay category, snatching the statuette away from John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave. It's a big shout, one that would be praised, but when it comes down to it, may just be too good to be true.

Best Picture Nominee #6


Alexander Payne is no stranger to the Academy (Sideways, The Descendants, etc.) so a nomination for the heartwarming Nebraska was not a leftfield appearance – but is an outside bet. Not to take anything away from the film, Nebraska is shot in black and white, and stars Best Actor nominee Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a stubborn, senility-stricken pensioner who is convinced he has landed a windfall of cash when a leaflet telling him so falls through his front door.

Film: 4/5
Chances of winning: 2/5

What will it win? Nebraska will walk away empty handed.