Friday, March 28, 2014



- I absolutely loved Moonrise Kingdom, because it felt like Wes Anderson was using all of his whimsical powers to give us not just a great-looking film, but one that had a soul and spirit to match its eye-popping aesthetics. It might just be Anderson's best film to date. Anderson's latest, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, has some of the director's most gorgeous and intricately-crafted visuals yet - but it feels more like an Anderson flight of fancy than grand statement. Rather than straining to push himself story-wise, there is, perhaps, a bit of wheel-spinning going on here. Still, this is an incredibly entertaining, visually-stunning movie filled with great actors and all sorts of fun little moments. Even if this one doesn't raise the bar for Wes Anderson films, it's still a finely-made showcase for the director's uniquely quirky obsessions.

Anderson often seems to have a lot of nostalgia for a version of the past that never quite existed. And that recurring aesthetic theme here becomes the main driver of the plot as well. The movie looks back wistfully at a fantastical hotel that sits atop a towering mountainside, accessible only by cable car. The day-to-day operations of the hotel are run by M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who himself is a throwback - a gentleman's gentleman who is perfectly groomed and outfitted at all times, goes about his daily routines with clockwork-like precision, and who insists on the same from all under his employ. This holds true for the hotel's new bell-boy, a young immigrant named Zero (Tony Revolori). Soft-spoken but loyal, Zero is quickly taken under the wing of Gustave, and the two sort of become the fancy-hotel-worker version of Batman and Robin. That comparison holds even more true as Zero, through Gustave, increasingly finds himself wrapped up in an escalating series of misadventures. As it turns out, Gustave has a tendency to "service" the hotel's older female patrons in more than just the usual manner. And that gets him into trouble, when one of his favorite hotel guests passes away. The elderly woman, who over the years enjoyed many visits with Gustave, leaves to him - and not to her scheming, gothed-out adult children - a priceless painting from her art collection (the amusingly titled "Boy With Apple"). This makes Gustave a number of powerful enemies, and puts Zero in their crosshairs as well.

Adding an extra layer to the tale of Gustave and Zero is that it's told to us in flashback by a now-elderly Zero. By this point, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a shadow of its former bustling self, attracting only the occasional curiosity seeker and wanderer. Jude Law, playing an unnamed writer, meets Zero while staying in the hotel, and sits with him to hear his story. The film's structure - told as a sort of tall tale - fits well with its theme of nostalgia for a bygone era. The Hotel was a relic of a time when things were bigger and grander and more romantic, just like Gustave - whom Zero clearly has much admiration for - was a man of another, more refined era.

Ralph Fiennes as Gustav is the MVP of the film. He does a fantastic job playing the quintessential proper gentleman, who is forced by circumstance into many an ungentlemanly situation. Fiennes has shown in the past that he's great at playing larger-than-life, and that's what he does here. His comic timing is impeccable, and he has a great on-screen chemistry with his young charge Zero. The rest of the cast though is just completely loaded with great talent, all of whom are the sorts of reliable pros who excel at pulling off Wes Anderson's quirky characters. Willem Dafoe - who says little but owns the screen as a sadistic hitman - is a huge standout. So too is Adrien Brody as the vengeful son of Gustave's deceased paramour. Of course, an appearance from Jeff Goldblum is welcome in any film, but Goldblum is excellent (per usual) as the lawyer trying to settle the affairs of the deceased, even as various interests try to force his hand. Edward Norton is also good, as a police inspector whose path crosses multiple times with Gustav's.

There are also a boatload of great little cameos from Anderson regulars. I won't spoil who shows up, but I will say: one of the movie's most fun sequences involves the revelation that Gustav is part of a secret society of hotel managers, who all have each other's back in a crisis and who have quite the network of power and influence. Suffice it to say, the faces who turn up as part of said secret society are crowd-pleasers.

I suppose that some of the "lightness" of the movie comes from its relationships feeling a bit surface-level. Whereas Moonrise Kingdom had such a great central romance between its two young leads, the romance between Grand Budapest's Zero and angelic baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) feels a bit malnourished. Indeed, a lot of the film's characters are sort of one-note. But I guess that's a side-effect of a.) this really being the story of the mentor/mentee relationship between Gustav and Zero, and b.) the film being intended as less of a character piece, and more of a farce.

And the movie is at its best when it's at its most farcical. When things get really crazy, I think that that is when the movie hits its stride. For example, there's a late-movie downhill snow chase (how often do you see that?), in which Gustav and Zero - on a sled - pursue Dafoe's wily hitman - on skis - down a hilariously expansive trail. It's hilarious and awesome. Great, funny stuff.

And aesthetically, well ... this might just be the most Anderson-y Anderson movie to date. With scenes that often look like they were extracted from an elaborately-illustrated pop-up book, the movie has an eye-popping look and feel that indulges Anderson's most out-there visual instincts. Given that this is a whimsical, tall-tale of a story, however, it all fits to a T.

I really enjoyed THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, even if the details of the plot and the nuances of the characters are often muddled in the movie's pressing focus on the moment at hand. The film is more akin in some ways to a collection of quirky vignettes, each showing us the unflappability of Gustav and the stalwart admiration that Zero bestows upon him (even if Zero does get annoyed with Gustav's reflexive flirtations with Agatha). So no, the movie doesn't give you a ton to chew on, but it is a great exercise in stylized chaos from Anderson - a lightweight but entertaining study of Anderson's particular fascinations and favorite motifs.

My Grade: B+

Monday, March 24, 2014

MUPPETS MOST WANTED Is Very Funny, Very Muppet-y


- I enjoyed the last Muppets movie a lot. After so many relatively Muppet-less years, it felt good to have these characters back on the big screen and back in a place of prominence in the world of pop-culture. When I think about the influence that Jim Henson and his creations had on me as a kid - the way they cultivated in me a love for comedy, satire, imagination, and creativity - I think about how all kids should be exposed to these great characters and the values that they stand for. I'm not usually one to make that kind of pronouncement, but what I love about the Muppets is how their message is ultimately wholesome and good, but they're also just edgy enough to make you think outside the box. As a kid, The Muppets influenced not just my values, but spurred my interest in everything from science-fiction to comedy to rock n' roll. And so, while the last Muppet movie was a nice and heartfelt love letter of sorts to the characters and what they meant to a generation, what I like about MUPPETS MOST WANTED is that, now that the re-introductions and meta-commentaries are over with, the Muppets can get back to doing what they do best. This is the Muppets in their purest form, and I like that. No, it may not be the grand thesis statement of Muppetdom that the last film was (no existential "man or Muppet?" questions here). But this sequel is funny, clever, and just a blast from start to finish. It reminded me of the kinds of Muppets stories that made me a Muppets fan in the first place.

The plot of the film is silly, but in the best sort of way. It involves a notorious criminal frog named Constantine, who - save for a telling mole - looks exactly like Kermit. The thickly-accented Constantine escapes from imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, and hatches a scheme to take Kermit's place in the Muppets. The newly-reunited Muppets, planning a world tour to celebrate their return, hire bigshot manager Dominic (Ricky Gervais) to to guide them. What the unsuspecting Muppets don't realize is that Dominic is in league with Constantine. The two arrange for Kermit to get frog-napped, and taken to the prison from which Constantine escaped. Their master plan: to use the Muppets' shows as a front for a series of elaborate heists, culminating with the theft of the Crown Jewels of England.

The plot offers many opportunities for inspired zaniness. For one, seeing Constantine try to pass himself off as Kermit is oftentimes hilarious (the way he pronounces Muppets in his poorly-veiled Russian accent cracked me up every time - "Maaahpits!"). Before Kermit was taken out of the picture, he'd been getting cold (webbed) feet about popping the question to Ms. Piggy. But Constantine - who wants to marry Ms. Piggy as part of his evil plan to steal the Crown Jewels - is amusingly, um, aggressive in his wooing of the world's most famous pig (encapsulated in the hilarious song "I'll Get You What You Want"). I really liked Gervais here as Dominic - his brand of awkward humor is a great match for the Muppets, and his character's David Brent-esque persona - a bit pathetic, but misguidedly ambitious - makes for a great comic foil to Constantine and a great villain.

While Constantine and Dominic try to con the Muppets, poor Kermit is locked up in prison with a motley crew of inmates, which include such recognizable faces as Danny Trejo (playing himself!), and Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement. The gruff warden of the prison is played by Tina Fey, whose tough exterior softens a bit when she develops a bit of a crush on Kermit. The prison scenes are a highlight though, as Fey, Clement, and the rest of the prison crew are very funny, and in top form. Seeing Kermit lead the rough-looking prison gang in a musical revue is comedy gold.

The other inspired subplot involves stone-faced Muppet Sam Eagle - now a CIA agent - investigating the criminal activity around the Muppets with the help of bumbling French inspector Jean Pierre (Modern Family's Ty Burell). Burell and Sam Eagle are such a great pairing. What can I say, I laughed a lot at their back-and-forth. All the French jokes at Jean Pierre's expense are probably old hat to older viewers, but it made me smile a bit that so many surprisingly un-PC jokes were slipped into the movie involving Burell. It's all pretty harmless stuff, ultimately ... but again, I dig that there was just a bit of edge to some of the humor.

And the movie's jokes really hit hard, in my opinion. I laughed out loud a lot at this movie, in a way that I didn't during the first film. Again, without all the re-building that the first movie had to do, it seems like the script here by Nicholas Stohler and director James Bobin is free to just be silly and entertaining and funny. There are a lot of clever bits - movie parodies, pop-culture riffs, and just general wackiness that really hits. The songs, too, are very funny, very Flight of the Conchords-ish (and no wonder, since the movie's music supervisor is the Conchords' Bret McKenzie). My favorite is the slyly funny "Interrogation Song", in which Jean Pierre and Sam Eagle question the Muppets one-by-one about alleged crimes - which becomes an increasingly, hilariously futile effort (culminating with the unintelligible musings of the Swedish Chef).

From some of the trailers, I was worried that the movie would be celebrity cameo overkill, but that's not the case. There are a lot of cameos, but they're mostly brief and often funny. And hey, who could object to Salma Hayek teaming with Gonzo to take part in his genius "indoor running of the bulls" performance?

Of course, even though this Muppet movie is wackier and sillier than its predecessor, there's still a lot of heart. I don't know what it is about these characters, but somehow - and it really is incredible - the felt forms of Kermit and co. always manage to feel more human than many of the human actors in these films. When newest-Muppet Walter sets out with Fozzie Bear and Animal to find and free their missing frog friend, you can't help but smile at the lengths these intrepid creatures will go to to help out their friend in need. And when Ms. Piggy must take part in the classic "which Kermit is the real Kermit?" test, well ... you will believe in the love of a sheepish frog and a bullish pig. What I love about the Muppets is that while the humor can be a little edgy, a little boundary-pushing given the target audience - there's always a very tangible sense of goodness and decency that shines through with these characters and these stories.

I'm not sure why I've seen so much cynicism crop up in recent reviews of MUPPETS MOST WANTED. Maybe it's just a rebellion against the resurgence in Muppetude over the last few years. Perhaps without the meta-commentary of the first film, jaded critics couldn't find an "important" enough reason to get behind this sequel. Or perhaps there's simply an opposition to the Muppets continuing on without the involvement of some of the original creative driving forces. But I found that this film pays a lot of homage to what's come before while still feeling modern and fresh. At the same time, it just-about-perfectly captures the right Muppety mix of playful humor and positive vibes that make the Muppets what they are. The human cast here is excellent, and Constantine proves a fun adversary for Kermit and co. At the end of the day, the film had me smiling and laughing throughout: what more can I ask for in a Muppet movie?

My Grade: A-

Saturday, March 22, 2014

VERONICA MARS Movie Review: A Long Time Ago We Used To Be Friends, But Feels Like Just Yesterday To Me


- Unbelievable. It's insane to think about how quickly the media landscape has changed in just a few short years. Veronica Mars premiered at a time when DVR's were still in their infancy, when options for catching up on missed TV were limited, and when the idea of binge-watching fan-favorite shows on Netflix was a concept not yet in existence. Veronica Mars was a great show ahead of its time. It premiered on the flailing UPN network, which during its lifespan never really produced a buzzworthy hit. It continued on CW, but by that point, the show was barely hanging on - and the CW wasn't all that motivated to give it the promotional push it needed. For me, Veronica Mars was a pet issue. In the early days of my blog-writing, I constantly and emphatically spread the gospel to any and all who would listen. Veronica Mars was the best show that no one was watching. It was a dark, smart, brilliantly-written neo-noir - anchored by Kristen Bell and elevated by a best-in-the-biz supporting cast. It had style, it had smarts. But like so many great shows of the 00's - from Pushing Daisies to Arrested Development - a cult following of diehard fans was not enough to save the show from the dreaded fate of cancellation. The sort of mass-marathoning that would later make cult faves like Breaking Bad into legitimate hits was still years away from being a thing.

But back in 2007, when I wrote my farewell to the unceremoniously-axed Veronica Mars, I mused that (unlike the bottom-of-the-barrel reality show that replaced it on CW's schedule), the show would live on. It would be remembered and rediscovered. It would be talked about and discussed and written about. But back then, I couldn't have predicted the way in which whole new audiences would find the show, how people too young to have watched in in the 00's would now embrace it, or how Kickstarter would allow for a partially fan-funded film to get greenlit.

The fact that a Veronica Mars movie exists - that it was released theatrically years after the show went off the air - is amazing. Sure, we can debate the exact mechanics of the Kickstarter fund. When Kickstarter money is going not to individuals, but to a huge studio like Warner Bros that, there's a very legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which the fundraising is honest or even necessary. But I won't get into a prolonged discussion of that here. Instead, I'll say that, regardless, this is a game-changer. Fan support is now quantifiable, and that means the possibility of content that is made less for a wide audience and more for the core fans. In the old network TV model, number of eyeballs were everything. But now, it's more about the passion and loyalty of those eyeballs.

And Veronica Mars fans are nothing if not passionate. And in turn, the VERONICA MARS movie is a love letter of sorts to the fans. I have to admit, I was surprised at some of the rather tepid reviews of the film I read in publications like Entertainment Weekly. Were these guys not fans? Did they not get it? Perhaps those not in-the-loop felt snubbed. They had hoped to read the cliffnotes of the series, see the movie, and feel like they were fully a part of the zeitgeist. But the reality is that, yes, to fully appreciate this movie, I think you're probably going to want to spend some time going through all three seasons of the series. A requirement? No. A strong recommendation? Yes. This movie is one chapter of an ongoing saga, and you're going to want to appreciate all the callbacks - big and small - to what went before.

With that in mind, it's sort of amazing to me to think about what writer/creator/director Rob Thomas pulled off here. On one hand, Veronica Mars was a show with a lot of characters and a lot of continuity - and Thomas had to pick up the pieces, reestablish the status quo, and fill us in on what everyone had been up to in the years since we last visited the fictional town of Neptune, CA. On the other hand, the movie had to work as a piece of self-contained entertainment - it couldn't just be about checking off the boxes that would please longtime fans. It had to tell a great Veronica Mars story, and also feel like "more" than just an episode of the show. It had to feel big, and epic, and special.

No need to worry though - Thomas accomplishes both goals with flying colors. Like I said, the movie is a love letter to both the fans and the show's characters - giving us lots to get excited over, and many reminders of why we loved the show and its characters to begin with. And yet, all the character cameos, reintroductions, etc. feel pretty organic to the plot. The show always operated on the conceit that Neptune was mired in an interconnected web of shadiness, in which the town's rich elite and desperate poor intersect and clash at every turn. The same is true in the film - the plotline here is, in some ways, bigger in scope than anything from the show. But unsurprisingly, things become more insular as the plot unravels. And why not? There are enough suspect characters - and enough intrigue - in Neptune, that there's no need to go elsewhere to drive the action.

Indeed, the arc of the movie is that this is, in many ways, a homecoming for Veronica. When we first rejoin V. Mars, she's living in New York and has become, well, pretty buttoned-up. She's interviewing for a big corporate law job and seems to have settled into a a nice but decidedly low-risk life. While she would undoubtedly make a crackerjack lawyer, there's clearly a sense that Veronica is not where she's supposed to be, nor doing what she's supposed to be doing. So when she's summoned by old on-again, off-again flame -and overall bad influence - Logan Echolls, to return to Neptune to help clear him of murder charges (he asks her to help him vet lawyers, but we know the deal), it's a bad situation that still feels oh-so-right.

The mystery of who really killed troubled rich kid Logan's pop-star girlfriend is what drives the plot, and personally, I think it makes for a damn fine mystery. There's never really a question that Logan is innocent of the charges, but that's okay - it opens the door for any number of Veronica's other old acquaintances to be the guilty party. And what acquaintances they are. It's an absolute blast to see the likes of hilariously crude party-boy Dick Casablancas again (Ryan Hansen kills it). And scummy P.I. Vinnie Van Lowe (the great Ken Marino in top form). And spoiled former teen-queen Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter, whose career has blown up since the show went off the air, and who deservedly gets a bigger part to play in the film). And, oh, Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks callback - another of the 00's tragically-cancelled-too-soon TV shows) turns up as a creepy former classmate of Veronica's. It's equally awesome to see those on the side of the angels make their big returns. Chief among them are Veronica's ever-loyal best bud Wallace (Percy Diggs III) and punk-geek hacker Mac (Tina Majorino). Seeing them again is like seeing old friends - I only wish they had more screentime. Same goes for reformed biker-gang leader Weevil, brought so memorably to life on the show by Francis Capra. Capra gets some big moments here, and a plotline that helps open the door for further mysteries to be addressed in (hopefully?) still-to-come movies. To Thomas' credit though, this isn't a case of feeling like these characters got the shaft - more so that they're just such great characters that we're left wanting more. As much as I could watch a whole movie about the sleuthing adventures of Wallace and Mac, or the school-of-hard-knocks moral quandaries of Weevil, there's a lot of story to be told here, and these characters can only be allotted so much time.

For all of the movie's fun bit players though (old favorites, like Max Greenfield's Leo, or new additions, like Jerry O'Connell as a sleazeball sheriff, and Gaby Hoffman as a stalker-ish superfan), the holy trinity here is Veronica, Logan, and Keith Mars. Keith Mars - played so brilliantly by Enrico Colantoni - is in many ways the movie's beating heart. While Veronica had the chance to get out of Neptune and start fresh, Keith is in too deep. He's too invested in his town, and too embittered to leave and let Neptune get washed over with corruption and crime. Veronica was his great white hope - the one who could start afresh. So it kills Keith that Veronica, through Logan, has been pulled back into the thick of things. At the same time - this is film noir after all, and that means that in this world, there is no escape. No escape from Neptune, no escape from fate.

That's another thing that's so brave and refreshing about this film. It goes full noir. What I mean is, the show always mixed the trappings of noir and detective fiction with those of high school drama. But now that Veronica is an adult, the movie has to sort of evolve past its original high school setting. Now, the movie calls back heavily towards its Neptune High roots, with the clever device of a ten-year reunion superimposed over the big-picture mystery. And like any ten-year reunion, this makes for a great chance to both briefly revisit the past, but also to move beyond it. We know who Veronica Mars was, but now, we know who she is as an adult. And the movie doesn't shy away from morphing the plucky young Veronica into a full-blown hard-boiled P.I. That's sort of awesome, because how many hard-boiled *female* P.I.'s have there been in the history of ... well, ever? When I say hard-boiled, I'm referring, I suppose, to some of the qualities that we associate with the classic noir protagonist. Hard-lived guys who are good at heart, but who do at times live in a moral grey area, and who do at times make bad decisions. As the movie evolves Veronica into this traditionally male role, I began to realize: Logan is Veronica's femme fatale.

This is sort of fascinating, because here's the thing: at the movie's start, Veronica and good old Stosh "Piz" Piznarsky are a couple. Piz, you may remember, was the good-natured, geeky college radio-host who dated Veronica in Season 3 of the show. Guys seemed to like him, because he was a fill-in for the sort of fanboys who crushed on Veronica from their couches. But girls seemed less impressed, because Veronica and Piz never had the danger-fueled sparks that she and Logan did during their star-crossed but ill-fated flings (and here, there is again chemistry with Dohring, though he does seem to have perhaps the hardest time of the cast getting back into VM form). But even the staunchest Logan/Veronica 'shippers, I think, will end up sort of rooting a bit for Piz in this movie. He and Veronica have a good thing going - witty banter, shared and awesomely-nerdy pop-culture references (Piz even declared Neptune High to be sitting on a Hellmouth). But since the movie goes full-noir, Veronica is of course increasingly drawn away from good-guy Piz and towards male-fatale Logan. And people, I think, will sort of cringe at this. And yet, do we cringe when Batman makes out with Catwoman, or when James Bond locks lips with a woman we know is bad news? I sort of dug how the movie flips things around, and gives us a new breed of gumshoe for 2014. Veronica Mars was always ahead of her time - now, even more so.

By the way, nothing about this world feels dated - in case you were worried. Neptune has always had old-school aesthetics, but the Veronica Mars movie transitions to a world of smartphones, Twitter, and tablets with the utmost ease. The smart use of today's tech makes Veronica's sleuthing that much cooler, if at all possible.

Let's talk about the leading lady herself. Kristen Bell was born to play this character, and she slips back into the role of Ms. Mars like she never left. Bell is an interesting actor. Her public persona is goofy and sort of loopy, and she's done variations on that in various comedies over the years. We've seen her play serious and adult, and we've heard her give voice to Disney princesses. But her transformation into Veronica Mars is full-body. She just inhabits the character fully, and makes Veronica iconic and larger-than-life - all while maintaining that spunky, girl-next-door quality that made her different than your average CW star back in the day. But man, how great it is to hear Veronica's at-once inviting, at once hard-boiled voice-overs again. Nobody does it better than Bell. It's all part of the Veronica Mars package that is so perfectly recaptured in the movie. The noirish moodiness, the atmospheric, tension-setting music, the whip-crack dialogue ...

Hold on, let me speak for a second about that dialogue. I could honestly watch a plotless Veronica Mars movie, just to hear the characters' back-and-forth banter. Rob Thomas does Joss Whedon one better, blending pulpy, rapid-fire quips with well-placed pop-culture riffs. It's music, baby. This is, truly, the good stuff, and we don't get enough of it in movies or TV. The writing is what made Veronica Mars so damn good back in its TV days, and it's what again separates it from the pack at the movies. For those who dismiss this as young adult fluff ... just listen to the characters talk and realize: this is less Hunger Games, more Maltese Falcon - with a dose of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure. This is where I'll also point out that the movie is funny. Really funny. And that's all driven by Veronica and the rest of the cast's multiple, dead-on zingers. The wittiness here goes a long way.

By the time the end-credits played (and we finally got to hear the full version of the show's fantastically-rocking theme song), I was in TV/movie-geek nirvana. I went into this movie with some trepidation. Would the characters seem awkward and old? Was I remembering the show through rose-colored glasses? Would the movie just be a nostalgia trip with no real substance? Or would Rob Thomas and co. shake thing up needlessly just to go against the grain? Really, there was no reason to worry. The VERONICA MARS movie is a rocking return to form and a rollicking success. Bell again nails it as Veronica, and the rest of the cast brings their A-game. But mostly, this movie just reaffirms that Neptune is indeed a living, breathing place. We needn't worry about it having abruptly disappeared from our TV screens all those years ago. The movie cements this as a world that persists, even when we're not watching. And it reestablishes Veronica as a character who will always be out there - always embroiled in a new mystery, always fighting the neverending fight to clean up Neptune and bring justice to those who need it brought. Back when the series was cancelled, Thomas re-pitched it to the CW as a revamped reboot - a move that would have drastically changed the show and sent Veronica to the FBI. But the whole arc of this movie is, in a way, about rectifying what would have been a damaging left turn for the show and for these characters. The movie has Veronica ditch her newly-acquired urban corporate lawyer persona for a back-to-basics approach - and so too does the movie, on a meta level, ditch the idea of a high-concept revamp - a way to please the masses - for a back-to-basics return to the core Veronica Mars concept at its best.  Veronica is too good of a character to change wholesale. Instead, the movie cleverly shows us why Veronica is who she is, and how the world of Neptune shaped and continues to shape her, and draw her back in to its seedy world of sun and shadow.

So come on now sugar: bring it on, bring it on - give us more. Long live Veronica Mars.

My Grade: A-

Friday, March 14, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE Delivers Solid Sequel

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE Review:

- 300 gets a lot of flack and ridicule these days, but when it came out - and you know this to be true - it was badass as hell. Zack Snyder's over-the-top vision of ancient warfare, coupled with the legendary Frank Miller's knack for gritty, alpha-male storytelling, made for a film that was, at the least, not quite like anything we'd seen before.

Now, RISE OF AN EMPIRE could have been a total cash-in. And the lack of Snyder at the helm, the fact that this comes a full nine years after the original, and the fact that it's been oft-delayed and restarted all hinted at potential disaster. But, good news! - the 300 sequel (well, sort of - it actually takes place in parallel with the original's story) is actually a pretty entertaining, well-made flick. Any fans of the original will enjoy this one. And while it may feel a bit like a retread, the presence of some excellent actors, and a primarily oceanic setting, gives this one a unique feel and personality.

The story takes place during and around that of 300. In that film, Gerard Butler's Leonidas led his over-matched band of 300 Spartans to battle against the conquering forces of the god-king Xerxes. In this film, we follow the larger war being waged between Xerxes and his Persian armies versus all of Greece. We follow the Athenian admiral Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he attempts to take the fight to Xerxes. He tries to recruit various nation-states to aid in his cause, but when he gets to Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady, reprising her role from the original) informs him that Leonidas has already taken his men to attack the Persian armies. Themistocles rallies what troops he does have to fight Xerxes on the high seas, via naval attack. But to do so, he's got to go through the merciless Persian general Artemisia (Eva Green), who commands Xerxes' fleets.

While Stapleton's Themistocles is the movie's main character, make no mistake - this is Eva Green's movie. As Artemisia, Green is just plain awesome. She kicks ass, takes names, and looks great doing it. Her character has a pretty interesting backstory to boot - a slave girl who was taken in by the Persian king, who helped a young prince Xerxes to come out of his shell when his father was murdered, and aided in his transformation from geek to god ... only to realize that she may have created a monster. Suffice it to say, Green pretty much owns it in the movie - barking orders, lobbing off heads, and seducing hapless rivals (sometimes all three at the same time!) with relish. After seeing the film, I couldn't help but think that perhaps there was a missed opportunity in not casting Green as Wonder Woman.

Stapleton is pretty solid, but he comes off as a bit of a pushover as compared to Green's more formidable Artemisia. Still, he's got some gravitas, and he's a fine actor. The best scene of the film - which he and Green both nail (so to speak) - is an over-the-top negotiation/seduction between Themistocles and Artemisia that is a true clash of the titans. It's no surprise, of course, that Artemisia comes out on top (so to speak). But Stapleton, while not as charismatic or as amusingly insane as Butler's Leonidas, does lend an air of sophistication to the proceedings.

I also really enjoyed Lena Heady (as usual) reprising her role as Gorgo. Heady is just fantastic at these sorts of roles, and she hasn't missed a beat since 300. She plays a small but key role here, and she owns some of the movie's best and biggest moments. I also enjoyed seeing David Wenham return, even if only for a small role. If you recall, he's the dude who narrates 300 and, due to his gravitas-filled voice, was clearly born to narrate badass movies about ancient Greece.

Noam Murro directs, and at first glance, you wouldn't be able to tell that it wasn't Zack Snyder. The look and feel of the original 300 is essentially reproduced here. However, what this movie is missing are those absolutely jaw-dropping visual moments that Snyder had in the original. RISE OF AN EMPIRE has plenty of cool visuals, but the action feels a little generic, overall, as compared to the first film. Murro emulates Snyder's trademark speed-up/slow-down maneuvers, but they feel sort of arbitrarily thrown into the mix here, and lack the desired wow factor. Part of the problem is that some of the film's naval battles just feel repetitive after a while. While the sight of naval warfare makes for some epic moments, it loses its novelty after a while, and you yearn for some good ol' fashioned sword-against-shield combat. Luckily, the movie does have at least a couple of good hand-to-hand battles - accompanied by a few genuinely "oh $%&^!" moments - to satiate the bloodlust of the 300 faithful (don't worry - it's all cartoonish/comic-booky and in good fun).

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE delivers some satisfying action, recaptures some of the fun of 300, and features a must-see performance from Eva Green. Ultimately, it drags a bit and loses momentum - there just aren't enough twists or interesting plot developments - and Themistocles is a little too bland - to sustain interest for the film's entire running time. But this remains a surprisingly pretty-good companion piece to an iconic action movie.

My Grade: B

Saturday, March 1, 2014

OSCAR 2014 - Pre-Show Thoughts & Predictions & Rants

 Let's do this.

That's right, I'm back. It's been a while, but hey, it's almost Oscar time and I had to make the effort to put down my thoughts and predictions.

Here's the thing: as I've said, 2013 was an insanely good year for movies. So while, sure, there are films that I was upset to see snubbed at this year's Oscars, it's also pretty hard to take issue with the ones that did make the cut. I mean: 12 Years a Slave? Gravity? Nebraska? The Wolf of Wall Street? Her? Captain Philips? These were all instant classics that deserve whatever recognition they get. In fact, I'd be more than happy if any of those four films took home Best Picture. Even Dallas Buyers Club and American Hustle - I'd put those two a rung below the others I just mentioned, and yet, both have individual performances that were among the year's best.

Before I get into my picks, here are some of the biggest snubs in my view:


1.) Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips: look, I am the last person who likes seeing the same people nominated over and over. But Hanks may have literally done the best work of his storied career in this movie. Those last five minutes? Holy crap on a stick. I had chills.

2.) Inside Llewyn Davis: This should have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The Coen Bros must not be taken for granted, people. This is a fantastic film that will be more and more highly regarded as the years go on.

3.) Brie Larson / Short Term 12: Short Term 12 was an incredible indie flick that deserved more buzz than it got. But one undeniable highlight was the soul-searing performance of Brie Larson in the lead role. Some of the most real, raw, affecting acting I've seen.

4.) Michael B. Jordan / Fruitvale Station: Here's another breakout performance that really should have been recognized. Jordan is insanely good in Fruitvale Station, and the movie itself is an absolutely huge directorial debut for Ryan Coogler, who is going to be very big very soon.

5.) Daniel Bruhl / Rush - Rush was one of Ron Howard's best films in years, but the highlight was Daniel Bruhl, who absolutely kills as race car driver Nikki Lauda. Bruhl got a Golden Globe nom, and he should have gotten an Oscar nomination as well.

6.) Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach's best movie yet - a new-school spin on Woody Allen urban coming-of-age comedy that also served as the final piece in the puzzle that is Greta Gerwig as star-on-the-rise.

7.) The World's End - Okay, so there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that Edgar Wright's latest would receive an Oscar nom. But why? It's funny, smart, and moving. Wright directs the hell out of it. It might be his best movie yet, and he's made some damn good films. It makes me sad that we live in a world where Wright's films are not considered best-in-class by the cinematic establishment.

8.) Stoker - Too weird for the Oscars? Probably. But Chan Wook Park's American cinematic debut is right up there with Oldboy as a spellbinding psychological thriller that sticks with you and enters the inner sanctum of your mind long after the closing credits role. And some of the acting in the film - from Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman in particular - is aces.

9.) Pacific Rim - So ... wait. How is this not even nominated for best Visual Effects? Pac Rim was far and away the coolest film, visually, in 2013 not named Gravity. Show Guillermo Del Toro some love.

10.) The Way Way Back - Snubbed on multiple levels. Sam Rockwell was fantastic in this, and deserving of a dark horse Best Supporting Actor nom. Toni Collette was similarly great. The screenplay was excellent. Where was the love for this film?

And yet ... like I said, so many great films and talents *were* nominated that it's hard to be all that upset. At least this year. Next year I'll probably be back with extra Oscar-hatin'.



Should Win: Tie: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Nebraska, or The Wolf of Wall Street.

- Like I said, all four of these films were instant classics, in my mind. Gravity was my personal favorite film of the year. 12 Years a Slave had one or two minute flaws, but had moments so powerful - and an important story so well-told - that I sort of see it as most deserving of an award. Her was maybe the most of-our-time, uber-relevant movie of 2013. In another year, it might have been a favorite. Nebraska was, to me, a stunner - Alexander Payne's best yet - funny, visually-striking, and packing one hell of an emotional punch. And Wolf of Wall Street - it was just classic Scorsese. It was balls-to-the-wall awesome, and easily up there with his last Oscar-winning effort The Departed. So yeah, I wouldn't mind if any of these four movies took home the gold.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

- I think it will be close. But 12 Years feels like the "important" film that deserves to be recognized. If it wasn't so good, I might take issue. But the film is a friggin' masterpiece, so I'll be supportive if it wins.


Should Win: Tie: Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor

- This is another loaded category, even without Tom Hanks. All three of the above performances though are pretty next-level, career-best work. McConaughey is just on a tear. In Dallas Buyer's Club he goes full-method, and it's the best work he's ever done. Similarly, DiCaprio is off-the-chain good in Wolf of Wall Street - it's his best-ever work. Eljiofor is doing a big, Shakespearian performance in 12 Years a Slave. But man, the way he conveys emotion with just his eyes, the way he shows you inward rage matched with outward restraint - it's amazing stuff. All three of these guys should co-win.

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

- 2013 was the Year of McConaughey. Alright? Alright alright alriiiight. The dude has so much goodwill built up between Dallas Buyer's Club, Mud (underrated), Wolf of Wall Street (best cameo role since Alec Baldwin in Glengary Glenross), and now True Detective (incredible). The momentum is too strong. Just go with it, alright?


Should Win: Cate Blanchett

- Blanchett was a tour de force in Blue Jasmine. Woody controversy aside, you can't take that away from her. This was a career-highlight turn. I also like Sandra Bullock a lot in Gravity, though the performance is so much about the physical that it seems less substantive somehow than Blanchett's. Amy Adams was also pretty incredible in American Hustle. If anyone deserves to win for that film, I think it's her.

Will Win: Cate Blanchett

- The Woody Allen factor could hurt her, but it could also rally people to her side. Regardless, I think hers was the best and most impressive performance by a pretty decent margin, so ultimately that should win out.


Should Win: Jared Leto

- The only other guy I'd consider in the running is Michael Fassbender, who was phenomenal in 12 Years a Slave. But Leto is the clear favorite. He is heartbreaking in Dallas Buyer's Club.

Will Win: Guys, this is perhaps one of the few sure-things of this year's Oscars. Leto is a lock.


Should Win: June Squibb

- Personally, I absolutely loved Squibb in Nebraska. Hers is the big, bring-the-house-down role, and I loved her in the film. It's not every day that an elderly woman makes you stand up and cheer in a movie. Squibb did, and to me, she deserves a win.

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o

- It feels like the momentum is in Nyong'o's favor. And she's great in 12 Years a Slave. I guess my only reservation is that her character is perhaps a bit less memorable than the suffering she endures. But still, the Oscars love a good breakout story, and Nyong'o certainly is one.


Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron

- This is another insanely loaded category. I'm not sure I would have given David O. Russell a nod here (I'd give it to the Coen Bros., Spike Jonze, or Paul Greengrass). But the other four guys - Cuaron, Scorsese, McQueen, and Payne - all did absolutely we're-not-worthy work on their latest films. This one hurts. Because I think years from now, Wall St. will be thought of as a total Scorsese classic. And McQueen is just getting started, but what he did with 12 Years is amazing. We've seen the straight-up melodrama version of this story before, but McQueen gave us the art-film, Lynchian, surreal nightmare version. This guy is the real deal. That said ... Cuaron did stuff in Gravity that was just mind-boggling. The imagination and vision needed to conceive what he conceived ... it's beyond the capabilities of us mere mortals. Cuaron is my pick.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron

- For all the reasons I mentioned above, I think Cuaron is the favorite. I could see a similar trajectory to the Golden Globes, in which Cuaron takes home the Director prize while Gravity ultimately loses out to 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture.


Should Win: Tie: Her and Nebraska

- I loved both of these screenplays. Her just created this amazingly fleshed-out future world, while at the same time imbuing what could have been a gimmicky story with real heart and feeling. At the same time, Nebraska was just a whip-crack funny yet gut-punch moving story that was quiet, yet spoke volumes, all at once.

Will Win: Her

- I think this may be one of the token wins for Her. I'm not sure though, this one's a touch call. I could see American Hustle taking it. But I think voters will recognize Her not just for its merits but for the clear autobiographical element that Jonze put into it.


Should Win: Wolf of Wall Street

- This is a flipping phenomenal screenplay. The kind that will be quoted by movie geeks for decades. Terrence Winter has done wonders over the years on Boardwalk Empire, but this is a crowning achievement. I mean, holy crap, McConaughey's speech to DiCaprio alone is pure gold.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

- This one is super tough to call. John Ridley is a well-regarded writer and there's some very good writing in 12 Years a Slave. I think Wolf of Wall Street could pull it out, but perhaps the (ridiculous) semi-controversy over the movie's morals could hurt it. If I had to wager, I'd guess 12 Years. But would not be upset if Wall Street pulled an upset.


Should Win: The Croods / The Wind Rises

- Caveat: I have not yet seen The Wind Rises. But it's probably amazing and deserving of a win, as let's face it - Miyazaki is a living legend and just about everything he does is genius. That said, Dreamworks' latest has probably zero chance of winning, but dammit all, I really dug The Croods. I was a fan of Frozen as well, but The Croods to me was the more involving, more fully-realized film.

Will Win: Frozen

- Everyone seemingly loves Frozen among the rank-and-file population. And every Academy voter with kids has probably seen it a million times by now It's a juggernaut - likely an unstoppable one. While there's a chance that the great Miyazaki's purportedly final film - The Wind Rises - will take home what is probably its rightful award, I won't underestimate the hypnotic power of "Let It Go" and the movie that surrounds it.


Should Win: Gravity

- Seemless CGI, eye-popping IMAX 3D, incredible integration of live-action actors with computer-generated sets. Yeah, this one is a futureshock to the system, and yeah, it should win.

Will Win: Gravity:

- It should win, and it will. Sorry Lone Ranger.


Should Win: Captain Phillips
Will Win: Captain Phillips


Should Win: Gravity (though Nebraska is up there as well)
Will Win: Gravity


Should Win: American Hustle
Will Win: American Hustle


Should Win: ???

- Okay, I am woefully behind in my documentary viewing. But I've heard so many good things about the film The Act of Killing. It's on my list. It seems like the sort of must-watch, eye-opening doc that is indeed award-worthy.

Will Win: The Act of Killing


Should Win: Gravity

- I loved the score of Gravity. Made the film that much more immersive and intense.

Will Win: Gravity


Should Win: "Let It Go"
Will Win: "Let It Go"

- Did you not read what I wrote above about Frozen. It's a big Disneyfied juggernaut at this point and Let It Go is a big reason why. To be fair, it's a great pop-song, one of the most catchy and most memorable that a Disney animated feature has produced in years.


Should Win: Gravity
Will Win: Gravity


Should Win: Gravity
Will Win: Gravity


Should Win: ???

- What the ...? The nominees in this category are horrendous. At least throw The Hobbit a bone here ... The Lone Ranger? Bad Grandpa? Ugh.

Will Win: I guess Dallas Buyer's Club because of Jared Leto?


Should Win: ???

- Okay, I'm also severely lagging in my recent viewing of Oscar-nominated foreign films. I don't know, I guess none of this year's crop really grabbed my interest. I've heard amazing things about Omar, but I'm curious to see it so as to better understand its politics.

Will Win: The Broken Circle Breakdown


Should Win: ?
Will Win: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall


Should Win: ?
Will Win: Room on the Broom


Should Win: ?
Will Win: The Voorman Problem

And there you go. The bottom line: 2013 was one hell of a year for films. So forget about red carpets and Hollywood politics, and instead celebrate movies that kick-ass, expand the imagination, open eyes, and make you think.