Friday, 28 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (J.A.)

What else did you expect? 
Discussing either 300 or its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire in standard terminology is sort of a lost cause. After all, you do see these films for their detailed, meaningful plot, or for troubled characters at war with their own hearts and souls. Instead, you watch them for their rather unique visual style, stupid costumes and other such matters that create something of a little ode to the joys of CGI blood and homoerotic violence. Yet, even under these terms, the question must still be asked: is it any good?

 Rise of an Empire tries to differentiate itself from its predecessor in two keys ways. Firstly, it is both prequel and sequel, providing back-story for the Persian emperor Xerxes and then detailing events that take place both simultaneously and after the original. That scores points for being a novel form of sequelizing, but proves problematic. Such a format relies upon a good memory of the original to try to fill in the blanks, and therefore feels far too self-referential and aggrandising as a result. The other major difference is that it follows the Athenians, at a bizarre and utterly historically inaccurate (what else did you expect) recreation of the naval battle of Salamis. So in other words, its 300 at sea; a concept that in fairness works pretty well, as it enables new and exciting combat possibilities for the imaginative spraying of blood. The designs and such are more than suitably imaginative and monstrous, to make it feel suitably stupid and silly so that it should never be approached with anything approaching cognitive reasoning.What else did you expect?

The film also boasts an improved villain in the form of Eva Green’s Artemisia who easily steals the show as the vengeful and strangely perverse admiral of the Persian fleet. She is a joy to watch, with a gloriously over the top contempt for everyone and everything, that proves to be highly entertaining and fitting for this kind of B movie. It is just a shame the film's hero and Gerard Butler-replacement Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is somewhat boring by comparison, and then there is that particularly uncomfortable, unnecessary and frankly rather disturbing sex scene. Then again, one has to repeat that little mantra: it is a 300 movie, what did you expect? 

In the end though, that is the trouble: the original transcended its flaws by being brilliantly ridiculous, bloody, and novel, and appealed to the connoisseurs tired of the somewhat tedious trend for action films to shy away from stupendous violence. But Rise of an Empire, despite being essentially more of the same only this time set at sea, struggles to pace itself, and towards the end and the inevitable gore soaked conclusion, it’s hard not to feel increasingly apathetic at the macho banter and blood spilling. Yes, it is a 300 flick, but, strange yelling about freedom aside, you kind of actually wish it had a heart - and no, we are talking about one ripped out during an action sequence, though that might be kind of cool.  

James Absolon 


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Silence (1971)

Sound of God

For anyone unfamiliar with his work Simon Ditchfield teaches in the history department as an expert in early modern religion. He is also the man I have to thank for introducing me to Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence, adapted by Shusako Endo from his own 1966 novel. Amongst its number of well informed admirers is Martin Scorsese. In fact, the ever-popular director will be releasing his own remake of the cult Anglo-Japanese classic next year.

It was during Dr Ditchfield’s lecture on the hidden Christians of seventeenth-century Japan (known as the Kakure Kirishitan) that I was first familiarised with Endo’s excellent piece of historical fiction. Soon after I took the DVD out of the library and since then the themes of faith, suffering and abandonment have never wandered too far from my thoughts.

Two Jesuit missionaries are sent to Shogunate Japan in search of their former tutor who disappeared on the island many years before. At that time Christianity was outlawed across the country, the emperor and his generals using measures of violent repression to eradicate its heresy from their territories. The authorities offered two prospects to steadfast believers: torture and execution or a swift conversion to orthodox Buddhism. Peasants and priests alike navigated these dark dangers as they propagated their faith across the land of the rising sun.

There is no happy ending in this realistic world. In a similar story arc to Orwell's1984 the protagonist is imprisoned and taunted by his captors. Instead of simply destroying his mortal body, weakening their prisoner’s ideology is the objective of their cruelty. An incredible level of tension builds as the Jesuit brother must decide whether to renounce his faith by walking on a fumi-e (a floor tile decorated with Christ’s image) or die in jail.
Religion is rarely touched by cinema in any theological depth but this celluloid fragment captures the extreme devotion which faith demands. To apostatize is to reject everything that you hold as sacred, including the prospect of spiritual utopia after death. But what if that golden promise is a sham? Could this corrupt world be the only theatre of our actions? For once history and film combine in symbiotic harmony; neither can claim the other has been mistreated.
This is the story of religion from below, as the way it was lived rather than ruled. Or, as Ditchfield would say, religion as a verb not a noun.
Silence is not only thematically piercing but also supremely beautiful. A 300 year old Japanese landscape is recreated amidst the sloping hills and dormant waters of misty valley lakes. Farmers work the land with hard toil in isolated cloves. Lonely fishing boats bob along uneven waters. Then comes the cavalry, the devastation, the death.
Don’t just wait for Scorsese’s remake before you educate yourself with Endo’s sombre religious tale. In 1971 Shinoda could not have done any better. Emotion pours out of his every frame with devastating efficiency.
Thank you, Dr Ditchfield. If only the Kakure Kirishitan had come up in the exam.


Monday, 17 March 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Two thirds into this achingly long franchise, and most of the problems surrounding An Unexpected Journey continue to resonate; the characters are two-dimensional, CGI is used too liberally, and the plot is bloated and messy. But one thing this film has that the first one doesn’t is a colossal, terrifying, beautiful dragon.

The dragon Smaug reminds us - amidst the rest of the film’s clich├ęd orcs and soulless landscapes – of the potential for CGI, and is quite possibly the technology’s crowning achievement to date.  He lurks among his stolen treasure is the vividly realised setting of the Lonely Mountain, which by necessity is vast enough to contain his startling size, and the use of motion-capture and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice give him anthropomorphic qualities that establish him as a fully fledged character rather than simply a monster. This is the only scene from the Hobbit films to rival the best in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and like the riddle sequence with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, is shaped by an intriguing battle of wits that is tonally distinct.  

Unfortunately, before getting to the dragon we have to sit through two hours of sub-standard fantasy. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sits down with Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) and draws up a plan to steal the Arkenstone treasure from Smaug, there are encouraging signs that this second instalment will follow a straightforward, coherent story. These hopes are quickly extinguished, however, as stale, uninvolving plot strands keep popping up and clogging up the extortionate running time.

For example, the film’s insistence on following the Necromancer plot line does little other than redundantly foreshadow ­The Lord of the Rings, and takes Gandalf away from other characters with which the inimitable Ian McKellen can work his charm. Similarly, the noble decision to at least partially redress the gender balance by introducing the female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is immediately counteracted when she is lazily placed in a bland love-triangle involving the similarly bland Kili (Aidan Turner) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), that makes Aragorn and Arwen’s dull fling in the original trilogy look like Casablanca.
However, it’s perhaps unfair to accuse the film of sexism when the male characters are equally two-dimensional. The interesting duo of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf are sidelined while a hoard of uninspired characters – the Bard (Luke Evans), the Master of Lake-town (played distractingly by Stephen Fry), the interchangeable dwarves - are given the odd scene here and there. Ironically, the most rounded of all the new characters is probably the proud and greedy Smaug.

Much of the problem lies in the script, with most lines either functioning as exposition or a reiteration of just how much peril everyone is in. One line in particular, when Gandalf tells Bilbo that ‘you’ve changed’, is a damning microcosm of the scripts shortcomings; though we’re told Bilbo has changed, there’s very little – barring one promising scene in which the ring’s power seems to overcome the Hobbit - to suggest that he actually has. Jackson seems to have forgotten the fundamentals of storytelling, and as such fails to resonate with the viewer the same way he did in The Lord of the Rings.

Still, he can still spin together a good action set piece, and there’s a number to enjoy here even before we get the Lonely Mountain – one sequence involving some barrels and rapids stands out, even if it does feel a bit like a pitch for a theme park.  

More discipline, focus and better storytelling would have made this a strong adventure yarn, but instead The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is uneven and at time boring, and, remarkably for a film so long, doesn’t even have a proper ending (perhaps Jackson has had enough of endings having included so many in The Return of the King). Nevertheless, much is forgiven thanks to Smaug- gaze upon his  magnificence! 


Sunday, 16 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (ST)

It's all Greek to me

When thirteen year old boys are let loose on a film script the result looks something like this. 300: Rise of an Empire packs a whole lot of blood, biceps and boobies into its 102 minutes. While some elements are worth the exhibition, others should have been left to the lost realms of history – or the writers' juvenile minds.

Taking place at roughly the same time as King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans’ heroic last stand, Rise of an Empire records the Athenian naval campaign against the Persian invasion fleet. Leading his group of shirtless seamen across the Aegean Sea, Greek idealist Thermistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) hopes to unite the Hellenic city-states in order to destroy their eastern enemies once and for all. Commanding King Xerxes’ ships is the cut-throat femme fatale, Artemesia (Eva Green).
Beware Greeks bearing gifts. Or rather, beware Zack Synder’s adoration for graphic novels. Watchmen and 300 were both disappointing but his latest writing effort, directed by Noam Murro, is only a slight improvement.
Although visually unique (especially in 3D), this new computerised swords-and-sandals offering is a sloppy homoerotic mess. Like Centurion, a group of scantily clad lads are having fun until a vampish woman – clearly suffering from a painful case of penis envy – spoils their macho party.
The atrocious dialogue does very little to diminish this Freudian interpretation and tends to revel in its endowment-measuring insecurity. Whoever shamelessly scratched these vocal clangers onto paper ought to be deeply embarrassed.
Amongst the crowd of well-oiled torsos only the two female characters stand out as interesting. Even so, their roles are constructed in a shoddy, caricatured way. For instance, Artemesia is a figure riddled with contradictions and laboured stereotypes. How did she become a top admiral when throughout the film she makes zero effective tactical decisions? Moreover, she executes prisoners for no reason other than bloodlust and wears totally impractical costumes to battle.
The only reason I even see Artemesia’s villainy worth commenting on is because of Eva Green’s absorbing charisma. The ‘Bloody Mary’ role is a familiar one for the former Bond girl after similar parts in Dark Shadows and Camelot. But by Jove is she good at it! I reckon it has something to do with her weirdly husky voice. After such a prominent performance the French thespian now needs to worry about becoming typecast.
The 300 series is an obviously niche franchise. Whether you like it depends on very specialist tastes. Having the bravery to admit to such unfashionable preferences is an entirely different matter.


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (SP)

The opening fifteen minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel make clear just how far removed from reality Wes Anderson intends his film to be. We’re first shown a teenage girl reading a book about the titular hotel, which triggers a flashback to the 1960s where the author of the book (Jude Law) talks about his experiences staying there. He then meets the owner of the hotel (F. Murray Abraham) who proceeds to tell him the story of his childhood working as a lobby boy, which in turn prompts yet another flashback.   

This is where the framing devices end and the film proper begins. In it we follow concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as he presides meticulously over his beloved hotel during the 1930s, a time when Zubrowka – the Eastern European country in which the hotel is situated, the fictionality of which places the film at yet another remove from reality – is on the brink of war. But, like the film itself, Gustave is less interested in this wider historical event than he is the wellbeing of his customers, particularly Madame D (a startlingly old-looking Tilda Swanton), who dies in suspicious circumstances upon leaving the hotel. It transpires that she changed her will to leave the priceless painting ‘Boy With Apple’ to Gustave, much to her son’s (Adrien Brody) fury and the police’s suspicion. So begins a madcap cat and mouse adventure that pastiches the style of Hollywood films made in the decade the film is set. 

All this knowing artificiality and disregard for the real world will be familiar to those who have seen Anderson’s other films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is true to form with its off-beat humour, fleeting star cameos and sense of whimsy. The hotel itself is an archetypal Anderson construct, a miniature world in which the film hermetically lives in. The first establishing shots of its exterior display it as an intricately assembled beautiful toy house (see the poster on the right), which sets the tone for the film’s obsessive attention to detail as well as Anderson’s Kubrickian compulsion for symmetry.

Like Kubrick, this style gives the film a cold feeling that makes it difficult to emotionally engage with, but, generally unlike Kubrick, Anderson’s intention is primarily comedic rather than tragic. Typically, this comedy is off-beat and deadpan, which goes some way to explaining why Anderson is such a cult director. Sense of humour is one of the most divisive of tastes, and to extract maximum enjoyment from The Grand Budapest Hotel you really have to be in tune with Anderson’s. 

Nevertheless, there are aspects that transcend Anderson’s tropes. The casting of Ralph Fiennes in a rare comic role turns out to be an inspired choice, as he steals the show with his perfect comic timing, delivered in a camp manner that is at once engagingly charismatic and not over-the-top. But to non-Anderson devotees, the brief appearances from the likes of Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum are more distracting than anything else, while all the female roles are frustratingly underwritten.

Like the lovingly made, extravagant cakes that contribute to the rich tapestry of The Grand Budapest Hotel, this film is an acquired taste, the pleasures of which are lost on this particular reviewer. Everything feels too detached and frivolous, particularly considering the context of world wars against which the film is vaguely set. But Wes Anderson fans will no doubt find this one of the auteur’s best works yet, and any film fans will still admire the craft and single-mindedness with which he infuses his filmmaking.