by Philip Price
If “Divergent” is anything it is competent. Everything about it screams ambition, what it wants to be and the actual product itself shows it has the ability and the right amount of reverence for the source material to be successful in conveying the spirit of Veronica Roth's novel to the screen. The drawback is that while it is indeed capable and is able to make a suitable enough film for fans of the novel to more or less enjoy and pick apart, nothing about the execution of bringing this story to life screams exceptional or even, for lack of a better term in this case, divergent. I finished the first book in Roth's trilogy a few months back and have since moved on to the next one, but while I was suspicious of this new dystopian franchise with a young female heroine for the lead I was eventually able to look past the similarities between it and “The Hunger Games” and at least understand the merit people were finding in these books. It might be too much (or too early for me as I'm in the middle of “Insurgent”) to say that Roth's series is the better written of the two from a creative standpoint, but it is already clear that Suzanne Collins series lends itself well to the cinematic world even if people were weary of it at first given the titular event included the slaughtering of children. I, personally, thought “Divergent” would be the easier story to tell onscreen, but it becomes obvious within the first hour or so of the film that this may not be so as things and events begin to collapse in on themselves and it is only with the promise of another chapter and the idea that these plot strands with less attention paid to them this time around may rise to become more relevant in the future. It is an odd feeling because as the film unfolded and I was referencing the book in my head wondering when or if they would include certain scenes it became apparent the writers and the filmmakers weren't quite sure how to structure things. The film plays out well enough and we understand the point of why everything is happening, but we don't necessarily feel the tension or the growing fear that should be mounting in our protagonist until it is too late and we feel the film has gone on for too long without ever feeling whole.
While I can't stress enough that the film adaptation of “Divergent” does a fine job of realizing the world and rules of Roth's novel, the real shame of it all is that it never conveys the motivations of the characters and why it is so important for people like Jeanine (Kate Winslet) to keep things in order the way they have been for some time now. You see, the story goes something like this: there was a major war a hundred or so years ago that left the majority of mankind dead or wandering outside of what has now been constructed as a large wall surrounding modern day Chicago. A new government has formed and has split the citizens into five factions. We have the Erudite who treasure intelligence, Dauntless who are the brave and therefore the soldiers, Amity are the peaceful (basically hippies), Candor who are honest and famous for not being able to tell a lie and finally there is Abnegation, the selfless. When you come of age you are put through a series of aptitude tests which tell you what faction you would best belong to. Regardless of the test results though, each person is given the right to choose what faction they want to join and live out there life a part of, but once you choose a faction there is no going back. Those whose tests are inconclusive, who don't fit squarely into any of the above categories, are known as Divergents and if you are a Divergent you are a threat to the system of order that has been put into place. Thus, we meet Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) a born and raised Abnegation who doesn't quite understand the ways of her people and the rules with which they restrict themselves. She is curious, she asks questions of her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) when she should keep quiet and she walks past those who could use a hand rather than stopping and giving of herself. She thinks herself a bad person for this inability to be who she's been told she needs to be and so it is clear she is unhappy with her faction, but that it still holds and important place as home. When her aptitude tests come back as inconclusive her world is sent into a tailspin and at the choosing ceremony she breaks away from Abnegation to join the Dauntless, a decision that introduces her to Four (Theo James) who may or may not be a kindred spirit, but also boils over a brewing conflict between the Erudite and Abnegation.
It has always been a kind of accepted fate that all systems eventually break down. Whether it be the Mayan, Roman or countless other, more advanced, empires they all fall (as ours unfortunately will someday too) and those always seem to make for the most interesting of times, where revolutions begin and heroes are born. That is essentially where we find ourselves in “Divergent.” All seems well, but the unavoidable fact that society, no matter its rules, will always stratify itself into the elite and the masses that, when paired with the inevitable strain placed on the ecological conditions of a culture, will lead to the collapse of that civilization. Jeanine represents that elite mentality and the fact she is Erudite only allows her to mask her controlling tendencies with the fact her actions are the most intelligent ones to take. Beatrice or Tris as she comes to be known after joining Dauntless is thrust into the middle of the conflict due to her status as a divergent, though this isn't immediately apparent to anyone, and her relation to her father who serves as a council member in the government as Abnegation run the civilization due to their selfless ways as well as to Four, who isn't the easiest to warm up to, but has the strongest arc of any character besides our lead. In the novel, it seemed clear that Roth was looking to make a statement about the individual; about how we can all be different while still sharing in the larger community, that society and class don't determine the true identity of the individual. It could be a metaphor for any number of scenarios and religion is likely as good as any. It is a nice enough sentiment and one that young girls in our own society can never get enough of (and I truly mean that in a genuine way), but throughout both the book and the movie you can see the bigger implications of history repeating itself with flashes of concentration camps and the psychological state soldiers are pushed to and sometimes broken by that are apparent in the Dauntless training sessions and incarnated by ruthless leader Eric (Jai Courtney). All of this is good and interesting, but it still has to be conveyed in a way where we identify with the characters and where we feel these themes brought to life and that is where the film has its missteps. Is it entertaining? Sure. Does it hit all the major plot points of the book while checking off the necessary elements of young adult adaptations? Absolutely. Still, there is clearly more to the mythology and the desires of these characters than that and while we get a few inspired moments here and there, the majority of the film is simply adequate.
The aforementioned problem with the movie is that while it overstays its welcome, it doesn't flesh out these supporting elements enough for the pinnacle of the action to really feel earned by the time the credits begin to roll. Again, I understand this is only the first of three films that will make a complete story, but each individual film still needs to feel complete and the problem with “Divergent” is that it spends so much time setting up and inside this world of initiation that by the time the bigger conflict is introduced and the larger action set pieces take place it feels tacked on. Director Neil Burger and his writing team somehow couldn't see that they needed to re-arrange a few elements from the novel to make the payoff more satisfying and so instead of that full riveting experience we expect from a nearly two and a half hour film all we get is a feeling of abrupt abbreviation.
What allows this disjointed pacing and possibly confusing plot justifications to the non-iniated to be eased though is likely the presence of such a strong cast. There was nowhere for the production to go once it cast Woodley in the lead role. Though she is likely prettier than the Tris Roth imagined when writing her, Woodley has the inherent ability to play quiet and reserved with that sense of something brewing just below the surface. It clearly serves her well here and she makes a natural transition from the meek, quiet world of Abnegation to the fast and outgoing community that is Dauntless. There are a few scenes in particular where not only does the specific shot selection enhance the larger meaning of the characters feeling, but in Woodley's face alone we see the emotional sum of what has become of her and what a question mark her future is. A certain scene in an alley and the other where an earlier plot strand actually comes into play effectively in a true moment of tension are played out perfectly and left me with a sense of what the entire film could have been were it more meticulously poured over and crafted by someone with a true affection for the material rather than a hired hand. James, the real untested newcomer here, does fine work as well and was the one I was most unsure of. In the book I always felt the romance between Tris and Four was somewhat forced and when you know what plot points are coming it always seems more than obvious in the film version, but here James and Woodley shared a nice chemistry that amounts to a relationship more about understanding than passion and it really speaks to where this series mind is at. It also doesn't hurt that the likes of Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer (kinda random though) have underdeveloped roles that are sure to flourish in the next film while I have yet to understand the appeal of Zoe Kravitz, but again look forward to see what comes of her new relationship with Tris once certain things come to light. Though it wasn't all I imagined it could have been, “Divergent” is serviceable and I have hopes that the rest of the series can only learn and improve, but with Robert Schwentke (“R.I.P.D.”) taking over directing duties I'm not overly-optimistic.
by Philip Price
The first trailer for stuntman turned director Scott Waugh's sophomore effort, “Need for Speed,” hinted at something more than your typical video game movie; it was orchestral and well put-together with pedigree and something slightly haunting, solemn and meditated about its approach to the unexplainable infatuation people can have not just with cars, but with danger. What the final film actually feels like though is a slick pop confection with good intentions, don't get me wrong, but whose lyrics are nothing but vapid and a chorus that is completely forgettable. I don't play video games at all and despite the fact the “Need for Speed” gaming franchise is one of the most successful of all time I can't help but feel like this flick missed the bandwagon and is coming around at least 10 years too late. This would have been another fine-enough companion piece to the phase that gave us “Torque,” “Biker Boyz,” Stallone's “Driven” and of course the original “Fast and Furious” title. Still, even the ‘F&F’ movies aren't really about street racing anymore and even if they were the only incarnation of that series this seems to have taken any note of would be the fourth with its dry plot points and inability to build the right kind of tension or drama and that is the least favorite for most fans of the series. Waugh has a good eye, his shots are nicely put together and if nothing else the film looks spectacular, but even with this kind of compliment comes the stipulation a film about ex-cons, street racers and cross-country road trips that include outrunning the police at every turn shouldn't look as "nice" as the film makes them out to be and certainly not as clean as these guys are able to maintain. It simply all feels a bit forced, a bit strained and the audience can sense that. There is a line in the film where Imogen Poots’ character, Julia, says to Aaron Paul's Tobey Marshall that she understands that driving fast is necessary, but driving like a maniac is not and especially with the intention Paul's character has in mind. I only wish first-time screenwriter George Gatins would have followed some of his own advice and allowed the fast driving to guide the script rather than indulging in the presumed wants of the audience and delivering action for its own sake rather than allowing it to drive the narrative.
We meet Tobey as he stands outside what is supposed to look like a vintage American garage in the middle of everywhere USA, though it looks as pristine as everything else in the film and is located in what is actually Mt. Kisco, N.Y. He is getting a lecture from what seems to be someone from the bank and as we can guess the shop has probably been in his family for years we can guess this guy doesn't come with good news. Still, as Tobey doesn't let his co-workers in on his financial troubles they seem to enjoy the comfort of big screen TV's, airplanes and pretty expensive cars they race through the open streets of Mt. Kisco at night, after the drive-in movie mind you. There is a loss of logic somewhere within the first fifteen minutes or so, but that is a conversation for another time because as we are receiving all of this expository information we are also intermittently being delivered narration by "Monarch" as played by Michael Keaton. Keaton has a knack for hamming things up in genuinely funny ways while including just the right amount of narcissism to help audiences believe he is really only in these types of movies for the paycheck (he pulled it off expertly in last month’s “RoboCop”), but his ridiculous character here can't even be taken as self-obsessed, though he certainly is excessive. Hosting what appears to be a 24-hour radio show he is supposedly a mysterious figure who puts on a by-invitation only race each year know as the DeLeon where the winner takes all, can you see where this is going no matter what happens beforehand? Thought so. Of course, Tobey being the blue collar hometown hero who never followed his skills to NASCAR wouldn't be complete without the proper rival who is brought to us in the form of Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) a truly despicable human being who flaunts his money and success in front of Tobey upon returning to Mt. Kisco. Their rivalry heats up when Dino challenges him to a race and includes his girlfriends little brother and Tobey's friend little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) which results in a wreck, Pete's death and Dino framing Tobey for manslaughter. This is no spoiler as it happens early in the film and sets the stakes for the second match-up between Toby and Dino at the, you guessed it, DeLeon.
What could have been a mindless exercise in stunts and thrilling racing sequences allows itself to instead be too bogged down in its clichéd narrative and misguided tone that never meshes style and story very well. For starters, the score completely undermines the more serious and heated tone the visuals and acting of lead Paul seem to be going for almost making it feel like a cheaper, TV movie. There is a preciseness to the wardrobes that are so perfectly combined it would seem impossible to be authentic because it looks more like a commercial for all the brands these characters are wearing rather than a movie trying to make an honest interpretation of what it must feel like to have the skill, but not necessarily the will to want a certain kind of lifestyle most long for. In many ways this lack of attention to detail can be dismissed in the scheme of things and simply taken as a stylistic choice, a hyper-realized reality where everything stays in its place, because this movie was always going to be more about the action than anything else. Unfortunately, it never felt like there was enough of it or at least, not the right kind. I never walk into a movie hoping it doesn't at least meet the expectations the marketing campaign for it has set for me and in the case of “Need for Speed” I was really hoping to be knocked back into my seat by some of the things the experienced Waugh and his team had pulled off, but was disappointed when I found the movie to be more full of placeholder action moments that pure, unadulterated adrenaline. There are a few examples to bring up here, but where it really came is a certain run-in at a gas station in the middle of the film that 1) is completely unnecessary and 2) features barely any car action. It feels it is only present to create middle tension which would have done well to simply be more cars going fast with impressive stunts rather than trying to pull narrow escapes out of its back pocket. If you've seen the trailers you've also seen the coolest stunt the film has to offer where the Ford Mustang goes barreling off the side of a cliff only to be suspended in mid-air by a helicopter. Though the high-flying act is pretty entertaining it never becomes a sequence to be applauded and that is what this movie should have been stocked full of.
If anything was ever going to save this film though and maybe even make it something a little more it was the presence of Aaron Paul. Just coming off the whirlwind success of everything that is “Breaking Bad” and no doubt feeling the pressure to make the successful transition from small screen to big, Paul seems like an intelligent, intense actor who is more than happy to look at a script and sign up for it if he thinks it’s interesting or could be fun. I'm sure “Need for Speed” sounded like a lot of fun when they pitched it to him and I'm sure Waugh and his producers were happy to bring Paul on board as his introduction to major movie audiences, but the two should have thought about their relationship and how it might play out before jumping in so carelessly. The persona of Jesse Pinkman will always follow Paul around and so when he is cast as the tall, stoic guy it is hard to accept when he is neither tall nor has he been anything close to stoic in who we immediately identify as an over-emotional druggie. Sure, we can say kudos to Paul for not trying to simply continue playing the same character, but it doesn't seem he yet has the gravitas for this type of role. We want to like Tobey because we like Paul and the characters plight is admirable, but then again if I were in traffic one day and this guy came speeding through as he does countless times in the film, I'd think of him as nothing but an asshole. There is something appealing about his gangs care free spirits though, especially that of Rami Malek's character, Finn. He is made to be the comic relief of the film and though his scenes seem completely foreign to the rest of the film they were also the only times it felt like the makers allowed their natural tendencies to flourish rather than adhering to the by-the-book code that is looming over the production. That said, Kid Cudi or Scott Mescudi as he is named on the poster has a long way to go and Ramon Rodriguez is essentially non-existent. Cooper, as the other major player, is hamming it up and in no good or interesting way. A pre-Anastasia Steel Dakota Johnson shows up in a few scenes adding nothing of considerable measure while Poots and Paul (great name for a band, write that down) have fine enough chemistry, but we never buy into them as a couple. Plus, you know the inside of that car had to smell funky after 45 hours straight.
by Philip Price
I've never seen an episode of “Veronica Mars” and thus had no interest in what answers this fan-funded feature might provide seven years after the three season show was abruptly cancelled. All I can equate this too is my love for “Arrested Development,” it’s too-soon cancellation after three seasons and my massive anticipation for the fourth when it was announced and rolled out on Netflix last year. If anything, I feel empathy towards the fans of “Veronica Mars” and find Kristen Bell a pleasant enough presence to take a peek into what all the fuss is about. It would be silly to think that starting from the end and working backwards would provide the same kind of reaction or emotional impact those who have been waiting for this will receive so it is with obvious warning that my opinion on the “Veronica Mars” movie is that of a person unacquainted with these characters and their past traits and relationship, their little quirks, their inside jokes or what makes some of the reunions at Veronica's 10 year high school reunion that much more special than others. All of that said, this was a serviceable enough film and it provides a nice bit of whodunit which I always enjoy, but I had to come away from it wondering if I, or anyone else for that matter, would be too impressed with it if it stood on its own. Now, facts are that this movie would have never been made if it had to stand on its own (literally, the fans of the series who were upset about the ending they got put up the cash for this to be made because no one else would), but still, like we take each episode of a TV series we have to take this on its own terms especially since it is operating in the arena of big screen entertainment rather than a weekly series. Rob Thomas, who created the show, writes and directs here and the most obvious thing about his care with this film are the characters themselves and preserving what they were and what they have become and for me that is what made this film something a little more than average, something slightly more intriguing than I expected that will have me streaming through these seasons whenever they become available and really allowing me to become a part of this world that has clearly always existed, but that I have never been a part of before. “Veronica Mars” may not exactly be grade-A cinema, but it is a fun, hard-hitting murder mystery that will seemingly satisfy those who've been waiting for it and introducing others to a welcome unknown.
The good news for those of us who have not been associated with the teenage private investigator prior to this film is that the opening gives us a quick recap of what are seemingly the events the shows three season run. I had to wonder if reducing the show to a couple of minutes was somewhat painful to see for Thomas and his ensemble, that this no doubt special time in each of these cast members lives was now either nothing at all to the latest generation or a quick montage of what was only to prelude the what is now, and if not as successful as they hope, will just become another entry to be forgotten. It was funny to feel such a connection, but as the graphics began to swirl and the titular characters name was set on the screen it was clear that there was a feeling of triumph in the air and that maybe the film would feel the same way and relate those feelings of overcoming the odds to the cult following that clearly care dearly for this show and these characters. From what I gather, Mars (Bell) became this teenage PI in the beach town of Neptune, Calif. after her best friend was killed when she was 15. This event spurning her into a life of solving mysteries and an on again off again relationship with her late friends boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Veronica has since moved on and moved to New York City where she has just completed law school and is interviewing with the top law firms in the city while apparently rekindling her romance with college boyfriend Stosh 'Piz' Piznarski (Chris Lowell). This all seems to be settling in too nicely though and so it is no surprise when Logan comes a calling after being accused of murdering another girlfriend. This time it is old classmate turned pop sensation Bonnie DeVille. In asking for Veronica's help she flies back to her hometown and we get to sick back and experience her re-acclimating herself to what she was so sure she would be done with forever. We are introduced to friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Cindy 'Mac" Mackenzie (Tina Majorino) who are now a school teacher and the token computer wiz who now works at Kane Enterprises which is probably a reference I don't understand. There are others including Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) and Weevil Navarro (Francis Capra) who seem to have had more to do on the show than they do here, but hey, it was good to see that kid from “Kazaam” getting some work.
It is all well and good to see these characters back together, more so for the fans of the show, but is clearly evident the chemistry the cast all share with one another as when their characters are reunited you can see the joy in the real life reunion that must have taken place behind the scenes shine through. Still, there is a "but" there and that is the fact there is still much at play here in terms of plotting. Again, not being aware of how the show worked and how things unfolded I can only imagine there were serious, season-long arcs for the mysteries Veronica had to solve and in going about that they would have to be broken up into focal sections and that, surprisingly, seems to work very well here. Veronica is juggling a lot, whether it be trying to figure out who killed Logan's girlfriend and the tension her spending so much time with Logan creates between her and Piz, there is also the looming need to get back to NYC for a job that she's been offered that would make her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni) the proudest dad on earth, but who she feels she continually disappoints because of the unexplainable magnetism drawing her back to Neptune and the case surrounding Logan. Keith has no doubt seen Logan hold his daughter back one too many times and when she finally seems to have shaken the town and made it on her own, to become something greater than he could have hoped for her, Logan does it again and pulls Veronica back into her old ways. Chronicling the evolution of the investigation through these stages though gives Veronica enough time to spend with every aspect of her world that is constantly moving and shifting. We are given the time with her father as they exchange pleasantries in sarcastic tones with wit to spare and it is lovely to see an on-screen father/daughter relationship where there isn't some built-up tension or awkwardness between them and zero trace of hatred, but instead a true companionship and oath for justice that will always connect them and was born out of being abandoned by an alcoholic mother and wife. We are given the time with the friends at the high school reunion and the little moments long-time fans have no doubt craved, but this and the actual time spent with Logan trying to decipher what actually happened the night Bonnie DeVille died all contribute to the bigger narrative which, from a newbie's perspective, is handled expertly.
Once again, not being familiar with the show and the title character I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of performance from Bell, but she completely owns the role and carries the film with ease. Bell has always been an appealing actor with her spunky persona and take-no-crap attitude and it is likely a credit to this role that much of that reputation has been built as it was her original breakthrough, but as Veronica she is as confident as we'd want to see a young woman be represented on screen, but is also able to show the progression of someone finding themselves while also being intelligent enough to create opportunities so that when she finally reaches that fork in the road she won't necessarily have to make a choice because she is forced to, but the one she most desires. This brings us back around to the idea of the different responsibilities and identities she is juggling while ultimately all leading her to that aforementioned path where she feels like she meets the adult version of herself she has been looking for. She goes to college, she pursues the acceptable relationship and the well-received job but those things are going to ultimately result in a boring existence and it is impossible for Veronica to stay away from the pull of solving the mystery around crimes and the satisfaction that comes with digging to the bottom of it all. Despite the strong presence of Bell throughout there is also a surprisingly strong set of supporting actors that show up here as well. Though I didn't expect much seeing as I knew Bell anchored the series, but was likely the only name that made a career afterward I was pleasantly surprised by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, James Franco, Jerry O'Connell, Max Greenfield, Krysten Ritter, Martin Starr and Ken Marino (not to mention Justin Long and Dax Shepard in blink and you'll miss 'em cameos) pop up throughout. Starr wasn't immediately recognizable to me and I was surprised to find him in the type of role he plays here which I enjoyed seeing, but am unclear if he was in the show or not and if not it seems the only part of the story that feels forced. In the end though, “Veronica Mars” is a completely efficient production that is perfectly paced with a nicely designed mystery that you won't figure out and most importantly, leaves you feeling satisfied initiated or not.
by Philip Price
It has been seven years since the original Zack Snyder “300” hit the big screen and the big question surrounding its belated follow-up was always going to be if the novelty of the look of the film had worn off. It was a worthy concern as it seems every major action film since has if not taken cues from the tone of the color palette and enhanced nature of it all than at least the slo-mo of the action that then speeds up to real time, making the strikes from spear to flesh all the more cringe-inducing. It was something fresh and new at the time, Snyder coming off his big win that was the “Dawn of the Dead” remake and taking notes from Robert Rodriguez, but going in a different direction and one that would become more of a cultural mainstay than the more cult-worthy “Sin City.” Like that graphic novel, “300” was also adapted from a Frank Miller work and while ‘Rise of an Empire’ doesn't take its marching orders from any pre-written comic book it at least tries to make-up for the lack of originality in the visuals by pushing the narrative to more complicated, layered lengths than the original. While “300” was never a film that needed a sequel and really deserved not to have one as a proper sequel could never be concocted ‘Rise of an Empire’ ultimately gives us the events that surround the actions of the Spartans as they chose not to cooperate with the rest of Greece to fight off the invading Persians. It comes to light even more than it did in “300” that if the Spartans were anything but brave, they were arrogant and in many ways the events documented in this second film minimize the glory and honor that many in the audience no doubt imagined went along with Leonidas and his brave 300's beautiful deaths. They went into battle expecting death, but left their women and children with the likelihood of being turned into slaves by Persians anyway? It doesn't make much sense and ultimately seems selfish in order to adhere to the code of how they were raised than anything resembling bravery, but the good thing of all this is realizing ‘Rise of an Empire’ stirred some thought in me and invoked a reaction and participation with the film I never expected to have.
There have been several action or purported to be action films that have come out over the last month or so that have amounted to more than I expected them to be and that is because they didn't strictly exist to wet the appetite of 13-year old boys and their need to witness violence somewhere other than their video games. These films, like “RoboCop” and “Non-Stop,” have more or less weighed more heavily on the repercussions of actions rather than the actions themselves and if “300: Rise of an Empire” makes anything clear between the pools of blood it does in fact conjure up to satisfy those adolescent demands is that there is a remorse that comes along with leading an army and that the wives and children who will go on without a husband or father figure will always weigh heavily on the people who ordered their services necessary. One in such a position would find it hard to go on if constantly thinking in those terms, but this intelligent, introspective and earnest leadership is what we have at the head of ‘Rise of an Empire’ in the form of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). As fearless a fighter as Leonidas Themistokles also has the advantage of a well-balanced head on his shoulders to the point that it doesn't end up in the hands of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) as he dangles it over his massive cities. While it seemed clear from the marketing of the film that they were positioning Themistokles as the replacement Leonidas the film made it clear throughout that Themistokles was a very different breed than Gerard Butler's howling, uber-confident King. Themistokles is no king, but a seasoned warrior and brilliant strategist that sets in motion the events of the second Persian invasion when he attacked the Persians during the first invasion of Greece as soon as they landed on his shores giving them no time to rest or set-up shop. He catches them at their weakest moment and launches the arrow that strikes their King Darius (Igal Naor) in the chest, sentencing him to death. This allows his most trusted general, Artemisia (Eva Green) to plant the seed of vengeance in Xerxes ear spurring his transformation to the God King and the favor of his people that would allow his reign the reaches he imagines.
While Xerxes still reigns supreme here and we get Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo narrating this time around which gives us insight into the transformation undergone by Xerxes from wallowing young man to the flawless, gold-ladened God the main focus in terms of antagonist goes to Green's Artemisia. Green has always been an interesting actress in terms of her role selection. She is someone who received her big break by becoming the only Bond girl to carry over from one film to another and leave a lasting effect on that titular British agent, but has since skewed closer to darker roles or appearing in films outside of U.S. distribution. Her role in the underwhelming “Dark Shadows” is somewhat akin to her ruthless naval commander here, but she ups the camp in almost every aspect and simply goes for it not only allowing the ridiculousness of these films to give a self-aware nod to the audience without it descending into something completely different than what audiences expect, but at the same time giving audiences exactly what they want in an over-the-top villain that has a no holds-barred mentality when it comes to discipline and a taste for blood that results in the amount of action that the quota for this type of film needs to fulfill. What allows ‘Rise of an Empire’ an extra edge as well is that it takes the action to the sea. While it begins with sword and sandal beach brawls it becomes evident fairly quickly that the style the film is presented in isn't the only style that may have worn out its welcome. Seeing these men cut and stabbed as liters of blood spurt from their fatal wounds (in 3D! which doesn't add much I will say; only in one shot did I really feel the effects and felt it genuinely aided the scope) as Themistokles makes his way to the shore made it all very reminiscent of that first time we watched Leonidas do the same things. It is evident the advantage of this slo-mo approach is to not only make things look cool, but to also show the small moments that take place within these large battles and director Noam Murro utilizes this technique to good effect. He may even over-use it, no doubt some will say he does, but in taking these battles to sea and opening up a new world of opportunity, of strategy and of dynamics it allows the film to do the same and thus allows the film to feel fresh despite the style it is required to carry.
Where “300” was a very straightforward and simple story that documented the way of life and upbringing of a small civilization that was defined in 480 BC by the Battle of Thermopylae Rise of an Empire fleshes that story out to even greater lengths and gives us the details of the simultaneous naval battle led by Themistokles. There is more to be delved into in this chapter as while this is certainly Themistokles' movie and it honors the politician and general he was it is not his movie in the same sense “300” was Leonidas'. There is no need to tirelessly compare the two films as it is difficult to even think of them as a first and second entry in a series as they turn out to be more of companion pieces than anything else. I enjoyed how well Murro and screenwriters Snyder (who also produced), Miller and Kurt Johnstad were able to weave in the choices of Leonidas, his Queen and Dilios (David Wenham) the only surviving member of the original three hundred Spartans, and how they influenced the decisions of Themistokles is his defense of a united Greece against the Persians. It made the story full while never forgetting that it was its own beast in giving backstory not only to the evolution of Xerxes but to that of Artemisia as well. I was worried early on that after seeing two recounts of character origin stories the narrative might try to do too much and become bogged down in its roster and the politics of the situation ultimately undoing the immediate charm of “300.” Instead, once the lines were drawn and these evils established it became clear that the film was actually invested in the character of who Themistokles was and how he handled relationships with his fellow soldiers and how he encouraged them in battle yet didn't encourage them to seek confrontation. It was simplistically yet nicely conveyed by Stapleton that Themistokles was a man of the people, that no matter how high his prominence rose he would not give in to the wishes of Athenian nobility and instead built the strong naval defenses that would see him survive the war with Xerxes. Though we should never get our history lessons from the movies and the representation of Leonidas and his brave 300 were naturally heightened for these films doesn't make it any less compelling and even if the novelty of Snyder's stark style has long since worn off, ‘Rise of an Empire’ surprisingly makes it clear substance can still prevail.
by Philip Price
I am always hesitant to approach foreign films on the idea of not being aware of the culture in which they take place and therefore being unable to relate to the situations these films might present. I have always felt this way yet always known the only way to combat such tendencies is to better acquaint myself with more foreign films. I try to do so from time to time and when I heard Asghar Farhadi's much acclaimed follow-up to 2011's “A Separation” would finally be making it to my neck of the woods I was more than anxious to see what the director had crafted this time around. I remember being in awe of how well Farhadi's previous film was able to so easily capture and wrap me up in the simple issues of the family dynamic that was taking place in front of us and that the smallest of details, of changes in routine would be the event that spurned the main conflict the film was dissecting. It was such a simplistic, yet completely intriguing set-up that I wondered why films and namely those from my own country did not use this technique more often. Something such as “The Past” is an easy film to look at and see its obvious virtues, but these are only obvious because Farhadi has no doubt worked extremely hard to capture the naturalistic tone and conversation between these characters that allow it to feel effortless, as if we were simply observing the actions of these real human beings rather than the fact they were conjured up and plotted out by a singular source. When taking the film on from this perspective it is even easier to see the level of craft and skill involved in what the final version of this film presents and how well the characters have been realized because, as it is staged, we peel back the layers of who these average-seeming individuals are and the baggage they carry with them. It is truly a testament to the idea that each of us carry our own, interesting stories and that we all have something to tell though wouldn't want to necessarily share. The characters of “The Past” are that of people we could live next door to (despite the fact this takes place in France with influences from Iran) and their issues are those common enough to buy into the drama while complicated enough one wouldn't wish them on another. Through this power of simplistic, relatable narrative Farhadi has mastered the character drama.
We are introduced to Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as Marie picks Ahmad up from the airport. It is at first unclear what their connection to one another is and what their relationship hinges on, but we feel the tension between them immediately, the uneasiness of this reunion because it is clearly that. The exchanges of dialogue hint at a history with one another while the silence given between the dialogue that only stands as a way to ease the pain of the point of the reunion gives us more as portrayed by both Bejo and Mosaffa. They talk of getting older, of bad habits and the breakdown of what was once their younger bodies. They come to the topic of children though it is unclear whether they share them or if they come from different relationships explored through the years. The two individuals don't seem to be at a point where life has taken too grand a toll on their physical appearance yet it is clear that time is moving in. I can only assume Farhadi chose his actors as much for their ability to convey the right emotions and elicit the correct reactions as he did for their appearance. Mosaffa's hair is beginning to thin, his belly only slightly sticking out making his naturally thin frame cry out with the fact he has begun not to care as much. Bejo's Marie has always been the pretty one, the privileged even; always getting as she desires, but always being in such a rush to satisfy these urges, these gaps that despite the fact she gets what she wants it usually doesn't work out. We come to learn Marie's two children, Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), do not belong to Ahmad but that he must have married their mother soon after the birth of Léa for they both know him well and show a larger amount of affection towards him than initially expected. While Lucie is at the stage of her adolescence where she has come to resent her mother it seems her mother has given her good reason as not only do Léa and Lucie reside with her, but also a new lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad has come back to France to finalize his divorce with Marie and on the surface it seems this is to allow her and Samir's new relationship to grow, but there is more to the story than that and each of these characters play a very specific role in determining the outcome of this convoluted mess of a situation they find themselves in.
Part of the experience that makes watching “The Past” so engaging is not knowing exactly what the story is or where it might go before entering the theater. I had no pre-conceived notion of what I was getting myself into or what the theme or point of the film might be, but in allowing that to happen I also allowed myself to come to know these characters as naturally as they were written. As with Marie and Ahmad, Samir has been cast as a younger, more solid body but someone whose eyes and hair, whose facial features are sullen by the weight of depression and responsibility. Rahim exudes a charm that mirrors that of Ahmad's as well as his directness, but there is a certain amount of regression in the choosing of him as the next suitor as well. The audience can feel the emotion he has pent up, the confusion with which he operates in this new role as an adult figure to two younger girls, almost strangers, while wanting to care only for his one true offspring and making sure that he grows up to be the best version of a person Samir can imagine. He enjoys the company of Marie and likes that she is pretty and probably showed interest in him in the first place, but he doesn't know what to do with it other than follow his carnal instincts. He certainly doesn't seem to want to take on the responsibility that comes with engaging in a full relationship with her, yet this is where he finds himself. These kind of internal struggles are not said explicitly, yet they are implied by the actions he takes in the situations he finds himself in and Rahim conveys this stress, this hassle, this conflict of true desires and instant gratifications with pure skill giving the most affecting of the leading performances that amounts to a final shot that doesn't need dialogue to make its point, but in the silence of the moment and the stillness of the simple, intimate action gives the audience the tip over the edge of the cliff that, for me, certified what an honest impact the film had on me. It is difficult to discuss this without going into greater detail about the plot points of this very basic human drama, but to say that we can all be moved by the same things makes us one and that the final moment is conveyed in no specific language speaks across the barriers and with immense volume.
There is always a prejudice against foreign films because they come with the idea of having to read through a movie rather than simply sitting back and enjoying it and I would be lying if I said this didn't cause me to avoid a few of them over the past few years. I bring this up because to the point of it sometimes feeling like a chore in something such as “The Past,” where dialogue is everything, the text at the bottom of the screen almost serves as a drug; the audience always wanting more, hanging on to every word waiting to see what comes next and where those words will take us. As far as where the film takes its audience, it is to that of unexpected not always explained places. It is almost deceptive in its simplistic approach to how we think the story might play out. We don't imagine things spiraling out of control or at least becoming as complicated as life tends to be to a point that we the viewer are forced to assess our own lives, choices and what has brought us to our current state and whether we are happy and satisfied to be there or not. Again, it is almost striking at times how familiar this all feels while clearly feeling a distance within the culture the film is surrounded and inhabited by. I've always wondered what people might find so appealing about a foreign film that it is able to transcend the aforementioned barriers and allow so many people in other parts of the world to find it equally engaging. The answer, as presented by Farhadi in both “The Past” and “A Separation,” is that it addresses universal issues of family; divorce, how a marriage might dissolve and how moving on can be both freeing to some and nothing but the burden of horrible change to other factors involved. It all relies on the role you play in these types of situations and the fact every person out there has likely played many of these roles throughout their lives only helps them to understand the perspectives from which Farhadi is able to tackle these simplistically complex situations. It takes on so much more than that of an inclusive family drama trapped in their own little world though as the director is sure to allow the world continuing to move around his characters to play a part in the fact that time stops for no one and no matter the decisions made in relation to these current circumstances there is always a future for you out there, but you have a hand in determining what that might be today. It is a most engaging film and deserves to be seen no matter if you find reading subtitles a burden or not.
by Philip Price
With what has become somewhat of an annual or biennial tradition, we all wait with eager anticipation to see what type of fun, B-movie situation Liam Neeson is going to get himself into next after transcending the lines of the serious and prestigious realm of actors to become nothing short of everyone's favorite action hero in early 2009. Not only did “Taken” mark a change in pace for Neeson though, but it was the first time, in a long time, that it really felt everyone was on board with a movie and that it had all the parts to please everyone no matter what demographic you fell into or what genre you enjoyed the most. Neeson was there for the serious film-goers, the action was there for the male and younger crowds while the storyline concerning a kidnapped child put the older sets in a "what would you do" type situation that was all-around engaging and was simply the perfect storm of elements that made agreeing on Taken an easy thing to do, a wagon we could all jump on and not feel bad for doing so. While Neeson has seemingly embraced this new-found identity as he has translated it into some fun (“Unkown”), some poignant (“The Grey”) and some not so great (“Taken 2”) experiences that show no signs of slowing and with “Non-Stop” he may have made his most middle of the road, yet still fascinatingly interesting B-movie to date. There is a sense of something a little extra here, an element not necessarily present in what would be considered your typical first quarter release, but something that heightens not just the quality of the overall picture but the experience it entails and if “Non-Stop” has anything going for it more than the fact it fits squarely into Neeson's new catalogue is the experience it offers the first time around. It is one of those tightly structured, elaborately plotted thrillers that consistently dares the audience to get in on the game of who is behind it all and this one in particular happens to be extremely satisfying in its execution while giving its justification more weight than we might expect, turning what could have easily been this brainless, exploitation flick into something that might make Hitchcock proud, or at least allow him to have a good time watching it. “Non-Stop” may not be something that will endure, but in that moment, in that present as you first experience the story unfold it is nothing short of guilt-free fun.
We are introduced to Bill Marks (Neeson) in the first frame, stirring his alcoholic beverage around with his tooth brush as he sits, waiting in his car. He gets out only to encounter an interesting set of individuals as he makes his way through an airport and onto the transatlantic flight where he will serve as the U.S. Air Marshal. He helps a young girl who is traveling alone on a plan for the first time overcome her fears, letting us know that despite his apparent drinking problem he is a good guy at heart. He winds up sitting next to Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) a woman keen on getting the window seat who engages Marks in conversation to keep him calm during takeoff and generally seems interested in his life (maybe a little too much?). The action, or should I say complexities, really kick-in when Marks begins receiving text messages from an anonymous fellow passenger threatening to kill someone every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into a designated account. There are countless other characters here designed to be misleading and/or distracting from what eventually comes to be understood, but they are done with such a natural approach, a way of recognizing what you are seeing and knowing it's a possibility, but not knowing if the filmmakers are messing with you or if they really want you to buy into it. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also directed Neeson in “Unknown”) plays this hand well, keeping the audience in tune with the fact that we should never actually doubt Neeson's character despite the plot point given away in the trailer that the designated bank account in which the ransom money is to be transferred has Marks name on it. We don't doubt Neeson's air marshal, but we are inclined to believe it could be any one of the strategically cast members that make up the remainder of the passengers and crew. Scoot McNairy with his squirmy demeanor, Corey Stoll with his stoic presence and suspicious eyebrows, Omar Metwally as the obligatory Muslim, Nate Parker who has early run-ins with Marks making the tension between them immediately heightened or even the trusted stewardess Nancy (Michelle Dockery) who is more than willing to help, but is she over-compensating? The list could go on, but the fun is in the game of Clue and figuring out whodunit and where they're hiding while discussing the how as you leave the theater.
The sentence above which includes the phrase "strategically cast" is a key factor for how successful “Non-Stop” turned out to be and I was happy to see that none of the marketing for the film was keen to hint at what the actual outcome of the film was. If anything, the trailer pushed for us to suspect Moore's character (that shot of her in the trailer with thick, black-rimmed glasses on staring suspiciously to the right was meant to do nothing but incite some type of expectation in our minds) and I'm not saying that it isn't her as much as I'm not going to say what her role in the film ultimately amounts to. Each of the above mentioned casting choices could mean something though none of them make for an obvious villain while their inherent credibility adds a fair amount of gravitas to the proceedings that are necessary for audiences to be truly confused while also making the film feel fuller. What makes something like “Non-Stop” truly successful as far as operating within its constraints though is how easy it appeals to those looking for what the movies are first and foremost meant to offer: an escape. The simple premise of putting Liam Neeson in a plane where someone is threatening to kill someone else every twenty minutes is easily understood and inserts us quickly into the action and keeps things rolling while not getting caught up in itself or its innovation to the point audience members are lost along the way. "How do you kill someone in a crowded plane and get away with it?" This question posed by the captain of the airplane (Linus Roache) is what serves as the films tagline and that idea and the many ways in which you could spawn a story from that point are taken and run with by first time screenwriters John Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle. I can only imagine the sessions these three might have had with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth as to how they might not only fool the audience into looking for indications in all the wrong places, but about how to bring things home with a strong point, a reason with substance that might resonate with people in the audience and bring this obvious genre picture into something more than popcorn entertainment, but that of a stimulating or provoking thought that gives reason for interesting conversation buried under the revelations of who guessed the conclusion correctly.
As for Neeson himself, the now 61 year old actor is more intimidating than ever. His rough Irish growl was the highlight of that ingenious marketing campaign that led “Taken” to truly be successful and launch the actor into the stratosphere he currently resides in and it continues to serve him well especially in the latter scenes of “Non-Stop” where he is forced to throw all inhibitions aside and simply take-on the threat head-first. Neeson is not so much acting here as he was in say “The Grey” where he truly found something that likely resonated with that point of his life and his state of being as he is more going through the motions here, but Neeson is what people will flock to this movie to for and for his presence alone. He is a late-blooming action star, but someone we for some reason find extremely exciting to watch kick ass and take names. There isn't as much of the kicking ass as you might have expected in “Non-Stop” especially since that is obviously what they wanted to market it as, but the pure intrigue of the premise and the exciting ways in which something like this could go are more than enough to sustain audiences looking for that next chapter in Neeson's career-resurgence. I wasn't expecting much from this film as “Unknown” is one of my lesser favorites of these Neeson in leading action role films that he's made over the past few years (though it still ranks well above “Taken 2”) but I enjoyed him in the criminally underrated “A-Team” and his contributions to the ‘Clash/Wrath of the Titans’ franchise are easily among the best moments of those films. With “Non-Stop” he has combined elements from each to make something easy and accessible such as the “Taken” flicks, something with a fun game within the narrative that questions the audience (“Unknown”) and a culmination of events that offers something more substantial than simply overcoming the bad guys who want more money than they'd know what to do with but don't stand a chance in hell of actually getting away with it (“The Grey,” I guess). In short, and what I've actually been trying to say this entire review is that “Non-Stop” is a happy medium of everything Neeson has been dipping his toes in with this late career-run as an action star and for that, the film deserves to be seen if not for the entertainment value it provides but because it is really a solid thriller dressed in B-movie clothing.
by Philip Price
I never thought myself smart enough to be a doctor and never had any ambition as a child to reach for those stars, but as I got older it became more and more clear why the rewards of such a job might not justify the many negatives that come along with the business of saving lives. There always seem to be these rules in place to dictate how we live and how our society operates and we always seem to come across scenarios where those rules seem completely out of sync with the reality of what is going on in the world. While the latest film in Matthew McConaughey's career turn-around isn't fueled by these issues, but more so by the strength of the human condition, it takes them into a large account due to the fact that in this case our protagonist must deal with humanity as a business and push back against those attempting to somehow make the case that the aforementioned rules outweigh actual humanity. How it all boils down to being a business rather than abiding by the no doubt patient-centric ideals of their mission statement, the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are the baddies here; one paying the other to push their product no matter the health of their "customers" or the opposing team McConaughey's Ron Woodroof brings to the game that might be better, but doesn't carry the backing which means little extra profit for anyone involved. Why someone chose to tell the story of Woodroof though is because he decided to take up arms against the corporation that began as a gratifying profession and has evolved in many aspects to a business much like any other that deals with products that bring comfort and luxury to our lives but are not providing the luxury of sustaining life as hospitals do (a point many of the doctors represented in the film seem to be missing). Woodroof wasn't the most ideal of people to head this kind of revolution up, he had more faults than he did kind qualities, but it sometimes takes that kind of attitude to say, "screw it, I'll do it my own way if the only option you're offering is to die comfortably." There is just the right amount of rebel cowboy and logical thinking in our main character for him to stand by those words and provide the incredibly gratifying character arc in which director Jean-Marc Vallée's film delivers while opening our eyes to the harsh realities of our systems flawed philosophies.
Beginning in 1985 we are introduced to Woodroof (McConaughey) as he solidifies his straightness by hooking up with two rodeo groupies at the same time under the bleachers. This not only gives us an immediate impression of what kind of person we're dealing with here, but it gives us notification from which angle the story will be coming from and how it might present this in an interesting way. No, Woodroof is not a homosexual, but after an accident on the job he is admitted to the hospital and has blood tests run that determine he is HIV-plus. He is instinctively offended that the doctors would even mention his name and an illness mainly associated with the gay community in the same sentence. That the story will present this take on the struggle for HIV and AIDS patients to find some hope for a cure or a sustainable life from the perspective of a homophobic man allows the film the ability to display the ignorance of those who may share the backwards thinking Ron has at the beginning of the film as well as informing those not educated on the virus and its capabilities both gay and straight. As Ron is at first in denial about the diagnosis Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) give him (that also comes along with the warning he only has thirty days to live) he immediately reverts back to drinking, using cocaine and having sex with prostitutes. It is beyond his redneck ideologies that he could possibly have this disease, but once he comes to terms with the fact there is indeed something wrong with him and opens his eyes to the fact one can contract the disease through intravenous drug use this revelation begins to improve the type of human being Ron Woodroof was. He meets Rayon (Jared Leto) a gay transvestite who at first repulses him, but who he comes to see is fighting the same battle and has the connections that will help Ron prove that AZT, the most promising treatment for the disease, is doing nothing but causing more harm and as its only in clinical trials is the one the pharmaceutical companies are trying to push forward. Ron finds unapproved drugs in Mexico and other countries that better hold off the virus and sustain the life of those living with the disease better and begins the titular club in order to provide these alternative sources of medication to the people who can't wait on trials and approvals.
When discussing “Dallas Buyers Club” the thing most people will be talking about is the considerable weight loss of star McConaughey and how he prepared to play the role of Ron Woodroof. It is true, his transformation is startling. From the first shot where we see the majority of his body it is somewhat of a shock no matter how many trailers or pictures you may have seen. To see the usually buff and chiseled actor dwindled down to skin and bone with his clothes draped across him and his Adams apple protruding from his throat you immediately think back to his flashier roles in romantic comedies of a decade ago and how truly unrecognizable he is here. What is more startling than the drastic change in appearance though is just how solid McConaughey continues to prove himself to be in these smaller, more character driven films that depend on him playing the guy not as easily likable as those that made him leading man material. As Woodroof, McConaughey disappears into the role and not just because of the physical change, but through the fact that as I watched this film and as it spent at least forty-five minutes setting this character up and who he is, how he looks at the world and what constitutes living to him I began to forget that this was Matthew McConaughey being an actor, but simply took it at face value that this was in fact how the real Ron Woodroof looked, talked, and acted when going through this period of his life. McConaughey doesn't just get that one moment to shine, but instead he gets many throughout the course of the film. He makes this racist and homophobic man turn from his limited point of view into being able to not just see, but accept and change how having a time limit unexpectedly placed on things has the ability to put them into real perspective. This is not all the McConaughey show though as about halfway through we begin to really get to know Leto's Rayon and that his performance is more than capable of stealing the film. Leto is a revelation; being able to disappear even more into the role than his counterpart and on top of that the companionship that develops between he and Woodroof is touching without becoming hokey. That the audience accepts it as genuinely as it does is a testament to how good this pair of performances are, but that Leto is able to make us not necessarily understand, but accept a lifestyle many people don't look lightly on is phenomenal. I'll be surprised if McConaughey doesn't get a nomination for this, but if Leto is left out in the cold that will be a downright shame.
Speaking to the film in general though, it doesn't so much as sweep you up in its process as the performances alone do. The performances by the aforementioned stars are what elevate this piece to a level that will afford it awards consideration and even those I haven't yet mentioned from Garner whose role could have been just as well serving a newcomer, but whose name and presence lend a comforting factor to the proceedings. Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin all show up in supporting roles throughout as well not necessarily adding anything exceptional to the film, but cementing the kind of importance with which the film deserves to be taken. Still, the impression the film leaves you with is not one of great sustainability, but it does have enough coherence and enough of a message that we understand why it deserves the attention it is receiving. One of the tools Vallée uses repeatedly is that of jumping forward in time several months or even years at a time. This is hopefully no spoiler to you given Woodroof is only initially expected to live thirty days, but these leaps in time make the film feel more choppy than I initially expected it to while the narrative drive seems to become a little lost at moments because of this. There are times it seems the film knows it needs to show the toll the disease is taking on Ron and so it has him driving through town or out in the middle of nowhere as he has a breakdown either realizing how severely this disease has affected him or being without treatment for so long that he is starting to develop severe symptoms from the withdrawal of any remedies. I understand that there is of course a level of fiction and interpretation here, but I couldn't help to think that there might have been a more naturalistic way to convey the stress and weight of what Ron was suffering from and where it was forcing him to go with his mental state rather than taking the focus completely away from the complications surrounding the club that were being forced down on him by the FDA and IRS. These are minor complaints though in a film that by the time it comes to a peaceful conclusion has delivered a story that has the capability of appealing to those well-aware of the AIDS crisis and how it changes the lives of those affected (not to mention how it is contracted) as well as those who believe it is a disease strictly specific to the gay community and how homophobia will only bleed into further ignorance in preventing a peace and understanding within all of humanity.