Blog Archives

Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.

Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).

The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.

If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.

With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.

The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.

The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.

For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.

Nate’s Grade: C+

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

103752_galIn 2007, the gory, shouty, beefcake-y action flick 300 came out of relative nowhere and took the world by storm, earning over $400 million worldwide and launching the careers of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen). The movie burrowed itself into pop culture, readily mocked and parodied along with its highly stylized action. So where to go next? Also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, though one that is incomplete as of release, 300: Rise of an Empire is a return to the same stylized excess that made careers. Except now seven years later, what once dazzled seems empty; visually alluring but hollow by all accounts.

Following the brave stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is pushing forward with his plans to subjugate the city-states of Greece. Long ago, Themistokles (Sullivan Stepleton) killed King Darius during Persia’s first invasion attempt. Xerxes has sworn vengeance since, goaded into action by his second-in-command, general Artemisia (Eva Green). She commands Xerxes’ mighty naval fleet, and she looks to “dance across the backs of dead Greeks.” The many city-states of Greece are squabbling over an appropriate response; Themistokles argues they should unite, while others contend for surrender to Xerxes. Themistokles rallies what armies and ships he can to meet the Persians on the sea and prevent the overpowering invasion.

114934_galThe difficulty with a follow-up to 300 is that Snyder’s highly stylized original has been copied and pasted so many times by cheap imitators, so what’s new? The film’s visual style follows the original closely, all those gauzy panoramas and human bodies lovingly showcasing in slow-mo the ugly beauty of bloodshed and violence. The rippling muscles, the glistening sweat, the geysers of blood; it’s all here and in displayed in fawning 3D detail. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I noticed that every campfire scene was littered with annoying floating embers. However, Rise of an Empire manages some pleasant surprises because a majority of its action takes place at sea. This is a movie devoted to ancient maritime combat, and that’s pretty interesting. The scope of the action is much larger this time, with far more than 300 soldiers in play. The naval battles are brought to life with Hollywood excess but they’re still fairly exciting and fun to watch. The action is well orchestrated, usually easy enough to follow, and suitably thrilling, with each sequence differing from the last. The pumping score by Junkie XL works as a strong driving force with pounding percussion and horns (check out “History of Artemisia”). There are also less nutty monstrous evil henchmen this go-round as well, which helps bring a needed sense of internal reality to all the fantastical action. There are no goat people and blade-handed executioners this time. I don’t think anybody is going to take the movie to task for historical accuracy, but it’s appreciated all the same. Though who’s going to hire Blade Hands now? The guy has a very limited skill set for a workplace.

Plot-wise, the first 300 film was an underdog tale, a group of proud warriors fighting against overwhelming odds eventually giving their lives for the cause. It’s an early chapter in the Noble Lost Cause storytelling playbook, meant to inspire. It’s a Greek Alamo. The problem is when you pick up the story after the Noble Lost Cause. Now the Greeks have to fight the whole of Xerxes’ mighty forces with their own, and while it’s still an underdog story at its core, watching one huge army fight a huger army doesn’t have the same entertainment value. That may be why the film also works as a prequel. There are three flashbacks to fill out the first act’s worth of table setting: the initial war with Persia, Xerxes, and Artemisia. We get storylines happening concurrently with Leonidas and his men, though Gerard Butler declined to reappear in the film. You definitely miss his animalistic fire and screen presence. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s much of a story here besides a big-screen version of Stratego, where the Greeks move, then the Persians, now everyone is dead or defeated. That’s a glib oversimplification, yes, but the plot boils down to an increasing series of episodes on how the Greeks repel the Persian invaders. Without greater characters and storylines to populate the downtime, it all becomes soulless exercises in CGI bloodshed chasing after whatever is cool looking.

The big problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, despite the ever-present sameness of it all, is that the heroes are bland and the villains are charismatic, which makes it easier to root for the bad guys, which I heartily did. The heroes are chiseled from the blandest of hunks of one-note characterization, with only three real characters being formed. There’s Leader Guy a.k.a. Themistokles, who wants to unite Greece into one power. There’s Father, a.k.a Scyllias, who has a slight scar on his jaw to better identify him, and then there’s his Son, a.k.a. Calisto, who wants to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, that is it, which is all you get when it comes to your heroes. What a shameful pittance. There aren’t even flamboyant supporting characters in their ranks. The heroes are boring, and the father/son storyline plays out exactly as you’d expect, which is a reverse from the original 300. These are not characters you’d follow into uncertain danger. These are characters leftover after all the good ones have been prematurely slain. These are some lackluster leftovers.

114953_galNow, let’s take a look at the enemy camp, namely with chief antagonist, Artemisia. It helps leaps and bounds that she is played by  Eva Green (Casino Royale, Dark Shadows), and it’s even more helpful that Green gives it her all, sinking her teeth into the campy villainy. Artemisia is a fierce sword fighter, no-nonsense general, and overall badass supreme. She kisses decapitated heads, is not above fighting topless, and wears wicked outfits with spikes and all sorts of goodies. Every time she departs a scene, you’re left counting down the minutes until you see her again. She’s so delightfully entertaining, chomping at the bit for vengeance and Greek blood. She’s also a woman commanding warships in 500 BC, not exactly a time that recognized women as equals. Another wrong move on the filmmakers’ part was illuminating Artemisia’s back-story. We learn via flashback that Artemisia watched her family get raped and slaughtered by the Greeks. She was sold into sexual slavery at a young age, imprisoned in the bowels of a Greek ship, repeatedly raped for years. Then when these horrible men had had their fill, she was dumped onto an anonymous road and left to die. After seeing this sequence, what person isn’t going to welcome Artemisia? Does she not deserve her vengeance? I was emotionally engaged with her from that moment onward, and so I rooted for her to burn Greece down and vanquish our lame heroes.

The rest of the actors on screen are rather bad. The beefy men on screen could have used some extra work on their underutilized acting muscles. Stapleton (Gangster Squad, TV’s Strike Back) is absent any notable charisma to distinguish him from the stubbly-bearded pack of screaming male heroes. Santoro (The Last Stand) has a certain dour intensity to him, though he spends much of the film watching from a distance. The rest of the cast doesn’t even merit mentioning because the film treats them like featured extras rather than genuine characters. Only Lena Headey’s (TV’s Game of Thrones, The Purge) handful of scenes will grab your attention. It’s ironic that a film that glorifies the heroics of male soldiers, as well as the their chiseled physiques, and the only two women in the entire film are easily the most memorable and entertaining people. Dump the dudes.

While it offers enough thrills and visual power to satisfy a trial viewing, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too empty a spectacle to warrant anything beyond a cursory glance. Director Noam Murro follows Snyder’s blueprint to the best of his abilities, soaking the screen in blood, rippling flesh, and visual grandeur, but the movie goes into convulsions when somebody is forced to talk without kicking people in the face. The plot amounts to little more than a series of attacks played out like stages in a video game. While the original is no masterwork, at least it had characters that we could gravitate toward. Absent any hero worth rooting for, it’s no wonder that Green and her memorable villain reign supreme. She is excellent and has a reasonable motivation for her vengeance. If it had been her movie, 300: Rise of an Empire might have developed into a worthy spectacle anchored by its fiery heroine. Alas, the actual movie is just a Saved by the Bell: The New Class of half-naked men going off to CGI battle, and that’s just not enough.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Purge (2013)

The-Purge-posterSci-fi cautionary tales have been an outstanding way to provide commentary for contemporary anxiety. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and the recently departed Richard Matheson were masters of this. A movie can make you think as speculative fiction while still following a thriller/horror blueprint to entertain the masses. And so writer/director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13, The Negotiator) wades into these waters with The Purge, a home invasion thriller that has a premise that, on the surface, might make you scoff. In 2022, the United States has practically solved unemployment and crime thanks to a nifty little holiday known as the Purge. Every year, for a twelve-hour window, law is rescinded and so are emergency services like police and firefighters. For those 12 hours, good American men and women are allowed to engage in just about every sort of crime up to and including murder. It’s designed for people to release all their aggression and darker impulses, thus allowing for a safer, happier 364 and a half days a year.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the top salesman when it comes to hardcore home security systems, the kind with the thick metal doors over your windows and doors. He lives in one of those finely protected homes with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and children, Max (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kaine). They’re prepared for a long night behind barricades. Then a wounded black man (Edwin Hodge) runs through the cushy neighbor, crying desperately for help. Charlie offers him refuge inside the Sandin abode. Shortly after, a group of masked vigilantes, led by a lad who looks like Patrick Bateman, knock on the Sandin home. The bloody ma is their “bait,” and these angry folk demand he be returned to them, or else they will be coming in and sparing no one.

103568_galThis high-concept thriller is a well-crafted suspense piece, with several well-developed sequences that squeeze out tension. The premise involves some mighty suspension of disbelief but you’d be surprised how easy it is to accept and move on. The kids provide dissenting voices, mostly Charlie, and we get a lean history of the Purge and all the information we need to go forward, at least for this night. I liked how it’s become a common passing greeting to say “Stay safe” to people on the day before the Purge. Little details like that make the world feel more thought out. I like that engaging in the Purge is thought of as one’s patriotic duty. There are some tantalizing moments of dread as well, like a neighbor sharpening his killing tools outdoors. But really the movie comes down to its suspense, broken up into a series of different goals. James wants to protect his family and return the “bait,” but first he needs to find him and subdue him. Charlie wants to save him and get to him first. It’s your standard people-groping-in-the-dark kind of picture, but when given a strong sense of urgency and some good actors, it can be plenty suspenseful. DeMonaco does a fine job of making sure his story doesn’t get too confusing, tasking the audience with keeping track of too many participants. So when we have Zoey’s bad boyfriend (Tony Oller), he’s dealt with before the manhunt begins. When the home invasion kicks in, the manhunt is over. When it looks like Zoey is heading straight for the stranger, it’s a storyline that culminates very quickly. There’s a good sense of clarity throughout The Purge, which aids the effectiveness of the thrills.

For the first half of the movie, things snap together well enough that you just accept the premise and its implications, forgoing the nitpicks that wait. It isn’t until the third act where you start to disengage from the film and pick it apart. As a cautionary tale, it has some interesting ideas about class warfare; the main villain is right out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist playbook. But the ideas and moral commentary fade as the movie becomes more a standard, albeit effective, suspense thriller. I really appreciated the argument that unemployment is so low because the Purge takes care of the sick, homeless, and poor and disadvantaged, those chiefly who cannot defend themselves and are easily targeted. It’s an eerie extreme that doesn’t feel too many steps removed from the last presidential election where Republican primary debate audiences cheered the hypothetical death of the poor. But then the nitpicks do come and once they do it’s like a rushing tide that cannot be stopped. Why do people have stockpiles of guns but no bulletproof vests and gear? Why wait for the bad guys to get in when you and your armed, well-defended family in your home fortress can preemptively strike? Why would you order the Sandin family to return your “bait” and then turn off their power? Doesn’t that make it much harder? Why would killing your girlfriend’s father win her over? Do you think she’s really still going to be your girlfriend after that? How big is this house that people get lost in it constantly? Who hides under the bed in this day and age? And, when hiding from intruders who wish to kill you, why in the world would you keep your flashlight on?

It’s late in this last act that the film tries to go one step too far. The home invasion commences, the struggles are pretty dandy to watch with some creepy imagery, and then DeMonaco has to go beyond that, introducing a secondary set of antagonists that at once feel obvious and poorly set up. The family asks, befuddled, why these new antagonists are doing what they’re doing, but they, and you, will not get a straight answer. It’s really designed to be shocking and little else, and so it feels tacked on and unnecessary. The last ten minutes of the film fumble the momentum of the movie. It’s a stumble at the finish line and leaves some lingering doubt as you assess the effectiveness of the whole movie.

103574_galSo the premise begs the question: what would you do with a lawless 12-hour window? I think most human beings would be too timid to embrace their animal side. Morals and ethics factor in, naturally, but really I think it’s just good old fear, the fear that anyone else can snuff you out with impunity, and engaging in the Purge also makes you a target. I think most people would probably try and engage in heists, but then the bank would be crawling with twenty different heist teams squabbling over who gets the loot. The banks would also surely increase their security astronomically.

The premise, while intriguing, also permeates with scads of ambiguity. Purge hours are from 7 PM to 7 AM, but what if you’re in the midst of committing a crime and go over the window? To use the bank robbery example, what if you get the money but fail to leave the bank by 7 AM, or even have? At that point, are you considered a criminal? Does the money go back to being counted as stolen goods or if it was pilfered during Purge hours it doesn’t count? Then there are the psychological ramifications of said Purge. If your neighbor raped your wife, Scott-free, you cannot tell me that vengeance isn’t going to play a key part in next year’s Purge. Seeing that face every day, acting “neighborly” while knowing what happened, plotting, waiting, and while the rapist neighbor prepares for the attack as well. Actually, that sounds like a pretty decent sequel (you can have that one for free, Blumhouse). How much Purge-related violence is just retaliatory vengeance? How do people stay in this country? If I as rich and could afford a super pricy security system, perhaps I’d rather take a weekend getaway to Canada instead. Or just stay for good.

The Purge is an effective little thriller until it isn’t, which thankfully only unravels in the concluding ten minutes or so. Until then, DeMonaco gooses his film with enough scares and thrills to justify a sitting, leaving an audience mostly satisfied until they exit and start to pick the film’s nature apart. I would have liked a bit more moral inquiry, political commentary, and some headier looks into these New Founding Fathers running the country, but I was satisfied with the suspense thriller I got. It’s modest, proficient, and well developed with its suspense, so I can’t be too picky. Then again, with this premise, The Purge could have been a lot more than what it is, a lot more disturbing and a lot more contemplative. But I’ll settle for effective and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Dredd (2012)

In 1995, Sylvester Stallone starred in Judge Dredd as the titular law enforcer. This big budget sci-fi action flick was goofy and violent and had the added punishment of Rob Schneider as pained comic relief. No wonder it failed at the box-office. I was never a fan of the comics so I can’t say how close the movie was to the source material, but given the presence of Rob Schneider, I’d say it’s doubtful. Because the 1995 film was such a flop, nobody wanted the rights to the character when they went back up for sale. That’s what allowed screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) to swoop in and write a new version. Dredd is an attempt to resuscitate a franchise that never got started. I don’t know if it’s particularly a good Judge Dredd movie, but as an action film it’s viciously entertaining and it has 100 percent less Rob Schneider.

Dredd (Karl Urban) works for the police of Mega City 1, one of the last metropolises of the irradiated waste land that is the United States. Crime has taken over and crime lords rule neighborhoods. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) is the leader of a gang pushing Slo-Mo, wa drug that alters people’s perception of time. She controls the 20-story high rise that serves as her base of operations. Dredd is partnered with a young cadet, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who also has psychic abilities. She could be an asset to the force, but first she needs to be field tested. They get called to arrest Ma-Ma, but this prostitute-turned-ruthless drug kingpin isn’t going quietly. She locks Dredd and Anderson inside her high rise and orders her inhabitants to take care of the pesky officers.

I had my doubts, but when it comes to action Dredd delivers. As soon as I saw the trailer, I screamed that this film was little more than a Hollywood remake of the awesome action film from Indonesia, The Raid: Redemption. The plots are identical but I’ll give Garland the benefit of the doubt that he came to his story independently. Whereas The Raid was heavy on martial arts and different fighting styles, and creative weapons, Dredd is really all about the firepower, the gunplay, the blowing up of material, the riddling of bodies with bullets. Each floor presents a new challenge and gives another opportunity for Dredd to outgun or outsmart the competition. This plot model feels like a video game come to life, clearing stage after stage, awaiting boss battles, collecting power ups. Readers will know I am not a strong believer that video games will ever give birth to a solid movie, but I’m ready to concede that this specific plot structure can allow for kickass action. The plot is simple but when given enough attention to geography and organic consequences, then great action can be unleashed, and Dredd is great action unleashed. It looks great, it’s constantly offering something new, raising the stakes, bringing in new elements to contend with, and it’s more than just things going boom. There are some genuinely suspenseful sequences to go along with all the stylish shoot-em-ups.

And the gunplay is vicious and bloody, reveling in the gory display of bodies being blown apart. There are slow-mo bullets traveling through people’s faces, all the better to see the care CGI artists put in to the gore. The ruthless violence is practically casual, and we’ll just see character walk by and fire into the backs of downed characters, giving us another explosion of blood to marvel upon. It would be really easy to call this movie sick, except it works so effectively as an action thriller that the bloody violence feels like a constant jolt. Our introduction to Ma-Ma is her hurling three men off the roof of her 2000-foot high penthouse, watching them splatter below. These are some nasty people and Dredd is dispelling some nasty justice, but because we recognize the antagonists are ruthless, and a real threat, then the violent dispatching of them doesn’t feel exploitative. It feels like keeping pace with some bad folk. Maybe that’s just a contrived way for me to justify that I found the brutish violence entertaining. Simple pleasures.

As far as a Judge Dredd adaptation, the Dredd elements almost feel grafted on, inconsequential. The screenplay could have been completely wiped of the Dredd elements and the plot would essentially be the same. It’s a dystopian world where crime has run amok and the police have resorted to become ruthless enforcers of justice. Dredd as a character, his worldview, his rookie partner who needs to prove herself on the mean streets, all of this is boilerplate cop movie stuff. It has some sci-fi stylizing but the content is still the same. I enjoyed the advanced gun that follows voice commands but nothing in the plot hinged on this element. Dredd just as easily could have been Cop #1 running from room to room, floor to floor, taking out the bad guys. So in this regard, Dredd works really well as a confined action movie but it’s questionable whether this is an effective adaptation of the comics.

I’m surprised that with a drug called Slo-Mo that the movie didn’t make more use of this plot device. We get sequences of people blissfully on the Slo-Mo; the world looking like it was filmed through a glistening soap bubble. It’s neat but it can really become something cool for the sake of cool, ultimately superfluous except for a snazzy visual that plays into the 3D. It doesn’t appear like the drug lasts long either. But if time slows down for the people on this drug then wouldn’t you think somebody would want to make use of this when fighting Dredd? Perhaps it would sharpen their reaction time by making the world seem to slow to a crawl. However, if this is just an altered state of the drug, I think there could have been a fun moment where a Slo-Mo user tried to take on Dredd and we get differing points of view. For the user, time seems slow and they seem at an advantage. For Dredd, the user would just be acting slow and stupid. It’d punctuate the illusion of the reality-altering drug and explain why none of these gang members spark up before battle.

The acting in Dredd is competent and hardly dreadful (forgive me, it had to be done). Urban (Star Trek) goes the entire movie with his helmet screwed on. You never see the top half of the man’s face, presenting an interesting acting challenge (just ask Tom Hardy how tricky it is to act with your face obscured). The man has a permanent grimace carved into his face, grumbling his line throughout. Dredd is supposed to be a grim, no-nonsense enforcer. He’s not exactly got a lot of dimension to him. Urban inhabits the role well but you get the impression anybody could have been in that suit and the film would roughly be the same. Dredd also answers the question of what Olivia Thirlby (Juno) has been up to since 2008. She acquits herself well in all the bloody business and she’s not a bad blonde either. Headey has got the sneering villain act down cold thanks to TV’s Game of Thrones.

Dredd is your best bet when it comes to action movies right now. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. The action is brutish and routinely entertaining. It pulls no punches and the bloody melee is full of beautiful carnage. It’s a simple story with pretty simple characters and relatively shallow depth, but where Dredd succeeds is in execution. The emphasis is spent on constructing thrilling actions sequences that build, that change, that impress. It’s not for the faint of heart but for those hungry for a hard-R, bloody, sci-fi thriller, the likes of Paul Verhouven, then I suggest checking out Dredd. And you better hurry, because this version of Judge Dredd is also failing at the box office. Maybe Rob Schneider has been vindicated after all.

Nate’s Grade: B

300 (2007)

The story of the 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, 150 years before Alexander the Great. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santiago) has deemed himself a “God king” and his Persian army has been conquering Asian nations and acquiring the most massive military force of its time. He sets his sights on conquering Greece, and to do so must go through the narrow passage of Thermopylae.

King Leonidis (Gerard Butler) assembles 300 of his finest Spartan warriors to thwart the Persian invasion. The Spartans were the super soldiers of their time, a society that valued brute strength and the honor of combat. Children born with imperfections were cast onto the rocks to perish; the society couldn’t afford a weak link in its protection. One day a Persian emissary rides into Sparta carrying the skulls of other kings and princes and a message from Xerxes: submit or you’re next. Well, after the emissary insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), he refutes the message and kicks the emissary down a giant black pit in the middle of town (is this where they dump their garbage?). Thus, as they say, it is on. The Greek city-states have no sense of nationalism, so Leonidis commands little support to thwart the advancing Persian hordes. The Spartans have discipline and superior equipment, and because of these advantages they are able to hold back overwhelming numbers from the Persian army.

Back at the home front, Queen Gorgo is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to state her case to the Spartan assembly. She needs to shore support for more troops to help her husband. Theron (Dominic West) is a member of the priesthood that looks to sexually charged Oracles for guidance. However, he’s willing to drop his pacifist stance if the queen drops her robe and grins and bares it.

Xerxes is not a happy “God king.” He tries appealing to Leonidis, insisting that if he will simply bow down and relent than he will be spared. “Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory,” he threatens. Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine.” The two men (well one man and one God king) go back to their corners ready for another round of this epic slugfest.

The action sequences are intense and director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) heightens their realities with surreal touches. He fondly gives life to the bloodshed and exaggerated combat popularized from Frank Miller?s graphic novel. The Sin City author has created another testosterone-soaked hyper-real adventure. The movie doesn’t even flirt with the notion of rigid historical accuracy (I doubt the Spartans fought rhinos, giant mutants, and were done in by a disgruntled hunchback); the film uses Miller’s artwork as a jumping point, which means that the Spartans fight in leather codpieces and red capes and that combat is more one-on-one even after we learn about the important of the phalanx. But quibbling over inaccuracies is a waste of time, because 300 is a pumped-up, super cool action movie that plays out in a vivid dreamscape. The movie was filmed with extensive green screen, much like Sin City was, and it feels like a direct transition of Miller’s pulpy comic book. Even the farewell sex between the King and Queen is stylized and seems to be snippets or panels from a comic book.

Let’s all be honest, there’s something undeniably homoerotic about 300. The movie worships the male form, with rippling abs and bulging biceps lovingly showcased in glowing, sweaty, fawning detail. The movie also focuses on manly men primarily spearing one another with phallic weaponry while the spurting blood dances across the camera in balletic CGI spasms. There?s a definite gay appeal to this film, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, 300 also manages to curiously be homophobic at the same time (I swear this came to me independently, Phil). Xerxes is designed very as being very fey even at a massive height of eight feet. He lays his hands against Leonidis’ shoulders and asks for him to submit, and you can’t help but wonder what the teen boys in the audience are thinking. Xerxes also has a party tent filled with whores, the disfigured, transvestites, and the overall effeminate opposite of all those Greek macho muscle men the film postures as elite specimens.

The acting is set to one tempo and that’s a mesmerizing use of yell-speak; it’s part guttural and part long-standing bellow that makes any piece of dialogue sound macho. King Leonidis growls, “SPAAAAAAAARTANS! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELLLLLLLL!” After two hours of this primal style of speech, it becomes somewhat infectious and you want to try it in everyday situations in your life. Next time you’re out with friends at a fine dining establishment, I suggest asking for the salt thusly: “DINING PAAAARTNAAAAAH, COULD. YOOOOOOOOOU. PAAAAAAAAASS. THE SAAAAAAAAAAAALT?!” You’ll be guaranteed to get a reaction. It strains my throat even writing about the 300 yell-speak.

300 is a rousing movie going experience that plays out in a beautiful, pristine dreamscape that closely resembles our planet. The action is highly stylized and frenetic. It’s just that when the film stops to take a breath you start to look elsewhere, and when you do you realize there isn’t much below the blood-caked eye candy shell. 300 is grand spectacle that elicits thrills and chills, but the movie fails to touch on emotions beyond loyalty and courage. Both are essential for a soldier, and one as dedicated as a Spartan warrior, but the lack of substance keeps 300 from being anything other than a visually arresting, if ultimately disposable, two hours at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose sole purpose is to quicken the pulse for a short supply of time, and 300 succeeds smashingly with this singular ambition. It is an ass-kicking history lesson that makes me wish I could learn more about Persian executioners with blades for hands at my local library.

Every culture has their own account of a last stand, a small group that heroically held off seemingly superior forces (remember the Alamo?). Snyder and Miller present an entertaining hack-and-slash primer through history that’s rarely dull and often enchanting to the senses. Deep down, there may not be much more to 300 than a lot of pretty pictures and a bunch of chiseled hunks, but that?s enough for most carnage fans with a free afternoon.

Nate?s Grade: B

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Director Terry Gilliam is one of the true artists working today in movies. His manic, off kilter, visually grand imagination has crafted wonderfully vivid fantasias, but it also has given Gilliam a reputation for being the captain of a sinking ship. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is regarded as one of Hollywood’s bigger failures, unfairly I might add. A fascinating 2003 documentary called Lost in La Mancha detailed the bizarre circumstances and implosions that forced Gilliam to shut down production of his pride and joy, a film about Don Quixote. We’re talking things as out of control and unlucky as acts of God conspiring to doom this project. But then, Gilliam has always been fighting someone or something his whole film career. The studio refused Gilliam’s cut of Brazil so he sneaked out a print, showed it to the Los Angeles film community, and they dubbed it the best film of that year. Gilliam is a man governed by his idiosyncrasies. He’s blessed with a unique voice but cursed with the prospects of not having anywhere to say something (would he not make simply the most divine Harry Potter film yet?). And so Gilliam strikes his hands at something a bit more commercially minded with the action/comic fable, The Brothers Grimm.

Will (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are nineteenth century ghostbusters, so to speak. They travel from town to town ridding the villagers of evil spirits, witches, and all sorts of demonic creatures. Trouble is it’s all a lie. The Grimm brothers and their pals set up the spooks and rob the town blind. Will enjoys the fame, and especially the women, but Jakob feels apprehensive. It?s the Napoleonic wars, and the French have occupied the Germanic lands. A snooty general (Jonathan Pryce) plans to behead the two Grimm brothers unless they solve a strange case in a rural town. A slapsticky, torture-loving commander (Peter Storemare) is sent to watch over the “Grimmies.” At the village, Will and Jakob discover the town has had 10 of its daughters kidnapped with little explanation. With the help of a free-spirited woman (Lena Headey), the brothers encounter giant wolves, moving trees, lickable frogs, and the giant tower of the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci). The Queen was given eternal life but not eternal youth. In order to gain eternal youth, the Queen needs to take the lives of 12 hearty girls, and only the bumbling Grimm brothers stand in her way.

The acting is an example of the film’s messy feel. Ledger talks with marbles in his mouth. He’s putting more detail into the character than it deserves. Damon seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film, and his accent fluctuates wildly. He’s sort of a grinning straight man to Ledger’s tic-heavy daydream believer. Belluci is a ravishing beauty and proof positive for Hollywood that women over 40 don’t need to be put out to pasture. Too bad all she’s expected to do is look pretty and seductive in The Brothers Grimm. Pryce plays his role like a cartoon caricature. Stormare has already given one crazy performance this year (Constantine), and his frenzied, nearly indecipherable performance seems to be the closest to Gilliam’s whacked-out wavelength. Stormare is entertaining in every scene he’s in but can be found guilty of chewing scenery like it was a delicious candy house.

The Brothers Grimm is a gorgeous looking film. The sets are massive and greatly detailed. The location shoots in Prague seem like the perfect environment for Gilliam’s beyond-this-world landscapes. Gilliam experiments with advanced computer graphics for the first time and adds his oddball touches. A child has her eyes taken by a glob of mud, and then the mud reshapes itself into a lumbering gingerbread man. A horse spits out a spiderweb and ensnares a child. And it looks really freaking creepy. The Mirror Queen’s defeat is another standout effect as she breaks apart like shattered glass. The look of The Brothers Grimm is outstanding, but it’s what takes place inside those pretty pictures that dooms the film to mediocrity.

The Brothers Grimm is an unfocused mess. It has disjointed subplots and several story elements that just don’t fit. The wacky French occupation feels like a leftover from a different movie. It just doesn’t work and grinds the movie to a screeching halt with every resurfacing. The Brothers Grimm will routinely work its way into a narrative corner and then use a “magic” cheat to escape (magic axe, magic mirror, magic kiss). Gilliam has always been a master maestro of chaos and visual oddities, but this time he’s tackled a film with a very weak script by Ehren Kruger (Ring Two). Kruger doesn’t bother laying the groundwork of his magical world or establish the rules. Therefore anything can happen and rarely feels satisfying. The characters are one-note, each given a single character trait to play with (skeptic, believer, idiot, etc.). The pacing is pretty sluggish. The first act takes an eternity to set up the film’s characters, plot, and yet it still feels sloppy. The twists and turns are easily telegraphed and unexpectedly boring. The plot is frustrating, shortsighted in scope, and far too conventional for Gilliam’s tastes. When The Brothers Grimm reaches its happy ending you’ll swear you can hear Gilliam gagging somewhere.

Gilliam adds a worthy macabre tone to the film. There will be touches that you know are pure Gilliam, like a woman skinning a rabbit as she talks, or a cat flying into the blades or a torture device. In fact, The Brothers Grimm has a lot of humor involving the comic demise of animals. This isn’t exactly a film appropriate for young children despite the appeal of a fairy tale background. The film wants to tweak fairy tale legends like the two Shreks, but Gilliam wants to make them disturbing nightmares, not something of irreverence. This puts the film’s tone at odds. One minute you’ll have a scene that?s morbid, darkly funny, and unconventional, and then the next minute you’ll have a scene that’s cliché, dull, and whimsically misplaced.

The Brothers Grimm feels like a Terry Gilliam film under glass. The script is weak and plodding, the characters barely leave a dent, and the tone is uneven. The plot is pulled in too many directions and lacks momentum. There are a handful of fun comic diversions but the movie feels like a loose collection of disjointed story elements. There are flashes of grim humor and visual elegance but more often than not the film is just stupendously boring. The Brothers Grimm feels the same way the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty felt: a unique vision compromised and downsized by studio conformity. You can see the indie spirit but the heart just isn’t beating. The Brothers Grimm is mediocre at best. How very grim indeed.

Nate’s Grade: C

%d bloggers like this: