Coinciding with the events of the first film, 300: Rise of an Empire tells the story of Greek general Themistokles, a man responsible for leading a charge to hold off the invading Persian forces led by Xerses and Artemisia, a psychotic, vengeful commander of the Persian navy who will stop at nothing to watch Greece burn. Noam Murro's 300: Rise of an Empire is similar to the first film, being an overly stylish, gratuitously violent action film that is unintentionally dripping with homo-erotic undertones. While Zach Snyder didn't direct this film, only producing, 300: Rise of an Empire keeps the same indulgent slow-motion style, though I think some of the action seems were an improvement from the first film in terms of stunt work and choreography. Even more violent than its predecessor, 300: Rise of an Empire has an odd infatuation with violence, with gratuitous amounts of blood splatter at every turn. This is a dumb film but if there is one thing that makes this film worth seeing it's Eva Green. Green plays Artemisia with such energy, fully embracing this psychotic character's bloodlust. She is also one half of one of the most bizarre and unintentionally funny sex scenes in recent memory. Most people probably have a pretty good idea if they would enjoy 300: Rise of an Empire, being very similar to the first film but slightly dumber from a narrative perspective.
West Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel recounts the adventures of Gustave, a well-liked and respected concierge at a legendary European hotel. The film is told through the eyes of Zero Mostafa, who served as Gustave's lobby boy, eventually becoming his most trusted friend and successor. When Madame D, one of Gustav's regular guests,dies unexpectedly, Gustav finds himself at the center of an enormous family feud over the rights to her will, leading him and Zero on an epic adventure. Like nearly all of Wes Anderson's films, The Grand Budapest hotel is a whimsical and charming experience that only Anderson could provide. If you are fan of Anderson's work there is no reason you won't enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel, with an enormous cast of Anderson characters chewing up scenery. Ralph Fiennes does a really fantastic job as Gustav, showing a great range for comedic timing. The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place during a time when Europe was witnessing dramatic changes (the rise of fascism for example) and while it does have its moments of resonance, Anderson opts to keep it light for the most part, only hinting at the impending changes on the horizon. My only complaint about this film is that I never found myself emotionally invested in the characters or story, a recurring problem I have with much of Anderson's work. I enjoy watching them on screen but when more dramatic moments do come, I feel nothing. The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing particularly new out of Anderson featuring his trademark visual style and whimsical humor and while I do wish sometimes he's take a little more risks, I can't say I didn't have a good time enjoying this new world he created.
Twelve-year-old Aaron is a young boy living with his family in a slowly decaying working class area of St. Louis in 1933. Due to the incredibly bleak economy, Aaron slowly sees his family coming apart at the seems one-by-one. First his younger brother is sent to live with relatives in an effort to save money, followed by his mother going to a sanitarium for health reasons. Eventually Aaron finds himself all alone, after his father leaves to sell watches on the road, coming to realize he must temper his dreams considering the reality he sees all around him in adulthood. Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill is an affecting coming of age story that captures the power of resilience and imagination. Through the course of King of the Hill, Aaron finds himself confronted with sad reality after sad reality but his spirit never wavers. This is a film that moonlights as a child's coming of age story but in all actuality it is just as much a film for adults, capturing the importance of resilience and adaptability. In this regard, King of the Hills feels like a tribute to the poor working class of this era, who faced nearly insurmountable odds on almost a daily basis. While the story itself does a good job at putting the viewer into the point-of-view of Aaron, Soderbergh's visual design elevates it even more with his use of voyeuristic compositions, canted and low-angled photography submerges the viewer into young Aaron's perspective. Personally I wouldn't quite consider King of Hill one of Soderbergh's best films but it's definitely an underrated one, delivering a poignant coming of age story that captures the power money in this country has over nearly all things.
Rithy Panh was just a young boy during the atrocities which took place under the Khmer Rouge's rule over Cambodia. Panh spent many years trying to find a photograph taken between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge, browsing various archives throughout Cambodia. After his realization that the picture was gone,and it wouldn't tell the full story, he decided to create this film. Panh's The Missing Picture uses various archival footage, hand-made clay figurines, and Panh's own narration to depict the horrifying and sobering atrocities which occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. To be completely honest when I first heard about The Missing Picture I thought it sounded interesting but a film that was probably over-praised due to it's "gimmicky approach" of using clay figurines. Well, needless to say I was very wrong, as The Missing Picture beautiful blends these different aesthetics together to create an immersive experience. The Missing Picture is meticulous in presenting the audience with an in-depth portrait of what happened in Cambodia through this deeply personal journey. Through Panh, we see the emotional stasis memory can cause when confronted with such atrocities. It is not an easy watch because of this but it's full of great ideals surrounding politics, memory, emotion, and identity. The Missing Picture certainly captures the dehumanization which can take place from pure ideology but its exploration of the relationship between emotions and memory is also worth the price of admission.
It's the sixteenth anniversary of the revolution that removed the communist dictator from power in Romania, and Jderescu, a Romanian newsman, wants to do a special report honoring the anniversary. Jderescu spends the day corralling a group of everyday citizens to discuss their role in the overthrow of the communist regime, hoping to capture how their lives have changed since. Only able to find two guests - Piscoci, an elderly man, and Manescu, a drunkard schoolteacher, Jderescu begins his special report only to discover that memories about the revolution aren't exactly what he expected. Corneliu Porumboiu's 12;08 East to Bucharest is a tepidily-paced, satirical comedy looking at a small town in Romania. This is a film I admire more so than actually enjoy, as the film takes a long time to get going. What unfolds in the last 45 minutes or so is brilliant though, with Porumboiu using a dry sense of humor to comment on memory, and more importantly how one's perceptions or desires to feel part of something can skew the truth. We see this through the various townspeople who call into Jderescu, each having their own distinct memories which strongly conflict with each other about the revolution. Everyone seems to remember what the want too in this small, somewhat depressing town. The cinematography in 12:08 East to Bucharest further exposes Porumboiu's intentions, painting this town as a decaying relic which gives the whole film a sad undertone, as these people through their jaded memories try to convince themselves of their own importance.
Another Herzog journey into the unknown, Ballad of the Little Soldier takes place in northeastern Nicaragua following the Miskito Indians who are engaged in a war with the Sandinistas, who've recently come into power after the overthrow of the Somoza government. The Miskitos just want to preserve their culture but a ruthless campaign by this new regime has left them uprooted, and facing a systematic massacre of their culture and their people. Having no military training to speak of, the Miskitos have assembled a group of soldiers, which consists largely of 10 to 12 year old boys. Werner Herzog's Ballad of the Little Soldier opens with a young child soldier singing a song which can only be described as upbeat. His wide smile and upbeat demeanor captures the innocence which is inevitably going to be shattered from the monstrosities the Miskito tribe lives in. This type of juxtaposition is a subtle but powerful way to open the film, which consists almost entirely of interviews from the Miskitos who share their stories of torture and violence. As one could only imagine this is a shocking and depressing film with Herzog simply documenting this conflict. Herzog himself never tries to make sense of such horrible truths, simply capturing the insanity of the world we live in while simultaneously praising the human spirit as much as possible.
Cahit, a Turkish immigrant living in Germany, has completely given up on life after the death of his wife. Cahit spends nearly all of his time abusing drugs and drinking himself into a stupor. One night, Cahit intentionally crashes his car head-on into a wall. Suspected of attempted suicide, Cahit finds himself in a mental hospital of sorts where he meets, Sibel, another Turkish immigrant who has repeatedly tried to commit suicide. Sibel lives in an incredibly oppressive household which leads her to ask Cahit to partake in an arranged marriage which could free her from her families unrelenting pressure. Cahit refuses at first, but eventually agrees to the plan. Fatih Akin's Head-On is a raw, fascinating examination of despair that manages to capture the darkness and hopefullness of these two lost souls who've hit rock bottom. What makes Head-On compelling is its two leads, each tortured, but incredibly important in helping the other one get better through a sense of companionship that eventually evolves into love. In the beginning of Head-On it's clear Cahit couldn't be any less interested in life, but slowly and surely he is given a reason to care as he starts to develop feelings for Sibel. Conversely, Sibel's deep despair comes later in the film, when she is left abandoned and alone after Cahit finds himself in prison. This circular motion of despair and renewal in these two characters is what makes Head-On both compelling and profound, illustrating how people are never beyond saving while simultaneously reminding us that everyone needs help from time to time. While my description may make Head-On sound a bit cheesy it certainly is not, with every aspect feeling exceptionally genuine and raw. Head-On is a riveting and unfliching love story that captures the joys and heartaches of life while simultaneously illustrating the solace which companionship brings no matter what agony may exist on an individual basis.
Martin Sixsmith, a BBC reporter, has just been laid off from his job, leaving disgraced for unfair allegations. Unsure where to go from here, Martin stumbles across the story of Philomena Lee. Philomena, a devout catholic, had her son taken away from her years ago by the catholic church due to being out of wedlock. Martin sets out to help Philomena track down her sun while simultaneously confronting the catholic church for their harsh treatment the only way he knows how, publishing Philomena's story. Stephen Frear's Philomena is a unbelievable true story and touching film that manages to balance comedy and deeper resonance effectively. There are certainly moments of over-sentimentality but by-and-large the film manages to avoid these moments and provide a story that's not self-indulgent or cheap but heartfelt. What is probably the most interesting aspect of Philomena is its seething commentary of the catholic church's practices when it comes to pre-marital sex. The details of this true story are disheartening, and Philomena holds nothing back from exposing these horrible practices. Thankfully, Philomena doesn't demonize religion as a whole but just these organized institutions that attempt to police everyone when it comes to faith and religion. Judy Dench does a good job but the film's strength lies in the pairing of her with Steve Coogan. These two characters work extremely well together, with Coogan's swarmy, cynical character playing perfectly off of Philomena's kind, sweet, and slightly niave character. Like any good pairing, the two characters each become better people thanks to their relationship, with Martin learning to be less cynical because of it.
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