300: Rise Of An Empire

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Right, so, I liked the original – it looked all stylish and fancy, there was uber-violence, shouting, muscle men and hot women, and a basic plot which allowed the action to run riot. The battle of Thermopylae is one I had always been interested in at an early age, and continued to learn about as I studied Latin in school and Classics at University. This entirely unnecessary sequel is a mess, leaping about in time without warning, introducing new characters and battles which are not as interesting as those in the first movie, and there is a heavy focus on the visuals which are no longer as attention grabbing as they were first time round. It probably made a bunch of money though, right?

Lets start with the positives – there’s a decent cast with Lena Heady, David Wenham and others reprising their roles from the original and Jack O’Connell and Eva Green joining in. O’Connell is a great actor but doesn’t have a lot to do while Eva Green relishes the role, throwing her all into it and coming over as both impressive as hammy. There is plenty of action in the film, bone-crushing fights, swordplay, naval warfare…. and that’s about it really. Even on the positive points we have negatives – Sullivan Stapleton is a good actor but seems too wooden here, like a beardless Gerard Butler with less SHOUTING, while the fighting and gore is all very samey and gets boring quickly. Every fight is disappointingly repetitive, with the same slow-down and zoom-in technique to show yet another blade slashing through flesh and CG blood bubbling towards the camera. The naval scenes aren’t as epic as they need to be – scenes like this only work if they are massive in scope and you can see what is happening, but here everything is too small, too dark, and there’s only so many times you can watch a naked guy fisting a man in a helmet before it gets silly (usually between 1-2 times). The original managed to avoid being boring by offering something different with each battle sequence, almost like a beat-em-up videogame – each enemy required a new tactic or had some new type of weapon to cope with. Here it is just wave after wave of faceless nobodies with Eva Green shrieking in the background.

The plot is basically the same as the first movie, with Greece facing the onslaught of a massive Persian Army – on one front Gerard Butler’s 300 defended Sparta, while here Thermistocles defends the beaches. Eva Green is the face of the enemy this time around, a Greek defector with a brief backstory who is the true tactician and ruler of the Persian advance rather than Xerxes. There is an interesting conflict going on at various points, with Green’s Artemisia simply looking for a worthy adversary or someone to help her conquer the world. The film takes place both before, during, and after the events of the first film but fails to make the necessary connections between what is happening elsewhere and why any of it actually matters. The story doesn’t matter, it’s just an excuse for shouting and fighting, and you’d get as much sense by hanging around outside a city club at 1.30 am and watching the drunks fight. It’s all so stupid, pointlessly masculine, but without anything that made the original… what’s that word….. fun! There are much better movies out there which look better, with better fights, stunts, action, so there isn’t really any point in spending any time or money on this unless you’re a die-hard Eva Green fan.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of 300: Rise Of An Empire. Was I too harsh? Did anyone like it?

Ju On – White Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

White Ghost, like it’s partner and predecessors has a labyrinthine plot which unravels in a deliberately non-linear fashion – events at the start of the film may happen weeks or months after events shown at the end, and vice versa, and more than that there appear to be certain elements which transcend time – echos of events which have not yet occurred. The story follows a group of characters who come into contact with a curse – a man murders his family, an old friend investigates, and several randomers are drawn into the pit. As I said in my review for Black Ghost, it is definitely worth watching each movie twice to appreciate the finer points and attempt to bring together a timeline in your head. Ironically, I fond this plot even more dense than Black Ghost but it appears to be handled more professionally. There is a lot of leaping about from time to time to character to place and back again, but it is engrossing.

There is some fairly dark stuff at work here – the murders and the curse of course, but an unsettling lump of incest, pedophilia, and suicide, none of which are shied away from. It’s unusual for a film in the Ju On universe to dwell much on the events which kicked everything off – mostly it’s shown in brief flashbacks, but here we are front row witnesses to the slaughter. This one is less atmospheric than Black Ghost, but still has plenty of tension and has more jump scares. The actual character of the White Ghost is not on par with Kayako, but her appearances rarely fail to scare to the point that you are dreading her next pop up. A few of these moments don’t quite work, and end up being almost funny, but for the most part the scares are particularly effective. That strange shimmering effect I mentioned in the other review is present here too. Again the performances are good, the soundtrack works well, and there is a grimy worn out look to proceedings. I watched Black Ghost first, but the stories don’t link together in any way so feel free to pick whichever you wish. BG has the atmosphere, WG has the bulk of the scares, but both are well worth a go for J-Horror fans.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of White Ghost and how it compares to Black Ghost and the other movies in The Grudge franchise.

The Secret Life Of Pets

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The first full cinema experience for my kids (barring Peppa Pig And The Golden Boots), The Secret Life Of Pets is one movie my girls (and me) were busting to see having enjoyed the various trailers. This was Illumination Entertainment’s first truly successful move away from the Despicable Me franchise and features all of the zany humour and intelligent insight you would expect. It goes without saying that the film will be just as entertaining for adults as it is for kids – the animated movie genre has come full circle in the early 21st Century for providing cinematic treats for all the family.

The Secret Life Of Pets begins with a series of vignettes based in a typical New York apartment block. Anyone who has ever owned an animal should get a lot of chuckles from these scenes as the behaviour and characteristics of the animals will be very familiar. We focus on little domesticated dog Max, whose life is spent watching the door for his owner Katie to come home. He, like all the pets, wonder what the humans get up to when the leave but his world is shaken up when Kate comes home with a new, much larger dog – Duke. The two do not get along and begin to conspire against one another leading to an intervention by the guys from the Dog Pound…

The film received a fair amount of criticism saying the story and characters were thinly veiled versions of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. While not entirely untrue, the same can be said for a hell of a lot of other movies and Toy Story took its fair share of ideas from what had come before – it seems a little disingenuous to make such comments about the film when there is so much to enjoy. There is a wide roster of characters and animals, from the skyscraper roof dwelling hawk who would just as soon eat the pets as help them, to the tough street cats who despise the pets for living in domestic bliss. Taking that one step further are the Flushed Pets – the unwanted, lost, or forgotten animals of NYC who live in the sewers (yes, there is a Crocodile). Led by Kevin Hart’s Snowball, a crazed rabbit who wants revenge on all humans, they spend most of the movie chasing down Max and Co who accidentally killed one of their group.

As with any animated movie these days, a key draw and component in its success is the voice cast. It feels a little strange then that this isn’t exactly filled with recognizable A List talent. The cast is good, and they are talented, but most of the performers are not household names. As mentioned, Kevin Hart lends his talents, and he is joined by Steve Coogan, Louis CK, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, and then a bunch of sitcom actors I don’t really know. Luckily this won’t matter to anyone but the most obtuse viewer and the youngsters certainly won’t care. The voices are distinct and build each character to match the personality shown via the animation and story – lazy, boisterous, decrepit etc. The performers deliver their lines, whether subtle quips, energetic wails, or general dialogue with vivre and as with all these movies they sound like they enjoyed themselves making it.

The Secret Life Of Pets should be a fun movie for kids of all ages and rewarding for adults too, especially pet owners. It may not be as immediately wacky or laugh out loud funny as some, and it may not have the emotional depth of others, but it is still a lot of fun while offering some insightful crumbs on the little beasties we allow into your homes and love. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how it ranks alongside other recent efforts!

Room

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Room seemed like a fantastic idea for a movie and story when I first heard about it – it was sort of topical, given the sort of recent true events which it shares similarities with, the single setting was intriguing from a cinematic and plot perspective, and it began getting rave reviews from everyone before picking up a bunch of Oscar wins and nominations. Unlike a lot of recent obvious Oscar movies, this was one that applied to me immediately.

Room follows the lives of Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a mother and son who live in ‘Room’ – held captive by an abusive man. In the early stages of the film we are given little explanation or history to their predicament but it is soon revealed that Joy has been there for years after being kidnapped; Jack was conceived, born, and raised there as the product of rape – he has never been outside of these four walls and knows nothing of the outside world. Over the course of film we see the world though both sets of eyes, one of fear and one of wonder, and how these viewpoints change and narrow and adapt when circumstances change. Spoilers will follow.

It is surprisingly early in the movie that Joy and Jack escape from ‘Room’. I was expecting protracted scenes of attempted escape where tension builds alongside hope, only for the latter to be dashed. In reality the story is split in two rough halves – in and out. On the outside, we see how the two cope with either reuniting with family or meeting them for the first time. We see how it is a struggle for everyone impacted – an honest and accurate depiction of how such events can ripple out and affect so many people in a destructive way. In many ways the outside world seems cruel, with Joy and Jack completely displaced from time and reality. There is a media frenzy surrounding the story, and the quest for ratings seems as cold and uncaring as a kidnapper. It is Jack who adapts to the new world more readily after a cautious and frightened start, while the joy of freedom soon becomes a dizzying puzzle for Joy.

And yet, it isn’t perfect. There are things I didn’t like about Room – but possibly the best thing I can say about it is that I can’t recall clearly what those things are now, a few months after having watched it. I don’t feel like the William H Macy scenes were handled well, leaving me cold and disinterested, and I didn’t find it nearly as emotionally powerful as I was expecting it to be; The highs never feel exuberant and the lows never feel too bleak. The script is merely serviceable and I can’t imagine the film would have been significantly better or worse in the hands of a greater or lesser director. As it stands, the film is so strong because of the lead performances and because of the story – the cruelty of the situation – holds a morbid and curious interest throughout, while the leads are never less than stunning, pulling the empathy and emotion where the script is lacking. Whether the film retains its acclaim years from now will be seen, but the performances will always be heralded.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Room? Did it deserve the accolades it received and will it still be as potent in five or ten years time, or is it merely a Hallmark TV movie dressed in fancier clothes?

Ted

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I like Family Guy as much as the next person who watches maybe five episodes a year. It’s fine, the odd piece makes me giggle, and I don’t mind the reliance on the ‘remember the time’ tangent jokes as much as the over reliance on pop culture references. Having seen the trailer for Ted I had no great desire to watch it, but looking for a laugh one night I decided to stream and and hope for the best. I’m glad I did because there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and good performances, and it was a strong outing given the recent dirge of comedy that we seem to be mixed up in at the moment.

I’ve always liked Mark Walberg, I think Mila Kunis is talented, and Seth MacFarlane is the very definition of hit and miss. Ted is clearly more hit – merging the toilet and drug humour with the heart which makes hits like Dumb and Dumber work so well. The difficult trick of making us like these characters is pulled off effortlessly so we have no problem spending a considerable running time with them. Even with the story of a teddy bear coming to life to stay with a child through to adulthood, the plot hits all the notes you’ve seen in every other buddy movie  – the inevitable break-up and recovery for example – but it’s all done with charm and talent. McHale, Ribisi, Minks and others are welcome additions, and all of the Family Guy-esque cultural throwbacks are tied nicely into the plot and the characters. The script allows for lightning fast delivery so that you don’t notice or care when certain jokes fall flat. Crucially, this energy is consistent from start to finish and it never feels like just a collection of jokes or one-liners or a story with the odd laugh thrown in.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Ted!

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

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This should have been called USS Indianapolis: Men Of Cloneage, amirite! Coz they all look the same! Seriously, some of the flaws of this movie could have been avoided if they had simply cast some actors with more distinct faces. Throughout the movie I couldn’t tell who was who, which one wanted to marry the blonde, which one was the thief, which one just got eaten etc. In all seriousness, this is a powerful story, one of my favourite true stories of all time actually, and it deserves to be told well. Unfortunately this film doesn’t deliver – its low budget is very noticeable and negative, the performances are forgettable, and too much of the movie is spent attempting to introduce the characters so that we are invested and affected by what comes later – though these early scenes are horribly and confusingly edited in such a way that it simply becomes frustrating and we lose interest. I found myself sadly thinking, just get to the sharks already.

A bit of a personal backstory. When I was young, one of my favourite books was Maneaters by Rupert Matthews. It’s a collection of true stories based on horrific encounters between people and animals – bear and tiger attacks, snakes, sharks etc. One of the stories was about the USS Indianapolis, and that story makes up the bulk of this film. In 1945, the US Military has crafted a couple of atomic bombs and would like nothing more than to drop them on Japan. The A-Team were several decades away, so they decided to send some of the bomb parts via battleship to The Philippines – a mission so secret only the top brass knew about it. The unlucky ship going on this mission was the ship of the title, knowingly being sent into enemy territory without an escort to defend them from submarine attacks which they could not foresee or withstand. They successfully completed their mission, but on the return journey the Indianapolis was spotted by a Japanese sub who torpedoed the hell out of it. Within minutes the ship was in the water. I can’t recall the numbers, but there were over 1100 men on board, and around 900 went into the water. Stranded, cold, and bleeding, with barely any life rafts and thousands of miles of ocean all around them, things were looking bleak. And then the sharks came. And came. And came.

If you don’t think you know the story, you’ve probably heard it famously delivered by Quint in Jaws, thanks to John Milius, Robert Shaw, and Howard Sackler. Yes, Quint tells Brody and Hooper about where one of his scars came from – after he went into the ocean when the Japanese struck. It’s one of the most famous moments in Jaws, chillingly delivered. One of the first stories I ever wrote featured a character haunted by his involvement and memories of the event. I saw Mission Of The Shark when I was young – a TV movie starring Richard Thomas and Stacey Keach, also based on the event and it was then that I learned about the court case aftermath and the dubious plots. Maneaters you see, only focused on the immediate human event – one man’s recollections of what is was like to be trapped, surrounded, and feeling hope ebb away. It’s then that I thought ‘why doesn’t someone famous and powerful actually make a good movie about this?’ When I first heard about Men Of Courage I hoped that movie had finally come, but as reports about the movie, then previews, then reviews came, my hope ebbed too.

The second half of the film is considerably stronger than the first. I was worried it was going to go downhill due to horrible shark effects, but in most cases the sharks are very good. Am I right in saying some were real too? There were some moments which appeared to be ridiculous and not how sharks would actually behave, but on the whole it was fine. The problem is that this section of the movie felt too short. It was low on tension, there wasn’t much emotion, and by that point I didn’t care about most of the characters or differentiate between them. The movie is basically in three large parts, or five smaller chapters – Meeting the team, the mission, the sharks, the court case, the end. I appreciate the attempts to introduce the characters, but as mentioned it simply doesn’t work. Cage’s Captain is really the only character we care for as he is the focal point throughout the five chapters. Cage’s performance is either restrained or flat – it essentially could have been anyone. I appreciate that when making a film like this, you can’t possibly focus on everyone, but you can give us a subset of characters and get us emotionally invested from the outset – make them likable, or real at the very least. Make them stand out, with their own lives, past, fears, and flaws. I’m repeating myself, but the film tries and fails.

To its credit, the film does also show things from the opposing side. We meet several of the Japanese crew and see them as humans forced into a position no-one would ever want to be in. The film neither shies away from pointing the finger of blame squarely at those who actually were to blame. Even though the film essentially ends on a downer, we get some real life footage of the rescue and brief moments from the remaining survivors and other archive footage to re-iterate the courage of those involved. A little over 300 men survived the ordeal.

There was one fantastic moment late in the shark section where the music swells and the camera swings around some of the survivors in long shots to give an eagle eye view of the vastness of their struggle – we see some in rafts, some dead and floating away, some exhausted and gripping on to what they can, and some simply drifting among the ever present shark fins, past caring that they could be the next to succumb. That’s what I want to see – the real struggle, the real pain, and by virtue of surviving, the real courage.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage. Did you enjoy it more than you expected to, or was it another poor attempt at telling a tragic tale?

Horrible Bosses

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It’s another BLOKES comedy for MEN with TESTICLES. Following such dubious hits as The Hangover, this film caters to men who like their jokes breast fueled and their films boob filled. As a bloke of some description I can see the merits in these movies, and even enjoy them, but I won’t rave about them like many other critics have. Horrible Bosses is an okay movie with a good cast giving okay performances. There are some good laughs, there’s an okay story, and some stuff happens along the way. Okay?

The story follows three friends – all 30 or 40 something – in dead end (decent) jobs who hate their bosses. They’re just like you! At some point a – ahem – Hitchcockian plan is hatched where they decide to kill their respective bosses. The rest of the film follows various japes in the same vein of all these types of films. It has the same loose vibe as all those other films, not as energetic or youthful as Judd Apetow’s films, and perhaps with not as talented ad-libbing comedians, but upping the world-weary frustration. Some good jokes, some laughs, some entertainment from watching Aniston be slutty, Farrell being weird, and Spacey being Spacey, but beyond that there isn’t much to recommend it. It’s fine.

I guess that’s it.. does anything else need to be said? There’s a sequel which I haven’t seen yet. Type words into the comments!