Frank Miller

March 16, 2014

300: Rise Of An Empire

OVERACHIEVING 

It’s hard for me to imagine now that the tales of Leonidas and Xerxes and Spartan warriors are old hat.  I remember when Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 was something that no one knew bubkiss about.  That changed when it slaughtered the box office through strong word of mouth, making it one of the highest grossing R rated films ever made.  Since then, Lena Headey is a household name, Michael Fassbender is an Oscar nominee, and Gerard Butler has gone on to star in every type of failed romantic comedy ever conceived.  (Being catapulted, whether that be into the air or stardom, isn’t an exact science.) The brave 300 became a pop culture staple, which I often gauge by a character’s appearance in one of those horrid spoof movies.  So, I was skeptical when I heard that a sequel graphic novel was being created by the “not so sane anymore” Frank Miller and being turned into a film.  Why tread on old, and in my opinion, already poetically ended ground?  After some coaxing from, again, strong word of mouth, I put my apprehension aside and gave it a chance.  I am happy and very surprised to say that 300: Rise Of An Empire not only holds its own with the original 300, but supercedes it in some facets.  It is an OVERACHIEVING underdog that acknowledges and builds off of its roots.

What’s it about?  Well, here is probably the most interesting and well done thing about this film.  300: Rise Of An Empire fills in the gaps left behind by its predecessor 300.  As much as I love 300, the film skirts past a lot of chances to build up depth in the world it inhabits.  Hell, without Lena Headey’s brief storyline as Queen Gorgo, the film is practically a gloriously action packed montage of sex and violence.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Rise Of An Empire tries to do something done sneakily by Bourne Ultimatum, done brashly by Bourne Legacy, and done incomprehensibly by X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  It weaves its story around the events before, during and after the original.  The creation and rise of Xerxes, the Persian campaign taking place away from the Hot Gates, the steps taken to unite all of Greece.   All of these things done to not only strengthen the original 300 as a film, but elevate Rise Of An Empire as its own sturdy branch of a grand story.  So, this film is not a sequel.  It is a sidequel with an actual purpose.

Now don’t think that because I said this story fills in gaps that it is boring.  NOTHING could be further from the truth.  I haven’t fully quantified this, but I dare say that Rise Of An Empire has more swords, and blood, and death, and sex and destruction than 300.  The most famous shot in the original 300, my favorite shot in the original 300, is the “Crazyhorse” shot of Leonidas.  The one where he practically rips through the Persian front line single handed like a damn superhero.  Rise Of An Empire has two of these scenes just as epic, and one using AN ACTUAL HORSE!  Director Noam Murro, who had only worked on the indie film Smart People before this, really does a terrific job with these action scenes.  Though, this may be praise that deserves to fall on the head of the visual effects department or cinematographer.  Either way, rest easy if you think that Rise Of An Empire might play it safe.  It surely does not.

When it comes to performances in films like this, 300, Sin City, Dredd and the like, it isn’t really about being a great actor.  Though it doesn’t hurt.  It’s really about an actor or actress trying to be bold, to be memorable, to stand out.  It is very easy to disappear in a film focused mainly on style.  Gerard Butler and Headey and Fassbender and Dominic West, and Rodrigo Santoro knew how to play into the genre.  They used the somewhat campy material to their advantage instead of being overwhelmed by it.  The returning players to Rise Of An Empire have not forgotten to do this.  Headey, Santoro and even David Wenham are just as entertaining in this as they were before.  The new players, unfortunately, don’t manage to completely accomplish my theory of standing out.  Sullivan Stapleton handles his action scenes well, but he just never gripped me as someone I should follow.  The speeches and screams of inspiration that felt so genuine and right coming out of Butler’s mouth, feel somewhat hollow coming out of his.  A similar father and son storyline is used in Rise Of An Empire that I really began to enjoy.  However, it didn’t get enough meat to it as I would have liked.  The one exception to the newcomer performances comes from the always amazing Eva Green.

Now, I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t already adore Eva Green.  I’m not gonna pretend that I haven’t already declared her my favorite Bond Girl.  But trust me, it is not my biased exaggeration that this film BELONGS TO HER.  Her performance as Artemisia is easily the strongest performance in this film and the one everyone will talk about.  I think Green was born to play strong women.  Watching her, you can easily see her complete and utter fearlessness as an actor in every glare, and smirk, and bare naked fight/sex scene she has. (Yeah.  That happens.)  She completely embodies this character and makes even Xerxes’ ambition seem tame in comparison to her’s.  Green’s work as Morgan on the short-lived Starz series Camelot is comparable here, but Artemisia is Morgan turned up to 11.  Green is gonna absolutely own as Ava Lord in the other Frank Miller adaptation this year, A Dame To Kill For.

300: Rise Of An Empire fulfills its job as an enjoyable companion piece to Zack Snyder’s Spartan epic.  Whenever it tries to be different than its predecessor, it surprisingly thrives.  Don’t just be a witness…board the boats…paint your face in a remarkably similar Frank Castle Punisher pattern…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

July 30, 2013

The Wolverine

REDEMPTION

The Wolverine – Redemption

It would be such a beautiful thing to one day have Sony, 20th Century Fox, and Disney to all sit down, enjoy a beer and say, “Hey, let’s all work together and share these wonderful, and lucrative, Marvel Comics characters will own, and get Oprah rich!”

That will probably never happen, but being the optimist and a person who believes in the mantra “Money Talks, Bullshit Walks,” one day it will happen and we will see Spider-Man joining up with Wolverine to fight Hulk while the Fantastic Four are fighting Thanos while Galactus and The Watcher look on.  Sure, it’s going to take millions, if not billions of dollars, but the bottom line for studios is seeing their bottom line in the black.

Fox has a sordid history with their Marvel properties,  Sure, “X-Men: First Class” was a surprise hit, but there are more “Fantastic Four II:  Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” and don’t even get me started started on “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but that brings me to Fox’s latest X-Men offering, “The Wolverine” the redemption that Fox needed in order to gain momentum and hype for the much anticipated “X-Men: Days of Future Past” film in 2015.

Once again Hugh Jackman is back as Logan aka, Wolverine.  We pick up after the events of “The Last Stand” where Logan is living alone in the Yukon wilderness still haunted by visions of Jean Grey, whom he killed when she descended into the madness that was Dark Phoenix.  While in town to teach some hunters a lesson in proper bear disposal, he is confronted by Yukio, a young mutant with the power to tell the future, even though odd enough you never see her use her power, but she is a bad-ass with a samurai sword.  Yukio convinces Logan to come with her to Tokyo to pay respects to a man that he saved in the bombing in Nagasaki during World War II.  Sure enough, Logan is forced to embrace his savage nature once again fighting off Yakuza and members of The Black Clan (I wish they would have just used The Hand, but you take what you can get).  During the course of his Japanese vacation, Logan loses his healing powers, finds redemption, and fights Silver Samurai.  Not all fun in the sun for our hero, but for fan boys that follow the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine Japanese adventures, you’ll probably geek out a few times.

This isn’t to say “The Wolverine” is without problems.  There are plot holes, characters that either go unused or underutilized, and in a few scenes some really bad shaky cam.  Being that this film was directed by James Mangold, who I have tremendous respect for, I expected some better camera work, but considering this is his first superhero movie, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  Mangold is able to bring a good balance to this film by combining a lot of genre elements that work.  The allusions to ronins works really well in Logan’s case since for all intensive purposes he is a ronin; a man without a master who is forced to live forever and be on his own.

“The Wolverine” gives some extra depth to the character that “X-Men Origins” fumbled with.  We know that Logan is having a difficult time dealing with the death of Jean Grey while trying to create a new life in Japan with another woman.  We also see his struggle with trying to keep his feral side contained while also dealing with the lose of his biggest mutant asset; his healing factor.  But the loss of his healing factor makes him feel something he’s never felt before; humanity.  Logan has never had a fear of death due to his mutant ability and for the first time we see a vulnerable super hero who is trying to build a new life in a foreign land.  Hugh Jackman, who I give tons of credit to for returning time and time again to portray Wolverine, gives a nuanced yet complicated performance this time around.  Jackman was born to play Logan, just like Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man, and his love for the character really shines through this time around, and that’s not to say it didn’t in “X-Men” or X2: X-Men United” but “The Wolverine” lives up to it’s name and you get wall-to-wall Wolverine from the get-go.

With “The Wolverine,” Fox finally seems to be getting back on track with their super hero/X-Men properties.  Of course it takes more than just one movie to settle a fan-base down, and while “First Class” was a solid start and “Wolverine” continues the trend, “Days of Future Past” is a huge gamble and the “Fantastic Four” re-boot is still developing.  The problem with studios that own Marvel properties aside from Marvel Studios themselves, is lack of long term awareness.  For Sony and Fox it seems to be more of a cash grab than giving the source material a chance to shine, or simply bastardizing the source material to appeal to tweens, case in point “The Amazing Spider-man.”  With “Wolverine” Fox took a chance and told an X-Men story that not many people outside of the comic book reading community would know, and judging by the box office in the first week, both domestic and foreign, the film is being received well.

I’m not going to say the “Marvel Studios Method” was used for “The Wolverine” but the fact that source material was used in an effective way while adding to the X-Men mythos while prepping for the most ambitious X-Men film to date, it finally seems like Fox has a game-plan.  Of course it’s not as ambitious as what Marvel Studios is doing, but its a hell of a lot better than Warner/DC.

Fun Fact:  Wolverine’s first appearance was in The Incredible Hulk #180.

September 12, 2012

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 (DJ’s Take)

UNFLINCHING

Lets face it.  Despite Nolan’s Batman run, when it comes to bringing their creations to the silver screen, WB/DC Comics sucks.  This is a company that owns the rights to ALL of their creations, unlike Marvel….can cross over WHOEVER they want with WHOEVER they want without legal obstacles….unlike Marvel…has a roster of A-list heroes nearly double the size of Marvel’s.  But the only movie they can manage to make that isn’t a failure lately is Batman.  Singer’s Superman…sucked and underperformed.  Watchmen…though great….underperformed.  Flash movie…in development hell for years.  Wonder Woman movie….in development hell for years.  Wonder Woman TV series….cancelled in the pilot stage.  Jonah Hex…blew chunks.  Catwoman…a joke.  Green Lantern…set up to be WB/DC’s new tent pole but subsequently shoved a tent pole right back up their ass.  Its gotten so bad that their third attempt at Superman seems to be copying the tone of Nolan’s Batman Begins, in the obtuse thinking that it is the ONLY way to do a superhero movie right.  However, the real puzzle of the matter is that the WB/DC direct to dvd animation films seem to always be amazing.  Sometimes even better than their motion picture counter parts.  I’m talking to you Green Lantern.  That brings us to The Dark Knight Returns Part 1.

Before comic book writer Frank Miller went crazy and did The Spirit (Boy, I got to stop bringing this film up), he had a pretty good track record of awesome.  Sin City, 300, Big Guy and Rusty.  But before those was perhaps his crowning achievement, The Dark Knight Returns.  It was the story of an older retired Batman putting on the cape and cowl once more to take back the streets of Gotham.  It was gritty.  It was gruff.  It was great.  Now over a quarter of a century later, DC animation brings it to life.  And the results are amazing.  Director Jay Oliva, who has done previous work on other great DC animated films like Under The Red Hood and Batman: Year One, really gets the feel of Miller’s graphic novel.  The dark tone and the brutal violence in it is so UNFLINCHING and raw, I found myself several times checking the rating on it.  In live action, this film would be rated R without question.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the performances in this as well.  There has always been one quintessential Batman for me.  Its not Bale, or Clooney, or Kilmer, or even Keaton.  It is Kevin Conroy.  His portrail is the first one that pops into my mind when I hear someone mention Batman.  Bruce Greenwood has done a great job recently with a very similar voice.   However, Peter Weller’s grizzled old Batman in The Dark Knight Returns fits the material like a glove.  His use of “Son” will put a smile on your face for sure.  David Selby also turns in a strong performance as Commissioner Gordon.  They both hit all the familiar beats and add some new ones as well.  The credit should go to long time casting and voice director Andrea Romano.  If you ever want to be wowed, take a look at her filmography.

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 delivers in every way a Batman fan would want and gives WB/DC’s animation department another homerun project.  WB/DC might want to consider using the braintrust over there (Executive Producer Bruce Timm Especially) to help get their meandering motion pictures off the ground.  Turn out the lights…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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