Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Dir. Seth MacFarlane

2 out of 5

The American frontier was, as the opening voiceover to A Million Ways to Die in the West notes, a "hard place for hard men."  Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in 1880s Arizona Territory, is not one of those men.  He likes to pass the time by launching into rants about the poor quality of life in his hometown, Old Stump, where lapses in security, the rule of law, and even basic hygiene can result in fatal consequences.  A dry obsession with imminent death is the thin connective tissue in MacFarlane's follow-up to Ted, a high-concept comedy that aspires to be one part Blazing Saddles and one part City Slickers.  With MacFarlane's neurotic, snarky screen presence front and center it's definitely closer to the latter, if the concept of arrested adulthood had existed in the 19th century.  In one sense, you pity Albert - he's a fish out of water who's never even seen the ocean.  He's also a big, whiny baby, and the downfall of a momentarily engaging and frequently misfiring film.

MacFarlane's script, penned with his Family Guy colleagues Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a promising start with breezy riffs on western stereotypes.  There are Albert's flinty parents, who cuss out their underachieving son without ever leaving their rocking chairs.  There's a chipper prostitute (Sarah Silverman) whose positive attitude is never punctured by the lewd acts she performs on a daily basis; her virginal paramour (Giovanni Ribisi) is even more sweetly naive.  And there's the irritating dandy (Neil Patrick Harris) whose mustachioed virility catches the eye of Albert's shallow ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).

In an unexpected twist, A Million Ways to Die suddenly turns into one of those flimsy, chauvinistic '80s comedies about a guy pining for a girl he's better off without.  When Anna (Charlize Theron), the unhappy wife of an infamous outlaw (Liam Neeson), is forced by her husband to lay low in Old Stump, she inexplicably makes Albert her pet project, teaching him how to shoot a gun, accompanying him to the town's social events, and listening to his self-pitying prattle in an effort to boost his confidence.  They get high together.  They crack jokes about their genitalia.  Anna is the perfect "guys' girl," and her chemistry with Albert is not unlike that between two best bros, with unconvincing sexual tension.

When it's not indulging a clichéd romantic fantasy, A Million Ways to Die in the West gets by on irreverent comedy and the committed performances of its stellar supporting cast.  But MacFarlane remains dedicated to flogging his most uninspired material, receiving diminishing returns from already paper-thin punchlines.  The funniest bits are invariably throwaway gags much like the ones that made him a TV mogul.  The film also has a muddled comedic identity, getting off on anachronistic observations (when did people start smiling in photographs?) but also trying to force every conceivable western trope into the story.  (Native Americans appear, only briefly, as the facilitators of Albert's dopey CGI drug hallucinations.)  With half-baked ideas sprinkled into a basic genre template, it's a shame that so much effort went into making this movie look like a real western, complete with stunning on-location shots of wide-open skies and towering rock formations.  It's nearly enough to understand why Albert doesn't move on from Old Stump despite his unending protestations.  Sadly, originality is the real casualty on the frontier in this formulaic, fitfully entertaining comedy.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rank and File #2: The X-Men

Art is not a competition...but it sure is more fun that way.  To celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past this weekend, Rank and File takes a look back at the X-Men's previous adventures as a lean, mean, mutant team (0r just a Wolverine).

The Arena

The 6 live-action films based on Marvel's X-Men comics, a franchise that has grossed over $2 billion worldwide.

The Combatants

Superheroes weren't a sure thing when X-Men debuted in the summer of 2000.  Outside of modest critical hits like Batman Returns and Blade, the 1990s were something of a nadir for the cape-and-tights set on the big screen.  Enter 20th Century Fox, whose TV division had aired an acclaimed X-Men animated series for 5 seasons in the mid-90s and, most importantly, had re-introduced a large, appealing stable of characters to a crucial audience demographic.

There's quite a bit of hedging in the first X-Men film, which interrupts its character development for plenty of mutantsplaining.  Exposition isn't all bad, and definitely necessary in an introductory film, but I could have traded some of the info dumps for more scenes like the opening sequence, which portrays a young Magneto discovering his mutant powers in the midst of the chaotic liquidation of a Jewish concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.  X-Men also shows the residues of '90s blockbuster style as well as a tentative embrace of geekery, sending the heroes - clad in Matrix-esque leather suits - on a simplistic G.I. Joe-style mission that climaxes at the Statue of Liberty.

Still, X-Men succeeds in its goal to project itself as a "serious" action movie, preventing the audience from associating it with a campier style of comic book cinema.  That's a credit to the lighting-in-a-bottle casting that featured actors who, at the time, were mostly lower-tier stars and up-and-comers, as well as director Bryan Singer's emphasis on the allegorical nature of the mutants' struggle against discrimination and injustice.  Though heavy-handed at times - the militant Magneto (Ian McKellen) tells the pacifist Professor X (Patrick Stewart) that mutants must seize their rights "by any means necessary" - it's a strong thematic through-line that gives the action a little extra heft.

One of the better sequels of the 21st century superhero boom, X2: X-Men United (2003) shapes the talking points introduced by X-Men into a full-blown agenda.  It's a follow-up that improves on just about every front: the pacing is quicker, the themes are stronger, and the plot is more daring and complex.  Singer manages to juggle an even larger roster of characters, many of whom are realized here in their definitive movie versions - particularly Magneto, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn).

That doesn't mean X2 can't get exhausting at times.  By splitting up the team, Singer obligates himself to frequent check-ins that temporarily derail the film's momentum.  However, X2's many disparate parts combine into a satisfying whole, and it contains some of the series' most memorable sequences, like the scene-stealing Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) infiltrating the White House or Iceman's (Shawn Ashmore) big "coming out" scene at his parent's house, a perfectly knowing bit of allegory in which his mother replies, "Have you ever tried just...not being a mutant?"  In many ways, X2 is the ideal blueprint for balancing the brains and brawn in a comic book movie.

Just about everything that made the first two X-films sly and clever and cool was fatally misunderstood by X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).  At the time, many fans bemoaned the decision to hand the franchise to Brett Ratner (Singer was busy prepping and shooting Superman Returns), and while The Last Stand suffers mightily from poor direction, it's worth noting the script doesn't give him much to work with.  Attempting to combine two largely unrelated A-plots - the discovery of a "mutant cure" that threatens mutant self-determination and the resurrection of Jean Grey as her vengeful id Dark Phoenix - the film is too cavalier in its compression of time and space, and subsequently struggles to define character motivations other than "the script told them to."

The conclusion of a loose trilogy, The Last Stand peddles unearned gravitas and exploits major deaths for cheap shock value.  (Though it's arguably more appalling how some big changes are easily undone, making it my least favorite type of movie: one with no real consequences.)  Ratner does care about the fighting, however, and at least understands the appeal of the series' shifting alliances and finely executed teamwork.  And if nothing else, Kelsey Grammer nails his magnificent interpretation of Beast, who captures the spirit of the project in a fight sequence when he begins to pontificate on a thematic concern before interrupting himself and growling, "Oh, you get the point!"

A similar kitchen-sink approach dooms the dull X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).  Jackman finally gets to beat up on dudes (seriously, look at his main foes in the X-Men trilogy: Mystique, Lady Deathstrike, Dark Phoenix...), but Origins insists on awkwardly shoehorning as many mutants into the story as possible.  It's the film equivalent of a babysitter dumping a bucket of action figures onto the floor.  Screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods take their best shot at condensing Wolverine's complex backstory into a single dramatic arc of less than two hours - a herculean labor by any standard.  There's simply too much to play with, and director Gavin Hood can't settle on a tone he likes, getting bogged down in rote action vignettes meant to make Wolverine seem cool at the expense of the meatier character-driven scenes that make Wolverine seem human.

"Distracted" is really the best way to describe Origins, a film that squanders appearances from fan favorites like Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds).  They're both like anti-Nightcrawlers, stoking audience anticipation only to annoy with their knack for pointlessly hogging screentime.  The disappointing icing on the lackluster cake is the dodgy visual effects work.  Origins was famously leaked online about a month before its official theatrical release, prompting Fox to fend off complaints about poor CGI by claiming that the leak was an unfinished workprint.  There was little improvement in the final product, however, with the most egregious offenses being the blatantly cartoonish look of Wolverine's adamantium claws to a herky-jerky final showdown on the rim of a nuclear plant cooling tower.

Repurposing old story ideas into new material is as old as the studio system.  Still, it's interesting to note that Magneto was next in line for a stand-alone film, especially considering how the highlights of X-Men: First Class (2011) are essentially all about the journey of a younger Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) from determined Nazi hunter ambivalent about mutant politics to the militant leader of a protectionist mutant faction.  And in the same way that Fassbender contributes a pinpoint intensity that complements McKellan's own pragmatically ruthless take on Magneto, James McAvoy brings an exuberant sense of humor and idealism to the youthful Charles Xavier, anticipating Patrick Stewart's wry paternalism.

That said, the film loses steam when focusing on the titular class - a group of mutant youngsters drafted by Xavier, with the CIA's help, to oppose a mysterious demagogue named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). The trainees' storylines are disappointingly derivative of things we've already seen in the franchise - even the star-crossed teenage affair between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is a tweaked version of the Rogue-Iceman relationship.  But at least director Matthew Vaughn - who was actually the first person hired to direct The Last Stand after Singer became unavailable - knows how to disguise the movie's flaws with visual flair.  First Class has the cinematic panache and style lacking from prior X-Men films, as well as inspired casting choices from semi-major characters (Oliver Platt!) down to the tiniest bit parts (Ray Wise!), that keep the audience on its toes.

Logan does Japan in The Wolverine (2013), a surprisingly taut and gripping solo adventure that reserves Jackman's spot alongside Christopher Reeve  in the canon of best superhero performances.  There's something very refreshing about its sense of scale - personal and intimate, it's quite the departure from other films of its ilk.  It also handles the familiar "loss of powers" plot as smoothly as possible, sustaining itself through long actionless stretches (it takes about 30 minutes to get to the first proper action sequence) by forcing Wolverine to grapple with the concept of immortality and his identity as a warrior-protector.

Director James Mangold strikes a comfortable balance between moments of stillness and his big visual setpieces.  His portrait of Japan is more nuanced than the typical American blockbuster, equally ancient and ultra-modern.  The one-shot comic-bookiness of the whole endeavor almost feels miraculous - by God, it has a real ending!  It also helps things seem fresher then they really are; when ninjas suddenly appear in a snowy mountain village, it somehow doesn't feel like a movie you've seen before.  The Wolverine often treads a fine line between celebrating and fetishizing its cultural exotica, but these days it's a treat to see a superhero movie that's so dramatically decisive.

The Verdict

6. X-Men: The Last Stand
    A legitimately terrible movie

5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
    A legitimately boring movie

4. X-Men: First Class
    A disappointing undercard, a spectacular main event

3. X-Men
    Manages expectations and exposition

2. The Wolverine
     Jackman's shining moment

1. X2: X-Men United
    A mutant opus with excellent character dynamics

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)
Dir. Gareth Edwards

3.5 out of 5

When thinking about "forces of nature," we generally don't include animal life as part of that list.  This may be attributable to the fact that - at least in this geological age - we are the dominant species on the planet, capable of our own great acts of destruction.  The hubris of humankind and its frequent scientific and industrial overreach has been a key element of the Godzilla film series since its inception.  The latest version of Godzilla, directed by British dynamo Gareth Edwards, takes a different view by changing the role of humans from catalysts to reactants.  Instead of the unintended consequences of our immense technological power, it shows us the naked horror of our biological powerlessness.  And instead of chastising our arrogance, it asks us to ponder our place in the terrestrial order and our lucky evolutionary timing.  

This apostate view nonetheless feels entirely appropriate, given the lengthy set-up that places human fallibility at the center of a crisis, albeit in a less pernicious form: the well-meaning scientist.  The first two we meet, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), are summoned to the Philippines to examine two radioactive pods - one hatched, one still intact - unearthed by a mining expedition.  Meanwhile in Japan, American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) oversees the operation of a nuclear power plant alongside his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche).  Despite their credentials, however, they have very little influence on the events to come.  Whatever was awakened in the Philippines causes a seismic event in Japan, demolishing Joe’s power plant and turning the surrounding area into a government quarantine zone.

Fifteen years later, the truth about the nuclear "accident" is still being covered up, and a distraught and angry Joe is trespassing into the disaster area to find out what really happened.  His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnston), now an ordnance technician (read: explosives expert) in the U.S. Navy, bails his father out of jail, but he barely makes it back to Joe's apartment before agreeing to assist Dad in his quixotic mission.  Here, the kaiju plot begins in earnest, and not necessarily in the way that the audience is led to expect.  Credit Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein for finding creative ways to delay Godzilla's direct influence on the story while meting out enough information to keep the film's momentum going.  (Without getting too much into spoiler territory, it takes almost an hour for the big guy to appear, and when he does, he's equally a major threat and an unlikely ally to the human characters.)

Within the structure of a good man vs. nature conflict, the humans should come across as somewhat impotent.  Godzilla does its job too well in this regard, marginalizing its characters to the point where it seems to lose interest in most of them.  The movie treats people as objects of either expository or emotional expediency, whether it's Serizawa and Graham popping up occasionally to proffer scientific dialogue, or Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) obliviously ignoring the danger, then remaining inside it with no real sense of agency.  Godzilla is a creature feature through and through.  It has an uncommon interest in the animal nature of the titular monster.  Though it is guided by instinct, it has some of those same ineffable "human" qualities that we so often see in beloved pets and other animals; I swear, there's even a handful of moments when Godzilla looks downright plaintive.  You'd never expect a movie like this to encourage a genuine, unforced emotional attachment to something that could so easily crush us, but there you go.  

In its own funny way, Godzilla compares to Pacific Rim as a sideways environmental parable, though a much less optimistic one.  Witnessing Godzilla's power is simultaneously awe-inspiring and depressing.  (Fans of disaster porn take note - there's a thrilling variety of ruination in this one, rendered with a surprising moodiness by cinematographer Sheamus McGarvey.)  It's one thing to marvel at a monster this mighty; it's another to realize that we could never replicate it, much less stop it.  Humankind may often see itself in battle with Mother Nature, but I sure wouldn't bet against her winning the war.  

Monday, May 12, 2014


Dir. Nicholas Stoller

3.5 out of 5

The style of "slobs v. snobs" comedy that flourished in the late '70s and early '80s - thanks to classics like John Landis’ Animal House and Harold Ramis’ Caddyshack, not to mention countless emulators and imitators - placed its sympathy squarely with the slovenly underdogs, maintaining that to avoid becoming a punchline one had better avoid growing up as long as possible.  Nicholas Stoller's raunchy Neighbors cleverly complicates this blueprint by making its prototypical slobs - a raucous group of fraternity brothers headed by the charismatic Teddy (Zac Efron) - more snob-like while simultaneously presenting their foils next door - new parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) - as less-than-perfect caretakers who have no qualms about firing up the occasional joint.

After Mac and Kelly spend their nest egg on a house for their young family, they're determined to preserve their investment, as well as their newfound sense of responsibility, when the brothers of Delta Psi turn the neighboring address into a nonstop noise factory.  Despite initial friendly relations, it doesn't take long before Mac interferes with Teddy's mission to establish himself as one of the frat's most legendary members - a roster that includes the apocryphal inventors of the toga party and beer pong.

An entire school year of one-upsmanship ensues, with Mac and Kelly first trying to create a rift between Teddy and his best friend Pete (Dave Franco), then attempting to get the Delta Psis to accumulate the necessary "three strikes" to lose their charter.  Neighbors doesn't try to belabor the point here.  The majority of the film is a slugfest between equally immature Machiavellis committed to psychological warfare: in the movie's most memorable prank, Delta Psi steals the airbags from Kelly's car and rigs them to send Mac soaring into the ceiling whenever he sits in the wrong chair.  It’s devastatingly cruel...and also pretty darn hilarious.

Still, even bros have to graduate sometime, and Teddy's realization that his petty dickishness won't help him get a job triggers a full-blown existential crisis.  And true to its reshuffling of the slobs vs. snobs template, Neighbors tries to cultivate sympathy for both sides to mixed results.  The on-the-nose dialogue about growing up and coming to terms with reality lingers uncomfortably next to the movie's ribald, over-the-top humor, as if the prior enjoyment of weed and dildo jokes requires the consumption of thematic vegetables.  

Thankfully, Stoller doesn't dwell on it very long.  A former Judd Apatow protégé (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement) with a tendency to let his otherwise cracking comedies get long in the tooth, he shows that he's learned when to trim the fat while still finding the time to highlight scene-stealing contributions from the likes of Ike Barinholtz (as Mac's enthusiastically vindictive co-worker/friend) and Jerrod Carmichael (as a laid-back Delta Psi bro with an adorably guileless charisma).  One of the most well-intentioned filmmakers in the current comedy scene, Stoller keeps succeeding by making a fool out of everyone, slobs and snobs alike.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Dir. Jose Antonio Vargas

4 out of 5

It’s a general taboo in journalism to make yourself the center of the story.  Jose Antonio Vargas’ Documented, however, is a rare exception: Vargas is the story, a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist who in 2011 publicly declared that, since arriving in America from the Philippines as a 12-year-old in the early ‘90s, he’d been living and working in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.  Sent to live with his grandparents in California, Vargas first discovered the truth about his immigration status when applying for a driver’s license.  For years, Vargas dodged uncomfortable questions and worried constantly about deportation, until the roiling debate on U.S. immigration policy finally pushed him to “come out” as undocumented in a lengthy New York Times Magazine essay.  Documented records the aftermath of Vargas’ decision to divulge his secret, and as the riveting film shows—with less of the PR polish of Vargas’ other public statements—it’s a revelation with both political and personal implications.

Only 33 at the time of Documented’s release, Vargas seems to have accomplished enough to fill multiple lifetimes.  Like a true high achiever, he gives us two films in one.  The first is an earnest social treatise about immigration reform centered around the fight to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would provide a path to citizenship for young people who often had little to no agency in the decision to grow up undocumented in America.  Through an Alexis de Toqueville-style road trip that takes him everywhere from Capitol Hill to the 2012 Iowa caucuses to Alabama and the crucible of reactionary anti-immigrant laws, Vargas keeps the issue of undocumented personhood—his own legal identity—front and center.    

Of course, it helps that Vargas himself is a compelling test case, making his autobiography the film’s other, indispensible half.  No number of rallies or testimonies before Congress could make his case more convincing than the incredibly candid footage shown here.  In Vargas’ personal struggle to reconcile conflicting emotions about his country and his family with his newfound role as a social activist, Documented quite literally puts a human face on the immigration issue.  Several of them, in fact, as the film’s crew travels to the Philippines and tracks down the mother who sent her son to the States to pursue a better life, even though her chances of following him there were incredibly slim.

The typical challenges immigrants face—unmoored families, daily prejudice, adapting to a new culture—are magnified for the undocumented with the looming threat of legal repercussions should their status become public.  In a sense, Vargas is an outlier, protected in some measure by his credentials, his notoriety, and his network of allies cultivated throughout a successful career.  However, that makes his situation no less precarious (all it takes is one judge with a strict interpretation of current U.S. law) and the film makes a genuine effort to frame his story as part of a broader concern.  Still, there’s no question that Documented is most striking in its portrayal of Vargas and his ferocious love for America, a love that endures despite all the obstacles and hardships and intolerance, and a love that ultimately proves that something so flawed can still be worth fighting for.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Dir. Marc Webb

2 out of 5

Can you remember a time when a Spider-Man movie wasn't a commercial slam-dunk?  In 2002, Sam Raimi's lavishly-budgeted take on the webslinger was considered a flashy gamble in a genre that only had a couple modest hits to its recent credit.  These days, Spidey is the unofficial mascot of Sony, a financial bulwark that's counted on to bolster the film division's balance sheet.  Though he's forever a teenager (or a young adult), Peter Parker is undoubtedly a major Hollywood breadwinner.  

With great grosses comes great responsibility.  The stress of competition is written all over The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a follow-up to the so-so 2012 reboot that treats current blockbuster trends as obligations and desperately clings to a borrowed personality.  In the sequel, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is still struggling to cope with loss, from the impending departure of his Oxford-bound girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), to the recent deaths of both his adoptive uncle and Gwen's police captain father, to the mystery of his own parents' disappearance when he was a young boy.  Once again, Peter's investigation into his "secret history" creates more adversaries with an all-important link to the tech monolith OsCorp: Max Dillon/Electro, a mousy electrical engineer (Jamie Foxx) who experiences a horrific industrial accident and turns into a human battery because electricity; and Harry Osborne (a shifty Dane DeHaan), the OsCorp heir who needs a transfusion of Spider-Man's genetically-altered blood to cure the poorly-explained hereditary disease that is quickly ravaging his body.

While the first film could fall back on an origin story so compelling that you kinda sorta liked hearing it again, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 tries to get by with a pu pu platter of material that struggles to achieve coherence, let alone convey excitement and adventure.  The tone varies wildly from scene to scene, and, despite a few bright spots courtesy of his talented leads and visual effects team, director Marc Webb can't replicate Raimi's patient buildup of tension leavened with trademark Spidey humor.  The movie also feels weirdly hermetic.  Besides a single confrontation with Electro in Times Square, this Spider-Man is rarely seen interacting with the outside world.  It fundamentally changes the narrative from one where we can see and relate to Peter's struggles to one where super-people remain frustratingly aloof and unknowable until it's time to punch each other.

To be fair, the filmmakers seem to realize this, but are unwilling or unable to come up with more creative ways to create an understanding of Peter/Spider-Man's dual life and the strain it places on his relationships.  (They even recycle the "costume staining the laundry" joke from Spider-Man 2.)  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also fails to broaden the franchise mythology in any interesting way, with problems starting from the iffy opening scene in which respected scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) channels Liam Neeson's hulking air marshal in Non-Stop.  Indeed, the movie's only real risk is to play up the silliness to a degree that suggests the influence of the Schumacher Batman films (right down to the misguided character designs), which is not the comparison you want in this more discerning era of comic book cinema.

But at least succumbing to camp - instead of teetering on the brink of it - would signal some sort of creative agency.  Unfortunately, Webb and his crew are far too content to imitate rather than innovate.  It's the product of a perceived superhero arms race where building a foundation for a promised future payoff is prioritized over a wholly fulfilling dramatic experience in the present, with the obligatory over-compensation of the last twenty minutes unable to salvage the alternately dippy and banal experience of the preceding two hours.  With more to prove than ever, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 discouragingly doubles down on the familiar. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Catch-Up: Spring 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: that very special window between awards season and summer blockbusters.

300: Rise of an Empire
Dir. Noam Murro

2 out of 5

The sword-and-sandals sequel 300: Rise of an Empire was, perhaps, an inevitability given the mad rush of copycat productions that followed Zack Snyder's wildly successful thunderdome of highly-stylized Hellenic ultraviolence.  Unfortunately, Rise is little more than an officially-sanctioned knockoff.  The packaging is right, but the favor is conspicuously bland.  Taking place around the same time as the events of 300, the sequel focuses on the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) who is attempting to arrange a unified naval defense of the Greek city states.  While King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans slow the Persians' land advance, Themistocles leads his own outnumbered forces against Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek woman allied with the Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and commander of his warships.

The film does show promise in its impossibly bloody fight scenes, of which there are many.  And Green gives a fine performance as the surprisingly complex Artemisia, a tough, vengeful woman who enjoys roughing up her enemies and sexual partners alike.  But the rest of the movie is strictly direct-to-DVD quality: endless digital blood splatters, cluttered visuals, soporific acting, and purely functional dialogue.  That last one is partly Snyder's own fault - though he didn't return to direct, he co-wrote the script with Kurt Johnstad - and it's indicative of the film's failure to effectively engage with what made the original 300 a surprise hit and bro-culture touchstone.  Returning cast members like Santoro, Lena Headey, and David Wenham pop up for a couple scenes each, and give off the vibe of college students returning to visit their old high school, finding it nostalgic and quaint while also a little beneath them.  At least 300: Rise of an Empire doesn't act like it's doing them a favor - it's unapologetic action schlock, and seems genuinely appreciative of the chance to borrow even a small amount of their luster.

Need for Speed
Dir. Scott Waugh

3 out of 5

Ironically, Need for Speed's biggest issue is its pacing.  Setting up Toby's cross-country scramble takes a lot of ponderous exposition.  The filmmakers' insistence on such a thorough, serious introduction is particularly puzzling in light of all the logic and physics-defying action thereafter.  Take for example the mysterious radio host - played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Michael Keaton - who runs the film's big underground racing competition.  Where is his broadcast center?  Does he sit there all day, filling time between big scoops in the underground street racing world?  Why don't the cops listen to his show?  How does he know about Toby's dead friend - was he famous or something?  And so on.

At the same time, Need for Speed is much better for ignoring the answers to these and other reasonable questions, fulfilling the audience's desire for wild stunts and reckless chases in photogenic locations.  It also understands the importance of levity, surrounding Paul's vanilla hero with a crew of cut-ups including Rami Malek and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, as well as a likable sidekick/love interest (Imogen Poots) who's a knowledgeable and worthy foil.  Though Need for Speed manages a bit of unexpected emotional resonance, it's an enjoyable addition to the canon of car movies whose affinity is more with the speeding metal objects than the people piloting them.

Cheap Thrills
Dir. E. L. Katz

4 out of 5

People degrading themselves for money is not a new concept.  However, the provocative pitch-black comedy Cheap Thrills argues that more research is necessary and enthusiastically investigates the idea via a twisted social experiment.  Married mechanic Craig (Pat Healy) and shakedown artist Vince (Ethan Embry) are old high school friends who randomly cross paths at a bar on the same day Craig loses his job.  While commiserating about their financial woes - Craig is on the brink of being evicted from his apartment, Vince struggles to find steady employment after a stint in prison - a wealthy stranger (David Koechner) invites them to join a birthday celebration for his young wife (Sara Paxton), which involves giving the two downtrodden men gobs of cash for completing a series of escalating dares.

Beginning with standard juvenile mayhem (drink that shot, slap that stripper’s ass) and steadily progressing to more dangerous and violent tasks, Cheap Thrills likewise turns from an exaggerated satire of reality TV and game show antics to a probe of the more sinister aspects of capitalism.  Craig, the more reluctant participant of the pair, has many opportunities to walk away, but views his fiscal obligations as a never-ending treadmill that justifies all sorts of immoral behavior.  That psychological spin is also how the movie justifies its visceral envelope-pushing; the splatter scenes may be front-and-center, but they have a purpose beyond shock value.  Even at a tautly-edited 85 minutes, Cheap Thrills is a surprisingly comprehensive and disconcerting look at nihilism in all its guises.