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.

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