A Look Back at a Lifetime of Film Criticism and Roger Ebert in Life Itself

Theatrical One-Sheet for LIFE ITSELF, courtesy Magnolia Pictures, 2014
Theatrical One-Sheet for LIFE ITSELF, courtesy Magnolia Pictures, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

To those who knew the man in passing, either through the TV shows or through the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert was a fair but stern voice for quality productions, small-scale projects worth exposing to greater audiences and a proud man unafraid to denounce utter celluloid crap.

To the rest of us who’d eventually get a chance to spend whatever available time with the man at various functions, junkets and signings, he was a warm and generous fellow, one who wasn’t without his faults and quirks outside of his public image as one of the most recognizable film critics in the business.

This is why it was both emotionally difficult and rewarding to see Ebert’s life tenderly and honestly recounted in Steve James’ moving documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir.

Stock photo of Roger Ebert, courtesy Magnolia Films, 2014
Stock photo of Roger Ebert, courtesy Magnolia Films, 2014

 

Though it could easily have glossed over the Pulitzer Prize winning writer’s personal issues such as alcoholism in the 1970s, frequent discord with competing critic and eventual friend Gene Siskel and other items on a list of forgivable flaws, Life Itself uses James’ camera to apologetically examine the raw Ebert, both through his last few months combating injuries stemming from cancer complications as well as his life milestones, seen in well-edited flashbacks often accompanied by a haunting voice-over narration from a sound-alike actor (a move I was first offended by, but strangely warmed up to), helping us through the out-of-sequence chapters from Ebert’s memoir so to keep from the rigid and Dickensian David Copperfield chronological life story format.

Roger Ebert at his Home Office, photo courtesy USA Today Stock Archive, 2014
Roger Ebert at his Home Office, photo courtesy USA Today Stock Archive, 2014

 

The film hits all the right notes, not focusing so much on movies and review pieces but on the perspective of a man who gave so much of himself in the name of openly discussing a difference of opinion between film viewers, an eventually growing trend which indirectly helped change the way we look at movies today.

James’ documentary takes care to include tender and often brutally intimate moments between Ebert and his wife Chaz, ranging from playful banter to tenser moments brought on by frustration at having lost his voice following the removal of his lower jaw due to a tumor several years prior. A forgivable offense, to be certain, but also a very touching peek into a formidable marriage.

The filmmaker also captured the essence of the man as described by the late critic’s closest friends and business associates, ranging from his old cronies at the Sun-Times to fellow critics and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, each offering a sobering testimony to the life spent next to a respected peer.

Roger Ebert, archived pictures courtesy Magnolia Pictures, 2014
Roger Ebert, archived pictures courtesy Magnolia Pictures, 2014

 

This film is a generous and warm look at a life well lived, one filled with an unparalleled love of film, the good company of friends and foes alike and an unquenchable thirst to write and write, literally for the sake of argument.

I wholeheartedly recommend this movie, to anyone who’s ever enjoyed Ebert on television or has ever wanted to be a writer, about film or otherwise (also the reason you’re reading this article, had Ebert himself not personally talked me into it 13 years ago). It is a genuine testament to a writer of intelligence, a lover of the seventh art and an inspiration to so many who followed him.

4.5 out of 5

Review: Monty Python Live at the O2 Arena All Too Familiar but Chock Full of Chuckles

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

Believe the old adage (or Joni Mitchell song): “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In the case of Monty Python, the legendary British comedy group, it couldn’t be any more true nor bittersweet.

Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Terry Jones onstage at London's O2 Arena, in MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Associated Press, 2014
Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Terry Jones onstage at London’s O2 Arena, in MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Associated Press, 2014

 

A veritable nostalgic trip back through some of the troupe’s most popular skits and songs, the show, dubbed Monty Python Live (Mostly), reunites the five remaining members (minus Graham Chapman, who died in 1989) for one last hurrah in front of their adoring fans over the course of a record-breaking sold-out set of ten shows, with today’s final showing having been broadcast via satellite to all continents.

A re-enactment of the famous skit "The Four Yorkshiremen", during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Getty Images, 2014
A re-enactment of the famous skit “The Four Yorkshiremen”, during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Getty Images, 2014

 

While there was high anticipation of new material originating from the aging comics, much of the three-and-a-half hour show (including a 30-minute intermission) is instead a well worn rehash of the group’s best numbers over the course of their many television series from the 1970s (Flying Circus, And Now for Something Completely Different) painstakingly recreated on the massive London stage for the sake of millions of willing viewers who’ve finally gotten the chance to say goodbye to the old boys.

With the majority of the audience having already memorized the best bits in their youth anyhow, the theatrical experience, satellite feed or not, made for an incredibly fun interactive experience, one with minimal technical glitches.

The show came replete with archival interstitial videos (from Terry Gilliam’s classic roster of animated as well as classic clips from the old series) along with a dance troupe of men and women dressed in thematic grab based on Python lore. This allowed the impressive set design and five very hard working actors — along with original blonde bombshell Carol Cleveland — a chance to change into their various outfits and decor for the next number.

Michael Palin and john Cleese work their way through the Parrot Sketch during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Getty Images, w2014
Michael Palin and john Cleese work their way through the Parrot Sketch during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Getty Images, w2014

 

The final show wasn’t without its ups and downs, with some of the musical numbers dragging on and some of the bits turning into tributes to the Python greatness rather than the projected humor promised to the crowd. An unnecessary bit titled “Blackmail” was used as a gimmick to bring a potential celebrity on stage for the sake of banter, with most of those called upon instead using the moment to exclaim how great it is to share the stage with their idols, ruining the mystique of watching these veterans run through their favorite material.

The series of ten shows also allowed the group to bring on a who’s who of actors and comedians, among them Noel Fielding, Bill Bailey, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Warwick Davis, Simon Pegg and strangely enough, Mike Myers, each having their go at a brief moment with their legendary peers. Eddie Izzard did make a brief appearance in an Australian themed skit, but his cameo was all too brief.

"The Spanish Inquisition" as re-enacted during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Yahoo!, 2014
“The Spanish Inquisition” as re-enacted during MONTY PYTHON LIVE, photo courtesy Yahoo!, 2014

 

Despite some of the Python numbers feeling a bit dated and out of place compared to their more YouTube friendly classic counterparts (including The Cheese Shop, The Argument Clinic, The Parrot Sketch, Spam Spam Spam Spam and so many others), the show wasn’t without its unexpected moments.

Given that their final show was their reputed last go at it, it was priceless to see the boys break character once in a while, breaking the fourth wall due to wardrobe malfunction or a flubbed line. This also allowed them to pay tribute to their fallen colleague, bringing applause from the worldwide audience of millions of Chapman devotees.

Below, a brief overview of their show:

 

In the end, it’s likely that many of the millions of Python followers went into this show hoping for never-before-seen material which would quench their thirst for classic British humor.

With superfluous musical numbers which could easily have been replaced with further archival footage for the sake of old times, I can honestly say it was still worth seeing the five remaining members in action.

Thank you, Monty Python, for giving it to us one last time, eh, wink wink nudge nudge say no more!

Note: Those of you disappointed about missing today’s finale can rejoice in knowing about encore broadcasts of the show on July 23rd and 31st across select theatres in Canada; in addition to these opportunities, fans can catch some of Monty Python’s classics on the big screen, with The Meaning of Life (July 24), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (July 27) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (July 30) playing near you.

3.5 out of 5

Helix Season One on Blu-Ray a Claustrophobic Trip into Paranoia

A new sci-fi concept with a slow start which quickly picks up steam throughout its 13-episode first season run, Helix successfully borrows elements from early 80s films in order to turn a CSI-type tale of intrigue into a nail-biting study in close-up shots, jump scares and forced isolation.

 

Blu-Ray Cover Art for HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony, 2014

 

The premise of this new series takes a Center for Disease Control team led by Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) out to a remote and private Arctic research base, where a viral outbreak involving Alan’s brother Peter (Neil Napier) appears to have infected humans with strange and decidedly inhuman symptoms ranging from increased strength to a hive-mind state between those afflicted.

While the race is against the clock to discover the cause for this outbreak, Alan’s team must also contend with the counteracting maneuvers by the base’s director, Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose motives may hide a deeper conspiracy at play.

As the mystery illness spreads and bodies start to drop, the CDC team members realize they may be in over their heads, with much more at play than a disease in need of a cure.

Cast Promo Still from HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony/Syfy, 2014
Cast Promo Still from HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony/Syfy, 2014

 

It’ll be hard for any hardened sci-fi fans  not to draw direct parallels with genre films like The Andromeda Strain or John Carpenter’s the Thing, what with the remote Arctic setting and claustrophobic corridors and each character distrustful of the next. Once you accept the main cast of characters, with Billy Campbell in the lead as a skeptical but experienced virologist, you actually benefit from the remaining cast members’ status as up and coming actors whose body of work won’t distract you from their performance. Not to impugn their work, but sometimes marquee status masks the brilliant portrayal within.

The plot is slow to build but quickly picks up about a third of the way in, revealing sinister plans on top of other schemes, building up to a much bigger story payoff by the third act and season finale.

Neil Napier as Peter Farragut in HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony, 2014
Neil Napier as an infected Peter Farragut in HELIX SEASON ONE, courtesy Sony, 2014

 

Those averse to copious bodily fluids and exchanges of gooey black secretions may wish to abstain from this unapologetic and mature series, one which doesn’t flinch or hold back from its depiction of decapitations, bloodletting or other massive physical changes. Look for some mid-season guest appearances, namely that of Star Trek Voyager‘s Jeri Ryan as a single-minded corporate envoy.

Here’s a taste via one of the teaser trailers for the show as it aired on Canada’s Showcase network:

 

With a worthwhile payoff story-wise and a promising follow-up sorta cliffhanger (the show was picked up for a second season, to air in Winter 2015), Helix delivers on suspense, thrills and a whole lotta gooey fluids. Weak stomachs need not apply.

3.5 out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Transformers Age of Extinction Out to Destroy Quality Throughout the Galaxy

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

You know what they say: “If something makes money, by all means, go back and back and back again, to hell with quality. Who needs a story? Put them butts in them theater seats!”

Well, okay. I made that up, but by Mighty Omicron, it should be considered a universal truth, especially after watching an interminable, paper-thin rehash of previous Transformers films under the heavy pretense of a mighty  “reboot.”

Somebody get a blowtorch. Stat.

One Sheet Poster for TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014
One Sheet Poster for TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014

 

A weakly linked follow-up to 2011′s Transformers Dark of the Moon, this nearly three-hour long endurance test jumps ahead five years, following the heavy collateral damage of the Battle of Chicago in which Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots had apparently managed to finally defeat the Decepticons. One could only have hoped.

Now, humans have grown dubious of these well-intentioned walking mechanical giants and have withdrawn their overwhelming support, as a human race is wont to do after destroying a major American city in the name of galactic defense…not that Metropolis shouldn’t accuse the Man of Steel for doing the same, mind you (see Zack Snyder’s 2013 debacle for details.)

And so, the various Transformers are living in seclusion and/or hiding, until an alien Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown arrives on Earth to track down Optimus as a valued galactic bounty.

It’s up to a  struggling Texan inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) to restore a defective Prime to his former glory, help his own daughter (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) escape some black ops teams under the control of a shady government operative (Kelsey Grammer) in league with the alien bounty hunter, and also try to save the world. No sweat, right?

Oh, and did I mention that an eccentric billionaire (Stanley Tucci, comic-relief and highlight of this film) has developed a way to create his own version of Transformers? Nothing could go wrong, there.

Mark Wahlberg talks things out with Optimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014
Mark Wahlberg talks things out with Optimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014

 

There comes a point in any franchise when a plot gets recycled so often that it just goes through the motions for the sake of an approved motion-picture length running time. I’d argue that this particular pop culture property reached that threshold by the release of its first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, what with its overwhelming similitude to the first film, Decepticon ploys and all.

Now, with three movies already in the can, Michael Bay seems ready to throw anything and everything Transformers-related against the wall to see what sticks. The result is a veritable hodge-podge of clichés and implausible leaps in character behavior, if there’s even such a thing with a franchise populated with giant robots in disguise.

Optimus appears grumpy, fed up, and ready to murder some humans out of sheer impatience with established behavior patterns; human pawns are imperiled, rescued, imperiled again and subjected to bone-crushing hi-jinks, all without a scratch (well, except maybe for T.L. Miller’s surfer dude supporting character); finally, the movie wouldn’t be complete without yet another shark-jumping moment marking the convoluted return of Megatron, now under a different guise.

I know what you’re thinking: wasn’t that dude defeated three times already? Yes. Meet this franchise’s pre-requisite rite de passage.

Optimus Prime rides a Transforming Dinobot in TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014
Optimus Prime rides a Transforming Dinobot in TRANSFORMERS AGE OF EXTINCTION, courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2014

 

By the third act, you’re likely to realize and mourn just how little effort was put into this already bloated, overproduced sci-fi blockbuster, when the writers shoehorn the Dinobots into the last half-hour just for the sake of justifying their inclusion into the Superbowl spots, teasers and trailers of the last six months. Truly, this once impressive concept based on our childhood’s mechanical heroes has come full circle, and is set for another drive around the franchise block.

Sadly, there is so little original substance in this latest installment that the film truly lives up to its title. It is an Age of Extinction: that of our interest and curiosity in a project long since outdated and desperate to seem relevant seven years later.

1.5 out of 5

 

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley Will Have You Coming Back For More

Cover Art for SECONDS, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014
Cover Art for SECONDS, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014

 

Review by Naomi Szeben, Pop Culture and Book Critic

 

For those of you who have loved the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic stories set in Toronto, know that you are just as likely to love the magical elements of Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s latest offering.

“Seconds,” named after the popular restaurant owned by resident celebrity chef Katie, also serves as the trope for this new graphic novel.   If you had a second chance at fixing a mistake in your life, would you do it, even if it meant compromising your present happiness?

 

Page excerpt from SECONDS by Bryan Lee O'Malley, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014
Page excerpt from SECONDS by Bryan Lee O’Malley, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014

 

The charming Chibi-style of drawing only makes the fairy-tale like elements of the story more enchanting. A house spirit with magic mushrooms is the core ingredient that brews trouble in this chef’s life. Despite the supernatural theme to this tale, there are elements that every young adult (and some of us not-so-young adults) can relate to, namely, regret.

 

Despite being a young owner and well respected chef of a famous restaurant set in an un-named city, Katie’s unhappiness with herself and her own grasp of what success means to her is her own undoing.

Her woes are almost universal: A love affair with the One Who Got Away, a less-than-satisfying affair with an employee and a sense of being out-of-touch with her Generation Y staff. We’ve all experienced this to some degree in our lives, and O’Malley explores the butterfly effect to its fullest extent.

 

Author Bryan Lee O'Malley, photo credit Seth Kushner, 2013
Author Bryan Lee O’Malley, photo credit Seth Kushner, 2013

 

Don’t let the childlike drawings lull you into a false sense that you might be reading a one-dimensional character; the situational humor clearly comes through in the captions and characters, for all their flaws are endearing in their familiarity.   This graphic novel is one of my top picks for hot summer reads.

4.5 out of 5

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes a Wild Ride Into A Warped Psyche

Cover Art for MR. MERCEDES, courtesy Simon and Schuster Canada, 2014
Cover Art for MR. MERCEDES, courtesy Scribner Canada, 2014

 

Review by Naomi Szeben, Pop Culture and Book Critic

 

Mr. Mercedes, by the “King of Horror,” is Stephen King’s most recent venture into mystery. It does have elements of horror in it, as we get a look into the mind of a deeply disturbed killer and the circumstances that drove him to crime (pun not intended.)

“The Mercedes Killer” as the crime is called refers to how a car was stolen from a wealthy woman and used to deliberately mow down a tightly packed line-up of people at a job fair.   In King-style fashion, the unlikely heroes are everymen who opt to solve the crime themselves due to the wheels of justice turning slower than the cogs in the criminal machination.   Can a retired detective, a woman with Asperger’s and a teenager from the suburbs stop a potential serial killer from striking again?

 

King states that Mr. Mercedes was inspired by a real-life event where a woman drove her car into a crowd to kill one specific person, making the choice to do so by mowing down the mass of people in front of her car.   It may be easy to dismiss this as a mere cat-and-mouse story where a retired, depressed detective and a misogynistic young adult goad each other online in order to gain the upper hand.

See King himself speak of the moment of inspiration at a recent Q&A:

 

 

The tale, however, is more layered than its real life counterpart, where you can see the killer, Brady Hartsfield, compose his letter online in a clever video promo, and even visit Brady’s basement control center in an interactive game.

Author Stephen King, picture courtesy CBC, 2014
Author Stephen King, picture courtesy CBC, 2014

 

There are some moments that drag the caliber of this mystery down;  unnecessary self referencing (Hartsfield wears a Pennywise the Clown mask as he mows people down) and a useless, plodding sex scene with an attractive, middle-aged millionaire that only serves to create an emotional attachment to the detective and create a potential victim for the sake of a plot line.

With a rousing ending in store, the overall book is a solid poolside read. It’s not as detailed as The Stand nor as nuanced as The Shining, but I give it a worthwhile grade nonetheless.

3.5 out of 5

 

Revisiting a Most Important Episode of Star Trek The Next Generation

By Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

As with all great TV shows past and present, every series can boast of a handful of timeless, important episodes amongst its roster which depict acting of the finest level, excellent production values and social commentary on modern-day issues.

CBS Films and Paramount did just that in a 1992 episode of Star Trek The Next Generation called “Chain of Command,” reviewed here in remastered, glorious 1080p resolution.

Blu-Ray Cover Art for STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014

 

When the Federation learns of a potentially new deadly weapon being constructed by the Cardassians, Starfleet brass selects Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart), Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Worf (Michael Dorn) as members of a specialized covert team to infiltrate a small planetoid in Cardassian territory and disable or destroy this new device.

This leaves the Enterprise without a captain for the duration of the trip, but rather than temporarily promote Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) to Acting Captain, Admiral Nechayev (Natali Nogulich) instead brings in the experienced but abrasive Captain Edward Jellico (Ronny Cox), a capable strategist with very little patience or tolerance for failure or lack of discipline.

When the mission goes south and Picard is captured by the Cardassian Fleet, a dangerous battle begins on two fronts: Jellico, Riker and Troi (Marina Sirtis) must stay on board ship to negotiate Picard’s release with wily Cardassians envoys while the captive Starfleet veteran remains in custody under physical and psychological duress at the hands of a dedicated military interrogator (David Warner) who will not hesitate to resort to any means (including torture) in order to obtain vital strategic information regarding the sector.

Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) is subjected to mental and physical torture by Gul Madred (David Warner) in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014
Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) is subjected to mental and physical torture by Gul Madred (David Warner) in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014

 

Though I can’t really say that the majority of Next Gen episodes during the original run didn’t try to deliberately touch on important social issues like gender difference, medical ethics and political debate, I’m at least able to say that this particular Trek franchise had yet to touch on such a controversially delicate and timely hot button topic, that of the acceptable treatment of prisoners of war, especially in the wake of the highly publicized scandals concerning the American military at the time (Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, etc…)

With this in mind, the ever-prepared Shakespearian lead referred to Amnesty International footage of prisoner torture in order to inform his performance in a definitely poignant story opposite fellow British thespian David Warner, who’d been cast on very short notice as his Cardassian captor.

Using a closed set due to the nature of each scene (which included forced nudity and humiliation), Stewart and Warner began a battle of wits which hasn’t been seen on any Trek show or movie since. There’s even a tinge of Orwell infused into the dialogue, if you know what to look for.

Capt. Edward Jellico (Ronny Cox) has harsh words for Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014
Capt. Edward Jellico (Ronny Cox) has harsh words for Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014

 

Meanwhile, the senior members of the NCC-1701-D get a rude awakening when command of the ship passes to what I can only call the “Anti-Picard”, a bossy and caustic officer with expertise in diplomatic negotiation but a very poor bedside manner when it comes to crew loyalty. Ronny Cox proves extremely capable as Jellico, not quite a villain but not quite the encouraging protagonist. The veteran actor manages to evoke mixed emotions with both cast and viewers, proving a worthwhile addition to the illustrious roster of special guest stars on the cult hit series.

Sir Patrick Stewart as Picard in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014
Sir Patrick Stewart as Picard in STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION CHAIN OF COMMAND, courtesy CBS Films/Paramount Home Video, 2014

 

I believe it’s fair to say that “Chain of Command” rates among the top ten episodes of the series, along with several other two-parters and epic cliffhangers. A formidable means of shaking up a pretty formulaic premise by injecting some much needed debate into an already excellent script by Ronald D. Moore and Frank Abatemarco, this Peabody Award-winning piece should be deemed essential viewing by discerning TV viewers and Trekkers alike.

Masterful performances by Stewart, Warner and Cox remind us that even in the most popular scripted shows, there’s always room for excellence and dedication to the craft, no matter what planet or era you find yourself on.

5 out of 5

300 Rise of an Empire: An Acceptable Bookend Sequel to 2006 Original Film

By Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

An obvious and predictable successor to the Frank Miller/Zack Snyder production which turned “This is SPARTA!” into an everyday catchphrase, Noam Munro’s sequel/prequel/”during”quel retains all of the first film’s artistic flares, despite a watered down tale of greatness by proxy.

Blu-Ray Cover Art for 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

The heroic tale of the Battle of Thermopylae is already well documented, both by history books and the Gerard Butler-led tale of epic soldiery depicted in the original 300. Having learned of the symbolic sacrifice which brought Greeks together into a united front against the might of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his Persian Army, it would stand to reason that any sequel to the successful 2006 film would explore other battlefields during this conflict, using the same graphic novel paintbrush and taste for gratuitous pints of flowing blood as Snyder’s first chapter.

Alas, despite looking as fine and worthy as its predecessor, 300 Rise of an Empire feels like nothing more than a pumped-up equivalent of the original, in the same way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, no matter how clever, could ever hold a candle to Hamlet.

Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Indeed, though the plot introduces us to mortal enemies Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia (Eva Green) on the waters of the Aegean Sea, much of it seems watered down (no pun intended) compared to the more familiar Xerxes/Leonidas conflict. Aside from a few face-to-face encounters (one of which would feel right at home in an episode of Spartacus, nudity and all), the feud between the two naval masters amount to nothing more exciting than a full-size, drawn-out game of Civilization IV on a PC or even a slow game of RISK, albeit one where all players have resigned themselves to calling it quits, despite bigger, more capable players waiting in the wings.

Eva Green as Artemisia in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Eva Green as Artemisia in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Granted, the film has the decency to throw in a bit of backstory, explaining how a simple son of a king could turn into a nine-foot-tall Godking when Xerxes plunges himself into a cave pool of “pure evil”, but even by then, said gigantic ruler decides to sit out the majority of this prequel/sequel hybrid, misleading the audience into a false sense of plot. This is surprising considering that the movie is supposedly based on an as-of-yet unreleased piece by graphic novelist Frank Miller, titles Xerxes.  Hmm.

Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes in 300 RISE OF AN EMPIRE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

You can’t fault this film for trying to cash in on a much stronger original feature, given the swashbuckling success of the 2006 film. Despite Billy Campbell lookalike Sullivan Stapleton sporting Greek blue threads as a Bizarro reflection of Leonidas’ Spartan crimsons, all of his exploits can’t match the badassery of his boastful fellow countryman from the first film, resulting in nothing more than a handful of Xeroxed battles with an occasional return to the source material here and there for story cred.

Even with half a dozen actors returning for an encore (with about 300 of them unable to return for obvious reasons, natch), 300 Rise of an Empire is a nifty but hollow sequel with impressive visuals but no sensible grounds for existing, other than to plunder a bankable franchise for extra cheese at the expense of originality.

2.5 out of 5

Winter’s Tale on Blu-Ray — Or, The Art of Completely Bastardizing the Film Adaptation of a Beloved Book

By Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

Popular culture has many idioms — “jumping the shark”, “nuking the fridge”, even the Shyamalanesque “What a Twist!” — but none so overdue as the much needed “Pulling a Goldsman”.

I hope to give it much traction as word of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s  cinematic crimes gain future notoriety, especially in light of his trespasses in turning a popular 1983 novel into an incomprehensible puddle of unnecessary magical vomit.

Blu-Ray Cover Art for WINTER'S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for WINTER’S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Though it originally retains the core of Mark Helprin’s classic, namely the story of an orphaned Irish-American thief named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) who finds love in 1918 New York City, only for the object of his affection (a feverish beauty played by Jessica Brown-Findlay) to die of consumption and the later mysterious disappearance of Lake a hundred years into the future to the modern-day Big Apple, Winter’s Tale has all the elements of a timeless love story, a believable romance which transcends time and space but a tale which inevitably gets trampled to unrecognizable pulp by the overly ambitious hubris of a Hollywood screenwriter known for his few successes, but mostly reviled for his creatively misguided fantasy power trips.

Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown-Findlay in WINTER'S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown-Findlay in WINTER’S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

You’ve probably heard of Akiva Goldsman, or at least seen his work but didn’t notice his name in the credits. An Oscar winner for writing the Best Picture film A Beautiful Mind, he is nevertheless equally responsible for penning such celluloid suppositories as Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, I Am Legend and I, Robot.

One could argue that his one major award excuses the majority of his bloated scripts and fancy twists. Then again, for him to not only decide to direct, produce and rewrite this turn-of-the-century themed fantasy romance and turn it into a metaphorical fight between angels and demons amounts to anyone deciding to inject cyborgs into Alex Haley’s Roots or adding vampires to Bridges of Madison County. In short, not bloody fucking likely.

Rather than leave well enough alone and appease the majority of his audience by conveying a pleasant and memorable love story to film as any self-respecting filmmaker would, Goldsman kicks fan respect out to the curb, dismissively refusing to allow anyone else a chance to edit a clearly misguided and erroneous script with very little resemblance to its source material.

The massive joke of a film which results insults not only viewers but disappointed readers alike.

Russell Crowe in an unfortunate reinvention of villain Pearly Soames in WINTER'S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Russell Crowe in an unfortunate reinvention of villain Pearly Soames in WINTER’S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

That Goldsman opted for such a far-fetched detour from the original story is unfortunate; Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown-Findlay excel quite well as ill-fated lovers capable of evoking tears of sympathy from a willing audience. To have left this well enough alone would have made for a good film. Such a noble love story is instead buried under a reprehensible new subplot, one which sees Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) as a human-shaped demon working New York City’s Five Boroughs on behalf of a depressed and gloomy Lucifer (Will Smith, who appears in a 1918-based scene sporting a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and blingy earrings — WTF, right?)

I was ready to drink the Kool-Aid and accept that a grieving man in love could make his way through a time vortex and find a way to redeem himself in his lost love’s name, but to tack on a superfluous subplot reminiscent of Chris De Burgh’s “Spanish Train” is not only uncalled for, but amounts to the writer/director flipping the bird at anyone who’s grown up loving Helprin’s carefully crafted tale.

Jennifer Connelly in a later scene from WINTER'S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Jennifer Connelly in a later scene from WINTER’S TALE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

I could go on at length — but need I really? — about the many incongruous and disconnected leaps in logic this failed film offers (does no one question how a man doesn’t age in a century anymore?), but that would feel like not only robbing a homeless man but beating him senseless after doing so.

Winter’s Tale the film should never be mistaken for Winter’s Tale the novel. Please check out the latter, a much better story than that which Goldsman begat on the screen.

This is a love story that feels like a diamond in the rough but instead feels like a decent romance buried so deep into a stinky sewer that you won’t even want to give it a fair shake. I’d hardly wish a two-hour viewing on my worst enemies. Then again, it could come in handy.

Watch on a dare, and don’t do it sober. Better yet, do your darnedest not to imagine these otherwise capable cast members doing this film as anything other than a reluctant overdue favor owed. You’ve been warned.

Shame on you, Akiva Goldsman. I’m still awaiting your apology for the Bat-Nipples incident of 1995 and 1997.

0.5 out of 5

The Lego Movie is Awesome but Almost Falls to Pieces

Blu-Ray Cover Art for THE LEGO MOVIE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for THE LEGO MOVIE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

By Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor

There comes a time during the act of evaluating the entertainment value of a full-length motion picture, when one must decide whether to dismiss the work as a quick cash grab or to give it credit as one of the more original works to come out of the movie mill in recent times.

I’m comfortable stating that The Lego Movie lands right in the middle of these two extremes, an extremely goofy and kid-friendly adventure, but one that is so busy on screen that it could very well trigger epileptic fits amongst audience members.

The film depicts a typical hero’s journey, with young and docile Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) working as an unimportant construction worker in a Lego city, until he comes across a mystical “Piece of Resistance” which glues itself to his Lego back, foretelling his destiny as “The Special”, he who would save the world from the clutches of the evil President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell.)

With many of the believers coming out of the woodwork (or does this film make it “lego-work?”) to help Emmett on his journey, the plain young reluctant hero must travel to a high tower many lands away (shades of Lord of the Rings, anyone?) in order to connect the Piece of Resistance to a dangerous weapon called the Kragle, a device so dangerous it can permanently glue Lego characters and pieces together.

Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) hugs boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett) while Emmett (Chris Pratt) looks on in THE LEGO MOVIE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) hugs boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett) while Emmett (Chris Pratt) looks on in THE LEGO MOVIE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

There’s bound to be a bit of nostalgia at the sight of some classic series of LEGO toys appearing on screen, some of them for the first time in decades (the inclusion of the LEGO Space characters are a fine touch, especially if portrayed as obsessive and neurotic, when voiced by manic Charlie Day), and the overly sanitized, child-friendly dialogue may not always ring true, but the recurring song “Everything is Awesome” is certainly destined for a guaranteed Oscar nomination next spring.

With a surreal ending that is sure to trigger an emotional response for both mature and young viewers, The Lego Movie is a bit all over the place, but its heart is assembled with just the right parts. When the right mixture of Hollywood actors get together to click just as directed (pun intended), you can’t help but be delighted by this flawed but still worthwhile cinematic visual spectacle, one which would have been more impressive if completely animated by stop motion, but which would likely have taken half a decade alone to produce.

Let loose, sit back, and watch this film with your kids. It really connects the pieces in a truly unexpected way.

3.5 out of 5