Sunday, March 30, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Noam Murro
Writers: Frank Miller (graphic novel "Xerxes"), Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (screenplay)
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, David Wenham, Callan Mulvey, Jack O'Connell

300: Rise of an Empire is a perfect follow up to 2006's 300. It sits somewhere in between prequel and sequel and provides an interesting look at the legendary figures of ancient Greece and Persia. Even though it is not historically accurate, the large majority of people will go to see this film for the incredible CGI that doesn't disappoint rather than for a history lesson. 300: Rise of an Empire is far more about the battles scenes and infamous blood thirst than the story and this what has to be remembered going into the film.

Based on the graphic novel, "Xerxes" by Frank Miller, we see Persian royalty, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) go from being man to God upon the death of his father, King Darius (Igal Naor). While Xerxes believes that he is in charge, he is under the manipulation of Athens born, but Persian raised and navy commander, Artemisia (Eva Green). Persia sets their sights first on Athens and it's army led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) in Xerxes plan for domination. Athens calls upon their rivals Sparta to take on Persia's army as it is the only way they can match the numbers in their navy.

300: Rise of an Empire is in itself both a prequel and sequel to 300 as it starts before 300 Spartans go into battle and continues through the aftermath of their infamous battle. The film is based more on Frank Miller's graphic novel than history itself so there are a number of historical inaccuracies through the film. For example, Themistocles and Xerxes were never at the battle in which Darius was killed so Themistocles was obviously not Darius' killer. The title of the film is also a spot of confusion in itself because it does not clarify which empire is on the rise and the empires in the film had already risen before the film begins. However, because this film is based on the graphic novel rather than history, the inaccuracies can be forgiven and people should remember this before going into the film and being disappointed in screenwriters Zack Snyder (who was the director of 300) and Kurt Johnstad for their lack of research.

The screenplay itself is not a particularly strong one as the battle scenes play the largest part in the film. The story is almost the backdrop for the battle. The first half of the film is more interesting from a narrative point of view, while in the second half the story is lost under the weight of battle. However, there are some particularly powerful moments of dialogue spoken by Themistocles and the Athenians. Of course some of the dialogue can be quite corny, as heroic dialogue in battle does tend to be.

Yet, as it was said before, the main reason people will go to see 300: Rise of an Empire is to behold its incredibly lifelike ancient battle scenes created by some spectacular CGI. The ancient world is amazingly recreated and so realistic that you forget the actors are standing up against a green screen and are not on the streets of Sparta, Persia or the high seas. The scenes set on the Aegean Sea are particularly spectacular. Watching the film in 3D makes the film even more spectacular, if not more gruesome. Like the original 300, this follow up is incredibly graphic and violent. This film is absolutely not for anyone who gets queasy from the sight of blood, as there is a lot of it being splattered in every direction. The 3D makes this splattering a bit more of an event and is used as water would be used in a 3D version of Free Willy (if there was such a thing).

Sullivan Stapleton does well in the lead as Themistocles. His character does not show much development through the film and there is not much of a back story to him (although he does confess that there really is no back story to him besides growing up in combat), but he gives a good performance and is actually very likable. While Stapleton is the lead and has little background story, the exact opposite can be said for Eva Green's Artemisia. It is debatable whether it is Sullivan or Green in the lead in 300: Rise of an Empire. A great deal of emphasis is based on Artemisia's background and the film is as much about her as it is about the battle itself. Green does do well as the leading action lady, as she is extremely manipulative and it is obvious it is her in charge and not Xerxes (another historical inaccuracy, but forgiven as it makes great entertainment). She makes for interesting viewing and one of the best parts of the film is when she allows herself a moment of emotion when she is clearly pained by the realisation that Themistocles was the one who killed Darius.

For how terrifying Rodrigo Santoro is in the very first scene as Xerxes, you really wish you would have seen more of him throughout the film. He is made out to be evil from the very beginning, but you do not see enough of him to see this in him, although Artemisia is seen to be the evil one between the two of them. Lena Headey, who reprises her role as Queen Gorgo is good in the scenes she is in, but again you wish you could see a bit more of her throughout the film.

The most important thing to remember with 300: Rise of an Empire is that it is not a history lesson. Once this is understood, the ancient world is to be marvelled at.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Stefan Zweig (based on the writings by), Hugo Guinness (story), Wes Anderson (story and screenplay)
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, William H. Macy, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, Harvey Keitel

The Grand Budapest Hotel will be released in Australia on the 10th April and is distributed by 20th Century Fox. Now showing in the United States and United Kingdom.

Wes Anderson's latest piece of cinema, The Grand Budapest Hotel is absolutely nothing short of grand itself. There is so much to marvel at during a viewing of this quirky but brilliant film. So much that you feel as though you need to watch it again just in case you missed something the first time around, and this is no bad thing. The whole film is a beautiful piece of art thanks to it's amazing visuals, extraordinary cinematography, interesting characters and wonderful screenplay.

While a young writer (Jude Law) is staying at the tired and rundown Grand Budapest Hotel, he meets the hotel's owner, Mr Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and enquires how he came to own the hotel. Mustafa tells the young writer of how he was a lobby boy (played by Tony Revolori) at the hotel between the wars and developed a close friendship with the concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The intriguing tale of how these two became so close is one of theft, murder and adventure.

This is absolutely Wes Anderson's most visually beautiful film to date. There is not enough that can be said about the incredible production design employed in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Each shot is a unique piece of artwork carefully designed to create both awe and intrigue in the viewer.  From the very first scene in the cemetery, you are completely enthralled by how interesting the location is and the interest stirred in this opening continues throughout the film. The models of the hotel itself and of the structures among the mountains are just exquisite and somewhat playful at the same time. What does strike you watching the film is how neat and clean cut it is. Everything in the background of each shot is perfectly symmetrical from the pigeonholes at the hotel's front desk, to the prison beds to the formation of the soldiers on the train. While many of the shots employed are not uncommon in Anderson's body of work, this is the best use of his signature techniques thus far.

Before The Grand Budapest Hotel was released, there were several instructions sent out to the cinemas who would be showing this film. These instructions included using widescreen in panoramic shots and shortening the screen in others, a great technique as it draws the audience into the picture more. The musical score is also extraordinarily intriguing, particularly in the parts of high tension when the music would have you believe you are watching a horror or thriller film from the 1930's. The Grand Budapest Hotel is also extremely atmospheric and nostalgic of it's time and place in an unique fashion. You can smell the scent of the hotel in both it's glory days and it's harsh times, as well as feel the cold and harshness of the conditions in the European state of unrest.

The screenplay, based on the writings of  Stefan Zweig, is also very good. Through the film you know where it is heading, but you don't know how it is getting there and the way it gets there is not as interesting as the visuals, but still extremely entertaining. People familiar with other Wes Anderson films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited will know that Anderson's brand of humour is not the stereotypical Hollywood humour, and that this unconventional, quirky sense of humour may strike some members of the audience as weird and dull. However, the ones who do appreciate this quirkiness will be pleased. There are not many moments where you feel like rolling on the floor laughing, but are many amusing pieces of dialogue and comedic timing by the performers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has an impressive stellar cast, many who have worked with Anderson before and again perform well under his guidance. Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as M. Gustave. He has a tremendous amount of character and although some of his practises are questionable to say the least, he is very likable. His entertaining dialogue is delivered exquisitely with perfect timing and emotion where called for.

An unrecognisable Tilda Swinton's role is somewhat brief, but her time on screen as Gustave's much older lover is definitely memorable.It is a pleasure to see F. Murray Abraham on screen, as his charisma gives off an air of respect and importance, although in the most subtle way. Adrien Brody and William H. Macy are the villains of the story and are really a lot of fun, particularly Macy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolute cinematic treat. There is real fun to be had with this film and if you love Wes Anderson's unique film making style, this is nothing short of a masterpiece.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Year: 2014
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: James Bobin
Writers: James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Steve Whitmire (voice), Eric Jacobson (voice), Dave Goelz (voice)

Muppets Most Wanted will be released in Australia on the 10th April and is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Now showing in the USA and will be released in the UK on the 28th March 2014.

Muppets Most Wanted wastes no time in letting you know that it is a sequel with a song and dance to celebrate that fact and one verse reminds you that the second is rarely as good as the first. This could be translated as an interesting tactic to help viewers avoid this all too familiar reaction to sequels with the latest Muppets film. It may not hit the heights that it's 2011 predecessor did, but Muppets Most Wanted is still a lot of fun and gives you more than one reason to laugh.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up right where The Muppets left off on Hollywood Boulevard after the gang have had an incredibly successful reunion. Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmere) decides with the persuasion of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) that the Muppets should go on a world tour now that they are all back "together again" (cue the music). Badguy suggests that they start their tour in Berlin and it is here that Badguy makes his bad guy ways known as it turns out that he is in league with the most dangerous frog in the world, Constantine who has just broken out of a Siberian prison. Kermit is mistaken for Constantine and he is sent back to the prison and Constantine takes his place as head of the Muppets. Badguy and Constantine are carrying out an elaborate plan to make themselves rich which in turn will bring down the Muppets unless Kermit can make it back in time.

Although this film is a self proclaimed sequel, it's hard to call any Muppet movie this as it is the latest in a substantial list of Muppets films. However it does follow straight on from the 2011 film so the sequel tag may seem more of a sequel to not, but generally Muppets movies can be classed as stand alone films and with the exception of the beginning scene and the inclusion of Walter who joined the team in the last film, this film is pretty easy to look at without using the 2011 film as a comparison. If we must though, Muppets Most Wanted seems like a very different film to The Muppets. It's missing it's emotional edge and isn't quite as wholesome, but this is okay.

This time the Muppets are taking a darker approach (as dark as you can get when the Muppets are involved anyway) and there is a bit more of a mystery and thriller aspect to it. The story is unique to the Muppets sphere, but what is still present in this film is type of fun that the Muppets never fail to bring to their screen escapades. Their humour is incredibly random and often very corny which has always worked for these lovable characters. There are many giggles to be had throughout the film and the ever present various cameos are also very funny. There are no lack of celebrity cameos from the beginning to end and this is part of the fun of the film. As the Muppets are on a world tour, there are various cultures represented in the film and each one of them exaggerated, which is also very funny and none of which should be taken seriously. The cultural exaggerations of Spain are perhaps the most over the top and in turn, also the funniest.

The script is fine, but does not offer much character development or background to the characters. Truth be told that is not really something you would expect out of a Muppets film, but one has to wonder about those younger children who are coming to the cinema and not knowing a great deal about the Muppets as they did not grow up with them the older watchers did. Yet the children in the audience are not bothered by things as trivial as this in their cinema experience. The songs of the film are a downfall. For how many there are throughout, they are not tremendously catchy and slow down the film a great deal with their insignificant placement. The opening song entitled "We're Doing A Sequel" is perhaps the best song of the lot and opens the film in perfect fashion with a bang.

All the voice actors do well, but you wouldn't expect any less really. The character of Constantine is brought to life with a very funny and heavily accented voice by Matt Vogel. Huge credit has to be given to the voice actors Steven Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel and Peter Linz, as all of them give a voice to more than one character. Each of these actors therefore show an amazing amount of vocal versatility and talent.

Ricky Gervais plays a bit of a dud bad guy really. Although his actions are evil, he doesn't make the audience dislike him in a huge way. Here perhaps a bit more character development should have come into play. It is assumed Gervais' character is not supposed to be comical, but this assumption is only made as he really isn't funny at all. On the other hand, Tina Fey is hilarious. She truly dips into a completely different character by adopting a new attitude to accompany her Russian accent as Nadya. She is a great joy to watch in this film. Ty Burrell is also very funny and again, plays a great character in Jean Pierre Napoleon. Gervais' character would have been far more interesting if it did have more character.

Muppets Most Wanted is a must see for any Muppet fan and for those who love their humour light and random.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Looking Back on Oscar Week 2014

It's hard to believe that the Oscars are over now for another year. After being in Hollywood the past two years at this time, I find that the best way to describe the lead up to the big day is like Christmas. So much goes into the preparation for the event and then it is over and done with in a few hours and then by the time the next day rolls around, it is like it didn't even happen. Yet on that Monday, the columns outside the Dolby Theater which pay tribute to all the past Best Picture winners contain a new member.

When I came to Hollywood for Oscars week last year, my experiences were more than a little different to this year. Last year I saw things from a distance compared to this year. This year I was lucky enough to have media accreditation for the Oscars Set-Up and also extremely lucky to be included in some of the celebrations on the day.

Flying into Los Angeles on the Tuesday morning before the Oscars always comes with a bit of magic, even if your plane flight was less than magical. This time I decided to spend my first two nights in LA at The Standard at West Hollywood, a hotel I have always wanted to stay at for it's great location right on the Sunset Strip. It's been in a fair few movies including "Get Him To The Greek" with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. I was pretty happy with my stay, no complaints at all. I did my first trip to Hollywood Boulevard to pick up my accreditation and check out how the preparation was going for Sunday. Day by day it moves closer to the end product which you see on television on the day, it doesn't all happen in a day.

 Wednesday morning was extremely exciting when I was one of the lucky members of the media admitted onto the boulevard to be on site for the unravelling of the red carpet. It was a very surreal moment, but incredibly amazing to watch such a vital aspect of the day being placed and being able to stand on it yourself.

Even Oscar made his entrance today!

Afterwards I took a walk up Highland Ave to visit a museum which I have always wanted to visit, but for some strange reason took me so long to get to, the Hollywood Heritage Museum. This museum is located in the very barn which one of the first films in Hollywood was made in. This film was "The Squaw Man"' and it was directed by no other than the great Cecil B. DeMille. The museum even has the very desk which was part of DeMille's office and even his shoes. The museum is a tribute to silent film and my favourite part of the museum is Charlie Chaplin's camera from his old studios. The museum is volunteer run and is definitely worth a look not just for silent film buffs, but also anyone interested in Hollywood history. The barn itself is also a beautiful building and is as though you step into the past yourself when you enter. 

Thursday I was also lucky enough to be invited to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's Media Center at the Chinese Theater. The Media Center is for media visiting from round the world to find out a bit more about what is going on in Hollywood. This year, the Media Center played host to the premiere of Madame Tussaud's Anne Hathaway wax figure, which is incredibly lifelike. There was also great stalls by the Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Heritage Museum and many famous food outlets, including the world famous Pink's Hotdogs. A big thank you to Ana Martinez for allowing us to be part of the event!

Friday brought a trip to the Hollywood Museum to check out the costume exhibit with some of the films of 2013's wardrobes on exhibit. The costumes of the films which were nominated for Best Costume Design were on exhibit at FIDM in Los Angeles, but the exhibit was not without it's Oscar nominated films on display. Below are the clothes worn by Bruce Dern and June Squibb in "Nebraska" and by Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"
And things were moving right along on Hollywood Boulevard as Sunday was getting closer.
As you can see and the world heard straight from Ellen's mouth on the night, the weather did not do anybody any favours that week in LA. An umbrella was a must have as the rain threatened to cause havoc on the red carpet on Sunday. With the rain still pouring down on the Saturday, I revisited the guys at Dearly Departed Tours who I made friends with last year when I took their Hollywood Tragical History Tour. The company specialises in the darker side of Hollywood providing tours of scandal and death sites. However morbid this may sound, the truth is that the tours are fascinating as they take you on a trip of Hollywood history locations. This time I took the Helter Skelter tour, which takes you on a tour of the key locations of the murders led by Charles Manson and his gang of followers in 1969. Even though I have read the book and seen the DVD which our tour guide, Scott Michaels made entitled "The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter", I feel like nothing could have prepared me psychologically for this. It wasn't even the graphic details of the murders themselves which disturbed me, but it was being in the same locations (particularly Cielo Drive) and the whole atmosphere. The original house has been destroyed and a new house built, but even is house remains unoccupied and it's emptiness and silence is disturbing. The rain added a feeling of dread which even though it was unplanned, very fitting for the trip. However, I do recommend the guys at Dearly Departed Tours, particularly Scott Michaels and Brian Donnelly. These guys really know their stuff and are great to have a chat to.
And then there was Oscar Day...and the rain hadn't stopped. Walking down to Sunset Boulevard for breakfast seemed like a great idea before contemplating that contrary to belief, it really does rain in LA. one thing that you don't see on television when you are watching the Oscars from home is the protesting at goes on on the boulevard. nybody who feels they have something to say about the evil of Hollywood doesn't hold back on the day when people take notice of what is happening there. Many Christian groups take to the stretch with banners and megaphones to tell everyone what they think. This was my favourite banner I saw. I don't know about them, but I could think of a few obvious reasons.
For the Oscars broadcast, I was invited to the viewing party at The W Hollywood, Live & Loud. If you are not invited to the Oscars but want to watch them in glitz and glamour with all the VIP's, this was the place to do it. There were several television screens all around the hotel broadcasting the show. The best thing about watching the Oscars in a venue like this was seeing people really get passionate about the industry their town is built around. When the winners were announced, everyone would cheer and clap as though they were right there. I don't think I could ever watch the Oscars alone again after experiencing something such as this. Matthew McConaughey was the winner who got the biggest reaction when he won, and there were nothing but happy reactions for him. After the show was finished, I was one of the lucky ones who got to attend one of the hottest after parties in Hollywood, the Salute To The Stars party which took place on the rooftop of The W. This party was incredible. With a host of special guests on the red carpet and all the beautiful people, this was something truly spectacular. Among those who provided the music was Billy Ray Cyrus who was a crowd favourite and many others who had the whole crowd on their feet. Massive thank you to Michelle Czernin von Chudenitz-Morzin, Jessica Kill and the team at PPMG for giving me the opportunity to party along!
Come Monday it was all over again for another year. Big congratulations to the big winners of the night including "12 Years A Slave", Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong'o. I am also happy to say that Movie Critical predicted all the winners! I am currently still in the United States on holidays with my family and will return to give you all coverage of all the latest films very soon!